So: Anthony Burgess, back when he was alive, thought that a movie should be made about Edward the Black Prince and that he should write the screenplay. (Whether he is equally interested in the project now that he is dead I cannot say.) He drafted said screenplay, but nothing ever came of it. But, thought Adam Roberts, if the story cannot be a movie might it not become a novel? So he wrote said novel. (More details here.)
I have now read the novel, and it is remarkable: the imagination of Burgess combined with the imagination of Roberts and inspired technically by the method of John dos Passos in his U.S.A. Trilogy) — with a soupçon of Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Literary collage: highly imagistic scenes rendered by Camera Eye, March-of-Time-style newsreels, brief character portraits, chunks of sermons. The story of a soldier called Black George is especially powerfully rendered. Roberts captures with precise and sometimes disturbing fidelity that interlacing of deep piety and sheer brutality that we discern when we look closely at the world of Medieval Latin Christendom.
The publication of the book, through Unbound, still needs to be fully funded. You can, and should, support the project by going here and paying the merest pittance. If you do, then I shall pray God to have mercy on your soul. If not….
Indeed, this is the (unexpected) discovery I have made. It is that having been holding out against failure for a long time, having been committing to hope, trying to make the writing better and so on, it is rather liberating to let all that go. I’m never going to win a Clarke, never going to get shortlisted for a Hugo, never going to get an American deal, and it’s …. relieving, actually. The emotion is a largely positive one, muddied if at all only by a slight sense of embarrassment that I ever thought those things in the first place. Indeed, given our culture’s toxic Trumpoid obsession with winning, winning and winning again, with winning so much we get tired with winning, there may even be a principled merit in failing, provided only we accept the failure as our own, and don’t try to shuffle off responsibility onto others.
2016: the Story So Far. I’ve been thinking a lot about this post by my friend Adam Roberts, whose language of failure (as you’ll see if you read the whole post, and you should) concerns his most recent novel, The Thing Itself. I’ve wanted to respond, but I haven’t been sure quite how — Adam’s post touches on so many issues that seem vital to me. Still, let me leap in and flail about as best I can.
I began an article I published last year by talking about Frederick Buechner’s status as a rock star among Christian readers of literature. I’ve seen 1500 people pack into Pierce Chapel at Wheaton College to hear him read, and a more rapt audience you couldn’t imagine. Yet it was around the time of that reading that Fred changed publishers from Atheneum, a very classy house that had done his books for many years, to Harper, and when I asked him why he had done that he told me, “Atheneum expects my novels to sell 8,000 copies each and that’s precisely what they do.” But I don’t think his books with Harper did any better. And yet on 8,000 copies per book a writer can become an absolute rock star — at least among a certain subset of that fictional entity The Reading Public.
All of which is to say that literary success and failure are elusive concepts. Sales and awards are two ways to measure success or the lack thereof; but there are many others that are equally valid, and some of the criteria can’t be applied immediately. I’ve read The Thing Itself three times now, each time with more admiration and emotional investment, and there is much in it that I still haven’t grasped. (When Adam and Francis Spufford and Rowan Williams and I were discussing the book in Cambridge a few months ago, Adam briefly mentioned the ways the structure of the book echoes that of the Aeneid, and I am certain that I never would have realized that had he not mentioned it — and yet now that I know it I have a better understanding of the book. I feel like Stuart Gilbert being told by Joyce how Ulysses is organized. Except Adam told the whole room rather than just me.)
I simply don’t believe that a book so ambitious is likely to find its place in the world immediately. Milton famously spoke of writing for “fit audience though few” and for a long time “few” was what he got. The most highly-regarded English poet in Milton’s lifetime was Abraham Cowley, and if you’re wondering who that is, you have just grasped my point. It is of course difficult to sustain yourself as a writer on the hopes of future generations realizing your greatness long after you’re a-moldering in the grave, and probably only the deeply narcissistic can manage it; but it’s a factor, you know? Something to consider, especially if you’re as good a writer as Adam. The story of the reception of The Thing Itself is not over; it has scarcely begun.
In one sense I’m all for letting go of hope, as Adam says he has: not only am I in favor of it, I’ve done it myself! I have long realized that if I’m granted a normal lifespan I’ll outlive all my writings, and while I sometimes cast around in my mind for ways to increase my readership, basically I write for two reasons: to scratch itches, and to provide extra income for my family. But I’m no Adam Roberts, and while I perfectly understand why he might want to take a vacation from the demands that a really ambitious book project places on him, I hope at some point in the near future some such itch will afflict him, and in flagrant disregard of all the world’s award voters he’ll sit down and write a big crazy book that will move me to laughter and tears and thought and envy and admiration. Again.
