Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun

The Marble FaunThe Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Marble Faun (1860) is Hawthorne’s last completed and longest romance—his term for the type of non-realist, symbolic, and psychological fiction he preferred to write. Composed during and after his and his family’s travels in Europe following his political patronage appointment as American consul in Liverpool, it is a Gothic tale of art, love, murder, and penitence set among aesthetically-minded tourists in mid-nineteenth-century Rome and the Italian countryside.

The novel is Hawthorne’s longest—and his most disorderly and perhaps dullest—for reasons best explained by its economic context, as elaborated by Susan Manning in the introduction to this Oxford World Classics edition. In an era before international copyright protections, Hawthorne first published the book while he was living in England so that it could secure a British copyright before its U.S. publication. This protected it from piracy and ensured that Hawthorne would see profits on both sides of the Atlantic. But this meant that he had to tailor the novel to the British market, whose lending-library system favored three-volume works—so-called triple-deckers—even though Hawthorne’s own genius, tending as it did toward the emblematic or even heraldic, was best expressed in short stories or novellas (his best “novel” is probably The Scarlet Letter, which is, when you subtract its long but vestigial preface, novella-length).

Much as I dislike reducing literary works to such economic determinations, I begin my account of The Marble Faun with these facts for two reasons. First is to explain the novel’s at times extraordinary longueurs and its disorganization even at the level of genre—why is the Gothic mystery held up for a hundred pages of Italian travelogue? Some critics today like to mock people on Amazon and Goodreads for giving one-star-reviews to works of literary genius, but here the contemporary common reader is in accord with the novel’s early critics, including a skeptical Henry James, who wrote in his Hawthorne (1879):

The fault of Transformation [the English edition’s title] is that the element of the unreal is pushed too far, and that the book is neither positively of one category nor of another. His “moonshiny romance,” he calls it in a letter; and, in truth, the lunar element is a little too pervasive. The action wavers between the streets of Rome, whose literal features the author perpetually sketches, and a vague realm of fancy, in which quite a different verisimilitude prevails. […] And since I am speaking critically, I may go on to say that the art of narration, in Transformation, seems to me more at fault than in the author’s other novels. The story straggles and wanders, is dropped and taken up again, and towards the close lapses into an almost fatal vagueness.

All true. Yet James also writes, “Allowing for this, however, some of the finest pages in all Hawthorne are to be found in it.”

Moreover, The Marble Faun is a work of art about works of art, about how they do and do not conform to the ideal vision that inspires them, about the ways they do and do not satisfy the human needs we bring to them. I’m not trying to play the get-out-jail-free card of avant-garde critics and desperate art students—to say that the work is great because it is not good, or that its genius is that it is supposed to be bad. No, The Marble Faun offers 100 pages’ worth of story in an almost 400-page book, some of which was cobbled together out of Hawthorne’s travel journals: the thing largely doesn’t work.

But if it is less than the sum of its parts, some of the parts are endlessly profound; and if Hawthorne occasionally forgets the story for a few chapters and takes you instead on a tour of some neighborhood or gallery with his thoughts on art, history, and religion, well, Hawthorne’s complex and ambivalent intellect in its encounter with foreign parts is often more interesting than the story he is forgetting to tell.

Finally, let him complain as he will, but Henry James found in Hawthorne’s novel of the American character in conflict with the European, a confrontation staged on the ground of the Old World’s high culture and in a style of frustratingly indirect symbolism, his own most characteristic matter and manner.

The Marble Faun is about four characters who meet in Rome; we spend a year in their lives, a year wherein a murder brings them to a crisis. Three of the characters are artists: the American sculptor Kenyon and the American painter Hilda, both scions of Puritan New England, and the “exotic” painter Miriam, who is of indeterminate extraction (she is speculated to be everything from a Jewish heiress to a Southern planter’s daughter with “one burning drop of African blood in her veins”).

The fourth in this company is the title character, Donatello, who bears a resemblance to the Greek sculptor Praxitiles’s statue of a faun, often remarked upon by the other characters. As James observes, he belongs to a different level of reality than the other characters; they are recognizable social and historical types in a contemporary landscape, while he is an allegorical figure for the happy, pastoral, Arcadian, and above all innocently natural aspect or inheritance of humankind.

Leaning Satyr, c.130 AD, after a 4th-century BC original by Praxiteles (via)

His happiness will not survive the corruptions of Rome, with its weight of history (as opposed to nature) and its burden of sinning, civilized humanity. Donatello has contracted a love and devotion to the mysterious Miriam—who often refers darkly to some sin in her past, who paints pictures of and finds herself compared to images of murderous if victimized women (Jael, Judith, Cleopatra, Beatrice Cenci), and who is stalked by a mad monk she met in the Roman catacombs.

When his fidelity to Miriam leads Donatello to murder this monk, an act witnessed by Hilda, our heroes enter a realm of paranoia and guilt. Hilda breaks her close, almost sororal relation to Miriam, while Donatello retreats to his ancestral tower in the countryside, and Kenyon goes to visit him there. In the countryside, we learn that local lore tells of Donatello’s descent from “[a] sylvan creature, native among the woods” who “had loved a mortal maiden”—that he in fact may be, rather than merely representing, a kind of pastoral atavism to a human life in harmony with nature.

Yet Kenyon finds that Donatello’s crime has transformed him from innocence to experience, has deepened and enriched his character. The resolution of the plot is ambiguous—so much so that Hawthorne was forced by early reader outrage to add an exasperatedly explanatory postscript—but the upshot is that Miriam and Donatello accept responsibility for their sin, and Kenyon and Hilda return, sadder but wiser, to an America where history impinges less on the individual and where Puritanism’s moral simplicity dissolves the decadent corruptions of old Europe, with its priests and aristocrats and freight of cultural history.

On the moral of the story, Hilda and Kenyon differ. The fair, sensitive Hilda—as opposed to the dark and authoritative Miriam—is the customary heroine of Anglo-American domestic fiction going back at least to Rose’s displacement of Flora (another fair/sensitive vs. dark/authoritative pair) in Scott’s Waverley (1814). At first, Hilda seems as if she will serve as some other, newer archetype: an incipient New Woman or Woolfean female genius having her vision.

She demonstrates an attraction to Catholicism throughout the novel, even living in a dove-circled tower where she maintains a traditional shrine to the Virgin Mary; moreover, her single life as an artist in Rome moves the narrator to reflect on social changes portended by what was not yet called feminism:

This young American girl was an example of the freedom of life which it is possible for a female artist to enjoy at Rome. She dwelt in her tower, as free to descend into the corrupted atmosphere of the city beneath, as one of her companion doves to fly downward into the street;—all alone, perfectly independent, under her own sole guardianship, unless watched over by the Virgin, whose shrine she tended; doing what she liked without a suspicion or a shadow upon the snowy whiteness of her fame. The customs of artist life bestow such liberty upon the sex, which is elsewhere restricted within so much narrower limits; and it is perhaps an indication that, whenever we admit women to a wider scope of pursuits and professions, we must also remove the shackles of our present conventional rules, which would then become an insufferable restraint on either maid or wife.

And she is an artistic genius of a type: a brilliant copyist. In an era before painting’s easy mechanical reproduction, she reproduces spiritual progeny, so deeply sympathizing with the works of the Old Masters that she is able to transmit their essences through her own hand. Yet this is a feminized genius:

Hilda’s faculty of genuine admiration is one of the rarest to be found in human nature; and let us try to recompense her in kind by admiring her generous self-surrender, and her brave, humble magnanimity in choosing to be the handmaid of those old magicians, instead of a minor enchantress within a circle of her own.

The handmaid of Raphael, whom she loved with a virgin’s love! Would it have been worth Hilda’s while to relinquish this office for the sake of giving the world a picture or two which it would call original; pretty fancies of snow and moonlight; the counterpart in picture of so many feminine achievements in literature!

Before we censure Hawthorne for sexism, though, we might reflect that the inventor of Miriam—whose genius is of a far more robust and violent type—to say nothing of Hester Prynne’s admiring creator (who with her dark-haired “Oriental” beauty and mastery of art is Miriam’s counterpart, not Hilda’s), and the male author who lamented what Rappaccini made of his daughter and what Aylmer did to his wife, is criticizing not Hilda or women at large but the Anglo-American gender protocols that mandate such insipid heroines.

William Wetmore Story, Cleopatra, 1858 (via)

Hilda ends the novel a kind of morally absolute bigot, with a preference in her distress for the pious simplicity of an art below the aesthetic level of the Old Masters. (Hawthorne emphasizes her consolation by Sodoma’s fresco of Christ bound to a pillar, a painting whose union of truth and religious beauty is to be preferred to works of ornamental sensuality, even if they are by Raphael.) She refuses to countenance any ambiguity in the story of Donatello. She becomes, very nearly in so many words, the proverbial angel in the house:

Another hand must henceforth trim the lamp before the Virgin’s shrine; for Hilda was coming down from her old tower, to be herself enshrined and worshipped as a household saint, in the light of her husband’s fireside…

Is this simply a happy ending for such a strange book? Hawthorne was perhaps not a feminist, but neither was he a fool. Like all great artists, he was of his time and out of it. Surely some part of him was as horrified as Hilda and Kenyon by the corruptions of the Old World, and as insensible as they are to the corruptions of the New. Surely some part of him thought that domestic values of hearth and home, companionate marriage’s assurance of middle-class stability amid Enlightenment upheaval, a good solution to the problem of how to hold together a society in the absence of church-and-state domination.

Il Sodoma, Flagellation of Christ, c.1510 (via)

But did Hawthorne write stories and novels with anything like the reverential piety of Sodoma’s fresco? Hardly: he was an artist of baroque design and mystifying symbolism—like his heroine Hester, he was an artist-with-a-capital-A fallen among the moral iconoclasts. So, like all great artists, he differed not only from his world, but from himself. Hilda possesses this power briefly, but surrenders it—out of cowardice, we may be invited to think—after her first encounter with sin. She bows to Puritanical certitude instead of artistic amplitude; and her type lives on today in the seemingly indefatigable ranks of those who expect from art a therapeutic session, a moral sermon, a positive representation, or a literal account of the way things ought to be.

Kenyon takes a different lesson from Donatello’s maturation-through-sin, the lesson of the felix culpa, the fortunate fall, the sin whose consequence is our active struggle for—rather than passive inhabitation of—the good. On this reading of events, evil is necessary, even beneficial, a goad and stimulant to the good, without which we slide into moral sloth and, presumably, aesthetic torpor:

“Sin has educated Donatello, and elevated him. Is sin, then,—which we deem such a dreadful blackness in the universe,—is it, like sorrow, merely an element of human education, through which we struggle to a higher and purer state than we could otherwise have attained? Did Adam fall, that we might ultimately rise to a far loftier paradise than his?”

Hilda is horrified by this:

“Do not you perceive what a mockery your creed makes, not only of all religious sentiments, but of moral law? And how it annuls and obliterates whatever precepts of Heaven are written deepest within us? You have shocked me beyond words!”

I suspect we are to dissent from her reductionism, and to find in this tale what James so clearly found in it: a paradoxical freedom from American innocence in the labyrinth of European experience, nothing less than a vindication of our ethical and aesthetic adulthood.

Is it a fortunate fall that The Marble Faun is such a mixed achievement? Its generic instability does not bother me—I am almost always ready to praise classic or contemporary experiments, not so much in mingling genres, but in combining incongruous modes of representation. If this practice has become routinized with the contemporary institutionalization of magical realism, it still reflects, I think, our actual experience of a world consisting of many emotions, many places, many agencies, many orders of experience, and many ways of life.

But Hawthorne’s travelogue goes on too long. Some of it is by-the-numbers tourist observation, just notebook-derived descriptions of place without integration into the novel’s thematic whole or stylistic texture. The novel resembles those domiciles it sometimes describes—a hovel built out of stone and marble scavenged from ruins.

