In 1961 the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch published an essay in Encounter entitled, “Against Dryness.” In it, she laments the way in which our “scientific, anti-metaphysical age” has left us with “far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality,” an idea which, for Murdoch, has had a debilitating effect on modern literature:
We no longer use a spread-out substantial picture of the manifold virtues of man and society. We no longer see man against a background of values, of realities, which transcend him. We picture man as a brave naked will surrounded by an easily comprehended empirical world. For the hard idea of truth we have substituted a facile idea of sincerity.
I have been thinking lately about Murdoch’s argument as I have been pursuing a close study of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a study I have been undertaking for practical, not theoretical, reasons. Recently I auditioned for a production of Macbeth to be put on by my local community theater, and was quite surprised, since I have never been in a play before, to have been offered the title role. For the past week or so I and my fellow cast members have been involved in a “table reading” of the play, in which we pore over each scene asking about the basic conflict, the motivations of the various characters, the meaning of this or that word or phrase, and the like. This table reading, along with my own efforts to memorize my more-or-less 700 lines (!), have focused me on some of Shakespeare’s uses of the term “nature” in the play. Take, for example, Macbeth’s famous “Is this a dagger which I see before me” soliloquy at Act II, scene 1, where the fiendish thane steels himself for the first of his murders, that of the king, Duncan. The “bloody business” brings to Macbeth’s eyes the fact that “Now o’er the one-half world/Nature seems dead….” And on the night when the murder is accomplished, the night itself is “unruly,” and there are “Lamentings heard i’ the air, strange screams of death,” and Duncan’s own horses “Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,/Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would/Make war with mankind.”
In these descriptions Shakespeare relies upon the one of the “correspondences.” For the Elizabethan mind, as E.M.W. Tillyard explains in The Elizabethan World Picture, the cosmos was conceived not only “vertically” i.e., as a hierarchy of beings “beginning on high with the noblest and descending to the meanest things of creation,” but also “horizontally,” in which the various “planes” in the hierarchical structure were “connected by an immense net of correspondences.” Correspondences as that, for example, between human activity and non-human nature. When Macbeth devises murder in his heart non-human nature “seems dead,” and the unlawful act finds its analogue in the disobedience of Duncan’s horses.
In commenting upon these latter lines from Macbeth in his The Ethics of Authenticity, the philosopher Charles Taylor underscores, in a way similar to that of Murdoch, that we now live in a world in which such points of reference as the “correspondences” no longer hold. The hierarchy of being has been, by the prevailing culture, dismantled. Both Murdoch and Taylor, however, are eager not to let literature slide into mere subjectivism. “What we have never had,” Murdoch argues, “is a satisfactory Liberal theory of personality, a theory of man as free and separate and related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn.” It is clear, then, that for Murdoch there is a reality that transcends the will and that literature must recognize that reality. But it is not clear whether, for Murdoch’s own anti-metaphysical caste of mind, that reality evinces sufficient order to constrain the preferences of the “brave naked will.”
For his part, Taylor recognizes that literature is no longer thought to be “mimetic,” imitative of transcending nature, but “creative,” a product of what Taylor calls “articulated sensibility.” Yet, citing the poetry of T.S. Eliot as a chief witness, Taylor insists that while modern literature clearly espouses a subjectivation of manner, it does not necessarily espouse a subjectivation of matter. Literature, in short, talks about real things—such as Eliot does with God in “Four Quartets.”
But it is clear that Taylor thinks that things themselves can only be shared via an appreciation of the poet’s sensibility, not through a communal intuition of that which exists beyond sensibility. Rilke’s Duino Elegies, observes Taylor, begin “Who if I cried out would hear me among the orders of angels?” On Taylor’s account, what Rilke appeals to here is not “the public understanding that angels are part of a human-independent ontic order, having their angelic natures quite independently of human articulation, and hence accessible through languages of description (theology, philosophy) that are not at all those of articulated sensibility.” What Rilke appeals to, rather, is an emotional ratification of his sensibility on the part of his reader. Rilke’s sensibility contains “orders of angels,” but what matters to his reader is not whether these orders exist somewhere in the cosmos, but whether his articulation of them in poetic language resonates in his or her own sensibility.
We are left, then, with the question: if literature is not in any sense a mode of description, then what does it really communicate but feeling? If literature does not in some fashion tell truths about a human-independent, sensibility-independent order, then how can it avoid being an exercise in emotivism?
How can imaginative language be anything other than complex and fanciful ways of saying “I like this” or “I don’t like this”?
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.