Atheist Optimism vs. Atheist Pessimism: The Case of Thomas Hardy

Contemporary post-9/11 New Atheists are so, well, sunny, aren’t they? Perhaps it’s a product of our contemporary advertising culture, but it’s hard to distinguish this American atheist bus ad from a Mentos breath mint commercial:

Minty and refreshing? As an agnostic myself, I like the look of agony in my life of Hamlet-like doubt and unbelief, and take the poet and novelist, Thomas Hardy, to be a better intellectual role model than, say, Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers. Here’s how one of Thomas Hardy’s biographers, Claire Tomalin, describes Hardy’s loss of faith (78-79):

Losing faith in Christianity was like shedding a protective skin: intellectually necessary but also a melancholy process. The melancholy was perfectly expressed in the 1860s by Matthew Arnold in his poem ‘Dover Beach’, with its description of the world without faith as having ‘neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain’. Hardy arrived at his own conclusion with many fits, starts and meanders, reluctant to let go of something that had absorbed so much of his imaginative life at the same time that he was eager to join the ranks of the enlightened. He felt the draining away of the old joyous certitudes as well as pride in the new clear thinking. This ambivalence made him into a poet who, in his later years, still sometimes celebrated belief alongside disbelief. He could no longer believe, but he cherished the memory of belief, and especially the centrality and beauty of Christian ritual in country life, and what it had meant to earlier generations and still meant to some. So he could write about the wish that he might still be able to believe, as in his famous poem ‘The Oxen’; and about his memories of being a believer himself. 

‘The Oxen’ poem that Tomalin refers to derives from one of Hardy’s childhood memories. Much as we might tell our small children nowadays that Santa comes down the chimney and leaves presents for them on the night before each year’s Christmas day, Hardy, in ‘The Oxen’, recalls his childhood experience of the then common practice of rural parents to tell their children that, on Christmas Eve, at midnight, all around the world, the farm animals in their barns collectively drop to their knees and give thanks to God. Below is Hardy’s poem. It was written, by the way, not in a time of Blakean innocence, but in a time of experience, in 1915, in a time of global war:

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

   ‘Now they are all on their knees,’

An elder said as we sat in a flock

   By the embers in hearthside ease.

                                                                                                                                           .

We pictured the meek mild creatures where

   They dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

   To doubt they were kneeling then.

                                                                                                                                                             .

So fair a fancy few would weave

   In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

   ‘Come, see the oxen kneel

                                                                                                                                                                   .

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

   Our childhood used to know,’

I should go with him in the gloom,

   Hoping it might be so.

Whatever else atheism is, it is a loss of hope in a benevolent telos upholding the world. It is a casting of the self into a realm of contingency, chaos, and mechanism (much as in a time of war, which Nietzsche and Darwin somberly understood). It is a demystification with a price. What blue bus is calling us?

And driver, where you taking us?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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