"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

23 May 2007

Fiction: A Brief Apologia

Periodically, someone challenges the reading of fiction with comments about its lack of seriousness or its lack of substance or the "fact" that it's mere escapism or whatever other reasons to dismiss it as an activity unworthy of much of a serious person's time. Books have been written on the subject, of course, but I was thinking about it last night and jotted down some thoughts that might serve as a starting point for its defense.

Fiction offers particular pictures of theories about human nature; it is "theory become flesh," as a student once put it. It is where we see these theories tested (what if x kind of person were placed in y situation with z conflicts . . . what would happen?) and can decide if they make sense.

When I read Kate Chopin's "The Storm," for example, I find myself thinking about the emptiness of her picture of adultery making people happy and making them better marriage partners. This just doesn't make sense given what I observe about human nature and what I think I know about women in particular. And so I reject her theory about human nature, marriage, and sex, while recognizing that of course some of her critiques of social norms and attitudes are still true.

When I read "A Domestic Dilemma" by Carson McCullers, on the other hand, I find myself thinking how true is her portrayal of the ambiguities of love in a marriage with an alcoholic wife, the complexity of emotions and the decision of the husband to love in spite of the crushing disappointments, how true the wife's reaction to her circumstances is for certain women. And so I accept her theory of love and marriage, of commitment in difficulties, even if I don't accept every aspect of her critique of society.

Sometimes reading theory is helpful and even necessary. But it's in story that it's made real, that we see and understand its implications and its truths, its strengths and its weaknesses, its power or its emptiness. (By "theory" here I don't mean literary criticism so much as I simply mean any serious nonfiction study of anything having to do with how we live or should live.)

Scripture is a story, and stories within a story. Of course, it contains exposition as well, but we are always seeing the theory played out in particular lives. Jesus told parables because stories about a particular man who loses a sheep or a particular woman who loses a coin made His hearers see themselves, be able to put themselves into the story and understand how they should then live (or not live). And often He did not expound the parables; He left them to work in the souls of those who were willing to learn.

Stories move us, make us want to laugh and to cry -- and to be better people. "I want to be like Aragorn" or "Oh, I don't want to become like Saruman" is far more compelling (and helpful) than "I would like to be more patient and persevering" or "I should not be greedy for power."

Stories work at the level of intuition. They can be explicit in the principles they embody, but usually they are not. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear," Jesus said of the parables -- meaning a heart to hear. The subtleties are what make story dangerous, yes -- too much Chopin can convince the undiscerning reader that her errors are truth. But it's also the subtleties that carry story's great power for good. The best stories allow for the complexities and ambiguities of life in a fallen world, while still giving clear pictures of virtue and vice. And they open our hearts to mystery and wonder, beauty as well as truth. Imbibing such stories from childhood on is more likely to lead to a subconscious desire to be virtuous than if a child is merely preached at with theory.

The real substance of knowledge is in story. The theory just helps me to articulate what story makes me know and understand.

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