Talk by Nathan A. Scott, Jr. followed by an Interview with him
Christianity and Literature, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Winter 1994), 203-12.
A Ramble on a Road Taken
Nathan A. Scott, Jr.
[The following presents the full text of Nathan A. Scott, Jr.'s remarks at a session sponsored by the Conference on Christianity and Literature for the Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association on 29 December 1993. It is printed here for the benefit of those who may have been unable to attend the meeting.—Editor]
Back in January of this year I was filled with surprise and astonishment by a letter from Professor Jewel Spears Brooker informing me that the Conference on Christianity and Literature wanted to bestow on me here in Toronto its Lifetime Achievement Award and asking me to address the Conference at this time. And I speak of the astonishment which her letter induced in me because, apart from a passel of honorary degrees, my life has been quite uncomplicated by laurels and awards. Many years ago J. Hillis Miller in a paper titled "Literature and Religion" laid it down that we may properly speak of "an authentic religious dimension in literature" only if some supernatural reality is present in a given poem or narrative: God, in other words, must be amongst the dramatis personae of literary fictions, if they are to be considered as bearing any religious import. And since something at least approximating this view of things tends often to be taken for granted in the literary community, much of my work has frequently been marginalized or greeted with silence, since my own chief interest has focused on those religious passions that are to be found to be a shaping force in the subterranean depths of the important secular literature of the modern period.
Nor have I found any large acceptation within the theological community. In the 1950s a colleague of mine in the Divinity faculty of the University of Chicago once remarked in jest (but not wholly in jest) that my field of work formed the salad and dessert of the curriculum, whereas the meat and potatoes were formed by such disciplines as theology and biblical studies and church history. Which, though said in a spirit of mischievous good humor, no doubt tellingly registered how much the conventional mentality in theological circles tends to regard those movements of the spirit that are astir and manifest in literature and the arts as belonging merely to the realm of the oneiric and the fanciful.
Moreover, virtually no phase of American cultural enterprise is uninvaded by the racial animus that still ruinously indwells our national life, and I have not escaped its lash. I remember, for example, one Sunday in the early 70s when, as I made my way through The New York Times Book Review, I found a Jewish commentator on a new book of mine inviting the reader to consider how utterly bizarre it was for this Negro to be preoccupied with such figures as Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot and Martin Heidegger: how side-splittingly funny this is, he wanted to say. And, in the weeks that followed, as not a single letter of protest about such vileness appeared in the Times Book Review, I felt obliged to conclude that the estimate of me advanced by this malefactor must in some measure be shared by my colleagues within the university community. But, then, another side of this picture is an affair of my having been aware for many years that within my own ancestral community there are those who think of me as representing a sort of trahison. For, though on several occasions I have written at length on black writers, most especially in the long chapter on "Black Literature" I contributed to The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing (1979) edited by Daniel Hoffman, I have not specialized in what is spoken of as "the Black Experience," and thus some of my black confreres are eager to declare that, by dint of my having spent a good part of my career writing on "dead white European males," I am, so far as they are concerned, beyond the pale.
So it seems to have been my fate to dwell in a sort of border country, without school or party and certainly without disciples. Which is why it is that the people making up this Conference, in wanting to offer me an award that has previously been offered only to my friends Cleanth Brooks and Richard Wilbur, prompt in me a sense of wonder. And, of course, to have one's work responded to with something other than a sneer is to be filled with a deeply felt gratitude.
Now, once I had begun to reflect on the course that my remarks might take on this occasion, it occurred to me that perhaps it would not be altogether inappropriate for me to take a line that is rarely taken in professional meetings. Today, of course, it is customary for all such platforms as this to be seized for the purpose of issuing some pronunciamento on the Kulturkampf that currently rages in the critical forum. And seldom if ever do we share with our colleagues any personal account of the interests that have shaped our work and the ends toward which we have fared forth. But it is testimony of this sort that I have chosen to offer. Unlike John Henry Newman, I do not aim at any form of apologia, for self-justification is no part of my intention. And sobriety does not allow me to think of myself in even the smallest way as some kind of exemplary figure. Rather, I take the tack I have settled on because literary studies entail a social activity, and one that needs occasionally to involve our venturing to talk to one another about how our work has come to have a given shape. Hence my title—"A Ramble on a Road Taken."
At the end of the summer of 1943 I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, where I had been most deeply influenced by certain members of the English faculty, and that autumn I entered Union Theological Seminary in New York as a candidate for the Bachelor of Divinity degree. I had already come to be greatly fascinated by the early books of Reinhold Niebuhr and was eager to be in his classroom and to win a fuller grasp of the main contours of his thought. So I went to New York City in September 1943, and over the next two years I was simply drunk with the excitements engendered by all that I was encountering in the lectures and seminars of Niebuhr and Paul Tillich and Richard Kroner and various others in the Union faculty of that period. Then in the course of time, remarking the resoluteness with which Niebuhr was undertaking to relate theological perspectives to the social-political dynamic of the time and Tillich was undertaking to relate theological perspectives to philosophical culture, I, at some undateable moment, began to feel that perhaps my own vocation might be that of reckoning with the literary culture of the modern scene and of attempting to disclose the manifold ways in which it, too, might be illumined by a theological perspective. It was such an ambition that shaped my doctoral studies at Columbia, and it has been to this kind of effort that my professional life has been devoted over the past forty years.
