Thursday, 29 January 2015

Religious Experience and William James

In the 1900s, faith in the Christian God began to diminish. People began to turn away from the Church, and religion became much more about the individual’s personal relationship with God. William James, in his book “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902), reinforced this idea of an imminent God, and indeed he wrote one of the first theological books devoted wholly to the study of religious experiences. He was originally a psychiatrist and a Darwinian scientist, and also an agnostic until he had his own experience of God. His faith was sparked, and yet he did not give up on his scientific pursuits – he tried to examine his religious experience in terms of psychology. Thus, he did not ask whether believing in God was justifiable, as most theologians from Aquinas onwards had done, but why people believed in God at all, and whether belief in God is useful.

James differentiated religious experience from religious tradition – it does not matter which religion you belong to when we are talking about experience of God. In that sense, he was a pluralist, believing that all religions are worshipping a different form of the same God. Moreover, James did not try to rationalise God as other theologians had attempted to do – like Rudolf Otto, he believed that God was part of the non-rational world. Thus, a religious experience is a feeling of the non-rational, being aware of an external power that you just know is God. This is what James meant when he said religious experiences were ineffable – they cannot be explained or adequately put into words. As St Teresa of Avila says: “I wish I could give a description of at least the smallest part of what I leaned, but, when I try to discover a way of doing so, I find it impossible.” For James, then, religious belief, as well as religious experience, is non-rational, because there is no objective proof, only subjective proof that cannot be explained. James, through these ideas, highlights the “extreme difficulty of discussing non-empirical  concepts in terms of the intellect.” (R. A. Gilbert)

It is because they are non-rational and because they are personal that they have such a profound transformative effect on the subject – he cites Saul as an example. When somebody has a religious experience and this confirms or sparks their belief in God, this is called first-hand religion. Conversion can serve as validation of these experiences. James did not believe, however, that someone else’s religious experience could justify one’s own belief in God (e.g. second-hand religion). This is because religious experiences have Noetic Quality, providing insights into unobtainable truths, and these cannot be expressed to others. Aquinas noted that the idea of the Trinity, for example, had to be revealed, and could not be obtained through logic. Religious experiences are “illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for aftertime.” Thus, at the core of religion and the Church is, or at least should be, personal and authentic experiences, rather than dogma and doctrine. For James, “Feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine…” should be at the centre of religious belief and the Church.

James did not necessarily believe that every religious experience was true. He agreed that many of these experiences could be caused by mental illness (as in the stabbing of George Harrison by Michael Abrams, who said God told him to kill), or by intoxication. However, he did believe that the Transciency and Passivity of religious experiences does suggest their veracity. He explained that the Transciency of religious experiences (which usually only lasted from between a few minutes to two hours), contrasted with the dramatic effect these experiences have on peoples’ lifestyles, implies that they are important and therefore likely to be the result of the divine. Moreover, because of the power felt during a religious experience (Passivity), they are again likely to be supernatural. Genuine religious experience is beyond human control, and this can be seen as evidence against the idea that people will will their own religious experiences. However, he said that the only real sign that these experiences are from God is a ‘good disposition’ as the result of the experience. Those with a good disposition have healthy minds, and are spiritual optimists who know that God loves and forgives them.

James was not on a mission to prove God’s existence through religious experience. He simply wanted to learn more about these experiences and to compare evidence from different experiences. His methodology of pragmatism, a philosophy of open-mindedness which considers ideas “in terms of their fruits, not their roots” led him to say that religious experiences all shared these characteristics: Ineffability, Noetic Quality, Transciency, and Passivity. He defined his own religious experience thus:

“There came upon me a sense of immense exultation and joyousness followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe… The vision lasted a few seconds and was gone but the memory of it and the sense of reality of what it taught have remained.”

The fact that a large amount of his subjects said their experiences shared these qualities does suggest that they are telling the truth. However, he still explored other possibilities, studying the psychology of dreams and hallucinations. He concluded that religious experiences were ‘psychological phenomena’ and that they could they could be explained in terms of a person’s psychological make-up. However, for James this did not deny that they are linked to God. Just as God is personal, so were these experiences.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Marlene’s success is being celebrated in Act One of Top Girls, but to what extent is she actually a positive expression of female progress in society?

