Another brief note toward a Supreme Fiction - on how liberal religious people might now come to experience full pathos, full belief and a clean heart

Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison and doggy friend
Readings: Matthew 22:23-33

From Things merely are by Simon Critchley (Routledge, London, 2005 pp. 20-21)
What is romanticism? can arguably be reduced to the belief that art is the supreme medium for attaining the fundamental ground of life and that the problems of the modern world can be addressed and even reconciled in the production of a critically self-conscious artwork. This is what Friedrich Schlegel saw as the great novel of the modern world, a secular bible. Poetry written in the wake of romanticism — and I think that all poetry has to be written in romanticism's failure, but that's another story — is animated by the belief that poetry should take on to itself the existential burden of religious belief without the guarantee of religious belief. As Stevens expresses it at the beginning of his longest and most ambitious poem, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction', 'The death of one god is the death of all' (PM 207).

          Poetry has to be vitalized by the question of the ultimate meaning and value of life without claiming to know the metaphysical or theological answer to that question. Stevens makes this crystal in one of his Adagia, which were notebooks he kept in in the 1930s and 1940s:

After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption. (OP 185).

          Poetry takes the place of religion as that medium which offers the possibility, or at least pursues the question, of life's redemption. It does this by producing fictions that return us to the sense of the world.

From The Etiquette of Freedom: and the Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison (Counterpoint, Berkeley CA, 2010 pp. 52-53)

Jim Harrison (JH): I'm wondering what you think of reincarnation?
Gary Snyder (GS): I think it's a charming metaphor. It's an as-if proposition. That's all we can know, anyway. I got going on a particular idea about reincarnation when I was travelling in India. Say that reincarnation is the world we're in. Okay? Then, how am I different?
JH: Aha.
GS: Aha. It means that I have done everything already—I've had every possible experience already. I've been every possible form, I've been a woman, I've been a butterfly, I've been a mosquito. So, why be needy? Why be looking for new experiences? Instead, let's settle in and see what we can really think about now. It puts you in a different place. Reincarnation's charming to think about, and it is very poetic—I like to think of walking the ghost trail, walking the ghost trail in the stars. But I wouldn't count on it. 


Speaking to the students at Hills Road Sixth Form College last week I was reminded how important it is to be clear how full belief comes to us in this, our own, skeptical, liberal religious tradition. For all kinds of reasons that I won't rehearse here, we know it cannot come in the way most traditionally religious people think it comes. Indeed, a number of the students present on Thursday could not see how I could claim to have any kind of genuine religious faith without it coming from a) a traditional, theistic God, b), a divine Christ or, c), a divinely inspired Bible — three things I was implicitly challenged in my talk and in the Q&As afterwards.

Some of you will remember James C. Edwards suggested that for many of us as late twentieth and early twenty-first century European and North Americans, "full Pathos, full belief, comes only with intellectual or artistic inevitability" (James C. Edwards, The Plain Sense of Things, Penn State Press 1996 p. 231)  [see Note 1 below].

But what does this mean? I'll begin with a consideration of what might be meant by "intellectual inevitability" because it can be dealt with amongst ourselves reasonably briefly. For us "intellectually inevitable" full belief comes through the disciplines of the natural sciences and their many wondrous, visible and often obviously practical results. Full belief in this realm comes, not because all of the results of the natural sciences are always and forever true, but because we know that the scientific method requires a constant checking of findings against what is "over there" (i.e. with the physical universe). Because the physical universe is always calling them to account, the genuine scientist always feels herself to be firmly under the discipline of truth and she knows, again as Edwards notes, that "whatever she is doing she must get it right, must do it right. She is not, in the first instance, in the business of satisfying herself, and she can't change the rules in order to make her attempts at whatever she is doing more successful" (ibid. p. 224).

Thanks to the clearly trustworthy nature of this process and the many practical successes of scientific physical and mathematical endeavour, the universe now appears, shows up, or shines for us in countless ways in which we can experience with full pathos, full belief and a clean heart.

