Sunday, January 27, 2013

The New Agnosticism; or, Screwing Around With Previously Respected Humanistic Disciplines: a review of James Wood's lecture "The New Atheism and the Modern Novel"

A little over two weeks ago I listened to a lecture by James Wood, Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard, entitled “The New Atheism and the Modern Novel.” For those of you who did not attend, here is basically a copy of the lecture. Everything he said was contained verbatim in one of these two essays. Take a few minutes to read them before proceeding.

Have you finished? Good. Now for the airing of grievances.

My initial problem with the lecture was on account of the dates. You will notice that the two pieces date from the summer of 2011. It is now January 2013, and nothing has changed. Now, I have no problem with an academic lecturer giving the same talk multiple times in different places several months apart. Nor do I have a problem with an academic giving a lecture at about the same time it appears in print.  But delivering a piece a year and a half after putting it in print is suspect. To be sure, if the lecture's argument is sophisticated, or if the lecturer is an engaging public speaker, this mitigates the situation. What matters in attending a lecture is that you leave knowing something that you could not have known going in, or needed a refresher on going in.

Wood's lecture did not do that. His lecture consisted of three main points, summarized as follows:

1.   The New Atheist screeds are not capable of adequately treating the doubt, fluctuation, ambiguity, incoherence, and even absurdity that comes with practicing a life of faith.
2.   Novels are.
3.   Isn't that great?

Now, I agree with all of these. Even so, these insights require little critical discernment, and they are not substantially developed further in the course of either of the essays that form the lecture. Wood calls out the New Atheists on several counts: that they have not made any real intellectual developments since Bertrand Russell (save the addition of evolutionary neuropsychobiology to their arsenal), that they take the text of the Bible far more literally than it deserves, and that they have a lack of sympathy to a life of faith. Unfortunately, it is not clear that Wood's understanding of faith and theology is any more sophisticated than that of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. The reasons he gives for why he lost his faith are unconvincing. For instance, his understanding of unanswered prayers is naïve. The argument is that if God exists, surely He will answer prayers. I do not recall an answered prayer; therefore I see no evidence that God exists. “If you pray for a member of your congregation to get better and she dies, your prayer was not answered.” What Wood does not grasp is that the prayers for the lives of the cancer-stricken congregation members were answered—in the negative. A negative answer to a prayer is often painful. But why should God, of all persons, not be allowed to say no? The prayers were answered, only not in a way that Wood was hoping for.

Wood falls victim to at least one vice of the New Atheists that he does not mention: the refusal to give propositions of faith their due. There is a facile glibness about the essays that is irritating to someone who takes religion seriously. “To worship Christ...was to worship the bastard child (in the strict sense of the word) of an absolute bastard (in the vernacular sense of the word)” is a line that could have been filched straight from Hitchens. The closer Wood gets to central Christian tenets, the shallower appears his grasp of their importance for the believer. For instance, giving “you must change your life” as a gloss on John 3:5 is about as accurate as glossing John 15:13 with “love hurts.” You need a savior to be born again; you can use a therapist, twelve-step program, or a little willpower to change your life. Wood thus reduces a supernatural mystery to a self-help slogan. This is essentially to say that a sinner does not need salvation. He just needs to make better choices. Were this all Jesus meant when he spoke to Nicodemus in John 3, then the Incarnation, Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection were overkill.

If his take on soteriology seems thin, his take on the Resurrection completely misses the point. Consider his account of the debate between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams over whether or not the Resurrection “actually happened.” He sums up his view by saying “Contra Dawkins, God should be allowed some metaphorical space; but contra Williams, God's presence in the world, God's intervention, should not surely be only metaphorical. God is not just a metaphor.” For those of us looking for a definite answer to this problem, Wood answers, “there couldn't be one.” Really, he is not interested in the Resurrection as a possible fact. Wood sees the discussion about the proper use of language, as though that is all the Resurrection can be. This may be an adequate position for an atheistic literary critic, but the Christian believer must believe in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. As St. Paul observes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (15:17). In attempting to reduce the question of the Resurrection to a difference about metaphors, Wood is just as reductionist as the New Atheists themselves.

Wood is also strangely silent about the matter of how to read the Bible. We are to avoid exclusively literal readings, but how should we properly read and understand Sacred Scripture? The only view Wood seems to give as a favorable alternative is to read the Bible as you would “any other book,” and I would guess that Wood has the novel in mind. This proposition will not work. In the first place, there is no one way to read a novel. More importantly, no accepted critical methods of reading treat the text as a final authority. No one believes that Melville provides salvation, nor does any reader dogmatically claim that The Brothers Karamazov is the authoritative novel, whatever that would mean. If we read the Bible as a novel, we are deciding to read it as still one more book that we need not submit to. We would also be reading it as a work of fiction, which means that we would already be prepared to exclude one possible result of our reading: that these events happened and are true. Finally, one important tenet of Christianity divides the Bible from other texts—the Bible's divine inspiration. Christians take the Bible to be the Word of God; that is to say, they expect God to reveal Himself through a reading of these particular texts. That is to say, when you read the Bible, there will be divine power at work in the act of reading and comprehending. By contrast, no one invokes the Holy Spirit when reading Proust or Salinger, unless he has an exam the following day. To read the Bible as a novel, then, is to not read it as a believer, or at least to read it without entertaining the possibility that it contains divine truth. The Gospels, for instance, do not ask for merely sympathetic readers; they ask for readers who want to know more about Jesus.

With a little closer examination, Wood's argument that the modern novel treats the religious life with more nuance is less clear. His chief supporting claim is that novelists are interested in seeing both sides of a theological argument. The two examples he comes back to are Dostoevsky on the Christian side, and Jens Peter Jacobsen on the atheistic side. Dostoevsky creates the atheist Ivan Karamazov, who adeptly argues against Dostoevsky's own belief; conversely, Jacobsen creates a character who argues for the truths of Christianity. This notion of “both sides” also applies to the novelists' use of language. As studies of language itself has become murkier in the 20th century, modern writers are also seldom literalists, being interested in metaphors, images, and religious language.

It is strange, though, why Wood stresses the modern novel in particular as the primary repository of insight into the modern practice of faith. There are other areas of thought and literature that provide such insights. Many modern poets are God-worried: Baudelaire, Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Auden, and Bowers come to mind. Or, to step away from literature for a moment, there is no mention of modern theology as a possible source of investigating the religious life. It is not as though theologians are not interested in problems of doubt. Wood's citation of Cardinal Newman is an example. We might also mention St. Augustine's reflections on his godless period in the Confessions or the influential description of the dark night of the soul by St. John of the Cross. Or that the Summa Theologica entertains the possibility from the outset that God does not exist. Or, for a layman's perspective, the despondency of C.S. Lewis after his wife's death from cancer. Theologians have been very interested in possible objections to their doctrine and can give voice to doubts strongly. This might make us wonder what, in the treatment of faith, the novel can give us that theology cannot.

One possible answer to the question is fairly simple: the novelist can give a representation of lived faith. Theology deals in explication and examination abstractly, while the novel deals with the details of lived reality. But there is a subtle problem with this: simply presenting the details of lived reality is not necessarily an improvement for someone seeking theological insight. Here is a passage from a modern novel that Prof. Wood gave as a fine example of a modern novelist exploring questions of faith and doubt. As this is the sole departure of the lecture from the published essays, I quote the passage from László Krasznahorkai's War and War (1999) in its entirety.

...because he didn't feel like going home to an empty apartment on his birthday, and it really was extremely sudden, the way it struck him that, good heavens, he understood nothing, nothing at all about anything, for Christ's sake, nothing at all about the world, which was a most terrifying realization, he said, especially the way it came to him in all its banality, vulgarity, at a sickeningly ridiculous level, but this was the point, he said, the way that he, at the age of forty-four, had become aware of how utterly stupid he seemed to himself, how utterly blockheaded he had been in his understanding of the world these last forty-four years, for as he realised by the river, he had not only misunderstood it, but had not understood anything about anything, the worst part being that for forty-four years he thought he had understood it, while in reality he had failed to do so; and this in fact was the worst thing of all that night of his birthday when he sat alone by the river, the worst because the fact that he now realised that he had not understood it did not mean that he did understand it now, because being aware of his lack of knowledge was not in itself some new form of knowledge for which an older one could be traded in, but one that presented itself as a terrifying puzzle the moment he thought about the world, as he most furiously did that evening, all but torturing himself in the effort to understand it and failing, because the puzzle seemed ever more complex and he had begun to feel that this world-puzzle that he was so desperate to understand, that he was torturing himself trying to understand was really the puzzle of himself and the world at once, that they were in effect one and the same thing, which was the conclusion he had so far reached, and he had not yet given upon it, when after a couple of days, he noticed that there was something the matter with his head.

