Monday, April 13, 2009

Irreducible Experiences

But what does it mean to say that a novel such as Gilead has "potentially deep implications for the Left"? I'm not sure, and yet I wrote it, so I must have meant something by it. The experience of reading that novel was unlike that of any other, and that experience was a valuable experience in its own right. In trying to describe the novel, I wouldn't think saying much about what I learned from it would be of much interest or value. It's certainly not overtly political, though there is material about John Brown and the abolitionists, and about the Civil Rights era.

Blanchot quotes Malraux, who writes that, "Any art that claims to represent implies a system of reduction" ("The Museum, Art, and Time", Friendship, p.19). Malraux is writing about painting, but the point holds. If the writer tries to write a work that represents a political reality, or any reality, necessarily a system of reduction is involved. Similarly, it seems to me, assigning an interpretation to a work implies reduction as well, a reduction that negates the actual experience of the work. If I say that Gilead was an important reading experience for me, an avowedly leftwing atheist, what does such a claim entail? How can I reduce it for another's satisfaction? The narrator of Gilead is an elderly preacher; the book takes the form of letters written to his very young son. He does not struggle with his faith, but he does struggle with God and with components of that faith, with what a life of faith means in the context of life itself and all its contingencies. He is aware that he is not as fair a man as he ought to be, and he is not always good, according to his lights. I found the book to be a deeply moving experience. And of course I have written here about faith and its absence, and different kinds of faith.

And yet saying all this says finally not much about my experience, does it? And one doesn't want to resort to mystification--my experience is unwritable, unsayable, you just don't get it--though I know some claim Blanchot does just that. This, then, is the struggle. How to write about literary works without reducing them to their messages, to their different elements, to ultimately writing about them instead of the book itself, and its specificity. How also to convey the importance of these experiences? And how they might relate to politics, without the works being political entertainments? (Political entertainments: this is what I think most political novels end up being. Worse, entertainments for an increasingly tiny audience, necessarily muting the value of the political aspect. I will try to expand on this notion later.)

(I am meanwhile apparently trying to perfect the meandering, indeterminate blog post.)


Jim H. said...

I appreciate your point here. I, too, loved Gilead—just the experience of reading it (or, rather, of being me feeling the way I did when I experienced the processing of its words).

One does not need to be religious to appreciate a novel about a character whose life is unabashedly religious. It is a fundamentally different way of being (from, say, an avowed leftist-atheist), and appreciating it is (or can be) an appreciation of diversity. One doesn't have to feel compelled to 'convert' another to one's POV, whatever it may be, or, for that matter, to concur in the character's POV. Agreeing or disagreeing with a fictional character's point of view doesn't get to the ART of the thing—and, if it does, then you are precisely right: it's an entertainment, or meant only to preach to the choir (forgive the metaphor) or provoke.

As for politics in literature, I did a post sometime back quoting at great length what I take to be the template for such: Joyce's "Pope's nose" segment about Daedulus's father in Portrait of the Artist.

It's the character that matters. The art. That's why we read.

Jim H.

Andrew said...

FWIW, Marilynne Robinson remains one of my favorite authors, but more than that, I do agree with you very much that her writings offer something to the Left, and even more unlikely, to the academic Left.

That said, I think that what she offers is and must be completely unrelated to her comments about science. I really do think that she is in some sense resistant to the idea that science has something to add to the discussion about human variety and human behavior, much less that it can speak to what might be called inner life. I think this is an intellectually perilous position to take: you have to be an Enlightenment cheerleader to believe that closing off areas of human experience to science can lead to all kinds of serious intellectual and moral problems.

It's not that I believe science's powers are infinite, or that it will most certainly have interesting things to say about "inner life," but that to proceed as if we *know* it won't--I am uncomfortable with that.

I think you are very right to bring up Robinson's work on Social Darwinism--but I think that her arguments against that are different from her arguments against parascience. Her arguments about parascience really seem to be less about the social effects of using science to investigate "inner life" than they are about the sacrilegious audacity of trying, and the assumption that it will inevitably fail. It's not that science can be misused for bad social purposes, but that it's a bad idea to use science to describe these phenomena at all.

What I think Robinson does offer us is a profound respect for the past--a respect that requires active engagement with the past and not with contemporary discourse about the past. This is particularly crucial for scholarship, and her writings have really made an impact on me in that regard. It is really dangerous to assume, for instance, that Iowa always has been socially conservative because contemporary political/cultural discourse perceives it to be that way. Gilead makes it very difficult to perceive Iowa as inherently conservative, and even makes it difficult to see it as conservative today.

To put it in very simple terms, reading Gilead made me completely unsurprised that Iowa's Supreme Court struck down the law against same-sex marriages. In a sense, Marilynne Robinson had already told me that this could happen.

Andrew said...

Sorry, that is "you *don't* have to be an Enlightenment cheerleader." I guess the thought of Voltaire at a pep rally distracted me--now that would be fun.

Richard said...

Sure, Jim, but what is "the art"?

Andrew: I should say that when I said, in the other post, that I'm not sure it matters whether Robinson is anti-science, I'm in effect agreeing with some of what you say here. She offers something to us we shouldn't ignore, whether she herself is anti-science or not is irrelevant to that.

However, I do want to offer a defense of sorts to the idea that perhaps some things should be off limits to science. Or, rather, that the pursuit of "knowledge" at all costs, particularly in the context of capitalism (accumulation for accumulation's sake), is not innocent.

Andrew said...

I certainly agree that it is not innocent, but I am uncomfortable with the idea of saying that its susceptibility to misuse is a reason for asserting its inapplicability on certain questions. I think that this invites a distortion of the idea of what science is and what it can tell us--I think it distorts the idea of "proof." If we hold out, as Robinson does, the point that science can't "prove" its conjectures about inner life as a reason why it shouldn't make those conjectures, then I think we're asking for people to think of proof--and not falsifiability--as the grounds for whether science has a valid claim to knowledge or not, and even whether it should be conducted. And then I think different kinds of burdens of proof can get added to science--proof that its endeavors are moral, as that morality is determined by, say, right wing zealots.

Basically, I think it asks that we regard science as an alternate religion--one which advances in its endeavors by generating a subjective feeling that it has "proven" its hypotheses, as religion is "proven" in the believer's heart by the experience of it. I am extremely wary of going down that road (not that I'm suggesting you're taking us there).

Richard said...

Hm. I should explain that I do not think Robinson's recourse to "proof" was a good move on her part; I had meant to address it, since I sensed that it was important to the problems you were having with what she was saying. I agree that it implies a misunderstanding of what science is.

I suppose what I am trying to suggest is more of an ethical or philosophical approach, one that questions the positivist assumptions behind the drive to know everything (to, for example, map the human genome, and all that falls away from that effort), and who that drive ultimately serves.