There was no special reason for it, but the other day I picked up and read an essay by Ted Hughes, the poet. The essay is in his collection, Winter Pollen, and was written on the centenary of TS Eliot’s birth, given in 1988 at a dinner in memory of Eliot, and is entitled ‘The Poetic Self’. I have been casting around, in recent times, for a decent and recent poet in English, or any language.
Hughes explains how Eliot is without equal as a poet, in any language, unless we put him beside Shakespeare. Now, back in 1998, when I first read this essay, I noted in the margins that I didn’t agree with Hughes’s division of any poet, in particular, Eliot, into two parts: a real self, and a hidden self. Hughes says that a poet must be overcome and gripped by his hidden part, in order to write poetry. Poetry is the expression of the person’s hidden or godlike self. Poetry, is for Hughes, the words of the godly self to a secular world.
Whatever else Hughes has to say seems right: that Eliot spoke spirituality to a broken and materialistic era. Eliot took on the role of the mystic Fisher King.
I don’t disagree with this; even in his prose accounts of his motivation, Eliot was obviously giving vent to a painfully felt hatred of the modern world’s atheism or the shallowness and fakery of what religion it had.
Hughes says that Eliot became a ‘shaman’, fulfilling the role of writing English with spirit again after, in his late teens, he was gripped by Eros, a god; Hughes says that Eliot expressed this possession by the god, and his falling into his deeper self, in the poem ‘The Death of St Narcissus’. In the next breath, Hughes says that the same kind of thing happened to Friedrich Nietzsche; the god came to Nietzsche, too. But to Nietzsche the god’s name and character were that of Wotan.
Now, I’ve read Rudiger Safranski’s biography of Nietzsche a couple of times; and Ronald Hayman’s biography more times than I can remember. I’ve read Nietzsche's works backwards and forwards, in English and sometimes in German. But I don’t remember a vision or a meeting with Wotan, so that, just as Eliot could be thought of as possessed by the god of Love, so Nietzsche would be possessed by this ferocious sounding and pagan god.
For a few days I have mulled this over.
Hughes means the subconscious; that is the hidden self.
Hughes considers Eliot’s later Christianity to be Eliot’s willing subjection to an outward, and for him, empty set of religious communal gestures in the name of love.
I find myself being pulled toward wanting to know more about Wotan, because here is a kind of intimationary word for the character of the all-powerful Father. The God who made this infinite world, or evil and good, the harsh and jealous God who looked after his people, and once walked in the Garden with them.
But I also fear that this ‘Wotan’ is the name for a demonic force. For the Germans and Norse, he was not the creator of the world; he was a one-eyed wanderer who pretended to be a man, playing tricks, and teaching magic and prophecy; sewing chaos and making men angry with each other when necessary.
Now, if this god is not meant to be the creator, then what use is he?
But the notion of the God or the Father creator of this phantasmagoria which we have to live every day interests me.
[And my old idea of the ‘world as illusion’ does not suit me as it used to. Saying, with the English and German philosophers, that it is all an expression of your own deeper ego seems to me, these days, the wrong approach to reality. The world is real, and sublime; and when the Hindus, and I myself, in past and recent times, said that it is nothing compared to the mystery of personal existence, then this has perhaps just been a way of making the mystery of being alive easy to understand.] The fact is, the world as a whole has been created, not just I myself.
Hughes is talking about ‘gods’ as metaphors for subconscious impulses; the same sort of thing you get in Walt Whitman and DH Lawrence. They say: we must find the deeper self, the one which will mix in with reality as a fish in water. Hughes is talking about our deeper animal instinct for things.
That Hughes considered his poetic work to be the expression of his ‘subconscious’ in just this way is what makes his work characteristic of the mid- and late-twentieth century, and, not serious enough. It is what makes him a great twentieth century poet; and also a poet who believed things which make him small and limited as a thinker and poet.
His mind is limited to the same small extent as those people of our epoch who owe everything important to the Unconscious, or to the brain, or whatever the current fashion is – who use that very same scheme of understanding themselves as the reason for not being Christian. They are not Christian because they believe in the Unconscious and in these ‘gods’. As far as I know, Eliot wrote poetry not when he was possessed by Eros (the Unconscious), but when he was searching for the true God, so to speak.
