The name of Mark Patrick Hederman is no longer one that rings a bell -- it strikes a gong! Our paths first crossed in connection with publications that have now taken on a somewhat legendary status: The Crane Bag and Heidegger et la question de Dieu (Paris: Grasset, 1980). Since then we have met in Glenstal Abbey or in my mother's birthplace nearby, where the imperious and charismatic literary philosopher is known in another guise, as Brother Patrick, a dedicated teacher, a man of prayer, and a model of Benedictine hospitality and courtesy. The present flourishing state of Glenstal owes much to his creative and good-humoured presence. His recent publications carry already the aura of legend, and indeed are likely to become cult books. Professors and clerics will find much to criticize in them, but before criticizing the text let us celebrate the event. At last someone has spoken from the heart of Irish Catholic culture in tones that will reach those whose spirit is stirred by literature but left cold by the Church, as well as those devout Catholics who may seek to integrate their religious lives with their quest for culture. And the voice is a personal, honest, vulnerable one, perhaps the only kind of voice that can break down the barrier between Church and culture.
In his book, "The Haunted Inkwell: Art and Our Future" (Columba Press, 2001), Hederman stands where three roads cross -- philosophy, poetry, and spirituality -- and addresses the spiritual needs of Irish Catholics at a level that bypasses institutional arrangements and pastoral methodologies. For thirty years he has intercalated with the liturgy a meditative rumination on Heidegger, Rilke, Yeats, Joyce and Heaney, and so closely are the two interwoven in his mind that when he shares his delight in poetry he is simultaneously awakening our spiritual life. His writing may signal the dawn of a new age of Irish Christianity, in which literary culture will cease to view the Catholic heritage with cynicism and disdain as that heritage is warmed and reanimated by becoming attuned to the stirring of the Spirit in modern thought and writing.
So important and so promising is Hederman's work that I feel a heavy responsibility in reviewing it. I view it as a magnificent first step, that needs to be followed by many other steps. Hederman's book opens up the spiritual depths of poetry. But it leaves unresolved the question of how they relate to biblical faith. His claims that in our time those "gifted with metaphysical insight" are mostly artists and poets (p. 16), that "poetry is our only detectable contact with Being" (p. 66), that poetry offers "our only way forward in destitute times" and its "fragile antennae" are "all we have" (p. 35) brought to mind a barbed remark of Hans Urs von Balthasar about theologians who would replace the Fathers of the Church with the great modern writers. Hederman is not presenting a systematic clarification of the relations between religion and art, but aims at raising the reader's consciousness and opening up a field of liberating religious thought, in opposition to the "fearful, disheartening, condemnatory" spiritual guidance of the past (p. 167). Many people today are happy to live by poetry alone. But the biblical Word harps on sin, righteousness, reconciliation in a way that seems to cut athwart the concerns of the poet.
Hederman is fully convinced, with Heidegger, that poetry offers privileged access to Being, to "the way things are in their ultimate reality" (p. 8). Moreover, great poets are vehicles of the Holy Spirit, prophets discerning the future, and priests, "doing work of a similar nature to that accomplished by the religious seers of previous centuries" (p. 33). He would agree with Shelley: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World". Lamenting that in a world of commodified entertainment "art as prophecy is unrecognised", he envisages "a parliament of artists, or the incorporation of such a constituency within existing structures of representative government" (p. 20).
The role of the literary critic is correspondingly momentous: "Something more than the poet could have accomplished on his or her own infiltrates and emerges with the poem", and the interpretation of that "something" is the task of "thinkers, monks, prophets" who from their watchtowers descry signs of dawn's approach (p. 13). Critics unworthy of their role, especially those obsessed with ideology or political correctness, can crush the budding inspiration of poets or distract them from their vocation. Although Hederman accuses critics of destroying Hemingway (p. 42), I think the man himself was nearer the mark when he blamed his decline on sloth and alcohol. If anything, the leading critics bent over backwards to praise the middling successes of Hemingway's later life. A more thrilling illustration of critical maleficence is yielded by the fate of our national poet Seamus Heaney -- exposed on one side to the sneers of Desmond Fennell, who "insists on brain scans for ideological heresy" (p. 47) and "gives no encouragement, no sympathy" as he provides "dismissive and polemical entertainment for the begrudgers" (p. 46), and on the other to the dangerous embraces of Helen Vendler, imperceptive patroness, who forces on the poet her "narrow-minded and pedantic" outlook (p. 187). Protective of Heaney's "vulnerability", Hederman may underestimate the poet's resources of self-defence. He expresses concern at Heaney's dedication of The Spirit Level (1996) to Vendler, as if courtesy to his foremost commentator implied domination by her views. There is a danger that in a scenario of mimetic rivalry with Fennell and Vendler, which has spilled over into the Letters page of the Irish Times, Hederman himself may force on Heaney a solemn divinatory role. I suspect that here the ideological heritage of The Crane Bag could do with some lightening or leavening, a touch of Paul Muldoon's perkiness.
