Book Review: David Bentley Hart, A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays

Hart_Leaves Upon the Wind_wrk02.inddHart, David Bentley. A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 309 pp. Pb; $35.  Link to Eerdmans

Almost all of the 52 essays in this collection appeared in First Things. They are all more or less brief reflections on a wide variety of topics. In fact, this is the kind of book one reads “now and then” rather than straight through from cover to cover. There are essays on philosophy (“”The Gnostic Turn”), literature (“the Poetry of Autumn”, culture (“America and the Angles of the Sacré –Coeur”), and even baseball (“Brilliant Specialist” and “A Perfect Game”). One essay offers examples of poetry from Hart’s great uncle Aloysius Bentley, another comments on Gnostic themes the (original) BBC series The Prisoner.

Like most good essay writers, Hart is able to begin with one topic, often some real-life experience most can understand, and turn it into a discussion of philosophy or theology. As it turns out, I happen to be a huge baseball fan and count The Prisoner as one of my all-time favorite television shows (like Hart, I prefer the original). Yet in any given essay, readers might encounter Heidegger, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Jung, etc.

The essay used for the title of the volume, “A Splendid Wickedness,” traces the trajectory of the “moral oaf” Don Juan from the character’s origin in a cautionary seventeenth century Spanish play to his unanticipated popularity in the Romantic age as a popular and glamorous hero who goes to Hell defiant and unrepentant. His wickedness was “just not brute impulse, but the darkly distorted image of an angelic liberty” (135). This is the reason Don Juan has vanished from the cultural landscape; the modern world has reduced humanity to a spiritless machine, making the splendid wickedness of someone like Don Juan unimaginable. The sad thing, for Hart, is that whatever common cultural character which will emerge from our culture will be “too damned boring, and more precisely, too boring to be damned” (136).

I usually do not review a book until I have read it through, but in this case I have only read a few of the essays. I plan on slowly reading through the book, one or two chapters at a time, in order to allow myself some time to digest them.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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