Spiritual Exercises in a Humanistic Register (III): Kevin Hart

This is the third installment of a three-part series on spiritual exercises in humanistic registers. The impetus for this series derives from my interest in the nature, meanings, and forms of spiritual experience in secular as well as religious contexts. As one aspect of that wider interest, I’ve been struck by a particular appeal to spirituality across three distinct genres of humanistic discourse—an appeal in name, the “spiritual exercises,” if not always in methodology. Part 1 reviewed the place of these exercises in the philosophy of Pierre Hadot and Part 2 took up their practice in some poems by Denise Levertov. In this third installment I consider a provocative reference to spiritual exercises in literary criticism.

Kevin Hart, Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Christian Studies at the University of Virginia (and one of the speakers at our upcoming symposium “On Being Vulnerable: ‘Crisis’ and Transformation”), concludes a recent book review by declaring that “we value” this book’s author “for bringing the discourses of spiritual exercises and phenomenology into the field of seventeenth-century literature. He is unlikely to remain alone for long in his endeavors.”[1] The book to which Hart refers is David Marno’s Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention, which involves extended reflection on—holy attention to, as it were—a sonnet of John Donne’s. Naturally, in a book of more than three hundred pages Marno attends to more than a single Donne poem. But he crafts his book around one of Donne’s most famous sonnets, “Death, Be Not Proud,” which poses perhaps more of a challenge conceptually and theologically than it does poetically. Marno is especially taken by how Donne brings his complex poem, with its sophisticated, even occasionally acrobatic turns of thought and phrase, to the point of a simple declarative clause. I cite here the full sonnet, a poetic address to a personified death:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swells’t thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.[2]

The last line—the entire poem, really—is Donne’s plain restatement of Paul’s flourish in 1 Corinthians 15: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”[3] Those words paradoxically animate death, awakening it rhetorically by way of apostrophe (“O death … O grave”) and thereby call attention to the blatant contradiction—the metaphysical conceit, almost—on which Christianity is founded: because of Christ’s atonement and resurrection, all rise from the dead; mortal existence converts to one of eternal duration.

Donne’s poem bears substantive similarity to the general purport of Paul’s epistle, though with some important differences. It awakens death in its chastening first line, “Death, be not proud,” and then proceeds through a series of taunts, almost in the poetic tradition of flyting, or banter: “some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, [but] thou art not so”; “those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow / Die not”; “rest and sleep [is all] thy pictures be”; and so on. The final lines divulge the base company death keeps—“poison, war, and sickness”—before depriving it even of these: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” How, Marno wonders, does Donne acquire the moxie of this conviction? More to the point, how does poetry generate the capacity for such conviction? How does it operate as a technology of belief?

One way it does so, Marno argues, is by cultivating a discipline of attention. “While in the resurrection God miraculously collects the dissolved parts of the human body, in experiences of attention it is that self whose scattered parts are miraculously reunited.” Attention recomposes our thoughts, gathering in one the fragments of fallen, distracted minds. And while attention is merely a type and shadow of the resurrection, “experiences of attentiveness nevertheless have one advantage over resurrection: they belong to this life.”[4] Hence, where attention may lack the ultimacy of the resurrection, it possesses far more immediacy: it’s a form of revitalization one may experience daily, impressing on the senses the promise of an ultimate, eternal awakening.

In their way, then, such attentive exercises reproduce the effects that Saint Ignatius designed for the spiritual exercises. Absorbing their exercitants in contemplative states of mind, they bear a resemblance to what Marno calls pure prayer, a state of undistracted attunement to the things of God. Such prayer fashions itself as the opposite of prayers we utter vocally, which risk perpetual distraction (e.g., from alternative associations accruing to certain words, the sensuous allure of sound, or simply the exigencies of grammar that open crevices—crevasses?—of thought between coordinated clauses). And yet, Marno continues, “once holy attention is transformed into a regulative ideal of religious action in general, the relationship between vocal prayer and pure prayer may turn upside down and the words of vocal prayer can become instruments … turning one’s active, transitive, and voluntary attention into the devotional disposition of holy attention.” Sound forges mental discipline as a hammer bludgeons hot metal. When that happens, “we might see vocal prayer and by extension devotional poems as [spiritual] exercises aiming to cultivate and prepare their authors, readers, and reciters for the disposition of holy attention” (112-13).

