How literature reveals intelligent design

A literary critic discerns pointers towards the transcendent in great works of imagination.
William Park | Oct 12 2007 | comment  



Even James Bond can be seen as an example of literature's universal symbolsIntelligent Design usually refers to the theory that because nature has laws, the laws imply a lawmaker, that because the universe exhibits a design, the design implies a designer. It’s an old argument, extending back to antiquity, but many scientists, including Newton and possibly Einstein, accepted it.

In recent times some "creationists" have carried this "Argument of Design" a step further by insisting that both the complexity of the universe and the intricacy of the human body prove that evolution could not have taken place by mere accident. Their views outrage evolutionists or Darwinians, the kinder of whom would allow such notions in the imaginary realms of theology or philosophy, but insist that theories that cannot be verified by empirical demonstrations have no place in science classes or textbooks.

I have no problem with their objections and with excluding Intelligent Design from the lab, but I would also banish from science classes and textbooks the equally improvable hypothesis that evolution is the result of random, mindless mechanical forces.

But don’t worry. This talk is not about science but about literature. I am or was a professor of literature, and I wish to report tonight on my work in this humanistic, secular field. I cannot , like Milton," justify the ways of God to man," but I think I can show that works of art, all of which have certifiable creators, with the possible exception of Shakespeare’s, make a much better argument for intelligent design than do the works of nature.

Literature takes us out of ourselves on an imaginative journey that leads to an intelligible moral structure. It lifts the veil from the confusion and chaos of the moment and dazzles us not only with order but edifies us with a moral vision that resides, too often sight unseen, within our own imaginations.

 

The greatest of literary critics

 

I must begin with Northrop Frye. Any of you who majored in English years ago have certainly heard of him or read his books. To my mind, he is the greatest of literary critics and theorists, as great as his only rival for this honour, Aristotle. Frye burst upon the literary scene is 1947 with his book Fearful Symmetry, which decoded the poetry of William Blake. At that time Blake was not considered a major romantic poet. Frye not only moved him to the centre of Romanticism, but in subsequent works demonstrated that the Romantic movement did not give way to Victorian Realism but simply went into other phases, Realism being the first, that have continued into our own times under the names of Modernism and Post-Modernism. All of us, everyone in this room, are still living in what he termed the "Romantic Cosmos," a profound cultural revolution that reversed basic perspectives about God, society, man, and nature.

Then ten years later he published his masterpiece, Anatomy of Criticism, and it is about his discoveries in that book that I wish to speak. One part of it is entitled "Theory of Myths." By myth Frye means not falsehoods but stories, narratives, or plots. These narratives, any narratives in any medium, from comic books to grand opera, take archetypal forms or structures.

There are four of them. The most popular is what he called the plot of romance. Anyone who has seen a James Bond movie should recognise it immediately. In it a hero sets out on a quest; he encounters many tests and difficulties; he is imprisoned, put under ground, nearly killed, but manages to escape his designated doom and in the end he rescues the heroine and saves his society if not the world itself. The female version of the plot usually consists of a young woman protecting her virtue and integrity against the assaults of wicked seducers. There’s also a communal form in which a group of people make their way, against all odds and innumerable difficulties into a promised land. In movies we think of covered wagons and the Oregon Trail, but this is also, of course, the plot of the Bible, in which life begins in a garden or green world of some kind, suffers a fall – sometimes known as history – followed by a redemption and restoration of goodness and joy.

Counter to this is the plot of irony. Here the hero or heroine begin in a fallen world, what Frye called "the mad world, "one dominated by evil blocking figures and forces who impose various forms of servitude and prevent any ultimate escape despite valiant efforts and near misses. At best the protagonists end up sadder and wiser; at worst they meet further imprisonments and ironic, not meaningful deaths. A perfect example is Anna Karenina. Many readers miss the fact that although she meant to commit suicide by putting her head on the track of a very slowly moving train, as the wheel approaches, she recoils and tries to save her life, but in jerking her head back she hits it on the car above and falls unconscious back on the track. This is sad, but it is not tragedy. Her life of an unhappy, unfulfilled marriage and her futile attempts to escape to a greener world with her lover Vronsky all serve as an ironic plot which, in this greatest of novels, Tolstoy contrasts to the romantic plot of Levin and Kitty. We see the plot of irony very clearly in the works of Kafka and in Eliot’s Wasteland, but it also goes under the name of "realism" and has been used by almost all the writers deemed serious in the last two centuries.

