The Devil and Pierre Gernet: Stories

The Devil and Pierre Gernet: Stories
by David Bentley Hart
Eerdmans, 2012
$25.00, paper, 176 pages
My Dinner with D. B. Hart
Though much has been written, and continues to be written, on the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning, far too few critics have celebrated, or even noticed, the distinctly Christian dimension and ethos of his mature poetry. Whereas Browning's earlier monologues ("My Last Duchess," "Porphyria's Lover," "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister") present us with speakers who are simple villains, his later masterpieces ("An Epistle of Karshish," "Cleon," "Fra Lippo Lippi," "Andrea del Sarto") present us with speakers who discover within themselves the seeds of possible redemption.
Although Karshish's narrow materialism, Cleon's sophisticated Epicureanism, Lippi's rebellious licentiousness, and Andrea's slothful nihilism keep them from attaining a true faith in the Incarnate Christ, each seeker is, during the course of the poem, afforded an opportunity to embrace the Word that was made Flesh. These opportunities come to them, respectively, through a meeting with the risen Lazarus, an exposure to the writings of St. Paul, a glimpse of man's proper home (Eden), and an intimation of an exalted and glorified art. Although, again, none of the speakers chooses to receive the redemptive moment offered him, the attentive reader cannot help but sense both the reality of that redemption and the melancholy that attends its rejection.
Whether or not David Bentley Hart had Browning's monologues in mind when he wrote the four stories and one novella that make up The Devil and Pierre Gernet, he captures powerfully Browning's attitude of critical compassion and frustrated love toward his subjects. Like Browning's speakers, the protagonists of Hart's tales are all bookish people--well, bookish beings, since one of them happens to be a devil--who live their lives vicariously through art or ritual or dream or aestheticism. All of them desire something just out of reach, but they all stop short of reaching it. They yearn for the real, but they settle for the pale imitation. They all know, like Browning's Andrea, that "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for," but they lack the will either to fight for it or to surrender to the One who alone can give it.
It is ironic that they lack that will, for most of them are Nietzcheans who believe that they can and must define themselves, and who count themselves superior to the mediocrity and hypocrisy of the masses, or the bourgeoisie, or the clergy. They have all insulated themselves from the world and the One God, but they have not ceased to be God haunted. They may not surrender, but they talk, and talk, and talk about their finally impotent desires.
"The Devil and Pierre Gernet" lies somewhere between Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose and G. K. Chesterton's Man Who Was Thursday in its intellectual and spiritual playfulness, but it lacks the plotting of either novel. Perhaps it might be better to say it offers a redemptive version of the angst-ridden "education" of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther or Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus. Or that it presents a Socratic dialogue where Hart' sympathies lie not with Socrates but his interlocutor. Or, best of all, that it reworks C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, allowing the devil to damn himself out of his own mouth while exposing the demonic origin of some of our most cherished beliefs, movements, and triumphs.
No matter how one pegs Hart's mightily peculiar novella, one would be hard pressed to find a better meditation on time and eternity, the glories and pretensions of human empire, and the dangers of Gnosticism in any other work of fiction or non-fiction. In his preface, Hart says "this is the only book I have written with which I am truly satisfied," and I think I understand why. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, Hart (author of The Beauty of the Infinite) has inherited a taste for the eternal that blends the Platonic desire to ascend the ladder of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful toward the Forms with an Incarnation-focused Christianity that longs not so much to bring divinity down to humanity as to take the human up into the divine. His novella, together with the short stories, embodies perfectly this twin, Christian humanist longing. Though Hart does not discuss either icons or theosis, those who understand these centerpieces of the Orthodox Church will be richly satisfied by his book.
Those who believe, with Aristotle, that a good plot should have a beginning, middle, and end and be built around episodes that are organically linked by necessity, will be frustrated to distraction by "The Devil and Pierre Gernet." But those who are patient will be rewarded with a wonderful sonnet sequence on the rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire that delves to the heart of the spiritual aspirations of Emperors Constantine, Julian, Justinian, and Constantine Palaeologos, and philosopher-theologians Symeon, Michael Psellus, and Plethon. Though Hart finds subtle ways to apologize for including his own poetry, he need not do so. The sonnets work powerfully and capture, even more successfully than Hart's non-fiction work, what it means to yearn for the beauty of the infinite.
Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges (who would have appreciated Hart's stories) once wondered what it must have been like when the last person who met Sophocles or Shakespeare or Christ died. In "The House of Apollo," Hart contrasts Julian the Apostate's unsuccessful attempt to revive paganism with the call and visions of a man who turns out to be the last true pagan priest of Apollo. Hart manages to create considerable pathos for this man who cannot make the leap to the Risen Christ but who nevertheless stays true to his limited understanding of the invisible God who stands beside him but who will soon leave the world.
In addition to writing on theology and philosophy, Hart has added his own apologetical voice to the Christian debate with the new atheists. What Hart does well in his non-fiction Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, he does even better in "A Voice from the Emerald World." For he does in the story what he could not do in the book: journey into the mind of a fiercely anti-clerical academic who has lost his young, autistic son to cancer and who therefore cannot accept a religion that might condemn an innocent child to hell or limbo. Hart extends to his angry protagonist a great deal of Christian charity, a charity that he also extends to the Creator God who used the autistic son to open the skeptical father's eyes to the reality of both Eden and the Fall.
And then there is "The Ivory Gate," a story that Borges himself might have written and that draws together Hart's obsession with time, with dreams, and with the ruins of empire. In Aeneid VI, Virgil's hero travels to the underworld, where he is vouchsafed a vision of the coming history of Rome. The vision is a glorious one that extends from Romulus to Caesar Augustus, but when Aeneas returns to the world above, he does so by going through the Gate of Ivory (from which issues false dreams) rather than the Gate of Horn (source of true dreams). The dream-spinner, whose tales dominate Hart's story, takes us to strange, mystic lands that should spark an experience of joy (or Sehnsucht) in all of us, but his dreams are finally as vain and empty as the diaphanous puff of smoke that graces the cover of Hart's book. Like all of Hart's protagonists, like the speakers of Browning's mature monologues, the dreamer of "The Ivory Gate" cannot move out of his aesthetically rich but spiritually inert world. Rather, like the self-absorbed egoist of Charles Williams's Descent into Hell, he settles for a succubus whose beauty is not real, but only a reflection of his own inward-centered desires. 
So then, do I recommend Hart's stories? Yes, but with this caveat. If you are contemplating reading The Devil and Pierre Gernet, first rent and watch the famous (infamous?) art house film My Dinner with Andre: a two-character film in which a well-spoken intellectual who may or may not be telling the truth regales his mostly silent dinner partner with a series of personal adventures that grow increasingly bizarre and esoteric as the night progresses. If you are moved and inspired by the film, then Hart's book is the book for you. If you are merely bored or confused or put off, then seek elsewhere for your literary sustenance. As for me, I felt toward the book the same way I felt toward the film. I progressed from elation to fascination to consternation to a simple determination to get through it. But when I had finished, I felt a melancholy nostalgia for what had passed.
Louis Markos (, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his books include From Achilles to Christ, Literature: A Student's Guide, and On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis. F