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Eric Voegelin as Literary Critic

Eric Voegelin As Literary Critic

The occupation with works of art, poetry, philosophy, mythical imagination and so forth, makes sense only if it is conducted as an inquiry into the nature of man.

Eric Voegelin to Robert B. Heilman


There are many reasons for writing a book that relies upon the philosophical work of Eric Voegelin for the interpretation of modern literature. Not the least of these is Voegelin’s own understanding of the nature of his work and vocation. In a letter dated December 19, 1955, he wrote to his friend Robert B. Heilman, the English literature scholar and literary critic:

“Your letter of Dec. 11th came just in time this morning, for I wanted to write you today anyway to thank you for the delightful review of Critics and Criticism. It had thrown me into a mood of indecision, because your refined politeness left me in doubt whether I should not read the volume, because literary criticism is after all one of my perma­nent occupations.” (AFIL, letter 57, p. 142)1

Eric Voegelin considered literary criticism one of his permanent occupations because of the necessity that confronted him as he worked toward the preparation of what he intended as his first major work in English — The History of Political Ideas.

In order to command his material, Voegelin began systematically working through the pri­mary texts left by human beings who had themselves searched for, explored, and articulated the nature of their humanity and its order. Confronting these ancient documents led Voegelin to reflect upon how a modern scholar could understand these literary works by pen­etrating to the experiences that had engendered their articulations in stories, myths, scripture, dialogues, and treatises.

While working on the History of Political Ideas in 1952, and still several years before his abandonment of that project and its replacement with Order and History (volume I was published in 1956), he wrote to his friend Heilman, asking him to read (and mark for correction any errors) the “MS of the first chapter of the History of Political Ideas, which [is] supposed to develop the principles of interpretation for the whole subsequent study. The chapter, thus, has a certain importance, both as the first one and as the statement of principles” (letter 37, May 3, 1952, p. 107). Indeed, this manuscript was to become the introduction to the heir of the abandoned History of Political Ideas, namely, Order and History. The reflections contained therein expanded beyond the development of interpretive principles that guided Voegelin’s reading of texts into a philosophical search not only for manifestations of order in history but also for the ground of being and the destiny of humanity.

Voegelin’s considered observations focusing specifically on literature, literary issues, and literary criticism, and the philosophical issues that flow from these—perhaps nowhere more explicitly expressed than in his correspondence with Heilman — appear in four places in that corre­spondence:

1. explicit principles of literary criticism expressed in letters 63 (July 24, 1956) and 65 (August 22, 1956) in response to his reading and responding to Magic in the Web, Heilman’s book on Othello;

2. brief comments on interpretive method with specific statements on the use of language in imaginative works contained in letter 9 (April 9, 1946) as response to Heilman’s Lear MS, later published as This Great Stage;

3. a substantive interpretation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw found in letter 11 (November 13, 1947), supplemented by more explicit attention to the philosophical dimensions of literary interpretation in his 1971 postscript to the earlier letter, both of which are published in Southern Review;

4. a substantive sketch that focused on literature and myth found in letter 103 (August 13, 1964), which drew Heilman’s attention to the symbol “Time of the Tale.”

While an examination of the principles of Voegelin’s criticism offers an obvious starting point in looking at his work with literature, it must be emphasized before we begin that his philosophy and philosophical work provide the framework within which these principles are embed­ded. In fact, Heilman recognized this characteristic in Voegelin’s work. In his remembrance of Voegelin, first published in the winter 1996 issue of Southern Review, Heilman, while identifying his own form of literary criticism as “psychological” analysis, remarked that Voegelin found in literature “an interplay of philosophical issues and spiritual forces, a clash of symbols rather than a confrontation of psyches.”2

For a literary critic to be first and foremost a philosopher would appear to be a formidable qualification, but in returning to the Platonic understanding of that term — as Voegelin did — we find that a philoso­pher need only be a lover of wisdom. This is a very important under­standing of the term philosopher, because it places the accent on lover without forcing a definition of wisdom. The philosophical search in which a lover of wisdom engages is fundamentally Socratic, character­ized by an essential humility and knowing ignorance, which requires the philosopher to recognize that for human beings there can be no final, complete knowledge of wisdom.

A philosopher must remain open to a continual search that builds, nonetheless, on the activities and insights of all individuals so engaged. The philosophical search, how­ever, proceeds from a foundational experiential knowledge, for as Socrates says in his Apology, “to do wrong, and to disobey those who are better than myself, whether god or man, that I know to be bad and dis­graceful.”3 The philosopher then can discover and experience the ground of being even though this ground remains rooted in mystery and cognitively impenetrable. For Voegelin, as we will see, it is the human lot to exist in the metaxy, the In-Between, and to participate in reality with the “body, soul, intellect, and spirit.”4

Since Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness occupies center stage in his work, the consciousness and modes of consciousness of the writer-creator, the reader, and the critic are crucial in any sort of Voegelinian lit­erary criticism. Like the writer, the reader and the critic must rely on consciousness as the site in which the imaginative act of criticism occurs. But what is consciousness and what is the empirical ground upon which the critic’s consciousness lays claim to the truth of his criticism? To begin to address this question, we must consider the hermeneutical principles of two critical letters that Voegelin wrote to Heilman in 1956.

Voegelin’s Principles of Literary Criticism

In 1956, Heilman had published his study of Othello, Magic in the Web, and dedicated it to Voegelin. This dedication furnished the occasion for a remarkable exchange of ideas on literary criticism. In the same year, Voegelin had published Israel and Revelation (volume I of Order and History), the first book-length study to result from the abandoned History of Political Ideas, on which he had worked since 1939. Voegelin’s approach to literary criticism is revealed in this exchange and is susceptible of reduction to three “simple,” yet interwoven and dependent, principles.

