The beginning of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling is well known - because the Danish philosopher “did not even understand Hebrew”, at least not enough for the intended exegesis, he repeats four times the narrative of Abraham's Sacrifice. These four brief reruns are made before a panegyric in honor of the biblical patriarch, famous for nearly killing his own son, Isaac. Perhaps the obsessive repetition of this narrative, of the biblical suspense about Isaac's potential death, of his murder by his father, points to a terrible doubt Kierkegaard felt in the abyss of faith: was Abraham's vision true? Would it not be an illusion of the senses?
But there is something even worse, a terrible nightmare for the prophet, for the visionary: what if such a bloody holocaust was not inspired by the Almighty God, but the result of a diabolical chimera, a misperception of the signs in the hallucinatory reality, or a terribly mistaken caused by a persistent illusion? In this case, the founding prophet would become a mere murderer; and a perverse one, perhaps, willing to savor from his crime not just the justification for belief, but some unnameable pleasure. It is, after all, the same doubt experienced by all those blessed or cursed (both options are equally possible) by the possibility of living in the peculiar visionary universe. And the ambiguity of this blessing / curse that is at the heart of one of the most extraordinary narratives of 2019, Benjamin Tweddle's novelette Sermons In a House of Grief, published by Mount Abraxas – a veritable competitor for the best book of 2019 and pioneering work in treating this universe at the same time so concrete and so ghostly, the visionary sphere.
Sermons is one of the truest works about what we might call the "visionary sphere" – by and large a very strange and complex phenomenon, difficult to describe in deep meaning layers or completely understand. Sometimes approached within the limits of research and prophylaxis of mental illness, at other times it is evoked in anthropological treatises. Projected on the mystical exegesis but also on the more tactile descriptions of the mental asylums, the visionary sphere arises from the short circuit between the usual perception of reality captured by our senses with a transfiguration brought about by projected elements of our mind, but with transformative new meanings with the merging of these usual elements. Tweddle seems fascinated by everything about the transformations wrought by the visionary sphere, and this is very clear in his first two novels, The Dance of Abraxas (2018) and The Salix Arcanum (2019). But in Sermons, the construction is both delicate – working every possible detail, such as the aural and tactile effects of visionary activity, and the leap that often exists between the conscious mind and the visionary state – and intricate because the visionary sphere of Leo and Matthias (both protagonists) seems to require considerable interactive effort from the characters which is soon transferred to the reader. For the visions inspired, or rather aroused, by the leader of the "Kartanoist" sect, Alma Kartano, seem to require a reading based on a threefold, apparently contradictory approach: meditative, interpretive, and transformative. Thus, there is a perpetual doubt about the validity (the question of veracity was ironically solved with the evocation by the plot of the The Wicker Man movie) of the visions in the characters perspetive; even at the end, when everything seems to indicate a definitive and final leap. This imaginative construction is original within the long tradition of visionary literature from Swedenborg or even earlier, with Master Eckhardt; and this originality makes Tweddle one of the best kept secrets of contemporary literature.
The book was produced by Mount Abraxas of Bucharest and the aftermath, as usual, is phenomenal. The mystery presented by both the cover and dust jacket, the large format (as a picture book or, as I often imagine, a cinematographic book) the neat typography that makes reading smooth – all here indicates extreme care and refinement. The black and gold of the cover seems to dialogue with the sober internal photos that evoke the Kartaonist congregation. In fact, it is the Finnish band Mansion in such photos, whose strongly heretically songs are reconstructed narratively by Tweddle, who creates a plot-synthesis for the band's music and visual universe. But that, after all, matters little. To enjoy this novel is enough an imaginative plunge into the synaesthetic festival that is the essence of this veritable magnus opus in visionary literature field.