Continuing our occasional series on Graham Allen’s on-going Digital Epic Holes – easily the most significant large scale poetry project in motion in Ireland today – Bogmans Cannon asked the poet the following three questions in response to the recent line ‘Reason is a primed and ready rat-trap’
Is romanticism the third option for moderns, between the rational and the irrational?
How can we have a romantic politics today?
What precisely does inspirational mean in political terms?
The Enlightenment, which is far from over, makes the experiment of setting Reason up as the core instrument of all reality, all truth, all method. This is a reassuring ethos, a beautiful ideal, but it is also terribly flawed. It can lead, as many have said, to fascism and terror. Whose reason? Is reason ever wrong? Don’t forget it was reason that built the hydrogen bomb. What does T. S. Eliot say? After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
The reason we are, currently, plunged into what seems like an anachronistic mire of religiosity is that reason did not succeed in convincing us of its world-generating powers. People feel, in fact they know there is something else and they mistake that intuition for a call to a return to the two post-Judaic religions of the desert. It’s absurd but appears wholly unstoppable. In a sense the failure of reason as a total method and condition has sent the Western world scurrying back to the irrational qua religion.
The Romantics called that something else, that something that wasn’t quite Reason and yet wasn’t irrational either, Imagination. This is an enigmatic word which means something like the creative power in all knowledge. Despite what many say, Romanticism is not anti-Enlightenment, but then it is also not wholly in favour of it either. Romanticism is the attempt to acknowledge and live the contradiction within knowledge which is best expressed as the tension (the dialectic) between reason and imagination.
Every time we refuse oppositions, black and white logic, we are faced with the demands of redefinition. So here what the Imagination, the rational and the irrational have to do with each other becomes once again an as yet unanswered question. I can’t resolve that in a few words or even at all, and because of that the need to know these relations haunts and ironises everything we can go on to say.
Imagination is the ability to imagine the best that we or the world can be. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound is a product of this faculty. Imagination is also the ability to imagine the worst thing that can possibly happen in any particular situation. Shelley’s The Cenci is a product of this faculty. It is both of these things. Therefore Imagination can appear to be rational and irrational, all at the same time.
We must rely on reason to build a better world, socially, technically, ethically, emotionally, politically. We also need to stand to one side of reason if we are to be fully human. We are and we are not rational, and we must find ways of understanding that fact which do not pit reason, Imagination and irrationality against each other as if they were opposites. As if we could simply choose between them.
Everything that needs to be said about reason and its shadows is said, I feel, in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Reason there is the Devourer, Desire the Prolific, and the journey of human understanding and spirit is the unending tussle between them. Or to put it in a more deconstructive way, there can be no agent of reason that is unable to reflect upon its own possible lack of, or the limits of its rationality. The Other, the face or the place or the view or the response that is not of your ken, lurks inside your own faculty of reason, always.
Reason is a trap if we respond to it as a promise of the final and total resolution of contraries. As Blake says “without contraries is no progression”. The only reasonable thing to do is to embrace contraries, or dialectics if you will, which means, among many other things, not making a deity out of your Reason. We must be rational. There is an appalling amount of irrationality in the world at the moment. But the only truly rational position is to distrust the idea of a complete and an exclusive faculty of Reason. We must be reasonable about Reason.
Graham Allen is Professor in English in UCC. His new collection, The Madhouse System, is due for publication this summer by new Binary Press and is a Bogmans Cannon Recommendation.