Thursday, October 27, 2016

Incognito




I first came across Dumitriu's novel, 'Incognito', in Bishop John Robinson's 'Exploration into God' the sequel to his groundbreaking (or controversial or both) 'Honest to God' - that classic of 1960's theological liberalism written at a time when a theological book could be genuinely culturally significant, widely debated and, even, lead the Sunday headlines (ah! happy days)!

I was a student then and immediately went in search of the novel. I was fortunate (as I was to discover later) as this coincided with a rare window of opportunity when the book was in print in English (and in paperback). It is one of those handful of books that I have read in one sitting - no mean achievement for a novel of some 460 pages - enthralled and challenged.

It tells two parallel stories.

The first is the life of Sebastian as he progresses from restless teenager of a bourgeois family in pre-War Rumania through his war as a tank officer in which, captured, he changes sides ending it fighting with the Russians; and, then trying to make a Communist of himself, ultimately joining, and subsequently leaving, the Security Police. Finally he finds himself in prison, tortured, and, in a breakthrough illumination, he becomes a renewed man and a saint in an age where God is, at best, an ambiguous presence (or absence).  

The second is how this transformation is manipulated in a fight between factions within the ruling Communist Party given that Sebastian's two brothers remain prominent party members and his sister is married to a yet more prominent member. The cat fight of Communist manoeuvring is chillingly portrayed in all the abiding cynicism of the manipulation of power. For this alone, the book is worth reading for its all too convincing account of the temptations of power, as relevent now as then.

The beauty of the book is that Sebastian's illumination is not a conversion to a set of beliefs (though beliefs are involved) but to an attitude of mind of utmost, and beguiling, simplicity. He had been waiting for the world to justify itself to him, for meaning one day to appear and for the world to make sense. But he discovers in the hole of solitary confinement, when everything but his intrinsic dignity has been stripped away, that the meaning of the world is conveyed, not found, and its conveyed by loving it and loving it whole and in its minute particulars. Put, as boldly as that, the mind, of course, probably recoils but it is the beauty of Dumitriu's art to make this discovery wholly convincing and deeply challenging. What is it that holds us back from simply loving?

To which the answer is, of course, the usual things - our pride, our egotism, our partiality, our fear - but the 'trick' of the book is not to counter these usual things either with an extrinsic reward (salvation say or winning friends and influencing people) or an ought (love or else). Love is shown as its own reward and the act of it is freeing into joy (which is a whole lot deeper than 'happiness') and the more you find yourself able to do it, the more it grows out of you and through you into the world.

'God' is no longer seen as the thing 'out or up there' that guarantees 'outcomes' but a way of naming reality when you see it in and through the eye of love - in its horror as well as its beauty - when 'decentred' you see it whole, not portioned to the egotism of your seeing.

Re-reading it this week, I was awakened to its challenge anew. I had been asked by one of my godchildren about the status of belief (in this case Christian belief) and I had answered that beliefs have their place but the most important thing is our attitude of mind and out loving actions. As the fourteenth century English mystic, Walter Hilton, wrote, if a belief, even if it is true, is used (or wielded) in such a way to harm our neighbour, it is falsified. I was reminded in reading 'Incognito' where I was first convicted, and now reconvicted, of this notion.



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