by David Armstrong
Roland in Moonlight is an apocalypse; at least, as someone who spent so much time in his graduate career thinking, reading, and writing about apocalypses, it is easily identifiable to me as such. The dominant criteria for a literary apocalypse in the field today, as outlined by scholars like John J. Collins and Christopher Rowland, is a text in which a human seer or visionary is the patient of an unveiling of divine, celestial, or cosmic information, usually through a superhuman intermediary (an angel, a saint, a god, etc.), and often though not necessarily inclusive of information concerning the world’s aeonic transition or consummation. While contemporary scholars of apocalypticism are mostly interested in the phenomenon as it occurs in Jewish and Christian literature, with a burgeoning interest in early Islamic apocalypticism and an arguably receding interest in Persian (though this only because, on the whole, it seems antiquities disciplines are dying across the board), literary apocalypses can be found throughout the ancient world. I, for instance, once wrote a paper for a seminar on Theravada Buddhism on the generic apocalypticism of the Nimi Jataka. In part of that paper, I openly wondered where South Asians at the time of the composition and compilation of the jatakas were getting their apocalypses from, only to open my (until then) fairly limited understanding of the vast network of land and sea trading interconnections that bound the Mediterranean and East Asia to the realization that centuries of exposure to Persian, Greek, and Roman influence could easily have produced a Buddhist apocalypse. But I remember backtracking, too, to note that while, perhaps, some filtration of the genre occurred through Aramaic and Greek-speaking cultural contacts, South Asia need not have imported the apocalyptic interpretation of experience. What we collectively call Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism had independently traded in notions of altered states of consciousness and deeper significance of higher experiential awareness in their own streams of discourse for several centuries if not millennia before the particular bonds of first Persian and then Macedonian imperial aspirations brought them into contact with the West. And so, certainly, the manifestly apocalyptic ending of the Mahabharata may well evidence some familiarity with other Western apocalypses, as may King Nimi’s chariot ride through the various hells and heavens; but it may just as well be that the literary tropes and the experiences they are meant to imply are simply universal.
Anyway, as I was saying, Roland in Moonlight should be read as an apocalypse. Roland himself strikes a fairly handsome angelus interpretans, guiding Hart in the form of dialogues—not so much Platonic as Plutarchic, reminding one more of the Moralia or the Convivium Septum Sapientium than the Symposium or the Phaedo for their wide-ranging, circuitous character—towards ever firmer convictions and sometimes luminous visions concerning the ultimate coherence of reality. It seems to me that Hart practically wags (pun intended) this role in front of the reader when the two of them discuss Ydisthira’s dog and discontentedly acknowledge that he was, in fact, simply the god Yama in disguise, though this discontentment seems somewhat insincere given Hart’s later epiphany that Roland is in fact a high-ranking buddha. As an apocalypse, Roland presents the same binary ambiguity that confronts the readers of every other apocalypse: that is, whether there stands legitimate visionary experience behind the literary piece qua literature.
For most of the history of contemporary biblical scholarship on apocalyptic literature in the Jewish and Christian worlds, the dominant answer to this question has been no. For one thing, most of the apocalypses are pseudonymous, claiming the authorship of biblical figures of either mythical or such antique vintage as to throw into question what personal experience could be meaningfully abstracted from these texts. What personal information can be gleaned from someone who adopts an entirely fictive literary persona (putting to the side whether the persona adopted is based on a person who may have had some historical existence)? Quite a lot, for the record: as Roland notes at considerable length, we not infrequently don identities and relations in visionary and dreamlike states—the principal setting for Roland and Hart’s dialogues—that match nothing of our “waking” self, but then again, our “waking” self is often a socially convenient mask that itself shifts over and over again dependent on who stands before it and which hides an infinity of worlds and persons beneath it. So the notion that an apocalypticist, by identifying with a biblical character of sufficient fame as to merit attention, can therefore not really have had any particular mystical experience worthy of literary immortalization seems to me a simple misunderstanding of the fluidity of personal identity in altered states of consciousness, and a particularly unforgiveable one given how frequently so many of us undergo exactly such a state in our dreams. Another thing, though, often trotted out against the notion of visionary experience playing some kind of role in apocalypses is the fact that apocalypses are actually quite carefully scripturalized pieces of literature. That is, the creative use of mythological and biblical material in, say, the Book of Daniel or the Apocalypse of St. John reflects an intentionality that has seemed to rule out, for many biblical scholars, the notion that the authors of the book are genuinely “seeing” anything other than with the mind’s discursive eye. But this, too, is easily disproven through any cursory glance at the reports of higher experiential awareness from antiquity to the present: when people experience consciousness in a different mode from our everyday life, they see what they are intellectually, culturally, philosophically, religiously, literarily, and temperamentally conditioned to see. This is, again, as obvious to anyone who has kept a record of their dreams as it is to researchers of the impact of psychedelics on conscious experience. And the entire conversation as I have here constructed it ignores, of course, the ever present possibility that—dare I say it—the literary process itself might have some revelatory value on its own.
