Thursday, December 25, 2014

JAMES WOOD GETS RELIGION: TWILIGHT AT THE BROKEN ESTATE (PART II)



What I have done in Part 1, is to look at some of James Wood’s statements in The Broken Estate,  statements which in their boldness, Amardeep Singh acknowledges, practically invite disagreement, and have made a sustained argument, in contest, about the continued presence of religious aspects in novel writing and reading, describing a broad and inclusive fiction that is consistent with and only possible in a pluralistic culture that allows both secular and religious freedom.  In the latter section of Part 1, I’ve argued that the rise of a theoretical fiction and an ideology of professional cooperation in the academy between authors and critics has further usurped and pre-empted Wood’s notion of provisional belief.  One does not so much believe or disbelieve in the world of post-modern fiction as one agrees or disagrees with its stated ideology.  The fostering of narrow theoretical interpretations via author to critic and critic to author reification not only endangers an independent literature through institutional co-optation, but also threatens future interest in post-modern literature by aligning these works with theories which will eventually become, if they have not already become, dated.

Here I will examine a more recent essay of Wood’s , “Why? The Fictions of Life and Death”, (The New Yorker, Dec. 9, 2013).  In it, there is evidence Wood has migrated away from some of those fundamental statements about the secularity of the novel, even though Wood’s own novel The Book Against God  (2003) already displayed an ambivalence about religion that belied the boldest declarations of those roughly contemporaneous essays.  A decade hence, Wood sees the novel as having both inherent religious and secular aspects.   The major change is that he is looking to texts as the basis of his claims rather than to reader-focused attitudes toward fiction.   What hasn’t changed is the fundamental way Wood applies his theory.   I was struck by the peculiar assertion, the underlying thesis of his reminiscence about attending a memorial service.  It opens out into a reflection on life and death in the novel:

To read the novel is to be constantly moving between secular and religious modes, between what you could call instance and form.  The novel’s secular impulse is toward expanding and extending life; the novel is the great trader in the shares of the ordinary.  It expands the instances of our lives into scenes and details; it strives to run these instances at a rhythm close to real time.  Think of the way that Henry James devotes an entire chapter, in ‘The Portrait of a Lady,” to the five or six hours that Isabel Archer sits in a chair, thinking about the failure of her marriage.  Nearly half a century later, Mrs. Ramsay, in “To the Lighthouse,” will be sitting by the window, thinking about her children, about her husband, about all the sorts of different things, and will forget that she is supposed to stay still, because Lily Briscoe is painting a portrait of her.  Mrs. Ramsay, in effect, forgets that she is at the center of a portrait, of a novel.  This is a kind of secular forgetting: the novel is so full of its own life that human life seen under the eye of eternity has been carelessly banished.  Death will roar back, but not yet, not now…When the novel is in this forgetful, profane mode, it wants its characters to live forever.

It seems a striking change from The Broken Estate, a long way from the earlier quotes that prompted Singh to say “For Wood, the novel destroys strong belief as a matter of form…”  If the novel is the “slayer of religions” what then does Wood mean when he talks about the novel having a religious form? Wood’s assertion gives the impression that a religious form is there in the novel, as if you could just pick any novel and find it, the way you’d expect a PC to come with operating software.  All the way through , the piece is built on this kind of overstatement, like a car so precariously overloaded with possessions, you hope it doesn’t have far to travel.  One problem is that you have to accept Wood’s premise of secular and religious modes in the first place, because he’s vague in defining them and assumes they exist by virtue of his having conceived of them.  Throughout the piece, Wood virally attaches secular to “instance” and religious to “form” and “time” as if they were compound nouns, asserting them without first, if ever, making a reasoned argument for their use.  He attempts this in the above passage with the example of Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay forgetting to sit still while posing for a portrait.  Notice the way he makes the forgetting of death a secular forgetting by assuming, it would seem, that death is a religious reckoning in the first place. But you can tell he's loaded the die to roll his way when he makes eternity (quite blind to a secularist) into the eye of eternity.  He supplies a divine outlook on the eternal (suggesting it is Godly rather than evolutionary) and thus circularly justifies the forgetful instance as a secular thing by contrast.  But calling the novelist's concern with death a religious mode, is like saying scientists who study human genes and disease pathology are working in a religious mode because of their mindfulness of death.  It stands to reason, if eternity exists for secular-minded people, then death and the contemplation of the eternal has a secular, not a religious, meaning for them.  Singh’s quotation of Northrup Frye from The Secular Scripture: A study of the Structure of Romance, is much to the point about the liberation of time:

The secession of science from the mythological universe is a familiar story.  The separating of scientific and mythological space began theoretically with Copernicus, and effectively with Galileo.  By the nineteenth century scientific time had been emancipated from mythological time.  But in proportion as the mythological universe becomes more obviously a construct, another question arises.  We saw that there is no structural principle to prevent the fables of secular literature from also forming a mythology, or even a mythological universe.  Is it possible, then, to look at secular stories as a whole, and as forming a single biblical vision?  This is the question implied in the ‘secular scripture’ of my title…The Bible is the epic of the creator, with God as its hero.  Romance is the structural core of all fiction: being directly descended from folktale, it brings us closer than any other aspect of literature to the sense of fiction, considered as a whole, as the epic of the creature, man’s vision of his own life as a quest.

If “scientific time” has been “emancipated from mythological time”, and fiction, via the romance, is a non-religious, “secular scripture”, why does Wood (given his former secularist outlook) see death and the eternal as elements of religious form and time, rather than elements of emancipated secular form and time?  Wood never gives a satisfying answer.  There is an assumed matter-of-factness about the significant fundamental claim he makes, as if it were a boast made at a cocktail party after several drinks,which everybody is either just drunk enough to swallow, or too drunk to dispute.  Early on and then later in the piece Wood turns to the idea that the act of writing the beginning, middle and end of a human life, authorial omniscience also, is an “arrogation of divine powers”.  Perhaps this metaphor for what a novelist does he takes for granted as the religious mode.  Wood may view it that way, but when I write a novel, I don’t feel like god, I feel like my characters.  When I envision a beginning and an ending to my novel, I am not asserting a divine prerogative, but imaging the world, as if I were there to witness it as a human being.  There is a secular way of seeing the authorial mode without the metaphoric overlay of godly omniscience.  It all depends on the author.  I like to write my novels from the inside out; somebody like Nabokov writes from the outside in, artistically controlling every element and detail.  Even if Nabokov ‘s way of playing God is the meaning of Wood’s religious mode, that Nabokovian extreme cannot be generalized for the novel as a whole.

In Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, the unnamed narrator stands waiting to book a room at an inn, and in that short period of time the details of his life, a fictional version of the pianist Glenn Gould’s and the narrator’s friend, Wortheimer’s life, are expanded on for more than a hundred pages.  Yet, these instances are obsessed with thoughts of death and suicide.  Does this mean, according to Wood’s sweeping definition, that Bernhard’s mindfulness of death makes these religious instances rather than secular ones? Bernhard is certainly expanding life with a series of rather circular recollections and scenes, and so this expansion must be the secular mode, and yet, according to Wood, by imposing death on the moment is not the instance here also contracting life, the way the novel’s form supposedly flattens it?  It’s a distinction that doesn’t hold, then, because in almost every novel you can think of an exception to Wood’s new dictum.  The problem is not Wood’s observation that the novel both expands and contracts our lives, but Wood’s failure to persuade us that the expansion of life through scenes and details is fundamentally secular and the formal need to have a beginning, middle and end to a life story is fundamentally religious.  For one thing, the god-like omniscience Wood refers to early on, which has the temerity to make a beginning, middle and end to a human life, is also responsible for expanding that life as well moment by moment. It is the same consciousness at work, part of the same impulse.  The causality of the instance is to the ultimate form of a novel what the values of light and shadow are to a basic line drawing.  When filling in those instances with the shadow and light that lend perspective and depth, you are not forgetting the line drawing on the paper, you are ever mindful of the boundaries of objects and ultimate composition of the drawing.  No creator of novels bifurcates their concern the way Wood suggests, and I doubt readers see it that way either.  Whether a novel has religious or secular elements depends entirely on the novel and the author writing it, not on Wood’s semantic understanding of death as a religious signifier.  Wood’s whole notion seems fundamental to the exclusion of content.  For instance, if you took Updike’s A Month of Sundays, it has something of a secular form, yet is full of religious instance, as it is the month long journal of a sexually disgraced minister sent to a religious retreat and it is a takeoff on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.  Its connection to that other novel makes the two interconnected in literature’s own extra-Biblical mythology, making tangible Frye’s sense of literature as “secular scriptures”.  Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man does not close out a life but brings a young man to a point of decision: the beginning of his life as an artist.  I would guess the Bildungsroman would meet Frye’s definition of a secular form, not a religious one.
  
The whole notion that the organic and fluid process of writing a novel can be carved up arbitrarily like national borders after a war into secular and religious states is an ill-conceived notion, if only because it would be impossible to prove as a general rule. This may be why Wood is so vague and deflects his own assertions with circular reasoning and conversational drift, like somebody edging toward the door to get out of an awkward circle.  Notice what happens when Wood attempts to define what he means by a religious mode:

“But the novel’s eternal or religious mode reminds us that life is bounded by death, that life is just death-in-waiting.  What makes the mode religious is that it shares the religious tendency to see life as the mere antechamber to the afterlife—hence John Donne’s characterization of our lives, in his sermon on the Book of Job, as a sentence already written in a book by God:  ‘Our whole life is but a parenthesis, our receiving of our soul, and delivering it back again, makes up the perfect sentence;  Christ is Alpha and Omega, and our Alpha and Omega is all we are to consider.’”

When I read this passage, I stopped cold.  The novel  shares the religious tendency to see life as the mere antechamber to the afterlife?  Rather than explaining his theory, as reasoned argument should, this assertion compounds the need for further explanation.  It digs the hole deeper.  I mean, isn’t that how anybody would argue the novel’s concern with death as a religious mode, by deploying a quote from a sermon that predates the novel, rather than giving us examples from actual novels, or quotes from novelists?  The moment is so dumbfounding, the disconnect so complete, Wood sounds like a politician giving an elaborate answer to a question the interviewer has not even asked.  Why not just quote Matthew 6:19/20 as authority on the novel’s anticipation of the afterlife.  Hence, Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:  But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…”  Yes, Donne sees life as a mere parenthesis, that perfect sentence delivered back to god, but Donne is speaking as a theologian not a novelist, and unless Wood is talking about John Bunyan and C.S. Lewis there is no way to argue his assertion.  The novel has no such tendency.

Having made a bold statement about the novel’s religious tendency and expounded on it by quoting a sermon that has nothing to do with the novel, indeed Wood’s next line of argument is to quote scripture (and you thought I was being facetious).  This paragraph immediately follows the above quote. 

In this mode  the novel does as God vouchsafes to do in Psalm 121: “The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in.” It teaches us about the relation of instance to form.   That’s an achievement,  because most of us find it difficult to make this inquiry into our own lives. We are condemned to apprehend our going out and our coming in retrospectively, as if we were rowing a boat,  clear-eyed only about the distance we have already covered.  I was happy in this city, we say, when we return to it years later; I was unhappy throughout my twenties; I was truly in love only once; it was a mistake, I now see, to have taken that job;  I am forty-eight and it has taken me this long to realize that I know nothing about my father...