Ever since the pen was first put to paper, the female position has been a subject of the utmost consideration. Christianity as a whole, particularly the Bible and the works of misogynists like St Jerome and Theophrastus, instilled a certain chauvinism in society which has prevailed ever since. Despite the occasional non-conformist voicing their opinions, it was not until WW1, when religion broke down and women took to the workplace, that the female voice began to be heeded. Nonetheless, whether the subject be religious and societal inequality (Hardy’s Tess, for example), or motherhood and marriage (Sylvia Plath), the female predicament remains a constant in literature. Top Girls, highlighting the 1980s woman’s struggle to succeed, fits into this tradition perfectly. However, Caryl Churchill’s purpose in writing the play is elusive, since there seems to be no figure of female fulfilment, despite the fact that all the play’s characters are women. Even Marlene, a high-earning, successful businesswoman, is unhappy. This deficiency of female happiness demonstrates Churchill’s belief that society and business are still largely dominated by males. Patriarchy is still going strong in this modern era.

Marlene is, undoubtedly, a symbol of female success and progress in society. She has come from a lower-class background (her sister’s garden is occupied by “a shelter made of junk,” p33) and has risen up to become the managing director of an employment agency. She has thus fought against not only gender, but also class, to attain her position. She is admired by all those at the dinner party, as well as by her daughter, Angie. Isabella suggests they all toast to Marlene “to celebrate your [Marlene’s] success” (p14), and indeed Angie tells her that one day she will be “in charge of everything”. Angie, along with the audience, is incredibly impressed by Marlene’s ambition and desire for success, something she sees very little of living with her Aunt, Joyce. At one point, Marlene toasts everyone, including herself: “We’ve all come a long way. To our courage and the way we changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements.” (page 14) This toast, although somewhat arrogant (probably enthused by the alcohol), is completely true: Marlene has changed her life, achieving the extraordinary. Just as we applaud the Wife of Bath, so we applaud her for her domineering attitude and her control over every situation. It is worth noting that the play’s first words come from Marlene, immediately taking charge:

“Excellent, yes, table for six. One of them’s going to be late but we won’t wait. I’d like a bottle of Frascati straight away if you’ve got one really cold.”

The fact that she is ordering alcohol, a stereotypically male role, is very significant. Moreover, she specifies the wine’s temperature and says “straight away”. Thus, the first sentence of the play shows that Marlene knows what she wants; the rest of the play proves that she will get it. Like the other characters in Act 1 (except Griselda), she is admirable in her drive and ambition, particularly when compared to her sister. As an expression of female progress in society, she could be seen as a figure of inspiration to all women.

However, her success in the workplace has come with a cost. She is certainly an expression of female progress, but whether that expression is positive is debatable. In fact, Churchill wrote of Top Girls that it is a play “which deals with women’s losing their humanity in order to attain power in a male-dominated environment” (Encyclopedia Brittanica), and Marlene is the symbol of this loss of humanity. She is a very aggressive figure not only in the workplace, but also at dinner: she starts the meal before everyone has arrived (“One of them’s going to be late but we won’t wait”), and many of her comments are harsh and extreme: “Walter was bonkers,” “Walter’s a monster” and “What a sod.” In Act 2, the first thing she says is “Fucking tube”, again emphasising her constant belligerence. It is only with this harsh and dominating attitude that Marlene thinks she can survive. However, as well as being dominating, she is also cruel, particularly in her interview with Jeanine. She tells her, bluntly: “No As, all those Os you probably could have got an A. / Speeds, not brilliant…” Although you may argue that she is simply being honest, she is particularly unkind when she tells her: “I have got a few vacancies but I think they’re looking for something glossier.” Jeanine, already anxious and timid, is made into a feeble wreck by Marlene’s callous interrogation and harsh comments. The conversation ends on a feeble note with Jeanine saying: “Yes, all right.” In contrast, Win is much less aggressive than both Marlene and Nell, opening her interview rather light-heartedly: “Now Louise, hello, I have your details here. You’ve been very loyal to the one job I see.” Marlene is perhaps most cruel when she says that Angie is bound to be a “Packer in Tesco”. The true irony of this statement is that it is Marlene’s fault that Angie’s future is so dismal. Although Marlene is particularly pugnacious, the other women of Act 1 are too, as is Nell. For example, Joan, Nijo and Isabella all talk over each other, suggesting that the three of them are aggressive and self-absorbed. Nonetheless, Marlene is still hostile, epitomised in her conversation with her sister, when she ridicules her for being less intelligent and says: “You couldn’t have one so you took mine.” Marlene is the symbol of Thatcherite, Yuppie culture in this play, and, as she explains to her sister, she believes “in the individual” (p93). Believing in the individual, for Marlene, also means having little or no care for anybody else. In that sense, she represents a very negative expression of female progress.

