31 May 2012

CSLIS Report #3

I'm at Taylor University in Indiana for the 8th Biennial Frances White Ewbank Colloquium on C.S. Lewis and Friends. Here is my report on the first set of papers. 

I. Joe R. Christopher: “C.S. Lewis's Lost Arthurian Poem: A Conjectural Essay”
Lewis makes a mistake in a reference to Wace, et al, saying that Wace retells Layamon. Actually:
      1. Geoffrey of Monmouth, 1137
      2. Wace retells Geoffrey 1155
      3. Layamon translated, paraphrased, & expanded Wace into Middle English, c. 1205, as Brut.
The stories are not the same as Malory: no Lancelot-Guinevere romance, Guinevere has an affair with Modred. The alliterative Morte d'Artur (1360) follows this tradition, as do some 20th century works.
Lewis writes about the Brut, then says that he wrote a poem on this subject, which Heineman rejected! That's all we know about it. Now, some conjectures about this poem.
  • Heinemen rejected other poems because they were weak, cutting 5 poems from Spirits in Bondage. The Arthurian poem might be “Retreat” or “Venusburg,” based on correspondence with Heineman.
  • Does “Retreat” suggest an Arthurian topic? Possibly Arthur's retreat from France back to England after receiving news of Modred's treachery?
{Then Joe Christopher read a poem of his own composition as “hypothetical passage” of how Lewis could have written an Arthurian poem to represent events in World War I! So much fun!}
Possibly Guinevere's retreat to a nunnery after her adultery with Modred? Like a spiritual retreat?
Possibly Arthur's leaving this world as a retreat to Avalon?
  • How about “Venusburg”? Venusburg is a German myth about an underground world of sexual satisfaction; i.e., in Wagner's Tannhauser. In fact, the opera was originally titled Venusburg. How can this be Arthurian? Well, in Layamon Arthur says: “I will fare to Avalon, to the fairest of all maidens...” Maybe Lewis drew on his own love affair with Janie Moore.

II. Jonathan Himes: “Feminine Leadership: Lewis's Reason and Spenser's Britomart”
Analyze Lewis's choice of a female virgin as “Reason” in The Pilgrim's Regress in light of accusations of sexism. Source in Spenser's Britomart from The Faerie Queen.
Britomart is heroic, wears armor, beats a knight at a joust. She is beautiful, vigorous, not a prude. She has a “careless modesty.” She shows that women can be so much more than either extreme of seductress or life-long virgin. She shows other women how to withstand objectifying lust. Her sexuality is masked to others and to herself: she disguises herself as a man and actively rides out to seek her beloved. She meets men on common ground by beating them in fights, then amazes them when she reveals her beauty. Yet she has erotic desire: she has keenly felt the pangs of love.
The quest in Pilgrim's Regress involves learning lessons about lust. However, Lewis: “the sins of the flesh are the least bad.” The passions of eros are far from the desires of sehnsucht that drive John to seek the island in the West. Lewis's knightly woman who rescues John from the mountain of Enlightenment is not a personification of Virginity. She is a personification of Reason. She remains aloof, not meeting John on equal terms as Britomart does. Reason exists prior to value judgments. Her younger sisters, Philosophy and Theology, could tell about the lands beyond. She can only tell him what he already knows. Is sexual desire a copy of his desire for the islands? Or vice versa? Or are both copied from our love for the Landlord? Lust is the breaking of the vision, not its consummation.
Like Britomart, Reason tells John to “man up.” Why did Lewis dress up Reason in the guise of a female knight? Why is Reason the virgin warrior, not Wisdom? Defamiliarizing, stark, pure effects of reason. A startling picture. Teaches young men how to be more masculine.

III. Richard James: “Further Responses to Lewis's Lost Aeneid
Many of Lewis's works have been published after his death, and he has a long multimedia output. The “Lost” Aeneid.
This presentation goes through Lewis's personal copy of Virgil's Aeneid, making observations:
  • Lewis drew maps in it.
  • He wrote down the dates when he finished reading and re-reading it: he read it 10 times!
  • He wrote summaries (“the argument”) at the beginning of each book.
  • He wrote many annotations and marginalia

CSLIS Report #2

I'm at Taylor University in Indiana for the 8th Biennial Frances White Ewbank Colloquium on C.S. Lewis and Friends. Here is my report on the first talk.

DISTINGUO! A talk by Alan Jacobs

Forking paths:
1941 CSL published Screwtape Letters and Jorge Luis Borges published The Garden of Forking Paths. In Borges' book, a novel is hypothesized in which all possible outcomes occur simultaneously: forking paths, all followed.

The choice between the ethical and the aesthetic is not the choice between good and evil; it is the choice of whether or not to choose in terms of good and evil.” Alasdair MacIntyre on Kierkegaard's Either-Or.

Sarte: choice is inevitable. Choice has implications beyond itself.

