A Violent Recovery: Allen Tate and the Religious Foundations of Community - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

A Violent Recovery: Allen Tate and the Religious Foundations of Community

Allen Tate’s contribution to I’ll Take My Stand poses a challenge. He concludes his “Remarks on Southern Religion” by stating that the way the Southerner can “take hold of his tradition” is by violence. In a group of essays that has eschewed a direct, political solution to the damaging cultural effects of industrialism, Tate challenges his confederates to be activists. He writes at the end of his essay: “Since he cannot bore from within, he has left the sole alternative of boring from without. This method is political, active, and, in the nature of the case, violent and revolutionary.”1 How are we to interpret Tate’s surprising conclusion?

One could argue that Tate’s peculiar role among the Fugitives was to disturb whatever was regarded as settled among them.2 If we take the volume’s introduction as representative of their common thought, then it appears that the twelve agrarians agreed that a second secession was not the solution. Neither do they themselves provide any practical example of returning to work the land; their activism resides in their writing. So what can Tate seriously mean by urging violence and revolution?

Indeed, in his essay, Tate takes issue with the view that politics is sufficient to the human good. Why, then, does he end his remarks in tacit agreement with the fruitfulness of revolution, a view held by one he fundamentally criticizes, Thomas Jefferson? Tate observes that, due to his scientific frame of mind, Thomas Jefferson held that “The ends of man are sufficiently contained in his political destiny.” He writes that though this view was not formally endorsed by the ante-bellum Southerner, it is the assumption of the modern Southerner. Herein lies the South’s last defeat, a defeat which concedes to the false separation between science and religion: “The South would not have been defeated had it possessed sufficient faith in its own kind of God. It would not have been defeated, in other words, had it been able to bring out a body of doctrine setting forth its true conviction that the ends of man require more for their realization than politics.”3 Given his locating of man’s ends beyond politics, wouldn’t Tate suggest that a “sufficient” religion offers a more likely means of recovery than revolution? To comment adequately on the concluding anomaly in Tate’s “Remarks on Southern Religion” requires an interpretive frame somewhat larger than his trenchant essay provides. This frame is found in the impressive body of his critical writings, his fiction, and his poetry. Tate’s work probes how the areas of history and tradition, science, politics, and economics, each bear an intrinsic relation to religion, the ground for all other cultural and intellectual expressions. In granting religion this foundational place, Tate parallels T.S. Eliot’s, Christopher Dawson’s, and Josef Pieper’s thought. Only when we outline these recurrent topics in Tate’s thought can we properly assess just how surprising was his call to violence and revolution in 1930 even on his own terms. Moreover, the enduring insights of the essay offer a challenge not only to the post-World War I Southerner, but also to anyone aspiring to be, as Tate would later describe, “the man of letters in the modern world.”4 Reading Tate invites us to consider: is it the political activist or the poet whose voice makes us see the radical connection between culture and religion?

Before Tate in section II of his essay gives an account of two divergent views of history, the Long View and the Short View, he offers a kind of apology for writing about the topic of religion at all. Twenty years before his own conversion to Catholicism, the essay begins to outline the errors in his contemporaries’ treatment of religion.5 His statements about the wrong approach to religion and the wrong approach to history are very similar. Both realms suffer from abstractions held to be authoritative—for instance, statistical proofs that religion encourages success—because effects are able to be quantified and thus satisfy the modern mind. With an emphasis on function and a loss of particularity, religion and history have been reduced from their former plenitude. One of the results of consequence to poetry is the receding of images from the meaning of religion and history. For religion, this loss of image has meant a loss of mystery.

Tate’s opening rhetoric means to dispel any possible link between his purpose and that of “the professional man of religion . . . whose proper business is to prepare the mysteries for others.”6 Previously, “for some reason not clear to 1930,” laymen “who took up the mysteries as a gentlemanly pursuit” had great respect for those who had “authority to speak of the Higher Things.” He states, “We have none of that respect now.” Tate’s springboard for what follows, an essay begun “in a spirit of irreligion,” is thus a blanket insult to contemporary clerics. Tate characteristically gets everyone’s attention, especially those who would be most pricked.

