On Tuesday morning I caught Neil MacGregor’s broadcast, one of his 30-part series on “Living with the Gods”. Generally he has focused on the role played by systems of belief and drawn from objects from the British Museum archive. This time he spoke about godlessness, the French and Russian Revolutions and how, in their different ways, they thought they had freed mankind from “the shackles of religion and superstition.” He concluded by looking at contemporary Britain, hazarding the suggestion that “we are trying to do something that no society has really done. We are trying to live without an agreed narrative of our communal place in the cosmos and in time.”
If one accepts that the French Revolution was short-lived in its attempt at official atheism and that the Russian Revolution ushered in a mere seventy years of Marxism-Communism which, with its Holy Writ (Das Kapital), its prophets, its palaces of culture and so on, could be seen as an alternative, if appalling, form of religion, MacGregor is surely right.
He suggests the change in our society began in the 1960s. One might quibble over that date; Matthew Arnold had predicted it and two World Wars certainly hastened it, but the decade of the 1960s does seem the one that decisively cut off our society’s moorings from established religious tradition and belief.
What is it like to be a poet in a post-Christian society? I raise this question because my book club has asked its members to choose a poem for our next meeting and someone has chosen Philip Larkin’s Aubade. It was written in 1977 and pays oblique tribute to MacGregor’s sense of modern irreligiousness. It is undoubtedly a fine poem (Larkin’s last major one), forcing the reader to acknowledge its careful use of language, its control, above all its air of authority. “This is the way it is” Larkin is arguing; swept along by the poem’s magisterial rhetoric, it is hard to disagree with him. We are offered an irredeemably bleak vision of what it means to face up to the implications of the death of God: death is an abyss staring any sentient person in the face when undistracted temporarily by “people or drink.”
People sometimes quote the final line of Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb, written in 1956: “What will survive of us is love” – as if to prove what a hopeful chap he really was. I think “Aubade” is what he really thought, not gladly greeting the dawn as the title ironically implies, but heralding that final long night of nothingness.
For Larkin (but not for Sir Neil MacGregor who, when he was the Director of the National Gallery, produced the inspired millennial exhibition, Seeing Salvation) religion is merely “that vast, moth-eaten musical brocade/created to pretend we never die…” I can’t think of a poem that more encapsulates the modern age, its cynicism, its world-weariness, its underlying sense of despair.
Fortunately – indeed providentially one might say – Larkin’s desolation and modern Britain’s deadly dalliance with “trying to live without an agreed narrative of our communal place in the cosmos” can be countered by a single image: this is a painting by the early Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca that I was especially glad to see chosen by Charles Saatchi last week for his column in the Telegraph about great masterpieces of art. It is The Resurrection and it can still be seen where it was painted (between 1463-65) on the far wall of the town hall in Borgosansepolcro, Tuscany.
For those who have eyes to see, here is true majesty, awe-inspiring authority; a fresco dauntingly unsentimental in its depiction of the risen Christ and one that challenges the spectator with the same question asked of St Peter 2000 years ago: “Who do you say that I am?”