Existentialism is a powerful form of humanism: Sarte, “I am responsibly for myself and for all men.... In fashioning myself, I fashion man.” When we chose one fork, we influence others as well as ourselves. Choice is a huge moral burden.

Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations. As young people, all the paths are before us. We can only choose a few. We have a limited amount of time within which to make a limited number of choices. When we make one choice, we have given up ALL the others.

Two themes: all the paths are always present? or all the other paths disappear when you choose one? Multiplicity, or an either/or?

The idea of the multiverse got its start as an imaginative idea in Borges' novel!?!

Neal Stephenson, Anathem.

The Multiverse Hypothesis
  • extends the empire of choice
  • reduces the “opportunity cost” of choice
  • reduces the significance of any single choice
  • leaves unanswered the question of reality—multiform? unitary?—after death

Distinguo” means “I distinguish.” It means to stop and clarify terms.

Darwin: those who make many species are “splitters”; those who make few are “lumpers.” Lewis thought we had too many lumpers. He wanted to push his readers towards necessary choices.

{what about the fallacy of a false binary? Aren't there more choices than Lewis allows?}

Why is this drive towards choice such a strong theme in his work? There is no third way: we are always helping each other towards either Heaven or Hell. This is dramatized in That Hideous Strength. Example: Mark going by car to Belbury; Jane going to St. Anne's by train. Does Merlin represent a curious in-between place? “Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse” (Dimble in THS). “We all have our different languages; but we all really mean the same thing” (Busby in THS). Feverstone realizes that there are, indeed, two sides between which one must choose. Everyone is coming to the point of decision where you won't get to be neutral anymore. Not only do you have to choose sides, but you have to choose why you are choosing sides! For power? or for virtue?

In LOTR, there is a theme of fighting for the right without hope. Galadriel: We are fighting the long defeat.

Mark Studdock faces a “cross”; a crossroads. A moment of decision.

{Grace Ironwood says that they are a “company.” Influence of CW? This is one year after “The Founding of the Company.” Notice also the language of “obedience.”}

Jane, having had her “religious experience,” cannot be made to go back and take the other path from the crossroads.

The distinguo is necessary in a uni-verse:
    • limits our powers of choice
    • raises the “opportunity cost” of choice
    • raises the significance of self-defining choice
    • asserts everlasting teleological directionality

The Great Divorce: it's an absolute either-or.
EITHER: getting further apart (as in the Gray Town of The Great Divorce)
OR: further up and further in—to the Real Narnia

In a strange way, Lewis is at one with the Existentialist: we must make the ultimate choice.

CSLIS Report #1

I'm at Taylor University in Indiana for the 8th Biennial Frances White Ewbank Colloquium on C.S. Lewis and Friends, hosted jointly by the Taylor Lewis Society and the C.S. Lewis & Inklings Society (I think I've got that right?) I'll be reporting on the talks and papers that I hear. I'll also be tweeting out memorable quotes, so please follow @IambicAdmonit if you're interested.

Alan Jacobs is about to give a talk called DISTINGUO! --so stay tuned.

25 May 2012

Review of Runyan

Here is my review article on A Thousand Vessels by Tania Runyan. Enjoy!

WCCL Report #8


I'm in Seattle for a CCL meeting. This conference is entitled "Belief and Unbelief in Postmodern Literature." Here is a report on the fourth -- and final -- round of papers I attended today, the second -- and final -- day of the conference.

Religion, Conversion, and the Sublime in Contemporary Film

William Taylor on A Serious Man
The Coen brothers are technically excellent, but controversial and hard to interpret. Mockery? Postmodern detachment? Negative attitude towards religion? Well documented even from their undergraduate days.
[but isn't O Brother... a theodicy????]
But then... A Serious Man. Serious Judaic authorities consulted; real cantor, etc. But “no Jews were harmed in the making of this film.” ! This film reveals itself as the most focused and emphatic of the Coens' rejection of faith.
      1. Prologue—a 7-minute anecdote entirely in Yiddish with subtitles. It doesn't have “any direct relationship to the story that follows,” Joel claims—but they usually lie in interviews! Based on superstition, tradition, and hearsay. vs. a rational, serious interpretation.
      2. Parallels to Job—the protagonist experiences a series of tragedies, insists on his own righteousness, and refuses to curse God. But he fails in his righteousness, then receives bad news. Is it punishment for his failure? There is little indication of the happy ending of Job.
      3. Title—“serious” is equated with “righteous.” Read de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, where it is not a favorable term. Someone who bases his life and understanding on an external, absolute system. He denies his freedom by placing his confidence in this system. So the term has the opposite meaning to what the characters give it. It is quite negative from the point of view of an existential philosopher.