In the preface I prepared for a book of 1958 (Modern Literature and the Religious Frontier [Harper & Row]) I recorded "my conviction that ... the literary intelligence is by far the best intelligence of our time, better than the philosophic intelligence, better than the social-scientific, ... and better perhaps even, on the whole, than the theological." And in this and others of my early books (Rehearsals of Discomposure [King's Crown Press of Columbia University Press, 1952]; Albert Camus [Bowes & Bowes, 1962]; Samuel Beckett [Bowes & Bowes, 1965]; The Broken Center [Yale University Press, 1966]; Craters of the Spirit: Studies in the Modem Novel [Corpus Books, 1968]), as I dealt with a variety of modern writers—Dostoevsky, Hardy, Kafka, Lawrence, Eliot, Hemingway, Beckett, et al.—I was eager to suggest something like the assertion made by that famous aphorism in William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction." Or, if they have not been wiser, I wanted at least to urge, as I said in that 1958 preface, that they "seem to have traveled farther than most of ... us and seem to have thrust us more exactly upon the centers of our distress than any other class of [modern intelligentsia] .. . has succeeded in doing." And thus the conviction that most deeply animated my work was that Christian theology, as a result of its dialogue with the great literature of the modem period, will find itself more richly repaid (in terms of deepened awareness both of itself and of the age) than by any other similar transaction it may undertake.
By the end of the 1960s, however, I was turning increasingly from the classic canon of modern literature to those new insurgencies which were lining themselves up behind what specialists in Tendenz were beginning to speak of as "postmodernism." And in my book of 1969, Negative Capability: Studies in the New Literature and the Religious Situation (Yale University Press), I made my first attempt at reckoning with this range of things. I argued that the chief distinguishing feature of the great avatars of traditionalist modernism—of such figures as Yeats and Pound and Joyce and Mann and Brecht—had been their "rage for order," their search for myths and metaphysics whereby experience might be newly ordered in a period marked by the recession of older codes and beliefs. Whereas those who had followed "the middle generation" of Faulkner and Malraux and Silone and Moravia—such writers as the nouveau roman circle of Alain Robbe-Grillet in France, or such Americans as John Barth and Thomas Pynchon and John Hawkes— appeared, as I suggested, to have as their primary quality a Negative Capability, a willingness (as Keats defined it) to subsist "in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." And, with its wariness about the old profondeurs and its reticencies about committing itself to large affirmations, I was inclined to regard this whole tendency as marked by a kind of authenticity of response to the period that deserved, as I thought, if not endorsement at least a very lenient estimate. But a decade later the postmodernist project, in its preoccupation with its own problématique, was striking me as representing increasingly a retreat from the public world of our time, and thus I was coming to feel that the work of such writers as Pynchon and Barth and Robert Coover and Rudolph Wurlitzer required to be bargained with rather more closely than I had acknowledged at the end of the 60s.
My book of 1971, The Wild Prayer of Longing (Yale University Press), is a product of my reflections on the turbulent scene presented by the decade that had just recently come to an end. The period of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin and Tom Hayden and Stokely Cannichael had, of course, been marked by a great fascination with psychedelic ecstasy and millennarian communalism, with syncretistic mysticism and "antipolitics," and all this betokened, I felt, a nostalgic aspiration for something like what Mircea Eliade had taught us to speak of as "hierophany." To be sure, the people of our age do not ordinarily now take the world to be a figura of anything other than or transcendent to itself, and in the first chapter of The Wild Prayer of Longing l tried to offer some indication of how the developing history of modern literature reflects the gradual decline and disintegration of the figural perspective. But, once the world is "defiguralized," must it then become something stale and emptied of any kind of high significance? In a remarkable book of the 1950s, The Inward Morning, the American philosopher Henry Bugbee at a certain point was raising the question as to "whether we can [still] rejoice with things, or whether [they are] simply inane." And it was a similar question that had been raised by the strange passions that were epidemic in the 60s. Beneath all their flamboyance and antinomianism, the new gypsies and hoboes and hippies and "come-outers" were desperately seeking assurances, as one felt, that "the vulgate of experience" touches a holiness not "beyond reality" but in, as Wallace Stevens puts it, "The actual landscape with its actual horns / Of baker and butcher blowing." So in the second chapter of The Wild Prayer of Longing l tried to suggest, by recourse to certain ideas of Heidegger, how a sacramental vision of the world may indeed define itself without resort to supernaturalist figuralism. And in the concluding chapter I offered the poetry of Theodore Roethke as a major example in recent literature of sacramentalism unencumbered by figuralist illusion.
But, then, for all of what I had found appealing in the religious passions of the period, the "mystical militancy," as Michael Harrington phrased it, of the New Left struck me as grievously infected with the disease of apocalypticism. Apocalyptists, in their fastidious distaste for the imperfect realities of this world, find historical actuality to be intolerable: they want to break things up; they look toward the time when time shall be no more; and their resistance to history, their eagerness to get outside of it altogether, makes for a terribly expensive kind of insobriety, as the events of the 60s amply disclosed. So in Three American Moralists (University of Notre Dame Press, 1973) I undertook to hold up three enormously gifted writers—Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, and Lionel Trilling—who, as I wanted to suggest, represented a salutary kind of skepticism about what Trilling disdainfully spoke of as "the demand for life as pure spirit." So great, of course, are the differences in style among these three that they might not at first have been thought to form any sort of triad opposed to the rampant apocalypticism of the period: Bellow, as I remarked, is often "the gay lampoonist," whereas Mailer is "the voluble and adroit enragé specializing in the vita active." And Trilling's style was that of "the learned patrician looking out upon the 'darkling plain, / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight.'" But each renders a very severe judgment on those who choose (in a phrase of Bellow's Moses Herzog) to "live a disappointed life," and each presents a testimony that seeks to admonish and embolden us toward recommitting ourselves to the common tasks of the human City, the tasks of building viable forms of coexistence. So, amidst the furious contestations by which the American scene of the 60s and early 70s was riven, their refusal of any kind of convulsive embrace of Apocalypse gave them, as I argued, the status of public moralists and made them exemplary figures.
Three American Moralists was followed in 1976 by The Poetry of Civic Virtue (Fortress Press), whose argument, again, is built around an exemplary triptych—Eliot, Malraux, and Auden. Here I had in mind the frequency with which many of the great strategists of the modern movement in literature have represented a very profound skepticism about the possibility of the public world of social-political engagements affording any viable context for the life of human selfhood. As Georg Lukács reminds us in Realism in Our Time (Harper & Row, 1971), though "Joyce uses Dublin, [though] Kafka and Musil [use] the Hapsburg Monarchy, as the locus of their masterpieces," "the locus they . . . depict is little more than a backcloth [which] . . . is not basic to their artistic intention," for the real locus of the authentic life is taken to be the world of individualist subjectivity. And thus it is no wonder that the great, characteristic monuments in the literature of this century—such texts, say, as The Counterfeiters, The Castle, To the Lighthouse, Waiting for Godot—have a strangely spectral, ghostlike quality.
So in The Poetry of Civic Virtue I wanted to commend another style of imagination, one which, in taking ours to be a world of coexistence, prompts reflection on the nature of civic virtue. And I turned to Eliot, Malraux, and Auden, each of whom wants in a strenuous way to assert that "no man is an island."
In the early 1980s I found myself drawn to several figures—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, Walter Pater, George Santayana, Wallace Stevens, and Martin Heidegger—who make significant proposals regarding the role played by the poetic imagination in the formation of fundamental belief, and the result was my book of 1985, The Poetics of Belief (University of North Carolina Press). And the book which appeared in the spring of this year, Visions of Presence in Modem American Poetry (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), brings together a number of long studies of the poets with whom I have been most deeply engaged in recent years—Stevens, Auden, Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Perm Warren, Richard Wilbur, A. R. Amnions, James Wright, and Howard Nemerov.
Twenty-five years ago I could not, of course, have dreamt that the weathers of cultural life today would be so uncongenial for the enterprise of criticism as they have become in the intervening period. Indeed, their inclemency has proved to be so discouraging that one's impression is that most senior people in the university community have well-nigh abandoned criticism altogether: some have turned to biographical studies, but many more have converted themselves into philosophers of culture or specialists in "theory," and the old confidence in the dignity of interpretative commentary on literary texts has quite collapsed. Our new savants radically dissociate literary art from its circumambient world and declare it to be without any specifiable stability of meaning or any capacity for reference and predication; and since they are not considered to bear any transitive relation to thing extrinsic to the world of textuality itself, literary texts are exhibited as essentially empty and weightless. So in such a climate, however much we may lament the fact, we ought surely not to be surprised that so many have simply abdicated from criticism and moved on to other undertakings.
Nor do I have any word of optimism to propose about how this late, bad time in the field of literary studies may be transformed for the better. In his recent book Real Presences (University of Chicago Press, 1989) George Steiner lays it down that, as he says, "On its own terms and planes of argument . . . the challenge of deconstruction does seem to me irrefutable." And it may well be the case that Rezeptionaesthetik or reader-response theory and the various other modes of the enterprising antihumanism currently prevailing may also be irrefutable—on their own terms and planes of argument. So to those of you who are seeking some foothold outside the range of options presented by radical chic of the moment I can only urge that you try to avoid the kind of amnesia that in the 1960s overtook William Phillips, the distinguished editor of Partisan Review and one of the last surviving members of that great circle which we refer to as "the New York intellectuals." Norman Podhoretz reports in his autobiography Making lt (Random House, 1967) that on a certain occasion in the 60s Mr. Phillips, after an extended conversation with the New Left English critic, the late Kenneth Tynan, could find no other riposte to stutter out than the announcement that he could no longer argue with him about politics, "because Tynan's arguments were so old that he, Phillips, could no longer remember the answers." But, if we are not to be at the mercy of the new dispensation, we must manage to perform again and again an act of anamnesis: we must remember the tradition of Dr. Johnson and Lessing and Coleridge, of Sainte-Beuve and Arnold, of Benjamin and Auerbach, of Eliot and Leavis and Trilling. For it is only by way of such remembering that we may be able to chart one or another kind of course alternative to the kind of hermeneutical terrorism that prevails in our phase of civility. If we are not to "die with the dying," perhaps we must seek "'To purify the dialect of the tribe / And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight'" by attempting such explorations backward as I propose, and then it may be that in due course "all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well" in what is today our much vexed House of Criticism. 1
University of Virginia
1 Certain passages of this address originally belonged to an earlier essay, "Day by Day," that appeared in Theologians in Transition (Crossroad Publishing, 1981). They are used here with the permission of the editor, James M. Wall.
