• Email
  • Print

Endgame

The Disappearance of God

by J. Hillis Miller
Harvard, 367 pp., $7.50

Mr. Miller’s big book belongs to a half-recognized genre to which we have become accustomed to give a special kind of attention. Such books, though more or less ostensibly studies within a conventional field of literary criticism or history, promise something more than a review of a set of academic particulars. By the figures selected, by the pitch of abstraction chosen, by the large generalizations ventured, they present themselves as guides to contemporary intellectual life, handbooks for orientation. The major examples have traditionally been European, or by scholars trained in Europe; but the recent works of Morse Peckham, Stanley Edgar Hyman, Norman Brown, and Leslie Fiedler are signs that the American academic community has begun to supply its own versions.

The working method in all of them has been to link the history of ideas with close criticism, the largest conceivable abstractions with the minutest particulars of discrete texts. “Literature is a form of consciousness,” says Mr. Miller; by attending to the literary evidence, we re-discover past reality as part of a continuing historical process which ends with ourselves. The literary critic thus announces himself as the most reliable historian and sociologist.

Mr. Miller’s book is a standard work of its kind. There is a long introduction, containing his view of the spiritual history of modern times. There follows a group of essays on half a dozen representative figures mobilized to illustrate in sequence the larger generalizations, Mr. Miller’s chief generalization is indicated by his title. He believes that the key event of modern history, hence of modern literature, is the disappearance of God. The nineteenth-century lives and works he studies are interesting to him so far as they demonstrate a late stage in a vast historical process that has continued from the medieval world to the present, a process characterized by the ever-increasing distance between the Creator and the creation. Once upon a time, says Mr. Miller, the world was one. God, man, nature, and language interpenetrated one another. God’s presence in the world, attested daily in the Eucharist, affirmed the meaningfulness of experience, the harmony of nature with man, the communion of men with one another and of each man with his own experience. Language was sacramental, and poetry meant what it said. But then something happened: the cultural unity supported by an immanent God fragmented, for many complex reasons. The Reformation, science, industry, the rise of the middle class and of the city have brought about a world in which words are separate from things, nature is infinite and indifferent. God has withdrawn beyond experience, and each man finds himself alone, separated from his fellows and his own life. Modern times begin when men faced this situation: the literature of this century and the last is variously symptomatic of the new condition and of the modes by which exceptional souls have confronted and expressed it.

One of the by-products of this great change, Mr. Miller observes, is the development of a sense of history—of such a sense, he might have added, as he himself expresses in his formulation of the modern dilemma. Such as isolated modern self would indeed be inclined to explain and justify its predicament by seeing it as the result of an immense sequential cultural process over which the individual will had no control. One’s first impression on reading such a historical review is less of its oddity—this belongs to the theological language alone—than of its familiarity. Do not most books which take up the pretensions of this genre assume or promulgate more or less the same vision? It has become a cliché of our informal historical consciousness; it is what we assume other people will agree to, without argument. This very sense of familiarity can serve to generate doubts about the validity of all species of the vision, optimistic and pessimistic, from Macaulay to Eliot. Need we really be so sure that cultural time is irresistibly sequential, that what was once true is no longer true, simply because now is not once? Perhaps cultural time is less like a moving bead on a wire than a widening spiral of which the present would be the largest curve: in that case, the past is not behind the present but within it. One’s doubts would be the same for the liberal, or C. P. Snow, version of the same myth, according to which the Golden Age was really Dark, and the inevitability and irreversibility of “history” is reason for self-congratulation rather than nostalgia. Historicism is indeed a prevalent myth of the modern consciousness—but it may still be an illusion, for all that—less a fact of the world than a function of our pride or impotence. “Life in the city,” says Mr. Miller “is the way in which many men have experienced most directly what it means to live without God in the world.” but even in the city the Eucharist continues to be celebrated, with neither less nor more validity than before. One needs to be cautious in a large-scale use of the seductive past tense, whether as a private person or a cultural historian.

Mr. Miller’s method is to take each figure as a “case” of the general theory: to display and assess what is idiosyneratic in each man’s confrontation of a world of fragments in which he lived in isolation from the reality of men and of God, and to trace how each endeavored to reconstruct the lost unity in language. DeQuincy, his first case, fits his argument most neatly. There seems little cause to suspect that the model offered excludes anything central. That DeQuincy “is” an isolated self endlessly exploring his own interstices, exploiting a morbidly verbal temperament to build a private universe out of the fragments of incapacity, is a relevant assertion. But DeQuincy is, conventionally, a minor figure, the predestined victim of subsequent generalizers.

