John Panteleimon Manoussakis, a Greek Orthodox theologian, begins with a quote from Chesterton (who was the subject of yesterday’s post). God After Metaphysics is ecumenical in its engagement with all the best in the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. The following epigraph from The Everlasting Man is just one example of the intellectual hospitality of God After Metaphysics and its author:
“It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man Who Made the World. That such a higher personality exists behind all things had indeed always been implied by all the best thinkers, as well as by all the most beautiful legends. But nothing of this sort had ever been implied in any of them. It is simply false to say that the other sages and heroes had claimed to be that mysterious master and maker, of whom the world had dreamed and disputed. Not one of them had ever claimed to be anything of the sort. Not one of their sects or schools had even claimed that they had claimed to be anything of the sort. The most that any religious prophet had said was that he was the true servant of such a being. The most that any visionary had ever said was that men might catch glimpses of the glory of that spiritual being; or much more often of lesser spiritual beings. The most that any primitive myth had even suggested was that the Creator was present at the Creation. But that the Creator was present at scenes a little subsequent to the supper-parties of Horace, and talked with tax-collectors and government officials in the detailed daily life of the Roman Empire, and that this fact continued to be firmly asserted by the whole of that great civilisation for more than a thousand years– that is something utterly unlike anything else in nature. It is the one great startling statement that man has made since he spoke his first articulate word… it makes nothing but dust and nonsense of comparative religion.”
Manoussakis finds and deftly comments upon such gems throughout his book. It’s as if he wants you to go broke collecting a library as you read.
Now, the importance of the Greek intellectual heritage for understanding the uniqueness of Christianity is something we’ve previously addressed in a post related to the work of Jaroslav Pelikan here. Manoussakis points out how the notion of a human person as a relational reality is something that developed within the Greek literary and philosophical traditions. In fact, relation (between persons) was so crucial to the notion of a person that early Greek literary texts used the plural (prosopa) almost exclusively even when referring to individuals. What’s more, the antonym of person (prosopon) is atomon. A-tomon can be etymologically parsed as that which cannot be cut any further. The same implication is embedded within the English word individual (that which cannot be divided anymore, an atom).
The flip side of Manoussakis: “If life is an illusion it’s a pretty painful one,” says the nihilistic but compassionate author of The Elementary Particles.
All of this reminds me of Michel Houellebecq’s contemporary classic novel of social fragmentation The Elementary Particles. Even though the novel charts the free-fall of the two main characters, who are half-brothers, into different forms of deadly isolation Houllebecq leaves threads like these for his readers to hang onto, “Love binds, and it binds forever. Good binds while evil unravels. Separation is another word for evil; it is also another word for deceit.” Hell as I’ve suggested elsewhere is the life of elementary particles. This insight seems to be true for Houllebecq the author, even though his characters never achieve it.
The novelistic dictum is at bottom in concert with the implications of the Incarnation, our fundamental relation to God, as explained by Manoussakis:
“The urgency for particularity, however, was forced upon philosophy by an event that lay entirely outside its proper scope. As a number of studies, both old and new, have shown, the thought of the classical World lacked the the notion of the uniqueness of the human person. The cruel Spartan law which demanded that every baby born with some physical or or mental defect be discarded at the outskirts of the city was consistent with the classical mentality. The classical worldview was turned upside down in the wake of the Incarnation. The Christian dogma of the ‘Word made flesh’ bestowed upon any person an infinite value–or rather, the value of the infinite.”
It is as if the relationality built into the Greek language needed the Gospel to bring out its most radical implications. And the practical implications of this passage continue to be fundamental for the most controversial contemporary debates such as abortion or euthanasia. Ultimately, the task comes down to facilitating a parallax shift from talk about individuals to talk about persons.
The classic film Seconds poignantly highlights this need for personal engagement in a final tragic monologue before the protagonist’s death:
“I couldn’t help it, Charlie. I had to find out where I went wrong. The years I’ve spent trying to get all the things I was told were important – that I was supposed to want! Things! Not people… or meaning. Just things. And California was the same. They made the decisions for me all over again and they were the same things, really. It’s going to be different from now on. A new face and a name. I’ll do the rest. I know it’s going to be different. I suppose you do too.”
[Its opening sequence is filled with some of the most hellish images of fragmentation caught on film.]
“The last few years, while writing my poetry, I’ve been concerned about not deviating from Catholic orthodoxy, although I’m not sure how it came out in the end,” says the author of The Land of Ulro in a letter to the pope (my own revised translation).
August 9th marked the deaths of both Maximilian Kolbe and Czeslaw Milosz. Cynthia Haven has written about how these two Poles have influenced the wider world in divergent ways that converge upon their Catholicism in the essay “The Doubter and the Saint.”
Granted, Milosz was much more of a believer than we tend to give him credit. There is even a fairly badly translated series of letters exchanged between Milosz and JP2 available online here.