Hawthorne’s American distaste for aspects of Italian culture—which, despite my nominal “ethnicity,” I largely shared on my own and only visit to Italy in 2004—is sometimes acute, as here in his rueful acknowledgement that post-classical Rome has no reality for the tourist:

Rome, as it now exists, has grown up under the Popes, and seems like nothing but a heap of broken rubbish, thrown into the great chasm between our own days and the Empire, merely to fill it up; and, for the better part of two thousand years, its annals of obscure policies, and wars, and continually recurring misfortunes, seem also but broken rubbish, as compared with its classic history.

If we consider the present city as at all connected with the famous one of old, it is only because we find it built over its grave. A depth of thirty feet of soil has covered up the Rome of ancient days, so that it lies like the dead corpse of a giant, decaying for centuries, with no survivor mighty enough even to bury it, until the dust of all those years has gathered slowly over its recumbent form and made a casual sepulchre.

But at other times, it is haughty middle-class disgust, often verging on crude racism, unseemly in itself.

The novel’s lengthy dialogues on art, anticipating later works by Wilde, Mann, and Proust, are by contrast wonderful, and I could have tolerated many more of them. Hawthorne’s realist portrayal of an Anglo artist colony in Rome, when the classical forms of visual art remained viable, and when an unprecedented number of women were adopting them, is historically fascinating. The characters’ discussions of the relative merits of painting and sculpture or the principles of the visual arts also held my interest; I was disappointed when they faded in the novel’s desultory second half. Consider, for instance, this quarrel between the sculptor Kenyon and the painter Miriam:

“I used to admire this statue [i.e., The Dying Gladiator] exceedingly,” he remarked, “but, latterly, I find myself getting weary and annoyed that the man should be such a length of time leaning on his arm in the very act of death. If he is so terribly hurt, why does he not sink down and die without further ado? Flitting moments, imminent emergencies, imperceptible intervals between two breaths, ought not to be incrusted with the eternal repose of marble; in any sculptural subject, there should be a moral standstill, since there must of necessity be a physical one. Otherwise, it is like flinging a block of marble up into the air, and, by some trick of enchantment, causing it to stick there. You feel that it ought to come down, and are dissatisfied that it does not obey the natural law.”

“I see,” said Miriam mischievously, “you think that sculpture should be a sort of fossilizing process. But, in truth, your frozen art has nothing like the scope and freedom of Hilda’s and mine. In painting there is no similar objection to the representation of brief snatches of time,—perhaps because a story can be so much more fully told in picture, and buttressed about with circumstances that give it an epoch.”

As Susan Manning points out in her aforementioned introduction, Hawthorne was, like most antebellum Americans, new to the extensive study of the visual arts—it was in Italy that he attended his first exhibitions, and he had a hard time reconciling himself to Italian Renaissance painting, preferring stolid Dutch realism. The Marble Faun is the journal of a self-education—perhaps that is its real narrative—but we can perhaps discern an implication in Miriam’s elevation of painting over sculpture on the grounds that the former offers more story and more suggestiveness and less marmoreal idealism: if ambiguous narrative is the criterion of artistic achievement, then literature outranks the visual arts entirely.

Manning observes that in The Marble Faun Hawthorne begins to pursue, instead of a symbolic and emblematic style, a more self-sufficiently artistic one—a proto-aestheticism in the Flaubert-Pater-James-Conrad-Joyce-Woolf line that treasures the materiality of language as it incarnates the materiality of the object world for each of their own sweet sakes:

One of the great interests of the book…is that it allows us to see Hawthorne’s writing moving away from the surface/depth dichotomy which Melville had identified in his ‘Mosses’ review, and groping toward a ‘painterly prose’; a movement, that is, from describing or implying a generative relationship between art and reality to embodying it in form and language which anticipated (and indeed strongly influenced) the experiments in prose of Henry James.

Hawthorne loses his way at the novel’s midpoint when Kenyon goes to the countryside to visit Donatello at the estate of Monte Beni. This interminable pastoral ramble, though, does have a few beautiful moments in this beautifully written work. Kenyon’s reflection on the wine of Monte Beni, called Sunshine, is almost too perfect an allegory for The Marble Faun:

This invaluable liquor was of a pale golden hue, like other of the rarest Italian wines, and, if carelessly and irreligiously quaffed, might have been mistaken for a very fine sort of champagne. It was not, however, an effervescing wine, although its delicate piquancy produced a somewhat similar effect upon the palate. Sipping, the guest longed to sip again; but the wine demanded so deliberate a pause, in order to detect the hidden peculiarities and subtile exquisiteness of its flavor, that to drink it was really more a moral than a physical enjoyment. There was a deliciousness in it that eluded analysis, and—like whatever else is superlatively good—was perhaps better appreciated in the memory than by present consciousness.

Inadvertent or not, Hawthorne could not have written his own advertisement more aptly, even if authors tend not to advertise the pauses for thought required by their work’s subtlety and moral strenuousness. As the peculiar and elusive flavor of The Marble Faun recedes into my memory, I appreciate it more already.

Harriet Hosmer, Beatrice Cenci, 1857 (via)

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Dante, Paradiso

Paradiso (The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Volume III)Paradiso by Dante Alighieri

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is what you’ve heard about the Divine Comedy: the Inferno, with its poignantly vivid tortures and its cacophony of wicked voices, is the most entertaining canticle, beloved of various and sundry; the Purgatorio, with its wistful focus on the lives and ambitions of poets and its chastened mundanity, is of special interest to writers and artists; and the Paradiso, with its saints in chorus, its mystical refusals of imagery, and its long disquisitions on Scholastic philosophy, can be appreciated exclusively by the faithful, and even they might nod off.

Being a contrarian by nature and a producer of “fresh content” by mission, I am supposed to tell you that everything you know is wrong. I will, eventually, but for now let’s give the devil his due: Dante’s Beatrice-guided tour of Paradise is depressingly devoid of drama. At one point when Dante seems to feel fear, Beatrice rebukes him and reminds him that nothing bad can happen in Heaven.

What can happen in Heaven? Dante can have the secrets of the universe revealed to him. Beatrice and a host of sometimes literal luminaries (St. Thomas Aquinas, the emperor Justinian, Charles Martel, St. Peter Damian, St. Bernard, and more) explain to Dante the nature and purpose of God’s creation, from the dark spots on the moon to questions of salvation. Dante doesn’t even have to ask, because everyone in Paradise can read his mind. The Paradiso, therefore, very often reads like a beautiful digest of medieval thought rather than much of a narrative or drama—interesting on historical grounds, but a good deal less exciting than even Dante’s earlier rivals in epic poetry, Homer or Virgil.

As for Beatrice, I admire Dante’s Troubadour audacity in elevating his school crush to a level of holy authority just below the Blessed Mother, but Bea must be second only to Milton’s God in the annals of Christian poets’ divine disappointments. Unlike the solicitous and even maternal Virgil of the previous canticles, Beatrice lords it over Dante like a stern schoolmistress or martinette. She rarely—at least in translation—speaks a word in tenderness or spontaneity; comparing herself to Jupiter when he accidentally annihilated his mistress, she notes, “‘Were I to smile, then you would be / like Semele when she was turned to ashes'” (note the gender swap—Dante=Semele, Beatrice=Jupiter—more of which below). She sometimes seems like a machine programmed with the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas—as, to be fair, do the rest of the saints in Heaven. At times in reading the Paradiso, the incorrigible post-Christian reader feels a nostalgia for the agitations of hell.

For the purposes of this piece, I am going to omit discussion of the Paradiso‘s philosophical particulars—if you would like to know why there are hierarchies among the angels or whether or not there are degrees of divine dessert among unbaptized infants, the answers are there in the poem, even if I have not managed to hold them all in my mind or understand all their logics (“‘he who hears, / but does not hold what he has heard, learns nothing,” chides Beatrice—o mea culpa, bella donna!). Instead I will seek elements of literary (as opposed to philosophical) and human (as opposed to divine) interest.

Dante begins the poem with a petition to Apollo, lord of light and of boundaries. This is in fact a poem of light as it narrates Dante’s increasing powers of sight as he approaches the divine:

From this you see that blessedness depends
upon the act of vision, not upon
the act of love—which is a consequence…

It is also, like the trilogy of which it forms the final part, a poem of boundaries: Paradise, like Hell and Purgatory, is carefully ranked according to the merit of each of its constituent elements. God does not permeate the universe equally, and where His light shines lowest, matter is freest to take its errant course, hence the presence of those who have failed in some way even in the lowest layers of the heavens.

While Dante refers early in the Paradiso to “the mighty sea of being,” his Apollonian imagination inclines to nothing so chaotic as the ocean. (The aforementioned Semele, by the way, was pregnant with Dionysus—Apollo’s archetypal opposite—when she was incinerated by Jove.) When sea imagery recurs, Dante deploys it to make sure we as readers are kept in our place as possibly unworthy subordinates in his poetic armada:

O you who are within your little bark.
eager to listen, following behind
my ship that, singing, crosses to deep seas,

turn back to see your shores again: do not
attempt to sail the seas I sail: you may,
by losing sight of me, be left astray.

The waves I take have never been sailed before…

Despite this adventuresome rhetoric, and despite a climactic comparison of himself to Jason, Dante’s poetic project is less an uncharted voyage than the charting of everything. Recall that Ulysses, reimagined as an irrepressible explorer, was damned. When Dante reaches the sphere of the Primum Mobile at the height of Heaven, he looks down at earth for the second time in his ascension. The first time, he noted that, from his height, the earth appeared “scrawny.” Now he overlooks the distant Mediterranean, as if to put Ulysses the secular quester in his place at last, far below the spiritual pilgrim:

I saw that, from the time when I looked down
before, I had traversed all of the arc
of the first clime, from its midpoint to end,

so that, beyond Cadiz, I saw Ulysses’
mad course and, to the east, could almost see
that shoreline where Europa was sweet burden.

Why does Dante disparage the earth, which he twice calls a “threshing floor,” the unglamorous site where godly wheat is separated from infernal chaff? As Beatrice explains, implying more than perhaps she means, the fault is time, the medium through which the errant will moves and matter decays:

“The will has a good blossoming in men;
but then the never-ending downpours turn
the sound plums into rotten, empty skins.

For innocence and trust are to be found
only in little children; then they flee
even before a full beard cloaks the cheeks.”

The Paradiso is a politically as well as religiously didactic poem. Dante does envision a political solution to the corruptions of earth. Beatrice continues: “‘on earth no king holds sway; / therefore, the family of humans strays.'” Dante deplored the political conditions obtaining in Europe around the turn of the fourteenth century. He believed that the church had corrupted into a worldly and temporal power, even as the rightful temporal power—the secular emperors—were weak. Division is again the solution: let the church tend the spirit and the state discipline the body. Charles Martel complains to Dante:

“But you twist to religion one whose birth
made him more fit to gird a sword, and make
a king of one more fit for sermoning…”

These political issues are not abstractions to Dante. His own city has fallen into moral ruin, and he himself has been exiled from it. In Paradise he meets his ancestor Cacciaguida, who gives a lyric portrait of Florence’s golden age, and, in some of this canticle’s best-known lines, prophesies Dante’s banishment:

“You shall leave everything you love most dearly:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste

of others’ bread, how salt it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
descending and ascending others’ stairs.”

Upon reaching the court of Heaven, where the highest saints and the angels are arrayed as the white rose of Paradise around the blinding Borgesian aleph that is God, Dante, despite his conviction that the temporal and spiritual powers must be kept apart, cannot help but see the sight as a barbarian’s first glimpse of the finest political order, the Roman Empire itself:

If the Barbarians, when they came from
a region that is covered every day
by Helice, who wheels with her loved son,

were, seeing Rome and her vast works, struck dumb
(when, of all mortal things, the Lateran
was the most eminent), then what amazement

must have filled me when I to the divine
came from the human, to eternity
from time, and to a people just and sane

from Florence came!

