The members of The Exiles share the conviction that literature is one of the modes of knowledge through which truth becomes accessible to man. The contemplation of a literary work of art, far from being a momentary diversion, an escape from reality, is, rather, a vision of that deeper reality which we mean by the term Truth. Literature, then, is not simply fantasy, a make-believe (and hence untrue) world to which we retreat in brief respite from the confusion of daily life, returning—entertained, perhaps—but no wiser for time spent in its contemplation.
Rather, literature, as Louise Cowan has said, “reveals the invisible ‘by the things that are seen’”—that is, in its depiction of the world of human experience, it reveals to the reader a secret inner meaning, a deeper and transcendent reality which underlies and permeates that experience. Human experience is the province of literature, but it is, as Robert Penn Warren has said, “experience fulfilled and redeemed in knowledge;” it is experience the meaning of which has been discerned by the poet in an act of creative intuition or poetic insight. Rather than casting an illusion over reality, the poet, through the “magic” of poetic insight, penetrates the veils which conceal a deeper reality. In doing so, the poet redeems for man a vision of the realm of meaning, light, purpose, and intelligibility which is his true home and which underlies and permeates all his earthly experience.
A literary work of art—be it a poem, novel or drama—is, as Aristotle says, mimetic: it imitates an action. However, the action imitated, as Francis Fergusson has shown, is not the external face of deed and activity, but the inner action of the heart, a “movement-of-spirit” located in the mysterious depths of the human person. Because literature depicts, not only these movements-of-spirit, but also the end which they attain, literature presents an eschatological view of human life and experience, a view as though from the end of time when the meaning of everything that has happened is seen, a view in the light of eternity which is beyond our ordinary mode of perception. By seeing human actions in relation to their end, the literary work of art reveals that all the events, the agonies and the conflicts, of human life have meaning.
We may say, then, with Jacques Maritain, that in the literary work of art there is a transformation of the ugly: a transformation of everything in our lives which seems meaningless, which is deformed, warped, agonizing, and terrible, which fails to achieve its potential and realize its true form. For it is a higher beauty, a higher truth, and a higher form, which is, in reality, being achieved through the movement of time and which literature ultimately depicts. Poetic intuition divines the mystery at the heart of time: that in a way we can scarcely comprehend or imagine, all the elements of our lives are parts of the achieved and which will raise and transform their meaning as it incorporates them into itself. Literature reveals that, in the final reconciliation of time, each human experience and action, no matter how meaningless or ugly or deficient it may seem, will be seen to have been permeated with significance and to have been part of a larger action, a greater movement toward the realization of a higher meaning.
- Aristotle, Samuel Henry Butcher, and Francis Fergusson. Aristotle’s Poetics. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
- Lynch, William F., and Glenn C. Arbery. Christ & Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination. Wilmington, Del: ISI Books, 2004.
- Maritain, Jacques. Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.
- Warren, Robert Penn ”The Way It Was Written.” New York Times Book Review, 25 August 1953, 6, 25.