1.  The Literary Critic Must Exhaust the Source

This principle is easy enough to understand as rooted in a common­sense approach to literary texts. Of course one must first give prece­dence to the text itself. In order to exhaust the source, however, the critic must assume “the role of the disciple who has everything to learn from the master.” The corollary to this assumption—that the critic must rec­ognize that the author knew what he was doing when he wrote the text — is rooted not only in common sense but also in the basic humility with which a reader-critic must approach works of literature, especially the literary “classics” of antiquity. This first principle, along with its assumptions and elaborations, emerges in the context of Voegelin’s let­ter dated July 24,1956. He had written to Heilman in order to convey his gratitude for the dedication “in the only way I can thank, by response to the contents” (letter 63, p. 150).

This response opens with the observa­tion that the formal quality of the book — its construction, which requires the reader “to read it from the beginning in order to get its full import” — “is intimately bound up with your method and your philo­sophical position.” Voegelin then proceeded to identify “exhaustion of the source” as the first principle of Magic, and to explain that this formal principle was the fundamental attitude with which he approached clas­sical literary texts himself, for “no adequate interpretation of a major work is possible, unless the interpreter assumes the role of the disciple who has everything to learn from the master” (ibid.). Exhaustion of the source is grounded by several assumptions: (1) that the author “knew” what he was doing; (2) that the parts of the text work together; and (3) that the “texture of the linguistic corpus” gives rise to meaning (ibid.).

2. The Literary Critic Must Rely upon an Interpretive Terminology that is Consistent with the Language Symbols of the Source Itself

This second principle grows from the first. The critic who submits to the master as a disciple must discipline himself if he is to understand the words of the master. This discipline imposes upon such a critic an interpretive terminology consistent with the language symbols of the source and will ensure, as far as possible, that an interpretive scheme that is external to the source itself will obscure neither the meanings embedded in the text nor the intentions of its author. The critic, extend­ing the interpretation as far as the symbols will allow, thus fulfills the primary directive to “exhaust the source.” Voegelin argued that exhaus­tion of the source requires that “the terminology of the interpretation, if not identical with the language symbols of the source (a condition that can frequently be fulfilled in the case of first-rate philosophers, but rarely in the case of a poem or a myth), must not be introduced from the ‘outside’, but be developed in closest contact with the source itself for the purpose of differentiating the meanings which are apparent in the work” (letter 63, p. 151). By rigorously following this second princi­ple, the critic will avoid imposing an interpretation on the work that the work itself will not sustain.

3. The Critic must develop a System of Interpretation that Extends the Poet’s Compact Symbolizations in the Same Direction Indicated by the Poet into a Philosophically Critical Language

At this point, Voegelin maintained that the work of the literary critic is simply an analytical, rational continuation of an author’s work along the tracks laid out in the work of art itself. The discipline, in Heilman’s case, of rigorously adhering to the language of the play (Othello) extended from a “strand of compact motifs to the more immediate differentiations and distinctions in terms of a phenomenol­ogy of morals” (letter 63, p. 151). Because of the compactness of the symbolic language of the work, the literary critic can only rely upon the “linguistic corpus” until he has exhausted the meanings embedded therein. At that point, the critic must develop a “system” of interpreta­tion that extends the poet’s compact symbolizations in the same direc­tion indicated by the poet into a philosophically critical language.

After exhausting the source by following the author’s symbols as far as they can be extended in interpretation, the critic must now translate the ana­lytical immediacy of the poet’s compact symbolism “of the whole of human nature that in the poem is carried by the magic in the web,” into the rational order of his work in which the “whole of human nature” must “now be carried by the magic of the system.” “And here,” Voegelin praised Heilman for his work, “I am now full of admiration for your qualities as a philosopher. For you have arranged the problem of human nature in the technically perfect order of progress from the peripheral to the center of personality. . . . You begin with . . . the problem of appearance and reality; and you end with the categories of existence and spiritual order — with life and death, love and hate, eros and caritas, transfiguration and demonic silence” (letter 63, p. 152).

This final principle of literary criticism goes to the heart of the human understanding of reality and to the heart of the philosophical enterprise. Here, in 1956, Voegelin is beginning to articulate his discovery of the importance of a critical-analytical consciousness — a consciousness that is especially important in cases where the artist creates works that sym­bolize deformations of human consciousness and, accordingly, the structure of reality.5 The principles of Voegelin’s literary criticism thus were articulated within a larger framework; and whenever he discoursed on literary issues in his letters to Heilman, he placed these issues within a philosophical-historical context. While in letter 57 (December 19, 1955), Voegelin had commented almost offhandedly that literary criti­cism was one of his “permanent occupations,” we learn in letter 65 (August 22, 1956) that literary criticism “makes sense only if it is con­ducted as an inquiry into the nature of man” (letter 65, p. 157).

