It is possible to imagine a purple cow, but only after one has some experience of “cows” and ”purple.”
When one dares to enter the country of other men’s souls in quest of understanding about the nature of virtue, he enters a dangerous world, especially when that world is one fallen or falling to an extreme from its potential good order. It is the soul endangered to its extremity that most often attracts the poet; the philosopher is more likely to be concerned with the potential good. But whether poet or philosopher, what one may say of that foreign country is difficult to certify by either art or argument to any degree that commands unqualified assent. It becomes an almost foolhardy attempt if the explorer believes, as do I, that the country he sojourns is the Devil’s promising satrapy. One suspects that the poet has an advantage over the philosopher in the country of the falling or fallen, through his imitations of the “possible or probable,” in Aristotle’s phrase. Drama is one thing, but how does one adequately explicate being’s fall toward nothingness or its rescue to its potential. Willful evil and grace-touched good may be suggested by art’s gesture, but how certified? The philosopher’s good fortune may well be precisely this difficulty, depending upon whether humility is the more likely state of mind out of reason or out of the imagination. Certainly the soul’s country is not only dangerous to explore but very tempting as well. And the poet so tempted may succumb to the siren song of the imagination, or more accurately, to the siren song of the imagination freed of its anchor—in reality, the insistent reason. James Joyce catches the poet’s temptation with a range of beguilingly artful touches in his portrait of the young poet Stephen Dedalus. The boy Stephen admits to his reason that there can be no such thing as a green rose. But immediately he asserts that somewhere there must be a place of green roses.
I think young Stephen serves aptly to sum up a danger growing to dominance in the Western mind since the Renaissance: The elevation of mind to absolute authority through its substitution of the imagination for conscience. In the developing action, the imagination becomes liberated from reason and signals a new order of power over being. Little wonder that we should at last come to celebrate the imagination as the mind’s special prerogative which makes man independent of all creation, of all being, but his mind itself. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the alchemy practiced upon being by the emancipated imagination is restricted to poets. Philosophers and theologians and scientists and politicians and social workers—the gamut of “professional” minds within what is left of the polis—are as tempted to illusions as the poets. If Shelley insists that the poet is the unacknowledged legislator of mankind, it is not so much that he asserts a peculiar prerogative as that he makes a plea that the poet be included among all those others who, having appropriated the imagination as their own instrument, are busily remaking the world insofar as their power allows, leaving the poet outside.
Indeed, the imagination has sometimes become a substitute Lord and Giver of Life, not only for the poet but for a range of would-be makers of being; the imagination, liberated from its responsible grounding in reality, creates a variety of coloring books to tempt our happy greens. For instance, the statistician’s vision of America abstracted from the latest census dots our mind. And even the devoted, if sometimes frantic, pursuit of the causes of our diseases—medical research—participates in our general dislocation. Abstracted dots, limited and specialized research, leave us confused as to whether coffee is good for the heart but causes cancer of the pancreas or is good for fighting our inclination to cancer but is bad for the heart. It is with an increasing fear and trembling that we breathe and take in food, for in a world which increasingly understands, as the only possible falling away of being, that of physical death, we find ourselves more and more possessed by abstractions of life that make us fearful of it.
Such are the conditions about which Gabriel Marcel asks, “Does not the invasion of our life by techniques today [and techniques are the actions of abstraction implicit in our finiteness] tend to substitute satisfaction at a material level for spiritual joy, dissatisfaction at a material level for spiritual disquiet?” In Man Against Mass Society, he adds that our victory of technique over nature, having reduced the spirit of the conqueror himself, substitutes “generalized comfort, with its appurtenances.” That substitution “seems the only possible way to make life tolerable, when life is no longer considered as a divine gift, but rather as a ‘dirty joke.'” The life we save, which is our own, must be saved by the imagination’s pragmatic actions on nature through technique. We reach out and touch someone by wire; we have a coke and a smile; we have a calorie-free light beer. And suddenly we are besieged by new devils, in a new ideology, carcinogens. They are hidden in every “thing” we would touch. Without a vision that the mystery of life is larger than biological, we must find our priests in the robes of consumer advocates. Mind, having brought itself to believe itself the ultimate creator, develops a paranoia, threatened as it must be by any “thing” not mind; most especially, its own body becomes suspect and must be controlled at any expense. For as the perfume or diet-food ad is fond of saying for us, “‘I’ am worth it.”
Through such a shift in our vision of man in nature, then, mind is enabled to believe itself the ultimate cause and value of being. When that shift of perspective upon humankind becomes generally accepted, one need not be surprised to discover any number of attempts at restructuring existence by acts of the mind, attempts at what Voegelin calls by its true name: deconstructions of being. There is a spectrum of assaults upon the integrity of being, upon man and nature alike, as imagination is increasingly presumed the absolute power, which may touch being at all points. The art of capitalistic advertising has in common with Marxist dialectical materialism precisely this faith in the imagination’s power, once the imagination is freed of its responsibilities to being. (Coleridge fears precisely this license of the imagination to manipulate the world; he calls the imagination so liberated, fancy.) Now the spectacle of such dislocation must wear the aspect of materialism, whether we choose to speak of it from capitalist or Marxist positions. But we must be careful to notice that we are really engaged with a spiritual revolution, the relocation of spiritual ends in the self. That it is indeed a dislocated spiritualism with which we struggle is suggested by the terror associated with death, whether we concern ourselves with The Bomb or with cholesterol and carcinogens.
Now wherever two or three of us gather together in some endeavor, the temptation to restructure creation raises its serpent head. That temptation is itself not new, the theologian locating it as anciently as the Garden of Eden. What is new is our naive acceptance of such temptations as a legitimate and unlimited license with being, with the givenness of creation. No wonder then that the spectacle of our intellectual history since Milton is accompanied at every point by the systematic denial of Classical and Christian virtues; and when those denials are systematized, they become counter-habit; nor do we realize the particular intellectual sources, as we might if at least we were thoroughgoing Platonists. At the conclusion of his General Theory, John Maynard Keynes remarks that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Mad men in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.” (The same point now is being made by some economists about Keynes’ own influence.) But more pervasive of our thought than defunct economists, since longer in the body of our thought, is the influence of seminal modernists, whose names we are not likely to recognize, let alone recognize the presence of their ideas in our own attitudes toward the world: the Abbe de Mably, who anticipates Rousseau; Joachim of Flora who anticipates Hegel. That is why I recommend at every opportunity examinations of those particles of past ideas suspended in our mind’s address to the world and so distorting our vision: such works as Eric Voegelin’s Science, Politics & Gnosticism and in his From Enlightenment to Revolution; as Gerhart Niemeyer’s From Nothingness to Paradise; as Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture and his In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity.
Through such works—and there are many others, a contemporary phenomenon that suggests that ours is a Neo-Scholastic Age—one may come to see our spiritual and intellectual condition and recover hope, that virtue most difficult to maintain in our world. One might, for instance, discover that Auguste Comte’s new science of sociology is but another specimen of that distortion of being of which Stephen Dedalus’s pursuit of his place of green roses is another. Voltaire, Condorcet, Comte, Marx, Freud (the list is long) are artists restructuring existence through the power derived from gnosis, a power made pragmatic through Hegel’s imagination. But Joyce’s young hero, as we meet him in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is an apt dramatization of the process in Western thought since the Renaissance whereby the elevation of mind over being is achieved. Stephen is more generally known to us than some of the vague or familiar names I have summoned above, and so I concentrate on him.
Stephen, the gifted intellectual, defines the ultimate world as that made by the artist through his imagination. He expects, by the novel’s end, to create such a world, having achieved a moment of self-apotheosis. His strategy is to be that of silence, exile, and cunning, the means whereby he will cast creation into an outer darkness of his own devising, having stripped it of whatever is useful to him for his projected world. In the old world’s place will appear the world created by his own mind. And that new world’s creator, by the act of creation itself, will have elevated himself beyond both worlds. Aloof from his own creation, indifferent to it, he will be left content, serenely “pruning his nails.” Such creations may seem to account for all of reality—except that of the creator, the poet or social determinist himself. Did God wash his hands after creation? That seems to be a principal philosophical argument culminating in Nietzsche and celebrated by post-World War II theology, an argument that safely removes the propounder of the argument. Certainly it is a dimension of Joyce’s ironic fiction. With the illusion of an innocence recovered by an act of the will, Stephen sets out, as he says, to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” The vital necessity to man’s being, conscience, was neglected by God but is not to be by this new god of being. Thus will Stephen show a thing or two to the God he struggles to deny.
We should notice that Stephen speaks (and Joyce himself on occasion speaks) with the exuberance of an anticipated conquest of being such as one finds already presumed accomplished, except for mopping up operations, in the several social and political programs for the mind’s conquest of being that antedate the novel. For our own coloring book, we might draw a line from Descarte’s vision of mind in reality, through the Enlightenment’s modifications, through the French Revolution’s committees, to Comte and his sociology and see that a figure of the modern mind does indeed emerge, whatever color we may use upon it. (Mine is rather darker than modernism’s eternal greening of itself.) I but touch upon a ranging of mind, a raging of mind, in nature for the past two or three hundred years. The figure that emerges from our connected dots may begin to correspond interestingly to the image we try to conjure when we say Washington, D.C. bureaucrat or centralized government office, or totalitarian leader with pejorative connotations to the terms—places and ideas and people we perceive devoted to their own green horses and green roses. (Note how upset our intellectual community was by Solzhenitsyn’s drawing just such figures himself when he first came among us, in particular in his Harvard address.) For these several hundred years past, the new awakening is accompanied by an infectious optimism, advanced under the banner of Progress, a code term signaling the deconstruction of being through which a recovery of a new Eden at some far-off divine point in the future is promised through that higher reason which I have signalled as satanic. One no longer has the soul come trailing clouds of glory in the Platonic mode. And certainly, one seldom understands the soul as a special, discrete creation by God as is the orthodox view. Rather one by magical incantation of technique, of process, conjures clouds of glory about some collective point at the end of a variety of five-year plans.
This is the first essay in a three-part series. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Spring 1983).