Coetzee Demolishes Greek Harmony With Christian Agony

I tried to find an example of the "Unitarian with an attitude" bumper sticker I once saw in Portland, OR. This is what the search turned up. True story.

I tried to find an example of the “UNITARIAN WITH ATTITUDE!” bumper sticker I once saw in Portland, OR. This is what the search turned up. True story.

The best religious novelist of our time isn’t, as far as I know, a Christian believer. J.M. Coetzee completed his doctoral dissertation upon another Christ-haunted writer Samuel Beckett. He also is clearly influenced by the philosophical and theological writings of the Catholic (other than Bruno Latour) most-discussed in the secular academe. Of course, I’m talking about René Girard, whose work I’ve alluded to elsewhere.

Coetzee did attend a Catholic high school, plus he has both Dutch and Polish ancestry. Poland was not always the Catholic stronghold it is nowadays–Poles can thank the Germans, Russians, and the Jesuits for that. Actually, during the 16th century Poland was home to not only nearly all the Jews expelled from the West, but also of the Radical Reformation (so perhaps Coetzee has radical Calvinist or Unitarian roots?). In fact, it’s the only place where the Jesuits were successful at combating the Reformation. As the old joke goes:

Q: What is similar about the Jesuit and Dominican Orders?

A: Well, they were both founded by Spaniards, St. Dominic for the Dominicans, and St. Ignatius of Loyola for the Jesuits.
They were also both founded to combat heresy: the Dominicans to fight the Albigensians, and the Jesuits to fight the Protestants.

Q: What is different about the Jesuit and Dominican Orders?
A: Well, have you met any Albigensians lately?

Mann saw through some of the intellectual fashions for Greece, but his not enough.

Mann saw through some of the intellectual fashions for Greece, but his Röntgen didn’t cover enough.

WHERE WAS I? In my mind J.M. Coetzee is the greatest Christian (why not Catholic?) novelist of our time, because his characters constantly mull over the significance and practices of Christianity. They make the Incarnation strange again by inviting the unsuspecting reader to look at it from new angles. But don’t let me be the judge; judge yourself.

Let’s start with a passage from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I’m almost certain the passages you’ll read from Coetzee later are a polemic against this great German modernist writer. The Magic Mountain is a prime example of post-Christian attachment to an idealized Greece, even if some of the rough edges are briefly highlighted, instead of totally glossed over. The oneric section of the “Snow” chapter begins with the idealized beauty we usually associate with Greece:

“Youths were at work with horses, running hand on halter alongside their whinnying, head-tossing charges; pulling the refractory ones on a long rein, or else, seated bareback, striking the flanks of their mounts with naked heels, to drive them into the sea. The muscles of the riders’ backs played beneath the sunbronzed skin, and their voices were enchanting beyond words as they shouted to each other or to their steeds. A little bay ran deep into the coast line, mirroring the shore as does a mountain lake; about it girls were dancing. One of them sat with her back toward him, so that her neck, and the hair drawn to a knot above it smote him with loveliness. She sat with her feet in a depression of the rock, and played on a shepherd’s pipe, her eyes roving above the stops to her companions, as in long, wide garments, smiling, with outstretched arms, alone, or in pairs swaying gently toward each other, they moved in the paces of the dance. Behind the flute-player—she too was white-clad, and her back was long and slender, laterally rounded by the movement of her arms—other maidens were sitting, or standing entwined to watch the dance, and quietly talking. Beyond them still, young men were practising archery. Lovely and pleasant it was to see the older ones show the younger, curly-locked novices, how to span the bow and take aim; draw with them, and laughing support them staggering back from the push of the arrow as it leaped from the bow. Others were fishing, lying prone on a jut of rock, waggling one leg in the air, holding the line out over the water, approaching their heads in talk. Others sat straining forward to fling the bait far out. A ship, with mast and yards, lying high out of the tide, was being eased, shoved,and steadied into the sea. Children played and exulted among the breaking waves . . .”

The black book of Greek religion.

The black book of Greek religion.

Mann briefly spoils the lazy dream with the nightmare of homo necans we usually ignore:

“Scarcely daring to venture, but following an inner compulsion, he passed behind the statuary, and through the double row of columns beyond. The bronze door of the sanctuary stood open, and the poor soul’s knees all but gave way beneath him at the sight within. Two grey old women, witchlike, with hanging breasts and dugs of fingerlength, were busy there, between flaming braziers, most horribly. They were dismembering a child. In dreadful silence they tore it apart with their bare hands—Hans Castorp saw the bright hair blood-smeared—and cracked the tender bones between their jaws, their dreadful lips dripped blood. An icy coldness held him. He would have covered his eyes and fled, but could not.”

In the end Mann doesn’t let Castorp entirely forget the horror of the temple, yet he represses into an inarticulate muteness of a “silent recognition.”  With that the novelist still makes his character side with the myth of Greek balance and beauty even if he couches it in a decidedly Christian rhetoric of love:

“Death and love—no, I cannot make a poem of them, they don’t go together. Love stands opposed to death. It is love, not reason, that is stronger than death. Only love, not reason, gives sweet thoughts. And from love and sweetness alone can form come: form and civilization, friendly, enlightened, beautiful human intercourse—always in silent recognition of the bloodsacrifice. Ah, yes, it is well and truly dreamed. I have taken stock. I will remember. I will keep faith with death in my heart, yet well remember that faith with death and the dead is evil, is hostile to humankind, so soon as we give it power over thought and action. For the sake of goodness and love, man shall let death have no sovereignty over his thoughts. And with this—I awake. For I have dreamed it out to the end, I have come to my goal.”

Greece exposed!

Greece exposed!

I immediately thought of these passages passage from Mann when reading “The Humanities in Africa” chapter in Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello. Bridget, the sister of the title character, is a nun and she has the following to say about our (unhealthy) obsession with Greece:

“‘You miss my point, Elizabeth. Hellenism was an alternative. Poor as it may have been, Hellas was the one alternative to the Christian vision that humanism was able to offer. To Greek society–an utterly idealized picture of Greek society, but how were ordinary folk to know that?–they could point and say, Behold, that is how we should live–not in the hereafter but in the here and now! Hellas: half-naked men, their breasts gleaming with olive oil, sitting on the temple steps discoursing about the good and the true, while in the background lithe-limbed boys wrestle and a herd of goats contentedly grazes. Free minds in free bodies. More than an idealized picture: a dream, a delusion.”

Not a pretty picture by Greek standards. Coetzee even notes it might be blasphemous for the Orthodox.

Not a pretty picture by Greek standards. Coetzee even notes the Eastern Orthodox might consider it blasphemous.