To inquire into the nature of man involves the literary critic in his­torical inquiry, and it is clear that Voegelin understands Heilman’s liter­ary criticism in this context, since he consistently refers to him as a historian of literature rather than as a literary critic. Responding to Heilman’s comments in a letter of August 19, 1956, which focused on the historical relativism characteristic of the academic debates within the narrower discipline of literary criticism itself,6 Voegelin articulated his position that human existence is historical existence, that human nature is revealed in the historical documents (literature) of the past, and that the revelation of human nature in the literature of the past is thus the basis for his literary criticism. “Your letter,” Voegelin writes:

“supplies at least some of the items that were beyond my diagnostic abil­ities — and I can summarize them now as the historism apparently ram­pant in literary criticism . . . . The various questions which you indicate in your letter seem to me to be all connected with the effort to find the critical basis beyond histor­ical relativism, and by that token they are connected with each other. The question of the “was” and the “is” that you raise is, for instance, in my opinion only another facet of the question raised earlier in your letter that, on the one hand, one can only get out of the play what one brings to it while, on the other hand, if one lays oneself open to the play, one can get considerably more out of it than one thought one had brought to it. Let me dwell a bit on this issue, because it is after all the central issue of my life as a scholar and apparently yours, too.” (letter 65, p. 156)

Dwelling upon the problem of historicism, Voegelin argued that to understand the revelation of human nature in various literary forms is the raison d’être of literary criticism itself. In the same letter, Voegelin asserts:

“The occupation with works of art, poetry, philosophy, mythical imagina­tion, and so forth, makes sense only if it is conducted as an inquiry into the nature of man. That sentence, while it excludes historicism, does not exclude history, for it is peculiar to the nature of man that it unfolds its potentialities historically. Not that historically anything “new” comes up — human nature is always wholly present — but there are modes of clarity and degrees of comprehensiveness in man’s understanding of his self and his position in the world . . . . Hence, the study of the classics is the princi­pal instrument of self-education; and if one studies them with loving care, as you most truly observe, one all of a sudden discovers that one’s under­standing of a great work increases (and also one’s ability to communicate such understanding) for the good reason that the student has increased through the process of study—and that after all is the purpose of the enter­prise. (At least it is my purpose in spending the time of my life in the study of prophets, philosophers, and saints.)”

“. . . History is the unfolding of the human Psyche; historiography is the reconstruction of the unfolding through the psyche of the historian. The basis of historical interpretation is the identity of substance (the psyche) in the object and the subject of interpretation; and its purpose is participation in the great dialogue that goes through the centuries among men about their nature and destiny. And participation is impossible without growth in stature (within the per­sonal limitations) toward the rank of the best; and that growth is impossi­ble unless one recognizes authority and surrenders to it.” (ibid., p. 157)

Since the human psyche unfolds in history, the primary work of the his­torian is to reconstruct, imaginatively (as we shall argue below), this unfolding. That the historian can reconstruct the historical unfolding of the psyche is dependent upon the reality that the substance of the human psyche is shared by both the object of the interpretation (the writer, or rather the human being who articulated and symbolized his experiences in language) and the subject of the interpretation (the his­torian of literature/literary critic). The shared spiritual substance of the writer and the historian/critic makes possible the participation of the historian (as well as all future historians) in “the great dialogue that goes through the centuries among men about their nature and destiny.” Participation in the great dialogue makes personal spiritual growth pos­sible, but “growth is impossible” unless the historian/critic “recognizes authority and surrenders to it” (letter 65, p. 157). Thus we return full circle to Voegelin’s first principle of literary criticism — “exhaustion of the source” — and its corollary, the critic’s assumption of the “role of the disciple who has everything to learn from the master” (letter 63, p. 150).

Language and Symbol in Voegelin’s Literary Criticism

Even before the important exchange of 1956, Voegelin had responded to Heilman’s King Lear manuscript, later published as This Great Stage: Image and Structure in King Lear, with remarks on the rela­tionship between the language of the source and the attention the critic must pay to the linguistic symbols in the source itself. Here he com­mented on the method necessary for analyzing the pattern of imagery in an imaginative poetic work like Lear. He remarked that not all of the language-body of the drama has significance as symbolism for the transcendent meaning. A word like “see” may have symbolic function in the structure of the whole, or it may be irrelevant to it because its meaning is confined to a limited pragmatic context—as when a person would say “Look here” or “There you see” in a determi­native, pragmatic sense, without implications concerning the metaphys­ical problem of “insight.” Here begins the art of the interpreter who has to catch all the “sees” which have a function as transcendent symbols and to omit the “sees” that have no such function, (letter 9, April 9, 1946, pp. 31-32)

Insofar as the medium of language conveys meaning that transcends the level of sensual symbolism, Voegelin indicated that:

“the sight-pattern that runs through the King Lear can be a basic symbolic structure for the higher levels of meaning because the world of the senses is loaded, indeed, with meanings beyond the physical context . . . . ‘[E]yes’ are not just optical apparatuses but mediums of intelligence. Here, as far as I can see, lies the root of the symbolic value which words denoting sensual objects and functions can gain in the context of a poem. The word-body of a verse can be loaded with meanings beyond the mean­ing explicitly contained in the sentence as a grammatical unit. That is to say: in a poem (and for that matter also in good prose; with certain limits) the implied meaning of the word-body can be used to echo, amplify, sur­round with fringes, etc., the explicit meaning of the statements. This raises the second methodological question: the question of the interlocking of word-symbols as carriers of implied meanings, with the explicit meanings of the text”(letter 9, pp. 32-33)

Voegelin was raising an issue here that he would focus on later in another context: the importance of understanding that language, while employed in its pragmatic function for communicating about the objective world of things, may also be used symbolically in imaginative ways to transcend objective reality, thereby expressing meaning that transcends the objective world to symbolize a nonobjective or nonexis­tent reality. Nonexistent reality—nonexistent in the sense that it is eter­nal Being that suffuses the world of becoming (and of ceasing) things in time — must be communicated analogically and symbolically through the only means available to human beings, the language of things.7 In any particular piece of imaginative writing, the interpreter must then distinguish in the language of the work between the prag­matic uses of the linguistic terms signifying things and the occasions on which those words are used to suggest the meaning inherent in the experiences that the creator-writer is exploring through imaginative symbolization.

