The poet Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss; the final lines are from Gerard Manley Hopkins. "Self" here has a particular definition established in earlier chapters; it is a conception of individual existence which contrasts indifferently with the word "soul,"
a word that has become almost embarrassing for many contemporary people unless it is completely stripped of its religious meaning. Perhaps that’s just what it needs sometimes: to be stripped of its ‘religious’ meaning, in the sense that faith itself sometimes needs to be stripped of its social and historical encrustations and returned to its first, churchless incarnation in the human heart. That’s what the twentieth century was, a kind of windstorm-scouring of all we thought was knowledge, and truth, and ours —until it became too strong for us, or we too weak for it, and ‘the self replaced the soul as the fist of survival’ (Fanny Howe). Anxiety comes from the self as ultimate concern, from the fact that the self cannot bear this ultimate concern: it buckles and wavers under the strain, and eventually, inevitably, it breaks.
My Bright Abyss is dense with such astute and precise humanity —in its poems, both Wiman’s and those he quotes, and its prose descriptions of lived experience— that one’s own lack of religiosity seems hardly important, no more important than faithlessness in a cathedral of tremendous beauty or incredulity amidst Buddhist monks quietly and carefully transcribing their texts. It is certainly the best introduction to poetry I’ve read, but also the most universalizing account of belief:
To have faith is to acknowledge the absolute materiality of existence while acknowledging at the same time the compulsion toward transfiguring order that seems not outside of things but within them, and within you, not an idea imposed upon the world but a vital, answering instinct. Heading home from work, irritated by my busyness and the sense of wasted days, shouldering through the strangers who merge and flow together on Michigan Avenue, merge and flow in the mirrored facades, I flash past the rapt eyes and undecayed face of my grandmother, lit and lost at once. In a board meeting, bored to oblivion, I hear a pen scrape like a fingernail on a cell wall, watch the glasses sweat as if even water wanted out, when suddenly, at the center of the long table, light makes of a bell-shaped pitcher a bell that rings in no place on this earth. Moments, only, and I am aware even within them, and thus am outside of them, yet something in the very act of such attention has troubled the tyranny of the ordinary, as if the world at which I gazed gazed at me, as if the lost face and the living crowd, the soundless bell and the mind in which it rings, all hankered toward—expressed some undeniable hope for—one end.
Quoting any part of the book is acutely frustrating; as Andrew Sullivan wrote after confessing that he read it “in a great rush of exhilaration” that kept him awake into the night, “It is no exaggeration to say that I’ve waited my entire adult life to read a book like this. It is impossible to summarize or even categorize.” And so it is. Perhaps the clearest thing I can say about it is that it seems to come from a time before the degradation and quiet collapse of art and literature, before noncommercial and nonsocial meaning itself was rendered absurd. Sullivan compares it to Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, and Weil —a hero of mine in every sense— also seemed rather like an emissary from a vastly more serious and honest time. The introspection on which Wiman and Weil alike base much of their work has nothing of the performativity that ensnares our introspection, to note one difference among many. Sullivan again:
If I were to suggest why, whether believer or not, you should read My Bright Abyss, it would be because Wiman asks the most difficult questions I can imagine about life and death with unflinching honesty.
For me, the caliber, depth, and intensity of his honesty is a bracing artistic achievement rare if not absent among contemporary writers, into whose most intimate prose creeps a pathetic public deference, a political sort of compromise, as though while making love they are wondering how their form will be judged, pretending to enjoy that which they do not. They are oppressed by the imperative to conform to a zeitgeist which insists it is not fashion but moral truth, as though any era is anything but transiently mistaken, soon to be misunderstood by generations who judge it ethically wanting, intellectually primitive, socially disgraceful. Do you think you are not a slaveholder, in your way? Do you think you will carry the approval of your peers with you into the dark earth?
I peer at Wiman’s sentences, trying to determine how he managed to get off stage in order to think and write just so, how he managed to create without hearing the carping of the crowds we all now carry. I will never not hear them, never not seek to anticipate them and defend myself. Wiman quotes Rilke’s Seventh Duino Elegy, which I read and ignored in school:
Truly being here is glorious. Even you knew it,
you girls who seemed to be lost, to go under –, in the filthiest
streets of the city, festering there, or wide open
for garbage. For each of you had an hour, or perhaps
not even an hour, a barely measurable time
between two moments –, when you were granted a sense
of being. Everything. Your veins flowed with being.
But we can so easily forget what our laughing neighbor
neither confirms nor envies.
It is hard to keep a sense of oneself, but even in the filthiest streets of the city our veins flow with being. My Bright Abyss helps me remember what matters and what does not. (via mills)