One Goodreads commenter said The Stained Glass Elegies are “sad stuff” and added a frowning smiley. But so is much of history and, not infrequently, so is daily life. But what does God have to do with that?
August 9th was also the 68th anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing. All of these convergences somehow reminded me of two short stories penned by the postwar Japanese-Catholic writer Shusaku Endo in the collection Stained Glass Elegies.
The first one features the strange encounter between a child and Kolbe during his mission to Japan. Later on, as an adult, the person shocked at the news of that someone so cowardly looking (like a mouse) found the courage to give up his life for another.
The other story involves a rich Japanese tourist visiting a Polish prostitute a severely economically depressed period in Poland and having an epiphany upon seeing a picture of Kolbe hanging on the wall (if I’m not mistaken) while waiting for her to undress.
All of this, in a roundabout way, brings me to a moving meditation on the blog City and the World about Nagasaki and Kolbe that I’d like to excerpt for you:
“…As I study the [picture of the relic, see below], I wonder what the appearance of this relic might have meant in an immediate postwar context. In 1949, the atom bomb’s effects on Nagasaki were still very visible: another of Mydans’ photos reminds us that the Pontifical Mass celebrated to mark four centuries of Christian faith in Japan took place within the ruins of a destroyed Catholic cathedral. Considering the relic itself, it strikes me that it is difficult to look at the shriveled fingers of the saint’s hand and the exposed bones of his forearm without thinking of the disfigured flesh of the atom bomb’s victims. Would the Catholics of Nagasaki have seen a link between Xavier’s body and the bodies of their kin? I can’t know for sure, but I also can’t help but wonder whether they might have done so.
“Considering the relic itself, it strikes me that it is difficult to look at the shriveled fingers of the saint’s hand and the exposed bones of his forearm without thinking of the disfigured flesh of the atom bomb’s victims. Would the Catholics of Nagasaki have seen a link between Xavier’s body and the bodies of their kin?”
What are we to make of all of this theologically? Looking at the image of the Xavier relic in Nagasaki, I find myself thinking of the words of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who served as a missionary in Nagasaki in the 1930s and later lost his life at Auschwitz, having volunteered to take the place of another prisoner who had been chosen for execution. As Kolbe once wrote, ‘Hatred is not a creative force. Love alone creates.’ For Maximilian Kolbe, self-sacrificing love represented the only effective response to the horrors of which humankind is capable. This kind of love led Kolbe to give his life for another; the same love led Francis Xavier to leave his home and everything that was familiar to him to preach the Gospel in faraway lands. Underlying these and all other examples of self-sacrificing love is the more fundamental action of divine love, the love that led the Second Person of the Trinity to embrace our humanity and to accept death on the Cross for the sake of our redemption…”
I’m still not quite sure what to make of all these connections, but I’ll add another one: Despite the Youtube description, below you will find an excerpt from the excellent Krzysztof Zanussi film about Kolbe, “Life for a Life.” You can find copies of this film scattered throughout the States. Unfortunately, only a few of Zanussi’s films are available in the States. I’d recommend “A Year of the Quiet Sun,” which features stunning (nearly silent) performances by Scott Wilson and Maja Komorowska. It is set in the devastation of postwar Poland.
UPDATE: The whole film is available in Polish (with much German) on YouTube. The acting is good enough that you could watch it without knowing either one of those languages.
I’ve recently discovered that Randy Boyagoda resurrected Elie’s argument in the latest issue of First Things here. He starts out by venting:
“I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers. These tend to be the only authors that come up when I ask them what they read for literature.”
Even though Boyagoda is tired of those consumed with nostalgia for a literary Golden age he ends up conceding their point by agreeing with Elie. He even takes Elie one step further by going into a quasi-sociological analysis that culminates with David Shields as the master-theorist of decline. In a nutshell, Boyagoda’s argument is built around these assumptions:
“As welcome as Elie’s effort was as a conversation starter, he failed to answer some important questions, even while he candidly admits to be wrestling with them as he works on a novel of his own: Primarily, what constitutes ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ in literary terms, and how are we to evaluate the representation aesthetically, morally,theologically? [Interestingly enough Boyagoda does not answer this question!]… Nevertheless, Elie’s main point holds. Despite various idiosyncratic and veiled representations of religious experience in recent American fiction—in the works of Robinson, and also, with more qualifications, in the works of Toni Morrison [I object, see below], Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, and others—most great contemporary writers don’t bother to engage the wholeness of experience for the great majority of readers.”
I’ll spare you a summary of the Shields part of the argument, but you can explore it in the link to Boyagoda’s essay above, or you can take a look at what Shields has to say in Reality Hunger.
