". . . wrestling with (my God!) my God":
Modernism, Nihilism, and Belief

 Originally Appeared in: Qui Parle: Volume 21, Number 2 | Published: 2013

 Belief’s Modernity

In the tradition of Pascal, inherited religious belief is wracked by doubt and the believer is brought face to face with intimations of nothingness. In the aftermath of Nietzsche, an inherent loss of faith gives rise to new valuations, negative and affirmative, of nihilism and new figurations of belief. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry vacillates between Pascalian tradition and Nietzschean aftermath. I want to explore the resulting poetics of nihilism and belief.

Pascal and Nietzsche are not relevant here as intellectual influences on Hopkins but rather as philosophers whose thought defines the contours of the problematic of belief in the modern age. The inaugural philosophical articulation of modernity is attributed to Descartes, at least in the eyes of Nietzsche and Heidegger (whose perspective orients my own here). In response to the insurmountable doubt that skepticism cast on Christian revelation and church doctrine as source and guarantee of truth, Descartes shifted the foundation of truth onto the human mind itself: I think, therefore I am. The new foundation of truth nevertheless retains and refashions, Heidegger argues, two elements of the Christian foundation. First, it posits a “self- supported, unshakable foundation of truth, in the sense of certainty,” and second, it determines “the essence of freedom” as “being bound by something obligatory.”1  As refashioned by Descartes, the sense of certainty and
the freedom welded to obligation are now founded not on divinity but on the “I,” that is, the impersonal, universalizing “I” of the cogito ergo sum. Heidegger then turns, again without affixing causality, from the cogito’s Christian antecedent to its corollary and future in the modern techno-scientific project in which what counts as reality is whatever comes within the ken of the abstract impersonal calculating subject that is modern Man.

In the immediate wake of this philosophical launching of modernity, Descartes’ younger contemporary Pascal disputes the cogito’s claim to certainty—not, however, in order to dispel doubt and restore certainties of doctrine and revelation, but on the contrary be-cause doubt is insurmountable by reason and because the finitude of human beings’ understanding leaves them helpless in the face of their own mortality. Belief is sustained by the heart: “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by reason.”2 Heidegger notes just this contrast between Pascal and Descartes but seems to reduce Pascal to a mere dissenter from Descartes’ modernity without entertaining all the consequences of their contemporaneity itself:

 At nearly the same time as Descartes, Pascal discovers the logic of the heart as over against the logic of calculating reason. The inner and invisible domain of the heart is not only more inward than the interior that belongs to calculating representation, and there-fore more invisible; it also extends further than does the realm of merely producible objects. Only in the invisible innermost of the heart is man inclined toward what there is for him to love: the forefathers, the dead, the children, those who are to come.3

The evocation of love as this sort of communal bond of family-tribe-nation is far from Pascal. The emotional wellspring of belief in the Pascalian structure of feeling is terror: the terror of death if there is no God and the terror of eternal misery if there is and you have failed to believe in him. “One needs no great sublimity of soul,” Pascal writes,

to realize that in this life there is no true and solid satisfaction, that all our pleasures are mere vanity, that our afflictions are infinite, and finally that death which threatens us at every moment must in a few years infallibly face us with the inescapable and appalling alternative of being annihilated or wretched through-out eternity.

Nothing could be more real, or more dreadful than that. Let us put on as bold a face as we like: that is the end awaiting the world’s most illustrious life. Let us ponder these things, and then say whether it is not beyond doubt that the only good thing in this life is the hope of another life. (P, 427, 129)

 The intimation of annihilation thus lies at the heart of faith for Pascal. Pascal exemplifies what Nietzsche will denounce as nihilism, that is, nihilism in the sense of a positing of religious and moral values in a denial of life, that is, the denial of this life in the hope of another life. Nietzsche declaims, “I do not read Pascal, I love him as Christianity’s most instructive victim, massacred slowly, first physically then psychologically, the whole logic of this most horrible form of inhuman cruelty.”4 The Pascalian linkage between nihilism and belief is on Freud’s mind as well when he speculates that no matter how far science and techno- scientific rationality succeed in expanding our knowledge of the physical and biological world and in bringing material comfort to everyday life, moderns will remain reluctant to trade religion for science if it means giving up hope of eternal life.

The Nietzschean, Freudian, and Heideggerian perspectives do not in any way detract from the modernity of Pascal’s thought, which is evident in the fact that even as he asserts that it is beyond doubt “that the only good thing in this life is the hope of another life,” he has neither the impulse nor the capacity to picture what this other life must or might be like. Dante could render paradiso in sensuous, even realistic detail, but Pascal’s experience of human finitude renders such vision impossible:

Thus we know the existence and nature of the finite because we too are finite and extended in space.

We know the existence of the infinite without knowing its nature, because it too has extension but unlike us no limits.

But we do not know either the existence or the nature of God, because he has neither extension nor limits.

But by faith we know his existence, through glory we shall know his nature.

