Many distractions this week. (I’ve just recovered from a yellow-jacket attack… okay, I attacked their nest first—but it was an accident!), and I’ve also been falsely accused of breaking rules in a Facebook discussion (haven’t used FB in months, and never will again). At times like these, I have always retreated to literature. In my first teaching gig, I remember saying almost those same words to a class after a difficult week and then being corrected by a pert ninth-grade lass, “Most people would say ‘faith’ and not ‘literature’.” The moment was eye-opening. I realized that literature, for me, occupied a house next door to religious faith; and to this day, I think that’s where it belongs.
I’m pretty much alone in that opinion, apparently. The professionals among whom I came to spend most of my academic career often padded their curricula vitae with articles about literature’s “demystifying” effects. A syllabus loaded with fictional works will always illustrate a) the historical rise of an oppressed class (women, racial/ethnic minorities, gays, etc.), b) the incriminating absence or degradation of that class in works treated as canonical by the patriarchy, and/or c) the glorious explosion of all values whatever into the originary rubble from which the bourgeoisie had fashioned its sand castles. That’s it. Paper due on Friday.
In other words, literature not only does not serve to shore up metaphysical belief systems: it’s a battering ram to bring them down.
I’ve had this subject on my mind lately as I pick through a volume of Ayn Rand’s theories about art. A brilliant mind, Ms. Rand… but a really curious case. It’s odd to see so many professed conservatives rush out and embrace this maverick atheist who constructed a philosophical edifice from the notion that the best way to help others is to help yourself. That formula continues to puzzle me. If all human behavior is self-serving, then why argue that selfishness is the most genuine selflessness? Why would that argument persuade—who would be won over to egotism once it was vindicated as altruism, unless the altruistic truly held some natural grip upon our consciousness?
Rand’s view of literature, at any rate, seems almost to worship it as a kind of pure abstraction—an occasion of the human mind’s distancing itself from immediate sensory circumstances and compressing experience into a splendid crystal. The other arts do the same, of course. All are generated by an activity of the self upon the vital environment which produces an objective, self-transcending, perhaps eternal (in the sense of classic) work. Is a suppressed longing at labor here to escape the pit of egotism? Is that, perhaps, the source of Rand’s hatred for Kant, whom she accuses of causing the train wreck of modern art? Why would she make that vague but venomous accusation, unless because Kant insisted that art has an invincibly subjective element—that its way of reaching “objectively beautiful” status must remain a mystery, since the path leads through so much subjective groping and stumbling? Does she hate Kant for honoring the mystery—for turning the crystal into a sponge?
If I’m right in my assessment, then Rand becomes a very odd (but really not so odd) bedfellow of the “demystifying” academic crowd so vocal at the political spectrum’s far end. That mob would praise a novel for showing the “meaningful life” to be an insipid fraud concocted to placate the dull masses; Rand would praise a novel for its sleek design, as an Allied pilot might praise a Nazi opponent’s ME 262. The philosophy might be horribly wrong… but how elegantly and efficiently the craft’s lines have brought it together before the eye!
As for me, in my impending old age (as this world measures age), I have begun to feel more and more comfortable with the following idea. What we see of a novel’s design—its plot complications, how its characters contribute to those complications with their distinctive traits, the means of climatically resolving tension—is all distraction from its most significant quality. For what we see creates (or, in a poor novel, does not create) a space for the unseen: the lines exist only to be bent outward into wandering hyperbolae, just as the plane’s purpose is to be a blur in the sky and not a polished shell on the runway.
Say that Detective Hawk finally uncovers evidence that convicts Mr. Hapless of the murder. If the novel does no more than to follow Hawk’s navigation through a labyrinth of clues, then we have what is rightly styled “light reading”. We didn’t learn much here. The literary experience was pretty bland.
Now say that the novel doesn’t end with the conviction of Hapless: say that new evidence reveals his innocence. Hawk faces an existential crisis. He played the game brilliantly, as he always does… and it led him straight to the wrong conclusion. How does he handle that? What does it tell us about the irrational side—the mystery—of life?
Perhaps Hawk manages to meet the exonerated Hapless. He isn’t apologetic, because he did nothing wrong: he didn’t reshape any facts and he didn’t leave any stone unturned. Yet he expects Hapless, naturally, to be vindictive. To his shock, the freed man is very humble, claiming that he feels himself put in possession of a new chance at life—a chance to live better. Hawk doesn’t get it. Hapless did nothing wrong, either, in the sense of actively implicating himself in the crime; the poor man seems almost to have gone a little wacko after his time in a cell block, as if his relationship with his father were somehow at issue.
How does Hawk process this? Though he doesn’t know it, an occasion has now been presented to him to rethink the assumptions and values of his life. Perhaps he has been living, all unaware, in his own prison. Will he break free?
Don’t misunderstand. I once refereed a panel discussion of the “Christian novel” at a conference… and the tiresome tomes I had to wade through in preparation were time spent in Hell. Not for an instant am I suggesting that great literature is didactic—that it contorts everything to fit a narrow paradigm the way Procrustes fitted guests to his infamous bed. “Then Hawk happened to pick up a Bible. He started reading… and all became clear.” No. Please, no! The novel I am imagining would be rendered spiritual only to the degree that it opened up an abyss at Hawk’s feet. Let the curtain come down as he looks in. Let mists and shadows play about the solid trunks of plot complication.
For such is life: not the hard lump of fresh-cut crystal artificially lifted from experience that Rand imagines, but a Caspar David Friedrich painting with just enough peaks and chasms to leave you understanding how much you don’t understand. Joseph Conrad was the Friedrich of narrative that I recall most warmly from my adolescence, despite all his clumsy and verbose diction. (He didn’t speak a bit of English before the age of eighteen.) Kurtz’s last words, “The horror… the horror,” are at least as powerful as anything in Ivan Ilyich’s deathbed conversion (from a Tolstoy novella in all the anthologies); and Marlow’s decision to let the crazed renegade’s fiancée cling to her naive vision of him is surely wrong at some level (Kant would never approve!), yet just as surely a loop that draws the reader into the abyss of mystery.
I don’t know if I could have lived a full life in this world, or could keep living what remains to me of it, without literature. I can’t live by a book of do’s and don’t’s: I need a faith that constantly reminds me of my human inability to process reality’s complete meaning. No design of a life lived can capture the sense of life (even Christ’s: for who among us can live out that model—and how many who try validate Ayn Rand’s uncharitable claim that selflessness is just a self-serving pose?). The artful condensation of events that I seek in literature is a distilling of the true, ineradicable mystery surrounding me—surrounding us all, whether we adore it or fly from it with vain boasts that our intellectual magic wand has chased it away.
I’m sorry that my professional colleagues have worked so hard, and so effectively, to destroy literature. In doing so, they have contributed in no small measure to destroying true faith in our society… which, of course, would make most of them very happy if they realized it.