God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?

Friedrich Nietzsche

The nineteenth century is invariably conceived as the century of technological advance and psychological optimism, but it was also a century (following the Enlightenment) of extreme uncertainty and gnawing metaphysical anxiety.

Heinrich Heine

In 1832 the poet Heinrich Heine posed the ominous question: Can you hear the ringing of the bell? and continued: Kneel down – they are bringing the sacraments to a dying God. In 1841, Gérard de Nerval, an admirer of Heine and one of the first translators of his work into French, wrote a sequence of sonnets entitled Le Christ aux Oliviers. The epitaph under the title Dieu est mort! le ciel est vide: God is dead! the sky is empty. In the poem Christ struggles to inform his sleeping apostles that, in truth, God does not exist any more, that the natural world has been abandoned and that he,

Gérard de Nerval

in searching for the gaze of the Divine Father, has found only a terrible socket, black and bottomless. In the first sonnet the word ‘abyss’ (abîme) is repeated frenetically by the forlorn and forsaken figure of Christ, while Christ himself is presented as a man both mad and sublime: ce fou.

Charles Darwin as an ape

Only three years later the young Charles Darwin, becoming more and more convinced by the cogency of his emerging theory of evolution, wrote to the botanist Joseph Hooker: It is like confessing to a murder. He nervously explained to his correspondent that he had not intended to kill God, for he had only blindly collected the information. It was Nature’s doing, he insisted, not his. At worst, he was guilty of a form of manslaughter. Whatever the verdict, there can be little doubt that Darwin experienced a certain angst. He felt both implicated and guilty. He felt there was divine blood on his hands – though it did not prevent him from publishing the Origin of Species in 1859.


Matthew Arnold

A few years after that publication Matthew Arnold completed his elegiac masterpiece, Dover Beach, in which the only hope against a harsh world ruled by ‘struggle’ and ‘flight’ was the love between two vulnerable individuals. The word ‘struggle’ had been used by Darwin in the original title of his treatise: On the Origin of Species or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. One of the finest poems of the nineteenth century, Dover Beach examined life in a Darwinian cosmos in which the fixed hierarchical order conceived by the theologians and based on the first Book of Genesis had been finally dissolved: a universe in the words of the poem without joy, light or certitude. In the elegy, written to mark his marriage to Fanny Wightman, love is no longer placed at the centre of a divinely inspired and inspirited Creation, but seen as an all but desperate personal refuge against outer strife and inner meaninglessness. The poem mourns the demise of Christianity and confronts a new ontological loneliness in the world:

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

By the end of the century that metaphysical sense of irreparable loss, with its roots in the rational Enlightenment and Kantian philosophy, had become even clearer. In a fragment scrawled in 1882, four years before her death, Emily Dickinson did not refer to a funeral knell or a murder, but to a hideous act of cruelty:

Those – dying then,
Knew where they went –
They went to God’s Right Hand –
That Hand is amputated now And God cannot be found –

The tight drama of Dickinson’s highly distilled poem rests partly on that graphic image of violation, but it also depends on a simple dialectical contrast between then and now. Then (in the time of Dante’s Commedia, of Petrarch’s Secretum, of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement) there had been absolute certainty about eternal life; now (after the scientific Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the dramatic advance of scientific understanding: after Galileo, Newton and Darwin) there could only be a corrosive doubt about such matters. Then there was Faith, but now there could only be incredulity and the alarming prospect of nihilism. The moment now – sensed to the full by the most reclusive of poets constituted a unique, historic crisis.

Emily Dickinson’s short, shocking poem is, characteristically, a moral meditation. It ends:

The abdication of Belief
Makes the Behavior small –
Better an ignis fatuus
Than no illume at all –

Emily Dickinson

The loss of faith makes human life insignificant. Dickinson concludes, perhaps with a slight hint of undercutting irony, that it is better to have a false light than have to confront the bleak truth of a world spinning blindly on its axis with no informing plot and no final eschatological blessing: a world without illumination. But how can one possibly believe in a light one knows to be false? Spiritual belief is put in a position of permanent uncertainty even of hypocrisy and inauthenticity.

Only three years after Emily Dickinson had scrawled her poem about the amputation of God’s right hand, the English Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote what later came to be known as the sonnets of desolation. The five sonnets (found in his handwriting after his death, one of which he claimed had been written in blood) convey a world in which God has disappeared, in which all communication between the divine and the human has broken down, where neither the Paraclete nor the mother of God can bring comfort, where ‘dead letters’ are sent to One who has never received them, where the anxious believer is left alone in the blank hours sweating and estranged. Deus absconditus: the God that cannot be found. In these late sonnets of despair Hopkins proves himself to be the supreme lyricist of abject states of inner torment: a man revealing what it is like to be on the edge of a precipice, quivering before the nothingness:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no man fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Operating (as all poems do) in the rich acoustic chamber of language, these lines subtly allude to the predicament of King Lear (Act III, scene II) at the moment of madness in the storm on the heath in which ‘man’s nature cannot carry/the affliction nor the fear’. It is Kent who offers the fallen King a hovel to comfort his bare head, while it is Lear who actually employs the word (used by Hopkins) ‘wretch’. The Shakespearian tragedy of a noble existence shorn of all pretention and torn between a pitiless outer whirlwind and impending inner psychosis is thus deftly brought into the energy-field of Hopkins’ charged poem.

We sense in the sonnets of desolation a disintegrating self which can find no secure foundation or footing outside of itself – or even inside itself, where the many precipices are as terrifying as they are unfathomable. But what is the ‘world-sorrow’ which Hopkins refers to earlier in the same poem? Indeed, what is the ‘whirlwind’? Are they references to a life without immortality, where ‘all life death does end’ and ‘each day dies with sleep’, where the metaphysical nothingness is irrefutable? Could it be that the emerging Darwinian world is in play here, leaving (as in Dover Beach) only a displaced, anxious and finite subjectivity?