Bridget continues, refuses a merely “silent recognition,” and takes poor Elizabeth behind another woodshed:

‘Do you think, Elizabeth, that the Greeks are utterly foreign to Zululand? I tell you again, if you will not listen to me, at least have the decency to listen to Joseph. Do you think that Joseph carves suffering Jesus because he does not know better, that if you took Joseph on a tour around the Louvre his eyes would be opened and he would set about carving, for the benefit of his people, naked women preening themselves, or men flexing their muscles? Are you aware that when Europeans first came in contact with the Zulus, educated Europeans, men from England with public-school educations behind them, they thought they had rediscovered the Greeks? They said so quite explicitly. They took out their sketch blocks and drew sketches in which Zulu warriors with their spears and their clubs and their shields are shown in exactly the same attitudes, with exactly the same physical proportions, as the Hectors and Achilles we see in nineteenth-century illustrations of the Iliad, except that their skins are dusky. Well-formed limbs, skimpy clothes, a proud bearing, formal manners, martial virtues–it was all here! Sparta in Africa: that is what they thought they had found. For decades those same ex-public schoolboys, with their romantic idea of Greek antiquity, administered Zululand on behalf of the Crown. They wanted Zululand to be Sparta. They wanted the Zulus to be Greeks. So to Joseph and his father and his grandfather the Greeks are not a remote foreign tribe at all. They were offered the Greeks, by their new rulers, as a model of the kind of people they ought to be and could be. They were offered the Greeks and they rejected them. Instead, they looked elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. They chose to be Christians, followers of the living Christ. Joseph has chosen Jesus as his model. Speak to him. He will tell you.’

How do post-colonial departments digest mysteries such as this one? One is reminded of the divisive rhetoric emerging from deep geographical divisions within the Anglican communion. These insights also square with Girard’s repeated claim that the victim is the only universal category everyone agrees to in our age. What’s more, the victim, as Nietzsche knew (and despised), is a Christian category first articulated by St. Paul and the Gospels. It would have never struck the Greeks to put something as ugly as that at the center of their world. Finally, Coetzee goes beyond scratching the surface with novels built around characters who are victimizers. He presses the issue of forgiveness in extremis, with characters who might be as despicable as Kermit Gosnell or George Zimmerman are to some, in novels such as Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace.

All in all, it’s because of sharp observations such as these, because of a novelistic intensity unmatched since Dostoevsky, that Coetzee is the most significant living writer of theological fiction.  This is also why I couldn’t wait until the American release of The Childhood of Jesus and bought myself the UK edition.

The cover of the Polish edition, because why not?

The cover of the Polish edition, because Coetzee might really bum out the kids if they’ve been raised on Disney.

Disconsolate Karłowicz & Dostoevsky Tarry with Theological Corpses

Hans Holbein, Dead Christ, 1522. Dostoevsky's inspiration in the Idiot.

Hans Holbein, Dead Christ, 1522. Dostoevsky’s inspiration in the Idiot.

My esteemed friend over at Catholic Culture and Society, a blog about organic Catholicism, has been chiding my obsession with the negative aspects of life.

Why not look at a happy integrated family, or the beauty of God’s creation? Why think about violence, death, and perversion?

I confess to writing mostly about the latter.  For example, I have written about Nowosielski’s dark iconic vision here, or Kristeva’s obsession with the Baroque here, or dirty Rabelaisian Catholicism here and here,  or even Cromwell as Karl Hungus here.

I talk abut these because they are aspects of my own experience that need to be integrated. You should also remember that I come from a country, Poland, that lost roughly one-sixth of its population during World War II.

What follows below is a florilegium that will hopefully suggest Manichean tendencies (of which I’ve been accused) aren’t the only thing behind these posts.

“‘The thought steps in, whether one likes it or no, that death is so terrible and so powerful, that even He who conquered it in His miracles during life was unable to triumph over it at the last. He who called to Lazarus, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ and the dead man lived—He was now Himself a prey to nature and death. Nature appears to one, looking at this picture, as some huge, implacable, dumb monster; or still better—a stranger simile—some enormous mechanical engine of modern days which has seized and crushed and swallowed up a great and invaluable Being, a Being worth nature and all her laws, worth the whole earth, which was perhaps created merely for the sake of the advent of that Being.

‘This blind, dumb, implacable, eternal, unreasoning force is well shown in the picture, and the absolute subordination of all men and things to it is so well expressed that the idea unconsciously arises in the mind of anyone who looks at it. All those faithful people who were gazing at the cross and its mutilated occupant must have suffered agony of mind that evening; for they must have felt that all their hopes and almost all their faith had been shattered at a blow. They must have separated in terror and dread that night, though each perhaps carried away with him one great thought which was never eradicated from his mind for ever afterwards. If this great Teacher of theirs could have seen Himself after the Crucifixion, how could He have consented to mount the Cross and to die as He did? This thought also comes into the mind of the man who gazes at this picture. I thought of all this by snatches probably between my attacks of delirium—for an hour and a half or so before Colia’s departure.

‘Can there be an appearance of that which has no form? And yet it seemed to me, at certain moments, that I beheld in some strange and impossible form, that dark, dumb, irresistibly powerful, eternal force.”

—Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Eva Martin.

Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ, c. 1480.

Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ, c. 1480.

“Holy Saturday. The drama of Holy Week dies down for a moment. However, our thoughts race ahead, because they are hesitant about stopping near scenes of mourning, at physically repelling pietas, or by the corpse of Christ that has turned blue (as Mantegna saw it during a moment of religious dread). It is difficult to stay with a dead God, if only because his very death negates the logic of all consolations—doubt strikes not only the object of hope, but also its very possibility. We run away. Even though the tortured body of Christ rests in its grave, we live in the inevitable arrival of Sunday. The encouraging signs: rolled away stone, empty grave, angels, glory! It’s as if the final battle with the gates of hell is already behind us. But why does God wait nonetheless? Why does he leave us at the grave? Why is the One who is capable of rebuilding the temple in three days incapable of rebuilding it immediately?

The temptation to run away from the silence of Holy Saturday is not new. These same waters—disgust with the foolishness of an actual incarnation and an actual sacrifice—water the Docetist heresy. In the apocryphal Gospel of Bartholomew (dated back to the third century) the harrowing of hell occurs already on Friday, even before the deposition from the cross.  However this only makes Christ’s tomb into a mere theatrical decoration, and Saturday a problem of rhetoric not philosophy. I believe that Irenaeus of Lyons, who thought the Savior was in hell from his death until his resurrection, has the backing of some weighty theological reasons.”

—Dariusz Karlowicz, Koniec snu Konstantyna [The End of Constantine’s Dream], my own translation.

Acquainted with the Night: The Art of Jerzy Nowosielski (An IMAGE Journal Essay)

What follows is an essay I published with IMAGE Journal with the help of the Starmach Gallery in Krakow (You too can own a Nowosielski!).

IMAGE needs your generous emergency donations more than ever. They are in serious financial trouble through no fault of their own.  I know many of you read IMAGE, so please step up.

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Jerzy Nowosielski. Wings of the Archangel, 1947. Oil on canvas.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

—Robert Frost

Lately I’ve become acquainted with the night coursing through my veins. Like any good diabetic, I have to draw murky drops of blood several times daily to measure my sugar levels. This all began with a hospital visit some seven months ago. That was when I discovered my bloody secret. Around midnight I was led into a darkened hospital room which would be my home for the next week. My two octogenarian companions lay sleeping. Their diapers filled our temporary camp with a smell that outdid anything the corpse of Father Zosima could have emitted.

You might wonder what a grad-student-for-life does in situations like these. He reads this in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science: “After Buddha was dead people showed his shadow for centuries afterwards in a cave—an immense frightful shadow. God is dead: but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow.” The Prussian was probably right. The shadow of God has accompanied me since time out of mind, yet I continually reach for his light—never overcoming the shadowy impression that I’m neither quite wrong, nor really ever right.