However, as human beings we encounter not only the physical *universe* as scientists but, as artists or people alert to the arts, we encounter a complex human *world* rich in all kinds of relationships and filled with feeling and value. [See Note 2 below.]

So, along with a need for the "intellectual inevitability" of the natural sciences, there is also a need for what we can call "artistic inevitability". But here we are not often able to be as clear as we are in the natural sciences about what we mean by this kind of "inevitability" and, consequently, it becomes hard for us to know what it might be so we can live out of it with full pathos, full belief and a clean heart. Consider this example.

Whenever you sit down to write a story or a poem you quickly discover, as one does in the sciences, that this activity is not simply about satisfying yourself or being able to change the rules in order to make your attempts at writing a story or poem more successful. To be sure some of the difficulties you face in your writing will have to do with the need to conform to (or sometimes deliberately break) certain rules of grammar or style, but here I'm not referring to these technical and stylistic matters. Instead I'm concerned with those moments when, even when the grammar and style of what you have produced is correct and/or appropriate to your subject or task, you simply know that what you have written is not right. You realise that you have no choice but to press on and continue to seek just the right word and, in this often difficult and deeply frustrating task, you come face to face with the recognition that you, too, "must get it right, must do it right" and that this is analogous to what a scientist is doing when they are checking their results against what is "over there". Very unusually - in fact I think it's only the second time - I've just allowed one of my own poems to see the light of day (it's in the current newsletter). I've let it out because on re-reading it I still felt that as I was struggling back in 2007 over a number of days to complete it, a right word did suddenly come, and when it came it came with the power of artistic inevitability. I knew that this was the right - not, of course, the eternally right Word of God, but simply the right human word that answered to the "over there" of being me on Beaumont Quay, to the later time of revising and editing, and to the set of natural, contingent circumstances in which one is always moving. This doesn't necessarily make it a great poem that can stand alongside, say, one by Wallace Stevens (to whom we'll come in a moment) - but that's not the point. The point is that, although we are not relying on a poet or writer to reveal to us the structure of the physical universe so as to ensure, for example, that buildings or aeroplanes stay up where they belong, we do require them always to ensure that their work is also, in fact, being carefully revised and checked against an "over there". The difference is that the "over there" of the artist is not just and only the discoverable, repeatedly testable "over there" of the physical universe but the moving, ever changing human ethical and moral world as it is marvelously appearing, showing up and shining for us now and then passing away. This kind of world is always changing and so there will always need for us to speak of it with either new stories and new poems or, in the case of already existent stories and poems, with ever new interpretations. The best fiction, the great fiction that speaks to us with "artistic inevitability", which makes us pay loving regard to world and which helps us to begin to act with compassion and justice is only found in that work which we feel can still be checked against the "over there" of the human world. It is this which make the words it contains feel right and in which we can experience full pathos, have full belief and act with clean heart.

This brings me to a point made by the philosopher Simon Critchley in his book about the poetry of Wallace Stevens - a poet who I, and Critchley, can read with something approaching full belief and a clean heart. Critichley says:

"Poetry takes the place of religion as that medium which offers the possibility, or at least pursues the question, of life's redemption. It does this by producing fictions that return us to the sense of the world."

Critichley is, I think, similarly suggesting that poetry can only be authoritative, of religious significance and able to bringing redemption - to be true - when it "return[s] us to a sense of the world". In other words it only works, gifts us full pathos, full belief and a clean heart when it can be checked with an "over there".

But Critchley is concerned not simply with fiction in a general sense but with something Wallace Stevens called a Supreme Fiction. What might that be? Well, at the very least, it is a poem or story which you experience viscerally (pathos) and out of which you find you can live, truly live, because in it you can fully believe with a clean heart and which, importantly, also doesn't conflict with intellectual inevitability and its "over there".

This point allows me to turn directly to the reading taken from a conversation between the Buddhist poet and writer Gary Snyder and his friend, the author Jim Harrison. I use this illustration because it is such a clear example of how for us intellectual inevitability must be kept indissolubly bound up with artistic inevitability.

