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No. 6: Tim Powers, The Stress of Her Regard

Open Book: Views & Reviews, No. 6
November, 1991
Copyright (c) 1991 Biblical Horizons

Tim Powers, The Stress of Her Regard (Ace Books, 1991). Reviewed by Jeffrey Meyers.

Tim Power’s latest novel is now available in paperback. The story is set in early nineteenth century England and Italy, in the world of the poets John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. Michael Crawford, a young obstetrician, the night before his wedding day, inadvertently (but not without blame) marries a Nephilim. That’s right, a Nephilim–one of the descendants of that ancient prediluvian union of fallen angels and men (Genesis 6:4). They are lamiae (vampires); and as you can imagine, this complicates Mr. Crawford’s wedding plans. "Complicates" doesn’t quite to justice to the ensuing stress that Crawford must endure as one who is the object of a Nephilim’s relentless regard. Without giving too much away, let me give the gist of the beginning of the story and briefly discuss Powers’s theological point. Crawford is catapulted into the world of Keats, Shelley, and Byron, all poets who excel as artists because of their foul union with the Nephilim (remember the Greek Muses). These poets trade blood for poetic inspiration, but learn that vampires are very possessive and want more than blood. The story chronicles Crawford’s attempts to shed the amorous regard of the Nephilim for himself and his poet friends.

Certain techniques offer limited release, brief respites from the stress of the Nephilim’s focused attention, but the bond between the Nephilim and man must be definitively severed if there is ever to be any kind of thorough redemption. The story builds up to this. There is only One Way to salvation from these evil forces, and the characters spend the entire novel searching for it.

The themes developed by Powers in The Stress are all related to the potency and seductive appeal of sin. This is how it should be read. A Nephilim (like sin) is hard to shake, and once it gets a foot-hold (or should I say, a throat-hold), the prey begins to enjoy his captivity. He also begins to waste away. A Nephilim (like sin) offers a life of endless sensual excitement that leads to the not-always-anticipated gradual effacement of one’s virility, personality, and responsibility. Sin de-humanizes. In the end the victim’s conscience is seared and he loses his ability to resist without outside help. He is a neffer, a slave. Paul’s outcry, "Who will free me from the body of this death" echoes through this story as the Nephilim’s prey (Crawford, Shelley, and Byron) groan and scheme for their release from bondage.

I enjoyed this book–if one can enjoy a book about sin. It comes much closer to the horror genre than some of Powers’s other novels–though they all contain elements of horror, this one seems to be centered on it. Some of the visual imagery is so powerfully unpleasant, even nauseating at some points, that some warning is in order. This is a book for mature adults who have the ability to make connections between Powers’s powerful imagery and spiritual conflict. The imagery is often graphic and sometimes sexual (though not erotic) since it deals with spiritual adultery and total depravity. As a pastor I don’t think I could recommend this book to teenagers. For one like me, who reads and talks so much about sin that the familiar sin-language often begins to lose its power, this book was a helpful reminder of the genuine horror and seductiveness of sin. Powers excels at de-euphemizing sin.

Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, Heidegger and Modernity, trans. Franklin Philip (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). Reviewed by Peter J. Leithart.

During the Middle Ages, Christians sought guidance in making decisions by a practice called Sortes Biblicae or Sortes Sanctorum. The believer would take a Bible or a Psalter to an altar and, at a specified time, open it randomly. The page to which he opened the Bible would provide the necessary guidance. I keep an English translation of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time on my shelf for a somewhat similar purpose. Actually, it is for demonstration purposes. I have challenged more than one friend to open Being and Time randomly (no altar required), and point to a sentence at random. Though I’ve never read through the book, I can all but guarantee that the sentence will be absolutely incomprehensible. So far, I’ve not been proven wrong.

That’s perhaps too dismissive a response to one of the "giants of modern philosophy." And that is, indeed, what Heidegger was. Though hardly a household name, Heidegger stands with Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche as shapers of 20th-century intellectual history. To mention a few of those Heidegger influenced deeply is sufficient to demonstrate the breadth of his influence: Rudolf Bultmann, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida.

