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How to Be An Angel

ISSUE:  Spring 1998

There is not much need, 1 imagine, to fear a religious revival among those who teach literature or write about it. But some highly secular critics seem to be dropping God’s name a good deal nowadays, invoking hermeneutics, using divine analogies, even toying with mysticism, and the oddity needs to be explained.

I cite two highly distinct cases here: George Steiner’s Real Presences (1989) and Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon (1994). In the first we are told, amazingly enough, that all coherent accounts of meaning in literature are “underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence”; while in the second, in a fine bouncing book, a canon of classics is proposed beginning with the theocratic age (as Bloom calls it), whose passing he perhaps faintly regrets. He has already shared in writing another work, The Book of J (1990), about texts that allegedly underlie the Old Testament, and is even-handed enough to suggest that “religion can be the greatest of blessings or the greatest of curses,” and he is fully aware, needless to say, that canon is a word with strong religious undertones. But the total argument is less religious than morally affirmative, and the book convincingly argues that texts chosen for nothing more than their ethnic or gender implications are likely to make thin gruel for college courses, and that Shakespeare, in any case, is too deeply implanted by now in the consciousness of Western man to he dislodged or replaced. Bored with critical iconoclasms that went nowhere, like Deconstruct ion, the new school is nostalgic and traditionalist. As T.S. Eliot oner unforgettably said of the classics, they are that which we know.

Recent critics, unlike Eliot, make no claim whatever to religious conviction, it must be emphasized, when they take up with hermeneutics, and the tact that the Real Presence is a euchuristic term about a divine element in the bread that is eaten at communion and the wine that is drunk is no more here than grandly metaphorical. It is not God that is back, but God-talk. Secular God-talk is nothing new, on a long view, and in The Renewal of Literature (1987) Richard Poirier has perceptively drawn attention to Emerson who, as he says, attributed literary creativity to “God or divinity or the soul in each of us, “where God represents” the very limitations which human desire must always want to transcend.” The 60’s report that literary humanism had died, it now appears, was happily premature; a revival of moral criticism is now fitfully under way; the spirit of Matthew Arnold still lives; and it is no longer a disgrace to admire and reread Lionel Trilling. All this is encouraging, and my purpose here is to encourage it further. But I suspect there is a quicker and straighter road back to humanism than recent books would suggest.

It is the subtext of assumption that is above all interesting here. It now seems to be widely believed that anything that cannot be proved must be a matter of faith. Such, at least, is the supposition that underwrites the latest burst of divine name dropping. Since no one can prove masterpieces to be that, the only choice left (it is often felt) is to yield oneself up to their majesty much as a mystic surrenders to God.

That stark choice of doubt or surrender—that implicit rejection of intuitive knowledge—would have surprised former ages. For centuries it was accepted that much that mankind knows, and knows with certainty, has nothing to do with proof. That is to understate the matter. To many minds any call for proof was a sign of a feeble comprehension; to those who really know, no proof is necessary. Knowledge is not where we end but where we start. In Paradise Lost, for example, Milton makes the Archangel Raphael tell Adam that reason is either discursive or intuitive—it uses discourse or it does not—and he adds that intuitive knowledge is the higher faculty of the two and belongs mostly to angels:

     Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours,
     Differing but in degree, of kind the same (V. 488—90),

though he offers some hope that mankind may one day rise to the dignity of the angels by dispensing with the feeble crutch of discourse and seeing matters whole and for what they are. The argument, which Milton in no way offers as original, is said to go all the way back to Plato and Plotinus, so it was pagan before it was Christian; and one learned American editor—Merritt Y. Hughes in 1957—quotes an obscure 16th-century work claiming that “angels do not know by rationating, combining and dividing data,” as men do, presumably because they do not need to. Since divine analogies are all the rage, perhaps this is the moment for angels; and the argument may be worth reviving on its merits, what is more, and worth bringing down to earth by a commonplace and wholly extra-religious illustration.