Voegelin’s Criticism of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw

A third significant statement regarding literary criticism origi­nated in the Heilman-Voegelin correspondence and culminated with the publication in 1971 of a postscript to a letter first written by Voegelin in 1947. Voegelin’s analysis focused on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James as a response to a critique that Heilman had published of a Freudian interpretation of the novella.8 In his postscript, Voegelin raised the twin issues of the “dustiness” of the symbols in James’s story and the consequent necessity that a valid literary criticism must be firmly based upon a critical-existential assessment by the critic. These issues led to a conversation between Donald E. Stanford, editor of the Southern Review, and Voegelin.

After Stanford completed work on the issue in which both Voegelin’s original letter on James’s The Turn of the Screw and the newly written postscript appeared, Stanford and his wife visited the Voegelins at their home in Palo Alto. The Stanfords’ visit in the summer of 1970 was fol­lowed by an exchange of letters that continued the conversation, in the course of which they had discussed poetry and poetic quality. Stanford had mentioned a poem, “The Course of a Particular,” by Wallace Stevens (used in Stanford’s “Prefatory Note”). After the get-together in Palo Alto, Stanford wrote Voegelin (August 27), enclosing a copy of that poem and another by Stevens. Voegelin responded, recalling “the splen­did evening of our discussion here in Stanford”:

“On that occasion you stressed very strongly that the formal quality of a work of art is the one and only quality a literary critic has to take into account. And, if I remember correctly, I expressed equally strongly the opinion that in a critical judgment there must also be taken into account the existential content. On that evening, our argument referred to the work of Henry James and some opinion I had expressed about its “dustiness” in my paper. Now I have similar hesitations about Stevens’ poem.”

Voegelin’s view that “critical judgment” must take into account “the existential content” of a literary work, in this case a poem, represents an advance on the third principle of literary criticism identified above, namely, the importance of a critical-analytical consciousness for the lit­erary critic that permits him to evaluate and judge the quality of a liter­ary work. Although this critical awareness is formulated as “reflective distance” in his late work, in the “Postscript” (finished in December 1969) Voegelin was already formulating a symbol for denoting this awareness.10 “Reflective distance” is articulated in the posthumous last volume of Order and History as part of the complex “Reflective Distance-Remembrance-Oblivion” discovered in the philosopher’s meditation — e.g., Plato’s and Voegelin’s. In this late work, “reflective distance” appears to be equivalent to what Voegelin designates as “critical distance” and the “critical-analytical consciousness” of the literary critic in the “Post­script.” “Critical distance,” of course, applies also to the literary artist and his awareness (1) that he is creating a work of art and (2) that he is aware of what he has experienced and is symbolizing in his work.

The term critical distance developed as Voegelin increasingly recog­nized the deformation of consciousness that informs much modern thought and literature. He came to understand deformed consciousness as closure to or revolt against reality as it had been experienced and symbolized in myth and philosophy. Ancient mytho-poets and philoso­phers symbolized the quaternarian structure of reality (i.e., the commu­nity of being: God, man, world, and society), and Voegelin recognized that significant segments of modernity were locked in closure to reality structured in this way. This closure marked for Voegelin the deforma­tion of consciousness that he only sensed as he wrote the earlier letter to Heilman but explicitly identified as the “dustiness” of the Jamesian sym­bols as he was writing the postscript for the Southern Review. In the “Postscript,” he elaborated:

“The deformation of which I am speaking is the fateful shift in Western society from existence in openness toward the cosmos to existence in the mode of closure against, and denial of, its reality. As the process gains momentum, the symbols of open existence — God, man, the divine ori­gin of the cosmos, and the divine Logos permeating its order — lose the vitality of their truth and are eclipsed by the imagery of a self-creative, self-realizing, self-expressing, self-ordering, and self-saving ego that is thrown into, and confronted with, an immanently closed world.”

On the “dustiness” of James’s garden (in the story) and its deformed humanity, Voegelin asserts that the work’s existential defect “reflects a warping in the author’s consciousness of reality, while the mode of clo­sure in the author’s existence translates itself into a want of critical dis­tance in the work. . . .  Even in an extreme case, however, the critical distance cannot be abolished [al]together; for if there were no distance at all, there would be no work of art but only a man’s syndrome of his pathological state.”12 Since works of this type are difficult to under­stand, it is left to the reader to “supply the critical consciousness of reality” and to discern in what manner reality is deformed, for in such a case he “cannot simply follow the symbolism wherever it leads and expect to come out with something that makes sense in terms of reality.”13

Furthermore, the reader must beware of using as an instru­ment of interpretation one or the other of the prevailing theories of interpretation, such as the psychoanalytic theories, since they are them­selves “symbolizations of deformed existence” that participate in the modern proclivity for closure to reality, i.e., to the whole community of being.14 This discussion, aimed by Voegelin at the problems arising out of interpreting The Turn of the Screw, also provides a further clue to the approach that a literary critic must take when confronted with a work of art where the artist has not arrived at the “critical distance” necessary for adequately symbolizing human experience in openness to reality. A philosophy of existence that remains open to the community of being and the ground of Being is necessary for the literary critic who desires to understand works of literature and their place in the trail of symbols left by the human search for order.15

