Sunday, June 13, 2004

A twice-told tale-5

Bradbury (1920-)

Bradbury is not known as a Christian writer, but in a number of his pieces (e.g., "The Man," "The Messiah," "The Gift," The Fire Balloons," "Kristin," "Christus Apollo") he explores the theme of the cosmic Christ.

Bradbury is a humanist who uses Christian symbolism and eschatology as a vehicle to express SF yearning. Although the SF genre was not coined in America, America is where it took hold. Why is that? It has often been said that SF is a hitech setting for the Western. But that merely pushes the question back a step.

America was founded by the Pilgrims. For them, the New World was the Promised Land, which was in turn, the new Eden. This is not to deny that, for the Pilgrims, the Promised Land was as well a type of heaven.

Bradbury’s cosmic Christ is a profanation of the Pilgrim vision. Space travel, the westward expansion, the whole pioneering ethos transposes the Pilgrim vision to a secular key.

This raises questions about the core identity of the SF genre. Is it inherently profane, neutral, or religious? Is Bradbury’s recycling of Christian motifs merely opportunistic, or is the secular outlook insufficient to underwrite the SF vision?

In general, SF presents two opposing eschatological visions: a technocratic utopia or else a technocratic dystopia. But in either case, the worldview is usually godless. The utopian outlook represents the triumph of optimistic humanism whereas the dystopian outlook represents the plight of man in an indifferent or hostile universe.

Some Christians claim that science is, in fact, an artifact of Christian civilization and the cultural mandate (Gen 1:28). This claim is difficult to weigh. It is true that high technology is an artifact of the Christian West. But is that owing to a Christian worldview, or incidental to the role of the Church in the rise of Western civilization?

It may be said that the heathen divinization of nature inhibited the growth of science. Yet belief in wood and water nymphs never hindered men from felling trees or damning rivers. It could also be argued that modern science, in its effort to banish occult forces from nature, not merely desacralized the natural world, but secularized the world so that divine agency was disallowed and nature was all that's left.

But besides the descriptive question is the prescriptive or proscriptive question. Is the SF genre neutral, well-suited or ill-suited to rendering the Christian vision? If we take the parables of Christ as an index, then I’d suggest that SF is generally to remote from reality to be an ideal vehicle.

Although there is a value in contrasting the real world with alien worlds and alternative dimensions, the real world is the world that God has crafted and redeemed. And our creative vocation is, in the words of Ruskin, to trace the finger of God.

Although SF is associated with futuristic science, Bradbury is more retrospective and pastoral than prospective and technological. As with Plato, Bradbury’s popular appeal lies in his power as a mythmaker. That is, at once, his point of strength and weakness. His golden prose seduces the unwary into believing the unbelievable—like a snake entrancing a bird before swallowing it whole.

The problem with reducing Christian theology to mere symbolism, and then transferring the symbolism to outer space, is that if the Christian story is deemed to be unhistorical, then why go on living and waiting in a gingerbread castle for a prince would will never come to rescue the princess? No magic kiss will awaken us from our amphibious existence.

Isn’t Bradbury’s cosmic castle just as airy-fairy as he takes the Christian castle to be? Space travel, extraterrestrial colonization, life on other planets, and such like, do not represent a serious extrapolation of hard science. Why exchange one myth for another? And for the Christian reader, the Gospel is not an outdated metaphor, or metaphor at all, in which case there’s no motive to board Bradbury’s spaceship and launch out into cosmic mythology.

Broch (1886-1951)

Hermann Broch was a Messianic Jew who fled Austria before the war. His masterpiece is the Death of Virgil. The setting of the novel is primarily situated in the deathbed delirium of Virgil. Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, which was originally a vaticinium ex eventu of Augustus, came to construed by Constantine, Lactantius, Augustine, Fulgentius and Dante as a prophecy of Christ. Hence, Virgil was taken to be a bridge between heathendom and Christendom, natural theology and revealed theology, the old world order and the new.