Suppose you are learning a foreign language from a book, absorbing its grammatical rules and acquiring words out of a dictionary. That is how I once learnt French, before the Direct Method was fashionable. You come by stages to know the rules and could expound them to others—all of which sounds like Adam’s discursive knowledge as described by the Archangel Raphael. But there is another, angelic kind of knowledge which is intuitive, like knowing your native language, where you cannot say what the rules are but still, in practice, get them infallibly right. Like many before him, Milton thought that mankind had both kinds of knowledge, and that the intuitive kind was the higher of the two. Which is surely right. I know English better than French, even though I cannot usually give rules for it. That is because I do not need to give them. My knowledge of French is an inferior knowledge, and its inferiority is marked by a need to learn its rules; and even after learning them, I must still defer to native speakers of French, since the whole of a language is never rule-bound. “Can I say this?” That is a question one can answer with confidence of a native language and of no other.

What is striking about much of the new mysticism in literary studies is that the millennia-old tradition of intuitive knowledge, which was pagan before it was Christian, has been firmly set aside or cheerfully forgotten. Intuition is supposed to be an inferior mode, if it is acknowledged to be there at all. It is often imagined, too, that scientists do not use it—which, in an age of dazzling scientific achievement, lent disparagement. A lot of people in the humanities, that is, and a surprising number of scientists, suppose that science is value free and can prove everything it knows. A moment’s thought would show that both these claims are nonsense. A laboratory scientist confidently speaks of the colors of substances, for example, and needs to, and would rightly think you were wasting his time if you asked him how he knows that blue is blue or that yellow is yellow. He will also say that the best thing to do next in an experiment is X, which sounds like a value judgment. Such knowledge is intuitive. So scientists dispense with proof and make value judgments, not just occasionally but often and necessarily, and those who imagine all that distinguishes the arts from the sciences are mistaken.

Intuitions, it is often objected, can conflict, especially in literary and moral matters. But that, on reflection, sounds like an odd reason to belittle them. If you admire a poem less than I do, for example, that is where critical argument usefully begins. An argument, like a game of tennis, needs conflict. There are always two sides. And since learning happens through argument, that would be another reason to commend intuition. It is no answer to say that it is not enough. In an absolute sense, nothing is enough, and those who call intuition dangerous should be asked to consider that all thinking is dangerous, in the sense of being subject to error. It is still a good place to start. In fact it is where everything starts.

It is often objected, too, that intuition is unsafe because people start in different places. Ideologies differ, paradigms of enquiry vary according to place and age, theories remain obstinately unagreed. In a 1969 postscript to his vastly influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), for example, Thomas S. Kuhn argued that if two people disagree about their theoretical positions, “neither can be convicted of a mistake.” He means, of course, convicted by theory. But bad theories can still be convicted by counter-instances, so there is no need to throw up one’s hands and agree to differ; argument can still go on. If some one tells you that all history is a history of class-war, then it should be enough in principle to answer that the two world wars of this century were not that. Any single counter-instance is enough to destroy a theory, and no war in which the United States and the Soviet Union fight on the same side can be called a war between a bourgeoisie and a proletariat. Or if somebody tells you that all tragedies end unhappily, then it should be enough to instance one indubitable example of a tragedy, such as Corneille’s Le Cid, which does not. Those, again, who imagine that proof always strengthens belief should think again. Suppose someone were to say: “I’m not mad, and I have a certificate to prove it.” Would you not, even after examining his certificate, believe in his sanity the less?

The notion that intuitive knowledge is inferior to the discursive is commonly assumed among critics nowadays, for all that, and surprisingly little argued. That can be observed in debate. If you cannot answer a question, it is assumed you do not know the answer. If you cannot meet the challenge of “How do you know that?” it is assumed that you do not really know. If you instance undeniable cases of intuitive knowledge like the taste of food—who on earth could tell you what a banana tastes like?—there is an uncomfortable silence in the seminar room, sometimes mixed with irritation and anger. It is as if you had tried to slip one under the net. Persevere, and put forth the Archangel Raphael’s full-blooded view that much, and perhaps most of what we know is unsaid because it is unsayable, and all the better for that, and the first glimmerings of a rational opposition finally begin to emerge.

Intuition, it will be said, is too easy. You cannot simply let people decide for themselves what their moral or aesthetic choices are, and without being called on to offer any proof or argument. For one thing, anyone can do that, even an illiterate, and you do not come to college to do what anyone can do without even learning to read or write. Besides, people might think the most dreadful things, even act on them. Did not Hitler, who claimed intuitive genius, think that genocide was right?.

