Sunday, June 13, 2004

A twice-told tale-1

This essay is a review of literature in the Christian tradition. That does not necessarily mean that the literature in question is overtly Christian in the orthodox or evangelical sense of the word. Some is, some is not. Rather, it is literature in dialogue with the Christian tradition, literature that would not nor could not exist apart from the revelation of Scripture. Some of this literature is expressly anti-Christian, yet that is important as well, for a Christian heresy or apostasy is like the privative theory of evil, being a negation of the good. And thus is tributary, in its unwitting way, to the very thing it derides.

The aim of this essay is to learn from the past with a view to applying whatever lessons to the future. How can we avoid their failures or less promising forays while building on their successful strategies? That's the question and the challenge.

Looking Back

Is creative writing a Christian vocation? The fictional genre is rather exceptional in Scripture. Most of the Bible is either ethical or historical in content. A major exception are the parables of Christ. What are the leading characteristics of a parable? The parabolic genre is:

1. Narrative. A parable is a short story, with a setting, plot and characters.

2. Figurative. A parable is allegory or extended simile. This aspect is often denied on the grounds that in an allegory, everything stands for something else. But that is obviously false. In Bunyan and Dante, to take two paradigm cases, not every detail is symbolic. Many details are necessary to oil the narrative machinery, round out the mental image, and add touches of verisimilitude. The danger lies in treating every detail of an allegory as allegorical. But that confuses the relation of part-to-whole and means-to end.

3. Providential. A parable generally deals with the realm of ordinary providence. And even when it highlights something out of the ordinary, what makes that incident extraordinary is the background of normality.

In this connection we need to draw a distinction between what is representative and what is realistic. What is representative takes normality as its point of reference. What is realistic takes possibility as its point of reference.

In a fallen world, normality may be unnatural inasmuch as it sins against the creation mandates. But normality is further curbed by natural revelation and common grace.

By contrast, realism sweeps in the wide realm of the possible. Realism covers both ordinary and extraordinary providence. For an unbeliever, a story punctuated by the miraculous is unrealistic, but for a Christian, it is realistic, but unrepresentative.

4. Picturesque. An allegory makes use of colorful and concrete imagery. (2) and (4) point to a particular worldview. An allegory is only possible because the real world has an allegorical dimension. A metaphor is only significant because the real world has a semiotic dimension. God has made the world in such a way that the natural order is suggestive of a moral and supernatural order. God is the exemplary allegorist, for the world is an allegory of his wisdom and might, a morality play of his mercy and grace.

5. Hortatory. A parable is designed to provoke a change of thought or action. It is an exercise in practical theology and ethics.

It may be objected that the parables are not a model of creative communication, for their design was to conceal rather than reveal (Mt 11:25-27; 13:10-16). But this is a half-truth, and irrelevant even on its own grounds. For it would merely mean that the natural audience for Christian literature is a Christian audience. Yet a limited constituency hardly invalidates the genre.

But beyond that restriction, some parables are aimed at the unbeliever. They set a trap for the unbeliever (e.g., Mt 21:33-46; Lk 7:41-47). For he cannot admit that he knows what it means without seeing how it applies to himself. If the scribes and Pharisees play dumb, they look dumb; but if they take exception, their offense is a tacit admission of guilt. So the dilemma is not that the scribes and Pharisees were incapable of understanding the parables, but rather, incapable of saying so except on pain of self-incrimination.

The Middle Ages

Dante (1265-1321)

Dante represents the high water mark of Christian fiction. He succeeds at several levels. In terms of sheer story-telling, the narrative art has never advanced beyond the Odyssey. But the next challenge is if a storyteller can go beyond the recreational value to say something about the meaning of life, and whether he can do so without losing the story in the moralizing. Some people buy a watch as a piece of fine jewelry, but others buy a watch to tell the time. Some of us want more from a story than a flashy case or glittery wristband. Homer is a marvelous ornament to the art of storytelling, but he doesn’t tell us what time it is.

Dante pulls this off in three basic ways: symbolic geography, parallel narrative, and literary allusion. The idea that geography might be, or be used as, an emblem of spiritual truth goes back to the Bible, where the literal landscape of redemption is also a figure and prefigurement of the Gospel. And in the Fourth Gospel, earthly things, from the mundane, like Jacob’s well, to the miraculous, like the well of Siloam, are signs of heavenly verities.

So the use of natural metaphors as spiritual metaphors is nothing new. Like the Bible, Dante systematizes this principle by turning the entire setting into one vast spiritual simile. And in so doing, the moral is not tacked onto the story; nor does it interrupt the flow of the story; rather, the setting in itself is instrumental in enforcing the moral.

