Poetry before the Fall; or, the Pathetic Fallacy in Paradise


The Casting of the Rebel Angels into Hell, William Blake, 1808

by Ed Simon

Spare a thought of pity for the person who has looked at the warmth of the sun and not seen him smiling, espied the mysteriousness of the moon without acknowledging her meditative melancholy, or been upon a raging ocean and not empathized with its mad fury. Such personifications, the imbuing of the inanimate with the energy of emotion, has a deep literary history. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar prefigures the treachery of the Ides of March with “scolding winds,” an “ambitious ocean,” and “threatening clouds,” and in Macbeth the playwright informs his audience that the “night has been unruly.” John Keats with his weeping clouds and William Wordsworth with his lonely mists went in for this sort of thing, and Emily Bronte’s heights were wuthering. Charles Dickens bucked against furious winds, and even Bob Dylan stepped in the “middle of seven sad forests.” A feint shimmer of that old pagan perspective, of enchanted meaning glowing like embers in a chill, contemplative autumn bonfire.

Killjoys will observe that winds do not scold and cannot be furious, oceans have no ambition and clouds do not threaten or weep, nor can forests be sad – even if the people within them are. Such a perspective – that projecting our consciousness onto nature is fundamentally flawed – is a position against what is called the “Pathetic Fallacy.” The adjective is from the Greek pathos for emotion, but the more common pejorative meaning of the word might as well be connoted as well, for the positivist who disparages representations of the environment exhibiting human subjectivity argues that there is something pathetic about such language. A tendency to inflect the literal storms of the outside world with the metaphorical storms of the inner goes back deep into antiquity, with poet Edward Hirsch explaining that the practice “has been a central poetic device of archaic and tribal poetries everywhere, which view the natural world as alive in all its parts,” even if mostly associated with Romantic poets writing about sad seafoam and chipper birds – though the critic who explicated the fallacy would argue that “the greatest poets do not often admit this kind of falseness.” For the literary definition of the “fallacy” has its origin in the Victorian critic John Ruskin who saw such blurring of human consciousness with the inert world as sentimental, illogical, inartful, and in a word wrong. When poet Charles Kingsley wrote of the “cruel, crawling foam,” the critic Ruskin bitchily respond that “foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl.”

Ruskin’s 1856 treatise Modern Painters contains his outline of the supposed pitfalls and perils of the pathetic fallacy, and though the critic’s esteem has risen and fallen since the nineteenth-century, his contention that depicting nature with human emotions is flawed endures as an assumption of creative writing seminars and book reviewers alike. Not always unfairly, these critics of the pathetic fallacy see such personification as rank and simplistic symbolism, of anthropomorphizing nature rather that mimetically conveying the reality of an individual character’s experience. In their view, such pathos is lazy writing, and it’s used in expression by lazy narrators, for whom it’s easier to say that the foam is cruel than that what’s actually cruel is the disposition of the said individual who is observing the foam. To his credit, Ruskin doesn’t universally condemn the trope, though he takes great pains to describe why such instances in poets he respects like Dante or Homer aren’t examples of the pathetic fallacy, and why instances in poets like Wordsworth, Blake, Keats, and Burns were. Helpful to center Hirsch’s reminder that “This projection of feeling has also flourished as a strain in epic poetry from Homer onward, as a feature of prophetic poetry from the major and minor prophets of the Hebrew Bile to Smart and Blake, Coleridge and Shelley, Whitman and Crane.” Despite such venerable practitioners (though Ruskin wrote before Crane), it was in a pique of positivism that he would have us concur that the “state of mind which attributes to [nature] these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by” emotion, a style which results from a tepid “temperament which admits the pathetic fallacy,” born from “mind and body…too weak to deal fully with what is before them or upon them; born away, or over-clouded, or over-dazzled by emotion.” Heady criticism from a man so terrified by his wife’s pubic hair that on his wedding night he ran away from her and ultimately filed for divorce, and telling that such a man would abjure instances of the pathetic fallacy for their “emotional falseness.”

