by Jonathan Monroe Geltner
The Dream-Child’s Progress and Other Essays is a devastating book. By that I mean that if you sit down and read it, ideally in one sitting, from the front cover to the back, you will—or you ought to be—devastated. I was. At the very least you ought to be able to work up a modicum of melancholy and unease. It was probably not the design of either David Bentley Hart or Angelico Press to publish such a book, although that is never a consideration that matters. And The Dream-Child’s Progress is not even a book in the usual sense of the word, but an assemblage of the author’s occasional writing, chiefly his regular column at First Things. But this is an instance of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
We begin with a nod to the world of literature. Well, the prelude is more than a nod, actually, more like a litany. Giving credit for the idea to the editor, Hart says that since a number of the pieces collected in the volume concern books and writers, he will begin by offering a holiday reading list. There are to be roughly twenty-five volumes, so indeed this will be “a very long trip—maybe a convalescent’s journey down to the seaside to take the purging air.” In fact, Hart provides thirty volumes, plus slips in two more after the list is supposed to have been concluded. But, take note, before he has even begun the list he has mentioned or implied no fewer than twenty-six authors, some of great renown, some of less. Thus, before arriving at the first of the collected pieces we have met, even if in the brusquest manner, some fifty-eight literary figures. It flatters my vanity, I suppose, that I have read twenty-one of the twenty-six volumes or authors before the “holiday reading list” gets started; but of that vacation’s more obscure lore I have read only thirteen of the thirty-two items. (To assuage my wounded pride, however, let me state that I am some seventeen years younger than David Bentley Hart.)
In any case, there is a large correspondence between my literary sensibility and Hart’s, which is no doubt one of the reasons I so enjoy reading him. I will say more about this idea of sensibility in a moment. But first we must note two things about this prelude, which are perhaps not so playful at all (prelude meaning, of course, the playing or games done beforehand). All of the fifty-eight literary figures Hart brings into his prelude were once represented in his personal library, which he estimates contained 20,000 volumes. That library was lost during a period of personal difficulty for its curator. This fact alone makes an elegiac note worth keeping in mind. And remember, as well, this detail: All vanity is vanity, Hart says, and “twenty-three different editions of the Alice books is as much a sensuous indulgence and carnal extravagance as an Italian sports car or a mistress with expensive tastes.” And, he goes on, supplying what strikes you, on first reading, as no more than a wry joke: “If, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians, those whose works will have merited no reward at the end of days will have to be saved ‘as though by fire’ when the damnable works they did leave behind are consumed, the insatiable bibliophile may prove to have chosen a particularly combustible vice to indulge.”
You don’t think too much about this. You carry on, eager to see how much of Hart’s vacation or convalescent reading you’ve already got under your belt, or which titles he recommends sound like something you’d like to take on your upcoming vacation, and so on. You think you could do worse than take this very collection, for you know you’ve got a volume of David Bentley Hart in your hands, and that means fun. Paul can say what he will to the Corinthians, you’re not in Corinth—would that you were, it sounds better than a Detroit suburb.
And what is it that makes David Bentley Hart’s writing so delightful? Or, what is a slightly different question but perhaps should not be, what do people admire in his writing? Recently, when asked about his prose style in an interview, he said he subscribes to the “more is more” philosophy of writing. I find that I have little to note about his prose style per se. His sentences, while interestingly various, are not astoundingly long or syntactically arcane. I don’t find his vocabulary to be as outsize and outlandish as some seem to do. What impresses me about Hart as a writer is, as to matter, the scope and capaciousness of his intellect, and as to style, what would once have been called his wit. This little word has lost much of its connotation in recent centuries. Wit comes to more than describing academic journals (accurately, I might add) as “lushly floriferous conservatories of sub-literate prose” or some of the anathemas appended to the Fifth Ecumenical Council as the kind of thing that “might have been concocted by Aristophanes and Edward Lear during a long night’s assault on a distillery.” These sorts of formulations are certainly funny—I can’t even type the second without laughing. But wit is more than humor.