Christianity and Literature, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Winter 1994), 213-26.
An Interview with Nathan A. Scott, Jr.
Ralph C. Wood
[The following interview was conducted at the Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association in Toronto on 29 December 1993.—Editor]
RCW: I confess to being one of those readers of your work who was surprised upon first learning that you are a black scholar. Do you regard my surprise, and that of many others, as complimentary or condescending?
NAS: I am astonished when I discover the astonishment others feel when they learn of my racial identity. It astonishes me because, if I were a Jew who had written a book on Herbert or Milton or Pope, it would occur to nobody to wonder how it comes to be that this Jew is doing these things. Any number of Jewish scholars regularly write on landmark figures in the tradition, many of these being figures who represent one or another kind of attachment to Christian faith. So I wonder why it is that people are astonished at my being black! I cannot fathom it, unless the common assumption is that I, being black, should be concerned only with African-American matters. But surely we don't want to ghettoize the life of the mind in this way.
RCW: Not in defensive or self-justifying response, I would nonetheless confess that, when I found out that you were black, it came as a delight. I hoped that in studying with you I might atone, in some very small way, for the sins of my own ancestors.
NAS: There is nothing you can do in the way of atonement for the sins of the fathers: those are their sins, not yours.
RCW: I have heard bits and pieces of your remarkable personal history. Would you mind telling the readers of Christianity and Literature something of it?
NAS: My father, over the last thirty years of his life, practiced law in a small way in Detroit. He had travelled, of course, a great distance. He was born in 1874, the youngest of fourteen children. His parents were black tenant farmers, his mother and father both having been full grown adults at the time of the Emancipation. He grew up in Alabama out from a little hamlet called Laneville. Indeed, he was in his late teens before he learned to read and write. He was taught to read and write by the local postmaster, a man by the name of John McKee, who had made a kind of pet of my father as a boy, but he had clandestinely to offer him the bit of tutelage he gave, since it would not have gone well if his neighbors had known what he was up to.
As a young man my father made his way on to Selma University in Selma, Alabama. It was but a "normal school" (to use the term employed at the turn of the century) which had been established by Yankees, by people who were products of Harvard and Brown and Yale and who undertook to offer their black pupils what they had been formed by—namely, a classical curriculum. Though some might judge this to have been a piece of foolishness, nevertheless that's what they did.
My father, after another few years, moved on to a little Presbyterian college in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania: Geneva College. It still exists. There he encountered people whose backgrounds were similar to those of the people who had taught him at Selma University. And by the time of the First War, he was working in the Jones and Laughlin Steel Foundry in Pittsburgh. He persuaded my mother, whom he had come to know at Selma University, to come north to marry him. And after a year or so in Pittsburgh, they moved on to Cleveland, where at that time Baldwin-Wallace College, which is in Berea, Ohio, was running a law school. He entered the Baldwin-Wallace Law School and, studying evenings over a number of years, finally took his degree in the mid-1920s. He then sat for the Ohio bar examination and failed it. But for some reason he became convinced that he could pass the Michigan bar, and so he and my mother moved on to Detroit. And in the spring of 1929, he passed his bar examinations and was admitted to the Michigan bar at the age of 55. He practiced law in Detroit until his death in the summer of 1955.
He had been taught the Greek and Latin classics with what—as I came to realize after I had become a grown man—must have been extraordinary rigor. For, by the time I was twelve years of age, he had taken me through the Latin text of Caesar's Commentary on the Gallic Wars. I was the despair of my Latin teachers in junior and senior high school; they had nothing to offer me. His daily devotional reading of the New Testament involved the koiné Greek text. He had an enormous passion for the Book. And when I was a small boy, he had already set me to reading the Fireside Poets (Greenleaf Whittier Wadsworth Longfellow, and so on), as well as Browning and Tennyson and Poe. He had required me to commit to memory large blocks of this poetry by the time I was ten or eleven years of age. He contributed more to my formation than anybody else has ever done!
Foolish as the program of instruction devised for his generation by their Yankee instructors might seem to have been, he was indelibly marked by it. He was my great teacher. Though he was a man of no power and influence in the world, and one who had no great talent for professional success, I consider him to be the author of whatever there may be in my life that is worth paying attention to. My father, if he were alive today, would be 120 years of age. And so my immediate roots were not quite a generation removed from chattel slavery.
RCW: That is indeed a remarkable story. You have also told me that your father was quite a devout churchman.
NAS: Oh, indeed. He was a Congregationalist, a member of the deacon board of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Detroit. And on the Saturday before the first Sunday of a month, when he would be distributing grape juice [laughter] to members of that congregation, in preparation for his diaconal duties, he undertook some bit of fasting and a careful regimen of prayer. He was not a man given to pious talk, but one deeply devoted to the Gospel and to the Church.
RCW: He must have been pleased that his son elected the ministry.
NAS: Yes, that did give him great pleasure. It accounts for my not having entered the Episcopal Church until thirty-five years ago, because he would have been heartbroken had I done such a thing in his lifetime. I had to wait until after his death. Congregationalism had ceased, in all sorts of ways, to make any kind of real sense to me. But I had to stay put until he had passed from the scene, and then I immediately entered the Episcopal Church and undertook preparation for holy orders.
