Reading the Religious . . . ?

“In Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow’s Sammler, a Holocaust survivor who does not think of himself as a religious man, does not know why he keeps reading and returning to medieval religious texts. It is not that he wants to hitch a ride on the language of a belief he does not actually hold. Nor is his a curatorial concern that if modern people cannot read religious writing any more then much of human literature is lost to them, and will be lost ever increasingly in the future. What moves him is rather what made William James write The Varieties of Religious Experience: that there is something in this, even if we do not formally believe in it, even though we do not know how to translate it; something of deep primal importance even if finally we have it leave it behind.
It is towards the strange deep old texts that Sammler is drawn. Long tendentious arguments and reductive explanations are what, Sammler says, he finds too much around and about him. The old man is tired of their coercive pigeonholing, their constant thinness, and their passing fashion, He wants instead descriptions of experience to carry in his head, without being told what to make of them. Weary of modern noise, he wants succinct and austere sayings that stay in mind like poetry. ‘This too shall pass.’ What draws Sammler to these religious works, even as a non-believer, is a dissatisfaction related to Saul Bellow’s own sense that modern people may be trapped in a false and over-familiar framework, by an impoverished worldview. As if they might need a different model of self and a deeper psychological vocabulary to accompany an alternative ontology. ‘I am,’ cried the poet Cowper, ‘a stranger to the system I inhabit.’
What Saul Below feared was that the cry would not be made any more if it seemed melodramatic, stupid or pointless, and meaninglessly out-of-date.”

A passage from a short book, Reading and Reader, by Philip Davis, through which I expected to sail in a day, but which instead performs its own argument by creating what Davis terms a holding-ground for investigation and contemplation.

12 thoughts on “Reading the Religious . . . ?

  1. Fascinating thoughts. Ignatieff, in The Needs of Strangers, suggests that what the religious authorities were really scared of was indifference and people being absorbed in, or distracted by, a world that didn’t reflect the divine. Those opposed to religion at least carried with them an image-even if faded-of another life:” The more he blasphemes, the more he praises God.”

    Lovely blog, btw.

  2. Sorry Anthony, didn’t have anything coherent to say on the Bellow. Loved Herzog but although I’m only thirty pages in to this I’m not sure about it. When he writes about Shula’s lack of “inner sensuality” I did think to myself: good grief! (On the other hand, I know D. Bell thought it was saying something important about the times we live in).

    But the idea of an absent God, the last threads of memory..hasn’t that been with us for a long time? Is this only a heightened version of that or is it something else?

    • it isn’t so much the ancient idea of absent gods, but rather the thought that addressing an absent and unresponsive Thou, of any kind, is at the heart of the origin of poetry and literature.

      • True, Anthony. But isn’t the artistic impulse itself a ‘consolation’ for what is lost? Aren’t the cave paintings, for example, a registering of absence (as Hans Jonas once wrote).?

  3. Greetings, Anthony!

    Thank you for posting the wonderful passage by Philip Davis. Is he the same Philip Davis who wrote In Mind of Johnson: A Study of Johnson the Rambler, about Samuel? It’s been at least 25 years since I read that book, but the style of expression seems similar.

    Davis’s analysis of what is, and what is not, motivating Mr. Sammler to read medieval religious texts reminds me of a statement by another writer you and I have discussed in the past, Som Raj Gupta: “He cannot but seek to escape from what he finds himself to be, cannot resist the transcendental thrust informing him, and cannot but engage in the fight between these two urges, namely, the urge to remain himself and the urge to transcend himself.” What James (or Davis) characterizes as “something of deep primal importance” is, I think, the drive to reconcile those opposing urges.

    I’ve also enjoyed perusing some of the “personal canons” inspired by your blog post. Most, of course, include a caveat that the list could change at any given moment. It occurs to me that one of the perks of nearly having completed the seventh decade is that my “personal canon” (such as it might be) went gold, as we used to say about software: there will be no further changes.

    Not because of cognitive decline (heh) or lack of interest, but because the comparatively few works that remain in my “canon” have somehow managed over the years to greatly diminish the strength and effectiveness of the others. I was a serious but promiscuous reader of great literature who ultimately became faithful to her soulmates, i.e., to those works whose magnetism repelled all the rest — and in so doing, broke up that internal battle between the two urges. See whether, during the next 20 years or so, the same thing happens to you. I think it may.

    • Good day, DZ. It is always a pleasure when you drop into my Comments section.

      The same Philip Davis as the Johnson, and intriguing lives of George Eliot and Bernard Malamud, both of which I’ll get to this year.

      I see in that quote from Som Raj Gupta precisely that struggle that Davis articulates. This afternoon, sitting in the sun reading I came across this in Bachmann’sThe Good God of Manhattan: ‘I want to tear down this structure that I am, and I want to be the other person I never was.’

      Would you perhaps share your ‘personal canon’?

      I am still so poorly read that I have much to do before my canon goes gold, but I know the contours of my reading. It has a distinct shape, and I am filling cavities.

      • Thank you, Anthony. It’s always a pleasure for me, too.

        That’s a good example (from Bachmann) of “the fight between the two urges.” It’s not often expressed as clearly, so it’s kind of amazing that you encountered it on the same day!

        Sure, FWIW, here’s my “Do Not Donate to FOTL!” list, if not exactly a personal canon. I typed it almost 4 years ago as I was preparing to get rid of most of my books prior to a transoceanic move. Authors’ names without titles indicates that their work as a whole is valuable to me, so I kept everything. Many have since been replaced by digital editions, which I much prefer, so the load is even lighter, but the impact no less potent. These continue to render any sense of self — retained or transcended — a vestigial nuisance.

        In order of appearance on my shelves at the time:

        Lev Shestov
        Carlo Suarès
        Herman Melville
        Meister Eckhart
        Edmund Jabès
        Heinz von Foerster
        Simone Weil
        Sōseki Natsume
        Paul Bowles

        • Marguerite Young: Miss Macintosh, My Darling

        • Som Raj Gupta: The Radiant Sameness; The Word Speaks to the Faustian Man (5 Vols.)

        • Giacomo Leopardi: Zibaldone

        • John Archibald Wheeler: Geons, Black holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics

        • Harold G. Coward, et al. (Eds.) Encylopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol V: The Philosophy of the

        • Derek Krueger: Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius’ Life and the Late Antique City

        • Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra (D.T. Suzuki, tr., with Sung, Wei, T’ang, and Tibetan tables in Appendix)

        • G. Spencer-Brown: Laws of Form

        • The Holy Bible (KJV)

        • Mulakaluri Srimannarayana Murti: Bhartrhari, the Grammarian

        • Edward Whittemore: The Jerusalem Quartet (4 Vols.)


        • No less intriguing a list than I’d expect, including a few we’ve spoken about in years gone by. I really must get around to Zibaldone, which has been awaiting my attention for a while. And that Som Raj Gupta always tempts, as does the hard to track down (at affordable cost) Krueger. Many thanks.

          • You’re most welcome. And yes, I remember our having discussed some of these books, too. Even now, if I come across an unpredictable, oddly unclassifiable, even treacherously thrilling work, I think of you. So if it’s true that you are “poorly read,” please stay that way! 😉

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