Transcendence in English Letters

Alastair Beattie


The first literary expressions of Platonic idealism along with the Greek tragic spirit were brought to Britain by the Roman conquerers. Britons who were enslaved by the Romans who had long accepted the Greek contributions to their own literary tradition.


With the fall of the Roman Empire there was an invasion from Europe by the Angles who spoke a Germanic dialect that was to become the Old English language. The Angles brought their legends and myths with them. Their tales and stories were passed in the traditions of the poets by word of mouth, they lacked the dimensions that writing brings.


Although the poetic songs which had not been written carried a spontaneity and a subtlety that all improvisation and ad lib folk literature brings, the dimension which the Angles lacked was that of precise, considered and corrected thought, the dimension that science gives to art.


Be that as it may, all symbolic expression, whether it is that of music, or of images or of runes and writing, carries with it the elemental significances that substances come to carry to the human mind and the human soul. Symbols share a universal meaning.


Since the times of Heraclitus, the four natural elements of earth and water, of fire and of air, have been used to suggest specific substances. Earth is physical matter, water is soul, air is spirit, and fire is creation. The elements mix and separate and then come together again, but they retain their elemental stuff.


One of the earliest Anglo Saxon stories concerns the hero Beowulf who must fight and kill the monster Grendal whose mother is a water hag, a woman who lives in the water, who lives in the soul. Grendal after great cost and effort is killed.


The meaning is clear. The hero, who is the superior man, must go down into the water, into the depths of himself and destroy the monster who lives there who is none other than his own soul, but the soul that is a monster, the soul that does not know how to subdue itself because it does not know itself.


The Socratic dictum, know thyself, is central to all art, and all art serves as a key to knowledge, not only to knowledge of the self but also to the physical, the psychic, and the intellectual spirit that leads to the creation of a new self.


The transcendence of the old involves a passage through or across the water. Moses must cross the Red Sea to leave the old world of Egypt. The dry soul of Heraclitus must purge itself from the bourgeois damp. The Christ must be baptized.


The Renaissance is the re-birth of the classic in Europe. The Greco-Roman logic, the long pondered treatises of the Greeks, the tragedies, the early novels, the escape from myth by the interpretation of the symbols which is the main burden of Plato. Plato looks at the physical world from a position above it—the position includes the physical world even as it is transcended.


The Medieval Judaeo-Christian writers saw the physical world as evil, the passion plays, and the romances taught extrication from the world however fascinating that world seemed to be. But starting in Italy, and moving north to England, the old classic view of a world which is the center of the soul, and is in all aspects of the soul including the interpenetration of the soul in physical matter, redeems the soul.


Shakespeare shows us the redeemed soul in The Tempest, but Shakespeare is hardly in his grave when the onslaught of the Judaeo-Christian Puritan revolution begins in England. The Globe Theater, is burned down. The imagination of man is condemned as wicked, the Church is nationalized and then also condemned for the wickedness of the imaginal symbolism it uses.


It is only when the Romantics return to the forefront of English letters that a return to classic pantheism is endeavored and accepted. Keats abandons Judaeo Christian imagery completely, it is Artemis Diana that must save Endymion from the banality of the mundane view.


Romanticism is essentially Greek idealism,


burning brightly in the 19th Century until political concerns and the scientific rage for a logical Positivism which depicts man as a product of his physical environment comes to the fore. Naturalism and social realism with novels like those of Jane Austen which display proper bourgeois etiquette become popular amongst the middle class reading public.


But even then the fire of transcendental literature begins to burn brightly in America. Whitman talks about a transcendental democracy. Emily Dickinson dwells in the redeemed soul without paying a scrap of attention to the Civil War raging around her.


The fire of the Romantics never goes out in America. The Beatniks follow the British to India and to Japan. Buddhism becomes the way to transcendental salvation even as the Puritan ethic is abandoned and the post-modern post-industrial provides the chaotic background from which emerges a new World Soul with a global outlook that thrives on Romantic diversity and salvation through nature.


The great films, born from great novels, and the great screen writers who have cut their teeth on classic and Romantic transcendentalism come to the fore.


New heroes emerge like the hero of Titanic who sacrifices himself for the love and in the love of a beautiful woman and is drowned, if not tragically certainly heroically and in the best of the transcendental traditions of English letters.



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