Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 102 (April 2000): 20-23.
The recent death of Catholic author Andre Dubus represents a loss to anyone interested in the fate of contemporary religious fiction in America. Dubus embodied a combination rarely found among fiction writers of faith: superb, non–didactic craftsmanship and profound spiritual sensitivities. His death has made me reflect, again, on current trends in literary criticism, for while I doubt any serious critic would deny Dubus’ abilities, few seem equipped to discern his most profound purposes.
This is hardly surprising. Since the rise of the French linguist/philosopher Jacques Derrida and the advent of deconstructive literary theory in the early 1980s, the very idea of discoverable authorial intention has apparently been rendered absurd, something to be discussed, perhaps, by hapless junior high school English teachers but not by serious scholars. Words are, after all, "indeterminate" in their meanings and texts are valuable not for what their authors may have hoped to convey through them, but for how skillfully the critic can apply his own meanings to the "unstable" sentences on the page. I recall a student in graduate school who in a seminar on theories of the novel commented offhandedly: "We all know authors can’t communicate with readers." Nobody else challenged the statement, and in my ignorance of theory I felt unqualified to do so.
These ten years later I still regret my cowardly silence. Today, when I teach freshman English, a student will almost invariably ask, "Well, Mrs. Monson, uh, what do you think Wharton [or whoever] is trying to say?" While such a question betrays naivete—a novel cannot be reduced to a set of themes, a moral, or a message—it nevertheless articulates in rudimentary fashion an intuition that is exactly on target: when good novelists write they have things they are interested in achieving with their words. They have ideas, feelings, and experiences in mind that cannot be adequately expressed apart from fictional images. It is counterintuitive to approach a written work and not be at least somewhat curious as to what the writer of the work envisioned as he composed it. Words are symbols created expressly to communicate, and without the need to communicate, that is to commune, human beings would never have fashioned language at all.
In some ways a loss of belief in the efficacy of language to transmit experience from one human being to another seems akin to a loss of belief in God. The Christian Bible likens God to the Word: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." St. John’s meaning may be enigmatic, but it does seem clear that he is somehow linking language with divinity. If as a people we lose our belief in language—in its capacity to span the gulf between speakers and listeners, writers and readers, or its efficacy in articulating reality—we are cut loose, set adrift, each individual stranded in time. In one way Derrida was right: we surely invest words with whatever meaning they contain. Yet that investiture is a central act of faith between and amongst people. The writing of a poem is not unlike the uttering of a prayer—words articulated against the void, sent out with purpose upon the dark expanse of space.
And so when a student asks about an author’s meaning I answer him seriously, but try to steer him away from treating fiction as nonfiction. The novel especially, with its breadth and scope, has a peculiar capacity to carry us away, virtually transport us, in ways that by comparison other written literature can do only feebly. A novel is not an intellectual puzzle to be pulled apart and reassembled so that all its themes and messages are explicit; approaching it that way grossly violates the text’s integrity. The finest novels—Faulkner’s tangled, majestic, brooding monsters, for example—ultimately resist interpretation; rather, they may suck us in, bathing us, as in the case of Faulkner, in a recreation of primary human passion. One may read The Sound and the Fury or Absalom! Absalom! and simply be befuddled, or one may read with a kind of transfixed horror, drawn into irresistible psychic alliance with the doomed, infantile Quentin Compson or the implacable, impenetrable Sutpen.
A significant part of my pleasure in a novel comes as faith grows in me that my experience of the text somehow approximates the author’s vision. The novel yields many substantial fruits, and among the most desirable is this sense of communion: I have leapt into the dark and connected. Most of my academic peers insist that such a sense of connection is illusory. I would rather call it fragmentary: in reading, we may see through a glass darkly, but we are not entirely blind, and the tantalizing possibility of one day seeing face to face can energize all our efforts as readers and interpreters.
