Somehow, I think Milbank’s notion of para-dox, defined in its specific pre-modern sense as “overwhelming glory” is wonderfully depicted in Wendell Berry’s short story, Pray Without Ceasing

After he murders his great friend, Ben, Thad walks alone down a road as his rage slowly subsides and the realization as to what he had done suddenly strikes him.  Berry writes,

He seemed to see always not only the changing road beneath his feet but also that other world in which he had lived, now lighted in the dark behind him, and it came to him that on that day two lives had ended for a possibility that never had existed: for Abner Coulter’s mounting up to a better place.  And he felt the emptiness open wider in him and again heard himself groan.  He wondered, so great was the pain of that emptiness, that he did not weep, but it exceeded weeping as it exceeded words.  Beyond the scope of one man’s grief, it cried out in the air around him, as if in that day’s hot light the trees and the fields and the dust of the road all grieved.  An inward pressure that had given his body its shape seemed to have been withdrawn, and he walked, holding himself, resisting step by step the urge to bend around the emptiness opening in his middle and let himself fall.

In attempting to think other than Hegelian dialectics, Milbank opts for what he sees as the premodern notion of paradox; where one does not begin “with alienating negation, but with mediation.”  In order to explain this, Milbank offers a picture of a drive along a misty road.  It’s too long to go into here, but he summarizes his argument when he states,

For if the eternal is “true,” its absolute coincidence of truth and being renders truth no longer recognizable for us and no longer just itself.  The only serious location of truth for us must, rather, lie in the coincidence of the temporal with the eternal…This process is a series of “moments” in which the dissolution of the present – every present – into the ecstatic flow of time (as for Heidegger) is prevented only by allowing that the abiding character of the present is a partial presence of eternity as such (The Monstrosity of Christ).   

In Berry’s story the town, the Coulter family, neighbors and so on, are all affected by the event of Ben’s murder at the hand of Thad.  It sends out a ripple that will not return and yet the event itself, as Berry’s story continues, brings with it new twists and turns of the story that never quite end and redefine the very beginning of the story.  Henri de Lubac writes that, “paradox is the reverse of what, properly perceived, would be synthesis.”  It’s difficult to name this as the “paradox” in Berry’s fiction, as the word sounds too far removed from small town folk.  But the lingering sense that there is something else going on behind the plot, the thing that always eludes us, as de Lubac writes, or that something that moves the characters and the overwhelming sense that everything is connected and returns…well, it’s difficult to find a better word that carries so much weight. 

I think this is the sense of what Milbank is trying to grasp.  The Hegelian dialectics that Milbank finds troubling is the type that can’t quite handle poetry or narrative (or detective fiction?) because it cannot remain in the middle or stall synthesis in de Lubac’s terms: “paradox has more charm [read: poetry?] than dialectics; it is also more realist and more modest, less tense and less hurried.”

Yet more than simply fiction, Milbank argues for the notion of multiple opposites, or thinking through narrative structures vs. dialectical logic.  Berry sees this, too.  When they bring Ben’s body into the home of his son and wife, another character named Jack grows more prominent than before (he single handily held back Matt).  Jack was a bystander who was simply caught up in a story that could have potentially been a mere revenge story, as he was only accidentally present when Ben was killed and stayed his son, Matt, from seeking revenge.  Another character emerges on the scene, though a minor one to be sure: Della Budge.  Della was Jack’s teacher who had come to pay respects.  The brief dialogue is extremely telling:

“Well, Jackie, she said, lifting and canting her nose to bring her spectacles to bear upon him, “poor Ben has met his time.”

“Yes, mam,” Jack said. “One of them things.”

“When your time comes you must go, by the hand of man or the stroke of God.”

“Yes, mam,” Jack said. He was standing with his hands behind him leaning back against the doorjam.

“It’ll come by surprise,” she said.  “It’s a time appointed, but we’ll not be notified.”

Jack said he knew it.  He did know it.

“So we must always be ready,” she said. “Pray without ceasing.”

“Yes, mam.”

“Well, God bless Ben Feltner.  He was a good man.  God rest his soul.”

Jack stepped ahead of her to help her out the door and walk down the porch steps.

“Why, thank you, Jackie,” she said as she set foot at last on the walk.  He stood and watched her going away, it seemed to him, a tottering edge between eternity and time.

This is all a huge claim to be making; that is, attempting to challenge with Milbank Hegelian dialectics via Wendell Berry.  There’s more to be said, and much more that needs to be said in this regard, but I think something is happening here that can one day be more fully unpacked.  “For paradox exists everywhere in reality, before existing in thought.  It is everywhere in permanence.  It is for ever reborn,” writes de Lubac. 

 “People sometimes talk of God’s love as if it’s a pleasant thing.  But it is terrible, in a way.  Think of all it includes.  It included Thad Coulter, drunk and mean and foolish, before he killed Mr. Feltner, and it included him afterwards.”  

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