As with any literary criticism which is prescriptivist rather than descriptivist, that is which seeks to tell writers how they should write rather than to explain how they do write, there are certain errors of historicizing implicit in Ruskin’s argument, and there is the cultural context of the time period which lent itself to the germination of the concept in the first place. Ruskin was, after all, writing in Victorian London, in a massive, stuffed, filthy, stinking, dirty, grey, ash-besotted metropolis held captive to smoky and smoggy factories, where the mechanical had replaced the natural and the environment was as apt to be brown as green. His criticism was of an industrial age, and was no less inadvertently indebted to the fallacies of techno-utopianism than our own besotted era. How can one see the sun smile through smog, hear the wind roar over turbines, or observe the ocean’s mood when it’s caked with obscuring pollution? Ironically, and with fairness to Ruskin, it should be noted that he was an early acolyte for environmentalism, presumably in spite of the vagaries of the pathetic fallacy. Scholar Bernard Dick in his 1968 paper “Ancient Pastoral and the Pathetic Fallacy” writes that the “origins of the pathetic fallacy probably lie in a primitive homeopathy… wherein man regarded himself as part of his natural surroundings.” A salient point which calls for humility concerning any who approach Ruskin’s injunction as absolute dicta rather than as suggestion, recalling how in archaic days both writer and reader, orator and audience, muse and poet, would approach the personification of nature with a due reverence. More than that, it calls to question the claim that the ancient poet simply “regarded” herself as indivisible from the natural world, for the prophetic, poetic, scientific, and spiritual truth is that we are part of the natural world.

That then is Ruskin’s great error, his embrace of what could be called the “logolatry fallacy.” I define this as when a critic unfairly attacks the personification of nature or the anthropomorphizing of creatures when that attack is based not on objective considerations of reality, but rather in the embrace of a pernicious dualism separating humans from the circumstances of our natural environment.  An exceedingly modern malady, certainly when Ruskin was writing and all the more so in the world of smart phones and Facebook. For the Victorian critic it certainly seemed as if nature was inert, inanimate, dead, and without emotion, as it does for all of us in the digital cocoon. But what nature seems like and what it actually is are two very different things, and there is a reason why bards heard birds belt, makers approached minds in mountains, and poets understood pines as people. Assuming that the pathetic is a fallacy in the first place is to take it as a given that there is no mind in nature, no consciousness in our environment, no subjectivity in the world outside of our own narrow, circumscribed skulls. Such a perspective of scientificity is contrary to some very ancient wisdom, and if one is quiet enough and humble enough you can surely still understand how a dull, aching consciousness still thrums through all of creation.

Whom is responsible for the severing of that connection is the subject of a debate for which there is no convenient answer. A pagan might say that it was Paul, a Catholic could finger Luther, and a spiritualist might blame Descartes. Perhaps the most accurate explanation of who is responsible folds each one of those figures into the previous one, seeing that fall as occurring when early Christians first turned from the prophetically sensual “amen” of Jerusalem to the cerebral philosophical “ergo” of Athens, preferring rather to see bodies as lumpen piles of foul deformity unimbued with spirit, and in the process doing violence to both the original biblical text and the pantheistic truths of the Greeks who’d rather turned over to the divisions of Plato. That disenchantment has been our lot in the long modernity is a historical matter of course, but if we must simplistically blame someone, we could do worse than to pin it on that French Renaissance philosopher. After all, it’s Descartes’s whose name graces that reductionist dualism which haunts contemporary philosophy like a ghost in the machine, a metaphysical bugaboo which can’t adequately explain how it is that mind and matter interact, venturing half-hypotheses about the pineal gland and holding to Homer Simpson’s dictum that “What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.” Western ontology has always been bedeviled by dualisms, from Plato’s distinction between Forms and the mundane world to Derrida’s prescriptions about binary oppositions. Certainly the most damaging example of that last category could be Cartesian Dualism, with its bloody cleaving between body and brain, corpse and spirit. Descartes argued that there was an irreducible difference between the “thinking thing” and “the thing that exists,” and so we have the philosophical underpinnings of Ruskin’s aesthetics where to conflate the former with the latter is to commit an egregious fallacy, except that the error was always in assuming that any such distinction exists.

