A Treasure Trove of Wit

Published Saturday October 8th, 2011-10-08

Michael Higgins for the Telegraph-Journal, Saint John, New Brunswick

Porter loves to read; he reads himself into reality. And he loves those whom he reads; they are his companions to integration and wholeness.

And so his musings centre around the following literati and cognoscenti: Alberto Manguel, Robert Lax, John Berger, Simone Weil, Muriel Rukeyser, Leonard Cohen, Harold Bloom and Susan Sontag. He also throws in for good measure the eminent Palestinian savant Edward Said - whose credentials as a Jewish intellectual he takes pains to establish. Unconvincingly, in my view.

The Magnificent Eight are as dissimilar as they are similar but what they hold in common is a passionate commitment to the word, to the power of language and to the humanizing, nay divinizing, of the alphabet, the cord that unites us over the centuries, unobstructed by boundary, tyranny and the politics of erasure.

Porter’s musings constitute the primal text: he scours for meaning, delves into hitherto unexplored areas of spiritual and theoretical interpenetration, and proclaims robustly his love for them all. But the subtext is as, if not more, interesting: the making and remaking of J.S. Porter.

The writer is formed in conversation, his dialogue with Weil and the troop ever percolating. His probes are as much autobiographical as historical. That’s what makes this book a lively, endlessly allusive love affair wherein Porter brings to the table (in fact, Lightness and Soul is a fictional table talk) such a treasure trove of wit, oracular utterance, discreet disclosure, unnerving epiphany and sheer fun that the book itself becomes a companion to conversation.

Porter delights in his subjects and there is no critical edge. He eschews the qualified and lifeless judgement of the expert for the effusiveness of the lover.

And he masters the aphoristic style he admires in so many of the writers under the scope of his fealty. Of the “logocentric and bibliocentric” literary critic Harold Bloom he notes: “He is a Seussian geyser of gab.”

And he succinctly defines his own Christian faith in a book on eight Jewish writers when he observes:

“I celebrate the Jewish Jesus and the cosmic Christ, the Jesus of Nazareth and of Hamilton, the wine-drinker, the storyteller and the embracer of strangers.”

His Jesus can be found in his city, Hamilton, Ont., because as the master spinner of tales, the outlier who identifies with the rejected, Jesus weaves a narrative of salvation open to all.

Porter likes that kind of inclusiveness and Lightness and Soul reads as his spiritual testament.

Michael W. Higgins is vice-president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. He is a former president of St. Thomas University.

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