There is, though, a difference between natural and scientific metaphors. Natural metaphors are perennial, but scientific metaphors have a shelf-life. And this exposes an unforeseen weakness in Dante, for his obsolete science overtaxes the willing suspension of belief. A modern reader can no longer accept the narrative at the intended level of extra-narrative import.

Defenders of Dante minimize this difficulty by claiming that the Commedia is an allegory, and can, therefore, be read at that level without any loss of relevance. But that strikes me as special pleading. To begin with, Dante elsewhere tells us that the Commedia was inspired by some of his mystical experiences. In that event, it is not a work of pure fiction, but rooted in experience. Therefore, the issue of realism cannot be mooted by a facile appeal to the allegorical genre.

Moreover, a medieval allegory follows the fourfold hermeneutic of medieval exegesis, in which the allegorical plane was secondary to the literal level; there is no doubt that Dante subscribed to Aristotelian physics and Ptolemaic astronomy, and there were learned disquisitions on the terrestrial location of Hell and Purgatory. Although Dante no doubt allows himself a measure of artistic license, filling in the gaps with a wonderful imagination, his genre is more akin to a didactic historical novel than an allegory. To classify it as allegory, pure and simple, is anachronistic, and confuses the worldview of the author with the worldview of the modern reader.

If, therefore, you sever the allegory from the metaphysical underpinnings of Thomism, that renders the poem incredible within its own frame of reference. For unlike a fantasy novel, which can stand on its own, the Commedia does stake its tent in the turf of terra firma.

This is more in the way of a limitation rather than criticism. Like all of us, Dante was a child of his times, and we must make allowance for his historical position. But it is best to stick with natural metaphors rather than gamble on science—unless a scientific metaphor is intentionally figurative, and nothing more, like our modern talk of epicyles.

Dante’s use of literary allusion, while an excellent way of lending subtextual depth without cluttering the storyline, is problematic in execution, for Dante employs allusion as a historicizing device by trying to secure a footing for every narrative step in some scrap of Ovid or Virgil or Statius. One of the great legacies of the Reformation was a concern for historical authenticity. Patristic and medieval typology regarded mythical figures such as Apollo, Orpheus, Theseus and Hercules as prefigurements of Christ. Patristic apologetics regarded Ovid, Virgil and Plato as preparatory for the Gospel. For Dante, moreover, as a Roman Catholic and Italian patriot, the Church of Rome was successor to the Roman Empire, so that her legitimacy is secured by the scaffolding of Romulus and Remus, Aeneas and Augustus. And let us never forget that the False Decretals were instrumental in the primacy of Rome. Tug on a single string and apostolic succession begins to unravel like a kitten pawing a ball of yarn.

It is naturally difficult for the modern reader to enter into this mindset. If the intent is to make the story more credible, the effect is to make it more incredible. If you must constantly make allowances for an author, you cannot suspend belief. The illusion is dispelled at every turn.

Literary allusions should be used, not as a historicizing device, but to invest the text with an open-textured resonance. An allusion has the same associative power as a metaphor. The one is literary, the other visual, but both multiply meaning with economical grace.

The fact is that Dante can create his own science when he wants to, without recourse to tradition—and his pure projections are more compelling than his Medieval extrapolations. His speculations about different time-zones and constellations from the antipode of Purgatory, opposite Jerusalem, may well qualify him as the first SF writer. He should trust to his creative instincts more often.

As to the Commedia's symmetrical design, this is both a point of strength and weakness. Like a metaphor, plucking one string sets the others vibrating in sympathetic association. This contributes greatly to the multidimensional meaning of the Commedia without overloading the storyline.

Heraclitus had said that the way down is the way up. One nifty trick of Dante's cosmology is to turn this nonsensical statement into a sensible image, for the descending and ascending motions, as the pilgrim passes through hell, purgatory, and paradise, move in the same direction. This also dovetails with the mystical motion in which the way to God, the way to scale Jacob's ladder and Mt Carmel, the way of reaching the light—is by way of the valley, the via negativa, the dark night of the soul. And here we see that mysticism is incipient with universalism.

But, for a modern reader, the web of weave and cross-weave is strung on the threadbare strands of an antiquated science. Since we don't believe that the sensible world is that symmetrical, it is something of an irritant, for we cannot live in Dante's world or bring it into our own.

There were ways of playing on parallels without recourse to medieval science. Scholastic theologians drew a distinction between God's absolute and ordinate power, and theologians long speculated on the possibility of an Incarnation irrespective of the Fall. So there were resources resident in Dante's theological system that could generate internal parallels without recourse to ragtag science and the epics of a bygone era.

