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Christianity and Literature Vol. 59, No.2 (Winter 2010) Burial, Baptism, and Baseball: Typology and Memorialization in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead June Hadden Hobbs It avails not, time nor place-distance avails not. - Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" The Rev. John Ames knows he is dying. His challenge is to record his memories so that his young son can "know his begats" and learn the life lessons of a father he barely has time to know (Robinson, Gilead 75, 133). Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead.'told in Ames' voice,is the story ofa man sifting, analyzing, and categorizing memories to fight the true enemy-not physical death, but linear time and the inevitable process of forgetting. He describes the problem by quoting a stanza of Isaac Watts' 1719 hymn, "0, God, Our Help in Ages Past": Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away; They flyforgotten, as a dream Dies at the opening day. (103) These lines, quoted frequently on American tombstones of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, are especially appropriate for a novel full of burials, from literal graves for bodies, Bibles, hymnals, and guns to the narrator's burial of a story that hovers over Ames' life until he resurrects it in the second halfof the book. Ritualized burial, of course, is not so much a matter of disposal as of memorialization: a way to attach the abstract to the concrete and thus fix it in time and space so that it is always at hand. Memorialization-the physical presence of a tombstone, for exampleensures that what time bears away is not, indeed, forgotten. The rest of Watts' hymn also counters the mutability of physical life by imagining personal identity subsumed eventually within the unchanging nature of an eternal God, who, as Ames says later, "holds the whole of our lives 241 242 CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE in memory" (115). And herein is a paradox: both memorialization and theology suggest that the only way to preserve the memory of a life may be to lose it in collective memory, a process that Ames resists rather decisively. If the end of human life means the unalloyed joy of what Watts calls "our eternal home" in God, Ames is skeptical. He is not willing to "believe we will forget our sorrow altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking" (104). In other words, he can come to grips with being gone, but not with forgetting or being forgotten. And so he engages in an act of creation that echoes the mythic narratives of Genesis 1 and 2, in which God creates the world with words. Quoting George Herbert a few pages later, Ames acknowledges that "Preservation is a Creation, and more, it is a continued Creation, and a Creation every moment" (111). Writing, a sacred act that has always felt to Ames "like praying;' both creates his life in all its singularity and situates it within the eternal (19). Like prayer, writing allows mortals to commune with the immortal. As Ames tells his son, "while you read this, I am imperishable" (53). Looking at it another way, writing mediates between what Laura Tanner calls the "textured particularity" of Ames' daily existence in time and his perception that daily life can also be part of an eternal realm in which time has no sway. This mediation process raises two questions: "How does a person facing death experience life in a meaningful way?" and "How does a person immersed in savoring his last days face death in its most horrifying form, the possibility of ceasing to exist even in memory?" Tanner is interested in the first question and I in the second. She describes the way Ames' "perception sharpens and slows" so that his senses function with greater clarity and time seems to slow down, a compensatory process neuroscientists associate with the old or gravely ill people facing their own death. She notes that this heightened perception allows Ames to live in the concrete world even while he is building memories by translating his life into abstract "typological patterns;' (229-33).2 By "typological patterns;' I assume she means those biblical stories such as the Exodus...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2056-5666
Print ISSN
0148-3331
Pages
pp. 241-262
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-14
Open Access
No
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