From the November, 2005 issue of Touchstone

Infinite Lit by David B. Hart

Book Riview

Infinite Lit

Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination
ISI Books, 2004
(411 pages, $15.00, paperback)

reviewed by David Bentley Hart

Few American literary scholars could have known in 1960—the year in which Fr. William Lynch’s Christ and Apollo first appeared—that the reigning school of the “New Criticism” was entering into its twilight. The Eliotic rebellion against Romanticism and the consequent elevation of the Metaphysical Poets to canonical supremacy had become the established orthodoxy. A high formalism—hostile to subjective affectivity, false transcendence, or empty enthusiasm—enjoyed all but unquestioned authority.

Yet only eight years later, Jacques Derrida’s notoriously oracular encomium on structuralism at Johns Hopkins would leave many of the younger denizens of American English departments hopelessly infatuated with movements in French postmodernism that they would possess neither the philosophical erudition to understand nor the good taste to despise. Soon American literary academe’s quest for its holy grail—what Cleanth Brooks called the “well wrought urn” of the perfectly crafted poetic artifact—would be abandoned in favor of more exciting (because somewhat more degenerate) critical pursuits.

Lynch’s Oblivion

This perhaps explains, at least in part, how it is that a book of such impressive originality as Lynch’s should have fallen into obscurity so soon after its publication, and should have languished in near oblivion for at least three decades. Admired as it once was, it was too much a part of a fading moment in intellectual history.

Not to say that Lynch was a slave of his time. True, he (like the New Critics) harbored a wholesomely robust distaste for tendentious schools of literary criticism devoted to questions of ideological or social “relevancy,” but he was also impatient with the desire of many of his contemporaries to seal off the literary artifact so jealously against the contamination of any concern beyond itself as to reduce the literary act itself to a kind of exquisite and intricate autism.

Still, where Lynch diverged from the critical dogmas of his day, he was not precocious: His book contained no hint of an interest in “transgression,” expressed no loathing for “patriarchy” or “phallogocentrism,” evinced no concern for “post-colonial” consciousness, betrayed no anxiety regarding “the absence of the signified,” “queer theory,” “eco-feminism,” “post-globalist Marxism”—none of this was even so much as foreshadowed in its pages. His was, in short, a reactionary text.

Therein, of course, lies its brilliance. Christ and Apollo is a remarkably coherent—if eccentric—attempt to address the critical concerns of its day by way of a retreat to perhaps the most conceptually sophisticated “formalism” of all: the classical Christian metaphysics of the transcendental perfections of truth, goodness, beauty, and (above all) being.

Lynch was, after all, not only a literary scholar, but also a philosopher and theologian of some considerable erudition. As such, his inclination was to approach literature not simply as an object of aesthetic concern, nor even more broadly as a matter of general culture, but as a particular path to a truer vision of humanity, creation, and God.

Divine Particularity

Lynch felt a special aversion to any art that too obviously presumes the vantage of the “angelic intellect”: that is, an intellect capable of an immediate intuition of the essences of things, without any passage through empirical experience or any conversion of that experience into knowledge by way of the imagination. Meaning is won through the concrete—at least for us mortals—or it is either false or vapid.

This is in a sense the single “large claim” animating Lynch’s project, and it is for this reason that the first half of Christ and Apollo is taken up with an indictment of various tendencies within modern literature towards a kind of irrepressible abstraction, albeit an abstraction often veiled behind a counterfeit realism.

Lynch’s model of the creative act is entirely theological, and is in fact specifically conformed to the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation. It is in this doctrine, Lynch believes, that Western consciousness’ unique attention to particularity—the particularity of time, of flesh, of personality—finds its highest rationale, and that the way to true beauty and wisdom ( through limitation and finitude) is laid open.

It was in the broken particularity of Christ’s humanity—a humanity plumbed to its uttermost depths—that the nature of his divinity was revealed. And, in light of this belief, Lynch concludes that the highest literary accomplishments are the result of an imagination that, by suffering the probation of the particular, arrives at a “universality” richer than any that mere abstraction could provide.

This is the meaning, as it happens, of the title of Lynch’s book. His Apollo is not the god of myth so much as the Apollo Nietzsche described in The Birth of Tragedy: the god of the dream image, of lovely and mesmerizing spectacle, of timeless and serene proportion, whose chief function is to master the creative and destructive energy of Dionysus—of life and death, that is—and convert it into enchanting artifice.

“I take even the symbol of Apollo,” writes Lynch, “as a kind of infinite dream over against Christ, who was full of definiteness and actuality. . . . [L]et Apollo stand for . . . that kind of fantasy beauty which is a sort of infinite, which is easily gotten everywhere, but which will not abide the straitened gates of limitation that leads to stronger beauty.”

The world of the finite, argues Lynch, should never be treated simply as a land of magical symbols, where the author briefly sojourns before springing up into the “infinite” or retreating into a private realm of personal sensibility (Proust is singled out for special censure on this point). Nor should it be treated—in dialectical fashion—merely as a universe of horror, nausea, absurdity, or ennui, and so as the occasion either of flight to the “real world” of heaven (as in the theology of Karl Barth) or of hopeless but heroic existential authenticity (as in the work of Camus).

