A Sanctuary of Faith and Memory

Dwellings: Far from Desperate Fields is a collection of nineteen essays on “faith, memory, and modernity” written by self-styled “dilettante” Nayeli Riano. It is a splendid performance, sumptuous and surprising. Rather improbably, the Colombian author is a graduate student at Georgetown pursuing a doctorate in political theory. She chose not to pursue a doctorate in English or Comparative Literature, though she is clearly equipped to do so.

The reasons for her choice can be inferred. Riano has the kind of voice that is missing from today’s academic scene. She is a Christian, a cosmopolitan, and a humanist. She is quite capable of academic specialization but eschews it. The word dilettante stems from the Latin delectare: to delight, please, amuse, fascinate. T. S. Eliot, an important presence in these pages, once opined that “poetry is a superior amusement.” As an essayist, Riano is the literary descendent of Eliot, Woolf, Pater, and Montaigne. She has her literary antecedents, and they strengthen her work, but she makes the essay-form her own. She can be densely abstract, and yet at the same time gracious and hospitable. She uses the pronoun “he” in a universal sense, without a qualm. At the same time, her feminine genius shines through, like Mrs. Ramsay in the great dinner scene in To the Lighthouse. Put another way: she serves up savory dishes of intellectual satisfaction without a trace of groupthink—that is, without the intellectual monosodium glutamate and universal flavor-enhancer that wafts in heaps of steam from out the ivy-laced windows of our industrial quads.

Before addressing the possible future of Riano’s professed “dilettantism,” I want to consider the ideas and pleasures awaiting her readers. Dwellings offers a sanctuary from despair by bringing faith and memory to the “desperate fields of political instability, social unrest, and general incivility that has (sic) plagued our world from its very beginnings.” The concept of “spiritual memory” reigns supreme. It describes “the framework through which we remain attuned to the past.” It speaks to “our soul’s desire to know ourselves by knowing from where we have come.” Unlike nostalgia, which “implies a strong cognitive division or break between the past and the present,” spiritual memory suggests continuity.

Riano is wary of a “romantic view of the past.” She exhibits an affinity for the more unromantic romantics, such as the aesthete George Santayana and his Harvard student Eliot. She prefers non-scientific historians (Chesterton would call them “psychological historians”), writers who realize the past through imaginative sympathy, such as Henry Adams and Johan Huizinga. Here she is, commenting on Adams’s Mont Saint Michel and Chartres:

In Adams’s world (and ours), “Truth” had departed. But Adams wrote that even if truth does not exist in the modern world, when one explores and experiences the art of the thirteenth century, “what men took for truth stares one everywhere in the eye and begs for sympathy.” This remark has always been a challenge to interpret, not just because I find it so moving, but also because it conveys a form of pity towards a religious past that is no longer.

Readers of these essays will experience a similar expansion of sympathies, like a memory of the human condition, regardless of our ever-pressing political commitments.

Imagination plays a large part in what Riano means by “faith” and “memory.” She is treading romantic ground opened by Burke and Wordsworth, intellectually refined by Coleridge, and developed philosophically by Newman—and certainly Newman was no nostalgic. Despite her claim to the contrary, I tend to think of Riano as a romantic. Her emotional register is oriented to the self. She takes her title from W. B. Yeats. She tends toward landscapes and imaginative contemplation. She doesn’t go in for comedy or satire, genres that may afford more immediate access to our social antennae, though Riano’s Christianity saves her from solipsism and, in the vein of Newman and the later Eliot, comes with rich rewards.          

The essays range intrepidly across cultures, from the medieval world to the modern, to illuminate works of art, music, architecture, and literature. An example of the art-essay is “Foucault and ‘Las Meninas’: On Postmodernism and Painting.” This concise piece is one of the best takedowns I’ve ever read on the still ubiquitous figure of Michel Foucault. Riano’s appreciation of Diego Velázquez’s painting, one of the glories of the Spanish Golden Age (a phrase in bad odor among the specialists due to its “nationalist” connotations), exposes Foucault’s deconstruction of the self as the intellectual sleight-of-hand that it most assuredly is. Translated as “The Ladies-in-Waiting,” Las Meninas (1656) is a triumph of perspective that raises numerous famous interpretive questions. Whose perspective? What is the painter painting? What is the painter’s relation to the viewer?

In Foucault’s influential interpretation, which ominously foreshadows the monstrous birth of Paul de Man’s Rhetoric of Romanticism, Velázquez succeeds in eliding the spectator’s presence entirely: “Seen or seeing? The painter is observing a place which, from moment to moment, never ceases to change its content, its form, its face, its identity.” Riano skillfully counteracts this poison, which, in its attack on the psychological health of the human subject is as eloquently despairing as Spenser’s Despair, a character from the Faerie Queene, a work that Riano discusses in the preceding essay. For Riano, the self is relational. She finds this relationality on display in Las Meninas, and, accordingly, she rejects Foucault’s self-serving picture of the autonomous Cartesian self as the human widget in a modern society “centered around control and hierarchies of power.”

