The Spiritual in Poetry and Art
A More Beautiful Question: The Spiritual in Poetry and Art . Glenn Hughes. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Lee Trepanier.
Concerned with how art, and especially poetry, can serve as a vehicle of spiritual expression and orientation in today’s culture, Glenn Hughes’ A More Beautiful Question adopts the philosophies of Lonergan and Voegelin to contend that spiritual concerns remain a vibrant part of western culture but are no longer located in mainstream religions and their teaching. The growth of alternative religious symbolism and teaching and the popularity of fundamentalist religious movements attest that the crisis of faith of the last century is one of disorientation rather than dislocation. Spiritual and religious self-understanding and expression may have been culturally marginalized or politically channeled into Gnostic ideologies or religious fanaticism but spiritual yearning and religious commitment continue to exist in human affairs because it is a permanent part of our nature.
For Hughes, art, at least great art, speaks from and to our spiritual apprehensions and can remind us of our spiritual natures in our cultural life. Because poetry is fundamentally symbolic in its form, it possesses the capacity to suggest the incommensurable and unknowable of the transcendence and thereby reawaken the spiritual experiences that gave rise to the symbols and stories of poetry in the first place. In his book, Hughes plans to demonstrate how art, and particularly poetry, may help us recognize and sustain a balanced spiritual orientation in the present culture.
But before looking at poetry, Hughes spends the first two chapters laying down the theoretical foundations to analyze it. In the first chapter, “Childhood, Transcendence, and Art,” Hughes explores the spiritual function of art in contemporary culture by describing the historical transformation of the discovery of transcendence and how this discovery parallels our own experiences as we make the transition from childhood to adulthood. As children, we experience reality as the unity of the cosmos permeated with a sense of the mysterious and transcendence; as adults we develop a sophisticated understanding of this source of mystery and transcendence while trying to retain our child-like sense of wonder towards reality. For Hughes, appreciating this aspect of the existential journey out of childhood provides the basis for an understanding how art can sustain a spiritually-rich adult life.
The second chapter, “Spiritual Functions of Art,” explores how formal structures of art evokes a wholeness of reality and thereby suggest a dimension of transcendent meaning; and how the content of art reminds us that we are spiritual creatures. Specifically Hughes looks at Lonergan’s treatment of art, which focuses on fact and potentialities of freedom, and combines it with Voegelin’s concept of the metaxy – the “in-between” existence between immanence and transcendence – as an analytical tool to understand art. The task of art therefore is to reawaken the spiritual capacities of people in a culture dominated by materialism, flatten psychological experiences, and religious fanaticism.
The next three chapters explore three poets whom Hughes believes their poetry evokes one’s existence in the metaxy and affirm human participation with transcendence. In the third chapter on Hopkins, Hughes argues that Hopkins’ poetry was focused on communicating the experience of the transcendence in the finite world and gave particular attention to the Incarnation of Christ. Creation for Hopkins is participation in the divine Word of God which made all things. Unlike conceptualized language, Hopkins’s poetry is representative of Lonergan’s concept of elemental meaning: a primordial, concrete, and densely compacted expression that is symbolic in nature and alludes to the reality of transcendence. Struggling to find a language that express this elemental meaning, Hopkin experimented with poetic forms and language that broke free from the Victorian poetic diction of his period. Although the form of his poetry was modern, the content of his poetry was decidedly traditional or spiritual in its attempt to express human existence and participation in the world.
After Hopkins, Hughes looks at Emily Dickinson’s poetry as records of ecstatic or transfigured moments in which transcendence is experienced and leads her to explore further the human situation as one of longing and striving for transcendence in the metaxy. Dickinson was engaged in the recovery of genuine spiritual experience in her poetry and pushed aside the religious dogmatism and emotional sentimentalism of her time. In her accounts of spiritual paradoxes, uncertainty, and suffering, Dickinson performed this recovery of transcendence in experimental form and as an exercise of self-examination and self-imposed social isolation.
Hughes brings us into the twentieth century with an examination of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. This poem presents us a portrait of what it means to be a spiritual realist in the contemporary world. By exploring human existence in the metaxy, Eliot presented a perspective of humans striving that balances immanent and transcendent concerns in their lives and being open to sources of transcendence outside the Christian tradition. For Hughes, Eliot’s poetry is the artistic counterpart of Voegein’s philosophy of consciousness and provides us the foundation from which child- like experiences can be invoked and recalled within us.
The book also has an introduction and conclusion that summarizes the themes that Hughes explores in philosophy and poetry. Although portions of it has been printed elsewhere, Hughes’ A More Beautiful Question provides us a theoretically approach to poetry that is both illuminating and thematically consistent. For those who are interested in poetry, its capacity to express spiritual longing, and its role in contemporary culture, Hughes’ book is an excellent source to understand and explore these questions.
Having said that, I have one minor point about the book that I wished Hughes would have explored further. The relationship between poetry and philosophy that Hughes presents is one of compatibility. However, this position is contrary to most of western philosophy starting with Socrates who exile the poets from the city in The Republic. Although I recognize this book is not about the quarrel between philosophy and poetry per se, I do think Hughes should at least acknowledge that more recent philosophy’s acceptance of poetry as a legitimate source of knowledge (which includes thinkers like Lonergan and Voegelin) is something new and explain why this change has occurred.
But this is a minor quibble. Hughes’ A More Beautiful Question is a philosophically-sound, textually-driven account of how poetry can provide us spiritual orientation in the culture today. The decline of mainstream religion is not an indication of spiritual diminishment but rather one of disorientation where people look to religious fundamentalism or Gnostic ideologies for existential meaning. Hughes proposes poetry, at least great poetry, as a third choice for our culture to orient itself properly. To point this out and to propose this as an alternative to the illegitimate forms of ideology and fundamentalism is one of the great contributions this book makes in our culture and understanding of it.
Let me forward the original message to me, Ken.Hope everyone gets it here.Regards,CR---------- Forwarded message ---------
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