Contrasts and Oppositions

Last night I went to a lecture given by Dr Michael Kirwan SJ, which I expected to be about Gerard Manley Hopkins. Certainly it introduced some of Hopkins’ poems, and also the poems of Czeslaw Milosz (which have been on my list of things to look up for ages, but you know how it is) for which I am really grateful. I’m now a fan!

But really, what it was about was the relationship between spirituality and culture. And much as this is a subject which I find endlessly fascinating, what I was less fascinated by was the opposition thrown up in the course of the lecture between the isolated, alienated, individualistic poet, the free-thinker, the creative, as opposed to the theologian, the intellectual, the organisation man, the analyst, the law-maker, the scientific observer. (You may think there are a few questions begged there – science and theology? – but this was a Catholic group and we don’t have those hangups.)

If you’ve been reading this blog any time, you’ll know where I stand on the poet and community (If you haven’t you might like to look at The Symbolist Conundrum or So whose is poetry anyway). But such an opposition these days is looking not only invalid but outdated. The success of the Split Screen anthology shows that poetry can speak to popular culture not just about it, and the rise in performance poetry shows that people outside the writing community are engaging and responding to poetry in wider areas. The excellent blog Poets against Atos is only one example of poets wanting to speak to and for their communities. And I’m sure you can find lots more. It’s fair to say that Michael Kirwan’s aim was to nudge stereotypical thinking away from the hardline and into more flexible open spaces, but I did feel I should point out that actual poets were way ahead of him!

But somewhere along the line I began to think of other oppositions that we take for granted. Between science and poetry. Between imagination and intellect. Between intuition and observation. Between emotion and objectivity. These oppositions don’t work well for me. As an educated and articulate woman I am often assumed to be ‘intellectual’, and therefore in need of having my imagination and emotions liberated in order to be creative. The end product of this process is at best confusion and we won’t go into the worst.

But this map of the human personality hasn’t always been such a given. One of the seminal texts of my life is The Cloud of Unknowing, one of the first and best prose texts written in Middle English. This was life changing in many ways, but led me to read the translation by the same author of a work by Richard of St Victor called Benjamin Major. In this heavy creaking allegorical work, the imagination is a function of the intellect, and sense experience is a function of emotion. Imagination enables understanding and good judgement, and observation and sensual response motivates the will to love. It was only last night that I realised how weird this will look to the so-called ‘western mindset’. But it totally makes sense to me.

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