From Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire”

“We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students). Although I am capable, through long dabbling in blue magic, of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse—I am a miserable rhymester), I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do—pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web. Solemnly I weighed in my hand what I was carrying under my left armpit, and for a moment I found myself enriched with an indescribable amazement as if informed that fireflies were making decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits, or that a bat was writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky.” (289)

Jonathan Franzen

I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s much ballyhooed novel, Freedom, and I’m finding it unusually difficult to express why I feel a little disappointed with it.  Franzen is undoubtedly a gifted writer.  He has an ear for dialogue, and the imaginative breadth of Freedom (as that of The Corrections) is undeniably impressive.  But something still feels missing.  He certainly has a knack for capturing the nuances of poisonous relationships, and the myriad ways in which we ourselves poison and allow ourselves to be poisoned by those very relationships.  As with his previous novel, The Corrections, Freedom is about an unhappy family. And “unhappy families,” as the famous opening line of Anna Karenina declares, are “unhappy in their own way,” as opposed to the dreary monotony of happy families, which “are all alike.”

But maybe that’s part of what’s bothering me.  It’s not really clear to me that Franzen’s unhappy families are really all that different, at least in any interesting ways.  Both The Corrections and Freedom follow an almost identical outline in their presentation of the human self: our parents make horrible, infuriating mistakes.  In a feverish attempt to escape the apparent hell of falling into their image and likeness, we rush headlong to an antithetical set of habits and practices that, in the end, only replicate their faults in accidentally different ways.  This realization is either a comfort or impossibly depressive, depending on the maturity and introspective authenticity with which we confront it.  All children are like their parents, and perhaps the best thing we children can do is be thankful for our parents virtues and, as it were, lean into those virtues, instead of furiously clawing away at their faults.  Doing so will only drive our own children into their own antipodes of anti-parental rebellion.

There’s something strangely deterministic in Franzen’s novels.  It’s almost Flannery O’Connor-ish, but without the transcendence.  I mean that the inevitability of each person’s unhappiness follows its course in a much more banal, almost mechanical way than would happen in an O’Connor story.  Each of Franzen’s (interesting) characters are simply mirror images of each other, and those lucky enough to escape the simple meanness and pettiness that characterizes the others only do so by a kind of temperamental liberation.  That is to say, the “nicer” characters are simply born nicer, but the others are abandoned to marriages defined by serial infidelity and petty disputes, and this latter group can only hope to live a somewhat happy life by seeing their entire world come crashing down.

But what, exactly, is this fulfilling and happy life?  It’s not clear to me that, for Franzen, it’s really anything else than simply being nicer to each other.  The characters who plumb the abyss of depression only rise as far as the temperamental affability of the other, less interesting characters.

There’s hardly a kind word said about religion in Freedom, and the end of the book has a cartoonishly drawn Evangelical who we’re clearly meant to despise.   Moreover, the plot revolves around a character’s attempt to combat human overpopulation.  This character also reveals that he hates nothing, literally nothing, more than the Catholic Church.

Most of the characters in Franzen’s novels hate almost everyone else, except who they’re sleeping with at a particular moment, and even they do not escape their paramours’ seemingly tireless and universal anger.  When the greatest human virtue one can imagine is “niceness,” it’s not really a surprise to me that Franzen has a hard time displaying what there might be to, you know, like about being human in the first place.

These thoughts don’t really convey my undeniably mixed feelings about the book.  They really are mixed, and again, Franzen does a lot of things well.  But what I’m finding interesting is my inability to articulate exactly why I didn’t find it worth the accolades and praise it’s been given…  I’ll close with this quote from an interview that I think is insightful, if only to show that I do think Franzen is worth attending to.

“I can see that lack of resolution now as a young writer’s move. You find that you have talent as a novelist, you understand a lot more about the world than many other people your age do, and yet you haven’t lived enough—certainly I hadn’t—to really have something to say. Everything is still guessed at, every conclusion is provisional. And this came to be my gripe with the postmodern aversion to closure. It’s like, Grow up already! Take some ­responsibility for your narrative! …Aversion to closure can be refreshing at certain historical moments, when ossified cultural narratives need to be challenged. But it loses its subversive bite in a culture that celebrates eternal adolescence. It becomes part of the problem.” – From “The Art of Fiction, No. 207: Jonathan Franzen,” in The Paris Review 

 

 

 

A prescient bit of dialogue…

…from Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1985:

“‘How was class?’ Denise said.
‘It’s going so well they want me to teach another course.’
‘In what?’
‘Jack won’t believe this.’
‘In what?’ I said.
‘Eating and drinking. It’s called Eating and Drinking: Basic Parameters. Which, I admit, is a little more stupid than it absolutely has to be.’
‘What could you teach?’ Denise said.
‘That’s just it. It’s practically inexhaustible. Eat light foods in warm weather. Drink plenty of liquids.’
‘But everybody knows that.’
‘Knowledge changes every day. People like to have their beliefs reinforced. Don’t lie down after eating a heavy meal. Don’t drink liquor on an empty stomach…We didn’t grow up with all these shifting facts and attitudes. One day they just started appearing. So people need to be reassured by someone in a position of authority that a certain way to do something is the right way or the wrong way, at least for the time being'” (163).