His final guide, the mystic St. Bernard, introduces the personae of Paradise as “great patricians / of this most just and merciful empire.” Spiritual and secular authority, which Dante had taken pains to separate, here collapse back into each other so that Paradise is an ideally ordered empire. Dante seems to be at the verge of the post-Christian world, very nearly imagining, like Hegel or Marx, that God might be nothing other than the imagination’s projection of good governance onto the heavens.

Though Dante was thus (to use an anachronistic term) a totalitarian, he was no phallocrat. Writing in the mariolatrous Middle Age—St. Bernard, reports one of Allen Mandelbaum’s endnotes, did much to revive the cult of Mary—and nearly deifying his first love, Dante places an ideal image of woman at the center of his vision and pictures Paradise as centered upon a rose, not a phallic but a vulvic image. No wonder the Apollonian male poet allows himself to be figured by his beloved as Semele, mother of Dionysus.

These initially puzzling slippages of our poet’s ordered intelligence, which seems to confuse sacred/secular and male/female when it had been so concerned throughout the poem to separate their spheres, are explained when Dante finally does behold God, or the Eternal Light:

In its profundity I saw—ingathered
and bound by love into one single volume—
what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered…

God is the artwork that holds the totality of experience, including every opposition (male/female, spiritual/temporal, good/evil) in perfect balance and tension. God is the total book, the highest epic—or, as an incorrigible post-Christian like myself might insist, the supreme fiction. God is the Divine Comedy.

By conceiving his self, his book, and his universe as a unity, Dante accomplishes the transfiguration of epic into lyric that will become the mark of modern poetry from Wordsworth to Whitman to Walcott. But if epic is imperial, lyric is personal, the staging of a psyche in motion, as when Dante, just before mounting up to God, records his struggle to recall and write his vision:

As one who sees within a dream, and, later,
the passion that had been imprinted stays,
but nothing of the rest returns to mind,

such am I, for my vision almost fades
completely, yet it still distills within
my heart the sweetness that was born of it.

I have never read a better analogy for the attempt to write poetry or fiction than that of trying to remember a dream whose emotional impression colors the whole day even after its events have evanesced from the mind. In the endnotes to Mandelbaum’s translations, the editors comments on this passage:

Dante, the poet attempting to record his vision, is like a man awakening from a dream he does not remember, filled with the emotion of a dream, but with no clear recollection of its particulars. We are reminded of Coleridge’s preface to “Kubla Khan,” where the poem itself is presented as the recollection of a dream. Reading this last canto, it is easy to see how the Romantic poets were attracted by Dante. The stupendous tension of the remainder of the poem derives in large part from Dante’s dramatization of his present struggle to recollect (i.e., imagine) and describe (i.e., create in words) the content of his final vision.

Earlier in the poem, Beatrice explains to Dante that God—whom we know from his sculptures in Purgatory to be an artist—created the universe for the same reason that any artist creates, not for company and certainly not for gain but merely to affirm that what exists exists:

“Not to acquire new goodness for Himself—
which cannot be—but that his splendor might,
as it shines back to Him, declare ‘Subsisto,’

in His eternity outside of time,
beyond all other borders, as pleased Him,
Eternal Love opened into new loves.”

Not just a static affirmation then, but one in motion. God seeks “new loves”—should this not be foreclosed by Beatrice’s logic when she claims God seeks no “new goodness”?—and so blossoms as the rose does. Again, we suspect that Dante can’t do it: he cannot separate divinity from nature, nature from art, though Aristotle or Aquinas tell him he must. God is a rose is an artist.

Dante’s final vision is of the Trinity, specifically of its second person; he beholds a man inscribed into a circle, our effigy fused with divinity in the Incarnation. At the center of the universe and the middle of the rose, he finds the figure of the human. So in his archaic, forbidding poem, we might find ourselves, “more truly and more strange.”


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Dante, Purgatorio

Purgatorio (The Divine Comedy, #2)Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Allen Mandelbaum begins his introduction to his wonderful translation thusly:


For the Virgil of Dante’s Purgatorio, “love is the seed in you of every virtue/and of all acts deserving punishment” (XVII, 104-105). To find one same source for all good and all evil is to insist on the need for the education of desire.The descent through Hell and ascent through the seven terraces of the Mount of Purgatory are the tale of that education of Dante’s hungering, longing, thirsting will.

The Purgatorio is the most human canticle of the Divine Comedy, many commentators say, since it alone takes place on earth—specifically on the mountain of Purgatory, which rises to the heavens at the opposite pole from Jerusalem in medieval cartography, and which was the last sight that greeted the living Ulysses on his doomed quest for knowledge in the Inferno. In line with this latter parable, Virgil cautions Dante against relying on reason, rather than seeing with the eye of faith, as they traverse the terraced mount:

“Foolish is he who hopes our intellect
can reach the end of that unending road
only one Substance in three Persons follows.

Confine yourselves, o humans, to the quia;
had you been able to see all, there would
have been no need for Mary to give birth.”

The Purgatorio‘s spirits, suffering but hopeful, penitent but genial, seem more “realistic,” in the sense of representing human norms, than the frenziedly static images of sin in Hell, even though these shades undergo purging tortures not a little infernal, from the literal burning of the lustful to the sewn-shut eyelids of the envious. There is a tone of we’re all fellow sufferers and pilgrims here similar to the fellowship that can develop on a bus or a plane. There is much philosophical verse: Virgil on love, Marco Lombardo on free will, Statius on the birth of souls, and more. The long-awaited and climactic appearance, in the Earthly Paradise, of a Beatrice full of maternal anger amid a pageant so allegorically intricate that commentators must sometimes admit ignorance is a memorable moment, if obscurely dismaying to the modern mind. Beatrice’s rebuke of Dante makes me wonder—and Mandelbaum does not clear this up, nor to my recollection does Dorothy L. Sayers in her translation/commentary—from whence Dante derives her spiritual authority, which he likens to that of Christ; he has boldly added a major figure to the Christian pantheon, drawn from his daily life.

The pageant in the Earthly Paradise that concludes the canticle is spectacular in its bravura imagery and that imagery’s encoded representation of Christian history. To my mind, however, it also shows the limits of the allegorical method, since the vehicles of its metaphors are simply fantastical, with none of the earthiness of Dante’s human figures: women dancing who are green, red, and white, thus representing certain virtues, for instance, or a chariot emblematizing the church drawn by a griffin standing for Christ. I’m sure I just lack the proper taste and knowledge to appreciate medieval art, but these passages (cantos XXVII-XXXIII) with their imagery mostly untethered from human reality struck me as a poetic anticipation of CGI. Similarly, the poem’s long explanations of how shades can feel pain or how there can be wind in the Earthly Paradise feel to my post-Romantic sensibility, its faith in open-ended symbolism, like an overindulged “world-building” impulse. What can I say? Dante is a genius, no doubt, but Joyce once hesitated between Shakespeare or Dante for his desert island book before finally deciding on “the Englishman”—whereas I would not hesitate at all.

On a happier note, before the parade in the Earthly Paradise begins, the Purgatorio is a poet’s canticle, full of artists and striking disquisitions on art. God, for one thing, is Himself an artist: He has carved imposing reliefs modeling humility and chastened pride into the mountain walls, representations so real that “even Nature, there, would feel defeated,” as they trick Dante into thinking he hears the songs and smells the smoke he only sees. Dante compares himself to a child and Virgil to his mother, and the heaven-bound poet Statius, paying tribute to Virgil, calls the Aeneid his nurse and mother: poets honor their precursors in what Dante would boggle to hear me call a queer genealogy. (Would he be less comprehending at another modern critical tradition’s calling it a patriarchal one? Dante curses Eve for getting us evicted from Eden, and he dreams an alluring Siren—”that ancient witch,” Virgil calls her—whose “belly” exudes a “stench”; to these wicked women Mary and Beatrice stand as antitypes, so that the moral cosmos is organized around poles of abstracted femininity.) The Troubadours, Dante’s predecessors in the beautiful new style of love poetry, are hailed in the appearance of the Provencal-speaking Arnaut Daniel from out of the lust-purging fire:

“I am Arnaut, who, going, weep
and sing; with grief I see my former folly;
with joy, I see the hoped-for day draw near.

Now, by the Power that conducts you to
the summit of the stairway, I pray you:
remember, at time opportune, my pain!”

The poets do allow, though, that the fame of art is fleeting:

“Your glory wears the color of the grass
that comes and goes; the sun that makes it wither
first drew it from the ground, still green and tender.”

Again, the poem’s theme is “the education of desire.” Virgil explains that human love and desire are, when misdirected by the bad exercise of free will, the sources of sin, even as they may the source of virtue; in a similar psychological monism, Dante refutes Plato (and his inverted latter-day disciple Freud) in denying that there can be any division in the soul. This theme is enacted by the poem’s structure: Dante allows us to understand that his strict narrative structure and verse form impose the discipline on art that will allow it to serve the end of virtue. Virgil advises Dante to use his will to choose between good and evil, to recognize the “keeper of the threshold / of your assent”—and perhaps that is the role played in art by form:

[B]ut since all of the pages predisposed
for this, the second canticle, are full,
the curb of art will not let me continue.

Even so, Virgil, representing the apogee of poetry as well as the limits of secular perception, is left behind at the threshold of paradise. His last words to Dante:

“Await no further word or sign from me:
your will is free, erect, and whole—to act
against that will would be to err: therefore

I crown and miter you over yourself.”

Nevertheless, Dante has three prophetic dreams and an ecstatic vision, whose sights he refers to as his “not false errors”; he is likewise told in the Earthly Paradise that the pagan poets’ vision of the Golden Age intuited Eden:

“Those ancients who in poetry presented
the golden age, who sang its happy state,
perhaps, in their Parnassus, dreamt this place.”

Our poet can’t help himself: even the phantasmagoria of the visionary, even the verses of the unchristened, tell the truth: art is real, beauty will save the world. Hence, despite every misgiving, Beatrice’s instruction: “‘when you have returned beyond, transcribe what you have seen.'”

Weighing in on the perennial question of how to separate the great art from the sinning artist, Dante allows that he will almost certainly have to spend time on the Mount of Purgatory to purge the very pride without which he certainly never would have embarked on such an audacious epic (“already / I feel the heavy weights of the first terrace”). When among the prideful, as they learn humility by being bent like crushed caryatids under heavy stones, Dante’s own pity enjoins him to bend with them even though Virgil counsels him to “stand like a sturdy tower that does not shake” and he himself says elsewhere that “erect” is “the stance most suitable to man.” For the curbed Christian, it sometimes seems, the energy of desire might at any moment be aimed in the wrong direction. I couldn’t help but admire Ulysses in the Inferno, and I was sad to see Virgil go here, especially as he is replaced by a Beatrice whose severe reproofs leave Dante in tears. “[W]e are worms,” Dante says, waiting to attain our final form, on butterfly wings in Paradise. But I prefer the early cantos, their simplicity and starkness:

Daybreak was vanquishing the dark’s last hour,
which fled before it; in the distance I
could recognize the trembling of the sea.

We made our way across the lonely plain
like one returning to a lost pathway,
who, till he finds it, seems to move in vain.

On Dante’s earth, language becomes the body, the face, rather than accommodating fantastical beasts in forests rustled by the wind from heaven: in the visages of the starved gluttons of Purgatory, Dante perceives the word “man,” or “omo,” formed by the flesh-purged lines of brow and nose. One sees “man,” too, in Belacqua, made sluggish by sloth, his tragicomic posture often all we can manage on earth:

And one of them, who seemed to me exhausted,
was sitting with his arms around his knees;
between his knees, he kept his head bent down.