Many contemporary critics refuse to admit this possibility of communion. For them, a text is produced under such suspicious circumstances (i.e., within a social and cultural milieu that unavoidably biases the author’s sensibility) that it is positively dangerous to surrender to it, to be carried off into an imagined world. Instead of opening a novel and plunging into its constructed realm, such critics range widely over the surface of a work, perhaps caressing it lovingly, but just as often picking and plucking at it—demystifying it—as they extract pieces to support their own social or political agendas.
The best of these critics illuminate points that genuinely enlarge our understanding of how societies function. Too many interpreters, however, violate the clear sense of a text to serve their own ends and in so doing turn reading into a purely political exercise. As a teacher of young readers I refuse to accept what "we all know": that authors cannot communicate with their audiences. Perhaps that proposition, like God’s famous death, is true. But I reject it ultimately on practical grounds: I am better off—a more faithful, interested reader, more susceptible to moral enlightenment, to wonder, and to joy—believing otherwise.
Amidst such a literary culture, Andre Dubus published much of his fiction. I cannot forget my dismay at reading Vivian Gornick’s essay "Tenderhearted Men," discussing the work of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Dubus, published in the New York Times Book Review in the early nineties and reprinted in her critical collection The End of the Novel of Love (1997). Gornick details how all three authors’ depictions of male/female relations leave her with "the taste of ashes in my mouth," for they "invariably subscribe" to ideas of manhood that haven’t changed in over fifty years. Of Dubus’ characters she writes, "Even if the models for these stories still exist—and, of course, they do, in the tens of thousands—they are, in some sense, no longer plausible. They seem to occur in a vacuum of history." The experience of "tens of thousands" of people is no longer plausible enough to write about! As if these masses, because they have failed to keep step with the times, now live lives so void of interest and meaning we as readers can do nothing but shudder at their existence and refuse them entrance to our consciousness.
Gornick’s reading of Dubus’ "A Father’s Story" reveals her near absolute failure to read his fiction on anything close to its own terms. She stands outside the text, passing judgment, unable to surrender to the spiritual persuasion of the story. While she muddles around, complaining that "A Father’s Story" thwarts the efforts of men and women to join hands across the open ditches surrounding "each of our lives," Dubus’ tale reveals with stunning force something of the grace and love of God.
In it, Luke Ripley, a middle–aged father—devout Catholic, divorced, never remarried—breaks the law with awful consequence. His twenty–year–old daughter Jennifer comes to him late at night. She has had a few beers with friends, and she has struck a man on the road while driving home. The father does not call the police. Rather, he drives to the scene of the accident. He finds the body in a ditch; the young man dies in his presence. Had he called for help an ambulance could have met him at that fateful stretch of road; perhaps the victim’s life could have been saved. At the very least a priest could have performed the last rites. The father’s most urgent desire, however, had been to spare his daughter the consequences of her act.
Gornick’s eyes—so narrowly trained upon matters of gender—now succeed in missing the entire spiritual thrust of the story. She recounts the crucial final passage in which the guilty father reflects on his conversations with God:
I do not feel the peace I once did: not with God, nor the earth, nor anyone on it. . . . In the mornings . . . I say to Him: I would do it again. For when she knocked on my door, then called to me, she woke what had flowed dormant in my blood since her birth, so that what rose from the bed was not a stable owner or a Catholic or any other Luke Ripley I had lived with for a long time, but the father of a girl.
And he says: I am a Father too.
True. . . . And if one of my sons had come to me that night, I would have phoned the police and told them to meet us with an ambulance at the top of the hill.
Why? Do you love them less?
I tell Him no, it is not that I love them less, but that I could bear the pain of watching and knowing my sons’ pain, could bear it with pride as they took the whip and the nails. But You never had a daughter and, if You had, You could not have borne her passion.
So, He says, you love her more than you love Me.
I love her more than I love truth.
Then you love in weakness, He says.
As You love me, I say, and I go with an apple or carrot out to the barn.
