I Want To Believe

New Critical Essay Collections

I Want To Believe

New Critical Essay Collections

I Want To Believe
New books dissected over email.
May 5 1999 5:14 PM

New Critical Essay Collections

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Dear Sarah,

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On the contents page of my copy of The Broken Estate I've written the name "George Eliot," underlined twice with a question mark. So when I read your letter, I knew that you and I were, like MacCaulay and Anne Fadiman, two peas in a pod. (On the subject of writing in books, by the way, Queen Pea Anne Fadiman notes: "The most permanent, and thus to the courtly lover the most terrible, thing one can leave in a book is one's own words. Even I would never write in encyclopedia (except perhaps with a number three pencil, which I'd later erase). But I've been annotating novels and poems--transforming monologues into dialogues--ever since I learned to read." I was as happy to know this as you will be to learn that I prefer to interleave my own thoughts with those of my most cherished authors by means of a goose feather dipped in chicken's blood, or, if no such thing is available, a chicken's feather dipped in goose blood, or, in a desperate pinch, a burnt sienna Crayola crayon.)

The absence of George Eliot (and the somewhat less scandalous but still notable absences of Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain, and any French writer beside Flaubert) is, I think, a result of the fact that The Broken Estate is, as you suspected, a collection of magazine pieces cobbled into a book. Nobody at the London Review or the New Republic asked for a piece on George Eliot, or no biography or important critical study appeared to occasion such a piece, and so there isn't one here. This in itself doesn't bother me: Some of my favorite books of essays--Joan Didion's The White Album, Auden's The Dyer's Hand, and Randall Jarrell's Poetry and the Age (all of which, you'll be thrilled to learn, I have transformed from monologues into dialogues with my handy goose feather)--came into being in just the same way. But unlike those books, The Broken Estate seems, at least intermittently, to want to advance a sustained and coherent set of arguments. There is, as you mentioned, the historical argument about the relation between Christianity and the novel in the mid-19th century, neatly summed up thus: "At the high point of the novel's triumph, the Gospels began to be read, by both writers and theologians, as a set of fictional tales--as a kind of novel. Simultaneously, fiction became an almost religious activity." And there is also a strongly asserted, but not always clearly explained, aesthetic argument about how novelists should go about addressing themselves to the fictional representation of reality. Somehow the term "belief" has to be stretched to cover both arguments--to stand for both the crisis of Christian faith, and for the peculiar epistemological demands of fiction.

Given that the ethics of novelistic representation and the crisis of belief occasioned by the spread of the "higher criticism" are Wood's main concerns, it is, you're quite right, stupefying that he didn't take the time and trouble to write something about Eliot. George Eliot is also, after all, the pivot between Jane Austen and D.H. Lawrence in F.R. Leavis's The Great Tradition, and given that Wood venerates both of those authors (and writes well about them), and that he seems to be writing very much in a Leavisite vein, the omission seems even more distressing. But I'm afraid I can only lament it, rather than explain it.

You're right that this is a hard book to talk about, and the highest praise I can give it is that I found it troubling. I mean that, like you, I was bothered by judgments that seemed summary or unfair (though I have to say my reaction to the DeLillo chapter was: "About time!"), and by a tone of sweeping dismissal (does Wood really believe that English novelists have produced only two fully realized characters--Mister Biswas and Miss Jean Brodie--in the last 40 years?). But this book has also troubled my sleep, and troubled my rather complacent, ad hoc, graduate-student-in-exile ways of thinking about literature. I want to respond to it one moment by taking violent issue, the next by meekly nodding assent. I suspect that the historical argument doesn't quite hold up--too much is missing, for example the 300 years between Thomas More and Jane Austen, for example poetry other than T.S. Eliot, for example any consideration of the sociology of the novel, or the sociology of religion, or politics--but I can't dismiss it out of hand. To respond adequately to this book demands a lot of work, and that is much to its credit.

And then there is the autobiographical dimension. Whereas the other writers we've been discussing (Poirier excepted), parade the trivia of their lives before us like the pastry cart in a restaurant, Wood buries his nugget of self-revelation deep in a chapter on "The Legacy of Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold." After shredding those two avatars of high-minded rationalism (Wood is bracingly personal in his assaults on historical figures; he hates old Thomas More with a fervor usually reserved for living politicians), Wood discloses that he was brought up in an evangelical church, in which people spoke in tongues, writhed and danced, and believed in the literal presence of God and the literal truth of Christian doctrine. At 15, he began to lose his faith and was, by his mid-20s, an atheist ... kind of. "The child of evangelicalism," he writes "... has buried evangelical belief but he has not buried the evangelical choice, which seems to him the only important dilemma. ... Nominal belief is insufficiently serious, nominal unbelief seems almost a blasphemy against earnest atheism."

This explains a lot about Wood's approach to literary criticism: his impatience with any approach to reality that seems compromised, bien-pensant, or easy; his ability to sound at one moment like a reactionary, the next like a revolutionary; his intolerance for the middle ground. But the middle ground--the land of agnosticism, pragmatism, and indecision that is for Wood the wasteland of modernity--is where most of us live (including James Wood), and where most novels are written and set. It used to be said, back when "the problem of belief" was as au courant in literary criticism as "hybridity" or "performativity" are today, that the best literature was written by the faithful to be read by the skeptics. Is that now the case with respect to literary criticism? Do all us poor book reviewers need to get religion?

God help us.

Yours,
Tony

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A.O. Scott is Sunday book critic for Newsday and a regular contributor to Slate. Sarah Kerr is a regular contributor to Slate. This week they discuss a selection of new critical essay collections.