At the outset Tate’s own approach to religious people and leaders is a calculated violation of all sound rules of rhetoric. As Aristotle teaches, the speaker must dispose the audience to trust him by his good will. But if Tate does not dispose men of religion to receive his argument kindly, his ungentlemanly manner gains him, the “amateur,” the ability to be heard at all. What would offend and be perceived as a violence is deftly transformed into respectful discourse about what is in itself unable to be articulated. He writes: “Religion is not properly a discussion of anything; so any discussion of religion is a piece of violence, a betrayal of the religious essence undertaken for its own good, or for the good of those who live by it.” The risk in his “personal indecorum” is that it will betray his own betrayal of religion. Tate speaks with respect but as an outsider to religion; this nonpartisanship, as it were, affords him the critical distance that makes him look—at first—like any other unbelieving modern. His rhetoric garners both audiences, “religious” men and irreligious. Tate thus begins his essay in as startling a manner as he ends it—with a “certain pretension in this incivility.” 7

The pretension is necessary because religion has fallen upon “evil days.” In his own mind it is a fairy story and a myth not able to be conveyed in the “immediate, direct, overwhelming” way it deserves. Why? Because the modern mind has lost “the appreciation of this kind of imagery,” that of myth. He announces that he must confine himself to “First Principles” in order to serve an experience of religion generally lost (and, I should add, lost to himself as well—except in his imagination).

Just as we think that Tate will embark on a Thomistic discussion of first principles, he conjures up the image of a horse, the animal who works the farm and who evokes the meaning of the land. Section I of his essay explores this image of a horse eating bluegrass on the lawn in order to pinpoint the thrust of American religion, i.e., the religion of “how things work” or what Tate calls the religion of the half-horse. The truly religious mind, the religion of the whole horse, sees the horse “as he is…cropping the bluegrass”—a particular that comes from his home state of Kentucky. While the visible horse can be understood to be one of a species, scientific categorizing is prone to abstraction. The particular horse is one instance of the abstraction of horsepower. Tate asks his reader to imagine that there is an actual horse, “a complete and self-contained horse in spite of the now prevailing faith that there is none simply because the abstract and scientific mind cannot see him.” This lone horse bears a great burden here. Tate asks his reader to see the horse as if it exists, even though “the discussion cannot bring him [or religion] forth,” in the same breath that he asks him to think religion real.8 Tate relies on the imagination and specifically on the contemplation of a “common thing,” the horse, in order to show his readers, who have lost contact with the particularity of things, that it is the same act of imagination that enables the person access to the “Higher Things.” I suspect that this trust in imagination is the first step in Tate’s own religious journey.9

Tate seems to regret what has happened to religion, particularly with respect to the problem of evil. Keep in mind that Tate is writing before World War II. Tate speaks in this section of a “mature religion…not likely to suffer disillusion and collapse.” We see in this concern the suggestion of his own disappointment with a religion that could not deal with “the traditional experience of evil which is the common lot of the race.” In his novel published eight years after I’ll Take My Stand and set in the antebellum South, Tate’s main character, Lacy Buchan, would give voice to this continuing critique of modern religion:

Is it not something to tell, when a score of people whom I knew and loved, people beyond whose lives I could imagine no other life, either out of violence in themselves or the times, or out of some misery of shame, scattered into the new life of the modern age where they cannot even find themselves? Why cannot life change without tangling the lives of innocent persons? Why do innocent persons cease their innocence and become violent and evil in themselves that such great changes may take place?10

To borrow a phrase from Walker Percy, these innocent people who become violent and evil, all of them members of Lacy Buchan’s family as he recalls them from the perspective of old age, are “lost in the cosmos.” Buchan’s reflections on the vulnerability and corruption of the antebellum Southerner shows that, despite their traditions, they share a common condition of the modern age, one with little mediation between themselves and fallen human nature. So, to return from this digression, Tate ends his section on the horse with characteristic irony: “It is apparent that the image of the horse will ‘work’ only in a limited number of logical distinctions; so I propose to discard it.” Having “used” the image of the horse, as any modern would, Tate turns in another direction.