Hart has the advantage of writing as himself, or at least as his remembered self, and so can avoid the first complaint of the guild; and certainly Roland itself, it seems to me, dispenses with the notion that a co-created experience is for that reason any less genuinely real. I have no idea if Roland represents “real” conversations with its eponymous hero in this or any other phenomenal realm, but I am also not quite ready to accept the proposition that in the event that it does not, this means that the conversations are any less real and that Roland the angelus interpretans is simply a literary device for Hart to think out loud in literary form, as though taking place in Hart’s mind should undermine the revelatory quality of the book’s content.
Roland‘s structure is best considered, I think, under the visual rubric of three concentric circles. At the outermost circle is Hart’s memoir about his family and professional life as they progressed from his time in Charlottesville through St. Louis to South Bend, Indiana, from the time of Roland’s addition (completion?) of Hart’s family nearly up to the present day (at least, the start of the coronavirus pandemic). The interior of this circle is one encompassing the selenic conversations that take place with Roland in the “twilight consciousness” between Hart’s waking and sleeping states and which progress over the course of the book from something quite clearly opened up by the mental toll of his physical illness to something of a real development of his own conscious awareness of the world by the end. I emphasize the lunar quality of these conversations, since Hart, rather obviously, signals what C.S. Lewis would have called the “kappa element” of his work in the book’s title itself: this is Roland in Moonlight, Roland as perceived by the mind once the mind has been freed by Luna’s ministrations from the ordinary strictures of its modernist impoverishment to be open enough to receive Roland’s oracular pedagogy. The innermost circle is also the most fictive narrative element in the book, namely the life and literary corpus of Hart’s “Great Uncle Aloysius,” an ardent pagan convert and poet whose literary merits increase, one feels, as the book moves towards its end.
The common center of these circles is Hart’s particular take on the problem of “disenchantment.” I found myself often thinking of Lewis while reading this book—whether Hart would take that as a compliment I am not sure, though I intend it as such—since this was also, arguably, the unifying idea of his corpus. Lewis, as Michael Ward famously pointed out in Planet Narnia, also saw the world of the early 20th century as a hopelessly “Saturnine” age, desperately in need of Jove and the counterbalancing influence of the rest of the pre-Copernican cosmos, which he undertook to accomplish through the “donegality” of assigning each planet to each of the Narnian Chronicles. Hart, in a similar way, recognizes that late modernity continues to languish under the imperium of Saturn, though his response is, appropriately, quite different from Lewis’, as indeed it logically must be, coming a century later when human alienation from what Lewis referred to as the Tao has advanced in ways Lewis himself could never have envisioned (and to be clear, I do not necessarily mean to align myself with everything that Lewis understood by the Tao, nor with everything he understood to be entailed by aligning with the Tao). For Hart the problem is, as it is for “Aloysius,” the problem of a silent world, a world that does not “speak” or at least that humans are too spiritually deaf to hear. In Lewis’ terms, Tellus has become Thulcandra, the “silent planet,” cut off from cosmic communion not only with heaven but between humanity and the terrestrial creation, or the “weight of glory” that crushes us not merely by its magnitude but by its seeming indifference to our admiration for it.
