Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Karl Barth and Arts of Darkness

As mentioned before, I've written an article for an online conference which puts Karl Barth and the Coen brothers in dialogue on the content of their film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's dark western crime novel No Country for Old Men. Now that the article is in the hands of the editors, go figure, I've come across a passage of Karl Barth's writing which just might say it better than I did. Here's a pre-emptive footnote (or perhaps a teaser) to the piece, then, from Church Dogmatics III/2, 515-518.

Barth is writing about humanity and the insecurity of time, and he argues that the metaphysician lacking a positive ground for the present stands along with the poet who tells us that "our being in its time is an infinitely tragic destiny." As in illustration of such poetry he offers "Hyperion's Song of Fate" by Friedrich Holderlin, which concludes:
But to us poor men
Is given no place to rest.
Harried by pain,
We grope and fall
Blindly from hour to hour.
Like water dashed
From cliff to cliff,
In lifelong insecurity.
Following this, he puts such a depiction in the light of the incarnation of the Son of God. To my mind it is Barth's archetypal response to the picture of reality mirrored so well in the arts of Holderlin, McCarthy, and the Coens:
Yet we cannot be content with this simple contrast, for Jesus is not only God and therefore different from us, but also man and therefore like us. He is not only the Creator, but also a creature among creatures. He is not only eternal, but-in His own particular way-with us in time. To compare our lot with that of "blessed spirits," with very different and purely eternal beings, may produce a gloomy Hymn of Fate, but it gives us the easy evasion that we men in time are so totally different. Our comparison, however, is with the man Jesus. And although as the Son of God He is so utterly different from us, yet as the Son of Man He is wholly like us. Hence we cannot escape the contrast by pleading His absolute dissimilarity.

Nor can the painful contrast between Him and us be the last word on the subject. For it is intolerable to be able to develop the statement that we have time only in the form of the antithesis that we do not have it at any time; that we no longer have the past, do not yet have the future and certainly do not have the present, because it is only the step from the one darkness to the other. The monstrous nature of this situation may perhaps be overlooked or forgotten, but once seen and remembered, it cannot be denied. . . .

In this case we should have to resign ourselves to our fate, not hymning it like Hyperion but defying it like Prometheus. But its monstrous character remains. That this is the case, that neither questioning, complaint nor protest can be suppressed, is shown by the innumerable theoretical attempts to reinterpret this disconcerting picture of man's being in time. . . .

And the reality is so monstrous that it asserts itself against these interpretations, like the original of a picture which has been badly painted over. It is worth noting, however, that it has always been felt necessary to cover up the original. For this shows us with what cares and questions and protests man faces this reality, how hard he finds it to accept his being in time as normal. We all run away from this picture. We would all prefer it otherwise. This comes out even more plainly in the fact that in practice we usually close our eyes to the problems of our being in time, that we try not to see or consider the matter but live as if our past and future were really ours, as if we really had time.

For when we prefer not to look or think, trusting that we can find help in a resolute "as if," what is hidden beneath the surface is definitely something abnormal and unnatural: not an inevitability which we can calmly recognise and accept; but a contradiction in face of which we are powerless, yet which we try to escape by hook or by crook, even by putting it right out of our minds. . . .

What we have been describing is sinful man in time. The man who lives in that monstrous situation, in that loss of time which cannot be denied, reinterpreted or even forgotten, is the man who is alienated from his Creator and therefore from himself, from his creaturely nature, and who has to pay for his rebellion against God by living in contradiction with himself, in contradiction with his God-given nature. . . . And the real reason why we cannot accept it calmly, or gloss it over, or forget it, or effectively deny it, is that man is not left to his own devices in this contradiction, but that in the existence of the man Jesus with His very different being in time a divine protest is made against his perverted and disturbed reality. . . .

God did not undertake to recognise and accept our monstrous being in time. . . Because this protest is made, we may look our situation in the face and either handle it with metaphysical profundity or hymn it as our fate, or we may refuse to look it in the face, either glossing it over or simply living on in spite of it, but we cannot escape its monstrous abnormality or accommodate ourselves to it.
Excellent stuff. I take from this considerable license to allow Barth to interact with contemporary fiction both in qualified affirmation and Christocentric critique. Check out the blog conference when it comes out, and hopefully my article will capture this at least to some degree! If not, at least the conference has plenty of other good stuff going for it. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing Barth in conversation with Hauerwas, Milbank and Zizek, and even youth ministry!

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