Tim Lilburn, Living In The World As If It Were Home

At first I thought I wasn't smart enough to understand Tim Lilburn's essays in Living In The World As If It Were Home. I'm exactly arrogant enough - um, didn't I say "confident enough"? - to find this both a difficult thing to admit and an easy thing to fear, so I kept pondering as I worked through the book.

But really, it may be that I'm just not smart enough. Certainly I'm not well trained enough in Christian mysticism, particularly that of the via negativa, to get the full effect of what Lilburn's doing and saying, but I'm not sure that's adequate to explain my difficulties here.

Because at times it all seems blindingly obvious. Names aren't adequate for things, and yet the human impulse is toward naming things. The only way to truth is to name something, then to deny the name as inadequate, to rename, to re-deny, and so on. Only through the alternating declarations of identity and difference can we find some way to apprehend the unutterable selfness of those others whose names (and un-names) we can't help trying to utter.

I get this, I do.

But then I wonder whether the rest of Living In The World As If It Were Home repeats and amplifies this core, or perhaps whether it's alternately asserting and denying it, or whether there are other things being said and considered.

It is entirely inadequate to say that there are lines and passages of surpassing beauty in this book, but there are. It is similarly inadequate to call it philosophic beyond all necessity, and yet upon reading it I feel the necessity of this project. I write as an atheist, confirmed and settled, who sees in Lilburn's essays here a Christianity entirely new to me, one that engages with the world's otherness without denying the intimacy of humanity's relation to it, and does so in a philosophic rather than an emotional or a material way.

In sum, I have little concept of what to do with this remarkable little book. Flummoxed, I am: impressed at the apparent complexity, but wondering how much of the complexity is really necessary, and yet delighted by the frequent flashes of beauty.


John Mutford said…
I'm not a fan of Lilburn at all. I get the impression he hides a lot of nothing underneath all the supposed complexity.
Zachariah Wells said…
Carmine Starnino, in a review of Kill-site, had some very insightfully sceptical things to say about Lilburn's devotion to the via negativa. I agree with Carmine that it's been a downhill slide for Lilburn's verse since A Tourist to Ecstasy. Lilburn's latest collection is easily his least readable. Which doesn't mean he's getting smarter, but that he's getting more needlessly abstruse.
richard said…
I don't think that's right, John - I hear a lot of people whose voices I trust continuing to rave about Lilburn's three volumes of the late 1980s, and there are certainly things to like about the essays I just read.

ZW, these words from near the end of Carmine's review of Kill-site made a lot of sense to me: "language is all we have. The very thing that severs us from the world is also our only means of ever achieving a nearness to it." Lilburn insists that naming the world can't work, then that we can only name, and uses a sort of eddying repetition in an attempt to move mystically through the vexed problem.

My concern is that he seems kind of stuck in the problem. It's not that there's a "lot of nothing" (pace John above), but that what's there can be eloquently and briefly expressed - which isn't what Lilburn has chosen to do. I'm going to read Orphic Politics, because Lilburn seems too talented to miss out on, but I do worry for him.

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