Tuesday, May 28, 2024

39 Books: 2019

So much for this blog being labelled "the best resource in English on European modernist literature": this year's choice is a collection of lectures delivered in the early 1960s at the University of Zürich, published in English translation in 1970, with this edition being reissued in 1975 in the Fontana Library of Theology and Philosophy, at the time costing 65p, around £6 in today's money. What has this to do with modernist literature?

An answer may come but, in the meantime, it's notable that inexpensive mass-market paperbacks written by leading scholars in their field aimed at the general reader have since been replaced by expensive coffee-table hardbacks about science and history (and only science and history) written by TV personalities. The scholarly works that may be appreciated by today's general reader tend to be published with limited distribution by university presses, such as Cornell UP's Heidegger: An Introduction by Richard Polt, or by desperado publishers like Urbanomic with its superb compact edition of Quentin Meillassoux's The Number and the Siren, which I wrote about in the entry for 2012.

Why has this happened? Strangely, it may be explained in Luther by Gerhard Ebeling.

Before getting to the reason, it has to be admitted that series such as Fontana's have not always been welcomed. While allowing that George Holmes' Dante in OUP's Past Masters series is a "serious and sensible piece of work", Gabriel Josipovici added "in another sense it is a scandal":

No one reading it would ever imagine that Dante might be for him what he was for Eliot, what Virgil was for Donne. [T]his new series has never really asked itself what a past master might be.

Holme’s method is to try and trace the changes in Dante’s ‘ideas’ in the course of his writing the Comedy, showing how different the three cantiche are in their assumptions and interests, and how closely the changes coincide with the changing political situation. This is quite interesting to the person who already knows and loves the poem, but what it does is break it up and destroy the complex set of relations Dante has established within it, to reduce it, in the end, to little more than an ill-organised encyclopedia. [...] What it does is to ensure that hardly anyone will ever go from the essay to the poem, though quite a few will no doubt feel, having read it, that they now know what Dante is ‘about’.

As the subject here is not poetry, this should less of a danger, except the existential pressure of the subject for Luther was the same for Dante, so the stakes are still high. Ebeling aims to avoid releasing the pressure by drawing the reader "into a process in which we ourselves must share if we intend not merely to repeat his words, but to respond to them". It helps, he says, to recognise that Luther's thought always contains an antithesis, a "tension between strongly opposed but related polarities", for example between:

  • theology and philosophy
  • the letter and the Spirit
  • the law and the gospel
  • person and works
  • faith and love
  • God hidden and God revealed

Each polarity is given a separate chapter, but the idea of polarity itself is the one to which I respond, as these appear to be absent today, or rather unimportant, ignored, repressed, perhaps hidden under other labels. Ebeling wants us to encounter Luther as a linguistic innovator and says the polarised phrases he coined – theologia crucis and theologia gloriae (theology of the cross and theology of glory) – accurately express his understanding of theology. These are discussed in more detail in the chapter on the final polarity. Theologia gloriae is the "attempt to perceive the invisible nature of God from his works of creation" by which we can know only that belonging to the purely spiritual sphere. The God perceived by reason is a glorification of the world, but this knowledge is ultimately as atheism as it establishes "a harmony between God and the world...placing them on the same level and establishing a correspondence between them". Scholasticism and Neoplatonism are the main culprits for Luther, but for us we may see it as the coffee-table science writers, having taken reason to its ultimate destination, have no other recourse than to celebrate the natural world while alluding to the old polarities with titles containing Biblical metaphors. But polarity disappears, the words disappear. 

In contrast, the principle of knowlege of God in the cross is based on contradiction, the paradoxical revelation of God in its opposite form: "the infinite cloaks itself in finitude" with the "eternal, immaterial God dying as man of flesh and bone and oozing blood, in time, on a Roman cross" as Samuel Loncar puts it. For Luther, as the revelation takes place in darkness rather than in the light of knowledge, "everything depends upon the word and upon faith". If theologia gloriae equates in our time to the dominance of a humanistic, technical mindset (Holly Langstaff's recent book is a profound investigation of this in relation to the work of Maurice Blanchot), then theologia crucis may explain why contemporary literary criticism is trapped in a frantic oscillation between the purely technical and the purely cultural, both of which ignore the potential for a revelation otherwise. Ebeling says Luther was a linguistic innovator because "he had no other concern than to give proper utterance to the word". This should be the working definition for writers in our time.

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