Yes, the novel records the goings out and comings in of our lives, as do biographies, but none of this has anything to do with the afterlife, that is, with religion.  Singly or collectively, the instances of life stand on their own as secular facts.  Wood is just imposing religion on them without showing any structural relationship between the novel and religious literary forms, which is the case he could be making here by choosing specific texts.  Perhaps, with a deadline approaching and an idea in his head that sounded good at first blush, Wood was seduced by his own rhetoric, and used the escape hatch of rambling reflection when arguments didn't easily follow assertions.  The loose form and reflective nature of the reminiscence too easily aided the
murky generalities of such a thesis and too little supported a space for the analytic rigor required to argue it. Given how near and dear religion and secularism are to Wood, it's a surprisingly weak distillation of his concentrative powers. Wood is on the right track by looking to texts for evidence of religious or secular content, but he goes off the rails in trying to fast track his flimsy general theory.   A case can be made, as Singh concludes below, that within the process of secularization, particular novels can be said to embody religious aspects, but these are cases that have to be made novel by novel, not by the sweep of fundamental  declarations about instance and form that simply do not hold up to close examination.

Secularization never ended as a historical process—nor will it end; it is still in process, in Europe (where debates about religion in public life have been extremely important in recent years), in the United States (a highly religious country with a thoroughly secularized public sphere), and elsewhere.  As in history, so in literature.  With every generation of modern writers—indeed, with every novel written—the struggle for literary secularism is rewritten, reinvented as if for the first time.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

JAMES WOOD, BELIEF AND THE IDEOLOGICAL NOVEL: TWILIGHT AT THE BROKEN ESTATE (PART I):






While writing my first novel, Lightbearer, one that encompassed the improbable span of eternity,it was necessary to think about the world without preconception—creation, sexuality,desire, and consciousness--imagining them, inasmuch as possible, as they would appear to those who were not influenced by successive layers of historical interpretation, received wisdom or the cultural norms of the present.  The old verities had to be reset to zero.   Scientific discovery has the power to reset our understanding of the world also.   Indeed biochemistry and neuroscience have made discoveries that recontextualize, even overturn, our past understanding of human emotion and attachment.  That is to say, if there are hormones that produce or are produced upon the apprehension of love, then such understandings might tend to demythologize the ‘divine’ emotion, strip it of a religious moral imperative:  love thy neighbor as thyself.  Yet, love need not lose its appeal or prominence in the process, neither to be viewed on one hand as a construct, some bourgeois social convention that requires ironic quotations around it, nor as the greatest commandment. 









Even if love came about by accident,  human connection has a life, a practical essence, which operates outside the modes dictated by religion, the theoretical deconstructions of modernism, or the mere biologically programmed response.  We continue to ratify love in living no matter what religionists proscribe, and no matter how much the cynics scoff. More than a few existential philosophers and not a few novelists have had to go home and answer to their wives and lovers after proclaiming that life is a meaningless accident and love a mindless biological impulse designed to trick us into reproducing.  And in the era of same sex marriage, gays and lesbians will be excused if they fail to believe religionists who say their love either does not exist or is a mistake.  When it comes to love and living in general, one needs to steel oneself with a certain moral independence to act freely and live creatively.


 


For me, this moral independence is the ground fiction seeks to claim as its territory.  So even while writing, or re-writing, the central Judeo-Christian story found in scripture, in imagining the beginning and the end of all things, it was as essential to fully engage theological questions inherent in that narrative frame as it was to make space for the science that prevails today in the re-examination of such beginnings and endings, and possible spaces in between.  The idea was to let them fight it out, qualify and inform each other.  For, in Lightbearer, even God complies with the physics of the Second Coming:  being close enough to be seen by all, means not being seen by all at once, rather letting Parousia roll from place to place across the land. Anything the novel can imagine, like God himself, it can contain for the sake of experimental knowledge.  This is neither a scientific knowing, nor a religious kind, but a testing of human nature that is predictive all the same. It may be informed, like love, by science and religion but it is not constrained by either in its knowledge-seeking.  The idea of being able to examine different modes of experience alternatively or concurrently, this kind of fighting it out, seems to be a pluralistic notion.  An art form you might expect to flourish in a secular society.





In The Broken Estate (2004), James Wood came out as a champion of the novel’s secularity and stated that what was most secular about the novel was our ability to choose to believe or not believe in the world of a work of fiction, and that this belief was a provisional, as if, belief:





Nevertheless, the reality of fiction must also draw its power from the reality of the                        world.  The real, in fiction, is always a matter of belief, and is therefore a kind of                           discretionary magic: it is a magic whose existence it is up to us, as readers, to                                 validate and confirm.  It is this reason that many readers dislike actual magic or                               fantasy in novels…Fiction demands belief from us, and that is demanding partly                                  because we can choose not to believe. However, magic—improbable occurrences,              ghosts, coincidences—dismantles belief, forcing on us miracles which, because                                  they are beyond belief, we cannot choose not to believe.  This is why almost all                                 fiction is not magical, and why the great writers of magical tales are so densely                              realistic.


 


…This is surely the true secularism of fiction—why, despite being a kind of                                   magic, it is actually the enemy of superstition, the slayer of religions, the                                         scrutineer of falsity.  Fiction moves in the shadow of doubt, knows itself to be a                                true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to make its case.  Belief in fiction                                 is always belief “as if.”  Our belief is itself metaphorical—it only resembles actual                         belief, and is therefore never wholly belief.


           


Wood’s recognition of provisional belief in the novel rings true in a very common sense way.  It was Coleridge after all who coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” nearly two hundred years ago, though he had in mind the kind of fantastic tales Wood finds problematic.  In 1817 Coleridge was recalling his collaboration with Wordsworth on Lyric Ballads two decades earlier, and this work came at the end of a century that had seen a sharp decline in belief in the supernatural:





                        ... It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters                                     supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a                              human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of                        imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes                poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his                                 object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling                                analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the                                     lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world                                    before us ...





Coleridge’s notion of suspending disbelief as poetic faith seems a necessary post-Enlightenment strategy for resuscitating the “shadows of imagination” that had languished in the preceding century, requiring an attention to “human interest and a semblance of truth” on the writer’s part (being true to human nature and the psyche as much as to the“density of realism” Wood describes), and “suspension of disbelief for the moment” on the reader’s part.  Nevertheless, this attitude seems necessary for the appreciation of any performance involving artifice, from a magic show, a play, or a two dimensional movie on a screen, certainly to anything enclosed between two covers, and, whether on the page or the stage, this approach to narrative and drama began long before the reign of secularism.  Coleridge is merely one of the literary spirits responsible for reviving the tradition of supernatural manifestation that two centuries later seems again dubious to Wood.  It has come in and out of fashion before.  Yet today, in popular literature, fantasy has never enjoyed a more robust place, while in the halls of academia there has been much written, however hyperbolic, about the death of literary realism or, at least, about the death of conventional notions of “the real”.  Some of it is a direct response to Wood’s ideas.


