Sunday, 28 February 2016

The intense, narrow-focused energy of the lapsed Christian or Jewish creative

Most of the most creative individuals, including geniuses, of the 19th and early 20th century were raised as Christians or as Jews - and most of these lapsed from the faith of their birth, to a greater or lesser extent: many indeed became atheists.

However, usually, their faith and energy (often, a furious energy) was instead channelled into their 'work' - they made 'a religion' of their philosophy, literature, critique, music, visual art, science... The results were often astonishing.

There were these titanic characters whose own struggles felt to them (and to those who were under their spell) as the struggle for purpose, meaning, reality itself... And this was, in fact, true - because by abandoning their birth religion they became dependent on their art or science or scholarship for everything which religion had previously given them.

There was often an anger and aggression about the creativity of these titans - they were (and knew this) holding back chaos, ordering reality by their own efforts - there was no safety net under them, but instead a void. They did not despair - but they knew themselves to be a whisker away from despair - hope being held-together only by their own creative efforts.

Of course the pride was immense - however, so was the achievement and the heroism.

But this was only possible for the first generation - for those who were brought up really believing the orthodoxy of their faiths and the need for belief; and whose apostasy was a personal act and against the expectations and in the face of criticism and persecution - not, as with later generations, following a trend, dragged along by the general flow, nor persuaded by the reflex radicalism of the mass media.

The later creatives were even more secular than their great progenitors; but they were not great - they were not really serious, because their work did not seem to themselves to be so important; they were not doing the work of religion because they did not acknowledge that this work needed to be done -- the later creatives were were laid back, cool, playful, ironic, amusing... maybe they acted-up a bit of anger or intensity, but it came across as spiteful and petulant rather than heroic because - after all - what was there to be heroic about?...

Religion was gone, and seemingly didn't need to be replaced. After all, the world hadn't ended...

The earlier geniuses had failed - they had not held back chaos, they had not kept later generations suspended above the void. The later generations were living inside chaos and the void, and they found it to be purposeless, meaningless, unreal - and with no possibility of ever becoming anything otherwise...  

Thus we despair.

8 comments:

  1. Dr Charlton - yes I agree with you. Without God, and with a tendency to think deeply, everything leads to despair. I know because I've been there. There are two solutions for a thinking mind to ward off despair, the first is to become arch, clever, dry, witty and superior, and the second is to look for God, find him and find meaning. Most people take the first solution, and hope to ward off despair. The trouble with this solution is that the defensive artificiality (personae for every situation) do not always do their work well, and highly intelligent people end their lives in despair and terror. Of course, the vast majority of people do not think deeply enough to get to this state of affairs, and pass their lives in a 'bread and circuses' fashion.

    Seeker

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  2. C.S. Lewis said something once about the mill wheels still grinding against one another even when there is no grain.

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  3. I've long had a similar idea I call "The First Flower of Sin." It is the intoxicating surge of vitality one experiences when one first "throws off the shackles." Once it passes it never returns at anything like its original intensity. Yet the memory of it is so entrancing that people often spend the rest of their lives pining for it and seeking some way to feel it again. It's not that the Devil gives us nothing for our betrayal. It's just that we always awaken to discover that the banknotes he gave us have somehow turned to grubby wastepaper. (h/t Mikhail Bulgakov)

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  4. Even among most of the better recent poets, most were raised in highly religious homes:

    James Merrill
    Seamus Heaney
    Anne Carson
    Henri Cole
    Mark Doty
    Tracy K. Smith

    That isn't to mention that many of the better recent poets were/are religious:

    R.S. Thomas
    Geoffrey Hill
    Gwyneth Lewis
    Les Murray

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  5. Of course, none of those match the poets of the 19th century, let alone earlier poets.

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  6. I remember this quote from the American poet James Dickey:

    “This looks like a burnt out wasteland.”

    “Not if you’re the one going through it with a blowtorch.”

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  7. @Thursday = Good examples. I would say that the process is recapitulated in each generation - but on a downward and weakening trajectory.

    @Albrecht - You have just reminded me of a fictional account of this general phenomenon which is Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus - that is a loose but intentional allegory of what Germany got from embracing National Socialism; Mann's protagnoist was based upon Nietzsche whose own life demonstrated the phenomenon to a chilling perfection.

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  8. Nicholas Fulford2 March 2016 at 01:28

    There was often an anger and aggression about the creativity of these titans - they were (and knew this) holding back chaos, ordering reality by their own efforts - there was no safety net under them, but instead a void. They did not despair - but they knew themselves to be a whisker away from despair - hope being held-together only by their own creative efforts. - Bruce Charlton

    This reminds of the swirling primal forces that permeate much of Van Gogh's work. That such a potent and thunderous tempest could be contained on a piece of canvas with only paint and brush is a wonder. That he managed as long as he did is tremendous, and that we are able to view and be unleashed by them is a great gift.

    The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore. - Vincent Van Gogh

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portraits_of_Vincent_van_Gogh#/media/File:Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Self-portrait_with_grey_felt_hat_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

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