The Bible’s sacred history is typically associated with the metaphor of light—the blinding light of revelation banishing darkness. But what, someone might ask, does revelation have to do with the murky ambiguity of so much human experience? For many of us, the light of revelation seems to leave the dim regions of our lives untouched. The paintings of Jerzy Nowosielski address the shadowy, opaque dimensions of experience. His art proposes a spectral shift in our reading of the biblical story—and therefore of our own stories. Nowosielski’s paintings seem to imply that there is something deeply human, and therefore perhaps also divine, about the darker aspects of our existence. No wonder one Polish art critic called him “the most secular religious artist and the greatest theologian among secular artists.”

But before we look at his paintings, we should dim the lights theologically. If we look at the foundational events of the Bible, the ones that guide the lives of Jews and Christians, we cannot help but notice the obscure register that reigns there: God appears to be a creature of the night, hidden when he reveals himself, seen “as through a glass, darkly.” One of the first things we read is, “Darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” A bit later, the foundation of the Israelite religion is built upon Moses receiving the tablets from a God clad in a cloud of darkness. During the Exodus, God’s people are saved by the dark waters which consume Pharaoh’s soldiers. Think also of Jesus in Mary’s dark womb, the dark night of the nativity, the midday darkness falling upon the land during the crucifixion, the darkness of the tomb and the descent into hell; add to it all the blindness of Paul en route to Damascus. I could multiply the examples here (for example, the Apocalypse, a dark unveiling indeed), but I’ll leave that up to you.

The darkness of the Bible is murky but enriching, a bit like a blood transfusion—and the paintings and icons of Jerzy Nowosielski share this quality. Nowosielski inscribes the canvas with the full range of our fears, disappointments, cruelties, and passions (in both senses of the word). “We must honestly admit to ourselves that we find ourselves on the edge of an immense metaphysical black hole,” he says. Yet something more is going on here: he dips his brush into these dark regions and then proceeds to mix them with a transfusion from the clouded streams around the Sacred Heart. Echoing Dostoyevsky’s dictum that “Beauty will save the world,” he writes: “Everything will capsize into the other side. Only art will help us carry our reality onto that other side. Art will save us.” Grace does not cross nature out; even at the general ressurection, we will still bear the marks of our humiliating sufferings, but then they will be accepted and transfigured—just as Christ still had the marks of his passion after his resurrection.

When I think of abstract painting (with the possible exceptions of Congdon, Kandinsky, and Rothko), I think of a personalized vision that dims all connections with reality. Personally, the schizophrenic solipsism of abstract art can be so bleak that it makes me want to stop reproducing and consider suicide.

So how did somebody like Nowosielski, who trained to become an Orthodox monk and icon writer during World War II in a Kiev monastery, first come to public attention with a series of abstract paintings? These works took the theologically saturated Polish art scene by storm during a 1948 exhibition in Krakow. A long-time resident of that city recently told me that the two poles of Sunday recreation that year were the Dominican church and the gallery where Nowosielski and his like-minded friends, the Krakow Group, displayed their paintings.

Nowosielski said that he lost his faith sometime during the Second World War. Though he never systematically addressed why it happened, he came to see that loss as a religiously fruitful experience. It led him to a state where “there is no metaphysical reality, which in essence is a highly metaphysical state, when the consciousness hits some absolute rock-bottom.” For Nowosielski, the way down turned out to be the same as grappling in the dark for the way up. “I started seeking the metaphysical roots of painting in this state of certain uncertainty about what I’m doing in art and where I stand. That’s when my ‘abstract painting’ was born,” he says. His statement echoes the Eastern Orthodox practice of apophatic mysticism (known in the West as the Via Negativa). In this tradition one begins by “cleaning the house” of one’s mind, negating all images of God and letting go of all ties to the world. Paradoxically, the practice has a positive and practical aim: clearing our minds of the concepts which screen us from the immanent energies of the transcendent God.

In the 1947 painting Wing of the Archangel, playful, wing-like dark blue triangles poke through in several locations, seeming to push out of the blue-gray areas on the sides and bottom of the canvas [see front cover]. This activity creates an expanding, luminous area of subtly variegated blue calm in the center portion. The orange rectangle and triangle just to the right of the middle emanate a sense of controlled passion.

Theology aside, abstract works like these were in part a rebellion against the mandatory Socialist Realist style imposed by the Soviets, kitschy art that papered over the gray reality of life in the Warsaw Bloc after World War II, a land overwhelmed by memories of atrocities and beaten into the ground by brutal foreign domination that would continue for four more decades. Then again, history is always theological. If there is one thing we learn from Nowosielski’s art it’s that there is no clear distinction between the sacred and the profane, believer and atheist. Everything can and must be taken into the eschatological realism proposed by the resurrection. As Karl Barth loved to say, God’s “no” also contains his ever greater “yes.” Nowosielski continued to follow his abstract intuitions throughout his career and later came to see them within a theological horizon. “The angel is abstract painting,” he once said—albeit sometimes a fallen angel.

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Plate 1. Jerzy Nowosielski. Woman in Darkness, 1971. Oil on canvas. 31 ½ x 47 ¼ inches.

Nowosielski’s love for painting the female body saves him from an abstract, heavenly escapism. He has painted sportswomen, housewives, women fully dressed, women in front of mirrors, women near windows, half-nudes, nudes, Madonnas, women in the ambivalent situations of ancient mystery rites, even women undergoing torture. As regards the last three categories, he once said that “art must always be suspect, because it redeems hell.” He meant all of his art, but what subject needs more redeeming than our representation of the female body, reproduced endlessly and demeaningly on billboards and internet sites? Something of this predicament is present in Nowosielski’s Woman in Darkness (1971), a work that suggests a coming to terms with painful secrets or fears about the future [see Plate 1]. The painting uses a dividing wall reminiscent of icon painting or the Stations of the Cross. Here, however, the boundaries seem permeable, intertwined. The bodies participate in a circling exchange, like the perichoresis of the Trinity. The ocher body is either screaming at or reconciling herself to the part of herself in blue, divided from her by the deep gray-blue wall. At the same time, some ochre part of herself seems to pass through that wall. She is merging with or emerging from the blue aspects of herself, which are turned away from us in a gesture of shame or despair.

A bold aspect of many of Nowosielski’s secular paintings is how they resemble icons. The rumor is that Eastern Orthodox faithful often complain that they cannot pray with Nowosielski’s actual icons, because his work consciously breaks so many conventions. I must admit that I would have no qualms about praying with one of Nowosielski’s nudes. I believe him when he says, “When it comes to my so-called secular paintings I am convinced that my theology of the body expressed there ‘speaks’ about problems similar to the ones expressed by the pope in words.” (He refers here to the late John Paul II’s collection of 129 Wednesday audiences on the theology of the body in which he says, among other things, that sexuality can potentially be an image of the Trinity.)

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Plate 3. Jerzy Nowosielski. Black Half-nude, 1971. Oil on canvas. 39 x 32 ¼ inches.

Compare the theology implicit in Nowosielski’s Black Half-nude (1971) [see Plate 3] with any of the nudes by the consensus nude painter par excellence, Lucian Freud. Freud’s cadaverous nudes, like the rest of his paintings, seem to be overwhelmed by the weight of sin, which they bear reluctantly like the tree which bore the weight of Judas’s body. For example, search for the painting of the pregnant Kate Moss entitled Naked Portrait. What should be an annunciation of life, Freud turns into a bloodless and dispiriting vivisection, despite his almost Polaroid realism. On the other hand, Nowosielski’s Black Half-nude is all the more real for all the elements of iconic abstraction it employs. Thanks to this, there is a gravity to the body which I can only compare with Michelangelo’s Pietà. Then come all the theological quotations: The white towel around her hips resembles a perizonium (the cloth usually worn by Christ on crucifixes). She sits on a heavenly azure seat, an iconic convention of both East and West in early Christian mosaics representing the coronation of the Virgin.

