Ambiguities of Nature: Jonathan Geltner’s Absolute Music

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

Jonathan Geltner’s debut novel, Absolute Music, is one of those rare events in today’s publishing land­scape:  a genuine work of literary art that asks one to grapple with fundamental questions of how love is enacted and reality discovered in the pluralist world of late modernity where cosmopolitan sen­sibilities awash in competing interpretations struggle against despair or drift in apathy amidst contested and constructed modes of meaning. The novel is structured as six suites rather than chapters with an interlude in the middle and a coda at the end. The reason for the musical nomenclature in an opus entitled Absolute Music may need no further justification, though the distance between literary forms open to rational analysis of verbal meaning and music’s more fluid melodic pacing and capacity for sweeping emotive journeys that defeat linguistic capture invites meditation upon the nature of such translation. The initial suite, entitled Felix culpa, brings to the fore themes that shall recur throughout, extended perplexity and striving to come to terms with meaningful action in a world of death and mishap. The limits of art and the questioning of the powers of imagination are displayed in wandering efforts that fail, yet reprise with hopeful repetition despite evident darkness. 

If the Fall is cosmic in scope, it is also an enigmatic condition, both all enveloping and necessarily uniquely personal. McPhail’s reflections return to the existential and irrecoverable moment of decision, the night he missed the New Year’s party at which he had intended to kiss his first love, Hannah, and cross into the undiscovered country of love’s mysterious and mutual regard. Instead, innocent desire is thwarted by an incident of callow venality. Rather than keeping the appointment pondered in private imagination, McPhail played Dungeons & Dragons with his neighborhood buddies and got drunk on illicit beer. And yet the price of this nearly naïve failure is severe. McPhail’s father arrives in the morning to retrieve his son, telling him in terse shock that Hannah died during the missed party, a freak aneurism ending her life at fourteen. The feast of romance turned irretrievably tragic becomes the sometimes surreptitious forgetting and avoiding in reactive amnesia that always at the deeper level of the soul remembers. The recurring image of the honey locust tree becomes a symbol of change and return, a spiral anamnesis that begins with information that the pulp of the tree is the actual source of John the Baptist’s desert fare. Time telescopes, goes backwards and forwards, memory is musically free of linear necessity. As he tries to cope with the apparently irrecoverable, the adult McPhail contemplates the unspoken in his early friendship with Hannah. Though he cannot reach her, McPhail hopes to touch the mystery of her person. He examines Hannah’s favorite movies, The Never Ending Story and The Princess Bride.  It’s typical of this poignant, obsessive dilemma that McPhail contextualizes his quest around art and critical insight. He thinks of the relation between the two films as that which pertains to Malory’s Le Morte de Arthur and Don Quixote: earnest fantasy of high ambition and parodic romance that yet retains love of the original form. The ironic distance that allows for continued hope is important, because the modern is precisely that which intrudes between chivalric innocence and later efforts to achieve the beautiful act. McPhail perceives something jejune in the movie version of The Never Ending Story. Unlike the novel upon which it is based, the cinematic version ends with a triumph of childish ego where the fantasy world of the hero enters without translation into the primary world, vanquishing the enemies of the bullied child, Bastian. Michael Ende, who wrote the novel, was understandably dismayed, for his literary work deconstructs and complicates any kind of simple naïve fantasy. Identity is destroyed, not fulfilled by that kind of imaginative wish fulfillment. The discovery of a path in abyssal ways is linked to the mystery of translation. Human flourishing must pass through death, and so must the imagination.

Indeed, the problematic translation of musical composition into lyric phenomenological and memorial confession occurs against the backdrop of Edenic exile. And so, McPhail’s narrative occupies an ambiguous space. The reader is let into the candid mirroring of a soul’s quest for happiness beset by error (which is itself the wandering path of a knight errant.) The very nakedness of unconcealed and immersive revelation, however, is not without complication. There is, of course, the by now hoary matter of the reliability of the narrator. Yet the implied and never very far from the surface mythic context raises the question beyond the singular individual. McPhail is a son of the Fall. The autumnal appearance of the locust tree is emblematic of human condition and McPhail’s speech is both the content of the novel and secret, continual dialogue with the God who gifted mankind with nature, woman, ambivalent progress through history rife with time’s agony and the peril of decision. McPhail proclaims “the year of remarkable coincidence and failure that this book chronicles” beginning in the autumn of his thirty-sixth year. Synchronicities are both chronological and geographical. For example, this kind of complicated scenario: Michael Ende met his wife on New Year’s Eve, exactly forty-three years before Hannah’s death. Their nuptial friendship was initiated when his future wife quoted the first lines of Eduard Möricke’s “To an Eolian Harp” and Michael recited the rest of the poem. McPhail discovers that Ende and he share a fascination with Japanese culture. Prompted by this discovery, McPhail selects from his shelf a copy of a book relating the travel narrative of Matsuo Basho’s several journeys. One of these journeys is marked by the attainment of a northern most point at which the poet had contemplated Fuku Bay from the heights of Mount Chokai, after which he turns for home. Take this as subtle map. McPhail must find the heights in order to find home. Some impulse inclines McPhail to search the spot on Google maps, and then he compares the GPS coordinates to that of the house where Hannah lived and died, yielding nearly identical reckoning of latitude. Whether this elaborate itinerary of discovery displays meaningful entanglement or a case of the uncanny that merely suggests without significant roots in substantial reality becomes the contested matter for inquiry. Are the glimpses of pattern and connection a hopeful beauty or absurdist fantasy, a cruelly farcical tease? 