Why a Richard John Neuhaus scholar would take the part of Shields over George Steiner is beyond me. Neuhaus never grew tired of singing the praises of Steiner. The great literary critic decisively argued that not only literature, but all of human reality, is dependent upon a Christian sacramental imagination. Let’s hope Boyagoda will not forget passages such as this one from Neuhaus while completing his RJN biography:
“In Grammars of Creation, more than in his 1989 book Real Presences, Steiner acknowledges that his argument rests on inescapably Christian foundations. In fact, he has in the past sometimes written in a strongly anti-Christian vein, while the present book reflects the influence of, among others, Miri Rubin, whose Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture is credited in a footnote. Steiner asserts that, after the Platonisms and Gnosticisms of late antiquity, it is the doctrines of incarnation and transubstantiation that mark ‘the disciplining of Western syntax and conceptualization’ in philosophy and art. ‘Every heading met with in a study of ‘creation,’ every nuance of analytic and figural discourse,’ he says, derives from incarnation and transubstantiation, ‘concepts utterly alien to either Judaic or Hellenic perspectives—though they did, in a sense, arise from the collisions and commerce between both.'”
“Any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence,” says Steiner in Real Presences.
Yesterday we explored why Elie strategically exempted poetry from his argument here. The poets listed in that post are some of our most gifted writers. The novelists you’ll find below are of the same caliber. These writers have won countless awards writing fiction that will last long enough for later generations to envy our Golden Age of religious fiction.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that our generation of writers exceeds the Eliot-Auden and Percy-O’Connor generations. Novels are notoriously difficult to excerpt, so I’ll stick mostly publisher blurbs and a few sidebars to justify some of the choices that might strike you as unusual. At the bottom of this post there’s also a list of very honorable mentions.
As usual, do follow the unique links provided below if you’d like to help me put some diapers on little Rosman butts. Please also consider donating directly through the link in the upper right hand corner of the homepage.
Twenty-four years after her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with Gilead, an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate). In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human condition and the often unbearable beauty of an ordinary life.
A novel about convent life at the turn of the century? Hardly the makings of a page-turner, yet Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy is a gripping, even life-changing book. For the Sisters of the Crucifixion, each day is a ceaseless round of work, study, and prayer–one hardly separate from the other. Their daily life is itself an act of devotion, caught by Hansen in a series of illuminated tableaux… Into this idyll comes Mariette–young, pretty, devout, but, as her father says, perhaps “too high-strung” for the convent. Prone to “trances, hallucinations, unnatural piety, great extremes of temperament, and, as he put it, ‘inner wrenchings,'” Mariette scalds her hands with hot water as penance, threads barbed wire underneath her breasts while she sleeps, and is convinced Jesus speaks to her. Her very glamour disturbs the gentle rhythm of the nuns’ lives. But when she begins bleeding from unexplained wounds in her hands, feet, and sides, the convent is thrown into an uproar. Is Mariette a saint? Or just a lying, hysterical girl? Where do we draw the line between madness and faith, mysticism and eroticism, the life of the spirit and that of the world?
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the story of a dramatic year in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley. Annie Dillard sets out to see what she can see. What she sees are astonishing incidents of “beauty tangled in a rapture with violence.”
Her personal narrative highlights one year’s exploration on foot in the Virginia region through which Tinker Creek runs. In the summer, Dillard stalks muskrats in the creek and contemplates wave mechanics; in the fall, she watches a monarch butterfly migration and dreams of Arctic caribou. She tries to con a coot; she collects pond water and examines it under a microscope. She unties a snake skin, witnesses a flood, and plays King of the Meadow with a field of grasshoppers. The result is an exhilarating tale of nature and its seasons.
[This book is a hybrid: autobiography, fiction, theology, and biology. But if you’re so inclined there are other Dillard novels to choose from.]
Among the characters you’ll find in this collection of twelve stories by Tobias Wolff are a teenage boy who tells morbid lies about his home life, a timid professor who, in the first genuine outburst of her life, pours out her opinions in spite of a protesting audience, a prudish loner who gives an obnoxious hitchhiker a ride, and an elderly couple on a golden anniversary cruise who endure the offensive conviviality of the ship’s social director.
Jayber Crow, born in Goforth, Kentucky, orphaned at age ten, began his search as a “pre-ministerial student” at Pigeonville College. There, freedom met with new burdens and a young man needed more than a mirror to find himself. But the beginning of that finding was a short conversation with “Old Grit,” his profound professor of New Testament Greek. “You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.” “And how long is that going to take?” “I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.” “That could be a long time.” “I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.
In the backwoods of Mississippi, a land of honeysuckle and grapevine, Jewel and her husband, Leston, are truly blessed; they have five fine children. When Brenda Kay is born in 1943, Jewel gives thanks for a healthy baby, last-born and most welcome. Jewel is the story of how quickly a life can change; how, like lightning, an unforeseen event can set us on a course without reason or compass. In this story of a woman’s devotion to the child who is both her burden and God’s singular way of smiling on her, Bret Lott has created a mother-daughter relationship of matchless intensity and beauty, and one of the finest, most indomitable heroines in contemporary American fiction.
