Wednesday 24 April 2024

Halldor Laxness and Taoist Christianity

Having been tipped-off that the 2007 Halldor Laxness biography by Halldor Gudmundsson had been issued in paperback and Kindle; I bought myself a copy to re-read. 

Although I did not much enjoy the biography, because Laxness was such a "high psychoticism" kind of genius as to make uncomfortable company with prolonged contact, it has set me to re-read (for the fourth or fifth times) my two favourite among his novels: The Fish Can Sing, and Christianity At Glacier (re-issued as Under the Glacier).

(Both superbly translated by Magnus Magnusson - a name very well known to all Brits aged above fifty; for his role as quizmaster of TV "Mastermind".)  

The Fish Can Sing of 1957 is better literature, indeed a near-perfect novel; while Christianity at Glacier rather falls-apart structurally, as Laxness's mental powers began to wane; but both are well worth reading as imbued with "spirituality". 

In TFCS the spirituality is Taoism - in a Western manifestation, yet sincere and pervasive; and made tragic by awareness of its unsustainability beyond childhood. 

In CAG, it is "Christian" - or rather an examination of the Christian, an exploration or striving-towards a new/different kind of Christian spirituality. 

(Laxness was born into the tepid Lutheranism of Iceland in 1902, for a few years became a very keen  Roman Catholic (considering ordination); before discarding all this for USSR-focused Marxist materialism in the middle 20th century - then returning to a stronger and stronger spiritual focus from the later 1950s - re-assuming Roman Catholic practice in his last years.)

By the time of CAG, Laxness clearly rejected the symbolism and ritual of institutional Christianity; and seemed to desire a kind of Taoistic Christianity in which the religion was absorbed-into everyday life, without being made explicit in public discourse. 

I think this is what he wanted; although he didn't achieve it - perhaps due to confusion over what Christianity ultimately is (i.e. not-of-this-world and about post-mortal resurrected life).    

More exactly; what Laxness wanted from Taoism does correspond pretty-closely to Barfield's Original Participation, the primal spirituality of young children and the earliest cultures of nomadic tribal people - which is, in a sense, naturally Christian - in that such people will (when available) choose salvation quite spontaneously and unconsciously.

But Taoism is the attempt to make a symbolism or "model" out of Original Participation - which must fail because anyone self-conscious enough "be a Taoist" is too self-conscious actually to be a Taoist! The spiritual adolescent cannot choose to think as a young child, or hunter-gatherer.  

What might a Taoist Christianity be like? Well - it is a type of Romantic Christianity. One in which Christianity is not spoken of; and in which there is not participation in Christian-themed public discourse. 

(When compelled to converse on spiritual matters, the "Taoist" becomes poetic, enigmatic, obtuse, surreal, deliberately misleading...) 

Starting point: Modern Man is in a situation of existential freedom, because we need consciously to choose that which was once spontaneous. 

Furthermore, this conscious freedom is primarily in the realm of thinking, so that the hardly-thinking spontaneity of the young child or tribesman is replaced by a freely-chosen and explicitly-thought mode of being. 

So an actual Taoist Christian (rather than the Christianised Taoism that Laxness often reverts-into) would be lived in awareness of the living, created world of many Beings; a world of Good and evil and entropy; and a world in which we are called-upon consciously to discern and affiliate with the side of Good/ God/ Divine Creation. 

We would not be striving for Taoist immersion in the present moment, or for Taoist indifference to values and choices; because a Christian recognizes that this life is transitional and temporary; and properly aimed-at Resurrected eternal Heavenly life. 

But there is a possibly Taoist flavour to the idea of recognizing and appreciating our actual, living experiences - here-and-now - as opportunities for spiritual learning - rather than this-worldly betterment.   

Maybe something-like this was where Laxness was pointing in Christianity At Glacier? Maybe that accounts for the special flavour, quality, and appeal I get from the book? 


Ann K said...

Interesting! Any thoughts on how they compare to “Christ the Eternal Tao,” by Hieromonk Damascene?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ann - No. I know and liked Damascene's biography of Seraphim Rose, but that's all.

NLR said...

I was reading about Laxness a while ago and one thing that particularly interested me was how until relatively recently, Iceland was still in the pre-modern world.

There's a quote from Peter Hallberg's biography of Laxness, quoting a memoir of Laxness, where Laxness describes this in an evocative way. I'm sure you've already read the book; I'm writing the quote down because it's a good description:

"At every opportunity I point out - and always with noble pride - that I knelt at the feet of the eighteenth century to receive my upbringing. My maternal grandmother was born during that half of the nineteenth century which carries all the distinctive features of the previous century, and grew up among those members of the population who might be described as fragments broken from the rocks of distant ages.


My grandmother was an eighteenth-century person and did not know a thing about what went on in the nineteenth century, either in politics or science ... No wonder, then, that the news of twentieth-century events seemed as vague, passing fancies in her eyes and moved her little ...

Our telephone was now installed and was placed in a room next to hers. But even though this strange contraption rang noisily and continually in her ear throughout the remaining years of her life, she died heartily convinced that the telephone was nothing but humbug. No notice should ever be taken of news which came from the telephone. If anyone tried to explain the telephone to her, she simply laughed at the attempts; she just could not be bothered to waste words on these fantasies, she said, and began to talk of something else.


But it was my grandmother who brought me up as a child, and I am proud of my good fortune in having been brought up by a woman who, of all the women I have known, was the least dependent on the spirit and fashions of the times. She sang me ancient songs before I could talk, told stories from the heathen times and sang me cradle songs from the Catholic era. "

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR - Yes, except for Reykjavik, which was a kind of Danish outpost to some extent; Iceland was substantially a nation of almost subsistence farmers (except for coffee and sugar) until the 20th century, when it modernized very rapidly.

Sadly, although belatedly, Iceland made all the same wrong key-decisions as everywhere else in The West; including allowing/ encouraging mass immigration which had been almost-entirely resisted until around the millennium.

When I visited in 1999, almost-all the permanent population were various known degrees of Scandinavian cousins, derived from the Viking settlement beginning around 900 AD.

Pk said...

Spotting the author's name on the bookstore shelf, prompted me, a Norwegian, to read Independent People some years ago. It was quite a strange story, fascinating, but not one I understand still. The Fish Can Sing was a wonderful, short, tight coming of age story. Iceland's Bell was shocking with some amazing prose. Several others followed, but I cannot find Under the Glacier locally in New Jersey.

Inquisitor Benedictus said...

I've thought for a while that the original Taoist philosophers, Laozi and Zhuangzi, are at least as good a philosophical interlocutor for Christianity as Plato or Aristotle. Those works are beautiful and profound, and oriental in the best sense.

Dr. Charlton I think you'd enjoy the poetry Fernando Pessoa wrote under the name Alberto Caeiro— it's a wonderful mix of Christian and Taoist sensibilities in a childlike modern style. Some of my favourite poetry. I had a similar experience reading it the first time as reading the Tao Te Ching for the first time.