Read the first part of this essay here.
My father cherished two things: Mass and the opera. He was a cantor in the church and when he used to visit us in Berlin, where we lived for a number of years, he’d regularly visit the Komische Oper—always alone. Was he protecting what he loved from the perils of debate? Or did he intuit that when it comes to art and God we are always alone with ourselves?
And then there’s this: I met my husband at a monastery in the south of France. The newspaper for which I worked back then had sent me to write a story on the orthodox monastery Saint Antoine Le Grand. He was to shoot the photographs for the piece. It was an all-male monastery, so I slept in an RV. Twenty years have gone by, but I still remember the moist southerly winds as if it were yesterday. And the fasting: lentils boiled in water and olives. Lovers demand of the world that it bend to their desires. They want to eat, to touch, to celebrate. All of this was prohibited at the monastery.
Simone Weil imagines God and the world as lovers. She withdraws, magnificently, to allow them to approach. “God,” she writes “can only love in us this consent we show in withdrawing in order to allow him to pass.” I say, however, that one who is in love refuses to withdraw. In my book God’s wife waits for her husband every night in the forest:
I lived for the moment He appeared, right before nightfall. In order not to frighten me He would approach me with slow steps, like a speck of light that grows ever stronger. He would always emerge from the house with a book tucked under His arm, and as He approached He’d signal with his hand. There was no sight more beautiful than His likeness, His long hair fanning out behind him, the slight tilt of His head that seemed to be saying yes, yes to everything. I would stop whatever I was doing to listen to the joyous crunch of twigs under His feet. I would whisper under my breath the psalm that my aunt had taught me, “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me: for my soul trusts in you: yes, in the shadow of your wings will I make my refuge. My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready.” Running through my mind, one after the other, were all of His epithets that I used to jot down in my notebook as a child, especially the ones that I didn’t understand back then: behold the Lord of all time, delighter of words, the incorruptible, our one and only King; behold He who is of the Heavens, He who is the cold in winter’s bite. And I would think: yes, I will take Him in my arms even under these circumstances, because this is what love means, to take whatever is given to you whenever it is given to you. I learned to love him as I would love a snail hidden in its shell, I learned to content myself with the empty embrace, with the ethereal breast that could barely hold me whenever I fell upon Him.
It is now time for the twenty-first-century doubting Thomas to speak: If we put the word faith next to the word intent, the tumult of love and self-sacrifice, and the inherent innocence of a humanity that yearns to trust and roost in its own little nest, all beat a hasty retreat. We ought, instead, to speak of intent as the primary characteristic of intellectual processes. Might we then attempt a phenomenology of an “immediate, pure” faith? This is how Julia Kristeva envisions it in her book In the Beginning Was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith.
Once again I draw on my experiences and some courage in order to describe my own phenomenology of faith and, in so doing, my unimaginable teenage naiveté. While reading Marcel Proust for my middle-school French exams, I construed the narrator’s revelation at Combray—the past leaps out of his teacup thanks to a moist madeleine just like the one he used to eat as a child at his aunt’s house—as the product of a concerted aim.
A few months into my first sojourn in France, I bought some madeleines from the baker, returned to the house where I was staying, and arranged to be left alone. I shut myself in the kitchen, brewed some tea, and sat at the table reading that fateful passage while simultaneously nibbling on a madeleine I had dunked in the tea. I sought a religious experience from that little golden, shell-shaped pastry. I was in raptures, anticipating the apparition that would shed light on forgotten details of my past. This was not the bread and butter sprinkled with sugar that I used to eat at my own aunt’s house; no, this was Aunt Leonie’s madeleine! The unfamiliar taste of a nonexistent aunt.
For many years I did not talk about this setback: my unimaginable credulity, my metaphysical conviction that what had happened to Proust’s narrator would also happen to me, as if by osmosis, even though we did not share the same taste-memories. At some point I confessed it to my husband: “It wasn’t silly of you,” he said. “You wanted to become a writer and you were testing what it meant to identify; already, art had the power to move you.”
His interpretation brought me some relief. I was Swann; I was his aunt; I was also the madeleine. I was the text.
Intent: the word brings to mind the market’s abuse of the words “faith” and “trust.” I am thinking of all that was said in Europe during the Greek financial crisis. It would be interesting to conduct a germane statistical analysis: for example, how many times was the word “trust” mentioned in Greece and in Germany during the peak period of acute and complete mistrust between the two countries?
In trying times, the faithful pray. He who is faithful to the market prays for that most supreme of all goods: smooth sailing for the banking system. It too is a church of sorts that promises its members the equivalent of religious faith: the eradication of fear, hope for a better life that will overcome the crisis, the withering of the markets.