Wit is the kind of mental dexterity and daring that produces a piece like “A Dialogue upon the Island,” an imagined classical dialogue, between Ariel and Caliban after Prospero has left the island, that ultimately concerns the condition of man, interstitial between that of airy sprite (Ariel) and crude beast (Caliban). Wit conceives a subtle fantasy like “The Scholar and the Nymph,” at once half-mocking and a poignant tribute to what I might call the consolation of fantasy. He has wit who can produce an appreciative essay on the extraordinarily bad writer Amanda McKittrick Ros (“Brilliant Bad Books”), and he has even more wit who can understand the value of reading, alongside classic literature, a quantity of bad writing, or at least material that cannot endure, during one’s childhood formation (“In Praise of Good Bad Books”). Wit can descry the evil of golf (“Golf and the Metaphysics of Morals”), and it can ironically recommend the reinstitution of dueling on the grounds of the practice’s consistency with the logic (or lack of same) in contemporary jurisprudence (“A Modest Proposal”). It is wit that knows just the right tone with which to argue for prescriptive grammar and chastise us, with artful overstatement, for the proliferating varieties of linguistic catachresis to which we are prone.
It is often through his wit that Hart attains his wide range of interest. But while his voice is never absent from his prose, in a collection like The Dream-Child’s Progress Hart hits upon other topics and strikes other tones than occasion the most effective and decorous exercise of wit. We also value him, as a writer, for his intellectual range. Hart is capable of salutary comment on legal and political happenings, of quarreling with the New Atheists, of recommending a book about the Jesuit Ippolito Desideri’s mission to Tibet in the early 18th century, or Stephen R L Clark’s explication of the imagery and metaphorical method of Plotinus (“Getting to Larisa”). In that review, incidentally, Hart discloses what may be regarded as a key to reading anything of significant intellectual or artistic magnitude, including his own work:
[I]f certain philosophers regarded their discourses not only as investigations of concepts, but as initiations into a more elevated order of vision, then many of what modern readers are disposed to treat as incidental allegories or fetching analogies might better be understood as spiritual exercises, disciplines of the mind and will, which in being practiced—and only in being practiced—permit the reader to make tentative approaches to a central mystery, a reality veiled from all who have not yet achieved a certain state of soul.
The passage is worth setting alongside another similar articulation of the nature of philosophy, which Hart produces in the context of discussing a translation of the work of 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen. There is, he says, “a certain ‘classical’ notion of what philosophy is: an attempt to give imperfect verbal expression to a knowledge that both precedes and surpasses all words; a passage through language from a pre-conceptual wonder at existence to a post-conceptual theoria of unconditioned reality.”
Both these passages should be put in conversation with Hart’s relation to the works of Lewis Carroll, to which I will turn in the second section. There is an argument to be made for an analogous understanding of literature. And to be sure, Hart is a literary man. After the prelude and the first, eponymous essay, the focus of which is Lewis Carroll, the reader of The Dream-Child’s Progress will encounter a handful of literary works and figures: Edward Upward, Orlando Furioso, Mark Twain’s autobiography, The Golden Ass, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Umberto Eco, the Somnium Scipionis, Edgar Rice Bourroughs, Amanda McKittrick Ros, the Heike, and Leopardi’s Zibaldone—in that order. Some of these receive praise, some blame (in the case of the Orlando Furioso, let it be known, it is blame, but only for a bad translation, the poem itself being, as Hart insists, one of the great fantasies of the European tradition). You will note that only one of the authors in this tally can be called Christian. I would venture to suggest that attention to such a wide horizon is precisely what ought to be, and what for several ages was, the proper Christian approach to literature, and to all the arts and cultural achievements. Hart is able to comment from a unique position: he is a Christian, but he is Eastern Orthodox not residing in an Orthodox country, and so not beholden to a corporatist mindset in the way that even brilliant Catholic or Evangelical writers often demonstrate of themselves. And Hart is a man of letters, but not (I can, unfortunately, assure you) in any way part of the literary establishment. The result is that he is endowed, in his belles-lettres, with an enviable freedom. He may discuss, with admiration, Leopardi’s Nietzschean atheistic genius (for Hart, it is people like Leopardi and Nietzsche who really knew how to be atheists in an honest, thoroughgoing, and courageous manner), or the surprising consanguinity with Christian reverence that is visible in Apuleius’ mostly farcical second century ‘novel,’ The Golden Ass. And here I will quote another statement of Hart’s that may come in handy later on. Speaking of the final prayer to Isis made by the protagonist, Lucius, he says that its “inventory of the goddess’ powers and blessings combines elements of what we might almost call the theological, the Mariological and the Christological—or, at least, the matriological and the soteriological. Isis creates and nourishes and sustains; Isis cares and loves and protects and provides; Isis defeats death and hell; Isis saves. And Lucius learns all of this in a moment of revelation and personal conversion …”
This is how a learned Christian reads. But the point I want to make is that perhaps the most important thing one receives from a man who is thus able to write freely is his sensibility. It is more than a literary sensibility. You can get it from a piece like “Charity and Patriotism,” with its charmingly repetitious catalogue of the author’s preferences among American composers, singers, and ballplayers (if you do not know who Renée Fleming is, you will have looked her up by the end of the piece); and you can get it from a moving, even disturbing piece like “Therapeutic Superstition,” about a man, a totally undoubting Christian, who sees fairies and is divinely lunatic in the way of William Blake and Thomas Traherne. Of such a man Hart says, “I do not think I have ever known anyone else who took such delight in the world… He may have been one of the few truly happy souls I have known in my life.” The piece is terrifying because of the fate of this man, which I will let you read for yourself.
