From Terry Eagleton, " Having One's Kant and Eating It," Review of Northrop Frye's Notebooks, London Review of Books 23.8 (19 April 2001):

. . . .

From Matthew Arnold's portentous idiom of sweetness and light to George Steiner's reverent talk of artefacts as real presences, art is a domain of displaced transcendence. It is the one remaining intimation of immortality (1) for those who mourn the spiritual barbarisms of modernity, but are modern enough themselves to feel thoroughly out of place in a pew. For Matthew Arnold and his progeny, literature is religion without theology - the edifying, poetic spirit of Christianity emptied of its increasingly rebarbative doctrines. To this extent, literature becomes a sort of aesthetic analogy of liberal Anglicanism, full of the atmosphere of belief without an embarrassing amount of doctrinal lumber. Just as it sometimes appears that you can be a zealous member of the Anglican Church while rejecting the existence of both God and Jesus, so literature as transcendence commits you to little beyond a sense of the numinous which makes a virtue out of not knowing what it means. But as Arnold recognised, such degutted religion is a way to preserve discipline and social order among a populace who are less and less inclined to enthuse over the Virgin Birth.



(1) Eagelton here alludes to Wordsworth's Ode, familiarly called "Intimations of Immortality." It's not much cultural capital -- it is easily recognizable to the average English major in college; his works abound with such allusions, visible as such only to those "in the know." (Back)