The first suite introduced recurring friends, along with McPhail’s wife, Kew, and their young son. The second suite, The Genius of Renunciation, is dominated by events surrounding a first spouse, Severine, and a friend of the past, Joel Stein. The action trades in ironies and equivocity, though on the surface, what presents is perduring despair. Unbeknownst to himself, McPhail continually sabotages romance and retreats from any sense of mission in life. Severine is the first possibility lost to the haunting of Hannah. Her parents hailed from Pittsburgh, but like many characters in the novel, she is a child of divorce and broken and reconstituted families. A severe Celtic beauty from Appalachian folk of generational coalminers, she comes from the outside, the margins, whereas Hannah had lived the life of minor aristocracy, a scion of Cincinnati. They meet under the auspices of music. McPhail is a cellist of not inconsiderable merit, whilst Severine is a gifted violinist who could succeed at conservatories across the country, though she does not seem to fully believe in her talent. The young lovers experience the city as constricting and perhaps even a formidable prison, so much so that longing is expressed as half fearful desire. “Do you think we’ll ever leave?” Together they dream of escaping and living a life of adventure. When McPhail recalls how they desired escape, he thinks of the pilgrim Dante circling round and round in an attempt to climb out from infernal stasis and ascend through purgatorial torments. There is, perhaps, something of Bastian in the cinematic version of the Never Ending Story in their anticipation: a quest for freedom that can only imagine the present earth as part of what must be left behind. 

McPhail rarely speaks of Hannah. The sight of the honey locust trees inspires confession of the tale to Kew who is surprised by his silence on so significant an occurrence in her husband’s early life. And Severine, too, learns of it by a catalyzing encounter in a favorite café. Hannah’s parents separated after the death of their daughter. Her mother, a successful realtor, is somewhat inebriate with a colleague, celebrating some negotiated sale when she glances over at McPhail and scrutinizes him with obvious recognition. It had been a year or so since she had seen the boy. McPhail thinks he may last have seen her at the funeral. Severine imagines that there might have been a Mrs. Robinson situation entailed in that glance, so McPhail feels obliged to disabuse his girl of her surmise by sharing the story of his care for Hannah and the terrible end of that interrupted love. That Severine is a match for him is indicated by the way she sets the pathos of his confession in terms of Joyce’s elegiac short story, “The Dead.” And yet, there is also a sense of spectral sorrow that persists. Both partners will escape, but not together. Severine becomes a doctor living in Hawaii, and McPhail a writer who struggles to write in Michigan.  But first, there was the pair who dreamed together and that dream was music. McPhail tells Severine that he had vowed never to speak of Hannah and she regrets that her fantasy driven jealousy required he break his promise. Still, they married, though directly after speaking of Hannah, McPhail tells Severine he is dropping the cello to pursue an education in the Classics.  She is shocked and dismayed. He cannot quite grasp the depth of her concern. Isn’t it his decision to make? And he cannot tell her that music had increasingly become less and less a conversation and more a kind of wordless prison. Severine can only see betrayal of their mutual hope. Her nearly sybilline talent for cryptic prophecy anticipates destruction of their wholeness in such renunciation. Music was a third, the sharing of a middle voice, but if McPhail is no longer committed, neither will she pursue that discipline. The trajectory of their failed marriage is already prescient in her judgment. “Before somehow there were three of us – you me and the music. Now there’s just two. It’s going to get lonely.”