As to why Foucault was lionized in the first place, she quotes José Guilherme Merquior: “A discourse on power and on the power of discourse—what could be more attractive to intellectuals and humanities departments with an increasingly entrenched radical outlook, yet who have also grown sick and tired of the traditional pieties of left revolutionism?” A good explanation. As to why Foucault’s anti-humanism lingers like the half-life of plutonium, Riano says little. What she supplies instead of cultural-warrior polemic is the practice of Christian humanism and the good hope of leading by example.

Riano is not a “right-wing culture-warrior.” She is an exemplary Christian humanist, a superb conversationalist, an amateur in the best sense of the word, to wit, a lover of her subject.

On the literary front, Riano writes with deeply rewarding insight into the work of Dostoevsky, Lampedusa, and Tolkien. One of the lessons she takes from Dostoevsky will be of particular interest to readers of Law & Liberty:

The mistake often made by critics of societies determined to bureaucratize everything as an effort to reduce suffering and achieve human perfectibility (which is the type of society in which the Underground Man lives) is that they believe the two opposing values to be government and freedom. It is not that simple. The link lies somewhere deeper than the offices of decision-making officials, for the problem is truly internal.

This is the literary man’s revenge against homo economicus and his social scientific brethren. Dostoevsky teaches that we are self-divided creatures with an inherent penchant for suffering, which is ultimately connected to our capacity for meaningful choices. And these include healthy self-expression, even if they make it much harder to design a just government.

Riano writes well on poets, but on occasion stumbles—not enough to put me off the book (I gave a copy to my ultra-picky stepfather for Christmas), but enough to require comment. Eliot, in The Waste Land, repeated the phrase HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME. He did not write HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME. Anne Bradstreet was an American poet, not an English poet. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 is addressed to the “Fair Youth” (Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton), not to a lady.

Riano misreads Wallace Stevens’s “The Irish Cliffs of Moher” to make it say what she wants it to say. The ascetic Stevens meant the lines “This is not landscape, full of the somnambulations / Of poetry” as an aesthetic superfluity to be pared away: “landscape” is “full of the somnambulations / Of poetry,” but the super-reality of Stevens’s pursuit is not. It is a poetic turning comparable to Eliot’s lines from Four Quartets: “That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory: / A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion.” One is reminded that a shared influence for Stevens and Eliot was the French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, whose ambitions for poetry pushed relentlessly beyond rhetoric toward absolute truth. To do her justice, Riano writes well (indeed at times exceptionally well) on Eliot’s “Gerontion,” “Journey of the Magi,” and “Ash-Wednesday.” She is never false or conceited, but she ought to have consulted the invaluable Ricks-McCue edition of The Poems of T. S. Eliot.

While these criticisms are not mere quibbles, they are put in perspective by the overall high achievement of Riano’s wide-ranging feast of a book. An essay on the Charlemagne window at Chartres brings to life the sensibility of a bygone age: “The interplay with light, moreover, transforms one’s interactions within the cathedral from one of observation into one of sensation.” We meet the neglected and wonderful Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, who died fighting at Ypres. We learn about the Krakow szopka, “which uses whimsical buildings, typically castles, as a backdrop for the Nativity scene.” Riano has Eliot’s gift for comparison and analysis. She compares Ledwidge’s “June” to Spenser’s Iune, the sixth eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender (1579); she compares the “palatial and rainbow-colored” szopka to the Christmas mangers in Colombia, “typically set on a table covered in hay and grass, scattered with plasticine animals, all leading to a little shed with the Holy Family inside.” Reflecting on Hagia Sophia, she remarks, “ancient churches are not solely defined by their function.” The sincerest compliment I can pay to Riano is that her book deepens and enriches the reader’s sense of time.

As regards the future of “dilettantism,” I want to say, first, that it’s probably the wrong word to use. Its negative connotations may make it attractive to Riano’s critics, leading, in turn, to her allies enshrining it as the name of a movement. In a recent, widely-circulated piece in the London Review of Books, Cambridge’s Stefan Collini derided the “quixotic enterprise of trying to disavow the rigors of scholarship in order to return to some imagined form of ‘lay reading’ or…‘amateur envy.’” Collini, like too many left-wing British intellectuals, is addled by defense mechanisms and adept at manufacturing straw men: “Right-wing culture-warriors love to claim that it’s no wonder students are deserting the subject when academics are replacing the English classics with third-rate expressions of identity politics, but the truth is that the damage is due to the socio-economic policies those same political figures have promoted.” It should be acknowledged that, as usual, there’s plenty of damn blame to go around—but it wasn’t the conservatives who warmed to Foucault.

Let us acknowledge, as well, that intellectual rigor is a virtue we cannot afford to do without. Riano’s work would have benefitted from more rigorous editing. Not only do typos intrude, but there are subject-verb disagreements, and one or two Latin-rooted words that carry differently into Spanish. Yet Riano’s multilingualism opens rewarding vistas, as does her wise perspective on the continual failures of politics. She is not a “right-wing culture-warrior.” She is an exemplary Christian humanist, a superb conversationalist, an amateur in the best sense of the word, to wit, a lover of her subject. Such amateurs were once well-known on college campuses. C. S. Lewis and Harry Levin did not have doctoral degrees. Until the professors can stand their literary ground, showing courage and foresight, and accepting their share of responsibility, the hyper-specialized world of English studies will complete its descent in lines of dust, like a self-consuming artifact.