White Noise satirizes (viciously) many aspects of American life, but one of the most recurrent and obvious is the overload of information in the media age.  The novel was written in 1985, so heaven knows how the internet would have been portrayed, but DeLillo nevertheless saw the intellectual climate of the 80’s as one characterized by the reduction of actual engagement in and attention to the world into a matter of processing and analyzing discrete bits of data.  This quoted conversation is the result of such information-overload.  One of the main characters, Babette, has been so successful teaching a weekly “Posture Class” that she has been asked to lead another seminar on eating and drinking.  Why?  Because “people like to have their beliefs reinforced.”

Surely this is nothing new.  I imagine people have hated to be wrong or contradicted since Babel.  But I think DeLillo is on to something very important: that the urge to have our beliefs reinforced might be unnaturally enhanced and even encouraged by an overtly digitized, media-saturated, and disengaged culture.  After a natural disaster strikes earlier in the novel, the narrator comments: “It is when death is rendered graphically, is televised, so to speak, that you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself. A network of symbols has been introduced, an entirely awesome technology wrested from the gods. It makes you feel like a stranger in your own dying” (139). Technology is a sort of buffer, occluding our immediate participation in whatever reality is presented through its medium.  The narrator, so technologically inoculated against the sheer weight and wonder of actual reality, depends on apparently mundane or everyday experiences like watching his children sleep for the only “moments of transcendence” that seem to occur throughout the novel (149).

When our posture is one of total disengagement, when a constant influx of information precludes meaningful intimacy with any given reality (even death), we become desperate for a word of reassurance.  Much has been written since the election about social “bubbles” and the dangers they cause.  Communal echo-chambers are sites of information restriction: they exclude bothersome and dissenting view points.  But DeLillo would have us consider the possibility that we only desire information restriction because we are already suffering information overload.

Perhaps there is a connection between stillness and quiet and the ability to be contradicted or proven wrong.

 

Simone Weil on Choice

“When the possibilities of choice are so wide as to injure the commonweal, men cease to enjoy liberty. For they must either seek refuge in irresponsibility, puerility and indifference – a refuge where the most they can find is boredom – or feel themselves weighed down by responsibility at all times for fear of causing harm to others. Under such circumstances, men, believing, wrongly, that they are in possession of liberty, and feeling that they get no enjoyment out of it, end up by thinking that liberty is not a good thing.” – Simone Weil, The Need for Roots (13)

 

An Indictment and Invitation

“Many do not experience the church as holy, only as powerful.”

“As for the poor themselves, their lives are one long ascesis. No pattern of ascetic life devised by religious can begin to rival the level of ‘divesting’ and deprivation on which the poor of Latin America live…Ascesis applies to people whose education can afford them a higher level of life than poverty. If these are to commit themselves to the liberation of the poor, they need to be ascetics.”

-José Comblin, The Holy Spirit and Liberation (100 and 135)

 

 

 

A reminder from Etienne Gilson

At some point in the past century, it became theologically fashionable to do away with notions like “divine impassibility,” “aseity,” “subsisting relations,” or any other metaphysically-inflected term suggestive of a remote and aloof Lord.  There are a number of well-meaning and biblically inspired (if not exegetically sound) reasons for this criticism, but I don’t have time to go into them now.

Suffice it to say that, if you do away with the transcendence of God, you do away with all that is lovely about being human as well.  Certain schools of theological thought shun the idea of a “cold, impassible God,” but they have not thought through the consequences of a pathetic one.  Etienne Gilson, who here comments on St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s De Diligendo Deo, reminds us what these consequences are:

“The whole drama of Christian mysticism lies in the fact that the creature feels a need for his Creator much more absolute than that of any being for his god in any other metaphysical economy, and in the fact that, for the same reason, a Creator is much less accessible to His creature than is any god to beings less radically dependent on him. If you lower, were it but for an instant and at any point, the barrier set up by the contingence of being between man and God, then you rob the Christian mystic of his God, and you rob him therefore of his mysticism. He can do without any god who is not inaccessible; the sole God Who by nature is inaccessible is also the sole God he can in no wise do without.” – Etienne Gilson, The Mystical Theology of St. Bernard (120)