“first epistemological impressions”

God appeared very early to me. His hair was parted down the middle. I understood that we were related because he had made Adam in his own image, breathed life into him. My eldest brother also combed his hair in the same style. Between the senior brother and me there was another brother. Senior to all of us was our sister. Anyway… This was the world. I had never seen it before. Its first gift was the gift of itself. Objects gathered you to themselves and held you buy a magnetic imperative that was simply there. It was a privilege to be permitted to see – to see, touch, hear. This would not have been impossible to describe to Ravelstein. But he would have answered dismissively that Rousseau had already covered the same turf in his Confessions or his Reveries of a Solitary Walker. I didn’t feel like having these first epistemological impressions anticipated or dismissed. For seventy-odd years I had seen reality under the same signs. I had the feeling, too, that I had to wait for thousands of years to see, hear, smell, and touch these mysterious phenomena – to take my turn in life before disappearing again when my time was up. I might have said to Ravelstein, “It was my one turn to live.” But he was too close to death to be spoken to in such terms and I had to surrender my wish to make myself fully known to him by describing my intimate metaphysics. Only a small number of special souls have ever found a way to receive such revelations.

— Saul Bellow, Ravelstein

I often think I’m the only person in the world who cares about this, but … here’s a very nice piece on dystopian fiction that uses the terms “sacrament” and “sacramental” far too loosely. It’s an unfortunately common trope (especially but not only among Christians) to use “sacramental” as a synonym for “meaningful” or “comforting” or “reassuring.” Experience or objects can be deeply meaningful, even life-transforming, without being sacramental. Sacrament requires not just meaning but the divine promise of meaning: the Eucharist is a sacrament because God promises to be present in it. And the same is true of the other sacraments. Where there is no promise, there is no sacrament, though for the attentive person there will often be deep meaning.

a thought on Endo’s Silence

(a comment on this post by Adam Roberts)

… let me just offer one thought about Silence (the novel — like you, I haven’t seen the movie)…. Rodrigues had always thought of himself as a Sidney Carton kind of hero, and had in a sense prepared himself for Cartonesque acts — but not for the choices he ended up facing. The key to his character, I think, is that he had always (Endo makes this clear) believed that it’s not wrong for the poor native Christians, weak as they are, to trample the fumie, but it’s wrong for him because he is a priest of God, a missionary, one presumably equipped for every challenge. It almost doesn’t matter whether he ends up trampling on the fumie or not, because his entire self-understanding is (I’m using the word advisedly) crucified by the mere fact that he has no idea what the right thing to do is. Is that really Christ telling him to trample? If so, then Christian faithfulness is not what Rodrigues always thought it was. Is it a false Christ, an apparition of his tormented mind giving him a way out? If so, then Rodrigues is not the Christian he always thought he was. The shift at the end to third-person narration is (to borrow your term) a withdrawal, but perhaps of a different kind: perhaps a gracious and compassionate turning away from the utter destruction of this man’s whole self-image.

For what it’s worth, I always think of Rodrigues in contrast to Isabella in Measure for Measure, who is given by Angelo a very similar choice: Do this thing you believe wrong or someone you care about will die. And Isabella never for a moment hesitates: “More than our brother is our chastity.“ Rodrigues may be (indeed is, in several ways) a miserable failure, but I’d rather be Rodrigues than Isabella.

And I think the plight of these two characters sheds some light on another question you raise, though in a complicating rather than simplifying way: When you learn that the choices you make for the sake of your own soul have profound consequences for other people, does that place you in a position of power? Or rather of a particularly miserable sort of powerlessness?

Douglas Coupland: ‘I’m actually at my happiest when I’m writing on a plane’

Douglas Coupland: ‘I’m actually at my happiest when I’m writing on a plane’

Neil Gaiman: Why I love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Neil Gaiman: Why I love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

“poisoning your mind with novels”

People talk of keeping au courant, and no doubt an intellectual cannot ignore the human race, nor be indifferent to what is written in his special field; but take care lest the current should carry away with it all your capacity for work, and, instead of bearing you onwards, prevent you from making any headway against it….

What you must principally cut down is the less solid and serious kind of reading. There must be no question at all of poisoning your mind with novels. One from time to time, if you like, as a recreation and not to neglect some literary glory, but that is a concession; for the greater number of novels upset the mind without refreshing it; they disturb and confuse one’s thoughts.

