Catholic Tradition, Charles Taylor and Phillip Larkin

2023 Update: What we have here is the first of a series of musings on Charles Taylor, begun many years ago, when this site started in 2009. For navigation purposes, we list and link the five parts here:

And now back to 2009 — Roger Buck

Statue at La Salette in France, where Our Lady appeared weeping for the modern world …

I had started writing this series, when a poem arrived in my e-mail.

Yes I had started writing about the Hollow Horror of Modernity, the Hollow Horror that Charles Taylor, it seems to me fails to do justice to in A Secular Age, when this poem arrived.

This poem – was its arrival just a coincidence? Or was it more?

For if you study it, slowly and carefully dear Reader and if you have Faith, I think you may agree with me that here we have a Vision of Hell.

Moreover, it is a kind of Hell, almost completely unknown to the men and women of the Middle Ages. Humanity sustained by Sacraments knew no horror such as this …

Today I will mainly present the poem with my invitation to you, the Reader to study it very intensely and let your heart feel that THIS is what many a modern heart is feeling inside:

Aubade by Phillip Larkin

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.

In time the curtain-edges will grow light.

Till then I see what’s really always there:

Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,

Making all thought impossible but how

And where and when I shall myself die.

Arid interrogation: yet the dread

Of dying, and being dead,

Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse

– The good not done, the love not given, time

Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because

An only life can take so long to climb

Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;

But at the total emptiness for ever,

The sure extinction that we travel to

And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,

Not to be anywhere,

And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid

No trick dispels. Religion used to try,

That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade

Created to pretend we never die,

And specious stuff that says No rational being

Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing

That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,

No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,

Nothing to love or link with,

The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,

A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill

That slows each impulse down to indecision.

Most things may never happen: this one will,

And realisation of it rages out

In furnace-fear when we are caught without

People or drink. Courage is no good:

It means not scaring others. Being brave

Lets no one off the grave.

Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.

It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,

Have always known, know that we can’t escape,

Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring

In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring

Intricate rented world begins to rouse.

The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

Work has to be done.

Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

May I be forgiven if I reiterate my encouragement dear Reader, to let your heart feel what Larkin calls this “special way of being afraid”?

To feel, to imagine in your heart: What is it like to be so terribly afraid – continuously – and to see no other remedy but alcohol and company?

What would it be like to be convinced of|”nothing more terrible, nothing more true” than oblivion which:

“No trick dispels. Religion used to try/That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die.”

This, this dear Reader is a major fruit of modernity. Now Taylor’s thought is complex. But I do not think I wrong him when I say that his perspective is, as he suggests, that our Secular Age is the “least bad” of all …

I repeat myself: one cannot quantify horror in units measured …

But personally Charles Taylor, I am concerned that your loyalty to much of secularism, fails to take in horror such as that of Larkin (May God have mercy on his soul).

And how many millions more like Larkin?

And I am concerned Dr Taylor that your apparently highly nuanced, complex and sophisticated thought has missed out the most important things of all.

You speak in muted terms of the problems and dilemmas of a flatness and meaningless to modern life …

But what of Larkin?

What of Larkin and his cohort in hell? Living day-in, day-out a vision of hell on Earth …

I am concerned that Evelyn Waugh whom you would apparently dismiss as “seductive” was far more on track than you realise, Dr Taylor.

Yes, for it seems to me that Evelyn Waugh saw more acutely that which we must do to address that infinitely aching, soulless horror foreboded by the Final Triumph of the Hollow Men …

To be Continued (Possibly after new material appears elsewhere at this site, in Kim’s Weblog, the Webbursts or the Reviews).

From Amazon US:

These books can also be found in our Amazon UK store here. The following titles also have Reviews at these links: (Puritan’s Empire) (Meditations on the Tarot) (When Corporations Rule the World).

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7 responses to “Catholic Tradition, Charles Taylor and Phillip Larkin”

  1. Billy Bishop Avatar
    Billy Bishop

    I could go on and on about this and maybe I will on my own blog. I hope I may be permitted to write a snippet of an open letter to Phillip Larkin.

