Stories Like Ours
Posted by turmarion
Stage plays also captivated me, with their sights full of the images of my own miseries: fuel for my own fire. Now, why does a man like to be made sad by viewing doleful and tragic scenes, which he himself could not by any means endure? Yet, as a spectator, he wishes to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very sense of grief his pleasure consists. What is this but wretched madness? For a man is more affected by these actions the more he is spuriously involved in these affections. Now, if he should suffer them in his own person, it is the custom to call this “misery.” But when he suffers with another, then it is called “compassion.” But what kind of compassion is it that arises from viewing fictitious and unreal sufferings? The spectator is not expected to aid the sufferer but merely to grieve for him. And the more he grieves the more he applauds the actor of these fictions. If the misfortunes of the characters —whether historical or entirely imaginary— are represented so as not to touch the feelings of the spectator, he goes away disgusted and complaining. But if his feelings are deeply touched, he sits it out attentively, and sheds tears of joy.
–St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 3, Chapter II; courtesy of here; my emphasis.
Or perhaps we’re fictional characters?
Last time we established that we’re at least like fictional characters, whether we actually are or not. We are, as it were, characters in God’s novel. Thus, the relationship of a human author to fictional characters in his writings is at least a useful (if imperfect) metaphor for God’s relationship to us. We don’t want to take it too far, but it’s a useful heuristic.
Well, using this heuristic, the world can look an awful lot like Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I think it is possible to make an argument justifying the evil and nastiness in the word, as I’ve summed up here. That’s not quite what I’m interested in looking at right now. Rather I’m interested in this question: What obligations (if any) does an author have to his (or His) characters?
One simple answer is given in Jeremiah 18:1-10 and in several other passages referencing it: God is the potter, we are the pots, and He can do any damn thing He wants to the pots, who have no right to complain, period. In our analogy, He owes the characters in the story nothing, and can write them as He pleases, and they have no right to complain. I have to be honest here and say that I have a deep loathing for these passages, but they tend to be the go-to quotes used to “justify the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it. In the strict sense, this is true–God is omnipotent and sovereign–but I reject this in the crudely literal and simplistic sense in which it’s generally used, that is, that we should accept whatever God dishes out passively and not even think about getting upset about it or questioning God’s goodness. The problem I have with this is that I like happy endings.
Children’s stories usually have happy endings, at least those written for younger children. Even these stories, though, don’t always end happily for everyone, as the villains often get their comeuppance. As we get older, our stories darken and sometimes things don’t end well for the good guys, either. We get to our teens and maybe get brooding and Goth, while our literature classes explain tragedy to us. We grow up, and expecting a happy, or at least unambiguously happy, ending is seen as naive, if not idiotic. The stories we read often are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, at least to the protagonists.
I will freely admit I was a very eccentric child (as I am a very eccentric adult; but as an adult one learns to mask it, to an extent). At the end of a story, I would often be distraught about a “good guy” who died or who had an unhappy ending. I’d have this weird urge to write a sequel to the story in which it was explained that the dead went to Heaven, at least, and that the living who had unhappy endings would have change of fortune outside the boundaries of the “official” plot. As I got older and began wrestling with the concepts of Heaven and Hell, I sometimes extended that to the villains–maybe in the imaginary sequel they repented? Unhappy endings were profoundly disturbing to me, as you can see.
Now of course I understand the purpose of tragedy in particular and “unhappy endings” in general. We live in a world, alas, in which there are all too few happy endings, and our literature, among other things, gives us a way to look at the world and derive at least some meaning from its nastiness. Classically, this was the specific raison d’être of tragedy. The idea is that by having a noble but flawed protagonist whose actions inevitably call down on him his tragic fate, we can see that even the best of us can screw up and that yet there is ultimate meaning in the world. As Nietzsche said in The Birth of Tragedy, tragedy essentially allowed humans to transcend nihilism and affirm life as it is, with all its imperfections. Arguably, this is also true of what we might more loosely call “tragedy”–stories that might not follow the classical canons of tragedy, but which, while having an “unhappy ending”, still provide the Aristotelian catharsis–the “purification” of the emotions as the meaningful order of the cosmos is ultimately reasserted.