How, then, does Donne’s poem effectuate belief? In part by speaking its conviction and then by taking itself, attending to itself, at its word(s). “So faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17) or, in this instance, by the recitations of the poet. The more energetic the language, the more vibrant the faith.

This is an effect Marno’s book emulates in its sustained attention to a single Donne poem.[5] Unfolding context upon context, Marno recursively weaves new layers of meaning, revealing how Donne’s sonnet functions as a spiritual exercise. The poem “invites us to see the work of the poem as a poetic pistis,” or agent of belief, “a proof that emerges out of the poem’s own work” (199), a speaking that does not make it so as much as reveal that it is so and, most importantly, how we could see it as such. Hart applauds this effort with his own commentary, remarking that spiritual exercises in such a project “will be broadened to include all that a poet”—or critic—“does in order to train himself or herself to receive what gives itself,” opening us collectively to a glimpse of the divine. Such attention to the nature of spiritual experience “will be courted as purified awareness of the many ways in which [such] manifestation occurs.”[6]

Hart’s language of the critic preparing to “receive what gives itself” belongs to phenomenology. It alludes most directly to the work of Jean-Luc Marion, who contends that we only experience a phenomenon to the degree that it “gives itself,” or reveals itself, to us. When an object, a situation, a poem—any phenomenon, anything we encounter in our experience—gives more than it intends, Marion deems it “saturated,” allowing us to see beyond it into the world (or, for Marion and Hart, the divine sphere) from which it derives.[7] This bears significant implications for theology and, for Hart, poetry—something to which he turns his own sustained attention in a recent book, Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry (2017). As the title suggests, Hart “speak[s] of two connected things, how revelation of the divine is reflected or refracted in poems…. Yet it also speaks of a third thing: revelation as the manifestation of phenomena,” as what in poems give themselves to reflection. “So while this is a book about what is called, sometimes all too quickly, ‘religious poetry’ it is also a phenomenological study of this poetry; it seeks to approach responses to positive revelation by way of what the poetry makes manifest in all manner of modes of presence and absence: perception, recollection, anticipation, fantasy, and so on.”[8]

Hart’s approach is significant, for it resists what we might call (playing off the language of phenomenology) the “ideological reduction,” that is, the interpretation of religious poetry as the symptom of other things: social forces, economic conditions, political conflicts, even theological disputes. The focus, rather, is on givenness, on the content of what is revealed by way of the specific mode—rhetorical, tropological, formal—of its disclosure. As such, Hart argues,

great Christian poets are not bound by … the ‘supernatural attitude’: regarding creedal truths as though they referred to states and situations of the same modal status as states and situations in the natural world. They may credit these propositions as true yet their poems embody a passage from religious theses to phenomenological concreteness. The poems are properly read when we recognize that they suspend theses about the nature and acts of God and invite us to participate in pre-thetic experience of being in relation to God. Whether God exists, or exists as the poet thinks, is beside the point when it comes to reading a poem. [xii]

That something revelatory happens in poetry is less meaningful for Hart than how revelation happens. “Needless to say, all this is a long way from a strict theological understanding of the supernatural order as that which exceeds ens creatum,” or created being, Hart admits. “What is needed,” rather, “is a sense of God as the mystery of the world.”[9] Accordingly, “If we shift our perspective so that we pass from the supposed fact of revelation to its phenomenological concreteness, we can begin to rethink religious poetry” (11).

