Reading Garth Greenwell can be a spiritual experience. The syntax of his stories descends to depths and scales heights, in a way that makes you feel less like you are reading and more like you are being read. To be immersed in his stories also feels like inhabiting a skin: the language is so natural as to be invisible and yet makes it possible to feel the world.
His work hinges on sex and bodily encounters that are at times tender, at times violent and unsettling. The uneasy, decentering nature of sexual desire is a longstanding theme in spiritual literature, not least in Augustine’s Confessions. It was this (perhaps surprising) intersection that framed a conversation between Greenwell and Image editor in chief James K.A. Smith. This conversation, conceived and convened by Image’s director of programming, Lisa Ann Cockrel, took place in Seattle on stage at Hugo House in October 2019 to celebrate the publication of Smith’s new book, On the Road with Saint Augustine. It’s not difficult to hear Augustinian echoes in Greenwell’s stories. When the narrator of Cleanness says, “I was speaking of myself, of course, of my own experience with love, with overwhelming love that had made me at times such a stranger to myself,” the words almost sound cut-and-pasted from book 2 of the Confessions. And later, when asked what he wants, the narrator tells us: “I found myself at last at the end of my strange litany saying again and again I want to be nothing, I want to be nothing.”
Greenwell, trained as an opera singer and poet, is the author of two widely acclaimed novels. What Belongs to You (2016) was longlisted for the National Book Award and named one of the best books of year by the New York Times and Paris Review. His latest novel, Cleanness (2020), has already been named one of the best books of 2020 by Time and Esquire. He lives in Iowa City.
James K.A. Smith: More than a few readers might be surprised that Garth Greenwell is eager to talk about Augustine. Where did Augustine intersect with your literary and intellectual journey?
Garth Greenwell: I encountered Augustine as this extraordinarily urgent voice that seemed directed precisely at me.
I grew up in Kentucky, mostly in Louisville, and my home church in the city practiced a very bloodless Methodism. And then in Sonora, Kentucky, where my family farm was, where I went to church maybe a dozen times a year, I encountered a bloodier, fire-and-brimstone Methodism. I was a kid with a devotional temperament, and as I became aware of myself, and especially aware of my queerness, I realized that the devotional system I was born into actively desired my annihilation. And so I was possessed of a devotional temperament without a bearable object of devotion.
When I look back, I think that my bizarre, zigzaggy life path was shaped by the attempt to figure out what to do with the desire for devotion. Where I landed, lifesavingly, was in art. I first encountered Augustine as a poet, without any background in late antiquity or the early church or theology. I first read him in St. Louis, when I was doing an MFA with one of our most Augustinian writers, the poet Carl Phillips. For some reason I read the Confessions, and I was immediately gripped by this voice. Augustine seemed to me someone for whom the question of sexuality was centrally and uniquely problematic and devastating. But also—and this is most important for the inspiration I’ve found in him as a writer—he was someone who put thinking on the page in a way that I had never seen done before. He found a texture of prose that feels to me like the texture of thought.
I was not a prose writer then; I was a poet, and it was poetry that led me to theology and to Augustine: first the seventeenth-century English metaphysical poets, and then people like Geoffrey Hill, or even Auden or John Berryman who had religious turns late in their lives. For a while, I became obsessed with Augustine, with the Greek fathers, with Origen. I loved Augustine so much that I was determined to read him in Latin, which I had never studied. So I taught myself with Wheelock’s Latin in order to make my way through Augustine.
JS: This is your devotional character.
GG: Yeah, I think that’s true. That was my Augustine. I felt like Augustine really was speaking to me, and in all sorts of ways. I continue to feel that, even as the content of the feeling changes.
Very early on, I was indoctrinated into the idea that my desire was inherently disordered for reasons that I now entirely reject. But it still seems to me that my desire is disordered, and it still seems to me that desire is the great disorderer. Desire is the most extraordinary plot device, because it gives us something to seek, an aim for our will, and yet it itself is always unwilled. We don’t choose what we desire. That balance of activity and absolute proneness and abjection is endlessly fascinating to me. Even separate from the context of homophobia, I find desire humiliating. I find it humiliating to be overpowered by something I have not chosen and do not will. Augustine feels that, too.
