Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Metaphysical Suspicions: Charles Simic as Agnostic Theologian

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Metaphysical Suspicions: Charles Simic as Agnostic Theologian

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay argues that through his poetry, Charles Simic navigates a personal via mystica, one that by its very nature must always remain a penultimate affair. In order to reach this conclusion, the essay first demonstrates the affinities between Simic's work and that of the Christian mystical tradition. Secondly, the essay shows how Simic's work navigates the linguistic and philosophical tensions that exist between medieval and postmodern deconstructive forms of negation. Finally, Simic's use of negation is set into the broader context of contemporary poetry through comparisons to the work of Charles Wright and Mark Strand.


   He who has not God within himself cannot feel his absence.

--Simone Well (72)

   The world is huge, the poet is alone,
   and the poem is just a bit of language,
   a few scratchings of a pen surrounded
   by the silence of the night.

--Charles Simic (Unemployed 1)

Charles Simic feels caught in his agnosticism. His desire for contact with a transcendent reality remains entangled with his wavering though persistent belief that such transcendence is not possible. For decades, Simic has oscillated between belief and disbelief in God. When asked about the connection between silence, solitude, and the writing of poetry, in a 1972 interview with Crazyhorse, Simic responds, "For me silence is the spiritual energy. Of course, the paradox is that neither is there such a thing as silence nor is one ever alone. But then I don't mind admitting that I believe in God" (Uncertain Certainty 6). Just over two decades later, Simic reneges on this assertion and claims, "It has always seemed obvious to me that we are alone in the universe ... that we are whistling in the dark" (Orphan Factory 18). In a more recent interview, Simic owns up to his agnosticism in a characteristically equivocating manner, insisting, "I'm Eastern Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox. My own beliefs are complicated, depending on what day you ask me. Tuesday I may be a believer. Wednesday a blasphemer. It always seemed to me that religious life, religious ideas are at the heart of our existence. You can't avoid God" ("Kitchen Metaphysics" 84). Simic's work bears out this equivocation, in the way he obsessively considers the notion of God in poems that come to resemble exasperated prayers. These ambivalent tensions result in a poetry that constantly asserts and undermines its own contentions about the existence and nature of God.

In the midst of his equivocating, however, religion remains deeply personal for Simic, particularly where the focus on institutional practices gives way to moments of encounter with the sacred. Simic asserts, "I was always attracted to mystical and esoteric doctrines that propose the unknowingness of the Supreme Being, the ineffability of the experience of his presence, and the ambiguity of our human condition.... If I believe in anything, it is the dark night of the soul. Awe is my religion, and mystery is its church" (Orphan 19). The language Simic uses to describe his religious quest reveals his fondness for a mystical and apophatic approach to God: "the unknowingness of the Supreme Being," "the ineffability of the experience of his presence" (emphasis mine). He borrows the phrase "dark night of the soul" from the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, an author to whom Simic often alludes. Simic's mystical approach most often reveals a quintessentially personal and existential struggle played out in his poetry.

Once told by his friend, the poet Frank Samperi, that "every poem, knowingly, or unknowingly, is addressed to God," Simic initially shuddered and disagreed. He knew that Semperi was reading Dante at the time and concluded that his friend's mind was "stuck in fourteenth-century Italy" (Orphan 21). Despite this initial disagreement, Simic contends, "Today I think as he did then. It makes absolutely no difference whether gods and devils exist or not. …

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