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God, Sex, Death, Mystery

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<i> Times Book Editor </i>

Drama critic Richard Gilman, now in his early 60s, has written a deeply engrossing memoir of a decade in his late 20s and early 30s when he became a Roman Catholic, then a writer--and then ceased being a Catholic. Born a Jew but an atheist at his conversion, Gilman abruptly joined, then gradually left the church; this is the foreground story of “Faith, Sex, Mystery” (Simon & Schuster: $16.95).

The background story tells how Gilman first floundered, then steadily found himself as a writer and a man. Gilman writes that he has never “completely understood the relationship between my love of literature and ambition for it and the religious experience I was about to have.” But unanswered questions have everything to do with the unique pathos, eloquence and urgency of this book.

The making-of-the-writer story begins when the owner of a Catholic bookstore suggests to the new convert that he apply for work at Jubilee, a now-defunct Catholic magazine. A Jubilee salesman at first, Gilman quickly becomes writer, then associate editor. “Not the least of the benefits I got from the job,” Gilman writes, “was the sharpening, the creation really, of my style.” It is a remarkable style, as intimate and easy as conversation but equal, intellectually, to the knottiest topics.

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Gilman leaves Jubilee for the better-known, less churchy, more worldly Commonweal. He becomes book reviewer, then literary editor and then, after two years, is unexpectedly asked to become drama critic. He points out to editor James Finn that he has no special background in drama. Finn says (and in a way this is the turning point of the book): “We like your mind and your writing, and I’m sure you’ll learn the things you have to.”

Finn is right. Gilman plunges into the job. In the heyday of Off Broadway, he goes to the theater five, six, seven times a week, reads “more than 500 plays and dozens of books on the theater” and feels “after that astonishing, demented orgy of self-instruction . . . that I’d at least got myself ready.”

Readier than he knew: In his third year at Commonweal, Newsweek invites him to become its drama critic at quadruple his Commonweal salary. He accepts. There follows an invitation to guest-lecture at Columbia, then a spot as critic-in-residence with the now-legendary Open Theater, then a faculty position at Yale. Meanwhile, a troubled first marriage behind him, Gilman weds again, much more happily. Twenty years later, still at Yale, he has become a literary figure of national reputation, combining his university work with stints of varying length as literary editor of New Republic, drama critic for The Nation, Guggenheim fellow, president of P.E.N., etc. He is the author of four books, including the much-noted “Decadence: The Strange History of an Epithet.” In a word, he has made it.

But he almost blew it. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. . . . Back in 1953, with his 30th birthday on the horizon, Gilman had never held a job of any kind. He had a small inheritance, enough to sustain him and his unhappy first wife in a cheap apartment and a frugal round of paperback books, second-run movies and free concerts. He knew, somehow, that he could write, but for whom? About what? At what length? And he was confused and humiliated by persistent sexual fantasies “of amazonian women wrapping their powerful thighs around my head . . . imprisonments from which I could only be released if I accepted my fate as these women’s sexual slave, although I didn’t have the slightest wish to be a slave in any other area.”

As the years slipped by, Gilman’s knowledge of his own literary gift had become the source of increasing pain. Approaching the end of his Catholic period, he would burst out to a James Finn initially reluctant to take him on: “But I can write better than most of the people you have!” And he would be right. To his sorrow, however, he had known as much years earlier, years before his career started to take off. Back then, with his youth starting to fade, his knowledge of his talent was almost killing him.

Death was on his mind: “I remember taking note around this time of the fact that Keats, to whom I otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed of comparing myself, had been a year or two younger at his death than I was now.” A cliche, a joke almost, but not for Gilman, not in his 20s.

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Gilman resolved his crisis by what would conventionally be described as a leap of faith, but it doesn’t seem a leap in the telling. It seems a kind of somnambulism, and something of the same dreamy, is-this-me-saying-this? mood lingers as Gilman looks back a generation later. Lucid, sentence by sentence, as subtle about his childhood as any psychoanalyst (his own was Theodor Reik), marvelously acute in his observation of the Catholics whom he meets after his conversion, the author nonetheless lapses into a kind of trance at key interpretive moments.

Near the end of the book, Gilman tells how he left the church and became again “secular, an inhabitant wholly of this world, which regards mystery as an affront.” But then something breaks in upon him: “A fissure opens up in my thoughts and a chill runs through me on this warm summer day. For I suddenly become aware that there may have been a great deficiency in my reading of my life. Mortality and Immortality : That was the title I had in mind when I began this book, and I think I’ve made mistakes in my understanding of both.” Fissures open, or threaten to open, on many pages in this book, along with portentous coincidences, fateful encounters. It’s that kind of book.

Gilman’s conversion begins in a branch library in Manhattan as he reads Etienne Gilson’s “The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy.” He begins the book, as it seems to him, in the grip of some alien power. But once entered upon the reading, he cannot stop. Hundreds of pages of closely reasoned philosophy fly by until at length, he puts the book down and says, “aloud, to myself and to the air, in a voice that didn’t sound like mine at all, feeling a little self-conscious as I did it, something like this: ‘It’s true, all of it, it’s all true.’ ”

Intellectual assent to neo-Thomist philosophy need not entail conversion to Roman Catholicism, but it did suggest to Gilman the young atheist (never religiously a Jew, even later, when he tried) that there was more here than had met his eye. A priest in a parish library lends him novels by Graham Greene, Francois Mauriac, Georges Bernanos. The words Catholic and writer no longer seem mutually exclusive. He has long talks about these books and about prayer and the interior life with a young woman from the same parish. But then, in his somnambulist way, he turns from her and soon after separates from his wife. He flees to Boulder, Colo., where a friend gets him a job as a clerk in a small museum. But it happens anyway: In a Boulder church, whose pastor, by one of those coincidences, is a Jewish convert, Gilman is baptized.

