“Teacher, I didn’t exactly finish the book.” I have endured that excuse from miserable underlings for years. The unbending rule of my classroom, borrowed from some scholastic environment of yesteryear, is “Learn or depart. A third alternative is to be flogged.” Floggings and canings are regular occurences in my classroom. Many are the times when a student has to stand because sitting is uncomfortable due to the recent administration of violent instruction upon the hinder parts.
Actually, none of the above is true, except the part of hearing excuses from students for not getting assignments done. They don’t always realize it, but I truly understand. With the necessity of checking everyone’s FaceBook status, upgrading their own status, listening to and downloading music, watching movies, texting endlessly, tweeting and eating, shopping and bopping, who has time to plod through a tome. Besides, reading makes you sleepy. Or what if, horror of horrors, an assigned reading bores the student. Quick, administer the Detergent novel series—the students are bored.
All of that paragraph is true except for using the Detergent series to cure an outbreak of literary boredom.
“Of the making of many books, there is no end,” said Solomon on the occasion of perusing his Wish List on Amazon. I read books; I reread books; I study books; but I also scan books, survey books, and glance at books. I review books as a part-time job. It pays well, if you think of pay as something other than money. It is a free service to the blog reading community. It is a sharing of a gift and experience.
All of this is to say that I am going to comment upon a book I have not read. About a year ago, I received a review copy of Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetric Tradition by Louis Markos. I have scanned the book, read portions, and eagerly thumbed through it. But since it did not directly fit into last year’s teaching schedule, it did not get the needed cover to cover read. But I highly treasure and recommend the book. There were two reasons for my endorsement–the title and the author.
First the title: Heaven and Hell…Visions of the Afterlife…the Western Poetic Tradition. Point blank, we must say, there is no understanding of literature without an understanding of theology, primarily Christian theology. Agrarian poet, novelist, literary critic Robert Penn Warren told his students, “Read the Bibles and mark them well. I mean the King James Version.” To start naming the literary works that borrow from, build upon, allude to, use and misuse the Bible is synonomous with listing the books in the canon of literature.
Markos includes chapters on Dante (actually 9 chapters), John Milton (2 chapters), John Bunyan and John Donne (who share a chapter), William Blake and C. S. Lewis (one chapter each). He also has seven chapters on pre-Christian Greeks and Romans. But they too “borrowed from” Christian theology.
This theological bent is not just toward old and ancient epics. William Faulkner’s books are suffused with Biblical imagery and Christian references, as well as Christian characters. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath builds it theme upon Biblical motifs. Hemingway’s title The Sun Also Rises is from Ecclesiastes.
Every work of fiction is a commentary upon some book, passage, or teaching of the Bible.
Continuing with the title, every piece of literature deals with some vision of Heaven and/or Hell and some sense of the afterlife. Even the most cynical, skeptical, Nihilistic, atheistic piece of fiction opens up a discussion of the afterlife. Maybe the door is one that closes and the theme is that all is meaningless. Maybe there is No Exit (to borrow from Satre) or maybe we are Waiting for Godot (to borrow from Beckett). To say that “this is all there is” is to posit a view of the afterlife and how we should view such. The fact that the novel ends, but is expected to still be living in the mind of the reader is the testimony to an afterlife. The book, any piece of fiction, roadmaps to somewhere, even if that somewhere is nowhere.
Along with that, Heaven and Hell imply justice, rewards, a reckoning, hope, fear, triumph, defeat, and meaning. The author may believe that the only heaven we can find is here on earth. Maybe heaven in some literary experiences is “I and Thou, here and now, Wow.” Maybe they think, like the speaker in Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” who consoled his lover in a time when faith had receded. That momentary love experience was the only solace: