Christianity and Literature, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Winter 1996) 269-70.
1995 CCL Lifetime Achievement Awards
On 29 December 1995, at the CCL luncheon held in Chicago during the MLA Convention, Robert Denahm presented the following tribute to Wayne Booth, one of two recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. Following the tribute, you will find an extensive interview Denham conducted with Professor Booth later that same day.
At the luncheon, Jewel Spears Brooker read a tribute from J. A. Bryant, Jr. to Roy Wesley Battenhouse, who was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously. We regret that the we have no transcript of that tribute to Professor Battenhouse, who was a central figure in the early history and dynamic growth of the Conference on Christianity and Literature.
Wayne C. Booth
Surfing the Internet several weeks ago, I happened upon an entry in some database labeled "Literary Criticism," and I followed one of its branches to the entry for "Chicago School," where I discovered at the end of a rather indifferent paragraph about R. S. Crane and other neo-Aristotelians this sentence: "Wayne Booth is one of the younger members of the school." As Wayne turns seventy-five in two months, one wonders who's in charge of keeping the electronic encyclopedias up to date. But I first met Wayne in 1962 when he was a young professor. I was a Divinity School student at the University of Chicago, where one of my teachers, Preston Roberts, had invited Wayne (Mr. Booth, of course, in those days) to meet with our theology and literature class at his home in Harper Court. The Rhetoric of Fiction was hot off the press; Wayne brought along some passages from novels and short stories, reproduced on one of those purple-ink duplicators; and we examined those paragraphs for what they could reveal about implied authors and second selves. I remember little of what was said that evening, and whatever impression I might have had of Wayne Booth has long disappeared into the ether. But I look back on that little episode now as a kind of presage of this occasion today: here was a bright, young, crew-cut professor who, when he should probably have been enlarging his tenure portfolio, had given up an evening to engage students who were interested in the dialogue between religion and literature.
It is natural on an occasion such as this to think in various trinitarian formulae, such as truth, goodness, and beauty, or faith, hope, and charity. But let me begin with another—criticism, teaching, and academic citizenship—for it is on the basis of these that Wayne Booth has fashioned an exemplary academic career and elevated himself to preeminent status in the profession.
Wayne Booth as Critic
The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) was a revolutionary book—a book that upset a number of ways in which we had traditionally thought about narrative technique, point of view, and the way writers and readers negotiate agreements, and about the moral implications of storytelling. The fact that this was a major work was recognized by many, including the judges of the Phi Beta Kappa's Christian Gauss Award and NCTE's David Russell Award, and by the daughters and sons of the succeeding generations, whose regard has prompted its numerous reprintings and even an augmented edition in 1983. A number of genuinely important books followed in their turn: A Rhetoric of Irony (1974), Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent (1974), Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism (1979), and The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988). Then there are more than 150 articles and essays, some of which have been reprinted in two of my favorite books, Now Don't Try to Reason with Me (1970) and The Vocation of a Teacher (1988).
Wayne Booth as Teacher
Item: Throughout his career Wayne Booth taught writing to undergraduates at the University of Chicago, an uncommon practice among senior professors at our universities, where a two-class teaching load has been, permanently it seems, institutionalized. Item, 1982: Wayne Booth devotes his MLA presidential address to this very scandal, calling his address not "The Hegemonies of the Poststructuralist Moment Foregrounded Against the Site of the Ideological Other" but (oh, how refreshingly) "The Credo of an English Teacher." Item, 1971: Wayne Booth receives the Quantrell Award for excellence as an undergraduate teacher. Item, 1971: Wayne Booth presents a talk called "An English Teacher's Decalogue" at the Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English, an organization in which he carried out, over the years, numerous committee and commission assignments. Item, 1970: Wayne Booth scribbles in the margin of the first chapter of a dissertation on Northrop Frye "Evidence for this?" and sends the student on his way, those three words having made all the difference. Item, 1995: Rhetoric and Pluralism: Legacies of Wayne Booth appears, a Festschrift containing an extraordinary testimony to the power of Wayne Booth as a teacher and to the range of his influence.
