In the annals of thought, delicate threads of continuity emerge. The Norwegian Trappist monk, and Bishop of Trondheim, Erik Varden (Sarpsborg, 1974) garnered deserved literary acclaim with an essay, the title of which, ‘The Shattering of Loneliness,’ was somewhat imperfectly and ambiguously translated into Spanish as ‘La explosión de la soledad’ (Ed. Monte Carmelo, 2021). The translation failed to capture the rich polyvalence of the English verb ‘to shatter,’ which conveys notions of fracture and disintegration: akin to the crumbling of bread. Bearing the hallmarks of Europe’s finest essayistic tradition – from Steiner to Brodsky, from Mi?osz to Zbigniew Herbert – Varden pondered the salvific exercise of memory within the Judeo-Christian tradition in that book. ‘Remember that you are dust,’ ‘Remember that you were a slave in Egypt,’ ‘Remember Lot’s wife’ are the titles of some chapters of his text, which stresses that life’s meaning is enmeshed in memory: a memory incarnate and testimonial, reflective and free, unwilling to cede its primacy to hatred, while nourishing hope in the present. Indeed, memory is reflection. Thus it entails a rejection of the perverse effects of nihilism; even those lurking under the thin veil of beauty – that last layer of ice, cold as death, that Ernst Jünger wrote of suggestively in a letter to Martin Heidegger – or permeating society in forms of activism and lack of introspection. ‘Remember that you are dust’ signifies that we are clay, but not just any clay. Our solitude points further.
In strict continuity with ‘The Shattering of Loneliness’ – as if they were two distinct panels of the same diptych – Erik Varden has recently published, in a meticulous translation by Carlos de Ezcurra, a new essay titled ‘Chastity’ (Ed. Encuentro, 2023). It is, undoubtedly, one of the year’s seminal books and should be recognized as such. ‘It is not my purpose,’ the Norwegian author asserts, ‘to present an apology for chastity. Nor am I writing as a cultural historian intent on chronicling the demise of a human habitus. Mine is primarily a semantic concern.’ This indicates a good approach for the reader; although, of course, the book also contains much by way of cultural history and dialogue with the fruits of modernity: from Bergman’s cinema to the operas of Richard Wagner, from Hermann Hesse’s novels to the stories of Marguerite Yourcenar. The etymological journey of the adjective ‘chaste’ is fascinating. It can be traced back to the Greek katharós (pure), from which the Latin castus derives. ‘Lewis and Short in their Latin Dictionary,’ Varden notes, ‘equate castus with integer, noting that the term was generally used ‘in respect to the person himself ’, not so much ‘in respect to other men’. Chastity, in other words, is a marker of integrity, of a personality whose parts are assembled in harmonious completeness.’ Chastity thus looks toward the horizon of a naturalness lived integrally, of a man reconciled with his senses, his personality ordered according to his deepest inclinations: not towards evil or selfishness, but towards a greatness that manifests in the form of service. ‘This hope,’ we read, ‘is illumined by a flicker of ontological remembrance. We perceive it in both body and mind, variously with delight and with pain, as a yearning for infinity.’ It seems no one escapes the thirst for the infinite that comes to us as a memory of a prior love. Precisely because we were first loved and knew the sweetness of that love, we are also capable of loving. This seems to me an anthropological truth. And Erik Varden explores it in his essay with unusual vigor.
‘Chastity’ looks back to ancient times – Aristotle and Cicero, the midrashim, the Desert Fathers – in order, then, to project itself towards the future. The pages that deal with Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde remind us that ‘the divinization of eros is not innocent. Even false gods require offerings.’ Varden’s reflections on the Roman goddess Diana allow him to confront the gyrovague, that is, the man who wanders senselessly around himself, with the figure of Diana omnivaga, representing the universal wanderer who is ‘sovereign and free’. In its cultural journey, chastity represents the yearning for integrity intrinsic to man in search of meaning, who knows himself wounded and wishes to be healed. ‘It is,’ our author asserts, ‘a call to integrity and self-acceptance, to live with our longings, limitations and losses. We must accept the fact of being persons, turned towards and needing others, not self-sufficient individuals..’ No one is the light of his or her own life, one might say. And this superb book – which helps us draw an unusual parallel between memory and chastity as paths to fullness – demonstrates this with joyful clarity.
La reseña original en español se publicó en el suplemento literario La Lectura, el 5 de enero de 2024