Invisible Walls

Nothing Sacred: A Journey Beyond Belief

By Mark Heffernan

A review of Nothing Sacred: A Journey Beyond Belief by T.f. Rigelhof

Published on October 1, 2004

Nothing Sacred: A Journey Beyond Belief
T.f. Rigelhof

Goose Lane Editions
$24.95
paper
236pp
0-86492-382-1

Upon entering St Pius X Seminary in the early’60s, the young T.F. Rigelhof informed his roommate Lawrence that there was to be no communication between them, that there was an invisible wall dividing the room in two. This strict exclusion of another’s presence was the negative side of a will-to-identity that found its companions in books rather than in the surrounding sentient world. The adolescent’s emotional core had made the vital shift to abstraction, a shift that has played such a determinant role in human history as the source of both a vast creativity and an unthinkable cruelty.

Rigelhof’s memoir is an attempt to recover the human in himself – the complicated and emotive animal being – after years of serving in a Jesuit seminary, one of those vestigial social orders that, like the military, has its own hermetic version of the self, one diametrically opposed to the Rousseauian idea of a “natural” and free self.

When his roommate tells the author to “hang loose,” Rigelhof comments, “I’d never liked anybody…who told me to hang loose. I’d always worn Jockeys, snug as possible.” The attempt at wit is awkward and the attitude is high-handed. Even when Lawrence becomes psychotic and tries to strangle him, Rigelhof has trouble seeing any causal relation between the attack and his own distance from the basics of human affection. His descriptions of family life are troubled by a similar opaqueness of perception, and when he fails to reach the interior of persons, he resorts to historical summaries and lists. As the memoir proceeds, one loses sight of the subject (self) in the smoke of objectivity – statistics on religious denominations, a chapter on the Second Vatican Council, a commentary on Pentecostalism. But the account acquires an unexpected pathos when the author reappears intermittently as the present day teacher in his Westmount home, having survived a stroke and the death of God, still at work on the meaning of life.

Just as Nietzsche and Bataille, both priestly types, turned respectively to physiology and the heterogeneous, so Rigelhof, after quitting the seminary in 1967, returned to the body. “I went to the river and pissed in it to show my contempt for the loss of will I’d experienced during my final weeks in the seminary and to exult in a newly discovered joy in being alive.” His religion, which despite his interest in Thomas Merton did not seem to have a mystical tendency, became a life of the mind. He wanted to escape ideology, but ideas continued to mediate his responses to the world.

Rigelhof participates in a struggle that the average Western type, an unpretentious materialist, cannot possibly understand. He is confronted with the death of creativity and believes that his urge to write fiction may have been overshadowed by the genocides of the last few centuries. The same thought was expressed by Adorno when he said that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. It is the idea of a death of the spirit, of the “human devolution” expressed by Schopenhauer and contemplated by Hannah Arendt. Translated into personal terms it means the end of the will of individual thought to work out a meaning – a salvation – for its existence.

These death knells and dirges are for one type of culture, a culture that has long been in transition. It was a culture based on the life of the mind, and on a peculiar, tragic type of individualism. Are there other possible configurations? Ultimately, life veers away from death and starts new growth in the debris. The sacred appears and disappears. In Hölderlin’s expression, “the Heavenly who once were/Here…shall come again, when their advent is due.” mRb

Mark Heffernan is a Montreal writer.

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