Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Of Religion and Romanticism

Towering high above the centre of the northern French city of Amiens is the cathedral of Notre-Dame. So large is this rendition of a chapel devoted to Mary the Mother of God that it could fit the famous Notre-Dame de Paris inside it. And from the moment he took residence in this home town of his wife, Jules Verne could be seen in its pews most Sundays. Though rebellious as a youth and enamoured with the Bohemian lifestyle (and women) of the national capital, the Catholic Encyclopedia is proud to proclaim the little-known fact that Verne lived and died a Catholic.

This fact is so poorly known because it does not manifest in any particularly obvious ways in the course of the writer's Voyages Extraordinaires. God is rarely mentioned in anything other than passing, the Church almost never. For more obvious is his paean to science and technological progress. It is not an absolute and unwavering affection, for even Verne was a critic who sometimes descended to cynicism. Nevertheless, the enduring appeal of his work has been its sense of wonder about the natural world, whether around the surface of it, in the centre of it, under the seas of it, or even beyond it.

Some, perhaps many, easily divorce this sense of wonder of the natural world from any kind of a religious sensibility. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, once asked why we cannot look upon the beauty and majesty of a garden without imagining fairies at the bottom of it. In the only instance where Richard Dawkins deigned to appear on stage with William Lane Craig, he spoke eloquently of the implicit beauty of nature that stirs the breast of all people regardless of denomination.

It is true, to an extent. Atheists can experience wonder at the world without being grounded in any sort of theistic belief. To deny this would deny the revelatory self-disclosure of atheists themselves. The argument that scientific materialism leads to a universe of "meres" and "justs" is a direct appeal to this common sense of wonder and beauty. What these critics are pointing out is a fundamental inconsistency in the argument put forth by atheists like Dawkins. This inconsistency is that, despite arguing so vehemently for a worldview shaped by reason and empiricism, Dawkins and fellow devotees of Scientism eventually resort to such highly irrational, romantic terms. The theist will be excused a wry grin when he begins to wax poetic about the sublimity and beauty of the universe because in that poetry are the recognizable features of that old religious sensibility.

The late Mr. Adams asked why we cannot appreciate the beauty of a garden without imagining garden fairies. The problem is not whether we should countenance such an extraordinary thing as fairies. The problem is whether we should countenance such an extraordinary thing as beauty. Compared to the question of whether and why beauty exists, the question of how many fairies can dance on a blade of grass is academic. Whether wonder is acceptable at all is a much more profound question than whether there can be wonder in science. I can readily admit to both the beauty of a garden and the wonder of science because, as a Christian, I already accept the validity of emotions, aesthetics, revelation, intuition, imagination, spirituality, and other forms of irrationality as ways of understanding the full breadth of reality. To me, the question of God's existence is a much smaller and easier one once we have been permitted the means by which one may know of God.

The sublime astonishment of God and the Grand Canyon can be gasped in the same breath because they are the same irrational sublimation of all reason. The all-empowering and -overpowering love of my Saviour and my partner are alike products of intimate, vulnerable and trusting self-disclosure. Perhaps they differ in scale, the proportion between the Creator and the Creation, but they are not differences of a kind. I can keenly sense the beauty of a garden; I only ask why I am not also allowed to keenly sense that same beauty about the fairies that dwell in it. Why must my sense of beauty and wonder go only so far and no further? Why must a heart that cries out to be thankful for life silence itself because someone else does not know Who to thank? On whose authority must this be so?

Jules Verne's gift as a religious writer was not in drafting transparent sermons promoting a particular doctrine of Catholicism. Rather, it was in his willingness to be an unapologetic romantic. His peculiar doctrine was to holistically marry new discoveries in science, exploration and technology to a Romantic worldview, without eschewing beauty, wonder and the sublime. God need not be mentioned by name when before us unfolds a Creation so worthy of praise. The act of praising it is, in itself, a hymn and a prayer to its Creator.