Hart experiences this alienation, likewise, in his own personal exile from the “Eden” of his mountain home, the poisoned health and personal loss this brings, and the depression with which he struggles throughout the book. Taken together, these sufferings constitute the primal scream that initiate or necessitate the bulk of the literary apocalypse of the Roland dialogues, taking place in the distinctly dreamlike and hence lunar state of Hart’s in-between consciousness. The first conversations—several of which were published by Hart in First Things before his divorce from the publication—take place in the time of the decline of his father’s health, and from there they are often interspersed between Hart’s recounted experiences, activities, or commentaries on interstitial mundane life. Hart’s sense of existential dissonance from the world as he knows it in its deepest truth and the world as actually experienced—paradoxically, even in its beauty—is perhaps the most relatable part of the book. Critics of Hart’s public literary persona as callous or smug will find ample reason to repent in coming to know something of him in these pages. I recall, for example, reacting to a piece of his in Public Orthodoxy on the superiority of leisure to work, released some years ago at a time when I was working doggedly in the most mundane and soul-crushing labor to prepare for my upcoming marriage and second round of graduate school, as sure evidence that his academic life was the product of privilege that rendered him incapable of understanding the struggles that were mentally exhausting me at the time. Hart’s raw pathos in Roland rendered such reactions vividly puerile and silly. Here, clearly, is a man of many sorrows, not least of which is the seeming transience and intractability of the otherwise alluring and enchanting universe. (As a St. Louis native, I rather wish I had known Hart when he was here: I might have shown him some more agreeable parts of the area, though I have no illusions about being able to cure his distaste for the city.)
The Roland dialogues—suttas?—bridge and, to a large extent, medicate both Hart’s and Aloysius’ respective turmoil. It would seem hasty to propose a logical order to the discourses, which seem to me to have more the character of a gradualist revelation whose core elements are not put into order of best effect by mere chronology, rather like the surahs of the Quran. Clocking in at 366 pages, the book includes far too many such interactions to exhaustively detail, and at any rate, that would exceed the utility of a review. I will rather focus on three such conversations: Hart and Roland’s dialogue on panpsychism, on the many-worlds theory, and on the intrinsic unity of religions. In the first, Roland articulates a theory that the (remember, younger) Hart seems at first to find mildly problematic, namely the notion that consciousness is the ubiquitous, universal ground of being itself in which all physical and natural realities participate. Roland and Hart are both careful to distinguish this view from a physicalist panpsychism, that is, the notion that consciousness is a quality or property of matter and particular material relationships, which they think is absurd, and it is for this very reason that Roland admits he does not like the term panpsychism at all. It is not that he disputes its claim that everything is full of psyche, animation or life—recurrent throughout the book is Roland’s incessant insistence to Hart that this is precisely the case—but rather that he would go further than this to suggest both that everything is full of pneuma, “spirit,” and nous, “mind,” as well, on the one hand, and that this is predictable on the basis of a metaphysics which understands God in the classically theistic mode as an infinite act of being and consciousness.