 Commenting that his earlier, and to some extent failed, attempt in the original letter to arrive at a “full understanding of the nouvelle” by directly tracing the symbols themselves, Voegelin nevertheless argued that he had met the first demand on the critic “inasmuch as they [the symbols] correctly identify major parts of the reality deformed: God, man, the soul, the drama of salvation and damnation.” The earlier attempt at interpretation could, however, be used to meet the second task “of ascertaining the nature of the deformation.” In fulfillment of this second task, Voegelin examined the androgynic myth as adopted from ancient mythology and then deformed for the building of modern Edens such as James’s garden in The Turn of the Screw. Voegelin distin­guished between ancient symbols and the modern “symbols which derive their meaning from the mode of closure they express”:

“The ancient mythopoets were critically conscious of the non-Edenic character of reality. When they developed speculative symbols within the medium of the myth, they knew they were symbolizing le mystère de la totalité in a cosmos whose order was marred by strife, injustice, unrea­son, and death. Moreover, they were not spiritual illiterates who would transform a symbol engendered by an experience of imperfection into a program of perfection in this world…. This degradation or perversion is the common denominator in the modern symbolist use of symbols, in the same sense as the experience of non-Edenic reality is the common denominator of ancient mythopoesy.”16

Literature and the Time of the Tale

From general interpretive attitudes and principles, we turn now to one of Voegelin’s substantive statements about literature. This state­ment, which I quote in toto, will in turn lead us into the heart, and the complexity, of his philosophical work. On August 13, 1964, Voegelin wrote to Heilman from Munich:

“There was a point in my Salzburg lecture that might interest you as an historian of literature: The basic form of myth, the “tale” in the widest sense, including the epic as well as the dramatic account of happenings, has a specific time, immanent to the tale, whose specific character consists in the ability to combine human, cosmic and divine elements into one story. I have called it, already in Order and History, the Time of the Tale. It expresses the experience of being (that embraces all sorts of reality, the cosmos) in flux.”

“This Tale with its Time seems to me the primary literary form, peculiar to Cosmological civilizations. Primary in the sense that it precedes all literary form developed under conditions of differentiating experiences: If man becomes differentiated with any degree of autonomy from the cosmic context, then, and only then, will develop specifically human forms of literature: The story of human events, lyric, empirical history, the drama and tragedy of human action, the meditative dialogue in the Platonic sense, etc. Underlying all later, differentiated forms, how­ever, there remains the basic Tale which expresses Being in flux. Time, then, would not be an empty container into which you can fill any con­tent, but there would be as many times as there are types of differentiated content.”

“Think for instance of Proust’s temps perdu and temps retrouvé as times which correspond to the loss and rediscovery of self, the action of rediscovery through a monumental literary work of remembrance being the atonement for the loss of time through personal guilt — very similar to Cosmological rituals of restoring order that has been lost through lapse of time. I believe the regrets of Richard II (I wasted time and now does time waste me) touch the same problem. This reflexion would lead into a phi­losophy of language, in which the basic Tale would appear as the instru­ment of man’s dealing with reality through language — and adequately at that. Form and content, thus, would be inseparable: The Tale, if it is any good, has to deal with Being in flux, however much differentiated the insights into the complex structures of reality may be.” (letter 103, p. 223)

Voegelin’s specific references to Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu and to Shakespeare’s Richard II suggest that the symbolic formulation “Time of the Tale” is a critical tool for approaching and interpreting lit­erature in general, modern literature in particular, and, even more specifically, modern novels. The “Time of the Tale” also informs Voegelin’s late work and reveals ways in which the insights of his late meditations are prefigured in his earlier work. Moreover, understanding the “Time of the Tal”e and the philosophical context from which it emerged in Voegelin’s work permits us to see and read modern novels as crucial parts of a historical philosophical enterprise that are built upon more than the idiosyncratic expressions of the private dream worlds of Heraclitus’s sleepwalkers and their counterparts among mod­ern novelists.

Indeed, perhaps specific works of modern literature — read in the context of the “Time of the Tale” and Voegelin’s work generally — will gain the stature of an Aeschylus’s Oresteia, in which “to those who are awake, there is one ordered universe common (to all).”18  These topics in turn lead one to other cognate, intimately interrelated topics — especially the primary experience of the cosmos, styles of truth, types of myth, historiogenesis, equivalences of symbolic expressions, the Beginning and the ground of Being, the truth of the myth, observa­tions on language and imagination, and interrelationships between myth and the other symbolic forms of philosophy and revelation. It becomes obvious that the “Time of the Tale” is integrally bound up with myths, that is, works of art that symbolize the experiences of human beings in Cosmological civilizations.

In “In Search of the Ground” (1965), Voegelin replied, in response to a question about the identification of a ground in relation to aesthetic concerns, that “all art, if it is any good, is some sort of a myth in the sense that it becomes what I call a cosmion, a reflection of the unity of the cosmos as a whole. . . .  It’s much closer to Cosmological thinking than anything else.”20 About three years later, in “Anxiety and Reason” (finished c. 1968), Voegelin writes that:

“the myth has not remained a mere object of inquiry but has become an active force in the creation of new symbols expressing the human condition. The new situation will be suggested if there be named representatively the work of James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, and Thomas Mann. In relation to the perversions both of transcendence and immanence, the revival must be acknowledged as a ritual restoration of order. The truth of the cosmos full of gods reasserts itself.”21      

The passage from letter 103 opens up a truly panoramic perspective on Voegelin’s late-mature work and also indicates how the early work, especially in the first three volumes of Order and History, prefigures his later work — Anamnesis (1966), The Ecumenic Age (1974), and the posthumous In Search of Order (1987). Letter 103 (from 1964) is not the first place Voegelin used the symbol “Time of the Tale,” however. We also find the phrase in Israel and Revelation (1956) and Plato and Aristotle (1957), as well as in three works after the 1964 letter: the essay “Was ist Natur?“(1965), The Ecumenic Age (1974), and “The Beginning and the Beyond: A Meditation on Truth” (1977). Voegelin continued to explore in his late work the complexes of reality that underlie the Time of the Tale. For example, in In Search of Order, Voegelin meditates on myth and mytho-speculation, on the Beginning, and on Plato’s Timaeus, a work that figured prominently in the first use of the Time of the Tale in Plato and Aristotle.