Now I have already proved that it is quite possible to know that something exists without knowing its nature. (P, 418, 122)

 The ineluctable difference between something’s existence and its nature, between existence and essence, is a question that animates much of modern thought. Pascal’s inkling of the ontological difference is the source at once of his terror and his faith, for the space-bound, time-bound human being knows of infinity only because he knows that his own existence is bracketed on one side by the nothingness before birth—in Pascal’s words, before “Our soul is cast into the body where it finds number, time, dimensions” (P, 418, 121)—and the unfathomable eternity that goes on infinitely beyond our own countable days: “it is indubitable that this life is but an instant of time, that the state of death is eternal, whatever its nature may be” (P, 428, 133). Yet the apprehension of this life and the nothingness surrounding it does not yield a vision of the other life, for the Dantean pilgrimage of traveling as a living mortal through the afterlife and conversing with the damned, the expiating, and the glorified souls is for this modern Pascalian sensibility impossible. “Through glory we shall know [God’s] nature,” he affirms, but the hoped-for state is strictly beyond imagining, since even our pre-fallen state is unimaginable: “We cannot conceive Adam’s state of glory, or the nature of his sin, or the way it has been transmitted to us. These are things that took place in a state of nature quite different from our own, and which pass our present understanding” (P, 431, 135).

What happens, then, when the modernist poet exploring the experience of belief, and with no more visionary access to glory than the modern thinker, sets about to capture in image and trope the conundrum of the relation of the other world to this world? Consider a startling passage from “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”5 The stanza comes in the midst of the narrative of the shipwreck, as Hopkins builds toward the moment in which the tall nun, after the winter storm has pounded the foundering ship for twelve hours, crew and passengers crushed or swept overboard, stands on the deck, as “The rash smart sloggering brine / Blinds her” (TMW, ll.148–49), and screams her climactic and ambiguous call:

She to the black–about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
Was calling ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’:
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild–worst Best. (TMW, ll. 189–92)

There are at least two powerful ambiguities. First, in the broken syntax of the last line, “The cross to her she calls Christ to her,” there is the hint that in calling Christ to her she is calling for the cross in the sense of wanting a martyrdom like that of the “martyr– master” himself. A second ambiguity, more resonant with the Pascalian problematic, lies in the fact that the hinge between this world and the other world, between nature and the divine kingdom, is figured in a kind of confusion in the nun’s panic: “She . . . was calling ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’” to the storm cloud, to the waves, to the snow. The appeal is not for rescue but destruction, destruction as rescue—which Hopkins seems to underscore with “she . . . christens her wild-worst Best,” that is, she names the disaster Christ.

Now, in stanza 21, which comes between the two passages just cited, Hopkins attempts to figure the perspective of glory in relation to this human suffering, uncertainty, and panic with a trope more audacious than anything one finds in Pascal:

Loathed for a love men knew in them,
Banned by the land of their birth,
Rhine refused them, Thames would ruin them;
Surf, snow, river and earth
 Gnashed: but thou art above, thou Orion of light;
Thy unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth,
Thou martyr-master: in thy sight
Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily showers—sweet heaven was astrew in them. (TMW, ll. 161–68)

 The first five lines set the terms of the trope in moving but almost conventional terms: the five Franciscan nuns have been driven from their native Germany by hateful Protestants uncomprehend-ing of true caritas—in the previous stanza Luther is “beast of the waste wood”—and now by raw (Heraclitean) nature (“surf, snow, river and earth”). Over against this violent nature and that human cruelty stands Christ, figured as Orion of light, heavenly star above the rages of man and nature. It is in the last three lines of the stanza that emerges the bolder, troubling trope:

Thy unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth,
Thou martyr-master: in thy sight
Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily showers—sweet heaven was astrew in them.

As Christ weighs the nuns’ worth—instead of loathing, banning, refusing, ruining them—his hands are ready to unchancel them. A chancel is the latticed screen behind which cloistered nuns are hidden as they sing during the mass. Perhaps the most forceful literary image of the chancel is in Henry James’s The American, when Christopher Newman rushes to the Carmelite convent in Paris where his beloved fiancée Claire de Bellegarde has fled to remove herself from the world forever after her family cancels her engagement to the American. Newman knows she is behind the chancel among the choir but cannot identify her; in his anguish, he declares she “is buried alive.” I’d love to think Hopkins had read the episode, but The American was serialized in the two years, 1876– 77, following “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Still, Hopkins has Christ unchancel, unveil, liberate the nuns from their enclosure, that is, their earthly enclosure, from this life. In the stanza’s ultimate trope, what the agonized frightened nuns are living as the death-dealing snowstorm appears to Christ above as something else altogether: “in thy sight / Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, like lily showers—sweet heaven was astrew with them.” Christ does not see snowstorm and death throes but instead the flowered path that will bring his about-to-be unchancelled, unveiled brides— his brides stripped bare—to him. The image inflects the tall nun’s cry with its erotic meaning: “O Christ, Christ, come quickly.”

The trope—perhaps, sadly, made now a bit mundane for every air traveler who has floated above sun-drenched white clouds beneath which the darkest of destructive storms is wreaking havoc unseen below—this image of fatal snowstorm appearing from above as strewn lilies, of the brutalized nuns as expectant brides, poses an answer to a question that troubles, largely unacknowledged, the Christian faith. If God’s grace delivers the saved soul to eternal life and glory, how does that glorified soul see the loved ones left behind? Or, as here, how does the risen Christ view human suffering?

