William Giraldi was born in 1974 and grew up in Manville, New Jersey. He studied English literature at Drew University and holds an MA in creative writing from Boston University. He is the author of two novels, Busy Monsters (2011) and Hold the Dark (2015), which was adapted into a film from Netflix, as well as the memoir The Hero’s Body (2016) and a collection of criticism, American Audacity (2018). His writing has appeared in The New Republic, New York Times, Oxford American, Poets & Writers, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The New Criterion. The recipient of Pushcart and Balcones Fiction Prizes, he has been granted fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Giraldi is a master lecturer in the writing program at Boston University and an editor for the journal Agni. He was interviewed by Image culture editor Nick Ripatrazone.
Image: Let’s start with your conversation with the formidable Harold Bloom that recently appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books. In your introduction, you frame your discovery of Bloom’s work via an anecdote from when you were nineteen: “The product of a severe Catholic education, I kept hearing the King James Bible at work in Hemingway and Dante at work in O’Connor. This was both distracting and enhancing.” Who were you at nineteen? Where (and why) were you reading Hemingway, Dante, and O’Connor? And what about literary influence seemed “both distracting and enhancing”?
William Giraldi: At nineteen, I was still mostly in the closet as a reader and writer, because in my tiny working-class hometown in New Jersey—a manful town of Catholics named Manville, if you can believe it—the arts and intellectual endeavors were not only not accepted but outright ridiculed. Too femme for Manvillians. I was nearing the end of my three-year stint as a teenage bodybuilder then and, by inches, beginning to understand that reading and writing were to be my life. I touch upon this briefly in my memoir, The Hero’s Body, although I could have written two hundred more pages about my closeted days as a reader.
It was really a mentor who altered my life and gave me permission, so to speak, to accept myself, to quit reading in the shadows despite my hometown. I started showing up at writing classes at the community college a few towns over, even though I wasn’t enrolled. The instructor, Ed Minus, not only let me stay and participate, but was the first person to tell me, at nineteen years old, that I was a born writer and that I might make a career of it. I can’t overemphasize how revamping that was for me, how radical and how final. Minus was a transplant from South Carolina, thirty-five years my senior, had published a novel in the eighties with Viking, and had had stories in The Atlantic and all the top literary quarterlies, so this confirmation from him was vital to my selfhood. My friendship with him, for twenty years, was the most important relationship in my life. I’d been reading in secret since I was small, but I became a wider, more careful reader under his tutelage. It was Minus who turned me in the direction of Harold Bloom and the problem of influence.
Tyndale’s language in the King James Version has such a limpid potency that I began always hearing it in my mind the way some hear pop songs. I’d first read Hemingway in high school and was immediately zapped by awe: I didn’t realize American language could reach such a demotic sublime—though I’d later find this in Whitman, too—and after high school I read all of Hemingway, including the letters and reportage. But because I had Tyndale crooning within, it was distractingly obvious to me that Hemingway’s prose rhythms came directly from the KJV. I say distracting because it sometimes interfered with a full appreciation of what Hemingway himself was achieving with his prose, how revolutionary his style was in the early 1920s, though Sherwood Anderson and Ring Lardner had made similar forays into such prose.
But my hearing Tyndale in Hemingway was also enhancing because it allowed me to see what Hemingway was up to beyond or beneath the mannered simplicity of his prose (recall his famous “iceberg” theory). I mean to say that Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, for example, are only ostensibly about a young boy’s growth into a man through fishing, hunting, and war. They are really about the state of Nick’s soul in a world suffused by sin, a world blitzed into godless modernity by the ravages of the First World War.
The same was true for my reading of Dante and O’Connor: see how critical Dante is, not only of his beloved Florence, from which he was exiled, but of swaths of Catholic theology and dogma. O’Connor is just as critical of the South and of both Catholicism and Protestantism. Remember, as a Catholic in Baptist Georgia, she, too, was a kind of exile or expatriate. She is also a richly imagistic stylist, as was Dante, and it was obvious to me that she was taking that line from him in her work.