It was in his 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy that Descartes carefully illuminated his metaphysics based in a priori principles, and there has always been reason to see that writing as the initiation of a certain type of modern thought. In many ways Descartes was simply giving logical justification for that initial severance between heaven and Earth, for Cartesian Dualism is completely compatible with orthodox pronouncements about indivisible, individual, living souls animating inert bodies. In his sixth meditation the philosopher wrote that he “clearly and distinctly understand my existence as a thinking thing (which does not require the existence of a body)” and in principle six that “God can create a body independently of a mind” which leads to the conclusion that “my mind is a reality distinct from my body…. So I (a thinking thing) can exist without a body.” The logolatry fallacy is old, albeit not as old as the more accurate perspective which gives proper reverence to psalms sung by brooks and prayers supplicated by the wind, but certainly it predates Descartes. Yet in that philosopher we can see the irrevocably cold and cruel conclusions of such dualism, for he held it undeniable that “animals are without feeling or awareness of any kind,” rather seeing them as being “automata,” as if an exuberant dog were simply a furry robot, or a slinking cat was a programed android. The implications of such a self-evidently incorrect presupposition are endemic in modernity, and contrary to the wisdom of our foremothers and fathers for whom even if they were carnivores had an innate respect for the sovereignty, individuality, and agency of our fellow creatures. These, after all, were people who saw no disjunction between eating animals and putting them on trial, but that’s no less absurd than Descartes’s scaly, fury robots. But if modernity refuses to see the consciousness in our animal familiars, than how much less likely are they to see faces in stones and hear voices in the rustling of leaves?

Descartes’s may be remembered as the primogeniture of modern skepticism, but true to being the devout Catholic who made a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin at Loreto so as to offer thanks for her intercession in producing the very text which supposedly incubated a pernicious doubt in the western psyche, Descartes’s perspective is heavily saturated with the old distinctions between flesh and spirit which go back to Paul who said in Galatians 5:17 “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other.” The point is that such dualism, which refuses to empathize with the emotions in supposedly inanimate things, has a history that goes back two millennia even if its logocentric formulation awaited till the seventeenth-century. But it’s in the positivist enthusiasms of such a perspective that Ruskin was inculcated, and which define his particular manifestation of the logolatry fallacy. Perhaps it’s correct to think of disenchanted modernity not as something which was birthed wholesale when Descartes sat by a fire contemplating melting wax, or when Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church door, but rather something which has been slowly crawling like Ruskin’s despised sea-foam. Descartes marks one figure in this process, Luther another, and Paul still an earlier one, but heaven has never been completely mute, even as the narrative of human history records her becoming ever quieter. Prelapsarian Eden in which God spoke to all us with the visceral granularity of sand and the striking chords of snow is an abstraction, and yet it’s undeniable that our myths speak to us as relics where the consciousness of nature was more immediate. Sometimes foam crawls. Sometimes foam is cruel.

Psychologist Julian Jaynes in his brilliant and under read The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind argued that it is possible to read “the story of the Fall” as a “myth of the breakdown” of that primeval order, when once we heard chanting in the trees and intentional benevolence in sunlight’s smile. Rather than any definitive break from this archaic reality, Jaynes identifies a “long retreat from the sacred” in which poetry that describes “external events objectively” is “subjectified into a poetry of personal conscious expression.” That is to say that examples of the pathetic fallacy are faint whispers from the Before, the cosmic background radiation of the Fall, echoes of our expulsion from Eden which remind us of when consciousness permeated everything and our language was also the thing-in-itself. Animism is simply pantheism without a dictionary. That way of hearing and seeing and sensing and understanding was the natural state of our ancestors and for those whom still live the “old ways,” as anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas explains when writing about the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert. She describes the hunter-gatherer lifestyle “governed by sun and rain, heat and cold, wind and wildfires” and for whom an intuition of the pathetic fallacy’s truth is instrumental in staying alive. There have been varying degrees of separation between the sacred and the profane, heaven and earth, since we first stumbled out of Olduvai Gorge, but for the !Kung their very clicks are the language of paradise, and it defined a startlingly ancient permanence which led Thomas to describe them as having the “most successful culture that our kind has ever known,” one predicated upon complete rejection of those divisions promoted by the logolatry fallacy.

Fully coping to my own lack of desire to live as a subsistence gatherer in the Namibian wilderness, and fully admitting to the dangers of romanticizing some sort of “Noble Savage” archetype (perhaps not convincingly), I do ask us to consider the benefits in rejecting Ruskin’s denigration of the pathetic fallacy, turning rather against the error of logolatry which permanently renders asunder humans from nature, and which thus does grave violence to the environment and makes humanity a permanent diasporic from the very place that we were born into, our insulated, unnatural lives in exile from the environment itself. In that spirit, I consider philosopher George Santayana’s declaration that “the pathetic fallacy is a return to that early habit of thought by which our ancestors people the world with benevolent and malevolent spirits; what they felt in the presence of objects they took be part of the objects themselves.” Two reasons why this is advisable: firstly, that the so-called pathetic fallacy more accurately reflects how we are actually constituted as beings in space and time born into a reality not of our own creation, and secondly because when facing the perils of the Anthropocene generated entirely out of the mistake of dualism, a rejection of logolatry may be that which is required to save us from complete ecological collapse, since as Hirsch argues the pathetic fallacy is indicative of “empathetic feeling for the overlooked world.”