JS: Obviously you and Augustine would disagree on some particulars, but you both have a deep appreciation for the decentering and upending experience of the desires that animate us, that feel like a kind of otherness within us. One remarkable thing about Augustine is that he’s so aware of how little he’s in control. Do you think that’s also why you can pick up Augustine in the twenty-first century, even without knowing all the classical context or even Latin, and still connect? There’s something perennial because there’s something so deeply human about the Confessions. He’s jack-hammered into something about human hungers.
GG: I think that’s right. He is in touch with something that has to do not with a particular religious longing in a particular tradition, but instead with desire itself, a human universal. I also think it has to do with art.
Augustine is an extraordinary writer, and there are all sorts of interesting reasons why his Latin doesn’t sound like anybody else’s Latin. It’s a particular kind of Latin, a colonial Latin, the Latin of North Africa. It’s studded with puns and wordplay. I should say that I’m not a classicist, and when I talk about Augustine’s style, I find myself making claims for him that I have absolutely no authority to make. But it seems to me that Augustine invented a prose that is a technology for excavating inwardness and putting it on the page. And it’s that invention that, to me, puts him at the heart of the particular literary tradition that I’m making use of.
JS: I was struck when you said that Augustine was able to capture the texture of thought on the page. Someone said of your first novel, What Belongs to You, that you had managed prose that helped people to know what it felt like to think—which was my experience. And even more so with your new novel, Cleanness. This seems like a very Augustinian inheritance: your ability to invite a reader into a sort of consciousness dive, where you get to experience another person’s thoughts. It’s the expression of introspection.
But it strikes me that to put it on the page is to also pull oneself out. The writer is never only facing inward. That is, when you make this deep dive inward and then put that into words for another person, you’re in this space between interior and exterior. The historical theologian Justo González, in a wonderful little book called The Mestizo Augustine, argues that this person, North African, with a Roman father and African Berber mother, experienced hybridity from the beginning. He was always living between. In a way, the literary tradition that you’re talking about, in the very project of articulating and vocalizing the inward, also has to inhabit this “between” space. How much do you think Augustine is an influence here, or is he just a particular practitioner for you of the literary tradition in which you situate yourself?
GG: I really do think he’s the source. Again, I don’t have the authority to make this claim, but I know that scholars like Charles Taylor and Peter Brown and Henry
Chadwick argue that there are all sorts of innovations in Augustine, stylistic and intellectual, that make possible the faith that I think is the unifying line from a particular kind of devotion to a particular kind of literary practice: that by turning inward one somehow arrives at a revelation, a truth that can be communicated to others.
To me the great promise and faith that lies behind not just literary art, but all art, is that by devotion to the particular, by attending with all of our faculties as precisely and carefully as we can to the particulars of a life, a place, a time, we can arrive at something that is true of humanness itself.
The word “universality” is often used as a weapon against writers who are said to be marginal, who are told—as I was as a graduate student—that their experience is not pertinent to “the universal.” That is always a lie; it’s a false use of the word “universal.” But I do believe in universality, of a kind that doesn’t deface particularity but is arrived at through particularity. That’s how Augustine, though he is separated from me by centuries and language and continents and, more than any of those things, by a system of belief that I absolutely reject—that’s how he shows me to myself.
This faith, that the interior and particular can lead to the interpersonal and universal, is what I think animates much of our literary practice, especially first-person literary practice. I think Augustine invented it.
JS: You articulate the faith that animates writing. I don’t want to be an Augustinian bully here, but is there also a hope and love behind that? For Augustine, faith, hope, and love are the triumvirate that animate being human. Is a writer who has such faith also hoping for something? Is love also at work?
GG: I think love is, absolutely. For me, at the heart of writing is attention, and there’s a very old idea that attention is love. Iris Murdoch says this again and again.
