Archive for August, 2012

Hart: The Devil and Pierre Gernet

August 28, 2012

The Devil and Pierre Gernet
David Bentley Hart
(Eerdmans, 2012)
183 p.

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.

Symmetry in P.T. Anderson’s films

August 27, 2012

I mentioned a few weeks ago that P.T. Anderson’s new film, The Master, will at last see the light of day — or at least the light of a darkened cinema — this fall. Here is a short but very interesting “video essay” by Matt Zurcher on the use of symmetry in his earlier films, and in particular in his most recent, There Will Be Blood. The point is not just about visual symmetry on the screen (though it is that too), but about his use of narrative symmetry to convey the development of his characters and themes. (Warning: there is foul language in some of the illustrative examples.)

I find this sort of thing fascinating. I suppose I remain in thrall to the idea that movies are primarily entertainment, rather than art — not that the two are mutually exclusive, but as a viewer I am not normally aware of the art (and artifice) of the filmmaker’s craft. For some reason I find the grammar of film eludes me. Perhaps that is why when someone points out that there are reasons why the camera is pointing there, showing this, and moving in that direction, etc. — well, I am always surprised.

(Hat-tip: Matthew Schmitz)

Seeing Sir Gawain

August 17, 2012

This week, at bedtime, I have been slowly stumbling my way through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, reading it in the original and massively vexing Middle English. It’s a wonderful poem, of course, which I have read a few times before in modernisations, but this time I am trying it unadulterated. It’s like eating a thick steak with large bones in it.

I am delighted to discover today, via the British Library, that the famous original (and sole) manuscript in which Sir Gawain is found, Cotton Nero A.X, has been digitized and made available online. (The same manuscript, of course, also includes the moving and technically super-virtuosic poem Pearl, as well as two other works by the same poet, Patience and Cleanness. They too are available on the same site.)

Simply to look at the pages of this manuscript — a treasure salvaged from the fires of time — is a privilege. Not that one would want to read the poem this way: the script is awkward for us and the letters are faded. The poetry is difficult enough without adding such obstacles. But I’ve tried reading a page or two, and it can be done. The illustrations are wonderful.

(Hat-tip (again): Modern Medieval)


Things will be quiet around here for the next week or two.

Through the academic looking-glass…

August 16, 2012

The world does not lack for books describing the leftward tilt of higher education. If one has spent time on a university campus, and if one has conservative tendencies at all, that the place is listing to port will be obvious. For those who mistrust intuition the statistics are unequivocal. The effects of this not only an campus culture but on the quality of a university education have been much discussed (and, by conservatives, lamented).

Imagine my surprise, therefore, to stumble upon an essay (“How the American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps”) in which responsibility for the decline of higher education is placed squarely on the shoulders of conservatives!

It’s a win-win for those right wingers – they’ve crippled those in the country who would push back against them, and have so carefully and cleverly hijacked the educational institutions that they can now be turned into part of the neoliberal/neocon machinery, further benefitting the right-wing agenda.

It’s a topsy-turvy world!

Granted, the essay doesn’t say much about what goes on in the classroom. Its concerns are mostly about wages for professors and lecturers, tuition costs, and the power of administrators. Overlooking the fact that the author flirts throughout with lunacy (“Unlike those communist countries, which sometimes executed their intellectuals, here we are being killed off by lack of healthcare, by stress-related illness like heart-attacks or strokes.”) I can agree that these structural and economic problems are genuine. I know people wending their ways up the academic ladders who are paid a pittance and have next to no job security (just as I know young academics of conservative bent who keep their mouths shut to avoid having their careers torpedoed). So he has a point. But to characterize the general state of higher education as one in which conservatives are triumphant is passing strange.

The portrait of higher education painted here is an odd one: universities are controlled by conservatives who, in their wisdom, fill the ranks of the professoriate with left-liberals, expose as many students as possible to left-liberal ideas, and generally preside over the erosion of all they hold dear. Maybe conservatives are stupid after all.

(Hat-tip: Modern Medieval)

Books briefly noted

August 5, 2012

Quick notes on a few novels I have read in recent months:

The Bonfire of the Vanities
Tom Wolfe
(Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1987)
690 p.

Wall Street and the street collide in this tragicomedy about a high flying bond trader’s fall from grace. It could happen to anyone: a wrong turn down the wrong street on the wrong side of town becomes, faster than you can say “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, a nightmare that threatens to send Sherman McCoy’s life up in smoke. Wolfe, in his rollicking way, in pretty probing here: how much of McCoy’s troubles are due to his own hasty prejudices and bad decisions, how much to plain bad luck, how much to modern media’s voracious appetite for sensationalism, and how much to the politics of class and race in America? This year marks the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication, and, despite its arguably topical subject matter, it stands up well. It is particularly good, in its frolicsome way, at conveying the psychological devastation of a normal person thrust into the center of a media storm. It is also outrageously funny: it has been years since a book stirred me to gales of laughter, and for that blessing I owe Wolfe humble and hearty thanks.

