David Marno’s Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention inaugurates “Class 200,” a new book series from the University of Chicago Press. (The series name comes from religious studies’ numerical place in the Dewey decimal system; two more works, one on US consumer culture and religion, the other on mesmerism in America, have appeared in the series since the publication of Marno’s book.) On its website, Class 200 states its aims boldly: to remake the study of religion, revise its scholarly terminologies, and ask new, demanding questions in, and of, its research and writing. To this end the series editors vow to “. . . nurture authorial reflexivity, documentary intensity, and genealogical responsibility,” and to “[presume] no inaugurating definition of religion other than what it is not.” What religion is not, then, is “reducible to demographics, doctrines, or cognitive mechanics. It is more than a discursive concept or cultural idiom. It is something that can be named only with a precise and poetic wrestling with the nature of its naming.” This intellectually muscular, self-reflexive, documentarily intense mission suits the inspiration for this monograph: the English preacher and poet John Donne (1572–1631). It also suits the intentions of the author. David Marno takes up the Class 200 mission with authorial audacity and scholarly singularity. Death be Not Proud is inspired by the human struggle to achieve perfect attentiveness, as evidenced in the writings of authors both sacred and secular, from the time of Aristotle through the age of Shakespeare. Marno opens with an insight provided by the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715). In Malebranche’s reckoning, humans could either perform the act of thinking or have thoughts intrude upon their consciousness: “In thinking, I perform an action; but when a thought occurs to me, I become the witness of an event, and suddenly I look back on my thinking as preparation for an event that was never in my control” (1). This cognitive state of simultaneous activity and passivity, in Malebranche’s musings, most closely resembled the act of praying. For if, in thinking, one hoped both to discover truth and also to have truth disclose itself, and if, as Malebranche asserted (like any good early modern), “God is Truth,” then one would, in praying, hope most intensely for the disclosure and discovery of God’s will. And so the key to such connection, given the innate corruption and bondage of the human will, would be to wait on God, “solicitous[ly] waiting for a conversation to happen” (1). Marno identifies this Malebrancheian courteous patience as the art of holy attention: a singular form of religious devotion that allows for glimpses of divine truth, revealed in a transient instant as having been present all along. This launches a complex, multi-layered, and ambitious argument that—with learned resort to theologians and philosophers, ancient and modern, and literary critics, modern and postmodern—proposes we understand holy attention as a devotional act neither specifically Catholic nor Protestant, but exceptionally well suited to the religious challenges of a post-Reformation era that required new forms of theological and personal reconciliation. Invention, the creation of something new, had been the proper domain of poetry since Aristotle’s Poetics, but the proper domain of religion, at this time, was doctrine, something humans could not invent but only discover. Marno renames this latter domain the given (as in: articles of faith like resurrection, justification, salvation). Religious poetry had long been constrained by strict rules governing both poetics and orthodoxy, unable to create divine ideas but only to elicit emotional reactions to doctrines already received. After the Reformation, however, belief depended once again on conversion—not to new doctrines (as that would be heresy), but to eternal doctrines suddenly rediscovered, as it were, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. The task for religious lyric accordingly became equally complex. Marno claims that, in his Holy Sonnets, Donne was able, successfully and singularly, to challenge that longstanding constraint in literary and religious realms, uniting the gift with the given by calling his readers to attentiveness with lessons encoded in poetic structure. Marno’s primary evidence is Holy Sonnet 10, which begins, famously, “Death be not proud. . .” and ends, just as famously, “. . . Death, thou shalt die.” To reveal the devotional practices embedded in this text, Marno employs the literary and philosophical methods associated with close reading (mostly finding tropes and comparing proofs). He also sketches out holy attention’s religious components: preparation (using the example of Claudius’s failed prayers in Hamlet), thanksgiving (where Marno’s theory of gift and given receives its most sustained explanation), and human distraction (in novel fashion, Marno argues that Donne thought “distraction an integral part of the [Holy Sonnets’] striving to attentiveness” ). This description of the early modern phenomenology of prayer can sound like something more secular and more recent. Marno allows that holy attention works most, perhaps, like “the modern protocol of close reading” (35)—and indeed, by the final pages of his book, he has returned to that method, employed on this sonnet, over and again. Readers who are not literary critics but the kind of religious studies scholars we might reasonably expect to purchase books from a series called “Class 200” will consider Death be Not Proud a fluently argued contribution to the philosophy of religion, one that concentrates on the phenomenology of prayer by way of a work of literature they may not have encountered since their undergraduate days in English Literature 101. People who teach English literature will expect Death Be Not Proud to be a book primarily about Donne and early modern poetry and might be surprised to find less of him than they expected, despite Marno’s title and chapter conclusions. They will enjoy its elegant close readings (several of the best consigned to the footnotes), as well as its elegant defense of the modern art of close reading. And they will side either with Marno’s impatience with “new historicist” readings that turn Donne’s poetry into evidence of the Catholic-Protestant debates of the period, or with his distaste for strenuously formalist readings that allow a poem to do nothing but internally generate its own meaning—or both. In any case, it is exciting to imagine literary critics and scholars of religion captivated in equal measure by this challenging and thought-provoking tour de force of a first monograph. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 24, 2018
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