It’s the sort of question that disturbs an adolescent, even a child, trying to square doctrine and experience: if grandmother, brother, or friend is now in heaven, utterly happy and beyond suffering, do they no longer see us or care about our misfortunes and injuries? In Rousseau’s Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloïse, the devout Julie is tormented by her husband’s atheism, for it portends that she will be saved and he damned. Where is the celestial happiness in being sundered from her devoted husband and knowing he is doomed to eternal pain? She cannot square her love and her belief in the face of his nonbelief.

How, in short, can happiness and beatitude square with the witnessing of human sorrows? Hardcore Calvinism understood all human suffering, including that at the hand of unjust human actions, as cosmically just. Fallen humanity deserves nothing but misery. The absoluteness of that justice is what gives divine grace its in-finite scope (as well as its selectiveness and arbitrariness). In this, Pascal’s Jansenism approaches Calvinism, and in some sense even exceeds its radicality: “Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition” (P, 434, 137). To Julie or the grieving child befuddled by heavenly love, Pascal answers by devaluing earthly love altogether:

“I am culpable if I make anyone love me.”
It is wrong that anyone should become attached to me even though they do so gladly and of their own accord. I should be misleading those in whom I aroused such a desire, for I am no one’s goal nor have I the means of satisfying anyone. Am I not ready to die? Then the object of their attachment will die.” (P, 396, 117)

Hopkins of course took a different path in his religious and theological leanings, but let me keep the focus on his poetic language, whose subtlety and complexity seeks to capture—and answer—the puzzle of the view from glory, of the earth in the eyes of heaven. The poem’s images join snowstorm and lily path as the two sides of the same phenomenon: death throes as passage to paradise. But at the same time, doesn’t this trope reawaken, at a higher level, all the original doubt and quandary? For it is as though Christ’s perspective—“in thy sight”—is delusional, a hallucinatory perception of snowstorm as lily path, just as the tall nun’s own calling for Christ to come is, in the disarray of her panic, addressed to the wind and waves and snow. Delirious nun and Christ psychotic.

Differentiation, Strife, Return

I began by suggesting that Hopkins’s engagement with nihilism and belief lies between Pascal and Nietzsche. Nihil for Pascal is the dread-filled vision of an empty eternity after one’s mortal earth-ly life. Nietzsche calls Pascalian belief itself nihilism in the sense that it devalues or negates, precisely, mortal earthly life and yearns for value—glory—in another, higher world and afterlife. Europe-an thought of the nineteenth century associates nihilism with the question of value and values, but what is meant by nihilism as well as the attitude taken toward it is varied. Ivan Karamazov rejects the existence of God in a world where children in all their innocence are subjected to violence and violation, and he declares that if God is dead everything is permitted. This dual gesture at once repudiates God in the name of an irradicable sense of morality and, in the wake of this very rejection, negates all sense of morality. The loss of belief in the one God is a loss of all values that orient life and conduct.

Nietzsche’s interpretation of nihilism and belief differs from Dostoevsky’s, but it has just as much the feel of conundrum. On the one hand, he demonstrates in The Genealogy of Morals and elsewhere that every moral value and orientation, every experience and manifestation of a god, is the product of human instinct, imagination, mind. Man created God. In that, its Feuerbachian form, this claim extols the creative powers of humanity and promises to release humanity from the oppressive power of its own alienated, externalized creations. But such anthropological enlightenment is but one side of Nietzsche’s reflection. The other side grapples with the fact that while values, morals, gods, and culture as a whole are human creations, we can nowhere locate and identify— or identify with— the supposed creator. This side of Nietzsche’s thought has come to be interpreted somewhat reductively, though not in-accurately, as the critique of the subject and as a form of anti-humanism. It is, more importantly, part of the inner drama of his thought. Nietzsche’s dual gesture is to denounce the illusion that values have a superhuman, transcendent source and to shatter any identification with their historical, human source. This predicament is often figured as a form of madness, most especially in the God is dead fable in The Gay Science, where the news that man-kind has killed God, and could kill him only because it had in-vented him, comes from the mouth of a raving madman carrying around a lamp in broad daylight.

Nietzsche rages against Christianity’s involuted, doubly self-denying morality, a morality that denies life in the name of a heavenly reward for earthly meekness and disguises its own ploy for gaining power in this very valorization of meekness. He oscillates between exposing Christianity’s God- given virtues as illusions created by humankind and seeking to make just such virtue- and illusion-creating transparently and exuberantly our own: “A virtue must be our own invention, our most necessary self-expression and self-defense.”6 Those are Nietzsche’s italics, but if the italics are put on must be, it is a reminder that Nietzsche affirms the transvalu-ation of all values as an imperative, perhaps a project, but never as a fact or accomplishment. The Nietzschean ordeal lies in being caught between the ever-incomplete deconstruction of life-denying beliefs and a life-enhancing creativity ever out of reach: in short, between the nihilism he rejects and the nihilism he affirms.

Between nihilism and belief there is an agon. Or is it a dance? And how to tell the difference between a wrestling match and a pas de deux? Perhaps it’s an agonistic dance—wrestling with (my God!) my God.

Pascal’s conviction is that God cannot be known but must be believed, a god—like Isaiah’s deus absconditus—whose only presence is in the heart. Nietzsche’s announcement that “God is dead” does not affirm God’s mere or pure absence, for “given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.—And we—we will have to vanquish his shadow, too.”7 I place Hopkins between the Pascalian and Nietzschean moments in the sense that the vibratory presence- absence of divinity is, as for Pascal, an affective ordeal and, as in Nietzsche, the drama of the loss of one’s own unacknowledged, unacknowledgeable invention. Such a formulation is still only approximate.