The contexts in which all the uses of the term appear reflect topics that we can identify from the paragraph in letter 103:

1. myth as the primary literary form of Cosmological civilizations19

2. differentiation of insights into the structures of reality and subsequent literary forms as a historical event

3. the relation between myth, Time of the Tale, and other literary forms

4. the Time of the Tale in relation to other types of time

5. the Time of the Tale and Being in flux

6. the persistence of the Time of the Tale after differentiation of insights into other complex structures of reality

7. the merger of form and content in the basic Tale

8. a philosophy of language

For Voegelin it is clear that literature — in terms of both its experien­tial origins as well as its imaginative symbolization — is generically related to myth. That Voegelin understood a work of art as a cosmion reflecting the “unity of the cosmos as a whole” clearly connects it with a Cosmological style of truth and myth that are both rooted in compact experiences of reality — the primary cosmic experience. Voegelin under­stood Time of the Tale to be the primary literary form in two senses: pri­mary as prior to other literary forms and primary as foundational to and underlying all later literary forms that result from human understanding of differentiated reality.

Literature, at least as we know it in the modern era, is created in a time after the differentiation of reality into imma­nence and transcendence.22 However, only when the tale being told com­bines human, cosmic, and divine elements does it approach the status of myth or the Tale with its Time that is out of time. The Time of the Tale may indeed be an important critical aid for our understanding of the human experience as it has been articulated and symbolized by modern novels. Therefore, it behooves us at this point to focus for a bit on the related components of Voegelin’s philosophical work. Before turning to this discussion of Voegelin’s philosophy, however, several further obser­vations about his understanding of literary criticism are in order.

Voegelin’s Literary Criticism: An Overview

First, when Voegelin uses the term literary criticism, he applies it to literature both narrowly and broadly defined. On the one hand, liter­ary criticism may mean the principles used in the interpretation of lit­erature that falls into the modern disciplinary divisions of knowledge such as “English literature,” “the history of literature,” or “Shakespeare studies.” On the other hand, literary criticism may refer to the hermeneutical principles for interpreting literature that is understood to include any written document that articulates or expresses human experience symbolically and that relies upon the imaginative capacities of individual human beings to create and understand. Material that may be recognized as “literature” in this second sense thus may include not only modern novels, plays, and poems, but also epic poems, ancient tragedies and dramas, the Gospels, and even analyses of language such as those of Karl Kraus or George Orwell.

Early in his correspondence with Heilman, especially in letter 9, April 9, 1946 (a commentary on Heilman’s Lear manuscript), and letter 11, November 13,1947 (the now famous commentary on The Turn of the Screw), he expresses a reticence to interlope into the specialized areas of Shakespeare or James studies. On April 9, 1946, Voegelin wrote, “You will not expect a dilettante to indulge in a critical evaluation of details. Only to prove the carefulness of my reading let me relate some of the notes which I penciled down while going through the MS” (letter 9, p. 31). Later, on December 30, 1969, Voegelin wrote a response to Heilman’s comments on the Turn Postscript: “I am greatly relieved that you have no major objection to what I did with the Postscript. It seems that what you did when you ini­tiated me to Henry James has come to a happy end after all. Of course, that is still not the last word about James by far, but I am quite content if you say that my effort is at least ahead of the current treatment of James in the expert literature” (letter 123, p. 258).

On other occasions, Voegelin freely and without concern for such disciplinary boundaries drew into his philosophical work the symbols created by artists. Examples abound. From Heimito von Doderer’s novel, Die Dämonen, he adopted the symbol “second reality,”23 and from Flaubert he adopted “the grotesque’ to replace “the burlesque” (that he had taken from his study of “novels and dramas by Doderer, Frisch and Durrenmatt”), as a symbol for adequately representing an ideological distortion of reality of Gnostic symbolism (letter 107, February 22, 1965, p. 233). From Munich in August 1958, Voegelin wrote Heilman that “at present I am struggling with the literary form of the Gospels which, as always, is inseparable from its content — but at least some notable results are in sight now” (letter 79, August 31,1958, p. 183). It is important to emphasize, then, that Voegelin’s principles of literary criticism are equally applica­ble to both the narrow and broad definitions of literature.

Second, the principles of Voegelin’s literary criticism are rooted in a commonsensical approach to the texts of the human spirit and to experiences of reality that these texts symbolize. As Voegelin himself expressed it to Ellis Sandoz: “the men who have the experiences express themselves through symbols; and the symbols are the key to under­standing the experience expressed.”24 While this common-sense approach to literary texts is rooted in Voegelin’s respect for the text and the author who wrote the text, as well as in a scholar’s humility and refusal to privilege his own existence as a “modern” man, in a more technical way this common sense also undergirds much of his own approach to philosophy, especially after his discovery of English and American common sense philosophy.25 Moreover, as Voegelin argues in letter 65, it would be impossible to understand historical texts if the contemporary critic did not share his own human nature with that of the creators of historical symbolizations.

Third, several crucial statements in Voegelin’s work provide the empirical-theoretical attitude that philosophically grounds his literary criticism. He opens the preface to Israel and Revelation, volume I of Order and History, with the statement that “the order of history emerges from the history of order,” thereby establishing the empirical-historical intention of his work.26  In another startlingly bold declarative sentence, which opened the introduction to the same volume, Voegelin writes: “God and man, world and society form a primordial community of being.” With this statement Voegelin announces both an empirical con­clusion based upon his vast studies for the History of Political Ideas project and the range of an inquiry that would occupy his energies throughout the remainder of his life. After this opening, he continued: “The community with its quaternarian structure is, and is not, a datum of human experience. It is a datum of experience insofar as it is known to man by virtue of his participation in the mystery of its being. It is not a datum of experience insofar as it is not given in the manner of an object of the external world but is knowable only from the perspective of participation in it.”27

It should be noted that by the time Voegelin writes the 1956 letters that are discussed above, he has already estab­lished the fundamental principles of his philosophy: that human exis­tence is historical existence, that the reality to be understood through history is the community of being, that human existence is to be under­stood in the context of the community of being, and that human expe­rience of that reality can only be known from the perspective of human participation in the community of being. These emphases focus atten­tion upon the exploration of human nature and thus human conscious­ness; and art — to include literature — is seen by Voegelin as a vital resource for the philosopher who would understand human conscious­ness as it manifests itself historically in the biographies of concrete human beings through their imaginative symbolizations.

For Voegelin, then, “literature” supplies evidence that empirically grounds his inquiry into the historical existence of human beings as partners in the community of being. But literature and thus literary criticism occupy an even more personal place in the constellation of Voegelin’s thought. Here it becomes rather difficult to delineate between Voegelin’s philosophical enterprise and the personal quest that lies at its heart. It is in the person Eric Voegelin that vocation and philo­sophical inquiry intersect and come to be understood as rooted in the Platonic articulation of philosophy as the love of wisdom.28  Against the backdrop of Voegelin’s experience in Vienna during his early years, an experience that witnessed the breakdown of institu­tions and linguistic integrity, this self-education process takes on a heightened significance, for when the literary culture and the educa­tional institutions upon which literacy depends are compromised and even destroyed, a man must look to the classics as guides to the recov­ery of his own humanity, to the recovery of his own integrity as a human being.

Self-education, however, can only occur if one approaches the clas­sics with a reverent attitude of “loving care.” This approach results in a sudden discovery: “that one’s understanding of a great work increases (and also one’s ability to communicate such understanding) for the good reason that the student has increased through the process of study — and that after all is the purpose of the enterprise.” The result — an increase in spiritual stature — furthers the pur­pose for which one engaged in the study initially. And then Voegelin, even though he buries it in parentheses, makes a remarkable confession that articulates his vocation: “At least it is my purpose in spending the time of my life in the study of prophets, philosophers, and saints.”(letter 65, August 22, 1956, p. 157).

Finally, we must note that in this final confessional statement art, the arts, and thus literature, are absent from the final list of sources — the prophets, philosophers, and saints — that Voegelin spends the time of his life studying. Why? The quick response is that philosophy itself, as a symbolic form developed by Plato, relies upon and combines the liter­ary forms of dialogue, myth, analysis, and anamnetic meditation to articulate experiences of the philosopher. Since it is now apparent that literary criticism in a Voegelinian mode is bound up with the philoso­phy that he developed over a lifetime of reading, research, reflection, and meditation, we now turn to a necessarily condensed exposition of his work — a consideration of Eric Voegelin’s lifetime Search of Order.29



1. References to letters in the Heilman-Voegelin correspondence will be made by letter number, date, and page number within parentheses as they appear in Robert B. Heilman and Eric Voegelin: A Friendship in Letters, 1944-1984, ed. Embry (hereinafter referred to as AFIL). All letters in this chapter, unless otherwise noted, are taken from this correspon­dence. See appendix 1 for a brief overview of literary contents of this correspondence.

2. Reprinted in Heilman, The Professor and the Profession, 90.

3. Plato Apology 29B, in Plato, Great Dialogues, trans. Rouse, 435.

4. Voegelin, New Science of Politics, 91-92.

5. See below for a fuller development of this critical-analytical consciousness as cru­cial to the literary critic.

6. See letter 64 in AFIL, where Heilman writes:

“I was driven [to distinguish two aspects of a work — the ‘was’ and the ‘is’] by the dominance of historical studies, in which it is assumed that the work has a single reality which is derivable only from the historical context. This seems dangerous nonsense to me (and I need not explain to you that I do not contemn historical studies), for it appears to deny the existence of a non-historical permanence which I find inseparable from myth, fable, the artistic formula­tions of the imagination, etc. Maybe ‘is’ is too tricky a metaphor for this; I’m not sure. The second point followed from this: my assumption of the power of the critic to view the work, at least in part, non-historically, i.e., to transcend the intellectual and cultural climate of his own time and thus to be able to identify in the work those elements that conform to the eternal truth of things. The historical relativists argue, of course, not only that the work is relative only to its times, but that the mind of the critic is relative only to his own times, in which he is hopelessly enclosed. Therefore the practice of lit­erary history is the only true humility in the literary student; the critic who pretends to be doing anything but historicizing is an egomaniac. So I postulate his share in the divine power to see all times [in] simultaneity” (Letter 64, August 19, 1956, p. 155).

