I want to begin by asking a simple question: Why is it that poetry has, as Anthony Esolen said, “almost no purchase upon the popular mind”?
Writing in his autobiography, Charles Darwin presents us with a hint::
…my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond, poetry of many kinds… gave me great pleasure…But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry…My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness….
So methodically scientific was Darwin’s life that, after his first child was born, he wrote, “I at once commenced to make notes on the first dawn of the various expressions which he exhibited.” He further confessed that, “whenever I had leisure, I pursued my experiments.” Darwin was so obsessed with the empirical method that he lived most of his life in a sort of detached, less-than-human kind of way. He didn’t so much as experience life as he observed it. And his observations were of the “mechanics” of life, not the substance.
He spent decades reading, not poetry, but scientific prose, which is far detached from the realm of human experience. Take, as an example, an imaginative, poetic piece of prose versus a rewritten version in scientific prose:
1. A child kicks his leg rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say “Do it again”. – G.K. Chesterton
2.Repetitive movement of the leg by a child is best explained by the high metabolic rate at which the child burns energy. Further, due to the fact that adolescents are typified by unregulated and inquisitive desires, the outcome permits a preference for cyclical and repetitive activity. – Aaron Ames
What seems immediately evident in the second paragraph is that it is “lifeless”. The purpose of scientific prose is to be impersonal and objective, to present what psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist has called “a disembodied representation of the world”. This is precisely what life is not. And it is in this kind of prose that Darwin spent his life reading, writing, and thinking. But what of us today?
The last century or so appears to be a long exercise, not in the stewardship of language, but in its abuse. As George Orwell observed in 1946 that “the English language is in a bad way”, then we can only concur that today “the English language is, like, in a way more bad way”, and it’s about to take a steep nosedive. Orwell complained of his time:
…prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house…it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.
This devolution of language has since expanded its operation through the overwhelming adoption of bureaucratic language, or, what Neil Postman calls “Eichmannism” that “cool, orderly, cynical language of the bureaucratic mentality alienated from human interest”.
The lifeless, inarticulate, mechanistic language of bureaucracy is what all of society is being trained to value and regurgitate. Its imprint is found in every discipline of the academy. And it is most at home in the political and corporate world. It has become the very style of formal communication. One might even argue that it is our highest style of language, or, to be more precise, it is our sacred language. After all, the gods of today are mammon and machines, and what language is better suited to such inhumane idols? Where poetry once reigned, now bureaucratese!
And along comes Chat GPT, ready for us to further outsource our language, I mean our souls, to machines. On February 8, 2023, the Pentagon published a press release generated by Chat GPT, which read in part:
Task Force 39 is an empowered, collaborative group of soldiers dedicated to fostering an innovative culture and pursuing regional and industry partnerships in order to generate future combat efficiency. The team is focused on countering the threat of small Unmanned Aerial Systems and developing innovative solutions…
Due to our penchant for bureaucratese, there is no way to tell whether this statement was written by a person or a computer program. We have been conditioned to mistake our own human language for that of a robot, or a robot for that of a human, or, is there any longer a difference?
But the experiential side of life is the substance of life, and this is precisely what Chat GPT will never be able to do: experience life. For, as impressive as Chat GPT might be, it knows nothing of unrequited love and has never experienced those “tantalizing glimpses” of Heaven. And poetry, not scientific or bureaucratic prose, is the language of experience, for it is the language that is most alive. In his book Chance or Dance, Thomas Howard captures this idea:
…it is in poetry that we try to speak the language that is suggested to us by our imagination as the real language of things…the faculty in us that shouts at us…that something is there, and that it is as full of texture and flavor…this faculty is imagination…And the language of this awareness that is in us all is the language called poetry…For it is the language that takes a serious view of experience.
And it is this ability of poetic language to capture the imagination that also allows it to be the language of spiritual revelation. In her essay “Toward a Christian Aesthetic” Dorothy Sayers explains:
When we read the poem…it is as though a light were turned on inside us. We say: “Ah! I recognize that! That is something that I obscurely felt to be going on in and about me, but I didn’t know what it was and couldn’t express it. But now that the artist has made its image—imaged it forth—for me, I can possess and take hold of it and make it my own.
Much like that Platonic concept in which all true spiritual knowledge is something that is already inside our soul but must be retrieved by our memory, it is as if the Fall has hidden our knowledge of the Imago Dei within us and poetry pulls the cover away.
Thus, when the thing about us that makes us most human and by which we reach for the Heavens together is reduced to an instrument of mechanistic, meaningless chatter then we become the kinds of beings that are fit for this kind of language, and it is a language fit neither for heaven nor for earth, for it is sub-human, fit for a machine. As Postman noted in Technopoloy:The Surrender of Culture to Technology: “…language itself is a kind of technique – an invisible technology – and through it we achieve more than clarity and efficiency. We achieve humanity – or inhumanity.”
Darwin’s loss of taste for poetry was a result of a reductive mode of thought and language that had incapacitated his imagination. And what scientific thought and prose did to Darwin, bureaucratese is doing to the rest of us.
The remedy? Maybe take Darwin’s advice: “…if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry…at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use.”