The Song of Bernadette
Franz Werfel
(MacMillan, 1944) [1942]
575 p.

I will admit that I approached this novel about the life of St. Bernadette Soubirous with some wariness. It is fair to say that most of the art associated with Lourdes leans toward the saccharine, and I was afraid that the novel would do the same. I needn’t have been so worried: it is a surprisingly good, even excellent, book that handles its somewhat difficult subject matter with a sure touch and plain-spoken confidence. The story is not obviously devotional in spirit — Werfel was not a Catholic, and cannot have been expected to have any particular devotion to Our Lady — but neither is it a skeptical novel. In fact, there are skeptics in the novel, and they do not come off well. Werfel seems to have been content to tell the story more or less according to Bernadette’s own testimony — she, you will recall, never did claim to have seen the Blessed Virgin, but only “a lady” — and to leave the reader to make of it what he will. Werfel does a lot of things right: portraying the public controversy, the politics, the popular enthusiasm, and the ecclesiastical turmoil that surrounded Bernadette, but his great triumph is Bernadette herself, who is rendered as a quiet and simple girl whose innocence of spirit disarms and confounds the powerful forces swirling around her. Reading the book has certainly increased my admiration for her.

A few bits of trivia: the structure of the book reflects the structure of the Rosary, being laid out in five sections, each of ten chapters (the Rosary being, of course, a prayer especially associated with Lourdes); Werfel wrote the book because during the Second World War he and his wife had been sheltered by Catholic families in Lourdes while fleeing from the Gestapo; more incidentally, Werfel’s wife was Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler. Interesting.

Hannah Coulter
Wendell Berry
(Counterpoint, 2004)
195 p.

This is just one of the numerous books Berry has written about the residents of the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, but it is the first that I have read. Hannah Coulter is an 80-year old woman looking back over her life and the lives of those closest to her: her two husbands, her children and grandchildren, and her friends, the “membership” of Port William. It is a novel about the importance of family, the dignity of the farming life, our obligations to the people and the places with which we come into contact, but perhaps above all it is about how the world affects the home. Hannah thinks a great deal about the manner in which the pressures of the modern world affect traditional ways of life and thought, such reflections being forced upon her by the events unfolding around her. The book is quiet and thoughtful, but not a sedative. Hannah is a very likable woman: warm and clear-sighted, with a firm moral center and a fine sense of humour. There are pages of great sadness here, and of delighted joy too; the overall impression is of a life being gathered up and regarded with love and thanksgiving. It is a good novel, and I would like to read another of the Port William books as opportunity arises. Recommendations are welcome.

Martin Chuzzlewit
Charles Dickens
(Duckworth, 2008) [1844]
864 p.

If it doesn’t seem quite proper to you that I shoehorn a Dickens novel — Dickens! — into the bottom of this post, I offer this consolation: it doesn’t seem quite proper to me either. The trouble is that I don’t have enough to say to justify giving it its own post. Martin Chuzzlewit is, I think it is fair to say, second-tier (or even third-tier, if there is a third-tier) Dickens. It was written after Dickens’ first trip to America, and it can be considered his “American novel”, in the sense that he sends poor young Martin state-side to seek his fortune, and uses the misadventures of his hero as an occasion to heap disdain on America and Americans. One gets the distinct impression that Dickens had found the United States exasperating, and has here taken opportunity to vent. Not that I am complaining: Dickens in a satirical mood is hard to beat, and the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit were my favourites. When Martin and his friend Mark Tapley are duped in a real-estate deal and dumped in a swampy backwater, lodged in a falling down cabin, surrounded by wilderness, the ever-cheerful Mark attempts to make light conversation with a neighbour:

‘The night air ain’t quite wholesome, I suppose?’ said Mark.
‘It’s deadly poison,’ was the settler’s answer.

Meanwhile, back in England, complicated intrigues surround the elder Martin Chuzzlewit — the young Martin’s grandfather — as a variety of parties try to position themselves to inherit his estate. Among them is the simpering Seth Pecksniff, surely one of Dickens’ finest villains, who hides his avarice behind a mask of self-denial. But then there is a cluster of characters — Chuffey, Tigg, Nadgett, Slyme, Spottletoe, Mrs. Gamp — who have given me a good deal of trouble. I honestly cannot tell you what they are doing in the story, nor how they are related to one another. I will readily concede that this is my own fault — I have been reading Martin Chuzzlewit before bed each night, when my powers of lexic retention descend to their diurnal minimum — but, as the books of moral instruction tell us, acknowledging one’s fault does not, in itself, remedy the evil that was done. Sizable chunks of the plot remain dark to me, and this no doubt accounts, at least partly, for what I must acknowledge with regret is my decided lack of enthusiasm for the novel.