    Dear Mr. Larkin,

    You don’t know me and that’s probably for the best. I wouldn’t write this to you if I did. Sometimes we can’t say to our friends the things they most need to hear.

    It’s incredibly arrogant for me to assume that I know what you need to hear. There’s a good chance that I don’t. If perhaps I do, because I have sat in that same Hell as you have, then please let me try.

    Roger’s assessment is that you, as you present yourself in your poem, are going through Hell. I quite agree. You remember what Dante said was the sign on the gates of Hell? Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here. That’s a damned lie. There is hope in Hell. And you are not in Hell, not yet, and you only are now to the extent you place yourself there.

    Find hope.

    By the white clay sky, I take it you mean the drop ceilings that are in office buildings, those monotonous rows of tiles. Have you ever seen the ugly ones that have the yellow or orange stains? Aren’t they terrible? Yet, it is precisely those squares that have protected you from leaks in the roof or the floor above. If they may not have dripped on you directly, you can imagine what it would be like if those drips had gotten into the carpet and mold had taken hold. The very monotony is to make it easy to replace those tiles, so there is no need to replace the ceiling because we are troubled with a small part of it. It’s really quite remarkable.

    Somebody who didn’t know you, who will probably never know you, went to a lot of time and trouble to figure out how to deal with a problem that had plagued buildings for centuries, millenia even. It isn’t exactly as uplifting as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel but it was done with your comfort in mind – just like all of those terrible bluish florescent lights were placed up there so that you would not have to work by candlelight or the vaguaries of the sun and clouds.

    Don’t stop reading. I’m not telling you to be thankful for the little things. I do want you to consider, in addition to everything else you may think about, just how right so many things have gone for you, and that in that, there is objective evidence of hope.

    Even given all of those things, you still aren’t happy. I understand. Maybe you wrote your poem as a way to “blow off steam.” Maybe, but I doubt it. If I’m write, you have to evaluate how you are dealing with this Hell in which you live. That means you are going to have to do something different.

    I wonder how much of that moth eaten brocade has ever been a reality for you; did God break your heart? One definition of an aubade is a song of lovers parting at dawn. If so, don’t let God go. Even if that is your first and best instinct, don’t do it. If you can’t use your love, use your anger, but don’t let God go. I can assure you God is not leaving you but I can equally assure you that it feels like that is exactly what is happening at times.

    This may sound like I’m worried about you becoming an alcoholic. I’m not. Let me share with you the first 2 steps in the Alcoholics Anonymous. There is a lot there for people who have lost hope. In AA, the steps come from the perspective of the founders: this is what “we” did, what worked for them. Step 1: Admit we are powerless. Step 2: A power greater than us can restore us to sanity. Note that: sanity. Is it sane go to Hell every day?

    There are a number of ways out of this maze, but maybe you just want something more? Are you concerned you are only there for the money? Don’t you use the money as part of fulfilling your responsibilities in society, especially to the extent you have a family? I worry as I write these words that maybe there was a tragedy in your family, perhaps the death of a child or a divorce, but I hope I’m wrong. Maybe, and this was true for me, you can see your workplace as that which enables you, in only in part, to fulfill your role as a man, and then if it is still difficult it is not Hell anymore, either.

    If you are just singing to the dawn because dawn should bring you hope but does not, please try a different song. Let me suggest a few. St Mary asked that this prayer be added to the Rosary. I love it and it is my prayer for you. “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Deliver us from the fires of Hell. Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of Your mercy.” I also really like the Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

    It used to be that people woke up at first light to pray. Maybe, just maybe (look for hope!), you have been given a gift. Take that time and use it pray these prayers. Especially if you do not believe they will work and that God does not exist. Pray them over and over. They will still your mind, give you some peace. It’s not magic. It takes time, effort, and practice. You don’t have to tell anyone. No one will know so there is no need to be embarrassed.