Again, this was both enhancing and distracting. But I soon got over the distraction of it, with Bloom’s help, when I accepted the inevitability of it: of course strong writers must engage in agon with their predecessors if they are to come into their own sublimity. There are no idiot savants in literature as there are in music, or painting, or math. The only way to come into your own strength as a writer is to absorb tradition.
Image: You’ve written, “Perhaps it’s the cost of his outsized fame or his own overweening influence, but nobody in American letters has more enemies than Harold Bloom.” I agree that Bloom has been reduced to his most pugilistic and sclerotic moments, but I think he has a real power to surprise. Here’s how he ends your conversation: “I think when I depart that I will think of myself as a secular rabbi. One reads to the congregation yet also to oneself. Yahweh bewilders me. I cannot accept him. I cannot reject him. The God of my mother and my father cannot be just an old story. I do not trust in the Covenant, but I cannot deny the transcendental and extraordinary.” What do you think of Bloom’s words?
WG: Bloom once said to me that it’s hard to go on living without some hope in the extraordinary, and that’s essentially what he’s saying at the end of the lines you quote. I don’t have any issue with the seeming contradiction of “secular rabbi” because I’ve been an unbelieving Catholic for most of my life. One needs to find a home in contradiction, paradox, antinomy, in Keatsian negative capability or Yeatsian tragic joy, or else reality quickly becomes untenable. Mysterium tremendum is or should be the state of things for any poet, artist, or believer. Bloom’s “congregation” is the legion of literary disciples he’s earned over the last sixty years, and while it might sound absurd or even blasphemous for him to refer to himself and his readers in such a way, I know precisely what he means, because literature has been, for me, the only religion worth having. I’ve prayed to Homer and Milton more seriously and ardently than I’ve ever prayed to Yahweh or Christ.
When Bloom says he can neither accept nor deny Yahweh, I hear him assenting to the necessity of paradox, but I also hear him making an aesthetic assertion and not a spiritual one. As a literary potency, as sheer poetry, Yahweh is hard to take or leave. I’d say the same for Christ, by the way; I’ve always experienced a simultaneous attraction and repulsion with Messiah. I happen to know that for Bloom, the concept of Yahweh is complicated by his mother’s love for and reliance on the Pentateuch and Torah, and so further complicated by Bloom’s love for and memory of his mother. The Covenant has let Bloom down, as he says—aesthetically it just doesn’t work—but the transcendental has not let him down, only he found it in Shelley and Whitman as the poetic sublime.
Image: In the summer of 2015, you published “The Problem of the Catholic Novelist” in The New Republic. Although you reject the title of “Catholic novelist,” you “concede to being a cultural Catholic, since I recognize the aftershocks of Catholicism on certain avenues of my worldview [and] on my conception of the dramatic.” Tell me about the Catholicism of your youth—and when your belief was replaced with unbelief.
WG: As a fellow New Jersey Catholic of Italian descent, who was also a lover of literature coming of age in the eighties, you must understand this better than many: my relationship with Catholicism was always literary in a place and at a time when it was supposed to be literal. Children have no choice in their upbringings, their parents, their hometowns, or religions, but I remember knowing I had a choice whether or not to believe in what was being dished to me in parochial school and at mass on Sundays. The poetry of the gospels and liturgy was what I heard, not the dogma of them.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been a believer as that term is typically employed; even when, as a child of eleven or twelve, I sometimes thrummed with the fear of hell, that fear had more to do with Dante than with dogma. When, at confession at our Catholic school, the priest would ask us boys if we masturbated, that was the height of hilarity to me. I just couldn’t take that seriously in any way, and I think I understood that the query had more to do with him than with me. My parents were already divorced by this time, my mother off into another life, and my father, embattled on multiple fronts and raising three small kids alone, didn’t have anything to say to me about faith or the church, and neither did my grandmother, who helped raise my siblings and me after our mother left the family. So, in our house, Catholicism was a reality without being a requirement.