Upon hearing this for the first time, my first thought was that, in terms of technique alone, this is no advance on Joyce or Faulkner. Neither of them would have used that intrusive “he said,” even if the fragment were a verbalization of the narrator's thought. But, more importantly, the kind of thought process detailed in this narration is not very profound. The gist of the passage is that, after 44 years, it dawns on the narrator that he is no closer to understanding the world than before. This is not an insight that requires a convoluted narration as given. Many less reflective minds have reached this conclusion in fewer words. Nothing new is given here, and certainly nothing particularly subtle. Why it needs to be said at all, and at such length, is the true mystery of this passage.

There is a more unsettling side to Wood's emphasis on the modern novel, having to do with his emphasis on the modern—and by modern, he means after 1850. The century and a half between Melville, Flaubert, and Baudelaire and the rise of the New Atheism is a rather small span of time in literary history. It is not as though previously there were no fiction writers bold enough to depict the doubts and inconsistencies of the life of faith or the role of religion in life. A dozen names can show the variety of pre-1850 views on religion: Boethius, Dante, Chaucer, Rabelais, Montaigne, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Racine, Bunyan, Voltaire, and Goethe. And this is just a restriction to the Christian religion; we could look at the relationship of man to the gods in Homer, Aeschylus, Plato, Lucretius, and Virgil. None of these names are mentioned, even though I would argue that all of them have more insight into the problems besetting the religious consciousness than Krasznahorkai. Wood's literary consciousness seems telescoped to the most recent phase of modernity. What is puzzling about this is that he seems somewhat oblivious of that being the case. At any rate, he does not explain why he begins with Melville and Flaubert and passes over Dante and Bunyan, whose respective treatments of the Christian life were, in my opinion, equally sophisticated (and in the case of Dante, matchless). This, I think, is one of the cardinal weaknesses of the lecture as a lecture, that his central claim is explained by name-dropping rather than a clearly defined reason. Even if he had said something as outlandish as “the modern novel is a better place to find nuanced depiction of the life of faith because, around 1850, the Emperor Xarphon of Glendix-5 implanted this idea in the heads of several Earth humanoids,” at least it would have been a reason that could be argued with.

I would venture at least two possible reasons for why Wood makes the claim he does. One is that the technique of the novel improved significantly at about that time; more specifically, novelists became better at depicting the inner workings of character's minds in prose that allowed them to make finer distinctions. We could investigate the merits of such a claim by comparing novelists of different time periods. It would be a mammoth exercise in comparative literature, but it would be worthwhile. Of course the claim would not be proved thoroughly in an hour-long lecture with other subjects, but a brief outline of an argument could be sketched. The difficulty with this reason as it pertains to the lecture is that Wood does not focus very much on the form of the writers, but more on the content. The example of Krasznahorkai is telling; the style of his longest example of doubt in fiction is graceless. I am thus disinclined to believe that he restricts his attention to novelists after 1850 because he finds their style better.

My second proffered reason is that he believes the religious content of many post-1850 writers to be an improvement over their predecessors, for a simple reason: modern novelists are more prone to doubt. Or, to put it more bluntly, the only way that an intelligent modern writer can relate to religion is by doubting it. This would explain his selective literary memory. His list of modern writers consists almost wholly of atheists or agnostics. His treatment of Dostoevsky is the exception that proves the rule. Dostoevsky may appear on the side of faith, but for one interested in traditional religion, it is a very qualified affirmation. Most of the religious figures in The Brothers Karamazov are not given terribly sympathetic treatment. The faith of Alyosha seems more rooted in feeling than reason. Ivan's doubts are never resolved satisfactorily, and they bring Ivan to madness. One might fancifully say that an appropriate image for Ivan's end would be the Dark Wood in which Dante comes to himself at the start of Inferno--that is to say, Dostoevsky ends in 1880 where Dante began in 1310. Dostoevsky's relationship to faith is certainly more ambiguous than Dante's or Bunyan's.

