Adam Kirsch has a charming essay marking the 100 birthday of literary critic M. H. Abrams over at the Tablet, one well worth reading.
I may have read Abrams’ most famous work of criticism, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), as an undergraduate or graduate student. But it was his other big book, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (1971), that I remember best. I read it while working on a large project about “transcendence.” (Granted, that sounds grandiose, but I was theology professor at the time.) The Romantic movement in art and literature reflected a rebellion against the cold, mechanical universe of modern science. With our worldview challenged by modern science, modern Christians have long been tempted to think the Romantics allies are crypto-Christians. If your enemy is my enemy, then you’re my friend.
There are substantive reasons for this. Poets like Wordsworth see the human person as capable of communing with the whole of reality, or at least with aspects in a deeper, more profound way. We transcend ordinary life, as it were, in moments of imaginative, ecstatic insight, sometimes brought on by the power of nature, and sometimes by the power of love, or even by the power of what is ugly or evil. This “more” can seem like a natural version of the supernatural transcendence of faith.
Natural Supernaturalism was important for me to read, because Abrams shows the many ways in which the Romantic movement was at odds with orthodox Christianity. But the same pattern–the transcendence to something “more”–does not amount to the same thing. According to the Romantics, the motor that moves us toward the “more” is not grace, and the “more” is not God. No doubt Abrams could put things so clearly not only because he disciplined himself to acquire a detailed knowledge of Christian thought (not something one finds much of among literary professors today), but also because as a Jew he had no investment in stage-managing modernity so that its rebellions against Christian orthodoxy could somehow be transformed into affirmations. Paul Tillich was among the most creative masters of this particular trick.
The defining feature of modern Christianity has been its desire to reconcile modernity in the West with Christianity. Abrams helped me see that modernity is in many respects a devolved form of Christianity that, taken as a whole, competes for control over our spiritual imaginations. That’s why many, many aspects of modernity can be affirmed by a Christianity, but not “modernity.”
Good for Adam Kirsch for revisiting Abrams’ achievement. And as long as I’m praising Kirsch, I should let you know that he recently wrote a very richly detailed, fine,and perceptive essay about Susan Sontag, also in the Tablet.
The theory-driven project of postmodern literary criticism that seemed so important in the 1980s has run out of gas. Kirsch, who also wrote a good (though only good) book on Lionel Trilling is going back to the earlier critics who read and wrote with supple cultural and moral imaginations rather than feeding literature into clattering theoretical contraptions. He is engaged in an important work of recovery and reassessment.
Who will do the same on the pages of First Things?