In his yesterday post, Kelly Jolley has a really nice quote from Robert Browning (use my blog roll to track down Quantum Est in Rebus Inane). Kelly juxtaposes the Browning quote with an equally nice companion quote from Kierkegaard. Both writers are working on the issue of whether religious truth can be communicated directly, and whether, if one has a religious message, one can successfully convey it directly. Perhaps we should admit that such truth is best — or exclusively — communicated indirectly or obliquely. After all, religious truth is not mere facts to be conveyed, or an ideology, both of which can be directly formulated and promulgated. Here’s Browning (I had no idea he was so good on this sort of thing!):
Obliquely, do the thing shall breed the thought, Nor wrong the thought, missing the mediate word. So may you paint your picture, twice show truth, Beyond mere imagery on the wall, – So, note by note, bring music from your mind, Deeper than ever e’en Beethoven dived, – So write a book shall mean beyond the facts, Suffice the eye and save the soul beside.
I wonder to whom, and when, something appears, or should be called, “oblique” or “indirect.” Maybe the perspective that supports the idea of indirect or oblique communication is rather specialized, and to others, at different times, whatever is happening as one’s soul is energized religiously, it shouldn’t be called a happening that is “oblique’ or ‘indirect.’
Browning’s advice is sound coaching, given that we assume whomever he coaches is in a certain position vis a vis the person whose soul needs alteration, whose illusion needs to be removed. Lets say the would be soul-changer contemplates a direct attack on the illusion. Then Browning’s advice, his coaching, is, “Don’t go that way!”
Now the would-be soul changer might at first resist Browning’s advice. He’d think, “Browning is not really aiming where he should – at getting religious truth across to the deluded.” He might think, “Browning’s trying for a ‘merely’ aesthetic impact.” So for the uninitiated or momentarily dull student, Browning will not have the ultimate aim in focus. But Browning, the coach, persists. He says to the would-be soul-changer, “Correct: your direct and non-oblique aim is to alter the soul of your addressee — but look, believe me, you can only do this by a method that will seem to you to be oblique or indirect. But just be patient. If you want to eliminate the illusion of the person you’re addressing, start with what seems to you to be oblique and indirect. Once it starts working, it can morph into the most direct and non-oblique route to your goal. To get there, you have to detour. The detour is the direct route.
The indirect communication is the most direct possible; the oblique is the most straightforward possible.
Note that on this account, I could say, that for me, the effect of Beethoven in delivering religious impact is not oblique or indirect, but direct and non-oblique.
So for some (if I’m right) one needn’t think that the communication of religious truth must be oblique or indirect. For anyone already ‘dwelling’ in such truth, or undeluded about it, that truth in its delivery is as direct and non-oblique as can be. So Browning and Kierkegaard are offering a pedagogy of critique and conversion, not a phenomenology of what it is to have religious truth sidle up against or insinuate itself into or massively take over one’s life.
From a phenomenological perspective, I can hope to have, and perhaps already enjoy, a non-mediated relation to truth, such that the aesthetic carries the religious directly to me. But from a pedagogical standpoint, where I see a person needing an illusion dissolved, then tactically, I should approach indirectly, obliquely. But if I am someone not in need of illusion-removal, no tactics need arise, and I can enjoy a direct communication of religious truth, and can reasonably suppose I’m not the only one in the world who can. In some ways, this allows me to be more modest and less fixated on ‘attacking’ the illusions of others.
Kierkegaard sometimes seems not to be giving advice so much as saying “Here are two kinds of communication, direct and indirect, and the direct is for conveying facts and ideology and the indirect is for conveying religious truth.” But if you’re already half-way religious, and a subtle religious animation pervades your soul, you’ll enjoy the knowledge that religious truth can be communicated directly.