The Religion of Reality

The Religion of Reality: inquiry into the self, art, and transcendence

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    The Religion of Reality
    Book Description:

    The book first argues that religious feeling persists in the secular western mind; that it has taken refuge in the unlikeliest of camps, indeed with the supposed debunker of religious creed: the rationalist existential ego.

    eISBN: 978-0-8132-1623-2
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. CHAPTER 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    This book deals with the two forces in modern culture that command the centrality and force of religion: the self, on the one hand, and art, on the other.

    It is largely assumed that the intellect became modern when it replaced scriptural truths and revelation with the guidance of reason, science, and empirical knowledge. On this account the modern age is said have “disenchanted” the world, according to Max Weber’s famous phrase, by which is meant that the modern mind does not believe in objects, processes, or phenomena that transcend or escape physical, logical, or rational necessity. A bolt of...

    • CHAPTER 2 Seeds of Emancipation
      (pp. 23-29)

      What is the meaning of life? How must I live? What is the significance of my death?

      The life of the mind became modern on the day these questions began to be asked, first, in the first-person singular and, second, outside self-validating religious dogma. This, however, means that the modern intellect came to life circa 400 b.c. in Athens. For as soon as commonwealths became affluent enough to support men whose pleasure in life was to discuss ideas and write down their thoughts, it seems that individualists also came into being. Thought is the content and medium of the intellectual...

    • CHAPTER 3 Severing the Ties That Bind
      (pp. 30-40)

      Purity is the spirit of the Cartesian method. Certainty is the goal. From birth onward, man is thrown in a welter of facts, forces, impressions. If he is to get a foothold in this world, he must find some stability. But since he cannot be sure of anything outside himself, since worldly things always seem to veer out of his control, then he will draw inward into his own self and stake out what is his and what is not his, the essential from the superfluous, the inborn from the acquired. This is the metaphysical act of independence by which...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Romantic Solipsist
      (pp. 41-67)

      The social fabric had to undergo some loosening before the Cartesian ego could leave the province of philosophical theorems and enter social life. So long as the guiding spirit of society remained hierarchical and coercive, the early Enlightenment disengagement of the self remained only a hypothesis—the inspiring picture of a man alone in his stove-heated room mulling over the possible nonexistence of the world, but only a picture. It took the slow-motion shock wave of bourgeois industry, the shakeup of Protestantism in northern Europe, the decline of the aristocracy from a warrior class to sumptuous leeches, the breakup of...

    • CHAPTER 5 A Church of One
      (pp. 68-75)

      Religion is compatible with nearly every philosophic disposition except solipsism. For the essence of religious belief is the insight that an order of reality outside the mind absolutely exists. God, Brahman, Tao, the Universal Being, the Oversoul, Truth, Love: whichever the object of worship, religion entails a deeply felt conviction that reality exists in its own right; that it has an authority, dignity, and value independent of our interests and feelings; and that man finds quiescence in orienting himself to this immensity that exceeds him. A religious person who believes only in himself is, plainly put, an oxymoron.

      Not least...

    • CHAPTER 6 “And Zarathustra saw that he was alone”
      (pp. 76-90)

      Kierkegaard’s Abraham has only inner passion to justify him. The strength of his devotion answers for its validity. His chief virtue is sincerity—he heeds an inner calling no one understands and everyone frowns upon, yet he is true to himself. Abraham is really a romantic soul: at odds with society but faithful to his own light, wholehearted, committed to living out his subjectivity.

      It is often said, correctly, that romanticism put forth no consistent system of beliefs, no single political vision, no unified system of morals. A romantic can be a monarchist like Chateaubriand, or he can be a...

    • CHAPTER 7 Longing for the World
      (pp. 91-109)

      In the intellectual history of subjectivity, Nietzsche is both a high watermark and a hint of a tidal change. In him we find the brashest exaltation of self; in him also glows the desire to tear down the idol. Zarathustra is both Dionysus and Apollo, the god of dissolution and the god of affirmation. This heroic figure of a subjectivity both triumphant and self-overcoming stirred the hearts and minds of the first generation of Nietzsche’s readers—artists who, like André Gide and D. H. Lawrence, sought to burst the Victorian straightjacket, exalted personal freedom, but also sought liberation from the...

    • CHAPTER 8 The Idol Fallen and Resurrected
      (pp. 110-121)

      Let us now briefly survey the twentieth-century philosophic critique of autonomous subjectivity. Twentieth-century philosophy set out to melt down the golden calf of subjectivism, but new idols seeped out of the crucible: Language, History, Discourse, Culture, Text—all various ways of enshrining human agency without naming its tabooed source, that is, man. Twentieth-century continental philosophy, by and large of French and German stamp, aggregates around three major figures from whom it draws its main themes, methods, and inspiration: Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche (the latter has already been discussed).

