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We’d Have Had To Invent It

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I’m getting to the post earlier today, which may keep me less disorganized than I’ve been lately. I tend to be better in the mornings.

And I’m also in a pretty good mood, because I’ve just come from an hour of reading and listening to Hildegarde herself, on the Anonymous 4 album called The Origins of Fire.  They’ve got another one, called 11,000 Virgins, that’s also all-Hildegarde all the time, but I like Origins better.

And it was a fortuitous choice, because this morning I was thinking about what Steiner said about the novel as an art form at the beginning of Tolstoy or Dostoyevski?  It was this:

The novel was conceived and developed as

a) secular  and

b) naturalistic.

Let me try to get that clear.

Secular is not the same as atheist.  Steiner means only that the novel deals with the relaitionships between men and women, or even men and nature, and not with the relationship between man and God.  Or gods.

Back in graduate school about a million years ago, we were given a thumbnail sketch of how to deal with literature:  myths were stories of the gods; legends were stories about heroes; folk tales were stories about ordinary people.

In this categorization, the novel would be a kind of folk tale, but it isn’t.  That’s because what that little thumbnail leaves out is that all the categories assume the everpresent reality of the supernatural or the magic in human life.  All the categories are inherently supernaturalistic.

Folk tales could be secular, in the sense of having nothing to do with God or the gods, but they almost always included magic of some kind, fairies and leprechauns, monsters of the mountains and the deep.

The novel, however, was at the beginning and throughout most of its early development naturalistic, in that it not only wrote about the private and public lives of ordinary people, but wrote about them without referring much, or significantly, to either religion or magic.

I do not think Steiner is being prescriptive here–I don’t think he’s saying that “if it’s not secular and naturalistic, it’s not literature.”

I think this is a pretty fair description of what the novel actually was in its early development, and what it remained in its major forms right down to the mid-twentieth century.

That doesn’t mean there were no exceptions (A Christmas Carol, The Turn of the Screw, half of Poe), but that the exceptions tended to be minor works by writers whose major works fit the mold, or works by writers not as popular or as influential as the major writers of the period.

I’m making convoluted sentences again.

Henry James and Charles Dickens both wrote ghost stories, but all their major novels are secular and naturalistic.  Mrs. Radcliffe wrote Gothic everything, and was to Dickens’s popularity what mine is to Stephen King’s.

But even though the novel was largely secular and naturalistic, it really wasn’t “atheist,” at least in the beginning.  Dickens and James, George Eliot and George Sand, Herman Melville and Jane Austen, all set their works in a world where God might be seldom mentioned, but was always assumed.

I’m not really sure how to make this point as strongly as I’d like.   If you read your way through the Victorian novel, or the 19th Century American novel, you’ll find a scene or two here or there where one or more characters go to church.  Trollope even wrote an entire series of novels whose main characters were clergymen in the Church of England.

Trollope’s clergymen, however, always seem to think of themselves and their profession as a profession–not as a relationship with God, but as a ladder to advancement.  Jane Austen’s characters sing hymns now and then, but always while worrying about their suitors or the state of their father’s finances.

And yet.

And yet.

God is always assumed in these novels, in the sense that the idea of a world ordered from outside itself, its rules and truths and obligations imposed by a larger order somewhere else.

The 19th Century novel “works” only to the extent that this assumption is there, shared by writers and readers alike–as if everybody were standing on a gigantic platform poised over a deep chasm, knowing that if the platform gave way they’d all be destroyed, but never mentioning the platform for a minute.

I’d even be willing to bet that this assumption was shared even by those writers who were self-consciously non-religious, or non-Christian.  Look closely enough at their works, and you find the entire laundry list of 19th Century Christian moral conviction, on everything from sex to generosity.

This lasted, I think, until just after the First World War.  That’s when we first get to writers who not only did not share that moral assumption, but who did not share the far more important assumption that underlay that first assumption:  the conviction that the world was a rational and comprehensible place.

This is not a small thing, at least for me, because without that conviction, there could never be a detective story.

Detective stories depend on both writers and readers assuming absolutely that what seems mysterious can be unraveled and made clear, that nothing is outside the realm of reason.

And that conviction is the symptom of a mind that believes (however deep in its subconscious) that the world has been designed, that it did not arise out of chance and circumstance and chaos.

Before everybody starts yelling at me to say that we now know that there are ways that order can come out of disorder and chaos can boil down to things like the laws of nature–I know, and it’s beside my point here.