Mark Safstrom on Nordic Films
Using a Kierkegaardian perspective on Conversion. Why did the Nordic societies transition from the religious awakening of the 19th cent. to the contemporary disinterest in religious participation? Well, take a look at the content of literature and film (instead of at churches). Nordic cultures are not disinterested, but differently interested.
Religious conversion is equated with nonconformity. 1843, Fear and Trembling: story of Abraham. Explores his subjective experience, but also works against Hegel's objective concept of faith. Kierkegaard thought that objectivity had resulted in a dead state religion in Denmark and, indeed, all of Christendom. He thought it was, then, nearly impossible to become a Christian within Christendom, because how could you make the subjective move of faith within a state system? Conversion is a subjective process in which an individual differentiates himself from a group. There can be a move back to the group later.
In the films under discussion, there is a move towards the self. Bergman uses religious imagery as a means of exploring aesthetics vs. ethics, for instance.
The ??? Rebellion. Positions itself as historical research based on a real event. Provides a form of catharsis, inter-racial cooperation, etc. However, the film is still fiction. Religious content is central. Sympathetic view of a pietist movement. The characters' religious conversions help minorities to find their voice and protect themselves against exploitation. However, the preaching is presented like caricature. “The kingdom of heaven is within us all.” The scene is mostly respectful, but still overdone and probably not taken seriously. Yet this subjective conversion does provide grounds for resistance to an oppressive government.
The film reinforces stereotypes. Conversion is valued less for its “ideological content” than for its subjective power. Aesthetics are superior to ethics and religion.

Doug Thorpe on Malick's Tree of Life and McCarthy's The Road
Both explicitly evoke the book of Job. The question of evil is given in poetry and is the poetry itself. The nurturing instinct is joined with suffering. The morning stars sing together in a rhythmic interplay of light and darkness. Both asking if God is there, searching towards Him. Compare to the “American sublime” in the late poetry of Wallace Stevens. These works of art are themselves ceremony. The syntax, the diction, the camera moves all suggest interwoven parts of a seamless whole. Carrying the undying spark of a life-force: human relationship. The “American sublime” was fed upon the landscape and upon the language of the Bible. Both the book and the film are generated by loss. This art is after a divine vision. Memories rise up, and each equals the glory and terror of the stars that sang together. Both end with “the spirituality of reconciliation.” They convey a new knowledge of reality.” (Vendler).

WCCL Report #7


I'm in Seattle for a CCL meeting. This conference is entitled "Belief and Unbelief in Postmodern Literature." Here is a report on the third round of papers I attended today, the second day of the conference.

Belief & Unbelief in New American Fiction

Nicole Blair on Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The narrative reflects what Truth looks like in a postmodern world. It is meta-textual, inter-textual, with blank pages, full pages, pictures, and other unconventional methods. The story is in the form of a quest-journey. The narrative enacts our desire to turn back time to before the tragedy; but then what? What would we do then?
The story builds a mythology of New York City.
The child protagonist does not believe in God, because God is an abstraction. Belief is fraught with problems, esp. when trying to establish a sense of self. He cannot return to innocence. But he can re-member (put something back together). The youth of the narrator (age 8) is essential to understanding the novel's project. His innocence & vulnerability represent the nation's inability to face tragedy.

Steven Funk on Danielewski's House of Leaves
The novel seems to mock religion and literacy, but is not that simple. Used in a narratology course. A multi-layered book with many narrators, self-reflexivity, footnotes, pictures, divided/concrete texts, various fonts, colored ink, etc. Is it a hypertext? More like Blake than like e-texts. It offers many representations of “queer failure.”
The main couple never gets married. Why not? The book offers forgetfulness of its own narration. Green fails to mother her children and is a narcissist, but the narrator asks the reader to forget this fact.
There are deliberate insults to the reader, misleading. Trying to annihilate our sense of decency.
Undoes popular notions of faith. Uses Biblical allusions, but challenges our notions of truth in many ways.
The novel challenges our idea of postmodern literature. It refuses to be successful in any of its narrative layers. The reader is left with more disappointment than resolution. The novel seeks to fail. It offers no reliability, no closure. It does not preach a need to reproduce, produce, succeed. House of Leaves believes in failure.

Walter Hesford on Alan Heathcock's Volt
A cycle of short stories. Two protagonists act as suffering servants, offering grace within the postmodern fragmented community and a context that questions “sacred violence.” Violence is not shown to be redemptive. Story cycles work well to show contemporary lives of broken communities. They are de-centric; they fragment time; they leave gaps. Volt is in the anti-transcendental tradition of Hawthorne & O'Connor.
America, post-war, has a culture of lost fathers and sons, naturalized violence against women & children. The setting of Volt is clearly postmodern, beset by disasters.
The protagonists strive to keep the peace and keep the faith. There is no postmodern worship of meaninglessness. Pain and guilt cannot redeem. A saving empathy witnesses against violence. The book offers a study of “lived religion” (Hungerford). It is “full of particular life,” full of religion's difficulties and the problem of meaninglessness in the face of suffering, and of being religious in a secular world.