This, or rather its lack, is what I dislike about much modern literature, incidentally. The idea seems to have become to be grim, gritty, and have a downer ending as an end in itself–many (not all) of the movies on this list would be examples of this. Much of this kind of thing, in my view, is simply nihilistic porn. Even more serious, literary works often seem to view our existence as a meaningless abyss. Which, if that’s your viewpoint, is perfectly legitimate as a theme in your works, but I can’t see how they can be enjoyable to read, especially for those of us who do not share that view.
What I’m getting at is how this is (or is not) analogous to God. Most of us would agree that no matter how nihilistic or depraved a work of art may be, it’s still, at the end of the day, “just a story”, “just a book”, “just a movie”. We don’t arrest authors for writing horrible things to happen to their characters. But then, what if we apply this to God as Author? In the blog discussion thread I linked to in the second sentence of this post above, my interlocutor, Eliot, has the following thing, [Update: This link seems to be broken. The quote below is from the original discussion; if I can fix the link, I’ll do so in the near future] among others, to say, my emphasis and editing for length:
[W]e don’t blame Shakespeare for writing Hamlet either. The characters only exist by analogy to Shakespeare’s existence (just like we only exist by analogy to God’s existence). We do not get mad at author’s whose characters suffer. Is Dante bad for putting some characters in Hell forever? All we are is characters in God’s story. And sometimes damnation is awfully good in a story. For example, even in Harry Potter, it’s quite clear that Voldemort is damned. Even Dumbledore says “There is nothing we can do now” for the little fragment of his soul that Harry encounters in “King’s Cross” in the last book. And that’s simply better literature! We’re not sitting here saying “JK Rowling should thus never have created the character of Voldemort at all!”
In a very real sense, I think, we are something like “ideas in the mind of God.” If I have a character in my head, whom I imagine damned forever, is anyone “really” suffering? Well, only by analogy. Only I really exist, my character just exists by analogy. As a figment in my mind, does he participate in a shred of my consciousness in some way? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean I’m suffering forever just because I can imagine someone doing it. Likewise, we only exist by analogy to God, and so Him “imagining” a Hell filled with reprobates doesn’t mean anyone is “really really” suffering in the end anyway, because we are only “conscious” by analogy compared to God.
Yes, a capricious God is a feature, not a bug.
Readers, feel free to go through the whole thread. It’s a depressing slog, and the parts I cite here really cause me a visceral repulsion. Such views go against everything I believe, both intellectually and more important, intuitively, about God. I’m not going to re-hash my arguments against such views–I did way more than enough of that over at the Vox Nova site.
Rather, I want to look at something subtler. I think we have solid theological grounds for rejecting the view of God presented in the blockquote above; but I want to look at the fiction we humans write and make an argument that the comparison Eliot makes is wrong even in terms of human literature.
First, I think the relationship of characters to authors is a little more complex. They’re not, even for us humans, just “ideas in our minds”. I would almost draw the analogy to the Hindu concept of Ātman.
The Sanskrit word ātman means “soul” or “self”. For a human, this is his consciousness, self-awareness, mind, and personality–pretty much what we mean by “self” or “soul”. However, when capitalized (in English–Sanskrit makes no distinction of capital and lower case), Ātman means the ultimate, transcendent Soul or Self, that is, God. In Hindu thought, each of us–each individual ātman–is a fragment, a spark, a tiny part of the Ātman. Just as the beings in a dream are ultimately not separate from the dreamer, none of us is separate from God. We have merely forgotten and live in māyā, the illusion that we and everything around us are separate from God. The goal of Hinduism is thus to end this illusion, achieving liberation (moksha or mukti, in Sanskrit) with resultant re-union with God. This is the idea behind the Hindu saying “Tat tvam asi” (remember, the “a’s” here sound like the “u” in “but”!), “Thou art that.” That is, “thou”–the individual self–is ultimately “that”–God.
Likewise, the characters of a story that a human writer writes are teeny “ātmans” which are part of the Ātman–the writer herself–from whose mind they sprang.
The simplest reason I’d give for denying too much analogy between the writer/character relationship and the God/human (or Ātman/ātman) relationship is that we are real and characters–Hamlet or Harry Potter or Voldemort or Peter Cottontail–are not. We are as much beyond the reality of literary characters as God is beyond our reality. However, I will admit that once one smuggles in the idea of multiple modes or levels of reality, it’s hard to make a fully cogent and robust argument against that analogy. Thus, despite my doubts, I want to accept the analogy, for the purposes of the argument, and see where it leads.