If you visualise these plots as a kind of square with the plot of romance at the top and the plot of irony at the bottom, you will quickly see that the other two better known plots take their heroes and heroines up and down between them.

The least popular plot and the rarest in world literature, is the plot of tragedy, in which the hero falls from the vicinity of the green world into the mad world of death and destruction, most terrifyingly not through his so-called tragic flaw, a mistranslation of a Greek word, hamartia, a term from archery meaning "missing the mark" but through the very virtues that made him or her great and sympathetic in the first place. That is why suicide figures so importantly in tragic plots, for by living we hasten our deaths. To live is to die. And that is why so often in tragedy, the cause of misfortune stems from the parents of the heroes and heroines. By giving them birth, they have condemned them to death. Thus in the early seventeenth century, the great period of English tragedy, there is much rhyming of womb and tomb and breath and death.

Counter to this is of course the plot of comedy in which what at first seems an unlikely or ironic hero, aided by coincidence, nature, and his own developing powers manages to escape from the mad world, rescue the imprisoned heroine, and form a new and better society, banishing from it or sometimes converting the former blocking figures, not infrequently the parents or guardians of his heroine. As Dante realised, religion itself is a Divine Comedy.

 

The "stubborn structure"

 

There are thousands, millions no doubt, variations on these archetypal plots, but for those capable of perceiving similarities amidst the diversities, one cannot help seeing what Frye termed "the stubborn structure." What he discerned is not an interpretation of literature which affirms his ideology but with facts, with observable and repeated and tested phenomenon, with literature as it is. These archetypal plots are imaginative but not imaginary. Of course, to see them, one needs to stand back a pace from the particular story, which is unique, like a person, and recognise the identity it shares with multitudes of other stories. You cannot have knowledge of a field if you cannot engage in a certain amount of abstraction – or ability to make connections between similar phenomena. There can be no anthropology for instance if you cannot perceive that while rituals differ from tribe to tribe, all of the tribes and their rituals are engaged with the problems of coming of age, identity, procreation, and death.

Frye, of course was neither alone in these researches nor that original in charting this territory. In the Symposium, Socrates remarks that if a man really understood life he could write tragedy or comedy equally well. Aristotle is alleged to have written a treatise on comedy, though for the Greeks, tragedy meant a work about an aristocrat, comedy a work about commoners. Shakespeare employed all four archetypal plots in his plays, and was conscious of them, as they all had generic names, the plot of irony known as tragi-comedy. Blake perceived all the archetypes, though he renamed them according to his system, but he claimed that he learned them all from the Bible, which he called "the great code of literature"

In our own day the anthropologist Levi-Strauss has codified and classified tribal myths and rituals, while the comparative religionists, a the most famous of whom, Mircea Eliade, converted to Catholicism, have revealed the archetypes and recurring images in religious symbolism. Jung developed a kind of psychoanalysis based on archetypes, and his disciple, my former colleague Joseph Campbell popularised them in his Masks of God and in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the book that inspired George Lucas to create Star Wars. At Sarah Lawrence College I once arranged for Frye to give a talk and also persuaded the President of the College to have a dinner for him to which Joseph Campbell was also invited, expecting no doubt some kind of marvellous Dr Johnson/John Wilkes exchanges between the two, but my Boswellian plot came to naught and the conversation never rose above the merely polite.

None of these thinkers imposed their ideas on the phenomena of worldwide patterns; rather they are doing what Pope claimed for the rules of neo-classicism:

"Those Rules of old discovered not devised,
Are Nature still but Nature methodized."

I prefer Frye because he aims at these patterns in literature alone. Needless to say, his theories have in certain quarters proved unpopular. Critics have written books against him, although their arguments boil down to a protest that "you can’t say that," for in our relativistic age you cannot generalise lest you be guilty of the mortal sin of "essentialism." A more effective tactic however is to ignore Frye as an old-fashioned and irrelevant "structuralist" and turn to deconstruction, feminism, Marxism, still plugging along under new names such as "cultural studies," or to queer theory, the latest variation on Freud, or to whatever concern or ideology has caught the fancy of the moment.