Wood may have it wrong, at least in part, when he asserts that many dislike the magical or supernatural in fiction because they“cannot choose not to believe” in it.  Take, for instance, a production of Hamlet in Elizabethan England (a time when belief in witches and ghosts would not raise as many eyebrows as it might today) and the ghost of Hamlet’s father in particular.  Just because you believe in ghosts as actual phenomena doesn’t mean you believe that you are seeing an actual ghost on the stage.  A suspension of disbelief is required regardless of whether you believe in ghosts or not, for the purposes and moment of the drama before you.  You might be more inclined to feel a shiver of real haunting if the actor portraying Hamlet appeared shaken enough that you felt his fear and wonder. What also makes the ghost believable is that the ghost is a metaphor for a more substantial, everyday concern in monarchical Elizabethan society:  a murdered king and a usurped throne.  That knowledge for Hamlet is the real ghost, it truly haunts him, and so the ghost is almost more poignant if you don’t believe in ghosts, because it plays off that unbelief to remind us how irreversible death is:  only Hamlet, not the dead king, can avenge that crime.





The fact that we don’t believe in actual ghosts and yet can feel the shiver of what it would be like to see a ghost does not convert us to believing in ghosts after seeing Hamlet.   By the same reasoning, if we believe in actual ghosts but refuse to believe in that ghost on the stage (if only because he bumped into a prop and spoiled the notion of his immateriality) it will not slay our belief in ghosts in real life. Wood’s objection to the supernatural is canceled out, then, because not only is the operative belief in fiction as if but the doubt we experience also is as if.  For, how can we experience real doubt about a fictional ghost?  Wood’s own statement about belief, then, is fully applicable to doubt:   Our doubt is itself metaphorical—it only resembles actual doubt, and is therefore never wholly doubt.  Now, metaphoric doubt can be overcome with a great performance, just as metaphoric belief in even an ordinary action can be undone by an actor’s clumsiness.  Wood does not explicitly acknowledge the nature of fictional doubt, in fact, privileges doubt over belief by assuming that the doubt we experience reading fiction is real doubt, while the belief we experience reading fiction is a most tenuous, provisional belief.  We no more apply true skepticism in the reading of fiction than we do when listening to the telling of a dream.  For once inside the novel, the operative mode is metaphoric from alpha to omega.








Contrary to Wood’s assertion that the presence of the magical takes away our freedom to refuse belief, I think it possible that metaphoric assent to something that does not exist may actually restore (even a skeptic’s) freedom to recover belief for the moment.  All we have to do is reverse Wood’s premise to neutralize it.  Does not an atheist, like Wood, forego the freedom of believing in the supernatural?  If the facts of the natural world determine Wood’s atheism, then he does not have a choice to believe in the supernal (if he rejects god, he is a believer in disguise).  His atheism, as fact, has denied him a certain freedom:  belief in the supernal.   Does not being limited to believing only in the real, or natural, in fiction, also make us unable to choose to believe in the impossible in that fiction? The last phrase generates the same predicament as Wood’s double negative formulation, “we cannot choose not to believe.”  These are reversible propositions:  the impossible, because it is beyond belief and makes us unable to choose to doubt it, deprives us our freedom (Wood’s proposal); or, the possible,because it is the basis of reality and makes us unable to choose not to accept it, deprives us our freedom (my proposal).  If you squint one eye or the other, doubt or belief can be seen as equal hindrances to freedom, even if both of these propositions are overstated in the acknowledged play world of fiction.


I would grant there are readers who dislike actual magic in novels because it is simply beyond belief, not because in some abstract way it impinges on their freedom to express doubt.  In a way, the refusal of the magical shows an inclination to believe over an inclination to doubt, in that a secular person is not looking to secure room for doubt in denying the magical, but to make a secure space for the “real” they may believe in.  From another angle, it could be said that many secularists want to deal only in secular terms, like vendors who deal only in their own national currency. Indeed, to such readers, the magical may be as useless, as impractical, as presenting Deutche Marks at a McDonald’s in Topeka, Kansas.  This impasse with the miraculous or magical, though, expresses the deeper need to keep the domains of the religious/supernal and the secular/common separate. 





This anxiety exists because often such “readers of reality” have had to come through much struggle to achieve this separation and thus cannot easily or comfortably endure its breaching. It is similar to the way some gay readers of my novel, Lightbearer,  find it so objectionable.  For, it is both incomprehensible and an outrage to their sense of justice that a gay man would write a novel that frames the origins of same sex love within a Biblical narrative that is used to condemn it, rather than in a secular liberation context.  It must seem to them like the Israelites returning to Egypt after having been freed.  For me though, the impulse of gays to submerse in urban subcultures, liberation in isolation, had at some point become escapism rather than true liberation.  Security maintained by separation. A different set of chains.The parallel between atheism and gay experience can be drawn because in America, for many people with high profile public lives, coming out of the closet as atheist is as potentially risky, if not more so, than coming out as gay.  So, in this milieu of sharp division between interior life and public profession, there is a keen awareness of the security of these boundaries.  The supernatural or magical in novels is yet another laden symbolic crossing of planes and boundaries between the religious and secular that constitutes a violation (a novelistic merger of church and state if you will), more about the incursion into existential territory than the deprivation of a freedom to believe or doubt. 





AmardeepSingh in his 2006 critical volume Literary Secularism:Religion and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Fiction observes this separation anxiety in the way Wood is critical of the late 19th century secularization of religion:  “Wood prefers writers to be either openly religious or openly atheist, and expresses impatience with those who occupy the in-between space of Matthew Arnold’s ‘religion of culture’.”





