The best one can hope for as a human being is to have a relationship with that emptiness where God would be if God was available, but God isn’t.
No writer lacks belief in the metaphysical. When Joyce writes to Nora, “How I hate God and death,” and Marquez declares “I don’t believe in God but I’m afraid of Him,” they express their awe at the mere fact of existence. Writers who don’t believe in God place their faith in literature instead—and they do so in distinctly religious terms. Indeed, if we take into account the readers, we can talk about a religious movement of millions, with heated differences in opinion about dogma (what literature is and what it isn’t) and precise ritual gestures (the incline of the head toward a book; solitude and reading practices much akin to those we find in prayer).
Literary prayer promises a world of definite intentions, brighter color, revelatory convergences. In great literature, skies are clearer, characters realize their ambitions, and love pierces your heart even if you are not in love. Life in the novel tells us: this is what I would be like if I took myself seriously.
As far as death is concerned, even in Dante’s nightmarish universe it brings us right back to corporeality, without which the empirical world would be inconceivable. An unknown Elsewhere is always transformed into something familiar: a snowy landscape, for example. (In the language of the Masai, Kilimanjaro’s western peaks are known as Ngaje Ngai: “God’s home.” Enrique Vila-Matas reminds us of this when he describes Hemingway’s universe as one in which snow and death are intimately related.)
Philosophy offers us the terms for a theoretical discussion of imperturbability (Gelassenheit) and our acknowledgment, confronted by the imminence of death, that we are not the center of the universe (Heidegger). Similarly theology talks about a peaceful renunciation (Meister Eckhart). Literature, on the other hand, comes along with its characteristic radical ambiguity, and offers up a practically empirical analysis of the Unknown. In Tolstoy’s novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Ilyich is thrust into death’s black sack and can start to make his way to the light only when he comes to terms with his guilt. This, then, is how the correspondence between confession, or psychoanalysis, and the literary universe is shaped: philosophy, theology, psychoanalysis, as well as the “end of death” that is part and parcel of Heidegger’s concept of Dasein—all are layered and intertwined and thus enrich the reading of literature. What else could one ask for from the act of narration of an unknown experience?
As is clear by now, I’m arguing for my faith. I am proselytizing: and so I say that whoever turns to religion out of fear, would do well to look into what literature has to offer. Literature makes life and death more palpable. Moreover, it doesn’t demand of its faithful devotion, gratitude, and adherence to the letter of the text. It neither promises anything, nor does it punish. It feeds off the enigma, off the heresy of subjectivity. It asks only that we, the readers, abide by an essential agreement: the suspension of disbelief.
We approach the text with good will, with faith. I would dare to say with belief. We behold the open book with the innocence and severity of the child. I am ready to believe in you, we think to ourselves, as long as you don’t let me down. Make me believe that Odysseus is storm-tossed at sea. Make me believe that the old man catches an enormous fish, the young man turns into a beetle, Madame Bovary is sick and tired of it all.
Just as a mind used to regular meditation learns to glide along on the emptiness of thought, so the eye following words on a page transcends the materiality of the book and conjures the author’s world into an extremely personal vision. In literature’s faithful we find a mixture of carelessness and absorption, what Joyce described as “an indifferent sympathy.” What Eastern philosophy strives for—“no one summons it yet it comes on its own” says Lao Tzu—happens spontaneously in literature. How many belief systems out there activate our faith in the present, in the inevitability of the progression of things, not by prayer (Give us this day our daily bread) but by the power of a convincing story?
Both the Old and New Testaments are rife with fascinating stories. The only thing we might criticize is that their protagonist, God, changes dramatically in the course of the story and along with Him, the world. Our heroes move from the hope and fear of the beginning to the anguish and shifting of responsibility that accompanies the allegory of the fall. I’m not slipping into theological argument here; I speak only of narrative issues. When something changes in a story, even in a religious text, the innocent and strict child in us awakens: convince me.
Those who concern themselves with the issue of faith in literature inevitably get their hands dirty. I got mine dirty when I wrote my novel God’s Wife, which tells the story of God and his mortal companion in a world that might “exist over, under, or inside somewhere.” As I write these lines, my book is at the typesetter’s and the child inside me screams: God! God will punish you!
Like Marquez, I don’t believe in God, but I fear him. And when I don’t know something, I imagine it: in the novel I created a God who hates literature and I gave Him a companion who lives to read. I saw them clearly: they fall into a platonic love, they argue, they settle down and, finally, they embark on a long voyage around the world, meeting people and resting in exotic sanctuaries before returning for good to their strange universe.