So far as Mr. Miller’s other figures are like DeQuincy, what is true of him will seem true of them too. The solitary fantast making up endless substitutes for the real world is in each case discoverable within the evidence, and the twist given to this temperamental or epistemological condition by Browning’s energetic role-playing or Arnold’s ironic stoicism is well caught and illustrated. For such people—if this is what these people really are—God would necessarily have disappeared; the space between Him and them would be filled up with private illusion. The defeat of each attempt to reach God, reality, the world (Mr. Miller’s conclusions are remorselessly pessimistic) would be fated by the character of the project.

One may feel that the metaphysical catastrophe of nineteenth-century individualism could have been illustrated still more persuasively with other cases than those chosen here. Would not Mill, say, have been more representative of the temper explored than Browning, or Charlotte than Emily Bronte? And one can regret the omission of figures and works which in one way or another amount to implicit criticisms of just the sickness Mr. Miller diagnoses: Ruskin, say, or the Tennyson of In Memoriam. More important, one can feel that in the case of the major artists their power to escape the constrictions of private illusion, proved on the face of it by the survival of their work, remains outside the frame imposed by the argument.

One’s doubts rise with one’s expectations as the last chapter is reached. Hopkins would indeed be a test case for the adequacy of the book’s definition of the nineteenth-century character in particular and of the modern predicament in general. For by his conversion and subsequent vocation Hopkins set out precisely to combat the illusions of the solitary self, to get beyond them to the reality of God’s world and of God himself. The analysis starts with Hopkins’s sense of “self-taste.” of the irreducible singularity of his own individuality. It traces a progress through the thinking and poetry of his middle life, identifying Hopkins’s re-discovery of pattern, order, analogy, first in the sound-structure of poems, then in the natural world, finally in Christ as the sustainer of all. The principle of rhyme gave Hopkins a way of seeing at once the uniqueness and likeness of all realities, and thereby of joining all realities, and thereby of joining words, things, and the perceiving self in a harmony which brought back for him the divine world his fellow Victorians had lost. According to this account. Hopkins would thus have solved the problem set by the book for the other figures. But Mr. Miller will not let Hopkins off either. To him, the integration achieved in such poems as “Pied Beauty” represents a wish, not a fact. The poems and notes of the last years are read as evidence of a spiritual dryness that proves the insufficiency for man’s moral nature of the solution arrived at in the contexts of art and the outer world. Mr. Miller brings Hopkins firmly back to the condition of his contemporaries. The self is still alone, and God is still absent.

There is a tantalizing half-rightness to Mr. Miller’s repetitive pessimism in these final pages. The facts about Hopkins’s tragic state are scrupulously put in the terms Hopkins would have agreed to; but their ultimate meaning is omitted by a kind of continual false emphasis. There is no room in a review for the exhaustive argument into which the account tempts one; as a summary, one might offer the suggestion that grace would not have seemed to Hopkins an individualistic strategy, to be tested by success or failure. The pain of the last years would have seemed to him of a higher order than the triumphs of the nature poems, which it would not have invalidated. His sufferings were for him part of the drill of sanctity, a higher point on the spiral than will fit Mr. Miller’s model. Above all, Hopkins would not have felt himself alone doing what no one had ever done before, suffering original pains—as his contemporaries might have had to feel. The sacrifice of the self, however difficult or incomplete, is not the same as the failure of that self.

The delicate but cumulative bias that throws off the final and most important portrait of the book is an indirect manifestation of that modern egotism which is the subject of the book. To find of six otherwise quite different figures that they were all equally trapped within the illusions they repeatedly generated is to confess oneself in the same predicament. To advance a theory of history which places the whole contemporary world in the same position justifies one’s condition by including the reader in it. The anonymity of the critical survey, and the impersonal voice that conventionally goes with this genre, are further strategies for generalizing an isolation which that survey then discovers projected into the chosen figures of the past. The barrenness of the point of view helps prevent escape from being visible.

Perhaps a very different kind of book would have done justice to the seriousness of Mr. Miller’s concern. The melancholy mask of historian is a kind of role-playing, in exactly the sense Mr. Miller analyzes so well in Browning and Arnold. What would a more personal rendering of the true subject amount to? That God should have disappeared from the seminar room and the shelves of the research library is perhaps not the last word. And that word, if it came, would presumably show itself first as tone, as a voice that would not require the disconsolate detachments of scholarship, and might reverberate with a freedom denied both the subject and the objects of this study.

  • Email
  • Print