Hederman gives an interesting account of Joyce's career. Born to be a poet, Joyce was so "shattered and paralysed" by the "bullying and insensitive" Catholic ethos of the time that his first efforts at poetry fizzled out (pp. 126-7). He had to work through his traumas in Dubliners and Ulysses, his most admired works, before finding free outlet for his lyrical impulse in Finnegans Wake. Unlike Freud and Jung, who channelled the unconscious through limited categories, Joyce "was opening himself and allowing this reality to spread through him so that every organ, channel, category, or compartment, was flooded" (p. 134). At the risk of being numbered among the wicked critics who discouraged Joyce, may I submit that Finnegans Wake is not as wonderful in fact as it sounds in theory? Nor can I share the view that Iris Murdoch is "one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century" (p. 16) who turned to art the better to express her philosophy. A mediocre philosopher, she wrote witty, elegant and subversive novels in the 1960's, and fell into flaccid self-parody thereafter. Hederman elucidates the symbolic themes in her last novel, Jackson's Dilemma, willing to overlook its lameness of style and plot, and its Sunday-supplement notions about Heidegger, in view of its mystagogic pretentions.
There is an element of hero worship in Hederman's approach. When he tells us that Heidegger "saw himself as one of those few people in world history whose name would survive as a household word when centuries had obliterated every military or political figure on the contemporary horizon" (pp. 51-2), he does not even consider that this, if true, could have been a dangerous self-mystification. Heidegger's 1946 essay on Rilke contains many critical comments on the poet's limited outlook. But Hederman ignores this clash between his heroes, and presents Rilke as fully corresponding to the Heideggerian ideal of the poet. Heidegger says that, unlike Hoelderlin, Rilke did not perceive the openness or unconcealment of Being, since his poetry was "overshadowed by a diluted version of Nietzsche's metaphysics" (Heidegger, Holzwege, 1950, p. 264), a metaphysics of will rather than one of letting-be, a metaphysics of subjective interiority that grasps Being only as "worldly presence" (ibid., p. 286). At this period Heidegger had spent a few years demonstrating that Nietzsche's metaphysics was nihilistic, as it reduced Being to value, and moreover that all metaphysics was a nihilistic betrayal of the truth of Being. So when he talks about the need to grasp "in its metaphysical constitution and unity" the realm from which Rilke's poems speak (Hederman, p. 59), the words are loaded. There is unconscious irony in Hederman's praise of Rilke's "metaphysical poetry" (p. 67). If Heidegger's approach to Rilke is "tentative and tremulous" (p. 65), it is in the way that a cat's approach to a mouse is. True, Heidegger wants to respect the marvel of Rilke's verse, and he ends on a positive note. But he is equally intent on consigning Rilke to his role as a representative of the present nihilistic epoch in the history of Being.
However, it is well that Heidegger's critical intentions are missed by many readers, for his strictures can have a blighting effect on one's reception of the poet. To extract a metaphysics from the letters and poems of a writer who had no background in philosophy and to evaluate his poetry on that basis is a questionable procedure. Think what Heidegger would have made of Yeats! When Heidegger sermonizes Rilke on his defective grasp of Being he sounds like a fanatical Neo-Thomist. The Rilke scholar Beda Allemann said to Jacques Derrida: "You know, Heidegger is uncultivated. He knows nothing of a pile of things concerning German literature and contemporary art. You have no idea of his lack of culture" ( "Vous savez, Heidegger est inculte. Il ne connait rien a des tas de choses de la litterature allemande, de l'art contemporain... Vous n'imaginez pas l'inculture de Heidegger" (Dominique Janicaud, Heidegger en France, Paris; Albin Michel 2001, II p. 104). Heidegger dismissed Venice as a city of inessential frivolity, whereas Rilke absorbed all the art of Italy like a sponge. Heidegger despised urban, aristocratic, international culture, which Rilke incarnated. There is a primitive cast to Heidegger's temperament which would have made him scornful of Rilke's exquisite sensibility. He would have been impervious, too, to Rilke's joyful Slavic sense of the spiritual world, which is no less profound than Hoelderlin's Greco-Germanic sense of Being. Clearly there is need of further discernments and differentiations even within the poetic project that Hederman celebrates, apart altogether from its relationship to biblical faith.
Joseph S. O'Leary (The Furrow 53, 2002)