Death Be Not Proud
The Art of Holy Attention
- ISBN: 9780226415970
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: December 2016
In this ambitious and highly original monograph, Renaissance scholar David Marno illuminates the poetics of “holy attention” in Christian devotion through a protracted analysis of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. Throughout his study, Marno brings the poet into dialogue with an impressive range of philosophical, theological, and literary interlocutors—from Aristotle, St. Paul, and Augustine of Hippo, to René Descartes, Nicolas Malebranche, and William Shakespeare, among others—in order to consider his theme of holy attention from a variety of angles. In the process, he constructs a compelling and far-reaching discussion of attention as a vital element of Christian prayer, piety, and poetry.
At the same time, this book is no less concretely a meticulous study of a single poet; Marno consistently articulates his claims through close-readings of the Holy Sonnets using a method of literary interpretation informed by phenomenological principles. This fusion of robust interdisciplinary research and scrupulous reading results in a work of first-rate scholarship which readers can admire for both its breadth and its depth of attention.
Marno’s foundational claim, which he explicates in his introduction, is that the art of holy attention is neither a cognitive faculty, nor a discrete act of the mind, but a “regulative ideal of religious practice” (10). As this citation suggests, the author holds that perfect devotional attention is an idealized disposition in which the human being becomes free from all menacing distractions in order to fully and exclusively attend to God in prayer. As an ideal, however, this is a state which fallen creatures can only ever approximate through more mundane “regulative” acts of devotional attention. The art of holy attention is thus “an entire complex of ideas, actions, and experiences” (11) designed to orient the creature toward a disposition of devotional attentiveness without presuming to attain it.
The precise contours of Marno’s thesis unfold over seven chapters, each of which examines a different dimension of holy attention in light of Christian devotional art in general and the Holy Sonnets in particular. Part of what makes the book so engaging is author’s use of modest observations about the poems—above all, the titular sonnet, “Death be not proud”—to open up a series of provocative theological questions. For example, he begins chapter 1 with the final couplet of the aforementioned sonnet:
One short sleepe past, we live eternally
And Death shalbe no more, Death thou shallt dy.
(“Death, be not proud,” lines 13–14)
These two lines become the entry point for a sophisticated inquiry into one of the most contentious doctrinal debates of the post-Reformation era, the relationship between divine grace and human works. Marno develops his discussion by way of Aristotle and St. Paul before returning to the poem, which he presents as a devotional exercise in attentiveness through which Donne discovers the personal “gift” of divine grace within the eternal “givenness” of doctrine.
Unsurprisingly, the book’s arguments become increasingly subtle and sophisticated as each chapter builds upon insights that have been uncovered previously; to help guide readers through this density, the author frequently retraces key claims, thus weaving a coherent thread throughout each stage of his study. Following from his discussion of what it means to see the given as a gift, Marno proposes in chapter 2 that Donne’s verse may be thought of as a “thanksgiving machine” whereby the poet renders praise to God in humble gratitude for the “unspeakable gift” he has received. This discussion of holy attention and thanksgiving raises several important questions about distractibility and the efficacy of human prayer, which Marno addresses in his third chapter through an unexpected turn to Claudius’s failed devotion in Act 3, Scene 3 of Hamlet. Some readers may feel that Marno’s digression into Claudius’s “distracted prayer” is a distraction in itself; however, it is difficult to imagine the book succeeding without the author’s extremely penetrating close analysis of this scene, or the discussion of vocal and mental prayer which follows from it. Indeed, Marno continues to explore this latter topic across chapters 4 and 5, where he draws upon ancient, medieval, and early modern discourses about attention in prayer in order to shine a light on the way that Donne negotiates distractions in poetry as a means of preparing for devotion.
I found Marno’s penultimate chapter on “Sarcasmos” (an early modern rhetorical device used to mock the flesh) especially enjoyable in its sheer originality. Here, the author argues that Donne’s Holy Sonnets “speak the discourse of grace sarcastically” in order to transform his verses into “an idiosyncratic imitatio Christi” that “mock the human flesh not from without but from within, as the given human condition” (198). In chapter 7, Marno returns to the final lines of “Death, be not proud,” this time asserting that the poem culminates in an act of holy attention which gives the reader a “foretaste” of redemption in the spiritual body (217). Finally, in his concluding Coda on prayer and attention in early modern philosophy, Marno contends that rationalist thinkers such as Malebranche and Descartes “simultaneously enact the art of holy attention and begin the process of its secularization” (228).
While I can offer no major criticisms of this book, I did find a few instances where Marno’s theological claims could have been articulated a little more precisely. We may take as a paradigmatic example a passing remark from Marno’s otherwise-compelling discussion of the Passion as sarcasmos. Reflecting on Christ’s invocation of Psalm 22 at the crucifixion, Marno makes a startling assertion: “Insofar as this is the moment when God is finally fully incarnated as a human, it is a moment of the greatest proximity between God and humans” (194; italics in original). Theologically-minded readers will certainly recognize how problematic this statement is, for it seems that Marno has collapsed the doctrine of the incarnation into the event of the crucifixion. It is worth noting that these kinds of theological distortions are rare in the book’s overall scheme (indeed, the author’s commendable biblical and theological research is evidenced throughout the book’s seventy pages of endnotes). Yet while such imprecise remarks may not ultimately detract from the author’s substantive claims, they nevertheless can be misleading to the casual reader.
Then again, Death Be Not Proud isn’t really written for the casual reader; rather, Marno’s dense and lucid prose rewards those for whom attentive reading is truly a devotional art. Scholars with some knowledge of early modern literature and religion may find this monumental study of Donne more immediately accessible, but ultimately Marno summons all of his readers to attention—and those who accept this summons will surely find myriad insights within its pages.
Devon Abts earned her PhD in Theology from King's College London, where she currently holds a position as visiting research fellow in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies.Devon AbtsDate Of Review:November 14, 2019