This crossing of planes comes up in my novel, Lightbearer, when Virgil Caldera is trying to negotiate his departure from his church.  It is not just a matter of not showing up on Sabbath for services, it is a matter of abandoning belief.  In the scene below, Vigil is dining with his would-be lover, Joe Coseia, who happens to be Lucifer in human disguise.  The problem for Virgil is that he has received not only a vision from God, but a pendant, an artifact of divine revelation, that he finds impossible to rationalize away:





             “I can’t just turn off my memory.  It’s not like before.  I’ve seen him.  I know he’s real.  He is coming.”


                “You’re serious.”


                “Of course.”  Virgil stabbed a falafel ball with his fork.


                “I have to admit I’d be a much better devil’s advocate if I hadn’t seen you levitate out of a church pew.  It’s second nature for a skeptic to automatically discount the presence of miracles, or at least, if you allow for some unexplainable events, to argue alternative explanations for them.  It’s a live and let live situation.  I know people who claim to have seen ghosts and I don’t disbelieve them—I believe they believe they have—yet I have never seen one…It’s not real to me.  I can accept the possibility of a spirit world, but I don’t claim to understand it, and I don’t seek it out.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with me; we’re like objects on parallel planes that never intersect.  And I suspect it is only real to those who live on that plane of belief.”


                “But you saw me levitate; the planes have crossed.  You can’t pretend it has nothing to do with you now.”


Later in the argument, Lucifer resorts to other rationalizations:


                “…Now here’s what I think.  After you let loose on my body, you’ll never have another vision.  God won’t bother you again.  And it won’t be long before you’ll wonder what on earth you were ever thinking.”


                “What about the pendant?”


                “It’s just an object when you separate it from your system of eschatology.”


                “Like an out-of-place object?”


                “Exactly,” Joe said, pointing his fork to dot his exclamation.


                …”And what if he does come back?”


                “Ninety-nine generations have failed before you,” Joe said, signaling the waiter.  “Even if everything you believe is true, there’s every chance your generation will also fail.  Have a little faith.”





Here the tables are turned on rationalism by an irrefutable sign, an unexplainable object and Virgil’s levitation from a church pew before an entire congregation.  Skepticism is on the run.  Never mind that Lucifer is hiding his supernatural identity and knows that Virgil’s seduction may well delay the Archangel’s promised return.  In the face of an indisputable miracle, Lucifer’s best devil’s advocate is an unconvincing attempt to straddle and rationalize this difficult boundary between fundamental belief and rational secularism by a soft live and let live separation of existential planes.  It pragmatically delays the taking of a stand on the supernal, reproducing in us Wood's impatience and discomfort.  For when it comes to miracles in fiction, Wood would rather the planes did not cross either.   Just as the tangible miracle makes it difficult for Virgil to abandon belief, so the absence of miracles makes it difficult for Wood to abandon his unbelief.  Either way it’s hard to abandon a fact.  Because once a miracle becomes a fact, science yields its authority by being unable to explain that fact, while faith dissolves into a kind of science by its very confirmation as fact.  There is good reason then for both the believer and unbeliever to be nervous about the miraculous, even if the believer is na├»ve about the reasons.  At the heart, then, of this difficulty of crossing planes between the religious and secular is the fear that they may undo each other.  That in some hybrid or mitigated form they will lose the strength and efficacy of real conviction. Thus, Wood’s harsh words for the soft secularized religion of the late 19th century in his essay “The Broken Estate”:


 But, the moment at which Jesus became a hero of a novel, of a ‘prose poem’, he                             also became fictional.  The old estate broke.  Jesus lost his divinity, became only                                   an inspiring fantasist.  We may wonder what use Jesus is if he is a figure no                               different from Socrates on the one hand and Daniel Deronda on the other.  Why                             should we heed his difficult words, what is the flavor of his command once the                                 taste for his authority has evaporated?  Secularists perhaps relish that point in                             intellectual history at which Christianity loses its theological prestige and begins to fall into the secular ranks.  Yet, intellectually, a new pettiness was the first replacement of the old, divine Jesus, and it is hard not to lament the passing of actual belief when it is replaced with only a futile poetry.  Christianity was not, of course shoveled away, it was coaxed into sleep by nurses who mistakenly thought that they were healing it.  Indeed, it might be said that in the last forty years of the nineteenth century, until Nietzsche’s decisively canceling work began to dominate, the feeblest evasions and weakmindedness passed for theological thinking.  Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold are the chief nurses of the sleep of nineteenth-century Europe and in their work one finds much false medicine.




Singh uses this quote, and his commentary on it below is much to the point:





                        For Wood, the true tragedy is not Nietzsche’s rejection of God (and of Jesus), but                                     the secularization of the Biblical narrative, such that it becomes merely another                              kind of novel.  We see the fulfillment of the phrasing in the earlier quote about                               fiction as the “slayer” of religion.  For Wood, the novel destroys strong belief as a                 matter of form, by introducing the option of the provisional, non-committal type                                 of belief that is typical of a reader’s approach to a Dickens novel.  Once that way                                     of reading—which is also a way of being—comes to dominate, it subsumes all                            other kinds of narrative.





But is Wood right?  My ghost analogy above illustrates the way that these two modes of belief and of reading narratives continue to coexist and compete.  Religion continues to be viable in Western societies and dominant in many Eastern ones , even in democratic India where the novel is also vibrantly alive.  Despite a secular government in the United States, God’s name is still on the money and an openly atheist president is yet unelectable.  It is paradoxical, but essential, that secularism, which gives rise to novelistic freedom, also gives rise to religious freedom.   It’s the key to the true secularism of the novel.  For it is only in a secular state that religious freedom can flourish (atheism enjoys protection under that banner as well).  Otherwise, what you have, and what had existed in the West at least as far back as Rome, is state religion. The enforcement of divine authority on earth. When the Soviet state tried to banish God, it failed at being truly secular; for in disallowing religion, it set up the secular state as the state religion.





