Friday, March 16, 2012

'The Devil & Pierre Gernet' by David Bentley Hart - Review

I believe C.S. Lewis once defended his turn to fiction by noting that fiction is a much more compelling and subversive means by which to affect and influence an audience's thinking, as opposed to overt theological reflection. David Bentley Hart seems to be taking a similar tack.

As an avid fan of Hart's non-fiction work, I was extremely curious how his foray into fiction would turn out. Based on some of his imaginative and creative essays at First Things, along with the ingenuity as a wordsmith that is on display in his theological writing and other works, I was expecting great things and wasn't disappointed.

The titular novella is the piece in this volume that is the most quintessentially Hartian, I would say. Employing heavy chunks of dialogue -- as he does through much of this collection, but especially here -- Hart cleverly places concepts, intentions and values in the mouth of his devil which he finds to be in some manner distasteful or false, but which can nonetheless be defended eloquently and rationally. Hart's prose is often opulent, but it was particularly florid and decadent in this piece, serving to accentuate the fantastic conceit of having a devil as long-time friend, as well as all the trappings of high culture. Along with Hart's devil, the character of Pierre Gernet is also highly memorable because of the vivid portrayal of his pure soul, his poetry, his tragic end and the supernatural significance of the events surrounding it.

The House of Apollo is another fascinating tale that features Julian the Apostate as a central character. The piece depicts Julian's impotent attempts to restore the pagan gods of antiquity to their former glory, after "the Galileans" and their God had already driven them out and displaced them. True to form, Hart (as a classicist) doesn't go for any derisive, cheap apologetic shots but candidly (and fantastically) portrays a world in which the old gods were in their twilight.

In A Voice from The Emerald World Hart is at his most human and profound, exploring the dynamics of a family coping with grief. The emotional center of the piece is a touching, haunting relationship between a father and his son who has behavioral and social abnormalities. Together they regularly retreat to their fabulous bamboo garden which is their Emerald World. As a father of a child who has behaviors which are on the "autism spectrum", this story resonated in a very intimate way. At first, the occurrence of a seemingly abstract, egg-headed theological argument seems out of place in the narrative (though it's quite entertaining), but by the time the story reaches its conclusion, the theological implications of the earlier argument are decidedly immediate and real and not at all abstract.

Like Inception -- the 2010 film by Christopher Nolan -- the central conceptual conceit of Hart's next story The Ivory Gate (which he wrote in 1985) is a multi-tiered oneiric (one of dozens of words I learned while reading this volume) dreamscape, which the main character describes from memory. Unlike Nolan's film, Hart's conceit isn't primarily employed as an action set piece, but as a multi-layered emotional and experiential world which depicts the way in which our dreams aren't necessarily solely pale reflections of our waking life, but that the influence can run in the other direction as well. The way in which our dreams can coax us out of, or into, new understandings and depths, and the way that, since our reality is fundamentally anthropogenic, dreams are, in a sense, just as 'real' as anything else. None of those observations sound particularly original, at least as rendered by me, but the particulars of the story are what make it enjoyable and intriguing.

Finally, The Other is a short and oblique look at intense longing.

There is always a temptation to seek out some common thread or theme in a short story collection, and Hart reveals in an introductory apologia what it is for us: "I had originally intended to make the subtitle of this volume Elaborately Artificial Stories, since I have chosen five stories which are willfully extravagant in form and content, rather than any of the drier, more 'realistic' stories I have also written." There you have it. Though I would add that one other common thread is, of course, the voice of the author. Sometimes breaking through in quite overt ways, usually from the voice of characters, many ideas and subjects of Hart's other works make appearances. One character proclaims a familiar disdain for (or perhaps pity of) materialists; there is at least one mention of the basilica and its effects, which featured prominently in a recent essay on religion in America by Hart; he has previously written an essay on Julian the Apostate; the denunciation of the pitiless, calloused theology of certain forms of Christianity, which he has renounced elsewhere etc. Within the context of these stories, though, all of his ideas seem fresh and are given a new texture, depth and life, which lends credence to his claim that God is no more likely (and, indeed, perhaps less likely) to be encountered in theology than in poetry and fiction.

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