The cloth around her face creates a mix of theological and secular ambiguities. It could be Veronica’s veil with an imprint of a suffering face, invisible to us, or maybe the woman is taking off her blouse. In a secular inversion of da Messina’s Annunciation, perhaps she is anticipating a sexual encounter with the person facing her: the viewer. While enunciating a theology of the body, the painting playfully breaks with the iconic convention of concentrating upon the face and eyes. To paraphrase an Image editorial [from Issue 41], if we cannot incarnate God in our blood, guts, shit, piss, semen, saliva, bellies, knees, and breasts—he vanishes into the ether. Then again, our conventional iconic expectations are not completely denied: her torso, breasts, and shapely stomach are arranged to resemble a face smiling back at us. I don’t know if they’re telling us to change our lives, but that ambiguity is just how Nowosielski would have it. Finally, there is the orange and yellow glow around her, which at first looks like the neon of a red-light district. But the glow also resembles what Pavel Florensky called “admixtureless light”—that is, gold, the color of the backgrounds of icons. And yet, iconic conventions are again turned inside out here. The background is black, and black penetrates most of the body. According to the painter, this mixing of boundaries is part of the plan of salvation, and therefore art: “There is a mysterious bond between sin and holiness. It can be partly seen with the aid of art. Eros illuminates matter, but this cannot be described with words. Some small part of it can be painted.” Then again, the connection between religious art and eroticism has been part of the tradition for a long time, running from the Song of Songs to any number of Saint Sebastians (most notably Mantegna’s), Bernini’s sculptures, and Donne’s poetry, to name just a few examples.

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Plate 4. Jerzy Nowosielski. Mountainous Landscape, 1955. Oil on canvas. 25 ½ x 30 ¾ inches.

Despite his redemptive vision, Nowosielski shows a marked pessimism in his landscapes. This is not because he has any distaste for nature. Quite the contrary. Mountainous Landscape (1955) is typical of his complex understanding of the natural world [see Plate 4]. This landscape has less to do with saccharine Hudson River School canvases than T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland—that is, the metaphysical black hole applied to the natural world. The scorched brown of the mountain turns into black. The green pasture is infected by a mold-like brown. The only unspoiled element is the little blue lake at the top of the mountain. A tiny abstraction built into the scene, integrated yet standing apart, it is a small window of hope. From a purely aesthetic vantage point, there is as much alienation here as in all of de Chirico’s claustrophobic cityscapes (which employ similar compositional structures). But why?

The real subject of the painting can be interpreted as absence. Nowosielski’s theoretical writings are especially helpful here. Asking most modern painters to explain the worldview behind their works is usually as fruitful as asking an art critic to paint something: vanity of vanities. But Nowosielski’s writings and paintings co-inhere, one interpreting the other. Poland is a nation where meat is served at almost every meal. Pretty much the only vegetarians are practicing Catholics on Fridays—and this despite a thriving Franciscan community. In this context, one of the more controversial aspects of Nowosielski’s writings is his outrage at our instrumentalization of the animal world. Orthodoxy is historically more sensitive to the suffering of animals and puts an emphasis on the salvation of the whole world: man, animal, vegetable, and rock. Even so, statements like these from Nowosielski have caused considerable outrage among both professional Catholic and Orthodox theologians: “We all participate in the suffering and death of Christ. Animals also participate, as does the whole of nature. For example, the Paschal Man is not named a lamb as a symbol; it is not a symbol! The suffering of animals is the real suffering of God.”

Mountainous Landscape shows us an apocalyptic nightmare of a world without animals—a world after an environmental Armageddon which might not be that far off. In the negative sense, this landscape is also in the image of fallen man, much like the lonely city-wrecks of de Chirico. It is a prophetic lament for a devastated creation and for a humanity unconsciously losing a salvific opportunity through an ecological crisis. The antidote to all of this could be an embrace of the Christian roots of the environmental movement, which cannot and should not be divorced from the doctrine of creation. Rid of its current quasi-soteriological and Manichean tendencies, environmentalism might become more appealing to a wider group of people. Its historic connections with a more generous worldview are there, if one is willing to look. The green and the sustainable-community movements were heavily influenced by the book Small Is Beautiful, published by Catholic economist E.F. Schumacher during the energy crisis of 1973. And there are ecumenical patron saints of conservation waiting in the wings: Seraphim of Sarov, Francis of Assisi and, more recently, Wendell Berry.

Plate 2. Jerzy Nowosielski. City Landscape, 1959. Oil on canvas. 23 x 32 inches.

Plate 2. Jerzy Nowosielski. City Landscape, 1959. Oil on canvas. 23 x 32 inches.

City Landscape (1959) reverses the schema, showing an urban setting as a desert [see Plate 2]. The streets are sparsely peopled, the trams seem more symbolic than real, scantily clad women (or are they mannequins?) stand behind windows on either side of the street, and a possible flasher or drunkard in a yellow coat walks briskly away from the viewer, as if he has something to hide. Townhouses oppressively press upon the earthy brown of the streets, and at the top of the painting, the tram tracks fork into the shape of a snake’s flickering tongue. The man in white pants and black coat, despite his dandy hat, has downcast eyes and keeps his hands in his pockets in a reserved, modest, self-aware, almost pious gesture. Is he thumbing rosary beads in his pocket? The colors of his outfit are probably not incidental, as a mysterious drama of good and evil plays itself out at the edges of the painting. Why shouldn’t we see this man as a modern-day Saint Anthony, fighting temptation, loneliness, and maybe a hangover in an urban desert? The strange women and the drunkard-flasher seem to fit this motif, and the trams slither like demythologized serpents.

All of this is seen from above, as if from a bird’s-eye, or God’s-eye view. Nowosielski frequently uses this perspective in otherwise lonely and bleak paintings of cities. It forms the impression of a downward movement toward the earth, as if we are seeing through the eyes of one of Wim Wenders’s angels or the “descending Dove” of Charles Williams. Madeleine Delbrel, sometimes called the French Dorothy Day, captures this iconic vision of the modern urban desert better than anyone I have read: “In those crowds marked by the sins of hatred, lust, and drunkenness, we find a desert of silence, and we recollect ourselves with great ease, so that God can ring out his name: Vox clamans in deserto.” Elsewhere she describes the intersection of this desert of urban sin with the dark ray of divine love in words borrowed avant la lettre from Nowosielski: “Our Christian life is a pathway between two abysses. One is the measurable abyss of the world’s rejections of God. The other is the unfathomable abyss of the mysteries of God. We will come to see that we are walking the adjoining line where these two abysses intersect. And we will thus understand how we are mediators and why we are mediators.”

There are chronological and intellectual reasons to save a discussion of Nowosielski’s explicitly religious works for last. First of all, he regained his faith fairly late in his life and creative career, some time in the late 1950s. Also, his journey back to the church, and to icons, was quite original. Surprisingly, the importance of modern art cannot be underestimated here. “Who is responsible for my being this way? Certainly my fate, but also experience, the lessons of surrealism,” he says. Surrealism proved to be a liberating experience for Nowosielski, because it opened him up to viewing art of all periods, especially Orthodox iconography, as a living and anarchically liberating reality. This freed him from the widespread prejudices of nineteenth-century historicism, which saw art simplistically as a march of progress that consigned all so-called “archaic” forms to the dustbin of history. The spiritual pedigree of the modern avant-garde is well attested theoretically and artistically by Kandinsky (among others), a Russian who drew inspiration from icons.

