Saturday, March 29, 2008

why fiction

A visiting friend and I recently had a discussion about fiction and its place in the life of wisdom. Of course, we didn't use such a lofty thesis statement, but that was the gist of it.

Why should we read things like Brideshead Revisited, Silence, A Man in Full, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Love in the Ruins, The Lord of the Rings, Kristin Lavransdatter, or even... Love in the Time of Cholera? If time is short, shouldn't we be almost exclusively reading the Catechism, the Bible, or various devotional works?

I'd like to think about this question sincerely, because there was a time in my life when all I wanted to read were works by saints or works on points of doctrine or ideas. There's nothing wrong with these seasons of life, so long as we do not absolutize them for ourselves or others.

The place of fiction and, in particular, modern fiction in the life of lovers of wisdom--philosophers!--has to do with knowledge of self, knowledge of the world, and knowledge of God.

The most important thing to remember is that all truth is one, and ultimately is found only in union with God. This does not mean, however, that only art or literature explicitly devoted to God speaks truth. As Augustine wrote, the human heart by nature groans and aches for God alone--all human works, however broken or disgusting, can give expression to this desire and thus to the fulfillment of this desire.

We should be reading the great works of modern fiction (amen, time is short, so skip the trash unless you're on a brain-vacation!) and helping our of-age children to do the same. We should read fiction because it speaks the language a whole dimension of ourselves that perhaps the Summa Theologica does not: the imagination, the will, the heart. It engages our intellect, too, in a new way: Rather than an analysis of a problem, it invites the reader to inhabit the questions at hand. If holiness or viciousness are only fully grasped in an encounter with a living person who is either holy or vicious, then fiction can draw us ore closely to a lived experience of these realities.

We should be reading modern fiction because we are moderns. Even more than that, we are post-moderns. It does not do for us to stop with the Greeks, the Medieval poets, Dante, or even Shakespeare. The reality is that, for us and our children, the world is a different place now than it was in 1900. I am glad I had to read 1984, Farenheit 451, In Cold Blood, Ordinary People, and even... ugh... Catcher in the Rye. I am even more glad that my 20th-century reading list did not end with high school but went on to include the works listed at the top of this page--and many more.

In reading the works of modern authors, we listen to the voice of our immediate companions on earth. We hear the influence of Nietzsche, WWI and WWII, the Cold War, the sexual revolution, the loss of confidence in natural science, the loss of so much. We also see the ongoing thirst for truth, beauty, and goodness--and the unlikely moments in which these are found in our own context. We learn to speak the language that those around us speak. This is the only way we ourselves can grasp the truth of our condition: in order, creatures, humans, moderns.

Now, truth is sometimes depressing. Especially Ray Bradbury's fiction. Ugh. Tom Wolfe is no walk in the sunshine, either. But they articulate and paint for our souls images, allegories, and stories from which Christ himself does not shrink. Neither should we. All truth is one; all truth is of God.

So, I'd like to see some curriculums including these works of fiction: teaching children to be modern Catholics--in the world, not of it. Able to speak the language of the modern world without receiving its despair. Having been taught to do so, they will know joy and hope all the more deeply.


Christine said...

erika, this post is so brilliant and articulate. i love it!

Erika Ahern said...

Aw, shucks! I'll have to send it to Larua Berquist!

Charity said...

Hi Erika. I'm here via the latest Conversion Diary post. Just wanted to thank you for this particular post! The distinction you illuminated about how fiction invites the reader to inhabit the questions at hand and how it comes close to experiencing things through an encounter with a living person, it is very helpful to my conceptualization of where fiction should fit in my life!

Mary Ellen said...

Hi! I'm another Conversion Diary reader who is so glad to have found your blog! You have articulated so well my own feelings about fiction - and it's great to read an endorsement of modern fiction. So many works feed my intellect, but fiction feeds my soul. Thank you.

EvaV said...

Hi! I'm also coming from Conversion Diary but I stopped at the post on cathegorical opposites first. I think that reading modern fiction like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 might also alleviate being judgmental by inhabiting (like you said) those characters drifting towards disaster. How would we act, bound by the rules of their world?
Alice Munro is stark - because grace does not shine into her world. It's hell in there, how could we blame those characters for their choices? It's a different mirror, but it certainly is a mirror, to truth.
I also think you would enjoy the work of Ursula K. LeGuin, esp. The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven.

JMB said...

I'm another reader from Conversion Diary!

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene changed my life as I know it. Prior to reading this "modern novel" I really didn't understand how Baptism permanently changes oneself. All the Catholic schooling, retreats, Jesuit university, Pre Cana and Baptism preparation course didn't manage to convey that truth to me.