The interchangeability of being and consciousness, and the clear function of imagination and poetry as ties that bind the two across our perceptual infelicities, naturally raise the dialogue found much later in the book about the question of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Roland clarifies for us that there are but two ultimate metaphysical poles: God as infinite actuality and the nothingness of infinite potency. The phenomenal, perceptible world exists between the two, and is constantly ensouled by the intelligible order, itself the divine awareness of creaturely reality as constructed in part by creaturely acts of consciousness. But if God, as infinite actuality, is also infinite being and consciousness, then it stands to reason that there are both no limits on what God may be the Creator of, as well as the necessity, by virtue of his infinite actuality, that God realize all that which he is capable of realizing. And so for God, all possible worlds exist, though they may not meaningfully exist for us other than in our acts of co- or sub-creation in which we imagine them; Hart and Roland hint at but do not, I think, fully expound on the possibilities here, which are both electrifying in their breadth and terrifying in the significance they invest in each imaginative act. It would have been intriguing to hear Roland’s take on the long intellectual history of multiversal and plurisingular cosmic theories, as, for example, detailed at length by Mary Jane Rubenstein in Worlds Without End: for that author, as for Hart, created infinity naturally raises questions of pantheistic and panentheistic character, as demonstrated in her follow-up Pantheologies. Roland is not, of course, a work of scholarship, really, and I am by no means faulting Hart for not engaging with material on the topic, just pointing out that it would have been interesting to know where Hart stands on, say, the singular and finite kosmoi of Plato and Aristotle or the infinite kosmoi of Epicurus and Lucretius or the finite but infinitely repeated kosmos of the Stoics, replaced later by Origen with an infinite succession of kosmoi of varying characters and still later by someone like Nicholas of Cusa with a singular but infinite kosmos, etc. These are, after all, the intellectual past lives of contemporary many-worlds theories, the philosophical debates about the limits of reality that we cannot seem to stop talking about in our cosmological disciplines. I suspect that the liminal existence of the world elucidated by Roland between the absolute being of God and the absolute nothingness of pure chaotic potency is a kind of finite infinity, a quantitative endlessness rather than a qualitative, such that the only beginning and end there are to the world are God and not any particular creature that can lay special claim to have been first or that will be able to announce that it is the last, in which case his view has more in common with Lucretius and Cusanus than with Plato and Aristotle (and, for that matter, Plotinus, though Plotinus is the spectral conversation partner in this dialogue).
Finally, an infinite kosmos renders exclusivist religion hopelessly parochial. Roland’s apocalyptic mishlei to Hart about the intrinsic unity of religions towards the book’s end—unique insofar as it consists largely of Roland telling Hart what he already knows or believes, by his own words—are some of the most sublime in the entire monograph. Here, Roland’s dharma is clear: organize your belief in word religions according to the hierarchy most appropriate to your own conscience and intellectual vision, of course; but if one’s religion is not broad enough to take seriously the truth, goodness, and beauty intrinsic in every world religious, philosophical, and poetic tradition—and, really, every form of human knowledge—then one has not really attained to gnosis. The nonduality which Roland and Hart approach throughout the book logically begins with an increasingly nondualist synthesis in the collective wisdom of the world. Hart at one point questions Roland—no doubt in the part of a potentical critic—about whether or not his syncretism is perhaps a bit out of hand; Roland replies that he certainly hopes so.
There are of course ambigua; this is, after all, an apocalypse. One ambiguum, I am sure easily dismissed by Hart, is the discussion that Roland and Hart have over the possibility of consciousness for technological creations. Here my lifetime of comic book, science fiction, and fantasy ingestion betray me; but I cannot quite make out Hart’s logic for why it is logically impossible for, say, an android to ever achieve consciousness. If consciousness is explicitly not a product of the organic nuts and bolts of our psychosomatic nervous systems, but it is the ubiquitous ground of existence for all material reality, then I am not quite sure what prevents, say, a well-produced homunculus from being imbued with consciousness, if not by some sort of advanced computational network in its metallic brain, then at least by some other means of contracting consciousness in and as the robotic corpus. Mind, I recognize that in the best such literature and cinema, the golem receives its soul from some additional bit of magic beyond the purely mechanical or alchemical means of his production. In many productions, for example Frankenstein’s monster is animated by lightning, as is Vision by Thor and the Mind Stone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it is the magic hat that brings Frosty to life, not any particular set of relations in the molecules that constitute the snow, etc. But still: if we want to be idealist panpsychists—and I certainly agree with Roland that we ought to be, even if he would not use that terminology—then I wonder if it is not prejudicial to preclude the possibility of the thinking, feeling machine. In any event, I welcome Hart’s correction of my intellectual vice in this respect.