Regarding the first contention, consider Portuguese neurobiologist Antonio Damasio who has taken direct aim at the fallacious dualisms defining modernity, writing in 1994’s Descartes’s Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain that our disciplinary attitudes have been defined by a “remarkable neglect of the mind as a function of the organism.” In his work, Damasio has emphasized the role that both emotion plays in the development of reason, and even more importantly how as embodied creatures the mind is not separate from our physicality, but indeed an integral part of our body, so that any division between the two is nonsensical. Mind is not just in our skulls, but radiates out through our nerves, our appendances, and our very flesh. Mind is more than a wet and squishy organ inside our heads. Scottish philosopher Andy Clark sees mind as not just encompassing our bodies, but indeed extending outward into the very physical universe which Ruskin so carefully delineated from our own emotional subjectivities. Clark sees a process called “extended cognition” as explaining how it is that humans live metaphorically as “cyborgs,” using supposedly inanimate things to store and jog memories, as annexes in the houses of our being. In a New Yorker interview with Larissa MacFarquhar, Clarke claims that it is a prejudice to assume “that whatever matters about my mind must depend solely on what goes on inside my own biological skin-bag, inside the ancient fortress of skin and skull,” a prejudice that can be defined by the logolatry fallacy. Extending out from the body to the environment which that body finds itself in, neurobiologists Giulio Tononi and Christof Koch have argued an even more radical form of scientific panpsychism, claiming that a type of rudimentary consciousness permeates most objects with any form of even slightly complex organization. Tononi, in an Atlantic article by Joshua Lang, tells the author that “Within this empty, dusty universe, there would be true stars. And guess what? These stars would be every living consciousness.” Let’s not forget the Gaia Hypothesis of biologists Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock, which configures the entire ecosystem of the planet Earth as an integrated, synthesized, comprehensive organism, whereby it’s not just metaphor but reality to think of the environment as a single living being of which we’re simply a cellular part. A hypothesis which encouragingly sees pantheism as science. Margulis writes with her son Dorion Sagan that the “question ‘What is Life?’ is… a linguistic trap. To answer according to the rules of grammar, we must supply a noun, a thing. But life on Earth is more like a verb,” as indeed is consciousness. Thought is a thing that happens, and mind is a verb, an activity engaged for writers writing or for sea-foam cruelly crawling. There are many mansions in Mother Earth’s house, and in Her skull as well. With such expansive definitions of mind, Ruskin’s initial pronouncement seems not only snobbish, but erroneous as well.

Such integrative models of consciousness may do much to exonerate the pathetic fallacy, but what of my second contention, that rejection of logolatry is necessary to our very environmental survival? Sidney Burris, in defining the pathetic fallacy for The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, observes that “Modern usage of the pathetic fallacy ironically emphasizes the individual and the natural world; and in its implied envy of an older world were such communion once existed, it resurrects yet another remnant of its ancient origin, pastoral nostalgia.” But rejection of logolatry isn’t only a form of pastoral nostalgia, it’s a reaffirmation of that fundamental truth that we’re inseparable from the natural world, and that when we look out at the wilderness with uncertain eyes we’re sometimes gazed back at by knowing ones. Environmental collapse’s precipice has been justified by the exact sort of dualistic thinking which Ruskin’s condemnation of the pathetic fallacy serves to affirm, a perspective which refuses to see agency in what it classifies as inert, which can’t see mind in what it has misclassified as moribund. No wonder we now see ourselves on a planet threatened by cataclysmic climate change, for we’ve believed the lie that we were granted dominion over the creeping things upon the Earth, and we’ve been very bad stewards indeed (since we were never intended to be such in the first place anyhow). In his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’, Pope Francis writes that “the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history,” an understated truth. Now more than ever there is need for the wisdom of what’s been denigrated as the pathetic fallacy, the verbal reminder that consciousness extends out beyond our own lonely cells. A view related to the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess’ concept of “deep ecology,” a mystically inflected understanding that consciousness exists beyond the simple reductionisms of Cartesian Dualism, and that our civilizational embrace of that ossified philosophy has brought us to the possible brink of calamity. Australian environmentalist, philosopher, and theorist of sustainability Freya Matthews has argued that an embrace of a certain ecological panpsychism can liberate us from the very system that has brought us to this brink. She writes that if we “assume a panpsychist worldview” we can perhaps “extricate oneself, to a significant degree, from the ideological grid of capitalism.”

