Trevor Logan

Trevor Logan is a recent graduate from the University of Nottingham, England. He is the author of the forthcoming book Sibylline Leaves: The Life and Thought of Johann Georg Hamann (Cascade 2016).

Kierkegaard in L.A.: Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups

“Initially,” Vladimir Nabokov writes in his autobiography Speak, Memory, “I was unaware that time, so boundless at first blush, was a prison.” Human consciousness seeks the infinite in the finite. It inevitably falls short. It always misses the mark. It is always unfulfilled. And even if fulfillment is found, death quickly slams the door shut. The unhappy consciousness clings like a shadow to every fleeting pleasure. After dizzying Dionysian dithyrambs in Vanity Fair, we throw ourselves into various penumbral stoicisms or melancholy gnosticisms, world-weary with promising pleasures that tease to taste but never satiate. The carnival cannot sustain itself. What we desire and how we desire determine the contour—the meaning—of our world. We move throughout various worlds at differing stages of life, searching each world for something we seem to have lost. We know only enough to know we are lost. To know that we are lost, however, is the beginning of a quest. Not to know is to be in despair.

At the top of the American poster for Terrence Malick’s new film Knight of Cups are two words: A Quest.

A quest for what?

Before considering what this quest might be, I should confess that I am a rather reluctant reviewer of Terrence Malick films. I feel guilty of Wordsworth’s lines from The Tables Turned: “Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; / Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:— / We murder to dissect.” Spotting allusions can become tiresome, often occluding the visceral experience involved in watching Malick’s films; yet we always interpret the world through a particular grammar of experience, a grammar that is formed by what we attend to in our lives. I cannot easily be rid of the structure of consciousness that experience has shaped for me. For both imponderable and ponderable reasons, I find that Malick’s images strike a deep chord with my experience of the world.

Malick’s films are difficult in form, requiring a disciplined attention-span almost unheard of in today’s film industry. (Gone are the days of Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Ingmar Bergman.) Malick’s films hurt my head, like great literature he demands every synaptic firing my poor mind can muster. Much of these features are attributable to what Christopher Nolan has said about Malick’s cinematic language:

“When you think of a visual style, or the visual language of a film, there tends to be a natural separation between the visual style and the narrative elements—but with the greats, whether it be Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick or Hitchcock, what you are seeing is an inseparable, vital relationship between the image and the story it is telling.

“One great part of human existence,” James Joyce wrote, “is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” Malick’s films are trying to catch glimpse of this “great part of human existence”. The task is surely bound to leave many viewers icily unmoved. Nevertheless, Malick’s moving-images have always been tediously and consciously chosen and meditated upon, they are far from arbitrary. Yet part of the reason for Malick’s recent ill reception is quite simply because he is making movies that assume an affinity with the traditional arts and philosophy, particularly those with deeply Christian elements. In a decidedly post-Christian world, Malick’s meaning-rich images will simply flitter by, unperceived and, possibly, unwanted. Critics are understandably at a cultural loss here; akin to an American child hearing Swahili for the first time, they simply mistake immediate incomprehension with empty gibberish. For example, before writing off the last scene of The Tree of Life as a Prozac commercial for heaven, perhaps critics ought to have read Dante’s Commedia, particularly canto thirty of Paradiso, and understood that Malick is doing something strikingly similar, conjuring up images directly from its pages. Malick’s films are chockfull of allusions, it’s as if James Joyce, Dante, and Kierkegaard sat down and decided to make a film together. The result is an inexhaustible treasure that rewards multiple viewings year after year.

The Knight of Cups (from here on Knight), along with The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, form a type of Kierkegaardian trilogy. Like Ingmar Bergman’s great trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and Silence), they have a deep thematic undercurrent uniting them. They are all quests for, or movements toward, divine grace in the midst of a not so graceful world of suffering and evil and disappointment and despair.

Knight is a pilgrimage, and Malick wastes no time telling us this. The film opens with Rick in a wilderness. The voiceover is verbatim from the opening of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: “The Pilgrim’s progress from this world to that which is to come: Delivered under the similitude of a Dream wherein is discovered, the manner of his setting out, his dangerous journey; and safe arrival at the desired country.”

Rick is a pilgrim caught in a dream, a stranger in the world, half in love and half miserable with his experiences of sensual dreamscapes. He is Don Juan in Hell. After the Pilgrim’s Progress opening, Malick frames Rick within the story of the old Eastern Christian Hymn of the Pearl (also known as The Hymn of the Soul) about a prince lost in a foreign land who has forgotten that he is the son of a king, forgotten the Pearl, his soul. Wojciech Kilar’s Exodus is fittingly playing. Rick is a prodigal son, flopping around half-consciously with half-naked models pouring champagne on his head. He’s enthralled with pleasure, like us all, yet he wears this look of numbed stupor on his face. He looks completely lost. It just all feels so good and false at the same time.

There are so many scenes in Knight that conjure up motifs from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or that I find it difficult to imagine Malick hasn’t used the text for inspiration. Rick shares multiple qualities with Kierkegaard’s complex portrayal of the aesthete, who is something of a flaneur. Similar to the Seducer from the Seducer’s Diary (part of Either/Or), Rick is bewitched with the momentarily “interesting”. He is fearful of commitment and familiarity, abhorring anything that induces boredom. To flee ennui he must work himself into a frenzy of sensual experience, an experience which becomes difficult—indeed impossible—to sustain. Hence Malick has plenty of scenes mirroring what Kierkegaard’s young aesthete calls actiones in distans (actions at a distance), or proxies to keep “interesting” experience from dying. The more Kierkegaard’s Seducer pursues Cordelia, his desired lover, the more he is caught up in the gaze of other women and couples, using the freedom that unfamiliarity and novelty supplies the imagination with to fuel the fantasy of Cordelia, whom he loses interest in the more she becomes familiar. The Seducer doesn’t want love, he wants to experience the mood of falling in love. At one point, Kierkegaard’s Seducer reads Plato’s Phaedrus to inspire erotic feeling, he must conjure up exciting fantasies to project onto his fading interest in Cordelia. He is not unlike those who use role-play in bed to guard against boredom.

In order to keep up the excitement of fantasies and dreams, Rick, like Kierkegaard’s Seducer, must “play shuttlecock with the whole of existence”. He must keep a constant rotation of new experiences, women, to keep the horror of boredom at bay. These ideas are expressed in the essay “Rotation of Crops” in Either/Or, whose embodiment in Knight is Tonio (Antonio Banderas), who arrogantly says: “They [women] are like flavors, sometimes you want raspberry, then after a while you get tired of it, you want some strawberry.”

Rick is caught in a purely aesthetic existence, slumbering in fragments of fantasy while whispers of a world of actuality beckon from (mostly) feminine figures. Like Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress (is it an irony that Malick chooses Christian Bale?) and Dante, he needs to awake from his slumber and set forth on an odyssey of the soul. But he cannot do it alone, he needs guides to help shake off the allure of unreality.

Rick’s first lover, Della, is a young, worldly-wise/punk-rockish beauty. She’s as wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove. She can read Rick’s soul: he’s a weak charioteer with broken wings, unable to steer his two steeds—his two wills—and he gives way to the steed of wanton pleasure. Like Dante’s damning of Ulysses for being obsessed with experience rather than the journey’s goal, Della tells Rick: “You don’t want love. You want a love experience.” In my favorite line of Della’s, she exhorts: “Love, and do what you want. A saint said that.” The saint of course is Augustine, and like the African bishop in book seven of the Confessions, Rick begins his pilgrimage within a region of unlikeness (regio dissimilitudinis), where everything is confused and superficial. To put an image on this, Malick has a bizarre scene of a topless girl in a gyre of stilted movements wherein it becomes difficult to tell the difference between her front and back sides. She wears a mask of herself, a false self. This scene is immediately followed by a mountainous landscape with the light at its summit, exactly like the beginning of Dante’s Purgatorio. An arduous climb toward transcendence is implied.

Rick (Christian Bale)

Rick (Christian Bale)

At one point, Rick and Della visit the Aquarium of the Pacific, and Rick is watching the fish swim upward toward the light while Charles Laughton’s reading of Plato’s Phaedrus seamlessly weaves the images together, a dialogue on the nature of love and the soul, and the role of recollection and beauty for the growth of the soul’s wings:

“Once the soul was perfect and had wings and could soar into heaven as only creatures can. But the soul lost its wings and fell to earth, there it took an earthly body, and now while it lives in this body no outward sign of wings can be seen, yet the roots of its wings are still there and the nature of these is to try to raise the earthbound soul into heaven. When you see a beautiful woman or a man, the soul remembers the beauty it used to know in heaven and the wings begin to sprout and makes the soul want to fly but it cannot yet, the man is still too weak, so the man keeps staring at the sky like a young bird. He has lost all interest in the world around him.

The beginning of the soul’s growth begins in recollection, memory’s flight away from this world toward the eternal verities of Beauty, Goodness and Truth. In the great Christian odysseys of the soul—Augustine’s Confessions and Dante’s Commedia come to mind—there is a deep respect for, and synthesis of, ancient Greek philosophy. However, what Augustine said he did not find in Plato was the Word made Flesh. While a flight from this temporal world was a necessary movement for faith, it was not, according to Augustine, a sufficient movement. As Augustine writes: “Think of the burden of Christ as being like the burden of wings for birds. As long as a bird is burdened by wings, it can fly. Without wings it is trapped on earth. The wings carrying us to Christ are the commandments to love God above all and our neighbor as ourself. To the extent that you use these wings, you will lift up your heart.” In order to grow wings we must love (“wings of charity”, Augustine calls them), which requires a flight toward the Infinite in order to see and love God’s image in the finite, one’s neighbor.

The heart of Kierkegaard’s oeuvre is a reshaping of these Platonic and Augustinian themes into a unique, complex literary form. Not surprisingly, given that Malick is a Kierkegaard scholar who has used portions of Kierkegaard’s work verbatim in his last two films, there is a deep Kierkegaardian undercurrent guiding the structure of Knight as well. I think it is fair to say that Knight is a quest for faith in a distinctly Kierkegaardian key.

It is a subtle key, for sure. But a plethora of hints can be found. In a wonderful scene of Rick roaming restlessly through a palatial party, we hear hidden amidst a polyphony of voices: “I’ve always enjoyed the company of women …”—the camera then catches glimpse of “faith” tattooed on the back of a woman—the voice continues: “they are closer to the mystery”. The camera, purposely, does a double take of the woman and her tattoo, as if evoking Kierkegaard’s metaphysical movement of repetition, the essence of which is the movement of faith. Similarly, it was Kierkegaard’s belief that woman was closer to God, and therefore man must follow her in order to learn the movements of faith, for it is the woman who knows how to live both in sensuousness and spirit, in the ideal and the real; which, again, is the definition of repetition. To make the movement of repetition is synonymous with the movement of faith. (We get more from the Danish word for repetitiongjentagelsen—literally meaning “to take again”: a double take. Hence the “double takes” of scenes in To the Wonder and now in Knight.) 

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There is simply too much going on in Knight to delve into with any great depth. I merely want to point out a few more scenes that fortify the Kierkegaardian movements latent in the film, particularly Kierkegaard’s two knights from Fear and Trembling—the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith—and how they correspond to two metaphysical movements: recollection and repetition. The aquarium scene with Laughton’s reading of Plato can be interpreted as the beginning of Rick’s platonic movement of recollection, his desire to become a knight of infinite resignation. The rest of the film is a struggle to make the movements of repetition, to become a knight of faith: to return to the world of actuality. 

According to Kierkegaard, recollection and faith share the same movement, albeit they move in different directions. Faith and recollection are different directions of intentionality, different ways of being-in-the-world. Recollection and repetition share a family resemblance, but they are not identical. Kierkegaard’s metaphor for showing their difference is that between a person suspended in a harness making the movements of someone swimming and someone actually in the water gracefully swimming. The water is the world, swimming is being at home in the world. We first make the movement of recollection because we feel ourselves to be in the world but drowning, so we take up wings and take flight from the world.

The movement of repetition, of faith, begins when the movement of recollection—the platonic movement away from the world toward the eternal (the flight from Plato’s cave)—returns to the world under a new light, the light of the eternal. It’s what Wittgenstein, an ardent admirer of Kierkegaard, described when he said that “what is incomprehensible is that nothing, and yet everything, has changed”. The old world has not so much been lost as it has become transfigured. In recollection we lose the world. In repetition we gain it back. Faith overcomes the world in order to inherit it. Those who wear the jewel of faith, Kierkegaard writes, are able to leap from infinity into finitude without any faltering hesitation; like a ballet dancer’s leap, their existence becomes so fluid as to be completely absent of all resistance, of all anxiety. The knight of faith, through the movement of repetition, is capable of being perfectly at home in the world, able to traverse the infinite and finite in a single leap without the yawning gap that causes alienation and anxiety between self and world.

This is what Kierkegaard meant by the “leap of faith”. Faith, far from being an infantile, fideistic adherence to things we know are not true, is instead the power to live, move, and have our being completely in the moment, absent the anxiety caused by being locked within time’s prison, wherein every passing moment is also forever lost. While recollection remembers backwards what has been lost, reminding us of our eternal consciousness, repetition is the movement of restoration and recapitulation: the return of what has been lost not just to memory, but to actuality, to reality. Faith, and therefore repetition, is the movement of resurrection, it is the peace that comes when one can accept finitude, and the suffering that comes with it, under the promise that all things shall be made new.

This trifold movement—the experience of drowning in the world, the call to take flight from it, and the return to the world—is the Kierkegaardian structure of Knight of Cups. The aquarium scene has Rick gazing at the fish swimming effortlessly toward the light, then Della is seen swimming toward light and a ladder (steps and ladders, another very Kierkegaardian trope, are everywhere in Malick’s films). Rick stares upward at the giant (fake) whales suspended from the ceiling in the posture of swimming, alien to their natural habitat. Water is everywhere in Knight, and for good reason. People are swimming effortlessly, or struggling with the water (a dog struggles to clinch the object of desire in a pool), or just wading. Rick jumps from a pier into the sea, wades underwater, desperate to bridge the gap between illusion and reality, self and world.

The most blatant Kierkegaardian image is found in a Las Vegas nightclub. A woman is suspended from the ceiling in a harness, making the motions of a swimmer. Rick, like Johannes de Silentio, looks up, stupefied, wanting to at least make the movement of recollection, of infinity. Kierkegaard writes in Fear and Trembling:

“For the movement of faith must be made continually on the strength of the absurd, though in such a way, be it noted, that one does not lose finitude but gains it all of a piece. I, for my part, can indeed describe the movements of faith, but I cannot perform them. When learning how to make swimming movements, one can hang in a belt from the ceiling; one may be said to describe the movements all right but one isn’t swimming; likewise I can describe the movements of faith but when I’m thrown into the water, although I may be said to be swimming (for I’m not among the waders), I make other movements, I make the movements of infinity, while faith does the opposite, having performed the movements of infinity it makes those of finitude. Lucky, the one who can make those movements, he performs a marvel, and I shall never tire of admiring him.

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We notice at the end of the film that a change has occurred within Rick’s consciousness, but there is nothing really dramatic about it, it’s so subtle that we have difficulty detecting how Rick is any different than he was at the beginning of the film. He makes no grand pronouncements of faith. Yet he’s beginning to live again in the moment, not in the moment of pure transience devoid of eternal consciousness, but the moment whose transience is the moving image of eternity. Rick, like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, is returning to the world:

“He [the knight of faith] delights in everything he sees, in the thronging humanity, the new omnibuses, the Sound—to run across him on Strandeveien you would think he was a shopkeeper having his fling, such is his way of taking pleasure…He takes his ease at an open window and looks down on the square where he lives, at everything that goes on—a rat slipping under a board over a gutter, the children at play—with a composure befitting a sixteen-year old girl…carefree as a devil-may-care good for nothing, he hasn’t a worry in the world, and yet he purchases every moment that he lives, redeeming the seasonable time at the dearest price; not the least thing does he do except on the strength of the absurd…He resigned everything infinitely, and then took everything back on the strength of the absurd…the whole earthly form he presents is a new creation.