Most importantly, says Lynch, the writer must never seek to escape from the constraints of time into a world of pure ideas, affect, or vision. It is by the hard way of time only (“Christic temporality,” as Lynch calls it) that the fruit of finitude, the “fullness of time,” is to be reaped. It is for this reason that much of modern tragedy—with its cheap triumphalism, false sublimities, and obstreperous humanist optimism—earns Lynch’s special contempt.

Lynch’s Analogy

In the second half of Christ and Apollo, Lynch attempts to set his critical philosophy upon a metaphysical foundation, and this he does by resorting to the theological language of the analogia entis or “analogy of being.” One must say, however, that he rather too quickly presumes that his terms will be recognizable to his readers, which is a very great deal to presume indeed. This, surely, is another cause of the book’s meager posterity. So here—to risk a trying descent into the abstruse—some elucidation is probably necessary.

To begin with, as a purely philosophical question, the issue of “analogy” concerns the power of a single predicate to refer to two different realities without being reduced to a single meaning or divided into two utterly different meanings. In the former case, the usage would be “univocal,” and in the latter it would be “equivocal.” For example, one might describe a river’s tributary or a journalist’s informant as a “source,” not because the word has exactly the same acceptation in either case, but because there is a certain discernible “proportion” (which is what “analogy” properly means) between the two cases that holds the predicate together.

The “analogy of being,” then, concerns first the application of the word “being” to both God and creatures: how can this word be used both of finite temporal reality and infinite eternal reality without its meaning disintegrating into complete equivocity? One traditional way of framing an answer is to say that in God “essence” ( what he is) and “existence” ( that he is) are the same—one infinite and simple “subsistent act of being.”

For us, however, what we are in no way naturally implies that we must be, for existence is graciously superadded to our essence by our creator, and even our essence is not our own: it is given to us by God, and we possess it always only in part, as we pass through time, becoming what we are always by losing what we have been.

Our Universality

This yields one very delightful consequence. If it is the wholly fortuitous synthesis of essence and existence within us, in becoming, that constitutes our analogy to the perfect identity of essence and existence in God, in its eternal changelessness, then the more we become the particular beings that we are, the more we show forth the being of God: precisely because, that is, of our “infinite difference” from God. It is our very particularity—in all the richness and poverty of its limited existence—that is also our universality.

Why, though, does Lynch need to resort to this particular metaphysical grammar? Because, in his view, the great failure of much of modern literature often lies in its implicit rejection of the principle of analogy, and its consequent subjugation to either the univocal or the equivocal imagination.

The former is that of the passionate idealist or apostle of pity or merciless social engineer, who sees truth as lying only in some single grand abstraction, in service of which all the uniqueness and difference of the particular is reduced to allegory or instrumental detail. The latter is that of the tedious and solipsistic absurdist, for whom nothing means anything beyond itself, and for whom then only an art of pure suddenness, arbitrariness, and spontaneity can correspond to the private hell from which it issues.

Only the truly analogical imagination, Lynch believes, can hold the same and the different together in a single creative act able to reach the universal by way of the particular and to illuminate the particular through the universal.

Prescient Artifact

Coming to Christ and Apollo forty-five years after its debut, one cannot help but be impressed by Lynch’s prescience. In many ways, of course, the book is an artifact of its age and deals with artists from whose influence time has mercifully delivered us. (Did anyone ever really take Archibald MacLeish seriously? Why, for God’s sake?)

But more striking is how prophetically this book adumbrates and inveighs against the critical movements that would soon emerge in academia. For, indeed, the new orthodoxy consists quite explicitly in an intellectually inept but still triumphalist rejection of analogy. To grasp this, one need only note how enthusiastically literary scholars have embraced the formula of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze: “the univocity of being, the equivocity of beings,” i.e., the meaningless sameness of existence, the meaningless difference of things.

That said, Lynch’s is a flawed book. At times, its insistence upon “limitation” becomes doctrinaire and somewhat silly. For instance, I could not help but sense that I was expected to prefer not only the character, but the art, of Mauriac to that of Proust, and this, I reluctantly confess, I am unable to do.

Too often Lynch fails to grasp that, as much as knowledge of the universal is to be gained through the particular, the reverse is always also true. Moreover, how an artist goes about negotiating this circle of knowledge is not something one should be too eager to prescribe. If nothing else, it would be possible for a dissenting critic to argue that when Proust or Nabokov attempts to gather up the moments of experience into a coherent pattern of sensibility or symbolism, this is not merely an aesthete’s recreation from the real or a flight to the timeless, but is also an attempt to glimpse time sub specie aeternitatis, indeed to recognize eternity within becoming without abandoning the particular.

The theologian must, of course, take exception to the understanding of eternity thus produced. The critic, however, has no grounds by which to indict the novelist of inattention to the real.

Nonetheless, all that said, Lynch’s book remains a splendid work, original and audacious in argument, penetrating in critique, and rigorous in its speculative architecture. ISI is to be commended for rescuing it from its archival exile. And who knows? Now that the epoch of postmodern literary criticism is ( Deo gratias) entering into its own twilight, the time for the reappropriation of Lynch’s magnum opus has finally arrived.

David B. Hart is the author of The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans, 2003), reviewed in the September 2004 issue.

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