Numerology is another unifying device and source of symbolic architecture. The problem is not that Dante does too little with this, but rather too much. Dante has a geometric eye, but numerology is generally more plausible when applied to time rather than space. Nature is inwoven with periodic motions. And we have refined the natural metric of time through music, the clock, and the calendar. There is also a symmetry of space in nature, but this is less generally evident to the naked eye.

A fringe-benefit of Dante’s narrative viewpoint is that he eliminates the extra-narrative narrator. For he has made himself the main character, and tells the story in the first person. This marks a technical advance in storytelling, for the narrator is now integrated into the narrative, rather than an off-stage voice shouting lines to the actors. Although we’ve learned to overlook the prompter, the author ought to do the pretending for the reader, and not the reader for the author.

A crippling flaw of the Commedia is that hell, Purgatory and paradise are each marred by bad theology. The popular picture of hell as a vast torture chamber owes far more to Dante than it does to the Bible. And this conception is misleading. For sin, if left to its own devices, furnishes its own hell. The pain and suffering are inflicted, not by the prison guards, but by the inmates upon each other. The penalty for sin is sin.

We don’t know much about hell beyond its unending duration, but we know that hell is a place of wrath without mercy, where sin is no longer tempered by the salt and sweetener of common grace, where evil is let loose to run its course—like an unquenchable and ever-gathering wildfire. Although a part of Dante’s view does involve the suffering which the damned inflict on one another, many of the torments are inflicted from without.

One can only reach Paradise via Purgatory. Thus, the whole conception is suspended on the centrality of human merit in the work of salvation. For a Catholic reader, this is no problem; but for a Protestant reader, it is like a leafy tree with a hollow trunk: a thing of outward beauty, but inwardly rotten and poised to blow over in the next windstorm.

Purgatory is a baptized version of reincarnation. The Latin Fathers (e.g., Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory) took it over from the Greek Fathers (e.g., Clement, Origen), who took it over from Plato and Pythagoras, who, in turn, took it over from Egyptian lore. Raw reincarnation would be too unscriptural even by the syncretistic standards of Catholicism, so the law of karma is resituated in a postmortem setting, but the principle remains the same. In a characteristic move, Catholic apologetics then endeavored to backdate the dogma by appeal to the Apocrypha (2 Mac 12:39-45), yet its bastard pedigree is deep-dyed in the DNA.

When Dante situates the river Lethe in Eden, atop the Mount of Purgatory, he presents a pagan view of bliss. For the Christian, forgiveness is not forgetfulness, but thankful remembrance for God’s gracious and gratuitous absolution. Without the recollection of sin, there is no gratitude for the mercy of the Lord.

The crowning flaw is that Dante presents a subversively unappetizing prospect of glory. He makes the Beatific Vision the chief end of man, not because he’s drawn to it, but because he’s told to. This was an article of faith.

And this wraithlike beatitude besets the entire design of the Commedia, because its Platonizing aesthetic progressively separates the universal from the particular as we rise from the gravity well of hell to weightless spheres of light. For Dante, glorification involves the gradual shedding of the earthly and the concrete. But if beauty is, at least for the human imagination, inseparable from the earthly instance, then this thinning out of all sensible attributes threatens to blanch the beauty out of heaven as we go from the cloudy chiaroscuro of hell through the finer shades of light in the lower heavens to the upper realms of pure white light. One of the difficulties in trying to define beauty is that we ordinarily begin with paradigm-cases, and then endeavor to abstract the universal from the particular. But in attempting to generalize about beauty, we lose the very thing we seek, for beauty lies at the crossroads of the universal in the particular, and not in one or the other alone.

As much as we admire Dante’s technical feat in doing so much with so little, many readers find the atmosphere of Paradise too rarefied for more than a brief visit. Our lungs gasp for oxygen in the ether-thin air. We first feel our flesh, and then our senses, and then our inner sense, slipping away as we rush upwards with Dante to occupy the blank expanses of eternity. In order to achieve escape velocity, the astronaut loses his substance and soul. Asphyxia is the price of ataraxia.

This spectral, insensible spirituality is owing, in large part, to a common confusion of the intermediate state with the final state. The resurrection of the just never figured in the popular view. This is a widespread error, by no means limited to Dante. But the upshot is to offer a view of heaven which even the Romanist can do no more than dutifully believe, but never feel affection for.

Although there are a handful of quotable one-liners in Dante, he is not a wordsmith on the order of Shakespeare or even many lesser poets. One wonders why this is. Perhaps this was not given to Dante. But there are other explanations.

Because everything sounds gorgeous in Italian, it may be more difficult to say something so beautiful that it stands out. In a rose garden, each rose must compete with every other, whereas a rose among thorns may be less lovely of itself, but the more so in contrast. So the beauty of his verse owes less to his acute ear than it does to the generic musicality of the Italian tongue.

