Monday, July 02, 2007

No Failure of Imagination: Atheists Find Something More

(reflections on an interview with Christopher Hitchens, a poem by Philip Larkin, and Ian McEwan's ATONEMENT)

On the radio program CITY ARTS AND LECTURES tonight, I heard an interview with Christopher Hitchens, columnist at and author of GOD IS NOT GREAT. The interviewer was a believing Catholic who finally reached a meeting of minds with Hitchens around the author's appreciation of the "numinous" in literature. Hitchens went on to speak the following words from his friend, novelist Ian McEwan.

For [Ian McEwan], novels are not about 'teaching people how to live but about showing the possibility of what it is like to be someone else. It is the basis of all sympathy, empathy and compassion. Other people are as alive as you are. Cruelty is a failure of imagination'.

I found the quotation on several web sites focused on McEwan's book ATONEMENT. Maybe Hitchens added something, because I thought I heard him say that this sympathy / empathy is also the basis for morality. It should be.

Hitchens also allowed that a poem "Church Going" by non-believer Philip Larkin could be his creed, so I looked it up. It's wonderful, all right, neatly and regularly formed and reflecting on an anecdote -- the speaker enters an empty and very old countryside church, and hatless, removes his bicycle clips and takes in the silence. His reflection brings him to imagining a future when no one will be left who enters a church for the reasons it was intended. He thinks:

It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete . . .
Not to brag, but all this is also contained in my essay "So Many Possibilities: The Religion of Stephen Sondheim" (Sondheim Review, Nov. 2006) which focuses on the atheist composer-lyricist's trademark ability to give all the characters their own voices, practicing ultimate empathy. In fact, I wrote that, for Sondheim, sin is a failure of imagination. The phrase came naturally to me -- did I dimly recall it from McEwan's wonderful ATONEMENT, or have we both taken the idea from a common source?

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