The Devil and Pierre Gernet: Stories
David Bentley Hart
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012
184 pp., 28.99
Betty Smartt Carter
In the Halls of Story
I'm not an expert on any aspect of antiquity, though I teach high school Latin and once interrupted Ralph C. Wood during a panel conversation about St. Augustine. I really thought the poor man needed my help. The lesson I took away from that day was this: in the presence of people who know what they're talking about, it's best to stay quiet and look thoughtful, as if you're contemplating Roman tax law, or wondering why you never finished your master's degree.
That charade is harder to maintain in an essay than on a stage with loquacious scholars, and so I hope David Bentley Hart will pardon me for asking to write this review of his excellent collection of short stories, The Devil and Pierre Gernet. This is Hart's first published work of fiction, but he's already well known as a theologian, church historian, and defender of the faith against Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens, Inc. And since it's always hard to forgive a polymath, I'm perversely glad to report that his writing does bear a few scars of academia, including an alarming reliance on qualifying adverbs and a vocabulary that only a multilingual oenophile could truly love. Nevertheless, his prose is often lovely and always imaginative and emotionally rich. So, alas, some people do get to have it all.
But the main attraction here isn't really writing, or even storytelling. What David Bentley Hart offers is more akin to architecture. Wandering through his superficially unconnected stories, you may have the feeling of exploring an old, sprawling house, each room dedicated to a central idea and decorated with its own measure of poetry, scholarship, and whimsy. Doors appear in unexpected places. Passing from one story to another, you realize that what connects them is an ancient way of looking at the world: a vision of ideas, dreams, and history itself as creations of a mind outside of time.
The title novella takes the form of a dinner-table conversation between a passive narrator and a fallen angel who "had walked the earth for ages, wearing countless guises and called by a multitude of names." This is a familiar convention, and the demon's vanity makes him good for a few Screwtapesque laughs:
[C]ertain of his boasts seemed a little too fantastic to credit. "I invented vegetarianism," for example, or (more expansively), "I invented the agricultural revolution … and, of course, human sacrifice." On one occasion, he claimed not only to be a champion of the avant-garde, but in fact the inventor of all conceptual art and its most generous patron.
Explaining the status of his lugubrious manservant, the demon gives us a glimpse of hell's hierarchy:
"For us, you see, the world here below is a kind of abysmal mirror inversion of our former condition; back in the old days, in the warm light of the spheres above the moon, he actually stood much higher in the angelic hierarchy than I …. [S]ubjugation based purely on power seemed to conform to his moral expectations. In fact, he began to luxuriate in his degradations, to the point that I had to halt the beatings. A wise master denies his servants too many luxuries."
Interestingly, the "inversion" principle of pandemonium doesn't apply to Satan himself, who "remains terrible in his ruin," dwelling at the bottom of a "deep, frigid pool." His servants hear his "mesmerizing, metallic moan" but can only wonder about his powers. It's in their nature to dream of revolution and cyclical change: "Perhaps I could crush him like an insect," says the demon interlocutor, "but I dare not test his strength: it could be very painful."
The conversation takes a more sinister tone (if that's possible) when the demon describes how he once lured a devout scholar-poet, Pierre Gernet, to despair, drug addiction, and eventual death. Pierre's descent began after his fiancée rejected him rather than lose her fortune, but at the core of his collapse was his "own pathetic devotion to a largely mystical past, to 'timeless truth' rather than to the truth of time." Rather than learn to "doubt and to hate … so that something more primitive could break through all those conventions of thought and formality," Pierre simply withered away in disappointment.
The demon longs to interpret this passive ruin as an act of rebellion, and he gloats over the memory of Pierre's wrecked body—an "ideal monument to the futility of all those transcendental ecstasies that had tormented him." Yet he's still brooding over the last-minute appearance of a "great oaf of a blundering angel "who snatched Pierre's body away to worlds unknown. "Caprice and whimsy!"
Other stories in the collection offer rare philosophical and historical pleasures. In "The Ivory Gate" (another long conversation in a restaurant: we must pity the waitress who attends the tables of Hart's characters), a dying philosopher describes several labyrinthine series of dreams in which he passes further and further into what seems to him the real world, while the waking world feels increasingly like a prison. The story ends in an interesting twist, but what strikes me is how little depth the "real" characters have; the dream images (from the world of being) glow with vivid detail. This echoes Pierre Gernet's devotion to "timeless truth" rather than endless revolution—the wearisome dialectic of the post-Enlightenment age.
In my favorite story, "The House of Apollo," the apostate Emperor Julian visits Antioch in AD 362, hoping to breathe life back into the worship of the old gods. Even the local priest of Apollo sees that paganism is on its last legs; the old man faithfully tends the lonely shrine, but he admires the worshipers of "the Galilean" and bears them no ill will. With his portrait of this old pagan—"When at last he lay dying on his bed, on a warm summer afternoon full of the songs of innumerable birds"—Hart earns the price of the book. The priest's beautiful deathbed vision of a departing god—the classical world in retreat—is ripe for explicitly Christian interpretation, yet Hart blessedly declines to spell that out, trusting his readers.
I don't know whether David Bentley Hart will bother writing more of what he calls "fiction of ideas" as opposed to "ripping good yarns" (or, more generally, the "fiction of non-sales" as opposed to "ripping good atheists"). I hope he will, and I suppose there's some reason for hope, since he says in an "Author's Apologia" to The Devil and Pierre Gernet that "purely at the level of ideas I've never written a more serious book." This may be theologian-code for "I'm still planning to write that voluminous work I promised on the desert fathers—just can't seem to knock out the opening paragraph." But I'd rather see it as a defense of fiction itself: the pursuit of truth through the halls of story. Argument and exposition flow from every academic and ecclesiastical spigot. What we thirst for in this technologically saturated but spiritually dessicated age is beauty that reflects what really is. And this is a beautiful book.
Betty Smartt Carter writes fiction and essays and teaches Latin in Alabama.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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