Another ambiguum of increasing importance throughout the book, I think, is how seriously Roland and Hart intend to suggest some theory of death and rebirth other than resurrection in a specifically Jewish or Christian mode. If I were a different reviewer and dissented from Hart’s eclecticism or love of Asian religions, this might constitute a dubium or an anathema, but in fact what I awaited throughout the book and was somewhat disappointed not to receive was a coherent statement on what precisely rebirth is and how Hart, as an Orthodox Christian, is able to have an integrated anthropology admitting of what seems to be an otherwise universal and ubiquitous human intuition that we undergo lives as multiple beings. Roland’s first serious revelation to Hart is recounting his past life as a god in the Tushita heaven and his brother Addison as his pet monkey T’ing T’ing; far later in the book, almost but not quite towards the end, Roland discourses about the distinction between atman and jiva, on the one hand, and the various levels of the soul—nefesh, ruach, neshamah—in Qabbalah on the other, only one of which suffers actual rebirth. The suggestion that the true spiritual self which is the ultimate reality—atman that is brahman, what St. Maximos identified as the logos inherent at the center of our metaphysical identity, what Bulgakov would have called the hypostatic spirit underlying the psychocorporeal complex of the human person—may find itself attached to a number of such psychic and sarkic existences seems to me, at least, a possibility opened up by the distinction of spirit and soul. But it is unclear to me in that scenario exactly what “undergoes” rebirth, or if rebirth is a purely metaphorical way of speaking about the karmic succession that unites different beings in a wider web of consciousness. Knowing Hart’s affinity for St. Gregory Nyssen’s anthropology, whereby there is really one human being that only exists as diachronically and synchronically instantiated in the multiplicity of human hypostases, such that no one person can be saved apart from the salvation of all persons, I can easily see how each human consciousness is essentially connected to every other and to the collective human consciousness that is more than the sum of its parts; and if this is extended upward to include angels and gods and outward (Roland would turn his nose up at the suggestion that it is “downward”) to include animal (and plant?) persons, then I can see a path forward. “Rebirth” does not describe, on that Nyssenian view, the idea that a soul literally transmigrates from one embodiment to another, which seems to undermine the notion of what a soul is, but rather the notion that certain strands in the loom of being and consciousness can be identified that connect me—what it is to be me, David, a human being living in the 21st century, which is not interchangeable with any other being or finite act of consciousness or person—to what it is to be a finite act of consciousness in another time or place. There is, mysteriously, a kind of radical identity available between myself and all other human persons in that confession of our different contractions of infinite being and consciousness into our personal finitude. But is that what Hart means to get at? It is unclear.
Another ambiguum, and one I find somewhat thematic in Hart’s work in recent years—from his Church Life Journal article on the pneumatic resurrection to That All Shall Be Saved—is how, exactly, Hart receives and interprets New Testament and Early Christian language about the aeon to come. It may well be that Hart has no dogmatic attachment to any particular eschatology other than the affirmation that for God to be God as Christianity understands God, it must be the case that God successfully reconciles all creation. To use Paul Griffiths’ language, this is the only novissimum Hart seems to care about in depth. But Hart seems to touch on more genuinely eschatological (in the sense of belonging to more immediate horizons) issues from time to time, like the resurrection, and in his work on the New Testament, he successfully recognizes the first-century Jewish context of the earliest Christian hope. Hart has no qualms about the fact that Jesus—and, if his recent introduction to Gabriele Boccaccini’s Paul’s Three Paths to Salvation is any indication, the apostles and Paul as well—were fully ensconced in first-century Judaism and that the New Testament does not abandon what one might consider a uniquely “Jewish” eschatology in favor of a supposedly “universalist” eschatology, as though Early Judaism, in envisioning a future for Israel in particular, somehow failed to think creatively or constructively about the future for the other nations or the kosmos at large. That is to say, Jesus’ first-century followers clearly hoped that the parousia of Jesus would bring about the restoration not only of Israel, as envisioned by the prophets and interpreted by the Second Temple pseudepigraphers and apocalypticists, but also the restoration of the world, too. But almost immediately, the problem of the Parousia’s delay, it seems to me, raises questions for Hart’s eschatology, just as it does for Christian eschatology more broadly. Does Hart take the view, popular among some early Christian authors, that the pneumatic resurrection follows immediately upon death (this seems, as far as I can tell, to be Origen’s attitude in De Principiis 2.11)? Does Hart have an expectation of or a use for a historical Parousia—a coming of Christ at the conclusion of a historical process? That is, is there any event of further revelatory value in this world that Christians should patiently await, or is the Kingdom a purely internal event in this world, only to be accessed beyond the veil? Does the veil ever, finally, tear? If I am understanding Hart correctly, his vision strikes me as not dissimilar to that of Aslan’s Kingdom at the end of The Last Battle, the eternal “true” world of which all other realms are mere satellites, shadows, and echoes. This is effectively a “No” to the questions offered above. I have nothing against a “No,” in theory, but I do wish to see more direct engagement with the antinomy here. For Christians, the lack of a historical Parousia minimally seems to falsify the explicit hopes of Jesus and his earliest generations of followers for the radical inbreaking of the Kingdom into this world. For reasons less to do with apologetics (and still less evangelism) than with the internal consistency of our own tradition, we should face the problem bluntly.