By opening with a long epigraph from St. Augustine’s Confessions (in the original Latin, no less), Clark’s ambitious, atmospheric rumination on good, evil and the gray area in between announces intentions far loftier than those of the standard dime-store detective novels to which the book bears an intentional but superficial resemblance. Set in St. Paul, Minn., in the bleak winter of 1939, this high-brow thriller retains enough lowdown grit and grime to qualify as both a suspenseful read and a surprisingly touching character study. When two young “dime-a-dance” girls are murdered, tough-as-nails homicide cop Lieutenant Wesley Horner hones in on eccentric recluse and amateur photographer Herbert White as the prime suspect. Looking like a cross between Humpty Dumpty and Paul Bunyan, and equally obsessed with Hollywood starlet Veronica Galvin and the voluminous scrapbooks and journals he keeps in order to compensate for his (narratively convenient) memory loss, White takes the fall with sympathetic dignity: astute readers will have fingered the real culprit many pages earlier. The true mysteries in Mr. White’s Confession are psychological: Horner’s morally suspect relationship with teenage drifter Maggie is particularly fascinating. Having previously written a biography of James Beard (The Solace of Food), a cultural history of the Columbia River (River of the West) and a critically lauded first novel (In the Deep Midwinter), Clark here seesaws, most often successfully, between hard-boiled cliches and an earnest, self-conscious concern with the natures of memory and love.
A.G. Harmon’s A House All Stilled, won the Peter Taylor prize for fiction. Like the great Peter Taylor, Harmon is a Southern novelist whose prose is both precise and evocative, reflecting a deep relationship to the land and the mystery of familial relationships over several generations. But Harmon’s novel also has religious and symbolic resonances that Flannery O’Connor would recognize and salute. The novelist Doris Betts, who selected this novel for the Taylor Prize, adds yet another literary comparison: “Harmon’s style,” she writes, “has deft flicks of description and insight, similar to the way Graham Greene might toss out a selected metaphor then move on.” A House All Stilled is an auspicious debut for a major new talent in literary fiction.
[The greatest living writer you’ve never heard of. One of you should start a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for his second novel.]
Morrison, in her sixth novel Jazz, enters 1926 Harlem, a new black world then (“safe from fays [whites] and the things they think up”), and moves into a love story–with a love that could clear a space from the past, give a life or take one. At 50, Joe Trace–good-looking, faithful to wife Violet, also from Virginia poor-times–suddenly tripped into a passionate affair with Dorcas, 18: “one of those deep-down spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going.” Then Violet went to Dorcas’s funeral and cut her dead face. But before Joe met Dorcas, and before her death and before Violet, in her torn coat, scoured the neighborhood looking for reasons, looking for her own truer identity, images of the past burned within all three: Violet’s mother, tipped out of her chair by the men who took everything away, and her death in a well; for Joe, the hand of the “wild” woman, his mother, that never really found his. And all of the child Dorcas’s dolls burned up with her mother and her childhood. Truly, the new music of Harlem–from clicks and taps of pleasure to the thud of betrayed marching black veterans with their frozen faces–“had a complicated anger in it.” Were Joe and Violet substitutes for each other, for a need known and unmet? At the close, a new link is forged between them with another Dorcas. One of Morrison’s richest novels yet.
[What other Catholic novelists do you know that use purgatory as a leitmotif?]
In fact, there are so many companions for the road already that I wonder whether I’ll have enough time to read Elie’s novel when it comes out. My present list just keeps expanding and expanding so much that I’m tempted to give up:
The head of a rotting fish would be too much for even the most devoted readers; so instead here’s a shark eating a shark.
The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) is widely read in American poetry circles. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that many Americans almost think of him as one of their own (Cynthia Haven even documents his worldwide influence here).
Now Milosz’s poetry appeals to me because he interprets his experience of late modern America and early 20th century totalitarianism with a finely honed Catholic theological imagination. Don’t take my word for it. There’s plenty of evidence for my judgment here, here, here, here, and here.
Czeslaw Milosz (right) with friend and literary rival Gombrowicz (mentioned later in post).
Czesław Miłosz, as we’ll see, appears to be in agreement with Paul Elie who recently pronounced the death of the religious novel along with plans to resurrect the genre single-handedly with a novel-in-progress. Elie proudly announced in a New York Times article, “Now I am writing a novel with matters of belief at its core. Now I have skin in the game. Now I am trying to answer the question: Where has the novel of belief gone?” The article in question, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?,” expands upon these questions with the following answer:
“The obvious answer is that it has gone where belief itself has gone. In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives. For the first time in our history it is possible to speak of Christianity matter-of-factly as one religion among many; for the first time it is possible to leave it out of the conversation altogether. This development places the believer on a frontier again, at the beginning of a new adventure; it means that the Christian who was born here is a stranger in a strange land no less than the Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Soviet Jews and Spanish-speaking Catholics who have arrived from elsewhere. But few people see it that way. People of faith see decline and fall. Their detractors see a people threatening rear-guard political action, or a people left behind.”