Nietzsche in the forest
So when did Nietzsche meet Wotan? I looked on the internet. I imagine that Hughes heard the story in the same place which I found it, namely, in the work of Carl Jung. Jung says, in an essay of 1936, that it was a story of Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth, that her brother met the god in a forest in his late teens. She says that he met a strange wanderer in the forest outside his school, and that the man produced a loud whistling noise which caused her brother to fall unconscious, and that after this, he changed schools and set out on a new path in life (related to giving up his vocation as a priest).
In his essay, Jung accounts for the power of Hitler in Germany by saying that the whole nation has been overcome or possessed by Wotan. As, as in Hughes, this is understood as a way of explaining how the innate and ancient spirit of the German Unconscious is asserting itself. It is asserting itself in a ‘Wotanic’ way, as a tribalism, the spirit of warfare, of loyalty to a war leader, the spirit of wandering and expansion, and the search for answers in arcane ceremonies. Jung expresses neither approval or disapproval; but he does, in the first paragraph of his essay, indicate his approval of the way that, in Russia, the Orthodox Church has been brushed aside by the Soviets, themselves possessed by something else, namely ‘science’. Jung goes on to point out that the Christians, by which he means Rome, do not know what to do about the winds blowing through Europe.
There was a time when I would have read these sorts of thing and had no means of resisting their truth. Russian churches, he says, are suffocating in their paraphernalia of worship; Catholics are hopeless in the face of the winds of change. These days, older now, and too long in the tooth to simply believe everything I read which is written with conviction, I am able to see why Jung wrote this kind of thing. And besides, I have the advantage of knowing where Russia’s new fascination with sweeping religion away for the sake of science took them; and where the German submission to the spirit of Wotan took them, too.
I have never converted anyone to anything in my entire life. I make no-one follow me. I am unable to make converts to Christianity, and I do not feel that expressing myself in a cosy way here, so as to invite people to follow Christ, is what I am made for. I do not suppose that I ever could have spoken to Ted Hughes, for example, to disabuse him of his Jungianism (and it is from Jung, and the deceitful Elizabeth Nietzsche, that he heard the story about Nietzsche).
But it is in my ability to point out the infinitely greater truth of the proposition that, instead of snake gods, gods wearing eye-patches and wandering the forests at night, a god who whistled and blows like the wind, I am only interested in that God who brought the whole of creation into being. Such a being surpasses understanding, and is not so easy to understand as the Unconscious, or the brain, or similar things we put in place of God.
Furthermore, I insist (in a move which will alienate everyone, and inspire no followers) that the Christian or the true follower of Christ, denies the world in every aspect, particularly in the denial of himself and what he wants. There are generous, infinite rewards for this, but the rewards are for dreamers and lovers. The principle of the rejection of the world is the absolute bedrock of the follower of Christ.
So that, when Jung rightly points out that Rome was powerless and utterly unequipped to deal with the Fascists, the Brown Shirts, the nationalisms, and the like, I would point out, writing at this great distance and with no actual power, that such a bedrock principle of utterly selfish, self-centred world-rejection absolutely is the correct and adequate teaching; and, that it is the truth, by comparison with the cults and mistakes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
We honour the One who made the world, and simultaneously deny any part in it of any kind. We do this because that is the guaranteed way of being at one with the Creator, and his Spirit. And this is what Eliot himself said and what he meant; that is to say, he did not mean to say that the windy spirit of Eros was making itself at home in a Christian garb; no, I think that Eliot said exactly what he meant, and was fully aware of what he wanted to say.
It troubles me a great deal, that if the world-denial and meditative Sonship about which I am talking, were met by a wave of euphoria and materialistic madness, then such a person as I describe may not want to defend his Church, because he is so removed from worldly concerns.
But Dante filled his Heaven with warriors and empire builders as well as the saints. I suppose that I should accept, that if any of us have renounced the world for the One who made the world, then He will see to it that what he wants for us, will come to us.
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