The difficulty of understanding Hopkins’s poetry in relation to nihilism and belief can be clarified, or at least sharpened, by contrasting the views of two of his most astute commentators, J. Hillis Miller and Kenneth Burke. In what remains after fifty years the single most engaging reading of the poet, Miller’s essay on Hopkins in The Disappearance of God links him to
the predicament of belief arising in the nineteenth—that is, Nietzsche’s—century:

Hopkins, who seems so different from other nineteenth-century writers who suffered the absence of God, in reality ends in a similar place. Like so many of his contemporaries, he believes in God, but is unable to reach him. Deserted by his nature, he is left with a blind violence of will toward a God who keeps himself absent.8

 Burke saw in Hopkins’s life a tension between the poetic and the priestly vocation. His focus, like mine, is on the poems’ rhetorical structures as the very site of the inner conflict between the poetic and the religious, that is, of the experience of their conflict. Burke outlines the conflict established by the fact that after beginning his poetic career with “a precocious gift for almost lushly sensuous imagery,” Hopkins destroyed his early poems on entering the priest-hood and abandoned poetry altogether—for some seven years:

He here made a choice the opposite to Stephen’s in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And the turn from so sensory a medium would seem to be a fitting act of priestly mortification. But a new motive entered when a superior suggested that a poem should be written in commemoration of the nuns who had lost their lives in the wreck of the Deutschland. Here, of a sudden, was a way whereby he could welcome the very gift he had rejected. As regards mystical exaltation, and its analogue in poetry, we believe this third step is the important one. A motive, when genuinely transcended, is not dropped, but transformed.

For Burke, the transformation incorporates the older motives— linguistic sensuousness and priestly mortification—into new “very complex possibilities” of expression:

there are three kinds of shipwreck here: the literal one, his own depravity, and the gathering of the heroic nuns to God. And in the general exaltation, he has confessed, but the oblique account of his carnal passions has merged into the glorification of the nuns’ religious passion.9

Whether the felt absence of God propels Hopkins to a will-to-belief rather than belief itself (Miller) or whether a dialectical turn enables him to fuse his pre-conversion creativity with the moral masochism and spiritual aspiration of the priesthood (Burke), the contrary nuances of nihilism (death of god, life-denying morality, pure poiesis) are all in play. Compare Pascal’s spiritual gambler. The coin of the Pascalian wager—heads, God exists; tails, he doesn’t— spins continually and does not fall before one dies. Mathematically, it’s fifty-fifty: God exists, God doesn’t exist. But in fact there are four combinations and three possible outcomes: if you call tails and are right, you are dead; if you call heads and are wrong, you are dead; if you call tails and are wrong, you suffer eternally; if you call heads and are right, you enjoy eternal glory. To make the bet, lay the wager, takes the form of having or not having, sustaining or not sustaining, faith. Belief for Pascal is the lived wager made in face of the intimation of eternal nothingness and the fear of eternal pain. The image from “The Wreck of the Deutschland” might be taken to signify the spinning coin: heads, lily-strewn glory; tails, annihilating storm.

Just as Pascal, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevsky differ in their encounter with nihilism and belief, suggesting that there is no definitive relation between nihilism and belief in modern culture, and perhaps no way out of this volatile relation itself, so too modernist poets evoke and explore the relation of nihilism and belief in varying ways. Pascalian horror at the prospect of eternal nothing-ness finds powerful expression in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.10 The play’s Chorus, the Women of Canterbury, represent the long-suffering peasant folk whose priest, Thomas, has finally returned from exile only to face death at the hands of the king’s men. The Chorus’s role fits thematically with Eliot’s social and re-ligious thought at the time, namely, that the church, its hierarchy, and its saints and other spiritual adepts are alone capable of giving society cohesion. The Chorus needs their church and their priest for their world of toil and suffering to make sense. In four choruses at the end of the play, the women register the martyrdom be-falling Thomas. The first evokes their intimation of death in their earthbound senses: “I have tasted / The savour of putrid fl esh in the spoon. I have felt / The heaving at nightfall, restless, absurd.” In the third of these choruses they sing of defilement as Thomas is being murdered in the church: “It is not we alone, it is not the house, it is not the city that is defiled, / But the world that is wholly foul”—a symbolization that is reversed in their final appearance as the Christian motif of the cleansing and renewing power of spilled blood is affirmed: “For the blood of Thy martyrs and saints / Shall enrich the earth, shall create the holy places.” In the midst of this sequence, between the intimation of death and the defilement and renewal of martyrdom, the Chorus confronts a nothingness more frightening than damnation, as Eliot projects the modern, Pascalian terror of nothingness onto his medieval peasants:

. . . only is here
The white face of Death, God’s silent servant, And behind
the face of Death the Judgement
And behind the Judgement the Void, more horrid than active
shapes of hell;
Emptiness, absence, separation from God;
The horror of the effortless journey, to the empty land
Which is no land, on the emptiness, absence, the Void,
Where those who were men can no longer turn the mind
To distraction, delusion, escape into dream, pretence,
Where the soul is no longer deceived, for there are no objects,
no tones,
No colours, no forms to distract, to divert the soul
From seeing itself, foully united forever, nothing with nothing,
Not what we call death, but what beyond death is not death,
We fear, we fear. Who shall then plead for me,
Who intercede for me, in my most need?