Broch elaborates on this tradition. On the one hand, the dying poet is disillusioned with the Augustan order, the sterility of art, his own role as poet laureate, and Plotia—the lost love of his life. But in his feverish state he foresees the advent of the real Savior of the world. As he slips in and out of consciousness, and then retreats ever further into his trance, the borderland between life and death and the afterlife becomes as indistinct as the play of light on undulating waves, and he passes into pure light.

The novel is a technical achievement, written in the stream-of-consciousness style of Joyce and Woolf. But unlike James Joyce, Broch knows how to write for the eye, and his wave-like syntax mirrors the wave action of the harbor at Brindisi.

There is a systematic tension between the story and the storyteller. For, generally, the storyteller exists outside the story. We accept this convention because it is so convenient. But there are times when the tension is subversive to the story. In a stream-of-consciousness novel, the reader should overhear the inner voices of the character, rather than having a narrative tell the reader what is going on inside the character’s head. When that occurs, you have a rather glaring contradiction between the narrative viewpoint, with its third-person voice, and the subjective viewpoint of the character. Ideally, interior monologue ought to simulate the immediate, self-presenting access and awareness of our own mental states. It is a technical challenge to simulate this privileged perspective— demanding a special setting, such as a dream or delirium or vision, and some port of entry. This is a systematic failure in Henry James. Joyce fails in Ulysses, but is more successful in Finnegan’s Wake; Woolf fails in To the Lighthouse, but is more successful in The Waves. And Broch is fairly successful as well. But the dualism can never be entirely eliminated.

Broch’s diffuse and dreamy prose-style makes much greater demands on a reader’s attention span than Tolkien or Lewis. The Death of Virgil is easily the most sophisticated Christian novel of the 20C. As such, it suffers from the quandary of being too high brow for most Christian readers, and too Christian for most high brow readers.

The work is open to two other objections. One is a patch of coarse language. The other is the depiction of Lysanias, the slave-boy—which appears to betray a homoerotic attraction. Although neither of these is out of place in pagan Rome, the question is whether they reflect the viewpoint of Virgil or Broch.

Cabell (1879-58)

Cabell writes in the dystopian tradition, with special reference to the chivalric heritage. In that respect he was a modern-day Cervantes. Up to a point, Cabell’s brittle wit is entertaining and sometimes refreshing, as in the way he skewers the midlife crisis (Jurgen) or cult-leaders (Figures of Earth; The Silver Stallion). But satire, while it may be amusing in the short-term, is suicidal in the long-run unless it can offer the reader a ray of hope; for sustained satire is parasitic, and like a larval wasp, slowly starves itself by consuming the host until nothing is left to feed on. The constant effort to be clever is wearing when its only point is to say that everything is equally pointless. What does it really matter if the muzzle I put in my mouth belongs to an ivory-handled pistol or a sawed-off shotgun? In some ways, Italo Calvino is Cabell’s soulmate and successor, viz., The Invisible Cities, The Nonexistent Knight, The Cloven Viscount.

Camus (1913-60)

Albert Camus was, of course, a famous atheist and existentialist. In his novel The Plague, he presents a moral and theological dilemma. The Algerian town of Oran has been hit by an epidemic of the plague. Dr. Rieux struggles valiantly to counteract the epidemic, but Fr. Paneloux preaches against his efforts. At first, Fr. Paneloux claims that the plague was sent by God as a judgment. When, however, an innocent young boy succumbs to the illness, Fr. Paneloux preaches another sermon in which he explains the plague as a trial of faith. But whatever the rationale, his message is that the townspeople ought to resign themselves to the will of God rather than resisting his will by seeking out medical aid.

What are we to make of this theological quandary? On the face of it, it is not without some color of plausibility. After all, it was not uncommon, especially in the days of yore, for men of the cloth to preach that natural disaster was a divine judgment, and that we ought to repent and submit to the will of God. What is more, Scripture itself presents some natural disasters as a divine chastisement or retribution. So Camus would seem to be on firm footing here. If so, is it not a sin to ameliorate natural suffering?

