Thursday, November 1, 2012
THE CATHOLIC SENSIBILITY OF ALLEN TATE
From a March, 2000 book review in the New Oxford Review entitled "The Catholic Sensibility of Allen Tate" by Anne Barbeau Gardiner.
Essays of Four Decades. By Allen Tate. ISI [Intercollegiate Studies Institute] Books. 640 pages. $29.95.
Louise Cowan, in the introduction, calls Allen Tate (1899-1979) “the most brilliant if the most neglected literary critic of our century.” In fact, he was not only a critic but also a poet, novelist, and intellectual of the first rank, and the neglect of his work today is due in large part to his conversion, in mid-career, to Catholicism. This would not surprise Tate...
Comparing...modern poems to a passage from the 14th-century writings of St. Catherine of Siena, Tate exclaimed that “the Blood of Christ must be perpetually recreated as a brute fact … where we may smell it, touch it, and taste it again.” He declared that we need writing that begins not at the top, at the angelic part of us, but at the bottom, with our bodies, and that however high our poetry may climb it must carry the body along with it...
In an essay from 1952 titled “The Man of Letters in the Modern World,” he writes about communion and contrasts it to communication, saying that we have substituted communication for communion. We have taken the means for the end, substituted the part for the whole, and have wound up worshiping our operational techniques. [I'm thinking of a woman who told me recently she'd received 500 birthday greetings on FB and not a single actual call or card]. No wonder we are dehumanized and can treat one another as objects. We transmit information exceedingly well, but we do not share our life experiences “in a new and illuminating intensity of awareness.” Communication without communion is incomplete because it does not engage the full substance of our humanity. No political system can ever bring about communion, only the love of God can do it: We must first come “to believe in order to know, and to know in order to do”...
Aware as he was of the sacramentality of the body, Tate saw the early stirrings of what we have come to call the sexual revolution, and he grasped that sexuality, too, was afflicted by the West’s substitution of technique for substance, of means for end. In an essay titled “Narcissus as Narcissus” (1938) he notes the loss of “the general belief that sex must be part of a whole,” and warns that this will entail the loss of personal unity. As early as 1928, in an essay titled “Emily Dickinson,” he points out that the inflation of sex from part to whole has led some critics to the foolish conclusion that “no virgin can know enough to write poetry” and that the spinster poet Dickinson was “starved.” In fact, he says, her life was “one of the richest and deepest ever lived on this continent.”
I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it's true—
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe—
The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.