Every poem is an epitaph

Faith and Doubt:
Religion and Secularisation in Literature from Wordsworth to Larkin

R.L. Brett
Cambridge: Mercer University Press, 1997

Reviewed by
Julian Lamb

In a work in which poets and novelists, ideas and paradigms fly past its reader as if they were flashes of lightning, Faith and Doubt by R.L. Brett is a book easy to fall in love with but whose richness eludes synopsis. "The emphasis of this book,' says Brett in his opening paragraph, 'is impenitently biographical and historical' (p1). Equally impenitently, the emphasis of this review is on Brett's approach rather than the actual subject matter, for it is the approach that differentiates this work from any other work of literary criticism. It is a well considered approach that, nevertheless, 'runs counter to much contemporary theory and practice' (p1) and there are two skeins of thought with which Brett struggles before he states his own position.

The first of these is dominated by the structuralists and post-structuralists who treat the work of art as a self-autonomous entity free from the contexts of its creator. It is from this camp that the author has been pronounced dead and consigned to the flames as a source of meaning or interpretative truth since artistic truth only exists intrinsic to the work of art. It is as if the proverbial carpet has been dragged out from underneath the artist, and his work enters a labyrinth of sceptical interpretation.

A popular contemporary belief is that a literary work is simply a linguistic object. To this charge Brett argues that the 'writer creates a story, an action... a plot, a set of characters, all of which come to life by means of language, but all of which remain nonverbal' (p3). In other words, Brett claims that art has intrinsic meanings and points of reference beyond the boundaries of its own medium.

However, the work of art does not simply exist extrinsically. The approach descended from Hegel and Marx is the second skein of thought that Brett discusses. In much the same way thet Hegel could not accept the individual creativity of the writer, a mere instrument of the zeitgeist, Marx subjected the artist to the material and economic forces that govern history. Works of art only have meaning in so far as they have been produced solely by historical determinants. If Barthes proclaimed the death of the artist, then Hegel and Marx proclaim the death of the work itself for they subject art to the tyranny of the artist's own historically created nature.

Brett forges a middle line between these two polarities. Using examples as diverse as Coleridge, Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot, Arnold and Tennyson, Brett maintains that these 'writers were shaped, as we all are, by the times in which they lived, but they were not determined by them' (p5). Perhaps a brief analogy might be helpful. For Brett, we are to see the work of art not as a distant star shining in the nether regions of space, nor as a mere by-product of life here on earth, but rather as a satellite in perpetual orbit around the globe relaying messages from its creator to us: art is close enough to its creator to have a context and origin, but far enough away for it to be applicable to other contexts and people. Art is both particular and universal.

Art is, moreover, universal precisely because it is particular. Like the greatest artists, we are all embedded in a particularity. It is a dynamic empathy for the particularity of the artist that renders his work universal. Accordingly, an implicit feature of Brett's approach is a belief in a common but indeterminate humanity and it is in this that one would be tempted to compare it with the title of Robert Lowell's most famous anthology of poems, for Faith and Doubt is, above all, a collection of 'life studies'.

Literary works, says Brett, represent 'human experience in all its richness and complexity. It is not concerned with abstraction, but with the wonder of life and its concrete variety' (p4). In a similar way that Wittgenstein said that life gave words their currency, Brett argues that life gives art its currency. It is the common experience of life 'in its concrete variety' that both rescues art from sceptical interpretation and emancipates it from the charge of the historical determinists: we are determined to be undetermined, condemned to be free, as Sartre may have added. In structuralism and post-structuralism the author is dead. In Hegel and Marx it is the work of art itself that dies. In Brett's approach neither the work nor the artist is led to the gallows; on the contrary, they seem to resuscitate each other.

It is in the emphasis of literature on 'human experience in all its richness and complexity' that Brett observes a connection between literature and religion. This connection serves, implicitly, to create a definition of religion correlative to that of literature as a medium not concerned with 'abstraction, but with the wonder of life in its concrete variety.' Despite his own secular beliefs, Thomas Carlyle felt inclined to declare that 'a man's religion is the chief fact with regard to him' (p5). In a similar vein, Brett treats the emotional and intellectual states of religious experience in an intensely personal and embodied way, as always belonging to someone. It is in this that every murmur of faith and doubt is an utterance forged in the smithy of the soul and every poem, as T.S. Eliot may add, would therefore become an epitaph.