Marlene is not only cruel, but she is also heartless and consequently loveless. Throughout the play she expresses no sentiments of family or romance: all of that has been sacrificed for success. Indeed, she has completely broken off from all her family, and this is demonstrated by her reply to the question “Do you have a sister?”: “Yes in fact.” The words “in fact” suggest that her sister is not somebody she often thinks about. This is juxtaposed with Isabella’s lamentations about missing her sister, creating a strong contrast between the two: while both Marlene and Isabella left their sisters to become independent, Isabella still misses her home and her family. Marlene tells her sister: “I do think of you,” and yet we struggle to believe her because, not only is she drunk when she says this, but she also fails to recognise Angie when she arrives at the office. Her lack of care for her family is epitomised by the fact that she never visits her mother. She even tells Joyce that she would feel “A lot better” not going to see her. She also seems to harbour some grudge against her father, explaining to Angie that “I don’t think he ever gave me a bath” and complaining that Joyce is “Still Dadda’s little parrot”. Marlene has split from her family not only because of the bleak opportunities in their town, but also because of their opposite political ideologies: Marlene is very right wing, whereas Joyce (and presumably the father) spits when she sees a Rolls Royce. Whilst Isabella feels a huge amount of guilt for deserting her beloved Hennie, Marlene shows little remorse. Moreover, like the protagonist at the opening of Austen’s Emma, Marlene sees no reason for love or relationships: “Oh there’s always men” she tells her sister, nonchalantly (recalling Nell and Win’s attitude towards relationships). Her attitude towards men is most obvious in her interview with Jeanine, in which she advises to not wear a ring because it “Saves taking it off,” perhaps suggesting Marlene’s uncaring approach to marriage and divorce. Marlene associates marriage with a lack of drive, asking Jeanine: “Does that mean you don’t want a long-term job, Jeanine?” Thus, Marlene has sacrificed not only her parents and sister, but also any chance of romantic attachment. In contrast, the other women of Act 1, although having trouble in relationships, were all open to the idea of love: Isabella says that she had just began to love John with her “whole heart” just before he died, and Nijo relates her romantic attachments to Ariake and the sentimental poetry involved. Thus, Marlene stands out amongst the others as completely rejecting love and family, and so making the cost of her success more extreme. Can she be called a positive expression of female progress if we consider what she has sacrificed for success?

Finally, Marlene has given up her child, and this is perhaps the most poignant aspect of the play. Unlike the other women of Act 1, who have all in one way or another had their children torn from them (Isabella was unable to have them), Marlene has willingly given her child up. When Joan is relating the story of her child to the group of women, Marlene asks her, unfeelingly: “Didn’t you think of getting rid of it?” (p16) In contrast, in response to the hardships experienced by Griselda, Nijo asks: “Did you feel anything for the children?” They are all emotionally affected by Griselda’s cruel treatment at the hands of Walter. Marlene only comments, perhaps sarcastically: “You really are exceptional, Griselda.” (p28) She explains to Joyce that she has been on the pill so long that she is “probably sterile” and that she has had two abortions: “it’s boring, it wasn’t a problem… I don’t want a baby.” She sees children as impediments to achievement, and so she abandons her own child to her sister. The aforementioned irony of this is undeniable: Marlene, in the final act, repeatedly complains about the dump that is her hometown and her lack of proper parenting, and yet she is happy to let her own child live in very similar circumstances without a father figure and with very little money. One may argue that she believes Angie can succeed for herself and, as Marlene says, “She’ll be all right,” and yet Marlene herself does not believe this. She tells Win: “She’s not going to make it.” She is comfortable with leaving her daughter with Joyce, despite knowing the cruel circumstances in which she is unnecessarily putting her. Thus, Marlene prioritises success over everything else, making her an unattractive figure, rather than a positive expression of female progress.

