Friday, September 28, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 24, “Rebirth in Water and in the Holy Spirit”

Dear old friend of boarding school days,*

The final chapter in part 2 of The Lord focuses on the beautiful character of Nicodemus, a Pharisee drawn to Jesus, who asked Christ how it is possible to be reborn. No, the picture at left is not Nicodemus. That’s novelist and poet James Dickey.

Nicodemus, Guardini says, “has been shaken by Jesus’ mysterious power; his wonderful teaching has struck home. He has sensed the miracles to be what in truth they are: a breaking through of power from above, visible signs of a new divine reality. Now he wishes to be where this Stranger is, to share in his vision of the kingdom.”

It may seem an odd jump from an old Pharisee to a middle-aged Georgian whose 1970 novel Deliverance had not been published yet when he read his epic poem “Falling” from the stage of the Academy chapel during our senior year, 1968–1969. Dickey was a gifted writer described as “a deep thinker and a drinker, a composer of burly and extremist poetry, an excessive performer, a hopeless liar, an inveterate womanizer, a father who gave himself airs.” Hearsay evidence says Dickey embarrassed himself heroically with alcohol while on campus with us at Exeter.

That was the same year the Academy hosted its first writer-in-residence, Bruce Dobler, a minor novelist who suffered from depression and whose life ended at the University of Pittsburgh in 2010, possibly by suicide.

I don’t wish to make either Dickey or Dobler a target of this post, but rather to say that they were to me at Exeter in my senior year what Christ was to Nicodemus: a power descending from on high to which I felt drawn, to which I wanted access. They were presented to us as models of the literary, therefore the high intellectual, life. Their “wonderful teaching” “struck home.” They were “visible signs of a new divine reality.” Which is tragic in its own way, right?

Let me speak for myself. At Exeter some of us became self-styled “literary rocks.” This meant we knew books and, better yet, could talk about books, even when we hadn’t read them. I still have a copy of The Plague by Albert Camus given to me by my parents at Christmas 1968 and inscribed by to “Webster, the literary rock.” I shit you not, to borrow a phrase favored by LRs of the day.

I was so besotted by James Dickey’s 20-minute recitation that the following term I recited it on radio station WPEA, choosing as my musical background the song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly. I repeat, I—shit—you—not. 

I also remember, even somewhat vividly, sitting with a group of LRs listening to “Dobes,” as we called Bruce Dobler, reading from his novel in progress. Was that novel Ice Pick, the 1973 fiction about prison life? Could have been. I can’t recall. I remember only that the text was just indecipherable enough to convince me it was art.

This reminds me of another incident in 1968, though I believe it must have taken place in the spring of upper (11th grade) year. I was an assistant editor for Noonmark magazine, an inter–prep school literary magazine, and I made a pilgrimage to New York City to meet the teenage author of a work of fiction based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead that was as inscrutable as it was insufferable. None of us could make hide nor hair of it so we, the Noonmark editorial board, published it uncut. In our defense, it was very long and it filled a lot of space.

What does all this have to do with Nicodemus? I think I’ve already said. These were instances of a power from outside my world that broke in on me and magnetized me. As clueless as I may sound in these fragments of memory, I know just as well that I was eager, open, desperate to be moved by an intelligence greater than my own—a force that, for lack of a better word, we might call divine, if only because it’s higher than our daily experience.

These were the experiences that called to me, the young Nicodemus: Dickey, Dobler, the Dead.

I am beginning to wonder if it is only coincidental that the “religion requirement”—that each student attend weekly services at the church or temple of his choosing—was suspended at the end of upper (11th grade) year. What filled the void? For you it may have been the deacons of Phillips Church, a high honor, for which I salute you. For me, it was Dickey, Dobler, the Dead, and, oh yeah, drugs—about which I will have to write some more before this crazy series of posts is finished.

But for now, may the peace of the Lord by with you, my dear friend,
WB

This series of posts continues here with chapter 25.

* This post continues a series of meditations on The Lord by Romano Guardini framed as open letters to a real, live friend from my days at a leading New England prep school, 1966–1969.

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