“We come to life in the middle of stories that are not ours,” says Paul Elie in The Life You Save...
Czesław Miłosz tells the story of literary secularization within a much longer and damning historical arc than Elie, author of the study The Life You Save Maybe Your Own. In that fat tome (eminently readable and well-researched) Elie presents the work of Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy as a literary-religious triumph. Milosz viewed the literary victories of the last few centuries within a much more Pyrrhic frame. The Nobelist saw modern literature, which is not to say all of it, as the culmination of the process of European secularization:
“The fact of Europe’s dechrstianization is indubitable and depressing. It can also be translated into numbers of victims. If a half-Christian Europe could not prevent the First World War and its massacres in the trenches, then two totalitarianisms, which exterminated millions in concentration camps, were the product of leaders who were entirely godless.However, the ties between religion and society are too complicated to draw up a clear boundary between Christian and post-Christian countries. A fish rots from the head down, and what we call the erosion of the religious imagination began with the philosophers of the 18th century, only to progress through the whole of the next century, receiving its lasting expression, above all, in literature and art…”
Even this may be true it still doesn’t take away from the achievements of poets and novelists of both past and present who are legion. In the piece “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World” Gregory Wolfe argues the myth of rampant secularization in the arts is precisely that: a myth. Here’s how he puts it:
“In The New Republic in 2008, Ruth Franklin noted that ‘the absence of God from our literature feels so normal, so self-evident, that one realizes with shock how complete it is.’ Last month in a New York Times Sunday Book Review essay entitled ‘Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?, Paul Elie suggested that ‘if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.’
Really? From where I stand, things don’t look that way. That is in large part because for the past 24 years I have edited Image, a journal that publishes literature and art concerned with the faith traditions of the West. Our instinct when launching the publication was that the narrative of decline was misguided, but we honestly didn’t know if we could fill more than a few issues.
Sometimes when you look, you find. Over the years Image has featured many believing writers, including Annie Dillard, Elie Wiesel, Christian Wiman, Marilynne Robinson and Mark Helprin. But these writers of religious faith and others are not hard to find elsewhere. Several prominent American authors—Franz Wright, Mary Karr and Robert Clark—are Catholic converts. Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer last year published ‘New American Haggadah,’ a contemporary take on the ritual book used by Jews on Passover.”
You can read my own contribution to IMAGE here. You can subscribe to IMAGE here.
Perhaps the fish isn’t all that rotten? At least not in the head? Over the next few days I plan on compiling some Top 10 lists of contemporary poets (Now available!) and novelists who write from within a theological imagination.
I don’t think the task will be as tough as Elie makes it out to be. The toughest task will be keeping the lists down to only ten authors each!
Jean-Luc Marion is a Catholic philosopher, some say the greatest living philosopher, who studied under Jacques Derrida. If nothing else, he is one of the best arguments for religious parents not shielding their kids from the “secular” academe. I’ve made this argument borrowing from my own experience here.
After all, the influence goes both ways. Derrida spent the last decade or two of his life engaging Marion and the tradition of negative theology in books such as Acts of Religion or The Gift of Death. In the end the king of deconstruction couldn’t shake the queen of the sciences.
What I’m really interested in for today is how Marion has developed the notion of Pascal’s three orders. In particular, how the third order, love, is a distinct form of knowledge.
He explains these orders of knowing in a short interview that’s available online:
“From the first point of view you see the world as visible, according to bodies, matter and the visible world. In that order, the leaders are the king, the president, the CEO of a corporation, the banking system and so on.
The second order is the order of the spirit. This is the invisible world of rationality. It includes the sciences, philosophy, art and literature. You can be completely unknown in the first order and be the leader in this second order. For example, Archimedes was a prince in the family of a king in Sicily, but he was really a leader as a mathematician. Mathematicians, like Einstein, are the kings of this second order.
The third order is charity, love or what art understands. In that order the saints, lovers and Christ are kings.
The lower orders are not seen by the upper orders. The president of the United States is not supposed to be a scientist or a saint. He has a job as president of the United States, period. The second order does not see the third, but sees itself and the first order. The first two cannot see the third order, but the third can see what is going on in the first two.”
Robert Musil: “When she spoke of beauty, he spoke of fatty tissue supporting the epidermis.”
One way to suggest this difference is to take a look at what we could call “order mistakes” in one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, Robert Musil’s, The Man Without Qualities:
“His answers were quite often like that. When she spoke of beauty, he spoke of the fatty tissue supporting the epidermis. When she mentioned love, he responded with the statistical curve that indicates the automatic rise and fall in the annual birthrate. When she spoke of the great figures in art, he traced the chain of borrowings that links these figures to one another.”
