The Prospero of Theologians

Review: David Bentley Hart, 'The Dream-Child's Progress and Other Essays'

David Bentley Hart
March 24, 2017

This is the most varied and enchanting collection of essays that has appeared in my lifetime. I say "enchanting" deliberately because every one of these pages left me with the impression that enchantment, in the sense of having been sung to or charmed, is the effect David Bentley Hart has sought. These 50-odd pieces leave the reader not merely delighted but under a kind of spell.

Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian, but—the occasional reference to his profession notwithstanding—a reader opening the book at random might be forgiven for thinking him an especially devout practitioner of Shinto or even one of our last remaining pagans. His interests, not narrowly doctrinal or even theological, run to ghosts, magic, baseball, the state of Maryland, John Updike's prose ("though, strangely enough, not," he tells us, "the actual novels in which it is found"), medieval Japanese literature, Origen, Bhutan ("the greatest nation on earth"), Pope Francis, Lewis Carroll, Max Beerbohm, linguistic prescriptivism, Satan, Orlando Furioso, and the wickedness of golf.

The range and scope of these pieces, all of which first appeared in First Things or Commonweal, vary widely. Some are long essay-reviews treating a single author. Others are slight, personal essays, and there is one obituary, for Patrick Leigh Fermor, whom, he confesses, he "hoped might just turn out to be immortal." A few, including two very amusing items on the Westboro Baptist Church (in the first he advocates the revival of dueling), are more or less topical. Long before the last election he wrote what must, I think, be our finest pen portrait of Donald Trump:

[Y]ou know the fellow: developer, speculator, television personality, hotelier, political dilettante, conspiracy theorist, and grand croupier—the one with that canopy of hennaed hair jutting out over his small, squinting eyes like a shelf of limestone. … How obvious it seems to me now, how pure and lucid. Here, clearly, is an ideal model of the diabolical: cold, grasping, bleak, graceless, and dull; unctuous, sleek, pitiless, and crass; a pallid vulgarian with poutish effeminate lips, bulging jowls, and a grotesque coiffeur, floating through life on clouds of acrid cologne and trailed by a vanguard of fawning divorce lawyers. That, I suspect, is the dreary truth of the matter: the devil is probably eerily similar to Donald Trump—though perhaps just a little nicer.

Like Leigh Fermor, Hart is not the sort of writer to whom short extracts can hope to do justice. He is a kind of prose magician who conjures by beginning with something prosaic—a personal anecdote, say, or a bad joke. He teases us with outrageous proscriptions and encourages us with hints of supernatural awe. He describes the natural world with an appreciative eye and a distinctly classical sensibility: ditches "gleam like silver"; humble amphibians sing in "frog choruses"; honey is taken "from the heavy combs of golden bees." He thrills to the sights and sounds of "coyotes at night, the sweet terse trill of the Baltimore Oriole, the belling of Eastern tree frogs, that uncanny noise the black bear who lives in the culvert behind my house makes. And the greatest of our cities: New Orleans, Charleston, and Manhattan. The sight of the Chrysler Building bathed in crepuscular scarlet. And all the Civil War battlefields." Leaving a beloved home fills him with "something that haunts us and of which my sadness is only a fragmentary reminder—the feeling of having lost paradise." An unfinished Bruckner symphony reminds him that "all the scattered and incomplete truths time contains will be gathered up into a final truth, and everything lost that is worth finding and everything broken that is worth mending will be restored, and all of it will finally be brought to a consummation that fulfills—but also immeasurably surpasses—the work we have always only begun."

Hart is not always so rapturously lyrical. He has a prodigious talent for invective, and when he is writing about something or someone he dislikes, he can be very agreeably nasty. Amateur golf, he says, is "as unobjectionable as any other pointless diversion (tossing bottle-caps, shooting icicles with your .22 rifle, casting a vote in a presidential election)," but played by professionals, it is "by virtue of its complete lack of any of the good things proper to true sport … the perfect embodiment of evil in matters athletic." No other writer would think to describe a theological interlocutor as:

[O]ne of those manualist neo-palaeo-neo-Thomists of the Baroque persuasion you run across ever more frequently these days, gathered in the murkier corners of coffee bars around candles in wine-bottles, clad in black turtlenecks and berets, sipping espresso, smoking Gauloises, swaying to be-bop, composing dithyrambic encomia to that absolutely gone, totally wild, starrybright and vision-wracked, mad angelic daddy-cat Garrigou-Lagrange.

One essay here stands in my mind above all the others. In "Therapeutic Superstition" Hart remembers Reuben, a man he knew many years ago when he was studying Buddhism at the University of Lancaster, "who claimed to be visited by angels, to receive visions and auditions from God, to see and converse with the spirits of nature." After leaving England, Hart fell out of touch with Reuben, but a mutual friend who maintained contact reported that years later this kind and genial man, a devout Anglican Christian devoted to the study of William Blake and to his not particularly demanding job at the university library, was convinced by a busybody physician to begin taking anti-psychotic drugs—"the late modern equivalent of exorcism," as Hart puts it. Reuben's visions disappeared and he fell into a kind of exhausted sadness, later dying of pneumonia. At the funeral Hart's friend met Reuben's psychiatrist, who reported his satisfaction "in knowing that he had enjoyed a short period of stability and general sanity" before his death. "Sometimes," Harts writes, "it is difficult to exaggerate how strange, barbaric, and superstitious an age ours really is."

There was a time not long ago when my admiration of Hart was a cause of shame. His work meant a great deal to me when I was younger, especially The Doors of the Sea, his book-length essay on the problem of evil in light of the loss of more than a quarter of a million lives in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. After abandoning them I blamed him for encouraging me in fideism and universalism.

Those feelings have passed. Reading through this collection reminds me that I used to revere Hart for a simple reason, namely, that he is our greatest living essayist.

Published under: Book reviews