Preface & chapter 2: Emptying Ourselves of What We Think We KnowANTHONY ESOLEN
"To find the 'canon' of Western literature back in the hands, not only of a man who knows that canon, but who loves it as a true man of letters and as one who unabashedly shares the vision which suffused those centuries, is a pleasure almost beyond telling. At the risk of sounding frivolous, one really wants to say, 'Drop everything and read this.'" - Thomas Howard
How pleasant it is to forgive the errors of historians. Here we have Tacitus, the great chronicler of decadence among the Roman aristocracy of the first century. He is explaining how the tyrant Nero deflected suspicion from himself by blaming the Christians in Rome not merely for setting the city on fire, but for perfect monstrosity – "hatred against mankind." Tacitus sees the technical injustice of the charge, but does not shed a tear for the Christians, whose abominations (Christians were typically accused of cannibalism) deserve no compassion. Nor do they stir his curiosity. They are footnotes in his epic account of Roman history.
Tacitus could not know that that small sect, whose beliefs were other than what he supposed, would survive to overcome the Romans, and that two thousand years later, Christianity would be the dominant religious and cultural force in the world, while his pagan Rome would be no more. With the assistance of Tacitus himself, Nero would become the imbecilic emblem of all that was ignoble and debased in the great city; while the chief Christians whom Nero executed, Peter and Paul, would be revered as saints. Needless to say, the otherwise clear-sighted Tacitus could not see exactly what was going on. He was but a man of his day.
What of the men of our day? Can they see Christianity any the more clearly? Tacitus's mistake was born of unfamiliarity; ours are born of overfamiliarity. We are like people who live in the shadow of a great and rugged mountain, who never notice how it alters even the light of the day, from the rising to the setting sun.
Specifically, many people who teach and write about European literature do not understand the heart of Christianity. That is a problem – as great as if one attempted to discuss the poetry of Islam, without knowing what it was like, from the heart, to be a Muslim. It is compounded by the pervasiveness of Christian images and ideas in our culture. They give one a self-deceptive ease in talking about Christianity. Then, when the faith proves more subtle than one's caricature, that same overfamiliarity tempts one to patter about "contradictions" and "tensions." The critic sees holes where there are but spaces in a most intricate lacework.
Along with overfamiliarity steals a weariness of the intellect and the imagination. Man abhors an empty altar. He longs to lay his will at the feet of one worthy to be obeyed. But when he detaches himself from the ground of his being, and when his idols prove to be the cheats of his own fancy, he retires into skepticism. Henryk Sienkiewicz captures the mood in the first sentence of his epic Quo Vadis? He reveals the lassitude of a world deprived of the wonder of worship: "Petronius woke only about midday and as usual greatly wearied." The master of Nero's games requires the ministrations of bath attendants, slaves all, to rouse his "slothful blood" and quicken him, "as if he had risen from the dead." But Petronius has not risen from the dead, and is not yet suited to see the One who has. For now, when he hears of a certain Paul preaching the resurrection, he smiles, as if he had heard it all before.
Whether a book like this can win a hearing from our contemporary Petronii and Petroniae who teach literature, I cannot tell. But I have a more important motive. Esteeming the experts too highly, many Christians have abandoned their literature to the mainly secular scholars that inhabit our universities. But Shakespeare, Herbert, Dickens, and Hopkins did not write for scholars in universities. What would have been the point? For the sake of the literature itself, meant to be loved by anyone who could read or attend a play, Christians should reclaim their heritage. This book is written to assist them in their quest.
Finally, I am writing to meditate upon the mysteries of the Christian faith. I have chosen irony as my organizing principle, partly because the subject interests me, and partly because it is often assumed that irony and faith are incompatible. Irony corrodes any stable supposition of truth, say some; but I think it is rather skepticism that corrodes the possibilities for irony. I do not think that irony must lead to nihilism. If one examines the evidence of Christian literature, one might conclude quite the opposite: that the richest irony presupposes truth and order. Be that as it may, in this book I hope to save irony from its worst friends. In doing so, I pray that I may be touched by the Christian mysteries of incarnation and transcendence, free will and design, sin and redemption, blindness and vision, freedom and submission, and, most of all, the subtle strand that links human love to the love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Emptying Ourselves of What We Think We KnowIs it possible to come to wrong conclusions on every important point? If our criticism were subject to random chance, we would be bound to get many things right. But the more intelligent we are, the more consistent our conclusions will be, and if we start from false principles, the more consistently wrong they will be. Take for example a young critic of medieval and Renaissance English poetry. Suppose that he is thoroughly conversant with the language of those old texts. Suppose also that he knows the history of England – and not just the wool trade or the tin mines or other now fashionable niches of economic history. Grant that he knows it well enough to place the poetry in its historic context, the better to understand what the words on the page mean. Grant him the rare knack for catching the well-turned phrase or the well-hewn line. Such a critic must still fail if he does not also understand what it might be like to believe in the Christianity which was the shared faith of Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Shakespeare, Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, and Milton.