The comedy here arises out of a confusion of orders. The male character does not respond to the love shown to him with love. Instead of rising to the third order of knowledge he remains mired in the second order of rationality and thereby fumbles the relationship unfolding in front of him.
In fact, a comical mixing of orders of knowledge opens the book and marks almost every page that follows:
“A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising and setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913.”
These are fragmentary thoughts, but if one of you develops it into a conference paper, do cite me in the footnotes!
I’ll close by way of example from my own personal encounter with Jean-Luc Marion as his translator in Poland.
Right before going into the translator’s booth for Marion’s lecture about Descartes in Krakow I remember seeing him talking to my wife on the other side of the room. He had his arm around her. Whatever he was saying was of great import, yet it was said with a lot of warmth.
I suppose in the first order this whole scene might appear to someone as a famous philosopher accosting a young woman. In the second order this might appear to someone’s gaze on the level of fatty tissues or birth rates interacting (my wife was pregnant). In the end, my wife confirmed that Jean-Luc Marion had given her some sincere fatherly advice. But I already knew that.
On the day of his departure from Krakow Marion (middle) was having the best hair day between the poet Artur Grabowski and I (left, POOF!).
The University of Notre Dame Press is one of our premier academic publishing houses. They’ve been holding a blowout clearance on a great swath of their catalog for almost two months.
There are only two weeks left to get $30-$50 books for only FIVE BUCKS (some of them are ten).
Anyway, the following post contains all the instructions you’ll need to navigate the sale. Don’t forget to enter the checkout code after you select your first book (I bet you can’t stop at just one) and put it in the checkout basket. Afterwards all the other items in your basket will automatically appear with the discounted price (if you’re pressed for cash and want to weed out the ten dollar items).
I ended up buying nine books from them. I’ll spare you the details of each and every one of them. The pictures included in this post are my top three recommendations. Must reads.
Milosz on my mind. (Speaking at the Milosz Year 2011 conference in Krakow)
Below is an excerpt from an interview with Nick Ripatrazone featured today on his blog The Fine Delight:
Artur Rosman’s site, Cosmos The In Lost, has become a daily read for me: sharp, smart, well-written essays ranging from Catholic theology to art to culture to literature, all delivered with a sense of humor missing from most other religious discussions. The panoply of subjects doesn’t result in slim reading: rather, the opposite. Rosman is able to introduce, elucidate, conclude, and educate; to open conversations rather than close them; to make me reconsider my assumptions about contemporary Catholicism in America and Europe. Here are some of his thoughts on the site, Milosz, Warhol, Nowosielski, American Catholicism and its political stains, and more.
1. Cosmos The In Lost is a rarity: a smart, entertaining blog about Catholic theology, literature, art, and culture. When and why did you start the site?
I started the blog out of desperation. I’m presently writing a doctoral dissertation on the poetry (and theology) of Czeslaw Milosz. This has proven to be tortuous when coupled with a several year writing block. I thought having to write posts almost daily might cure me. The blog-writing is fun; we’ll see about the dissertation.
2. What attracts you to the writing and thought of Milosz?
Milosz was right in the middle of everything. He saw the worst (and the best) of the 20th century firsthand. What’s more, as a poet and thinker with a profoundly Catholic imagination he wasn’t afraid to talk about the neuralgic points the faith still needs to address more clearly for our generation: scientism, totalitarianism, consumerism, and the problem of evil. I like to think of him as the prolegomena to any future Newman . . .
Hell ain’t what it used to be! (Hans Memling, Last Judgment, stolen by pirates & bought by the city of Gdansk, Poland. YESSS.)
When was the last time any of you (who don’t attend fundamentalist churches) heard a good and theologically sound hellfire sermon? The last, no the only one, I’ve ever heard was in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here it is in its glorious entirety if you need a memory refresher (BE AFRAID!):
Over the last two centuries Hell has been banished from the Catholic imagination more effectively than Adam and Eve from Eden. I suppose the last blows came sometime during the long 19th century dominated by Napoleon, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Feuerbach.
The infernal trenches of World War I gave hellfire a slight rebound. The whole messy experience cast hell from oblivion back into our world, but not the underworld. It became a truism to say that people not infrequently make hell on earth. The concentration camps and gulags of World War II firmly entrenched hell upon the face of the earth.
Now, to some extent, we also still half-heartedly believe that sin is its own punishment. But why can’t Hell be both the state after life and a state in this present life? I’m all for a Catholic both/and here.
“Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.”
Four out of five is not a misprint as far as I know. It has unfortunately checked out on all the searches I’ve done so far. I’m still hoping it’s wrong, after all, this is supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world. Then again, our family of five has always been well below the poverty line, so it’s a little comforting to know we’re not alone.
