Sunday, September 6, 2009

Me, James Wood, and The Broken Estate

Okay, I just finished reading the Introduction and the first essay in The Broken Estate. My head is still buzzing.

I came at my original doubts about Wood from the standpoint of him as a literary critic. The first essay is not really literary criticism as such and really does not go to my inchoate concerns about him as a critic. It is broader and richer than just literary criticism, more like a synthesis of intellectual history and popular philosophy blended in the course of largely taking on Peter Ackroyd’s book on More, which I have not read, with a dollop of commentary on UTOPIA thrown in.

But I’ll start with the Introduction.

The Introduction promises the that the differences between religious belief and literary belief will be the axes on which the following essays will turn (page xv second paragraph) and asserts the questionable propositions, if I am properly understanding them, that “Once religion has revealed itself to you, you are never free. In fiction, by contrast, one is always free to choose not to believe, and this very freedom, this shadow of a doubt, is what constitutes fiction’s reality.” (Page xv first paragraph).

What stops me from rejecting the first notion outright is the phrase “has revealed” because it is not clear to me whether Wood is using “revealed” in the sense of revelation or merely in the sense of “becoming aware of” and whether he means, if in the former sense, revelation sort of entails its inescapability even after intellectual rejection of the revealed. But even in that former sense I am fairly certain I disagree with what Wood says. In short, I fail to understand why after that intellectual rejection one cannot be secure in one’s non belief such that it is not haunted by the specter of former belief even if arising from revelation.

It seems a truism to say in fiction one is always free to choose not to believe. And I don’t see that notion of choice—which needs some unpacking in any event—so much as antithetically contrasting with religious belief contrast as rather being such a disparate idea of belief as to make them contrasting only in the most attenuated way. Firstly, and generally in any event, in principle, one is always free to reject religious belief in the same sense broad sense that one is free to or not to believe the illusion of reality a specific fiction projects. Then too, and more specifically, in reading fiction, the nature of one’s belief, one’s willingness to suspend disbelief, constitutes the reader in complex and dynamic relations with his own consciousness, reality and the “believed in” illusion of reality. Those relations are not sufficiently caught by the usual metaphor of double mindedness. They are better caught by some metaphor such as multi mindedness. They are also caught in more concise form by the apt phrase Wood himself uses: “as if”.

The religious belief Wood discusses is of a different order with no qualification allowed by as if. So really Wood conflates, I’d argue, the weak meaning of choosing not to believe fiction, such as by simply putting down the book with the complex experience of reading willingly wherein one simultaneously reads and is self conscious that what one reads is unreal. This multi consciousness is not a choice in the sense of putting down the book or deciding simply not to engage the illusion but is the very structure of the experience of reading fiction. So Wood’s metaphor of a “shadow of a doubt” in reading may be serviceable in describing the inescapable intrusion of reality—doubt in Wood’s terms here—but reinforces his conflation of choice and the nature of the reading experience.

Wood argues—page xv, second paragraph—that the broken estate—the “old estate”—was “…the supposition that that religion was a set of divine truth-claims, and that the Gospel narratives were supernatural reports; fiction might be supernatural, too, but fiction was always fictional, it was not in the same order of truth as the Gospel narratives.” He then goes on that in the nineteenth century this distinction began to blur: at the novel’s heights people felt that it could do anything; and, then, too, the Gospels began to be read by writers and theologians as a set of fictional tales; and “…fiction became an almost religious activity…” but without religion’s truth-value.” There then follows on page xvi a long paragraph of examples of this merging.

Wood’s learning is always impressive. But, to continue my prosaic attempt at chipping away at him, and without disputing his examples, I have trouble with these comments in relation to how he says he intends to ground his essays. In short, Woods, in contrasting religious and literary belief, wants to mine the distinction, as he himself makes clear, between “believing in” and “believing as if” or perhaps “believing in as if”. (The distinction actually is obvious enough that I’m not sure it warrants all his going on about it.)

Regardless, and granting him as a foundation the distinction upon which he wants to build, in Wood’s argument for its blurring in the nineteenth century, his distinction’s very terms evade him. For in these terms what can it possiblly mean to say that that at its heights the novel was like a religion but without religion’s truth-value? Let’s stipulate, as Wood argues, that the nineteenth century marked a new apex—from a variety of sources— in Europe of general religious doubt and, as an instance of that, marked seeing the Gospels as text. Save to describe the rise of such doubt and note some of its consequences, how does what is so stipulated relate to the distinction between “believing in”—which there is now less of in the nineteenth century—and “believing in as if” and how does it relate to the blurring between them?

And can there even be such a blurring given Wood’s premises?

Wood cites Coleridge’s argument that the Book of Job clinches the argument for the fallibility of the Scriptures, and the novel itself generating “a new sense of the real” that helped kill literal belief in Christ. I’d argue these are instances of doubt and not instances of blurring. And as I just noted the very idea of blurring makes no analytical sense to me here. Either there is “belief in” or there is not according to Wood’s own premises.

If that be so, then the accretion of doubt is a point entirely separate from blurring. Similarly, to say that nineteenth century artists and intellectuals had the highest hopes for the novel is far from an example of blurring. To say that literary style or art or aesthetic values constituted a religion minus its truth-value is to confuse metaphor with reality. Unless these artists attended and worshipped at the church and altar of art, Wood confuses even great faith and hope in, say, the novel’s boon and possibilities, captured by the *metaphor* of religious faith, with “believing in”. After all, as Wood argues throughout his Introduction, “believing in” and “believing in as if” are categorically exclusive from each other.

I need to be helped to understand what it *concretely* means to say, as Wood does, that “…there have been writers great enough to move between religious impulse and the novelistic impulse, to distinguish between them and yet, miraculously, to draw on both.” That all sounds too portentous to me to mean simply and prosaically that there are writers great enough brilliantly to draw on biblical sources or create biblical parallels and themes and symbols or make some other brilliant uses of religious materials and meanings in their art.

If for Virginia Woolf the “novel acts religiously but performs skeptically”, “mystically, only to show we cannot reach the godhead, for the god head has disappeared...”, that may be a nice formulation, but it is all metaphoric and fanciful. For, on Wood’s premises, the novel does not, nay cannot, act religiously, even though it does perform skeptically. And there is nothing mystical about it as such save for the sense in which the greatest human creativity fills us with wonder.

If Wood had wanted to talk about blurring in a way that does not contradict the terms of his Introduction, he might, as one way, have touched on how actual faith, arguably, these days has a comparable but not identical multi consciousness that marks reading fiction. But if he meant to broach that theme or thesis, it passed me by.

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