Something more should be said about the figure of Aloysius. It is, first, unclear who Aloysius is supposed to be. Hart admits in a prescript that he is a fictive creation, and this led me to the most immediate conclusion, throughout the book, that he is simply an extra persona for Hart’s own mixed relationship with paganism and Christianity. But not knowing Hart personally, I cannot say with any certainty. It was famously remarked by a close friend of Lewis’ that his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, ought to have been called Suppressed by Jack, but that is the sort of critique that only someone genuinely close to a writer can offer. My affinity for Hart’s training—I, too, went through a graduate education in secular Religious Studies and Classics, which involved wide engagement with comparative world religions while focusing on Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian literatures, and I, too, have mostly employed these disciplines as ancillary to my overarching interests in philosophy and theology, somewhat to the chagrin of my professors and cohorts over the years—does not constitute a real such knowledge. But whoever he is supposed to be, I found Aloysius an intensely relatable figure. He certainly strikes a more respectable figure of pagan longing, of alienation from modernity, and of wistful classical nostalgia than many of the alternatives one can find in contemporary literature, if for no other reason than Aloysius, like Hart, understands the fundamental truth that the past is irrecoverable. Here, again, it is impossible not to think of the Inklings, who get a mention in the form of Owen Barfield, but with whom, it is clear, Hart is hesitant to identify, probably at least in part because of the general demographic that the guild of Inklings studies and interest tends to draw (overwhelmingly conservative evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics—quite interesting, given that the personal temperament of figures like Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien would have found these American “traditionalists” distinctively distasteful). For them, too, the great literary need of the early 20th century was the reenchantment of the present through engagement with the imagined past of myth and folklore, though they only truly succeeded in fantasizing from within European cultural resources; Aloysius and Hart both, though their interests skew classical Greek and Roman, have a much wider range of mythological interest. Hart’s European fairies are sometimes resisters, sometimes collaborators in colonialism and imperialism; it is the fairies of African and Native American patrimony that earn Hart’s greater respect.
The year that my wife and I got engaged, I held my childhood dog, Gracie, as she was put down in her old age and constant pain. I bawled for about thirty minutes. I had trouble explaining the despair that I felt at the time to my wife or to my parents. My wife had not had a dog that was a real companion to her through youth, while my parents had seen many pets come and go and were likely numb to it. But I did not feel silly for my tears, and would not. Those who know and love animals are inconsolable over their deaths, and rightly so, for something unique and beautiful has been lost, if not forever and not in every world, then at least to this one. It is perhaps appropriate to close by simply giving thanks to Roland for permitting his disciple to share his wisdom with us and to Hart for having the decency to write it up.
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David Armstrong is a Byzantine Catholic. He has an MA in Religious Studies from Missouri State University and an MA in Classics from Washington University in St. Louis. His proudest accomplishment is being married to Bethany. His puppy, Daisy, is something more of an Epicurean than Roland.