The Road Ahead
Voices for the Next Twenty-Five Years
Many gifted artists and writers of faith working today were just learning how to read and hold their crayons when Image was founded. They never experienced the culture wars of the eighties that weighed so heavily on an older generation; theirs are a different set of influences and concerns. Do they still need evidence that art informed by faith is alive and well, or is that now a forgone conclusion? We asked a handful of younger writers how and if Image’s mission and focus resonate with them, and what they need Image to be.
The Search for Epiphany
I’VE BEEN THINKING about the prompt for this symposium with regard to American fiction. Is it true that religious themes, ideas, or characters—religious experience as a whole—have found their way into the imaginations of today’s novelists and short story writers? If so, where does that leave Image?
As to the first question, it is likely that if religious experience has found its way into our fiction, it’s for at least one of two reasons. The first is that religious themes, ideas, and characters have become interesting or peculiar, because they are other. They are something exotic that intrigues the writer in the way Saint Anthony intrigued Flaubert, who otherwise was a novelist of manners. The second is that religious experience has become something the writer wants. The writer wants it because it may have something to offer, something useful for living life. The writer wants what religion provides, namely, a revelation.
One can find both motivations in American fiction today. The more interesting motivation, however, is the latter, which can be found in a handful of novels from the last ten years. These novels hinge on a personal epiphany or revelation, where the hero finds the future and destiny of his life disclosed or opened up. This, of course, is nothing new to fiction or storytelling in general. But what is interesting is the context within which these epiphanies occur.
Take David Foster Wallace’s unfinished, posthumous novel about IRS employees, The Pale King (2011). Both types of motivation are at play. There is Lane Dean Jr., an earnest and flawed evangelical Christian, whose faith helps him to assume responsibility for his child after his girlfriend becomes pregnant. Foster Wallace, one can tell, admires Lane, and admires the way that Lane’s beliefs have helped him to make a humane and decent (and, in its way, courageous) decision.
But Lane is not the character who undergoes a great epiphany. This happens to non-Christian Chris Fogle when, as an aimless twenty-something who indulges in drugs and generally lives like a “wastoid,” he wanders into an accounting class and discovers his life’s vocation. He was looking for a poli-sci course, but instead walked in on a Jesuit professor giving a stirring lecture on the heroic nature of accounting. Fogle is moved, and he can only explain his experience in quasi-religious terms, by comparing it in a critical way to the experience of a Christian girl he once knew:
I think that the truth is probably that the enormous, sudden, dramatic unexpected life-changing experiences are not translatable or explainable to anyone else, and this is because they really are unique and particular, though not unique in the way the Christian girl believed. This is because their power isn’t just a result of the experience itself, but also of the circumstances in which it hits you, of everything in your previous life-experience which has led up to it and made you exactly who and what you are when the experience hits you.
This type of experience “hits” other authors’ characters as well. Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision (2005) concerns a character stuck in what Kierkegaard would call the aesthetic plane of existence. Like a lot of overeducated and underemployed people of my generation, he glides through life, from job to job, too indecisive to pick a course. By virtue of a comic trope, he winds up in Ecuador, where he, among other things, meets a girl and discovers his life’s path: democratic socialism. This ideology gives his life an ethical dimension that shapes his future, a “vision…in which commodities disclose their history to the touch and in one huge epidemic of empathy we start repairing the world.”
One of three protagonists in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot (2011) spends all four years of college and half a year of post-college travel pining for a girl who doesn’t love him back. Only after finally seducing her near the end of the novel does Mitchell come to the sudden, epiphanic appreciation of his own freedom—that is, of his ability to choose his destiny. This occurs in the middle of a Quaker meeting, and it is a moment of liberation, although “the things Mitchell saw weren’t revelations of a universal significance,” but only for his own life.
These epiphanies are distinct from what Aristotle called “recognition,” that is, the moment when one comes to understand an inexorable and previously hidden fact about one’s fate, whether good or bad. Instead, they are moments of liberation or change, when the future opens up, when we come to understand what we are meant to do with our life and are able to freely choose it. It’s not fate, but destiny.
