Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

A Faithful Existence, reviewed by Tom D'Evelyn for The Providence Journal

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Forrest Gander is a philosophical poet. He's also a teacher-- professor of English and comparative literature at Brown University. His new collection of essays demands to be taken seriously as thought.

As a prose stylist, his forte is the epigram or pensee: 'Modern art is something with which to think.' These essays are organized by kinds: speculative, confessional, appreciative. From Thomas Traherne to George Oppen, from neglected Southern poets to the mysteries of translation, Gander's range is impressive.

He majored in geology, and draws on it for metaphor: 'The colors of Giotto's painted mountains are derived from crushed stones from those very mountains.'

Gander is fond of such 'folds,' such asymmetrical symmetries. In an essay on George Oppen, which provides a coda to the volume, he follows this predilection into the philosophical realm of phenomenology. (The title includes a pun: 'Finding the Phenomenal Oppen.')

Forrest Gander first read Oppen in 1978, fresh from college. His scientific bent was attracted to Oppen's open, inclusive, yet differentiating syntax. Now he sees correspondences between the poet and the philosopher. Referring to Merleau-Ponty, he says, 'Oppen and MP equally insist that Being-in-the-world means bodily being.'

This essay takes Gander to a brink beyond which he will not go, the old skeptical question of language and reality. Yes, the 'degression' is part of the art of the essay as practiced from the beginning by Montaigne, but the reader may suffer a momentary fit and not continue, which would be too bad. Gander continues his essay cogently, pressing his edge, drawing on a diversity of authorities, from Maritain to Cezanne. It ends with a touching memoir. The essay is a brilliant if fragmentary defense of an ecological poetics.

Gander writes essays, not treatises. But an essay is also a search for truth, and to flesh out and complete the inquiry into Merleau-Ponty, I suggest John Milbank's essay in the volume
Theological Perspectives on God and Beauty, edited by John Milbank, et. al. Milbank reveals Merleau-Ponty's final betrayal of the co-primacy of space and time. At risk is the spiral of thought that admits of the original gift of reality and the radical nature of difference, dark corners of Gander's thought.

Gander's essays promote a spiraling engagement with thinking and are cause for gratitude.