The last chapter of the film is called “freedom”. It is the chapter of Isabel (played by Isabel Lucas), who seems to be a figure of faith. Rick is doing mundane things, playing tennis, looking out the window. He belongs altogether to the world. Isabel is seen naked in a pool, swimming gracefully, at home in the world. Are these the movements of the knight of faith? Is her nakedness the repetition of the truly aesthetic seen from the new perspective of faith, like the ancient Christians who stripped naked in the sacrament of baptism? Is there a faint allusion to paradise regained, Eve naked and unashamed, Adam following her movements? 

isabel

This is Malick’s quest: to get us to fall in love with repetition. For, as Kierkegaard wrote, “[t]he love of repetition is in truth the only happy love,” because what else is it “that connects the temporal and the eternal? What else but love, which for that very reason is before everything and remains after everything is gone.” By some extraordinary gift of genius, mixed with the experience of human and divine love and suffering, Malick has mastered the art of the image, the image that is moved by the same love that moves the sun and the stars.

     

The Italian Girl: An Old Tale

“And yet, in some indescribable way, she kept recurring like a motive in music through all his mad adventures . . .” — G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

She hangs solemnly above the emerald chest in my bedroom. The bottle of Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio rests alone on the chest, a gentle grey snow dusting its heel. Her gaze is pensive, faraway eyes that spire into my own. She’s La Meditazione (The Meditation) by Francesco Hayez, the nineteenth-century Italian painter belonging generally to the Romantic Movement. Sadly, I can find very little written about this magnificent painting.

The painting has been known by three titles: The Meditation; The Meditation on the History of Italy; and The Meditation on the History of the Old and New Testaments. To what degree this was intentional or just a happy historical fortuity, I do not know. Nevertheless, the trinity of titles alludes to the multiple perspectives it embodies. The erotic, aesthetic, historical and religious are each laced within the other.

Behind the initial erotic draw of her face and figure lies hidden the visage of a Christ Pantokrator icon; particularly the venerable sixth-century icon at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Her eyes are subtly, but unmistakably, dissimilar. Her left eye is fiercely melancholy. The other more gentle and calm. Her entire face descries the Old and New Testament difference and unity. Her left is dark and shadowy, hidden in a whirlwind like some mysterious form in a fiery Babylonian furnace. Her lips curve downward in the shape of divine kenosis, a crescent moon in the garden of Gethsemane. The right side of her face, along with her right breast, catch an infinite light. Her lips soften in shape and the fixture of her eye has motion in it.

The oldest known icon of Christ Pantocrator, encaustic on panel (Saint Catherine's Monastery). The two different facial expressions on either side may emphasize Christ's two natures as fully God and fully human.

The oldest known icon of Christ Pantocrator, encaustic on panel (Saint Catherine’s Monastery). The two different facial expressions on either side may emphasize Christ’s two natures as fully God and fully human.

Instead of holding the New Testament in her left hand like St. Catherine’s Pantokrator, she holds the cross. In her right arm she holds a book, The History of Italy: the child of Christianity. She is the mother of Italy, her nourishing breast of life, the lactation of Christendom. The allusion to previous Madonna paintings is obvious. (Perhaps a mix of Boticceli’s The Madonna of the Book and Bartolomeo Veneto’s Madonna Che Allatta Il Bambino.) But the Christ child is absent from her right arm, and Christ is absent from the cross in her left. The Christian revolution has taken place. The Christ child is now the history of Italy. The crucified and risen Christ is off the Roman cross and now hidden and manifest in the concrete face of each man, each woman. Her face is her own, yet also Christ’s.

She reminds me of Jorge Luis Borge’s Dantean short story Paradiso, XXXI, 108:

“Perhaps some feature of that crucified countenance lurks in every mirror; perhaps the face died, was obliterated so that God could be all of us. Who knows whether tonight we shall not see it in the labyrinths of our dreams and not even know it tomorrow.”

She “Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — / Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”. She is the tonic flame and face turning death into a stranger, the recurring musical motif holding history’s hells abated, advocate of the poor and oppressed, drawing heaven’s starry hosts into the minds of men amidst the night’s stale chaos.

Hayez’s painting is a metaphysical romance. We could say it’s like Chesterton’s “great romance he never wrote,” described in The Everlasting Man. A boy takes leave of home and searches for the “effigy and grave of some giant.” As he moves further and further away from his cottage, he is able to make out certain aspects of home—a kitchen-garden for instance—when he suddenly realizes these small features are like quarterings of a shield, the shield of a giant upon which he has always lived and moved and had his being. Before his journey it was too large and too close to be seen. Seeing it required distance.

There is, however, a backstory to Chesterton’s great romance; namely, Friedrich Nietzsche’s parable of the Madman found in The Gay Science. It’s no secret that much of Chesterton’s philosophy has Nietzsche in mind, so it is hardly surprising that Chesterton should begin his masterpiece with a play on the parable of the Madman. Nietzsche’s Madman sets out with “lantern in the bright morning hours” searching for God. He wanders like a fallen angel of old, flitting about frantically to and fro throughout the marketplace, incessantly crying, “I seek God! I seek God!” The unbelievers mock and tease him: “Why, did he get lost? Did he lose his way like a child? Is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage?” The Madman glares and pierces the unbelievers’ eyes with his own and responds: “Whither is God? I shall tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers…Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God?”

Had Hayez encountered Nietzsche’s roaming madman, he’d have led him to The Meditation. For God is to be found only where God proclaims to be found: in the human face of the stranger. Perhaps we have lost God because we no longer attend to our neighbor, the face of the other. It is what is nearest to us that is most difficult for us to see. What is near becomes invisible. We need the distance that meditation creates in order to see what is always before us.

Hayez’s Italian girl is this meditation; an ordinary garden, an effigy, part of the shield of the giant. But the more one looks upon her, the more one looks carefully upon the infinite strands of her black hair and the gaze of her shadowed eyes, we become suddenly pierced, like Moses at the burning bush, with the audacious revelation that these dark strands are the same that wove the world in the beginning of days, and her eyes the same dark pupils that beheld the world and saw that it was good. She is part of the giant we live upon. She is the meditation on Existence Itself.

Image Details: La Meditazione (1851). Francesco Hayez (Italian, 1791-1882). Oil on canvas.

Proust’s English Muse

The Scottish man of letters, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, is mostly known for introducing Marcel Proust’s multi-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time, to the English-speaking world. His translation is still thought by many lovers of Proust to be a classic; and it is in large part responsible for the eponymous translation prize still awarded annually in the UK for literary excellence in French to English translation.

Not surprisingly, though, a translator’s biography often goes unnoticed. After all, part of a translator’s role is to play second fiddle to the author. The translator is supposed to disappear. But C.K. Scott Moncrieff didn’t disappear. His presence was redolent on every page, devoted to matching the literary quality of every sentence he translated. Joseph Conrad was among those who praised Moncrieff’s translations as often being of better literary quality than their original. No mean feat, to say the least.

Thanks to a recent biography by Jean Findlay, Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy and Translator, the times of Scott Moncrieff (“Charles” from here on out) are far from being lost.  Biographies like Findlay’s are crisp air in cramped and stuffy literary rooms of ideology. Findlay paints an honest picture of a complex man without a hint of political agenda or polemic—a temptation that, given Charles’s sexuality and religion and the battles raging today concerning the relation between the two, could have easily spawned an ideologically freighted biography. Happily, we are given a portrait of a man rather than a marionette of ideas.

Charles was a devoutly orthodox Catholic, gay,  and a highly decorated war hero of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers who worked for one of the twentieth century’s great literary giants: G.K. Chesterton—that fat, frolicking, beer-imbibing word wizard who nearly convinced even Franz Kafka he’d found God in a godless time. In today’s world, where large swaths of the population refuse to see beyond their various cookie-cutter ideologies, Charles would be an utter enigma. He was what all good men should be: a contradiction; and he sought what all good men should seek: divine grace.

Charles was born to educated, middle-class Presbyterian parents in Scotland on 25 September 1889. Early on in childhood his parents recognized a predilection and precocity for all things literary and aesthetic; and scarcely could he have inherited a better familial atmosphere for his gifts to flourish. Before the ripe age of eight, Findley tells us, he was already reading “Stevenson, Milton, Wordsworth, Arnold, George Herbert and Ruskin. These were not the usual texts given to small boys to develop an interest.” Both parents were avid readers and published writers with strong pedigrees of educational rigour. “We were made for better things than to be wealthy,” wrote Charles’s grandmother; they were above all else to be highly educated, wise, virtuous, and generous citizens before accumulating vast sums of wealth—an ideal that Charles would later take to heart, giving large portions of his wealth away to those in need.

As a young man studying classical literature at the prestigious Winchester College boarding school, Charles fell into the company of a London literary group made up mainly of gays like himself; excepting that a great deal of them were, unlike Charles at the time, Catholic converts. Notable among the group was Robert Ross, a good friend of the late Oscar Wilde who worked tirelessly to repair Wilde’s posthumous reputation scarred by his infamous trial.

It was also through this group wherein Charles met a lifelong friend in Vyvyian Holland, one among two sons of Wilde, with whom he would exchange numerous letters throughout the years, often filled with bawdy humor such as this particular encouragement to Holland about possibly translating Stendhal into English: “You can do it [translate Stendhal] straight on the typewriter without even stopping to masturbate, as in the case of Proust.”

Findlay writes of this early period that, “Charles felt close to the religious inspiration of Wilde’s work, and he was told by Robert Ross of the author’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism and of Wilde’s description of the Roman Catholic Church as being ‘for saints and sinners alone – for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do’.” And that during Wilde’s “time at Trinity College, Dublin, and later in prison, Wilde had pored over the works of Augustine, Dante and Cardinal Newman.”

It was Catholicism’s truthful reckoning of human nature as something flawed and confused, yet nonetheless shook-foiled (as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it) with the glory of God, that appealed most strongly to this group and that would later grip Charles as well. “The Church,” as Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man, “is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.” It was the Catholic Church, Findley writes, that “offered the forgiveness that society could not provide” this group of literary men. In other words, it was the Church’s doctrine of grace, rather than solely the aestheticism of the Church, that drew them into its fold.

Before Charles was able to produce his masterful translations, he would endure the hells of the First World War, which ruthlessly corroded the isles’ men into a small remnant of tortured souls. While the war was certainly hell, Charles believed it could also test the mettle of virtues such as courage, perseverance and self-sacrifice—and possibly even ignite faith.  Like Chesterton and many others of his day, Charles was a firm believer in the cultivation of chivalry; so much so that he devoted considerable time and talent to translating the Song of Roland (for which Chesterton wrote the introduction) into lyrical English as a paean to the courage of his fellow soldiers, a poem he wanted understood “in the light of many of the aspirations, intentions and even despairs of today.”

The war ruined Charles’s health. Alongside the mental terrors suffered from battle memories and the deaths of many close friends, he would hobble about on a limp leg and struggle against recurring bouts of trench fever the rest of his short life. What was once the bright face of a young and strong and handsome man was now a broken visage of a war-torn man. Despite such difficulties, however, Charles was immensely productive. He seemed to have been one of those mysterious souls who could fit a week’s worth of work into a single day, and yet still have time for an enviable social life with the leading literary figures of his time.

Chivalry and literature being as they were very important to Charles, it was his devotion to Catholicism that loomed largest in his heart and mind. His faith was “as absorbing to him as his translation of Proust,” writes Findlay. And above all else, Charles wrote, “Christianity is characteristic of our armies far more nearly universal than courage or cowardice, or drunkeness or sobriety or chastity or the love of plunder.” In the fog of war and virtue and vice, Charles clung to the clarity of Christian doctrine: the belief that nothing—neither death nor life, height nor depth—can separate humanity from the love of God. “Charles’s faith in life after death was powerful and orthodox. Death through sacrifice for one’s friends meant Glory, and Glory was an experience of God’s presence.” His body decaying in the battlefields of France, Charles picked up his pen after confession with the Brigade Chaplain and wrote: “So now I am a proper papist. As we left, the Sacristan, who had been tidying up things, said very kindly, ‘C’est un nouveau frère en Jesus Christ.’” Findlay nicely describes his conversion:

“It was not a flash of light on the road to Damascus that turned Charles towards Catholicism but a steady tramp through France and the dramatic appearance of a devastated world. France had something to do with it; his aesthetic and historical interests were in art and buildings inspired by the Catholic spirit – pre-Reformation churches and cathedrals in Britain, the towered cities of France and the steady stream of chapels and wayside monuments to the Madonna in the Low Countries. However it was more by observing other people that Charles was inspired to conversion.”

For an aesthetic mind like Charles’s, there is no doubt that Catholicism’s long and strong obsession with beauty would have kindled a flame; upon seeing Rouen Cathedral, he would have seen and thought the same as John Ruskin, that it was an embodiment of “Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory and Obedience.” But most importantly it was Catholic lives that compelled him: Chesterton, Waugh, Knox, Ross and his Catholic comrades celebrating mass in old French churches in the midst of suffering and death.

After the war and his conversion, Charles’s most significant endeavor was to bring Proust’s eight-volume masterpiece, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, to the English reader. This was not easy. Proust was still alive when Charles finished Swann’s Way, and he was by no means recognized immediately as a living literary legend. Thus Charles had to put forth a considerable effort to ignite interest in Proust, which included pulling together a compilation of essays in praise of Proust’s work by notable literary figures. If the first volume had flopped, there was a good chance Charles would have had difficulty selling translations of the remaining volumes to a publisher. Of course Charles pulled it off to great acclaim and praise, earning Proust’s admiration as well. Joseph Conrad wrote to Charles saying he “was more interested and fascinated by your rendering than by Proust’s creation. One has revealed to me something and there is no revelation in the other… [You have] a supreme faculty akin to genius…”

It wasn’t only Proust he was translating during this period of rapid work. He was also working on various novels by Stendhal, including The Red and Black, as well as tirelessly persuading publishers to get Pirandello’s works into English. He was, as Findlay says, “chasing lost time”:

“Having spent the flower of his youth on the war, he felt that he was chasing lost time for the last ten years of his life. This feeling of being hounded by time led to a frenetic work schedule, and him publishing nineteen volumes of difficult translation, writing thousands of letters and neglecting his physical health. It is unlikely he ever cooked himself a meal, relying on black coffee and wine by day and dining out at night where he was celebrated as a first rate entertainer by his friends. Proust wrote a slow exploration in search for lost time, but Charles was actively chasing time, he was a man never at rest; constantly making unnatural demands on himself, leading an action-packed life.

The rose was wilting. Charles’s body could endure no more. He succumbed to stomach cancer at only 39. His last days were spent in Rome, cared for by the nuns of the convent of St. Joseph. Here he kept up correspondence with T.S. Eliot while being visited by his many friends. Chesterton made the pilgrimage and read Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin as Charles lie in bed. And a fortnight before his death Evelyn Waugh arrived, giving Charles his “first blissful evening in months.”

The last days of C.K. Scott Moncrieff were spent making last rites. “Charles,” writes Findlay, “a man of forty, was certain that the consecrated host carried by the nun was the body of Christ.” “You could say,” she adds, “that his conversion to Catholicism freed his spirit. He discovered the sacrament of confession, where man is reconciled with himself and God, not trapped in guilt, and this gave his spirit flight.”

D.H. Lawrence and Discontent with the Modern World

“Otherwise it was black darkness; one breathed darkness.”—D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow

When it comes to literary tastes, we’d all do well not to take the opinions of writers we already admire too seriously. For instance, don’t let Vladimir Nabokov’s invective against Dostoevsky detour the actual reading of, say, Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karmazov. And don’t let Waugh’s and Joyce’s dismissal of D.H. Lawrence do the same. Great writers hating great writers is a symptom of epic genius. I know the power of influence from experience; it kept me from touching anything D.H. Lawrence wrote for quite a long time.

None of the three writers mentioned above—whom I deeply admire—had a very high opinion of D.H. Lawrence. In the face of my uninformed prejudice, however, two idiosyncratic reasons drew me to Lawrence anyway. One, we shared the same alma mater (Nottingham University). Two, he hailed from a working class family, the son of a miner; he didn’t have the uber-educated childhood that most of his fellow writers had. I could relate, and gave Lawrence a chance.

What I discovered: Lawrence was a damn good writer. Now, this doesn’t mean he’ll  satisfy the standards of the last century’s great English craftsmen, his prose being wild and often grammatically a bit off-beat, but it is difficult to find another writer of the last century whose power to evoke—poetically, intuitively and metaphysically—the wonder and beauty of creation better than Lawrence.

