I Read Because it is Absurd

I Read Because it is Absurd

Birger Vanwesenbeeck

Vanwesenbeeck situates Mark Taylor’s recent Rewiring the Real, within a growing body of critical literature (which also includes John McClure’s Partial Faiths and Amy Hungerford’s Postmodern Belief) that regards religion as key to a robust account of postmodern culture—and for Taylor, in particular, as key to appreciating the novels of William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo

The “rewiring” alluded to in the title of Mark Taylor’s new book is meant to suggest fiberoptic cable as well as the Latin verb religare (“to bind”), one of the etymological origins for the word religion. As a study of the “nexus” (or ligaments) between religion, technology, and art in the works of four contemporary American novelists, Rewiring the Real joins such earlier studies as John McClure’s Partial Faiths (reviewed in EBR by Stephen Schryer) and Amy Hungerford’s Postmodern Belief. It adds to a growing body of scholarship that has identified the religious as a major (if long unacknowledged) concern within the postmodern American literary imagination. 

As was the case in these two earlier studies, the presence of DeLillo looms large in Taylor’s book (the chapter on Underworld takes up nearly a third of Rewiring the Real); there are passing obligatory nods to the Transcendentalists and the Jena Frühromantik; and there is the duly noted sense, in each of these three studies, that there may well be something religious or sacral about the act of reading itself. For, in an age of instant messaging and texting, the “re-reading” (relegere) that both literature and religion urges marks them necessarily as marginalized activities and thus as matters of faith. Lego quia absurdum est: “I read because it is absurd.” For those who still consider themselves “people of the book” (writers, readers, as well as believers), this emendation of Tertullian’s well-known statement about belief might well describe both the value and challenges of (re-)reading at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The following passage from an interview with Richard Powers may serve as a case in point:

The thing that makes reading and writing suspect in the eyes of the market economy is that it’s not corrupted. It’s a threat to the GDP, to the gene engineer. It’s an invisible, sedate, almost inert process. Reading is the last act of secular prayer.

Literature here becomes religion in all but name. (Elsewhere, Powers refers to his annual re-reading of the well-known advent scene in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow as “the closest thing I have to a private religious ritual”). That, of all literary genres, it is the novel that has come to fulfill this religious function at the beginning of the twenty-first century is itself a rather stunning development. Long associated with the materialist clashes of class and voice, the novel here turns on its Bakhtinian origins in order to assume the redemptive, integrative qualities of scripture. One is therefore tempted to read the Stevens epigraph that opens Rewiring the Real (“After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption”) as being itself illustrative of another substitution in turn, one whereby the modernist poet (Rilke, Yeats, Stevens himself) relays the preoccupation with religion to the postmodern novelist: to William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo in the case of Taylor; to Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy in the case of Hungerford and McClure.

The appeal of such studies at the beginning of the twenty-first century can in part be attributed to a more widely shared post-9/11 interest in fundamentalism within American culture at large. This is most obviously the case with McClure, who seeks to distinguish the “partial faiths” of postmodern authors from fundamentalist discourse. As he sees it, “postsecular narratives affirm the urgent need for a turn toward the religious even as they reject (in most instances) the familiar dream of a full return to an authoritative faith” (6). Also Hungerford’s identification (and endorsement) of a “belief in meaninglessness” in post-1960s American fiction can be seen as an attempt to salvage religion while keeping it clear from the accusations of absolutism and totalization. 

