For the reader who writes (or for the writer who reads), certain authors are a gold mine. With a bracing vocabulary, a precision of thought, and a way with a sentence that manages to be both wise and witty, David Bentley Hart has a perspective on the world that requires a careful reading — that is well-rewarded.
In A Splendid Wickedness, a collection of fifty-two occasional essays, I recorded a list of twenty-four completely unfamiliar words, not including all those that I recognized but have only admired from afar. Although I prefer a traditional book to my Kindle for most reading, e-readers might have been invented for this caliber of writing because of their ready access to a dictionary. Since I had to look up my new words the old-fashioned way, I will treat you to my five favorites:
- autochthonous — indigenous; formed in the place where it is found
- bedizen — to dress or adorn gaudily
- sidereal — of our relating to stars or constellations
- orgulous — proud
- eidetic — marked by extraordinarily accurate and vivid recall
The journey through A Splendid Wickedness covers terrain as diverse as the virtues of idleness, capital punishment, baseball, book reviews, and a series of philosophical ponderings delivered in a warm and furry tone by Hart’s dog, Roland.
The title track (Essay #23) examines literary characters Don Juan and Don Quixote, and wonders aloud why the figure of Quixote has been “borne aloft by his beautiful and mysterious timelessness,” while Juan has become passé. Swerving from literary to cultural criticism, Hart concludes that because we have, in our time, lost our appreciation for a transcendent good, and because “our culture is not subject to the torments of immutable moral laws,” there can be “no such thing as splendid wickedness, simply because, if we do not see ourselves in the light of the Good beyond being, nothing in our nature can be cast in sufficiently striking relief.”
It is this sort of cogent thinking that shows up in Hart’s thoughts on various topics:
“The wonderful thing about holiness, when you really encounter it, is that it testifies to itself.”
“All that is needed to make even the most outlandish theory seem plausible to the truly doctrinaire materialist is that it come wrapped in the appurtenances of empirical science.”
” . . . the worst fate that could befall America, one far grimmer than the mere loss of some of its fiscal or political supremacy in the world, would be the final triumph of a true cultural secularism.”
Having read straight through all fifty-two essays, my impulse now is to put the book on my nightstand (with Amy Carmichael, Luci Shaw, Madeleine L’Engle, and Elisabeth Elliot) for a slower read — a take-one-weekly-for-a-year-prescription for an infusion of fine writing and sharp thinking.
In my favorite essays, the author shinnies out onto some of the shakier limbs of his family tree, finding there a practicing pagan (complete with sacrifices to Janus on a marble altar); a bronzed, severed left thumb (a relic from a chance amputation in a formal duel); and a metaphysical materialist who was obsessed with death. As for me, my ancestral roots run all gnarly into Northern Maine and the Canadian Maritimes, a people who expressed themselves in ways both understated and forceful. After an aspirated pause, I’m sure they would have pronounced Hart’s book to be “wicked splendid.”
And they would have been correct.
This book was provided by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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