All of these methods of studying literature have brought about valuable insights, but they really do suffer from a tragic flaw, namely that they approach literature from a fixed and usually rigid ideology and tend to impose it on the works they study, not infrequently in the form of an "attack." Thus a Marxist critic reads Tom Jones not as a comic novel about Fortune and Providence but about the enclosure of farmland in eighteenth century England. A champion of colonial literatures sees the meaning of Jane Austen’s world in West Indian slave plantations, and a film critic attempts to squeeze the works of Alfred Hitchcock into the strait jacket of Lacanian psychoanalysis. These same critics of course would all condemn the Catholic Church for being dogmatic.

Frye was one of the most brilliant men who ever lived, but he was also a twentieth century Canadian who once set out to be a Methodist minister, a man no doubt limited by his time and place in history. He for instance classified the historic periods of Western Literature, which he called "modes," according to the power of the protagonist. His system works, but it may also reveal a modern cultural bias toward what Henry Adams called "the dynamo" instead of the Medieval world’s prejudice for the Virgin.

 

An empirical approach to literature

 

Yet he consciously strove to avoid imposing ideology onto literary criticism or attacking works in order to show the deficiencies of the authors and their cultures, and of course his own superiority. For him criticism should be to literature what science is to nature, an attempt to discover what it is and how it works – the empirical method, of course, employed by Aristotle and all the best critics ever since. Nevertheless, he was criticised for describing this bi-polar literary structure in Christian terms. Following Blake, he called the upper zone a world of innocence, "an analogy to heaven," and the lower one a world of experience or "an analogy of hell." He later claimed that he used these terms because they were most familiar to his readers. Such terms did not limit the phenomena to Western civilisation, however, for whenever and wherever in the world an author tells a story, it will move up and down and back and forth within this stubborn structure of an upper world characterised by innocent children, happy marriages, furry, friendly animals, warm sunlight, gardens, fertility and joy, and a lower world characterised by blocking figures, oppressive laws, labyrinths that lead nowhere, snakes and dragons, fire and ice, cruelty and sterility.

What then can we say about this fact of the stubborn structure of literary narrative? Frye would say nothing. He did not see it, as did his critics, as a theory of categories that boxed in the imagination, but as a more informed way of experiencing literature that would lead to better citizens and societies. But he refused to draw conclusions or connect his theories with a creed or party. Like most intellectuals, he was undoubtedly liberal in his personal politics, always suspicious of what he termed "anxieties" or dogmas. The only major author he ever wrote about negatively was T.S. Eliot, whose more orthodox Christianity was at odds with Blake’s more heterodox "human divine".

 

Archetypes and the natural law

 

But I wish to go a few steps beyond what Frye would allow. First, and to this he would agree, art is a natural human activity. All peoples tell stories, at first to describe their origins, and in the history of languages, poetry almost always precedes prose. Next we may infer a common human nature - for all humans desire the green world and abhor the mad world, even the blocking figures, however perverted and counter productive their methods. So the stubborn imaginative structure is essentially a moral structure; it demonstrates and articulates good and evil, about which all societies, like all stories, are much more in agreement than not. Thus the archetypes affirm the concept, if not the immediate interpretation, of a natural law. All this of course is anathema to the relativists, but there it is staring you in the face, a fact, a universal phenomenon, like the turning of the earth.

Needless to say, if an author set out to write an archetypal plot, chances are the work would be if not a flop, formulaic in the worst sense of that word, like soap operas, detective novels, and too many Hollywood movies. The creative imagination does not work that way. It is fresh and original, surprising, crossing boundaries, transforming conventions, even genres and always enriching them with the power of words and living characters.

Yet here we notice two seeming paradoxes. One, the greater the author, the more he dares, the greater the stretch and grasp of his imagination, the more consciously archetypal the work becomes, a fact observable not only in the great poets, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Milton, but also in the great novelists, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Kafka, Mann, and Joyce. And two, rather than being disappointed by this movement from the diversity of the immediate to the conformity and seeming limitations of these archetypes, most readers become exhilarated, edified, and even liberated when they encounter them.

 

Great art is essentially religious

 

Here then we perceive a clue about why all great works of literature are, as Simone Weil said, ultimately religious. No doubt through beauty and the power of words, through their aesthetic design, they carry us beyond the present day or the time-bound cultures of their authors into something more permanent, something transcendent. But of course what is this something, this transcendence but the place where eternal structures are revealed? Thus, the imagination, that human faculty that we imagine to be most free, and indeed it is free, inevitably takes us to or makes us aware of this universal design. Like a magnet it is drawn to myth, symbol, and archetypes. Like a flame, it illumes its own genius while at the same time revealing something higher, more profound, some vision which makes writers imagine that a Muse or Divine Spirit composed their works, not themselves.