The modernity of the passage lies precisely in its imagination of nothing, “the Void, more horrid than active shapes of hell.” The modern rather than medieval purport of the Chorus is confirmed, I think, by the fact that it echoes the ending of Ash Wednesday. Cast in the rhetoric of a prayerful plea to “Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the sea,” and echoing Psalm 102, the poem ends: “Suffer me not to be separated / And let my cry come unto Thee.” In Eliot’s later work there is never an affirmation of belief so much as a figuration of the necessity of believing (another Pascalian overtone) and the feeling of being incapable of it without an intercession that is yearned for but is never shown to arrive. In Murder
in the Cathedral, such a suspension of conviction is figured in the Chorus’s glimpse of “emptiness, absence, the Void.”

As a critic, Eliot adumbrated the questions of belief and nihilism for the modern reader and writer in two remarks that deserve to be resuscitated from their well-worn nook in the annals of modern criticism. First, of course, there is his elaboration in his great 1929 essay on Dante on Coleridge’s formulation of readers’ willing suspension of disbelief. “There is a difference,” Eliot asserts, “between philosophical belief and poetic assent.” Reading The Divine Comedy,

You are not called upon to believe what Dante believed . . . but you are called upon more and more to understand it. If you can read poetry as poetry, you will “believe” in Dante’s theology exactly as you believe in the physical reality of his journey; that is, you suspend both belief and disbelief.11

To separate understanding from believing and to read poetry as poetry—these capacities are not a natural given. They are an acquired, active disposition toward a literary work, toward artworks in general, and they are part of our modernity.

The cultural-historical process that brought these capacities into being is what T. W. Adorno, drawing on Max Weber, called aesthetic rationality. Weber is very helpful here. Art originated in religion, from “music as a means of ecstasy, exorcism, or apotropaic magic” and “sorcerers as holy singers and dancers” to the architecture of “temple and churches as the
largest of all buildings . . . and with the structural forms becoming stereotyped [and thus style-forming] through magical efficacy.” As artistic practices differentiate themselves from the myths, rituals, and holy sites of primitive and ancient religion, art comes into more or less open conflict with religion. “Art begins to compete directly with salvation religion,” especially in modern society, where it offers a worldly “salvation from the routines of everyday life.” Moreover, adds Weber, art contributes to the modern trend “to transform judgments of moral intent into judgments of taste (‘in poor taste’ instead of ‘reprehensible’).” In addition to this strife between religion and art over the salvific and ethical dimensions of human life, Weber remarks, “The most irrational form of religious behavior, the mystical experience, is in its innermost being not only alien but hostile to all form.”12  Juxtapose to this Nietzsche’s comment in The Will to Power: the “true artist” is one “who accords no value to anything that cannot become form.”13

 Form, salvation, ethic—with regard to these a strife opens between art and religion, intensifying as artistic creation and reception increasingly respond to the artwork primarily in terms of its inner form and its place in the history of art. That’s what Weber calls aesthetic rationality and Eliot “read[ing] poetry as poetry.” Weber’s theory of the differentiation of modern cultural spheres— the aesthetic, the political, the erotic, and the economic— from religion in no way implies that this work of secularization absolutely or definitively renders religion irrelevant. The differentiation of art from religion and the strife between art and religion leave open the return of religion within the aesthetic sphere.

Murder in the Cathedral, for example, does not merely tell the story of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom and place it thematically within Eliot’s historical vision of England and the church. It stages the story within the symbolic space of a cathedral; has Thomas de-liver his most important soliloquy as a sermon preached on Christmas morning; adapts the Greek chorus to parishioners who do not merely witness the actors’ words and deeds but need the hero as the guarantor of their faith; and takes full advantage of setting and chorus to evoke the symbolic resonances of cathedral architecture where the sacred rites take place at the altar resting atop the bones of martyrs. Even so, as in reading Dante, we read the poetry as poetry and separate our understanding from belief.

The ambiguities of the return of religion within aesthetic experience nonetheless remain. Another variation is found in Yeats’s plays. In a letter to T. Sturge Moore, Yeats wrote, “I always feel my work is not drama but the ritual of a lost faith.” That sense that the modern writer creates not out of a pure separation from religion but within the reverberations of its
loss finds various articula-tions and brings us back to the question of nihilism. Think of the early Lukàcs’s thesis that “The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God,” or Eliot’s formulation— this is the second well-worn dictum of his that I suggest be resuscitated—in the 1923 essay “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” where he explains Joyce’s use of Homeric epic and myth, as well as his own and Yeats’s use of myth and ritual: “It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”14

 Murder in the Cathedral, written a dozen years later and after his conversion, is in its way also the ritual of a lost faith: not necessarily Eliot’s own faith, but that of the society in which he lived. Writing in 1939, he declares “It is my contention that we have today a culture which is mainly negative, but which, so far as it is positive, is still Christian . . . I believe that the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.”15 He saw in Nazi Germany and Soviet communism the epitome and extreme of modern paganism. Acursory, or even a careful, reading of the essay “The Idea of a Christian Society” reveals its lack of vision as to how such a society might be created or restored. Eliot’s social thought is fixated on the separation of culture and religion—that is, the pattern of differentiation and strife that Weber theorizes. At the end of World War II, Eliot’s speculation regarding the origin of the paganization of European society leads him to indulge the strand of anti- Semitism that was never quite absent from his sensibility:

