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Myth and the 'Now' Part Nineteen: What Comes After Irony?


It seems we’re all doomed, then.

As we have progressed through this series of articles so far, literature has moved through Frye’s modes from the earliest periods of Myth to the contemporary Ironic culture; humanity has lost its sense of what Barfield called ‘original participation’ with the world and become disaffected and alienated in a compartmented universe; we have left childhood behind and have nothing left but the empty cynicism of adulthood. Next step: death.

From the void came the polarity of light and dark; in the gap between them, archetypes developed to represent the stages of movement either towards or away from the two poles. Myth underlies and is still very much present in the forms, modes and genres of fiction and art and Life generally, but it seems that we have drifted with a kind of inevitability towards the dark pole of emptiness and meaninglessness. There’s nowhere else to go.

Or is there?

I recall - dimly now, as it is over fifty years since I saw it - a children’s programme on television in which a small set of puppets acted out stories on a tiny and very limited stage. For almost all the episodes, all of the action took place in that confined space; each ‘story’, such as it was, had its beginning and its end amongst the props and scenery with which we were familiar. Except one. In one forever memorable episode, the two main characters looked out through a crack in the backdrop of their enclosed world and glimpsed the woods beyond. It was a painting of a wood that they were looking at obviously - but the conceptual epiphany of it lingered.

Was there - is there - a ‘way out’ after all?

T. S. Eliot, whose poem The Waste Land is regarded as one of the most despairing works of art ever written, and who stood as a mighty exponent of modernism in his early career, clashed with C. S. Lewis, the Twentieth Century’s most famous Christian apologist, on occasion. Both Lewis and Eliot lived in England for much of their adult lives and those lives had much in common: both were outsiders in England - Lewis had been born and raised in Northern Ireland and Eliot was an American; Lewis died in 1963 and Eliot two years later. But initially, Lewis struggled to comprehend the bleak Ironic world that Eliot portrayed in his poetry, calling Eliot’s The Waste Land ‘infernal’ in a 1935 letter. In 1939, Lewis, surrounded by modernist works which depicted the world in a soulless Ironic fashion, lamented, ‘I am more and more convinced that there is no future for poetry.’ In a letter written in 1953 to Joy Davidman (whom he would eventually marry) he wrote, ‘Twenty years ago I felt no doubt that I should live to see it all break up and great literature return; but here I am, losing teeth and hair, and still no break in the clouds.’

In his 1954 poem ‘A Confession’ - which utilises a line from Eliot’s own 'The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock' - Lewis explicitly recognises that he is out of step with the Ironic era in which he was living:

I am so coarse, the things the poets see

Are obstinately invisible to me.

For twenty years I've stared my level best

To see if evening—any evening—would suggest

A patient etherized upon a table;

In vain. I simply wasn't able.

To me each evening looked far more

Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore

Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind

Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Lewis also did not agree with Eliot's methods of literary criticism. But, in their later years, their antagonism was replaced with friendship: ‘You know I never liked Eliot's poetry, or even his prose. But when we met this time I loved him,’ Lewis told his private secretary just a few months before he died. The greetings in his letters to Eliot changed from ‘Dear Sir’ to ‘Dear Mr. Eliot’ to ‘My dear Eliot.’

What had happened? Had Lewis finally come to understand and appreciate Irony? Or had something happened to Eliot?

In 1910-11, Eliot had spent time in Paris attending lectures at the College de France by Henri Bergson on the philosophy of time and was also introduced to the innovative work of the French ‘symbolist’ poets, as well as to the depth and scope of European cultural and literary traditions. While he was there, Eliot attended High Mass at the Madeleine, attracted by the drama of the ancient liturgy. Eliot came to see that the bedrock of European tradition was the doctrinal rigour, historical traditions and millennia-old customs of the Church. His doctoral thesis on the idealist philosophy of F. H. Bradley brought him to reject Bradley's Idealism and the career as an academic philosopher that his family were hoping he would undertake, and by 1915 he had settled in London and had married an Englishwoman, Vivienne Haigh-Wood.

But the marriage, troubled from the beginning, grew worse under the deprivations that the Great War brought in London, an environment in which Eliot's sense of the laying waste of the Western culture could not help but intensify. As things grew bleaker and bleaker on every front, Eliot’s conviction grew that only orthodox Catholic Christianity presented a solution to the despair of the post-War world, but his belief that the culture and faith of a people should be intertwined drew him to the Church of England. He aligned himself with the Anglo-Catholic movement. Poetry, thought Eliot, arose from suffering - but so did faith. To him, the Christian tradition became a counterweight to the emptiness of modernism.

When the peace agreement was signed between Hitler and Chamberlain in 1938, it confirmed Eliot’s worst fears about the moral weakness of the West. ‘Our whole national life seems fraudulent,’ he wrote. He seemed faced with a choice between only fascism with its paganism or Christianity. Unless England and America established some kind of Christian society, they were doomed, he felt.

This was to have a profound impact upon his poetry. But it also can lead to insights into our arguments about Myth. After all, Irony is, simply stated, merely one phase in a set of primal movements: in Irony, we have approached as close as we can to the hollowness of the dark pole.

There is somewhere to go from there:

Up.

Stay tuned.

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