David Bentley Hart’s Roland in Moonlight
By Matt Boulter
When, several years ago, I read Jean Grondin’s intellectual biography Gadamer, about the eponymous German continental philosopher, I was astonished at the efficacy of that genre, its ability to convey difficult dimensions of Gadamer’s thought with an economical vividness unmatched by, say, Gadamer’s monumental (and densely cryptic) Truth and Method. There was something about the genre that allowed for such a lucid and compact communication of ideas.
Something similar is going on in David Bentley Hart’s Roland in Moonlight, it seems to me. Yet the genre in question is not the intellectual biography, but rather what one might call “intellectual fantasy” (which, in my hypothetical taxonomy of literary genres, is a sub-genre of intellectual fiction). The first hint in this book that we are dealing with fantasy? The episode on page 11, when we realize that the main character is, in fact, a talking canine.
Indeed the linguistic character of this Boston terrier is crucial to another dimension of this book, its exquisite quality as an unfolding dialogue. Unsurpassed by the dialogical genius of either a Tarantino film or a work by Plato himself, it is in this back-and-forth conversation between narrator (Hart himself) and dog that (the real-world) Hart’s ideas — philosophical, theological, metaphysical, political — enter the reader’s bloodstream with maximum potency.
Indeed, one might say that this 366-page story contains the entirety of Hart’s voluminous corpus of published works — only a fraction of which I have actually read — in concentrated, capsular form. It’s all here: the fairies (about which Roland’s very first utterance, “Look at the fairies!”, is concerned); the importance of dreams; the panpsychism; the validity and importance of premodern, pagan mythology; the scathing criticism of the reductive and mechanistic ideology of modern science; the hatred of right-wing, American fundamentalism; the character of Christian tradition and its relation to modern “progress”; apocalyptic musings about the eschaton; and much more besides. Indeed, for one uninitiated into Hart’s œuvre, this book would be an ideal starting point.
So much, then, for the form of the text. Let us now turn to content, and focus on three of the most riveting topics addressed. First, I turn to fairies and dreams. Fairies, you see, are encountered early on in the book (on several distinct occasions). For example, in the 15th chapter (out of 51 in all), during one of the narrator’s evening walks with his canine companion, in the Virginia countryside (outside of Charlottesville), suddenly Roland looks up at his master with “a smile of deep contentment.” Upon interrogation, Roland extolls “the scent of fairies, out for an evening traipse”:
They’re nature spirits …. They wear the aspect of the ecology they personify. Though of course, they change over time, as the landscape is altered, or as circumjacent human culture evolves. There’s a kind of cultural cross-pollination between fairy-kith and human kind. In general, for instance, European fairies have become considerably more refined and decorous over the millennia than they once were. Most of them today tend to be very reluctant to engage in the sort of mischief they were once notorious for getting into. At most, they’re likely to knock on doors in the dead of night, or to abscond with some milk and cake. And they’re frequently socialists now. Not all of them, of course. Not in the Caucasus, for example. (p. 60)
Why, the reader is tempted to ask, are fairies less mischievous and more reticent now than in ages past? Perhaps it has something to do with the ability of us humans to notice them. Indeed, in our disenchanted world of modern secularism — a pervasive theme of Hart, and an object of his intense lament — our ability to see is tragically impaired. For Hart, indeed, this is what it means to say that the world is disenchanted: our imaginations have been impaired and impoverished, and in our day-to-day lives (conditioned and constrained by science and political economy) virtually all we can perceive is bits, lumps, and conglomerations of dead matter.
Except, that is, when we dream, and perhaps therein lies our hope. Certainly Hart would so claim. Closely related to the presence of fairies in the book is the prominent role of the oneiric vision.
Hart’s neo-Platonism, you see, is of the untamed variety. His is no mere controlled vision of “the forms” as that which unlocks the intelligibility of the material world. Such rationalism is precisely what Hart detests. Rather, Hart’s Platonism rightly (and in a way that aligns with the actual history of ideas) appreciates the kind of primordial chaos suggested in the Heraclitan maxim that “You can’t step in the same river twice,” since the river, in and of itself, has no stable identity.
As for the river, so also for all material reality. At one level, then, the material world we inhabit is (to borrow a phrase from William James) a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” as indeed is suggested in the “formlessness and void” of Genesis 1:2.
In all of this, Hart deeply channels the spirit of the Greek-speaking church fathers, a fact that remains despite our modern, secular ignorance of that steam of thought. For example, St. Athanasius in his On the Incarnation argues that the divine Logos, pre-existent in a disembodied way, alone accounts for intelligible, individuated objects in the world. Only the divine Logos, for him, accounts for intelligible order in the world. Hart agrees: apart from the divine Logos (with which patristic thought habitually associates the light of creation on day one of Genesis), the world would be (and is) “a blooming, buzzing confusion.” (Indeed to quote Hart’s fellow theological agitator John Milbank, “Christian theology is a hair’s-breadth from nihilism.”)