Can such an understanding be attained? If not, why read books? I am a great lover of the poet Lucretius, though he is a materialist and, for all practical purposes, an atheist, while I am not. When I read Lucretius, the skeptic, the satirist, and the scientist in me can relish his attack upon superstition. So could the ancient Christian polemicist Lactantius, who enjoyed the poetry and then used it as a sabre against paganism. But Lactantius could hardly have done so had he not entered into the spirit of Lucretius.
For the sake of understanding materialist poetry, then, I become provisionally and temporarily a materialist. As C. S. Lewis says, what the critic requires is not so often a suspension of disbelief as a suspension of belief. It is too easy to respond that such self-transformation is an illusion. Of course we cannot leave our minds behind. The point is that our minds possess myriads of possibilities, usually dormant, inactive, unrealized. Good reading sets them in motion. For the sake of Lucretius's great poetry I allow the materialist in me to take the stage and declaim. That Lucretius's voice is still bound up with my own does not matter. It could not be otherwise; nor do I require it. All I require is that humbling release of what I am and what I believe now, surrendering to what I might have been or to what I might have believed had I been more like Lucretius. I say with Alyosha Karamazov, who tries to understand his brother Ivan, "I want to suffer too" (The Brothers Karamazov, 287). I surrender in imaginative love.
Now there is a catch to this surrender. The farther you are from the faith of the author you are reading, the more readily you will acknowledge the need to surrender yourself, but the more difficult it will be. The closer you are to the author's faith, the easier the surrender would be, could you ever be prevailed upon to see the need. In the case of Christianity, it is as Chesterton puts it. You had better be in the faith completely or out of it completely. The worst position, if you want to understand it, is to be partly in and partly out, or to have a passing, culturally based familiarity with its surface. You are neither so familiar with it as to probe its depths, nor is it so strange that you are moved to approach it with care. You take the attitude of Petronius, or of "Tertium Quid." You've seen it all before.
Apply a two-dimensional Christianity to the mature allegories of Spenser and Milton, and at once you will discover discrepancies and incoherence. Why don't Spenser's Guyon and the Palmer kill the witch Acrasia? Are they still tempted by her Bower of Bliss? Why do the devils in hell discourse on philosophy? Has Milton rejected his classical education? Are faith and reason to part forever? Many such false dilemmas arise because the critic has failed to understand the subtleties of the Christian faith.
And Christianity is the subtlest of faiths, yet of a wondrous simplicity. "I thank thee," Jesus observes with biting irony, "O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes" (Matt. 11:25). The kernel of the faith can be grasped by a child. We are sinners. The Lord who created us not to sin sent his obedient Son to die for us. That Son rose from the dead to sit at the right hand of the Father. We may join him in heaven if we have faith.
Christianity is the opposite of a mystery religion: the creed is short and openly professed. Yet its simple tenets belie unfathomable depth. "Matter is a form of energy." We all know this Einsteinian truth – a child could be taught it, and, to the limits of his capacity, really believe it. But what does it imply? What does it mean? "There are three persons in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Again, a child could learn the formula, but what does the Trinity imply? The wise and prudent are struck dumb. A religious anthropologist may chatter about the symbolism of three, and how all cultures attach a mystical importance to it, and on and learnedly on. But to the clean of heart it may reveal the mystery of existence itself. So Dante implies in his invocation to God:
Merely to exist, to be a knowable object, is to have been made by the God of knowledge who knows and is known, whose being is love, and who has loved into being all things that have been, are, and are to come.