As for sensibility, what it finally consists in must remain nebulous, that is to some extent the value of the term. It goes beyond literary taste, or even beyond the affinity a writer might express with not only the writing but the personality, evident in the work, of other writers, as for example in Hart’s appreciation of Patrick Leigh Fermor (he is, there, responding to that man’s sensibility). I can tell you that the expression of sensibility is not autobiography. Though Hart will sometimes seize on incidents from his personal life as occasions for writing, he is not an autobiographical writer. And yet, to acquaint oneself with the sensibility of a cultured individual is to gain a wonderfully intimate knowledge of a life, or an attitude to life, perhaps even a sense of community or communion. There are not many living authors who communicate their sensibility—or, it may be feared, have one to communicate.
I hope I have so far managed to convey some sense of the rich profusion of matter on offer in The Dream-Child’s Progress, but by now you would be within your rights to wonder why I began by saying that the book is devastating. So let me suggest that far more powerful than encountering a well-developed sensibility expressed in a unique literary voice, is the experience of accompanying that sensibility, so to speak, through a moment of profound alteration.
The pieces of this collection are presented more or less chronologically, and they range over about eight years, from 2008 to 2016. But the first, eponymous essay is from 2016. It can thus be read together with the last essay, since both date from after the period when Hart had done the bulk of his work translating the New Testament (forthcoming autumn 2017). The final essay, “Christ’s Rabble,” comes directly out of Hart’s work on that translation.
I have made scant mention of Hart’s universalism or his long-running quarrel with the New Atheists, both on prominent display in the collection at hand and, in the case of universalism, appearing in both the first and last essays. That is because these topics, though contentious and emblematic of Hart’s work for those familiar with it, have little bearing on the potency of The Dream-Child’s Progress as a book. The book is aptly titled, it is in fact a progress, but it does not figure a progress from one intellectual position to another, it is not a progress from faith to doubt—not exactly.
Our author is a master of hyperbole, I would even go so far as to call the technique characteristic of his style. And that style is not insincere. (It would be a mistake to interpret the use of a rhetorical device as inherently ironic simply because it is rhetorical, although that is how we moderns, who are not classically educated, have no sense whatever of the oratorical, and whose social instincts have been obliterated by digital media, are prone to take it.) In the opening essay on Lewis Carroll, Hart writes:
Taken together, Alice and its even better sequel of 1871, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, constitute for me something like the single recurrent motif subtending the entire arc of my life and drawing my whole existence into a meaningful unity.… Simply said, if the deepest fathoms of my mental habits, character, and vision of the good rise from any other source than those books, I cannot imagine what it is. When I dare to peer into my own inner depths, and venture down into the spiritual abyss upholding my flimsily buoyant little psychological self, I find a far greater self sustaining me: there stands another—there stands Alice—mon âme, moi-même—interior animo meo. Or so I like to think.
This is the statement of a committed fantasist. That is my term for it. It is worth remembering that the root of the word fantasy is the Greek for vision, in the sense of visionary. Elsewhere in this volume of essays, as I have indicated, Hart expresses his admiration for what he thought was a strangely great man, an obscure fellow in the north of England who could see fairies. There you have another example of a fantasist. And if Hart’s capacity for fantasy is rooted in his early absorption of (and, he avows in, regular return to) the Alice books, then that is because the author of those books (a devout man and convinced universalist, Hart makes a point of explaining) was himself, at least in Hart’s conception of him, a great fantasist:
In the end, I think, much of Carroll’s faith consisted in a habitual way of seeing this life—or, rather, of seeing through it. He was not, I suppose, what one could call a mystic, but he did believe that human consciousness could occasionally pierce the veil of normal experience and glimpse something far more glorious. Sometimes this belief expressed itself in a curiosity concerning the ‘paranormal’ … At other times, it expressed itself in a fascination with fairy lore, and with the lovely thought that other and marvelous realms lie just outside the world we know, and occasionally break through to this side of the mirror.