RCW: He did live long enough, didn't he, to see you called to the faculty of the University of Chicago?
NAS: He was dying at the time I received my letter of appointment in the spring of 1955. But I read the letter to him at his bedside, and he was greatly pleased.
RCW: What would you say that your journey reveals about this great and terrible country of ours? Your own grandparents were held as chattel slaves, and yet you retired as the Kenan Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, having earlier served as the Shailer Matthews Professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and earlier still as a faculty member at Howard University.
NAS: I don't represent anything sui generis. There are loads of others of my generation whose careers have in lots of ways been like mine, and who came out of similar backgrounds. This attests, I guess, to the measure of progress that has been realized toward an open society. Ours remains, of course, a very imperfect society. Millions and millions of people in the great urban centers of the country—who today constitute what (in the ugly jargon of the time) is called the urban underclass—millions of these lives are being lost. All you need to do is to walk the streets, say, of Harlem to see how ugly it is, and it does not embarrass the American conscience as it ought to do.
Yes, ours is a very imperfect country, but it would be foolish to deny the progress that's been made toward realizing in our national life something like a truly open society. As sharp a sense as I have of the blemishes that disfigure American life, I nevertheless on occasion find myself reminding my children or some friend that American citizenship, for all of what is rotten in the country, is one of the great blessings of this world. And I believe it to be that. There is a certain kind of radicalism that is disinclined to acknowledge anything that is morally praiseworthy in American culture. But that, I think, represents a sad kind of myopia.
RCW: In the address you've delivered before the Conference [on Christianity and Literature] you speak of those in your own ancestral community who take a dim view of your having devoted so much time to "dead white European males." This prompts me to ask if you would agree with W. E. B. DuBois, even if you had to trim back his orotundity, that "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I walk in arms with Balzac and Dumas. . . . [Laughter from both the interviewer and Scott] I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what souls I will, and they all come graciously with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil."
NAS: I can't bear the fustian that's a part of the rhetoric of the early DuBois: it's a rhetoric so baroque as to be well-nigh ridiculous. But the point he needed to make somewhat more modestly is a point that I take and accept.
RCW: Do I not recall your saying that one of your mentors at Columbia and Union once accused you, not altogether in jest, of being a sort of dandy, of having strayed off into criticism and aesthetics when your true calling was to be a theologian proper?
NAS: Most of my teachers took it for granted that a young man such as myself needed to be looking toward "serving his people," as it was often said. As the chap who was taxing me with a certain sort of dandyism once said: "The trouble with you, Nathan, is that you've gotten interested in all sorts of things that nobody knows anything about!" [Laughter] Which meant that he didn't know anything about Baudelaire and Valery and Stevens, and couldn't understand why I should be interested in such figures. Nor could he descry anything that this promised in the way of sober service of my people. [Laughter]
Negro students at Union Seminary and at Columbia forty-five years ago were expected to scurry off back into the South "to serve their people." And some of my teachers found it difficult to discern in me a sufficiently sober commitment to that project so, if they paid any attention to me at all—and few of them did—they were a bit troubled.
RCW: Looking back at the books of yours on my shelves, and at your very impressive bibliography, I am astonished at the number of literary figures, both secular and religious, whom you have mastered: from such pagan greats as Camus and Sartre, Stevens and Frost, to such Christian writers as Eliot and Auden, Graham Greene and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Which one of these figures has been your lodestar, and what one book do you keep recurring to?
NAS: Given the immense variousness and multiformity of literary tradition, I find it impossible to identify one figure who has surpassed all others in commanding my interest. I suppose that, among intellectual figures, there is none who has more deeply shaped my way of looking at and thinking about things than has Lionel Trilling. I think that he has influenced me, in all sorts of ways, even more deeply than Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, who are undoubtedly the theological figures by whom I was most deeply touched. But Trilling's way of conducting critical discourse and the general atmosphere of his mind I was drawn to as a young man in ways in which I was drawn to no other literary figure. I have a great sense of indebtedness to him.
In the years in which I was a graduate student at Columbia, Lionel was refusing to have anything to do with graduate students. He did all of his teaching in Columbia College, and was in all sorts of ways the great master of Columbia College. It was not until sometime a good deal after I had completed my doctoral work that he occasionally consented to offer a graduate course. So I did not know him in my student years, but we became good friends in his last years. And his critical work I was more deeply touched by than by that of any other modern critic.
RCW: Isn't he as a Jew who did not bring forward his Jewishness overtly, making it instead the deep background of his work, something like you as a Christian who often keeps your confessional commitments beneath the surface?
NAS: Trilling is not at pains to conceal his Jewishness, as he has often been accused of having been. Remember, for example, his great essay on "Wordsworth and the Rabbis." And remember, too, that much of his early writing was done for the distinguished Jewish bimonthly magazine, the Menorah Journal, edited by Eliot Cohen. But he, like many in that circle we call "the New York intellectuals," did not attach Jewish tags of any kind to his critical work. Neither has Alfred Kazin. And though Irving Howe in his later years wrote that great and wonderful book The World of Our Fathers, which movingly rehearses the whole experience of immigration and settlement of eastern European Jews in New York, his criticism is on the whole not a body of work carrying Jewish tags. Which is not to say that these people were embarrassed by their racial identity. They weren't at all. But they were ecumenists [laughter] literarily and culturally. They conceived of themselves as belonging to no ghetto of any sort. I suppose that in this way I do reflect something of the spirit that moved that remarkable group whom we call the New York intellectuals, of whom, alas, William Phillips and Alfred Kazin are the last living survivors.