Thus, although Marlene is successful and shows, like the other characters in Act 1, that women can succeed, her success is not shown positively. In fact, in contrast with the characters at the dinner, her achievement is the least positive of them all, since she is cruel, unloving and uncaring. Although she does show some humanity at points, this is often clouded over by her relentless drive to succeed. Caryl Churchill was clearly keen to insinuate one key thing: the fact that Marlene, along with the other characters of Act 1 (except Griselda), has lost happiness for success. However, Marlene has willingly done this, whereas the others had little or no choice. Marlene’s unhappiness is demonstrated most obviously through her typically Yuppie-style alcoholism: she drinks to escape and forget (“What a week”). Moreover, on page 20 she exclaims: “Oh God, why are we all so miserable?” They are all miserable because they are all females who have transgressed, and this is something that a patriarchal society condemns. Churchill is demonstrating the fact that society needs to change, unless it wants half of its population to be unhappy. Marlene’s predicament is so extreme that she can barely even cry without feeling emasculated (or, in a sense, being stereotypically female). It is only at the end of the play that she says to her sister, drunk: “No, let me cry. I like it. I knew I’d cry if I wasn’t careful.” She, like the Wife of Bath, struggles to come to terms with the fact that her success, which she thought would make her happy, has not. In fact, Griselda seems to be the only woman in Act 1 who is genuinely happy (although their comments make her change her attitude later on), despite being treated cruelly throughout her life. This is, for Churchill, the female predicament in the 1980s: the struggle to find happiness in a masculine world. What Churchill sought to prove through Marlene in Top Girls was that a heartless and callous drive for power would not allow for this happiness. A different, more humane approach is needed.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Debunking the Myth that Homosexuality is 'Unnatural'

One of the biggest causes of homophobia throughout the world is the belief that homosexuality is somehow 'unnatural’. It bewilders me that, in the modern day and age, what is supposedly natural or unnatural still concerns people. The people that tend to argue this are people who have not moved on, people who are still living 50 years ago, people for whom homosexuality is still alien, and people who still adhere to Thomas Aquinas’ ideas of the natural and the moral. These people are, in my opinion, wrong.

Firstly, let me begin by refuting the idea that the unnatural is necessarily wrong or immoral. Aquinas asserted in his book Summa Theologica that the natural order of things is good, and thus he defined the primary precepts, one of which is procreation. Thus, because procreation is natural, it is good. And so, homosexuality, as it does not lead to procreation, is unnatural, and so bad. Aquinas’ theology still dominates much of Catholic doctrine, which still holds the primary precepts as sacred. However, as G.E. Moore and Hume would later point out, you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Just because the natural world is as it is, that does not mean it ought to be, and that does not mean that it is good. Aquinas only believed in these precepts because he believed in a god that created a perfect world – we are now far too advanced to see our world as perfect, are we not? What is natural is not, therefore, necessarily good. Humans are natural sinners, but that does not mean it is good to sin. Humans may be naturally heterosexual, but that does not make heterosexuality good and homosexuality bad.

Now that we know that what is unnatural is not necessarily bad, let’s go a step further and prove that homosexuality isn’t even unnatural. Aquinas’ primary precepts are based on his own religious doctrine and on the Aristotelian idea of eudaimonia: however, in our post-Enlightenment age it seems mad to continue blindly to follow Aquinas’ precepts. He argues that these precepts are the sole reason for existing, but most people would deny this – we might say that loving, or being happy, or making the world a better place, are our natural reasons for living. Thus, to go against these precepts, to have sex with another man not for the purpose of procreation, is not unnatural. If we say that homosexuality is unnatural, then so is having sex with contraception, and so is masturbation, since none of these are done in order to procreate. Aquinas is, as you can see from these examples, far too out dated still to be followed.