This fear of a descent into moral or aesthetic anarchy lies at the heart of a lot of recent critical rhetoric about God. Paradoxically, it leads back into anarchy. For if we need agreed foundations for knowledge in morality and the arts, whether human or divine, and do not have them, then there can be no certainties; in which case, a shrewd prosecuting counsel might answer, Hitler was free to say what he said and to do what he did. Plainly something has gone badly wrong with this argument. The answer to moral anarchy cannot lie in a vain search for the foundations of knowledge, since the search fails; and talk about God, among secular critics, is mere wordplay. So perhaps we should listen to the Archangel, or rather to Milton and his pagan sources, and give intuition another try.


Intuition is direct knowledge—what Coleridge in the Biographia Literaria (1817) called “the immediate which dwells in every man,” something intelligible to no one, he adds, by “the ministry of mere words from without” (ch. 12). It means seeing that it is so, and the notion that it is easy—too easy—involves a series of misconceptions.

For one, there is nothing necessarily the matter with being easy. We easily recognize colors, unless color-blind, and nobody thinks the ease discredits what we do or that the color-blind make such recognitions merely personal. We easily tell whether things are hot or cold. Those who liberated Hitler’s death camps, similarly, found it easy to recognize that what they saw was wrong, and if it had been suggested to them in 1945 that they were over hasty and should first agree on the foundations of moral knowledge, they would not have been impressed. Nor did anyone wish to argue, at that moment, that there are no convincing instances of One Correct Interpretation, whether in morality or the arts. They knew perfectly well, as liberators, that they were looking at something for which there was only one correct interpretation, and they did not pause to theorize it. They unhesitatingly condemned.

Seeing that it is so, then, can be as infallible as it is swift, and its ease is no objection. It is stronger than mere belief, which usually allows that other views are possible. Wittgenstein once remarked that a schoolchild does not believe in the two-times table. He sees that it is so, in a sort of benign credulity. It would do no one any good, that is to say, least of all himself, if he were to protest that he would only accept it after he had seen it duly proven—how in the world would you prove it?—and to remark “I believe that two and two make four” could only be meant as amusing or ironic. Let it be accepted, then, that intuition is easy; no doubt it sometimes is. That is no reason to question it or to disparage it.

Sometimes, in any case, it is not easy. It takes years to learn a native language. A mother who instantly sees what her infant wants, though the child has not yet learnt to speak—it is sometimes called woman’s intuition—is doing something difficult, and its difficulty is attested by the fact that bystanders, especially if they are male, could not do it at all. So instantaneous intuition can be a complex skill born of experience, an expert act. 1 suspect that the academic mind, which often suffers from a professional deformation known as logocentricity, greatly underrates non-verbal instances like motherhood, just as critics often underrate a direct experience of poems, painting, and music. In fact, there is by now a small library of books with “ideology” in their titles that deny there is any such thing as the direct experience of literature. It might be called the Everything-Is-Ideology school. The trouble with that school, as I have argued in The Certainty of Literature (1989), is that it contradicts itself. For if all beliefs are ideologically distorted, then so is that one. Or perhaps the Everything-Is-Ideology school of critics think they have direct experience of that belief, in which case there is direct experience, in which case they had better stop denying it.


“That’s all right in practice,” an Irish politician is supposed to have said, “but how does it work out in theory?” That is now the nagging doubt. Unless there is an agreed theory, it is widely felt, to underpin what we claim to know, then nothing is happening that deserves the name of academic. At that point someone mentions Auschwitz. So who let him into the seminar?

Of course there is no agreed theory to prove that genocide is wrong. It is at this point, often enough, that theorists throw up their hands and start babbling about God. There is no cause for alarm. They have not had a religious experience; they do not even claim to have had one. It is one thing to believe in God, another to enlist the rhetoric of mysticism or the traditional metaphors of monotheism. We have seen godless religion before. Now we have a religionless God. God-talk is supposed to exempt the critic from the irksome demands of evidence or proof. That is a bizarre reversal. Religion. after all, was once supposed to explain the world to mankind. It was even thought, by many, to be uniquely qualified to explain it. Now it is used as a retreat from knowledge, an admission that we do not know.

Perhaps someone should remind the theorist what knowledge of the real world is commonly like. Recognizing colors, or seeing what baby wants, no one needs proof or mystical experience, still less an ideology. Blessed with intuition, like the angels, you see that it is so.


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