"David, you finally did it! I've been waiting for ages!"
It was at some lavish but ill-lit affair in New York in the early spring of 2008 — a large banquet of some sort hosted by The Institute for Religion and Public Life, but one whose precise occasion I do not recall — that Fr. Edward Oakes approached me gingerly from the far side of the room, sinuously weaving between the tables, waving his hands to either side with that easy extravagance of manner by which he always seemed to be gently mocking existence, and calling out, "David, you finally did it! I've been waiting for ages!"
"Did what?" I asked.
"You finally used the word 'pogonotrophy' in an article, and did it absolutely fittingly," he replied with ringing delight. "I've been telling people for years that, if I ever see 'pogonotrophy' properly used in print, I'll think my life complete. Now it's happened. Lord, let your servant depart in peace!"
He was referring to a review I had written of a collection of essays by Rowan Williams for The Times Literary Supplement a month or so before in which I had attempted to defend not only that good man but also his luxuriant beard against the vicious calumnies that had been heaved at both of them by the baneful Rod Liddle in a particularly vituperative newspaper column. "Have you really, Ed?" I asked. "Honestly, truly?"
"I swear," he answered, raising his right hand as if taking an oath, and then his left hand as well for good measure. "It's a principle I've lived by my entire adult life. Now I can retire." And he clasped his hands together against his chest with a smile of deep satisfaction.
I knew what he meant, really. Anyone who writes for a living, or even just as an avocation, keeps in the back of his or her mind a hidden reserve of words and phrases and facts and legends that he or she would dearly love to use in print, but that will work only if the occasion presents itself naturally. The effect will be utterly spoiled if the treasured bauble is prematurely torn from its wrapping. It has to be produced with a certain fortuity, the magic of something wondrous conjured out of thin air at the very moment when it is most needed but least expected. Otherwise, its use is mere ostentation, which is always vulgar. I doubt I had ever been consciously anxious to employ that particular word, but I know that when the moment had come to do so I had felt a small thrill of elation — at once an infusion of warm serenity and an ebullition of puppyish eagerness — at the opportunity it afforded me to produce precisely the right exquisitely obscure term at just the moment when no other could possibly have served as well, and with only a hint of a flourish: a moment for which I could not possibly have planned, but for which I could now show myself to have been miraculously prepared. I had even had to struggle with copy-editors at the TLS who twice tried to change the word to "pogonotomy" — which has pretty much exactly the opposite meaning — on the grounds, I suppose, that this was the only similar word that turned up on their online dictionary search; it had been a pitched battle, but I prevailed in the end, sustained by the main force of pure, indefatigable theatrical instinct. And Ed Oakes at least, God bless him, had now given me precisely the sort of appreciative audience any performer desires. "I did it just for you," I told him solemnly.
"I knew you had," he replied, and then proposed we sit at the same table for dinner.
And Ed Oakes at least, God bless him, had now given me precisely the sort of appreciative audience any performer desires. "I did it just for you," I told him solemnly.
The conversation that followed confirmed for me that Ed and I were in profound agreement on any number of principles when it came to writing, and especially the principles governing the writing of book reviews. For instance, we both believed that a review should never just be a review, but should be an essay in its own right; and that, therefore, one should avoid reviewing a book that will not afford the opportunity to write on some larger set of concerns and interests at the same time. We were both also of the conviction that, no matter what or for whom one is writing, one should always use the words that most precisely mean what one wants to say, no matter how recondite they might be. One should certainly never use a word simply because it is obscure, but one should never hesitate to use a word on account of its obscurity either. Show off by being punctiliously precise, and all the grand rococo ornamentation one could ever wish for one's prose will spring up all on its own (as Ed more or less said to me over his entrée).
— Which reminded me of an indignant letter someone had taken the trouble to post to me at my department the year before, bitterly rebuking me for describing the waters of the Indian Ocean as "hyaline" at one point in a book entitled The Doors of the Sea, and demanding to know why I had not just written "glassy" as any plain, decent, honest man would have done. Now, I knew exactly why I had used that word, and in fact had what I took to be three unassailable reasons for having done so, all of which I shared with Ed: First, it is a precise word, meaning "glassy" in the sense principally of crystalline translucency. Second, it had exactly the right sound for the sentence — three syllables, the lovely long i-sounds, the equally lovelier liquid "l" and smoothly gleaming "n," all of which gave it a pronouncedly glassy and watery feel on the tongue. And, third, and most important, the passage in question was part of a larger sort of extended metaphor or conceit regarding both the biblical language of creation and biblical eschatology, and I had used the word as an echo of the Book of Revelation's thalassa hyalinē, "the sea of glass like unto crystal" before God's throne, as well as of course Milton's "On the clear hyaline, the glassy sea," and...
By this point, however, Ed had begun waving his hands before himself energetically and casting a skeptically oblique glance heavenward. "No, no, no, David," he said, "that's too many good reasons; they can't be sincere." And I suppose he was right.
Anyway, Ed came to mind many times while I was preparing this volume, and that conversation in particular rose up in my memory more than once. Part of the reason for this, I imagine, is that a healthy number of these pieces were written as book reviews, but are nevertheless also discrete essays addressing a number of broader topics and ideas (some fairly small and humble, some quite enormous and ambitious); and even most of those that were not reviews are still all about texts and authors and words. At the last moment, in fact, I removed half a dozen reviews that were not, to my mind, sufficiently interesting as essays in their own rights to merit inclusion (among them, tragically, the one that had the word "pogonotrophy" in it); and I think this might have been because I sensed Ed's editorial eye peering over my shoulder. I have also reproduced here a number of occasional columns that Ed found amusing, which I hope might have wakened a somewhat mirthful glimmer in that same eye. And, I should note, the first article reprinted here, from which this volume takes its name, is one I wish I could have written while he was still alive, since I might almost have written for him. And so I have dedicated the collection as a whole to his memory; and, having done so, I can think of several additional good reasons for the choice: because, again, he and I shared a certain sensibility when it came to writing of this sort; because one of the very last pieces he wrote for publication was a robustly generous review of a book of mine, even though the task must just then have been physically quite draining for him, and I never got around to thanking him before he was gone, and want to do so now (even if only in votive form); and finally because, as I write these words, it is three years to the day since Ed died of pancreatic cancer, and I feel a deep desire at this moment to commemorate him, his elegance, his wit, his deep erudition, his wide culture, and his effervescent Christian joy.
Almost all of the pieces included in this collection originally appeared in some form in First Things: The Journal of Religion and Public Life, either in its online or its print edition. The exceptions are "Taking Liberties," "Our Atheism is Different," and "Christ's Rabble" (as well as the "coda" appended to the last of these); each of these pieces originally appeared in Commonweal. As is my habit, however, I have used the versions I keep in manuscript rather than those that may have been altered for length or formatting in the editorial process. All these essays are reprinted with permission.
David Bentley Hart. "Introduction." The Dream-Child's Progress and Other Essays (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2017): 1-4.
Reprinted with permission of Angelico Press.
David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian, philosopher, and cultural commentator. He is currently a Director's Fellow at the University of Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. David Bentley Hart is the author of: The Dream-Child's Progress and Other Essays, The New Testament: A Translation, The Experience of God, The Devil and Pierre Gernet: Stories, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments, The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith, and The Doors of the Sea, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth.Copyright © 2017 Angelico Press
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