Franzen/Giraldi Fiction as Religious Text

With near-unanimity, [Shirley] Heath’s respondents described substantive works of fiction as, she said, “the only places where there was some civic, public hope of coming to grips with the ethical, philosophical and sociopolitical dimensions of life that were elsewhere treated so simplistically. From Agamemnon forward, for example, we’ve been having to deal with the conflict between loyalty to one’s family and loyalty to the state. And strong works of fiction are what refuse to give easy answers to the conflict, to paint things as black and white, good guys versus bad guys. They’re everything that pop psychology is not.”

“And religions themselves are substantive works of fiction,” I said.

She nodded. “This is precisely what readers are saying: that reading good fiction is like reading a particularly rich section of a religious text. What religion and good fiction have in common is that the answers aren’t there, there isn’t closure. The language of literary works gives forth something different with each reading. But unpredictability doesn’t mean total relativism. Instead it highlights the persistence with which writers keep coming back to fundamental problems. Your family versus your country, your wife versus your girlfriend.”

“Being alive versus having to die,” I said.

Jonathan Franzen. Originally published in Harper’s, April 1996, under the title “Perchance to Dream.”

In Nietzsche’s account of the “birth of tragedy,” which remains pretty much unbeatable as a theory of why people enjoy sad narratives, an anarchic “Dionysian” insight into the darkness and unpredictability of life is wedded to an “Apollonian” clarity and beauty of form to produce an experience that’s religious in its intensity. Even for people who don’t believe in anything that they can’t see with their own two eyes, the formal aesthetic rendering of the human plight can be (though I’m afraid we novelists are rightly mocked for overusing the word) redemptive.

Jonathan Franzen. Originally published in Harper’s, April 1996, under the title “Perchance to Dream.”

Writing about Waugh [Graham] Greene suggests that “art is function of the religious mind” which is entirely accurate but entirely different that being a “function of religion.” Regardless of how many masterworks were fired in the hearth of piety and praise. A novel should indeed be a groping after some form of the metaphysical; a benediction of the unseen powers; an upholding of the mysterium tremendum. Those insistent inklings of the numinous. But a novel should not be a tract, an apologia, dogmatism attached like strings to the limbs of characters. It should not seek to convert or persuade or indoctrinate. And when we tag a writer a Catholic novelist we attribute to him the agenda of the Catholic and not the aim of the novelist. You can try to reconcile the agenda of one with aim of the other. [Francois] Mauriac grappled consistently with this reconciliation. As did O’Connor and Greene himself. But it’s a fraught enterprise. Blake’s “mind-forged manacles” became faith-forged manacles, when the purely imaginative and linguistic motive of the novelist was sullied by the believer’s allegiance to Catholicism. That’s the pinch. Catholics already have the truth; whereas novelists write novels, in part, because they don’t. The church has all the righteous answers; a novel is after the right questions. “We Catholics,” says O’Connor, “are very much given to the instant answer. Fiction doesn’t have any.”

The Problem of the Catholic Novelist. William Giraldi. Originally published in The New Republic July/August 2015. Collected in Giraldi’s “American Audacity.”

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