Having said that, this is still Dickens, and naturally there is something to enjoy. The open-hearted warmth, jocular affection, and righteous indignation so characteristic of Dickens are here as usual. In Mark Tapley, and perhaps even more so in Tom Pinch, we have examples of that fine Dickensian type: the genuinely good man, whose innocence and cheerfulness are a continual delight. Pity that we didn’t see more of them.

Martin Chuzzlewit was written after Barnaby Rudge, and can be considered “middle-period Dickens”. (Dickens was only in his early 30s, but already had five earlier novels under his belt.) While writing the middle sections of the novel he took on a side project, a little piece called A Christmas Carol which is still read from time to time. His next novel was to be Dombey and Son, and it will be my next (Dickens) novel too.

Sight & Sound

August 2, 2012

The British Film Institute’s “Sight & Sound” list of great films has been refreshed. This is generally considered to be the most prestigious such list: it is compiled only every ten years, and the voters are a hand-picked crowd of eminent critics and directors.

Coverage of the new list is focusing on the fact that, for the first time in 50 years, Citizen Kane is not the number one film; that honour has now been granted to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I regard such lists as providing recommendations for good films, but personally I don’t much care about the specific rankings.

Not that I have consulted such lists much. The proof is in the pudding: I have seen five of the new list’s top ten films, but only thirteen of the top fifty. Of those, there are really only two for which I have any particular affection: Singin’ in the Rain (#20) and Mulholland Drive (#28) — for very different reasons, obviously! How The Searchers landed so high on the list (#7) is incomprehensible to me. Evidently when it comes to great films I just don’t get it.

Roger Ebert is, as usual, pretty sensible in his commentary. Judging from what he says, the list published this week is the “Critic’s List”, and a separate “Director’s List” is still forthcoming.

Recent and forthcoming

August 1, 2012

I was thinking yesterday of a recent book and a forthcoming record in which I am interested. Then I thought of a film, then another book, then another film. I might as well make a quick list of them:

  • Bob Dylan — Tempest: The great man’s 35th studio album. Few details are available, but we do know that the title track is 14 minutes long. It will be released September 10.
  • David Bentley Hart — The Devil and Pierre Gernet: Hart’s first published volume of short fiction includes a novella and a bundle of short stories. I am half through it, and am enjoying it tremendously. More anon.
  • The Master: P.T. Anderson’s new film, shrouded in mystery, but slated for theatrical release in mid-September. Anderson is a sufficiently gifted filmmaker that I am always intrigued to see what he has done, even if the results are sometimes mixed. The film’s trailer: 
  • Mumford & Sons — Babel: Yes, the much anticipated sophomore record from this terrific band finally has a release date: September 25. Here is a live version of “Lover’s Eyes”, one of the new songs: 
  • John Gerard, S.J. — Autobiography of a Hunted Priest: I notice that Ignatius Press has reprinted this classic account of priestly subterfuge in Elizabethan (and Jacobian) England. I wrote about this book a few years ago (under the alternate title Autobiography of an Elizabethan), and had nothing but praise for it. This is the real deal: a primary source, seventeenth-century record of what it was like to be a Jesuit priest in England when such was considered treasonous. It has been hard to find; Ignatius Press is to be thanked for changing that.
  • Damsels in Distress: I missed Whit Stillman’s most recent film when it was (briefly) in theatres earlier this year, but the DVD will be available September 25. It is doubtful whether one can really get the flavour of a Stillman film from a trailer, but here is one anyway: 
  • Weinberg — String Quartets, Vol.6 (Quatuor Danel): In my opinion, one of the most revelatory recording projects of the past few decades has been Quatuor Danel’s survey of the string quartets of Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Many of these quartets have been recorded here for the first time, and the results have been entrancing and amazing. These quartets contain seriously great music. The sixth volume brings the project to a close, and I can hardly wait to hear it. It will apparently be available July 31.
  • To the Wonder: Terrence Malick’s next feature film, after the astounding The Tree of Life, is set to premiere at the Venice Film Festival in about a month. I haven’t been able to find anything about a general theatrical release date, but one would hope that it would follow within a few months. (I notice it will also be showing at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. A happy thought occurs to me, but I doubt I can swing it…)

Did I miss anything?