Roland in Moonlight: Generosity Amid the Hellscape of Modernity

Roland in Moonlight (cover)
Image of the book cover.

Roland has earned a place in my heart that I expect will be with me still as I face my own death and even beyond. While I am unabashedly rhapsodic about Roland in Moonlight, I easily acknowledge that some will find plenty to hate in this book. For example, there were hundreds of new words for me (as well as a few rich political diatribes). Regarding the big words, within the book’s last pages, when Roland uses the term “xeric regions,” David remarks that this is “exactly the word.” Roland quips, “At least, exactly the word that you or I would choose to use. In my case, out of precision; in yours, out of pretentiousness.” (352) This teasing and adoration of words goes in both directions. Earlier in the story, David mentions to Roland that “your appetite for classical neologisms is worse than mine” (204).

This is an expansive book, but Roland easily holds together its many narratives and its sweeping discourses. David Bentley Hart experiences the death of both his parents over the course of this story as they lived with him and his family in their final years. Even after sharing a few reflections following the death of his mother, however, David returns quickly to his dog and reminds us that “this is Roland’s book” (314). Remarkably, the story introduces us to Roland’s larger-than-life persona while still enjoying him as most definitely a dog. To name only a very few of his many accomplishments, Roland hires a troupe of Shakespearean players to perform a masque for David late at night in a forest glade behind the house (69), cares for David during a prolonged illness by writing up and submitting David’s application for a fellowship with the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies (122), and publishes multiple volumes of his own haiku (287). Despite all this (and much more), Roland’s warm sides, his ever-present tongue, and his keen nose are tangible realities on virtually every page and throughout many sleepless nights.

Although Roland defies a properly fictional status, it is technically correct to describe this book as a compelling memoir in which all the normal trials and joys of life are shared with two fictional characters—one very much alive and the other among the honored dead. David’s great uncle Aloysius Bentley (1895-1987), has a storied life, and even this life is brought to David by his faithful dog. Roland spends much of his time meticulously organizing, editing and publishing this great uncle’s private papers. Reflecting near the end of the book on what Roland has brought to light regarding Aloyius, David concludes: “Every person’s inner life is a mystery to everyone else, even those who know him or her most intimately—which would be the greatest of tragedies if it were a limitation of our natures that should prove final and immutable, rather than one that we have some cause to hope will one day—on the other side of the veil or through the looking-glass—fall away” (347).

Although Roland’s late-night conversations with David span many topics (from artificial intelligence to Freudian psychology and quantum physics), these two return most regularly to the religious, the metaphysical and the contemplative. A strong theme emerges that is very close to the point made by C. S. Lewis in his essay “Is Theism Important? A Reply” from the Socratic Digest (1952):

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, “Would that she were.” For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is, essentially, the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian men of our own day differ from his as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me.

David and Roland take a very similar thesis and develop it together brilliantly over the course of their exquisite conversations. Some Christians (along with devout believers of various other ancient faiths) may be offended by the doctrinal speculations indulged by Roland and David. As an American Evangelical myself—a happy convert to Orthodoxy it is true but coming increasingly to recognize that I will always be, to some real and good extent, an Evangelical—I can easily relate to these concerns. However, for any who might share them, I counsel patience here.

For one thing, dogs clearly do not have the same religious needs as humans. In this book, we learn many details from the entire mythic and religious history of dogs, including their own original sin (involving open car windows and bacon) as well as the origin of their generous condescension to abide with and to help humankind in our abject moral and physical poverty. Roland says to David, “As for your sin—your original sin—I can’t speak to it. It was already something established in your natures before your kind and mine first truly met” (190). In part, the religious speculations between David and Roland should be read in the clarifying light of this difference between dog and man. Even more fundamentally, however, this book’s theological theme is in response to this claim by Roland:

And so, in an age of unbelief, everyone is an unbeliever to some degree. Belief now requires a decision, and a tacit application of will that never for a moment relents. That’s why the fiercest forms of faith in the modern world are actually just inverted forms of faithlessness—forms of desperation masquerading as faith. Arch-traditionalism, I mean, and of course fundamentalism, which are in fact manifestations of a morbidly impoverished power of belief, a faith wasted away by inanition and hardened by desiccation, and of a frantic attempt to hold onto relics or remains that one mistakes for living possibilities. …Well, the regress is infinite. It’s simply the case now that almost everyone of your race today—in the modern world, I mean—even the most devout and convinced of them, is more profoundly an infidel. Real, guileless faith in the divinity that shows itself in the evident forms of creation has become catastrophically attenuated, like the fading scent of a chipmunk on the porch after two days of rain. And that’s a tragic condition to be in, because the divine dimension is real, and is moreover the deepest truth of your own natures. To be estranged from it is to be shattered within yourselves… to become something less than machines… fragments of machines… a heap of springs and sprockets. (328).