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Toni Morrison, Paradise

ParadiseParadise by Toni Morrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paradise was not well received upon its publication in 1997—influential critics like Michiko Kakutani, James Wood, and Zoë Heller disparaged it, and even Oprah’s audience, instructed to read it for the talk show host’s book club, demurred, prompting Oprah to call Morrison to offer the viewers encouragement. One of the studio audience members protested that, confused by the novel’s multiple perspectives and non-linear chronology, she was lost on page 19; Oprah asked Morrison what the poor woman was to do; and Morrison’s reply—which I have never forgotten—was, “Read page 20.” Unsurpassable advice! Profiling Morrison in 2012, Boris Kachka summarizes the case against Paradise:

Both Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Don DeLillo’s Underworld came out in 1997, the year Paradise did. Both addressed historical eras and themes, as Morrison does, but both spoke directly to contemporary anxieties in a way that Paradise did not. Roth and DeLillo were nostalgic for an old American consensus and alarmed at its disintegration, and both used voices resonant with modern paranoia and neurosis. In contrast, Morrison still seemed to be in cross-racial dialogue with the same long-dead ­Modernists on whom she’d written her thesis in the fifties.

This is both right and wrong: Morrison does reject any nostalgia for postwar consensus (whether or not Roth and DeLillo express this nostalgia is another matter), but in so doing she very much speaks to “contemporary anxieties”; the problem is simply that many readers did not like either what she said or how she said it. They are entitled to their opinions about the “what,” but once you have allowed such opinions to cloud your view of the “how”—for example, none of the above critics show any awareness that Paradise is often supposed to be funny—then you have lost critical control.

Let’s get the “what” out of the way right now: Paradise bears an epigraph from a gnostic gospel narrated by a female deity, and it concludes with the theophany of a black madonna. Searching for a term to describe its apparent ideology, I could come up with nothing more neutral than “New Age.” It is a novel that, parodying the Bible, at least entertains the notion that our religious sensibilities must expand to include female divinity. While this view would undoubtedly not interest Philip Roth much, it, along with other dissident religious approaches harking back to gnostic and pagan cults, was undoubtedly reflected in much late-twentieth-century Anglo-American culture. Such views are embarrassing to the liberal intelligentsia because said intelligentsia legitimates itself by its appeal to secular knowledge and often materialist or at least spiritually orthodox intellectual methods, and not without reason. This religious reflex, I believe, and not simply snobbism or sexism, accounts for the critical cringe Nick Salvato writes about with respect to Tori Amos, some of whose songs (see “Marys of the Sea,” for instance) could furnish a soundtrack to Paradise.

But I did write above that Paradise “entertains” its religious thesis rather than straightforwardly promoting it. As Boris Kachka notes, Morrison remains faithful to modernism. If modernist writers from Eliot to Woolf shared one thing in common, it was a commitment to putting forth their spiritual intuitions in obsessively fragmented and recursive literary forms, to remind readers to take no single narrative on faith, especially not narratives about faith. This brings us back to Oprah’s audience and their problem with Paradise: the novel has no single viewpoint, no clear chronology, no central character, and no reliable perspective. The most basic facts of the narrative remain in doubt by its conclusion. Even the miraculous resurrections with which it seems to end could be explained by a mixture of lucky escape and hallucination. Condemning religious orthodoxy and political ethno-nationalism for their shared demand of unthinking assent, Morrison leaves her readers free to differ with her suggestion that they worship the goddess.

“They shoot the white girl first,” the novel famously begins. Its opening chapter is really its penultimate one, narrating the story’s climax: in July 1976, nine leading male citizens of the all-black town of Ruby, OK, murder five women who are living in a former convent near the town. This first chapter is maddeningly indirect, as none of the men or women is named; moreover, we see through the men’s POV so that the perspective is unreliable from the start (“They are nine, over twice the number of the women” they are seeking, the second paragraph begins; but, as Ron David long ago pointed out, nine is not “over twice” five; these little word problems occur throughout the text, making it impossible to read passively). The opposite of a mystery novel—though something of a mystery play—Paradise tells us who committed the murder in the first chapter and then spends the rest of the book seeking an explanation.

The next eight chapters, each bearing a woman’s name, tell the story of how four women on the run assembled in the late 1960s and early 1970s in an embezzler’s mansion that became a Catholic convent and Indian boarding school before falling into disuse. In the stories of these women—Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, and Pallas—Morrison enumerates the threats faced by the poor, the young, or the female, such as poverty, state violence, domestic violence, and sexual predation from the “mundane” (Mavis’s marital rape at the hands of her husband) to the more outlandish (the Eyes Wide Shut scenario to which Seneca is subjected by a wealthy woman named Norma Keene Fox). Animal imagery abounds in the women’s stories, from aforementioned predator “Keene Fox” to the name of Mavis’s mother (Birdie Goodroe), as does classical and mythical allusion (Pallas, Seneca), to signal that this novel asks to be read skeptically as a work of exaggeration, as fable and myth rather than strict social realism.

In fact, Morrison parodies realism with aplomb in the Mavis chapter, throwing brand names and other “dirty realist” paraphernalia onto the page with witty abandon—this to trick us into thinking that Mavis is “the white girl” of the first sentence by writing about her in the literary idiom associated with the white lower class. Realism too, Morrison here tells us, is a fable, one whose moral we might distrust. As in her oft-misunderstood statement about Bill Clinton as the first black president, Morrison is making the point that “tropes of blackness” are often simply tropes of poverty, the latter fact deliberately obscured by the powers-that-be to divide the poor.

Those eight chapters also interleave the women’s stories with the story of the founding of Ruby, “the one all-black town worth the pain.” Summarizing this straightforwardly is no easy feat since the narrative comes piecemeal and from partial perspectives. The basic story is this: a group of very dark-skinned black people who had lived near Louisiana since the mid-eighteenth-century found themselves, at the end of Reconstruction, dismissed or oppressed not only by whites but also by lighter-skinned blacks. This led them to found their own town called Haven in 1890 in Oklahoma, when many all-black towns were created due to the federal government’s encouragement of homesteading. When Haven fell into poverty and disrepair in the mid-twentieth-century, the grandchildren of Haven’s founders set out again and founded a new town called Ruby.

In the 1960s and ’70s, however, Ruby is torn by the social conflicts tearing apart the rest of the country—between men and women, old and young, conservative and radical. These conflicts center on the town’s symbolic center, a brick oven that bears the words “the furrow of his brow.” The contending ideological forces in the town differ over how this message is the be completed: “Beware the Furrow of His Brow,” as the conservative town elders insist, or, in the preferred message of the young radicals, echoing the gnosticism that Morrison evokes with her epigraph, “Be the Furrow of His Brow”? Or even, as one of the town’s female citizens thinks, “Be the Furrow of Her Brow.” Eventually, the town elders come to see the convent women as the source of their troubles—”not a convent but a coven”—and go on a witch hunt.

Just before they are hunted down, the women consolidate themselves into a quasi-religious order. The old woman Consolata, who was kidnapped from a Rio slum by the nuns and who has lived in the convent ever since, becomes the “new revised Reverend Mother” for a kind of mystery cult wherein the women shave their heads and heal themselves with “loud dreaming” and artistic expression. These scenes provoked a not entirely unpersuasive objection from Zoë Heller in the London Review of Books (“the narrative itself dissolves into Adrienne Rich-ish poetry”), but just as Morrison is unsparing in her portrayal of the racism and colorism that led the men of Ruby to their extremes of intolerance, so her tongue never quite leaves her cheek in her depiction of this New Age religion, which makes the women too otherworldly to function: “Gradually they lost the days.” Warned by a female citizen of Ruby that they are about to be attacked, the women “yawned and smiled,” a small detail but a crucial one: Morrison, who once rather hair-raisingly wrote that it is “wildly irresponsible” not to inquire about women’s complicity in their own rape or abuse, places supreme importance on personal autonomy and the material means of self-reliance. In the last glimpse we get of the convent women, after they have either come back from the dead or are appearing as ghosts to their loved ones, they are on the road and they are armed.

“Come back from the dead”: yes, however hedged by modernist technique, Paradise entertains a spiritual notion. It does not entirely dismiss Christianity; Ruby’s newest clergyman, Rev. Misner, is sympathetic to the young radicals in the town and muses with eloquence and authority on liberation theology:

See? The execution of this one solitary black man propped up on these two intersecting lines to which he was attached in a parody of human embrace, fastened to two big sticks that were so convenient, so recognizable, so embedded in consciousness as consciousness, being both ordinary and sublime. See? His woolly head alternately rising on his neck and falling toward his chest, the glow of his midnight skin dimmed by dust, streaked by gall, fouled by spit and urine, gone pewter in the hot, dry wind and, finally, as the sun dimmed in shame, as his flesh matched the odd lessening of afternoon light as though it were evening, always sudden in that climate, swallowing him and the other death row felons, and the silhouette of this original sign merged with a false night sky. See how this official murder out of hundreds marked the difference; moved the relationship between God and man from CEO and supplicant to one on one? The cross he held was abstract; the absent body was real, but both combined to pull humans from backstage to the spotlight, from muttering in the wings to the principal role in the story of their lives.

All the same, the definition and defense of female divinity comes into view as the novel’s theme. To the men of Ruby, the women they hunt are “[b]odacious black Eves, unredeemed by Mary.” But Consolata tells us that “Eve is Mary’s mother,” and the novel ends, very beautifully, with Consolata in the arms of black madonna, presumably like that worshipped in her native Brazil:

In ocean hush a woman black as firewood is singing. Next to her is a younger woman whose head rests on the singing woman’s lap. Ruined fingers troll the tea brown hair. All the colors of seashells—wheat, roses, pearl—fuse in the younger woman’s face. Her emerald eyes adore the black face framed in cerulean blue. Around them on the beach, sea trash gleams. Discarded bottle caps sparkle near a broken sandal. A small dead radio plays the quiet surf.

There is nothing to beat this solace which is what Piedade’s song is about, although the words evoke memories neither one has ever had: of reaching age in the company of the other; of speech shared and divided bread smoking from the fire; the unambivalent bliss of going home to be at home—the ease of coming back to love begun.

When the ocean heaves sending rhythms of water ashore, Piedade looks to see what has come. Another ship, perhaps, but different, heading to port, crew and passengers, lost and saved, atremble, for they have been disconsolate for some time. Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise.

In other words, don’t divide Eve from Mary, whore from madonna, but adopt a holistic spiritual view capable of embracing flesh and spirit, capable of leading us away from domination based on or justified by difference.

Do not miss, as the early critics did, the ending’s emphasis on “endless work” (nor the admission that “down here” is all the paradise we’re likely to get). What is the “endless work”? The work of interpretation. Midway through the novel, Ruby’s resident writer Patricia, who has been assembling a genealogy, discovers that the men of the town have been maintaining their racial purity through incest in a parody of white racism (“They think they have outfoxed the whiteman when in fact they imitate him”). Upon finding this out, she burns her family trees—this to suggest that any attempt at purification is to be rejected as an arbitrary imposition. Ruby’s elderly midwife, Lone, takes a view of God that is more in keeping with the novel’s narrative mode:

Playing blind was to avoid the language God spoke in. He did not thunder instructions or whisper messages into ears. Oh no. He was a liberating God. A teacher who taught you how to learn, to see for yourself. His signs were clear, abundantly so, if you stopped steeping in vanity’s sour juice and paid attention to His world.

Read the clues, try to assemble the narrative, but accept in advance your defeat even as you press forward in trying to understand. I accept—there is so much more to say about Paradise. About characters and their names (“His grandfather had named his twins Deacon and Steward for a reason”), about twins and doubles. I have merely alluded to Morrison’s parody of the Biblical Exodus and its American re-creation by the Puritan settlers, and I have not even mentioned how the novel emphasizes that both Ruby and the convent exist only because the land was cleared by the state of its prior Native American inhabitants. I have not mentioned the novel’s love of nature, its endless invention, its food (the hot peppers that grow only at the convent).