Everything that happens to them on that trip is utterly terrifying, and I might liken it to a moment of religious inspiration. Prior to writing the book, I had read Lucretius, Luther, and Simone Weil: my initial inspiration owes a lot to patristic commentaries. The opening hymn for my belief in the book that I wanted to write was my reading of other books. That’s what happens to writers: they write to enter into a conversation with books that have already been written.
I also read physics, cosmology. I became curious about quantum mechanics. Toward the end, while simultaneously researching Marguerite Porete, an ascetic mystic of the Middle Ages, and Carneades the Cyrene’s principle of probability, my queries about the nature of the world started growing into a plot. Something peculiar happened during the writing process: with patience and some luck, fundamental questions bury themselves so deep in the text that in the end you can no longer pick them out. (Just as we believe in God or in certain people having lost the germ of the emotion that drove us to this belief. Why do we believe in someone? Is trust something that comes to us naturally or is it something intentional, deliberate? I will return to the issue of intent shortly.)
I wanted to create a God in whom I could finally believe. An enigmatic and dangerous God, with whom, like my narrator, I could fall in love. And that love, like every love, would be hatched in a moment of inexplicable inspiration, in which desire and coincidence unite. We speak, and the universe listens.
Inspiration is an instant of revelatory truth. Schopenhauer describes it this way in his aphorisms: religions are not based on the conviction born of logic, but on the belief born of revelation.
In literature, this revelatory truth comes hand in hand with logic, since the writer is both aroused and compliant; s/he reveals and is, in turn revealed. This is a complex system of belief in which the creator-God is the most ardent believer in creation. S/he burns incense to the text, showers it with myrrh, meditates in front of it in silence or—like the American writer Mary Carr—goes as far as literally praying before starting to write. In her interview for the Paris Review, Carr says, “I try to pray formally morning and night starting with breathing exercises or centering prayer. Then the Lord’s Prayer or the Prayer of St. Francis: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace . . .’ Sometimes I listen to the daily liturgy on my iPod from Pray-As-You-Go.com, or I go online at Sacred Space—both Jesuit sites. I say thank you a lot. This morning I walked out saying, Thank you for the wind, thank you for the blue sky.”
Her views embarrassed me, but they also reminded me of something I had forgotten: religion as a childhood essence of humanity, as poetry, as sheer joy in existence. I realized that no matter whether the writer prays, or ridicules that prayer, at the moment of creation s/he reverses Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” Instead of asking “World, do you sense your Maker?” s/he wonders “Maker, do you sense your world?” If God exists, can He bear to share the act of creation? Would he go as far as refusing the right of origin? Another focal question that won’t allow God’s wife to get some rest.
In order to illustrate what I mean by religious belief as a childhood essence of humanity, let me draw on some central events in my life that relate directly to faith.
I was nine years old. My friend and I stole away from her summer house in the country and started rambling through the meadows. It was spring-time. The smell of wild oregano was strong in our nostrils. We ran like goats, up and down the hills, until in the horizon’s depths we made out the little church of St. Vassilis. We pulled open the heavy wooden door and found ourselves in front of the saint’s icon. He looked at us—sternly.
“Look!” my friend exclaimed. “His eyes moved.”
I remember my mouth went dry. Was he telling us off for running away from the house? Was he going to punish us for our callowness? And what if he decided to take it out on my father, who shared his name? All the way back to the house, the saint’s eyes followed me. I promise to be good, I kept repeating under my breath. When I found my father seated in an armchair reading the paper, I crossed myself, half-furtively.
That same year my parents announced our grandfather’s death. We were in the country once again. They thought that the open skies would help us come to terms with the enormity of existence. “This is just for you, God!” my cousin shouted. With open palm and fingers spread wide he started cursing the heavens. He must have been barely six years old and in that empty field he searched for God behind the clouds. Because He wouldn’t reveal himself, my cousin resorted to this gesture of insult, the typical Greek gesture of disdain. The Greek word for this, moutzono, is etymologically derived from mountos, darkness. By cursing God in this way, my cousin was exiling him to the primordial darkness of the world before it came into being. To chaos.
My cousin died young, and that’s when I started to cross myself again. I went to churches, monasteries, Buddhist temples, and for a year I lived in a tumult of belief, like the father of God’s wife in my book. He was a captain: “He believed in God only when the seas were rough. Everyone on the boat believed then.”
That peculiar knee-jerk devoutness overtook me again after my father’s death, not because God showed Himself to me, but rather because He forced his non-existence on me. Rerum absentium concupiscentia, Augustine said. Longing is desire for the absent object.
The second part of this essay appears here.
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.