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Friday, April 8, 2016
Art & Entertainment ... Spirituality ...

I’ve been a reader of The Atlantic Magazine for many years now. The Atlantic provides a nice overview of current social and political trends, and offers a lot of interesting “backgrounder” articles on a wide variety of people, places and happenings. But it’s also a “culture” magazine. As such, it has a required amount of material regarding literature and the fine arts. I am not at all a literature and arts aficionado, so I often skip or just skim through the material on fiction, poetry, performing art, etc. (Although, the Atlantic also keeps up on popular culture, which I sometimes find useful given that in my old age I don’t stay up with every hot new actress or hip new singer breaking onto the scene).

Despite my disinterest in fine culture, the past two issues of the Atlantic have had book reviews regarding two modern American writers (one an author of prose, the other a poet) who captured my interest after a quick perusal. One is Annie Dillard, a writer of prose, who was featured in the March 2016 issue. The other is the poet Wallace Stevens, subject of a book review in the April issue.

What interested me about both artists was their attitude about God. Let’s start with Stevens first. Wallace Stevens was born in 1879, and did most of his writing work between 1923 and his death in 1955. His poetry is considered “modernist”, rather cutting-edge and avant garde for the time. Not being much of a poetry reader, I can’t say much about it, other than that it seems very deep and mostly over my head. I can tell however that it certainly is creative and truly artistic.

It’s interesting that Stevens did not live the life that you might expect for a literary aesthete. He was a lawyer who worked for an insurance company in Hartford, CT, which was perhaps the capitol of the insurance world at the time. In fact, Stevens had became a corporate executive, a vice president. He followed in the steps of his father, who was also an attorney and businessman. He was clearly a suit-and-tie guy, with a nice family and a nice house, a “rock-ribbed” Republican. And yet, he didn’t give up his love of artful words; he wrote much of his poetry at night and on weekends, while pursing his conservative, establishmentarian life by day.

I did a quick Google on Wallace Stevens, including an image search. Just about every pic I found had him posed in an expensive suit and tie, looking very much like any other stodgy executive from the 30s or 40s. And yet, at the same time he was becoming a noted and celebrated artist. What’s more, he was not a social church-goer, not another loyal member in good standing of the local Episcopal or Methodist house of worship. You would have thought that being a loyal religionist was a requirement to gain status in the corporate world of the early 20th Century. But instead of sitting in the pews with his family listening to a sermon about salvation, Wallace Stevens was often at home on Sunday mornings writing about a world without God.

In fact, one of Stevens’ poems that the Atlantic article mentions is entitled “Sunday Morning”, about a women who stays home from church. A portion of that poem reads “we live in an old chaos of the sun . . . island solitude, unsponsored, free”. The article explains that Stevens is asking how should we find meaning in a life that is “unsponsored” by a deity. His ultimate answer according to The Atlantic is that “the role that was once played by religion must now be filled by poetry, or more broadly by the imagination.” In his book Opus Posthumous, Stevens himself wrote that “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.”

The article author (Adam Kirsch) also notes that despite the deep existential questions asked in his poetry, Stevens himself did not publicize his own personal struggles over those questions. I suppose that it would NOT be what a vice president of an insurance company based in Hartford, CT would do. And thus, as to whether Stevens ever adequately answered his own big questions, we cannot be sure. However, in his final days while dying of cancer, he allegedly turned back to religion and sought baptism and communion from a Catholic priest (although his daughter claims this isn’t true).

Perhaps that unsponsored island solitude of a Godless universe wasn’t enough for Wallace Stevens after all. But his life and his poetry certainly does tell us that a respectable career and a lovely home and a comfortable suburban family life are also not enough.

Annie Dillard is an interesting contrast to Mr. Stevens, although her ultimate themes and concerns may not be all that different. Dillard was born in 1945 to a wealthy family in Pittsburgh (interestingly, Wallace Stevens hailed from Reading, a smaller version of Pittsburgh nestled in the “Dutch” country of eastern Pennsylvania). Not surprisingly, she studied literature in college, and while there got married to a literature teacher and poet (RHW Dillard).