RCW: In your solitary moments and pensive moods, what lines come rumbling through your head involuntarily?
NAS: The [Four] Quartets. The Hopkins of "The Wreck of the Deutschland" and much else. Many passages from Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Yeats. Many of the poems of Richard Wilbur, many of the poems of an old friend now dead, Robert Hayden. If I were to put together some sort of Commonplace Book, these are the poets who would figure largely in it—Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Hopkins, Eliot, Auden of course, Wilbur, and Hayden. I have never, in the manner of Matthew Arnold, been a collector of nuggets of gold, what Arnold called "touchstones." [Laughter] But the poets whom I've mentioned are those whom I reread over and again. A year never goes by when I don't reread, slowly and carefully, Eliot's Quartets. They have become for me material, in the Catholic sense, for spiritual meditation.
RCW: Though you say that Trilling was the critic who put the greatest mark on your work, you have also declared in a recent essay that Northrop Frye and George Steiner will eventually be regarded as the greatest critics of our century. Would you elaborate on this judgment?
NAS: They have both been great aviators. They have both taken the entire literary universe to be their world. Their reach, I think, surpasses that of any other critic of this century whom I can think of. Which is not to say that doctrinally I want to be any sort of epigone of Northop Frye. Doctrinally, I have many reservations about the scheme of thought set forth in his Anatomy [of Criticism]. But the reach of mind represented by a Frye I find simply breathtaking. And again, with George Steiner, it is a similar feeling I have. Doctrinally, I don't await directives from him. But the great ambitiousness and the shocking massiveness of his learning I find simply breathtaking. It fills me with a kind of sheer joy that anybody is capable of this. I belong to what is a very small minority of people who are candid in expressions of admiration for him. Sadly, he is offered regularly only a very rancorous and captious response by the generality of people in the critical community in this country and in the U.K. He is largely and widely appreciated on the European continent. But his work has proved to be strangely irritating, simply irritating, in the States and the United Kingdom. For all that, my basic feeling about Steiner is simply one of immense admiration for what he has done.
RCW: What do you make of Steiner's recourse, as Jew, to such essentially Christian metaphors as "real presences," thus invoking the doctrine of the Eucharist itself?
NAS: I am often astonished by his penchant for Christian metaphor. I would not want stubbornly to push the matter. But I do think that there is a sort of crypto-Christianity at work in Steiner. It is always something veiled and subterranean. I await with much eagerness and expectation the appearance of his Gifford Lectures. Lord Gifford, when he founded those lectures in the last century, laid it down that they were to be devoted to "natural theology." But some of the people who have held that platform have dodged this requirement.
CW: Karl Barth!
NAS: Yes! Barth chose to devote his Gifford platform to a discussion of the knowledge of God in Reformation theology. And others have dodged Lord Gifford's requirements in one way or another. I hope that Steiner's Giffords, when they appear, will not reflect this sort of dodge, because so much of his work—and most especially his last book, Real Presences—asks for theological completion in the way that Coleridge's critical work did, in the way that Walter Benjamin's did. When, for example, Steiner argues ever so passionately that the guarantor of meaning is transcendence, one wants to know what he really means! If he does what Lord Gifford wanted done, it may be that a wholly new dimension of his thought will come into clear view. But until he produces such a work, it'll be hard for me to account for this incipiently Christian subtext in his work. It is certainly there, however.
RCW: What do you make of Jonathan Culler's recent attack on those he calls the "priests" of literary criticism—"the Fryes, the Hartmans, Girards, Booths, and Kenners"—those "promoters of religion," as he calls them, who have betrayed their true calling? Culler claims that their true vocation is to teach us how to read the Bible "not as poetry or narrative but as a powerfully influential racist and sexist text"? [Laughter] In the same way, Hillis Miller has lumped you with René Wellek, Walter Jackson Bate, and John Searle as belonging to the right wing of contemporary criticism. [Laughter] Do you like being thus characterized?
NAS: I am certainly not going to take umbrage at being related to René Wellek and Walter Jackson Bate, for both of whom I have enormous admiration. I don't know John Searle's work except for the reviews I have seen over the last decade in the New York Review of Books. I have never worked on his major texts. But I guess I do belong to the right wing of contemporary criticism. It doesn't vex me to be charged with such an affiliation.
I keep an old confidence in the dignity of criticism, in the dignity of commentary on literary texts, because of course I do not consider them to represent the weightlessness, the emptiness, that many of the new savants conceive them to represent. I do not conceive literature to be without any predicative power in its relation to its circumambient world. I do not consider literary texts to be mere epiphenomena of langue in the Saussurean sense. I do not consider them to be without any stability of meaning. I reject out of hand the whole mystique that descends from Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida and various others who have contributed to the formation of deconstructionist ideology. Yes, I guess I am to be thought of as allied with the right wing, because I remain deeply committed to traditional humanistic criticism.
