It was Virginia Woolf who wryly observed, “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” I had no idea what this meant, until I stumbled into a fairy wood where a gilded volume by W.B. Yeats waited patiently for my arrival. I read The Second Coming (published nine years after Woolf’s moment of eschaton) and all was made plain. Here were succinct lyrics for a generation succinctly removed from their Greek, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Romantic, and late-Victorian ancestors:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
In a less apocalyptic register, T.S. Eliot voiced his own lamentation in Choruses from ‘The Rock’ (1934): “Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Eliot’s appraisal (the loss of life, wisdom, and knowledge) interrogates the utilitarian concerns of his historic moment. The privation depicted in The Waste Land (1922) is decidedly spiritual in nature: “Here is no water but only rock / Rock and no water and the sandy road.” Madame Sosostris is no Oracle of Delphi. The Unreal City is a derelict substitute for Zion. The potential virtues of Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata become “fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
If only we could relegate the elegies of Woolf, Yeats, and Eliot to the twentieth century and be done with it. But no, the postmodern project has done little more than rebrand the crisis of our literary parents. We are the progeny, the tech-obsessed orphans of Modernism no matter how many “post” prefixes we graft to the tenets of Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, and Russel. I see this reality on the faces of a handful of students (not many … but enough) at the university where I teach. Individuals who exhibit an inhibited spiritual imagination. Individuals who have inherited, by no fault of their own, a transactional rather than a transformative model of education.
I see it in their reticence to join Wordsworth among his daffodils, to contemplate the prophetic nightingale of Keats, to observe (much less handle) the loaded gun of Dickinson, to know the rivers of Hughes, the masks of Dunbar, the syntax of Stein, to heed Whitman as he looks up “in perfect silence at the stars,” or join Tennyson “far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.” One cannot teach apart from hope, but I fear we are fast approaching the Last Man described by Zarathustra come down the mountain: “What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star? thus asks the Last Man, and blinks.”
The advent of COVID-19 and the social distancing we are rightly obliged to inhabit, has only exacerbated these realities. With breathtaking efficiency, corporate interest (aka: Zoom) has descended upon our schools and sanctuaries. Academic and spiritual devotion now requires more “screen time,” and I can’t help but feel as though I’ve been asked to abandon my Anglican sensibility toward teaching, worship, and community in favor of a banal Gnosticism: a heresy that simultaneously denies bodily resurrection and refuses to give up the ghost.
During my first Zoom session back from Spring Break (“traditional” classes had been cancelled in favor of online “modalities”), I had a clear vantage of my students preparing lunch, lounging on the couch, crouched in the back closet of a Starbucks during break, and (perhaps most terrifying of all for this father of two) driving with cell phone in hand.
As a result, clearer expectations for online decorum were reinforced, but the dignity of incarnation, the dignity of sanctioned space, felt irrevocably lost. A pandemic that merited prayer, lamentation, solitude, and cultivation of mind had made keyboard bureaucrats and thumb-texters of us all. I’m conscientious, “first-born” enough to adhere to the nationwide mandate, but in the words of a fatigued Bartleby: “I’d prefer not to.”
So, where to go from here? How might we re-enchant a thoroughly disenchanted age? It was Delmore Schwartz who suggested that poets (and by extension priests) have become comedic figures in our generation. This is precisely the problem. Vocations tasked to sing us into the transcendent, to woo us like a Terrence Malick film into an apprehension of the divine, have lost credibility. Priests are complicit in the latest scandal, potent in their ability to maintain the status quo, but impotent in their rites and homilies. Poets (myself included) take up shop in the academy, with an activism so earth-bound, so “present tense” in its orientation, that the sublime regions of the noumenal are reliably neglected.
Do the literary journals I submit to with alarming regularity actually contribute to the common good or merely sustain the ever-quest of academic tenure and promotion? Our priests and poets, having forgotten their first love, provide little reason for anyone to disembark from the lee shore of naturalism and into the wide-eyed abandon of Melville: “ … in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God – so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! … Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing – straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!”
As a result, we are vulnerable to a zeitgeist that is either corporate or statist in nature. There are few remaining witnesses to question our consumerism, to model virtue, restraint, to herald the good of a fettered appetite, a contentment with daily bread, to show the good of art for art’s sake, to play an instrument just because, or to practice true conservation so that our ecosystem has a modest chance of survival, and our health, a modest chance of staving off cancer.
Where is the voice to question the limits of human intelligence, commerce, government, and the “smart” devices that broadcast terabytes of algorithmic data, but have little to say about the nature of wisdom? Where are the prophets when we need them? As Andrew Delbanco observes, “The repertoire of evil has never been richer, yet never have our responses been so weak.”
We need priests and poets who are ambivalent to political tribalism, sober in their assessment of the excesses of late-empire, and immune to the huckster impulse of the American religion. We need priests and poets who perceive our collective “nostalgia for the absolute,” a beautiful phrase from the literary critic George Steiner, and who occupy this residence with as much integrity as they can muster.
There was a time when the ideal of priest and poet was obtainable. I say this not as a sentimentalist, or as someone with an acute nostalgia for the Middle Ages, but rather as someone who has read enough to encounter their witness. The Anglo-Saxon scop, the bard described by William of Malmesbury and the Venerable Bede is an articulate counterpoint to the malady I have just surveyed. Beowulf, The Dream of the Rood, and Cædmon’s Hymn (for example) are all expressions of the authors we name “Anonymous.”
Here were poets who promoted what John D. Niles describes as a “mental modeling of their ancestral past,” and a perseveration of “a social order, as maintained through the power of spoken words exchanged in face to face encounters.” All oral traditions privilege this sort of linguistic acumen. We need priests and poets with the courage to inhabit this prophetic and incantatory station. If we are to abandon our modern rituals of death, we need life-giving rituals of equal precision and power. It is explicit what people are against in our age of social media. It is less certain what they are for.
Much has been written on the need for a contemporary “Ben-Op” (see Dreher’s The Benedict Option – 2017) to promote orthodoxy, to preserve the “best that has been thought and said,” and to persevere in an age of Epicurean instinct.
From my vantage in the Pacific Northwest, Eastern Washington, Idaho, and Montana are fast emerging epicenters of this cultural movement. Well and good, but the monasteries, retreat centers, intentional communities, and classical schools are little more than empty pantheons without ordained curators, priestly poets in residence, provocateurs of the good, the right, and the beautiful.
Tara Isabella Burton’s compelling journey to orthodox Christianity is also a cautionary tale of “enchantment” unmoored from creedal allegiance and the cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. It’s so easy to romanticize and seek meaning in paganism when the promises of secular materialism fail.
We need Millennial, Gen Z, and Alpha scops who shape and refine our aesthetic and theological commitments. We need a generation tired of their devices long enough to devise a liturgy for our historic moment. Rather than train students toward the cold comforts of job viability and a 401K, we must provide an education robust enough to endure the changes and chances of this life. As “grail quest” as this often feels in a modern classroom, surrounded by a culture of grades, assessment, and learning outcomes, my colleagues and I become more persistent in this endeavor with each passing year. Just imagine how intellectual and spiritual formation would necessarily change if we took cues from the poet Rilke: “here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.”
In his essay, “Poetry as Enchantment,” Dana Gioia observes, “It is significant that the Latin word for poetry, carmen, is also the word the Romans used for a song, a magic spell, a religious incantation, or a prophecy—all verbal constructions whose auditory powers can produce a magical effect on the listener.” It is this power, this “magical effect” that merits restoration.
What is lost is nothing less than our capacity to inhabit wonder, that ardent quality that informs our desires, commitments, responsibilities, and loves. What is lost is our capacity to know and to be known, to evolve beyond the troglodyte compulsion to torch my neighbor on Twitter or “ad hominem” my way to worldly success. The call is to discern how to love our neighbors as ourselves: to “read” our neighbors as clearly as the literary tradition reads us. It’s a willingness to usher the waking dream of literature back into our collective imagination, to memorize poems like the scops of old, and to make the prayer of W.H. Auden our own: “If equal affection cannot be, / let the more loving one be me.”
Rather than resign ourselves to the disenchanted fate of Modernism, we need to actively participate in this recovery. This necessarily means we abandon a legion of contemporary idols: Mammon being preeminent. It means we re-evaluative the scientism that at once solved all of our problems and got us into this mess in the first place. It means we reject Bentham’s panopticon and prioritize all that is slow, contemplative, inefficient, long-suffering, and beautifully quotidian within the human character.
Virginia Woolf wasn’t wrong: “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” I see no reason why an equal metamorphosis cannot draw us away from the despair and despondency of our predecessors. As Simone Weil rightly observes, human beings are “incurably en route.”
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- Woolf: “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1924) ↑
- Yeats: “The Second Coming” (1919) ↑
- Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885) ↑
- Schwartz: “The Isolation of Modern Poetry” (1941) ↑
- Melville: Moby Dick / “The Lee Shore” / Chapter 23 ↑
- Delbanco: The Death of Satan (1995) ↑
- Niles: “Myth of the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet” (2003) ↑
- Matthew Arnold: “Culture and Anarchy (1869) ↑
- Gioia: “Poetry as Enchantment” (2014) ↑
- Auden: “The More Loving One” (1960) ↑
- Zagajewski: A Defense of Ardor (2002) ↑