There are very few writers I know of who sow more discontent with the modern world than Lawrence. After putting a  book of his down, our world of machines—with its incessant obsession with near-sighted utilitarianism, mechanical philosophy, materialism, false sexuality and crude capitalism—feels like a self-revelation of falsity, a soulless delusion completely undeserving of anything called humanity. His work pulsates with a poignant desire, groaning even, for paradise regained. And despite his frequent sparring with Christianity, he can’t help but retell, with subtle references, familiar biblical stories. As the Roman historian Sallust said in Of Gods and the World, “These things never happened, but are always.”

Regarding Lawrence, G.K. Chesterton wrote how he “was in favor of very ancient things…and notably one of the most ancient things on earth: the worship of the earth itself, the great Mother, Demeter.” Lawrence

“was in fact in violent revolt against anything and everything that can be called modern. He did not merely hate industrial machinery and the servile society it has produced. He hated practically all the effects of science and public education and even political progress.”

To say the least, this is not the kind of thing you’d expect to hear about a writer whose books were constantly being banned for obscenity, notably pornography. The great irony of the charge was that it came as a moral judgment. In an age that was vociferously reducing the human to a soulless machine, Lawrence came along and painted humanity as a sensual being with a real soul.

Judging by Chesterton’s words we might be tempted to think Lawrence was a bipolar schizophrenic. On the one hand a tree-hugging liberal, on the other a raging right-wing lunatic. Of course he was neither. To cast Lawrence into such political camps would be a gross anachronism. Lawrence was something altogether different, a mysterious outsider to everything and everyone: “I feel a great stranger, but have got used to that feeling, and prefer it to feeling ‘homely’. After all, one is a stranger, nowhere so hopelessly as at home.”

Loneliness and alienation from both ourselves and the natural world were his great themes.Modern science didn’t have to rape and pillage the earth in the name of progress, it could move with more caution. It could think twice about construing the natural world as just a great, vast mindless machine to be manipulated by the purely accidental and soulless imps it produced (ourselves).

But how to reconcile the loss?

Lawrence feels the loss in everything. He intuits that it has something to do with the loss of wonder. If his was an age that was truly on the road of cultural progress, why then did it condemn its “workers to ugliness, ugliness, ugliness: meanness and formless and ugly surroundings, ugly ideals, ugly religion, ugly hopes, ugly love, ugly clothes, ugly furniture, ugly houses, ugly relationships between workers and employees”? Lawrence knows that the loss of genuine communion with ourselves, with others, and ultimately with God, has something to do with a loss of beauty.

The Rainbow

The Rainbow

In Lawrence’s best novel, The Rainbow, there is a recurrent theme of the “darkness beyond,” the formless void girding creation and consciousness together. The novel is a magnificent and intricate foray into three generations of the Brangwen family, set in eighteenth century Nottinghamshire and culminating in the first decade of the twentieth, a period which saw rapid transformations of both intellectual and natural landscapes. Upon the threshold of this cultural shift stands Tom Brangwen and his foreigner wife, Lydia, with her daughter, Lena, from a previous marriage.  Take these few selections from their life:

“…with a slow insinuation of a kiss that made something break in his brain, and it was darkness over him for a few moments.”

“A darkness had come over Lydia’s mind. She walked always in a shadow, silenced, with a strange, deep terror having hold of her, her desire was to seek satisfaction in dread, to enter a nunnery, to satisfy the instincts of dread in her, through service of a dark religion. But she could not.”

“A darkness was on her, like remorse, or like a remembering of the dark, savage, mystic ride of dread, of death, of the shadow of revenge.”

“And when he looked at her, an overmuch reverence and fear of the unknown changed the nature of his desire into a sort of worship, holding her aloof from his physical desire, self thwarting.”

“When he came to, as if from sleep, he seemed to be sitting in a timeless stillness. What was he listening for? He seemed to be listening for some sound a long way off, from beyond life.”

The allusions to Genesis are redolent. And there is certainly something in these passages that give warrant to Chesterton’s chief complaint against Lawrence, namely: “He [Lawrence] confessed, in effect, that he could only worship Demeter from the neck downwards. He could only do it by setting the subconsciousness against consciousness, or in other words, the dreams against daylight.” Chesterton quite rightly thought that Lawrence too easily dismissed reason—what happens above the neck—and in particular the articulation of reason found in the great theological edifices of Christian thought.

Lawrence seemed to think that reason could only be the bastard son of a soulless mechanical philosophy, the madman of logic that Chesterton so brilliantly describes in the beginning of Orthodoxy, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” But the logician doesn’t have to be mad because, as Chesterton says, “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” But, then again, maybe Lawrence was so pessimistic because so much of what he saw in the daylight of the modern world was “ugliness,” an ugliness created by dull imaginations, by votaries of the mechanical philosophy.

Nevertheless, Chesterton thought there to be “something grand about D.H. Lawrence groping blindly in the dark,” even if “he was really in the dark, not only about the Will of God, but the will of D.H. Lawrence. He was ready to go anywhere; but did not really know where to go next.”

Indeed, Lawrence was truly grand. He was also the perfect picture of a man caught between two disparate worlds. Lawrence was heir, whether he liked it or not, to two rival experiences of consciousness and the world it perceives. To put it much too simply, Western civilization is caught in the crossfire of Saint Augustine and Friedrich Nietzsche; between Nietzsche’s Madman proclaiming the death of God and the erasing of the horizons of being, making way for the Übermensch—the deployment of a dark will to power behind every experience—and Augustine’s ever-present God, the God so intimate in our every experience of being and consciousness as to be nearer to ourselves than we our to ourselves, yet simultaneously infinitely and qualitatively beyond us, the hidden and manifest God.

The history of the West is the history of the disappearance and replacement of Augustine’s ever-present God who fills and transcends every experience with the formless void of Nothingness lurking behind every act of will, the night behind every day. The French novelist, Georges Bernanos, was right to say that “the modern world is but Christianity gone mad.” Modern consciousness feels hauntingly like Genesis retold, a beginning that does not begin with the transcendent God but with darkness, the formless void that must be grasped and shaped into whatever form our ominous wills descry.

The tension between these two worlds is played out in the lives of Lawrence’s characters. And it’s not always dark and formless and void behind their minds. After about a hundred pages into The Rainbow—which is a beautiful meditation on the enigma of ourselves to others and even to ourselves, and how love gets tangled up in its web—a sudden light breaks forth through all the darkness, it doesn’t solve the mystery we are, but rather casts a divine light upon the mystery. Violence gives way to peace. Nietzsche gives way to Augustine. It is quick and sudden like lightning, there and gone. But it is there. The divine for Lawrence is not an easy deus ex machina. His gods are dark, but his God is Light. Lawrence, like the rest of us, has a hard time distinguishing the two, but he does distinguish them. Take this moment when the violent tensions of Tom and Lydia’s marriage—a kind of local mimesis or picture of a cosmic drama, à la Adam and Eve—transform into the peace of communion, two becoming one:

“Everything was lost, and everything was found. The new world was discovered, it remained only to be explored. . . . [They] had passed through the doorway into the further space, where movement was so big, that it contained bonds and constraints and labours, and still complete liberty. She was a doorway to him, he to her. At last they had thrown open the doors, each to the other, and stood in the doorways facing each other, whilst light flooded out from behind to each of their faces, it was the transfiguration, the glorification, the admission.”

The formless void, darkness, is important for Lawrence. And rightly so; it is, after all, the place we spend most of our days. However, it is not large enough for the human soul. The soul demands something infinitely larger than the void. Playing in the void can only give limited freedom to its subjects; it is the bad infinite of an unconstrained will, the will of Nietzsche’s Madman. Lawrence may spend most of his time groping in the dark, but at least he recognizes a transfiguration when he sees one. This is what makes him, in the words of Chesterton, “grand.”

The Knights of Terrence Malick

With the help of their wings they could fly away to distant regions, blessed regions, where they really had their homes, for here they were but alien sojourners. -Soren Kierkegaard

The great temptation of loving much is that love may love love in the wrong way, becoming, tragically, its opposite, hate. Our love, as Augustine said, is our weight, it determines the movement of will and desire, determining the shape and substance of life. The ordo amoris, the order of love, is the business of the everyday, the sole task of living.

Yet love can succumb to disorder, fall prey to myriad delusions, entrenching the self in a war of deceptions, thrusting consciousness into an ethereal sea of lust masquerading as love. The most difficult endeavor in life, as Wittgenstein wrote (no doubt following Kierkegaard), is trying not to deceive oneself. All these thoughts sprung to mind as I viewed the trailer to Terrence Malick’s newest film Knight of Cups.

There is something quintessentially Kierkegaardian in the galaxy of meaning contained in the trailer. Of course this isn’t new for Malick. In his last two films— Tree of Life and To the Wonder—the presence of Kierkegaard can be at times quite explicit, featuring verbatim quotes. In Tree of Life we feel Kierkegaard’s meditations on the plight of Job (particularly in the sermon scene), and in To the Wonder he explores some of the central themes of Works of Love.

In Knight of Cups, at least from the smidgen I’ve gleaned, Malick seems to be drawing from Kierkegaard’s various knights, whether it is the happy knight of faith, the knight of infinite resignation, or the knight of resignation on pilgrimage to the true knight of faith. Thus, Knight of Cups looks like it could be a mixed metaphor, at least partially, for both Kierkegaard’s various types of knights and the riddles of the eponymous tarot card. I don’t intend to delve too deeply into Kierkegaard’s stages of knighthood—they are notoriously nuanced. But I do, however inchoately, want to point out a few scenes from the trailer that may (or may not) allude to the melancholy Dane’s knighthood.

The trailer begins with a man, Rick (played by Christian Bale), who has become lost to the world, a stranger to himself and others. An infinite, unsurpassable chasm has emerged between all relations. “All these years, living the life of someone I didn’t even know,” he says, perhaps recalling the prince’s words from the old Syrian Hymn of the Pearl:

Lone was I there, yea, all lonely;

To my fellow-lodgers a stranger.

Rick is alienated, in despair. To remedy the loss he must embark upon a search to regain the world and self he has lost, a journey fraught with deceptions. He pursues money, sex, power and fame: the cult of celebrity. But most importantly he seeks to regain reality—like one of Kierkegaard’s knights in Fear and Trembling—through the pursuit of a princess, a woman. But realizing that love in reality is different and more difficult and less “exciting” than love in ideality, he choses to leave the real woman behind, and similar to Kierkegaard’s knight of infinite resignation, he retreats into the realm of his own imaginative, self-inscribed idea of love. The knight of resignation becomes absorbed, obsessed, with the feeling of the experience of love. He resigns from actual love—with all its inherent, finite limitations and boundaries, not to mention duty—to dwell instead in ethereal and exciting castles of purely ideal and novel love. No longer is he susceptible to the actuality of the other, the beloved. The princess is sacrificed for an idea of love.

After the resignation into himself, away from the princess, he can only be with others under the condition that they, too, share the same desire for the fleeting experience of purely transitory love. The consequence is that no one is actually loving a real “other,” but only loving their own idea of love. A deep alienation from the world follows, a glimpse of hell, if you like; the “hell” which Dostoevsky describes as “the inability to love,” or Wittgenstein: “Hell is one’s self.” That is, the self becomes imprisoned within false expectations of love and reality, the expectations themselves are loved while the “other” disappears. A voice-over in the trailer says, “You don’t want love, you want to love experience.” This mirrors Kierkegaard’s knight of resignation who is “absorbed” in the experience of love but not the beloved herself. An obsession, which, as Kierkegaard’s Works of Love attest, often leads to the dilemma of lust: the double desire to devour and be rid of the beloved at once.

Yet like Kierkegaard’s knight, there’s a recognition, an awakening and awareness, in Rick’s consciousness that something is awry in how he loves. Something is missing. And this awareness is key to escaping despair. But how can you escape despair without sinking further into self-deception? This is the great quest of Kierkegaard’s knight of faith. “It takes no time at all to be deceived,” Kierkegaard writes in Works of Love, “one can be deceived immediately and remain so for a long time—but to become aware of the deception takes time. . . No earnest person, therefore, wearies of the tracking down of the illusions.” The genius of Malick’s films is that he never wearies of tracking down the illusions, and never succumbs to cheap cynicism or sentimentalism; in fact he achieves true Kierkegaardian repetition, the “place where ideality and reality meet” in actuality, the place where Abraham receives back Isaac, the lover back the beloved.

Repetition occurs for Kierkegaard when all that has been deemed lost in the irrecoverable sea of time is suddenly received back in light of the eternal. It is like the sensation of a “man sentenced to death who’s been granted a sudden and unexpected pardon,” as Dostoevsky put it in Crime and Punishment. Repetition, however, is more than a mere fleeting feeling, rather it is an intimation of the nature and promise of reality, a new way of being in the world. Repetition is the atonement, indeed resurrection, of the world. It is, as Kierkegaard writes, life being understood backwards in time but lived forwards into the eternal.

The way Malick uses image, music, poetry and voice—all the way down to the movement of the camera, the eye of light—is an audacious attempt to show what true repetition looks like in concrete life. And this is his story: regaining what has been lost and forgotten within the new key of divine Love. The beloved must be repeated in the Eternal (rather than left behind) if love, joy and peace are to be received in reality. Of course this is all speculation and could be completely off the mark, nothing but the Kierkegaardian projections of a Malick admirer. Nevertheless, I tend to think that if ever there was a Bach of film, he is certainly among us in Terrence Malick.

Look at Your Money

“The gospel, too, is carnival,” said the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. The carnival “was the victory of laughter over fear that most impressed medieval man,” and “[F]or the medieval parodist everything without exception was comic. Laughter was as universal as seriousness; it was directed at the whole world, at history, at societies, at ideology.” When I think of the poetry of Michael Robbins, I think of Bakhtin’s ideas of the carnival and carnivalesque. In his newest book of poetry, The Second Sex, Robbins continues the poetic festival commenced in Alien vs. Predator (a New York Times selection for Best Books of 2012). However, in The Second Sex the parodia sacra [sacred parody] is more explicit, lulling the reader into reverence by way of the irreverent, becoming, as one reviewer has described Robbins, like Graham Greene’s “whiskey priest” from The Power and the Glory.

Trevor Logan: Recently I’ve been reading snippets from a biography of Tolkien to my children. One recurrent theme is how strong Tolkien’s self-doubt was about publishing anything, in fact Tolkien admits his debt to C.S. Lewis not for influence but for Lewis’s “sheer encouragement”. (Dostoevsky, too, if I recall correctly, also wrestled with immense self-doubt.) Are there times when when you ask yourself, “What the hell am I doing? Is this complete bollocks?” If so, how do you work through it? And do you have someone who offers “sheer encouragement”?

Michael Robbins: Well, given Tolkien’s tendentiousness and stylistic infelicity, one wishes he’d doubted himself even more. But of course I doubt myself. Are there writers who don’t? None whose names we’ll ever know, I’d wager. As for encouragement, I’ve often mentioned the poet Anthony Madrid, who read and commented on every poem in my two books. But since I recently discovered that for over a year he has been surreptitiously inserting obscene playing cards into the books of my library whenever he’s been left alone in my living room, I must now denounce him as a skunk.

TL: Concerning The Second Sex, it seems to have the same capitalist-wasteland ambience as Alien vs Predator. Namely, the logic of modern consumer capital and marketing is god. But in The Second Sex the repercussions of serving mammon induce a deeper carnivalesque atmosphere. It is a Feast of Fools. The shadow of a carnival Christ stalks the contours of your poems, arousing a faint awareness of our current cultural amnesia precisely by clothing Christ with the garb of triviality and farce. The effect reminds me of Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty. A carnival of bourgeois intoxication and banality—numbing techno, martini drenched breasts fleshed in neon lights, a stripped woman ramming her head into stone as an art exhibition—will suddenly shift to medieval a cappella, or a nun chasing children amidst Rome’s gentle lemon trees and cloister gardens. Two architectures of consciousness and material culture are juxtaposed throughout the film with striking contrast. Your poetry, it seems to me, juxtaposes two architectures as well. On the surface, the theological architecture seems almost completely absent from The Second Sex, but read closely it resurrects through the back door of consciousness. Without this “back door”, so to speak, one could easily misjudge the poems as being merely exercises in random cleverness, poems to be read flippantly on the toilet but not to be taken seriously. Your thoughts?