    That probably sounds like religious nonsense. Maybe it is. But how’s your rationality working out for you? Is drinking doing a better job? You are going to have to try something different. Jesus said that His burden was easy. It’s not without difficulty, mind you, but it’s better than a fresh Hell every morning.

    Please don’t stop looking.


  2. roger Avatar

    Billy, several things to say.

    First of all I had no idea that you had a blog! If it is public, I would very much like to have the address. Please give us all a link to it here, if you like.

    I am sorry if somehow I missed this before.

    Second, I thank you deeply for enriching our site with this very heartfelt and insightful response.

    I have something to point out, which – if you are like me and easily embarrassed – might embarrass you a little?

    But I hope you will not be, because your words are worth far too much to be embarrassed by …

    Larkin is dead and was a famous British poet of the last century. Famous in Britain, anyway.

    I fear that I did not do enough to make this clearer.

    I was partly educated in Britain and perhaps misjudged that no further explanation was needed.

    However I feel your beautiful heartfelt words can still speak so much to the countless Philip Larkin’s of the twenty-first century.

    There is more I would like to say to your moving words. And I may add another comment.

    Right now, I write hurriedly from a French cybercafé and am extremely pressured …

    Yes I hope to say more. But just now: I am very moved …

  3. Billy Bishop Avatar
    Billy Bishop

    Roger – You can’t be expected to fill in every gap in my education, can you? Perhaps I shall adress my next letter to Sappho or Catullus? *slaps forehead*

    While I did have the forelorn hope he would read it, I can’t say thatcwas my expected result. I do hope it still works as something I might say, if I had the courage, to anyone similarly situated.

    1. roger Avatar

      Billy, re:

      “I do hope it still works …”

      All I can say is that I feel so very much of value here.

      The compassion in your words is crystal-clear. As is also the value of:

      Your honest, sincere, public confession that you know this kind of hell …

      Your thoughts about the relation of Hell to Hope …

      Your evident faith …

      Your encouragement to prayer.

      I know someone raised Catholic at least partly, who may be in something like this.

      I find myself wishing that if he has any hope at all that there may be a Greater Power than himself, he might be able to go to a Mass every day for a week or two, choose to address that Higher Power as the Lamb of God, pray “Have Mercy on Us” and receive the Sacrament again …

      The power of the daily Sacrament is unbelievable, I find …

      It is likely a “forelorn hope”, too. And I am not at all sure his hell is as deep or consistent as Larkin’s sounded here. I pray to God it is not.

      But things like this lead me to feel we need to do all we can to let people know of not only the Power of Prayer as you indicate beautifully, but also the Power of the Sacraments.

      And I believe particularly their Power when received daily.

      Again thank you for your searching, moving, heartfelt comment here …

  4. What Would Mitchum Do?…

    In 1930, Evelyn Waugh, the British Catholic novelist (most famously of Brideshead Revisited), wrote: “It seems to me that in the present state of European history, the essential issue is no longer between Catholicism, on one side, and Protestantism, on…

  5. John Halloran Avatar
    John Halloran

    Larkin grew up in Coventry. ‘Nuff said. The first line is very striking. I used to do the same (more like 3/4 or more) until I stopped. I think Larkin was pretty much like me – someone who felt the poverty of human contact (seeing it could be something more) and the way that time can seem to escape in a morass of inattention and uncaring. I think again like me (and pretty obviously) he did not thing religion was the answer. I think he would have felt a lot better if he had given up drinking. I certainly do. In fact many days I think this kind of bleak vision is just plain wrong. We should not forget what is already working and what is there to be built on.

  6. roger Avatar

    John – great to hear your voice here again, as I think the only really “known friend” of mine who has commented at this site.

    This is an interesting thread for you to join …

    Despite our very different views of religion, I am struck by your observations here (e.g. morass of inattention and uncaring …)

    I have long found your observation of the world situation particularly acute and should you venture again into these threads, I shall be most grateful to have your poignant voice here.