Surely, one of the successes of modern secular states is the granting of broad religious freedoms (the separation of church and state).  In such societies it is not surprising that the novel’s secular whole will reflect that very pluralism in its pages.  That is not to say there aren’t droves of novelists who reject religion, and some even who find fault with secular humanism too (one thinks of Thomas Bernhard, who doesn’t breathe the name of god at all in Old Masters, but rails ceaselessly against modern sentimentality in just about every art form).  Bernhard may refer disparagingly to Catholicism, but only as a human institution, not as a divine agency. His novels may be the best example of what a “hard” secularism looks like in a novel.  God is not banished.  God is not even an absence, does not occupy even an inch of Kierkegaardian negative space, and yet the subjective tyranny that rules there is a kind of God unto itself, because it rejects almost everything in its wake, including the mode of reason in its critique of society. It cares not if you agree or disagree. Thus saith the Lord is replaced by thus said Wortheimer, or Reger said yesterday at the K├╝nsthistoriches Museum for that matter.Yet, in rejecting what it does regard (secular society and human institutions) without recourse to its standard means of regarding itself (through reasoned critique), it may be seen as anti-secular.  Like long, looping suicide notes to the world, Bernhard's narratives posture in a subjective disengagement, a mania that seems anti-pluralistic in its refusal to persuade and also in its super-iteration--from Gargoyles (1963) to Extinction (1986)--of a single fictional style, narrative frame and story in every novel. There is always one thing that escapes rejection, one thing that retains quality or value, in a Bernhard novel.  In The Loser it is Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations.  In Old Masters it is Tintoretto’s White Bearded Man. As delightful as Bernhard’s narrators are despite themselves, their monism smacks of a theology of the self that may be the ultimate pitfall of a “hard” fundamental secularism.





It is no stretch to say authors of serious literary novels have an overwhelmingly secular outlook, as Singh also notes at the outset of his study.Yet, far from excluding religion from the novel, secularism has ensured religious inclusion, if only because so many secular authors have unfinished business with religion.  In principle, so long as the novel is pluralistic and free it never will be a “hard secular” art form, never free of religious influence.  For free religious belief, in various ways, informs the sphere of its practice.  Scripture alone, the Bible in Western tradition, is a rich literary source of metaphor and carries with it a trail of historical and cultural associations that are not easily abandoned.  Yet, it is the conflict that arises so often with religion’s inclusion, the uncomfortable subway car ride of atheists, fundamentalists, nominal believers and New Age appropriators, jostling elbow to elbow at rush hour, that makes the novel most secular.   That is, the intransigence of the plural and the inclusion of conflict in the novel, this very essence of freedom in the text, commends it as a secular bastion.  It is worth noting, and not so surprising, that Wood, the critic, locates the novel’s most secular aspect in the non-commital attitude of the reader toward the text, rather than finding it in the texts themselves as Singh does.





Being free and human in every detail, novels do not deny access to religion in their inquiry, the way science or orthodox religion must prohibit other forms of inquiry in their domains to maintain their purity. The trying of religion is essential to fiction’s experiment.  The pervasiveness and persistence of religious ideas and values in world culture means it is unavoidable in life, and so we should expect it to appear in our novels.   The novel, then, if it is a secular form of human knowledge-seeking, thrives on dissent (especially since novelists are the ones picking the fights), and limits its own secular power to work out these conflicts even if it does so ambivalently.  After all, allowing characters of diverse beliefs into a novel requires the same loosening of artistic control that allows characters to speak freely in their distinctive voices in the first place, rather than just being mouthpieces for the author’s opinions. How these experiments turn out (the knowledge of the end) and why they matter is what the novel attempts to get right.  If it fails to answer the great questions, at least it is asking the questions we want answered,  and, as it moves from the particular life to the general metaphor of human experience, it promises, if it is bold fiction, to make an educated guess about how its own fictional world, if not the actual world itself, will end.





So belief in the novel, provisional though it may be, is the condition of obtaining its particular kind of knowledge.  If you don’t commit deeply, you will not reap the rewards of its vision. It is significant that for the religious mind knowing also follows belief.  The rewards of religious experience--peace of mind, assurance of salvation, having a divine purpose and being part of a larger plan and community, even knowing forgiveness--all follow belief.  For, you cannot experience divine forgiveness unless you first believe in the God who grants it, and in the spiritual condition that demands it.  For the secular, post-Enlightenment mind belief follows knowing.  Secularists place their belief in things that can be verified as a general rule---the possible versus the impossible.  For instance, steady global rise in temperatures since the 1880’s and the thickness of Greenland’s ice are scientifically provable measurements that precede belief in global climate change.  While Wood sees the as if belief of fiction as secular because it is always something we can refuse at any time, it is just as possible to see this belief as sharing something elementary with religious belief.  It retains the paradigm of religious seeking (belief before knowing) rather than of secular skepticism (knowing before belief).  It is like religious belief because that investment in the world of a novel is an act of faith.  It is akin to the novelist’s act of faith in the creative process that brought about the work’s completion. 





If you discuss books much over a period of years, you will no doubt observe that many fundamentalist religious believers as well a growing majority of secularists share a preference for non-fiction and a general dislike for the project of fiction, and share, coming from very different points of view, a strong disapproval of what, for them, is not fact-based. (Non-fiction far outsells fiction; information now trumps the metaphor). For hard secularists that would include all forms of superstition including religion, magic, folk wisdom with no scientific basis and all supernatural occurrences.  For religious fundamentalists that would include the theory of evolution, atheism, alternative origin narratives to the Biblical account, and all forms of magic that compete or obviate the need for God. You can easily see how fiction is suspect, at best an irrelevant game, to these minds that are nourished by the perceived facts of their world views regardless if their outlook is secular or religious. For religionists, fiction is too worldly to be trusted, an idolatrous competitor with the Bible for its hold on the human imagination.  No less a novelist than Tolstoy came to view his own earlier fiction as too worldly.  While the real sticking point with secular post-modern writers and readers, is that fiction is actually too much like religion as it is traditionally practiced and appreciated.  For, whether a novel is magical or strictly realistic is almost beside the point.  The objection to fiction may lie in the paradigm of religious seeking (belief before knowing) represented by traditional fiction.  The notion of trusting the creative process, the subconscious, is too mystical for many writers of serious fiction today, as is the notion too binding that as readers they are subject to a system of belief at all (either Wood’s notion or Coleridge’s idea), and must submit to the novel.   Notwithstanding the vast particulars of modern literary theory, the entire project might well be summed up as an attempt to strip fiction of every vestige of religious supplication and transcendence, by dispelling the notion that we should trust it. 