Joel Stein, like Severine, hails from Pittsburgh. He, too, is betrayed by McPhail. Indeed, in economic fashion, McPhail destroys his marriage and friendship with his mentor in a single act of indiscretion. If Severine embodied the world of music, Joel acts as guide into the gnostic paths of learning. All paths, however, are dead ends to McPhail. He remarks that Edmund Spenser, the sixteenth century poet whose work formed the basis of his unfinished doctoral study, was among the last exponents of civilization that discerned the music of the universe where metaphysical meaning in number coincides with natural patterns. Late in the day, the arid lands grow thick with dull imbecility. McPhail flies from it all, leaving his unfinished dissertation behind as he had once abandoned his cello to dusty alcove. Though even after the dissolution of friendly commerce, Joel’s spirit finds McPhail in a dream of rural Ireland. Joel appears dressed in Zen Buddhist costume, an Eastern variant of the Jewish sage. There are no more stories, McPhail. The oneiric warning is spoken in an ecological context. The dreamed Joel kneels with McPhail before a holy well. McPhail recollects somewhat mistily, but he remembers the gist; that there is one true story that makes valid all storytelling, that the Spirit of God manifests in a manner correlated to the spirit of place. The Word of God is true marriage to the incarnate world, but fragile. When the world is betrayed, language itself breaks and there is no more story. It is an apocalyptic message, vulnerable, seemingly ignorant of resurrection and the victory of any serene divine creation. And yet, there is more to the dream. McPhail is baffled by Joel’s words and wishes to rise, but the dreamed Joel causes McPhail’s astral self to bathe his eyes in the water of the well. Something harkening to penance may be not so much enacted as prepared. McPhail begins to weep, feeling bereft of prayer and faith, unable to fathom that tears may presage the beginnings of the birth of the divine child. Joel pronounces judgment: the faith that safeguards the earth shall endure, but even the faith that brings desolation, shall be swept away. Neither the God nor the earth shall remember the falseness of a repentant man. After this cryptic prophecy that may proleptically undo the tragic pronouncement of Severine, they leave the holy well and come to a cliff’s edge that looks out upon the Atlantic and a mountain named for the saint explorer, St. Brendan. Joel pronounces a Zen-like koan. When there are no more stories, it’s time to float. Then, as is the way in dreams, they step off the cliff and begin to walk upon the aerial firmament.  Having attained the summit, McPhail opens a book which contains the Periphyseon, a treatise on Nature by John the Celt of Ireland. He reads from Scotus Eriugena of the five modes of speaking reality, one of which is nothing though not nothing as moderns think. This nothing is rich plenitude that includes the souls of the unborn that abide in secretissimis naturae sinibus – in the most secret sinews of nature. It is within this hidden care that all stories are nurtured. Joel quotes a passage from Thoreau that speaks of the fearful flesh of Nature, of the mystery of bodies that makes a sacrament of every earthly creature. And soon, McPhail discovers the prayer that beats in the thrum of life, weeping for the very beauty of enchantment as he serially regains the Stations of the Cross.

One might anticipate that an episode of such heightened revelatory imagery indicates a turning point in the narrative. Yet while it is a significant musical beat, it is only the end of the second suite. McPhail begins the third, Rosenzweig in Pittsburgh, by indeed noting that the dream journey remarked a period of slow recovery from despairing malaise. Structurally, however, the music has only come near the central pivot. There is still the conclusion of the first part, an interlude that brings new hazard, and the turn that sets the reader towards whatever discoveries await. The three chapters as a unity constitute a renewed approach to the questioning of being through the imagination under the proposed vocation of poet novelist. It is in the third suite that McPhail starts again. He discovers yellowed, discarded composition books for music from his days as a cellist. These will become the place where he will write down the matter of reflection and struggle that becomes the music of the novel, itself a work of literary introspection in lieu of the much deferred sequel to McPhail’s Repentance of the Gods, a fictional counter-history that imagines the West as if there had never been Christ. When he tells his wife of his intentions to repurpose the blank orchestral notebooks, Kew laughs. This is a suite of inference that is rooted in the metaphysical. McPhail takes up the writings of the Swiss thinker, Max Picard, for whom language that speaks truth arises from the thick plenitude of silence. And McPhail proposes to take the praxis that intuits the word emerging from such silence as the mode in which his composition should progress. Shortly after this, there is an incident at St. Brendan’s, the preparatory school where he teaches, that bears more import than one might expect from an ultimately trivial, though existentially impactful episode. (Note the carryover of synchronicity in naming with the mountain of dreams.) “In the heart of winter, in the dead season between Christmas and Lent,” this is time reckoned by liturgical calendar, time that still bears a qualitative ambition beyond the univocal sterility of increasingly precise mechanical time often now stipulated by the half life of radioactive decay of certain isotopic elements, even if it is denoted by lull, the prosaic pause between celebration of advent into historical consciousness of Incarnation and a season of private and communal penance before the astounding Triduum, the three days that fulfill the Genesis account. Into this ambiguous time that threatens to devolve into the ugliness of secular dullness, McPhail places his meditation on evil, of how Augustine’s privatio boni, evil as lack of some needed good, was displaced for him as dominant consideration by reflections on the coincidence of opposites whereby the ravages of time are adorned with an eschatological fullness that redresses the limits of finite choice. He quotes from the famous speech by General Löwenheilm that is the crescendo in Isak Dinesen’s masterful short tale, Babette’s Feast. (It is also, by the by, given exquisite cinematic treatment by the Danish director, Gabriel Axel.) “See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time,  granted us. And look:  Everything we have chosen is granted to us. Aye, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together . . . .” Beyond any aesthetic flourishing that Dinesen may have intended, what is actually prophesied in image is an eschatological reality that transcends the limits of finitude, an antinomic child-like joy. McPhail tells his students that he was saved from suicidal despair by the winsome hope carried by the story. And then directly, McPhail relates his dismissal from his teaching duties at St. Brendan’s. There is to my ear a note of dark comedy in the anecdote. The conversation between McPhail and the wryly exasperated headmaster reminds somewhat of Kingsley Amis. McPhail’s students have tattled on his non-comformity and the wide range of his interests that he brings to his particular brand of pedagogy, in doing so exhibiting detailed and comprehensive note taking he would not have otherwise credited. The headmaster, for his part, appreciates the quality of mind and erudition in the teacher he must let go. While typically converts are narrow, jealously dictatorial, in McPhail’s case it is an opposite tendency, an artist primarily who speaks skeptically, daydreams, and altogether lacks the capacity to conform his students to basic truths increasingly under assault by a hostile world. It did not help that McPhail’s prior marriage to Severine had been previously undisclosed. Certainly, the headmaster’s concern and measure of the times is not without merit. There is an ominous hint, even, that McPhail has allowed for an intimacy of connection with some of his students that is dangerous. And yet, it’s possible for all his good intentions that the headmaster is wrong and that the wild, volatile, equivocal manner of McPhail’s approach is the proper way not to master, but to live out openness to revelation’s incomparable design.

Overt or implied tensions between a piety seeking protection and firm foundations as opposed to the risk of creativity that involves the continual leap into mystery recurs throughout the novel. It is not only a battle between folks of differing sensibility, but a wrestling that is inevitable for the poet who as fragile, finite human being often desires to draw back from nocturnal agony that must seem madness to those who reside in more stable, diurnal roles, though there is something false in the life that does not know these mysteries. McPhail devotes a long excursus to a closely observed phenomenological recapitulation of a memory. He is in the house of his paternal grandparents. “The house is in Pittsburgh and the bricks are dark as dried blood.” McPhail is walking down a hallway. He is going to the kitchen, because he is hungry. This visceral, bodily hunger contrasts with sterility in his soul. He is engaged to Severine in the time of the memory. A textbook on Baroque music lies open and next to it is the kind of composition notebook that later will be used to record the very reminisce that is related. McPhail confesses that he might easily have translated the Baroque work that he was copying out into music for both cello and violin. Severine and he might have been gathered into a common work if he had not been unable to imagine real people engaging in the music transcribed as abstract notation. He is thinking, rather, of grabbing local pastries known as thumbprints that should be discovered where his aunt and mother are preparing a large meal. On the way, he stops in a vestibule, arrested by the sight of his grandparents listening intently at the door to Severine’s room. Severine is playing Bach’s first Partitia for Solo Violin. His grandparents are eighty-five years old. Severine is still in high school, practicing for auditions at several conservatories. His grandparents have never heard her play, having met her for the first time the evening before. It is a delicate, private moment that has a slightly mysterious poignancy. And then McPhail recollects a kind of double vision. He sees Severine playing the violin despite the impediment of brick wall and closed door, and he also simultaneously watches her through a greenhouse of red geraniums adjacent to her room as if he could observe her from the outside.  All this is an effort at remarkable phenomenological reconstruction for neither is rooted in an actual experience. Reflecting back on the memory which is embedded almost entirely in imagination, McPhail states, “I have come to see this compound image, this two-part fantasy, as a glimpse of the unreality that exists at the heart of reality; the world behind the world.” The reader is likely expected to link this unreality to the nothing of John the Celt discussed in dream vision. There is also, perhaps, some similarity to Husserl’s method of imaginative testing of phenomenological limits taken up in Edith Stein’s inquiry into the metaphysically real. Regardless, McPhail claims that in the transfiguration of the existential real into fictional image, he has glimpsed an essential aspect of the “bedrock of his mind.” Memory is revealed as always a work of poesis. It is a tricky journey. In attempting to translate a poem by Hölderlin, McPhail observes an inherent equivocity. The word scheinen means both to appear and to seem – radiance and illusion are the same word. The radiance always comes from the aniconic silence, but then how to tell the difference between what means and what only seems to mean? The entire matter is expressed with pathos and quiet wisdom when McPhail takes Kew to visit the Jewish cemetery where the grandparents who listened to Severine are buried. Kew observes small pebbles placed on grave markers. It is a practice of quaint superstition, but nonetheless somehow kind and enduring. Kew gathers and places twelve stones to place on the family graves. McPhail wonders at the number, that number that may or may not be attractively musical, and asks if she intends the twelve tribes of Israel. And Kew responds with private intimacy. “Three for each of your family’s graves: from you, from me, and from the one we lost.” For Kew, the child lost in miscarriage is yet real, part of the family.  In that sweet action, one might determine the callousness of the modern mind that resists the metaphysical, failing to cherish the real that does not appear in the prescribed mode of choice and positivist facts.

