I wanted to dislike the writings of Christian Bobin, really I did. He’s a poet, it’s claimed, and if there is one thing I am extremely sceptical about it is poets who don’t write poems but prose. All great poetry is driven by form and when form is absent, despite modernist and zeitgeist claims to the contrary, what we have is prose. As I say, I wanted to dislike Bobin’s writings, but I found I couldn’t: he is a true poet, although he writes in prose, and his work is massively interesting from both literary and theological points of view. And, as a sidebar, from a specifically Quaker perspective too, for Bobin has much to say about many Quaker central concerns, and especially silence and plumbing its depths. Contra GK Chesterton, a Catholic, for example, who claimed that “gratitude is the highest form of thought”, for Bobin “Silence is the highest form of thought” and he explores it in an original and unique way, although apparently without trying to. Indeed, otiose seems a word made for him. Here is one of his comments on silence, which gives a flavour of his style: “Yesterday, thanks to a quick movement, I caught a bit of Christ’s tunic. It was a patch of silence”.
But there I go: doing a very un-Bobin like thing – contrasting and comparing. One joy of Bobin’s work is that he doesn’t seem to be arguing with anyone; instead he is moving through life and picking up one stone after another, examining each in turn, giving it its due consideration and attention, and then moving on. These stones can be objects, they can be flowers or nature or living things (trees are models of acceptance for Bobin), or they can be his father’s Alzheimer’s or the death of the love of his life. There is a sense of rumination and getting to the heart of things; and alongside this, there goes a dismissal of contemporary illusions and delusions. Bobin is someone not taken in by the modern world: “It is because each of us strives at any cost to suffer as little as possible that life is hellish.” Whoa! – surely, anyone with a spiritual notion in their smallest finger would see how that more or less defines and condemns Western spirituality: people want a religion that fits their preferences rather than a religion that is true, or more exactly that accords with the Tao, or the nature of reality. We in the modern world find that we are not comfortable with Christ or with death and so we relegate both to a backroom of the mind and lock its door; and yes, we find we rarely get there to examine its contents. The joy of Bobin’s work is that he does this for us: death, especially, haunts his pages: “I was born into a world starting to close its ears to any talk of death: it has had its way, not realising that it had thus barred itself from hearing any talk of grace”.
That should not surprise us: the title, the Eighth Day, is curious. The nearest we get to an explanation is: “What is strange in fact is that grace still gets to us, when we do all we can to render ourselves unreachable. What is strange is that – thanks to a wait, a look, or a laugh – we sometimes gain access to that eighth day of the week, which neither dawns nor dies in the context of time”. As I understand it, the Eighth Day is the same as ‘on the third day’ – it is the Sunday on which Christ rose from the dead. On the sixth day the world was created, and Christ was crucified, and on the seventh day God rested, as Christ did in the tomb; but on the Eighth day the resurrection signified a new creation, a new order, and one which is independent of time and death. This, then, is what Bobin’s work is constantly veering towards and alluding to: the magic of that Eighth Day which is strangely accessible to us now but in glimpses. As he says, “the unique concept of a presence we would never again lack, of a beauty that would never again be subject to the outrages of evening, evil and death.” Bobin helps us locate that presence and also to celebrate its joy.
One notable aspect of Bobin’s writing is his aphoristic style; he is pre-eminently quotable because his language is so pithy and meaning-laden. Let me end by sharing three wonderful observations from his writing.
“I like to lay my hand on the trunk of a tree I happen to be passing, not to assure myself that the tree exists – I have no doubt of that – but that I do.” This reminds me of one of CS Lewis’s wonderful apercus where he reminds us that when Christ appears to his disciples after the resurrection and they are huddled together in a locked room, he seems to walk through the wall; this is not because Christ is insubstantial and ghost-like; it is that the wall is insubstantial compared with the reality of Christ! Things are not what they seem, but the other way round. What, in short, is really real?
“One gram of light serves as a counterweight to kilograms of darkness”. Here we have such a hopeful and enlightening perception; there is no doubt that Bobin feels the full weight of darkness and evil in the world, and is himself of a somewhat melancholy disposition; yet for all that even tiny amounts of light are so powerful and such antidotes to darkness and evil. I see this as an encouragement to arms; to fight the good fight because every contribution carries more power than we can ever imagine.
Finally, and perhaps most poetically, on writing itself, Bobin declares: “Writing is like drawing a door on a wall too high to climb, then opening it”. That, surely, is a genius image; it speaks about the counterintuitive fact that all true writers understand. Essentially, one does not write to say what one means, but to discover what one truly knows. Bizarrely, the meaning seems to be not pre-existent in the mind, but created through the act of writing itself. I am sure, if I had space and time here, one might want to reflect on the ‘Word made flesh’ and how in some way human creativity mirrors – is in the image of – the divine process.
Suffice to say, I have become a big Bobin fan. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is remotely interested in the spiritual journey, which of course is one of healing too. This book will repay constant reading and re-reading many times over in terms of its insights and suggestions. And like true poetry, it will live in, if not haunt, your mind.
And one last, quick note: I am not qualified to comment on how well the original French of this book has been translated into English in terms of its accuracy and nuance, but I can say that I suspect that the translation is superb in that what one reads in English is so clear, powerful and effective, and I can only imagine that that derives from fidelity to the intention of the source; so full marks to Pauline Matarasso.