His argument from first principles has regarded the horse in divergent ways. (We might restate the first principles in Aristotelian terms, though Tate never does so explicitly: the whole-horse principle is that the end of a thing is the good of a thing; the half-horse principle is that the horse has meaning only as an instrumental good, as a means to some human purpose.) Only the religion of the whole horse is a realistic one, since it “predicts both success and failure.” It is a religion consistent with the insight of a long-blind Oedipus, who “cautioned us not to pronounce a man happy till we saw the end of his life.”11 Tate alludes to his contemporary, T.S. Eliot, who in “The Waste Land” has Tiresias show (with the “young man carbuncular” and the “typist home at teatime”) how mechanical lovemaking has become. The allusion hits home: religion might still operate as a societal function, but it has lost its rending passion, its tragic eros, its sublime comedy.

History and Tradition

In reflecting on “The Tennessee Agrarians” in 1952, Richard Weaver shows that the definitive account of the difference between the North and the South did not occur until their collaborative written work: “In sum, it was not until about 1925 that Southern intellectuals caught up with Lee and Jackson. The latter had known in 1862 that the one chance for the South was to carry the fight to the enemy. They fully appreciated the principle, …actually as old as warfare, that the best defense is a good offense.”12 Agreeing with Weaver, Louise Cowan points out that the core of poets who preceded the agrarian movement and who published The Fugitive were decidedly not standard Southerners, but were in fact fleeing from the “high-caste Brahmins of the South,” as John Crowe Ransom described them.13 Donald Davidson explained that they were all clear about their disdain for sentimentality, their distaste for the conventional, and their hope “to utilize in their work the best qualities of modern poetry.”14 Cowan writes, “It was only through breaking with ‘Southern literature,’ as it was then piously conceived, that they could find the genuine Southern tradition.”15

But while they broke with a false piety to the South, they did not cut themselves off from the images of a common local experience. John Crowe Ransom’s “Antique Harvesters” addresses the loss of memory in the attenuated agrarian order: “The young men would be joying in the song / Of passionate birds; their memories are not long… / Trust not but the old endure, and shall be older / Than the scornful beholder.” He invites the New South to reclaim her past, figured as a Lady: “True it is said of our Lady, she ageth. / But see, if you peep shrewdly, she hath not stooped.” The harvesters reap memory, and though it is “her servitors that have drooped,” they—the poets—have been bequeathed “one spot” with “special yield,” because it has been “drenched” with the blood of heroes. “The sons of the fathers shall keep her worthy of / What these have done in love.”16

In Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” the dry leaves of the graveyard are like the dead “who fall / Rank upon rank, hurried beyond decision”—Tate’s reiteration of a trope as old as Homer. The Southern dead did not have to question the defense of their land and blood. The falling leaves that “sough the rumor of mortality” raise the specter of violence which alone seems capable of piercing through a smug modern forgetfulness. The autumnal images of the poem awaken complacent Southerners to the “immoderate past,” to a Stonewall at Bull Run. Tate’s question “what shall we say who have knowledge carried to the heart?” suggests the essential predicament of the inheritors of that tradition: their experience is secondhand, intellectualized. The heart is stirred to understanding the heroic only when memory recasts itself imaginatively through a mimetic recovery of “the casual sacrament” in nature and of war’s conscious, sacrificial violence.17

Through poesis their memory of the South’s defense of her land and her defeat would yield knowledge about the human things. In his personal rendition of their collaborative effort, at heart a “commitment to poetry,” Tate saw the Fugitives as an “intensive and historical goup as opposed to the eclectic and cosmopolitan groups that flouished in the East.” I think it important that we locate our consideration of this second portion of Tate’s essay, then, within his own emphasis on the “unity of feeling,” a communally earned poetry. Louise Cowan rightly observes that “it is just such a communal sacrament of which Mr. Eliot himself has been deprived; and it is this quality in the work of the Fugitives…that binds them together into a genuine school of poets.” She goes on to say that this unity was “quite different from a unity of theory such as most schools of poetry have had since the seventeenth century.” It came from what Tate called, in his recollection twenty years later, a “common historical myth.”18

Tate’s essay about religion as it bears on the vanquished Southern agrarian way of life begins to clarify the close ties of history, tradition, and religion, a theme he would work out with more care in a talk given six years later, at the University of Virginia, “What Is a Traditional Society?”19 Here, in “Remarks,” he reintroduces the religion of the half-horse as the Long View of History, a view which depends on abstraction. The Long View is condescending. The circumstances of time and place and the participants in them are dismissible because they are insignificant next to the looming conceptual categories and movements. To the holders of the Long View (for example, Hegel, Marx, and Spengler), particulars are useful only insofar as they contribute to paradigms, the substance of history. For instance, when the Greek and Roman world are collapsed into each other to yield the category of “Law,” the Greek and Roman cultures lose any of the interesting differences which might, if contemplated, offer a deeper understanding of the human capacity for excellence.