I’d left the church formally at fourteen when I decided to go to public high school and not the Catholic high school most of my pals were off to, but it took me another four or five years to understand that I’d also left faith, belief, piety of any stripe. My reading life had a great deal to do with that, Nietzsche and Shelley especially. I was obnoxiously atheistic in my twenties, spewing Schopenhauer and Swinburne at people. This was long before the atheist onslaught begun by Dawkins and Hitchens and company in ’06 or thereabouts.
Image: In your conversation with Bloom—published four years after the Catholic novelist essay—you identify yourself as a “nonbelieving Catholic.” It reminds me of your (very accurate) encapsulation of the novelist Thomas McGuane’s identity as “a cultural Catholicism that remains vaguely sacral but is no longer connected to the church’s liturgies or devotions.” Do you still feel pulled (or pushed?) toward liturgy, devotion, those old Latin rhythms? Can nostalgia ever cross over into belief? Would you write that essay in the same way now?
WG: Those are important questions to me. I’ve struggled to explain this to people, that one can be an unbelieving Catholic just as one can be a secular Jew. I’ve certainly been in the fangs of a spiritual crisis more than once—what in Donne’s day was called “religious melancholy,” suicidal spots that had me in a “struggle against pointlessness,” in Erich Fromm’s wording—but the crisis did not concern the dilemma of whether or not to return to the church, but of whether or not I was going to use Christ the Metaphor, Christ the Poem, in my own understanding of myself.
There’s a line I’ve been mulling over: You would not seek me if you had not found me. Blaise Pascal has Christ say that to him in a meditation called The Mystery of Jesus. Christ is already in him, which is how Pascal knows in the first place to seek him, to find the source or the name for the force that already pumps and hums in him. It’s a lovely formulation. I’ve been mulling it over because, as the father of three small boys, I am, yes, currently tugged between raising them with Christ and raising them without Christ, with the sacraments or without, etc.
Why am I being tugged? Because having small children transports you back to your own childhood, and I can’t fight off my awareness of the differences between how I was raised and how they are being raised. Nostalgia can cross over into the land of belief, yes, and I think that’s a strong way to frame it, although I still don’t call myself a believer. I have gone back to referring to myself sometimes as a Catholic or Christian, though. But again, those tags are for me literary and intellectual tags, ways of seeing and not necessarily ways of being or believing.
I’m not sure how I would write that essay on Catholic novelists now, although I can’t imagine it would be too different. I would one day like to look at the squalid excellence of Greene’s The Power and the Glory. The essay is really about novels and not faith, about the uses of dogma for the novelist, and for a long time now I’ve been irrevocably wed to my view of what a novel should be and how a novel should function.
Image: American Audacity, your latest book, is a teeming, charged collection of essays—a testament to how great, energetic criticism is done. This book follows a memoir and two novels. Do you see a symbiotic relationship between criticism and creative work?
WG: I think about this a lot, as I’m sure you do as well, since you practice both. A trinity of heroes—Walter Pater, Matthew Arnold, Oscar Wilde—taught me what I know about the symbiosis of creative and critical work, though I prefer to think of it as reciprocity instead of symbiosis, and I also have an obnoxious dislike of the term creative when it’s applied to writing: I prefer imaginative because imagination is a more substantive tool, method, aim. (I also have a visceral dislike of the American MFA mill, that paint-by-numbers plan to get through grad school.)
