Sunday, August 2, 2009

Clay: Appendix 4: A Letter to H.

[In August of 1996, I moved from Madison to Taipei. During my first year in Taiwan, I corresponded mainly with H., a friend of mine from graduate school.]


Dear H.:

All that simply means that something is there, something which Barnabas has the chance of using, something or other at the very least; and that it is Barnabas' own fault if he can't get any farther than doubt and anxiety and despair. --Kafka's The Castle, K. to Olga

Our ways of thinking are fundamentally different. In this letter, in a summary fashion, I will take this up. You must know these differences yourself. I think it's curious we haven't fallen out by now, that we've managed to continue communicating. Of course I will take up only my side of the bargain, because your side I can only get at secondhand.

* * *

For one thing, I am a Christian. This is something you must have already recognized, though at what level you recognized it I'm not sure. But in fact I've been a Christian since before we met.

I ought to make clear at least something about how I believe, since the fact of this belief is something you--I know this much--find hard to accept.

First of all, you should know that I am not a Christian merely out of some kind of "conservative" cultural solidarity. These kind of non-believing Christians exist by the churchful, but I'm not one of them. They have been taken in by the Enlightenment; I have not. I actually do believe in God and the soul and revelation.

I'm not of the fundamentalist mindset either. My understanding of things is quite different from the fundamentalists. The revelation, as given in Scripture and elsewhere, is not a kind of literal transcription of the truths of the divine, but is rather oblique: it points to an Otherness that can't be represented in language in any case. This is not to say, however, that I think there is nothing true about the specificity of the Scriptures. The opposite is the case. I am not a believer in cultural relativism when it comes to such things. Rather, there is a specificity in revelation. The texts of Buddhism, for example, are not part of it, or are only so in a very weak manner. The poems of the Mayans, whatever they may have been, were not part of it, or only in some weak and tentative manner. The revelation given in the Bible is not that of a particular culture, but is rather the revelation as given to man as such. This is to say it concerns the destiny of man as such, the meaning of man as such.

These few remarks begin to define what I believe, what I mean by saying I am a Christian.

* * *

You and I know each other because of our mutual concern with literature. But of course here again our thinking is fundamentally different. I have some idea of your thinking of literature from being in classes with you and from reading your dissertation proposal. My own understanding of literature has little in common with yours. I may get at my understanding of literature by beginning with what I could call the literary absolute.

For me, the texts of the Bible are literature's highest meaning. Literature's ultimate meaning is to be the textual medium of revelation. It is a matter of text, and revelation. Literature is that which results from the meeting of these two. Even the manner in which many of the most important Biblical texts came to be written--as a choosing, an editing, a kind of layering one could indicate by the metaphor of a heavily beleaguered palimpsest--even this for me makes the texts of revelation more compelling as the examples of literature. They define from then on what the word literature is to mean.

Literature for me is a question of canons even more than it is a question of rhetorical tropes. The Biblical texts are the Primary Canon and the great texts of Western literature are what I would call the Secondary Canon. They are a secondary canon because they are written after the fact of and under the dispensation of revelation. Following this understanding, the literature of classical antiquity must then constitute a Third Canon, being neither the Primary Canon nor the literature of the culture of the revelation, but being important to the formation (mainly the generic formation) of that latter literature. These remarks indicate how literature is arranged according to my understanding. If I continue reading and studying literature, it is partly in the hopes of an ever-greater understanding of the relationships holding between the major canons. This isn't to say, however, that literature is a scholar's game. If I read Villon or Dostoyevsky with particular delight, it's because these canonical writers articulate parts of a world whose general structure and meaning is founded in the revelation given in the Bible. And this is to say, for one who believes, that they articulate parts of the world as such. Thus it is that those who are not interested in the real world are not much interested in literature.

This is not an apology for the West. Of course I'm writing of the world as such in a manner that would make cultural anthropologists and the politically correct cringe. That doesn't concern me. There is in fact much offered by the West (such as the cultural anthropologists themselves) that doesn't concern the world as such. I mention current academic intellectual culture, but could choose the West's "literary" culture as well. I could take up the American Thomas Pynchon as an example.