I have lost, however, my combativeness of a few years ago with respect to la nouvelle critique. I am no longer interested in polemicizing against it. I have decided that on its own planes of argument, as Steiner says, it is irrefutable. So I have withdrawn from the kind of debate that I was happy to plunge into a few years ago, feeling that the radical absurdity of deconstructionist ideology finds its most significant exposure in the sheer actuality of poetry and fiction and autobiography, in the concrete reality of literary texts.
RCW: Who has changed in this regard: you or Hillis Miller? You will remember inviting him to lecture at the University of Chicago Divinity School soon after he had published Poets of Reality in 1965. In those days Miller was arguing for a theology of divine immanence. He has since confessed that it was such theology that led him to atheology, to an abandonment of religion and metaphysics altogether. The God who indwells the world, with no life of His own beyond it, Miller declares to be a chimera and a hoax.
NAS: Yes, I would agree. The God who is immanent is God by dint of his transcendence. A God who is conceived to be wholly an affair of immanence is no God. This is a conception of God that is unsustainable.
RCW: You have talked about your indebtedness to Tillich and Niebuhr. I have wondered whether a figure like Jacques Maritain might also have influenced your work, and whether his all too rapid eclipse troubles you. Or is this just an inevitable fact of historical transience?
NAS: Maritain had enjoyed great prominence and prestige over a very long period, from the mid 1920s until the early 60s. Given what appears to be the natural attention span of the people of our age, he remained at the fore for perhaps as long as anybody might be expected to. But, in the outraged opposition that he came to represent vis-a-vis Vatican II, he did himself great harm so far as younger Catholics were concerned, and to them and others the old man in his last years appeared to be simply a reactionary.
RCW: As in The Peasant of the Garonne.
NAS: Yes. Young Catholics in the 60s who were unfamiliar with Maritain's philosophical work—facing his grouchiness and quarrelsomeness in relation to all the new ferment that had been generated by Vatican II—felt him, not surprisingly, to be nothing but a period piece.
But the Maritain of True Humanism, the Maritain of the great Mellon Lectures [Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry], remains a fascinating intelligence, most especially the Maritain who taught the Catholic community to revere the mystery of Israel. I'm confident, though, that much that my generation still values in Maritain will, in the course of time, be reclaimed—as is the case with so much else that is forgotten now.
RCW: This is generally conceded to be a period of great theological dearth and barrenness, at least on the American scene. Doesn't the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar represent a happy exception to this sorry state of Christian theology? He, virtually alone among modern theologians, has taken seriously "the beauty of holiness." What is your estimate of him?
NAS: I think this man is truly an exceptional figure whose work we have not yet begun really to assimilate. I don't specialize in ranking artists and writers and intellectual figures. But there is no denying the sheer massiveness, the unfailing subtlety of mind, the breathtaking range of learning, that von Balthasar represents in this last great multivolume venture of his [The Glory of the Lord]. I am not at all forgetting those figures to whom I remain indebted—Bultmann and Tillich and Niebuhr and many others. But there is something so absolutely magisterial in von Balthasar's project, as in Barth's project, that my hunch is that in the coining years the question will be: whose century was it theologically, Barth's or von Balthasar's?
RCW: Having spoken of the state of criticism and of theology in these latter days, what would you say about "the whole state of Christ's church," as the Prayer Book used to phrase it? The late Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler was asked near the end of his life what single piece of advice he would give to the contemporary church. He answered without hesitation: "Watch your language!"
NAS: That's quintessentially Sittlerian. [Laughter]
RCW: How would you answer the question posed to Sittler? [Laughter]
NAS: Oh, my! When I handle the Episcopal Church's new Prayer Book, I feel that dear old Joe Sittler was absolutely right. We do indeed need to watch our language, and there is so much in the language of the revised Prayer Book that makes me simply itch with impatience. The new Prayer Book reconstructs the order of the liturgy in ways that are altogether helpful. There is no doubt that there is an excess of penitential material in the Cranmerian eucharistic office. It was right that the order for the celebration of the Eucharist should be cleaned up. One could point to many other revisions in the Prayer Book that are to be supported. But the language—ah, the language—is not a language calculated to convey to us a sense of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Yes, the Church is in difficulty. It always is, for one reason or another. But I'm not greatly alarmed by its present situation. Well, that's not wholly so. I am deeply alarmed by the ways in which those who are called Evangelicals in the Protestant community have entered the political arena, and they promise to make an enormous amount of mischief on the American scene. What's to be done about all this, I don't know. The conspiratorial posture of the Religious Right in this country is ever so bothering. But so far as our mainline Reformation churches are concerned, and so far as the Roman Catholic communion is concerned, though these are all imperfect affairs, I don't have any sense of great looming crisis.
RCW: What do you make of churches whose worship prohibits any reference to God in masculine metaphors? Jesus, for example, is called God's Child.
NAS: I shudder. I believe, of course, that, whenever and wherever it is possible to sanitize the common tongue so far as sexist usage is concerned, it should be so sanitized. "Man," for example, is not an appropriate generic term for humankind. But I fear that we are handling much too carelessly the received biblical metaphor when we cast it all aside merely for the sake of a decent regard for the sensibilities of contemporary feminists. I should be aghast if the concept of the Fatherhood of God were to be generally relegated to the discard. I am not at all averse to efforts at discerning a feminine principle in the Godhead. We should be open to revisionist reflection of this kind. But simply to discard a biblical metaphor that has come to be deeply regulative of theological discourse and of liturgical discourse—we're then risking heresy. I want always, as I have frequently had occasion to do in my own communion in recent years, to urge caution in relation to this whole range of questions.