My second point is this: what on earth do we even mean when we say ‘natural’? In my opinion, the natural is what is part of nature. Now, because humans are part of nature, so are homosexuals, and thus homosexuality is natural. If we say that homosexuality is unnatural because it is not the norm, then ginger hair and green eyes are also unnatural. Nature is diverse, and indeed, as Gerard Manley Hopkins says in his poem Pied Beauty, nature is wonderful precisely because it is diverse and full of “dappled things”. Diversity is not unnatural, it is part of nature. In fact, I am of the opinion that every thing we create or do is natural: building skyscrapers, going to the moon, and indeed being homosexual. As Wordsworth says: “Nature doth embrace / Her lawful offspring in man’s art.” (Railways, Steamboats & Viaducts). Even if you are religious, surely you can see that homosexuals are naturally attracted to men, and that God (if you believe in him) made them thus, and so it is natural. We must either accept that all of our existence is unnatural (we are not meant to live in large houses and drive cars), or that all of it is natural: that we create the natural because we ourselves are natural.

Finally, it is worth noting that homosexuality is not only seen in the human race. Scientific studies have proven that a number of different animals have shown signs of homosexuality, thus proving that it is natural. What more could you want? There are more men in the world than women – does that make women unnatural? Just because a group is in a minority does not mean they are unnatural. Moreover, just because a group does not fulfil Thomas Aquinas’ 14th Century ideas of what is natural, does not make them unnatural! To rely on doctrine so old is mad. Our purpose is not to procreate – it is for ourselves to decide. If homosexuals are attracted to their own sex, that attraction is caused by nature and so is natural. Let them fulfil their attraction. Let them decide their own purpose, and if that purpose allows for homosexuality, then bloody well let them be homosexual.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Winter's Harbinger

The elegance of
comes not from how
it softly,
but in the way
    it suffocates.
So quiet,
                  so beautiful.

Explaining Rudolf Otto's Views on Religious Language and Religious Experience

Rudolf Otto published his ground-breaking work The Idea of the Holy in 1917.  World War One was in its third year. Hegelian optimism had been diminished by the horrors of the trenches and the savagery of man. Access to these insights meant that Otto could never ignore the primitive aspects of man, the savage, non-rational traits that lurk behind our actions. It was this knowledge that separated Otto’s theology from that of the protestant tradition from which he was departing.

The 20th Century saw a dramatic change in theology, largely inspired by Otto’s ideas on religious language and religious experience. Up until the publication of his book, the majority of theologians had striven to rationalise religion and God so as to define him and his characteristics with words such as: "Spirit, Reason, Purpose, Good Will, Supreme Power, Unity, Selfhood” (examples used by Otto). Otto commends these men for their tenacity and persistence, saying that what makes Christianity superior to many other religions is its “unique clarity and abundance” of conceptions. However, he goes on to argue that this rationalisation is only fruitful up to a certain extent; beyond that, there is a danger that God will be suffocated by labels and names, and his real essence will be lost. There is, according to Otto, something unknowable in God, and yet theologians often seem to forget this. This is very similar to the views of Dionysius and the thinkers who advocate the apophatic way. Although he argues that there is a non-rational aspect to God, he rejects the idea that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). He claims that, although part of God is inexpressible, we should not simply “be silent” and ignore it. We must not simply deny the miraculous. He argues against Orthodox doctrine and dogma which lead does in no way “do justice to the non-rational aspect of its subject.” He attacks his contemporaries for reducing God to an intellectualistic and rationalistic being, when in fact God is also personal and non-rational. Thus, Otto explains the flaws of rationalist theology, and advocates a new approach to religious language.

Otto’s new approach of considering both the rational and the non-rational aspects of God led him to argue that religious experience is, in itself, non-rational, and that this is why it is largely ignored. He writes: “Men shut their eyes to that which is quite unique in the religious experience, even in its most primitive manifestations.” It is only religious life that “presents us with something unmistakably specific and unique,” and thus it cannot and should not be ignored. It gives us the most genuine understanding of God, more genuine than the Bible and the Church can ever give us. Otto seems to believe that religion, and indeed religious experience, is for everybody, the common masses and the illiterate, rather than simply for those Professors of Theology who have studied every religious text and have reduced God to a definition. Thus, because religious experience is largely ignored by theologians, and because it is almost indescribable, Otto proposes the invention of a word to describe the non-rational aspects of God, religion, and religious experience. Although the word “Holy” was originally used to describe this non-rational aspect, Otto explains that its meaning has been manipulated so as to include ethical assertions, and indeed it has come to mean “completely good” rather than its original meaning, closer to “ineffable”.

The word he proposes, from the Latin word “numen” meaning “other”, is “numinous”. He writes: “This mental state is perfectly sui generis and irreducible to any other…” He says that, while it can be discussed, it cannot be defined, and he goes on to explain that the only way to understand the feeling is to experience it oneself. He also says that each generation, once the old word for this non-rational aspect of religion has become corrupted, ought to invent a new word for the same feeling. Tillich argued something similar in his Symbols Theory, in which he said that each religion is simply a collection of symbols to represent the same God and emotions. Thus, “holy” and “numinous” are both words or symbols used to represent the indescribable.

Otto goes into little depth about what exactly the “numinous” is, and this is precisely because, as he says, it is the ineffable. However, he does say that it is the “uncanny”, the “weird”, arousing in us “grisly horror and shuddering”. He also adds that the sense of the numinous is the sense of a reality mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Keith Ward, in his book God: A Guide for the Perplexed, gives an explanation of Otto’s ideas and seeks to explain what he meant by the word “numinous”. He argues that it is similar to what Plato describes in The Republic: once leaving the cave and seeing reality (i.e. having a religious experience), we can never again live normal lives. It makes life mysterium, incomprehensible and confusing. It is also tremendum, containing an element of “terror fraught with an inward shuddering” (Otto). Ward explains that all Gods have a double aspect: a loving, kind side, and a more dominating, cruel side. He sites Krishna’s words in the ‘Song of the Lord’: “I am Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Thus, Keith Ward explains, as well as confusion, fear ought to be inspired by religious experience. But religious experience is also fascinans,

“an intoxicating rapture which transports the mind into an altered, heightened frame of consciousness, before which ordinary experience pales into relative insignificance.” (Ward)

Thus, Ward explains, if you feel puzzled, terrified and simultaneously intoxicated, you are experiencing the “numinous”. These three emotions combined indicate a religious experience. These experiences are, for Otto, the most important part of Christianity.

Thus, although Otto’s definition of religious experience may not be exactly correct, and although it may be slightly too precise, his qualms with contemporary theology and religious language were certainly valid. God is, necessarily, unknowable; in Exodus 3:14 God said to Moses. “I AM WHO I AM”. And so, to rationalise God is to kill him, and this is precisely what Otto aims to avoid.

Reflecting on Arnold's "Dover Beach"

Before I came across Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, I had an undeniable tendency towards pessimism and melancholy. In social situations, I took on the characteristic Eeyore role of persuading people of life’s miseries. I used to shy away from what I saw as insincerely jubilant poetry; Larkin was definitely more my style. I used to adore those melancholic aphorisms that, once read, are impossible to forget: “Life is first boredom, then fear…” (Dockery and Son) and “The sure extinction that we travel to…” (Aubade) Indeed, my own poetry always ended up brimming with fearful lines like “loneliness defines the occupied” or “damned to days of dull / decline, / recession into Hell.” I found that writing how I felt about life helped me to get over my own sadness, a sadness that I now know was caused by my own mind. Perpetually blasted with images of suffering and death on the news, I found it very hard to believe that happiness really existed.

It was around this time last year that I lost my faith in God. It was not caused by anything in particular: I simply woke up one day and my gradually diminishing belief had completely disappeared. For the most important figure in my human life (and indeed what I believed to be my eschatological life) to abruptly cease to exist, was a troubling experience. For a while I would tell people that I was a humanist, believing in the strength and love of civilization. And yet, in the wake of the Peshawar massacre, the Boko Haram terrorist attacks, the hypocritical cries of “JeSuisCharlie” and the continuing tragedy of the Israeli occupation, my faith in humanity swiftly dwindled. The world seemed corrupt and cruel, and I mournfully accepted it thus. Although I knew I should be happy and grateful to be as privileged as I am, living in a comfortable home with a loving family, I was not. I wanted nothing more than to be content, and yet I supposed that there was something about the wiring of my brain that refused to allow this. I used to scream with Plath: “Is there no way out of the mind?” (Apprehensions) Until I read this poem, I believed there wasn’t.

Matthew Arnold seems to share a similar outlook, haunted by the “eternal note of sadness” reflected by the grating pebbles of the sea. He, like Sophocles and thousands of artists before him, is unable to experience the natural world without being reminded of “the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery”. Arnold values the sweetness of the “night-air” and revels in the beauty of “When the sea meets the moon-blanched land…” However, he cannot enjoy nature’s magnificence without finding cause for lamentation. I, too, while appreciating the beauty of the natural world, saw nothing but melancholy in it. Our planet seemed to me a beautiful place, sadly polluted by humanity. Arnold goes on to explain how, in his post-Enlightenment age, the “Sea of Faith” has dwindled into nothing but a distant, “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” that one hears rather than sees.  Like the first, the third stanza moves from beautiful description to forlorn and sorrowful meditation: the earth’s beauty served as a reminder of humanity’s flaws, and this caused me to grieve. Arnold and I had both lost our religious faith, and so we struggled to see any hope in existence. This poem affected me so dramatically because I thought I was alone in this. I thought that I alone saw beauty as imperfection, that I alone saw faith as what Freud called an “obsessional neurosis”. To have my thoughts so eloquently presented to me by someone living 150 years ago made me catch my breath, whilst also comforting me.

And yet, if the poem had ended with “shingles of the world” I would have swiftly forgotten its existence. It is the final stanza that had such a great effect upon me, not because it chimed with my own thoughts, but precisely because it did not. It is this stanza that I recite to myself morning and night. It is this stanza that literally haunts my dreams and gives me hope. Arnold offers in this stanza a solution to my prior melancholy, and it is a solution that I yearn to accept. One does not have to be in love, or to have been in love, to feel the power and strength of Arnold’s words: “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!” These words represent “a stand against a world of broken faith” (Pratt), the invention of hope where there is none. The world has “neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain…” and yet Arnold is not giving in.

The final metaphor of this poem speaks to me in a way that no line, no stanza, no novel has ever done before. This is because I viewed, and indeed still view my life as exactly that,

                                          “a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Indeed, this is Arnold’s chief reflection on the human condition. Civilisation is cruel and violent, waging wars that need not be waged, inciting conflict over what should be shared. We know that all humans are equal, and yet we fail to live by this maxim: we are those “ignorant armies”. Arnold seems to be saying that, although the world is cruel, we have the chance to make the most of it. For him, making the most of it meant loving and being faithful.
The fact is, “let us be true”, can mean anything you want it to mean. It stands for the victory of love, happiness, or faith, over sadness and melancholy. Arnold is explaining that happiness can still be found. No matter how depressed or hurt we feel inside, there is still hope. It is up to each individual to find that hope, their own hope. There is no point in being sad about what is a fact of life: we are on “a darkling plain”, we cannot help that. This final stanza made me rethink my whole approach to life. Yes, I do struggle to be happy, I do struggle to believe in ideals like love and faith. Arnold did too, but he found hope, and thus I can find hope too. Dover Beach explains both what Keats meant in saying “go not to Lethe” (Ode on Melancholy) and what Milton’s Satan meant in convincingly saying “The mind is its own place and in itself, / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” (Book I of Paradise Lost) This poem has inspired me to reject Hell, and to find goodness in what seems or even possibly is a bad and evil world. This poem has made me a happier person, and for that I am perpetually grateful to Arnold. Moreover, it has encouraged me to write my own positive poetry, even though I may not be the most optimistic person. The pessimistic Larkin wrote The Trees and Solar, so I too can write poetry to make people smile, rather than cry. Overall, Arnold showed me the power we have over our outlook. He showed me that there really is happiness waiting for me, I just need to find it.