The Short View, on the other hand, “holds that the proper series for history to be placed in is the temporal or concrete series.” Like Plutarch’s Lives, the Short View is characterized by and concerned with particular men who, acting out their parts, made their choices in circumstances which “bewildered” them and “which prompted them to make up stories with an obvious moral.”20 Men like Cicero could not fully account for their choices, but they could report a version which had an ennobling effect, both on others and on the men themselves. In this respect, the Short View most resembles the myth-making of religion. In his later essay, Tate describes the Short View as the “historical imagination, which is the religious imagination manque—an exercise of the myth-making propensity of man within the restricted realm of historical events.” Men can rationally approve an historical myth when they would have to reject a more profoundly imaginative one: “Men see themselves in the stern light of the character of Cato, but they can no longer see themselves under the control of a tutelary deity. Cato actually lived; Apollo was merely far-darting.”21 Borrowing from Eliot, Tate here calls this absorption of the classical historical imagination a “lower myth.” With sufficient perspective, the “Old South” is perhaps included as one of those historical circumstances which, seen in the Short View, can spawn a “little myth,” a “figment of the historical imagination.” Tate is quick to distinguish this lower myth from the religious imagination. Though not original, the minor myth has a kind of vitality:

The men of our early Republic were powerfully endowed with this faculty (the historical imagination). It is not the same as religion, if by religion we mean Christianity in the Middle Ages; nor is it the same as the religious imagination under any conceivable culture, for the religious imagination is timeless and unhistoric. The minor myth is based upon ascertainable history.22

The Short View, we might say, co-operates with the noble aspiration to model oneself and one’s community after human excellence and beauty. As he stands on the University of Virginia campus addressing Phi Beta Kappa in 1936, Tate need not say much to demonstrate his point. But in 1930, Tate writes not altogether facetiously that the Short View, the one compatible with the historical imagination, has the added benefit of inviting a “choice” between, say, Adonis and Christ: “The Short View holds that the whole Christ and the whole Adonis are sufficiently differentiated in their respective qualities (roughly details) and that our tradition compels us to choose more than that half of Christ which is Adonis and to take the whole, separate, and unique Christ.”23 Tate is not naive about presuming one can choose the worldview of someone from a bygone era. Tradition must be “automatically operative before it can be called tradition.” He rightly asks, “Why should our tradition compel us to choose anything? Particularly in view of the all but accomplished fact that tradition is destroyed?”24

By raising the possibility of an impossible practical choice, Tate points to the paradox of defending a religious point of view when the historical imagination no longer undergirds the tradition: “It is irrational to defend religion with the weapon that invariably discredits it…. I am trying to discover the place that religion holds with logical, abstract instruments, which of course tend to put religion in some logical system series, where it vanishes.”25 Then, the would-be defender becomes one with the Long View, trotting out reasons beneficial to society—the half-horse religion again. Where can Tate turn to lead his remarks toward a view consistent with a whole religion? Since defensive measures are destructive, are offensive ones called for? Violent ones?

Science

Some of the would-be defenders were the New Humanists of Tate’s era. He criticized Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, and Norman Foerster for their facile attempts to undo the de-humanizing effects of modern natural science. Generally speaking, they held that religion could be used to elevate society beyond the useful. Tate understood that religion could not be merely civil religion (John Henry Newman’s term). These Humanists thus participate in the American religion of the half-horse. In his “Fallacy of Humanism” (1930) Tate writes that “their thought refuses to exceed the moralistic plane: they steadily repudiate all religious and philosophical support.” Tate argues that in More’s writing, for instance, both religious and literary texts become opportunities for moral paraphrasing: “In either case the full content of the literary or religious text is left behind.” The Humanists angered Tate, and he cites Aristotle’s critique of the sophists in the Nicomachean Ethics II.iv to explain why they cannot “make good their values”:

…taking refuge in talk they flatter themselves they are philosophizing, and that they will so be good men; acting in truth like those sick people who listen to the doctor with great attention but do nothing he tells them; just as these people cannot be well bodily under such a course of treatment, neither can those be mentally such by philosophizing.26

Tate argues that, with their non-philosophic ideas and social consciousness, the Humanists cannot convince anyone or change anything. They cannot either think through or achieve an “appropriate background,” for they ignore “the difficulty of imagining what the background should be.” Accusing Humanism of the problem it sought to remedy, Tate concludes, “It is a mechanical formula for the recovery of civilization.” Humanist thought places the “cart before the horse,” and because it gives the philosophy in the wrong place, it invites philosophical attack. Humanism should be culture, but it may be a little untamed in the Humanists until, like the digging of graves for gravediggers, “custom hath made it in them a property of easiness.”27 Humanists have not helped to address or solve the problem posed by a science which quantifies the world to bring about the “conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate,” as Francis Bacon recommended.

The difference between the path that science has taken since Bacon and the older philosophic habit of empirical inquiry has shaped the tensions within the Western philosophic tradition. In sections III through V of “Remarks on Southern Religion,” Tate explains “our nature” as Westerners: “we have a special notion of tradition—a notion that tradition is not simply a fact, but a fact that must be constantly defended.” He makes his point clearer when he takes some time to show the difference between Western religion, or more precisely, the religion of the European Middle Ages, and Russian, Orthodox, or Eastern spirituality.

Following the classical philosophers, Western European Christians want to think about that which cannot ultimately be comprehended. As Westerners, we must satisfy ourselves that we have gone as far as we can according to the investigation of Nature on her own terms. We risk losing the vitality and mystery of faith, then, in an effort to defend religion in a rational way, i.e., through dogma. Dogma, as Tate presents its emergence, is arrived at in a way as exacting as the truths established by science; it “quantifies” in order to uphold the qualities (myth, symbol, image) of things. It becomes the “fact” of religion. In using rationality, then, religion comes to embrace practicality as its object, and nature then becomes the “whole.” “Western Reason has always played the ostrich by sticking its head in the Supernatural.” Tate then offers one of the most excellent insights of his essay, “Woe betide when it took its head out and got so used to the natural setting that it found it good.”28

In his 1925 poem “Homily,” the tensions caused by this inverse conversion of religion by “Reason, Science, or Nature”29 are explored in the internal torture of the mind. Assuming a vatic role, Tate in his epigraph quotes Christ’s saying, “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.”

If your tired unspeaking head
Rivet the dark with linear sight,
Crazed by a warlock with his curse
Dreamed up in some loquacious bed,
And if the stage-dark head rehearse
The fifth act of the closing night,

Why, cut it off, piece after piece,
And throw the tough cortex away,
And when you’ve marveled on the wars
That wove their interior smoke its way,
Tear out the close vermiculate crease
Where death crawled angrily at bay.30

Tate’s poem shows that because of the “radical division between the religious, the contemplative, the qualitative, on the one hand, and the scientific, the natural, the practical on the other,”31 the persona is tempted not by the flesh but by the mind. Illustrating Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility,” Tate’s speaker inhabits the Cartesian closeted mind—a dark place of linear thoughts. Death would be better.

On the other hand, Eastern belief does not produce either philosophy or dogma. It is “quite simply supernaturalism or the naive religion of the entire horse.” Despite this likeness to a whole religion, Eastern Christian belief insufficiently appreciates man’s desire to question, the Westerner’s distinction and “calamity,” or warlock’s “curse.” His commentary on Eastern Orthodoxy (the “naive religion of the entire horse”) continues in section III:

It never suspects the existence of those halves that render our sanity so precarious and compel us to vacillate between a self-destroying naturalism and practicality, on the one hand, and a self-destroying mysticism, on the other hand. For it seems that we are not able to contemplate those qualities of the horse that are specifically religious without forgetting his merely spatial and practicable half: we cannot let the entire horse fill our minds all at once.32

Tate’s condensed and provocative analysis of how the West has lost its love of learning for its own sake, love of God for His own sake, and connaturality with, not conquest of, Nature is at times cryptic but always leads us to find out the truth about ourselves, a task the American typically avoids. We seek to know what will work, he emphasizes, and America is the epitome of this European intellectual inheritance. But this is a difficult inheritance, one that leaves its beneficiaries on the edge of the abyss. As he writes in “The Mediterranean,” (1933) “We’ve cracked the hemispheres with careless hand!”33 In a letter to Jacques Maritain, Caroline Gordon cites this line and comments, “there seems nothing for young men to do except to dive into the abyss caused by the crack (that old Cartesian crack about which you have written so eloquently.)”34 Is there an antidote to such self-destructive violence?