Nor have I mentioned Paradise‘s flaws: it really is too short and feels thinner than it should as a result, with poetic prose often doing duty for narrative and characterization (James Wood was not wrong in this complaint). A novel of this spiritual and political ambition should be as long as The Brothers Karamazov, and I am convinced that Morrison would not bore us at that length.

Well, every narrative is flawed, including that of Paradise, as Paradise itself tells us. Even so, after twenty years we can say that its first critics judged it too hastily or too ideologically. It sits on the shelf without embarrassment next to the most ambitious fictions of its time. Don’t take my word for it. Read it and “see for yourself.”


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Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels

The Gnostic GospelsThe Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this 1979 classic of popular non-fiction, religious scholar Elaine Pagels explains to a broad audience the theological significance of the trove of early Christian writings discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Not only that, but she also places these documents in their social and political context, largely to explain why the diverse body of thought labeled “gnostic” was so decisively defeated by the ideas and institutions of what would become Christian orthodoxy. Finally, Pagels, while unsurprised by gnosticism’s defeat, suggests the perennial appeal—if only to artists, mystics, and other anti-social types—of the gnostic vision, with its emphasis on individual spiritual experience as against all hierarchies and establishments.

What is gnosticism? While Pagels is at pains to emphasize the diversity of the Nag Hammadi writings (the “gnostic gospels” of her title), some generalizations can be made. Gnosticism tends to posit the creator God of the Hebrew Bible as a mere demiurge, who fashioned this botched reality we inhabit out of malice or stupidity; the true God lies well beyond nature, and is only evidenced by the sparks of divinity lodged in the souls of human beings, like gems scattered amid offal. Because this world is not merely fallen but evil or illusory, then human hierarchies and institutions are religiously irrelevant, and the believer comes to God not by following someone else’s rules but by attaining private knowledge (gnosis) of the God within. Having dismissed nature and the body, the figure of Christ becomes less important as the incarnate God, a God who is also flesh and who died a real death; Christ is rather a kind of alien emissary modeling the ascended human rather than the descended deity: “Jesus was not a human being at all; instead, he was a spiritual being who adapted himself to human perception,” Pagels explains. Finally, with hierarchies made irrelevant by the distance of the true God, the gender distinction so important to Christian orthodoxy is de-emphasized and a greater place allotted to female spirituality and indeed female divinity. Gnostics have no need of codes and canons: “like artists, they express their own insight—their own gnosis—by creating new myths, poems, rituals, ‘dialogues’ with Christ, revelations, and accounts of their visions.”

The body of thought that would win out over gnosticism stressed, by contrast, an ordered hierarchy:

As God reigns in Heaven as master, lord, commander, judge, and king, so on earth he delegates his rule to members of the church hierarchy, who serve as generals who command an army of subordinates; kings who rules over “the people”; judges who preside in God’s place.

As Christianity expanded, its institutions could not sustain the kind of spiritual anarchy gnosticism portended if it was to organize a mass constituency:

Seeking to unify the diverse churches scattered throughout the world into a single network, the bishops eliminated qualitative criteria for church membership. Evaluating each candidate on the basis of spiritual maturity, insight, or personal holiness, as the gnostics did, would require a far more complex administration.

Pagels concludes that “the religious perspectives and methods of gnosticism did not lend themselves to mass religion.”

The above summary hints at who Pagels seems to be asking us to root for: the plucky anarcho-feminist artists against the stodgy authoritarian bishops. This is a more serious book than that, though. In one chapter, Pagels stresses the importance to believers of Christ’s incarnation, especially in the context of Christian persecution: how gravely moving it is to worship a God who was willing to suffer just as you suffer. The gnostic’s quasi-Platonic hologram Christ is, in a sense, much less interesting or original, another theophany who doesn’t really bleed or weep as we do. Moreover, gnosticism is a private religion, with each member his or her own church, whereas, Pagels explains, “[r]ejecting such religious elitism, orthodox leaders attempted instead to construct a universal church.” Pagels understands that in religion (as in politics) there is a necessary tension between the individual and the collective, insight and iteration, agency and structure, anarchy and community. She shows the gnostic traces in orthodox thought from the Gospel of John to the dissents of the church fathers—because even the orthodox sometimes sense the need to make a separate peace with our alien cosmos—just as she carefully notes the less appealing qualities of gnosticism’s more chaotic theology.

But gnosticism is appealing for all that. Pagels observes that, while it was extirpated by orthodoxy, it survived throughout the Christian era from medieval heresies (e.g., the Cathars) to Protestant mysticism. She several times mentions psychoanalysis as a modern manifestation of gnosticism: “For gnostics, exploring the psyche became explicitly what it is for many people today implicitly—a religious quest.” Not to mention the Romantic poets and post-Christian philosophers and proto-Existentialist novelists who have been drawn to a sublime of spiritual insight beyond matter and humanity:

William Blake, noting such different portraits of Jesus in the New Testament, sided with the one the gnostics preferred against “the vision of Christ that all men see” […] Nietzsche, who detested what he knew of Christianity, nevertheless wrote: “There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, attributes to Ivan a vision of the Christ rejected by the church, the Christ who “desired man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely,” choosing the truth of one’s own conscience over material well-being, social approval, and religious certainty.

Pagels does not mention, because, I assume, it was much less visible in 1979, gnosticism’s massive influence in late-twentieth-century popular culture, an influence that is probably at least partially attributable to her own book; see a semi-whimsical old Tumblr post of mine for details, and see Victoria Nelson for a more responsible treatment.

Most disappointingly to me, she also does not mention the political interpretation of gnosticism: Eric Voeglin, for instance, believed that modern political movements like Marxism and fascism, with their “ruthless critique of everything existing” (per Marx) and their consequent desire to re-organize all human life via the state according to otherworldly ideas of justice, derived essentially from gnostic thought—a controversial idea updated for the post-Cold-War period and its perhaps now collapsing neoconservative/neoliberal consensus by such thinkers as John Gray and Peter Y. Paik. Pagels’s focus on gnostic anarchy and individualism may well be an antidote to such attempts to materialize the alien God through the bloody rites of mass politics. Likewise, Herman Melville imagined in his remarkable short lyric “Fragments of a Lost Gnostic Poem of the Twelfth Century” that gnosticism enjoins withdrawal from all activity, an ineradicable spiritual impulse despite its worse-than-uselessness to the organization of humanity:

Found a family, build a state,
The pledged event is still the same:
Matter in end will never abate
His ancient brutal claim.

Indolence is heaven’s ally here,
And energy the child of hell:
The Good Man pouring from his pitcher clear
But brims the poisoned well.


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Dante, Inferno

Inferno (The Divine Comedy, #1)Inferno by Dante Alighieri

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You know the story: a man in the middle of life is lost in a shadowy forest of ignorance and error, his path to wisdom blocked by impassable beasts. Then he is saved by the shade of the great poet, Virgil, sent to rescue the wanderer by his dead and heavenly beloved, Beatrice. Salvation comes in the form of a journey through the Christian afterworld: a descent down the funnel of hell, a climb up the mount of purgatory, and a sojourn in paradise. Our hero, like many an epic hero before him, will quest through strange realms, even as our poet-philosopher—the hero’s own later self, recollecting the odyssey in rhyme—discloses its significance for humankind. This tripartite poem is threefold in genre: it combines epic, autobiography, and philosophy in one. Such a yoking of incommensurates marks the achievement of Dante. What ambitious imaginative writer that follows has not wished to fuse personal life and local politics with the wisdom and personae of eternity, “to hold in a single thought reality and justice”?

To ascend, you must first descend, as Odysseus and Aeneas and Freud and Jung understood. Virgil leads Dante down what Lawrence, referring to Orpheus rather than Dante, will later call “the strange lanes of hell.” Their strangeness is what should be emphasized for the contemporary reader. Dante must be the most off-putting canonical poet, his vision almost totally encrusted in allegorical interpretation: you feel like you must halt at every line of verse and ask, “What does X stand for, what does Y stand for?” And maybe—my native contrarianism makes me question the post-structuralist chaos theory of textuality—this is the ultimate or final form of reading imaginative literature, the point just before reading itself ceases because truth has been realized. But first you just have to read: the text before the commentary.

Reading the Inferno, what stands out is the inventiveness, the prodigality of imagination. Dante was hoping it would. Poetry and philosophy may rest in the end a little lower than wisdom, but we poets and philosophers sometimes feel we can stand in their fainter light forever. Hence in Limbo, at the threshold of Hell, Dante joins the great shades of antiquity—Homer and Socrates, Aristotle and Ovid—in the odd university town that is their ambiguous immortality. Neither saved nor quite punished, they are able to control themselves by force of reason but unable to redeem themselves through faith: “we have no hope and yet we live in longing,” says Virgil of his own sphere, speaking for all of us who have not been able to unite reality and justice.

But I write on Halloween morning—though the poem takes place on Easter weekend—so let me proceed to the horrors:

And—there!—a serpent sprang with force at one
who stood upon our shore, transfixing him
just where the neck and shoulders form a knot.

No o or i has ever been transcribed
so quickly as that soul caught fire and burned
and, as he fell, quickly turned to ashes;

and when he lay, undone, upon the ground,
the dust of him collected by itself
and instantly returned to what it was…

Dante’s horrors are uncanny in the Freudian sense of the displaced familiar; his Hell is our world, distorted. His use of epic simile, which compares the epic poet’s marvelous narrative with homely or natural places and events to make the poetic material seem more plausible, begins to work in reverse, so that the everyday comes to be seen by hellfire, just as the modern novelist, reversing the epic poet’s procedure, likens homely or domestic affairs to the strange and outlandish:

The demons did the same as any cook
who has his urchins force the meat with hooks
deep down into the pot, that it not float.

Hell, as I said, is a strange place. Writing before the Last Judgment, when the dead will rise from their tombs and rejoin their souls, Dante necessarily makes Hell a simulacrum of what will later hold full reality. Again and again, it is Dante alone whose feet dislodge stones or whose weight bears upon boats and the backs of demons. At the end of the Inferno, he even encounters the soul of a sinner who has not yet died on earth (“as soon as any soul becomes a traitor, / as I was, then a demon takes its body / away”).

The genius of Dante, then, is to organize vivid images of spiritual states: the place in the organization of Hell you occupy is a kind of metaphor for what your soul in its sinful state already looks like. The imagery of Hell is the true picture of reality that is under what we take for the normal world. If you are politically or religiously sectarian, then you are already, right now, a walking catalogue of mutilation, part cleaved from part; if you are a seller of spiritual goods, you are already, right now, upside down in a hole, having elevated the base over the holy; if you are sexually incontinent, you are already, right now, fused to another and buffeted by violent passion. One sinner, who “carried by the hair its severed head…like a lantern,” even announces God’s method to Dante, who merely copies it in his art:

Because I severed those so joined, I carry—
alas—my brain dissevered from its source,
which is my trunk. And thus, in me,

one sees the law of counter-penalty.

But it is not just that we get what we deserve; it is that sin is its own penalty. Dante invents endless haunting horrors to shock us out of sin, from rains of fire to fields of shit to vats of pitch to lakes of ice. As the two poets descend down the spiral that leads to the bottom of the universe, Virgil counsels Dante not to pity the sufferers. Is their suffering not just? Has God not ordained it? The drama of the Inferno is Dante’s growing confidence in his own judgment. He swoons with pity when he hears the story of the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca in Canto V, but by Canto XXXII he is grabbing heads frozen in ice by the scruff to enjoin them to speak. What, by the way, do the souls of sinners want from Dante? On learning he is a poet, they all want him to write of them on earth, to bring their names and stories back into circulation. This is a backhanded tribute to poetry: it is the only secular way to a relative immortality, but what does it matter in the grand scheme of eternity if even the damned can be satisfied by it? Virgil, while condemning usury as perverse replication of wealth without labor, argues that art must follow nature, which is the artistry of God:

“Philosophy, for one who understands ,
points out, and not just in one place,” he said,
how nature follows—as she takes her course—

the Divine Intellect and Divine Art;
and if you read your Physics carefully,
not many pages from the start, you’ll see

that when it can, your art would follow nature,
just as a pupil imitates his master;
so that your art is almost God’s grandchild.”

