The Devil and Pierre Gernet
David Bentley Hart
When I heard that David Bentley Hart had written this collection of short fiction, somehow I wasn’t surprised. Not that I had ever thought he would write fiction, but when I learned that he had it made sense. I have been reading his books and essays for years, and his distinctive gifts in those genres — a finely modulated style, a playful virtuosity in prose, and a humane seriousness of purpose — would be obvious assets to a fiction writer as well. This book jumped to the front of my queue.
What we have here are five stories, the first (“The Devil and Pierre Gernet”) long enough to justify its designation as a novella. The earliest story (“The Ivory Tower”) dates from 1985; the others were written since 2005. They are all (to quote from Hart’s own introductory apology) examples of the “dismaying category” of stories of ideas, but in fact there is no reason to dismay. The stories are quite wonderful.
Mild spoilers follow, but these are not really the sorts of stories for which spoilers spoil.
The devil of the title story is not the Devil, but only a devil, who evidently occupies a mid-level position somewhere in the infernal hierarchy. Pierre Gernet was a nineteenth-century French scholar who had also been the devil’s amanuensis — though the precise nature of this relationship remains mysterious. This devil is a sort of gentleman: soft-spoken, eloquent, weary, and resigned, with a liking for potent liquors on the rocks and curling wisps of smoke. He seems to regard his human charges not so much under a moral aspect as under an aesthetic one. (Indeed, aesthetic considerations are threaded through several of these stories, as they are through Hart’s non-fiction as well.) The story is full of rich and esoteric detail about Pierre’s life, his scholarly work, and about his life’s one, late flowering of romance and its tragic aftermath. Thematically the story is redolent of Ecclesiastes: human life, and indeed all of human history, passes away and is forgotten, floating in the meantime over an abyss of meaninglessness — or so it seems, at least, to a devil. (A key event in the story belies the conclusiveness of that conclusion.) The piece is beautifully written, with a hypnotic narrative voice and a profusion of detail that makes it convincing and absorbing fiction.
Perhaps my favourite story in the collection is the most recent: “The House of Apollo” dates from 2010. Set in the late Roman Empire, during the reign of Julian the Apostate, it follows a priest of Apollo who sees the old religion passing away, but who nonetheless carries within himself a stalwart devotion to the old ways. There is an echo here of Hart’s surprisingly sympathetic essay on Julian written at about the same time; this story, too, captures the pathos of the priest’s situation in an entirely sympathetic way, without a hint of irony or triumphalism — and with just a splash of the fantastic. It’s a very good story, clearly structured and dramatically effective.
“A Voice from the Emerald World” is a potent meditation on a father’s interior struggles in the aftermath of his young son’s death. The boy is gone, but his father returns again and again to the sheltered bamboo grove (the “emerald world”) where they often passed their time together. The story is a touching encomium to the innocence of children — perhaps it is only because I am now a father myself, but I cannot think of a more forceful and evocative plea on behalf of the moral beauty of youthful innocence and wonder — and, perhaps simply as a corollary, it is an equally forceful (and explicit) critique of the doctrine of original sin. There is a hard edge to this story, a cold rage beneath the surface. I cannot resist noting the startling, vicious portrayal of the only professed Christian to appear anywhere in these tales: a Dominican friar in an academic department. (Was Hart’s sojourn at Providence College really so bad as that?) There is beauty here as well, especially in the dazzling descriptions of the prismatic glories of nature, in which the father finds a kind of refuge, but the general impression is one of regret and loss, sad and terrible.
Dazzling too is the premise of “The Ivory Gate”: a virtuosic dreamer ascends and descends through layers of dream worlds, living in the process a fragmented but consuming relationship with a beautiful woman. It’s a ludic treatment of that old philosophical conundrum about the differentiation of dreaming and waking, and it asks what happens when the allure of dreams begins to overshadow the attractions of the real world. In some ways the concept of this story is closest to what one might find in that master of cerebral fiction, Jorge Luis Borges, but the execution is decidedly non-Borgesian: this is a lush, sensuous story, full of riotous colours, feracious gardens, and exuberant visions.
The final story is the shortest, but not the slightest. In “The Other” a man sits at dinner, awaiting a guest who never arrives. Interpretations will vary, but I see it as an exploration of the limitations of the aesthetic approach to the transcendent. The man is on a spiritual quest, trying to recapture the glory of an ecstatic experience of beauty that he had as a young man. A lifetime of dedication has wrought in him an exquisitely refined aesthetic sensibility. The unity of the transcendentals of goodness, truth, and beauty presumably implies that one approaches the unity more closely the more fully all three branches are grafted onto one’s mind and heart, yet for this man the aesthetic seems to have overshadowed and withered the others. His treatment of the woman in the story, for instance, seems a clear case of regarding a person merely as an object of aesthetic appreciation, which according to our moral tradition would constitute a definite obstacle to spiritual progress. But he seems not to know this, and therein lies the tragic poignancy of his quest.