We will never fully know what suffering compelled these dark sonnets into existence, but placing them in their historic ‘now’ one cannot but think that, whatever the personal reasons for their composition, they are also acute expressions of the Zeitgeist, powerful and disturbing manifestations of an age of anxiety and doubt.

In the first decade of the twentieth century somewhere around 1908 Hardy wrote God’s Funeral. Although it is marred by certain archaisms of speech – ‘twixt’, ‘anon’, ‘stayless’ – and a convoluted syntax too far removed from the natural rhythms of speech, the poem nevertheless brings to a climax the theme of God’s requiem, the sounding of the knell that Heine had first heard in 1832.

Hardy depicts a long procession of mourning individuals following ‘a strange and mystic form’. The form is presented as a figure which has taken the changing projections of human consciousness, but which has now come to an end:

‘O man-projected figure, of late
Imaged as we, thy knell who shall survive?
Whence came it we were tempted to create
One whom we can no longer keep alive?’

Yet the loss what Hardy calls ‘our myth’s oblivion’ is seen as all but unendurable. As a young man he himself had gone to church on Sundays three times and had adored church music and architecture. Before becoming a novelist, he had been an ecclesiastical architect and had even considered becoming an Anglican priest. In one stanza he looks back nostalgically evoking his own childhood experience of Dante-esque faith with its cosmic wheels of harmony:

How sweet it was in years far hied
To start the wheels of days with trustful prayer,
To lie down liegely at the eventide
And feel a blest assurance he was there.

Here, inner and outer had been experienced as a unity: being within Being. This is an affirmation of the life of faith then, before the historic now of absolute doubt. The temporal shift is delicately caught in one word: liegely. The word refers to a feudal allegiance, a relationship between humble Vassal and superior Master, but the word itself is virtually archaic, without vital purchase. By a single choice of adverb Hardy shows his childhood faith to be historically outmoded, expressing an attitude which could have no meaning in an age of machinery, the capitalist cash-nexus and emerging democracy. For Hardy, the insistent question now is not to do with old-fashioned deference and submission before a divinely established hierarchical order but, rather, with ways of bearing the inevitable sense of loss and disorientation. The lower case ‘h’ for ‘He (God)’ also gently hints at the radical change of relationship, a deft deconstruction marking a mutation in reflexive consciousness.

In its closing stanzas the poem depicts a gleam on the horizon, a pale yet positive gleam, which might carry another light, but in their anguish the mourners cannot see it. As for Hardy himself, he too confesses that he is struck speechless

Thomas Hardy

As the sensitive probing antennae of the human race, the poets – Heine, Arnold, Dickinson, Hopkins and Hardy – were among the first to grasp the central dis-ease of their civilisation and to articulate its symptoms. But, of course, that feeling of deep ontological insecurity, relating to Darwin’s theory of evolution and new historical studies of the Bible (emanating from German universities), ran through the whole century. It is recorded in thousands of anguished letters, diaries and journals, as it is explored in such autobiographies as William White’s The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, dissenting minister (1881), Samuel Butler’s autobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh (published posthumously in 1903) and Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907). But it found its summative expression in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, who made it his life’s work to confront the death of God, to live through the sapping nihilism it gave birth to and then, in the name of life and historical advance, to transcend the negation – a momentous task.

In section 125 of The Gay Science, completed in July and published in the autumn of 1882 (the very same year that Emily Dickinson wrote the lyric about the amputation of God’s right hand), Nietzsche wrote the finest passages ever written on the death of the Christian Deity. He asked his readers whether they had heard of the madman who had lit a lantern and run into the market place shouting that he was looking for God:

‘Whither is God?’ he cried. ‘I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from the sun? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?’

The madman’s extreme vertigo, following the demise of a grounding faith, is strikingly expressed.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche claimed that all philosophy was unconscious memoir. The first source of this existential dizziness must have resided in the author himself. Nietzsche, like the young Hardy, had been a devout Christian as a child, starting the wheels of day with trustful prayer. His forbears were all Lutheran: his father and both his grandparents had been Lutheran ministers, and it would have been expected that he too would follow the same religious path. His early years were immersed in Biblical texts, in Lutheran hymns, in his father’s sermons – each day shaped by the pious practices of the Protestant household. The madman’s giddiness is, first, the dilemma of Nietzsche; but it is also, by implication, the sad inheritance of his generation.

Rather like the insane and sublime figure of Christ in Gérard de Nerval’s sonnet sequence Le Christ aux Oliviers, the madman struggles to face the predicament of human life deprived of the authority of the Father. He struggles to confront the metaphysical abyss. He then sets the questions for all those born in the new space and time of absolute doubt:

How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?

The cultural task now, shouts the madman, is to enter a higher history. But in the market no one can understand. Disheartened, the crazy messenger throws his lamp to the ground, claiming that he has come too early for such momentous news. The death of a God requires time to be recognised and integrated.

The parable puts all of Nietzsche’s urgent and prolific work in context. For him, God’s requiem opened up horrifying new precipices of uncertainty, but it also brought a gleam of new light for those who, unlike the mourners in Hardy’s poem, had the audacity to look. Not an ignis fatuus, but an authentic illumination.

Certainly, what was experienced as a bloody murder and a traumatic funeral heralded the next act in the unfolding drama of the self.

In the next issue Peter Abbs will examine the life and work of Nietzsche. For further details of the story of the self see www.peterabbs.org

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