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The Godless Delusion

by Neilson MacKay

Posted: Feb 15, 2013 05:31 PM

T. E Hulme is still blackballed from poetry anthologies (well, his poems are a bit short, even if they won Eliot’s accolade,) but his essays pop up now and again, typically as a footnote in some Imagist analect or another. The essays are weirdly prophetic, if a little opaque. Take these lines from Romanticism and Classicism (1911):

Man is an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organisation that anything decent can be got out of him.

Sound familiar? Some of Hulme’s more catchy apothegms have Eliot written all over them. Nowadays he’s one of a troop of High Modernism’s forgotten progenitors, cheek by jowl with F. H Bradley, Irving Babbitt, Charles Maurras and Pierre Lauserre. He was, above all, a stalwart classicist:

You don’t believe in a God, so you begin to believe that man is a god. You don’t believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in a heaven on earth. In other words, you get romanticism.

Irreligion, or rather, the dimunition of “the religious attitude” (something a little different from religious belief) was Hulme’s apple of discord. A good classicist is, by extension, a good pessimist; man is “limited.” But luckily, he’s still redeemable, “disciplined by order and tradition [not just by God] to something fairly decent” (great news for all us sinners.) The Church, Hulme reminds us, “has always taken the classical view since the defeat of the Pelagian heresy and the adoption of the sane classical dogma of original sin.”


This attitude, Hulme says, finds its antipode in romanticism. The romanticist “had been taught by Rousseau that man was by nature good, that it was only bad laws and customs that had suppressed him”. Break these rules (make a god out of man) and all you’re left with is “circumambient gas,” or what Wordsworth called “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” something which apparently, Lamartine, Coleridge, Shelley, Hugo, Keats and Swinburne were all guilty of. In verse, this “unlimited” view of man leads to some bad habits: high rhetorical pitch, exuberance, superfluity, and (worst of all) individual subjectivity, in lieu of restraint, precision, mimesis, and objectivity.

Nowadays the decline of religious belief – or the religious attitude – is much more sorely felt in the art world. It’s content, not style, we’re worried about now. In a recent article in Aeon Magazine, the English philosopher Roger Scruton argues that high culture has been usurped by “fake art” and “fake culture.” He writes:

A high culture is the self-consciousness of a society. It contains the works of art, literature, scholarship and philosophy that establish a shared frame of reference among educated people. High culture is a precarious achievement, and endures only if it is underpinned by a sense of tradition, and by a broad endorsement of the surrounding social norms. When those things evaporate, as inevitably happens, high culture is superseded by a culture of fakes.

The fake artist, Scruton says, believes “that truth is a negotiable thing,” that “true feelings” and “true emotions” should hold on to their inverted commas. But if nothing’s really true, the artist is free to “debase the forms and the language in which true feelings can take root.” This Foucaultian outlook is, clearly, a religious quagmire. But there’s another problem, which Scruton doesn’t touch on (at least not here.) Today we’re told we’re “survival machines” enslaved to our genes in pursuit of a reproductive goal - something which happens for no reason at all. Whether this is true or not is beside the point. As long as we believe we lead meaningless lives in a meaningless universe, pickled sharks and unmade beds will thrive.

Interestingly, for Scruton, it was the Romantics who found the way out of this can of worms (or can of excrement:)

As religion lost its emotional grip, the posture of aesthetic distance promised an alternative route to the meaning of the world. For the Romantics, the work of art was the result of a unique and irreplaceable experience, containing a revelation, distilled through individual effort and artistic genius, of a meaning unique to itself.

By making a “god out of man,” artists like Schoenberg, Goethe, Titian, Matisse and Gaugin, were in fact, saving us from the inevitable. In the wake of religious disbelief, art could give us meaning again. Wallace Stevens - romanticism’s true disciple - wraps this up nicely:

In an age in which disbelief is so profoundly prevalent or, if not disbelief, indifference to questions of belief, poetry and painting, and the arts in general, are, in their measure, a compensation for what has been lost.

Perhaps it’s time to reclaim this attitude. As Stevens writes elsewhere:

“The world in general is passing… to an indifferent stage: a stage in which the primary sense is a sense of helplessness. But, as the world is a good deal more vigorous than most of the individuals in it, what the world looks forward to is a new romanticism, a new belief”.

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