Ever since the late fifties, Nowosielski has consistently produced sacral art of the highest quality and inspiration. However, he had greater aspirations: “From childhood on I dreamed about designing a sacred space. I worked with architects, made polychromes, but these were just fragments. I wanted to create something from the ground up.” Nowosielski got his chance in 1992 in the small town of Biały Bór, population about 2,200. The town is a center of Orthodox and Greek-Catholic culture in northwestern Poland. This unique geographical and cultural situation led Nowosielski to some creative solutions. The dark and womb-like interior has both a traditional and modern feel to it. Its modernity is not in the way of most American churches, which often feel little different from Starbucks.

Plate 5. Jerzy Nowosielski. Church in Biały Bór, Poland, 1992-97. View of Main Nave from the Entrance.

Plate 5. Jerzy Nowosielski. Church in Biały Bór, Poland, 1992-97. View of Main Nave from the Entrance.

Nowosielski’s modernism digs deep into history without turning into archaeology. The church’s center area, where the liturgy is performed, is notably lower than the raised sides where the faithful congregate [see Plate 5]. This is a direct quotation from the Greek stage, as are the columns and the triple red arches, which imitate the doors through which Greek actors used to enter the stage. It is not incidental that these doors through which the Trinity enters into the drama of the congregation’s lives are colored red, the liturgical color of the Lord’s passion—and also of sexual flush. This understanding of the liturgy as a transforming drama where our salvation and damnation are at stake is confirmed by the artist himself: “As a person who is well nigh obsessively concerned with liturgical questions, I consider the Christian liturgy to be a transformation of the Greek theater, and also as a kind of sacred circus.”

The interior’s color is difficult to render in a photograph, which tends to make it look black; it’s actually a very dark shade of green. In the Orthodox Church green is the liturgical color of several feasts and seasons: the Feasts for Ascetics and Fools for Christ (that is, the holy circus), Pentecost, and Palm Sunday. It is also the liturgical color of hope and resurrection, but as the list suggests, it is a hope achieved by going into the darkness (even the darkness of madness) with God instead of circumventing it with Prozac. At the center is the tetrapod upon which icons are placed for veneration. Directly above, like a top hat floating down upon the congregation below, is a cupola with Christ as Pantokrator. This setting is one of the best spatial representations I know of the Pauline imperative to put on Christ’s mind. Really, it seems like it might fit. We just have to be raised toward it.

Plate 6. Jerzy Nowosielski. Church in Biały Bór, Poland. Exterior.

Plate 6. Jerzy Nowosielski. Church in Biały Bór, Poland. Exterior.

The exterior facade of the church deliberately resembles an iconostasis (the wall of icons that separates the nave from the sanctuary in an Orthodox church) [see Plate 6]. In part, this is an outgrowth of demographics. During the ordinary parts of the liturgical year the church serves a small congregation. However, during the high holidays, the region’s widely dispersed Polish Greek-Catholic flock comes to this sanctuary. During those times, the church cannot hold the crowd, and so the liturgy moves outdoors. The facade prominently features two archangels flanking a Mandylion. The Mandylion is something like the Orthodox iconic version of the Shroud of Turin. This image, faithfully reproduced by iconographers, shows the imprint of Christ’s face. It is not Veronica’s veil, but a cloth used by Christ to wipe his face during the passion, which was passed along to a servant of King Abgar of Edessa, who was later healed of an incurable sickness thanks to it. It is usually acknowledged as the first and most authentic image, ikon, of Christ. Nowosielski has made many such icons, including one for the Franciscan Church of the Immaculate Conception in Krakow [see Plate 7]. The placing of this image so prominently on the exterior of the church in Biały Bór, facing the elements, invokes for me Nowosielski’s sacrificial logic of the collision of the world with the self-emptying God: “If the earth were not so saturated with evil, there would be no need for the coming of Christ. I am thinking of the kenotic descent of God into such an earth.” The end result of that descent, death, is not easy to swallow, but Christ’s life is normative as an example for anybody who wants to become a Christian. All of reality must be irradiated by the shadow of this suffering face if reality is to be taken up into the life of the Trinity.

Plate 7. Jerzy Nowosielski. Mandylion, 1978. Acrylic paint on board. Franciscan Church of the Immaculate Conception, Krakow, Poland.

Plate 7. Jerzy Nowosielski. Mandylion, 1978. Acrylic paint on board. Franciscan Church of the Immaculate
Conception, Krakow, Poland.

What I have written may seem like an odd art essay, with its swerving into theology, politics, and sex. But the imperative to soil the clean white gloves of high aesthetics is dictated by the oddity of Nowosielski’s art itself, which mishmashes these taboo subjects and opens them up to comparative inquiry. His painting forbids an aestheticized, abstracted “view from nowhere” and instead demands a Christian, personalist engagement with the rough edges of reality. Nowosielski has said that he sees himself as making icons for westerners, for Catholics and Protestants. The West, he says, “properly grasps the spiritual issue of the mystagogical role of art,” an attitude he believes will bear fruit.

Plate 8. Jerzy Nowosielski. Theotokos Oranta with Fathers of the Church, 1984. Greek-Catholic Church in Lourdes, France.

Plate 8. Jerzy Nowosielski. Theotokos Oranta with Fathers of the Church, 1984. Greek-Catholic Church in
Lourdes, France.

Several years ago I went to Lourdes with two of my best friends. We did it all: confession, masses, Stations of the Cross, shopping for the finest religious kitsch, and we got dipped in the chilling healing waters. After the bath I noticed a palpable change in myself: I got a sinus infection and spent about two weeks battling it. As we left, I remember seeing a beautiful church with golden cupolas from our moving train. It was Saint Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. It immediately charmed me and I wondered what hid inside the dark walls. I had no idea what I missed until I looked at a book of Nowosielski’s works. He painted the whole interior of this little Greek-Catholic church in 1984. Right behind the altar is an immense depiction of the Theotokos in prayer with the Doctors of the Church below her [see Plate 8]. The whole composition is bathed in a deep blue background of a shade that has very little to do with the light-blue ceilings of medieval Catholic churches. Her face is a study in patience learned through suffering. Her eyes (and sinuses) are shadowed by a darkness that she seems to face without flinching, never flagging in the welcoming gesture of her praying arms: she is not afraid of being infected by our sins.

The Greek verb used to describe the making of icons, graphia, means both “to paint” and “to write,” and this is why the whole process is often called “icon writing.” This is how God communicates his image to people in painting. All of it finally brings us to the form of the biblical text, or any other text. Take a look at this page. How is it that the words I write here resound in your mind?

The whiteness of the page is not shouldering the message. It is not the white background, but the ray of darkness of the text which is doing all the work.

Likewise, Nowosielski’s art teaches us to get acquainted with the night of our blood, guts, shit, piss, semen, saliva, minds, gender, environment, cities, diseases, art, and politics, and not fear them, but live them out rightly as the coming of God’s darkness as it incarnates itself within the whole of our mind, body, and soul—especially when they are wracked by suffering. As we contemplate an image like the 1978 Mandylion, its apophatic darkness shows us that our concepts cannot capture the great price and music of the hypostatic union: a God who was fully human, a man who was fully God. In the muddy darkness of daily experience, Nowosielski’s paintings are a visual answer to the question asked by Job: “Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night?”

