Our subtler languages: an interview with Charles Taylor

Interview by Rebekah Cumpsty and Karl O’Hanlon 


In A Secular Age, you take up Earl Wasserman’s concept of “a subtler language”, the way in which poetic language shifts during the “watershed” of the Romantic period to fulfil a creative rather than mimetic role: as you put it, the Romantic poets “make us aware of something in nature for which there are as yet no established words”. What historical and cultural factors make Romanticism such a turning point? Hasn’t this urge to ‘add to the stock of Available Reality’ (R. P. Blackmur) been a feature of poetry prior to Romanticism, for instance in the metamorphic power of Shakespeare?


I think Earl Wasserman was on to something very important. As I understand his main point, the change that drove the recourse to “subtler languages” was the decline in credence of the older, almost universally accepted cosmic ideas: the Great Chain of Being, Concordia discors, the analogy between different planes of being, and the like. As Wasserman shows, these provided a solid background of interpretation for the sense that we are in a wider, deeper, meaningful world. Poetry was constantly producing new insights, adding “to the stock of available reality”, as you put it. But these took the form of helping the deep structures of reality to show up through the natural and social world which surrounds us. In his book Wasserman makes this very clear in his analysis of neoclassical English poetry. For instance, Pope’s Windsor Forest, in which the forest is a synecdoche of England, and England of the cosmos. The poem makes us see the forest, and also the polity of England, through the prism of Concordia discors, where opposites struggle for equilibrium and reconciliation; which process can be upset, but to destructive effect in either realm.


Poetry, on this view, has the task of holding a mirror up to nature, but it is a special kind of mirror, more in a sense like an X-ray. It shows the deep structure of reality, and makes it shine forth. Because this deep structure is profoundly meaningful, poetry can inspire and uplift.


But the credence in these deep structures withers in the eighteenth century. Many forces combine. One is certainly post-Galilean science, which makes us see the universe as the locus of merely efficient causal laws; then also the modern discoveries of another hemisphere, other societies, their outlooks and mythologies, shook the old certainties. And certainly also, the rising sense that humans could be in charge of their own history played a role.



How does literature figure in relation to religion in this shift?


These changes didn’t necessarily mean a turn away from religion. The God of Deism was still doing very well; although it obviously helped a long-term disaffection with orthodox Christianity.


The shift to “subtler languages” responds to this loss. It reflects a deep desire to recover a sense that we live in a meaningful cosmos. But this is answered now by poetry (and also music and visual arts, but that’s another whole domain) which makes us sense our belonging to something greater, but it leaves the nature of this whole uncharted, largely hinted at, grasped only in fragmentary fashion, like Wordsworth’s “sense of something more deeply interfused”. So we have powerful conviction, combined with uncertain contours, requiring further exploration.



In Bulletproof (2009), Jennifer Wenzel’s analysis of the postcolonial afterlives of prophecy, she construes “the literary as the sanctioned space for enchantment in an otherwise disenchanted world.” Would you agree with that assessment?


If “disenchantment” means the fading of these traditional metaphysical visions of cosmos, then Romantic poetry is a response to disenchantment.


This begins to alter our relation to traditional forms of religious faith. We can see with Chateaubriand and others, for instance, a return to Catholicism which is based on this powerful Romantic sense of Nature and this isn’t specifically Catholic; you see it in Germaine de Staël’s De L’Allemagne, while she helped to spread the news of German Romanticism to the French and Anglo-Saxon worlds; she was a Genevan Calvinist.



Not a valorization of aestheticism triumphing against the old religions, then?


This could be, and was dismissed as a slide to aestheticism, and judged as an abandonment of serious commitment to faith. But the epistemological issues need to be treated a bit more seriously. Romantic art can push us towards a commitment to a reality whose contours are uncertain. As a result, this reality can be read in different ways. It can be read theistically – Chateaubriand, and the mature Wordsworth are examples – but it can also be read in atheist terms – Mill, George Eliot, as admirers of Wordsworth. Where before the intellectual field was dominated by metaphysical-cosmological (supposed) proofs and counter-proofs, and by faith, defined in dogma, now we have a third player offering powerful hunches, which we have to interpret.



You have talked elsewhere about the post-Romantic aesthetic as reflecting a “cross-pressure” between being drawn towards unbelief and forms of the spiritual. What might you say about the well-established history in which art and religion form rival domains? The poet’s fiat might seek to usurp or replace a divine fiat. This anxiety seems to lie behind Eliot’s conclusion that poetry was a “superior amusement,” which was his way of avoiding describing poetry in terms that would equate it with religion. 


Some people want to hold that genuine faith must be certain, founded on proofs; but this seems to me counter to the nature of faith, which is faith in Something or Someone; anticipatory confidence, which in its nature doesn’t admit of knock-down proofs.


But this is destabilizing to anyone who wants to have a totally firm, unchallengeable outlook to hold on to, be they angry atheists or fundamentalists. It is only in relation to this kind of certainty that art and religion can be considered rival domains. Art can be central to the evolution of both Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo – in opposite directions.


If we seek precedents for a domain of this kind, offering hints and vistas, we can find it in the writings of, for example, Meister Eckhart and Saint John of the Cross, for whom the term “mystic” was invented in the Renaissance (Michel de Certeau, La fable mystique).


We can see how the long-term effect of the Romantic turn has been to open the field for seekers, people who see themselves as on a spiritual quest, in some sense of this widely used term, “spiritual” – which can include various atheist forms of exploration, as with Nietzsche. I personally see something very positive in this development, but it requires a new understanding of how people of different profound convictions should live together.


This, of course, revivifies an old conception of faith, going back to the Fathers of the Church: faith as a journey (Gregory of Nyssa), or a pilgrimage (Augustine).



A recognition of “fullness” – an activity or condition where life is richer or more admirable – is, you have argued, a response to “a transcendental reality,” a discovery of God. In your view, are there forms of this fullness which are immanent and yet something other than misrecognitions of the transcendent? For instance, relations with others, experiences of art, or a sense of place/nature?


“Fullness” I meant as a generic term for whatever people identify as what makes life full, or life “really living”. Of course, there are other forms. We can (and I think ought to) be interested in exploring these, both to enrich the understanding of each of us and to live better together. Further, I agree that art is an important field in which we can recover a sense of commitment to the larger cosmos in which we exist, and this is crucial for our fight to save the planet.



You have spoken elsewhere of conducting research into world religions since the publication of A Secular Age. In light of this, are there any revisions you would make to your account?


Yes, I saw A Secular Age as a study of the Western itinerary of “secularization”. This was an invitation to try to define what the differences are with analogous paths in other civilizations. Quite a bit of work has been done, and it’s continuing. This kind of thing is essential if we are to acquire a real global consciousness.


Thanks for your interesting questions.


Charles Taylor is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at McGill University and winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize. He is author of many books, including A Secular AgeSources of the Self, and most recently, The Language Animal.


Karl O'Hanlon is a former editor of Eborakon. His first poetry pamphlet And Now They Range (Guillemot Press) is due to appear in autumn 2016.


Rebekah Cumpsty completed her PhD at the University of York in 2016. Her research is focused on the postsecular, the sacred and African fictions.