Yet the God of the Inferno is an artificer of perversity; he must be, in giving the perverse their just desserts. I am not quite about to launch into an argument that Dante was of the Devil’s party without knowing it. Even so, compassion accompanies clarity throughout the Inferno, if only for humanity as such and the distortions we are prey to, as when Dante sees the soothsaysers and magi with their heads twisted around in punishment for trying to see too far ahead and by ungodly means:

As I inclined my head still more, I saw
that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
between the chin and where the chest begins;

they had their faces twisted toward their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them.

Perhaps the force of palsy has so fully
distorted some, but that I’ve yet to see,
and I do not believe that that can be.

May God so let you, reader, gather fruit
from what you read; and now think for yourself
how I could ever keep my own face dry

when I beheld our image so nearby
and so awry that tears, down from the eyes,
bathed the buttocks, running down the cleft.

Dante and the reader, though, feel undeniable esteem for certain of the damned. The sodomite Brunetto Latini in Canto XV, whom Dante sees as a mentor, for instance:

And then he turned and seemed like one of those
who race across the fields to win the green
cloth at Verona; of those runners, he

appeared to be the winner, not the loser.

There is Dante’s Ulysses, who speaks of his restless voyaging beyond the pillars of Hercules from the flame where he is entombed, and who narrates his rousing speeches and his own death with tragic dignity:

“‘Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.’


…for out of that new land a whirlwind rose
and hammered at our ship, against her bow.

Three times it turned her round with all the waters;
and at the fourth, it lifted up the stern
so that our prow plunged deep, as it pleased an Other,

until the sea again closed—over us.”

A theological objection does occur to the reader: if a soul like Ulysses can be so articulate and knowing about his situation, then how can grace be withheld him—or, to put it another way, if the soul remains intelligent after death, how might it not be saved? This is just another way of tormenting the nuns in religion class with the old question about God: if God is all good and all powerful, why must anyone be damned or anyone suffer? Why has a benevolent God arranged a universe with so much evil and suffering? (“We made him do it,” goes the answer; “But he made us,” goes the reply; and so on and so forth, from Genesis to Blade Runner.)

Like all reasonable ancients and moderns, but perhaps not medievals (to use an overly simplistic historical narrative), I accept that the universe is so horrifically arranged while discarding the possibility that a universally benevolent power has so arranged it. Insofar as Dante remains a poet, he does no less, and this is shown in his insistence that eternity is a kind of Florence writ large, only our own world, but seen through the eye of God.

One of the glories and sorrows of the Inferno is the amount of space taken up by Florentine politics in Dante’s time. This necessitates frequent recourse to endnotes and glosses, and, unless one is a historian, the politics never quite come clear. I grasp that Dante belonged to the leftmost wing of the republican party that initially supported the papacy against the empire, and that after he was permanently exiled by a rival faction he developed a political philosophy emphasizing a division between spiritual and worldly power. (The corruption of spiritual authority is particularly important in the Inferno, as Dante denounces church corruption and even traces it to the Donation of Constantine, which is to say the founding of the church as a secular power.) I see too how this desire to neatly arrange different types of perfection and happiness belongs to the same poetic imagination that fuses thought and image into complex but intelligible philosophical arrays.

But all the Florentine personalities tend to blur every time I read this poem, and I sometimes question the wisdom of this literary strategy; for myself, I would not ask readers almost a millennium hence to recognizes the names of, for instance, Paul Manafort and John Podesta (to choose only Italian names from the present American political inferno). Even so, I am stunned by Dante’s boldness in putting his contemporaries right next to the personae of religion and mythology and retaining a level and authoritative tone while doing so: Paul Manafort and Ulysses, John Podesta and the Titans of Olympus (I use the aforementioned contemporary American figures because I cannot just now recall the names of any Ghibellines), all occupying the same metaphysical plane.

The Inferno is a worldly city. It is, perhaps, the city we all live in on earth, and in the tones in which so many sinners speak we hear our own voices, complaining about politics and recounting our despair, chastened by the absurdity of it all and the necessity of enduring it:

My home was in the city whose first patron [Mars]
gave way to John the Baptist; for this reason,

he’ll always use its art to make it sorrow;
and if—along the crossing of the Arno—
some effigy of Mars had not remained,

those citizens who afterward rebuilt
their city on the ashes that Attila
had left to them, would have travailed in vain.

I made—of my own house—my gallows place.

Postmodern psychology is the opposite of Dante’s: do we not invert his hierarchies, honoring impulse and desire over the reason that was, we hear, discredited by its bringing of inferno rather than paradise to those it colonized, enslaved, and immolated? If God does not exist and Auschwitz is the other name of reason, then it is not even any dishonor for us to acknowledge that we live in the infernal city. We have learned, perversely perhaps—but do you have any better ideas?—to enjoy the agonies our offenses bring us, to admire our own woundedness. Of Dante, we ask only vividness and discard the wisdom.

A final note on this translation. Allen Mandelbaum, working toward the end of the twentieth century (this translation dates from 1981) and working in rhyme-poor English, knew he could not replicate Dante’s terza rima while translating clearly and faithfully; but free verse would be a poor substitute for the poet’s sonically intricate yet clear and rapid Italian. Mandelbaum’s solution is superb: he chooses “close sonic packing,” he says in his introduction, “with pure rhymes, pararhyme, assonances, alliterations, and consonances often called into service.” (I tried something like this myself when trying to see the greatness in Mallarmé through a poor translation.) English is suited to such a technique: alliteration, not end-rhyme, was the major sound technique of the earliest English poets, and alliteration, assonance, and consonance serve perhaps more naturally than rhyme as sonic unifiers in English poetry. This means that while Mandelbaum’s poem does not rhyme quite as Dante’s does, it chimes throughout. In this way, it proclaims even in English, when read aloud, the unity of God’s creation as not only described but also verbally enacted by the poet.


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Richard E. Kim, The Martyred

The MartyredThe Martyred by Richard E. Kim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Richard E. Kim’s The Martyred was published to great sales and acclaim in 1964. It dominated the bestseller list, earned comparisons to Camus and Dostoevsky, and boasted blurbs from Pearl S. Buck and Philip Roth. Kim was born in what is now North Korea in the 1930s, in the waning days of Japanese domination of the peninsula, and he fought on the side of the south during the Korean War. In 1955, he came to the U.S., and studied history, political science, writing, and Asian languages and literatures at a multitude of prestigious institutions—perhaps most notably the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and given what we now know about aspects of the Workshop’s political goals, the anticommunist novelist’s presence is, leaving his talent aside, perhaps no surprise. But Kim’s talent is considerable, and it is good that Penguin Classics rescued The Martyred in 2011 from its undeserved post-Cold-War oblivion, not only because the consequences of the unfinished Korean War confront the world every day in the news, but also because it is a very good novel.

The Martyred is set during the very early days of the Korean War and narrated by Captain Lee, a former university professor of humanities now serving in the army. It opens in Pyongyang during the brief phases in which the South held the city, and it concerns the execution of twelve Christian ministers by the Communists on the eve of the war. Lee’s superior, the seemingly cynical (and anti-Christian) pragmatist Colonel Chang, wishes to use the execution as propaganda against “the Reds,” but he is worried that two survivors of the mass execution may have survived by collaborating or capitulating to the Communists. If word of that were to leak, it would harm the morale of the Christian Koreans whose spirit is needed in the fight against Communism. From this premise, a fast-paced narrative of investigation proceeds as Lee attempts to determine what actually happened to the ministers and whether or not in particular the saintly and tubercular Rev. Shin is telling the truth as his story about the massacre shifts. Furthermore, the stakes are personal as well as political, since one of the murdered ministers is the religiously fanatical father of Lee’s best friend from school and now military colleague, the rebellious atheist Captain Park.

As my summary should indicate, the thriller plot, while effective, is something of a veneer for a novel of ideas in the mode of the aforementioned Dostoevsky and Camus. The novel is, in fact, dedicated to Camus and shares an epigraph with The Rebel, just as its dialogues on theodicy and endurance clearly take inspiration from The Plague as well as from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. The characters spend much of the novel in disputation about the nature of faith and evil:

“Your god, any god, all the gods in the world—what do they care for us? Your god—he does not understand our sufferings, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with our miseries, murders, starving people, wars, wars, and all the horrors!”


“Courage,” he said gently, laying his hands on my shoulders. “Courage, Captain. We must hope against hopelessness. We must dare to hope against despair because we are men.”

While respectful to Christianity as a way of giving significance to Korea’s nearly unendurable modern experience of war and pain, the novel ultimately recommends an ethic of stoical endurance beyond all ideology and abstraction, the moderation praised by Camus in The Rebel. The last author we see Captain Lee consult is Aurelius, and in the end he pledges his loyalty not to God but to his suffering nation.

Even novels of ideas need more than ideas, though: they need sights and sounds and smells to give body to thought. In this, Kim acquits himself beautifully. The Martyred is expertly paced, its dialogues punctuated cinematically by long shots of the devastated wartime landscape, its descriptive prose a midcentury masterpiece of quaking minimalist restraint, bleakness just barely haunted by a nearly forgotten promise of transcendence, intimated by the church bell that rings at intervals in the novel’s ruined city:

Across the street the church bell clanged. I opened the window. From the white-blue November sky of North Korea, a cold gust swept down the debris-ridden slope, whipping up here and there dazzling snow flurries, smashing against the ugly, bullet-riddled buildings of Pyongyang. People who had been digging in the ruins of their homes stopped working. They straightened up and looked toward the top of the slope, at the remains of the nearly demolished Central Church and then at the gray carcass of the cross-topped bell tower where the bell was clanging. They gazed at each other as if they understood the esoteric message of the bell.

Since The Martyred is not very well known, I will keep this to a brief review rather than a full-scale interpretation and suggest only that you read it if you admire novels of passionate dialectic and harsh realism, as well as if you want a fictional supplement to, or aesthetic consolation for, the bad news about the prolonged continuation (let us hope not to the death) of the last century’s wars.


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Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Gilead (Gilead, #1)Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead (2004), to be literally stunning. That is, every time I picked it up to read a few pages I would become dazed with boredom or would even fall asleep, knocked out by the novel’s descriptive vagueness and tonal self-effacement. This is a beloved book, a contemporary classic, as we are told, so I’m sure this reaction marks me out as a bad person—but if you’ve been reading these reviews for any length of time you already knew that about me. Anyway, this novel is not against bad people per se; it even quietly argues that, in unheroic times, bad people might be the only people with spirit enough to be heroes. This is an insight pursued in major Christian fiction from Stowe and Dostoevsky to O’Connor and Coetzee, but Robinson’s choice to narrate this tale of sinning one’s way to Jesus in the voice of a quietly good, heroically unheroic man mutes the paradox and weakens the irony.

Gilead is set in 1956 in the eponymous Iowa town (Robinson’s invention) founded by Christian abolitionists before the Civil War. Its narrator is the Congregationalist minister John Ames, an old man nearing death. Ames has found romance and marriage with a young woman late in life and Gilead takes the form of a letter for his son to read when he comes of age. Given this structure, Gilead is a very expository and seemingly even aleatory novel, its narrator following chains of association as he writes every day to an imagined interlocutor—his son as he will be as an adult. Ames details his daily life, reminisces about his past, tells stories about his family and friends, and vouchsafes his thoughts on theology.