WCCL Report #6


I'm in Seattle for a CCL meeting. This conference is entitled "Belief and Unbelief in Postmodern Literature." Here is a report on the second round of papers I attended today, the second day of the conference. 

Victorian Visions: George Eliot and Thomas Carlyle

Shunichi Takayanagi on Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus
The Poststructuralists are the epitome of Postmodernism. The writer is simply an editor, the canon needs revision, our approach is essential skepticism. Postmodernism is actually a cultural phenomenon. It is a critique of the past, since Western culture came to a dead end.
Carlyle was raised Scottish Calvinist, but he left the faith at age 23. His moral sensibility remained Calvinistic.
Carlyle's 1830 novel “Tailor Retailored” prefigures postmodernism. The narrator claims to be an “editor.” The protagonist loses his Christian faith. The novel is multi-textual. It was a secular “Bible” to lead its nation to a high moral life. Did Carlyle mean for it to be a guidebook for moral living? It may be a serial comedy parodying the Bible. Carlyle is a trickster!

Marilyn Orr on George Eliot and the Mystical Imagination
Eliot's fiction enacts a covert Christian mysticism in spite of her rejection?? her life was marked by religious questing. There was a cultural renewal of interest in mysticism.
Use a lens of “anatheisms.” Anatheism = a constant movement toward, away from, around, and back to the Divine. What about those who reject God, but still seek Him? We grow from one kind of “god” to another. There is a move from passive reception to active engagement. Sometimes we need to lose God in order to find Him again. [gag] There are two shifts: 1) from a sovereign God to a suffering God and 2) from “my God” and “our God” to a God of all. A culture needs to grow up, leaving behind the God who demands blood sacrifice, and instead model the God who suffers and dies for others.
This is fundamental to Eliot's worldview. In Eliot's early work, there is a dialogue between sovereignty and suffering. Later, there is a kind of sacralizing in Adam Bede. She didn't go through a simple shift from religion to enlightenment rationalism. She still keeps the idea of a suffering God. She doesn't think that cultures simply move out of faith.
In The Mill on the Floss, the death of the protagonist enables Eliot to move beyond childhood territory and never return: the territory of submitting to and pleasing a father-figure. Suffering is essential.
Middlemarch taps into such writers as Evelyn Underhill. Dorothea is a mystic of everyday faith. Here Eliot arrives at a “mystical solution.” Dorothea needs to submit to an authority figure, hence Casaubon. She submits to an enforced cultural view that women submit to the husbands. There is a danger in belief in sovereign power. Dorothea's destiny is to grow up and leave behind a husband who is a benevolent father-figure. She wants to get away from “doctrinal pronouncements” and “bring in the most people.” She has moved away from a private God enshrined in a doctrinal code towards a more universal God of love.
Eliot rejects a theological understanding of God to what Underhill calls “practical mysticism” or grace in everyday life. Three main elements: 1) combination of idealism and pragmatism; 2) a widening scope beyond one's own tradition; 3) co-mingling of knowledge and feeling.
[what about practice?!?! what about experiences? What about conviction? What about the submerging of self? Argh!! ]

Laurie Camp Hatch on Eliot's “Godless” Fiction
Turning theology's and philosophy's gaze from the internal to the external. Must consult the activity of the senses. Eliot bases her morality on what happens in others' minds in her fiction, however, which is not empirical. Knowledge of God is self-knowledge, which is discovered by observing others. [ack!] Eliot insists on a scientific observation of the mind—but mind is not observable! Eliot tries to make metaphysical properties visible. She uses a scientific imagination. She favors empirical observation, but also participates in a departure from its strict application. In her time, scientists are already moving beyond strict materialism. Wave theory, for instance, showed that conclusions were possible with theories based on the unseen world. Eliot had to mediate between metaphysical and materialist beliefs. There is something in between: the scientific imagination.
Scientists may be too attached to facts. Non-scientists may be too attached to their own perceptions. Eliot locates accurate knowledge within the ability to hold the two in dialogue. Scientists need to avoid focusing only on facts, the way religious people need to avoid focusing only on God, to the exclusion of human beings.
Lydgate is a personification of an inability to use the scientific imagination; he plans to proceed on only objective facts in relation to women. He does not go beyond observable facts with either Laura or Rosamond. He trusts the empirical evidence they present, not reaching towards “the hidden woman.” His focus is completely external. He is a strict empiricist.
Rosamond sees only herself. She creates the world in her own image. She refuses to see The Other, and so enter into a more intimate relationship. She is a narcissist.
Dorothea represents the purely metaphysical or meta-empirical perspective. She makes up facts about people. She makes judgments without proof, facts, or experience. She does have an Other-focused imagination, but without facts. She has not examined her own mind, so she does not have the necessary self awareness. She focuses only on the unseen, without reference to the visible. This is a “religious” perspective.
The narrator is the only one who describes the solution, the scientific imagination. Eliot does a better job of all this in Daniel Deronda.