To be clear, for the purposes of what follows, I’m assuming that the relationship between us and the characters in our writing is an accurate analogy of that between God and us.
So, what obligations does an author have to his characters? To put it another way, am I being “fair” to a character in a story I write if I kill him, have bad things happen to him, or have him come to a bad end? I’d say, “Yes, if I’m trying, to the best of my ability, to produce art.” Art, like pornography, is something I can’t quite define, but which I know when I see it. I would broadly say that one prerequisite–not sufficient, but certainly necessary–is some attempt, even if not fully conscious, on the part of the author, to convey some sort of meaning about the human condition. I’d even give some latitude for meanings I don’t agree with, or themes that argue that there is no meaning. I don’t much like the cosmicism of H. P. Lovecraft, but it’s a serious perspective that he puts forth, and it is trying to look at human existence in the grand context of the universe, grim and forbidding as it is, from Lovecraft’s perspective. The ethos of the typical slasher film, by contrast, is light-years away from this, or from anything even approaching art.
So Shakespeare wasn’t being unfair to Hamlet, nor J. K. Rowling to the various characters suffering death and destruction in her books, nor H. P. Lovecraft to his characters. On the other hand, the producers of the typical slasher movie, and their literary equivalents, are putting forth chaos, violence, and mayhem for its own sake, or to titillate an audience, so they are indeed being eminently unfair to their characters. Of course, the characters are in a sense part of the author, so perhaps authors of the latter category are being unfair, in a sense, to themselves. Even in the case of artistic writers who are not unfair to their characters, it is hardly necessary to point out the high rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, and all other kinds of self-destructive behavior associated with their craft.
It’s also important to note that since we are not immortal, when we die, our characters (for those of us who write professionally or avocationally, as well as those in other artistic fields) die with us. That which lives on in our writings as read by others is not the fragment that resides in the creator’s mind, but an echo, if you will. However intensely I experience Prince Hamlet, what I experience is never quite what he was in the mind of the Bard.
We see here that even if we accept the analogy of writer/character and God/humans, there are some important points where the analogy breaks down. One can easily argue that the negative aspects of a writer’s characters and scenarios reflect something about the author himself. If we are committed to an all-good God, that seems harder to posit with Him. Somehow our nastiness is not a part of God. More significantly, God is not mortal; so since He does not die, we don’t need to worry about our perishing with Him, as Hamlet did with Shakespeare.
I have argued before that to have creatures who are truly free, God had to have created them at a certain “distance” from Himself. If they were made from the beginning with the experience of the Beatific Vision, they would be too much “absorbed” by Him to have true individuality. Thus, the Fall (however we conceptualize it) was indeed necessary, the Felix Culpa. Only by falling away from God and developing our will and desire to return to Him through the experience of loss and alienation, and the arduous process of striving to overcome these and to seek our true origin could God’s beings come to full union with Him while preserving their individuality and free will. As a universalist, I am of the opinion that sooner or later everyone–the saved, the damned, the angels both fallen and unfallen–returns to God; that is, all are saved. Thus, God is not, in fact, unfair to us, His characters. All the suffering of the world is a necessary (though for the time being hideous and nasty) prelude to an infinite blessedness that we will ultimately experience. This is expressed well by Ivan Karamazov in speaking to Alyosha in Chapter 35 of The Brothers Karamazov:
I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear.
Of course, atheist Ivan rejects this ultimate harmony; but this seems to me the best outlook on the ultimate consummation of things.
Thus, unlike the nastiness in our stories, which helps us illumine the human condition, the nastiness in God’s story is an unfortunate but necessary prerequisite to our own ultimate blessedness. This seems to follow reasonably from God’s perfection and immortality. Even if one wanted to ague that in one sense the cosmic unpleasantness is in some sense the Jungian “shadow” of God, as Jeffrey Burton Russell has suggested, it would still seem that God’s ultimate purpose is to integrate–redeem–that shadow, or, as in some Gnostic schemas, to slough off the darkness while re-integrating the light. By this latter theory, everything evil, twisted, and repellent about, say, Hitler, would be “burned off”, while the remains–the good part of him, the “real” Hitler–would return to God.
So what about the characters in our stories and my weird childhood concern for them?