During the crisis, the word “sacrifice” was heard repeatedly: the Greeks must be taxed stringently, they must pay, sacrifice something. A protestant vocabulary was deployed to talk about the issue of self-sacrifice in the scandalous, egocentric, sinful South. Through a process of association, I started thinking about the sacrifice of children during Greek antiquity, in the bible, and even in our folk songs as a way of warding off corruption: Iphigenia, Isaac, the wife of the builder of the bridge of Arta. The Greeks are themselves children: mindless children who play under the Mediterranean sun with no thought for tomorrow (“αεί παίδες” was how Plato described them in Timaeus.) At the beginning of the crisis in Berlin, I would often feel upon me the condescending gaze of Sylvia Plath’s emblematic father. Under my breath, I would repeat the vengeful lines from “Lady Lazarus”: “Herr God, herr Lucifer/Beware/Beware.” I learned to internalize the vision of a strict, censorious father, who is ready to sacrifice his own children if necessary.
The sacrifice of children belongs to the momentous stories of my childhood. Hearing of Isaac’s sacrifice, circumvented at the eleventh hour as extreme drama turns into ultimate trial, changed my life forever. A father prepares himself to sacrifice his beloved son because God asks this of him. As much as Kirkegaard insists that “faith begins where thought ends,” Abraham’s actions touch on the inconceivable: the teleological invalidation of ethical life as we know it.
It took years for me to become aware of my identification with the children who were to be sacrificed to the altar of belief with the compliance of their parents (not their parents, but rather their father/Gods; their mothers wept and begged for mercy). I would read those inconceivable scenes and feel my ghostly neck laid out on a marble slab (Iphigenia’s sacrifice) or a rock (Isaac’s). I would be saved from adult insanity at the very last moment. Each time I read, I was terrified into identification. I was becoming a reader.
In my opinion, our faith in the text is the clearest example of a childhood essence of humanity. Our voluntary surrender to a story that never happened, the fact that we suffer for beings that never lived, both are manifest proof of our desire to move beyond ourselves and meet the Other. “There is an Other,” Lacan says: and thus we come to the poetics of trust between two figures who are, by definition, liars– the writer and his reader (Baudelaire called him the “hypocrite reader”).
At times, this trust runs so deep that the writer addresses his reader directly, as Lawrence Stern did a few centuries ago (The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman), or Calvino, a few decades ago (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler). And the reader on his or her part revels with such passion in the illusion that he/she comes to believe that what the writer narrates actually happened. When Marilynne Robinson’s pastor-narrator in Gilead writes the long letter/novel to his son, he proceeds through religious analogy: “For me, writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone.”
I wonder how to conclude my own letter about faith—my own prayer. I am always fearful of the end of a text, the very final, irrevocable parting of ways. Faithful to my own idiosyncrasies, I propose to end at the beginning and in a way that sums everything up. I quote the first page from God’s Wife. My narrator addresses the reader and tries to prove that faith (in the Other, in literature, in life, in faith itself) saves us.
It sounds like a lie, but I am His wife. We got married many years ago. He asked for my hand, and I said yes. Sometimes even I marvel at all I have lived through, at first far away from Him, later by His side. I could not have imagined my life like this.
I write these lines to share the truth with you. I could argue that I’m doing it to keep the promise I made to my brother. I ought to have written him off, but people forget—no matter how far they travel, sooner or later they long for home. I’m not doing this for my brother. Nor am I doing it exactly out of a sense of solidarity. To care, to be human, you need to live with other people. What brings us together is the feeling that we share a common lot. I have forgotten the basics: how to slap someone across the face; how to sew a button that’s hanging from its thread; how to assuage another human being’s pain.
I haven’t yet thought about how you will get this letter. The only thing I care about is how to speak with the conviction that you are listening to me. Having lived at the side of He who invented everything out of nothingness, I am finally making something of my own. I am inventing you. Who are you? It’s not important. You are who you are—as long as you seem real enough for me to continue talking to you. The idea that I am addressing a human being may save me. Isn’t it ironic? People turn to God to be saved and I am turning to you. My greatest fear is that you may not exist. That maybe, vanquished by doubt, I leave these sheaves of paper half-written and the truth be scattered to the winds. The dreadful truth.
I also am afraid that perhaps I don’t exist. I don’t know how else to tell you. I feel like a nonexistent being that took a dive into eternity and doesn’t know how to drag herself out onto the shore of the present. At times I ask myself: have I, by chance, disappeared? Could what is happening to me not be life? And then I say: Have you gone mad? You are, after all, His wife! And if that isn’t enough to convince me, I prick myself with pins. Or I write.
If I exist, if you exist, and you accept that He exists, then we are off to a good start. If you believe that He disappears when you need him, that He is inscrutable and inaccessible, then we are on the right path. And you ought to listen to my story. Your story.
Translated by Patricia Felisa Barbeito
Patricia Felisa Barbeito is professor of American literatures at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her research focuses primarily on race and ethnicity in American literature and culture. Her publications have appeared in journals such as American Literature, the Journal of American Culture, and the Journal of Modern Greek Studies. She is co-translator (with Vangelis Calotychos) of Menis Koumandareas’s Their Smell Makes Me Want to Cry (Birmingham Modern Greek Translations, 2004) and translator of Elias Maglinis’s Interrogation (Birmingham Modern Greek Translations, 2013), for which she received the 2013 Modern Greek Studies Association’s Constantinides Memorial Translation Prize. She is currently working on a book about African-American author Chester Himes.