The marriage brokered by Verne was not an obvious one given the pedigree of Romanticism at that time. The movement, which was already of global scope by the time Verne put pen to paper, was largely a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment and its revolutions industrial and political. The moral, economic, social and spiritual destitution caused by technological progress, scientific colonialism, and failed revolutions left the Romantics palpably disappointed. Verne lived to see the factory slums of Paris, the stunning defeat of France by Prussia's modern army, and the collapse of the Second French Republic and rise of Emperor Napoleon III. It should be no surprise that Verne was a Catholic: the aristocrats and the rebels of the Enlightenment lost their reason along with their heads. Romanticism looked to the European Middle Ages as a spiritual, intellectual, nationalistic, and aesthetic model, and nothing spoke so powerfully of it as the Church. He was friends with Victor Hugo, who only barely managed to save Notre-Dame de Paris from the wrecking ball, and of Alexander Dumas with his red-blooded adventures of France's past. He also counted himself as a fan of the Gothic American author Edgar Allan Poe.

All evidence pointed to Verne's trajectory as a Romantic in the best tradition of Longfellow, Cooper, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron or Shelly. His first novel, the unpublished Paris in the Twentieth Century, exposes a mind made cynical by advancements without progress, intimately critical of urban, commercial modernism. Between that and Five Weeks in a Balloon, Verne rediscovered something that would be the salvation of his career if not his soul. He realized that the solitary creative genius of Romanticism could be a man of science, and that technology could be the vehicle to a transcendental appreciation of nature. Reason need not be the enemy: it could be a tool to reach that which is beyond it. As George Bernard Shaw said, "The man who listens to Reason is lost: Reason enslaves all whose minds are not strong enough to master her." In the words of Verne,
My object has been to depict the earth, and not the earth alone, but the universe, for I have sometimes taken my readers away from earth, in the novel. And I have tried at the same time to realize a very high ideal of beauty of style. It is said that there can’t be any style in a novel of adventure, but it isn’t true...

Thus was born Scientific Romanticism, and that which distinguishes the work of Verne and his ken from the Science Fiction and Scientism that would follow. His is Scientific Romanticism, not Scientific Rationalism. Verne is the very model of the religious person with a passionate love of science: that strange specimen which the demagogues on either extreme say cannot exist. Verne, like any religious person, is able to admit and to love the exact degree of reason and empiricism required of methodological naturalism in understanding the laws that govern the tangible. He is not, however, limited to it. A dogma of philosophical naturalism could not permit his Romantic beauty of style, and so philosophical naturalism must go.

Go it must, because truth demands it. As observed by G.K. Chesterton, the truth of Romanticism is a much deeper and more abiding thing than the flippancy of Realism:
All who are adherents of romanticism (as I am) have it for their first and fixed and central principle that romance is more serious than realism. We say that romance is the grave and authoritative and responsible thing; the permanent religion of mankind. We say that studies from life and human documents are more frivolous and fugitive than great and enduring decorative art. Realism, we say, is life seen as somebody sees it. Romance is life felt as somebody feels it.

Verne's heroes and anti-heroes are not routinely dull men and women. They may be driven by single ideas but they are usually individuals of some culture. The Nautilus is not some sterile spaceship unfit for human habitation: it is stocked keel to periscope with priceless works of art, great works of literature, and bursting folios of sheet music for play on the pipe organ that is ultimately the ship's most important feature. Our author dutifully recalls volumes of facts about what is known in the course of bringing us along with his protagonists dreams of the possible and impossible. Verne saw science as a Romantic venture, capable of keeping pace with all other Romantic ventures.

What necessarily makes it a religious sensibility, though? To return to Adams' garden, why can we not have beauty and wonder without gods and fairies? To explain I turn to Christopher Dawson's essay Religion and the Romantic Movement. He says that "the religious element in Romanticism, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, goes much deeper than the superficial aesthetic appeal." Continuing:
It has its roots in the fundamental principles of the movement, which differed not merely aesthetically but also metaphysically and psychologically from those of both seventeenth-century Classicism and eighteenth-century Rationalism.

Behind the change in literary taste and aesthetic appreciation there lies a profound change of spiritual attitudes: an attempt to enlarge the kingdom of the human mind by transcending the limits of ordinary consciousness. Human consciousness is a little circle of light amidst the surrounding darkness. The classicist and the rationalist keep as close to the centre of the circle as possible and order their life and their art as though this little sphere of light was the universe. But the romantic was not content with this narrow sphere.

