A note on humanism

DAVID WARREN

One of the most aggravating abuses of the English language is the use of the word "humanist" to mean "godless."

Wallace Stevens
1879-1955

Yet he complained about quite superficial inversions of terms -- "war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength," that sort of thing -- and fixed his attention on political manipulations. His "Newspeak" terms, which entered vernacular English in 1949 through the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, are all political in nature: "doublethink," "thoughtcrime," "Big Brother," and so forth.

Sixty years have passed since 1949, and now a quarter-century since 1984; a score since the Cold War suddenly ended. Today we can re-read Orwell in light undiffracted by old political battles.

We begin to see why he was so effective: not because he was an acute political thinker (which he certainly wasn't; his prescriptions for problems were limp and commonplace). Rather, there was real poetry in him and, in his novels and journalism alike, he routinely dug through politics to the "condition humaine."

While Orwell is not in my private pantheon of the greatest writers -- huge respect for him, short of adoration -- I mention him often because he is common currency in political journalism.

It is the same reason I too often mention that interesting but over-rated Bohemian fantasist, Franz Kafka: for terms like "Kafkaesque" and "Orwellian" are very useful in describing the techniques of manipulation, as well as the essentially demonic aspirations, in all versions of the ideological Left -- whether socialist, feminist, multiculturalist, gay activist, or whatever.

One could say, for instance, in the direct manner of a Dostoyevsky, "this man is possessed by devils," but that doesn't mean much to a modern, irreligious reader, trained to ignore the spiritual dimension of life. However, if one points to his "Orwellian" inversions of the meanings of words, or to the "Kafkaesque" way in which he envelops in bureaucracy, people more or less understand what you mean.

Kafka we know as something of a poet, but Orwell we have yet to appreciate in this way. And when we do that, we can read all his books, not just Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Indeed, I think his best "political" books were Burmese Days and Homage to Catalonia, and even his "conventional modern novel," A Clergyman's Daughter. He is a "poet of disillusion," and if I had English majors to tutor, I'd assign Orwell together with Philip Larkin, that pure poet who famously said, "deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth."

Orwell had real poetry in him, which I would almost define as "the ability to say more than you know."

His contemporary, W.H. Auden, who was also obsessed with politics, but outgrew it, was what I consider the classic case in that generation. In verse and essays alike, Auden would consistently express things that went far beyond his own experience, and were wiser than the man was himself.

There was a generosity of spirit in the words that memoirists don't recall in the man -- not that he was without personal generosity. There was, most strikingly, a comprehension of the sexes that went beyond his narrow personal world of homosexual indulgence, and a comprehension of nature that transcended the sterile urban environments he inhabited by choice.

His contemporary, W.H. Auden, who was also obsessed with politics, but outgrew it, was what I consider the classic case in that generation. In verse and essays alike, Auden would consistently express things that went far beyond his own experience, and were wiser than the man was himself.

And it is so with all inspired poets. Wallace Stevens, whom I still consider in some respects the greatest 20th-century poet in English, was for most of his life a rather desiccated atheist (he converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed, to the surprise and even outrage of family and friends). Yet his work is full of seemingly unintended religious vision, and even religious imagery; it is "visited by angels" in a way he himself unintentionally articulated in his famous later poem on The Necessary Angel. Indeed, Stevens was the atheist poet I was obsessively reading just before my own "born again" religious conversion, one-third of a century ago.

Elizabeth Bishop is another of these, whom I have "discovered" more recently, thanks to the praise of the Ottawa-area poet and writer Robert Eady -- whose own new novel, The Octave of All Souls, published by the little press "editio sanctus Martinus," is the most penetrating account of small-town Ontario life I have ever read.

Bishop is presented by the academics today as the usual bundle of neuroses most attractive to the contemporary academic -- as lesbian and "secret" feminist; as "agnostic"; as secret alcoholic and depressive and manic incendiary. But her public writing is quite free of all this crap, and she made it very plain that her terms of being as writer were literary, not personal or political. She did not wish to be associated with "causes"; and what we find in reading her is an extraordinary, rhythmic sympathy with esthetic ideas that tend consistently toward the spiritual.

One of the most aggravating abuses of the English language is the use of the word "humanist" to mean "godless." True modern humanism, like the humanism of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, recovers the divine by focusing upon what is worth cultivating in human nature.

 

 

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

David Warren. "A note on humanism." Ottawa Citizen (December 6, 2009).

This article reprinted with permission from David Warren.

THE AUTHOR

David Warren, once editor of the Idler Magazine, is widely travelled -- especially in the Middle and Far East. He has been writing for the Ottawa Citizen since 1996. His commentaries on international affairs appear Wednesdays & Saturdays; on Sundays he writes a general essay on the editorial page. Read more from David Warren at David Warren Online.

Copyright © 2009 Ottawa Citizen




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