Then this picture showed up on my social media radar as if to drive the point home:
“A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death–the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.” –Czeslaw Milosz
I also happened to be reading (because who doesn’t read five things at time?) the book-length dialogue between the then Cardinal Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka entitled On Heaven and Earth. There the future Pope Francis forcefully reminds us of the close tie between authentic religion and social justice:
“Hence the [classical] liberal conception of religion being allowed only in places of worship, and the elimination of religion outside of it, is not convincing. There are actions that are consistently done in places of worship, like the adoration, praise and worship of God. But there are others that are done outside, like the entire social dimension of religion. It starts in a community encounter with God, who is near and walks with His people, and is developed over the course of one’s life with ethical, religious, and fraternal guidelines, among others. There is something that regulates the conduct of others: justice. I believe that one who worships God has, through that experience, a mandate of justice toward his brothers.”
One should not forget that the mandate toward social justice is solely a Judeo-Christian invention. The pay raises of Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman, coupled with the poverty awaiting most of us, signal a return to the much more cruel gods of Graeco-Roman religion. Whether we like it or not, we can look forward to a massive, but unintentional, experiment in comparative religion. It’s unavoidable, since I don’t foresee CEOs suddenly having epiphanies like this one:
Finally, these perfidies of American betrayal and greed bring us to my dissertation topic (what else?), the poet Czeslaw Milosz. After you read a passage from one of his works below you will agree he also happened to have a finely-honed feel for theological reflection. The following reflection, which comes from the section “The Discreet Charm of Nihilism” (props to Bunuel) in the collection Road-Side Dog, turns Marx upside down, or at least shakes up a well-known phrase of his real good.
“Religion, opium for the people. To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death–the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.”
It’s a dog’s life.
You might object by saying that you can be a nice lad or lass (even point out Sweden as a sociological example) without the afterlife and the threat of judgment hanging over your head. But Sweet Viking Jesus would tell you otherwise. Swedish ethics are influenced by revelation through and through, as is the rest of the West, and everyone influenced by globalism, meaning… pretty much everyone.
What’s more, those who aren’t believers (Swedes aren’t the only ones. Jag är ledsen!), but hang on to the Christian ethic of protecting the weak and the victims, are probably the worst fideists of all!
They are embedded in something they can’t justify, something whose origins they’ve willfully obscured, but deep down they know that empty phrases about Gilgamesh, Odin, or Kant won’t get them anywhere.
So, given where the world is heading, our eviscerated public square, and who is at the helm… how about we pray that there’s a Hell?
There is a caveat: nobody gets a free pass.
The musical coda is a song from Bill Mallonee that first got me thinking seriously about these issues way back when.
Rembrandt, Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630.
I’m taking a bit of a break from my Catholiclandia series before I tackle the trends in Polish Catholic media and intellectual life. Part Iis an attempt to provide a differentiated picture of both homogeneity and diversity in Polish religious life. Part II briefly sketched the mixed legacy of Solidarity. There’s a little bit more on Solidarity here.
In an issue of ZNAK Monthly (557) from 2001 Czeslaw Milosz uses the following words from a Polish musician as the epigraph to his response (“Polish Snarls”) to Chantal Delsol’s article “God in Exile” in the same issue:
“Igor Markievich was disturbed by Penderecki’s texts, ‘But there are no more religious people these days. All that is behind us.’ Penderecki responded that it’s different for us [Central Europeans]. There are no texts more contemporary than the biblical texts: Psalms, Jeremiah’s Lamentations, the New Testament, or the Apocalypse. What’s more contemporary? You think Ionesco or Beckett? Igor didn’t respond to it, he just looked at me, searching for support. But he didn’t get it from me, because I also think that we have no more contemporary texts than the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Penderecki was right.” –Zygmunt Mycielski, Journal, Autumn 1966
Penderecki conducting his “Credo” at Skalka Church in Krakow. Milosz’s grave is in the crypt of the church. ⒸArtur Sebastian Rosman, 2008
As far as I know, neither Milosz’s “Polish Snarls,” nor this text from Mycielski have been previously translated. More on Milosz from Cosmos the in Losthere and in a post recently mentioned by the Book Haven right here.
Here’s Penderecki’s “Seven Gates of Jerusalem,” which includes passages from the Lamentations as you can see here.
I suspect the endless essays about the rethinking, protecting, death, in other words, the “crisis,” of the humanities in The Chronicle of Higher Education (if only) have cleared more than one forest.
I’ve written about the religious uses of the “secular” academy elsewhere in my post about Warhol and Blau. As you can tell from the post it’s not like I’m first in line to bust up the idols of the secular academy. On the other hand, the disappointing exchange surrounding yesterday’s post about (classical liberal) ideology in what passes for theology in America brought me back to Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. (See: comment section)
I would like to highlight this novelistic account with the qualification that there is no reason to identify it with Coetzee’s own opinions, or to totally dismiss them as having no connection with them.