===================================================

Update: I recently noticed that Amazon has one copy of the best catalog of Nowosielski’s work. It’s reasonably priced so snap it up here before someone else does.

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American Idol

Czeslaw-Milosz-Quotes-4

Sarcasm anyone?

That something went wrong with the post-conciliar Church is a truism of both left and right Catholics.  The right thinks it went too far and was too much “in the spirit of” anything goes.  For the left it didn’t go far enough, or wasn’t interpreted enough “in the spirit of” anything goes.  These debates are boring enough to drive away people in droves.  They merely reflect, bow down to, the dominant political trends of this nation.  The fact that former Catholics are the second largest religious group in the United States is both a sign of a post-Protestant America and a sign of American Catholicism’s inability to make much of its opening in the public square.

Doesn’t Catholicism have anything to offer in itself?

Czeslaw Milosz captures some of the reasons behind this abject failure:

And there was a holiday in Megalopolis.
Streets were closed to traffic, people walked in procession.
The statue of a god, slowly moved along:
A phallus four stories high
Surrounded by a crowd of priests and priestesses
Who tossed about in a whirling dance.
A service was also being celebrated in Christian churches
Where liturgy consisted of discussion
Under the guidance of a priest in Easter vestment
On whether we should believe in life after death,
Which the president then put to the vote . . .

The desperate attempt to be accepted also has its right-syncretist equivalent as a recent prayer distributed by the USCCB reminds us:

Prayer for the Protection of Religious Liberty

“O God our Creator,
from your provident hand we have received
our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
You have called us as your people and given us
the right and the duty to worship you, the only true God,
and your Son, Jesus Christ.
Through the power and working of your Holy Spirit,
you call us to live out our faith in the midst of the world,
bringing the light and the saving truth of the Gospel
to every corner of society.

We ask you to bless us
in our vigilance for the gift of religious liberty.
Give us the strength of mind and heart
to readily defend our freedoms when they are threatened;
give us courage in making our voices heard
on behalf of the rights of your Church
and the freedom of conscience of all people of faith.

Grant, we pray, O heavenly Father,
a clear and united voice to all your sons and daughters
gathered in your Church
in this decisive hour in the history of our nation,
so that, with every trial withstood
and every danger overcome—
for the sake of our children, our grandchildren,
and all who come after us—
this great land will always be ‘one nation, under God,
indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’

We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

My reaction?

How the Church expects to survive by wrapping itself in the Declaration of Independence and the Pledge to the Flag is beyond me.  Which brings me to the following choke by the Diocese of Brooklyn:

Unfortunately not The Onion

Unfortunately not The Onion

This is not a bad joke, as documented by the Millennial blog.  In fact, such plagiarism is not new.  It dates to way back before Vatican II.  It is part of a long tradition, starting at least with John Courtney Murray, of bending the knee to the flag while breaking the back of Catholic universalism.

For example, do you remember this proud moment when American Catholics finally went mainstream?

Stephen L. Carter, in his God’s Name in Vain, documents what the statement, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all” really meant.

Kennedy was actually letting the electorate know he wasn’t going to follow the Vatican’s severe pressure on him to do more to fight racial segregation.

The context makes a difference, doesn’t it?

Sure, other countries do it, but here I’m talking exclusively about American idolatry and the American Church’s surrender.  American Catholics really shouldn’t allow themselves to be stuck with this (caution: foul language):

Perhaps one ought to pray for another declaration of independence?

 

Famous Atheists Who Weren’t Atheists 2: The Christianity of Camus

like atheism

like atheism

Albert Camus was nearly as unfaithful as Jean-Paul Sartre . . . to atheism.

This should not be especially surprising to any semi-conscious reader of his novels.  Despite his good existentialist intentions Camus could never really get beyond good and evil.  Most of his literary works collapse under the weight of trying to cover up their origins in, and direct debts to, classical Christian doctrines, especially Original Sin.

It’s as if he keeps trying to roll a rock to seal off the tomb, only to find it rolled away every darn morning.  Just look at the plots of The Fall, The Plague, and The First Man and tell me God shouldn’t sue for copyright infringement upon the biblical narrative.

The connections go even deeper as a recent memoir reveals.  The book is entitled Albert Camus & the Minister.  It is written by the (Methodist) minister, Howard Mumma.  Mumma hailed from Ohio and met Camus, was actually hounded by him, during a stint as guest minister at the American Church in Paris.

The two talked about Christianity constantly and it got to the point where Camus asked to be re-baptized, only to be turned down. Today’s Methodist ministers are nothing like the hardcore Methodist ministers of yesteryear!

Camus was still actively courting the Christian faith when he was cut down in a car accident.  We don’t know how things would have turned out if Camus had lived, however, as this book recounts, he thought he was heading for a reversion.  Actually, he was already there.

I don't believe in an interventionalist God.

I don’t believe in an interventionalist God (see video below).

Famous Atheists Who Weren’t Atheists: Sartre’s Crossover

This story will leave you confused.

This story will leave you confused.

Almost everyone will agree that Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is rightfully recognized as a major figure of 20th century atheism.  Fewer people will agree about his stature as a philosopher.  Even fewer people will testify to the staying power of his novels and plays, although he still inspires some good poetry written against his philosophy.

However, it’s still not general knowledge that Sartre was not only unfaithful to Simone de Beauvoir, but also to atheism.  With the help of his secretary Benny Levy (no not that one) Sartre wandered into Judaism late in life.  And so the late-late Sartre said things like these:

“The Jew lives. He has a destiny. The finality towards which every Jew moves is to reunite humanity . . . It is the end that only the Jewish people [know] . . . It is the beginning of the existence of men for each other.”

Edward Said had an encounter with the Sartre-Levy duo and wasn’t entirely impressed:

“Lévy (then still known as Pierre Victor) seemed to Said to be: ‘a sort of station master, among whose trains was Sartre himself. Aside from their mysterious interactions at the table, he and Victor would occasionally get up; Victor would lead the shuffling old man away, speak rapidly at him, get an intermittent nod or two, then the pair would come back.’ When Sartre made a platitudinous closing statement that failed to mention such burning issues as the Palestinians, disputed territories or Israeli settlements, Said assumed it had been written by ‘the egregious Victor’ himself.”

Read more about Sartre’s Judaism here.

Just to make things even more confusing, carnivaleseque, and Rabelaisian, Sartre wrote a Christmas play, in which he gushed about Jesus, when he was interned in a German POW camp.

 

Sartre walking away from atheism.

Sartre walking away from atheism.

 

  

 

The Blogs of Others: Beauty’s Vengeance

My friend Anders liked these essays so much he now has a tattoo with the title on his arm.  Be careful about what books you give to others.

My friend Anders liked these essays so much he now has a tattoo with the title on his arm. Be careful about what books you give to others.

As Adam Zagajewski advised in a poem I posted here.

. . . Only in the beauty created
by others is there consolation,
in the music of others and in others’ poems.
Only others save us .  .  .

