Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Agnosticism and the working writer

with 6 comments

Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.

Jorge Luis Borges, to the New York Times

Of all religious or philosophical convictions, agnosticism, at first glance, is the least interesting to defend. Like political moderates, agnostics get it from both sides, most of all from committed atheists, who tend to regard permanent agnosticism, in the words of Richard Dawkins, as “fence-sitting, intellectual cowardice.” And yet many of my heroes, from Montaigne to Robert Anton Wilson, have identified themselves with agnosticism as a way of life. (Wilson, in particular, called himself an agnostic mystic, which is what you get when an atheist takes a lot of psychedelic drugs.) And while a defense of the philosophical aspects of agnosticism is beyond the scope of this blog—for that, I can direct you to Thomas Huxley, or even to a recent posting by NPR’s Adam Frank, whose position is not far removed from my own—I think I can talk, very tentatively, about its pragmatic benefits, at least from a writer’s point of view.

I started thinking about this again after reading a blog post by Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin, who relates that she was recently talking about the mystical inclinations of W.B. Yeats when a self-proclaimed atheist piped up: “I always get sad for Yeats for his occult beliefs.” As Crispin discusses at length, such a statement is massively condescending, and also weirdly uninsightful. Say what you will about Yeats’s interest in occultism, but there’s no doubt that he found it spectacularly useful. It provided him with symbolic material and a means of engaging the unseen world that most poets are eventually called to explore. The result was a body of work of permanent importance, and one that wouldn’t exist, at least not in its present form, if his life had assumed a different shape. Was it irrational? Sure. But Wallace Stevens aside, strictly rational behavior rarely produces good poets.

I’ve probably said this before, but I’ll say it again: the life of any writer—and certainly that of a poet—is so difficult, so impractical on a cosmic scale, that there’s often a perverse kind of pragmatism in the details. A writer’s existence may look messy from the outside, but that mess is usually the result of an attempt to pick out what is useful from life and reject the rest, governed by one urgent question: Can I use this? If a writer didn’t take his tools wherever he found them, he wouldn’t survive, at least not as an artist. Which is why any kind of ideology, religious or otherwise, can be hard for a writer to maintain. Writers, especially novelists, tend to be dabblers, not so much out of dilettantism—although that can be a factor as well—as from an endless, obsessive gleaning, a rummaging in the world’s attic for useful material, in both art and life. And this process of feathering one’s nest tends to inform a writer’s work as well. What Christopher Hitchens says of Ian McEwan is true of many novelists:

I think that he did, at one stage in his life, dabble a bit in what’s loosely called “New Age,” but in the end it was the rigorous side that won out, and his novels are almost always patrolling some difficult frontier between the speculative and the unseen and the ways in which material reality reimposes itself.

Agnosticism is also useful for another reason, as Borges points out above: tolerance. A novelist needs to write with empathy about people very different from himself, and to vicariously live all kinds of lives, which is harder to do through the lens of an intractable philosophy. We read Dante and Tolstoy despite, not because of, their ideological convictions, and much of the fire of great art comes from the tension between those convictions and the artist’s reluctant understanding of the world. For a writer, dogma is, or should be, the enemy—including dogma about agnosticism itself. In the abstract, it can seem clinical, but in practice, it’s untidy and makeshift, like the rest of a writer’s life. It’s useful only when it exposes itself to a lot of influences and generates a lot of ideas, most unworkable, but some worthy of being pursued. Like democracy, it’s a compromise solution, the best of a bad lot. It doesn’t work all that well, but for a writer, at least for me, it comes closer to working than anything else.

6 Responses

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  1. Someone told me fairly recently…

    “What you know is not all there is to know”

    That was the most freeing and beautiful thing ever said to me and to anyone quite frankly.

    So yes, agnostic.

    Arthur

    June 3, 2011 at 11:35 pm

  2. As usual, this misrepresents atheists as cold and rigid – one does not need to be agnostic to acknowledge that he or she doesn’t know all there is to know. Atheism, too, allows for an understanding of mysticism, perceptiveness about faiths, spirituality, and an abounding wonder and wide-eyed examination of the natural world and all of the Earth’s mysteries. While Borges’s words about tolerance are wise, they need not extend only to “agnostics.” Some atheists are tolerant; some are not. Just like every other religion or group, there are differences. No need to pigeon-hole all atheists as unseeing and intolerant like this.

    The Write Christine

    June 9, 2011 at 12:35 pm

  3. Point taken. And I certainly don’t mean to pigeonhole—some of my best friends are atheists. :) But I do think that many of our most prominent atheists have a tendency to come off as dogmatic and inflexible, which is another reason why I’m more comfortable identifying as agnostic.

    nevalalee

    June 9, 2011 at 12:47 pm

  4. “the life of any writer—and certainly that of a poet—is so difficult, so impractical on a cosmic scale”

    why are poets singled out?

    “a perverse kind of pragmatism in the details..existence may look messy from the outside, but is usually the result of an attempt to pick out what is useful from life and reject the rest, governed by one urgent question: Can I use this?”

    On the chart of most artistes, you will see the theme of “Harmony Through Conflict”.

    Possibly on a cosmic scale not so impractical?

    And you might bet that they did “use this”. They used it all.

    Since conflict abounds here on planet earth.

    Plenty of material!!!!

    P.S. I DID look up the chart of Napoleon. Oh my goodness!!!!!!

    Arthur

    June 9, 2011 at 11:07 pm

  5. It’s at least mildly conceivable that someone could make a living solely as a novelist or playwright. Not so much for a poet, unless your name is Billy Collins.

    nevalalee

    June 9, 2011 at 11:14 pm

  6. Good and honest….way to go!

    Valerie Cullers

    April 16, 2018 at 10:02 pm


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