JS: Yes, and Simone Weil.
GG: Yes. You know, writing What Belongs to You, I changed my mind about the idea that attending to something is loving it. Early in the book, the narrator says that, or something very similar, and I think he believes it then. Later, he comes to feel that’s an inadequate idea. It’s interesting to write fiction that is thinking-heavy. One thing that’s useful about art is that it allows you to think seriously but hypothetically, so that within the frame of the book I can take these ideas very seriously, but they don’t actually have to be my ideas. But every once in a while the thinking that that allows arrives at something that does then feel like my idea, a discovery that moves beyond the frame of art and impacts my life. Near the end of What Belongs to You, the narrator says that love isn’t just looking at a thing, that love is looking with someone and facing what they face. I think that’s true. I think love actually requires an existential sharing of fate.
I do think love is at the heart of art for me. I will often put a book down if I feel like an author doesn’t love the characters. But it can be a difficult love. Some writers are very hard on their characters. Thomas Hardy, for instance, is so cruel to his characters, but you sense that he loves them, and that makes it possible for me to engage with those books. I could not write about a place that I didn’t love. I could not write about a character that I didn’t love. I might feel lots of other things, too. But I think if you make art out of something, you’re making a claim about it, a claim that it can be a source of beauty, a source of value. That to me is a great statement of love.
And then you mention hope. I guess one hopes that this voice one is articulating will arrive somewhere. I do think that art is communication, and that one writes hoping to be heard—and this is something else that one feels intensely in Augustine. So yes: faith, hope, and love.
JS: To go back to what the narrator finally discovers about love at the end of What Belongs to You: it’s a desire for communion. Not just to see and be seen, but to see with, to live alongside, facing things together. Despite what some people assume about him, for Augustine friendship and communion are absolutely essential. They’re crucial to the very possibility of realizing one’s humanity.
What Augustine thinks about Christianity is very close to what you’ve described as that artistic possibility, which is that there is a particularity that has a universality. That’s ultimately what he would call the Incarnation, I think.
GG: My feeling about art is incarnational. Of course all these concepts are in quotation marks for me. When I say something like “the infinite,” that’s kind of in quotation marks. I don’t actually know what I mean by that. I don’t really want to mean anything.
JS: But you keep saying it.
GG: But I keep saying it. I do think concepts can be useful without being true. That’s a belief of art, too. But when you write a poem or a novel, when you paint something, when you create music, all of those things are done in a faith that one can make something finite that has access to the infinite. That to me is the promise of art, and it’s fundamentally an incarnational idea.
JS: Augustine himself wrestles with exactly this dynamic when he’s writing the Confessions. I think one of the reasons characters like Camus and even Derrida are drawn to Augustine is that they see him wrestling with the very endeavor of spilling one’s veins on the page. And so in the later parts of the Confessions, you see Augustine asking, Why am I writing this? What am I hoping for?
Sometimes the Confessions get billed in places like Barnes & Noble as “the first memoir.” But in fact, the whole thing is written such that God is the second person to whom it is directed. It’s not a memoir by any stretch, because of that structure, but also because Augustine isn’t just trying to tell his story, but to locate his story. He’s trying to find his identity in a story that has been given to him. So the very exercise of the Confessions is deeply subjective, but it’s about a subject being positioned by an Other. Identity isn’t self-invention; it’s receiving a gift. For Augustine, something—Someone—outside me gives me my identity. The subjective experience of “finding yourself” is narrated as the experience of being found.
We should talk about sex. There are obvious reasons to hate Augustine in this regard, but that’s a less interesting conversation, I think. As somebody with deep appreciation for your fiction, who also spends a lot of time with Augustine, I’m intrigued by the proximity of desire, sex, and religion. They get intertwined in the Confessions, and they get intertwined in Garth Greenwell. Now I’m not trying to turn you into a generic religious writer, but I’m intrigued by the dynamics of somebody who is taking desire seriously in the forging of oneself, and taking that in an erotic direction, and yet the erotic so often breaks in a way that can only be described as religious or spiritual.