He sought to penetrate the secret of the great reality that is hidden behind the veil of darkness and preferred the twilight regions that fringe the verge of consciousness to the lighted house of reason. Thus the most profound expression of the romantic spirit is to be found, not in the Byronic cult of personality or the aesthetic gospel of Keats' Ode to a Grecian Urn, but in Novalis' Hymns to the Night with their mystical exaltation of death. There is in fact a definite connection between romanticism and mysticism, for religious mysticism tends to express itself in the form of romantic poetry, as in the poems of St John of the Cross, while literary romanticism at its highest aspires to the ideal of religious mysticism, as in the case of Novalis and Blake.

The common axiom that religion narrows the mind with certainty about its mysteries while reason and empiricism broaden with ceaseless questioning is a gross inversion of actuality. The Rationalist hugs close to the light of the intellect, trying to shed its rays as far as they can and proclaiming that there must not be anything beyond that light since they cannot see it. The Romantic is willing to go into that outer darkness, on faith, without a lamp.

In Verne it is not difficult to see the Herculean effort of upraising science to that vehicle of exploration beyond the fringes. His characters are constantly pushing at the liminal spaces, the blank places on the map. In Verne's early years it sufficed to be literal acts of exploration into material spaces that, in turn, transformed their explorers. His other renowned hero is Phileas Fogg, whose timely exterior journey was ultimately not so significant as his interior one. Verne's later years were frequently occupied with thought experiments on deserted islands, exploring the terra incognita of human potential. Very shortly before his death, Georges Méliès emerged as his cinematic heir with A Trip to the Moon. Though Méliès might appear more fanciful and less devoted to technical precision than Verne, they are true coreligionists in a Gallic, Mediaevalist spirit of Romance.

Scientific Romances are the Science Fiction of human beings, retaining for ourselves all the art and beauty and love of history and religion that Science Fiction may transpose onto alien races if it does not eliminate it through the cold hard logic of machines. In them science occupies a place that is both elevated and subordinate. They are Verne's argument that science also has value in a worldview where the value of emotions, imagination, intuition, art, music, literature, and religion is already taken for granted. Science, if not the Scientific Method, can be a religious sensibility presenting the natural world as a thing of aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual experience... Indeed, the ordered natural world as an expression of the mind and creative will of God. That little man sitting in a pew in a Gothic cathedral in a little French town has the faith that reason may be enslaved to humanity instead of humanity to reason, and that the methods of empiricism might be able to adhere to the far more rigorous demands of romance.


Jack Horner said...

Wow Cory,

Jules Verne and religion. Written in the style Chesterton used in Heretics. (But without the barbs so reserved for his Heretics) Gonna have to reread this one in a day or two to absorb it better.

Out of left field and loving it.

Cory Gross said...

Thank you very much! I consider it a high compliment to be compared to Chesterton!

kitty said...

Some of Verne's references to Catholicism were censored in the English-language editions of his work. However, he makes a favorable reference to it (and a slight jab at Protestantism) in "Master Zacharius" and Dick Sand: A Captain at Age 15 has several references to it- and to God, to Whom is given credit for some of their remarkable escapes. (I'm really a bit surprised that Dick Sand isn't more popular; it may have been a bit edgy when it was written, but a book about blacks fighting an evil slave-trader amidst numerous rants about the injustice of the system should be more popular today...)

I think that Verne's religious beliefs made him a better author than Wells. The two are often compared, but Wells was a eugenicist/super-super-Darwinistic- and it shows through in his violent treatment of his characters, who are kind of doomed the moment they show up. If Wells doesn't care about his characters, why should I? Verne's a much more pro-human author, and seems to care more for his characters: they're likeable and don't die horribly just for the sake of dying horribly. Since the main ideological difference between the two was Verne's religion- and Wells' passionate, sarcastic lack thereof- I'm inclined to blame it on their belief systems.

There are some notes on how the English translators "fixed" Verne's works- including his Catholic bias- here: http://jv.gilead.org.il/evans/VerneTrans%28article%29.html I knew that they'd mangled Leagues, but I didn't know how pervasive the editing was throughout the body of Verne's work. Since those early translations are now public-domain, cheap publishing companies usually dump them on us. I *still* haven't managed to get an accurate translation of the sea saga, which is my favorite...

Cory Gross said...

Thank you for that follow up! Obviously I haven't gotten around to Dick Sand... I should definitely for a theme month next year that picks up on what you talked about: Verne vs. Wells, head-to-head.

I'm half-heartedly trying to learn French, with one of the ancillary benefits being that I can read Verne in the original language, hopefully picking up on so much of what has been lost in English translations.