For me creative calls up images of children and Legos, and the other problem with the term, when applied to writing, is that there really is no such thing as writing, any writing, that isn’t in some way creative. Of course it is, and all criticism worthy of the name is always as creative as the fiction or poetry or drama it aims to evaluate and appreciate: in its language, in the assertiveness of its mind, in its structures. Think of Christopher Ricks’s book on Beckett: it’s more imaginative than many novels. The criticism of Virginia Woolf, or of my other trinity of heroes (Elizabeth Hardwick, Mary McCarthy, and Cynthia Ozick), is frequently more alive, dynamic, and sagacious than the books they’re writing about. It’s also hard to read the reviews of Dorothy Parker without delighting in her irrepressible ability to be two steps ahead of the writer she’s reviewing.
Matthew Arnold’s brazen switcheroo was to say that critical work does not need imaginative work to exist, is not the handmaiden to imaginative work, or leeches on the limbs of poetry and prose. Rather, the imaginative work requires the critical work to know itself fully. By this he means that criticism at its best completes the poem or novel or play: not just evaluates or appreciates or excoriates it, but completes it. And the poem or novel or play, if it is strong, will then, in turn, further inform the criticism. This is the reciprocity I mean. They need one another, no matter how imaginative writers denounce critics as snipes or assassins or asses. You might have noticed that no one complains about critics and their role when the reviews are good. It’s curious: dancers don’t dance about other dancers, sculptors don’t sculpt about other sculptors, but writers do write about other writers. Perhaps this is part of the reason there is so much backbiting and infighting among writers. Or so I hear.
Image: In your introduction to the essay collection, you write that the “critic is a reader before he is a writer, a spirited lover of literature, and criticism is one important use to which he puts his reading and his love.” I think the word love is apt here; the loveless critic strikes me as grating, capable of muting the finest literary music. What do you love, then, about writing criticism? When does it become song and performance for you—and not merely utilitarian work?
WG: You’re right about that: critics with no love of literature really have no business sticking their snoots in the art, and I hope I’ve underscored by now that criticism is an art—in that it requires talent and skill and craft. I have to admit, though, that I don’t love writing anything as much as I love reading, and this is partly because reading is intensely pleasurable for me and writing is not—writing is work. I come from a working-class family of macho guineas for whom hard work is itself a religion, and I don’t pray in that church: I prefer to read, or wrestle with my little ones, or drink wine and smoke cannabis, or watch old episodes of The X-Files.
It’s not that I don’t care about writing—although I think I’d quit in a second if the gods let me win the lotto—but rather, if I’m going to do it, if now I have to do it to buy all these diapers we need here, then I’m going to try to do it right. So many contemporary writers have been abandoned by language, left linguistically destitute, all that arthritic prose, gnarled by cliché, buckled by platitude, and I can’t abide that. I want to aim for sentences so fertilized with perception, with vision, that they’re constantly sprouting fresh means of seeing. Writing is the hardest art because everybody has some currency in words, written or spoken or both, which makes freshness of perception immensely difficult. If you’re content to write the way everyone else writes, to sound as everyone else sounds and see as everyone else sees, then you’ll have an easy time of it.
So while I can’t say that I love to write anything—criticism, or fiction, or essays, or memoir—I can say that when it goes well, it’s very rewarding. There’s that great line in Jesus’ Son where the narrator and his drug-smacked chum burglarize a home and afterward have “the feeling of men who had worked.” It’s like that for me: I’m just burglarizing all the strong books I’ve read in my life, trying to have what they have, attempting to be worthy of them, and if I get close some days, I have the strong sense of being a man who has worked, and that’s fulfilling. But my failures in fiction and criticism and memoir—of vision, of story, of language, of character, of assessment, a whole day’s work in a heap at my feet—are more numerous than my successes, and those failures sting. I don’t want to experience such stinging, and so I spend a lot of time reading and not writing.