However, this conundrum is not quite as logical as it appears to be. For it trades on ambiguities regarding the will of God. We sometimes use the "will" of God as a synonym for the law of God. Yet the law of God is fairly general affair, such that we are often unable to draw a one-to-one correspondence between a given sin and a given calamity as a divine judgment for that particular transgression. It is one thing to say that something is contrary to the will of God, in this legal sense, and saying that something represents the judgment of God. We know something to be the law of God because he has revealed it to be so in his word, but we do not know some contemporary event to be the judgment of God, for God has not disclosed his intentions in so doing.

Now, there are cases where the law of God proscribes a certain form of behavior, and in that event it would indeed be sinful to make sinful behavior safe by trying to treat or hinder the natural consequences of sin. But in many other cases, the connection is less clear-cut.

Another sense in which we use the will of God is with reference to what God has resolved to carry out, and what, as a consequence, he shall carry out. Now, in this predestinarian and providential sense, it is incoherent to speak of resisting God’s will, for his will, in this sense, cannot be thwarted by man or any other agent or agency of nature—at least on the Biblical view of God. On some heathen views and their neopagan counterparts, the will of God or the gods can be frustrated by man. But even on that view, its adherents are operating with such a degraded grasp of Godhood that fidelity or infidelity becomes a matter of moral indifference. For at that point they are choosing which devil to serve.

Cather (1876-1947)

Cather’s first novels commemorated and celebrated the optimism of the pioneering spirit. Yet her next set of novels reflect postwar (WWI) malaise. But she returned to the frontier theme with finest novel—Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Cather is in some ways the Georgia O’Keefe of creative writers. The timeless landscape of the Southwest, with its sandstone canyons and Sangre di Cristo mesas, is an emblem of contemplative yearning and journeying.

Compared with Lewis and Tolkien, Cather has virtually no following outside academia, even though she is infinitely Tolkien’s superior in form and finish—and Lewis’ technical superior as well. And unlike Milton or Joyce, Cather knows exactly what she’s good at, and in her best novels, there is a seamless match between the medium and the subject-matter.

The novel moves on two planes, for it allowed her to wed the outward worlds of westward expansion with the inner pilgrimage of the spirit. In this respect, Cather is the antipode of Bunyan. For Cather, beauty is sacramental. This likely reflects the union and fusion of her love of landscape with her formal Anglican piety, for from her early days in Red Cloud, Cather was a life-long member of the Anglican Communion. This accounts for her easy catholicity and sweeping sacramentalism.

Such a view has all the virtues and vices of a half-truth. Her cinematic style allows the landscape to do the talking, and in this way she is able to make her points more forcefully, but less forcibly, than Lewis or Bunyan—who have a similar set up, but then don’t let the machinery do the work. Her method was not to hold a high note, like a diva, to but to strike a note, like a bellman, and let its tintinnabulations reverberate in the reader’s ear.

Yet this is better narrative technique than narrative theology. For nature is, indeed, revelatory of God, of his wisdom and power, justice and might, and even his common grace; but nature is not the Gospel. For Cather, there is no line between the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty. This explains her boundless sympathy for Roman Catholicism. The appeal is aesthetic. Comeliness is next to godliness. But, then, we cannot expect a lesbian to be a paragon of orthodoxy or Evangelical piety. For her, the surface of life, be it a pretty liturgy or pretty landscape, was what mattered most.

Because the contours of the terrain shape the narrative form, the novel has a natural unity and beauty. But this leaves the reader with the suspicious feeling that many scenes are little more than captions for the sake of yet another lovely word-painting. Although this is not necessarily an artistic defect, the dramatic action does not blossom forth from a natural narrative flow, but is being maneuvered into place like a tripod, for the best camera angle. In is a sort of inversion of portrait painting and landscape painting, where the characters supply the backdrop while the rocks sit for the portrait.