Since the diaspora, and the scattering of Jews amongst peoples holding the Christian Faith, it may have been unfortunate both for these peoples and for the Jews themselves, that the culture-contact between them has had to be within neutral zones of culture in which religion could be ignored: and the effect may have been to strengthen the illusion that there can be culture without religion.16

Egregious though the attitude is, Eliot’s remark points up a truth he refused to embrace: modern societies create, and must create, “neutral zones of culture in which religion can be ignored,” that is, where a plurality of peoples can share the body politic and a common enough culture. That the cultural spaces created by the interactions of the Christian West and the Jewish diaspora may have been a driving force of such secularization is an achievement to applaud and protect. It was of course Eliot’s inability to embrace the cultural heterogeneity of his native land that drove his imagination and his person to dwell in a semi- fictional England whose traditions and homogeneity provided the imaginary footprint of his idea of a
Christian society. His poetry, though, continued to be written, and read, from within a modern society whose culture cannot be sustained by a shared religion.

The return of religion into the cultural spheres like politics and art that have separated from it is a complex and volatile
phenomenon in our time. Julia Kristeva writes that “the everlasting exit of religion” blends together with “the ongoing emergence of humanism” in contemporary Catholicism—an oscillation akin to Nietzsche’s image of the dead god’s shadow lurking in the caves of humanity for centuries to come or Yeats’s rituals of lost faith.17 S ecularization is an ever- unfinished process of differentiation-strife-return that modern thought strives to conceptualize and express in these various ways.

Trope, or, the Mortal Coil

Let’s narrow the question of differentiation-strife-return back to modernist poetry and its import for the philosophical reflection on nihilism and belief. It will be a question of language, that is, of the predicament—and possibilities—of our being-in-language, a dimension of human finitude as much as the Pascalian finitudes of being-in-space and being-in-time.
In the Heideggerian inquiry, the finitude of human existence, of Dasein, is indeed defined by our being in space, language, and time. Geoffrey Hartman locates the return of religion within Hopkins’s poetry at the level of language itself. Language’s “end as its origin is to move, persuade, possess. Hopkins leads us back to an aural situation (or its simulacrum) where meaning and invocation coincide. Everything depends on the right pitch, or verbal cast.”18  My emphasis falls on the figurative dimensions of Hopkins’s poetic language because, as in the image of the lily shower, so much of the predicament and possibility of language turns on trope. The fundamental elements of lyric are the I, trope, and mood. “Verbal cast” and figurations are defining features of mood (Stimmung) and state of mind (Befindlichkeit) for Heidegger, for mood and
state of mind are “made known in discourse and indicated in language by intonation, modulation, the tempo of talk, ‘the way of speaking.’” I am taking, perhaps stretching, “the way of speaking” to include “in a manner of speaking,” that is, “metaphorically.” Heidegger proceeds to define poetry as the discourse in which “the communication of the existential possibilities of one’s own state-of-mind can become an aim in itself, and this amounts to a disclosing of existence.”19

Mood and trope belong to the poetic disclosing of existence. The lyrical I can now be contrasted with the Cartesian I. Pascal and Nietzsche are anti-Cartesian or, more accurately, counter-Cartesian in contesting the I of cogito ergo sum. Pascal’s modernity, as I’ve argued, lies in the fact that his rejection of the certitude of Descartes’ cogito does not then fall back on
a knowledge or certainty supplied by doctrine and revelation; rather, it affirms that the heart alone can know God and that the affectivity of belief emerges from the naked consciousness of mortality and the inability to comprehend the state after death.

Heidegger tries to spell out the nature of a counter-Cartesian I by opposing the ancient Greek way of taking man to be the measure of all things to the Cartesian way. He cites Socrates quoting and commenting on a passage in Protagoras:

Socrates: [Protagoras] says, you will remember, that “man is the measure of all things—alike of the being of things that are and of the not-being of things that are not.” . . . He puts it in this sort of way, doesn’t he, that any given thing “is to me such as it appears to me, and is to you as it appears to you,” you and I being different men?20

“Man is here,” writes Heidegger, “a particular man (I and you and he and she),” and therefore the Greek ego does not “coincide with the ego cogito of Descartes.” “Man does not, from out of some detached I-ness, set forth the measure to which everything that is, in its Being, must accommodate itself.” Rather, insofar as man is “limited to that which, at any particular time, is unconcealed, there is given to him the measure that always confines a self to this or that.” In Heidegger’s construal, man is the measure of all things not in the sense that man, from out of himself, measures all things, but rather in the sense that what appears to man in his situated-ness and historicity, establishing the being and nonbeing of things, establishes his measure. The “detached I-ness” is of course the impersonal universalizing I of Descartes’ cogito. In contrast to the nature of truth and knowledge for Protagoras’s particular man, the Cartesian way is “to proceed into the unlimited sphere of possible objectification, through the reckoning up of the representable that is accessible to every man and binding for all” (“AWP,” 144, 145– 46, 147).

