Martyn Wendell Jones – Essay on Two New David Bentley Hart Books

October 27, 2017 — Leave a comment

 

Or So I Like to Think:
The Great Talk of
David Bentley Hart

 
 

The Hidden and the Manifest:
Essays in Theology and Metaphysics

Paperback: Eerdmans, 2017
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]

 
 

The Dream-Child’s Progress And Other Essays

Paperback: Angelico Press, 2017
Buy Now: [ Amazon  ]  [ Kindle ]

 

Essay by Martyn Wendell Jones

 

*** This essay first appeared in our Fall 2017 magazine issue.
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There are few things as pleasing to me as the great garrulous tradition in American literature. Our country’s abundance of grandly verbose storytellers represents the best of our cultural inheritance. Think of Melville, the wild and abyssal “thought-diver,” author of one of the world’s greatest stories of maritime and metaphysical adventure; think too of Whitman, irrepressible and expansive and democratic, who shed tears at the death of Lincoln—“O Captain!”; then there is Twain, whose creation Huckleberry sees his raft go “all to smash and scatteration,” which the critic Michael Schmidt identifies as evidence of a thrill for great speech.

Since our nation’s founding, we have been a polemical people; Gilbert Seldes’s The Stammering Century, American to its core, is a record of people of the 19th century, some of real eminence, giving themselves over to various utopianisms and cultic enthusiasms—the snake oil pitches and True Enlightenment hustles mixing with earnest seeking after the God-of-backwoods-revival. Our nation’s complete spiritual history and profile would show us to be strivers after the ineffable by way of quite a lot of declaiming.

Numbered among our country’s current generation of great talkers would certainly be the Eastern Orthodox philosopher-theologian David Bentley Hart, whose two recent essay collections attest to his capacity for a great speechifying all his own.

Hart is known for a number of books, among them The Beauty of the Infinite, a lengthy work of theological reflection and argument that seeks to found a uniquely Christian “evangel of peace” that has reckoned with the 20th century’s critique of language and thought as species of a founding violence; The Doors of the Sea, an essay in theodicy in response to the catastrophic tsunami that killed a quarter million people in 2004; Atheist Delusions, a devastating polemic against Christianity’s “cultured despisers;” and The Experience of God, a long treatise articulating the contours of classical theology’s conception of the almighty along the axes of being, consciousness, and bliss. To these and others we may now add two new collections: one of short pieces and one of longer and more substantial theological essays.

The Dream-Child’s Progress and Other Essays gathers iterations of a column Hart wrote for First Things, along with a handful of pieces for Commonweal. Here he gives himself over to every passing fancy, hunch, and hobby, as well as a number of abiding cultural and literary interests.

The title essay is a standout encomium dedicated to one of Hart’s principal literary loves, Lewis Carroll. “Taken together, Alice and its even better sequel of 1871, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, constitute for me something like the single recurrent motif subtending the entire arc of my life and drawing my whole existence into a meaningful unity,” Hart says. Later, he helpfully elaborates, in case we failed to catch his gist earlier, “When I dare to peer into my own inner depths, and venture down into the spiritual abyss upholding my flimsily buoyant little psychological self, I find a far greater self-sustaining me: there stands another—there stands Alice—mon âme, moi-même—interior animo meo. Or so I like to think” (16-17).

“Or so I like to think.” This note of self-aware hyperbole points to an essential part of the Hart persona; his writing voice is that of someone confident in his genius to a point of wanton, gleeful provocation. He knows his reader cannot meaningfully oppose him in even his wildest declarations. No one can, when he is writing in the Imperial mode.

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