Friday, June 08, 2007

Charitable Untruths

What are we left with After Empty Heaven?

Philip Larkin is widely regarded as an honest poet. Yet a collection of essays by his admirers to celebrate his sixtieth birthday included the titles, "Nothing to be Said" and "Like Something Almost Being Said".

In a poem called Myxomatosis, Larkin is confronted by a rabbit in a trap. He kills it quickly with his stick. 'I'm glad I can't explain', he writes. It is a mark of his honesty. Explanations, religious or otherwise, which offer large, sweeping, answers to the ills and misfortunes of life, are a deception. What we have had too much of, is not the imperfections of life, which are real, but the delusion of false expectations, timeless essences, transcendental absolutes.

Larkin famously expressed his alienation from the whole of human life in the line 'Man hands on misery to man.' His bleakness is not to be consoled by the false promises of religion. He believes that there are no absolutes, religious or otherwise. Love, 'that much mentioned brilliance', is to him a puzzling phenomenon, one from which he feels excluded.

An important aspect of Larkin's writing is the pain and suffering caused by the limitations of human life, not least death, 'the anaesthetic from which none come round.' He does not find an answer to his fear of the void either in permissiveness or rejection of religion. There is an ache in the soul. As Hamm says in Beckett's Endgame,'You're on earth; there's no cure for that'.Larkin insists on the truth gently. 'Our almost instinct almost true:/ What will survive of us is love.' Unsentimental charity is to him the most valuable quality.

He describes a church as 'a serious house on serious earth' that 'never can be obsolete,/ Since someone will forever be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious'. But, says DZP, there are religious perspectives of a kind that Larkin seems unaware of, which ask the believer, as forcefully as Larkin does, to die to the desire for compensation.

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