Following from my proposition that both Descartes and Pascal are philosophical articulations of modernity, modernity itself is riven between its Cartesian face (the impersonal, universalizing I, rationalism, and unlimited techno-scientific objectification) and its Pascalian face (the heart, nothingness, and belief. What lyric can illuminate about our modernity lies
precisely in the way it concretizes the I, confronts nihilism and belief in the workings of language, and expresses the heart. Lyric as I—mood—trope.

Let’s turn finally to the great sonnet from whose last line I have taken my title. The whole weight of the poem does indeed seem to lean on that concluding phrase, “wrestling with (my God!) my God”:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee
and flee?
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would
laugh, cheer.
Cheer whom though? The hero whose heaven-handling flung me,
foot trod
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That
night, that year
my God.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-earth right foot rock? Lay a lionlimb against me?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!)

The poem, always referred to as “Carrion Comfort,” can be smoothed out thematically by viewing it as the dramatized reflection on a dark night of the soul in which Hopkins, having struggled with despair, issues back into a reaffirmed faith. The allusions to Jacob and Job, as well as Hopkins’s long commitment to Loyolan meditation and imitatio Christi, can be called upon to explain the relation of poet and divinity.

But let’s look at the poem without the answer book. For starters, the sonnet’s rhetorical structure and time architecture are complex, even ambiguous. Addressing Despair in the first quatrain, the poet is in effect quoting himself in the midst of the crisis that the sestet, or at least the final tercet’s “That night, that year / Of now done darkness,” makes clear has now passed. In the second stanza his address to “O thou terrible” leaves the identity of this addressee unclear in relation to the first stanza’s addressee, Despair, an ambiguity intensified by the tissue of allusions to the afflictions visited upon Job. Likewise uncertain is how to place the voicing of this stanza in time—during or after the crisis, in the lyric present or in quotation?—since the one main verb goes either way: “why wouldst thou . . . ?” If it is a quotation continuous with the first stanza, its agonized question, “But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou . . . ?” belongs to the struggle against Despair and finds no answer within the crisis itself, since the response to the question does not come until the lyric present of the sestet: “Why? That my chaff might fly . . . ” In that case, the sonnet divides between an octave of quotation from the past and a sestet of reflection in the present on the meaning of the experience. If, on the other hand, the second stanza itself belongs to the lyric present, then everything after the opening quatrain takes the form of a retrospective effort to understand the crisis; this alternative finds support in the use of the adverb there instead of here in the phrase “me heaped there,” which might well serve as the shifter that differentiates, as the verb form does not, the time and place of the event narrated (the énoncé) from that of the narrating of it (the énonciation). In either case, the sestet mimes the jostling of thought in the effort to understand the dark night and culminates in the moment of sudden recognition: “I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”

This expression of recognition and surprise is at the same time an act of naming: “(my God!) my God.” It may even be taken as anchoring the act of naming in the poem, insofar as “my God” names the divinity that was, paradoxically, unrecognizably manifest in the poet’s dark night. In poetic terms, wrestling with (my God!) my God would be the master trope that resolves
the complex, even contradictory tissue of allegories and metaphors coursing through the poem’s first thirteen lines. But does it? “Language, by naming beings for the first time, first brings beings to word and appearance,” writes Heidegger, and the essence of poetic naming is trope: poems name by misnaming.21 It’s useful to recall an ear-lier vocabulary for understanding trope and to distinguish the two facets of metaphor as the tenor and the vehicle, that is, what is named and the misnaming by which it is named. A lyric as figuratively dense as this one forces a questioning of what is the tenor, what is the vehicle. As a trope of the I’s experience, does wrestling with (my God!) my God master all the other images, subordinating them as so many nuances on the master trope? And, in doing so, name the divinity? Is my God tenor or vehicle?

The sestet leads, or tumbles, toward the master trope through a sequence of tropes, beginning with a response to the question pressed in the second quatrain, “But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou . . . / . . . fan, / in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?” The answer: “Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.” He was the heap of wheat winnowed by a tempest, not by a gentle “winnowing wind” as in Keats’s “To Autumn.” This first image of the sestet alludes to Luke 3:16–17 and Matthew 3:11–12, where John the Baptist says, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance; but he that co-meth after me is mightier than I” and “shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the
garner; but will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” But the trope of chaff and wheat no sooner answers the question of why he had to endure his year of suffering than its hold on meaning—its power to name—slips, via negation, a new trope, and a new question:

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.

Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would                                                             laugh, cheer.
Cheer whom though?

Not, then, a violent winnowing that separates my false from my true being, as Christ will separate the damned and the saved, or the sterile from the seed, but rather a labor, a toil, within which ecstatic moments of strength, joy, and cheer are stolen. This new trope raises a new question:

Cheer whom though? The hero whose heaven-handling flung me,
foot trod
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one?

The figure who was addressed in the second stanza as “O thou terrible” is now, in the aftermath of crisis, renamed “The hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot trod / Me.” And hero suggests Christ in Hopkins’s figurative lexicon, joining other designations for Christ like chevalier, master, stalwart, stallion. But the reference to himself—“or me that fought him?”—alludes back to the fi rst stanza, where he refused to “untwist . . . these last strands of man / In me” in his struggle against Despair.