There is a lot going on in these stories, but let me select just one thread for brief elaboration: the nature of aesthetic experience. Hart has written previously — and beautifully — about philosophical and theological aspects of aesthetics, especially in his dizzying first book The Beauty of the Infinite (of which I, avowedly, understood precious little), and echoes of that tune can be heard in several of these stories. For instance, one of the points he argued, wearing his theologian’s hat, was that if God is to be encountered in our experience, it will be in experience, and not primarily in abstractions, theological or otherwise. Thus he counseled attention to the “surface details” of life, to the appearances, however ephemeral:
Creation is an expression of the divine that is not merely noetic, in the Neoplatonic sense, which can be reflectively reduced to a formless truth, but aesthetic: its measures, proportions, differences, and deferrals are fitting to the theme they express, irreducibly, because that theme is difference and its beauty. Thus the truth of being is grasped by the soul not merely noetically, according to its scheme of essences, but aesthetically, in the soul’s most “superficial” elations, its desire finding in creation’s visible beauty a true image of the God after whom the soul yearns. One moves in God’s infinity only if one moves upon surfaces.
– The Beauty of the Infinite.
This passage, and others like it (for Hart’s method, in which important points recur in a series of artful elaborations and variations, reinforces his larger point about the teeming, transient plenitude of Creation), came to mind several times while reading these stories, for there is in them precisely this close attention to the shimmering surface of being, to the colours and shapes of the world as they pass before our eyes. Consider, for example, this excerpt (and it is only an excerpt from a much longer section of a similar character) from “A Voice from the Emerald World”, in which the father, in an internal dialogue with the memory of his son, recalls the natural beauties they had witnessed together:
For, you see, the ethereal crystal of the primum mobile is also a prism, a boundless ocean of prisms, in fact, at once absolutely simple and yet somehow, magically, an infinity of limpid facets — a geometrical coincidentia oppositorum, simultaneously a perfect sphere and a polyhedron of infinitely many surfaces — by whose constant revolutions the clear radiance of the world beyond is transformed into a ubiquitous, dazzling, incessant, rapturous flow of beautiful brilliancies, in which we live and move and have our being here below. How odd and delightful we always found it, in the early mornings or late afternoons of spring and summer days, when the shadows cast among the green stalks turned that opulent maroon; how enchanted we were that time we watched the gathering evening falling across a farmer’s field just before harvest time and saw the long, lateral rays of the sun, filtered through ever deeper fathoms of atmosphere, brushing the blanched gold of the wheat everywhere with a red and purple sheen, though every stem retained its own pallid luster all the while — and even the dark green blades of grass where we sat smoldered with crimson and violet light.
I couldn’t resist throwing in that nice bit of medieval cosmology as prelude, but I hope my point, modest as it is, is clear: there is an attractive attention here to nuance and detail in particular things, and especially to the spectral texture of the world. This happens again and again throughout these tales, and I wonder if Hart’s attention to this “surface play” can plausibly be connected to his argument above claiming the primacy of the aesthetic over the conceptual in the spiritual life, in the quest for “the path that leads beyond”?
Hart’s style in these stories is opulent and vivacious — despite the sometimes ostentatious display of learning, the writing is never wooden. There is a good deal of wit at work — so much so, in fact, that I fear I may have misinterpreted one or more of these stories on account of my own native dullness. I enjoyed them nonetheless. In fact, I enjoyed them tremendously. Not everyone is enthusiastic about Hart’s prolixity and verbal inventiveness, but personally I find them enthralling. I believe I could have read twice or thrice as many stories and not been weary. (According to the book’s introduction there are more stories, so, Eerdmans, let’s have them.) While reading I was reminded of one of my literary pole-stars: Thomas Mann — not that Hart can be said to be as good as him, or doing the same things as him, but the intricacy of his prose, the sense of authorial control over the material, the intellectual brilliance, and the moral heft of his stories — striking the reader squarely in the chest — bear a certain resemblance to Mann’s work. In my book, that’s high praise. Hart says in his introduction that he has “never written a more serious book”, and that this is the first of his books with which he is truly satisfied. He has good reason.