Gradually, though, the novel reveals itself to be less Ames’s story than the story of two other, more active characters: his long-deceased grandfather, a fiery and fanatical prophet-like old preacher who helped to found the town and who was the comrade of John Brown, and Ames’s namesake and godson John Ames (Jack) Boughton, the prodigal son of the old man’s best friend who has returned to Gilead from a long and mysterious period of wandering. While Robinson certainly invites readers to admire Ames’s humility, his diffidence, his reticence, his devotion to the commonplace, his readiness to praise others, his gratitude for his good fortune in having found the love of a good woman in the twilight of his life, his humane religiosity, the novel remains an elegy to the vanished heroism of his grandfather’s generation, who fought to free the slaves, and a paean to the rising generation represented by Jack, who risks all, we learn at the novel’s climax, for interracial love.

Like Robinson’s nonfiction, such as the drubbingly tendentious and self-righteous essays collected in The Death of Adam, Gilead presents us with a moral history of the United States whose collective protagonist is the Puritan diaspora of Calvin’s Geneva and Winthrop’s Boston, those Christian radicals who founded the Midwest as a bulwark against slavery and built modern liberalism from Calvinist doctrines of individual perfectionism and mutual aid.[1] It is almost too easy to complain about how much is left out of this story—Catholics and Jews, as William Deresiewicz points out; or the agency and independent political thought of black people, who figure in Robinson’s historiography largely as index and object of Calvinist morality; or even the inner complexities of Puritanism and its legacy themselves, Jonathan Edwards’s assurance to his fainting congregation that God hates them or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s need to abandon the pulpit. For the purposes of literary criticism, though, Robinson should be granted her historical and political donnée. The problem with Gilead is not necessarily its message, which seemed so timely in 2004, but its message’s vehicle: prose too devoted to the Protestant plain style, to my mind, to bring a fictional world alive.

It is not that the novel simply argues a thesis; it is as irony-rich as any serious fiction needs to be. For one thing, Ames is clear enough that the moral fanaticism of his grandfather came at the cost of any practicable or peaceable social life, and also that the white abolitionists’ quest had an element of quixotism in it—a comic episode in the novel, wherein one of the abolitionists’ underground railroad tunnels collapses under a horse, leading the only black man in Gilead to flee for fear of his would-be saviors’ incompetence, makes the latter point. Ames’s father speaks up for pacifism, and Ames himself laments that, since the Great War, “we have had war continuously,” thus calling into question his grandfather’s belligerence even in a good cause.[2]

Similarly, we are led for much of the novel to see Jack Boughton as a menacing, Stavrogin-like figure, a charming atheist and predator: his youthful mischief is described with hints of sociopathy and, after Ames reveals that Jack fathered a child on a very young and impoverished woman whom he later abandoned, we begin to worry with Ames about what is portended by Jack’s attention to Ames’s young wife and son.

In short, it is precisely because Ames’s grandfather and his godson were and are so ill-adjusted to the ordinary—unlike the supremely quotidian Ames himself—that they were and are able to advance, however problematically, the causes of justice and faith. Abraham and Isaac are alluded to, just so we know what story is being avoided, what Kierkegaardian existentialism and extremity are being evaded. There is no sense here, as there is in The Idiot or Wise Blood or The Schooldays of Jesus, that faith might be inhuman, desolating, shattering.

I even dallied with the idea that Gilead should be understood as a Nabokov-like or Ishiguro-like novel of morally unreliable narration, a Browningesque dramatic monologue whose speaker stands inadvertently self-condemned: Ames the impotent, too well-behaved to be good and so obscurely evil, contemptible in comparison to the Civil War generation:

They had been to Lane and Oberlin, and they knew their Hebrew and their Greek and their Locke and their Milton. […] Still, they were bodacious old men, the lot of them. It was the most natural thing in the world that my grandfather’s grave would look like a place where someone had tried to smother a fire.

I gather that Robinson’s later novels in the Gilead saga, which I do not care to read just now, make at least a gentler version of such an interpretation available.

But Gilead is too rhetorically invested in Ames’s praise of the everyday for readers to come away with anything other than conviction that Ames is right: the evidence of grace and the warrant for faith is the beauty of the ordinary rather than any extravagant gesture of nonconformism or annihilating experience of the divine. The problem is that this beauty is asserted more than it is described in the novel. While Ames does not really write like a man of his age, background, and time period would write such a letter to his son—he writes, in fact, like a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in fragmentary epiphanies destined not for family but for a literary journal—Robinson’s concession to verisimilitude is that Ames is no shimmering stylist. If I am to be convinced, though, that the loveliness of the world is justification enough for faith, I am going to need prose more precise and intense and alive than this:

Sometimes the visionary experience of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time. For example, whenever I take a child into my arms to be baptized, I am, so to speak, comprehended in the experience more fully, having seen more of life, knowing better what it means to affirm the sacredness of the human creature. I believe there are visions that come to us only in vision, in retrospect. That’s the pulpit speaking, but it’s telling the truth.

Gilead has far too much of this abstract pulpit language for a novel ostensibly about beauty. There are memorable descriptions throughout—fireflies rising from a field, a stream near a farm, the baptism of cats—but Ames’s tone is so rambling and ingratiating, the language so bereft of any dazzle, that I just never became absorbed in the novel or persuaded by it.

Gilead felt urgent upon its publication, hence the gratitude in its reception, evidenced by the breathless blurbs that adorn the paperback. Robinson implicitly promised nothing less, in the midst of what Philip Roth once called “the ministry of George W. Bush,” than a reclamation of Protestantism or even Christianity itself from the preachers of the prosperity gospel and the masters of war. Whether or not the novel’s polemical calm in the midst of crisis can survive its moment, though, I for one tend to doubt. Gilead defends the local from the imputation that it is parochial, and its concluding benediction—”I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country”—makes of Gilead the microcosm of the nation; but prose as plain, a voice as muted, as that of John Ames may not be saved even by such authorial self-defense. Maybe reading Home and Lila, if ever I do, will change my mind, but I found Gilead, thirteen years after its publication, unable to transcend its place and time.

[1] Now that the first accounts of alt-right thought are being written, it is worth noting that the thesis of contemporary American liberalism’s direct and linear descent from Calvinism is the key historical claim of neoreaction as elaborated in the political philosophy of Curtis Yarvin and Nick Land. Marilynne Robinson and Mencius Moldbug: strange bedfellows, to say the least.

[2] When the novel was published, fanaticism for freedom leading to emancipatory war would have been associated in the minds of the liberal literati with George W. Bush’s destruction of Mesopotamia, hence the political need for Robinson’s irony about the quixotic abolitionists. It was only during the Obama administration that the myth of the good war was redeemed for liberalism by a shift in the focus of historical memory from World War II, tarnished by its constant rhetorical use as a war-justification from the 1980s through the 2000s, to the American Civil War, understood as the second American Revolution and absolute sine qua non of African-American freedom. One need not hedge about the justice of defeating both the Nazis and the Confederacy, however, to allow that the question of whether democracy can or should be brought to recalcitrant territories at the point of a gun remains open.


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C. G. Jung, Answer to Job

Answer to JobAnswer to Job by C.G. Jung

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The back cover advertises Answer to Job as “one of Jung’s most controversial works.” He wrote it toward the end of his life, in the early 1950s, and according to the introduction to the 2010 edition by Sonu Shamdasani, he composed it in a kind of fever and later considered it the only one of his works he would not wish to alter. A short, swift book, written in a dryly sardonic style, it is a plea to update Christianity, or monotheism more generally, so that it can face the dangers of the atomic age.

Answer to Job‘s thesis is that Judeo-Christian monotheism dangerously denies that God, as a concept of wholeness and totality, must contain both evil and the feminine, and that much of western religious history, from the moral protest against God’s injustice in the Book of Job to Pope Pius XII’s 1950 doctrine of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, has been an attempt to redress these imbalances in the deity.

Answer to Job also has a meta-thesis: because “[w]e cannot tell whether God and the unconscious are two different entities,” and because God as an image of wholeness is the archetype of the self, humanity has to get God right—our idea of God is in a sense our own self-concept, and now that we have the power to destroy the world, we cannot afford to be insensible to our own dark side or to the appeal of affects and values other than masculinist domination:

Since [man] has been granted an almost godlike power, he can no longer remain blind and unconscious. He must know something of God’s nature and of metaphysical processes if he is to understand himself…

Jung’s method of demonstrating these theses, which will probably not persuade either the Biblical scholar or contemporary psychologists but which should not offend the literary critic at all, is to treat the books of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation as a single continuous narrative, albeit composed at different historical moments by different sensibilities, that shows the development (or circular non-development) of God’s personality from the jealous and dangerous deity of the early books through the attempt at reform and atonement running from the Hebrew Bible’s wisdom literature through the Incarnation in the New Testament, back to the unintegrated omni-destructive force described by John of Patmos (whom Jung construes, wrongly I believe, as the John of the Gospels and Epistles).

Throughout the Bible, Jung claims, both God and His people made many attempts to reform the God-image. Job is a turning point because it is the first time God is called to moral account by a mortal man as Job continues despite his suffering to believe in God’s justice and thus, according to Jung, becomes more just than God: “a mortal man is raised by his moral behaviour above the stars in heaven, from which position of advantage he can see the back of Yahweh,” Jung writes. The Book of Job coincides, Jung further argues, with a body of Hebrew wisdom writing that describes a feminine force called Sophia, which supplements the excessively masculine deity with a feminine counterpart. Jung argues that “[p]erfection is a masculine desideratum, while woman inclines by nature to completeness“; so this “anamnesis of Sophia” portends the next stage in God’s development, wherein God—through the agency of a mortal but perfect woman—will incarnate himself as a man in his continuing quest for wholeness rather than unconscious self-division. In the crucifixion, we find the “answer to Job” of Jung’s title: “God experiences what it is to be a mortal man and drinks to the dregs what he made his faithful servant Job suffer.”

The elevation of Mary to the status of quasi-divinity shows that the feminine becomes more central to the God-concept, but Mary’s immaculateness, i.e., sinlessness, means that though God now at least partially includes the feminine, He still excludes the evil that is necessarily part of any whole: Mary is “the incarnation of her prototype, namely Sophia,” but because “[b]oth mother and son are not real human beings at all, but gods,” then “Yahweh’s perfectionism is carried over from the Old Testament to the New” and “the feminine principle…never prevailed against the patriarchal supremacy.”

God’s dispatch of the Holy Spirit to dwell in humanity implies that all human beings, not only Christ, should incarnate God, a “Christification” of man that will realize divinity on earth, yet, again, as long as God, however newly feminized or humanized, remains an impossible idea of perfect goodness, the evil part of the psyche remains unintegrated, which means that it will continue to be expressed in destructively unconscious ways. Hence the Bible’s concluding outburst in the wild violence and apocalypticism of Revelations, on the images and scenes of which Jung offers this mildly sarcastic clinical opinion: “Their author need not necessarily be an unbalanced psychopath.” Nevertheless, Revelations also imagines a female divinity and a new birth (the sun woman and her child): the struggle to integrate the God-concept will continue.

Accordingly, Jung concludes by praising the Catholic Church for its doctrinal enshrinement in 1950 of Mary’s Assumption, itself a response to a popular cult of the Blessed Mother including visions and revelations, which restores to the court of Heaven a figure of female divinity, a mother-bride of the deity: “The feminine, like the masculine, demands an equally personal representation.”[1] This flexibility on the part of Christian religious authority, Jung suspects, is a good sign that we might still productively revise the God-image now that, with modern technology and weaponry, we really have put on God’s power and so cannot afford fantasies of self-righteousness.

