Robert Detweiler Heilbrun Fellow

Robert Detweiler Heilbrun Fellow

Each fall, the Emory Emeritus College holds a formal reception to honor the year’s recipients of the Alfred B. Heilbrun Jr. Distinguished Emeritus Fellowship. After an independent committee review of applications, two fellowships are awarded to emeritus faculty in the Arts and Sciences. The reception provides the opportunity to honor the recipients’ continuing research and scholarship beyond retirement.

I was very pleased to represent Emeritus Professor Robert Detweiler at the Emory Heilbrun Awards Reception on Thursday. Professor Detweiler (my original dissertation adviser) was unable to attend the reception, so he recommended to the Emeritus College that I act as his representative – to present his thanks, and to give a brief summary of his current project.

I’ll post a version of what I said below, but the actual delivery deviated from this in ways that would be very difficult to reconstruct. First of all, the audience made a huge difference to me. It may have been the first time that I stood in front of a non-student Emory audience in order to talk about something very positive. Looking at the faces, I felt encouraged to slow down and tell a story rather than go off at my usual top speed.

I was also given a gift by chance – I had to hold a microphone in my hand. My nervousness melted away (I’ve done enough singing with a microphone that it’s a different, much more at-ease version of me that emerges with a mike in hand).

Anyway, although “you had to be there,” I hope that I will be able to convey something of the tenor of the brief statement – to convey why Detweiler’s work was so unique and important, and to express a real sense of gratitude for this recognition and support of his work. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t really make the papers or anything like that, but it’s a very important achievement for Dr. Detweiler at this point. It also comes with a bit of financial support that I am certain is very welcome.

Young Detweiler

Some background: Robert Detweiler is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Religion in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts (ILA) at Emory University, and served as the Institute’s director for eight years. A graduate of the University of Florida (M.A., 1960; Ph.D., 1962), he has taught at the University of Florida, Hunter College (CUNY), and Florida Presbyterian College (Eckerd College). He has held numerous visiting appointments, including three Fulbrights (University of Salzburg, University of Regensburg, and University of Copenhagen), two appointments at the University of Hamburg, and the American National Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the predecessor of the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities.


Robert Detweiler has published extensively on the intersection of religion, literature and culture. Among his many books are John Updike, Story, Sign and Self: Phenomenology and Structuralism as Literary Critical Methods, Breaking the Fall: Religious Readings of Contemporary Fiction, and Uncivil Rites: American Fiction, Religion, and the Public Sphere. Detweiler’s life and work were celebrated in a 1994 festschrift, In Good Company: Essays in Honor of Robert Detweiler, and I worked with him – along with David Jasper and Brent Plate – to publish the Religion and Literature Reader that was completed after his stroke.

As near as I can reconstruct from my notes and my memory, here were my remarks:

Professor Detweiler’s current project is written in response to the sense of despair, impotence, and “nothingness” that has prevailed in Europe and in our own American nation since at least the end of World War II – provoked by the trauma of the Nazi-operated “death camps” and the annihilation of seven million Jews, the effect of the “cold war,” the threat of nuclear warfare, and the vogue of Existentialism, exemplified by the massive study Being And Nothingness by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and by books such as Godhead and the Nothing by the controversial “death-of-God” theologian and philosopher Thomas Altizer. Many of you may know Tom from his years at Emory (several nods).

Falling to Nil will engage literature to illustrate and interpret both the negative and positive effects of nothingness. The subject may seem unfamiliar or strange, but it is not.

The Greek philosopher Democritus said, “Nothing is more real than Nothing.” Aristotle referred to the vacuus, which as Timothy Ferris explains in The Whole Shebang, “means ‘empty,’ and idiomatically that is what a vacuum means – nothingness.” St. Augustine spoke of the act of Creation as ex nihilo” – creation out of nothing. And Charles Seife – in his book Zero: The History of a Dangerous Idea – argues that the twin mathematical concepts of nothingness and infinity have repeatedly revolutionized the foundations of civilization and philosophical thought; the universe begins and ends with nothing.

Nothing. Detweiler is interested in the concept of the “Nothing” because he sees in it not only an embodied threat of death, but also a very ambivalent response to the sense of the abyss and the meaninglessness of life.

As is his wont, he intends to explore these through a literature and religion perspective, this time in a series of “sacramental readings” of contemporary stories.

His structuring principle will be the formal sacraments of the Eucharist, matrimony and forgiveness (reconciliation), and the informal (less formally recognized) sacraments of the Word and the Land (repeat). His readings will not be based on any specific preference for either Catholic or Protestant dogma, but will draw from the insights of both Christian sacramental traditions.

Through this work, Dr. Detweiler will try to understand and possibly mitigate the sense of despair and nothingness that appears to have become our legacy. His sacramental readings will function to explore the diagnostic – and even therapeutic – aspects of the “Nothing” through readings of fictional narratives by writers such as Tim O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Dewberry, J.G. Ballard and Cormac McCarthy.

For instance, to illustrate the sacrament of the Eucharist, he will interpret Tim O’Brien’s “Sweetheart of the Song tra Bong,” Flannery O’Connor’s “A Temple of the Holy Ghost and Lawrence Dorr’s “The Angel of His Presence.”