In the context of this ontology of flux, the deep abyss of our unconscious mind contains seeds of illuminating truth. In the spirit of Nietzsche and others who resist the demythologizing tendencies of modern, “scientific” rationalism, Hart suggests that in our dreaming life we see things — real things — which convention and ideology screen out and eliminate from our field of vision during our waking lives. The world is “theophanic,” after all (as Roland teaches on page 329), and Scripture is certainly full of visions of the divine, which often serve as crucial pivots in the biblical narrative.
If mythos is as veridical as scientific rationalism, then dreams are a potential source of truth about God and God’s world, which is surely why Hart included an excerpt from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows as a kind of frontispiece to the book:
“This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,” whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. “Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!”
Is “scientific rationalism,” then, for Hart nothing but a source of malice, peddled only by the enemies of all that is good and true? Hart is tempted to answer in the affirmative, especially given its dominant mode as technological innovation. This leads us to consider a second theme of Roland: the technological abuse of nature.
Hart, you see, is an incurable romantic, which means (among other things) that he regards nature — or, in the language of theology, “creation” — with something like a mystical reverence.
Hence the painful degree of offense taken by Roland at the demise of our planet’s verdant ecosystem:
Of course, in our mad heedlessness, we never foresaw the endless consumption of fossil fuels or factory farming — or any of the other abominations that flowed from the hands and hammers and pliers and forges of homo technicus. We sought to bring heaven to earth, and instead opened up the gates of hell upon the whole of creation. (p. 190)
The cause of this tragic state of affairs? Not so much a cause, but a reduction of causality: we have reduced the holistic picture of Aristotle’s interplay of four causes down to one. No longer in need of formal cause or final cause (purpose, goal, telos), we now suffer under the illusion that the world can be explained in terms of efficient and (if we’re really lucky) material causality alone.
Nowhere is this cancer more threatening than in the area of philosophy of mind, or (in the reductionistic idiom of our culture) what passes as “brain science.” For here, otherwise serious thinkers are willing to embrace the patent contradiction that human consciousness is a fanciful delusion. An adumbration here of Hart’s masterful command of modern phenomenology is unnecessary. Suffice it to say that the admission of illusion is — almost by definition and certainly by implication — the admission of consciousness.
Is this, then, all we can say about modern science, that it is unremittingly destructive and dreadful? Not quite: quantum physics, as exemplified by Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment on the nature of light, betokens a return to premodern metaphysics. For Hart, that light is both a particle and a wave suggests not only that human consciousness constitutes natural reality (suggesting that matter is reducible to mind or spirit), but also the truth of Aristotle’s notion of potency and act, since (in Hart’s view) the wave manifestation suggests form or “pure act,” while light-as-particle implies potency (or matter). With the advent of quantum physics, then, we have reason for hope, for here the premodern and the postmodern kiss.
So far, we have seen that Hart is both a neo-Platonist and a romantic. We turn, finally, to a third dimension of his thought, for Roland, as his other books, reveal his posture as a kind of historicist.
This aspect is seen nowhere more clearly than in his advocacy — in a post-secular key, of course — of pagan thought as a kind of propaedeutic of the gospel. For Hart, however, the truth of this dictum holds not just for ages past but for 21st-century denizens of our disenchanted culture, as well. Hence the importance of Vedanta, and related versions of Indian and Buddhist thought, for making sense of the Christian faith today. As was the burden in Hart’s 2015 Being, Consciousness, and Bliss, so also in Roland: both trinitarian theology and the coincidence of the transcendentals (goodness, truth, beauty, being, and unity) are brilliantly illuminated by Eastern religious traditions.
For Hart the trinitarian thinker, being is consciousness, which, in turn, is bliss. And even though a brief review such as this could never hope to convince the skeptical, Hart’s prose compels assent: if his version of panpsychism is true, then (as he says on p. 153) “Ātman is Brahman” (emphasis mine).
How, you ask, is this “historicist”? Inspired by the motif of the “evolution of consciousness” of Owen Barfield (whom Hart references at least five times in the text), it is the hoped-for destiny, as it were, for humanity to see this truth, that Ātman is Brahman, that mind is divine. Glimpsed in premodern cultures by (what Barfield calls) “original participation” but occluded by modernity’s descent into dualistic thinking, this nondual reality (in Barfield’s idiom, “final participation”), we can hope, is the truth that lies before us as a global culture.
Roland conjures up many themes not addressed here. Deserving of honorable mention: the political horror of contemporary authoritarian nationalism; the spiritual life of dogs, other mammals, and indeed other forms of created life and being; the glories of pagan mythologies. Yet my hope is that this brief treatment of Roland in Moonlight will whet the appetite for re-enchantment, in the style of David Bentley Hart.