When Art & Spirit Meet

Fiction & the Religious Imagination
‘The Wounded Angel’ by Hugo Simberg, 1903

In The Wounded Angel—whose cover showcases the eponymous 1903 Hugo Simberg painting—Paul Lakeland sets out to do no less than reclaim the imagination. His book takes off from his conviction that “[t]he incapacity to grasp any sense of transcendence is simply a failure of imagination, one that has all but emptied the churches and that goes a long way toward explaining the anomie of our world.” The implication is clear: heal the angel—a symbol of the mediation between the human and the divine—and the world will regain meaning, the church will be revivified, and belief will be reinstalled as our guiding hermeneutical principle.

The central argument put forward in The Wounded Angel rests on a recognition familiar to those who love literature—namely, that paraphrase or analysis can never encompass what a poem or novel (or any other work of art) does to us when we engage it. This surplus of meaning, Lakeland believes, constitutes a form of transcendence. From this assertion he will have us understand that the act of reading (or interpreting any serious work of art) offers a parallel to the act of faith.

To convince us of this claim, Lakeland must first define faith and reading as in a basic way parallel, then mark their intersection through imaginative power. This and other tasks taken on in The Wounded Angel involve some heavy lifting. Not only does Lakeland lay out the intellectual and historical structures for a definition of faith, he also takes a stance on what constitutes reading. Finally he defines the kind of imagination that can take one beyond aesthetic pleasure into the experience of the divine.

As a Catholic theologian he turns to familiar resources: Aquinas, Occam, and a group of modern French thinkers Lakeland sees as resisting a stale neo-Thomistic approach to faith. I cannot easily summarize the links he establishes (he is eclectic in his range of reference), but his conclusion is clear: “We describe the structure of the act of faith as the encounter with a person [Jesus Christ] in the space between the believer and the text.” Holy Writ is a text we read and engage with fully. In an imaginative appropriation of the text of Scripture, and through the workings of grace, we somehow understand beyond articulation; indeed, we encounter the person of Christ. 

The church is failing; the believer is unsupported by this secular age; and the burden of belief has to be an act of interpretation.

To bolster his inquiry, Lakeland deploys a model of reading that he adapts from Wolfgang Eiser, a contemporary reader-response critic. Here he is on the model:

The aesthetic object for Eiser is not the text itself but the product of reading it. The aesthetic object emerges in the interplay between the reader and the text.... We have to think of the aesthetic object as existing “in the space between” the text and the reader.

The  imagination, Lakeland would have it—and this is his adaptation of Eiser—is best understood as defined by Coleridge (in the Biographia Literaria) as “the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Thus does The Wounded Angel link reading and faith in a fundamental way, with imagination doubling for something like the breath of Spirit.

There is a radical element in all this: the church is failing; the believer is unsupported by this secular age; and the burden of belief has to be an act of interpretation. In Lakeland’s vision, the healing of the imagination can take place only through its exercise; convalescence depends upon the will to read and interpret. Again I will have to pass over the many literary sources he employs (and why is there no list of “Works Consulted”?), but he is particularly focused on Henry James’s insistence that the “matter” of his novels is never subject to summary statement: the meaning in the fullest sense escapes us and, in what I think is a clever misprision on Lakeland’s part, suggests the “Absolute.”

Lakeland ruminates on the theology of the imagination, entertaining both those critics who might offer objections to his thesis and those who seem to second it. He does not want to leave himself open to charges of didacticism or naiveté. His effectiveness in this attempt is, as one might expect, a matter of faith; in the end we are asked to appreciate a neo-humanism which has as its core readers of lively intellect and imagination who break the insularity of the individual through the community of letters to face modern life. Reading is salvific if pursued in good faith.

The proof of the argument will lie partly in its application. To that end, Lakeland offers us model readings of a range of works to allow us to see the positive results gained by an interpreter whose imagination rises to transcendence. The texts he uses show once again an eclectic range, some surprising (Camus, Naylor, Penny, Harrison) and others less so (Greene, O’Connor, Endo); and to his commentary he summons Karl Rahner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Ricoeur, and many others.

For the believer these readings are acts of affirmation, while for the non-believer they offer at least an approach to the ethical and certainly a nod to the good. But are they revelatory? Lakeland seems most concerned to defend secular writing as having something to say to faith. He does discuss “the Catholic novel” and suggests the impoverishment that such a genre might court, but he has a special appeal: the act of reading offers a means of spiritual regeneration, a wakening, as that Romantic soul Wordsworth has it, to “arouse the sensual from their sleep of death.”

It may be that to locate the power of the imagination in acts of reading that approach the unsayable is to condemn oneself to failure—or at least to anticlimax. The Wounded Angel suffers a bit from that; yet it is nonetheless a serious attempt to think through the meaning of a life lived in part through works of the imagination, and to speculate intelligently upon how art and Spirit might meet.

Lakeland offers us many opportunities to question and to disagree, and I have filled the book’s margins with objections and exclamation marks. More important are formulations that go to the heart of what is dear to us in great books. In that spirit, and having recently read poet Christian Wiman’s faith meditation My Bright Abyss, I will close with a suggestion that Lakeland would probably approve—namely, that we move from his analysis to the work of poets and novelists themselves, in hope of seeing his healing project enacted on their pages, and in our minds and hearts.

 

The Wounded Angel
Fiction and the Religious Imagination

Paul Lakeland
Liturgical Press, $24.95, 242 pp.

Published in the October 6, 2017 issue: 

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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