This religious dimension in the novel lies, partly, in the nature and style of novelistic revelation.  It is often intangible, symbolic and elusive.  It works on the reader’s mind in subtle, mysterious ways, through associations, and recurrent powerful images, much the way images from the prophecies of Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation, or the Psalms and parables of Jesus, stay in our minds and work on our imaginations.  The literary style and metaphoric richness of scripture suggests that a continuation of its literary strategies exists in the novel, even among the most secular authors.  Thus we have E.M. Forster’s resetting of scriptural quotations in A Passage to India, or the retelling of the Cain and Abel story in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, or Rushdie’s reinterpretation of Islam and the Koran in The Satanic Verses to give just a few of examples of metaphor, content and narrative structure being borrowed from religious texts.  It’s also worth noting that Old Testament writing, arising often from Pagan source materials, was also borrowed from earlier literary traditions.  These writings may well have begun their literary journey as if before becoming thus saith the Lord.





That the novel “lives in the shadow of doubt” is an interesting and valid observation by Wood, but it is one that assumes belief in religious texts, or religious belief itself, is fundamentally different from our attitudes toward secular texts.  As somebody who was part of a fundamentalist religion for more than 15 years, I know that the daily life of faith in a supernal reality, even the grasping of doctrines peculiar to Seventh-Day Adventism on thin scriptural evidence, was far more difficult and doubt filled than the notional doubt of reading a work of fiction. It was “real” doubt, after all, with a “real” imperative.  As I stated before, if belief in the novel is only as if, then the shadow of doubt the novel lives in is also only a provisional shadow.  To live by a fundamentalist paradigm is to inhabit a supernal narrative, a novel, if you will, wherein you believe the highest stakes and gravest consequences may ensue from your decisions and actions.  You ask yourself every day:  Am I in the right relationship with God? Have I acted on God’s principles or on my own selfish desires? Have I influenced others to do the same?   Am I truly saved?  Am I understanding this Bible text correctly?  Is the interpretation of Daniel’s 2300 day prophecy part of a literal time frame?  And if a day in Daniel represents a unit of prophetic time, not a literal day, might a day in Genesis also represent a non-literal unit of time?   On and on the questions go, sometimes in a confusion of metaphoric and literal readings. After all, any text, especially a sacred text, which requires our belief, must in practice exist always under the shadow of doubt.  In this way, religious texts are more closely related to novels than Wood thinks, certainly more than non-fiction texts.  When we are told something is a true story, we put aside our symbolist and metaphoric (as if) reading methods the way we’d take off 3D glasses at the end of a movie.





So  (getting back to the real) it seemed, in Lightbearer, the best way to present the reality of religious fundamentalists--who believe in eternal rewards and punishments--to truly understand why fundamentalist believers sometimes act in ways contradictory to their beliefs (that is, in inhuman ways) was to present as real the world where god and the devil literally exist.  To dramatize the pressures brought to bear on such believers and their resulting real world actions.  These, after all, should concern us, Wood as well, more than the effect of Matthew Arnold’s soft-headed poetry.  The “real” necessarily changes in this context.  God becomes real through his followers.  So we must believe in him again for the moment to understand those followers.  Just as accommodating fundamentalist belief requires our understanding and that dreaded pejorative “tolerance” in life, so it demands something more of us when we encounter it in a novel.  If the novel is to be more than a form of escape (not only escape into formulaic fantasies of ourselves but also escape into our dearest ideological structures), then we must occasionally consent to breathe the same air with the “other” when it is only the provisional air of a novel.  This effort keeps us honest as pluralists, keeps us from petrifying in our separate ideologies.  The inability to bridge this distance in accessing fiction may reflect a transfer of rigidity from life to the reading experience, which after all is an imaginative one.  The reach of human understanding and sympathy, then, is the ultimate and relevant reality of novels.  It is hard to imagine a secular novel that fails to communicate this pluralism fully in its texts and to accommodate it in its critical readings.





Even as the Bible’s narrative consistency may collapse under the sustained assault of literal (realist) interpretations, so faith in God may collapse at any time in life under the strain of living.  The trajectory of this arc is long and generally stable. I once believed in scripture as God’s Word; I no longer do and have not for more than 25 years.  Was my belief (sustained for over 15 years) real belief if it could collapse?  Was it not provisional after all?  And was not that provisional quality, the thing that could not be sustained, like a novel that’s premise collapses about half-way through, or the metaphor that is not sustained or is overworked?  In the long view, these modes of belief Wood dramatically differentiates (actual and metaphoric) are both subsumed in metaphor, as searches for the right ending that sometimes end in failure.  For, people quit religion and get converted to religion all the time and often for the same reasons they quit or become obsessed with reading a certain novel:  it is too difficult, they encounter something with which they disagree, they smell a phony, or they are engrossed by a genuine vision, understand its deep truths, and are on fire for Bernhard and God and will soon become their evangelists.





Or, to turn the argument away from the believer toward the object of belief, we can change the textual dynamics.  If a person doesn’t ever believe in the Bible as divine revelation, then there is only a lifetime’s refusal, whereas there are thousands and thousands of novels with which a reader may repeat the process of belief or refusal within a lifetime.  If there was only one novel (say only Finnegan’s Wake), then our perspective on the nature of this belief and refusal would be altered radically. It would either be yea or nay for fiction once and for all based on that single novel.  The monism of the project of fiction then would tend to freeze or make our view of it absolute.  Thus, the multiplicity of novels (plurality of vision as the core secularity of its form) makes provisional belief an option in the first place. Hence, if I don’t believe in a novel about a suicidal fallen angel, I may believe in another novel about a suicidal housewife in a California suburb, or in one about a suicidal, failed Austrian pianist.





