Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Abyssus Abyssum Invocat: A Vocation for Literature?

"I don't believe in hell, not for things like that," said Lady Julia to her dim brother Bridey and the Marchmain matriarch in Brideshead Revisited. Oh, to long for the day when people debated what was a sin, if only to assuage their own guilt and justify their actions while their consciences actively accused them! Counter culture, where is thy victory? Counter culture, where is thy sting?

It has stung and gone, leaving a wounded people behind. In our post-Reformation, individualistic society we can no longer rely on mere social convention to condemn our sins. Indeed, Dostoevsky's Christian novels confirm that sometimes society lags and fails to condemn the sinner as quickly as his own conscience does. Despite living in the Pyrrhic "Holy Russia", Dostoevsky was a prophet for our time in imagining how the individual remains cognizant of his sin, despite every plausible justification by sound logic and every external act of evasion. Raskolnikov's land lady may well have been a userer and a wretch, and he may have intended to use her funds for the good, but had he proven himself any better before the noble prostitute Sofya convinced him to repent?

If Dostoevsky's anarchistic guilt was meant for the lonely Christian, Donna Tartt's guilt is meant for the lonely modern brat. Tartt, a convert to Catholicism with a brilliant command of technical writing (although her latest book could have been half as long), writes impossibly modern characters, people who live like dogs, meandering between one set of sensory experiences to another, often supplemented by cocaine, a bottle of scotch, and a one-night stand. From Richard Papen in The Secret History to Theo Decker in her Pulitzer Prize winning Goldfinch, her main characters (they're unworthy of joining Frodo Baggins in the dignified realm of "protagonists") lead transitory existences, unaware of the moral consequences of their actions.

Like many novels, the interesting characters are the secondary ones, and in Tartt it is these who are the writer's guinea pigs in her experiments with sin. In The Secret History a group of characters accidentally kill a farmer during a reenactment of a Bacchanalia; to cover their tracks, the tight-knit coterie have to murder one of their loose-lipped friends. Most of the characters cannot sleep with the guilt of having killed to cover up killing; the funerary process is especially taxing, as the deceased's family reminds them of their iniquity, keeping their sin always before them. One character, whose conceived both the Bacchanalia and the cover-up killing, is unmoved to the point of attempting to murder his lover's guilt-ridden brother. The stoic pagan's own events corner him and he can do little other than eat a bullet from a Beretta. The largely irreligious work concludes with the survivors hearing Mass on Ash Wednesday.

Her third novel, Goldfinch, has an unhappy character as disjointed as Richard from The Secret History. His occasional companion, Boris, is quite different. Boris is not a good man; he shares many of the same vices as the lead figure, however, he does not seem to enjoy it. Amid a turgid, long novel with little direction, we hear of Boris' sympathy for Dostoevsky's characters, the sinners who are closer to God than the rest if only because they are aware of the sins that carry with them as they ambulate through life. The dull Theo dismisses this idle Christmas day talk, but Boris insists that, like the agonizing Russian sinners of novels past, he will put right what he has done to our narrator by doing the right thing—not by amending his perspective like Ebeneezer Scrooge, his choices are his problem, not his perspective.

The modern novelist may not be able to write a story with as vivid as Christian metaphysic for guilt and penitence as Dostoevsky nor pen as nostalgic a narrative of grace as Waugh. The last tool at the writer's disposal in an impersonal, atomistic society may well be the bare bones formula of sin, awareness of sin, guilt, and repentance. Natural law for those intentionally ignorant of Divine law. The Church may not accuse them, but the conscience will if they listen.
"Therefore was I at war with myself, and destroyed by myself. And this destruction overtook me against my will, and yet showed not the presence of another mind, but the punishment of my own." St. Augustine, The Confessions (VIII.10)

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