WCCLReport #5


I'm in Seattle for a CCL meeting. This conference is entitled "Belief and Unbelief in Postmodern Literature." Here is a report on the first round of papers I attended today, the second day of the conference.

Belief, Truth, & the Body in 20th-Century African American Literature

Patricia Andujo
The Black Arts Movement of the 1960s was the artistic side of the Black Power Movement. Replaced a white Jesus with an African-American concept that may not have been Christian. Many BAM artists reconceptualized Christianity rather than rejecting it.
Background: 1955, murder of Emmett Till, bus boycott. MLK's nonviolent Christian approach, founded on love. Decade of frustration. '67 , “by any means necessary” protests. The Nation of Islam became an acceptable alternative to Christianity. Empowerment & black pride were appealing.
Was Christianity, then, “the white man's religion”? It needed to be re-packaged. BAM is a metonym for changes both political and spiritual.
“The Last Poets,” Nikki Giovanni. Syncretism of spiritual and cultural references. Making Jesus racially fitting. Ishmael Reed, “Judas.” Identification of that betrayal with racism. Taking Christianity and making it their own, culturally. Langston Hughes had done this earlier in “Christ in Alabama.” Carolyn Rogers, “Jesus was Crucified.” Amaara Baraka, “When We'll Worship Jesus.” Worshiping revolution. Coupling of spiritual and political endeavors. Kwanaza as a cultural choice.
There was no mass move from belief to unbelief; rather, there was a re-packaging of belief.

Natalie Cochran-Murray on Nella Larsen's Quicksand
Rhetoric of spiritual fervor overlaps with language of sexual ecstasy. An entwining of body and spirit, which is a Pentacostal emphasis. Body vs. soul is a version of profane vs. sacred, also like mind/reason vs. body/irrationality and masculine vs. feminine. Body and soul merge in Larsen's novel.
Ecstasy = withdrawal of the soul through the body. Common theme in Christian mysticism. Annihilation of the self as Christian rebirth. Helga has a fleeting chance at transcendence, but this leads to her demise. Does Pentecostal fire give a chance at sexual release? Erotic terminology and bodily emphasis in Pentecostal description. God is living, intimate, and interactive. This correlates with jazz, another African-American expression.
Transformative power through physical contact.
Simultaneous spiritual and sexual awakening. A satirical portrait of Pentecostal entwining of the religious and the sexual in order to critique conventional sexuality.
Need to consider denominationally specific readings of modernist literature.

Wallis Baxter on Gayl Jones' Corregidora
Women have often been confined in terms of the self, particularly mothers. The conception of mothering is the result of patriarchal constructs. Mothers as carriers of traditional culture and spirituality. Using racially-informed feminism.
White women tend to see Christ as master; black women tend to see Him as the co-sufferer.
Women, just like blacks, are socially constructed. There is tension between biological nature and socially-constructed identity.
The protagonist of Corregidora enacts this role untraditionally, but finds herself in social entrapment. She is a distant, improvisational “mother,” whose “child” is The Blues. True liberation is available through a conscious choice to refute the master narrative. She births a new paradigm for belief. She participates in unconventional “reproduction.” She uses the Blues as a tool to dismantle the social bonds holding her. She breaks out of the incarceration of her mind and of her body by breaking out of the cycle of rape and daughter-bearing. Truth lies in choice, free will, and historical foundations.

WCCL Report #4


I'm in Seattle for a CCL meeting. This conference is entitled "Belief and Unbelief in Postmodern Literature." Here is a report on the first plenary session.

Amy Hungerford
Believing in Literature: Religion and the Contemporary Author”

Amy Hungerford, professor at Yale University, is perhaps one of the most influential contemporary scholars of literature and religion in America. She is the author, most recently, of Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960. She is on the vanguard of a religious turn in literary studies., in which religion is being taken seriously, and literature is being seen as a means of exploring spirituality. Here Amy talks about the drawbacks of a diction of faith that avoids specific “belief content”—that is, that avoid denominational or doctrinal specificity.

Hungerford began with an epigraph from George Sanatayana to the effect that you cannot be religious without being some particular religion, and used it (as does Clifford Geertz) as a praise of particularity.

There is an effort in late 20th-century literature to retain belief without beliefs. Can it work? Or is it like speaking without a speaking particular language? Are both hopeless? In the end, Hungerford says YES.

There is space within the great house of the Church for skepticism, questioning, intellectual modernism, and alternative rituals. There is a real persistence of religious life in the modern world. Later 20th century writers think it is possible to believe without beliefs. There is not, however, a simple trajectory from Harriet Beecher Stowe's “moralizing” through the ambiguities of Henry James or Theodore Dreiser to the secularizing present. For instance, The Damnation of Therond Ware by Frederick ___ is not a novel about the decline of religion, but about its aesthetic future in a pluralistic culture.

