The idea of innocence is far from easy, though it is the easiest thing to lose. Innocent Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost stood no chance against the arguments of Satan, for the only way she could have resisted his temptations and retained her innocence would have been if she had already fallen and, therefore, inherently suspicious of his wily arguments. To remain innocent she must be guilty. What Elizabeth Dodd calls ‘the paradox at the heart of innocence’ is what this excellent and wide-ranging collection of essays seeks to explore. The book is introduced by Carl E. Findley’s fine essay on the history of innocence in the Hebraic, Classical, and Christian traditions, which he describes in turn as the religio-moral, the juridical, and the salvific. He reviews in Augustine’s Confessions the early Christian association of innocence with children—a theme that will be continued here through Romanticism and George MacDonald up to Robert A. Davis’ essay on the posthuman child in Steven Spielberg’s unsettling film A.I. (2001)—as well as innocence as a weapon in a persecuted Church in Tertullian and Lactantius. Is innocence an inherent simplicity, or is it something that can be learned and acquired, something that we can mature into with knowledge and imagination? Such questions form the basis of this series of fine essays in literature and theology, from Elizabeth S. Dodd’s discussion of the work of the metaphysical poets John Donne, George Herbert, and Thomas Traherne (Dodds having already written a full-length book on Traherne entitled Boundless Innocence ), to Devon Abts on Geoffrey Hill and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Carl E. Findley on Robert Musil and Christopher Carr on Evgenii Zamyatin and Mikhail Bulgakov and Russian revolutionary politics. What makes this collection a particularly good example of interdisciplinary reflection on an essentially theological paradox within literary texts, is the fact that it is braced and tightened by careful philosophical analyses. The key essays, then, are those by Michael Subialka on aesthetics in Kierkegaard and late-19th-century decadentism, Findley’s on Musil’s unfinished, post-Nietzschean novel The Man Without Qualities, and Zachary J. Goldberg’s careful analysis of moral innocence and moral maturity in Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard. Of these, the most disturbing by far is Findley’s unpicking of the Nietzschean innocence in Musil’s philosophical novel, after The Genealogy of Morals and setting the stage for the incestuous relationship of Ulrich and Agathe, described with explicitly religious language and uncannily suggesting a kind of mirror image of the problem of Eve with which I began. Findley ends his discussion of Musil with words from the poet Heinrich von Kleist: ‘Must we once again eat of the tree of knowledge in order to fall back into a state of innocence?’ (p. 112). Study in literature and theology is not meant to make theology easy. Rather, it opens it up to strange and shifting landscapes and conflicting contexts that alter with the passage of history but in which the fundamental questions persist. Poets like Geoffrey Hill and Gerard Manley Hopkins know that language itself, the very stuff of their craft, is far from innocent. After Rousseau, another participant in the fictive utopia of Musil, language becomes indicative of human degeneration from the condition of natural grace—we fall into words. Thus, Devon Abts offers a fine reflection on that most difficult of poets, Geoffrey Hill and his sense of the complex relationship between language and original sin, while Hopkins’ poetry is refined by its resistance to what Abts incisively calls ‘the gravitational pull of language’ (p. 93). The words drag him down, and the poetry, in words, is the struggle with them. Such good exercises in the art of literature and theology should unsettle us, theology itself defamiliarized and made strange in the deconstruction of a key term like ‘innocence’ as it is shockingly uncovered, stripped bare, and challenged. Unfortunately, such exercises are rare—and for that reason this book is to be welcomed warmly. Its breadth and richness—from Tertullian, to Traherne, to MacDonald, to Zamyatin, to Musil—might indicate an all too typical failing of many collections of essays that read like uncontrolled opportunities for everyone to publish something, strung together by the thinnest of themes. But this is not the case here. By the end of this book the reader is far less innocent about innocence, better informed and both intellectually, theologically, and spiritually challenged. I warmly recommend it to all readers of this Journal. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com
Literature and Theology – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 25, 2017
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