6.1 fiction author Joshua Hren describes the role of short stories in a tragic world.
In The New York Times, that centripetal force of public opinion, Milan Kundera mused upon the fate of his novel The Farewell Party:
Five years ago, a Scandinavian translator confessed to me that his publisher had wavered seriously over going ahead with ''The Farewell Party'': ''Everyone here is left-wing. They don't like your message.'' ''What message?'' ''Isn't it a novel against abortion?'' Certainly not. Deep down, not only do I favor abortions, I'm for making them mandatory! Still, I was delighted with this misunderstanding. I had succeeded as a novelist. I succeeded in maintaining the moral ambiguity of the situation. I had kept faith with the essence of the novel as an art: irony. And irony doesn't give a damn about messages!
Some of the great literary luminaries of the 20th Century took abortion as a central action of their stories. Faulkner in Wild Palms. Hemingway in “Hills Like White Elephants.” David Foster Wallace in “Good People.” Denis Johnson in Jesus' Son, most directly in his story “Dirty Wedding.” And Kundera in The Farewell Party. Regardless of their personal-political positions concerning abortions, each of these authors capture (sometimes perhaps against their own wishes) the essential tragic nature of “novelistic fiction,” of which, incidentally, I consider short stories a part.
While “giant” theorists of fiction such as Milan Kundera and Mikhail Bakhtin contend that the novelistic world is primarily one of irony and comedy, I would position my own little aesthetic aims under the umbrella shared—at times comfortably, at times like two travelers who, stuck walking in the rain with the same destination, nevertheless grow apart when the conversation shifts awkwardly to God, and even more so to the God-Man—by Georg Lukács and René Girard. For Lukács, “the universe of the novel signified an essentially tragic condition marked by the 'transcendental homelessness' of the modern self, who had lost the possibility of experiencing totality, meaning, and redemption. It was, as he strikingly put it 'the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.'" Girard’s vision of the novelistic universe "was equally anguished, though for somewhat different reasons. In his case the source of critique was not the absence of totality but of spiritual transcendence in the modern world where desire, envy, and ressentiment were always inevitably intertwined.”
As Christians writing in the (post?)modern world, our fictions, if they are to effectively render the zeitgeist not of our personal beliefs or lives but of the overarching world we inhabit, we would do well to work hard at sympathetically depicting characters who (subjectively) have either been abandoned by God, or who have abandoned God by their own mysterious wills.
In an epilogic paragraph at the end of Denis Johnson's “Dirty Wedding,” the narrator notes:
I know they argue about whether or not it's right, whether or not the baby is alive at this point or that point in its growth inside the womb. This wasn't about that. It wasn't about what the lawyers did. It wasn't what the doctors did, it wasn't what the woman did. It was what the mother and the father did together.
Similarly, my story “Control” is not about abortion so much as it finds in abortion a centrifugal image-idea through which to undertake a memento mori. It does not argue that abortion should be illegal or legal. A single abortion makes up part of the action, but fiction is not the place to engage in a par-for-the-course-politicized debate that removes the dignity of the subject. In the words of my friend Dr. Jeremiah Webster, such a debate gravitates toward already established binaries: dialogue tends to disappear. The novel, as Bakhtin argues, creates a space in which the dialogic imagination reigns supreme. Each person's “position” is incarnated not in some platitude-ridden exchange, but in the wonderful and terrible mystery of his or her human freedom, a will that acts in a world in which most have more or less live as though God is dead. A world of tragedy whose sole redemptive source is the shadow of the “dead God's” cross cast before those who have eyes to see—a cross whose dark outline only accentuates the light surrounding it.
Crucially, as we see in a novel such as Kundera's Farewell Party, the absence of God doesn't result in an absence of human depravity and evil. Although he may try to create ironic characters and conflicts, his world, one in which people are driven—and, the key point, driven unabashedly—by the will to power, by ressentiment, by romantic imitation of all-too-human gods, Kundera's novel, separate from Kundera himself, succeeds not in establishing moral ambiguity, but in revealing the tragic vale lurking behind the (post?)modern penchant for cynical irony.
Considering the artist's capacity to reckon with depravity, Jacques Maritain writes that,
The essential question is not to know whether a novelist can or cannot depict such an aspect of evil. The essential question is to know at what altitude he is prepared to depict it and whether his art and his heart are pure enough and strong enough for him to depict it without complicity or connivance. The more deeply the modern novel probes human misery, the more does it require superhuman virtues in the novelist. To write Proust's work as it needed to be written would have required the inner light of a Saint Augustine. The opposite occurs, and we see the observer and the thing observed, the novelist and his subject, rivaling each other in a competition to degrade.
I cannot make accurate claims about the altitude at which I am prepared to depict beings and actions steeped in the that archaic word sin. But I would not dare lead you through the inferno, through the purgatorio, without allowing that paradisio of inner light—a violent grace! a severe mercy!—to strike, and, whenever the fictionalized human heart would have it, to make holy, if even this holiness does not erase the existential tragedy.
Mary Gluck, "Reimagining the Flaneur: The Hero of the Novel in Lukács, Bakhtin, and Girard." Modernism/modernity. 13.1 (January 2006): 747-64.
Denis Johnson, Jesus' Son. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.
Milan Kundera, "Key Words, Problem Words, Words I love." The New York Times. 6 March 1988. Retrieved 13 November 2010.
Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry. New York: Scribners, 1962.
Joshua Hren is associate editor for Dappled Things: a Quarterly of Ideas, Art, and Faith. He and his wife Brittney have two small children, Anaya and Soren. When it pleases God, when the house sleeps, he drinks from the books of those who have rendered justice through language to visible and invisible worlds.