MR: There is a lot to respond to here, including a movie review. Just to pick up a couple of threads: I would not use language like “consumer capital” or “serving mammon.” It’s capitalism tout court, not consumerism, that is God; marketing is merely a local deity. Of course the local brand deities appear in my poems, because I’m writing from within their domain. But it’s the exploitative logic of the production and reproduction process that is what Sinéad O’Connor would call the real enemy, and that logic survives any supposedly enlightened resistance to “material culture.” “Ethical consumerism” is for liberals.

That said, yes, I’ve become resigned to the lazy readings you refer to—a couple of reviews of the new book have focused on my “pastiche” and “mash-ups.” Please. I suspect, for instance, that anyone who could write a review of The Second Sex without even mentioning God didn’t actually read the book. I’m not Eliot, nor was meant to be—compared with him, I’m nothing, OK—but imagine thinking that all that matter in The Waste Land are the allusions and the Fisher King.

TL: Or maybe they did read the book, but are bereft of a meaningful grammar in which to make sense of the word “God”? Kierkegaard touches on this when he says that “…[W]e are willing to keep Christian terminology but privately know that nothing decisive is supposed to be meant by it.” Do you think this is part of the reason why there is no mention of God in these reviews?

MR: Yeah, that’s part of it. There’s probably a sense—available only to those who haven’t bothered to read my religious criticism, for instance my Commonweal review of David Bentley Hart—that what I mean by God can’t possibly be, you know, God. We all know that God is the province of people who think fossils are a satanic trick or whatever. But Deus non est in genere [God is not a particular instance within a class].

TL: Right. I’m pretty sure, for example, that Jerry Coyne thinks the existence of iPhones is definitive proof that God is a delusion. But Coyne is a waste of time. Let’s move on. Many poets throughout history have been quite conversant in philosophy, and you seem to be as well. Why do you think this is so often the case? And what philosophers do you read most?

MR: Coyne is the paragon of those in thrall to what Charles Taylor calls “closed spin.” Someone recently directed me to one of his several posts about me (I’ve stopped reading them, because they all get the same things wrong in the same way) in which he implies that Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the death of God is a counsel for gloom. Nietzsche, the yea-sayer, he of amor fati! I’m so grateful for Chapter 15 of Taylor’s A Secular Age, which demolishes the flip, uninformed, reductive canards of Coyne and his ilk. For an honest scientific take on these questions, on the other hand, I recommend Marcelo Gleiser’s The Island of Knowledge. But yes, let’s move on.

I don’t know that, historically, poets have been any more conversant with philosophy than have other writers, although there’s obviously a relationship that goes back to Plato. I don’t read philosophy because I’m a poet, but because I’m interested in thinking about hard questions and problems. I’m interested in having an “open take” rather than a “closed spin,” to revert to Taylor’s language. A Secular Age is certainly the work of philosophy I’ve returned to most of late, for all its faults (it should be at least a third shorter than it is, and Harvard University Press must have been too intimidated to suggest that Taylor refrain from idiosyncratic usage of commas and semi-colons). I return often to those who recognize that there are historical and cultural constraints on what it is possible for us to believe—“a background,” as Taylor says, “to our thinking, within whose terms it is carried on, but which is often largely unformulated, and to which we can frequently, just for this reason, imagine no alternative”: Marx and Freud, despite their unsophisticated views of religion (the result of just such a background, which no one’s thinking can entirely escape), and Heidegger and Lacan.

Such thinkers teach us that people like Coyne are not only mistaken that their beliefs are “obvious” and “rationally grounded” but literally incapable of imagining that they could be wrong about the nature of reality. They always demand “evidence” for God’s existence, but, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it in a discussion of Thomas Aquinas, “if we could have the kind of evidence of God the evidentialist desires, then we would have evidence that the God Christians worship does not exist.” It’s not simply that the evidentialist doesn’t grasp basic theology and epistemology, but that the notion that the concept of “evidence” is itself not neutral or ahistorical could never occur to him, given the picture that holds him captive. And of course I’m not denying that the language of evidence is proper to its sphere or that my own thinking (or anyone’s) is not subject to all sorts of constraints I don’t recognize. But even if we cannot attain to a view from nowhere, we can recognize that we cannot, which allows us to avoid, to some extent at least, the epistemic arrogance that characterizes scientism. I do not know that God is the creator of heaven and earth, or that Jesus Christ is his only son, our Lord.

TL: This morning, while dropping my kids off for school, R.E.M.’s Man on the Moon shuffled on the stereo. The line “here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peter’s, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. . .” conjured up an image of a recurrent thought: Why, in light of the nearly wholesale acceptance of the myth of inevitable progress, does our material culture not reflect the supposed superiority of modern man over those we often condescendingly call “medieval,” or whatever? What is to be said about the fact that instead of building beautiful monuments reflecting the magnificence of the human mind, say Saint Peter’s Basilica, we’ve opted for the scenery of petty pragmatic huts of capitalism—the internuncios of Wal-Mart—littering miles of highway? As Svetlana Geier says, in The Woman with the Five Elephants, upon returning to her home after decades and seeing the proliferation of billboards and hideous architecture taking over the landscape: “This is quite simply ugly. That wall doesn’t have to be like that. It is ridiculously ugly and nothing works.” Hence the epigraph to The Second Sex, taken from Allan Peterson’s Hydrology“Look at your money. No one is smiling”—is similar to saying, “Look at what your way of thinking has wrought. No one is smiling.” Indeed no one is smiling. And thus you end The Second Sex with these lines:

And I’d be more like them

if I were less like this,

a billion points of glitter

in a fathomless abyss.

There is a lot of laughter, jesting and fun in your poetry. But at the same time there is something serious simmering beneath its surface, one gets the feeling of “walking through the twilight or retracing some day in our past” and feeling “that we have lost some infinite thing,” as Jorge Luis Borges writes in Paradiso, XXXI, 108. Amidst “a billion points of glitter / in a fathomless abyss,” capitalism is proving itself deeply traitorous to the grandeur of the human imagination. Personally, I oscillate between hope and despair about the future; but what do you think? Is there a way out of the inferno, the abyss (as Dante would presume)?

MR: Trevor, R.E.M. is a satanic trick. And I think one has to be dialectical here: of course our material culture is not “superior,” but it does represent progress of a sort. I would not want to return to the world of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, published while St. Peter’s Basilica was under construction. I think penicillin might be worth a cathedral or two. And I’ve seen some beautiful truck stops. And yet modernity has indeed been unkind to infinite things, for believers and nonbelievers alike. Taylor speaks of a yearning for fulfillment that would have been unthinkable in previous ages. My own commitments to Christianity and communism are commitments to hope. Karl Barth says “the characteristic marks of Christianity [are] deprivation and hope.” But sometimes I think Kafka was right: “There is an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.”

 

David Foster Wallace: In His Own Words

David Foster Wallace was somehow able to crawl into the synapses of the American psyche. 

And, terrifyingly, he was able to write about it. No one of his generation was more able to blend tenderness of heart, and the deep moral preoccupations and confusions of a nation, with such impeccable prose and philosophical insight—and just plain, raw humanity—than Wallace. He was, perhaps, the closest thing America has come in the last half-century to their own Dostoevsky. And before his young death at 46, if his publications are to be faithful signs, he was only getting better: Backbone, All That and Good People just to name a few (this last story, which also appears in The Pale King, is a story only Wallace could pull off).

Alas, what we have of Wallace is what we have, and though his work is certainly more sparse than we’d like, gratitude is the only proper response. Something, at least in this case, is infinitely better than nothing. But fans will be happy to know that Little, Brown Publishers has recently put together an audiobook, David Foster Wallace: In His Own Words, featuring nearly 9 hours of interviews and readings that Wallace gave over the course of his career. There are, as is to be expected in the internet age, some (though not all) recordings which can be downloaded for free with a simple web search. Nevertheless, it is nice to have the formatting perks of a proper audiobook.

Two samples:

 

Roberto Bolaño: Never Kill a Child

“To be brave, knowing beforehand that youll be defeated, and to go out and fight: thats literature.” —Roberto Bolaño

Some years ago, while flipping through a British literary magazine, I did a double take at a visage that looked too much like my father’s. Have you ever lost someone whose image is so ingrained in your own mind that Mnemosyne, regardless of will and desire, is powerless to recall past time satisfyingly (being too near, that is, to ever gain the distance reflective memory requires), causing a kind of delirious self-doubt of self-and-other identity? Who were they? Who am I?

What I find happens in very rare moments is that a stranger, like a cosmic mirror or benign familial Platonic form, brings some obscure mannerism—glance of eye, facial contour or contortion, or, one could even say, spirit—of the lost one to the present and one simultaneously feels joy in the fragments of presence, sorrow in their absence (the phenomena, sadly, being only ever partial disclosures). Something like this happened as I flipped back to the photo of a worn and sick man in that literary magazine: it was a photograph of the great Latin American writer, Roberto Bolaño, with a cigarette wedged between thought and an index and middle finger, who seemed, at least in the first glimpse of the eye, to be my father.

The immediate intimacy the photo roused led me not initially to his fiction but to his interviews, which was probably a mistake: his thoughts, too, were strangely much like my father’s. Here are a couple excerpts from my favorite Bolaño interview given for Playboy Mexico with Monica Maristain:

MM: What is your motherland?

RB: I regret having to give a pretentious response. My children, Lautaro and Alexandra, are my only motherland. And perhaps, in the background, certain moments, certain streets, certain faces or scenes or books that are inside me and that some day I will forget—that is the best one can do for a motherland.

And:

MM: Whom would you like to encounter in the hereafter? 

RB: I don’t believe in the hereafter. Were it to exist, I’d be surprised. I’d enroll immediately in some course Pascal would be teaching.

Personally, I have a difficult time not admiring a writer who, despite his atheism, had a great love for the luminescent genius of mathematician and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal, placing the Pensées in his list of all-time favorite works. Take, for instance, this Pascal epigram from Bolaño’s Antwerp, which if ever there was a nutshell to contain the ambient feel of Bolaño’s works, this would be it:

“When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which precedes and will succeed it—memoria hospitis unius diei praetereuntis (remembrance of a guest who tarried but a day)—the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this place and time allotted to me?

“Who put me here? By whose command and act were this place and time allotted to me?” Is this not the question an author’s creations pose back to their author? Is this not the very definition of great fiction: a writer being rewritten by those he writes into existence? A great writer erases the commonly accepted contradiction between reality and fiction, and suspends readers above the abyss of their own consciousness, both individual and collective—she disorientates to re-orientate anew. Reality is fiction being written by an other both intimately ourselves and not. That is, reality is manifested not simply as an objective representation of an external fact, nor is it merely a subjective web casting itself over an impenetrable external world; rather reality arises when subjective awareness touches the world of experience and transforms it into the reality of fiction. Fiction is the dithyramb of reality in our consciousness, it happens both passively to us and is simultaneously created by us. “Metaphors,” a character from his book 2666 says, “are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming. In that sense a metaphor is like a life jacket.”

Bolaño’s characters are swallowed up in Pascal’s infinite spaces, both frightened and filled with wonder, searching to find the rhyme or reason they happen to be in this place rather than that place, learning to accept the chaos and pain from which they are conceived. Morini, in a Pascalian flourish from 2666:

“The pain, or the memory of pain, that here was literally sucked away by something nameless until only a void was left. The knowledge that this question was possible: pain that finally turns into emptiness. The knowledge that the same equation applied to everything, more or less.

Life, and the pain that weaves it: but the remembrance of a guest who tarried but a day. O fortuna! Her malfeasant respect for no one, her chaotic devotion to time and chance, convulsing misfortune upon us all, if not now and always, then, well, now and always. (The event of pain has a viral effect upon the past and future, a way of making it seem as if one has, and always will be, as Emily Dickinson said, in pain).

MM: What makes your jaw hurt laughing?

RB: The misfortunes of myself and others.

MM: What things make you cry?

RB: The same: the misfortunes of myself and others. 

Roberto Bolaño, most known for his two masterpieces, The Savage Detectives and 2666, received news at the age of 38 that he had an immune disorder that would quickly damage his liver beyond repair. He died on July 15, 2003, at the age of fifty, with his name in the two-spot for a liver transplant.

The last interview Bolaño ever gave was the one mentioned above in Playboy of July 2003 with Monica Maristain. Over a brief span of time, Maristain had struck up a friendship with Bolaño through correspondence and has recently published Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations, an interweaving of biographical narrative and numerous interviews with those who knew Bolaño in some fashion or another. One of the virtues of the book is that it very easily could have spawned hagiography, but it is more often tempered by interviews with those quite ambivalent about Bolaño, and even those who clearly loved Bolaño seem utterly honest with their memories and judgments of him. The result is a unique, mosaic biography of Bolaño: a man of contradictions, both farouche and loving.

One thing about Bolaño to which nearly everyone attested was his desire to push the novel into unprecedented directions. In the aftermath of his fame it’s easy to forget the pains that accompany anyone striving to do something great. They are generally laughed at and ridiculed for attempting something not easily fitted into the criteria of establishment critics. Whenever one breaks molds, Bolanõ noted in Playboy, one often breaks power structures as well:

“Those who have power—even for a short time—know nothing about literature; they are solely interested in power. I can be a clown to my readers, if I damn well please, but never to the powerful. It sounds a bit melodramatic. It sounds like the statement of an honest whore. But in short, that’s how it is.

Bolaño was willing to risk being a “wild writer” (too much energy and too many allusions, “all at constant peak,” as one critic said) if it meant he didn’t have to play “scribbler’s” games. “Scribblers,” as Felipe Rios Baeza, a professor at the Universidad de Puebla, describes:

“…any reader with a passing knowledge of Roberto Bolaño’s work can see a fundamental aspect of it: his great ethical and aesthetic sense of the office of writing. Ethical because on several occasions he said that any contact with political and economic power makes an apprentice writer a courtesan. Aesthetic, because he argued that legibility—the books you take to the beach, books that are easy to understand and have no critical or artistic depth—was something that helped to finance publishers but offered little critical meaning to readers…In summary, readability and prostitution produce hacks, simple receptacles for conventional techniques and subjects with which publishers attract mass readerships …[A] scribbler is someone who doesn’t take aesthetic risks, they repeat well-worn tropes… (Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations)

Such a comment may cause many to condemn Bolaño as an elitist. And here is the great paradox of our age: writers like Bolaño who don’t occupy the higher economic echelons of the culturati are generally possessed with—out of a certain kind of necessity—a stubborn and rigorous originality that is confused with elitism. (Historically, elitists have always expressed suspicion of genius arising from the lower, less formally educated classes. Take the suspicion of Shakespeare, as a general example.) Bolaño, though not deadbeat poor, certainly wasn’t afforded anything resembling the luxury of bourgeois social connections and capital; he simply wasn’t a member of the writerly class for whom success was a guarantee for the mere negative quality of being a not-bad writer. (Walk into most bookstores and you’ll find that many of the books published are by writers who are merely not bad. Their success is due to the elite social and economic class they happen to belong to.) Bolaño had to be great, there was no other way to survive as a writer. As a natural consequence Bolaño was laughed at and mocked for trying to be original. The elite didn’t understand him; he was too strange and not immediately categorizable. Adam Kirsch, describing Bolaño’s 2666, touches nicely upon this quality of Bolaño’s work:

“According to Proust, one proof that we are reading a major new writer is that his writing immediately strikes us as ugly. Only minor writers write beautifully, since they simply reflect back to us our preconceived notion of what beauty is; we have no problem understanding what they are up to, since we have seen it many times before. When a writer is truly original, his failure to be conventionally beautiful makes us see him, initially, as shapeless, awkward, or perverse. Only once we have learned how to read him do we realize that this ugliness is really a new, totally unexpected kind of beauty and that what seemed wrong in his writing is exactly what makes him great.

One inescapable and admirable fact revealed in Maristain’s book is Bolaño’s unequivocal love for children. For all the blood, sex, sweat, wickedness and violence redolent in Bolaño’s work, there is one deadly sin he refused to commit: killing off children.”The only thing that Roberto ever wanted to know about an unpublished book,” one friend says, “was whether a child died in it or not. He used to say that a writer should never kill a child in their book.” I credit this characteristic to some adamantine tenderness and love at the very heart of Bolaño, a quality that underlies everything in his work. Everything else is an accident (in the philosophical sense of not being its essence).

