A Tragic Optimism: The Existential Vacuum and God in the Poetic Vision

By Heavilin, Barbara A.; Heavilin, Charles W. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

A Tragic Optimism: The Existential Vacuum and God in the Poetic Vision


Heavilin, Barbara A., Heavilin, Charles W., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

   And though the last lights off the black West went
   Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
   Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
   World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. (1)

--Gerard Manley Hopkins

On a hot August Sunday in 2006, the minister at St. Paul's Cathedral began his message with a quotation from a young man he had been counseling: "Modern life is trash." In the ensuing sermon he enumerated the reasons underlying this observation: environmental pollution, war, poverty, boredom, sexual excess, addiction, alienation, loneliness--a sad list that could go further. But he also talked about the alleviation of these woes. In love, in creative problem solving, in the freedom to make moral choices lie the means by which this despondent young man, and indeed all of us, can approach, clean up, and clear away the trash of modern life.

In Man's Search for Meaning psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, too, deals with the discouraging perception that "modern life is trash," diagnosing the present malaise of humankind as an "existential vacuum," a sense of meaninglessness. Like St. Paul's minister, Frankl suggests help for the ailment: creativity, love, and the freedom of moral choice. Whether acknowledged or not, all of these are reflections of God, of a higher way--or what Frankl calls "another dimension, ... the capacity to rise above conditions." (2) But how and where is help to be sought and found if God Himself seems absent, thus compounding the perceived emptiness and lack of meaning?

This feeling that God is absent manifests itself in literature by a shift from a recognized spiritual dimension to one that focused primarily on the social--often approaching a narcissistic self-absorption. After Milton's 1667 publication of Paradise Lost with its lofty intent "to justify the ways of God to men," an age of satire ensued, with the aim of bringing about social reform by using a metaphorical mirror to reflect and illuminate the foibles of humankind, often with the hope of reform but sometimes with the fatalistic view that humankind is beyond redemption. This shift in focus from considering the mind of God to contemporary social ills resulted in a body of poetry wherein God largely disappears from the scene--a reflection of a shifting scientific and philosophical bent towards empirical verification of "truth" and a skeptical view of faith and mystery.

This skepticism may be traced as least as far back as the sixteenth century when attempts were made to explain everything in rational, even mechanist terms, referring to God as watchmaker or Supreme Engineer, who had set the universe in order but did not concern Himself with ordinary human activity. Later Rene Descartes also advocated a spirit of skepticism: "If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things." Even when the American colonists maintained in their Declaration of Independence that God human beings were created equal and had been endowed inalienable rights, there is no acknowledgment of His participation in ordinary life. Thus, in the eighteenth century, God is most often conspicuous by His absence from the poetic vision, with a resulting sense of meaninglessness, at times approaching despair.

Yet this emerging modern and postmodern perspective is not entirely bleak or vacuous; for some writers celebrate God's presence and the resulting creativity, love, and freedom. There is an irrepressible spirit that haunts the human mind and remains dissatisfied with the myth of a totally absent God. Therein lies the hope for informing global conflict with what Frankl has termed "a tragic optimism"--an outlook that opposes the "existential vacuum" of the times, looking outward on a bleak world with hope for its redemption. (3) We find both this optimism and this malaise in the poetic vision, which provides us with an honest reflection of who are are--warts and all--but also provides a vision of who we might be, with potential to participate in sainthood. …

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