7. Cf. Voegelin, In Search of Order, 42.

8. Heilman, “The Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw” Voegelin’s 1947 letter to Heilman was published in a lead article, entitled “The Turn of the Screw,” in the Southern Review, n.s. 7 (1971): 9-48. In addition to Voegelin’s original letter, this lead article contained Donald E. Stanford, “A Prefatory Note”; Heilman, “Foreword”; Voegelin, “A Letter to Robert B. Heilman”; and Voegelin, “Postscript: On Paradise and Revolution.”

9. Voegelin Papers, Hoover Institute, box 36, folder 34. Emphasis added.

10. Cf. especially In Search of Order, 54-56, 58-59. See also Voegelin, “Postscript: On Paradise and Revolution,” Southern Review, 27, 39-40.

11. Voegelin, “Postscript: On Paradise and  Revolution,” in Published Essays, 1966-1985, 151. Further citations of “Postscript” will be to this version.

12. Ibid., 162-63. Cf. Voegelin, “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme,” 315-75, and Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 291-303.

13. Voegelin, “Postscript,” 152.

14. Ibid.

15. This book itself is rooted in the conviction that Voegelin’s philosophy will pro­vide the literary critic the necessary philosophical “tools” for understanding the call of stories and the human condition as it is explored in works of literature.

16. Ibid., 152, 153, 170-71.

17. In an August 31, 1958, letter to Heilman, Voegelin wrote that:

“at present I am struggling with the literary form of the Gospels which, as always, is inseparable from its contentb—bbut at least some notable results are in sight now. When I have finished this section, I shall be greatly relieved, for the Gospels are, after all, a cornerstone in the spiritual history of the West” (AFIL, letter 79, p. 183).

In this letter, Voegelin is already struggling with the central component of the Time of the Tale, namely, Being in flux or, alternatively, the flux of divine presence. And since the Gospels contain the story of the Incarnation — the timelessness of divine presence revealing Itself in time — I think that he already sensed that he was dealing with the Time of the Tale, in which form merged with content. In the Christian universe of discourse, insofar as I know, he only dealt with the Time of the Tale in one place and that was in his discussion of Saint Paul in The Ecumenic Age. Clearly the Gospels merge form and content in their Tale. 18. Fragments from Ancilla, trans. Freeman.

18. Fragments from Ancilla, trans. Freeman.

19. The reader who would like better to understand Voegelin’s use of the term Cos­mological civilization and its literary symbolization, “myth,” should begin by consulting Voegelin’s Israel and Revelation (vol. I of Order and History), The Ecumenic Age (vol. IV of Order and History), and perhaps the Candler Lectures, “The Drama of Humanity,” in vol. 33 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin. In his late work, Voegelin came to under­stand that the myth is never supplanted by the differentiations of revelation and philos­ophy but must, rather, symbolically ground the later differentiations, just as the primary experience of the cosmos — participation in the primordial community of being — must suffuse and invigorate the cognitive-linguistic-imaginative participation of conscious­ness in the cognitive-meditative-imaginative structure of reality.

20. Voegelin, “In Search of the Ground,” in Published Essays 1953-1965, (CW Vol.11), 240.

21. Voegelin, “Anxiety and Reason,” in What is History? and Other Late Unpublished Writings, (CW  Vol 28), 84.

22. There are certainly writers from traditions in which differentiation has not “occurred,” or rather has occurred only externally to the tradition as an alien force, who have adopted the western, European novel form. This issue certainly would raise a num­ber of interesting questions for exploration. For example, Hoye’s work on Japanese nov­elists yields interesting observations about the “place” that literature (and hence the modern novel) occupies in Japanese society and culture. See Hoye, “Imagining Modern Japan: Natsume Soseki’s First Trilogy.”

23. Voegelin, “Autobiographical Statement at Age Eighty-Two,” 434. Elsewhere, Voegelin attributes the first use of second reality to the novelist Robert von Musil in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities).

24. Quoted from Autobiographical Memoir, 81, in The Voegelinian Revolution, by Sandoz, 22.

25. See Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, 28-29. Common sense for Voegelin is a form of rationality, to include practicality, that has not been developed to a level of self-reflective philosophical proficiency. See Voegelin, On the form of the American Mind, 29-31.

26. This sentence opened the manuscript that Voegelin asked Heilman to read in 1952, and it was retained as the opening sentence of the introduction when Israel and Revelation was published in 1956. Voegelin, Israel and Revelation, 19.

27. Ibid., 39.

28. The philosopher’s consciousness, like that of any other human being, is histori­cally formed and thus rooted in the biography of the philosopher. For the complete development of this insight see Voegelin, Anamnesis.

29. For those interested in exploring more thorough and detailed discussions and analyses of Voegelin’s work, I suggest: Hughes, Mystery and Myth in the Philosophy of Eric Voegelin; essays by Jürgen Gebhardt and Frederick G. Lawrence in International and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Eric Voegelin, ed. McKnight and Price; essays by Lewis P. Simpson, Paul Grimley Kuntz, and Paul Caringella in Eric Voegelin’s Significance for the Modern Mind, ed. Sandoz; and, Sandoz, The Voegelinian Revolution.


This excerpt is from The Philosopher and the Storyteller: Eric Voegelin and Twentieth-Century Literature (University of Missouri Press, 2008)

Charles R. EmbryCharles R. Embry

Charles R. Embry

Charles Embry is Professor Emeritus at Texas A&M University at Commerce. He is author of several books, including The Philosopher and the Storyteller (Missouri, 2008); Voegelinian Readings of Modern Literature (Press, 2011); and, with Glenn Hughes, co-editor of The Eric Voegelin Reader: Politics, History, Consciousness (Missouri, 2017).

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