A central characteristic of Bolaño’s wisdom is to know the right people to chafe and the right people to love. Many great authors screw this up: they piss off those they ought to love and love those they ought to piss off. How many writers spent or spend their entire lives neglecting their children to gain the wily fleeting accolades of critics? As a father with two sons, and a son of a father who drank himself to death at a cruel 46 years, Bolaño sums up my fatherly soul:

“[O]ne could talk for hours about the relationship between a father and a son. The only clear thing is that a father has to be willing to be spat upon by his son as many times as the son wishes to do it. Even still the father will not have paid a tenth of what he owes because the son never asked to be born. If you brought him into this world, the least you can do is put up with whatever insult he wants to offer.

Bolaño, along with his fictional world, knew of only one great truth: Love conquers a multitude of sins. And it sufficed for his greatness.

MM: Have you ever believed you were going crazy? 

RB: Of course, but I was always saved by my sense of humor. I’d tell myself stories that made me crazy with laughter. Or I’d remember situations that made me roll on the ground laughing.

MM: Madness, death and love. Which of these three things have you had more of in your life?

RB: I hope with all of my heart that it was love. (Playboy)

 

Additional Links:

http://www.mhpbooks.com/books/bolano/

http://www.mhpbooks.com/books/roberto-bolao-the-last-interview/

Visit the site Wednesday for Layne Hilyer’s reflection’s on the works of Roberto Bolaño as well.

 

David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God

“What is in your mind?”~ C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

On some ancient and melancholy eve in Athens, as the pomegranate sun began its ritual descent into the briny old sea of Mediterranean myth, a frail but strong wiry figure, bearing deep fault-lines upon his leathered forehead, climbed the steps of the Areios Pagus, Ares Rock. Here, in that tangerine ambience so peculiar to our star’s golden hour—that brief portent before twilight—he walked among altars to manifold gods when, with subtle pause and twinkling glance, his eye descried an altar engraved: “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” At the time no soul upon that lonely hill, the same hill Phryne’s beauty once outshone the world’s judgement, recognized the figure’s face. He was a mere shadow of a man, a shadow of things yet to come. Hence, initially, he made very little sense to his confused conversants. In hindsight, however, his unusually oracular words upon the rock of war have proven perhaps the most brilliant and influential articulation on the difference between God and the gods in all of history. The man was St. Paul.

Notice that Paul (see Acts 17) calls this unknown God of the philosophers neither idolatrous nor false. In fact, it is only the “known”gods, the purely immanent and finite deities, that Paul claims idolatrous to worship. The unknown God is true in the sense that it cannot be conceived merely as another finite god among gods; it cannot, in other words, be parsed out among the taxonomy of merely finite things nor circumscribed before the gaze of consciousness as either a subjective or objective reality. Rather the unknown God is the pure actuality of reality itself, neither a subjective nor objective phenomena but the very condition of their distinction.

Thus there is no “knowledge,” in the very narrow and modern sense of the word, of the unknown God. And neither does this God have existence in either the ideal or empirical sense of modern philosophy; that is, God is neither a regulatory hypothesis nor an empirical fact, a thing among things. Instead, this God is knowledge and existence itself, that which all finite knowledge and becoming lives and moves and has its being in. As Augustine put it in the Confessions: God is nearer and more intimate to myself than I am to myself while also infinitely beyond and qualitatively other than me. Hence the unknown God is unknown not only because God is qualitatively and absolutely transcendent of all finitude, but unknown precisely because God is so very near and intimately known in our every act of being and our consciousness of it—preventing us from bracketing it out of our experience, since it is the very possibility for experience and knowledge. It is too known to be known.

Indeed, the unknown God that Paul proclaims is known so well that we have all forgotten his most penetrating activity in all our experience. This characteristic—God’s infinite, unknowable mystery, and his infinite nearness to our each and every breath—accounts for both the feeling of his utter absence in one moment and his ever-present nearness in another. It is this double experience of God-forsakeness and presence that, according to Paul, opens the interval of creaturely freedom and divine providence so that we may freely seek the Lord, feel after him, and find him. Whether in dereliction or despair, or in the ecstasy and presence of his love—in either our atheism or in our faith—we inevitably, necessarily, experience the unknown God.

Philosophical introduction aside, Paul knew that any future articulation of Christ to the world would ultimately prove futile if first he did not speak of the unknown God. For Christ is the image and logic of the perfect harmony between infinite transcendence and infinite nearness, so unknown as to be fully God and so deeply known as to be the very face of our neighbor, the poor, the prostituted. Christ awakens the slumbering, unknown divine presence and spirit that sleeps in each man, each woman—as Terrence Malick so beautifully put it in To the Wonder. Christ, in other words, is the concrete experience of God in each and every act of humanity’s being, consciousness, and bliss. As Christian Wiman’s beautiful Into the Instants Bliss goes (a loose translation of a portion of Dante’s Paradiso):

Into the instant’s bliss never came one soul
Whose soul was not possessed by Christ,
Even in the eons Christ was not.

And still: some who cry the name of Christ
Live more remote from love
Than some who cry to the void they cannot name.

While David Bentley Hart’s newest book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, is not to be taken as an explicit work of Christology, it is a robust and stylistically scintillating footnote to St. Paul on the Areopagus; a paean to “the void they cannot name”, the experience of God that is—to borrow from Hopkin’s As Kingfishers Catch Fire“Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.” Hart writes,

“Evidence for or against God, if it is there, saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.

Throughout the book Hart weaves in and out of the concepts of God articulated in the major religions of the world, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. All of these traditions, Hart maintains, have an altar to the unknown God. Unfortunately, at least if one pays attention to the modern debates among fundamentalists of various stripes (including the new atheists), the traditional concept of God has been nearly forgotten. The result has been a circus of seemingly willful misunderstandings by all parties. All the while the really significant question of God is completely evaded by puerile caricatures of a subject that ought to demand our deepest reflections.

Much of the reason moderns can no longer take the question of God seriously is that we can no longer take the question of ourselves seriously.

Much of the reason moderns can no longer take the question of God seriously is that we can no longer take the question of ourselves seriously. Materialism’s arbitrary mantra of “just matter” blinds us to those strange epiphanies felt at the simple glimpse of our reflection in a mirror. Those moments when we realize that fairies and gods and monsters are no more difficult to believe in than the imaginations and consciousnesses that have invented them; the same imaginations, by the way, that have invented the mythology and criteria of what we consider to be “just matter.” Perhaps at times we even create these fabulously imaginary creatures—such as Materialists or Atheists—to evade the mystery of the most fabulous and imaginary creatures of all: ourselves. Or perhaps the greater truth is that we create, and are created by, mysterious mythologies as ways to remember the most splendorous mystery of all: the drama of human experience. The mirroring of being to consciousness and consciousness to being, the pas de deux of all human experience, is no longer intimately aware of its own abiding unities, abysses and mysteries. It is the contemporary oubliettes of being and consciousness, both guarded and imprisoned by the watchful dragons of a banal materialism, that Hart seeks to lead us beyond.

In those moments when we are most attuned and awake to the world, we become (as Wittgenstein liked to say) like the child who scribbles on a page with a pencil and turns to an adult and asks: What does this mean? The child intuitively presupposes the unity of being and consciousness. The child understands that all acts of consciousness are acts of intention in an infinite ocean of both actual and potential meaning. The scribbles and words are certainly not the same, but the child rightly sees the world as having a meaning to disclose; that even if aspects of the world may seem unintelligible, such a verdict can be reached only by assuming a more primordial backdrop of intelligibility manifest in the native ligature of being and consciousness.

The world, in its being perceived as a coherent world at all, is always and already intelligible and pregnant with a telos—even if that telos escapes one’s determinate knowledge of it.

The world, in its being perceived as a coherent world at all, is always and already intelligible and pregnant with a telos—even if that telos escapes one’s determinate knowledge of it. And so the child, when she looks at the world, assumes that she also sees with a world. Hart asks us: What is the nature of the world we see with? And does this world dance upon the threshold of time and eternity, opening upon horizons unfathomably infinite and blossoming within labyrinths of our everyday experience? The modern adult, intoxicated with the alchemy of turning signs into blind objects for manipulation, has forsaken the child’s ontology of art and replaced it with the banal egoisms of epistemological constructivism, relativism, and materialism. Thus Hart writes:

“I start from the conviction that many of the most important things we know are things we know before we can speak them; indeed, we know them—though with very little in the way of concepts to make them intelligible to us—even as children, and see them with the greatest immediacy when we look at them with the eyes of innocence.”

There are, Hart seems to say, harmonious penetralia structuring our conscious experience, myriad thresholds where familiar forms of both the material and psychical relations of our world cease to hold (as George MacDonald’s Lilith put it), forms shifting and turning inside-out our normal criteria of inside and out, giving glimpses into the infinite penumbra that is neither strictly material nor psychical but the conditional interval making possible consciousness’s distinction between the two at all. These conditions, however, cannot be known in and by themselves, they are like a face that never looks into a mirror, is never able to gain the distance detached observation requires. Regardless of how hard one tries to create that distance through self-conscious reflection, one is always departing from that same unknown abyss—the window of experience that can only look out but never in. And so we are tempted to disbelieve the face exists because we can never rip out our eyes and look upon it as a scientific object; or maybe we are simply frightened that behind the veiled abyss our consciousness departs from rests a Face not wholly our own. A Face untamable.

It may seem as if I’m painting Hart as what has traditionally been termed a philosophical idealist. But this would be far too easy and naive a label. For example, Jane Smiley, in her review of Hart’s book in Harpers, seems to interpret Hart as pitting matter against consciousness, accusing Hart of playing the God-of-the-gaps card in light of neuroscience’s current inability to explain consciousness:

“He [Hart] seems to believe consciousness is his ace in the hole—unexplainable by neuroscience. Subjectivity, he states, ‘cannot be denied without a swift descent into nonsense.’ I was reminded repeatedly of Werner Loewenstein’s Physics of the Mind, a persuasive model of how consciousness might have evolved in the quantum universe and a powerful argument against Hart’s assertion that ‘materialists’ cannot explain what he calls ‘subjective awareness.’

Dishearteningly, this isn’t the only hackneyed misapprehension Smiley peddles; nearly the entire review is an experiment in missing the point, a smorgasbord of confused concepts and inattention to subtleties and distinctions. The problem arises from the apparent fact that Smiley is a member of a certain community where doctrinal commitment to only one modality of causality—namely material—is a central and inflexible dogmatic article of faith; and therefore she can only conceive of one kind of explanation: the material. Once this article of faith has been accepted as the only criteria needed for explanation, and once material explanation has been presumed to be the only explanation required to fulfill the concept of explanation, well then, one has essentially a materialism-of-the-gaps: all evidence—subjective or objective—will be cleverly formed to fit within the structure of the reigning ideology.

Over a period of time this way of seeing things solidifies into an obstinate fossil and one becomes incapable of imagining the world otherwise. Its effect is akin to the fate of the concept of color should ever some calamitous biological mutation occur which entirely wiped out the human specie’s visual capabilities to recognize color, becoming capable of seeing only in black and white from here on out. As the generations waned, fierce debate would spawn about the legitimacy of those naive and mystical and irrational ancients who invented colors like they invented fairy tales and the supernatural.

Perhaps it’s even fair to say that Richard Dawkins would heroically step to the fore in such a world and write The Blue Delusion in response to William Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Enquiry. And the “blue” in Shakespeare’s “The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight. Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh…” would be interpreted as some kind of outdated and unscientific and supernatural imputation on light. And whenever some poor irrational soul hinted at an experience of what he or she calls “blue,” or any other mysterious name for “color,” society would hiss and howl with charges of insanity. And then, in the twilight of a rational world, belief in color would be deemed culturally malign—a virus of the mind—a dangerous and inarticulate idea. Perusals of ancient literature would divulge myriad combinations of “red” with “bloody” and “blue” with “melancholy”, which would lead the a-colorists to the belief that “red” and “blue” cause violence and oppressive sadness. The analogy I’m trying to make, however imperfect, is that other modes of causality—such as Aristotle’s—have by no means been disproven by modern science, rather they’ve simply been forgotten, and, therefore, lost and foreign to our current conceptual grammar of experience.

Hart’s arguments and aperçu throughout his book are very much akin to Wittgenstein’s comment in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that “even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.”

Hart’s arguments and aperçu throughout his book are very much akin to Wittgenstein’s comment in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that“even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.” That is, just because some phenomena, such as subjective awareness, can be shown to be causally dependent in one mode and conception of causality—namely material—doesn’t logically entail that it is dependent in all other possible modes of causality as well. Unless one merely assumes, contrary to all experience, that there is only one mode of causality in the world. For example, Bach’s Goldberg Variations are certainly dependent upon the physics of sound and space and so on…but explaining the physics explains absolutely nothing about the intentionality—the subjective awareness itself—that actually created this masterpiece. And this is not because intentionality is any less real than the decidedly material, but perhaps because it is the very fulcrum our experience rests upon. This is why the age old skeptical question, “Can our minds know reality?,” is a kind of bewitchment. The question always and already assumes the affirmative. We simply assume that we would know what reality should and would look like if we so happened to stumble upon it, if we didn’t assume intentionality’s natural comportment to reality the question would be utterly meaningless.

The category and criteria of the real must be just as real as that which is said to fall within the criteria’s domain; and the seat of these criteria—its origin in our experience of existence—is in intentionality, the directedness of subjective awareness. Our subjective awareness itself can never merely be an object open for scientific investigation, rather it is the condition for our being able to investigate anything at all, scientific or otherwise. Let me purloin from Wittgenstein (if only to show that Hart is in a long line of great thinkers) again to illuminate the nature of intentional consciousness that Hart explores.

“Why can’t you be certain that someone is not pretending? — ‘because one cannot look into him.’— But if you could, what would you see there? —‘his secret thoughts.’ — But if he only utters them in Chinese — where do you look then? — ‘But I cannot be certain that he is uttering them truthfully!’ — But where do you have to look to find out whether he is uttering them truthfully? Even if I were now to hear everything that he is saying to himself, I would know as little what his words were referring to as if I read one sentence in the middle of a story. Even if I knew everything now going on within him, I still wouldn’t know, for example, to whom the names and images in his thought related…It’s only in particular cases that the inner is hidden from me, and in those cases it is not hidden because it is inner.”

Smiley seems to think that what Hart means by consciousness—his “ace in the hole”—is merely “inner”, and therefore hidden, in the sense of being tentatively resistant to scientific explanation because, like some mysterious subatomic particle, science has yet to gain access into its hidden and inner material depths. She doesn’t understand that consciousness’s intentionality is not hidden merely because it is inner in some spatio-temporal sense, but qualitatively different and hidden from anything science could ever possibly hope to explain.

The germination of our entire experience of existence arises from the soil of human intentionality, the soil wherein reality is primordially given, recollected and transformed. Hart is not far here from articulating what is meant in Soren Kierkegaaard’s metaphysics by “repetition”: “When ideality and reality touch each other, then repetition occurs.” Instead of the terms “ideality” and “reality” (which are somewhat misleading) Hart uses “consciousness” and “being.” Being is manifested through its repetition in consciousness, consciousness manifested through its repetition in being; the double movement of each into the other constitutes the event of their unity, the movement of intentionally.

Hart eloquently writes that,

“Being is transparent to mind; mind transparent to being; each is ‘fitted’ to the other, open to the other, at once containing and contained by the other. Each the mysterious glass in which the other shines, revealed not in itself but only in reflecting and being reflected by the other.”

All that Hart is saying is that when the major religions talk about the experience of God they mean something like the experience of the Real mentioned above, a necessary attunement to the very condition and possibility of any experience of existence at all. As the great Italian writer, Roberto Calasso, said in a Paris Review interview: “…we partake of something, which is the divine. The divine is that mysterious thing that you can totally ignore or that can more or less lead your life—what Plato called auto to theion. The gods come afterward.”

Years later, after stepping forth from the philosopher’s hill, Paul, with weary eyes and starved body, languishing in a Roman prison, wrote affectionately to his friends in Ephesus: “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” Prefacing each of the three parts of Hart’s book is the on-going story of a slumberer caught in the serpentine interims between sleeping and waking, illusion and reality. Its quality is Jorge Luis Borges meets St. Paul. At the moment, I’m at a loss for the right words to do it justice, so I’m going to pawn the task off to an old friend that Hart has written about elsewhere, Johann Georg Hamann (see Hart’s wonderful little essay The Laughter of the Philosophers):

“A man who lives in God stands, therefore, in the same relation to the ‘natural man’ as a waking man does to one who is snoring in a profound slumber—to a dreamer, a sleep walker…. A dreamer may have images more vivid than a man who is awake, may see more, hear and think more than he, may be conscious of himself, dream with more orderliness than a waking man thinks, may be the creator of new objects, of great events. Everything is true for him, and yet everything an illusion…. The question is whether it might in any way be possible for a waking man to convince a sleeper (so long as he sleeps) of the fact that he is asleep. No—even if God Himself would speak to him, He is obliged to dispatch in advance the authoritative word and bring it to pass: Awake, thou that sleepest!”