On the Acknowledgments page of The Thing Itself, the new novel by Adam Roberts, there’s this:
As an atheist writing a novel about why you should believe in God, I have taken more than I can say from the eloquent and persuasive devotional writing of my friends Alan Jacobs and Francis Spufford, Christians both.
Well, one thing led to another, so… The place:Great St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge (the English one). The date: The evening of 15 June. The event: A conversation about The Thing Itself and associated topics featuring
In speaking of God, human logic characteristically ignores both His nature and the fact that, when the reference is to Him, the argument from operation to cause is inapplicable, since He is not a known thing in a series of things.
— Karl Barth, making a point that he makes often. In so doing he almost always means to show the necessary absurdity of Christian apologetics, but it’s worth noting that it’s a point equally relevant to the New Atheists, as David Bentley Hart points out in his powerful book The Experience of God: “Suffice it to say that the demiurge is a maker, but not a creator in the theological sense: he is an imposer of order, but not the infinite ocean of being that gives existence to all reality ex nihilo. And he is a god who made the universe ‘back then,’ at some specific point in time, as a discrete event within the course of cosmic events, rather than the God whose creative act is an eternal gift of being to the whole of space and time, sustaining all things in existence in every moment. It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually ever written a word about God.”
But then many proponents of Intelligent Design don’t either. Here’s a long but vital passage in which Hart shows what the two sides have in common:
[Stephen] Hawking’s dismissal of God as an otiose explanatory hypothesis, for instance, is a splendid example of a false conclusion drawn from a confused question. He clearly thinks that talk of God’s creation of the universe concerns some event that occurred at some particular point in the past, prosecuted by some being who appears to occupy the shadowy juncture between a larger quantum landscape and the specific conditions of our current cosmic order; by “God,” that is to say, he means only a demiurge, coming after the law of gravity but before the present universe, whose job was to nail together all the boards and firmly mortar all the bricks of our current cosmic edifice. So Hawking naturally concludes that such a being would be unnecessary if there were some prior set of laws — just out there, so to speak, happily floating along on the wave-functions of the quantum vacuum — that would permit the spontaneous generation of any and all universes. It never crosses his mind that the question of creation might concern the very possibility of existence as such, not only of this universe but of all the laws and physical conditions that produced it, or that the concept of God might concern a reality not temporally prior to this or that world, but logically and necessarily prior to all worlds, all physical laws, all quantum events, and even all possibilities of laws and events. From the perspective of classical metaphysics, Hawking misses the whole point of talk of creation: God would be just as necessary even if all that existed were a collection of physical laws and quantum states, from which no ordered universe had ever arisen; for neither those laws nor those states could exist of themselves. But — and here is the crucial issue — those who argue for the existence of God principally from some feature or other of apparent cosmic design are guilty of the same conceptual confusion; they make a claim like Hawking’s seem solvent, or at least relevant, because they themselves have not advanced beyond the demiurgic picture of God. By giving the name “God” to whatever as yet unknown agent or property or quality might account for this or that particular appearance of design, they have produced a picture of God that it is conceivable the sciences could some day genuinely make obsolete, because it really is a kind of rival explanation to the explanations the sciences seek. This has never been true of the God described in the great traditional metaphysical systems. The true philosophical question of God has always been posed at a far simpler but far more primordial and comprehensive level; it concerns existence as such: the logical possibility of the universe, not its mere physical probability. God, properly conceived, is not a force or cause within nature, and certainly not a kind of supreme natural explanation.
Reading this passage, I find myself thinking of Hart’s title and asking: What might it be like, then, to have an encounter with the real God, the God beyond categories and logic, the God who is “experience as such,” whom we encounter as sat, chit, ananda? It’s a question Adam Roberts asks too.
The Thing Itself is all kinds of amazing, and very hard to describe: if you imagine a mashup of The Thing, Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Kant’s metaphysics, you’ll … not quite get it. Just read it, please. Among the many things that Roberts does here, one of the most intriguing is to ask whether Kant’s antinomies — which attempt to address some of the same limitations in our language and thought that Barth and Hart also point to — might be a key to unlocking, even in computational as well as experiential terms, the mysteries of the universe.
Adam and I have been corresponding a bit about these matters, and lo, as I am trying to wrap up this post I see that he has just put up a post of his own about Karl Barth! Wonder of wonders! But he the atheist and I the Christian are finding some significant points of common interest here, points that I hope we will find ways to explore further.
For now I’ll leave you with these questions, which have been turning and turning in my head since I read Adam’s book: What if we thought of our current debates about God, our current confrontations between theists and atheists, as the inevitably sorry by-products of a failure to grasp what Hart argues, what Barth argues, what Kant says when he presents us with his Fourth Antinomy? And what would happen to our conversations if we took seriously the possibility that we don’t have any real idea what we have been arguing about?
And with that, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!