Politics and Economics

When Tate thinks of the relation between America and Europe in his “Remarks,” he sees that the “peril” he has outlined is “most typical at present in its American form.” Though America “has recapitulated practically every form of European polity, … Though she has repeated all the chief economic and political forms, … she has not repeated the religious forms.” He goes on to make the statement most frequently quoted from this essay: “This anomaly gave us that remarkable society of the old South, which was a feudal society without a feudal religion.”35 The North’s Protestantism was consistent with her economic and political life; a trading society was matched with the individualism of a trading religion. Tate is unrelenting on this point, critiquing New England while offering a version of Marx’s economic basis of society and of Weber’s linkage between Protestantism and capitalism: “[The Jamestown project] was a capitalistic enterprise undertaken by Europeans who were already convinced adherents of large-scale exploitation of nature, not to support a stable religious order, but to advance the interests of trade as an end in itself.”36 The South’s religion should have been medieval Catholicism, the one that would reflect their attitude toward the land, nature, leisure, stories—the whole particularity of life that was not materialistic but “sensuous.”37

Tate’s account of the relation between economics and religion at first glance seems to echo Marx. But he really turns Marx upside down, and in the process, he gets his reader’s attention on one of his major points: “Because the South never created a fitting religion, the social structure of the South began grievously to break down two generations after the Civil War; for the social structure depends on the economic structure, and economic conviction is the secular image of religion.”38 Understanding that the South could not create its religion, Tate holds that the forms of an integral culture proceed from its religion. He writes in section VI: “In fact, their rational life was not powerfully united to the religious experience, as it was in medieval society, and they are a fine specimen of that tragic pitfall upon which the Western mind has always hovered.” The South, then, like the West generally, is another instance of the “cracked hemispheres” described in “The Mediterranean.” Lacking a “full-grown philosophy,” Southerners “had no defense” “when the post-bellum temptations of the devil, who is the exploiter of nature, confronted them.“39

Nevertheless, Tate suggests that the South should have seen that it could not defend itself with the North’s religion, “hardly a religion at all, but a result of secular ambition.” Instead, Southern clergy were satisfied to use the Bible to defend slavery, a device that could never win them the war nor save their culture. In effect, the “South separated from the North too late, and so lost its cause.”40

The religion appropriate to the South was the religion of the whole horse. It is at this point in his essay that Tate penetrates to the basis of community: it lies in a religion which can shape the interior life of its members by a shared contemplation of its images. He employs his horse image again to make his crucial, thoroughly non-Marxist and typically medieval point:

The Southerners were capable of using their horses, as they did one day at Brandy Station, but they could also contemplate them as absolute and inviolable objects; they were virtually incapable of abstracting from the horse his horsepower, or from history its historicity. For the horse fact and the historical fact, by remaining concrete, retained a certain status as images, and images are only to be contemplated, and perhaps the act of contemplation after long exercise initiates a habit of imitation, and the setting up of absolute standards which are less formulas for action than an interior discipline of mind.41

This interior discipline of mind results not in dogma or in a logical series or abstraction but in community. In his “Man of Letters in the Modern World” (1952), Tate talks about freedom and the act of appropriating images to letters, “our one indispensable test of the actuality of our experience.” Letters yield the “power of discrimination.” This is the test that Southern letters of the old South failed before these new agrarians of little practical experience took their stand.