Between the sleeper and the awake, illusion and reality, — the interval that determines and differentiates one state of consciousness from another — lay the threshold of will and desire, the soul’s horizon: the place from which we chose the direction of our experience within experience, the route and root of our intentionality. Will we attend only to the oneiric objects of a fettered consciousness, the solitary prison of an illusory trick-of-the-light ego, the votary of the dreamy and dreary gods of materialism? Or should we attend to attending itself (with its infinite manifolds of act and potency), swim consciousness’s undercurrents, open and curious and honest to whatever may be discovered there, even if the nature of that discovery should happen to descry the surprise that in and beyond every act of our discovering we have always and already been discovered in the infinite, resounding song: “Awake, thou that sleepest”?

 

Featured image: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Phryne revealed before the Areopagus (1861)

Christ the Whore

 

“What the hell am I thinking about?”—Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment 

I’ve been reading through Oliver Ready’s new translation of Dostoyevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment. Usually I’m a bit skeptical of the marketing campaigns accompanying new translations, which are often “new” only in the sense of piquing our constant infatuation with novelty rather than “new” in any actual quality of the translation. But Ready’s work is of substantial and superb quality, especially when it comes to capturing Dostoevsky’s shrewd metaphors for the structure of human consciousness: its dark, coffin-shaped garrets, its many rooms and streets and thresholds, each holding out different avenues and possibilities for action, often contradictory in nature. Take Ready’s rendition of the book’s first sentence: “In early July, in exceptional heat, towards evening, a young man left the garret he was renting in S——-y lane, stepped outside, and slowly, as if in two minds, set off towards K——-n Bridge.” Compare Ready’s “as if in two minds” with Peaver and Volokhonsky’s “as if indecisively”; or Constance Garnett’s “as though in hesitation”. Ready’s version portrays more viscerally and vividly the contradictory nature of Raskolnikov’s consciousness. A man lives and moves not in one unified mind experiencing hesitation and indecision, but rather in two contradictory and warring minds. With this simple subtlety Ready evokes the crux of Crime and Punishment with more power than the previous translators have, maintaining this quality throughout the novel with an enviably raw economy of prose.

I could go on tediously comparing and contrasting, but I won’t. And a traditional didactic review of the story makes little sense for a novel so old and widely read. Instead I’ll offer a reflection, a brief Dostoevskian pensee.

I was struck, frightened, by Raskolnikov’s serpentine movements of thought, how two contrary movements collide head-on at unnerving speed from two equally mysterious abysses of unknown motives, his world defined by the cocktail of their collision. How prescient this young man is for us today, how deeply he resides in my very own heart. He bears the despair and claustrophobia and bewilderment of being unable to act meaningfully in the world, due in part to the perpetual anxiety caused by destitution and loneliness and loss of faith. It is chilling to think of the desperate acts we’ll succumb to for the faintest succor when all social and metaphysical reservoirs for virtuous action have been drained away, leaving only desperate assays of proof we can still act at all. We must prove to the “system” that oppresses us that we are free human beings—even if that proof manifests itself in the bare minimum of human intentionality—as opposed to merely cogs in the mechanistic mammon machine of capitalism.

How these desperate acts to validate our existence play out in our societies are myriad: drugs, prostitution, theft, violence and so on. The quixotic display of “will to power” or the slow suicides of drug and alcohol and sexual abuse. In Crime and Punishment, Marmelodov drinks life away, while Sonya gets a “yellow ticket” (a license for prostitution in 20th century Russia) to support her family. Raskolnikov choses the wily will to power to prove he can act, affect reality, by murder. Raskolnikov proves he is alive through the power to take life away: Will I really—I mean, really—actually take an axe, start bashing her on the head, smash her skull to pieces? Will I really slip in sticky, warm blood, force the lock, steal, tremble, hide, all soaked in blood…axe in hand? Lord, will I really? The desperate act of murder is for Raskolnikov the only way to partake in the real — hence the repetition of “really”.

But, of course, the psychological genius of Dostoyevsky is that murder only plunges Raskolnikov further into the realm of unreality and illusion to the point where he seems (very much like Kit in Terrence Malick’s masterful Badlands) as if he never acted out the murder to begin with, as if now there were no longer even such mysterious things as people to murder in the first place: “Oblivion had come over him”.

Contrary to Raskolnikov’s violence, with its consequence of solipsistic unreality, is the faith and self-emptying humility of the prostitute Sonya Semyonovna—a name derived from Sophia, which means, fittingly and significantly, Divine Wisdom—that brings him to the really Real of the divine and human Christ. As philosopher David Bentley Hart (ventriloquizing Charles Baudelaire) put it:

“…when social order is the regime of mechanism, of bodies without souls, of the market, of materialist prudence—when this is decency, is respectability—then transgression becomes a necessary piety. And, in such a world, it is the prostitute—the rejected and reviled, the suffering servant of an age that knows no sin and seeks no expiation—who corrupts the logic of acquisition and consumption with the subversive possibility of a tenderness that exceeds the price remitted; thereby she becomes the emblem of the holy, the sign of love’s patient vulnerability. How often I was considered most blasphemous when, in truth, I could scarcely have been more devout…But you must see that God himself is the most prostituted of us all, since he is the highest friend of all, the most shared in common, the inexhaustible reservoir of love. Here, where all is sold and nothing given, love can find us only by the supreme condescension of selling itself, of divesting itself of its glory and descending into the brothels of our hearts, where all our loves are purchased loves, thus taking us unawares precisely where our lust reigns supreme. Christ kept company with harlots out of the abundance of his compassion, yes, but also perhaps because he found them holier—more blameless—than the righteous. And was not the dereliction of the cross like the self-abnegation of a lupanar? Was it not there that God gave himself—sold himself cheaply—to those who could not hope to win his love, requiring nothing in return but the paltriest pittance of their faith?”

These themes permeate much of Dostoevsky’s work, but they find their most potent expression in Crime and Punishments Sonya, who is, perhaps, the strongest Christ-like figure in Dostoevsky’s oeuvre.

But of course Dostoevsky is elaborating upon a long Christian tradition. Whether it be the harlot Rahab honored for her faith, or Hosea’s love and union with the whore Gomer, or Christ’s tenderness with the women caught in adultery, there is a deep reckoning with the perennial human desire to give oneself up completely to something that promises, however misguided, to bring comfort to a life filled with sorrow. Christianity recognizes the search to be saved as a fundamental virtue, regardless if at the moment it involves sin, simply because it involves a fundamental religious sensibility that one’s existence is not wholly self-sufficient but in need of some unmerited gift or grace.

It was this whoring essence of Christianity that Nietzsche, Dostoevsky’s malignant double, despised. Its obsession with the poor and oppressed, ‘the least of these’, instead of the greatest, the strong Greek hero. Its ridiculous rejection of fate, Nietzsche’s amor fati, for the virtue of hope. Its licentious forgiveness of all and everything, the perverse maxim that love covers a multitude of sins… But most monstrous of all Christianity’s transgressions against everything great in man is its abhorrent doctrine of the incarnation, the fully God and fully man Jesus.

Nietzsche’s revulsion has little to do with the idea of God become man. (This is, after all, basically what Nietzsche’s Übermensch, along with the modern secular humanist, is trying to fabricate.) Rather it was who it was that Christianity claimed to be God that earned his repugnance. Namely, a poor and weak Jewish outcast: God come in the form of a slave, dying a criminal’s death, carouser with whores and drunkards. (Dostoevsky wrestles with this doctrine for his whole life, both as a skeptic and believer; it is also the cause behind his later infatuation with Holbein’s painting, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, which inspired both intense doubt and awe.) In a world that worships money and power and fame, it is very difficult to take serious a doctrine that identifies God himself not with society’s affluent, but as a poor, wandering, homeless lamb; a “man of sorrows”, despised and fattened for the slaughter-house power structures of each and every age.

1280px-The_Body_of_the_Dead_Christ_in_the_Tomb,_and_a_detail,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger

That the most powerful Being beyond all beings—God, the Creator of all—found his image most perfectly expressed in the form of a slave, the weakest in society, is already hard enough to accept; but the doctrine that the rejection of the poor and the hungry and imprisoned in our midst is akin to rejecting God, one’s very Maker himself? Why is it that when Christ speaks of hell, the context is a rich man who neglected the weak, a rich man who made hell on earth for the poor? “What is hell?”, Dostoevsky writes in the Brothers Karamazov, “I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”

How could such an idea ever appeal to a world enthralled with the idea of the divinity of Mammon? Thankfully, Dostoevsky thought otherwise. And what a pleasure it is to see Oliver Ready’s new translation bring renewed power to one of the world’s greatest works of fiction.

Floating Aronofsky’s Noah

“Myth is the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley; in had valle abstractionis.”
—C.S. Lewis

How does one picture the pathos of humanity, of creation, of the line between good and evil that runs through the heart of all, of the twilight confusion between the god we create and the Creator who made all; between idolatry and true worship; between being forsaken and being redeemed: the span of human experience in the figure of an ark afloat on the chaos and wickedness and fear of a world we did not create but nevertheless find ourselves in without our permission, knowing enough light to see and enough dark to be blinded? Truth happens in the tension, when the familiar, mythological milieu folds over itself and opens something new upon the expanse of human consciousness, like a new wave upon an ancient sea. These thoughts came about while watching Darren Aronofsky’s controversial film Noah.

The film is remarkably unbiblical. And hence remarkably biblical. For if there is one thing the bible is not, it is biblical, at least in the senses we tend to force upon it, like those who would turn it into a manual for family values or sentimental moralism. Of course the practice of retelling biblical stories has a long and often venerable literary tradition. (At times, for example, watching Noah felt like watching a cinematic expression of D.H. Lawrence’s chapter from Women in Love, “An Island” — which is about creation and humanity’s place within it. The argument between Birken and Ursula is nearly the same as that between Noah and his wife. Read this chapter if you want a synopsis of a central theme in Noah.) In fact, one can hardly understand much of great literature without knowledge of the actual biblical text. The brilliance of this tradition lies in disabusing ourselves from what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” the myth that our present time is de facto more enlightened than previous generations, as if time magically made us smarter and better people. More often than not, we repeat the same barbaric atrocities and errors we accuse the ancients of, all the while conveniently forgetting that only the wispy speed of time separates our age from being just as ancient as well. But instead of the fantastic and imaginative mythologies of ages past, we cleverly cloak our errors with séances and myths about “scientific” progress and enlightenment. So, I suppose, many will watch Noah and think about how barbaric the story is, while some will be chilled by the blatant similarities with our own barbaric times: our penchant for destroying creation, the worship of the will to power and violence, our constant fashioning of idols (Mammon, anyone?).

The spirit of the Bible, its central themes, are remarkably prescient and just as ethically complicated and shrewd and subtle as, say, the novels of Dostoevsky; we must not be fooled by their ancient mythological clothing. Nor should we be so quick to assume the philistine fundamentalism of religion and atheism. Both of these camps have remarkably naive readers, thinking mythology and fiction as synonyms for lies. But is not history more complicated than the idolatrous praise of brute literalism both these camps, ironically, engage in? Is it even possible to speak of a brute, uninterpreted historical event? If The Brothers Karamazov were not historical in one sense, then why do I have it on my bookshelf? How was I able to read it? And, really, is there anything more historical than human consciousness and its productions? The very idea of the “historical” is a far cry from a brute historical event; in fact, the “historical” is an imaginative criterion and category invented by human consciousness. What we think about — what we intend — is the most primal historical event of all. History, then, is not synonymous with the truth; rather truth resides in the crepuscular wrestlings with the meanings of history, the meaning of human experiences as they unfold in time.

All I’m saying here is that there are levels and modes, often labyrinthine in nature, to what should be called the “historical” — all arising from the same book of human consciousness, albeit different pages. And in this sense the biblical myths, and Aronofsky’s retelling, are both historical, even if not falling within the reductionistically — and often banal — literal aspects of history. The question lies not in whether Noah built an ark at such and such a time and place but whether what the story is saying about humanity is true or not: are the aspects of the characters on the ark semblances of what reside in all of us in all times and spaces, in contradictory simultaneity? To dismiss it offhand would be like dismissing everything in Melville’s Moby Dick because it didn’t “really” happen. To the contrary, Moby Dick is too historical because its themes are played out in the daily historical experiences of humanity across the world. We have divine poetry and divine history in the Bible; shall we not, as C.S. Lewis wrote, also have divine fiction? (Lewis, in his brilliant essay Is Theology Poetry?, took Noah’s Ark to be “legendary, even mythological.”) Is it not the fictional and most mythological language of the Bible that proves the most perennial of all? Why do most of us love novels over the plain telling of dates and times? Dates and times are irretrievable, unable to be repeated, whereas myths tell universal truths in the visceral language of the imagination, both bounded by and free of particular spaces and times, like consciousness itself.

What I admired most about the film is that watching it actually evoked in me the same tensions as when I read many Old Testament stories: the constant temptation to dethrone the image of God resting upon each woman and man in order to usurp the throne for oneself, and that central biblical tension of mankind’s desperate attempts to escape self-deception and idolatry. The first temptation, after all, begins with the doubtful question of “Did God really say … ?” — the rest of the Bible is a very subtle midrash on this very question, but instead it tries to get us to ask the doubtful question back to the tempter, to the deceptive idol itself, which is often our own ego. Without the right questions, the Jewish tradition stresses, the answers, however seemingly right, will inevitably lead to self-deception.

Aronofsky, I think, brilliantly and subtly asks the right thematic questions, making multiple viewings both necessary and enriching. But, to be honest, the actual cinematic aesthetics could’ve been far better, most notably — and here I agree with a review by Richard Brody in The New Yorker — the music, which is perhaps the least powerful soundtracks of all Aronofsky’s oeuvre. Being a fan of Aronofsky’s films for sometime, though, I’ll blame these contretemps on the lack of funding he received for a film that certainly would’ve been an absolute disaster in the hands of a lesser wit.

Lawrence Krauss, Our Hollywood Hulga

“They also say, gentlemen, that the bird flies to the fowler. That’s true, and I’m ready to agree: but who is the fowler here, and who is the bird? That’s still a question, gentlemen!” — Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Double

I’m just going to admit it from the get go: I like Lawrence Krauss. I can’t put my finger on what exactly it is I like about him, but if raddled memory obeys, he reminds me of my erstwhile thirteen year-old self thundering through our trailer park home with all the delicacy of a rhino, slamming those hollow schlocky doors (already donning a fist-hole smashed in it from some other previous owner’s tantrum), screaming banshee style “IT’S NOT FAIR!” at decibels detrimental and down-right dangerous to my very own ear drums let alone my poor step-mom’s. Beneath the surface of seemingly everything Krauss writes or talks about these days is a simmering adolescent fury that the world just so stupidly doesn’t think and see the world in exactly the same way he does. This is, truly, very profoundly unfair, an experience I thoroughly understand and fully commiserate with.

Lawrence Krauss is particularly furious in  “Why Hollywood Thinks Atheism is Bad for Business” at The New Yorker. With his all seeing eyes he has stared down and nailed upon a cross the recondite religious agenda of (gasp) Hollywood. Yes, cries Krauss from the wilderness, it turns out that Hollywood is discriminating against atheists by the films they decide to fund and distribute. Now, never mind that probably less than five percent of Hollywood films per annum could even remotely be considered religious (whatever “religious” means); it’s still blatantly not fair, because, in Krauss’s eyes, anything more than zero percent glaringly reveals religion’s foothold on the dull imaginations of the American people (which is clearly disgusting). And, of course, never mind that Krauss’s fetish for trivial vapidities would be like writing a diatribe about The New Yorker because they recently published selections of Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal. (Clearly they must have been bullied into this by the Catholic mafia, perhaps even at gun point.)