Dillard had indeed come across the works of Wallace Stevens in her studies; in a 1982 interview, Dillard said

In college I learned how to learn from other people. As far as I was concerned, writing in college didn’t consist of what little Annie had to say, but what Wallace Stevens had to say.

And what about religion? As a child, she attended a Presbyterian church even though her parents were not churchgoers. But in her teen years she bailed out on organized religion, citing its “hypocrisy”. In her college studies, she was greatly influenced by Henry David Thoreau and his spiritual attachments to nature. Thus, for much of her adulthood, Dillard sought to emulate Thoreau’s life of artistic solitude in the wilderness. She spent much time alone in rural western Virginia in her early adult years, and later experienced the writers life on an isolated island in Puget Sound. She also followed in the steps of Darwin and spent time in the Galapagos Islands, inspiring various articles and a celebrated essay called “Life on the Rocks”.

Given that Dillard came of age in the 1960s, you might expect that her spiritual longings would lead her to fulfill the quest for meaning that Stevens struggled so much with through a pantheistic embrace of nature. But the old-school idea of God, a transcendent God both of and beyond nature, had never left her. The Atlantic article, which reviews “The Abundance”, a recently published compendium of selected earlier works from Dillard, makes it clear that Dillard has been on a life-long search for God. To wit,

She looks at crayfish, looks at copperheads, looks at a little green frog . . . But looking at these marvels, she is always looking for God. She is not a naturalist, not an environmentalist; she’s a theologian—a pilgrim. Her field notes on the physical world are recorded as researches toward the fundamental metaphysical conundra: Why is there something rather than nothing, and what on Earth are we doing here? What, in other words—with crayfish and copperheads and giant biting bugs . . . does God have in mind?

One example noted in the article of just how seriously Dillard took the more traditionalist religious notions of an all-powerful yet all-loving God, searching on her own to find groundings for such a God, regards a character in one of her novels . . . a girl named “Julie Norwich” in “Holy The Firm”.

I doubt that Julie Norwich ever existed. Her name is an echo of Julian of Norwich, the medieval anchoress and mystic, whom Dillard had alluded to in Pilgrim . . .

Like the great medieval anchoress Julian, Dillard lives through her writings in a realm mostly removed from the tumult of society, with its governments and business and social movements. The Atlantic author points out that only in her later works did Dillard see the need to come out of the wilderness, leave the cloister and re-enter the city.

the thought that none of us matters in the larger scheme of things is followed by the corrective that, of course, we matter a great deal to one another . . . The word for this is morality, also known as love. But neither has much place in Dillard’s thought . . . Dillard seems, at least in [her] late work, to sense what she is missing. Every once in a while, she pulls a kind of quarterback sneak, smuggling morality (“aiding and serving the afflicted and poor,” “a holy and compassionate intention”) into the discussion. The effect is of a man who finishes rebuilding the engine of his car and, finding a bolt on the driveway, balances it carefully on the hood. The bolt, in Dillard’s case, is the entire universe of human attachment.

(But give Dillard some credit . . . although she devoted most of her adulthood to nature, writing, painting, reading and academic teaching, she had spent several years in the late 1960s involved in one of the anti-poverty programs that sprang up from President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” initiative.)

So what have Stevens and Dillard left us with? We have an early 20th Century man wholly immersed in the world of business, looking almost secretly and furtively for meaning beyond the one-dimensional business-world and its Sunday morning God . . . and also a late 20th Century woman who similarly rejected the cardboard-cutout God that upper-class Protestantism offered in her youth. Both took to the world of art to find meaning. Stevens hoped that art in itself, and the act of creativity that propelled it, could be his fountain of the sacred. Dillard seized the world of art and used it as a vehicle to revisit the pathways of the great religious mystics, in their search for a truer experience of an eternal, universal transcendence. Stevens initially rejected the notion of God provided by the Judeo-Christian Bible, while Dillard embraced that notion but rejected the standard religious approach to it. In his final days, Stevens found a way to say “God”. Dillard, in her later years (she is now 70), now revisits the many ways she has tried to say “God”, via her latest book.