For the convinced fantasist whose voice we hear at the beginning of The Dream-Child’s Progress, Carroll provides “a lesson in the moral intelligence of true whimsy, true absurdity, which affords both a detached but charitable view of this world and also a joyful intimation of another and realer world.”
Now, as the near-contemporaneousness of the bookend essays suggests, while the progress of this volume is one that Hart went through and one that we can imitate, as readers, what we and Hart are left with when this progression has come to its term is an abiding tension in the life of faith. To understand the nature of that tension, I will forego the progress, which is tedious to rehearse though fascinating to speculate about as you discern it in the intervening pages of this collection, and jump to Christ’s ‘rabble’ in the final essay.
We are no longer among the consolations of fantasy but confronted with the offense, if I may borrow Kierkegaard’s term, of Christianity. I am invoking Kierkegaard somewhat inappropriately, as this is not quite the offense he wrote about with respect to Christ, but then it is Hart himself who describes the melancholy he finds himself suffering upon completing the translation of the New Testament as “almost Kierkegaardian.” He is referring to the notion (which tormented Kierkegaard) that most of us who call ourselves Christians are not really anything of the kind, and that if we bethought ourselves of what a truly Christian life entails, we would not want to be. And he is talking above all about the material conditions of our lives, and what he perceives as an unambiguous condemnation by Christ of material wealth as intrinsically evil, not merely subject to abuse. The dream-child Alice has finally wandered past all the charms of absurdity to come into the stark world, as Hart understands it, of the New Testament, where “[e]verything is cast in the harsh light of final judgment, and that judgment is absolute.”
Here is the question, then, and for what it’s worth I think this was very much Kierkegaard’s dilemma, or trilemma, rather, as he struggled to relate the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious: What place does an erudite, cultured, eloquent man, a master of ornate prose, a fancier of nymphs but also an aficionado of baseball, a lover of Bruckner’s music and Ella Fitzgerald’s voice, one who is expert (as Christian thinkers were for more than fifteen centuries) in the savor and genius of the non-Christian world—what place does such a one have among the more or less wretched renunciants, the strictly moral exemplars, of Christ’s ‘rabble’? Where were the philosophers among that rabble? The painters and sculptors? The great poets? The musicians of otherworldly skill? Another way of putting this question is to ask to what extent are the highest achievements of culture compatible with, or to be expected from, an egalitarian social and economic ethos such as we discover among the first Christians? As in the course of these essays Hart tilts more frequently and forcefully against the putatively religious and socially ‘conservative’ defenders of the neoliberal world order—his recurring point is that the permissive secularism and destructive capitalism of late modernity are two sides of the same garment—he seems to prime himself for this powerful recognition of the radically ascetic lives of the first Christians, and the “relentless torrents of exorbitance and extremism” that he believes make up Christ’s teaching when we have ears to hear and eyes to see, and do not try to accommodate them to our comfortable and so cleverly self-deluding post-industrial lives.
For my part, this is a staggering question, for I am most certainly a fantasist like Hart, and yet I undeniably hear the clarion call of ascetic renunciation from nearly every page of the New Testament. I have spent a good deal of time trying to imagine what sort of world it would be where society was uniformly like that of the first Christians. Try as I might, I cannot see how it doesn’t come down to a deadening homogeneity, brutally opposed to all the conditions of diversity and difference that give rise to art and inquiry, that produce the sort of culture and civilization that my education—like Hart’s—has exclusively prepared me to engage. Not to put too fine a point on it but the radicalness of those first Christians, like that of many subsequent saints, is terrifying. This is why I call the book devastating, and in no small measure that effect is due to the way it sneaks up on the reader, who for the most part has enjoyed the musings of an articulate, grown-up, well-educated dream-child who fearlessly ventures among the absurd and curious and beautiful, or on the other hand among instances of injustice or foolishness, but has not much trod within the precincts of holiness. It is at least a perplexing situation, as our author is prepared to admit: “I confess I do not really know what to make of these observations, or how to deal with the more onerous prescriptions and harsher judgments of the New Testament.” For the record, Hart has not forsaken his universalism here. He is preoccupied (if that is not far too weak a word) by what kind of life the holy lead. Be ye perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.