The raison d’être behind Krauss’s “not fair” campaign: the crestfallen story of his very own kickshaw documentary—a rodomontade on celebrity atheism, The Unbelievers—not getting the proper theatrical release it most assuredly deserved. And he’s right. I mean, who would not want to pay 8 virescent American dollars to be evangelized by a group of officiously powerful, white, rich men on a screen so gargantuan you can detect puberty zit scars etched in their mugs? Goddammit! What’s wrong with the world? To Krauss’s further bewilderment is the pure fact that his docudrama features the “world’s most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins” (sic). Someone as pretty and smart as Dawkins should have been a Hollywood nimbus. I know…this is flabbergastingly unfair. Turning down Dawkins on the big screen? Might as well decline a nude photo shoot with Miley Cyrus.

Mostly, though, Krauss expresses how his feelings have been hurt. Hurt. Hurt because he is sick and tired of atheists being considered second rate citizens. Americans are afraid of atheists, thinks Krauss; and this, again, is simply not fair. Krauss and his doughty garrison are, for god’s sake, good country people, too! And often a whole lot more ethically superior than these religious right Bible salesmen in Hollywood, not to mention those directors like Darren Aronofsky bent on making violent, barbaric biblical films. (That Krauss would even think about comparing the fate of his insanely puerile documentary with any work by the brilliant auteur Aronofsky must be taken as some sign of delusions of grandeur. Krauss’s article is nothing but a sales pitch for his kitsch.) And maybe Krauss has a point here; even if only the size of nothing. Here I can’t help thinking of Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant short story Good Country People.

You ought to stop reading this and pick up the story for yourself to see how prescient O’Connor is, to see how her story might help us navigate our strange culture wars, but let me crudely run you through it. Hulga is a very proud atheist who happens to have a wooden leg from a childhood accident. She took a PhD in philosophy and devours books on science; she sees the truth of things, things as they really are; she doesn’t “have illusions,” she says, but is “one of those people who sees through to nothing.” On the other hand is Manley Pointer, the good ol’ country boy supposedly with high morals who sells Bibles to those needing the word of God. On the surface the two could not be more dissimilar. But, as Mrs. Hopewell, Hulga’s mother, notices quite quickly: Hulga and Manley have “the same condition!”, a serious condition of the heart, a physical ailment that mirrors a deeper, spiritual sickness unto death. Eventually, to Mrs. Hopewell’s baffled surprise, Manley and Hulga wander off for a pleasant picnic together. Wending through woods, “[o]’er the hills and far away,” Hulga arrogantly thinks she is seducing the poor, simple fundamentalist with her avant-garde progressive atheism, but the truth is that she is being psychologically worked over by the Bible salesman, the much more logically consistent and rigorous atheist and wit of the two.

In the end, the Bible salesman, with a clowning Mephistophelean curiosity, seduces Hulga into unscrewing her artificial leg, an artifact she holds so dear as to be her very soul. He takes it and runs, leaving her helpless and soulless and screaming …. “You’re a Christian!…You’re a fine Christian! You’re just like them all—say one thing and do another. You’re a perfect Christian, you’re…” In a lofty and indignant tone the Bible salesman replies, “I hope you don’t think that I believe in that crap! I may sell Bibles but I know which end is up and I wasn’t born yesterday and I know where I’m going!” “Give me my leg!” Hulga screams. She wants her soul back, I suppose. But the Bible man, in a wonderful turning of the tables, says, “…you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”

I’d like to think Krauss is a little Hulga while the religious right, and the sorry and bizarre antics they too often pull—which Krauss’s article rightly criticizes—reeks of O’Connor’s famous Bible salesman, Manley Pointer. The irony, as hinted above, is that both Hulga and Manley swing inside the same heartbeat, as if agitated in a great empty drum of flesh (I purloined this line, with slight variation, from O’Connor’s Revelation). Krauss seems to be doing nothing more than fighting against the more profoundly logical atheisms of the pseudo-religious. His black and white intelligence, so characteristic of incurious philistines, cannot see the pseudo-religious for what they are: his Janus-faced soul-mates, imbibers of the same desire for Hollywood accolades. Both Krauss and the religious right look upon the absurdity of the world—its nothingness, if you will, with the inevitable rotting away of ourselves in some hole in the ground—and think: Why not use the most powerful name of all—“God”, or for Krauss, “Science”—to gain more power and more mammon and more fame? (Remember that somewhat popular story about a first-century Jew murdered by the machinations of both the religious and the irreligious? Lust for power brings foes together.) But, thank God, the world needs all sorts of people and opinions, especially good country people who, like Krauss, can see through to nothing, and still be good, even if this goodness is nothing but an artificial leg…awaiting the worms of the grave.

 

photo by: zooterkin

Becoming a Philosopher

“Are you not aware that there comes a midnight hour when everyone must unmask…” ~ Soren Kierkegaard

I get this fidgety and sweaty-palmed shame every time I have to go to the grocery store. The anxiety rises high-tide right around the time check-out becomes a dark necessity. And, as is my custom, I begin to take part in a very short, completely arbitrary and flippant gesture of analyzing the cashiers’ faces for what either looks or seems like the most kind and loving mug amongst the bunch or, alternately, the eyes that betray the dullest, most soporific and apathetic orientation to all of existence as possible for a human being still possessing a pulse. I want, in other words, to avoid at all reasonable costs the righteous gaze of the one who as soon as I say those fatal, ill-reputed words—“It’s EBT”—immediately places the contents of my order before the judgment seat of what passes as “okay” to purchase on food stamps. We somehow never seem to see fortune’s arbitrary hand at work, that some things simply fall apart, or work together, at random and meaningless intervals in our often inexplicable everyday existence. Rather, like good Americans, we are obsessed (and I include myself) to a nearly perverted degree with the notion of special providence in our lives.

Take, for example, Fox News personality Monica Crowley’s recent blather that “we know that entitlements are narcotics”— it being completely obvious to her that food stamps are on par with heroin. She is a marvelous example of an empty personality whose fortunes are much more arbitrary than necessarily deserved, seeing that there are thousands of women—many who are probably hopelessly hooked on Crowley’s “narcotics”—that could and would do her job with a much higher level of intellectual and ethical sophistication. However, despite the gyre of experience, most of us continue to believe, in a visceral and gut-level manner, precisely what the great Job’s palavers were so completely wrong about: that good things happen to good people and bad things to the bad. Deny this belief most of us will, but I’m afraid it is the native structure of our thought patterns. Such patterns can only be expunged through some kind of apocalyptic shattering of our inherited expectations of the good life.

There is always, however, an optimistic soul who tries to cheer me up with happy thoughts of future progress and success, by which they generally mean “financial progress”, another telltale sign of the sad American equation of existential worth and lucre. “You won’t always struggle,” they say. No, trust me, I will. It’s often not until I mention my six-figure school debt for a degree in philosophy that my pessimism rightfully earns the damn-well-maybe-you-really-are-screwed-forever-and-ever facial contortion response. (Well, at least financially speaking.) What can I say, I began school during a time when loan companies were handing out private student loans like trick-or-treat lollipops, and I had a wife and two young boys to take care of after a health scare that made it nearly impossible to return to my blue-collar manual labor job. So the doctor advised getting a degree, so I could give myself a fighting chance to make a living doing something that is not so taxing on this frail body of mine. And, being a naturally melancholic kid, I fell into the deep abyss of wonder and terror that the great philosophers and literary giants of history both whispered and shouted of. This is why, and how, I became a philosopher: a cosmic wink, simultaneously cruel and kind.

So a few years back, on a lonely and pewter clouded winter evening in Nottingham, England, I stumbled upon a brief interview with popular philosopher Alain de Botton which induced a nod and a mild chuckle. He had mentioned something about his hopeful expectations and wishes that his children wouldn’t follow his perilous footsteps by growing up to become philosophers; that is a denouement, he stressed, that would naturally and strongly imply that their poor selves had suffered some various kinds of traumatic events as children.

Of course this is not a rule of any kind, there being many philosophers out there who I’m quite sure experienced normal childhoods. But for the most part I want to agree with de Botton; that is, I truly believe that most philosophers are made by the repetitive shattering of stable and understandable structures of thought, the last of which usually involves the obliteration of the constant delusion that one’s self is potent enough to account for its own existence. And I take it that this highest and most existentially important of all broken edifices of thought is precisely what the German-Italian philosopher Franz Brentano meant when he said that a little splashing in the shallows of philosophy will lead one to atheism, while a deep sea immersion into philosophy will lead one to the divine.

The temperament of the philosopher is one that is struck by two magnificent and grave realizations. First, the sheer wonder and mystery that anything should exist at all. And second, the idea that all this splendor of existence, the pure pleasure of being, should ebb away into the eventide of oblivion and decay. The philosopher is anyone who experiences and reflects upon these twin wonders. (A definition, ironically, which many so-called professional philosophers fail to attain.)

It may even be that these are precisely the characteristics, so indigenous to the philosopher, that account for the slow emaciations of philosophy and theology departments across the landscape of the American university. I mean that the philosopher today (which is anyone who falls under the definition above) has little hope of surviving in a culture whose entire economy thrives so heavily upon purloining from its citizens both the ability to contemplate the mystery of existence and the recognition that no one gets out of this world alive. Death and existence are strangely absent from our conscious horizons. And of course the raison d’être of the modern economy is to turn existence into a commodity, to distract and induce dissatisfaction with our lives by deluding us into thinking we can purchase our existence. To the contrary, existence can only be received as pure gift: we are ultimately impotent to produce or manufacture existence by our own will and desire.

Sadly, though, it is often only when we come to the end of ourselves, like Dante or the Prodigal Son, in the dark wood of bewilderment and loss, when we are sick and weak and can’t pay the rent and buy food, that we begin to embark on the journey through the difficulties of existence. And it is here, at the foot of a seemingly insurmountable Mount Delectable, where we must embark on a descent into hell’s despair before we can ascend into a future and a hope. But it is here, too, where we can move no further without a guide, without a wise Virgil, or, and infinitely better: a beloved Beatrice. The solitary search must find its way and wisdom in a communal light of life and thought, it must read and converse in the liminal space between the living and the dead. We need help, guidance.

So this is why, and how, I became a philosopher: my great, aggrandizing empires of self have succumbed to a continuous shattering, only to be resurrected within a much more wonderfully infinite epektasis (the eternal ascent of the soul, as St. Gregory of Nyssa put it) of desire towards the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. And perhaps it is only when we, as society and individuals, are willing again to resurrect the question of being—to wrest it from its recent incarceration—and come to ourselves in a dark wood, that we may begin again to open ourselves to being’s revelations; that is, open to a guide, which is also to say, open to the past, present, and future rather than dwelling merely within the fleeting scintillations of, say, shopping, or watching TV. Can we reopen the doors and windows of what St. Augustine called the vita vitae, the Life of life? Here, and perhaps only here, we may discover that to be a philosopher—a lover of wisdom—is ultimately synonymous with, however dark one’s nights may be, the desire to be surprised by Joy. A desire that leads to the discovery that being’s light is manifested both within, and as, Joy. Hence the novelist Marilynne Robinson ends her essay, Facing Reality, with one of the more brilliant and succinct summations of Dante’s thought ever written: “And Dante, who knew the world about suffering, had a place in hell for people who were grave when they might have rejoiced.”

 

Remembering Shame

One of the greatest opening sentences in all of literature is from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground: “I am a sick man… I am an evil man.” Sick men we may be. But there is a myriad of ways to be “sick.” Many of these ways, sadly, arise in the wake of lost love’s despair; a despair that also carries a proclivity toward perversion and addiction that can turn any man— honest or knavish— into a bordello beggar or a frenzied chaser of the fille de joie. For what man, after all, has not—as Rakitin says somewhere in The Brothers Karamazov—experienced the particular feature of a woman that leaves a knot in the stomach?

And has it ever been more difficult than in our age of right angles, of crystal palaces, of 2×2=4—the hegemony of the esprit de géométrie over the esprit de finesse—to resist the perversions of the beautiful? Do not the callipygian Venuses wending our streets, along with the dryads in the trees and the sylphs in the air, evoke ancient memories of cupolas, domes, ogives and spires breathing enchantment, pointing to transcendence? They used to be everywhere. I mean the curves: the flying buttresses, the thrusts of the groin vaults, the nymphs in the woods and the amaranthine Beatrice in the city—they were mirrors and portals enveloping and pouring forth an aesthetic economy of concrete transcendence.

The question I’m trying ask is to what extent does ugly architecture actually impede moral reasoning, and in particular, erotic and sensual reasoning? Surely, at least to our modern ears’ obsession with the purely pragmatic, this query sounds a bit vague and ridiculous, the remnant of a somewhat precious and romantic concern of a religiously nostalgic and tortured aesthete. But this opinion—that there is a profound ligature between architectural beauty and the evocation of desire for the good, true and beautiful—has a longstanding tradition; and, perhaps rather ironically, is even an idea hinted at in a recent interview with popular atheist philosopher Alain de Botton, who ponderously asks:

“… the wonders of religious architecture, how come we’ve forgotten all of that? How come modern architects don’t know that good architecture is part of being a good human being?”, and that “one root through which evil reaches us is through ugliness”.

Shall we, then, be surprised when the only shape that breaks the dullness of our modern architectural boxes and subdivision gridlock of squares, is the mysterious and fearful symmetry of the human body? Does not the nature of the spaces we inhabit affect how we perceive the bodies that live, move and have there being amidst them? And if these spaces are seen and built merely for pragmatic use, what’s to keep the mind from viewing the bodies therein as also mere products to be bought and sold and ultimately exploited as consumer objects? This is what cultural critic and philosopher David Bentley Hart calls the “pornography culture”. Likewise, in Hart’s remarkable essay on American culture, America & the angels of Sacré-Cœr, he writes: “The American religion does almost nothing to create a shared high culture, to enrich the lives of ordinary persons with the loveliness of sacred public spaces, to erect a few durable bulwarks against the cretinous barbarity of late modern popular culture, or to enliven the physical order with intimations of transcendent beauty. With its nearly absolute separation between inward conviction and outward form, it is largely content to surrender the surrounding world to utilitarian austerity. It could not do otherwise, even if the nation’s constitution were not so formally secular. It would not have the imaginative resources. It is a religion of feeling, not of sensibility; it might be able to express itself in great scale, but not as a rule of good taste.” What calamity, then, shall fall upon us when the modern utilitarian and Euclidean eye meets the ancient verse of what the 18th century sensualist philosopher, Johann Georg Hamann, called the ‘Poet in the beginning of days’?

Perhaps it is shame…for the divorce we have erected between fact and value. ‘Shame’, that most dastardly and antiquated of words that we modern, progressive sophisticates have striven so hard to expunge from our meager cocktail party vocabularies. You know, if only we could achieve its erasure from our cultural memories we would be ushered forth into that medieval jargon-free chiliasm of pop-psych secularism, equipped to the brim with the soft billowy clouds of Playboy mansions and pink rubber strawberry scented dildos and glow-in-the-dark vanilla bean flavored condoms. This is cultural progress.

Perhaps I’m being a bit too willful in my diagnosis of the modern sexual appetite gone awry: namely, that the architecture of a culture is a mirror image of the structure of its thought, and that, in consequence, the architectural privations will be overcompensated by means of perverting the imagination in whose intrinsic nature lies the desires to taste and see the beauties of creation, including our own art. Thus a culture’s lack of an economy of beauty will ultimately lead to the violent struggle of two structures of thought warring with each other: an original eros desiring the perfect harmony of transcendence and immanence with a counterfeit eros possessed of an insatiable will to power and to devour. The triumph of pure utility over meaning.

All this to say that, over the weekend, I saw British film director Steve McQueen’s much talked about film, Shame. It is certainly not for everyone to watch, as the NC-17 rating makes clear. It is a raw capturing of the inferno of sexual addiction with very little work left to the imagination, which may be precisely part of its genius and cathartic urgency. For to leave room for the imagination in a movie like this could result in the viewer’s thinking, “Ah, surely such a pleasurable thing couldn’t lead to such despair…” In a sense, then, the film follows Flannery O’ Connor’s advice that, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” It makes you think to yourself, “That could be me”, or, “That is me”, and that action is required not tomorrow, or in a few hours, but precisely now.