Let me try to be less digressive and answer your question more directly: for me, what is fulfilling about writing criticism is precisely what is fulfilling about writing fiction or memoir: the possibility of putting down prose with a high red blood cell count, a prose with propulsion that might birth a new way of seeing. Never mind self-expression; I have nothing to express about myself, and if I did, I wouldn’t express it. Rather, I aim for a substantive self-assertion aligned with imaginative might, the right words in the right order with the right sound, words that provide some cognizance of the strong words that have come before, of tradition. The song and performance, as you say, are paramount, because unless you’re writing with your ear, you’re not entirely connected to the sentences on the page. I’ve never seen criticism as utility because I’ve always seen it as art, and art—to crib from Auden who was cribbing from Wilde—is perfectly useless outside its ability to provide beauty and pleasure.
Image: We’re both sons of New Jersey, so I was especially drawn to The Hero’s Body, your memoir about growing up in the Garden State, your family (including the death of your father), bodybuilding, and the “sacral creed” of living in a town called Manville. In what ways—implicitly and explicitly—do you think being born and bred in New Jersey contributed to your literary and critical senses?
WG: That’s another important question to me, and one I tried to wrestle into an answer in The Hero’s Body, though I’m not sure I succeeded, or succeeded to the degree I’d like. “The Child is father of the Man”: Wordsworth beat Freud to that formulation, and this is what you see enacted peerlessly in the Prelude: the degree to which the poet’s imagination has been composed by childhood, the poet’s conception of the world and himself “deeply interfused” by “a sense sublime.” The time and place of my childhood didn’t offer the sublime except insofar as every child experiences incessant newness and mystery, and so whatever inklings of the sublime I was offered came from Christ and the church, which I didn’t recognize then as sublime. The reductive answer to your question is that Manville, New Jersey, informs my critical and literary senses not at all, since my adult days have been an effort to leave Manville behind, to give myself grander experiences via literature and my adopted city of Boston, where I’ve been for half my life now.
But of course the reductive answer will not suffice. Manville is always with me; I can’t lessen its pressures upon my vision. I suppose that’s probably true for all people and the places that reared them, no matter how far behind they leave those places. The only credit I can give Manville, New Jersey, for my current critical and imaginative sensibility lies in Catholicism, by which I mean that, for me, Catholicism is indistinguishable from literature. So if Manville made me a Catholic, and Catholicism made me a writer, then Manville made me a writer. Perhaps that’s not too tortuous a way to conceive of it, but it certainly sounds odd to me because there’s no less literary place in New Jersey than Manville, and I don’t mean just unliterary: I mean anti-literary. Books and a life of the mind were not acknowledged, never mind valued. In that regard, then, I created myself, though that creation must remain necessarily and partly a mystery. I don’t think I was ever conscious of needing to create myself as a writer: I simply grew up and left Manville. There was never any question about that, never any possibility of my staying there. This is an old story, but we don’t conceive of ourselves as old stories, only as individual wills to power and realization.
My closest friend, the writer Steve Almond, has been baffled from the beginning by how I was able to become who I am after being raised in Manville, New Jersey. It really shouldn’t have been. I should be shoveling dirt on some construction site near Newark. That’s what I mean by self-creation remaining a mystery, at least in part. I simply wasn’t wired as most others in Manville were wired, and I’m lucky to have escaped into this life of literature, and to this city. There are, as you know, a great many who never get the chance for jailbreak.
Image: We’re also both admirers of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (you, like Elizabeth Bishop, call him “Father Hopkins”—his true moniker). You said that learning about Hopkins from the famed poet Geoffrey Hill was “the most transformative classroom encounter of my life.” In an interview about your novel Hold the Dark, you quote some of my favorite lines of Hopkins: “What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, / O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.” What has Hopkins taught or shown you about poetry, passion, and the literary language of belief?
WG: Yes, Father Hopkins has been immensely important to me for the last twenty years. F.R. Leavis once made the point that you can’t spend any time with Hopkins’s poems without quickly having to deal with his theology, and I think that’s right. I learned Hopkins from Geoffrey Hill when I was in grad school at Boston University in the early aughts. Hill was a stern Anglican, and the Hill-Hopkins cocktail was responsible, I think, for the recrudescence of, if not faith, then my reverence for Catholic tradition, for those old Latin rhythms, as you nicely name them, and also for my own upbringing.