In “The Man of Letters,” Tate restates his earlier distinction between dogma and the “absolute standard… of an interior discipline of mind.” The poet and the free man of letters generally do not merely communicate, but they speak or write so as to bring about communion. Communion is understood as the “recurrent discovery of the human communion as experience, in a definite place and at a definite time.”42 Tate sets up the Aristotelian triad of end, choice, and discrimination to show the process of “general intelligence” as radically different from the communicators whose key words are drive, stimulus, and response.43 He explains:

Is there in this language genuine knowledge of our human community—or of our lack of it—that we have not had before? If there is, he will know that it is liberal language, the language of freemen, in which a choice had been made towards a probable end of man. If it is not language of this order, if it is the language of mere communication, of mechanical analogies in which the two natures of man are isolated and dehumanized, then he will know that it is the language of men who are, or who are waiting to be slaves.44

Tate suggests that what the South lacked and acquired too late—and only through the violence of suffering and defeat even then—was the man of letters. In a real sense, as he indicates over and over in his essay, Southern life gave an experience of communion, but the tradition could not be defended because it was not fully free. Tate’s insight into communion, the basis of community, yields the thought that, without a sufficient symbolic language, all were destined for slavery in the South. Without a whole language of the “world’s body,” as John Crowe Ransom called it, a culture is vulnerable. Southerners had a religious life, Tate says toward the end of his essay, “but it was not enough organized with a right mythology.”45

We go back to the original question of this essay, then, and the surprising call for violence, for revolution, so that the South might get hold of its tradition. When Tate says that the Southerner, or any “die-hard agrarian,” was not willing to “subtract the human so as to set the [humane] principle free to operate on an unlimited program of practicality,” he is affirming the realism of the non-Romantic agrarian. When, in section V, he evokes the image of the old Southerners “highly critical of the kinds of work to be done,” he shows a community which works not merely to survive or succeed, but to enjoy “a rich private life,” and which studies history not for the sake of knowing it, “but simply for the sake of contemplating it and seeing in it an image of themselves.” This life of leisure is the kind of life conducive to “the interior discipline of the mind.”

It is the kind of discipline that brings insight into man’s evil as well. The Southerner, grappling with the same “ineradicable belief in the fundamental evil of nature”46 as medieval man, remained “aware of the treachery of nature.”47 Playing off the ironic Marxist undercurrent of the volume, Tate hopes to arouse an awareness of this treachery of nature both outside and inside man, an awareness that can now only be regained through violence. What kind of violence is of course in question. To begin to recover tradition requires seeing the illness of the modern mind sundered from the sources of belief, from image, from things “in their rich contingent materiality,” as Ransom would write. The Southerner must face “the dark center from which one may see coming the darkness gathering outside us.”48

In closing his “Remarks on Southern Religion,” Tate aims for his reader to face these outside political forces reflective of the inside ones. He aims, as the “agrarian” man of letters, to be “cutting away the overgrowth and getting back to the roots” so that communion is possible again. His writing is also an alert against the delusion of communism, which might be called the double of communion. (One discarded title for the volume, I’ll Take My Stand, it should be noted, was “Tracts Against Communism.”) He knows that “rearranging the foliage” will not essentially change anything; that structural changes cannot reorder the soul.49

As Glenn Arbery explains, Tate’s “enigmatic ending” implies that “the Southerner as a twentieth-century revolutionary is a contradiction; one does not act like Lenin in order to become George Washington.”50 This is true enough. When Tate argues with mechanical politics, the kind that operates according to abstraction and not according to man’s fallen nature—the modern view of politics which he characterizes as Jeffersonian—he is suggesting that there is an older view of politics, the classical, which looks to the order of the soul in order to found the good political order.

This is the soul-centered, but more radical politics of an Augustine as well, one that requires the most radical of all movements, conversion. 51 Tate’s essay points to that inner restoration in the light-handed and ironic way that makes this essay nearly inscrutable. His ultimate conclusion points the way to a whole view of politics, one dependent on the deepest meaning of a whole religion: “[The Southerner] must use an instrument, which is political, and so unrealistic and pretentious that he cannot believe in it, to reestablish a private, self-contained, and essentially spiritual life.” The word “instrument” in this sentence evokes his whole distrust of politics, nature, and science viewed merely as means. In fact, at this point, Tate also seems to call into question the whole endeavor of I’ll Take My Stand in a way that echoes the opening footnote in which he enigmatically objects to the title as too exclusive: “it points to a particular house but omits to say that it was the home of a spirit that may also have lived elsewhere and that this mansion, in short, was incidentally made with hands.”52 Surely he seeks to remind us of the agrarian spirit that derives from Troy, Sparta, and Rome. But his Biblical language warns his fellows, with a kind of prophetic irony, not to idolize a South whose houses were “incidentally made with hands.”