McPhail’s search for meaning is inextricably a questioning of God in the face of a fallen world. This act of wondering anguish is quintessentially overseen under the aegis of the ever present Hannah whose absence manifests in comically destructive fashion when he meets up for an annual summer gathering with his now grown pals that constitute the haven of brothers from his Cincinnati neighborhood. The Fourth Suite is narrated after a brief interlude named Dust and Ashes where McPhail relates the funeral of his great aunt Gloria, a woman of unusual character and spirit. Like Bilbo Baggins, she lived to be old, dying just short of her hundredth year. Educated in a time when it was unusual for her sex, Gloria was a figure of wealth and scholarship, teaching herself Hebrew in her later years, a discipline that she was grateful to share with her linguistically gifted nephew. The great aunt bears a certain echo, a late glimmer from Spencer’s Faerie Queen perhaps, as well as holding the position of a kind of matriarchal figure in her society situated around the high Church sensibility of genteel, Southern Episcopal pomp. McPhail sees to the details of her funeral and the dispersal of her assets according to her will. Yet his admiration for his aunt’s character is mixed with misgiving. At her death, the house in which she had pursued a worthy life is taken over by hospice care workers tending to their equipment and to his great aunt’s body. McPhail is troubled by an apprehension of fragility and consuming void. “The world from which my great aunt came was vanished utterly . . . all the tradition and ceremony to which she cleaved, which had given her mind clarity and her life shape and dignity to the last, was no more than shadow play.” And when McPhail meets his erstwhile student, the beautiful Eurasian, Annette, at the end of Gloria’s interment, his friend and cousin Orianna discerns danger in the young woman’s unaffected and habitual manner of speaking to him in her first tongue of French with disarming intimacy. McPhail’s first marriage was conclusively shipwrecked by amorous adventure on his friend Joel’s birthday – doubly vicious because partnered with the woman of Joel’s infatuation. Now, whilst his second wife is pregnant with their daughter, likely conceived, with uncanny coincidence, on New Year’s Day, McPhail allows himself to scratch the itch of mutual attraction far from home. The liaison is obliquely narrated, manifest more as sick, nervous hangover and irrational, wandering delay, so that McPhail arrives late to his buddies in Ohio and looking like hell. He is, in effect, late Western man, uncertain about his images, about the possibility of love. The shadow of suspicion articulated in Denis de Rougemont’s diagnosis of romantic love as a culture of adultery taints his steps with weary, febrile perplexity.

The Castle of High Fantasy tests the equivocities, placing the vocation of poet at risk by asking after the meaning and efficacy of the image. In some ways it is the most starkly ironic of the suites, playing out a dismal comedy where the effort to ad-venture towards community and renewal ends in bleakness softened, but not salved by melancholy enchantment. The Episcopalian rite beloved by Aunt Gloria had left McPhail empty and unmoved. Nothing in it prepared him to resist the allure of Annette. A diminutive of Hannah, Annette represents a recurrence of the ambiguous image. The annual enactment of Dungeons & Dragons aspires to fulfill an action much closer to genuine liturgy. Here, friends shed quotidian selves and social functions in order to take part in hieratic functions, yet select ritual roles that are fitting to their particular persons. While the surface reaction of McPhail’s friends to his confession of adultery appears casual and ready to exonerate, closer attention reveals a much more complex negotiation. At first, censure is limited to a nearly playful jab when McPhail’s oldest pals tease that Annette should be categorized as his student, which is a refusal to let him skate on a breach of trust operative on multiple levels — and this subtly repeats in different fashion the way McPhail had betrayed both Severine and Joel in a single act. The brotherhood provides a space in which conversation creates a measure of porosity able to resist stubborn defensiveness. Zach, whose Jewish ardor is anxious to preserve the goodness of family life, kindly tries to guide McPhail towards a path that would heal the self-inflicted wound that threatens his marriage. He is also the most prescient, discerning the duplicity at the heart of their quest – though this wisdom is matched by Gregory, who as master of ludic seriousness oversees the game in which justice and revelation occur. The ambiguous nature of the fictional image is brought to the fore in fantasy where the meta in metaphysical is allowed greater play. The modern world in which final and formal causalities have largely dropped out generally has neuralgia for the metaphysical, though it is not optional. Everyone presumes some ultimate reality. Fantasy permits the imagination to grapple more openly with the depth dimension that is tacit in ordinary living, though it may also be an indulgence of egotist delusion, the kind of imaginative escape McPhail abjured in the first Suite. The danger, often noted by those who warn of immersion in virtual worlds at the expense of reality, is summed up by McPhail. “The frightening truth of fantasy is that we buy time with time, trade our lives for other lives: frightening because we do not get a good deal, but do it anyway.” McPhail speculates that the traveler in fantasy enters into the Fay otherworld. You may return, it is inescapable that lives live out on the mortal earth, but as apparition, changeling, something permanently haunted, the fantastic image playing you. 