The question “O which one? is it each one?” thus takes on its full scope. Not just whom to cheer—me or the Other?—but an-other question looms as well. Is Despair the subject’s god, against whom, like a wrestler, he (k)nots (to play on the punning first line: “Not, I’ll not . . . not untwist”)? Or is God the bruising, ravenous violence that almost destroys him? Hopkins frequently conveys a sadomasochistic drama in his religious experience, just as the nun’s harrowing in “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is fused with her salvation in a figure of grace’s violence; here the priesthood itself is at once piety and punishment: “since (seems) I kissed the rod, / Hand rather.” The octave’s two addressees are opposite and iden-tical: Despair, apostrophized and then allegorized as carrion that the poet refuses to “feast on,” gyrates into “O thou terrible” “with darksome devouring eyes” threatening to feast on him. Is it then the subject himself that is each one? The final affirmation I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God does not master all the other images so much as it is, in its very failure of mastery, turned into the vehicle rather than tenor of the poem’s figurations. The tenor, in keeping with the deepest imperatives of modern lyric, is the I’s experience, state of mind (Befindlichkeit), and inner rifts. The supposed trope of divinity—the naming of God—dissolves back into the tropes of experience in which the I is in strife with himself, whether in the strain not to feast on his own despair or as the “me” and “thee” in the impossible flight from himself: “me frantic to avoid thee and flee.” The trope that best suggests the shape of the I’s experience and of the poem’s own movement is inconspicuously tucked away in the midst of the mightier metaphors as an almost unnecessary appositive. It is the word coil: “in all that toil, that coil.” Coil evokes the wrestling and “last strands of man” and “in turns of tempest,” and it evokes the movement of the poet’s language, the twisting of tropes, and of course the living being in its mortal coil.

In the poetic discipline of modernists like Hopkins and Eliot, the encounter with nihilism and belief unfolds in this dialectic of tropes of divinity and tropes of experience. The methodological stakes are already latent in Hopkins’s earlier interpreters. New Critics, at once struck by the audacity of Hopkins’s style and in-tent on foregrounding expression over content, steer the poetic assessment away from doctrine. “Remarkable as The Wreck of the Deutschland is,” writes F. R. Leavis in 1932, “it does not put his technical skill to the utmost stretch. This skill is most unmistakably that of a great poet when it is at the service of a more immediately personal urgency, when it expresses not religious exaltation, but inner debate. The Windhover is a poem of this kind.”22 “Carrion Comfort” also counted as that kind of poem for Leavis. I have argued that poetry shares in the secularizing power of modern culture. Whether conceptualized as “reading poetry as poetry” (Eliot) or “aesthetic rationality” (Weber and Adorno) or the “disclosing of existence” in the “communication of the existential possibilities of one’s own state-of-mind” as “an aim in itself” (Heidegger), such a standpoint does not reduce to a formalism, nor should it eschew poetry’s action on ideological, social, or religious formations. On the contrary, it is poetry’s action upon these formations that is the real stake. I have pursued a kind of deconstructive strategy without a deconstructive aim in these reflections on modernism, nihilism, and belief. I have not sought to turn poetry against religion, but rather have hoped to show how the rhetorical and figurative action of poetic language conveys experiences of belief in the suspension of belief. It opens the space for an aestheticizing, relativizing, pluralizing attitude toward religion at odds with the sort of sectarianism and politicization of religion rife in the world today.


1. Martin Heidegger, “The Age of the World Picture,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 148. Hereafter cited as “AWP.”

2. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin, 1995 J19661), 127, 424. Hereafter cited as P.

3. Martin Heidegger, “What Are Poets For?” in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001 19711), 125.

4. Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, in The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings, ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-versity Press, 2005), 90.

5. All references to Hopkins are to Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Major Works, ed. Catherine Phillips (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). Hereafter cited as TMW.

6. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1954), 577.

7. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 167, 108.

 8. J. Hillis Miller, The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000 19631), 359.

9. Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (Berkeley: University of Cali-fornia Press, 1969 19501), 314–15.

10. T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral (New York; Harcourt, 1935).

11. T. S. Eliot, “Dante,” in Selected Prose, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1975), 221.

12. Max Weber, “Religious Rejections of the World and their Directions,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. and trans. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 341–42.

13. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, ed. Walter Kaufmann and trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 433, 817.

14. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” in Selected Prose, 177.

15. T. S. Eliot, “The Idea of a Christian Society,” in Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1976), 10.

16. Eliot, “Notes towards the Definition of Culture,” in Christianity and Culture, 144 n.

17. Julia Kristeva, “The Genius of Catholicism,” in The Incredible Need to Believe, trans. Beverley Bie Brahic (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 99.

18. Geoffrey H. Hartman, “Hopkins Revisited” (1966), in Beyond Formalism: Literary Essays, 1958–1970 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 239. Hartman draws the opposite conclusion from Ken-neth Burke; in his ultimate assessment, he judges that Hopkins was ever torn between “the vocations of priest and poet” and “could not fully associate [his concept of vocation] with poetry . . . Hopkins’ defects are often traceable to his scrupling view of the poet’s vocation” (243).

19. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 205 (H 162).

20. Plato, Theaetetus, trans. F. M. Cornford, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 152a.

21. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001.19711), 71.

22. F. R. Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1960), 180–81.