As for language: Hill had no patience for those who insist on tagging Hopkins an obscurantist. Hopkins might not be immediately accessible, but that does not mean he is deliberately cryptic. He was a whole generation before his time, anticipating the modern while remaining loyal to tradition. If he sounds like no one else in the English language—and I mean in the whole language, not just in poetry—that’s because he had the dire need of innovation, a religio-poetic need for which common Victorian English simply would not do. His syntactical and metrical innovations, his “sprung rhythm,” were reactions against iambic pentameter, rhythms influenced by the nursery rhymes he knew as a child. The lines are marked by stresses instead of syllables, and each unit of a line can contain one to four syllables but only a single stress. This rhythm has got to be heard as equally spiritual and structural. The inverted syntax, enjambment, and internal rhyme create collisions of new meaning, new speaking. The severe intensity of that sound aims to commune with God and Christ. His sound is often mysterious the way God must always be. A poet with Father Hopkins’s needs must modify his sounds in order to be heard by the recipient of those sounds.
In other words: the style is the substance, as it must be—you can’t disentangle them—and Hopkins was my first true lesson in this truth, a truth not reserved solely for poetry. His “Terrible Sonnets,” written in Dublin in 1885, have always meant the most to me: they are, even next to Donne’s “Holy Sonnets,” an unrivaled chronicle of a poet in the damp grip of religious melancholy. To hear them is to fall into Hopkins’s abyss, and hear is the only word that will do since Hopkins wrote all his poems for recitation—they are prayer, they are liturgy—which is something he emphasizes again and again in his many letters to his closest correspondent, the poet Robert Bridges. Hopkins meticulously accented all the stresses in his lines so that we can hear him the way he intended.
There’s something else Hill was miffed about: those critics who dub Hopkins a poet of despair. For Hopkins—a Jesuit priest of militant piety, of Ignatian severity—despair of course meant doctrinal despair, the sin of shunning God. Despair was simply an impossibility for Hopkins; it would have meant the losing of his eternal soul. The evidence is right there in the poems: “Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee.” In “The Leaden Echo” he writes: “So be beginning, be beginning to despair,” but then pivots with: “O there’s none; no no no there’s none.” His language is a working out of these pressures: the necessity of piety versus “the slough of despond.”
By all of this I mean to say that Father Hopkins was my first and most important example of what should be the imaginative writer’s task: an inventory of the soul. A talent for storytelling and crafting characters is not enough. A writer must learn to live in language, and for me, this living wasn’t possible before my communion with Hopkins. Hill led us in serious attention to words and pairs of words in Hopkins—I remember, especially, “disabling cold” and “chilling remembrance” and “baffling ban.” The Hopkins-Hill alloy fired me with a respect for words as pregnant instruments not to be rushed, splashed down, considered gifts from a self-satisfied muse. In his dedication to art’s hierarchy, Hill compelled us to break down to the smallest detail just how one thing is superior to another, a superiority substantiated by every word the writer employs. I mean to say that it is possible to show how one book is better than another. Major writers write into the density of language—you see this with, say, Nabokov and Bellow—while minor ones merely float atop it. All careful readers know they’re holding a book whose sentences show an astounding lack of register, vigor, or revelation, sentences that have appeared on the page without a commitment to the dynamism, dimensions, and connotative complexity of language.
Image: You’ve noted that Hold the Dark was real labor to write, a “painful slog.” It’s a profoundly melancholic book—it surrounds the reader, shocks us, forces us to confront our worst possible moments. Do you see yourself, as writer, returning to that narrative space of evil?