The argument presented by his character, Sr. Bridget Costello, in her lecture “The Humanities in Africa,” is that the humanities were a stillborn child of theology, even perhaps more so than futile academic projects such as the Death of God movement of a/theology. Without further ado, here’s a large chunk of her lecture:
‘Textual scholarship, I would want to say if I had more time, was the living breath of humane studies while humane studies were what we can properly call a movement in history, namely the humanist movement. But it did not take long for the living breath in textual scholarship to be snuffed out. The story of textual scholarship since then has been the story of one effort after another to resuscitate that life, in vain.
‘The text for the sake of which textual scholarship was invented was the Bible. Textual scholars saw themselves as servants in the recovery of the true message of the Bible, specifically the true teaching of Jesus. The
figure they employed to describe their work was the figure of rebirth or resurrection. The reader of the New Testament was to encounter face to face for the first time the risen, reborn Christ, Christus renascens, obscured no longer by a veil of scholastic gloss and commentary. It was with this goal in mind that scholars taught themselves first Greek, then Hebrew, then (later) other languages of the Near East. Textual scholarship meant, first, the recovery of the true text, then the true translation of that text; and true translation turned out to be inseparable from true interpretation, just as true interpretation turned out to be inseparable from true understanding of the cultural and historical matrix from which the text had emerged. That is how linguistic studies, literary studies (as studies in interpretation), cultural studies and historical studies–the studies that form the core of the so-called humanities–came to be bound up together.
‘Why, you may justly ask, call this constellation of studies devoted to the recovery of the true word of the Lord studia humanitatis? Asking this question will, it turns out, be much the same as asking, Why did the studia humanitatis come into flower only in the fifteenth century of our dispensation and not hundreds of years earlier?
‘The answer has much to do with historical accident: with the decline and eventual sack of Constantinople and the flight of Byzantine men of learning to Italy. (Observing your Dean’s fifteen-minute rule, I will pass over the living presence of Aristotle, Galen and other Greek philosophers in medieval Western Christendom, and the role of Arab Spain in transmitting their teachings.)
‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. The gifts brought by the men from the East were not only grammars of the Greek language but texts by authors from Greek antiquity. The linguistic command that was intended to be applied to the Greek New Testament could be perfected only by immersing oneself in these seductive pre-Christian texts. In no time, as one might expect, the study of these texts, later to be called the classics, had become an end in itself.
‘More than that: the study of the texts of antiquity came to be justified not only on linguistic grounds but on philosophical grounds too. Jesus was sent to redeem mankind, the argument went. To redeem mankind from what? From an unredeemed state, of course. But what do we know of mankind in an unredeemed state? The only substantial record that covers all aspects of life is the record of antiquity. So to grasp the purpose behind the Incarnation–that is to say, to grasp the meaning of redemption–we must embark, through the classics, on studia humanitatis.
‘Thus, in the brief and crude account I give, did it come about that biblical scholarship and studies in Greek and Roman antiquity came to be coupled in a relationship never without antagonism, and thus did it come about that textual scholarship and its attendant disciplines came to fall under the rubric “the humanities”.
‘So much for history. So much for why you, diverse and ill-assorted as you may privately feel yourselves to be, find yourselves assembled this morning under a single roof as graduates-to-be in the humanities. Now, in the few minutes left to me, I am going to tell you why I do not belong among you and have no message of comfort to bring to you, despite the generosity of the gesture you have extended to me.
‘The message I bring is that you lost your way long ago, perhaps as long as five centuries ago. The handful of men among whom the movement originated of which you represent, I fear, the sad tail–those men were animated, at least at first, by the purpose of finding the True Word, by which they understood then, and I understand now, the redemptive word.
‘That word cannot be found in the classics, whether you understand the classics to mean Homer and Sophocles or whether you understand them to mean Homer and Shakespeare and Dostoevsky In a happier age than our own it was possible for people to bluff themselves into believing that the classics of antiquity offered a teaching and a way of life. In our own times we have settled, rather desperately, for the claim that the study of the classics in itself might offer a way of life, or if not a way of life then at least a way of earning a living which, if it cannot be proved to do any positive good, at least is on no side claimed to do any harm.
‘But the impulse behind the first generation of textual scholars cannot be diverted so easily from its proper goal. I am a daughter of the Catholic Church, not of the Reformed Church, but I applaud Martin Luther when he turns his back on Desiderius Erasmus, judging that his colleague, despite his immense gifts, has been seduced into branches of study that do not, by the standards of the ultimate, matter. The studia humanitatis have taken a long time to die, but now, at the end of the second millennium of our era, they are truly on their deathbed. All the more bitter should be that death, I would say, since it has been brought about by the monster enthroned by those very studies as first and animating principle of the universe: the monster of reason, mechanical reason. But that is another story for another day.’