McPhail steps back from the abyss; he is not certain where the border is, after all. And then, one would like to tell McPhail the reverse is also true, something like the Platonist intuition. This world may be the land of the dead full of phantoms. The same misgivings about fantasy and image could be directed against the dark knowledge of faith; the doubling of idol and icon pertain, requiring sagacity to parse the stories in order to choose life. That there is a moral compass animating the brotherhood in which McPhail engages in the praxis of fantasy is indicated in their mutual allegiance to what C. S. Lewis named the Tao in The Abolition of Man and what his friends call the Code. In its essence, the Code is belief that reality is ultimately Good and a gift of Goodness. An ethics of action is guided by what conforms to the Good. The gaming of Dungeons & Dragons is at least capable of becoming a form of moral inquiry and this is what is put to the test. Gregory proposes a crisis driven by the advent of a character of extraordinary charisma and beauty. Francesca is putatively pursuing a perilous marriage in order to secure peace in a realm prone to war and devious faction. There are complex rules stipulating potentialities and characteristic weakness and strengths in mythic races and modes of perfection. Mages, clerics, warriors are good at some things, not so much others. It’s the same in our world. In this case, McPhail’s alter ego would ordinarily be relatively protected from Francesca. He ought to be able to act prudently and with a lucid mind, whilst many of his peers risk susceptibility to illusion. The outcome is partly driven by chance or fate, however one interprets the result of throwing a 20-sided die. Perverse fate seems to descend upon the gamers. Those who ought to be weak roll saving numbers, whilst two times McPhail rolls an absolute disastrous one.  He will be practically defenseless before the powers of Francesca and his action inept and ruinous to the fellowship. There may be a subtle embedded threat in the double hazard inferring two essays at marriage, so that Severine and now Kew are implied. In any event, the twice destined calamity performs a drama of deception and avenging apocalyptic fury. Francesca intends not marriage, but political hegemony and violence. And as Gregory describes her to McPhail’s growing alarm, she appears as Hannah might have been had she lived past her fourteen years and thrived in the real world. McPhail never writes the much pondered sequel to his first fantasy novel within the scope of the narrative. However, in telling of the catastrophic conclusion to the quest he hints at a more than capable bard, deftly sketching character types, intrigue, and dramatic action in keeping with the conventions of the genre. The ending in diverse, but violent destruction gives vivid, if compact life to actual fantasy. Though if it mimics liturgy in its prescribed roles and ceremonial gathering, what is evinced is powerless to transform and transfigure the wounded earth. It is ersatz religion without clemency and redeeming forgiveness. Through the stylized, overpowering appearance of Franscesca, Gregory has crafted Hannah in the guise of vengeful goddess who wreaks painful justice upon those who caused McPhail to refuse the welcome of her New Year’s party more than twenty years past. It’s hard not to read the episode as Hannah’s revenge against the boyhood posse that prevented McPhail from attending her party with such disastrous result. And certainly, one must diagnose McPhail’s self-destructive behavior, the dismantling of relationship and potential or realized loss of marriage through adulterous indulgence on days of high mourning or celebration (funerals and birthdays) as continued subversion, displaced agony over fallen time and the loss of perfection embodied in the never to be bestowed kiss. The brotherhood concludes their companioning with music and song. It is for McPhail nothing like Spenser’s music of cosmic amity or the bond of God and earth whispered in a dream. Harsh ascesis, purity without entanglement, McPhail summarizes: “No life, no beliefs, no memories, no plans, no truths, but the music, cut loose from the world.”

McPhail returns to his Michigan home. There is a touching, perfectly realized moment in the novel. After the muddled, sinful sojourn down South to bury the ancestor and the displaced judgment of gaming fantasy in the Ohio of youth grown older, McPhail enters the house expecting his young son to eagerly run into his arms as was his previous habit. But there is a dark aura that the boy instinctively discerns. He stops short, scowls, and turns shyly away. And this spirit of mournful discomfort hangs over the entire fifth suite so that one wonders if the lost music of joy and embodied meaning will return until a surprising, enigmatic conclusion gives way to further questions. The very vagueness of the title, We Incarnate Something, suggests quandary, knowledge submerged and struggling amidst an ethos blithely indifferent or hostile to nature. Kew finds out about the affair through happenstance the very day McPhail has, after long procrastination, made his Confession of failure in his marriage and received the Sacrament.  In doing so, McPhail meditates upon the difference between his tiny, troubled, individual self and the larger sense of person in which everyone he has known and at the metaphysical limit, everyone and everything simply, is bound inextricably in a relation of act and memory that surpasses what can be construed in terms of narrow egotism. Those who think of religion and forgiveness as mere coping mechanism are terribly obtuse. In McPhail’s idiosyncratic semiotic, he thinks of the peace he associates with the Upper Country, the place from which true love arrives as imaged by a beautiful white pine in a neighbor’s yard that he has often contemplated. Confession and sorrow coincide. He comes back from the Church to discover the pine has been destroyed so that a larger garage and party patio might be accommodated. Kew stands in the yard silently sad. There is perhaps an unremarked echo of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s anguish before the frivolous killing of an ash tree in his garden, after which the poet railed that he no longer wished to know the inscapes of things. And then Kew leads her husband inside, into the private domestic space where she makes him aware that he is rightly banished from the bedchamber. Though immediately, the focus shifts. It seems that Kew is even more upset by revelations of widespread priestly abuse of children. On one level, there is a sense of overwhelming systemic failure. Filtered through memory and time, as part of McPhail’s anamnesis recorded in the discarded musical composition books, he can distance himself from the rage engendered by scandal, yet even in dispassionate recollection he speaks of apocalyptic despair of the Church and Kew’s fear that the source of meaningful transcendence might be irretrievably lost. Still, Dante and Chaucer were no less aware of grave ecclesial corruption. Art and faith weather such turmoil. There is a tacit exchange taking place. By turning together against the perceived threat to meaning concentrated outside the domus of the family, McPhail and Kew allow for an uncomfortable truce whilst he sleeps in the basement so that the healing of time and mutual care can take place.