If Hungerford and McClure’s anti-foundationalist reappropriation of religion inevitably has something wishy-washy about it, there is no such self-deflating logic in Rewiring the Real, a study that gains in bravery and élan what it loses in nuance. The “leap of faith” that Kierkegaard famously associates with religion is also what characterizes Taylor’s hermeneutical approach. If Hungerford and McClure write about religion as scholars, Taylor does so as a believer, not necessarily one that is affiliated with a particular denomination, but one who is nonetheless driven by the passion and fervor of faith rather than the critical methodologies of the moment. The fashionable term “postsecular,” which defined McClure’s book and much of the contemporary critical discourse on religion still, does not appear here. Neither is Taylor, a Professor of Religion at Columbia University, concerned, as is Hungerford, with providing a cultural genealogy of postmodern believing, its rituals and its politics. Instead, his ambitions are at once grander and more modest. His is a philosopher’s approach to literature, one that skirts the impurities of history and politics in favor of abstract ideas—God, Being, the real—even as the subtitle of his book signals an air of casualty more so than philosophical rigor. Like Derrida’s Glas, which it cites approvingly in passing, Rewiring the Real is a hopscotch of different discourses and registers. These include discussions of theological doctrine as well as autobiographical ruminations on the significance of baseball within the Taylor family home; literary analysis as well as one original piece of fiction (a sequel of sorts to DeLillo’s Point Omega); pedagogical reflections as well as photographic reproductions of Taylor’s own landscape art. Such is the “conversation” that Taylor initiates in Rewiring the Real between his own artistic-literary productions on the one hand and the four literary works that he discusses on the other: Gaddis’s The Recognitions; Powers’s Plowing the Dark; Danielewski’s House of Leaves; DeLillo’s Underworld.

Although some literary critics will cringe at the inflation of superlatives in Rewiring the Real or at the at times tiresome regurgitation of critical commonplaces (signifier-signified; uncanny) there is much here that warrants reading and re-reading. The inclusion of The Recognitions (1955)—so glaringly absent from McClure’s and Hungerford’s analyses—is a welcome addition to the debate on postmodern religiosity. So is the seemingly counterintuitive theological discourse through which Taylor has opted to approach these works. According to Taylor, what characterizes these novels is the pressing sense that reality is elsewhere, that the machines and technologies that we produce and peruse leave in their wake a form of transcendent longing that can never be fulfilled. The dream of virtual reality in Plowing the Dark; the inability to distinguish copies from originals in The Recognitions; the haunted house that is larger on the inside than it is on the outside in House of Leaves; all of these are examples of how “the real, however it is figured, is always slipping away” (120). 

To some extent this is not really a new argument seeing as it recaptures elements of the “technological sublime” that Fredric Jameson first identified as a major trait of postmodern culture. The negative theologies that we used to ascribe to God, and that the Romantics in turn associated with nature and the work of art, are now more commonly used to describe the wonder and awe that machinery inspires in us. Yet what distinguishes Taylor’s approach is that he frames this discussion in explicitly theological terms. One of the more provocative premises of Rewiring the Real is that “the obscurities of ancient theological debates turn out to be surprisingly relevant for life in postmodern worlds” (60). One of these debates hinges on the theological rift between what the philosopher Paul Tillich calls Augustine’s “ontological” (or immanent) approach to religion and Thomas Aquinas’s “cosmological” (or transcendental) approach. Whereas the former establishes the identification of God and Being—God is already present within us—the latter dissociates the two, locating the presence of God beyond both ourselves and reality at large. Tillich himself speaks in this regard of two different ways of approaching God: as the overcoming of estrangement (immanent-ontological-Augustinian) or as the meeting of a stranger (transcendental-cosmological-Thomistic).

While borrowing the terms of this dichotomy from Tillich, Taylor shows their continued relevance for the four novels under consideration. The strength of this approach is most obvious in the chapters on The Recognitions and Plowing the Dark. As he did on the pages devoted to J R in a previous study, Confidence Games, Taylor shows himself to be an astute reader of Gaddis. Part of this critical edge stems from the fact that, as a philosopher, he cares relatively little for the issues of periodization and canonization that have dominated the literary criticism on Gaddis. Whether The Recognitions is a postmodern novel or not is not a question that Taylor is concerned with. Neither does Rewiring the Real aim to set the canonical record straight. For although Taylor refers to the author of The Recognitions as “arguably the most underappreciated major twentieth-century novelist” (6), his goal is less to redeem Gaddis than to unpack the question of redemption itself. More specifically, his chapter zooms in on Gaddis’s thematization of the ancient theological debate between Homoiousios (“of like substance”) and Homoouisios (“of one substance”). As Taylor shows, the seemingly insignificant diphthong that distinguishes the two has far-reaching theological implications:

If Christ does not become fully incarnate in a human body, life in this world is ultimately irredeemable, and believers must withdraw or flee from it. If, however, Christ does become fully incarnate, nature and history can be redeemed, and believers are drawn ever more deeply into worldly existence. (25)

As a painter and forger of Old Masters, Gaddis’s protagonist is haunted by the artistic implications of this dichotomy. If God is not at work in the materials that the artist processes and rearranges, then there can be no redemption through art, a prospect that Wyatt finds as intolerable as it is creatively inhibiting. Relying on a wide rage of philosophical and literary references, from Kant to Nietzsche, Taylor’s chapter shows to what extent the theological and the aesthetic are intricately linked in The Recognitions, a novel that is both a Künstlerroman modeled after Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and a book that Gaddis himself described as the “last Christian novel.” 

It is a similar interdisciplinary approach that drives Taylor’s chapter on Powers’s Plowing the Dark. “Philosophy, religion, and art began in a cave” (78), so he states here, drawing together the etchings of Lascaux; Plato’s allegory of the cave; the catacombs used by the early Christians; and the cave where Mohammed received his revelation. That the virtual reality room in Plowing the Dark is called “the cavern” carries more than a little symbolic weight therefore, and Taylor’s chapter meticulously unpacks all of its implications. The chapters devoted to Underworld and House of Leaves, unfortunately, lack this methodological rigor. Although both the notions of waste, central to DeLillo’s narrative, and that of the haunted house, central to Danielewski’s novel, are thankful metaphors to work with, they also may get stalled at the level of cliché and overgeneralization. This is what happens in a sentence like “Underworld is actually a heap of trash, a pile of garbage that resembles a dump or a not-so sanitary landfill” (195). The philosophical nuance that elsewhere characterizes Taylor’s approach here gives way to the desire for quick fix analogies that suggest more than they actually contain. It is here that the historicist and political approach that characterizes Hungerford’s and McClure’s analyses of Underworld have the upper hand over Taylor. 

Yet Rewiring the Real ultimately redeems itself in the compelling “non-scientific postscript” that closes Taylor’s study. Returning once more to Tillich’s distinction between Augustine’s ontological conception and Aquinas’s cosmological model, Taylor shows that it is this very same dichotomy that structures the famed distinction between analytical and continental philosophy. The difference between the latter two, so he argues, is ultimately one of philosophical “style,” or, as I would like to suggest, of tools, with one modeling itself on art and the other on scientific discourse. To philosophize with the hammer, as Nietzsche called it, is to chisel away at the marble block of western metaphysics in order to give form to hidden infrastructures as well as to geological fault lines and historical wear. Such is the “artistic” legacy that runs from Kant and Hegel to the works of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. To philosophize analytically, by contrast, is to wield Occam’s razor and to remove the stubble of history and language in order for the de-sedimented slate of pure logic to come into view. Such is the approach that characterizes such thinkers as Husserl, Wittgenstein, and Carnap.

It will be obvious to readers of Rewiring the Real that Taylor’s own philosophical loyalties lie primarily within the tradition of continental philosophy. Indeed, there is an obvious sense in which art is precisely that which Rewiring the Real aspires to be, particularly in light of the author’s own track record as an artist. Yet Taylor’s postscript at the same time signals a willingness to reestablish relations between the two camps. That this call for a new collaboration between the two comes about within the context of religion, a topic of continued interest to both analytical and continental philosophers, has some strategic logic to it. If it was the issue of human speech over which the continental-analytical debate stalled now over a quarter-century ago—as exemplified in the debate between Derrida and Searle concerning the nature of speech acts—then Taylor’s book holds out the hope that divine scripture might yet mend relations. Or, to put it in the terms of Rilke, a favorite poet of both Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s, that “only a God can save us now.”

Works Cited

Hungerford, Amy. Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960. Princeton University Press, 2010.

McClure, John. Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Morrison and Pynchon. University of Georgia Press, 2007.

Powers, Richard. “Thomas Pynchon.” Book Forum (Summer 2005).  http://www.bookforum.com/archive/sum_05/pynchon.html

Taylor, Mark C. Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World without Redemption. University of Chicago Press, 2004.

—. Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo. Columbia University Press, 2013.