Here’s where I’ll get really out there. As I’ve said, they’re part of us in the same way that we are parts of God. One might say that there is a kind of nesting of being within being. Take a novel like The World According to Garp, which is about a writer, and in which at one point we see the writer (T. S. Garp) writing his first story about a writer writing his first story. Perhaps the writer in Garp’s book subsists in Garp who subsists in John Irving, who subsists in God–a sort of matryoshka doll series of ātman within ātman. Ultimately the Supreme Being, the ineffable god-beyond-god–Brahman, the Ein Soph, the Godhead, the Essence of God, God-as-He-truly-is, however you want to put it–is the outermost matryoshka doll, the ultimate infinity (which Rudy Rucker calls Ω in his excellent Infinity and the Mind) in which all characters, all beings, subsist, in which they live and move and have their being.
In a sense, when God held Shakespeare in His mind, he held also in His mind Hamlet and every other character Shakespeare ever wrote. He held in His mind John Irving and T. S. Garp and Garp’s nameless writer. He held in His mind me and all the characters in the relatively few stories I’ve written. He doesn’t just have the “whole world in His hands”; he has the whole worlds in His hands!
This is, of course, a form of the familiar multiverse. After all, there are many coherent worlds that we can imagine–Middle Earth, Barsoom, Oz–and if they are in a sense within us, they are within God, as are infinitely many other worlds of which we know nothing and which we can perhaps not even imagine. Perhaps, in line with Tolkien’s idea of sub-creation, it is part of our task to participate in bringing some of these other worlds into existence. In any case, it’s hard to give a coherent reason why, in God’s providence, it is not possible for such secondary worlds, in their own “place” and their own way, to be as real as our world.
If this is so, what follows? My controlling view here is that God is benevolent and wants all His creatures–in all worlds–to come to union with each other and with Him. Thus it may be that in His own time and way He redeems and restores even Lord Voldemort, Professor Moriarty, Emperor Palpatine, and any other nasty, literary or real, you care to think of. Anything in any world that can’t be redeemed (for example, the infinite suffering of a novel set in Hell, or some of the things in nihilistic modern fiction) will cease to exist, with the redeemable portion (those who were suffering) returning to God. In his rather weird late novel, The Number of the Beast, Robert Heinlein proposed that all novels, stories, fantasies, etc. are real, existing in their own universes, and that one could hypothetically visit them and even be recognized by them. Maybe, through God’s providence and omnipotence, he was actually right! Maybe in the World to Come we will meet not only our loved ones and our distant ancestors, but our favorite fictional characters. Who knows? Maybe if we’re farther down the matryoshka-doll-chain we’ll meet our own authors, as well as the Author of all! Maybe (if we are fictions) we can even rib our authors a bit about their literary skills!
This is also, in a sense, my answer to St. Augustine in the epigraph at the top of this post, and to all those who dismiss great fiction as “just stories” and think we are wasting our time, if not endangering our souls, in putting any emotional investment into drama, movies, and literature. In this world we do need to balance things; but perhaps the alternate worlds of our fictions are more real and more important than we know. Perhaps in a sense we can pray for fictional characters, so long as we don’t neglect prayer for our neighbors in this cosmos.
This has been a very long and rambling post, and one of my most speculative. However, I stand by my basic notion–God is ultimately not capricious and He does seek–and in my belief obtain–the ultimate good for all His creatures in all realms of existence. May it be so–may stories like ours, in the end, indeed have happy endings!
One final thing–a small treat. The video at the top is the reprise of “You and I” from the Tim Rice musical Chess–my favorite song in my favorite musical. It’s from the recent Chess in Concert, starting Josh Groban and Idina Menzel in the lead roles. I have the Blu-Ray of that show, and it’s outstanding. Despite this, though, there is always a special place in my heart for the original cast version. I think I like the original version of “You and I” slightly better too–the original has a stronger feeling of pathos and bittersweetness. It’s hard for me not to tear up at either version. Anyway, the original version, sung by Tommy Körberg and Elaine Paige, is below. Enjoy–if you’ve stayed with me this far, you deserve it!
Update: The above performance is a bit truncated from the original cast album. The clip below, while lacking video, is the full original version from the original cast album, which is the best version, IMO.
Posted on 25/08/2013, in Christianity, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged Chess, Christianity, Dostoevsky, Elaine Page, Gnosticism, H. P. Lovercraft, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Josh Groban, literature, metaphysics, philsophy, religion, The Brothers Karamzov, theology, Tommy Körberg, Unequally Yoked, universalism. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.