RCW: You would thus look with disfavor on the Christa crucifix, replete with pubis and pendant breasts, that hung for a while in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
NAS: Oh, yes, yes. That is an heretical icon. It has now been removed, as indeed it should have been.
RCW: What do you think of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible? It employs inclusive language for human beings while retaining masculine metaphors for God whenever Scripture itself uses them.
NAS: I am not sure. I have not studied, in any careful way, this new edition of the RSV.
RCW: You spoke earlier of your father's great devotion to the Book. A friend of mine speaks in much the same way. He confesses that, though his father regarded the Bible as the central text, Scripture has become for him but one important text among other classics. For his children, alas, the Bible is a peripheral book that they know hardly at all. Is this true also for you and your children?
NAS: Well, when I spoke of my father's devotion to the Book, I didn't have the scriptural canon in mind: I was speaking of his reverence for great literature. But your question puts me in mind of something that Hannah Arendt said years ago at a party in Chicago. We were talking about Tillich. Something that was said led her to declare, "But you know, he is quite remarkable: he is the only Christian theologian who has never read the Bible." [Laughter] And there was some bit of truth in that. Which is to say that not even theologians are untouched by the general drift of things that you were remarking. But anyone who takes with real seriousness the Christian faith cannot regard the Testaments as simply forming one among a variety of religious classics. For both Catholic and Reformation theology, the Bible has always been conceived to be a decisive norm, and to a degree surpassing everything else in relation to matters of ultimacy.
Though I am grateful for much that the new fascination with the Bible has yielded for recent literary criticism, I share the impatience that George Steiner expressed a few years ago in reviewing a collection of essays on the Bible that Frank Kermode had edited. He confessed his astonishment at the ease, the blandness, with which the contributors considered the Bible to be merely another classic. Steiner wanted to maintain that—for all the interesting, clever, insightful discourse being carried on by Kermode's collaborators—they, in eliding the mysterium tremendum from the material they were scanning, were finally missing the whole damn point, the ultimate point. With respect to a great deal of the recent literature produced by secular literary criticism on the Bible, you feel that, yes, in this respect and that respect, interesting things are being said, but in a way that's calculated to obscure what makes the Bible the Bible for Western mentality.
RCW: I was happy to hear that, far from having retired from scholarly work, you have plotted out yet another project. What is it?
NAS: It's a book to be called The Vision of Nature in Modern Poetry.
RCW: Given the fact that you have officially retired, and are thus reaching that point where one starts summing it all up, what kind of epitaph would you want to write for yourself?
NAS: Nobody should ever be allowed to write his own obituary or even his own epitaph, and very few of us are able to do so. Thomas Jefferson was able to do it. He wanted but three things spoken of on his tombstone—namely, that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, that he was the author of the Statute for Religious Freedom in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and that he was the father of the University of Virginia. And so if you have ever wandered out to Monticello, you will remember these being the things spoken of on Jefferson's tombstone. He had done all sorts of others things, but these—in his sense of things—surpassed all else, even the presidency of the country. I think his was a very decent, thoughtful summing up of his own life. But I wouldn't know what on earth would belong on my tombstone, if anything at all, other than the dates of my birth and death. [Laughter]
RCW: I have had occasion to hear you preach, and I know that you are a very fine preacher. You've given us "A Ramble on a Road Taken," but what about the road not taken—namely, the path that might have led you to become a parish priest?
NAS: For my last ten years in Chicago, I was a canon of our cathedral there, the Cathedral of St. James, where month after month over that decade I was regularly in the pulpit and regularly a celebrant at the altar. This I have deeply, deeply missed in the years in Virginia, where I move about in the diocese whenever I'm asked to take a celebration or to take a pulpit here and there. But I have greatly missed not having an altar and a pulpit as I did in the years at St. James's in Chicago.
I have sometimes over the years regretted not being an Englishman, because in all sorts of ways it is so much more easily possible on the English scene to play out the vocation of priest-scholar than it is here. It was clear to me early on that I had to make choices, and that the vocation of scholarship was one that grabbed me more stubbornly than ministry did. But I have immense envy for many friends of mine in the English Church who, while holding professorships in the university community, are able to serve as canons of cathedral churches. And so I think of my last ten years in Chicago as a period in which I was very lucky in what I was allowed to do.
My work at the Cathedral was largely a weekend affair, though I also took the responsibility for the continuing education for what I called "the reading clergy." I mounted conferences each year for the clergy in the diocese, many of which were very significant events. I first met Donald Allchin, for example, as a result of having invited him to be the main figure in a conference I arranged. But it was mainly a weekend thing, which was all that a full-time member of the University of Chicago faculty could take on. It's a cause of regret to me that I haven't been able to play a larger role in the life of the Church. Some years back I announced it to be my attention to seek out some tiny country parish after I retired from the University of Virginia. But when the time came for me to retire, I realized that I didn't really have the stamina any longer for that sort of undertaking.
RCW: We are paying you official honor and tribute at the RCW luncheon today. But let me also speak a word of personal gratitude—not only in behalf of those of us who were your students, but also in behalf of your many readers: our lives and our work and our thought have been deeply shaped by your own life and work and thought. For that, we are grateful indeed.
NAS: Thank you.
Wake Forest University