Cassandra Nelson’s “A Theology of Fiction” (April) is a welcome intervention and advance in an ongoing conversation that, as Nelson herself notes, I’ve been invested in for some time. Nelson’s attentiveness to the work of Sr. Mariella Gable—and her related readings of a series of works, not least David Foster Wallace’s—allows us to reckon with the exemplary work of an otherwise little-known literary critic and teaches us how to read for evidence of God’s greatness in and beyond avowedly religious frames. I only didn’t like the title of the essay, whether it was Nelson’s or someone else’s. Sure, it’s snazzy and in keeping with our era’s wider terminological promiscuities, but what does it mean for faith to seek understanding in made-up things? Here, I think the late Robert Hollander’s presentation of Dante’s position on these matters is helpful. In Dante: A Life in Works, Hollander makes the persuasive case that Dante agreed with Aquinas’s criticism of literary allegory, over and against theological allegory, because the former is finally false and the latter first, last, and always true. That Dante demonstrated his solidarity with Aquinas with the otherworldly premise and remarkable events of The Divine Comedy is all-the-more provocative insofar as it’s a challenge to us, as readers, to take up the writer’s claim that this really happened. Seven hundred years later, it remains the right and responsibility of religiously serious writers to create fresh fictions that invite readers to make sense of what it means that this really happened, whether it’s a crucifixion and resurrection or a rollercoaster ride through the afterlife. Okay, I take it back: It’s a good title. Without it, I wouldn’t have been thinking along these lines, which I’m grateful to do by way of Nelson’s essay (title included).
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Like many readers, I suspect, I am very grateful to Cassandra Nelson and First Things for bringing the pioneering work of Sr. Mariella Gable to my attention. And I’m sure I’m not the only reader who finished Nelson’s essay fervently hoping that an enterprising publisher will commission her to write an intellectual biography of Sr. Mariella. In addition, the essay left me hoping that Nelson already has a book in progress on “crypto-Catholic” contemporary fiction (where “contemporary” extends to writers who began their careers in the 1960s). Her tantalizing references to Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon and her more extended remarks on David Foster Wallace left me wanting more.
If Nelson does write that book, I hope that she considers widening her scope, from “crypto-Catholic” to “crypto-Christian” more broadly. I would love, for instance, to read her take on the fiction of Philip K. Dick, which came strongly to mind as I was reading her essay.
Cassandra Nelson replies:
To have received such thoughtful responses to my essay on Sr. Mariella Gable is gratifying, not least because it suggests that a certain kind of fiction—and perhaps a certain kind of criticism—can still achieve the sort of galvanizing, upbuilding effect on readers that her collections had. I confess to being “innocent” (as Flannery O’Connor would say) of any formal training in theology. But the connection between theology, language, and literature—which, as Randy Boyagoda notes, may appear tenuous at first—is strong. God the Father spoke the world into being; God the Son is figured in John’s Gospel as the Logos; and Jesus, through his generous use of parables, dignifies a surely related form of knowing-through-seeing-made-up-things.
How to cultivate the sort of vision that can keep in the mind’s eye two levels of reality, the here-and-now and the hereafter, is, as Boyagoda observes, a profound challenge for religious writers today. I am very grateful that he and others have taken up that mantle. Thomas Pynchon calls attention to two problems that they presently face. One is the question of whether allegory of any kind is available to writers today, in what can feel at times like a contemporary Babel. The other is Pynchon’s warning that to “insist upon fictional violations of the laws of nature—of space, time, thermodynamics, and the big one, mortality itself” is to “risk being judged by the literary mainstream as Insufficiently Serious” and consequently to have one’s work dismissed as “escapist fare.”
John Wilson will perhaps be heartened to know that the example Pynchon gives of books so unfairly maligned to the genre section of the bookstore is the postwar golden age of science fiction. Alas, I am likely not the one to write a book exploring the Venn diagram of where Christian fiction and science fiction meet. But enterprising publishers are welcome to darken my door about what I am qualified to speak on: faith in postmodern literature, and the ways in which technology affects the kind of inner vision described above. Finally, readers may be excited to learn, as I recently was, that Cluny Media has been at work on reissuing Sister Mariella’s books. Their beautiful new edition of Many-Colored Fleece is available now.
I was pleased to read Algis Valiunas’s “Nihilism for the Ironhearted” (April), a welcome reminder of the important, and underappreciated, Giacomo Leopardi. There is, of course, as Valiunas’s biographical sketch reminds us, a movement within Leopardi’s thought and verse. Consider his famous poem, “L’Infinito,” composed in September of 1819—roughly two years after his apostasy—and published in 1826.
This lonely hill was always dear to me,
And also this hedge, too, which partially
Excludes the far horizon from my view.
But sitting here and gazing, I imagine
Boundless spaces beyond, and superhuman
Silences, and that deepest quiet, where fear
Almost fills up my heart. And as I hear,
Among these shrubs, the wind go rustling through,
I keep comparing that infinite silence to
This voice; and the eternal comes to mind,
And the dead seasons, and the undefined
And living present one, and its sound.
In this immensity my thought is drowned,
And shipwreck’s sweet to me out in this sea.
In this poem about the view from Mount Tabor outside the poet’s hometown of Recanati, we find a contrast, established by “this” and “that,” between the finite and the infinite, which resolves in the poem’s concluding moment of contemplation. This final unity may recall, for readers of French literature, the definition that Charles Baudelaire, a slightly later (and Catholic) post-Romantic, gave of Beauty: the presence of “the infinite in the finite.”