Doughty (1843-1926)

Charles Montague Doughty is in some ways a justly obscure epic poet. But he has at least as much, or as little, to offer the reader as Tolkien. As a well traveled field geologist, philologist, and antiquarian, with a generous appetite for mythopoiea, Doughty’s opus stacks up well against Tolkien—although that admittedly falls short of the gold standard. To be sure, Doughty’s literary outlook represents a reversion to former glories of old heathendom, but, then again, so does Tolkien’s—the special-pleading of his epigones notwithstanding. With Christians like these, who needs the heathen? In fact, the final installment in Christian mythopoiea would logically be a trilogy in which Homer, Ovid and Apuleius file a class action suit against Lewis, Tolkien and Williams for plagiarism, identity theft and lost royalties. The title of the proposed trilogy might be something along the lines of Payback, Back Pay, and The Fellowship of the Ringleaders.

Doughty’s most successful poem was Adam Cast Forth, where he could draw on his first-hand knowledge of Near Eastern terrain. And the opening of the Titans is more beautiful than anything Tolkien ever wrote—although Doughty is unable to sustain this level of inspiration. Mansoul is also studded with many fine lines.

In general, though, Doughty’s verse is mannered in the extreme, and his religious outlook is a home-cooked stew of evolution (conspicuous in The Titans) and universalism (conspicuous in Mansoul). So both in form and content, his literary vision is highly eccentric, but occasionally shot through with moments of epiphanic insight.

Eliot (1888-1965)

It is a truism that art is autobiographical, and this was never more true than in the case of T.S. Eliot, whose literary legacy tracks his spiritual pilgrimage from the despair of the lost generation to conversion and faith. Not only is this true at a general level, but in Ash Wednesday, which marks the watershed of his spiritual quest, he expressly employs the traditional trappings of the pilgrim path by using Lenten and mystical imagery to depict his own journey.

The travelogue format enjoys a universal appeal, from the Epic of Gilgamesh through the Odyssey, Aeneid, Jason & the Argonauts, Song of Roland, Commedia, Pilgrim’s Progress, Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, Theomemphus, Don Quixote, Rasselas, Faust, Moby-Dick, Don Juan, Huckleberry Finn, The Coming Race, Zanoni, Alice in Wonderland, The Time Machine, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Through the Looking Glass, Heart of Darkness, Perelandra, Jurgen, The Martian Chronicles, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Quest of the Three Worlds, The Invisible Cities, The Wizard of Oz, The Little Prince, Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and so on. This is owing to the fact that life has a narrative quality—an outward narrative which is, in turn, a spiritual simile.

The Exodus is the protological quest tale, while the life of Christ is the eschatological Exodus, with our Lord at once recapitulating and culminating the typology of Moses and Joshua on a higher and final plane. The Church Year, Holy Week and the Way of the Cross commemorate and recapitulate the life of Christ.

Christian tradition marks a shift in orientation. It continues the theme of life as a journey, but inverts and internalizes the progression from an outward to an inward motion. And the image of the pilgrim path as an upward motion goes back to allegorical interpretations of Jacob’s ladder, such as we find in Benedict, Bonventura, Dante, and San Juan de la Cruz.

One need not buy into high church theology or mysticism to appreciate the literary potential of the symbolism as a framing device. This is a more promising avenue of attack for Christian fiction than the SF genre of Linebarger or the mythopoiesis of Lewis. It is more akin to Cather, but with a sharper focus on the liturgical landscape as a map of the soul.

If Ash Wednesday charted a journey through sacred space, the Four Quartets chart a journey through sacred time. For Eliot, Christian conversion was, in part, a solution to the riddles of time and personal identity posed by his study of Bradley. For him, the Incarnation marks the still point of the turning world as the level line of time intersects with the upright line of eternity. The "bedded axle-tree," round which the whole world revolves, is resituated from the heavens above to the manger below. From stars to sapphires, all things now move in tandem to the centripetal action of Christ—like a cosmic cartwheel.

Greene (1904-91)

Graham Greene was a sometime Catholic novelist. It is axiomatic to observe that Greene writes about the seamy side of life. He generally situates his novels in the twilight zone of good and evil. There are a couple of reasons for this. Greene wrote about his own life and times. He lived through WWI, the Spanish-Civil War, WWII, and the Cold War. Not only was he a veteran of such events, but as an Englishmen they figured deeply in his national identity and experience. This, then, was a century of pitch-black skies illuminated by flashes of lightning, of courage and cowardice, heroism and venality, high-minded idealism, twisted idealism, and unmitigated evil. A century in which little people were challenged to choose between little deeds of complicity and little deeds of resistance.