Another way of looking at Brett's struggles with structuralism and poststructuralism on the one hand and Hegelianism and Marxism on the other is as a struggle between radical doubt and radical faith. The former seems to doubt the universal interpretative truth of everything whereby reducing, perhaps even destroying, the authority and significance of truth itself which would eventually lead to nihilism. Hegel and Marx seem to display a radical faith in the power of the zeitgeist and economic forces respectively that inextricably leads to determinism. In his own approach we have seen how Brett takes account of these two skeins of thought and, in a sense, reconciles them through the experience of life itself, a common but indeterminate atemporality. Specifically, the experience of life is a house in which both faith and doubt are permanent tenants.

In Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov the enigmatic Ivan Karamazov recites a prose poem of his own composition entitled 'The Grand Inquisitor' to his younger brother, Alyosha. One of the many gems of thought that the poem raises is that faith is impossible without a freedom to dispute the truthfulness of the object of that faith. In other words, faith needs doubt and vice-versa. Faith without doubt leads to Hegel and Marx; doubt without faith leads to nihilism. The necessary discourse of tension that occurs between faith and doubt is not only the cornerstone of Brett's approach, but also the cornerstone of many of his interpretations of the trials and struggles of the authors of which he writes. Much of Wordsworth's struggle originated in a 'deep and even passionate affection' (p15) for his sister, Dorothy, combined with his falling influence to the strictly rationalist, anti-emotivist teachings of William Godwin. George Eliot, too, was caught, chronologically speaking, between the deterministic and progressivist historical theories of the late Enlightenment and the new Darwinian model of history which emphasised disparity and chance. Post-conversion, T.S. Eliot remarks to a friend about Marxists: 'They seem so certain of what they believe. My own beliefs are held with a scepticism which I never hope to be quite rid of' (p184). It was in this that Eliot found such a solace 'in the Anglican Establishment of the seventeenth century, for the religious verse of Donne and Herbert turns almost as much on doubt as on faith, and even more on the constant interplay between the two' (p184).

A curious reciprocity thus emerges between Brett and these authors. It is a reciprocity, moreover, that extends to the reader, for the enormity of Brett's research and knowledge effects a Babel-like tone which actually recreates within the reader the struggles of a Coleridge or Arnold or Browning. With the particularity and specificity of these writers so well observed, a reader cannot but empathise with them. this reciprocal effect, whether advertent or otherwise, serves to reinforce the philosophy underlying Brett's approach: that we are all different and yet similar due to the experience of life itself.

On a recent trip to London, Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey had a significant impact on me. Seeing the plaques, statues and memorials I found myself grieving for these figures as though I had known them. With its emphasis on religious belief as an embodied, personal experience where biographical and historical detail is not so much a useful background but an intrinsic foreground, Faith and Doubt is a book that affects its reader in a similar way. Upon T.S. Eliot's memorial in the Abbey was a bouquet of flowers bearing the words 'To Tom, love Sue'. Until then I had known him as T.S. Eliot or Eliot or, in more lucid moods, Thomas Stearns. It was the intimacy that bloomed from the use of the names Tom and Sue that captured my thoughts. Eliot ceased to be a mediocre god and became the greatest of human beings. Metaphorically speaking, it is as if Brett too addresses these authors with the intimacy of a first name: to Tom or Samuel or Bill, love Raymond. Through reading this book we come to know these writers, empathise with them understand them and, eventually, mourn their deaths. Professor Brett died in December 1996, nine months before the publication of the book. Perhaps he should be remembered as he seems to have remembered the subjects of his inquiry: he acknowledges them as personages who have died so that they might be remembered as humans who had lived.

If the author is truly dead, then Faith and Doubt by R.L. Brett is a long awaited eulogy.


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