As to newspapers, defend yourself against them with the energy that the continuity and the indiscretion of their assault make indispensable. You must know what the papers contain, but they contain so little; and it would be easy to learn it all without settling down to interminable lazy sittings!…

A serious worker should be content, one would think, with the weekly or bi-monthly chronicle in a review; and for the rest, with keeping his ears open, and turning to the daily papers only when a remarkable article or a grave event is brought to his notice.

— A. G. Sertillanges, O.P., from The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (first published in 1921)

[James] Wood praises [Hilary] Mantel for her “cunning universalism”, a slicker version of CS Lewis’s unchanging human heart. But there are great historical novels that insist on the past’s fundamental difference: William Golding’s The Inheritors, for example. Variations in behaviour in that book are not merely a matter of social constraint, as in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day or Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.

It may be that the historical novel genre is as unjammed with greatness as the crime genre, the science fiction genre, the romance genre and the “literary fiction” genre (come on, On Chesil Beach seemed to be rated by David Cameron and most book reviewers, but precious few readers). I rather suspect that Wood’s frustration is with “historical romance” in the true 19th century sense, rather than any of the novels mentioned above. Whatever differences we have, I always agree with Wood that the great is rare and precious.

Stuart Kelly. I like Kelly’s defense of the historical novel here, in opposition to Wood’s prim condescension, but he seems not to know that Lewis coined the phrase “the doctrine of the Unchanging Human Heart” in order to refute that doctrine. As a shrewd and learned student of the past, Lewis knew that those people didn’t think as we think at all.

Which leads to the chief problem with Hilary Mantel’s novels about Tudor England. Wood likes what he calls the “universalism” of making Thomas Cromwell seem modern, but that’s what’s wrong with the books. Mantel could only pick as her protagonist a figure whom she can plausibly construe — or so she thinks — as rather like a modern educated Englishman: shrewd, skeptical, tolerant when it serves him but ruthless when he needs to be. As Wood points out in his New Yorker review (not online at the moment) of the new book, Mantel seems neither to like nor to understand her “religious” characters, like More and Cranmer. (Operating in the narrow royal and aristocratic world that she does, she doesn’t have to confront someone like Tyndale, which is just as well.) Moreover, while it’s certainly possible that Cromwell was the pure pragmatist she portrays him to be, it’s also possible that his attitudes towards religion were more complex and more interesting.

By making Cromwell her protagonist, the one through whose eyes we see much of what happens in these books, and then making Cromwell so much like herself, Mantel evades the most serious challenge a writer of historical fiction can face: how to make characters vivid and human when they’re not at all like us.

For the early-twenty-first-century literary writer, the primary way that people from the past are “not like us” is in their religious beliefs. Aside from Marilynne Robinson, how many highly-regarded writers today even make an effort to imagine what religious belief might feel like from the inside? It’s odd that James Wood, who has written so intelligently and movingly about the displacement of religion from the center of European high culture, and from his own life, is blind to the problems this neglect poses.

A man, then, who portrays human beings excessively and extravagantly. A man who portrays human beings in hell. And yet when we read [Dickens], it does not read like bad news. What does he have to say at the end of the day about redemption? In some ways not a great deal. Or rather there is a tension again and again in his books between a carefully, neatly resolved happy ending, and an immense burden of recognised, almost unbearable, unresolved suffering. He achieves the balance of those two most perfectly, for one reader, in Bleak House, where the past tense of Esther’s narrative is balanced by the present tense of unhealed suffering, the rain still falling on the Lincolnshire wolds. But in that book, which one reader at least thinks is perhaps his most profoundly theological—though he wouldn’t thank me for that—we have one of the strangest, most shocking images that he ever gives us of compassion and mercy, and that is the figure of Sir Leicester Dedlock. At the very end of Bleak House, left alone in his decaying mansion, holding open the possibility of forgiveness and restoration, ‘I revoke no dispositions I have made in her favour’, says Sir Leicester, with his typical dryness, about the wife who has fled from him in guilt and terror. And in that appallingly stiff phrase we hear something of the hope of mercy. Almost silent, powerless, Sir Leicester after his stroke, dying slowly in loneliness, and stubbornly holding open the possibility that there might be, once again, love and harmony.

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