If you haven’t come into contact with Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, then I beg you to stop reading this and go buy it. I am quite serious. (If you lack the two dollar price of the Dover Thrift edition, then you can make do for now with this.)
I have rekindled an interest in the 214 graveyard voices of the Anthology recently, and this has led to particular interest in the few voices given no proper name. One of these has me thinking about Kierkegaard and the moods:
The Village Atheist
Ye young debaters over the doctrine
Of the soul’s immortality,
I who lie here was the village atheist,
Talkative, contentious, versed in the arguments
Of the infidels.
But through a long sickness
Coughing myself to death
I read the Upanishads and the poetry of Jesus.
And they lighted a torch of hope and intuition
And desire which the Shadow,
Leading me swiftly through the caverns of darkness,
Could not extinguish.
Listen to me, ye who live in the senses
And think through the senses only:
Immortality is not a gift,
Immortality is an achievement;
And only those who strive mightily
Shall possess it.
Now for some gross conjecture and projection: Perhaps this voice is nameless because a town filled with unbelieving believers would have nothing to do with him. Perhaps nobody knew the name of a pariah, or even worse, he wasn’t seen fit to have one on his headstone. Perhaps he was this unloved by the crowd of inauthentic lovers who buried him. I wonder, too, if his torch of hope and intuition isn’t the struggle upwards from the aesthetic to the ethical and, ultimately, the theological. Maybe, just maybe, this person saw the struggle involved in belief. But in all of this there is little in the way of evidence.
What I can say with certainty is that Masters joins Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor (as well as others) in the thorough description and investigation of a tension between authentic and inauthentic Christianity in American, and therefore usually protestant, settings. All three authors, it seems to me, are deeply concerned with exploring the same waters we find Kierkegaard diving around in.