If the fifth movement is one of trepidation and uncertain search, it is also a kind of enforced asceticism where imaginaries are tested and reveal their various inadequacies. McPhail’s dissatisfaction causes him to propose yet another delay. In The Castle of High Fantasy, Zach had insisted that McPhail is a man of the book. But now, McPhail ponders becoming a natural scientist. He exhibits the restlessness that Kierkegaard had discerned in modern ennui. Unhappy with the possibilities offered by the haberdasher of times, he nonetheless wants to try on all the hats. The solace hidden in the promise of Babette’s Feast no longer seems to console. Kew sees right through it. She also does not like the egophanic element in McPhail’s revolt from vocation. “She did not like for me to use language such as my life – she thought in terms of our lives.” When they argue, Kew astutely gives judgment: “You’re a writer . . . you study languages, you read, you drink black coffee and smoke cigarettes when you can get away with it. Don’t go against your own nature.” This is good advice, assuming you trust the good intentions of nature. And then Kew runs her hands over the swollen belly of her pregnant body, trying to express a deep yearning that evades easy definition, hearkens to the lost music. “I don’t want . . . an identity or a role. I want something . . . Look, I have to bring this child into the world, and that takes . . . something that affirms what I know in my bones and my blood that you and I are.” “What is that?” asks McPhail, and his wife answers, “Symbolic.” In some inscrutable cosmic manner, as man and woman, a great secret is preserved. “We incarnate something.” His wife has unconsciously rendered lines from another film that is strangely linked to Hannah. McPhail watched the DVD alone in his apartment in the days of friendship with Joel Stein. Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire is a story of longing and consummation across realms. An angel who watches the earth falls in love with a beautiful woman named Marion played by Solveig Dommartin, an actress that McPhail believes looks just as Hannah would appear had she lived. In the denouement, she turns from the angel, Damiel, and speaks directly to the camera, bringing everyone who sees the narrative into the story. Coincidences must come to an end, she says. Decision transcends the conflict between fate and grace. Incarnation is a bond of amity that translates dimensions so that the Upper Country and the earth are one. After viewing the film, McPhail drifts into a dream-like state in which Hannah enters his apartment in the guise of Solveig Dommartin. The image that would one day appear as vengeful Francesca arrives to initiate amatory union of ecstatic, wordless perfection. Afterwards, McPhail awakes, tired, sobered, lighting a cigarette and stepping out onto his porch in bare feet to glance out upon a locust tree bathed in garish streetlight. (Incidentally, when I watched this film myself as an undergraduate, Wender’s angelic presences were existentially compelling, though they also seemed ambiguous, angels without God. At least, I remember such a conversation between my pals and I. There’s a quality of Rilke in it, though it’s been years . . . regardless, the notion that angels are baffled by the flesh and attracted to beauty that must incarnate remains intriguing, despite those who would opt for the Pauline spiritual body as somehow a repudiation of timely bodies.) Kew’s desire for the symbolic attempts to prescind from specifically theological contexts: neither Jewish, nor Christian, but nuptial. The deep sense that something important is involved in marital union is certainly a genuine intuition, though what that entails might not allow indifference to specific theological realities. The strange, epiphanic and erotic dream of Hannah suggests the Upper Country is not to be dismissed from the most physical of unions, but then, neither can the human quest to incarnate symbolically be detached from the eschatological.

The final suite, The Upper Country, does not magically resolve aporetic quandaries, though it affirms a necessary truth. The concluding Suite, like much of the novel, swings back and forth from future to past, following a non-linear path often dictated by associative connections made by McPhail in his effort to reignite the writing of fantasy. He tells us the year of coincidences comes to an end with the birth of his daughter, sixteen years exactly from the date Severine discovered him in the act of infidelity on Joel Stein’s birthday with the object of Joel Stein’s affection. Erotic energies run amok and displaced into misalliance are perhaps made good, though one rather hopes the new daughter is not named any variant of Hannah. McPhail calls it “this strangest of years – the last year I conceived of myself as a writer.” He then suggests that he allowed interest in interpreting the strangeness to subside, swallowed up by the “fatigue of caring for new life not yet grown enough to know or care about so-called meaning.” But this is evasion. First, the entire narrative slyly ironizes the declaration of no longer being a writer; and secondly, if McPhail has been paying attention, he knows that the body knows in ways that defeat easy conceptualization. The child is not indifferent because ignorant and not yet troubled by perplexity. At a depth of silence before words, the child communes with meaning in a bond that may recede from consciousness, but is nevertheless there. And McPhail has been paying attention, even if he is tempted to run, like Jonah, from the prophet’s calling. And so, he asserts as axiomatic “if there is another world, then there is Hannah; if there is Hannah, then there is another world.” Gregory had chided McPhail that he was trapped in inertia as a writer because he had forgotten that fantasy looks outward, separate from introspective attempts to limn the life that should be lived, not written. There is something to this advice, and much of post-modern jabber about writing is indulgent, spiritual onanism. Still, the person is not equivalent to the individual narrowly understood and separate from the rebirth of images. Go further in, and introspection discovers the other, and that is the lesson of mystics throughout the world. Outward, inward, it is the coincidence of opposites. And so writing remains an impossible action, though the fictive may yet achieve truth not caught in the net of quotidian facts.

The equivocities surrounding fantasy pertain to the imagination and the manner in which being announces itself. McPhail’s friend, the Jewish philosopher, Joel Stein, renounces art and speculation in order to reprise the ancient faith. At the novel’s end, he returns to dialogue after long absence, another one of those pauses where the community of brotherhood permits interpretive leisure. Joel points out the questioning of the radical ground upon which interlocutors meet: is nature Creation or not? The created cosmos is very different from the surd canvas of an accidental nature produced by stochastic machining of mindless matter or fragmentary serendipity of a particular variant of the infinite multiverse. The latter gives free reign to nihilist ambitions which project meaning as will-to-power, ideological project, political agenda. It is, I have said elsewhere, the siren song of Anti-Christ ascendant in our day. Despite acid contempt for tradition and identification of the gospel sometimes made to fit contemporary revolutionary fervor, the binding of religion is harmony of spirit and earth inscribed in ancient lore. It is often a difficult ascesis that is required: to discern between false fire and divine madness. The imagination of death spawns devious idols soaked in hidden malice, yet the aniconic Good ultimately renders the whole of the cosmos into theophanic joy. In his meandering, inept, but sincere return, again and again, to an attempt to live out the Code, McPhail bears witness to the necessity for gratitude and reverence for the earth. The Code is nothing apart from humility before Created realities that bear symbolic depths. 

McPhail renames coincidence, a secular term for remarked synchronicities that are mere products of chance, with what he calls affinities. The latter denotes complimentary entanglement that suggests providential care musically composed. Coincidence mocks meaning making, provoking conspiratorial efforts to manufacture substance from the ersatz. Affinity is sourced in created coherence that arrives with surprise, a gift to those who attend with patience the hard text of the world. Residual ambiguities remain, not only in terms of fantasy and equivocities of the imagination, but also in unresolved tension between McPhail’s alienation from Catholic Christianity, at least in its American variants beset by priestly sins and far from Celtic holy wells and skies of strange luminescence, and the allure of Judaism with its earnest piety that nonetheless produces musicians, poets, and artists of transcendence.  In the brief coda that concludes this musical prose that weds elements of Walker Percy’s pensive observer to Gerald Murnane’s phenomenological metafiction and Wendell Berry’s poetry of the local, we are given a glimpse of the difficult, post-lapsarian path that nonetheless glimmers with beauty. McPhail’s father clarifies a misconception of his son.  A tree McPhail had taken for something else, a present absence as it were, turns out to be the familiar locust tree vibrant and without thorns, like a remnant from the pristine Garden beckoning of a care hidden, but awaiting the fullness of revelation. I do not think the incarnational, symbolic splendor that Kew yearns for is to be discovered in its flourishing eternity apart from the body of Christ. It is unclear if the discovery of a species of locust tree without thorns overlooking a Jewish cemetery is a hint of renunciation – separate from the species named by the French épine du Christ, the thorn of Christ. McPhail’s quest for absolute music is perhaps too wounded by late modern decadence, Enlightenment reaction against the failures of Christendom to realize the eschatological kingdom, and the numerous and ever expanding events of violence that harm community and the earth itself. The quest for the Holy is ever a reaching out beyond the capacities of our finitude. That Geltner’s fiction invites such ruminations is witness to an emerging talent whose voice joins the acuity of a poet to cultural erudition that ranges from cinematic insights, deft acquaintance with classical music, exemplary historical figures and artists, to the geographic and environmental anatomy of local places with resonant roots that nurture distinctive patterns of awareness and uniquely personal communication. Listen that you may strive more thoughtfully and perhaps endure more empathetically those who struggle to live well in an age of fragmentation and foreboding. 

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Brian Moore lives in Georgia with his cats and is the author of Beneath the Silent Heavens.

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