Author note: we are grateful for this post by guest blogger Vedant Joshi. Born and raised in London with an Indian descent, Vedant has been exposed to various cultures and religious traditions his entire life. Accordingly, his main interests include world literature and comparative religion which he likes to dive into in his spare time when he’s not strolling around a park lost in his thoughts.
I finished reading David Bentley Hart’s absorbing new novel, Kenogaia, on Christmas Eve, and the timing could not have been more perfect. As we awaited to celebrate the birth of the divine child, Kenogaia provided an imaginative portal into the spiritual universe and moral sensibility of the New Testament. Like the writers of the New Testament, the ancient Gnostics understood themselves as inhabiting a fallen cosmos held in bondage by powers and principalities, and that salvation would come in the form of liberation from the Kingdom of Death. Kenogaia takes place in such a world, and one of its most remarkable aspects is the moral seriousness with which it deals with this vision of reality and thus reminds us why Christmas remains such a joyous event from the vantage of the world of the New Testament even if you strip it of all its cultural characteristics.
The story is modelled after The Hymn of the Pearl and tells the story of a heavenly prince, Oriens, who has descended into the mechanistic and ‘closed’ prison of a cosmos (constructed by an evil sorcerer, ‘the god of this world’) to wake his younger sister whose dreams sustain the false world. The influence of The Little Prince seems evident, but Hart goes further in Kenogaia where the child doesn’t merely provide knowledge of the higher realms but also saves the prisoners of the sorcerers’ world. The influence of Lewis Carroll also joyously permeates the book as Hart creatively draws from the scene of the Red King dreaming in Through the Looking-Glass and crafts a tale which explores the nature of reality and our place in it (following Borges in The Circular Ruins as well as Hart’s own “The Ivory Gate” in The Devil and Pierre Gernet).
Oriens is joined by two young companions, Michael and Laura, who quickly become his close friends as they journey to where the divine princess lies asleep. Along the way, they encounter several obstacles and enemies and traverse through vivid sceneries. Hart is of course a brilliant prose stylist as evident from his essays and books, but the medium of the novel provides him with a new opportunity to display his gift with the English language. The descriptions of the Shadows of the Deep, the haunted forest, the radiance of the pearls Oriens brought with him from above, the ghostly land of souls lost in an intermediate state, and the return to the Pleroma are some of the most memorable aspects of the book. Hart’s evocation of colours in particular are overwhelmingly beautiful, and passages I had to read slowly to avoid succumbing to something like snow blindness (which I mean as praise!).
I mentioned the moral seriousness of the novel (something which has always been a compelling aspect of Hart’s theology from The Doors of the Sea to That All Shall Be Saved). There is a section in the story when Oriens tells the story of how Kenogaia came to be. (Hart has stated that gnostic myths would often be dreary and convoluted, but thankfully this one was not!) Reading this section was the first time that I felt first-hand the despair of the gnostic vision of reality. As I understand it, the key distinction between Gnosticism and Christian orthodoxy is that the former posits an absolute ontological dualism between God and this world whereas the latter understands creation to participate in God despite being fallen. To gaze at the stars, trees, the sunset, or the sea and to think that this is all a false and opaque reality rather than the manifestation of the face of God (even if damaged by death and corruption) was truly a horrifying thought to me. The novel, however, has an attitude not of hopelessness and despair, but of longing for truth and cosmic rebellion. It is this daringness of the protagonists to aspire to a truth higher than the god of the cosmos that provides the driving force of the narrative.
The reader progresses through the story primarily via the experience of Michael whose outlook on Kenogaia is gradually transformed as Oriens reveals more of the nature of his (and Michael’s) true home above. And thus, the story is not just an engaging adventure story but also an internal spiritual journey which obscures any sharp distinctions between art and theology. In an essay in Theological Territories, Hart writes: “In all of us, and in all things, there sleeps a fallen god called by God to awaken and seek union with him as a natural end.” I take this idea to be the theological key to interpret the novel as a spiritual ‘allegory’ of an inward voyage taken in darkness, one that will involve traversing many layers of delusion, forgetfulness, and passions before we discover our true nature as gods. And I also see this as one of the various ways in which Hart subverts the Gnostic themes of the story it draws from and blurs the line between Gnosticism and Christian orthodoxy.
Now this could simply be due to my own ignorance of ancient Gnosticism, but there are many aspects of the story, especially as it gets to its conclusion, which I would not have previously associated with Gnosticism and yet fit in perfectly with where the ideas present in the story were leading from the start. For instance, when Michael returns to the heavenly Pleroma after the divine princess awakens, he recognises many instances of beauty which reminded him of scenes in Kenogaia—something which seems to imply a metaphysic of participation of some sort. The sorcerer also created a world in which the souls of the prisoners are reincarnated and in most cases they become more mired in delusion as they drift in and out of lifetimes. However, there is an implication, in the case of Michael’s father, that there is a consistency or even progression through his reincarnations. Also, in the Pleroma—it is the final lives which seem to have the only significance in the memories of the characters. This surprised me as it seems to evoke the orthodox theology of persons that Hart explores in the Third Meditation of That All Shall Be Saved. These are just some of the theological curiosities that have occurred to me as I finished the book and that will give me food for thought for the next few days, especially their implications for understanding the relationship between Gnostic and Christian theology going forward.
Kenogaia is an enthralling, profound, and beautifully written novel that I would heartily recommend to not just readers of Hart’s theology but to the general public as well who would enjoy the captivating story. This past year of 2021 has been a great one for Hart fans, with the magnificent Roland in Moonlight, his substack newsletter, and now Kenogaia as well. I have heard rumours that Hart is coming to the end of his theological career and that fiction will be his new priority in the future. If this is true, then Kenogaia gives us all a proof we need that we should be excited for this change in direction for one of the greatest living theologians and writers in English.