The hope of religion is on the shoulders of writers' aesthetics. New criticism has been essential to the development of the modern novel. How do aesthetic, non-doctrinal forms of belief inform specifically doctrinal writers? The function of belief in even Robinson and Lahaye/Jenkins is informed by form. There is an essential transcendent/immanent binary. Gender roles and the action genre function formatively. Belief is itself a practice, like rituals, in these books. Perhaps there is a genre that could be called Supernatural formalism.

Discourses of belief and lived religion are simultaneously inhabited. Religion is a world to live in. So are the imaginative worlds of novels. The religious turn influences structure: there are redemptive, revelatory endings. There is a move from Bible as Literature to Literature as Bible. They try to re-enchant the literary world by pushing it towards the transcendent. Robinson, Morrison, McCarthy, Lahaye all made their mark with their most religious works.

Belief without meaning dehumanizes the literature and the reader. Writers want religious power without facing the doctrinal foundations. There is an advantage to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism; not believing anything particular makes it easier to tolerate everyone—but vague religion insulates religion from public discourse. There is a currency of underarticulated belief. It is empty.

Where will this emptiness go? Dennis Johnson's Tree of Smoke and Cormac McCarthy's The Road are sample cases. In Tree of Smoke, there is an absent mystery without the particulars that might reveal transcendence. The novel lacks human particularity. The novel produces a feeling of biblical force, but that's about it. McCarthy is attracted to numinous nothingness. He is in love with words, and with nothingness. Is the boy's light nothing, or everything? The end of the novel flaunts the power of words to create a world, like the power of divine creativity. The words hold out hope, even while the words say that there is no hope.

Theirs is a new kind of postmodernism, that offers something like an alternative modernism. They prefer the belief-without-content to the earlier obscurities of style and allusion. Religious worlds have to do imaginative work to go on being religious in a pluralistic context. Does literature need to be religious to move its readers?

Philip Roth's Everyman is humanist. American Pastoral presents nothingness filled with human detail. This fiction is post-religious, yet still valuable. Secularity needs cultural architects as much as religion does. Renewal of religious thought needs clear devils, not vague smoke. Example: __ Jones. He presents lived religion. Lived religion deserves and demands our attention. Literary beliefs are not always distinct from religious ones. The discourses are the same. They both must be specific. Full of particular life. Facing the problems. It's about the language; the cadence of the Book of Common Prayer, for instance.

The conclusion is that fiction that tries to avoid particularity of belief content is nothing but smoke.

24 May 2012

WCCL Report #3


I'm in Seattle for a CCL meeting. This conference is entitled "Belief and Unbelief in Postmodern Literature." Here is a report on the fourth round of papers I attended. 

[Note: I'm not reporting yet on the panel in which I participated; I might fill that in later]. 

Belief & Unbelief in Soviet-Era & Post-Soviet Era Literature & Art

Jeremiah Webster began by reciting an Auden poem from memory, as a powerful way so saying these authors have been forced to look into empty skies, and try to discover how to be loving and Christlike.

Novel as Cenotaph: Bohumil Hrabal's Defiant Love Story”

Painful assessments of depravity, presentations of authoritarianism. Incarcerated, tortured, committed suicide, exiled. Human resistance & dignity. A literature of philosophy, witness, and loss. These are works of recovery. They are rebuilding the world again.

Cenotaphs are public metaphors for private grief. The literatures of Eastern Europe are cenotaphs.

These novelists are not activists. They are not policy-makers. Social sphere of witness, concerned with liberty and metaphysics. Complicated questions of morality and faith. Conscious reactions to the imposed order of centralized government.

Two types: Traditional prose style, or surrealist experimental work. Both are valid approaches.

Hrabal's novel is surrealist. Countering oppression. Published underground. Embraces the transcendent. The main character saves artifacts from the burning of wastepaper. His is a work of recovery. It is a defiant affirmation of Plato's concept of the form, and of Truth. Affirms that “the highest law is love” (Schopenhauer). Affirms that “No man can create who does not believe that man's soul is immortal” (Yeats). “Any book worth its salt point up and out” (Hrabal).

This novel is a cenotaph. It says the invisible counts.

Andrea Rossing McDowell & Grace Mahoney
Pelevin, Bulatov, & the Poetics of Za: The Dynamic and the Infinite, Calling to Russia's Contemporary Crux”

Pelevin = author; Bulatov = conceptual artist.

Russian modernism moved faster than its European counterpart. If 1917 hadn't ended experimentation, what might have happened?! Stalinism was an ice age. 1970s, ice began to thaw. Postmodernism without post-modernity. Post-futurism? After the breakup of the USSR, Russians were left floundering. Lit. represents this chaos.