In Cleanness, the chapter called “Gospodar,” which narrates a harrowing sexual encounter—one might be tempted to call it the book’s most profane chapter—also reads, to me, as an intensely spiritual chapter. Is that fair to say?
GG: The narrator of Cleanness is the same narrator of What Belongs to You, an American high school teacher living in Sofia, Bulgaria. The center of Cleanness tells the story of a transformational relationship, an experience of a kind of love that he had thought he could never have. It has transformed his sense of the world and of himself.
The chapter you’re referring to takes place in the wake of the loss of that love. In some ways he is returning to a world that he thought he had left behind, a world he thought he had been lifted out of. Now these are the narrator’s thoughts, and I want to trouble these ideas. The book is called Cleanness, and cleanness is something the narrator longs for. But he also longs for filth. I think the longing for cleanness can spur us to goodness, and I also think cleanness is the most devastating and error-prone concept and desire. I think there’s nothing more dangerous than the idea of purity.
JS: Augustine agrees with you.
GG: The title of the chapter you mention, “Gospodar,” is the Bulgarian word for master or lord. It is analogous to the word Augustine uses to address God, which is usually translated as “Lord” and which Sarah Ruden, in what I think is the most brilliant translation of the Confessions, renders as “Master.” Just that change: having Augustine address God as Master instead of Lord results in a radically different way of reading the Confessions. The trajectory of the scene is that it begins consensually and very slowly becomes something else, something that terrifies the narrator and places him in real danger. I wanted to show how an S/M encounter can go wrong—how it can fail to perform the kind of transformation the narrator is seeking, though maybe he doesn’t know he’s seeking it. (In a later, companion chapter, “The Little Saint,” we see S/M succeed in performing that transformation.) But I also wanted to suggest how even this profound experience of negation can lead to a kind of affirmation. Early in “Gospodar,” the man asks the narrator what he wants, and the narrator answers, “I want to be nothing.” The last line of the chapter is “composing as best I could my human face.” I meant for that to be an affirmation, to be a kind of accomplishment, to suggest that by following negation all the way to the bottom (though there is no bottom) he might find something affirmative. But we also know, the narrator knows, that he will desire again the experience he has just fled. So it’s a dialectic with no end, I guess, and maybe with no progress: negation, affirmation, negation. Maybe.
JS: Do you sense any intertwining of the desire that’s being articulated in Cleanness and Augustine’s rendering of the face-to-face encounter with God in the Confessions?
GG: Well, sure. Confessions is a book about encounter, and this scene in Cleanness is a moment of encounter. And obviously that phrase “face-to-face” is resonant, even biblically resonant. What happens when two human beings look at each other face-to-face? That encounter is always structured by things like power, and there is always something in that encounter that at any moment can overflow those structures.
And then there’s also the desire for annihilation—“I want to be nothing”—which I think is a very deep human desire that we all carry around. You know, it’s funny: I’m always surprised when people point out how religion runs through my work, even when it does so in obvious ways. Like, the first paragraph of this chapter mentions the word “cathedral” and the religious resonance of the word “Gospodar.” The story is about all kinds of longings.
JS: Sex plays a looming role in Augustine’s Confessions, and it strikes me that that’s partly because it’s an experience of one’s own porosity. It’s accompanied by an openness about one’s vulnerability. And yet it is also an experience of one’s hunger and needs. So you’re propelled outside of yourself; it’s a liminal encounter. One of the reasons Augustine keeps revisiting sex is that, in his own experience, it was one of the places where he was most opened up, most exposed.
