Add This to Reason!

George Wolff

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“The irrational cannot be ignored.” So said the American poet Wallace Stevens. Humanists have successfully used the charge of “irrationality” in fighting religious beliefs since the eighteenth century, but Stevens, himself a lifelong nonbeliever, preferred to describe believers as “out of touch with reality” rather than as irrational. He did this because he wanted to preserve some element of irrationality, which he thought was at the heart of the “aesthetic imagination” (OP 227). Stevens saw that the militant stance of humanists against irrationality put them at odds with Sigmund Freud and, more importantly, deprived them of the delight in creating and savoring the arts, particularly, modern poetry, modern music, and modern painting. Stevens died in 1955, but were he alive today he would have found “The Affirmations of Humanism,” the statement of secular humanist principles reprinted in many issues of Free Inquiry, incomplete and unrealistic. He would have wanted to add some endorsement of the aesthetic imagination, even its irrationality, to the Affirmations’ twenty-one principles.

Its first principle reads, “We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.” Sometimes imagination rather than reason solves human problems on a large scale, as in Einstein’s Gedanken experiments, and sometimes on a mundane, individual scale. In 1914 Stevens wrote in “Another Weeping Woman” (CP 25) that addressing an unhappily married woman and telling how her pouring out her unhappiness in tears will not “sweeten” her life and neither will trying to reason with her husband. What the speaker says is that:

The magnificent cause of being,
The imagination, the one reality
In this imagined world

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