Pelevin suggests metaphysical agency; an alternative to pessimistic relativism. An optimistic search for meaning. He & Bulatov allow for the existence of the beyond, or the “za.” They offer hope, if not answers. Za-ism moves beyond postmodernism by including spirituality. Their novels and paintings offer a way out, a way up, a path towards liberty. They reveal the deceptive nature of the surrounding world. The mind seeks for freedom and meaning, and for forward momentum. They emphasize agency, not helplessness. Even if only the mind has agency, it can strive towards “za,” a spirituality.

WCCL Report #2


I'm in Seattle for a CCL meeting. This conference is entitled "Belief and Unbelief in Postmodern Literature." Here is a report on the second round of papers I attended.

Philemon Roh on Flannery O'Connor & Mary McCarthy
McCarthy & O'Connor met and famously disagreed on the Eucharist. O'Connor: “If it's a symbol, to hell with it.” Fundamental difference. In spite, or because of, the presence of doubt, McCarthy becomes O'Connor's figure of a believer. The Misfit understands belief more than the Grandmother. Belief is upheld by strong unbelief throughout O'Connor's fiction. True belief is not just in religious practices; it is in the recognition of sin and the need for redemption.
McCarthy uses unstable metafiction as she renounces faith. Her apostasy comes from her inability to perform. Horrified by outward pretense. She is like Hazel Motes in O'Connor's fiction. Yet tries to keep outward goodness. Stages a public renunciation of her faith—then becomes popular. Attention-seeking changes to real loss of faith. Goes through a farce of re-conversion. This performance restores order.
Hazel Motes wants to live apart from the necessity of redemption. He is an active disbeliever, but still a seeker. Outward performance vs. inward horror (like McCarthy). Doubts the object of belief, but not belief itself. Wants to be converted to nothing, instead of to evil.
Family history is a haunting reminder of belief. Active disbelief leads him into ministry. McCarthy's heritage has a plurality of religious belief.
Visible practices function as claustrophobic enclosures. Caught in a coffin, or a convent.
Education introduced a conflict, esp. history.
Veiled behind metafiction, McCarthy reveals she still believes deeply. She and Hazel possess a conception of true faith. Hazel's repudiation of God was an admission of God's mystery. Mary's multiple repudiations are testifying to God's mystery. Rebellion against the form of religion manipulated by the masses. Moves from a top-down, doctrinal religion, to a bottom-up, mystical belief. A belief in meaninglessness. Establishing a Church without Christ.

David Dickinson on “Atheistic Sermons in Fiction”
Trollope said that the language of sermons should not be demeaned by being included in novels—but sermons are included in many works of fiction. Fictional preachers in Iris Murdock, A.S. Byatt, and John Updike do preach and/or imagine atheistic sermons. These are not in the new atheistic camp, but within atheological genre. They are rooted in (a)theology. Deus absconditus, apophatic, born out of a struggle with faith.
The Time of the Angels by Iris Murdock. Nietzschean in mood. Says theology is an attempt to tame the feral. Without God, goodness is impossible. The character's view parody Murdock's own; they are her views gone wrong. Murdock welcome the “demythologization” of religion. She argued that an unselfish religious life is only possible without belief in God.
Four novels by A.S. Byatt. 3 [potentially] atheistic preachers. Preaching is mere words. Prayer to an absentee God. Almost meaningful, but in the end, a game with language. God has now gone away.
A Month of Sundays by John Updike. A journal of written sermons.
Fiction bears supernatural power; readers have to take a leap of faith to unleash its secular magic. Fiction is the new religion. Rushdie says both need narrative; fiction hosts quarrels among many languages, while religion seeks to privilege one language. Fiction is thus dialogic. But religion is not as univocal as Rushdie assume. It uses poetic and metaphoric language. None of these atheistic preachers actually preach atheistic-sermons. They host multiple theologies. Apophatic, incarnational death-of-god, and philosophical (a)theology. Relate to contemporary readers. God is always more than what He is said to be. Belief and unbelief is less choosing between stances, then tracing a trajectory and finding one's place.

Thomas Cooksey on Freud & Johnson & St. Germain
Freud: Religion is a shift from private fantasy to public delusion. Grow up, he thought. Psychoanalysis is not metaphysics. Two contemporary plays take up psychoanalysis: Hysteria by Terry Johnson and Freud's Last Session by Mark St. Germain.
In Hysteria, Freud meets Dali. Surrealist. Both plays foreground Moses and Monotheism and Jokes and their Relation to the Subconscious. Both draw on the joke as unintended discovery, and on the role of the third person in the tendentious joke. Freud's lack of humour is significant. Surprising discoveries. Both open the possibility of God in jokes, fear, and silence.
Excellent reading of one joke as metonym for the whole play. A dying atheist, who is an insurance agent, calls the local pastor to his deathbed. They argue all night. In the morning, the pastor leaves, and the insurance agent dies. He's still an atheist, but the pastor is full insured.
Freud is the dying atheist; Lewis is fully insured.