His poem “Last Days of Alice,” written one year after his agrarian essay, gives us the path to follow in what only can be an invitation to delve further into his work:

O God of our flesh, return us to Your wrath,
Let us be evil could we enter in
Your grace, and falter on the stony path.53

Tate’s call for violence understood as a “boring from without,” the “sole alternative” left to the Southerner, paradoxically proclaims the need for the recovery of what is essentially “within,” a “spiritual life.” This is a violence his essay cannot instigate on its own, without grace. His call in this volume is for nothing less than a spiritual revolution to restore the crack of the hemispheres, for in light of that rift, “The setback of the war was of itself a very trivial one.”54

Virginia Arbery
Dallas Institute of the
Humanities and Culture

NOTES

  1. Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1930, 1980), 175.
  2. See Louise Cowan, The Fugitive Group: A Literary History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959)., 39; John Crowe Ransom, “In Amicitia,” in Allen Tate and His Work: Critical Evaluations, Radcliffe Squires, ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972), 11-22.
  3. Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 174.
  4. See Tate’s essay of that name, taken from his Phi Beta Kappa Address, University of Minnesota, May 1, 1952, and reprinted in Essays of Four Decades (Wilmington: ISI Books, 1968, 1999), 3-16.
  5. See also Tate’s “The Fallacy of Humanism” in The Critique of Humanism, C. Hartley Grattan,ed. (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1930, 1968).
  6. Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 155.
  7. Ibid., 156.
  8. Ibid., 157.
  9. Tate will articulate more fully the analogical and anagogical approach in “The Symbolic Imagination: The Mirrors of Dante,” reprinted in Essays of Four Decades, 424-446.
  10. Allen Tate, The Fathers (Chicago: The Swallow Press, Inc., 1938), 5.
  11. Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 159.
  12. Richard M. Weaver, “The Tennessee Agrarians,” in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, George M. Curtis and James J. Thompson, Jr., eds. (Indianapolis, Liberty Press, 1987), 7.
  13. Louise Cowan, The Fugitive Group: A Literary History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959), 48.
  14. Ibid., 44.
  15. Ibid., 40.
  16. John Crowe Ransom, “Antique Harvesters,” in The Fugitive Poets, William Pratt, ed. (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1965), 69-70.
  17. Allen Tate, “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” in The Fugitive Poets, 97-98.
  18. Louise Cowan, The Fugitive Group, xxi.
  19. Allen Tate, “What is a Traditional Society?,” Essays of Four Decades,” 547-557.
  20. Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 161.
  21. Allen Tate, “What is a Traditional Society?,” 551.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 162.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., 163.
  26. Allen Tate, “The Fallacy of Humanism,” in The Critique of Humanism, 133.
  27. Ibid., 166.
  28. Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 165.
  29. Ibid., 164.
  30. Allen Tate, “Homily,” Collected Poems: 1919-1976 (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1977), 4.
  31. Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 173.
  32. Ibid., 163.
  33. Allen Tate, Collected Poems, 66-67.
  34. John M. Dunaway, ed., Exiles and Fugitives: The Letters of Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992), 50.
  35. Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 166.
  36. Ibid., 167.
  37. Ibid., 172.
  38. Ibid., 168.
  39. Ibid., 173.
  40. Ibid., 168.
  41. Ibid., 169. Emphasis mine.
  42. Allen Tate, “The Man of Letters in the Modern World,” Essays of Four Decades, 11.
  43. Ibid., 12.
  44. Ibid., 14.
  45. Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 173.
  46. Ibid., 165.
  47. Ibid., 172.
  48. Allen Tate, “Preface to Reason in Madness,” Essays of Four Decades, 615.
  49. Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 175.
  50. Glenn Arbery, “Dante in Bardstown: Allen Tate’s Guide to Southern Exile,” Thought LXV (March 1990), 96.
  51. See the excellent study of Augustine’s influence on Tate by Robert Dupree, Allen Tate and the Augustinian Imagination: A Study of the Poetry (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983).
  52. Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 155.
  53. Allen Tate, “Last Days of Alice,” in The Fugitive Poets, 99-100.
  54. Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” 174.

Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For

Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.

Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles

Join the ISI community. Membership is free.

You might also like