The architecture in the film is thoroughly modern—everything is pragmatically minimalist—from the smallest minutiae of the furniture to the suffocating box happy buildings of New York City. Everything seems to be composed of right angles, a damning closure of anything hinting beyond the violent amphisbaena of the modern ego – except, perhaps, for the lambent portent of Glenn Gould’s Bach permeating the film like a nimbus in the night. (The soundtrack is quite good.) And the only scent of iridescence left in this environmental wasteland is the libidinal “last men” (see C.S. Lewis’s poignant little book The Abolition of Man), these saintly bodies of ours, waiting impatiently upon the eve of our self-abolition, unwilling to be tamed by our own determinations, moving at the whims of a gnomic will and gazing strangely at each other as both prey and lover on melancholy lit subways. What frightful monsters we are to each other, what supernal infinity paints the countenance of man, of woman? Why is our soul so tragically downcast?

But there is a prophetic aspect to Shame. As Kent Dunnington writes in Addiction and Virtue: Beyond Models of Disease and Choice, addiction is “a kind of embodied cultural critique of modernity and the addict a kind of unwitting modern prophet”, because addiction is a “sort of counterfeit worship.” The addict in Shame possesses the urgent need to give himself completely over to something—indeed, anything—and a desire to devote himself to the idea that maybe this time the act will usher forth the kingdom of satisfaction, a peace that surpasses all understanding in an age of unbearable anxiety. Elsewhere, Dunnington perceptively writes that, “addiction provides what consumers do not believe exists: necessity. Major addictions can therefore be interpreted both as a response to the absence of teleology in modern culture and as a kind of embodied critique of late capitalist consumerism which this absence has produced.”

The addict is a kind of prophet. But if the addict is to be a prophet, he must also become a comedian—in the Dantean sense. He must, in other words, begin to act otherwise than in vice. And there are all sorts of hints throughout Shame that it is only in the action of virtue—however feeble its initial burgeoning in the will—wherein the divided self can transcend the will-to-vice that has become, for so many of us, our second nature. Hence the first scene in the subway and the last scene in the subway hint at two wills divided, and the virtue, at least to begin with, is simply being aware that one is divided. As Kierkegaard writes: the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.

After Hopkins

Only as time do I breathe
spindly branches
in
fall’s hoped inscapements.
Our hands,
feathered veins,
inhale ichor and
work with Cain.

Like life
in another
garden’s fall do I dread
this withered withdraw.
A portent leaf’s expansion
must grow in every direction
to tell the sun of sky
its impending death and
resurrection.

photo by: Ian Sane

A Review of Christian Wiman’s “My Bright Abyss”

 “When I woke, the ground was moist about me, and my track to the grave was growing a quicksand.” — George MacDonald, Lilith

Why does the poet suffer? Watch, look, see her longwinded thoughts transform into laconic, saturated fragments of earth and sky. The elements of wonder can so easily transform themselves into the elements of pain. Is that opal hanging majestically in the night sky a friend, a portent of the daylight? Or is that crescent dagger a Cheshire Cat smile, appearing and disappearing into a deeper—the deepest—night? Either way the poet must shape the silences one gives and the other takes away. The silence of light and the silence of night; these are the elements that make up the kaleidoscope of Christian Wiman’s newest book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.

Like Augustine’s Confessions, Abyss isn’t really “about” anything so much as it is “to” everything: God, family, self, humanity, all of creation. It belongs to those kinds of books that are movements of life, tideways of prayer. “A confession,” Wittgenstein wrote, “must be part of your new life.” And like Dante’s La Vita Nuova, Wiman begins within the book of his memory, writing of his conversion in youth: “Maybe it happened—and goes on happening—at the cellular level and means not nothing but everything to me. Maybe, like an atavistic impulse, I don’t remember it, but it remembers me.”

If there is a form to Wiman’s fragments, it is the dance of call and response as they spiral and twist and torque into the crevices of “every riven thing” that blossoms in existence. He begins with a tenebrous call of dereliction:

My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this:

Significantly, in the spirit of Kierkegaard’s “repetition” within a different disposition, the book ends with the same stanza. The only difference is that the last line ends with a period rather than a colon:

and believing nothing believe in this.

Wiman begins like Job, the dark terrors of silence and absence are responded to in the open lostness, the waiting, that the colon evokes. He begins in a Dantean dark wood, the selva oscura, knowing only one thing: the journey to and through the land of God-forsakenness has become a necessity.

But the colon mark takes part in a metamorphosis, it becomes a period. This period, however, is not a triumphal faith, a “full stop” of certainty. It is, rather, a movement from the thorn of silence into its rose. It is the eventide absence of God transformed into the whirlwind morning of God, both equally mysterious yet so infinitely different as to separate light from darkness. Wiman dwells neither in pure darkness nor in pure light; he sees through a glass darkly. Yet he does see, somewhere within the abyssal interval between Christ’s call “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” and the empty sepulcher of paschal beauty.

I even wonder if, in this subtle movement of punctuation, Wiman has not created a cryptic punctuation of Christ. A recurring line throughout the book is “Christ is contingency.” Christ roams the earth as a man of sorrows; he who is the pure joy of existence itself becomes existence groaning, as St. Paul described it. Christ is open, like the colon mark, to the fleeting winds of time as they give, without rhyme or reason, the tragedies and joys of this life. Wiman writes, “No. Life is not an error, even when it is.” There is a prodigality of life that inheres in the colon that is mirrored in Christ. One could even say that Christ embodies the word “colon” in a double sense, as the punctuation of contingency and as the scatological “shit” or “scum” of the world. St. Paul wrote that “we have become, and still are, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” Yet what follows the colon of Christ’s being forsaken is the cry, the “period,” of Christ’s “it is finished” from the cross. This is the period as portent; the period that is already-but-not-yet; it bespeaks of the whirlwind in Job becoming the grammar of resurrection, the grammar of Christ.

Within the abyss, the interval, between broken images and resurrection, rests, in restlessness, the movement of faith. Faith burgeons within “sorrow’s flower,” “Experience lives in the transitions” and “We feel ourselves alive in the anxiety of being alive. We feel God in the coming and going of God—or no, the coming and going of consciousness (God is constant).” What is faith? What is love? They come and go, ebb and flow, upon eventides of days gone by. What is this love that sustains us? That knits these frangible petals of our existence together like some cosmic warp and woof?

Wiman gives one of the most beautiful responses to the question of faith I’ve ever heard:

“What does faith mean, finally, at this last date? I often feel that it means no more than, and no less than, faith in life—in the ongoingness of it, the indestructibility, some atom-by-atom intelligence that is and isn’t us, some day-by-day and death-by-death persistence insisting on a more-than-human hope, some tender and terrible energy that is, for those with eyes to see it, love.”

Faith is faith in life. St. Augustine called it the vita vitae in the Confessions, the Life of life. And what moves our lives within this infinite, life giving Life, is love. For Wiman, like the Bishop of Hippo, his love is his weight; it is the love that is moved by the Love that moves. This is the heart, the cosmic axis, of Christian faith: you shall love; which for the Christian also means: you shall exist.

But a nasty little virus has crept into the synapses of our modern psyches. We have turned faith and its reflection, love, into a soporific and ideal fideism cut off from the strong wine of doubt. Doubt, contrary to popular culture, is not the antithesis of faith (the antithesis is arrogant egoism), rather, doubt is faith’s lover in a quarrel, a wrestling with an angel. This is what the Scottish mystic, George MacDonald, meant by saying that “Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest.” Similarly Wiman writes that “no matter how severe its [faith’s] draught, how thoroughly your skepticism seems to have salted the ground of your soul, faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.” Faith and doubt are the sun and moon, the latter a portent of the former: “Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.” Doubts may look as if they burn us in a fiery furnace. Yet there is one that looks as if he were the son of God in the Babylonian furnace, too. The Christian God is, after all, both a consuming fire and a fountain.

Life is a fugue, and faith its intervals, its transitions. There is always some counterpoint of dissonance straining our existence toward the future, giving us the nacre of the present from the past. The theme of life is a primordial wonder that anything, rather than simply nothing, should exist at all. It consists of elated fragments of awe, that we are here, now. And how rapturously strange that being has made some secret, subtle ligature and covenant with the abyss within the doors of our perception, our consciousness. Yet dissonance arises within the awareness of our fleeting contingency—memento mori—here today, gone tomorrow. As children of dust we return to our mother, the soil, the seed. The movement of these elations, wonders and sorrows, temper and define our experience of time. Time is defined by the sound of our lives, the crescendo of which is our love. This sound is our memory, the mother of our muses.

Sometime before the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a heavy influence on Wiman), was murdered at the hands of the Nazis, he admonished his people to remember Jacob’s fearful awe when reunited face to face with his brother, Esau, years after the fateful birthright deception took place, Jacob says: “for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God.” To see our brother and sister—the one we’ve all deceived—is akin to seeing the face of God. Every human is an icon of the face of God. “Unto the least of these, you did it unto me,” a first century Jew is known to have said.

This theme, God’s face in our neighbor—the world seen, one could say, through the prism of Andrei Rublev’s Angels at Mamre icon—is the heart of Wiman’s book; it is what makes writing the book possible.

Somewhere along the corridors of life, Wiman fell in love with a girl. And joy’s face was mirrored back into his own. He prays with her, prays to the Face in every face. There is no other way to begin to pray but to pray to a human face; this is what it means to believe in Christ, to look into the eyes of a love that never changes in every contingent leaf of existence. Without this necessary dimension of Christian faith Wiman writes that “one’s solitary experiences of God wither into a form of withholding, spiritual stinginess, the light of Christ growing ever fainter in the glooms of self.” A potent sense of this truth is found, he relates, in Bonhoeffer’s insight that Christ is always stronger in our brother’s heart than in our own.

One of my favorite chapters of the book (no doubt because I’m fated with the nerves of William Cowper) is “Hive of Nerves.” The epigraph, from Paul Celan, goes like this: “It is time that the stone grew accustomed to blooming, / That unrest formed a heart.” If Augustine’s heart was restless in the fourth century, how much so ours? Ours is the age of distracted anxiety, the worst kind of anxiety I can imagine. Wiman writes, “And thus a whole country can be organized toward some collective insanity because there is no space for individuals to think.” How to slow down? No, slow…down. Slow. Down. To weep by the waters of Babylon, or Leman (nod to Eliot); to rejoice in the flow of the Jordan; to see with the eyes that are the lamp of the body; to stop long enough to find one’s self under the Rose of Dante’s Paradiso, or in the ichor of Angelus Silesius’s rose, the rose that “is without why, it blooms because it blooms, it pays no attention to itself, asks not whether it is seen.” There is a happy forgetfulness in attending to the world, an attention to the other that gives the self back to itself in truth, in love. We give the world presence, and thereby receive the gift of being present ourselves. Amidst the flickering screens that makeup our wastelands, we are called, Wiman seems to say, to form a heart.

If one has ever watched Robert Bresson’s magisterial film, Diary of a Country Priest—or read the classic novel it portrays by Georges Bernanos—the end of Wiman’s book will seem strangely familiar. They both culminate, in a somewhat melancholy adagio of expectation, in the kairos and fecundity of all Christian thought: Grace. All is Grace, that mysterious orchid of God’s mind that gives birth to the world. In the midst of being hellishly flayed by stomach cancer, the young country priest of Abricourt offers his last words: “It doesn’t matter. Grace is everywhere.” It doesn’t matter that Christian Wiman believes in nothing, so long as he believes in this: Grace is everywhere.

DBH’s “The Devil and Pierre Gernet”: A Pendulation of Spirit

“He can make the proudest spirits stoop, and cry out with Julian the Apostate, Vicisti, Galilcœe; or with Apollo’s priest in Chrysostom, O cœlum! O terra! unde hostis hic?

-Robert Burton,  Anatomy of Melancholy

Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment: read David Bentley Hart’s The Devil and Pierre Gernet: Stories, if for no other reason than that it’s a caravan supplied with a metaphysical professor. Granted, sadly, this may be precisely the reason why no one will read it; that is, professors given up to the whims of hyperborean winds are just as unlikely to find literary welcome as Melville’s Ishmael a warm cot at the Spouter Inn. On the other hand, this may be exactly the reason why it must be sought and read.

The stories are like a labyrinthine pomegranate with many seeds. And they have that Borgesian quality of the clinched fist about them, the number of Hart’s pages seem no more or less than infinite: none is the first page, none is the last. This is not, of course, to persuade one that there is little by way of reading ease and pleasure—there certainly is—but only to concede that these stories are comprised of that lost art of fiction of ideas in its highest order.

Thus the stories emerge from a particular movement of spirit that is so indigenous to Hart’s narrative voice that it is difficult at times to grasp, like an undercurrent you can feel but cannot see. This is not due especially to any peculiar conceptual difficulty inherent in the ideas expressed in the stories but more so because they deal with ideas and patterns of thought which have been slowly vanishing from the horizon of our cultural consciousness, like an event so strange we have chosen to forget it. Hart’s stories seem intent on emitting brief flickers of light in order to awaken a more primordial and elemental astonishment at existence; the mystery of being at all refracted upon the surface of all things.

But it’s not just any form of existence that may manifest itself in the corridors of time with which Hart seems preoccupied. It is not a purely mystical comportment to existence that is being summoned upon in the stories but what I would like to call, borrowing from Erich Auerbach’s classic work, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a certain “pendulation” of spirit; a temporal pendulation moving within an eternal amplitude. A pendulation of spirit that is best expressed within the character of Hart’s Pierre Gernet.

This pendulum sways to and fro, like a restless Persephone, throughout the entire collection. Its defining characteristic is a movement through the most profound depths of tragic despair and sorrow to a promise that erupts and expands upon the surface of a vernal expectation. It is what Auerbach refers to as the dynamic movement and metamorphosis of cultural consciousness that broke through St. Peter’s dolorous dialectic of cock-crows upon his discovery of the empty sepulcher; a revolution in the experience of existence that set, as Auerbach writes, “man’s whole world astir.”

The stories, then, lay within the matrices of a certain interim of spirit that hints at an eternal ripening of mirth beneath the harrowing and tragic shifts of time’s disorientating quakes of violence. It is a movement through what Virgil called the lacrymae rerum, the tears in things. It is a sight that only makes sense in light of the darkly tears of Pierre’s life; a life that is narrated through the devil’s dialectic of occult powers and principalities; a dialectic that Pierre would call the play of Apollo and Dionysus, the circumscribing logic of Everything and Nothing upon the sea of being’s chaotic frisson.

But there is a deeper magic—a magical movement of redemption—at work within Pierre’s tears that shatter the mirror of time’s captivity to the image of death. And it is here, as I warned in the beginning of this review with a transposition of the words of Melville, that we are dealing with a metaphysical professor whose caravan of fiction is a kaleidoscope of time’s surfaces being shook-foiled (to borrow Hopkins) with eternity’s light. And it is here where the reader catches glimpse of that Spirit which is more intimately interior to ourselves than we are to ourselves, precisely in being infinitely other and superior to ourselves.

And it is perhaps here, also, where we wait—within the interval of the twinkling of an eye, between the flutters of an Ulysses butterfly—with the protagonist in Hart’s last story, The Other, for the lost time when “there was such a magic hanging about the place, and I heard you and almost saw you—almost. Something of your form seemed to steal through the light, as part of it, or behind it—I don’t know”. Hart’s venturing questions to his readers seem to be these: “What’s your memory like? What have you forgotten?”

In a recent New York Times essay, “Has Fiction Lost its Faith”, author Paul Elie laments the current lack of first-rate fiction portraying what Flannery O’Connor called “believable belief”. There is little doubt that Hart’s collection is first-rate intellectual and spiritual fiction, but I’m afraid that Elie’s point “that Graham Greene and J.R.R. Tolkien were considered baffling in their time” will ultimately prove true of Hart. (This, as should be obvious, certainly isn’t always a bad thing.) And, of course, it doesn’t help that Hart’s publisher is not only very small but has virtually no reputation for works of fiction. One simply wonders how it would be received if it had, say, FSG printed on the spine and critics were actually aware of its existence.

Whatever its fate may be, The Devil and Pierre Gernet is a pure joy to read. There are no marionette characters of ideas despite its being in the genre of fiction of ideas. And the prose is mellifluously sculpted and tight, pregnant with polyphony. Indeed, it could scarcely be said (excepting, perhaps, the likes of Marilynne Robinson) that there is a more versatile, learned, and gifted prose stylist spanning the worlds of both fiction and non-fiction writing in America today than David Bentley Hart.

photo by: stevendepolo