The first bit of savings I would like to pass on comes from Sophie  Lippiatt’s blog “Something for a Rainy Day.”  It’s an entry entitled “Beauty.”  Here’s a sample:

“The instinct to pursue and perceive beauty in ourselves and other people (as well as in the world around us) is as natural, ancient, and positive an instinct as the earth itself. It helps us to empathise and connect with the outside world, and to promote justice and truth in freedom and love. Beauty, when understood in the limited and damaging sense that our culture currently understands it, is a dangerous and terrible thing that traps men and women into cycles of despair, eating disorders, and self abuse. It is a very good and noble thing to reject this and to try to change it, but I, for one, am not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater in the fight against misconceptions and misrepresentations of beauty in the media by turning against beauty altogether. I believe that beauty is worth the fight. After all, beauty, when understood in its right and fullest sense, just might help to save the world.”

DSCN8986

One of my many pictures of Warsaw brutal.

Sophie’s thoughts about brutalizing architecture earlier in the post really struck a chord with me.  I did not grow up in the beautiful environs of Oxford.  I grew up around the brutalized architecture of postwar Warsaw, which could easily out-brutalize the most brutalized neighborhoods of Manchester.  To me Warsaw is the architectural equivalent of a botched abortion.  I like to think of myself as not-so-secretly Krakovian.

Warsaw after WWII: not much promise for beauty there.

Warsaw after WWII: not much promise there.

On the other hand, Scott Dodge at Καθολικός διάκονος emphasizes the dangerous side of beauty:

“One of the things Pasolini that is palpable in Mama Roma is the desolation that results from the lack of beauty, the deleterious effect it has on us, assaulting our humanity. This brings me back to beauty and our need for it. The late John O’Donohue, in his book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, observed, ‘We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the need of our soul.’ He goes on to note that, culturally, we live an age of the ugly. This last observation caused him to turn to Hans Urs Von Balthasar, specifically to Von Balthasar’s theological aesthetic [the following passage is from the first volume of The Glory of the Lord]:

Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man… Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.”

eckberg dolce

Ekberg in La Dolce Vita is not gratuitous at all if you follow the links.

Finally, a reminder from Adam Zagajewski:

“Moment”

Clear moments are so short.
There is so much more darkness. More
ocean than terra firma. More
shadow than form.

Communio Website Redesign!

interior_columns

communio-logo.jpg

If you don’t know what Communio is then you’ve been living under the wrong theological rock.

They’ve always had a website with lots of great .pdfs from the best theologians around (not all the articles are available online, but quite a few of them are).  Now they have a website with a user-friendly design.

Here’s what they’re all about:

Communio was founded in 1972 by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and Joseph Ratzinger. It stands for the renewal of theology in continuity with the living Christian tradition, the continuing dialogue of all believers, past and present, “as if all were simultaneously in the circle.” Now published in collaboration with thirteen other editions in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, Communio is truly “catholic” and international in scope. (Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was instrumental in the establishment of the Polish edition.)

The English-language edition of Communio is a quarterly issue that regularly carries articles on philosophy, the arts, and the relationship between Catholicism and American culture. Emphasis is placed on exploring the meaning of John Paul II’s call for a “new evangelization.” Indeed, in every issue of Communio, an effort is made to reestablish the bond between prayer and theological reflection, the loosening of which lies at the heart of so many contemporary problems.

Communio draws upon the best theological writing in thirteen languages, but it is broader than a theological journal; it strives to let the “symphony” of Catholic truth resound in its pages – not only for specialists, but also for any person concerned with uniting faith with culture. Subscribers can participate in the development of the Review by joining or forming Communio Study Circles that gather around the world for fellowship and reflection on articles or themes from the journals. Readers can also look forward to reprints of memorable, often hard to find short pieces by pioneers of the Catholic renewal such as Bernanos, Blondel, Chesterton, Claudel, Dawson, Day, Delbrêl, Gilson, Guardini, Péguy, Pieper, and others.

Enjoy!

You can start with an article from D.C. Schindler on why we need Paul Claudel.  Make sure you click on the .pdf link to get the whole article.

Zbigniew Herbert Tempers the Rational Fury

The groundbreaking anthology that brought Herbert and the rest of modern Polish poetry to the West.

The groundbreaking anthology that brought Herbert and the rest of modern Polish poetry to the West.

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) is one of the two greatest Polish poets of the 20th century.  He is part of a poetic duo, or duel, with Czeslaw Milosz.  Milosz was more of a mystic, Herbert a skeptic.  Milosz was almost always critical of Poland, whereas Herbert entrenched himself within the Polish tradition.  I want to avoid the dreaded words “nationalist” or “patriot,” but Hebert was both in the best sense.  It’s possible to be both without undercutting the universal reach of one’s writing.  Michael Hofman, the translator of German literature (oh the irony!), confirms this what he said in Poetry some years back:

“Zbigniew Herbert died in 1998. He was a very great and idiosyncratic poet—something in me wants to say a peerless poet—and, it is reported, a perennial Nobel bridesmaid. It was ironic—and no doubt wounding—that during the period of his expectations, in 1980 and 1996, two other Poles of, as I see it, manifestly lesser gifts and importance, Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, were chosen by the Academy and decorated by Carl Gustav.”

The rivalry with Milosz resurfaces in those comments.  There’s even a quasi-mythological dinner party quarrel between the two poets documented by Cynthia Haven here in the post on “The Worst Dinner-Party Ever.”  

More biographical and bibliographical information is available here.

Spinoza's home, couldn't find the bed.

Spinoza’s home.

“Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza” [Mr. Cogito is a persona Herbert frequently used to disabuse his readers of their Cartesian prejudices.  While reading this poem it’s important to remember how much Spinoza fought the biblical notion of a personal God.  Spinoza’s god was an impersonal force.  Think back to Simone Weil’s comments in yesterday’s post here.]

Baruch Spinoza of Amsterdam
was seized by a desire to reach God

in the attic
cutting lenses
he suddenly pierced a curtain
and stood face to face

he spoke for a long time
(and as he so spoke
his mind enlarged
and his soul)
he posed questions
about the nature of man

–distracted God stroked his beard

he asked about the first cause

–God looked into infinity

he asked about the final cause

—God cracked his knuckles
cleared his throat

when Spinoza became silent
God spake

—you talk nicely Baruch
I like your geometric Latin
and the clear syntax
the symmetry of your arguments

let’s speak however
about Things Truly
Great

—look at your hands
cut and trembling

—you destroy your eyes
in the darkness

—you are badly nourished
you dress shabbily

buy a new house
forgive the Venetian mirrors
that they repeat surfaces

—forgive flowers in the hair
the drunken song

—look after your income
like your colleague Descartes

For Sale: Descartes

For Sale: Descartes

—be cunning
like Erasmus

—dedicate a treatise
to Louis XIV
he won’t read it anyway

—temper the rational fury
thrones will fall because of it
and stars turn black

—think
about the woman
who will give you a child

—you see Baruch
we are speaking about Great Things

—I want to be loved
by the uneducated and the violent
they are the only ones
who really hunger for me

Foolishness to the wise.

Foolishness to the wise.

now the curtain falls
Spinoza remains alone
he does not see the golden cloud
the light on the heights

he sees darkness

he hears the creaking of the stairs
footsteps going down

Oh look, there's my name!  Herbert combines well with Auden.

Oh look, there’s my name! Herbert reads well alongside with Auden.

What follows is a short-short story, a favorite genre of Herbert’s.  You can find some more of them on the Artful Dodge page here.