Who among us, Gornick asks, "is to be moved or comforted by the assurance that we are all as children commended to the care and pity of a Fatherly Being, but that, still, only a son need bear the consequences of his act"?
In her reading of this passage, Gornick confuses Luke Ripley’s voice with God’s, as if the Heavenly Father holds males accountable while shielding females from justice. But Ripley speaks as an individual human being. For the first time in his life, he has experienced a dimension of love that simply defies God’s law. At whatever cost, he will spare his daughter suffering. Despite the offense Gornick takes at a father overwhelmed by the impulse to protect a daughter because she is a daughter, Ripley’s response to Jennifer’s tragic deed is deeply believable and deeply human.
And it serves to figure in a small way the larger love of God for all humankind. "I love her more than I love truth," Ripley says to God. "Then you love in weakness," God replies. "As You love me," Ripley answers. What Ripley has apprehended is not so much what it means to love a daughter (his love for the girl is simply the vehicle that brings revelation), but what it means to love defiantly, desperately, transcendently. And what he clearly suggests in his closing line As You love me is that God loves him (Ripley, a son) more than God loves the truth about him. The tender, passionate protection Ripley grants his daughter—the grace—is like unto that mysterious grace the Christian God grants us all. God’s love, the story implies, undermines His law, defies rationality, and redeems humankind even as it sets the universe, in some awful and awesome sense, a–kilter.
When we read, we certainly may do more than carry on isolated conversations with ourselves. In Gornick’s reading of Dubus the spirit of his work is absent. She chooses to stand aloof from the fiction she critiques, refusing to surrender to its terms. I by my faith and life experiences may have been more advantageously positioned than Gornick to submit to Dubus’ story. Yet surely fiction must be able to expand our experience, to stretch our capacities to see the world from another’s perspective. It must be able to engage one’s mind and soul with the mind and soul of someone outside one’s self—which is why the best readers of good fiction must also possess a clear moral imagination. Gornick’s failure, I believe, is ultimately a failure of faith—in language and in the possibility of communion between author and reader. Texts for her do not mediate the space between people; they merely serve to illustrate it.
For the writer of religious fiction this loss of faith in language is particularly unfortunate, for while the writer of great religious fiction will never preach, the impulse to set the stage for revelation is surely intense. I think of Flannery O’Connor. "The novelist," she wrote in a letter, "renders his vision so that it can be transferred, as nearly whole as possible, to the reader." That O’Connor had a vision to transfer is indisputable; few writers have spoken so explicitly about the themes and underlying assumptions in their work. She believed in the devil, she believed in sin, she believed in God’s grace and in humanity’s redemption by Christ.
In justifying her use of the grotesque in fiction she explained that the Christian novelist "may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience [i.e., modern secular readers]. . . . You have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost–blind you draw large and startling figures." O’Connor wished to communicate about matters she felt to be of life–and–death consequence. She believed in her power as a storyteller to create worlds charged with meaning and invite readers into those worlds. She believed she could share her vision through the mediation of language. Though theoretically problematic, that belief still stands as a challenge to today’s skeptical critics. It is a belief, I think, with which Andre Dubus would have sympathized.
There are many ways to read stories. Some texts are surely more baffling to penetration, more willfully ambiguous, than others. Our removal in time and culture from the moment of a story’s composition creates a barrier between author and reader that can never be fully overcome—the greater the temporal and cultural gap, the larger the difficulties in interpretation. Nevertheless, I believe it possible to apprehend portions of the spirit in which a story has been written. Not all stories lend themselves to such apprehension, but many do. I do not come to this belief through theoretical reasoning, but through my encounters with texts. As I read fiction and teach it I will seek to maintain a certain faith, not only in the precarious reliability of words, but in the notion that authors use words with purpose that readers may, by a combination of wit and grace, divine.
Dian Saderup Monson teaches part–time in the Honors program at Brigham Young University.