And yet it also spoke to something that was so central to his hunger. I’m reminded of a passage in book 8 of the Confessions. Right before the culmination of Augustine’s conversion—his “being found,” he would say—there’s a remarkable passage in paragraph 16. An African friend, Ponticianus, has just told him a story that has become the fire of aspiration for him. Augustine gets this intimation that “here’s who I could be.” And then he says this:
While he was speaking, you, Master, twisted me back to yourself, catching me from behind, where I’d taken up a position in my unwillingness to pay any attention to what I was. You stood me firmly in front of my own face so that I could see how ugly I was, how deformed and dirty, blotched with rashes and sores. I saw and I shuddered with disgust, but I had nowhere to make off to. If I so much as tried to turn into my gaze away from myself, there, Ponticianus was telling that story of his, and you again confronted me with myself and forced me to look, so that I would find my sin and hate it.
What intrigues me here are the contortions, how violent this picture of introspection is, where Augustine is taken up from behind himself. A strange kind of pretzeling is going on here—and then there’s this Dorian Gray-like moment of self-recognition. One of the things I appreciate about Augustine is that he never gives us a picture of Christianity that’s easy or comforting. This encounter is invasive. It’s transformative in a way that’s contorting and difficult.
I’m intrigued by the theme of cleanness, because one of Augustine’s emphases later on, after he’s become a bishop, is the danger of claiming to be pure. This explains why he reacts so strongly to the Donatists, who thought they were pure. Some people might be surprised that there’s a stream of Christianity that thinks purity is the great danger. Purity is an illusion. It’s the people who think their righteousness is secured who are most susceptible to it.
That’s why I’m intrigued by the volatility of the erotic. I think Augustine is a great erotic thinker. And maybe part of what attracts me to him is his rendition of a spiritual adventure that says that human beings are fundamentally erotic creatures and then wrestles with that (as opposed to giving some merely intellectual assent to a certain set of ideas). That’s fertile ground for literary exploration.
GG: Absolutely. And in the passage that you read, it’s clear the extent to which the syntax embodies that contortion. When I think about this technology that Augustine invented, the way he puts something on the page that feels like thinking to me, I mean this kind of tortured or contorted syntax. One of the extraordinary accomplishments of the Confessions is to find a syntax that doesn’t deny impasse or dilemma, but that also doesn’t allow impasse or dilemma to become stagnant.
I’m amazed by the way that Augustine invents this elaborately recursive syntax that is always falling back on itself, always springing upon itself from behind in correction. You know, I think probably the bulk of the really abstract thinking in the book is framed in questions, and that’s a way for him to maintain dilemma and acknowledge impasse but also to make it generative. That feels like a gift to me as a writer. It feels like something I can use.
I’ll just say that for me, a nonbeliever, sex and religion always bear each other within themselves because I think they are the same thing. I think sex is the source of all of our metaphysics. One of the things that makes sex so endlessly fascinating to me is that it is the experience in which we are most aware of our own bodies and also the experience that most intensely gives us an intimation of something that transcends our bodies. I don’t think it’s an accident that we have a single language of devotion that applies at once to God and to our lovers.
JS: And there can often be a bleeding and blurring between the two. And that’s not something that Christianity has to be allergic to. That seems to me important to say. Someone said your work reminded them of James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room. In that book, the narrator is often confessing and testifying and betraying and apologizing, with some of the same contortions as Augustine. And I’m wondering if you see connections between Cleanness and Baldwin’s work but also, perhaps, Saint Augustine.
GG: I think Baldwin is one of the great Augustinians. His initiation into rhetoric was as a preacher. He was the son of a preacher. Baldwin stands in the tradition of what I think of as this inheritance of Augustinianism. He inherits this technology that Augustine invents, which gives rise to the novel of consciousness.
That tradition—the novel of consciousness—is also fascinatingly a queer tradition. It’s a tradition that I think has a more proximate inheritance in phenomenology, and in the idea of what Charles Taylor calls “radical reflexivity”: a mode of thinking in which we focus our awareness on the act of being aware. We focus our consciousness on what it feels like to be conscious, and in doing so, the hope is that we can arrive at revelation. I think that’s a key idea in Baldwin. And if you look at Baldwin’s syntax—well, there are a lot of influences: queerness, Blackness, Americanness, Henry James. But also Augustine. It’s Augustinian syntax.