In great literature then, we see a double intelligent design. The individual story has a creator, a form, a means of presentation and an end, all of Aristotle’s four causes, all functions of the intelligent, deliberate and personal design of the author. But as the story proceeds in its own particular way, it encounters or finds itself in the midst of another intelligent design, at the very least a design that is intelligible, the forms of the archetypal plots. Stories then are not unlike a soccer match and other field sports. [Forgive this analogy, I just returned from South America where the TV shows what must be a perpetual game.] The best of the games are fluid, surprising, filled with exciting reversals, back and forth action, and strong personalities, yet all played within a defined field, which rather than limiting the action makes the game not only possible but more interesting and coherent.

Both of these designs, as I keep insisting, are objective facts. Any intelligent reader can discern both the unique plot of the work he is enjoying and the archetypal plot to which it conforms or belongs. Most recently we have the example of the most popular books of our time, the Harry Potter novels. Whatever one thinks of J.K. Rowling, no one can fault her for lack of imagination. She has created a whole new alternative world of Hogwarts and Sorcerers. And yet, as Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times reviewer, observed, she has created "a narrative that fuses a plethora of genres… into a story that could be Exhibit A in a Joseph Campbell survey of mythic archetypes."

 

Imaginative DNA

 

Where do these archetypes, these other intelligent designs, come from? Granted that all human beings are brothers and sisters, distinguishing between good and bad, pleasure and pain, is only natural to us. Most of us prefer prosperity and happiness to poverty and despair. But there’s something more profound in this intelligent design that goes beyond common sense. Why when there are so many languages, cultures, tribes, sub-cultures, so many customs and seemingly infinite variations upon them, does the imagination, which would seem to be the freest, most liberated of all human faculties work its wonders within this same framework, very often in the same terms and images, for there are archetypal symbols, such as lambs and dragons, as well as plots.

Such a striking fact indicates to me that we are not tabula rasas, as Locke and the behaviourist school of psychology would have it. We are not born with a blank tablet in our brains that is formed and conditioned by experience. Rather we are born with an a priori imaginative structure in our brains that is merely confirmed by experience, but which experience alone cannot confirm.

If we had no inherent sense of the good, how would we ever have imagined or accepted that the world is fallen or that we are alienated from, if not God, some lost paradise we have never known? Why would we not accept bribes, corruption, kickbacks, lying, cover-ups, injustice, abuse of power, self destructive and socially destructive behaviour as the normal state of things, the way the ball bounces and the cookie crumbles. Wise up kid, it’s the way of the world. On what ground do we condemn this natural state of things and describe it in negative terms?

I cannot explain this except to say that just as a biological DNA determines our bodies, so an imaginative and moral DNA must determine our expectations and our art. In other words, we have been formed, programmed, I would even say endowed with a moral imagination. In this we differ from all other creatures – even our cousins the chimpanzees, who to the best of my knowledge do not make up stories about their origins, social travails, and spiritual journeys.

 

Lifting the veil of confusion

 

Great literature then works in a way similar to contemplative prayer. Spiritual masters advise us to clear our minds of immediate concerns and concentrate on some mantra, some word or image, that will enable us to reach beyond our conscious selves and egos to link up with the divine. Such meditative exercises assume that an all-creative God has implanted his immanent divinity within us so that we might approach his transcendent divinity beyond us. In a similar manner, literature takes us out of ourselves on an imaginative journey that leads to an intelligible moral structure. It lifts the veil from the confusion and chaos of the moment and dazzles us not only with order but edifies us with a moral vision that resides, too often sight unseen, within our own imaginations.

So the double structure of literature, the double helix if you will, of its two intelligent designs, if it does not serve as a proof of God, certainly implies that we have been made in his image. First, because unlike all other creatures we have been granted the freedom and the imaginations to create, to be co-creators with him. And second, the greater and better use of this gift makes us more aware of what some would call our "humanity," but what I believe is meant by "the kingdom of heaven is within you," the divinity with which we have been endowed. We are naturally drawn to it because it has been pre-coded into our imagination; it is the truth, the essence, the ultimate reality of our human -- and our divine -- nature.

William Park is a veteran film reviewer and the author of "Hollywood: An Epic Production", a highly praised verse history of American cinema. He lives in California.



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