Thursday, August 30, 2007

Let love motivate every action

An und für sich “This is more a comment than a question…” August 29th, 2007
William Gaddis is, I think, America’s greatest 20th-century novelist. Others come close, but none so close (or consistently close enough) to challenge him in that regard. This needn’t be a forum to debate this. I know many of you would disagree, and likely be able to make a very good case for somebody else. Let’s agree, however, that Gaddis’ insight into contemporary culture was incisive, exhaustive, and still relevant: whether it be his cynical (though hopeful) reflection on authenticity in The Recognitions, finance in JR, or law in A Frolic of His Own.
It is with this in mind that I preface some thoughts emailed to me from a regular reader of this blog, amongst others, about the theological contribution of Gaddis. I am convinced that theological discourse extends beyond the creeds and the sacraments, and even the sacred histories of the world’s faiths, and am always pleased to see literature/art thought not simply as theological accoutrement, as an anecdote or an aside, but as the the thing itself. Take it away, Gabe:
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I recently let a friend borrow my copy of William Gaddis‘ The Recognitions. Any one who happened to be spectating would have found the exchange strikingly similar to the scene in “Ghost” when Whoopi Goldberg goes to hand a check worth millions of dollars to a group of nuns taking donations on a busy New York street while the ghost of Sam Wheat (played by the sexy Patrick Swayze) stands by as an officiator. She grimaces in pain and cannot quite let go while the nun attempts to take the check from her.
I was hesitant to the lend the book out because since finishing the novel I continue to read it on a weekly — sometimes daily — basis. I found within its pages, particularly its latter pages, ideas and concepts that I continue to see as occupying unique and radical theological positions. The theological concepts of redemption and atonement are re-created and their re-creation is enabled via the devices of allusion and citation. (This is non-coincidental given Gaddis’ obsessional preoccupation with counterfeiting, forgery, originality, what becomes of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, the player piano, and what it means that others thought your thoughts before you.) Gaddis’ reader is ineluctably thrown into a loop where the motion of narrative to source and source to narrative is eternally circular. This phenomenon opens up — because it is the basis — of the singular creative truth: a truly creative act only occurs while imitating one’s masters: it is through the act of imitation and repetition that the world is created anew, and the Romantic notion / evaluation of newness and originality is descried in its truth as a nefarious pollutant to the project of material redemption in the here and now.
Gaddis loosely based his mammoth novel on several sources, most notably the Faust legend (Marlowe and Goethe), the Clementine Recognitions (the “first Christian novel”), and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (which convinced the young Gaddis that Christianity was a counterfeit of pagan religions). The letters of Saint Paul and the works of Saint Augustine are also prominent, not to mention the most important. For, in their repetition in the voice of the great founder of Humanist Redemptionism, Wyatt Gwyon, the “fatal quest for truth outside the sanctioned avenues of, at first, Christian theology, and, in later renderings, Enlightenment thought” has been achieved.
Anyone who has read Agamben’s The Time That Remains is familiar with the debate over the meaning of Paul’s exhortation to “redeem time,” and the ensuing conversation apropos the nature of Messianic time. But, how does one do such a thing, assuming as Paul does that it can be done? This Paulism is verbalized a number of times in The Recognitions and is agonized over by the counterfeiting artist, Wyatt, until he is seen for the last time on a hill side in Spain. He is interrogated by the journalist Ludy, and in the greatest scene in all of literature (based on George Borrow’s missionary encounter with a madman in a Spanish cemetery: “the most vivid interview of desolation”) Wyatt — now going by Stephen — catches a bird in its upflight and holding it with an outstretched arm above his head as it flaps its wings and struggles for release, he re-petitions his interviewer: time is redeemed when man is atoned. Man is atoned through his acts of deliberate living, i.e. by living through the sin. Deliberate living is confronting the “essential fact of life” (Thoreau). The essential fact of life is that there are suffering people; and they are suffering because it is the offspring of sin, and suffering is sin abandoned and deserted by the sinner. Living deliberately, or going back to “live it through,” living through the created sin is the means by which man is redeemed. Now, not every man is a sinner, but every man must be redeemed. Even Christ, himself, didn’t know what sin was, thus not knowing what it meant to be tempted, and thus not being “fully man.” (Christ cannot know temptation because he never lived it through.) However, Christ is the ultimate redemptive figure speaking its unadulterated truth of necessity: in having no sins of his own to atone for he deliberately lived through, “took upon himself,” the sins of others and lived them through, though in a nuanced way. Redemption/Atonement/Salvation: One either lives through his sin or takes upon himself the sin of another who has run away from their creation of sin. The sin, in being “bought back,” the fullness of the monetary transaction / exchange image implied, returns to an owner and dissipates only along, in dance step, with its owner’s redemptive praxis. Wyatt / Stephen conditions this redemption when he repeats a meditation of that “ex-Manichee bishop of Hippo” quoting Augustine’s commentary On the First Letter of John: Dilige et quod vis fac. Love, and do what you will. Love, and do what you want to do.
Here one might be tempted to think that Gaddis is not making any remarkable theological point, but I would argue otherwise. He has just announced in a narrative-source weave the need to return to a radical understanding of love; the exigency of a radical re-defining of modern theological and philosophical notions of the concept; and that this radical return is an occurrence of redemption itself, a restoration of the original Pauline intention of working out one’s redemption in imitation of the master, Christ, himself the ultimate redeemer figure. Christ is unique and the ultimate figure of redemption because he has no sinful creations of his own. He both lives in Eden and Eden lives in him. He is completely free of any obligation to an other. This is where and how the dilige et quod vis fac conditions humanity’s redemption and why Christ exits an earthly subjectivity of perfection that is rightfully his (i.e. that he is both God and man).
Let love motivate every action. Love is the motivation of redemptive praxis. He who loves atones for his sins. The praxis of atonement is a natural result of love, and he who loves understands the magnitude of sin; meaning, that he who loves knows that atonement is an earthly activity that must not end. S/he who does not live through their own sins or live through the sins of an other does not love. S/he who lives through their own sins or lives through the sins of an other, redeeming those sins and redeeming the other in essence connected to them, and in recognition of accomplished redemption does not continue searching for other sins to atone for, whether he is an extremely sinful man and again lives through his own, or whether he is a good man and takes on the sins of an other to live through, does not love and does not understand love, nor the magnitude of sin and its offspring, the suffering creation. Posted by Brad Johnson Filed in Gaddis, Christian theology, literature

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