In the first fervor of his conversion, the neophyte is celibate; God and his new self absorb him utterly. Later, back in New York and reconciled with his wife, he seems to have outgrown his masochistic needs; the marriage is happier. True, he finds much of New York Catholic life--the maudlin holy pictures, the sappy hymns, the lowbrow attitudes--faintly repellent. His “sense of being Jewish . . . and with it that peculiar feeling, so familiar to Jews--at any rate of my generation and earlier--of being at the same time vulnerable, in a way ‘guilty,’ and superior” quickly reasserts itself and never fades again. But his sense of being different and better is mostly a minor irritation: He has not chosen Catholicism for its charm but for its truth, and meanwhile, he has taken that first job at Jubilee, and his wife has become a Catholic, too. His life has the stability of a steady forward motion. He goes with its flow.

Until . . . until what? Though Gilman’s sexual fantasies return, they seem less insistent, and, somehow, he worries about them less. In the language of clinical psychology, they have become less ego-dystonic. True, he seeks out prostitutes on occasion because of what he is ashamed to ask his wife to do; but despite even that, he is managing the sexual part of his life more calmly, so much more calmly indeed that he finds it hard to bring the remaining turbulence to the Catholic confessional: “What troubled me at this time and in the end came to seem insurmountable wasn’t that Catholicism couldn’t offer me a ‘cure’ but that it didn’t seem willing or able to let my conscience operate in the space between the facts of my erotic and other malfeasances and the better part of my nature, the part that truly did want to adhere to the Word, intermittent as that determination may have been.” An old story, no less for born Catholics (as Gilman notes) than for converts.

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So, Gilman stops confessing, drifts away from the rest of Catholic practice, and leaves off arguing with himself about the doctrines. But there is something else. As he parts company with the church, he stops thinking about death: “The chief change in me of attitude or morale after my faith left was that I stopped thinking about death, or rather, I only thought about it when it somehow managed to get my attention, as a matter of palpable threat. . . . Which is to say that I didn’t really think about it; I denied it by refusing any longer to consider it as within my life, with all the consequences of that for my spirit, my soul.”

If death receded from Gilman’s mind, it cannot have been because he had left the church. After all, death had been most intensely on his mind before he ever joined the church. It was rather that as his work life and love life improved, the extreme remedy of Catholic Christianity had a diminished appeal for him. He could have remained a nominal Catholic--a silent dropout like many another --and the same would have been true. Applause in his public life and, in his private life, a measure of what Kierkegaard once called “the happy twaddle of family”--these were enough to still the voice he had seemed to hear so clearly in his earlier desperation.

Catholicism, one might say a bit cynically, served its purpose for Gilman. One way or another, it got him from a prolonged and endangered adolescence into a relatively secure adulthood. Once he grew up, he didn’t need it anymore, but is this so surprising? Do not most people quietly outgrow religion? If God is the answer, asks the all-knowing bumper-sticker, what was the question? If the question was an adolescent question and if you are now an adult, what more remains to be said?

The more that remains to be said was rather well said by the Japanese philosopher of religion Keiji Nishitani: “Man asks of religion, ‘What is it for?’ Religion asks of man, ‘What are you for?’ ” The settled adult shrugs off a question like that one. The unsettled adolescent may be transfixed by it, and in the end, the adolescent reaction may be the less anesthetized of the two. Late in his book, when Gilman talks of death with the astounded, trembling openness of a boy, he sends something coursing back through the earlier chapters of the book, something that makes the whole of it much more than a simple memoir.

But, reading the somnambulist Gilman somnologically, the thought that comes to me at the end of his book is of a death after death, and an escape beyond that first escape.

It can (though it need not) happen that the resolution of the questions of love and death in their first, most personal form will pose those same questions in a second, less personal form. The agitation of youth yields most often to a relative calm in adulthood, not to say to an adult complacency. It can yield, however, to a specifically adult agitation. The prevention of war, the preservation of the environment, the provision of a little care to the world’s least loved--these are quintessentially adult responsibilities. They begin, in all their disturbing and intrusive power, where childhood ends.

The questions of love and death are, of course, no more intrinsically religious on that level than they are on the more narrowly personal level. But desperation about them on that level, in those who for whatever reason feel the desperation, can lead in similarly mysterious and unpredictable ways to religion as to the refusal to despair.

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The refusal to despair over the wreckage of one’s own sex life or the certainty of one’s own death--this is just the beginning of a mystery whose continuation is the refusal to despair over the world in all its obscenity and its murderous cruelty. The strength of Richard Gilman’s book is that it shows with extraordinary honesty and insight how a religion can meet and then fail to meet a set of intensely personal needs. Its weakness is that this is all it shows.

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