And this, in turn, supplies a perfect stage for a Catholic morality play. The knife-edge between salvation and damnation is not staged a grandiose scale of Faustian temptations, but in the petty and provincial, mediocre and mundane.

One can’t help but feel that Greene’s sympathy with lower class characters and rogues is too much in the vein of Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess at the Hameau; the woodwormy facade of his characters conceals the marble-paneled interior of his refined literary sensibilities. It is not unusual for those who’ve enjoyed certain social advantages to work off their guilt by a cheap-and-easy gesture of solidarity with the poor and downtrodden. This is all rather patronizing, and it would be better if Greene were to stick with his own social class, since that is what he really knows from the inside out. Social condescension is no better than social snobbery; if the latter is prideful, the former is presumptuous. Still, Greene may well have felt that to be too confining for sustained interest.

As a religious minority, Greene enjoys the detachment of an outside observer. In a nominally Protestant country, Graham stood out and stood apart, and he takes this with him wherever he goes, for in Catholic countries he’s an ethnic outsider, and in England he’s a religious outsider.

The Power and the Glory made his reputation. At the other end of his Catholic phase was Monsignor Quixote. These two novels in fact form a natural pairing. In both novels, the action pivots around two axial characters—an unorthodox priest and a Marxist magistrate. Both men are men of principle—the priest is a flawed hero whereas the magistrate is a dutiful, but misguided ideologue and party apparatchik. So Greene shades the dividing line between good and evil, church and state.

P&G presented the protagonist as a whisky priest and womanizer. Greene is casting against type in part for its calculated shock-value. He is challenging the reader’s stereotypical expectations of what the hero is supposed to be like. And he is also trying to score the double point that in a fallen world, good-and-evil may be black and white, but the agents of good and evil are not black-and-white, and sometimes the choices left open to them are not black-and-white. He sets this over against minor characters like the Lehrs, who represent the earnest naivete of New World evangelicalism. Catholic piety is less about faith and morals, than submission to authority.

But Greene is also pushing Catholic dogma to a logical extreme. Holy orders, if rightly received, are indelible. Once a priest, always a priest. Hence, even though the priest in P&G is a gross moral failure, that does not, from the standpoint of sacramental and moral theology, disqualify him.

In addition, Greene is pressing the Catholic notion that what makes a saint are not his virtues, but his vices. Saintly merit is accrued by a heroic struggle to overcome one’s besetting sins. He shares this emphasis with Bernanos.

In MQ, Greene softens the rough edges of both the major characters. In one respect, this presents a contrast to the flinty extremes of P&G. Yet even the extremes were ranged along a common continuum, so that the contrast was one of degree rather than kind.

There is no neutral way of weighing Greene’s literary outlook, for it hinges on a value-laden judgment that varies according to a comparative and contrary theological posit. For here we have a deep dividing line between Evangelical and Roman Catholic moral theology and soteriology.

Although both Romanist and Protestant profess their belief in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, yet as a matter of principle and practice alike, the Protestant ranks sanctity and apostolicity above unity and catholicity, whereas a Catholic ranks unity and catholicity above apostolicity and sanctity. The Evangelical is scandalized by the lack of moral and doctrinal discipline in the Church of Rome, whereas the Catholic is condescending about what he regards as the lack of realism in Evangelical ethics.

(There is, of course, another difference inasmuch as a Protestant defines unity and catholicity vis-a-vis the invisible church, whereas a Catholic—vis-a-vis the visible. Reflecting this difference in ecclesiology, a Protestant defines apostolicity vis-a-vis sola Scriptura, whereas a Catholic—vis-a-vis episcopal succession.)

This gulf cannot be bridged by pragmatically splitting the difference or conducting an abstract cost/benefit analysis. For a Protestant, the priorities are set by God in Scripture.

Joyce (1882-1941)

Finnegans Wake is a flawed masterpiece. Artistic failure in a literary genius may still generate a work in which the parts are not only greater than the whole, but greater than a flawless minor classic.