When I heard Snyder tell this story I thought two things simultaneously. Firstly, there was the thought occasioned by the intellectual inevitability that presses in upon me through the natural sciences, namely that like him I, too, cannot believe re-incarnation to be true. Neither can I believe in any related beliefs concerning a literal life after death - something that even Jesus seemed to think was unlikely as our ambiguous reading from Matthew especially in his conclusion that God "is not God of the dead, but of the living." Alas, the ambiguity of Jesus words were not left alone by later Christian theology and so, today, I'll simply leave the implication of this for Christianity floating freely in the background. But Snyder is a contemporary religious naturalist of a Buddhist kind who has, for me and many others of my generation, consistently been able to show us how we might live with both the intellectual inevitability of the natural sciences and yet still be able to find the right word and to articulate an artistic inevitability that, as both Wallace Stevens and Critichley demand, "bring[s] us back to a sense of the world".

So, when I heard Snyder go on to talk in the way he does of re-incarnation as an "as-if" my second thought was, "You know what, I think that is something I can live by with full belief and a clean heart."

Intellectual inevitability really does say to me that re-incarnation cannot be lived by with full belief and a clean heart because it simply doesn't seem to answer to the physical universe "over there". (This is open to revision, of course, as is everything which has shown up to the natural sciences.) However, artistic inevitability, via Snyder's right word, powerfully says to me that re-incarnation can be lived by with full pathos, full belief and a clean heart because he has showed me how, as a poetic, fictional metaphor, it can, in fact, powerfully answer to the human world "over there."

I can see clearly how it helps me ask and really respond to the question, "Why be needy?" and to ask why should I constantly be looking for new experiences in the selfish, thrill seeking entertainment obsessed way our present day culture insists we should be in the world? Snyder’s Buddhist inspired fiction really did help me settle in and see what I can really think about now. As Snyder says, this puts us in a different place. It means I can say, and mean with all the power of intellectual inevitability, that "there is no other world". Yet I can also say, and mean with artistic inevitability, that of course "there is another world", *this world* seen differently, a world in which I can really live "as-if" I were re-incarnated - or, to use a Christian fiction, that I am already in the kingdom of heaven of which Jesus spoke. Held thus, this charming, but very powerful poetic metaphor really did bring me, at least, a kind of redemption - that is to say a deliverance from a bad, selfish and sinful way of living and offered me a kinder, more compassionate way of living (a new life in fact).

Does this mean I am admitting to you that I believe fully in re-incarnation? Well, yes and no - but this is not, I think, the usual equivocal "yes or no" of the confused liberal. Like Snyder, I don't at all count on it being true intellectually but still, poetically, I find I can act as-if it were. It's a powerful reminder to me at least that for us, full pathos, full belief and a clean heart in this time and culture cannot be a simple it's true/it's not true matter, but something which only comes to us when we keep intellectual and artistic inevitability tightly bound in a wholly new dance of life.

I think that in Snyder’s little story we are seeing an example of a line being added to a growing, modern, secular religious work that may yet turn become part of our own age and culture's religious, but not superstitious, Supreme Fiction - one through which we can experience full pathos and, once again, believe with a full and clean heart.


Note 1 - A point of clarification which the conversation in church after the address suggests I should have made. I'm using the word "inevitable" to refer to what might really show up for us as true and trustworthy in our own time and culture. There is no hidden sense that what shows up was always true, and will always be true. I'm one of those writers who does not think that there are eternal, unchanging religious, moral or ethical truths just waiting out there to be discovered by us. It seems possible that such truths might be said to exist in the physical universe but I'm content to let the natural sciences do their slow work and await both the data and analysis to come in.)

Note 2 - Please note here the distinction I'm making between "universe" and "world" - something I've borrowed from Hubert Dreyfus. The "universe" revealed by the natural sciences always "underlies" human "worlds", but human "worlds" need not - and I think are not - reduced to *nothing but* the physical universe. X can be dependent upon Y but not reducible only to Y.