Pride is blinding; the moral problem becomes epistemological. Suppose we assume that the lanky fellow across the table is a dullard. When he remarks of someone else's immorality, "For them as likes that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they likes," we will find our prejudice confirmed. The statement is tautological and evasive. But if we know that the man was Lincoln, we might see the wry condemnation hiding beneath the hayseed humor. We will know, when he assumes the self-deprecatory air, not to take him at his word. When we later discover the same man condemning that behavior, we will know that it is not he who is inconsistent, but we who underestimated him.
What does this have to do with irony and faith? Much, if we consider what irony is.
Until fairly recently, most writers on irony have defined it as speech that means something other than (or opposite to) what is literally said. The problem with this definition is that it is at once too narrow, too broad, and beside the point. Liars mean other than what they say, but the lie is not in itself ironic; and you may, with irony, mean exactly what you say, but in a way that your audience (or perhaps a putative audience, more foolish than those who are actually listening to you) will not understand. The definition is beside the point, since moments of dramatic irony, or what some have called "irony of event," may not involve speech at all, but only strange turns of fate. Contemporary literary theorists have attempted to distill the essence of irony, that which underlies both the winking assertions of ignorance made by Socrates, and concatenations of events that seem (but only seem) to suggest design, or that demolish any sense of design. Irony, they assert, is a universal solvent: no theology or epistemology can contain it. It dissolves – it "deconstructs" – every assertion of absolute truth.
The trouble with this view of irony now prevalent in the academy is that it enshrines one sort of ironic statement or event and ignores the rest. Worse, the kind of irony it enshrines is destructive, and the first thing it destroys is irony. If there is no objective truth – if irony must undermine and destabilize – then, once we have noticed the fact, there is no more point for irony, just as it makes no sense for the skeptic to embark on a quest for knowledge, when there is no knowledge to be had. How, after all, does one then proceed, by irony, to undermine the "truth" that every truth can be undermined? If all speech is inherently slippery, why trouble oneself with the subtleties of irony? Why pour oil on a sheet of ice?
But in fact, irony commonly is used to exalt rather than undermine. It can stun us with wonder and raise our eyes to behold a truth we had missed. All kinds of unsuspected truths, particularly those combined in paradoxes, await our attention, but we are too dulled by habit to notice. Then irony – verbal or dramatic – awakes us. Consider:
What do the cases have in common? The first verges upon slapstick; the second involves a lesson learned in an unusual way; the third hinges upon a play on words; the fourth is a theological reversal of expectations; the fifth is a piece of staged ignorance. Each involves a problem of knowing. The irony lies in a stark clash between what a character thinks he knows and what he really knows. This clash is staged to let the reader or the audience in on the secret. We are, then, not merely watching ignorance, but ignorance unaware of itself and about to learn better, or at least about to teach by way of its own incorrigibility. The irony reveals, with a kind of electric shock, order where randomness was expected, or complexity and subtlety where simplicity was expected.
Each case involves a staged clash of incompatible levels of knowledge:
It is, then, not the unexpectedness of a thing that produces irony – a violin flung at a man's head is unexpected, but not ironic – nor is it ignorance that produces irony – after all, if he saw the violin he would duck. Irony arises, rather, from the ignorance of unseen or unexpected order (or, as it may happen, disorder), from the failure to note subtleties, or from seeing subtleties that are not there, especially when the ignorance and the failure are highlighted before observers in a better position to see the truth. That is the sort of thing we feel as ironic. A violin flung at a man's head is not ironic. A man missing a sharp as he tries to hum the Kreutzer sonata is not ironic. The same man botching Beethoven as the violin sails his way – now that is ironic.
 For my money, the best and still most evenhanded discussion of irony per se is Wayne Booth's A Rhetoric of Irony (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1974); I am indebted to his insight into the relationship between irony and knowledge.
Anthony Esolen. "Preface." and "Emptying Ourselves of What We Think We Know." Chapter 2 from Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007) i-iii; 12-17.
This excerpt is reprinted with permission from ISI Books.
Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College, where his classes are featured in the college's Western Civilization Core Curriculum. He is the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Anthony Esolen has published many scholarly articles and essays, including several on Renaissance literature. A graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina, Esolen is proficient in Latin, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, French, German and Greek. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife Debra and their two children. Anthony Esolen is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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