As that list suggests, Heidegger’s influence has been particularly profound in French intellectual circles. For centuries, Paris has been the center of European intellectual faddism, and for many years Heidegger has been a constant presence. In 1987, one Victor Farias dropped a bomb on the French intellectual establishment. In Heidegger et le nazisme, Farias publicly demonstrated what many already knew: that Martin Heidegger was a committed Nazi during his rectorate at Freiburg University during the early 1930s, that he continued to pay his dues to the National Socialist Party until 1945, and that he deliberately covered up these activities in his later years. Farias’s book provoked a storm of responses and recriminations. According to Ferry and Renaut’s account, the facts are beyond dispute. What is really at issue in the debate over Heidegger’s Nazism is whether or not his philosophy in some way lends itself to totalitarianism.

Ferry and Renaut explore this question from a variety of vantage points. In general, their approach is to point to the inner tensions of Heidegger’s thought that drove Heidegger into a search for a "conservative revolution." For example, Heidegger spoke on the one hand about the inherent "fallenness" of "Dasein." (Heidegger’s word for the individual human being, "Dasein" is German for "being there.") Dasein has fallen from "Being," and has become absorbed with "Things." Fallenness into this condition is a "fundamental mode of Dasein, such that when there is Dasein, there is fallenness" (p. 35). This view would lend itself to a quietist political stance. Yet, at the same time, Heidegger claimed that the West was declining due to its absorption with technology, the defining characteristic of modernity. If the "fallenness" is historical and not inherent in Dasein, then perhaps it is reversible.

How might Dasein overcome his fallenness? To understand the answer to this question, it is necessary to understand that for Heidegger the condition of "fallenness" consists mainly in the forgetfulness and estrangement of "Being," and the preoccupation with "beings." There is a also second level of forgetfulness; not only does Dasein forget Being, but Dasein also forgets that he has forgotten. This second level of forgetfulness can be overcome through anxiety, which is Dasein’s recollection that he has forgotten something, namely Being; Dasein begins to live authentically when he becomes conscious of his forgetfulness of Being. Thus, anxiety is what brings Dasein back to his senses, to the reality of his place in the world, and reveals his potentialities.

If technology is the problem, it would seem that a restoration of the premodern, pretechnological condition would be the solution. And, indeed, Heidegger did sometimes present Nazism as a metaphysical alternative to the technological societies of America and the USSR. Nazism constitutes a call to tradition, to rootedness in the face of the "forsakenness" of modern society. Here, however, Ferry and Renaut point to another tension in Heidegger’s thought; while he sometimes praises Nazism as the antimodern alternative to technology, at other times he treats Nazism as the only system capable of a suitable response and mastery of technology. Democracy and Stalinism are ill-equipped to meet the challenges of modernity. Nazism is, in this view, not the antidote to modernity but the "actualization of modernity" (71).

Thus, Heidegger found it "necessary to link up with tradition through criticism of what exists (technology)," and this attitude toward modern technology tempted him to "embrace the Nazi idea of a conservative revolution." In short, "Heidegger took up Nazism for reasons that were philosophical and internal to his criticism of modernity" (73).

Though Ferry and Renaut have produced a brief and remarkably clear account of the philosophical roots of Heidegger’s Nazism, their own perspective leaves much to be desired. Their chief argument is with Jacques Derrida (the father of "deconstructionism") who, in response to Farias’s revelations, claimed that Heidegger embraced Nazism because he was still too enamored of Western humanism. The contention that Nazism is a humanism rankles Ferry and Renaut. They contend, on the contrary, that humanism makes two claims that are antithetical to Nazism. First, humanism teaches that it is of the essence of man to have no essence; humanism refuses to "shackle man with some historical or natural definition" (p. 4), which is precisely the opposite of Nazism’s deification of the particular.

Second, humanism teaches that man transcends his particularity by communication; he becomes universal by entering into conversation with others. Hence, man is a universal nothingness, an "abstract universal," who "never wholly confuses himself with any particular identity or being" (p. 5). What is really going on here, of course, is an effort to justify man’s self-definition, that is, to escape God as his Creator and Definer.

During the 1970s, Solzhenitsyn’s revelations of the GULAG bruised and eventually did in French Marxism. Farias has delivered what may be a mortal blow to Heidegger. What will the next French intellectual fad be? Ferry and Renaut’s humanism is only another crumbling idol. All this opens an opportunity for an intellectually vigorous Christian witness.

Open Book is published occasionally, funds permitting, by Biblical Horizons , P.O. Box 1096, Tyler, Texas 32588-1096. Anyone sending a donation, in any amount, will be placed on the mailing list to receive issues of Open Book as they are published. The content of all essays published in Open Book is Copyrighted, but permission to reprint any essay is freely given provided that the essay is published uncut, and that the name and address of Biblical Horizons is given.