I just want to note this: the literature of a design-less world is not found in the essays of Francis Bacon or even in Carl Sagan’s Contact.  It’s found in Bertholdt Brecht and the Absurdists and the Dadaists. 

When writers sat down and actually thought about jettisoning the Greek/Judaic/Christian foundations of their civilization, they didn’t produce detective stories or even horror novels.  Ghost stories are light years more rational than Waiting for Godot. 

They’re also much  more sustainable.  Most writers who started out trying to write on the assumption of a world without design ended up signing onto other kinds of design, or just failing at the attempt.  Sartre’s peculiarly virulent Marxism, Celine’s hapless Fascism, Camus’s fruitless attempts to portray the irrationality of the world as actually irrational–one way or the other, most writers went back to the old assumptions while pretending they hadn’t.

Crime and Punishment, after all, was a self-consciously Christian novel.  And that’s the one that’s supposed to have started it all.

I am not saying here that the existence of God–or an assumption of the existence of God–is necessary for fiction. 

I am saying that an assumption that the universe is a rational place is necessary for fiction, and especially for those forms of fiction (like the detective story) that rely most heavily on rationality.

And further, that the assumption that the universe is a rational place, which can be accurately perceived and understood by human beings, is, at its base, an assumption of design. 

If nobody had ever believed in God, or gods, we could not have invented the novel without invented Him first–if not in the sense of imagining an all-powerful presence, then just in the sense of perceiving the world around us as having been deliberately and consciously made the way it is.

Without that, the best we would have been able to manage was Waiting for Godot. 

The worst would be–well, there are a lot of candidates.

I was going to go on and say some things about shared moral assumptions, but this is getting long, and I’ve got Beethoven on now.

There’s only so much piano I can take, even from Beethoven.

Written by janeh

December 21st, 2010 at 10:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'We’d Have Had To Invent It'

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  1. So many attractive objects! It’s like Christmas come (slightly) early.

    I love the description of legends as stories about heroes (reserving the right to dispute it later.) It blends so well with Lovecraft’s description of Howard’s work as “artificial legendry”–referring to what we now call “heroic fantasy” or “swords and sorcery.”

    I’d accept the description of the novel as secular and naturalistic on the “descriptive and not prescriptive” basis, several of the borderline cases or exceptions being precious to me. (See Greely’s PATIENCE OF A SAINT, for example.) But yes, a novel is about how we live or should live, and while it may include our relationship with God, the novel is neither theology nor hagiography.

    And of course the detective story requires a rational universe–even secular, in that God may not violate His rules in the course of the story in any way which impinges on the mystery. (Miraculous healing in one Jane Haddam, a successsful exorcism in another and a Blackie Ryan with an unquiet spirit don’t violate this, as the events do not impinge on the central mystery.)

    Theory supports. The Detective Story Decalogue says “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.” The Detective Club Oath abjures “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God.” SS Van Dine’s “20 Rules for Writing Detective Stories” devotes three of them to the same thing.

    BUT all this is true only for what I once heard dismissed as “the puzzle book.” If you expand “mystery” to include any story with a crime and a weapon passed on by the mystery editor, there is no reason in theory to exclude the supernatural, and any number of cases in practice of its inclusion.

    As for the general observation of art reflecting–or failing to reflect–the beliefs of the artist, I think most successful artists believe in a rational knowable universe, even when their formal beliefs are otherwise. Writing and selling books and producing plays only works well if you assume that what will or will not sell and where and how are knowable things and not inherently mysterious. Hence, as you say, the writers who have to believe in SOMETHING.

    Of course, it IS possible to believe that the universe is rational–even knowable to a degree–but that no special providence guards man, and his time is short and inconsequential. That produces, not “Godot” but the fiction of HP Lovecraft.

    He seems to have outlasted a remarkable number of critics, and still going strong.


    21 Dec 10 at 7:12 pm

  2. “And further, that the assumption that the universe is a rational place, which can be accurately perceived and understood by human beings, is, at its base, an assumption of design.”

    Sorry, no.

    The assumption of Uniformitarianism *may* follow from a “meta” assumption of design, however it need not.

    You’re dancing around the base problems of epistemology and inductive reasoning, and while one answer to why the world seems predictable is “design” the MOST basic assumption one must make to simply start reasoning from finite immediate sense experience to the existence and properties of a real world IS uniformitarianism.

    If the universe is not orderly and predictable for some reason, then knowledge is a chimera.

    But “design” is a word with far too much baggage attached.


    22 Dec 10 at 10:10 am

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