On the Edge of Infinity offers a long look at a considerably headstrong, against-the-grain talent.
What happens when the subject of a scholarly investigation gradually becomes one’s friend? This genial account by a Swedish professor of religious studies portrays the life of his fellow artist, the Canadian writer Michael D. O’Brien. Clement Cavallin’s offers the first book-length account of O’Brien’s long career as a painter of icons turned critical fabulist within a sub-genre of “Catholic apocalyptic fiction,” On the Edge of Infinity offers a long look at a considerably headstrong, against-the-grain talent. It also illustrates a lack of authorial distance from a subject.
Cavallin blends literary analysis, artistic study, biography and a nuanced understanding of a “prophetic” calling of a devout intellectual out of the loop—neither entirely traditional nor conservative, but certainly at odds with the received wisdom that everything that transpired as to worship, doctrine and devotion (or its precipitous demise) after Vatican II was a Good Thing.
Those familiar with O’Brien’s series Children of the Last Days and its overlapping Father Elijah pair of novels will find much in the author’s childhood and upbringing which has entered his lengthy tales. As a pre-teen, O’Brien moved to the Arctic with his family; he then encountered abuse at a Catholic residential institution for the Inuit, where he stood out as a “white” student in the early ‘60s. Later, he grew up in Ottawa, among 25 cousins, few of whom, tellingly, remained Catholic in a post-conciliar era. As for O’Brien, he too drifted from the Church, after being alienated from urban life after his resettlement from the remote interior of Canada. This hardy stint colored his imagination, and Cavallin wisely conveys O’Brien’s inner life for the reader to decide how much emerges from his subconscious, “his powerful imagination” or real spiritual intervention. Or perhaps a mix of all three aesthetic experiences may have inspired his career.
After a disturbing encounter with dark forces while at a New Age center in 1969 at the age of 21, O’Brien returned to his ancestral faith. On the back-to-nature road as a restless artist, he meets his soul-mate in the British Canadian Rockies, who spent her formative years also raised far from “civilization.” Sheila had returned from the city to where she had spent her teens, and similar to her future husband, she had regained belief after an existential crisis at her university.
The couple took up both Charismatic Catholic worship and learning about the iconography of Eastern Christianity. Having had to return to Ottawa to make a living in 1976, O’Brien remained determined to survive by his art. He struggled with his own perception of his hallowed calling as expressing cultural vitality of the Christian tradition, as he faced a facile art-appreciation which his potential buyers and patrons insisted on perpetuating. This attitude reduced his commissions.
He began to write as well as paint. He entered into a state of sleep-like consciousness, a realm inside himself, from which his creativity fermented and bore fruit, increasingly in critiques of what Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn has lambasted as the “soft totalitarianism” of a hollowed-out, rather than hallowed, Western consumer-driven capitalist system. O’Brien resisted the secularized liberal democratic Canadian political drift, and as he befriended Soviet refugees, his conviction deepened that “human fragmentation” had to be fought against. He and a family who grew to six children under strained economic and persistently off-kilter emotional tension remained restless.
O’Brien moved back and forth, pursuing employment and grants as an artist, but yearning to retreat for good to what has recently been popularized by Rod Dreher’s bestseller The Benedict Option as an “intentional community” with like-minded adherents restoring and sustaining a dignified Christian counter-culture, centered around the Latin Mass and the legacy of millennia of sustenance and stability. As a “serious, bearded prophet with a sense of humor,” O’Brien in Cavallin’s description survives decades of stress, from a lethal combination of mental, physical and spiritual suffering. “There is no Christendom anymore to support the artist; he may come to feel that he must carry a whole civilization within himself in order to create sacred art.” This joins Cavallin to O’Brien, in their shared love of iconography, as well as anything from Croatia.
Illness and poverty, deepened by despair, find nonetheless frequent if last-minute rescues by what those in this book would credit as divine providence. As in nearly rent-free residences in fixer-uppers in both Ontario and in B.C. Perseverance pays off, at least that by 1997 his family purchases a modest house at last. By 2001, O’Brien capitulates to the online market to sell his art.
Yet, “using the media to critique the media,” Michael O’Brien resolves to unplug, frequently over the next dozen-odd years. In a coda, Clemens Cavallin relates his admiration for the novel Island of the World. This saga of Croatian vs. Communist power gained O’Brien an enthusiastic audience and, in Ignatius Press, a reliable publisher in the often-impoverished Catholic press. Given that this same firm issues Cavallin’s account of one of its leading authors, however, this reveals an innate awkwardness that neither subject nor author seem to comprehend.
For, Cavallin skimps on that literary critique promised in his introduction of this biography. This absence allows an advantage: the rambling plots, ambling characters, sudden chases, hairbreadth escapes and engaging detail characteristic of all of O’Brien’s very thick novels will not be spoiled for those who have not yet opened his oeuvre. The disadvantage lies in the blunt, persistent fact that O’Brien badly needs a far more severe editor than his patient in-house confidant, Sheila. What skill lies deep within the narratives he spins out of Catholic suspicions that an accelerating double-punch of profit and promiscuity, spending and slacking, may harbor at least hints of the End Times gets vitiated by story lines veering off madly if sometimes charmingly into dead ends.
His uneven fiction could have achieved so much more force if trimmed, tightened, tautened and toughened. Cavallin, now an intimate of the O’Brien clan rather than a distant if polite scholar of its scion’s lifeworks, lacks the critical distance to move his study out of intimate biography into literary criticism. Yet, On the Edge of Infinity may motivate attentive readers to build upon what Cavallin establishes as O’Brien’s philosophy and outlook to ground more sophisticated study. For now, audiences may meditate on the possibilities and the limitations of zeal as pursued in the service of a higher truth, from the margins of postmodern society, on a tight budget, under precarious health and with more than one broken-down and considerably used truck for hire.