At this point, I had wanted to read a passage from one of his books so that they could get some of the flavor of his writing. I hadn’t quite decided until the very last minute which one of two I would read. One was more to the point of the project and would have helped to contextualize it (Breaking the Fall, pp. 44-45). Looking at the audience, I decided on the more personal and accessible one – from a conversational interview with (my dear friend) Sharon Greene, who at that point had been his companion for several years (In Good Company, pp. 433-34). She asked him about the history of his fascination with story:

What a question. I think it has to do with two – three – moments (probably more) in my past. The first occurred in my childhood, when I had to sit through endless sermons in Mennonite churches in eastern Pennsylvania, terribly bored, and would become alert only when the preachers would tell a story – usually some sort of bathetic tale in which the wayward son would accept Jesus, kneeling and weeping beside his mother’s deathbed (I think this is where I got my taste for soap opera), but a story nonetheless. In other words, these stories were the high points in the midst of dreary verbiage, and so I came to value, probably overvalue, story.

The second was in my young adulthood, when I was a refugee relief worker in the 1950s in what was then West Germany and listened over a number of years literally to thousands of war-and-suffering stories told by the many kinds of survivors. These had a profound effect on me; in some ways I have never recovered from them. They are a part of my identity, although I was not the sufferer. They taught me that narrative and survival are intertwined, indeed that story finally is always, one way or another, about survival.

The third has to do with you, specifically the precious experience (the story) of how, over many years, our narratives have become intertwined, to the extent that I can’t think my story without thinking yours. In this context I’ve learned how story is erotic in the deepest and fullest sense.

So there you have it: boredom, survival, and eros are behind my fascination with story (laughter from audience).

To boredom, survival and eros – I think we must add healing, fellowship, community (heads nodding, murmuring).

Breaking the Fall was honored with an American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in Religious Studies, and it was my first encounter with Robert Detweiler’s critical method. Reading it validated my own intuition – despite my own very fundamentalist background as a Jehovah’s Witness – that there had to be many ways to conduct a strong religious reading of a text.

My experience had been that religion was a very touchy subject for the study of literature, and that literature was even more of a touchy subject for the study of religion (some smiles, a small snort). I had been searching for a way to analyze certain kinds of intersections between literature and spirituality. I hadn’t found anyone else in the United States who was doing just that kind of work, but here – in Detweiler’s work – I found an astute analysis of texts that inspire religious reading. Moreover, as William Doty points out, Detweiler’s theory “never gets in the way but always supports his readings.” It was fun to read. Breaking the Fall brought me to Emory University.

Detweiler’s extension of the notion of reading to include a concept of a religiously reading community was a most welcome one.

A communitas of readers, joined at first merely by the fact that they read, can learn to confess their need of a shared narrative and encourage the creation and interpretation of a literature that holds in useful tension the doubleness we feel: that we live at once both liminally and in conclusion. It would be a literature that offers us metaphors and plots of alert nonchalance, of crises that are deepened into the play of mystery. … For the destiny of community is not merely to provide its members with a place to belong. It is also to give them a context where, and a structure of how, they can constantly plot their lives. The story of this plotting is what the reading and interpreting fellowship has to tell. (Breaking the Fall, 190)

It wasn’t only “academic.” As an Emory professor and a world citizen, Bob Detweiler has encouraged interdisciplinary discussion and friendship in a way that few others are inspired to do; he puts people together.

He has been the handmaid (his word) for friendships and projects too numerous to mention. He ended up being a kind of hub of trust and communication across all kinds of networks.

I wish that I truly could convey his very authentic, very jovial, form of collegiality to you today.

Since his stroke, his continuing research has not been without difficulty, but he now has some on-site support and is very optimistic that he will be able to complete this project.

Robert Detweiler asked me to express his deep appreciation and gratitude for this honor. Thank you to the Emeritus College and to the Heilbrun family.

On behalf of the diverse community of voices that he has helped to create, I would also like to express our appreciation for this recognition from the Emory community for Robert Detweiler’s many contributions, and for the support of his continuing research. Thank you.

The other Heilbrun Fellow was Emeritus Professor David Hesla. He is working on three different projects. He read a charming bit from his mother’s papers about her school life as a child in Iowa. He is also working on historical papers of his father’s experiences in war-torn China. And, most interesting to me, he was writing a philosophical/musicological analysis of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra (You might know it as the opening music of the first scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Did you know that it ends in two different keys? Metaphysics, Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence..). What struck me most – I had never seen Dr. Hesla look so enthusiastic, almost transported. This work seems to make him truly happy.

After that, several of the previous Heilbrun recipients gave one-page progress reports on their research. The range was amazing, everything from using quantum mechanics to discover new drugs to a history of sports.

It was a fascinating event in a number of ways. I was very pleased to meet Gene Bianchi (Director of the Emeritus College, and an Emeritus Professor himself) and Kevin Corrigan (Professor in my home department of the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts) for the first time. I also saw a number of familiar faces from my graduate school days, including some of the faculty of the ILA as well as two members of my dissertation committee. I enjoyed myself immensely.

I’m very proud of Bob for applying for – and receiving – the Heilbrun Fellowship. I more than half suspect that he believes that I am still his research assistant, but I’m glad that he still thinks of me as what he calls his “safety net.”

It seems like a small thing, but to me this event was a personal triumph – and a form of closure. There was so much history there to navigate and finally, to transcend. The event almost functioned as a performative ritual (if not exactly a sacrament). It wasn’t just another dry academic event – this group had the feeling of a kind of fellowship, one that Bob would have enjoyed if he had been able to attend.

And, privately, I was pleased with myself. It’s been a while since I really felt proud of something I’ve done, and even longer since I felt the approval of others that I admire and respect.

It was wonderful.


One thought on “Robert Detweiler Heilbrun Fellow

  1. You have a perfect right to be proud. My congratulations to you for a job well done. I am so happy to see that you are still here and blogging on such a beautiful site! Love ya, gbreez

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