What does this look like in practice? I lack the space here to unpack particular readings of poems, but let me share a few of Hart’s conclusions. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s famous sonnet “God’s Grandeur” serves, for Hart, less as the poem of a particular experience—“The world is charged with the grandeur of God” in this moment—than of “experience itself” and a world perpetually upended. Experience in Hopkins’s sonnet “is a sign of revelation as interruption. What has been ‘experience’ in the past can no longer be counted as such, and from now on we will measure future events against what has been revealed to us” (15). Later, in a discussion of Eliot’s Four Quartets, Hart reflects that “We are led back to find ourselves not centered in our intellects, our wills or our consciousness but to what is revealed, divine love, ‘the unfamiliar name’…. God overcomes distinctions between the real and the ideal, the real and the imagined, the real and the possible …” (59-60). Discussing Friedrich Hölderlin, Hart deduces that “poetry would maintain a space where a new revelation might one day be made welcome again,” a region Hölderlin identifies with “‘the holy,’ although it has received other names, including ‘the impossible.’ … Poetry, then, is not of interest for any spiritual truths it may proclaim, but is of value for its preparation of men and women for such truths when they are finally made manifest” (206). Citing another example, the poetry of Charles Wright “abides in the ambiguity of ‘beyond belief’: it distrusts dogma while remaining open to the divine…. This is not the poetry of an angel or prophet but of a pilgrim” (211). Such poetry gives us new ways to interpret the kinds of ambiguities privileged in influential branches of theory like deconstruction. While Hart finds Derrida’s practice of close reading extraordinary, it ultimately caters (or craters?) to something he calls “transdescendence”—that is, to a materiality without meaning—as opposed to a “transascendence,” or an uplifting toward God. “The exemplary close reading of a Jacques Derrida can finally only hear the same silence behind everything, whether it is a poem by Hopkins or a récit by Blanchot…. The issue is not one of preferring another way of reading or of refining the one so finely practiced by Derrida but rather of asking what the very success of this hermeneutic has made us overlook or leave unheard. Can we hear other silences behind poetry?” (259) Hart’s answer is yes. There is an existential (and not just a metaphysical or ontological) difference between divine quietude and the deconstructive abyss.

This lends Hart’s meditations on poetry the quality of spiritual exercises. They bring us into the weave, the texture, of particular poetic situations in which we discover what these poems give as saturated phenomena—as Hopkins puts it, how they are “charged with the grandeur” (or, perhaps, the quizzical silence, the wonder, the hope—the mystery) of God. Of course, “A living relationship with God must precede the operation of the spiritual senses” (261), which recalls the complex problem Marno analyzes in Donne: Can poetry awaken and not just refine such senses? How far may one push the spiritual exercises in poetry?

The answer to these questions may depend not only on how we understand religion or poetry (hence, “religious poetry”), but experience. Hart sums up that challenge this way: “It could be argued that since World War I we have been faced with a world that limits experience…. And it could also be argued that poetry itself has rejected ‘experience’ … in order to value experiment, especially the attempt to see how automatic writing, mechanical devices or voices disconnected from persons can generate experience that no one has actually lived through” (9-10). Poetry itself has been a powerful medium in the critique of the individual human subject, a critique whose manifestations include the unconscious, hyperobjects, actor networks, virtual realities, the posthuman, and myriad others. So what does Hart propose? What is the antidote to the death or decay of experience? “I suspect that [such] rethinking would end with us putting aside ‘religious experience’ and turning to an expression that is not less fraught but fraught in ways that are worth taking on board. I mean the phrase ‘experience of God’” (10). An experiment upon the word, perhaps, whether Donne’s or those not dreamt of in his philosophy.

This post was written by Matthew Wickman, Founding Director of the BYU Humanities Center

[1] Hart, “Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention. By David Marno. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.” Christianity and Literature 67.2 (2018): 395-98 (398).

[2] “Holy Sonnets: Death Be Not Proud,” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44107/holy-sonnets-death-be-not-proud. Accessed September 1, 2018.

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:55, King James Version. Subsequent references cited in the text.

[4] Marno, Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 12. Subsequent references cited in the text.

[5] One should draw an important distinction here. Donne’s sonnet appeals to the resurrection as what Aristotle would call an “inartificial” proof, one the orator can take as a given. The task in that instance is one of assimilation: to feel in oneself what one takes to be true. Marno, meanwhile, is not asking that we simply internalize Donne’s poem, so his arguments are of the “artificial,” deliberative variety. On this distinction see Death Be Not Proud 49-51.

[6] Hart, “Death Be Not Proud,” 396.

[7] See Marion, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, translated by Jeffrey L. Kosky (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 199-221, passim.

[8] Hart, Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), xi. Subsequent references will be cited in the text.

[9] Hart here seems implicitly to echo Rowan Williams, who observes that “Revelation does not fill a gap, but shows why the gap is there, not resolving difficulty but offering a perspective in which difficulty is what makes sense and what we must become accustomed to…. Living with difficulty is the awareness of an incompleteness that never ceases to pose questions and to generate both unexpected new strategies and unexpected new frustrations….” And, elsewhere: “Arguably, one of the basic implications of seeing the world as in some way ‘sacred’ is to see it as always hiding something from us, as well as always presenting fresh aspects for understanding and representation….” The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 180-81, 119.

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