WG: I certainly do, and I’ve had thrumming inside me now for a couple of years a new novel that returns to the narrative space of evil. As a fiction writer yourself you know that fiction isn’t, or shouldn’t be, conceived of as a working out of grand problems—political, social, religious, what-have-you—but rather, as Waugh maintains somewhere, an investigation into the efficacy of language. I mean that the language has to come to me first, the language of the novel’s assertive potency, and not characters or plots. Of course I have plot and character in mind, as much as the commercial hack does, but without the language necessary to the novel’s particular telling, plot and character won’t mean a thing. Some of this happens below the consciousness line: Nabokov talks about this, about a certain sensation in the body, the language and story beginning to acquire form, a mood, a weather, that thrumming I’ve mentioned.
The reason Hold the Dark was so difficult to compose is twofold: first, everything I write is difficult in that I don’t want to do it, don’t want to work or confront the possibility of failure; but second, I needed to marshal the proper language for the telling of it, a language that could correspond to the landscape of an Alaskan nowhere while also corresponding to the spiritual tundra of the characters, to this problem of evil. I’m having a similar issue now with this new novel gestating in me: my laziness, and the opposite of my laziness, which is my conviction that if one is going to do it, one best be sure the language is right and best toil in tears and sweat until it is. And of course there’s that other issue: not wanting to descend into that domain, the consideration of evil and all it implies. I would much rather guffaw with Wodehouse and Wilde and Waugh, my three sacred Ws.
Image: You’ve written about your desire to “impart to readers the Eucharistic component to the strongest literature, the necessity of its sacral communing.” As a writer, are you a member of a community? Are you a member of one as a reader? How is this question different now from when you first started writing?
WG: When I first started writing at eighteen years old, when I knew for certain that writing would be my life, I really didn’t know the first thing about it: I was all intuition and expression, no assertion whatsoever, stories that were poor Hemingway-cum-Carver counterfeits, orgies of undisciplined realism, the splurgings of my shattered heart, so precious to me at eighteen. All of this was staunchly supported by the mentor I mentioned earlier, Ed Minus. I wonder about that. I am a member of no community with a name—I’m with Nabokov in eschewing all groups and flag-wavers of any kind—but I have certainly studied in the Bloomian school that declares literature a secular religion, and of course I bring my atheistic species of Catholicism to an understanding and defense of that religion. Without the sublime, without some intimation of divinity, we are lost—and worse: we are boring. We can’t tell eternal stories that way. For the artist, and for the writer especially, it’s certain suicide to shun that junction where this world grates against the other. As a reader, I turn to those books I wish I had written, for both aesthetic and intellectual reasons, though those reasons are really a single reason: the intellectual is born of the aesthetic; substance cannot be disentangled from style. This makes me a very picky reader, for sure, but I know of no other way that means anything.
Image: I’d like to end by returning to one of our favorite Jesuits. In one of Hopkins’s final poems, he wrote, “The fine delight that fathers thought; the strong / Spur, live and lancing like the blowpipe flame, / Breathes once, and, quenchèd faster than it came, / Leaves yet the mind a mother of immortal song.” What has been the “fine delight” that fathers your thought?
WG: I’ve held those lines close to my chest and spine since they first found me: they are some of the finest lines ever written about artistic and cognitive assertion, though perhaps rival lines by Coleridge and Shelley come close. For Father Hopkins, that “fine delight,” that “spur, live and lancing,” must be Christ: there was no way around that for him. Christ need breathe into us only once, and our thought, as Hopkins sees it, is forever “mother of immortal song.” To Hopkins, those songs were for God and Messiah; remember, he was a student of Saint Ignatius, who writes: “Man was created to praise.” Christ the Poem is with me almost always; Christ’s suffering is with me almost always. But literature is my true “fine delight.” There’s that great line by William Carlos Williams: “If it ain’t a pleasure it ain’t a poem.” I’ve sought that pleasure all my days, the aesthetic splendor of language at its strongest. Aside from my children and wife, literature has been the intensest delight of my life.
Nick Ripatrazone is Image’s culture editor and author of the forthcoming Longing for an Absent God (Fortress), a collection of essays on lapsed Catholic writers.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.