What I see as Wood's tacit claim that, rephrased in the words of Yvor Winters, “a Christian no longer possible for an intelligent man,” is doubtful simply by looking at the literary scene beyond his own roll-call. Many writers from 1850 and beyond were able to come up with sensitive treatments of doubt while affirming traditional religion and morality, and it is outright misleading not to mention them or minimize their importance. There is much mention of Melville, but no mention of Melville's friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Jacobsen gets a lot of space, but none goes to his compatriot Kierkegaard. The names of G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Walker Percy are left out, to say nothing of more obvious names such as C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Even writers who are atheists but defend the Church are not mentioned, such as the lapsed Catholics James Joyce or Anthony Burgess. (I find it significant that he mentions absolutely no Catholic novelists.) But for me, the most glaring omission from the ranks of modern novelists is Flannery O'Connor. Her two novels feature protagonists who are dragged into faith kicking and screaming, and they kick forcefully and scream loudly. The presence and mystery of God is everywhere in Flannery O'Connor, but so is rejection and doubt. O'Connor was no purveyor of mealy-mouthed pieties rooted in blind faith; more than any other writer, in fact, she recognizes that adequate skepticism requires a kind of faith. As she wrote in a letter to the poet Alfred Corn, “What kept me a sceptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don't bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read.”

I will quote two other important excerpts from this letter to Corn (dated May 30, 1962), for they directly relate to Wood's lecture. Two paragraphs after the quote given above, she writes, “Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It's there, even when he can't see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there.” Wood mentions that Melville said something similar, that the ocean rises and falls like a human conscience. The difference, though, lies in the simple clause, “It's there.” Faith has a constancy in O'Connor that Melville does not have and that Wood wants to imagine as impossible for someone with intellect. O'Connor also writes, “To find out about faith, you have to go to the people who have it and you have to go to the most intelligent ones if you are going to stand up intellectually to agnostics and the general run of pagans that you are going to find in the majority of people around you.” Wood's method seems to be the exact opposite: if you are going to find out about faith, the last people you want to talk to are the people who believe it and practice it. Better to leave them off; they actually believe what they're saying is true, which is not what an allegedly intelligent man is looking for.

I do not want to criticize Wood merely because he is not a Christian. Yet when he takes issue with the New Atheists because of their refusal to grant the value of religious faith, and then proceeds to treat religious faith glibly and omit authors that affirm thoughtful faith rather than doubt, he appears two-faced and one-sided. Wood is certainly no New Atheist, but he is very much what I would call a New Agnostic, someone who maintains a sense of glib detachment about the limits of our certain knowledge regarding propositions of faith. The problem, though, is that the New Agnosticism is just like the old agnosticism that Chesterton pilloried in The Ball and the Cross, a murky, indistinct substitute for robust belief or unbelief.

Finally, Wood's conclusion was underwhelming. It might be interesting to examine more closely the effect of the high modern novel on subsequent theological criticism. But what Wood really wants to examine is the high modern tendency to make a religion of the aesthetic, and this is something that has been explored and, I think, exploded. To find a substitute for religion in art has been tried and found wanting. To set up artistic appreciation as a substitute for faith leads, in the end, to appreciation alone. But mere appreciation, as an end in itself, without clearly defined standards, will lead to the decadence of Swinburne and Wilde or the empty rhetoric of Wood or the later Harold Bloom, who would like to see Shakespeare as a secular god. Appreciation differs from love; love, like faith, is an existential commitment, and as such cannot be made or cultivated in a mode of ironic detachment. Appreciation can be much more ephemeral. I can listen to Bach one day and Wagner the next without feeling that I am committing a grave intellectual contradiction.

I would have preferred that Wood close with an exploration of a more obvious question—in fact, the one that I had come to the lecture to hear him discourse on—what effect has the New Atheism had on the modern novel? In trying to answer this question seriously, I would be going way out of my depth, as my knowledge of third millennium literature is practically nil, and the New Atheism is too recent. If I had to speculate, though, my initial answer would be, “Almost none.” If literature has placed itself beyond questions of good and evil, then it is immune from that which the New Atheists attack. But the price of that is we should also not expect literature to lend us any further insight into the human condition, except for those humans seeking Ph.D. topics.

Wood does not want to see two millennia of theology reduced to Basil Fawlty's attack on an automobile, but he does want to see it reduced to a series of pleasant, hardly authoritative metaphors. This is similar to Mary McCarthy's view of the Eucharist, that it is “a symbol and a very good one.” Flannery O'Connor's reply to this was, “Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.” I would like to think that, if O'Connor had been present for the question period after Wood's lecture, she would have said well, if the Resurrection is a metaphor, to hell with it, to hell with literature, and to hell with us.

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