An Interview with Richard Marius

Article excerpt

THIS INTERVIEW was conducted at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, on 5 November 1993.

RKB: Fred Standley touched on something yesterday in his paper read for the South Atlantic Modern Language Association. He said that in your work there's a conflict between design and the philosophy that life has no design.

RM: Yes, he was dead on about that, and I was startled. I had forgotten I put in The Coming of Rain the line that I used today from W. T. Stace-"Everything is as it is for no reason at all, and if it were any other way, there would be no reason for that either." That's W.T. Stace, and the novel I'm working on now [An Affair of Honor] begins with that line. When he was reading the paper on The Coming of Rain yesterday, I said, "My God, if he comes to my reading today, he's going to discover that very line."

Since at the time The Coming of Rain took place, W. T. Stace had not been born, I obviously don't attribute that line in The Coming of Rain to W. T. Stace. But in this book [An Affair of Honor], which is set in 1953, I can attribute it to him. He wrote an essay for the Atlantic magazine called "Man Against Darkness." It was in the 1948 Atlantic, and it was in my freshman anthology when I went to college at age seventeen. I read the essay and was devastated by it. I couldn't get it out of my mind because suddenly he gave a world view of purposelessness. In so many ways now, Stace was not a scientist. He wrote a book about religion and science that is quite wonderful called Religion and the Modern Age. He was not a scientist, but the indeterminacy of modern science is very, very much like that.

I was writing the honorary degree citations for Harvard for a while, and I had to write one for Stephen Hawking, who has done A Brief History of Time. I got the complete tape of A Brief History of Time, four cassettes, an hour long on each side, and I listened to those tapes again and again and again. I could not understand his reasoning, but I could understand his conclusion. One of the things Hawking says is that there may be other universes where the laws of physics as we know them do not work. The dimensions are different, and you can imagine everything being different.

Why, that's W. T. Stace, and it actually devastates the notion that all we do has some kind of ultimate purpose. Think about Shakespeare falling into the sunthe sun swelling out at some point, taking Mercury, Venus, and Earth. When Shakespeare falls into the sun, then ultimate purpose is at an end.

But there is a purpose you find in living from day to day, in having a beer with friends. That in itself is purpose. That's the other side of it, and it's a poet's vision, in some sense. A great deal of modern poetry is written in the present tense about momentary sensations.

RKB: Since you brought up the Stace essay and autobiography, Roland Bainton reviewed your Luther and said this is the "agonized cry of frustration because the contemporary church has let the author down."

RM: I wrote Bainton a long letter about that. I thought that was one of the sappiest things. I've had several silly reviews of my books written. Some of them have been favorable, and some have been unfavorable.

RKB: Is it the focusing on religion that you think is silly?

RM: No, it's the church, the idea that somehow I would come running back to the church and become a good Christian if the church had been better.

I didn't go to church for twenty years, and then my son John, our youngest, along in late grade school, said to me he wanted to go to a real church. He didn't want to go to my wife's church because he said it wasn't a real church. So for five or six years, I would troop into Memorial Church on Sunday mornings at Harvard and go to church with John. The minister was very entertaining, and the choir was beautiful, but I was so restless. I would sit there and the minister would speak about what God wanted us to know, and I would think, "You know, how does he know what God wants us to know? …