As for the world represented in a Western writer like Pynchon, it is amusing, to be sure. It is full of interesting gags and twists, colorful and subtly modulated; the reader enjoys moving about in this world as one enjoys being taken into a film. I've once or twice suggested you read Pynchon because there's something unique in his work, something entrancing. He is, or at least for a time was, a major American writer. Ultimately, however, I don't find Pynchon's writing to be serious literature. It is not Literature. His is a flimsy world that does not recognize the bases of its being. It is one that is becoming quickly a world of mere surfaces, a dumb show of empirical data--nothingness. This is why many who seriously take up Pynchon as a subject of study will read his books five or six times, read much of the criticism, then suddenly feel a total lack of interest fall upon them. Diversion is not the stuff of life: it is rather something to keep one from taking up the stuff of life. The need for reality eventually makes one tire of such writing. But the readers around us, what do they do when they tire of a writer like Pynchon? Since so many of them are only willing to read contemporary writers, they put down Pynchon only to pick up another contemporary with similar strengths. Such writing as Pynchon's--and the West offers much of it now--shows a soul impoverished, a soul that has been seduced into believing that the dumb shows of science and technology are all there is. Intuition shut down, the soul's hearing shut down, language's revelatory power curtailed, the data of the senses organized by a logical machinery much smaller than language itself. Of course the literature arising from this general situation is comic. It is merely comic. This is to say that it is not even humorous in the stronger manner in which much of the great European literature is humorous. Don Quixote, the story of Jacob and Laban, Prince Myshkin. This latter strong humor, the possibility of this humor in man, is one of the mainstays of my understanding of man's place in the world. The critics that most interest me have all understood this humor to some degree: Bakhtin, for instance, or Benjamin.

* * *

I am a Catholic in most things, but am not certain if I am a Catholic, or rather if I can be accepted as a Catholic. At least many Catholics would probably not recognize me as such. There are things about which I believe the Catholic Church is wrong.

The Catholic Church is most crucially right in its understanding of the Mass. The Mass is the ritual that defines the destiny of man: it is the central sacrament. The Mass is the gathering around which men might eventually gather. Perhaps they will eventually gather around it. This is something the Catholic Church knows better than the other branches of the Church.

* * *

I know you must disagree with these things, and of course I can live with such disagreement.

* * *

We are both concerned with the question of how language reveals presence, but the register of the presence that language most essentially reveals--that is one basis of our difference.

* * *

That you are a secularized Jew makes you even further from me than if you were a believer in Judaism. For regardless of the gripes Jews may have with Christians, I don't have as much gripe with Jews as I do with the secular. The fact that you are a secularized Jew means to me that I have no reason to consider you other than, say, the secularized Christians all over America. This is to say, in part, that I don't know in what you consider your Jewishness resides. I know this is an infinitely discussed question, one that receives much of its immediate importance from the nightmares of the twentieth century.

The Jews as a religion are very close to the truth I follow, and their understanding of the truth of revelation is of great concern to me, much more, say, than the Zen Buddhist understanding of truth. I would never step on a Menorah, though I would certainly step on Diderot's Encyclopedia, or even Voltaire's hand. So you should know where I stand.

* * *

That you and I have managed to communicate. Perhaps it will continue. It is like Origen maintaining a correspondence with Lucretius.

* * *


I had read most of Kafka before, but it was only recently that I read The Castle.

Some readers find in Kafka an apparent restatement of the universe projected by the Kabbalists. Benjamin is the great exponent of this reading. Benjamin's Kafka wrote allegories of a kind of Kabbalist faith or hope. Other critics disagree by leaning on the fact that Kafka was not a "religious writer," that he was an atheist, that he was not a scholar of Kabbalism, etc. I am one of those who think that Kafka needn't have been a "religious writer" or a Kabbalist to write the kind of allegories he wrote. These allegories are Kabbalist allegories, if you will. Kafka was a Prague Jew, after all.

The dichotomy set up between a "religious writer" and a "secular writer": what does it amount to unless we are considering precisely weak writers or journalists or, again, cultural anthropologists?

The Castle seems to me, after this first reading, a kind of allegorical romance. K.'s quest is nearly fruitless--that is apparently the case--and yet K.'s life in the shadow of the Castle seems more a life than that, say, of Kafka's father in the shadow of a cash register.

Kafka's K. shows a certain daring in his quest. He is not struck with the same kind of unreasonable awe that strikes the people of the village. Threatening or not, he would be there where the Castle's power is manifested. He would know its workings and sees such knowledge as the only thing worth struggling for. Any other activity--cobbling, tanning, running an inn--is a species of biding time that concerns him not.

Does Kafka, despite his atheism, make it into what I have called the Secondary Canon? Evidently so.

Was Chretien de Troyes a "religious writer"?


No comments: