The Modern Dilemma. Syllabus for Four BBC Broadcasts
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[ 323 The Modern Dilemma Syllabus for Four BBC Broadcasts1 One important characteristic of the “problems of the present time” – as it appears at least, to us who are concerned with them – is that they do not form a list of separate problems each to be dealt with by the appropriate specialist; but we feel instinctively before we have even thought about them, that they form together one single problem, affecting the interests of the whole of humanity. Our difficulties [are] those of an age which feels the need of synthesis. Hence anyone who thinks seriously about contemporary affairs, whatever be his special vocation or competence, is led to the same ultimate questions. (That at least is my own excuse for discussing matters which at first sight lie outside of my own profession and my own knowledge ). Our age [is] not afflicted by the collapse of religious belief, but by something much more serious in its possible consequences – the collapse of religious disbelief. A period during which religion is decaying is comparatively easy to live in. People who are engaged in work of destruction can easily be satisfied with themselves; for some small, though usually conspicuous part of what they are destroying is something that ought to be destroyed, and, it is of this part that they are most aware. They can, therefore , call their destructive work by the name of enlightenment and progress . A child employs itself happily in taking an old alarm clock to pieces, but even a child is disappointed when all the parts are separate and it finds that it cannot put the clock together again. In a dissociative and analytic period each man has his own little job of taking something to pieces, a job which is not beyond his powers. One characteristic of our time is that we are dimly aware that the work to be done seems beyond our powers. That, we feel is because the old distinctions of function are now confused. The work of the good statesman of tomorrow has wider scope, and demands more fundamental understanding than the work of the best statesman of yesterday. The modern scientist has a much more delicate task than that of the old fashioned rationalist. The artist and the man of letters is impelled to question the nature of [his] function, and to ask himself what he is doing and why and how it fits in with the work of the rest of the world. Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1931 324 ] I begin, therefore, with the activity which I may be assumed to know most about – that of writing poetry. Often claimed that poetry is, or should be, concerned with permanent things, and not with affairs of the day; on the other hand, it is sometimes asserted that the poet is the consciousness of his time and makes other men more conscious.2 I do not think that poets themselves often bother to make either of these claims – even when they do, we need not be more credulous of what poets say than of what other people say – but there is some truth in both. But for that matter, we all, so far as we address our fellow men, are concerned with both the eternal and the temporal. Poetry cannot ever concern itself with simple emotions which are supposed to be the same always; such “emotions” are “simple” only by being purely abstract. Subject matter and treatment cannot be wholly separated, but on one side or both, the poet must differ from his predecessors . As he must possess the information of his age, so he must think of the problems of his age, so far as he thinks at all, and both his knowledge and his thought as they enter into and become transformed in his poetry, will affect what he writes and differentiate it from the poetry of any other time. What are the differences of poetry to-day? one curious and by no means so trifling as it sounds. We all want to write long poems of one kind or another, and none of us in my opinion, has quite succeeded.3 What does this mean? The desire springs from a profound need for a more comprehensive view of things. Nineteenth century poetry still able to be at length. Reasons why, and why we find reading long poems an effort to read, though no longer satisfied with short ones. How this leads to the religious question which is necessarily the social question also...