What to think of Jung’s ideas? As long as they are stated at a high level of generality, I largely agree with them. An enormous amount of trouble in the world is caused by wishing away unpleasantly intractable emotions and psychic forces or imputing them wholly to “the enemy,” in which locus they can be annihilated. Jung’s recommendation of psychic balance based on a realistic assessment of the individual and collective personality and what it cannot help but contain seems unexceptionable to me—and even timely: we may be in less danger from nuclear apocalypse than in Jung’s time, but no one can deny that American and perhaps global politics is in death spiral of self-devouring self-righteousness and hypertrophic “identities” that blame all badness on others. While there is very often real justification for blaming others for bad behavior, this cannot be accompanied by a refusal to recognize the complexity of the self or the absolutely universal capacity for evil. Keep this Jungian sentence in mind as you browse social media: “Irritability, bad moods, and outbursts of affect are the classic symptoms of chronic virtuousness.” In this way, Jung is faithful to Freud’s Enlightenment intention for psychoanalysis: we cannot deny the irrational, but must strive to understand it so that we are not wholly controlled by it.

On the other hand, there is the New Agey side of Jung. He can, like Job’s annoying counsellors, seem a bit too optimistic about the possibility of cosmic justice. What if it is not only our psyches but the universe itself that is out of order? What if there is no containing evil? What if the psychic forces cannot be brought into an alignment that will remove the possibility of danger? What if Jung is a bit of a chivalric sexist and overrates the beneficence of what he calls “the feminine”? For my part, I was raised within mid-to-late-twentieth century Catholicism, in the atmosphere of Mariolatry that Jung praises—every spring, we schoolchildren would be lined up in the garden of the rectory to crown the Blessed Mother statue Queen of May—and it did not notably reduce the puritanical attitudes of the faith, nor did it prevent various abuses in the school or in the church at large. I actually agree with Jung that the feminine, however construed, needs to be a part of metaphysics, but I do not agree that this will make the moral difference he seems to think it will.[2]

I wonder, ultimately, about Jung’s own need for a humane monotheism. He seems to find polytheism superior in some ways (“in Greek mythology matriarchal and patriarchal elements are about equally mixed,” he observes), but believes that the human self and the God-image are too united for us not to need an idea of one God. Plenty of people throughout history and culture, though, have gotten along without this idea, have relied on multiple psychic and cosmic agencies controlled, perhaps, by a single law, but not ruled by anything that looks like a human person. This is why the Book of Job itself may in the end be more compelling (and more radical) than Jung’s answer to it, for its disturbing message out of the whirlwind is that we should not and must not assume the humanity of the universe:

Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?


Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? he that reproveth God, let him answer it.


[1] Jung’s contemporary and fellow psychologist William Moulton Marston had a similar conviction about the necessity of female divinity to modern consciousness, which is why he created Wonder Woman, whose latest adventure is now playing at a theater near you. I saw it yesterday and found it a bland, inoffensive film, more Marvel than DC in mood and tone; but Gal Gadot’s emotionally complex performance, persuasively uniting iron will and conviction to winsomeness and compassion, does justice to the idea of bringing together traditionally masculine and feminine ideals.

[2] On the other hand, I don’t read Jung’s positing of the masculine and the feminine oppressively essentialist as it touches on actual people; here, Jung’s controversial idealism saves him, as masculinity and femininity for him are not rooted in bodies but are autonomous psychic vectors that can be imagined or incarnated in various ways. This rejection of Freud’s biological determinism is probably what Deleuze and Guattari had in mind when they observed in passing in A Thousand Plateaus that “Jung is in any event profounder than Freud.” For a good essay on Jung in a Deleuzean vein, see here.


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Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law

Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and RepresentationMourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation by Gillian Rose

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a posthumous 1996 essay collection by the British philosopher, who died of ovarian cancer in 1995 and is perhaps best known less for her philosophical corpus than for her stunning memoir, Love’s Work: A Reckoning with Life (1995), which I mentioned in my personal canon. Of this book, the introduction and first chapter (“Athens and Jerusalem: a tale of three cities”) concern me most, as they elaborate both Rose’s criticism of contemporary philosophical and political thought and what she would put in its place.

In philosophy, Rose claims, we suffer from “despairing rationalism without reason” (her italics); this is what is popularly known as “post-modernism,” or the paradoxically rationalized discrediting of both reason (as a totalitarian and imperial force ruthlessly suppressing all diversity and plurality) and of the reasoning subject (as an effect of language or ideology). Politically, this refusal of reason leads to two divergent ideologies, both of which claim to abjure the power of the state (or, more expansively, the civic considered in Hegelian terms as “ethical life,” which can only be lived collectively) in the name of more potent and glamorous agencies: the (economic) individual or the (cultural) community.

For Rose, contemporary politics is a contest between libertarianism and communitarianism; the former is destructive of the civic because it refuses social constraints on individual economic choice, while the latter is destructive of the civic because it holds cultural particularism over collective deliberation. Yet, Rose claims, both ultimately empower the coercive force of the state even as they claim to diminish it, because they require the state to police threats generated by inequality to the libertarian order and those generated by cultural conflict to the communitarian order. Both presuppose modern rationalism—what Rose calls “legitimising domination as authority”—though they pretend to have surpassed it. Against their warring particularisms, she mounts a defense of political universalism:

Politics begins not when you organise to defend an individual or particular or local interest, but when you organise to further the ‘general’ interest within which your particular interest may be represented.

This was written over twenty years ago; I would update it with a stronger account of how these two tendencies embolden each other in a feedback loop, libertarian economics driving people deeper into communitarian cultural shelters until there is no common ground left (the late stage of which process I referred to as “the age of Trump” some four months before the U.S. election).

Rose advocates for a middle between libertarianism and communitarianism, but it is not political centrism, still less some cynical Third Way. Her key phrase is “the broken middle,” the space of inevitably imperfect negotiation and contestation where individual moral action and collective ethical practice takes place. Rose is a Hegelian, but not one for whom history is a neat narrative of progressively superior modes of order. Rather, for her, we are always involved in ethical action that mediates between the claims of reason and love. Contradiction is synthesized in action—hence her contempt for the refusals of action that she sees disfiguring postmodern philosophy (with its rejection of speculative reason) and postmodern politics (with its contempt for the civic).

Her brilliant essay on Athens and Jerusalem makes the point through a reading of Poussin’s painting, Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion. In the painting, the widow of a man executed by a tyrant surreptitiously gathers his proscribed ashes as the buildings of Megara rise in the distance. Rose paraphrases an interpretation of the painting that she rejects: love, in the form of the wife’s piety, is pitted against the imperialism of rationalism signified by the tyranny of the city. Here, rationalism is Athens and love is Jerusalem; the rejection of the former Rose understands as the hallmark of postmodernism. She dismisses this opposition as too facile and proposes in its place a more complex relation wherein we supplement both Athens and Jerusalem, reason and love, with a third city that guides our speculation and wandering:

The gathering of the ashes is a protest against arbitrary power; it is not a protest against power and law as such. To oppose anarchic, individual love or good to civil or public ill is to deny the third which gives meaning to both—this is the other meaning of the third city—the just city and just act, the just man and the just woman. In Poussin’s painting, this transcendent but mournable justice is configured, its absence given presence, in the architectural perspective which frames and focuses the enacted justice of the two women.

In other words, justice is the sublation of law and love, while the completion of mourning takes place in action—this latter as opposed (Rose is borrowing from Freud) to the unending, inactive, and isolating melancholia of the postmodernists.

Rose’s own politics, though, go largely unspecified. Most contemporary theorists who work in her Hegelian métier are far more forthrightly and sometimes even orthodoxly Marxist than she appears to be (I am thinking of Slavoj Žižek, Susan Buck-Morss, Timothy Brennan). She does defend Marx, together with Plato, at the beginning of the book; she advocates an “aporetic” reading of both thinkers rather than a “determinist” one. A determinist reading would see in their thought nothing but certain monumental and imperial concepts (the forms for Plato, the law of history for Marx), while a reading attentive to the aporias, or contradictions, in their thought would allow the difficulty and complexity—and thus the continued viability—of their works to stand. One imagines that she also prefers Marxism for its nuanced account of contradiction and conflict, as opposed to the moralism of anarchism. Marxism is the theory that only the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house; that is what the dialectic means. When Rose argues so passionately against the abandonment of reason because of its instrumentalization in tyranny and genocide, she must have something like this in mind.

Several of this book’s chapters were beyond me, especially the central one on Jewish tradition wherein she argues against the idea of “the Jew as modernity’s sublime other” and for an interpretation of midrash as inherently political. A related piece on representations of the Holocaust makes a similar case against turning the Nazi genocide into a pious and sentimental myth rather than an object of self-implicating historical investigation and representation. Her example of bad Holocaust art is, unsurprisingly, Schindler’s List, which she sees as facile and sentimental; to it, she counterposes Primo Levi’s memoirs and Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, among others, as narratives that force readers into morally disturbing crises of identification rather than leaving us at a complacent distance.

Rose is a fierce but sly polemicist. In one paragraph, she obliterates Richard Rorty without so much as mentioning his name:

One recent version of this separation of metaphysics from ethics understands itself as a ‘neo-pragmatics’. It deliberately eschews any theory of justice, for all such theories are said to be dependent on the metaphysics of objective truth independent of language. The pernicious holism of truth is attributed to the modern tradition whereby the theory of subjectivity, the theory of the freedom of the individual, is regarded as the basis of the possibility of collective freedom and justice. Cast as generally as this, the indictment of liberal metaphysics also applies to corporatist, and to revolutionary theories, and, in effect, to the overcoming of nihilism. In the place of this metaphysical tradition the ‘creation of self’ is to be explored independently of any theory of justice, which is thereby restricted to the vaporous ethics of ‘cruelty’ limitation, learnt from modem literature and not from analysis or philosophy. This separation of the self from any theoretical account of justice is advertised as a ‘neo-pragmatics’ for it claims to follow the contours of contingency and to avoid all and any structures of prejudged truth. Commitment to the ineluctable contingencies of language, self and community is presented as ‘ironism’ by contrast with liberal, metaphysical ‘rationalism’. ‘Ironism’, the celebration of the sheer promiscuity of all intellectual endeavour, depends on this opposition to any philosophical position which presupposes an independent reality to which its conceptuality aims to be in some sense adequate.

She devotes one whole essay to Derrida, whose tragic ethos she replies with Hegelian comedy, and one to a scorching polemic against Maurice Blanchot. She reads Blanchot as an ideologist of “passivity beyond passivity,” a refusal of action and language and a worship of a death whose meaninglessness has made it an inverted transcendence; against Blanchot, she calls for “activity beyond activity,” the constant labor of imagination, language, and representation in the broken middle where we reside. (Whether or not this is fair, I am not sure; I have barely read Blanchot and know him mainly from secondary sources, friendly [Gabriel Josipovici] or hostile [Richard Wolin]. As for Rorty and Derrida, I find her criticisms cogent, though there is perhaps more to be said for Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity than she allows.)

Rose’s thesis, in short, is that we must replace our passivity and nihilism with an activity oriented toward transcendent ends, with the understanding that there will always be a disparity between theory and practice. These disparities should not be taken as evidence that theory or practice are impossible; instead, they are what allow us to scrutinize and correct our actions in the light of both thought and experience. This is a difficult ethic to maintain, it should be said, though I sympathize with it, more from the point of view of aesthetics—why else would I continue to read and write novels, even after the novel is supposed to have died along with God and the subject?—than politics.

Rose, at the end of her life, converted to Anglican Christianity. It has been called a deathbed conversion, implying, I suppose, that it may not have happened had she not been dying. But I can just as easily think of it in the opposite way: who knows if she would have stopped there had she lived longer? Her unnamed third city of justice, synthesizing love and law, may have been a rather more traditional sublation of Athens and Jerusalem all along: Rome.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!