“Spinoza’s Bed”
by Zbigniew Herbert

IT IS AN amazing thing that our memory best retains images of great philosophers when their lives were coming to an end. Socrates raising the chalice with hemlock to his mouth, Seneca whose veins were opened by a slave (there is a painting of this by Rubens), Descartes roaming cold palace rooms with a foreboding that his role of teacher of the Swedish Queen would be his last, old Kant smelling a grated horseradish before his daily walk (the cane preceding him, sinking deeper and deeper into the sand), Spinoza consumed by tuberculosis and patiently polishing lenses, so weak he is unable to finish his Treatise on the Rainbow. . .A gallery of noble moribunds, pale masks, plaster casts.

In the eyes of his biographers Spinoza was unmistakably an ideal wise man: exclusively concentrated on the precise architecture of his works, perfectly indifferent to material affairs, and liberated from all passions. But an episode in his life is passed over in silence by some biographers, while others consider it only an incomprehensible, youthful whim.

Spinoza’s father died in 1656. In his family Baruch had the reputation of an eccentric young man who had no practical sense and wasted precious time studying incomprehensible books. Due to clever intrigues (his stepsister Rebecca and her husband Casseres played the main role in this) he was deprived of his inheritance. She hoped the absentminded young man would not even notice. But it happened otherwise.

Baruch initiated a lawsuit in court with an energy no one suspected him to have. He hired lawyers, called witnesses, was both matter-of-fact and passionate, extremely well-oriented in the most subtle details of procedure and convincing as a son injured and stripped of his rights.

They settled the division of the estate relatively quickly (clear legal rules existed in this matter). But then a second act of the trial unexpectedly followed, causing a general sense of unpleasantness and embarrassment.

As if the devil of possessiveness had entered him, Baruch began to litigate over almost each object from his father’s house. It started with the bed in which his mother, Deborah, had died (he did not forget about its dark green curtains). Then he requested objects without any value, explaining he had an emotional attachment to them. The judges were monumentally bored, and could not understand where this irresistible desire in the ascetic young man came from. Why did he wish to inherit a poker, a pewter pot with a broken handle, an ordinary kitchen stool, a china figure representing a shepherd without a head, a broken clock which stood in the vestibule and was a home for mice, or a painting that hung over the fireplace and was so completely blackened it looked like a self-portrait of tar?

Baruch won the trial. He could now sit with pride on his pyramid of spoils, casting spiteful glances at those who tried to disinherit him. But he did not do this. He only chose his mother’s bed (with the dark green curtain), giving the rest away to his adversaries defeated at the trial.

No one understood why he acted this way. It seemed an obvious extravagance, but in fact had a deeper meaning. It was as if Baruch wanted to say that virtue is not at all an asylum for the weak. The act of renunciation is an act of courage-it requires the sacrifice of things universally desired (not without regret and hesitation) for matters that are great, and incomprehensible.

Herbert: calming the rational fury.

Herbert: calming the rational fury.

Finally, you might want to read a great article on the continuing influence of Spinoza upon what’s called the “turn to religion” in French philosophy.  It’s by my professor Douglas Collins and has more citations per hour than anything else on the face of the earth.  It’s called “L’Amour intellectuel de Dieu: Lacan’s Spinozism and Religious Revival in Recent French Thought” and I think it’s invaluable.  Doug is also famous for getting some eccentric student reviews–see what I mean here.

Understanding Simone Weil’s Quest for the Absolute

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“France offered a rare gift to the contemporary world in the person of Simone Weil.” –Czeslaw Milosz

The Notre Dame Press overstock sale continues until mid August; like I can wait that long to lay waste to our savings.

In the end I settled on Beyer’s Recovering Solidarity, Fritz Bauerschmidt’s (of Hillbilly Thomist fame) Julian of Norwich and the Mystical Body Politic of Christ (Don’t miss Mark McIntosh’s classic study from the same series about von Balthasar entitled Christology from Within–not on sale, but well worth the cover price and more), and Morgan’s book about Weil’s writings on science and love, Weaving the World.  

Not a spectator sport.

Not a spectator sport.

During my first scan through the list of books on sale I somehow missed Matthew Levering’s theology of reading the Bible (only the cloth edition is on sale), which is essential reading. The usually stale Library Journal gives it a refreshingly glowing review:

“Levering compellingly argues for the legitimacy of a type of biblical interpretation once prevalent among the Fathers of the Church and medieval theologians, one that includes a participatory encounter with the divine. . . . Written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the volume will appeal to anyone interested in biblical interpretation. While directed toward scholars, the book is nonetheless accessible to the intelligent lay reader.”

Finally, I also purchased the essay collection The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil, which features essays by some of our greatest living theologians, people like David Tracy, Cyril O’Regan, and Louis  Dupré.  If you’re not familiar with Weil then here’s what Czeslaw Milosz, one of her first translators, said about her and his own friend Camus, all the while taking potshots at that villain Sartre:

“Violent in her judgments and uncompromising, Simone Weil was, at least by temperament, an Albigensian, a Cathar; this is the key to her thought. She drew extreme conclusions from the Platonic current in Christianity. Here we touch upon hidden ties between her and Albert Camus. The first work by Camus was his university dissertation on St. Augustine. Camus, in my opinion, was also a Cathar, a pure one, [‘Cathar’ from Gr. katharos, pure] and if he rejected God it was out of love for God because he was not able to justify Him. The last novel written by Camus, The Fall, is nothing else but a treatise on Grace — absent grace — though it is also a satire: the talkative hero, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who reverses the words of Jesus and instead of ‘Judge not and ye shall not be judged’: gives the advice ‘Judge, and ye shall not be judged,’ could be, I have reason to suspect, Jean-Paul Sartre.”

Speaking of Louis  Dupré, I also noticed he has a book, The Quest of the Absolute, forthcoming from NDP.  Here’s what it promises:

“This eagerly awaited study brings to completion Louis Dupré’s planned trilogy on European culture during the modern epoch. Demonstrating remarkable erudition and sweeping breadth, The Quest of the Absoluteanalyzes Romanticism as a unique cultural phenomenon and a spiritual revolution. Dupré philosophically reflects on its attempts to recapture the past and transform the present in a movement that is partly a return to premodern culture and partly a violent protest against it.

Following an introduction on the historical origins of the Romantic Movement, Dupré examines the principal Romantic poets of England (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats), Germany (Goethe, Schiller, Novalis, Hölderlin), and France (Lamartine, de Vigny, Hugo), all of whom, from different perspectives, pursued an absolute ideal. In the chapters of the second part, he concentrates on the critical principles of Romantic aesthetics, the Romantic image of the person as reflected in the novel, and Romantic ethical and political theories. In the chapters of the third, more speculative, part, he investigates the comprehensive syntheses of romantic thought in history, philosophy, and theology.”

Waiting for  Dupré.

Waiting for Dupré.

 We’ll close with a quotation from Simone Weil, which both serves as a brief introduction to her quest for the absolute and demonstrates her continued relevance:

“For the past two or three centuries there is a belief that force is the sole master of all natural phenomena, and, at the same time, that men can and should establish their mutual relationships on justice, as determined by reason. This is a patent absurdity.

It is not conceivable that everything in the universe be absolutely subject to the empire of force but that man can avoid it, while he is made of flesh and blood, and his thought drifts along with perceptual impressions.

There is only one choice to make. Either one must perceive another principle besides force at work in the universe, or one must acknowledge that force is also the sole master of human relations.”

Random fact for trivia night: I bet you didn’t know it’s rumored Samuel Beckett was riffing on the title of Simone Weil’s essays, Waiting for God, when he came up with the title of his most famous play.