      The first milestone is Karl Marx (1818–1883). Marx was among the...

    • CHAPTER 9 The Prison
      (pp. 122-128)

      To summarize, the Enlightenment enthroned autonomous subjectivity; of a more sensual turn of mind, romanticism exalted the concrete feeling individual; and modernism, in reaction to this sensuality, turned subjectivity into an abstract world-making power. All three stages vary in style but not in gist. They have made man into not just the measure but the creator and context as well. There is nowhere the subject is not. The cost goes beyond mere disenchantment of the world. Overstating the subject also takes a toll of its alleged beneficiary, the self. We have lain the world at your feet, say modern philosophy...

    • CHAPTER 10 The Sense of Reality
      (pp. 131-136)

      The chain of social and intellectual upheavals that broke our age from the classical and medieval era and that gave our period its modern stamp, when reduced to its bare principle, consists in this: to guide society, customs, learning, science, the law, the arts, indeed even religion, from a human standpoint. Life is a conversation between human beings in view of human-appointed ends and carried out by human-made means. The eminence of subjecthood over reality is, by and large, the winning philosophic story of modernity. The citizen of today is raised on the principles of Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Kant,...

    • CHAPTER 11 How Reality Was Lost
      (pp. 137-141)

      Thought alone creates nothing new.

      This statement is heresy to our intellectual sensibility, to the philosophy that, from Hegel to Sartre, has taught us to regard consciousness as the spirit of freedom itself, as the escape from the drearily empirical, as the creator of the future and the conditional. In fact, however, thought alone cannot move very far. It simply rearranges what is already known to consciousness. By itself thought makes no discoveries because on its own it cannot lead to reality. Such, at any rate, is the upshot of Kant’s refutation of empiricism—a cornerstone of our modern sensibility....

    • CHAPTER 12 The Battle over Reality
      (pp. 142-162)

      Evidently, however, the idea that art strives to let the object be and that our subjective surrender opens access to reality comes under strain.

      It seems to shore, rather than mend, the ontological gulf carved up by the Critique of Pure Reason. Indeed, how does desisting from possession help our feeling of being in exile from things-in-themselves? In appearance, the Critique of Judgment asks us to assent to our exile from things, and in this assent find the piteous joy of resignation. In art we indulge freely what is imposed necessarily by the structure of consciousness: that we are kept...

    • CHAPTER 13 On Representation
      (pp. 163-171)

      The idea that art reality has been hugely depressed by our modern fixation on representation wherever and whenever art is the object of serious discussion. The new weight of representation in art appreciation is a by-product of the subjectivist ethos. And it eclipses an aspect of artworks that is indifferent to merely representing.

      That the critical focus on representation issues from subjectivism is easy to understand. Where the mind is thought capable only of representing and never breaching reality, every human activity or artifact thereby stays within subjective bounds. Moreover, assessing artworks in terms of representation seems commonsensical enough because,...

    • CHAPTER 14 On Love, Beauty, and Evil
      (pp. 172-191)

      To further this plea for reality, let us return to the defining moment in our modern way of picturing reality. Kant, we recall, sent the mind into exile from the world. From his three Critiques came a new feeling of subjective separation and ineffable longing that drove romanticism, German idealism, American transcendentalism, and some forms of European existentialism. It also gave ammunition to those philosophies which, like Nietzschism, pragmatism, analytic positivism, structuralism, and deconstruction, felt quite easy with the picture of a mind that creatively reshapes, rather than mirrors, reality.

      Subjectivism, however, is one of the paths, and by no...

    • CHAPTER 15 Art and Experience
      (pp. 192-201)

      It is commonplace to suggest that art became something of a religion in modern culture—that its votaries regarded themselves as the priests of a truer, more refined experience of life. Bereft of the consolations of church and faith, heartbroken by the matter-of-factness of nineteenth-century science and industry, the sensitive soul clutched at art for salvation. Aestheticism, art for art’s sake, the cult of beauty, Pre-Raphaelism, decadence, dandyism, and hellenism—these were so many ways of ministering to the belief in artistic transcendence, in beauty’s ability to elevate and transfigure life.¹

      Everything considered, however, the movement was altogether ephemeral. Its...

    • CHAPTER 16 The Will to Weakness
      (pp. 202-214)

      Perhaps the foregoing is a roundabout way to say that the old hokey “religion of art” had got one thing right about wedding art to religion. The two are expressions of a wish to give up our subjective monopoly over “the ten thousand things” of life. Art suspends the will to cut the world down to our measure. As in religion, art is an admission that the world is there not just to know, but also crucially not to know. And finally it is a recognition that human experience remains a pale stunted growth unless, breaking the magic charm of...

    • CHAPTER 17 Art and Imagination
      (pp. 215-221)

      Isn’t it a paradox, a bit of rococo logic, to suggest that a painting or poem entails eliminating what is imaginary? What, after all, is art if not the realm of imagination?

      Making sense of this paradox requires a look deeper at imagination. Imagination is the mind’s ability to reach beyond perception and cognition. “Imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown,” Shakespeare says. It is extension beyond the boundary of what is perceived and known. This is how the German romantics, from Kant to Hegel and Schiller and Schelling, drummed on the notion that imagination is free. By this...

    • CHAPTER 18 Art and Nature
      (pp. 222-237)

      Let us imagine if we can—we cannot—a world seen from no particular viewpoint, with no particular affect or feeling or care to guide our attention, and no thought or concept to identify the trees in the valley, the nameless fish in the sea, the stars in the sky. To picture such a state of things certainly requires a vigorous jolt of imagination because we ask imagination to put itself out of commission. This is no easy feat. Yet such is a twist of human intelligence that it cannot help contemplating what life is like when no human being...

    • CHAPTER 19 Submission, Necessity, Death
      (pp. 238-250)

      Modern romantic sensitivity is bound to bristle at these terms. How can we possibly parallel the artwork, an offspring of imaginative freedom, with a work of necessity, such as a mathematical formula? What, after all, is art if not an invitation to break the yoke and set fancy free? Of course, it cannot be that a work of art is necessary in the same way a mathematical equation is necessary. In the former case, we appeal to a quality of dedication, a spirit of seriousness and lucidity; in the latter, we convey that the equation checks out right by reason...

    • CHAPTER 20 Art and Sacrifice
      (pp. 251-262)

      Like any human work, art is an investment of personality; unlike common work, however, art sieves personality out of the finished product. There is a sort of dedication to the making of art that verges on sacrifice. This of course is a commonplace of long standing (dedication to the muse, the cult of avocation, the religious ecstasy of art, divine possession, etc.). Nevertheless, the cliché perhaps holds an old truth.

      For this purpose, let us take the poem “Pietà” by R. M. Rilke.

      “Now is my misery full, and namelessly

      it fills me. I am stark, as the stone’s


    • CHAPTER 21 Art and Work
      (pp. 263-269)

      If art making were really so simple as expressing oneself, then to be an artist would only require having an exceptional personality. But this is not how it is. Artists are outstanding personalities only when seen from afar, in the limelight of fame. When they speak in their own words, in letters or diaries, artists speak of work, of mind-breaking and backbreaking labor, of drudgery, of the humbling conflict between imagination and reality.

      The illusion of ease in art comes, first, from the work of art itself which, if well executed, erases evidence of strain. More recently, however, the idea...

    • CHAPTER 22 The Comedy of Art
      (pp. 270-275)

      Nature shows no vanity, no pride. It does not angle for exception or permanence. Nature is serenely untragic. Tragedy arises whenever there is resistance, indignation, pride, stateliness, a cling to permanence. Tragedy is self-regard writ large. Comedy by contrast happily tosses out self-concern. It is revel and song (Greek, komos + aeidin). Just as the cloud, or the wave, or the long grass in the wind gives in to the rhythm of necessity, so comedy surrenders to the natural sway of things. Comedy agrees to necessity as much as tragedy rears against it. Shakespeare gave the Fool a deeper affinity...

    • CHAPTER 23 The Religion in Art
      (pp. 276-281)

      There are thus various ways in which art nears nature—none of which are emphatically imitative. These are, to sum up: love of perception, love of necessity, love of work, the love of comedy, and renunciation of technique or, to the same effect, all-out embrace of technique. With the love of perception, the artist does justice to the side of mind that leans on the external world; he learns to dwell on the cutaneous edge of consciousness where world and self interweave; he surrenders to the outward-facing side of mindful existence. With the love of necessity, the artist learns to...

    • CHAPTER 24 Art and Love
      (pp. 282-301)

      The aspects of the artistic temper so far surveyed shear off a pole of the artistic dynamic that art simply cannot do without: to wit, the subjective.

      What, after all, is art if not personalities expressing themselves and imparting human design upon matter? Monet may have wanted to paint merely what the retina mirrored; still, in the end, he painted like no other before him, and an undeniable infusion of the Monet personality pervades his canvases. Likewise there is a Titian “take” on reality that is not Rubens’s, a Constable way of painting gray watery skies that is not Corot’s,...

    • CHAPTER 25 Postscript on Art and Religion
      (pp. 302-306)

      To show that art partakes of the religious does not suggest that art encompasses religion, or can substitute for it. To the extent that art resembles religion, it is also distinct from it. The failure of the nineteenth-century religion of art (of the aestheticism that tried to raise art to a devotional cult) is often attributed to the decay of religiousness in modern society. Regard for the religious aura of art, for the hope that it would lift us up into a clear, clean realm of experience above the material world—all this frothing aesthetic passion died down because, it...

  6. Bibliography
    (pp. 307-314)
  7. Index
    (pp. 315-318)