However, Leopardi here is, I believe, responding to a sonnet by the great Michelangelo Buonarroti that is dedicated to Signor Tommaso Cavalieri. In Michelangelo’s sonnet, the poet has, by contemplating the beauty of Cavalieri’s “bel viso,” or “handsome face,” already “ascesa a Dio,” or “ascended to God”—and not just once, but “più volte,” or “many times.” Indeed, Michelangelo asserts that “every beauty seen here [on earth]” resembles God. To see the divine likeness in the temporal and earthly is, of course, the basis of Renaissance art. Thus, the love of beauty becomes a pathway to the divine: As Michelangelo writes to Cavalieri, “And he who loves you faithfully / transcends to God, and makes death sweet.” Love of one’s neighbor, and of the Beautiful, are ladder-rungs ascending toward the divine.
It is this conclusion—“e fa dolce la morte”—that Leopardi revises in “L’Infinito,” writing “E il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare,” or “and shipwreck’s sweet to me out in this sea.” The journey toward God has been replaced by the journey for the sake of the journey, even if doomed to fail.
Yet after long discouragement even the venture of the Romantic Liebestod vanishes from Leopardi’s verse. For instance, in the conclusion of a poem Valiunas cites—“A se stesso”—Leopardi writes: “Now hold cheap / yourself, nature, the brutal / Power that, hidden, reigns to everybody’s detriment, / and the infinite vanity of everything.” Leopardi’s conclusion here revises both his own earlier notion of the infinite and the first verse of Ecclesiastes.
Without the divine, “all is vanity.” It is vital for people of faith to remember this, not only because it fosters a healthy gratitude but also because it helps us to remember where so many of our neighbors live. It’s easy to feel self-righteous, or smug, easy to step into pride’s snare when encountering those whose beliefs differ from our own. It is more difficult, and infinitely more valuable, to humble oneself and to remember that countless of our neighbors really suffer from desperation, from feeling all is vain. Perhaps we ourselves do.
It is, I think, extraordinarily rare to be a real atheist. God knocks at every door, and most soi-disant atheists sneak God in through the back-bedroom window or the cellar door, disguised as Nature, or Fate, or History, or Selfhood. Nonetheless, those who live without faith in God, who live in what Thomas Hardy called “unhope,” will not be converted by the self-serving pity of believers. Far better to listen to them, and to listen to their prophets: poets like Hardy, Philip Larkin, and the contemporary Matthew Buckley Smith, whose forthcoming book, Midlife, will be a revelation to any reader, regardless of belief. And, yes, listen to Leopardi, too, because his quasi-Sophoclean vision of the world is the vision held by an untold number of your neighbors, all of whom were made, as you are, in the image of the infinite God. Love them. Read him.
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What good fortune for a writer, whether great poet or mere critic, to have a reader as discerning and as humane as Ryan Wilson. I am grateful for his thoughtful attention, though I wonder whether Leopardi would have been grateful, too. He was not a grateful sort.
When Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin’s longtime best friend, was asked whether he was an atheist, he said, “Well, yes, of course, but it’s more that I hate Him.” Unbelief rarely stems from disinterested clarity: Hate tends to have a lot to do with it, and most haters of God have a particular grievance that clouds their thinking. Benedetto Croce summed up Leopardi’s grievance: I am a hunchback because there is no God; there is no God because I am a hunchback.
Leopardi was among the most gifted of the God-haters. His writings possess the seductive power to win souls for the forces of nihilism. One of his final poems, of which only a few lines and a prose sketch were finished, was a prayer to Ahriman, the Zoroastrian evil demiurge, creator and ruler of the malignant universe: “I have been, while I lived, your greatest preacher etc. the apostle of your religion. Give me recompense. I ask you for none of what the world calls goods: I ask you for what is considered the worst of evils, death.” One ought not underestimate the psychic destruction that genius such as Leopardi’s can inflict. It is possible to admire his writings, even to love them, although one recognizes that he is the Enemy in the most attractive form. To take him seriously, to try to understand him as he understood himself, means putting your own being at risk. The pity one feels for such a man is hardly self-serving; it is of a piece with the fear that tragedy inspires.
Thomas Gallagher makes a good and important point in his generous review of my book Beef, Bible and Bullets: Brazil in the Age of Bolsonaro (“Bolsonaro’s Brazil,” April). In the book, I focus a good deal on the way President Jair Bolsonaro’s reactionary views on sex and the family have struck a chord in socially conservative, provincial, and rural Brazil. But it is equally true—as Gallagher suggests—that an American-influenced, left-wing version of identity politics dominated by preoccupations with race and gender is also beginning to surface in the universities and on the Brazilian left. What Gallagher describes as the “aggressive obscurantism of woke thought” may even influence the outcome of this year’s election campaign, which is likely to offer a choice between the avowedly right-wing Bolsonaro and a left-wing predecessor, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. Polling shows that many Brazilians would prefer a middle-of-the-road alternative, but none of the center-field aspirants look likely to reach the second round. Over the past year, Lula has enjoyed consistently high leads in opinion polls, with surveys suggesting he should comfortably defeat Bolsonaro in October’s election. But after two years of declining living standards, Lula’s lead in part reflects that bread-and-butter economic issues are at the forefront of voters’ minds. As the economy recovers, it is possible that the cultural concerns that influenced the outcome of the 2018 election and brought Bolsonaro to office may reemerge. On the economy, Lula has sensibly steered to the center, but in recent campaign speeches he has been far less careful about cultural questions. Lula’s campaign managers would do well to remember that woke notions about gender are anathema to many poorer citizens. That is especially true of those who have joined the ranks of the evangelical churches. And with evangelicals now accounting for about a third of the electorate, Lula may well need their votes if he is to win.
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