So, perhaps the scientists and cosmologists now give us a universe devoid of a God, but at least some of our modern artists can’t seem to shake off “the hound of heaven”. Perhaps theirs is the higher science, the science that does not deny and ignore the inner realms of the personal. So long as there are people out there like Wallace Stevens and Annie Dillard, then sorry Steven Hawking, but the question of God must then remain open.

Footnote — give Roman Catholicism its due here. Both Stevens and Dillard hail from Protestant WASP environments, and yet both found their way to Catholicism, however briefly or tentatively. I already mentioned Stevens’ death-bed conversion, but Annie Dillard also converted to Roman Catholicism in her mid-40s, although today she seems to express some ambivalence about it.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:33 pm      

  1. Jim, It seems to me that “The Atlantic” and/or more likely Wallace Stevens is saying that if one does not believe in God, one must replace that lack of belief with something else one is able to believe in. You quote Stevens: “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.” What I find interesting about this quote is that Stevens seems to think that the function of a god is to “redeem” humanity and/or people. I find myself wondering: Does he mean that if one abandons belief in God (interesting that he capitalized the word, even though he says he does not believe in God any more) one must somehow be offending that god and need to be redeemed. He then replaces “God” with poetry.

    I do not find the fact that he was a lawyer, corporate executive, and a few other things somehow odd for him. It seems to me that everybody has many different aspects within oneself. Perhaps at a certain time in life one particular area predominates in the person; but it seems to me that sooner or later in life other aspects of one’s personality tend to rise to the surface. I would say this holds for every person. How many times does one hear about someone: Couldn’t have been a nicer person; I don’t understand how he/she could have done that. Fewer times it goes the other way.

    Now that I think about it even institutions change. Since Stevens and Dillard were religious/spiritual searchers, I might even say that institutions change; and here the new Pope seems to have intentions to make some changes in the Roman Catholic Church. Changes have already been made after Vatican II. No meat on Friday was so important that eating it on that day was a “mortal sin”; same with not going to church on Sundays. Well, here we are now, several decades after Vatican II, and I can’t help but find myself wondering if all those people in hell for eating meat on Friday and not going to church on Sunday got out of hell with the change in “rules” and are enjoying heaven now. A question carefully ignored by those who made the “rules” for the RCs.

    As to Annie Dillard: I agree with you that “Julie Norwich” had to be a reference to Julian of Norwich. Some people find it a need to “leave the cloister and re-enter the city”; others find the city first and retire to the cloister. Does it matter which way it’s done? The important thing is the “search”.

    (And here I can’t help but think of how useless the word “journey” [or “search”] has become these days when the word is applied so readily in TV shows, e.g., “The Bachelor/Bachelorette” speaking of “the journey they are on”­­a “journey that lasts a few weeks. Overuse diminishes the meaning of the term these days.)

    Lastly, you speak of how both Stevens and Dillard searched in their various ways for God (and for many people today we can say the same thing), searching thoroughly one thing, that leading one to another very different thing, all in a pursuit to find what you call here “the inner realms of the personal”. (I like that very much.)

    I found some place a quote from Guido II (a Carthusian monk who lived in the 1100s). He was supposed to have said:

    Reading seeks.
    Meditation finds.
    Prayer asks.
    Contemplation feels.

    These cover a good measure of the human­­searching, finding an answer that may lead one somewhere else, asking for help (in this case we refer to the spiritual that we search for), and feeling, the very human aspect of what the search may have as its ultimate goal. MCS
    P.S. As to Steven Hawking, I find him quite enamored of his own brain and thinking; not a good way to search, in fact, a sure way to stop any search.

    Comment by Mary S. — April 9, 2016 @ 1:52 pm

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