So where does this leave (down here on earth) the man whose life has been defined by Lewis Carroll’s fantasy and who considered the gregarious and charming Patrick Leigh Fermor his favorite living writer while that gentleman philhellene was alive? I must confess to being astounded by some of his remarks. Of Chesterton (to whom one is inclined to liken Hart in some of his guises as a writer), he says the following:
Even for a modern Catholic like Chesterton (though perhaps more British than Catholic), one of the greatest advantages of ‘the faith’ over the creeds of other peoples was its robust appetite for ‘beef and beer’—a sentiment that, on the surface, has a kind of merry medievalism about it, but that few medieval Christians would have found intelligible. I certainly find it deeply appealing. But if, as its proponents insist, it is indeed a genuine unfolding of some logic implicit in the gospel, it was a logic utterly invisible to those who wrote the Christian scriptures.
Well, if we are going to bring in the Middle Ages and what people would or would not have found intelligible during that period, let’s be more thorough about it. Two things medieval people found perfectly intelligible were enjoyment of life and sin. If you read medieval literature, you will know that it is brimming over with all imaginable pageantry and delectable goods of life. Much of that life is sinful, of course, as the hypothetical medieval person would be the first to tell you, but, well … the Middle Ages knew how to sin properly. You put your heart into it, is what you do, and you go ahead and call it a sin if that’s what it is (a great age for adultery, at least in the poetry). It’s something of a lost art, to judge by literary history. The literary deposit from the ‘Age of Faith’ is full of struggle and passion of great amplitude; and it is full of love for the beauty of the earth in springtime, for the glories to be found in the ornaments of craft and art, and for the ironies to be found in the erroneous ways of all human forms. It was, in short, an honest time, as full of the ribald as of the reverent.
And it was an ascetic time. During that period in the history of our civilization when the logic of the gospel may be presumed to have fully permeated the culture, alongside the almost supra-moral zest for life that is detectable throughout the literature there is the great, perpetually decadent, perpetually renewed and reformed edifice of monasticism. The ascetic who had to a greater or lesser extent set him or herself apart from ‘worldly’ life was an image or an idea constantly available to the medieval man, whatever his feelings might have been about beef (which he rarely had the opportunity to eat) and beer. Medieval literature is full of monks and nuns (very few priests), sometimes holy, more often not so much, but in all cases embodying—because how could they not?—at least the ambition to heed the call of the asceticism of the gospels. So much of medieval ecclesial history is the dynamic tale of religious orders forming themselves, or seeking to return to the discipline of their stricter, purer founders.
I wonder if this historical example might point a way beyond the dilemma at which Hart seems to arrive at the end of this collection. I believe T. S. Eliot, in his essay on Christian culture, says something about the necessity, in a pervasively Christian civilization, of a prominent monasticism. It makes sense to me. As Hart points out, those first communistic Christians thought the world was going to end very soon. But it didn’t: “the Last Days seem to be taking quite some time to elapse, and we have families to raise in the meantime.” The world is big enough, I think, for the ascetic and the fantasist both. The world, and perhaps even the inner life of a single man or woman.
We must remember, as I pointed out, that the first and last essays of this volume were written fairly close to each other. And the prelude (presumably the last piece written), though it is a story of renunciation or resignation, and alludes in passing to the very aspect of Paul’s thought that sounds such a prominent theme in the collection and turns Hart, at the end, to wonder about the holy life, nonetheless offers, in its convalescent’s reading list, a catalogue of artistic achievement, a sort of testament of beauty (to steal a phrase from the sadly neglected poet Robert Bridges), a testament to the triumphs of sub-creation (to steal Tolkien’s term) that the severe vision of the gospel, as Hart has discovered it, would seem to negate or neglect.
I am left to conclude that Hart’s sensibility has not so much altered as it has been enlarged through his recent translation work. The Dream-Child’s Progress is a sort of conversion narrative, and like all such narratives it is endowed with an affective intensity—quite surprising, in this case, since you don’t expect it to be more than a convenient collation of small pieces. But its author has converted in the etymological sense of having turned a new corner, and come upon a tension that was perhaps not so noticeable or troubling to him before. I say it is a perfectly legitimate tension for a Christian to feel, in fact it is probably exactly the right tension for a Christian to feel throughout his or her life, in every quarter, these dual impulses of renunciation and participation. It is perhaps from that tension that our most stable cultural systems and our most beautiful works arise. Beauty, as Bob Dylan sings, walks a razor’s edge. David Bentley Hart has until now been a dauntless poetic theologian of the beautiful. I hope that the enlargement of his sensibility limned in The Dream-Child’s Progress does not signal a turn away from that most needful project.
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Jonathan Geltner lives in southeastern Michigan with his wife and son. He did graduate work in Medieval and Renaissance literature at the University of Chicago and is currently pursuing a MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College. Look for more of his writing at his blog Defending Fantasy.