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Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 4.2 (2004) 173-194
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Raiding the Inarticulate:
Mysticism, Poetics, and the Unlanguageable
Mark S. Burrows
Poetry is a part of the structure of reality.
Poets have not found an easy welcome among modern theologians. They might be commissioned to write an occasional hymn, or ornament a liturgy, but rarely have they been trusted as partners in the professional guild of theologians, ministers, and priests. What, after all, does the instinct of the poet's eye, the habits of the poet's ear, the music of the poet's tongue, have to do with the demands of theology in the "prose-flattened world" of modernity?2 Plato long ago worried about their art as an indulgent form of play, banishing them from the republic since their work appealed to the emotions rather than to reason, rendering them untrustworthy for the weighty work of public life.3 But what if poetry is, as Wallace Stevens suggests, "a part of the structure of reality"? What might it mean, in this case, to inquire about the poet's vocation?
Despite such ancient worries, poets have not been without their champions among the philosophers of the modern academy. Schelling saw in the arts the consummation of philosophy, the entrance into the sanctuary of truth not through reason but through the spirit perfecting itself in the act of creation. In the ecstatic form of his Zarathustra, Nietzsche offers not an apology but an expression of an unheralded poetic form, one that sought beauty in an "immaculate perception"—as he puts it, to "desire nothing of things, except . . . [to] lie down before them like a mirror with a hundred eyes," and to speak and write and live not with grave and heavy language but with poetic words that can be sung.4 Gadamer sees aesthetics as a valid way of knowing, despite its having been structurally dismantled in much of continental philosophy—Nietzsche of course excepted—since Kant. He asks:
Does not the experience of art contain a claim to truth which is certainly different from that of science, but equally certainly is not inferior to it? And is it not the task of aesthetics precisely to provide a basis for the fact that artistic experience is a mode of knowledge of a unique kind . . . [which is] certainly different from all moral rational knowledge and indeed from all conceptual knowledge, but still knowledge?"5 [End Page 173]
More recently, Iris Murdoch suggested that literature is the art "most practically important for our survival and salvation," since words constitute what she calls "the ultimate texture and stuff of our moral being."6 It may even be, as Northrop Frye once suggested, that literature fills the vacancy carved out of the popular imagination left behind by the displacement of myths and symbolic narrative in modern societies.7
Perhaps theologians' worry about the poets' place in their republic suggests some measure of their own discomfort with the imagination as a source of insight, a way of thinking in the world without a necessary grounding in reason, ethics, or metaphysics. The poet, called by Stevens the "orator of the imagination,"8 reminds us that the life of language moves beyond a construction of reality within the limits of reason alone, and that a disenchanted world emptied of the symbolic and denied the traces of transcendence is finally a difficult if not unbearable dwelling place. Poets approach their vocation, as Eliot reminds us, knowing that this is always a struggle
. . . to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a wholly new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.9
Poets live and...