Summer 2005 • Vol. XXVII No. 3 NonfictionJuly 1, 2005 |

Charles Simic’s Dark Nights of the Soul

The prologues are over," Wallace Stevens declared at the beginning of his poem "Asides on the Oboe." "It is a question, now, / Of final belief. So, say that final belief / Must be in a fiction. It is time to choose." Many poets in the twentieth century have wrestled with the dilemma articulated by Stevens: if religious texts, with their apocalyptic beginnings and ends, their gods and devils and redemptive heroes, are fictions, how can they and why should they be believed? William James, who taught at Harvard when Stevens was a student there, advocated a pragmatic approach to the problem. In a lecture delivered in 1900, "Religion and Neurology," which became the first chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience, he contended that religious phenomena should be judged "by their fruits . . . , not by their roots" (34). The fact that sacred texts and rituals could be traced back to idiosyncratic or even pathological visions of religious zealots was no reason to dismiss them, he said

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