Joyce forgets the first rule of a good storyteller, which is how to tell a good story. In Joyce, the story gets lost in the clutter of portmanteau puns. The complexity lies right on the surface, unlike Dante, where the complexity is subterranean—leaving the storyline sharp and swift.

On the one hand, a dream is an ideal medium for Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness style. On the other hand, a dream is an essentially visual medium, whereas Joyce is an author who writes for the ear rather than the eye. As a consequence, the reader never sees the dream.

Reared an Irish Catholic, and tutored by the Jesuits, Joyce was an erudite apostate. FW runs along the rails of several Scriptural motifs, of Adam & Eve, and Adam’s fall, of Noah, and his sons, and the patriarchs of old, as well as the River Liffey, which is at once the river of time and river of life; and Phoenix Park, recalling the Garden of God. FW begins with Genesis and ends with the Millennium. What is more, the opening—with its riverine circuit—is reminiscent of Ecclesiastes.

But FW is also the book of everything. It stands in the encyclopedic tradition of Dante and Milton. Perhaps the prospect that summit is irresistible. But men of lesser genius plunge to their death in attempting to scale Dantean heights.

Kazantzakis (1883-1957)

When The Last Temptation of Christ was made into a movie, it scandalized Evangelical believers. In order to understand it, one needs to know something about Byzantine piety. Greek Orthodox piety is based on the old monastic notion of sanctity, with its ascetic battle between the flesh and the spirit. Kazantzakis merely transfers this deep-seated dualism to the life of Christ. Given the premise, there is a certain logic to his version of the Gospels. So we should see this as a limiting-case of Greek Orthodox piety. If the result is blasphemous, that is not an aberration of Kazantzakis, but a primitive error of Byzantine theology.

There is, indeed, a dualism in Scripture, but the lines are drawn quite differently. What we find, instead, is a duality between the elect and reprobate, regenerate and unregenerate. The Incarnation is at once a unitive and divisive event, for it draws the elect into one body while shearing off the reprobate (Jn 3:19-20; 9:39; 17:9,20-21).

Katantzakis also rewrites the parables in the interests of his universalism. Although the idea of tampering with the teaching of Christ might well strike a Bible-believer as sacrilegious, we must, again, recall that universalism has an honored place in the Orthodox tradition, both of Greece and Russia. In Orthodox soteriology, Christ is the archetypal man, like a Platonic form, in which all men participate by virtue of the Incarnation. Thus the particular is universalized in the concrete universal of the Incarnate Christ. The apocryphal gospel of universalism is the authentic gospel of Greek orthodoxy.

A central failure of the novel is the author’s assumption that Christ was subject to the very same sexual temptations as ordinary men. But this fails to distinguish between what is natural and normal. In a fallen world, what is normal is a hybrid of nature and second nature, creation and sin, grace and common grace.

We have no experience of an unfallen sex drive, much less an impeccable sex drive. Nothing can be both more natural, and more abnormal, than to be sinless. It is safe to say that Christ had a natural, male, heterosexual libido—but the assumption that this would be of a promiscuous inclination is one which Kazantzakis is in no position to make. Christ was both without sin and above sin. This is not inhuman, for the same holds true of the saints in glory. And that is even before we bring his divine nature to bear on the relation.

It is often said that temptation is illusory unless it allows for the possibility of sin. That is of a piece with Arminian theology. But temptation is most strenuous when the subject cannot allow himself to give in because the moral stakes are too high. Suppose a godly father can only save his own son by murdering another man’s child. What makes the temptation so wrenching is in his knowing that such a Faustian bargain would save his son, that the offer is his for the taking, and yet he has to push it away. It lies within his grasp, yet wholly out of reach.

For Kazantzakis, Christ is an Everyman figure. Kazantzakis believed, with Goethe, that man will stray as long as he strives, and that in such striving there lies the essence of the spiritual quest. This also owes something to Byzantine mysticism, which plays on the metaphor of the ascent to God. And in this respect, Kazantzakis is moving in the same orbit as Dante.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment