Saturday, May 26, 2007

Emptying Heaven

In a third chapter (see second) of 'From Fantasy to Faith' D Z Phillips turns to consider immortality. He characterizes it as a choice between science and seance. To illustrate the distinction he outlines the respective approaches of Tennyson (particularly In Memoriam) and Wallace Stevens.

Tennyson marries Darwinism and Christian faith by postulating that human development does not cease at death, but continues after it. Eliot saw In Memoriam as a religious poem not so much because of the quality of its faith but of its doubt, a religious kind of despair. In it Tennyson craves a continuance or substitute for the joys of friendship on earth. His desire for immortality is never quite for Eternal Life; his concern is for loss of man rather than for the gain of God. It is in this sense that Tennyson's lines smack more of a seance than spirituality.

Wallace Stevens sees that in an attempt to turn his departed friend into an ethereal being, Tennyson loses sight of him as he really was. In the act of creating a heaven out of our own fears, we lose sight of the earth. But Tennyson's despair is indeed a religious one. He looks to fulfil his religious desires by transcending his doubts. Stevens, however, sees the doubts as liberating us from desires we should not have in the first place. A changeless heaven is a grotesque parody of the earth we love. Coming to be and passing away is the character of human being. 'Death is the mother of beauty.' A human being who could not grow old and die would be as unattractive as an apple which could not ripen and rot. Take away change, take away death, and we take away, at the same time, what is wonderful and terrible in love and life.

For Tennyson, the contingency and finitude of things seems to rob them of their point. For Stevens it is an essential part of their wonder. Stevens is a poet of acceptance. Tennyson is not. He sees life as incomplete, and existence as a riddle. Within Steven's linguistic parameters, the completion, the order, provided by religion is illusory. For him, when we have emptied heaven, our terrors and fears will be exorcised.

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