If Roland’s assessment of our current situation is bleak, his expectations for our future are even far worse:

There was a time, again, when your kind was much better able to see the gods—the angels, deified mortals, spirits, fairies, what have you—than now you are. Not because there was a stabler and more open causeway between the two hemispheres of your brains or anything like that, but because there was a wider, more richly populated open causeway between your souls and the cosmos. And those gods—or what have you—were also mirrors of what you are, as spiritual beings, there above. I don’t mean they were Feuerbachian projections, figments of alienation or anything of that sort, but rather that they came more easily into full sensuous manifestation so long as human beings were in a state of what Barfield called ‘original participation.’ Unlike him, however, I don’t believe that your kind’s estrangement from that original, more vividly theophanic world is simply a temporary stage—a kind of probationary process—on the way to a post-critical ‘final participation.’ It would be nice to imagine that that’s the case, but I fear that the reality will be one of continuing, deepening estrangement, an ever more precipitate descent toward total spiritual eclipse, and toward a final, enduring darkness in which the true light of spirit has been all but extinguished. Then you’ll be worse than mere savages. You’ll be a race of nihilists. You may even… you may even forsake your moral tutelage by dogs.

To this dire prophecy, David only responds, in a faint voice: “Don’t suggest that. It’s a horrible thought. Hell on earth.” (327)

It is because of such horrors, that David gradually comes to agree with Roland about the primary need to treasure every great truth and beauty from the many ancient contemplative traditions of humankind. Throughout the book, Roland insists that David is secretly a Hindu, and Roland will never allow David to finish any of his sentences in protest against this claim. Eventually, as the two are considering several stories of glorious revelations from various other faiths, Roland declares: “You believe everything. You despise doctrinaire religious certitudes, not—as is common for your kind in this age—out of skepticism or incredulity, but out of a superabundance of belief” (322). David concedes substantially, but not entirely, to Roland:

It’s true, as you say, that I can believe everything at once, though I suspect that it’s a choice I make principally on account of my unwillingness to relinquish any dimension of anything that I find appealing or admirable… or beautiful. Not for my kind, at least. We have to draw some kind of working distinction between the perpetually valid symbol and the historically novel event. (326)

David is holding on, just barely, to the uniques of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As a child of American Evangelicalism, I cannot resist the temptation to provide a prooftext at this point. Compare David’s “unwillingness to relinquish any dimension of anything that I find appealing or admirable… or beautiful” to Philippians 4:8. In Hart’s own translation of this verse, we read: “As to the rest, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever grand, whatever right, whatever pure, whatever lovely, whatever of good repute—if there be any virtue and be any praise—ponder these things.”

For the Christian reader, there is a surprising return, in the last pages, to the fundamentals of the Christian faith. I cannot recall any other place where David Bentley Hart has written about Mary who is uniquely the Mother of God. In the final pages of this book, however, we ponder the mystery of Mary saying yes to God as she takes a last breath before the angel’s “glory and immensity of presence” knowing that “all depends upon this fleeting / Instant, wherein all of eternity / Lies hidden, hanging in suspense upon / One spoken word.” As she gazes upward in this moment: “The weight of silence grows. / Between her and his dreadful glory looms / Time’s fullness: all its empires and its wars, / Its deaths, its countless hopes and countless dooms.” (339) To reflect more upon the full context of these poetic lines would give too much away, and I do not want to steal anything from the unfolding of this book to each blessed reader.

However, I will also note that, alongside this deeply Christian meditation, we have another poem reflecting on the waking of the child Maitreya (348), a promised bodhisattva who currently waits in the Tuṣita Heaven. This heaven is also where Roland once resided, as we learn very early in the story (29).

My reflections here have become sadly dominated by theological and religious questions, but I want to return, in closing, to what is at the heart of this story. It is a generosity of spirit on the part of Roland Hart, who is clearly a profound help and guide to David. In his typical mix of profound yet deeply intimate, Roland shares this summary of his philosophy with David as they gaze out at a sunset together early on in the story:

It certainly seems reasonable to say that being is manifestation, that real substance is revelation, that to exist is to be perceptible, conceivable, knowable—and that, moreover, to exist fully is to be manifest to consciousness. …Every act of conscious, unified, intentional mind is necessarily dependent upon infinite mind—which is to say, God. …Experience of the ‘natural’ proves to be ‘super-natural’ knowledge. …We see one and the same world, you and I, because our spirits are looking not at sensations but at reality, and the physical transaction between the world and our optic apparatus is just the occasion for an act of discovery and unveiling that is, in reality, an event of direct spiritual communion. (157)

There is so much more that I want to say about this book, but it should wait. I will close by noting that this story moves through four parts, named for four homes that come to mark stages in the family’s journey from an edenic forest, through a hellish city and finally back to a modest garden haven. Each chapter is numbered simply with roman numerals so that the larger structure is not obstructed. In the end, Roland prepares David for a final farewell that David anticipates with tearstained face as they sit together upon the grass of Mama’s garden (to use Roland’s name for David’s wife). This closing account of a great sea voyage, shared by two persons who love each other, is worth the price of this volume. Buy yourself a paper copy now. You’ll not regret it.

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