The negative is the criterion of the positive

NOTE: I’m going to be frustrating imprecise here as to what it is I’m referring to. Apologies. I’ll try to do better in my next.

That is apparently a Keirkergaard reference. I was talking with my father the other day about religious pop psychology books, how he had intended to write on some of them, but never did, on account of dislike. The book in question does, as it happens, have a good deal wrong with it, and someone who can offer hearty and clever roasts — imagine David Hart, or Harold Bloom, for instance — would no doubt dismiss it with some telling line that would be true, but just a touch mean and snobbish all the same. Well, one has to be a bit of a snob to get away with that, and my family isn’t. But then we’re left with the uneasy realization that people I take seriously are taking this book seriously, and I have no idea why. Or, in another phrase attributed to Faulkner, it doesn’t always work to suppose that this other person means by what he believes what I would mean if I were crazy enough to believe it. Or something like that — I think it was a clearer formulation when I heard it before. It might have had the opposite take on things, though. Please correct me if you know.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking along those lines a bit of late, and while there are many aspects of those books I might criticize — flattery stands out — there’s one that stands out in particular. You’re a writer of a book that’s trying to be inspiring and sensible, and you run up against a paradox or at least a complexity not of your own making — it’s there in life as we live it daily. What are you going to do about it? If you’re a philosopher you investigate the peculiarity until you run up against the ineffable, unknowable: we don’t have direct experience of things in themselves! *smack!* If you’re a psychologist perhaps you fiddle with the complexity: what are the different things interacting here to cause this complexity? Is it a combination of those things? An emergent phenomenon? What causes it? How do I evaluate the norm for this area of experience? What’s the underlying structure here? What is debilitating vs. merely peculiar? If you’re a poet you think and feel about, then attempt to “eff the ineffable.” If you’re a jolly journalist you exclaim delightedly about your new paradox and how excellently it describes life as you find it. If you’re a novelist you describe what it’s like to live as a person experiencing this paradox.

If, on the other hand, you’re a pop religious writer, you nod in its direction and then ignore it. Or at least that’s what it feels like to this reader. You come up against this paradox: “insomuch as I am man I am in the image of the indescribably glorious God, who loves me and offers union with divinity — with horns and purple and all glory and honor; insomuch as I am this man, I don’t even deserve six feet of earth, and may go about in mourning for the depth of my wickedness” (to paraphrase G K Chesterton). Or, to paraphrase C S Lewis when Caspian remarks upon his people’s inglorious heritage: “you are descended from the lord Adam and the lady Eve, which is both honor enough to lift the eyes of the lowest beggar, and shame enough to bow the head of the greatest king. Be content.” So there’s a paradox, or a mystery, or at least a complexity there, and recognizing it may be the start of humility and gratitude… and cause for wonder.

Well, perhaps the greatest flaw of the book my father wanted to review is that it fails to hold onto the mystery there. It fails to hold it lightly, as a poet would; or fearfully, as a mystic would; or sympathetically, as a novelist would, or doubtfully, as a philosopher would.


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