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The Buried Life

On the development of identity.

What is human life all about? What are the ends of life? What is the good life for human beings? Or, what is the meaning of life? For the poets and writers of the nineteenth century, it came to be that this question could be put on two levels: On one hand, what is the good life for human beings in general? On the other hand, one can also ask: What is a good and fulfilling life for me, this individual being which I am? A few reflections on this period can help explain why this second question arose.

In the nineteenth century, a new “middle class,” neither part of the common people, nor gentry, develops with the opening of new occupations; industrial, commercial, administrative-managerial. Their children are much more educated than those of the “people.” But it is not clear to any of them that they should follow their fathers or their mothers, unlike aristocrats, who are often in the army. Just “trade” or manufacturing doesn’t necessarily seem meaningful enough to many of them either.

Many of them are drawn precisely to the creative vocations which have been so validated by the Romantic turn. For many, the “bourgeois” life lacks something, some higher purpose. Adventure abroad, imperial military-administrative “service,” but not just minding the store. The questioning here is made more intense by the spread of the ethic of authenticity closely linked to creative vocations, which stress the importance of originality.

But issues of the meaningful life become more acute at this time, because of the accelerating growth in the force and influence of instrumental rationality in this whole period—and indeed, over a longer period. In economic terms, the value concerned is “rationalization.”

Already in the novels of Jane Austen, we can see the tug-of-war among the landed gentry between the values of “stewardship,” preserving the land and those who live on it (each according to his station), on one hand, and the potential rewards of economic rationalization, on the other. But, of course, this is a centuries-long process, beginning in the fifteenth century with enclosures (which continue right up into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Scotland, with the cruel re-invention of Highland clan leaders as outright owners, expelling their followers to Nova Scotia in order to run sheep on their now-empty lands). And the issue remains alive into the twentieth century (as reflected in fiction, for instance, by the television series Downton Abbey); and continues to this day with the purblind single-minded extension of crop land at the expense of hedgerows, swamps, and other “useless” areas, the source of ecological disaster, and in the end even declining yields.

So the conditions come together to make issues of meaning more and more central and urgent: not only the new “middle-class” population, for whom issues of identity remain undecided; not only the decline in prestige which comes with the challenge to certain traditional class identities; but now as well the need to defend the intrinsic worth of any identity against the demands of an instrumental rationality which offers higher and higher payoffs.

Which is not to say that the great achievers in fields of instrumental reason, captains of industry, or creators of new technologies find that their lives lack meaning. This thought is as unlikely to have occurred to Carnegie or Rockefeller in their day as to Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos in ours. It is just to say that one does not necessarily find meaning in this way, and that for many in other walks of life, cultural creators for instance, such successful producers can be classed in the gray category of “bourgeois.”

And so, we enter an age in which questions of a meaningful life become more open and more widely felt. These questions arise on two levels. The first level touches the source of ultimate and most important meaning, hitherto defined by religion. This has been contested since the Reformation; but now the issues are more radical. There are now antireligious, even atheist currents; and then there are issues of religion which are not simply to do with which confession is the truly Christian one, but which bring forth different kinds of spirituality, more or less in congruence with Christian faith. And then there are figures such as Matthew Arnold, who wants to replace Christianity with high culture.

But then there is a second level, which hasn’t to do with the source of meaning überhaupt, but rather with what my life is all about. It is often easy for someone to miss this, within the social confines of conformism. This is a main theme in the novels of Henry James, for instance, Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors. James’s work was an important reference point for the “generation of 1914,” the writers of early modernism, such as Eliot and Pound.

And Arnold articulated the issue in its individual form in his poem on the “buried life.”

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After a knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to enquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.

And this against the background of the new urban built environment, which is often sordid, chaotic, given over to instrumental purposes, and expressive neither of some overall meaning (as earlier cities were), nor of a propitious surrounding for the discovery of one’s own path.

With Eliot and Pound, but also with James and Conrad, we are in the epoch of what has often been called “modernism.” Earlier novelists of the nineteenth century, such as Jane Austen and Dickens, were grounded in a clear ethic, one which would have been recognizable to the majority of people in their time, and approved of by most (but, of course, not necessarily lived up to, which gives the novels of these authors their bite). Their ethic provided a steadying framework for the stories they told.

This kind of framework was missing in the works of the modernists. Their background assumption was that it was not so clear what life was all about, and that many people were deluded and confused on this score. And as a consequence, the answers given by the modernist authors to their own questions are not easy to discern. (Of course, those two great anglophone modernist poets, Pound and Eliot, were far from indefinite and hesitant in the advice they offered and the positions they took. But their work survives in a world of ever greater political, moral, and religious diversity, where even those who appreciate them most are ready to challenge their most cherished convictions.)

And we today are living a continuation of the shift they brought about. I think this comes to the surface in the widespread use of the term “identity” in our period—the period which starts in the aftermath of the Second World War. Our contemporaries demand that their identity be recognized and respected.

And what is meant by my “identity” is something like: my fundamental commitments, the landmarks in my moral horizon which guide me in my important choices, be these my religion, or national identity, or my sexual orientation, or my vocation. But the puzzling question is: Why do we speak of “identity” rather than simply invoking these fundamental commitments?

One part of the answer comes from our wanting to speak of “my” identity. Our fundamental commitments, as in the examples above, are shared by lots of co-religionists, fellow members of my nation, fellow gay people, and so forth. But today we want to speak of the identity of individuals, aware as we are that each person may have their own particular combination of such widely shared commitments; but we are also aware of how individuals may have their particular take on being, say, Lutheran, German, an historian, or whatever.

This brings us to the crucial point of continuity with the modernist era. “My particular take” on some widely shared commitment could be described as my interpretation of what it means to be Catholic, Canadian, and so on. My appropriation of one of these poles of belonging will often involve my working out what it means for me. And this is what puts us back in continuity with the modernists of the early twentieth century. If these crucial dimensions of belonging are not to remain “buried,” merely implicit, without full recognition of what they amount to, they need an act of appropriation, which brings a fuller consciousness of what they mean for me.

This marks the basic difference between an unreflecting, inherited fundamental commitment, and something I “identify with.” And this is why we speak today of our “identities,” and not just basic commitments.

Eliot, in The Waste Land, articulated in unparalleled fashion the mood of searching among the younger generation, and all the more effectively in not jumping in with ready-made answers. I would bet that it is the most read and cited poem Eliot ever wrote. (Later, he does attempt to answer these questions, in a Christian frame, and those works were brilliant, but perhaps less widely appreciated.) But even without the answer to its defining question, the poem helps define its epoch, and to orient those who lived through it. They were looking for orientation, for a “way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”; what Joyce tried to do through myth, and Pound through his ordering of the literary tradition.

The Waste Land makes some headway toward defining the direction in which one must search but leaves more to be done. In the meanwhile, Eliot offers a beautiful and compelling description of his world: the aftermath of the Great War, which slaughtered young men in their millions, and which left behind the bewildering and troubling question: “What was it all for?” And deeper, in the difficulty of answering this convincingly, the more fundamental question, “What is human life for?” became all the harder to answer.

This essay is adapted from Cosmic Connections: Poetry in the Age of Disenchantment (Belknap, 2024). It appears in the Assumption 2024 issue of The Lamp.