What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?

Christian Wiman’s new essays resist review. Reviews of art are always a strange effort, anyway. An exhibition of paintings or a play or a concert or a novel or a poem, all are experiences, experiences of difference—when our action is displaced but our hearts and minds recentered, when we willingly give up the ruse of free action, at least momentarily, and watch and listen and feel from the sidelines. A review places us outside, too, but rather than being the emotionally involved confidants art makes of us, we stand, in a review, as aloof onlookers, exercising cold judgment. And regarding form, an essay of lit crit is so removed from any original artwork, so flattened and cerebral, that reading a review is an entirely different experience, anyway.

The funny thing about reviewing Wiman’s new essays is that they are already doing some of this themselves. That is, his essays discuss his life through poetry, both his own writing and that of others, which he interweaves throughout the text. He gives voice to a past episode of especially concentrated anxiety by including and then interpreting a poem he read or wrote at that time. Which means I read them secondhand, and offer my review (of the poetry and the prose) to you at a still further distance.

In these paragraphs, I’ve tried to defer discussing the particulars of Wiman’s text because that discussion can’t end. I can barely even start writing about it, but once begun, there will be no clean conclusion. The text itself opposes it. In Wiman’s terms, the work, and even the life, of poets won’t abide tidy endings:

Poetry itself—like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger—thrives on longings that can never be fulfilled, and dies when the poet thinks they have been. And what is true for the poem is true for the poet: … no respite from the calling that comes in the form of a question, no ultimate arrival at an answer that every arrangement of words is trying to be. Perhaps only bad poets become poets. The good ones, though they may wax vatic and oracular in public, and through they may even have full-fledged masterpieces behind them, know full well that they can never quite claim the name.

Continuously in via, always in process. Wiman cannot conclude. Yet what propels this resistance to endings is the echo of death, reverberating throughout the essays and poems—especially death by cancer, that ending that recurrently offers itself too soon. It’s the reality that feels like “a galactic chill, as if my soul had chewed tinfoil”: Wiman fends off endings because the only real ending is death.

And if that’s true, then any kind of ending, any terminus or determination, is also lethal. That applies to knowing, too: “Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm. Nothing poisons truth so quickly as assurance that one has found it.”

Left without determination, without certainty, Wiman shows us how to think and speak with difference. When we encounter some truths, we must “perceive only glancingly.” This kind of “indirection perception” is how Wiman approaches poetry, and it’s also how he imagines faith. When reading poetry or other texts (e.g., Simone Weil): “You can’t let those flashes of insight harden into ‘knowledge.’” For Wiman, such flashes (a term he takes from Barth, describing revelation) are the source and light of faith but remain the exception, not the rule, in our everyday lives. Which, at least for artistic types like Wiman, are full of uncertainty and doubt. But when once one encounters an insight, something worthy of religious or poetic faith, one must “remain true to those moments of truth.”

A beautiful phrase, certainly, but I wondered what kind of activity—spiritual, bodily, or otherwise—that phrase might involve. Wiman also calls faith “faithfulness to a time when we had faith.” And there he’s paraphrasing Rabbi Heschel. I wondered if this “faithfulness” were more like Luther’s account of faith as “clinging” (which shifts as much agency as possible from the believer to the one believed in) or if it could become its own performance, where our efforts could fail, repeatedly.

As his subtitle suggests, faith and art, especially poetry, are intimately bound up in Wiman’s life and thought. The existential dynamics, the capacity to convey the ineffable, the deeply human longing—all the stereotypes of brooding artists are true for Wiman of his Christianity, too. So when he says something about art, you can bet it also applies to the human side of faith. Which makes the next quote all the more comforting, as Wiman recounts one poet’s critique of another (C. K. “Charlie” Williams of Philip Larkin):

Charlie concluded that Larkin’s doom lay in his inability to see poetry as a ‘personally redemptive activity,’ which is the phrase that really set me off. I think it’s dangerous to think of art—or anything, actually—as a personally redemptive activity, at least in any ultimate sense. For one thing, it leads to overproduction: if it’s art that’s saving you, you damn sure better keep producing it, even if the well seems to have run dry. But that’s almost beside the point. The real issue, for anyone who suffers the silences of God and seeks real redemption, is that art is not enough. Those spots of time are not enough to hang a life on. At some point you need a universally redemptive activity. You need grace that has nothing to do with your own efforts, for at some point—whether because of disease or despair, exhaustion or loss—you will have no efforts left to make.

And if that paragraph wasn’t clear enough, Wiman goes on to conclude, more than once, “And nothing changed.” He still had cancer, he was still deeply uncertain of his calling, his faith still faded. But amidst the drama of breakthroughs and declines, he rested on a gift completely external, not contingent on shifting human feelings.

In my introduction, deferral and secondhand interpretation seemed to me the only way of getting at Wiman’s writing. The only way of ending, then, is not to end, not to tie things up neatly. I’m attempting his slantwise, glancing perception, understanding his work indirectly. I’m trying to resolve an essay on an unresolved book on irresolvable desire. As Wiman says of artists, “you must act as if the act itself were enough.”

Of course, you must act as if because writing poetry is not enough to satisfy the desire Wiman articulates, the visceral, existential longing that drives him to poetry in the first place, to despair, to joy, to faith. (Cue Augustine: “Our heart is restless until it rests in You.”) This inability to fully satisfy our longing is, for Wiman, just as essential as the longing itself:

To admit an insufficiency can be to acknowledge the existence of, if not yet to claim full faith in, a healing wholeness, in the way an imperfection can call forth a beauty whose true nature would never have been felt otherwise. Not the imperfections one chooses, … but the ones forced upon us by necessity or genetics, our physics or our failing cells, which keep us hungering for, and open to, that ultimate order that cannot in this life inhabit—except in the spots of time that nourish our souls, and haunt our selves, in equal measure. Our only savior is failure.

Failure. No comforting words these. At least, not on the face of things. But as he writes earlier, “Resurrection is a fiction and a distraction to anyone who refuses to face the reality of death. But to really see this despair clearly … is the first step to being out of it.”

Facing reality is the activity of any worthwhile writing. For Wiman, that reality is often bleak, but he also finds joy and meaning. Whatever its emotional character, Wiman thinks of his life in the world differently: “reality is, as this entire book has been arguing, perceived truly only when the truth of its elusiveness is part of that perception.” An essay on elusive essays should probably end there.