A Review of Christian Wiman’s Spiritual Autobiography

In his review of Christian Wiman’s spiritual autobiography, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Jay Parini discusses Wiman’s emphasis on the importance of faith to a critic. Here is an extract:

It strikes me that criticism—systemic reflection on texts, even on life itself—has lost its urgency during the past 30 years or more, having complicated (and deadened) reading in ways nobody could have foreseen. It’s not simply that teachers of literature don’t often read for pleasure nowadays, or don’t believe in the transforming powers of art, or no longer value any statement that hasn’t bounced off many walls of irony and landed, like a squash ball, in some distant corner of the court. It’s the loss of pressure that stands out, a sense that literature matters because it informs, quite literally, our consciousness as well as our actions.

For example, Rich’s essay on Emily Dickinson, “Vesuvius at Home,” represents an astonishing effort to get at the heart of the writer’s project. I’ve never read Dickinson the same way after encountering the essay, almost 40 years ago. With withering aptness, Rich notes that much scholarly ink has been spilled in trying to identify the male lover whom Dickinson may have renounced in poem “#315” (“He fumbles at your Soul”). Rich goes on to suggest that “the real question, given that the art of poetry is an art of transformation, is how this woman’s mind and imagination may have used the masculine element in the world at large, or those elements personified as masculine—including the men she knew; how her relationship to this reveals itself in her images and language.”

One looks around, half in desperation, for those critics today who direct us not beyond the text before us, but through it, to the life beyond its linguistic boundaries. These are the critics who understand the incarnational aspects of poetry, its way of refreshing the currency of feeling by how it makes life itself visible, palpable, creating what Roman Catholics refer to as “real presence,” the embodiment of spirit in matter, as in the Eucharist­—the ultimate transformation.

A new book breaks this deadening mold, and it’s noteworthy that it does so within the tradition of spiritual autobiography that reaches back to St. Augustine.

In My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, to be released in April by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Christian Wiman—himself a fine poet and translator of the Russian poet and essayist Osip Mandelstam—contemplates the meaning of poetic incarnation in specifically Christian terms, drawing on a wide range of authors. He blends poetry (his own and others’), criticism, theological speculation, and memoir in ways that defy easy categorization, although this work might well be considered a distant offspring of Pascal’s Pensées (1669), which offered a skeptical audience at the beginning of the Enlightenment a defense of the Christian religion in the form of “thoughts” that resembled journal entries.

What I love in Wiman is the way he reads poems as urgent messages in a bottle, weaving their texts into his evolving consciousness, his sad personal story, linking his language with theirs, showing us clearly and definitively what Dr. Johnson, the great English critic, meant when he said: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”

For the full review, bit.ly/12Q342D.

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