In her For Love of Matter: A Contemporary Panpsychism, Matthews writes how her “own sense of the sacred… had been mainly stirred by my experiences in the natural world. It was there that I had experience the feelings usually associated with the sacred – wonder, exultation, a sense of plenitude and expansiveness, beauty and awe.” Ruskin, I would imagine, would reject any wonder, exultation, plenitude, or expansiveness in nature itself, preferring rather to only locate such emotions in the lucky individual who projects such feelings onto empty nature. He, it should be said, had no use for the hypotheses of Romantics, or Transcendentalists either. In Ruskin’s estimation, verse which locates meaning in the subject of nature is naïve, but the poem which locates meaning in the poet is sophisticated. And yet the orthodox strictures of this sort of western dualism have proven remarkably malignant, for as Matthews writes it was by “draining matter of any animating principle” that we ideologically “ensured that the world itself could no longer be regarded either as morally significant in its own right or as the lodestar for human meanings and purposes: henceforth, we would have to find out own ends and meanings in ourselves, by means of our innate power of reason.” That “reason,” for all of its benefits, has also brought upon the specter of collective suicide in the form of nuclear war and radical climate change.

Though such logolatry is the norm, western culture isn’t completely inundated by dualism. Matthews explains that in her youth “the Christianity of my teachers was strangely mute on the meaning of the sunrise, the wind, the creek, the herons, and cranes, the light before the storm – the things that spoke so palpably, if inscrutably, to me,” but there have been any number of mystics and seekers who rejected the Pauline division of nature from humanity, who saw all things numinous, all things luminous, the very substance of all things shining. Sing that canticle of the sun, that Laudes Creaturarum of St. Francis first whispered in ecstatic Umbrian in the thirteenth-century. Received while convalescing at San Damiano among the Order of Poor Ladies in 1224, St. Francis simply listened to the breathing lungs of creation, that organic, ever shifting being whom we’re all composite persons of. Francis sings of “Brother Sun, /who brings the day” and of “Sister Moon/and the stars… clear and precious and beautiful.”

Having never heard of Ruskin, Francis had no anxiety about anthropomorphism, no disquiet concerning personification. Rather he unabashedly could praise “Brother Wind” who was both “cloudy and serene,” and “Sister Water” who in paroxysm of supplicating polysyndeton was “very useful and humble and precious and chaste.” In the monk’s understanding, Brother Fire was “beautiful and playful and robust and strong” while “Sister Bodily Death” is an impartial judge from whom nobody can escape – and thus must be all the more respected. The ultimate conclusion of such personification – which is neither metaphor, nor affectation, symbol, trope, or conceit but rather living gospel – is that we must shout a prayer reading “Praised be You…through Sister Mother Earth,/who sustains us and governs us and who produces/varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.” Francis’ panpsychism would no doubt be distasteful to Ruskin, would exhibit “emotional falseness” as the critic would put it, save for the fact that it is the monk’s vision, rather than that of the Victorian, which is fundamentally true, and it is Assisi’s beautiful creed that is necessary if we’re to hope that any collective salvation awaits us, if we’re to apologize for what we’ve done to Sister Earth. Our lives, and our existence upon this Earth are a very poem, for words can be angry, and objects too. If there is any consciousness it is between the relationship of language to itself, and in the self-communion of matter. Our dying age cries out for a poetics of immanence, for a sacramental poetics, for the pathetic fallacy long denigrated. For who has not seen gnarled faces in the stumps of trees? Who has not been kissed by the sun or slapped by the rain? Who has not felt the drizzly damp November of the soul when the Earth’s very seasons conspire against us and the winter hangs heavy grey drapes within our minds? Lest spring forever be quiet we must begin straining to hear her this instant, or her implorations will be passed over in our own eternal silence, when neither foam nor people crawl any longer, for there shall be no consciousness left to observe either.


About the Author:

Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, at his author website, and on Twitter @WithEdSimon.