Beyond that, much of what makes a phrase memorable and quotable is some arresting image or metaphor. And a metaphor is an allegory in miniature. But where the entire work is allegorical, a figure-laden style would obscure the figural arc of the whole by introducing a tumble and jumble of mixed metaphors. Hence, it may be that Dante chose to sacrifice many individual images in order to conserve the envisioned journey as a whole.

Turoldus (c. 12C)

The Song of Roland is the greatest chanson de geste. It is in the tradition of war epics like the Iliad. The Iliad is the greatest war epic, but the Christian adaptation, such as we find in Beowulf and the Song of Roland, converts the genre to the Pauline theme of the miles Christi or soldier of Christ. It also ties into to the cult of martyrdom we find in the Book of Revelation, as well as the image of Christ as the warrior-king and exemplar of the Christian Crusader. Another Homeric carry-over is the role of divine dreams and superhuman agents who intervene to aid a hero in distress. Although the poem is set in the time of Charlemagne, the narrative is brightly colored by the fervor of the First Crusade.

There are, in a chivalric romance, similarities and differences with both the Classical and Biblical exemplars. With its pre-Constantinian viewpoint, the NT imagery is figurative rather than literal. And in the NT, a martyr was not a combatant. Yet it also has its background in the conventions of OT holy war.

The Song of Roland suffers in some measure from the defects of medieval piety. And some critics would dismiss the entire genre as sub-Christian. Yet the Medieval knight was facing down a genuine threat. Both Christian and Muslim were engaged in a brand of holy war, but the Crusader was waging a counter-offensive against a jihad initiated by the Muslims. The Christian crusade was defensive whereas the jihad was aggressive. The crescent has ever been the mortal enemy of the Cross. The Church is not at war with the mosque, but the mosque is a war with the church. You need only read the Bordeaux Pilgrim or Pilgrimage of Etheria to see that the Holy Land—to make no mention of North Africa—was once Christian before it was invaded and conquered by the Saracens. By overruning and absorbing more ancient and advanced civilizations, the Muhammadans were thereby enabled to jump-start their own cultural florescence.

Hence, we cannot relegate this literature to a sad and scandalous chapter in church history, for the challenge is perennial. We can make allowances for the historical viewpoint of the Crusader, and improve on his perspective, but we have no right to treat him with shame and disdain, for the Muslim menace must be confronted in every generation. Either the church will defeat the mosque, or else the mosque will defeat the church. There is no possibility of peaceful coexistence. If the modern reader views the Crusader as an object of embarrassment, be assured that the feeling would be mutual, and the Crusader would be the more justified.

An Evangelical reader may be dismayed by the resort to the sword instead of the Gospel. Yet there's much merit to the strategy of the SR, for the Muslim has often no incentive to convert unless and until he is bested on the field of battle. Evangelism is preferable where there is an open door, but when the missionary and his converts are martyred, only counter-force will force open the door.

Although the Muslims are regarded as base idolaters, they are not demonized, but treated as worthy adversaries. More precisely, the Muslim character is the alter-ego of the Christian character, whose virtues become vices when turned to an evil cause. If the Christian represents a gracious greatness, the Saracen represents a fallen greatness.

There are another couple of differences between the Iliad and the SR. Although a code of honor and fear of shame in an element in both the epic hero and the Christian knight, the latter is not motivated entirely by gaining fame or losing face. It is not all about individual achievement. (In this respect, Beowulf has more in common with the Classical tradition.) He is fighting for a larger cause. There is a corporate dimension in the SR which is missing from the Iliad—an element of camaraderie in contrast to the proud loner of the Classical genre. Although there is a measure of hero worship in the SR, the Crusader is not only out to make a name for himself, but is fighting in the name of Christ. Simply put, duty has taken the place of honor.

And this, in turn, adds a depth of friendship to the French epic that you will never find in Homer. For example, Olivier is so blinded by blood loss that his mistakes Roland for the enemy and strikes him with his sword. The blow leaves Roland unharmed. Because they'd had a falling out a little before, Roland is unsure if Olivier intended to strike him down. Yet Roland does not retaliate, but instead he gently questions his friend and comrade. Olivier seeks his friend's forgiveness, which Roland readily grants. And when Olivier dies soon after, Roland exclaims that "since you are dead, it saddens me to live."

Although Achilles and Patroclus are buddies too, the hysterical and ostentatious lamentations of Achilles are superficial compared with the gentle affection and soft-spoken bond between Roland and Olivier. Given the Tolkien cult, with its mock-Medieval flavor, readers would do well to read the real deal, for the SR is far superior to Tolkien.

(Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4) (Part 5) (Part 6) (Part 7)

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