George Eliot, Thomas a Kempis, and Christian Wiman
I had a nine hour train journey and a Kindle with the complete works of George Eliot ($.99). The upshot? I had not read The Mill on the Floss and so I began. If you recall Maggie Tulliver, the heroine of the novel, faces unaccountable hardship. Her creator has the adolescent Maggie turn to Thomas a Kempis (The Imitation of Christ) to find the spirit of renunciation and acceptance to bear with the troubles that afflict her. So effective are a Kempis’s words that Maggie finds herself in conflict with her admirer Phillip Waken because she rejects the claims of the self and refuses to strike out to find her own happiness. Maggie’s self-denial, her rejection of self-love, underlies the moral courage that ultimately costs her her life in heroic self-sacrifice. The ways of the world, the temptations of self-indulgence, simply cannot break the integrity that is Maggie’s armor against moral failure. Her tutor in this, The Imitation of Christ, evokes this testimony from the narrator:
it is the chronicle of a solitary, hidden anguish, struggle, trust, and triumph, not written on velvet cushions to teach endurance to those who are treading with bleeding feet on the stones. And so it remains to all time a lasting record of human needs and human consolations; the voice of a brother who, ages ago, felt and suffered and renounced
I found an odd joy reading the passage Eliot quotes from The Imitation, as I traveled at seventy miles an hour on the train south. There was an unnerving and excited recognition of a voice very familiar and now strange, stranger sill for speaking out of a Victorian novel written by a very “advanced” religious and social thinker a hundred and fifty years ago. Written in the fifteenth century, The Imitation enjoyed on-going admiration among both Catholics and Protestants, and clearly affect the young Mary Ann Evans. I recalled that my copy of a Kempis’s book (I had to have been given it in my Jesuit high school) was yellow paged, printed in gothic script, and resonated with the word “compunction” which I dutifully looked up and attempted to feel. In the imagination it bore for me, as it must have for fictional Maggie, a sense of the sacred.
The assertion a Kempis makes:
if thou wilt have inward peace, and enjoy an everlasting crown.... If thou desirest to mount unto this height, thou must set out courageously, and lay the axe to the root, that thou mayest pluck up and destroy that hidden inordinate inclination to thyself, and unto all private and earthly good.
brought back to me that spirituality that so filled my adolescence. I was no Maggie but her world in prospect was quite what I saw so many years later. And then came the other connected realization, for I had the book on the train with me as well, that Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss is a latter day a Kempis. (Wiman was interviewed by Commonweal in the May 2, 2014 issue.) “Meditation of a Modern Believer,” the book’s subtitle, indicates the focus and the intensity of the thought. How different the counseling voice, the vision of present trials, and the exploration of the self in art and in belief. (I read them now consecutively, passage or chapter at a time.) Here then were two calls to honesty, especially in regards to the Christian vocation, but what would have a Kempis made of this?
There is something that any artist is in pursuit of, and is answerable to, some nexus of one’s being, one’s material, and Being itself. Inspiration is when these three things collide – or collude. The work that emerges from this crisis of consciousness may be judged a failure or a success by the world, and that judgment will still sting or flatter your vanity. But it cannot speak to this crisis in which, for which, and of which the work was made. For any artist alert to his own soul, this crisis is the only call that matters. I know now name for it besides God, but people have other names, or no names.
The internal artistic struggle (and for Wiman there is always the transcendent element) is the experience in some way of the Divine. What Maggie knows as denial of the self is transmuted here into denial of falsehood; the struggle to convey the commingling of a poet's material, the self, and God. Self-sacrifice makes its demands felt in denial: of a way of life untrue to the self, and of a form of creation which betrays the self. Both look in hope and devotion to the Right, to Being, to God. The train ride it appears had its own symbolic force: not all journeys end in a terminus, that movement forwards can be at once retrospective and recursive.
About the Author
Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.