WCCL Report #1


I'm in Seattle for a CCL meeting. This conference is entitled "Belief and Unbelief in Postmodern Literature." Here is a report on the first panel I attended.

3 papers on Cormac McCarthy

Brandon Daily
(This was an excellent paper, very well presented. Unlike a lot of papers at Christian conferences, it had a theoretical framework, actually used the theoretical framework for serious analysis, and avoided the trap of mere plot summary. I hope Brandon publishes this piece, as it is a valuable lens through which to look at all of McCarthy's fiction. The conclusion was especially valuable and could be further expanded.)
No heroes: cannibals, murderers, and thieves as sympathetic protagonists. Make us explore the nature of ethics. McCarthy offers reasons for atrocious actions be “resorting to an alternate ethical system.” Non-religious, atheistic-based ethic system based on teleological ethics and a Darwinian notion of survival.
Contemporary Western ethics are based on binary systems. McCarthy challenges these binaries. There is no more good or bad, etc. We cannot judge the characters through our worldviews. We have to become part of the “grotesque collective” and accept teleological ethics.
Teleological ethics = driven towards the end result of actions. Personal survivalist ethos. Consequentialism & evolutionary ethics. Egoism runs through McCarthy's narratives: the characters can act selfishly in the interests of mere survival. Anscombe defines consequentialism. Ethical completely contingent on consequences of acts. Can include happenstance.
Survival is the sole motivator for an individual.
Outer Dark is a novel of incest. Seem to be full of regret, but continue to act. Motivated by a pleasure-principle. Pursuing happiness. Also 3 murderers, who kill to procure, then cannibalize. Grotesque, dehumananizing diction. These actions are “horrible in our contemporary ideology” – but produce food, and according to Darwinian standards, the deformed child should be selected out.
The Road has no form of society. Reshaped from our own world. Deconstructs life vs. death. Removed from our own world: fire, ash. Survival drives this world. Readers have to step back from ethics and consider necessity. Within the system, cannibalism is ethical. Good guys “keep trying.”
We're not meant to be comfortable with this: we're supposed to be more aware of ourselves & our culture. Reflect our primal natures, with our cultural restraints stripped away. Warning us what we could become.

Jeremy Leatham on The Crossing
Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, presents the concept of a “Monomyth.” McCarthy challenges the monomyth. Presents a hero in a region of supernatural wonder, with special powers, as a mediary. A hero make provisional meaning through temporary communities. Billy accessed a transcendental signified (wolves?): knowing depends on presence. Billy's adventures follow the monomyth almost precisely, passing through thresholds, then begin to subvert the monomyth. When he encounters death, he loses his power as mediary and his connection to the supernatural. Humanity deifies itself in a Promethean theft of godly power, and is alienated from both the natural world and the supernatural world. There is no resurrection for humanity, and there is a death of the godhead—or humanity's rejection of the godhead.
There's a final hopeful line that clarifies the novel's position on presence and meaning. There is a stable reference point. The sun rises once again, outside the anthropocentric system. Not just a postmodern novel, because the postmodern denies the transcendental signified, while The Crossing just denies humanity's ability to reference it. The role of the hero undergoes a death and rebirth, but Billy still constructs provisional meaning.

Ryan Stark
Holden is a super-villian, a demonic figure.
An “enthymeme” is an incomplete argument, which is how Blood Meridian ends. It is the most Christian ending in all of American literature.
Tristram Shandy presents a Gnostic heresy that even the devil will be saved. Boehme, contra the Gnostics, says evil is not good and never will be. Blood Meridian is layered with allusions (like The Wasteland). McCarthy is then writing a Gnostic tragedy? McCarthy is making a Lutheran/Augustinian argument in Blood Meridian. This novel is a satire of conventional Westerns. After so much relentless violence, McCarthy presents a redemptive moment. This novel is, then, a theodicy. Theodicy through the eyes of the devil, looking from the inside at the problem of evil: the devil observes that he is doing evil, and no one is stopping him. Ends with a Nietzschean eternal return.

McCarthy is a “Lutheran mystic.” His whole body of work is a study of the nature and problem of evil, but without offering answers or counterweights. He is very cryptic, enabling us to see and thus question our broken postmodern world, but doing so in a postmodern way. We're not given good guys or bad guys; just guys. Is he writing commentary on absolute depravity? A critique of Pelagianism?
Does survivalism actual just create new binaries? Yes.
Doesn't consequentialism require that the agent know and/or be working towards a particular end? In this case, the reader knows the end result and judges based on that, but the characters are just acting as if on instinct.
Isn't he responding to historical situations? Yes. He presents civilizations that get destroyed. He is writing historical fiction.