This multiplicity of texts to choose from gives the reader freedom to embrace literary visions that suit their sensibilities.  As part of this freedom, the reader retains the final say.  For having chosen to believe, at least enough not to throw the book down in disgust, a reader gets to interpret the text.  In this way, it seems to me, Wood doesn’t follow the entire cycle of the reader/text loop with sufficient interest.  For the knowledge the novel imparts, the very style and language in which it is delivered, calls out to be interpreted.  It is a major aspect and function of the novel’s secularity, then, that it is reviewed in secular periodicals and in universities by a set of literary criteria, not by church synods, theological tenets and religious forms of critique, such as canonical Biblical criteria: Is it the word of God?  Is it tradition or revelation? Thus, the interpretation of a text is widely argued.  A set of beliefs or assertions about a work persist and are stamped with the imprimatur of secular pluralism:  disagreement and debate.


Keeping in mind the generic distrust of fiction I mentioned before, which either the secular or religious reader may bring to a text, we must consider in this interpretive process the way fundamental orthodoxies may be superimposed upon the reception of a novel for the individual and in the literary world as well, beyond Wood’s notion of provisional belief transpiring in the cozy chair between the reader and the text (Wood’s theories about fiction are often as personal as his readings).





Belief does not happen, though, in a vacuum.   It is certainly not as pure or private as Wood’s elevated rhetoric in The Broken Estate makes it sound.  For, it is rare that an individual reader comes to a text before it has already been vetted and evaluated by critics like Wood.  Thus readers absorb some snippets on the book jacket, at the very least, that begin shaping their belief before they even open the book. I would grant that this mode of belief Wood describes is real and operative for the reader, of course, whether or not that belief has been influenced beforehand.  Yet, because the process of literary reception is a likely influence on the reader’s potential belief in the text, because the reader’s evaluation is often derivative of other readings, and other ideologies in the reader may be present to influence “belief” in a text, it is not certain that this “provisional” belief always bears the stamp of secularity.





More specifically, novels of the academy, those written to theory (Pynchon, DeLillo, Wallace, Rushdie, and Zadie Smith come to mind) will predictably find “believers” among those who espouse those theories (mainly other writers, critics and readers within the academy), and “refusers”among those in the mainstream, who, at the least, have differing notions about narrative form if not about the world.  That is to say, whether a work of fiction is embraced or dismissed is increasingly defined by ideological agreement or disagreement with a given text, and thus may be ruptured before the reader begins, or at least as soon as an ideology is identified in the text by the reader.  As such, an ideological mode of belief is setting in, which again may pre-empt Wood’s literary notion of belief by privileging novels that present favored ideologies.  Since many of our serious writers and their critics are housed in the same academic institutions, there is a professional incentive to cooperate, as well as a built in knowledge of what kinds of novels get noticed in those circles. 





Here is William Gass in a 1978 interview on the subject: 





                        …increasingly he writes books that will teach well, you know.  He may be                                     teaching books himself. He is often in classes talking about how you write, to                                writing students; before you know it, his books are about writing, and they teach                           splendidly because you have all these things that you can do in the class, to point                             out this device, that move, and so on…So there is an interaction:  the writer is                           writing, of course, for the audience he has; the audience he has is also moulded by                   the kind of books he writes.





Wood is certainly familiar with the dynamic.  He has been attacked and caricatured as a reactionary critic stuck in 19thcentury realism, and, not surprisingly, as having reactionary political views as well based on his critique of much contemporary, post-modern writing, which he famously described as hysterical realism.  In his fascinating study “Practicing Post-Modernism: The Example of John Hawkes”  (Contemporary Literature - Spring 1991), John M. Unsworth describes the way the language of Hawkes critical representations of his own works via his interviews migrates directly to later critical response to his works.   In this way, Hawkes (his example followed by other post-modern practitioners like DeLillo also via interviews and Thomas Bernhard via his two volume autobiography) orchestrated reception of his work by acting as first reader.  In addition, the original critical representations of Hawkes work arose from Albert Guerard, the influential critic who promoted and first brought attention to Hawkes  in 1947.  In the process, Hawkes was co-opted by Guerard in that his own representations derive from his mentor (critical praise that may have been conditional on Hawkes continuing to write in his early “approved” style) and Hawkes, using his own status and prestige, co-opted his critics by providing circumscribed interpretations of his works through his interviews.   This practice was already a generation old when Unsworth wrote about it, but is certainly more entrenched now.  Little wonder Wood was attacked for going off script.  You could not miss that Zadie Smith’s critique of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (among Wood’s favorite books of 2008) was aimed in part at Wood—a delayed but sharp literary backhand return of Wood’s devastating serve in his famous “Human, All too Inhuman”essay.  That the novel in the academy has become ideological along theoretical and professional lines is evident in the way Wood’s critique was interpreted and decried as a reactionary political attack.  It is hard to see it as any less than an admission of ideological entrenchment when you respond to your critics: ‘if you don’t like this novel you must be against its ideology.’





According to Unsworth, "...to date, much of the criticism of post-modern fiction has...aimed at reproducing the ideology of the fiction it discusses...The problem...is only exacerbated when author and critic are contemporaries cohabiting in one institution.  Under these circumstances, the material inducements to cooperation may well subvert the independence of both parties..."  If the compromise of an independent literature (meaning both authors and their critics) is not concern enough, Unsworth sees another long term consequence of this kind of critical orchestration and co-optation within the academy:  its potential to freeze future interpretations of a work and identify it too narrowly with theory such that it will cease to be read once that theory becomes dated.  In the meantime, these works become engines of theoretical expectation, rather than avant garde novelty.  Such certitude undermines the real risk undertaken by all good fiction, the process of difficult persuasion, without which the only affirmation possible is the ‘Yes!’ of the true believer.