Moreover, these experiences are not explicitly religious, nor are these stories full of religious characters. They are merely experiences within the stories that take the shape of revelation. They are fundamentally unique.
I wouldn’t say that these epiphanies are common in American fiction today. But when they pop up, you notice them. And the fact that they pop up is evidence of a desire for them.
So where does that leave Image?
I would say two things. First, Image should consciously pursue fiction which bears witness to the different ways that these epiphanies can occur in stories and in life. Of course, this kind of story has already appeared in its pages. But now it can promote them with a new awareness of being in dialogue with an interesting trend in American writing.
Second, in order to further this dialogue, it might consider expanding its back pages for an enhanced critical bite. Someone could challenge Kunkel, for example, by saying that his character has only reached the ethical plane, which is a horizon as limited in its own way as the aesthetic one. What he needs is transcendence.
Beyond these two suggestions, however, I would like to lay out in dramatic terms what is at stake in fiction today, so as to deepen our understanding of what Image’s role could be. The rise of epiphanies in fiction I believe constitutes a recapitulation of something which already happened in the career of Gustave Flaubert, the father of modern fiction. Flaubert, like many of our American novelists, sought to write social and political chronicles but was propelled by his art toward existential preoccupations. His artistic trajectory leads to epiphany.
Flaubert is remembered today primarily for two novels of manners: provincial manners in Madame Bovary, and city manners in Sentimental Education. The style he employs requires his famous God-like eye, which captures every detail, social norm, and saccharine phrase used by different classes of people. He is an empathetic scientist of the human animal.
Neither novel, however, has a true moment of epiphany. Madame Bovary’s fiery heart is never mollified, only stamped out. Frédéric and Deslauriers never achieve their ambitions for love and power; they are hapless before the circumstances of their lives. Flaubert was a master of manners and irony, but also of depicting the thwarted heart.
Because of this, Flaubert was accused of aestheticism or downright cruelty. He was said to be all surface. The decadent Catholic critic Barbey d’Aurevilly put it this way: Flaubert “stays on the surface, vows no feeling, no passion, no enthusiasm, no ideal, no sight, no reflections, no depths.” To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, Flaubert’s fiction is of manners without mystery.
Towards the end of his life, however, after enduring the critical failure of Sentimental Education and attempting to address his supposed heartlessness, Flaubert wrote the story “A Simple Heart.” In his words, it
is just the account of an obscure life, that of a poor country girl, pious but fervent, discreetly loyal, and tender as new-baked bread. She loves one after the other a man, her mistress’s children, a nephew of hers, an old man whom she nurses, and her parrot. When the parrot dies she has it stuffed, and when she herself comes to die she confuses the parrot with the Holy Ghost. This is not at all ironical as you may suppose, but on the contrary very serious and sad. I want to move tender hearts to pity and tears, for I am tender-hearted myself.
He adds, “Now, surely, no one will accuse me of being inhuman anymore.”
Yet there is a sense in which “A Simple Heart” is inhuman, or at least, not pro-human: it ends in despair. Felicité, the ironically named country girl, never finds a meaning to her suffering, and the parrot—her final love, which she attempts to keep from rotting by stuffing it—is never anything more than a parrot. We may be moved to pity and tears, but we see no epiphany.
Perhaps the challenge today is for Image writers to do one better than Flaubert. That is, to capture social reality with the same Godlike eye, but at the same time to show us how an object in the world can also be a sign of transcendence, an occasion for revelation. In other words, how a parrot can be more than a parrot. This, in any case, appears to be what many writers are already after.
Santiago Ramos is a journalist and teaching fellow at the Boston College department of philosophy, where he is pursuing doctoral studies. He has written reviews and essays for Commonweal, First Things, and Image. He is film and TV critic for The Catholic Key and an erstwhile contributor to Image’s blog, Good Letters.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.