Wayne Booth as Academic Citizen
Item, 1964-69: Wayne Booth serves as dean of the college at Chicago, shepherding the college through the chaos that threatened to undo it. Item, 1982: Wayne Booth serves as president of the Modern Language Association, and in the three years immediately preceding that he plays key role in the MLA's Commission on the Future of the Profession, perhaps the most important and influential of all the MLA commissions. Item, 1987: Wayne Booth surrendered a large portion of his summer to meeting with a coalition of English teachers from all levels—elementary through university—hammering out an agenda for the teaching of reading, writing, and literature for the coming decades.
The Conference on Christianity and Literature is a dialogical enterprise, and Wayne Booth's grand rhetorical project—with its pluralistic assumptions and its commitment to conversation, dialectic, and communal understanding; with its critique of the fact-value split, of dogmatism and relativism, of skepticism and reductionism; with its appeal to the art of good reasons; and with its affirmation of assent in an age of cynicism—is perfectly suited to advance the kinds of inquiry that this organization values. More than a decade ago Gary Comstock remarked that Booth had "an interesting, if well submerged, theological position." Except for the word "submerged" Comstock's observation is accurate. Belief, as an expression of ultimate commitments, means nothing unless exemplified in action, and Wayne Booth's life has been a continuous series of self-giving acts that we call charity. As for faith, I'm tempted to quote from a score of Wayne Booth's essays on the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen— from his early piece on the ontological argument to his 1984 address at the American Academy of Religion.
But for now I must content myself with one passage. It comes from his "Afterword" to Rhetoric and Pluralism, where Wayne imagines the different kinds of inquiry that should be funded by an imaginary Board of Rhetorical Inquiry in General. A good portion of its budget, says Wayne, should be granted to the rhetoric of religion, and he remarks, quoting an earlier essay, that "the student of rhetoric will be led, inescapably led provided that he or she pushes the inquiry with full rigor, to religion," not just in the direction of religious language, he adds, "but to religious belief itself." We eagerly await this study, which the master rhetorician has been more or less promising us for at least a decade. In the meantime I can think of nothing I would rather be doing at this Christmas season than, on behalf of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, to recognize Wayne Booth for his extraordinary achievements; to thank him for his exemplary life of faith, hope, and charity, and for his uncommon contributions to the life of free and enlightened inquiry; and to do both in the presence of his wife Phyllis and daughter Alison.
Christianity and Literature, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Winter 1996), 191-215
Brighten the Corner Where You Are: An Interview with Wayne Booth
Robert D. Denham
This interview was recorded in Chicago on 29 December 1995 at the Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association, where Wayne Booth had received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Conference on Christianity and Literature at its luncheon. Several references in the interview are to the events at that luncheon, as well as to the address that Booth had delivered the previous evening, "Story as Spiritual Quest," published in this issue of Christianity and Literature. There are also references to Booth's "Afterword" to Rhetoric and Pluralism: Legacies of Wayne Booth (1995); two articles Booth refers to are identified under "Works Cited." The interview took place in a hotel room high above the Chicago River overlooking Navy Pier and Lake Michigan.
RD: You've written in several places about the influence that your high school teacher, Luther Giddings, had upon you, and also, at Brigham Young, about the ways that P. A. Christensen and Karl Young shaped your desire to become a teacher. Could you expand on what you've written, saying in more detail what it was about Giddings and Christensen and Young that affected you so significantly?
WB: Actually I've not thought deeply about what they had in common—they were superficially so different. Giddings was a high school teacher of chemistry, a man who read a lot but not mainly "literature." He told me once that every Sunday night he cleared out all possible distractions and read something he wanted to read, sometimes in science but more often in poetry and fiction. I'd never heard of anybody saying or doing anything like that before. But the two English profs had little to do with science that I can remember, sometimes even expressing a mild annoyance at what "science" had for some centuries been doing to the humanities. One of them, Karl Young (a former Rhodes scholar but not the famous Karl Young), did try to talk me out of becoming an English major: "You should realize that though you like to read novels and poetry, majoring in English can lead you into a lot of drudgery quite unlike enjoying a novel." But his passion for literature was visible, and it was quite unlike Giddings' passion for current developments in science and medicine. I learned later that Young was disappointed about not having specialized in anthropology.
Christensen seems in retrospect radically different from both of them—interested more in religious and philosophical questions than in anything we would today call literary criticism or science. Different as they were, though, all three of them exemplified for me a passionate curiosity about the world, a curiosity that led them—and in consequence me—beyond the relatively narrow definitions of "education" that my Mormon family had celebrated. They exemplified rigorous thinking combined with the exercise of high moral standards. Though their reading interests differed, they all had a habit of moving to deeper and deeper questions, and that contagious habit would probably have seduced me into majoring in philosophy—if there had been a philosophy department to major in at Brigham Young in those days.
RD: Were they all practicing Mormons?
WB: Two of them were, but all three shared a critical stance toward Mormon officialdom. Luther Giddings was not a Mormon. He let me know, in our many private conversations after school hours, that he was skeptical about all official religions (as indeed he was about almost everything: I remember his saying that doctors were mainly frauds—they had actual cures for only two diseases). He was the first one to suggest to me that a Mormon official might not be fully virtuous: one of the local bishops he knew had been cheating on a real estate deal. When he told me that, I felt shattered. He was surprised at my distress, and—perhaps feeling that he had gone too far in spreading gossip—went on to say that all churches suffer contradictions between beliefs and behavior: "Bishop Anderson's cheating is no reason to break with the Church."
Meanwhile he had enticed me into doing chemical research between classes and on Saturdays (Would chewing gum containing hydroxides reduce acidity in the saliva and thus reduce decay?) and into reading popular science books like Paul De Kruif s Microbe Hunters. It became clear to me that the best life I could lead would be the life of inquiry. I decided to become a "chemical engineer" and entered college as a chemistry major.
If you'd asked me then what else such a teacher had in common with the Professor Young who in "Freshman English" got me excited about Don Quixote and The Alchemist and short stories by Wilbur Daniel Steele and Stuart Chase's "The Mucker Pose," I'd have been baffled. But all three (along with a much younger high school English teacher) were enticing me into teaching, just with their image of the life lived by a serious, responsible, personally engaged teacher. In and out of the classroom they were providing models of the life I later decided to live.
They were not scholars, in any usual definition; except for an occasional essay by Christensen, they never published. As I think about my contrasting "scholarly career," I realize that those three, or rather four, and other Brigham Young University mentors who influenced my choices, never suggested that I become a "scholar." It was teaching they all cared about. As for scholarly inquiry, they and some of their colleagues were more likely to spend their non-teaching hours probing secretly into questions about Mormon historical claims than producing articles in their "field." Teaching was their center—and so it became mine.
It never occurred to me until I came back from the army in 1946 to do graduate work that there was a possible gap between my picture of "the vocation of the teacher" and the reality of the scholarly world. It was R. S. Crane and others at Chicago who awakened me to the re-wards of scholarship. Even so, I wrote an angry article, just after getting the Ph.D., accusing my department of having cheated me by failing—in course after course over four years—to include anything about teaching ["Reflections"]. The Mormon heritage was still very much alive.
RD: As a sophomore at Brigham Young, had you already decided to teach English rather than chemistry?
WB: There was a dramatic moment late in that "mainly science" year when my closest friend said, "Don't you realize you ought to be a teacher? Here you are planning to be a chemical engineer. Why?" And I couldn't think of a good answer. I can remember precisely the spot where I was standing, one foot on the running board of somebody's Chevrolet, when he said, "You ought to be a teacher."
And I suddenly realized both that I did want to be a teacher and that I did not want to be a chemistry teacher. I can remember thinking, "If I teach chemistry I'll have to teach the same thing every year for the rest of my life. But if I teach literature I can change every year and just be constantly learning—not just about 'English' but about religion and philosophy and politics and...." So it was easy for him to persuade me that it should be English. I find it amusing now to realize what a crazily misleading view of science my college science teachers had given me.
When I told my mother, "I've decided to become a teacher," she was shocked, indeed saddened. She had taught for almost twenty-five years, and she was sure that I would be subjected to the same poor salaries and low esteem that she had suffered.
RD: What did she teach?
WB: First, after my father died when I was six, she taught third grade. With only one year of college, she was licensed with a "Normal Certificate"—but of course that qualified her only for elementary school. She then took night courses and summer programs over years and years and finally earned her B.A. and her M.A. and was hired by Brigham Young to teach other teachers. Later she became "Counselor for Women" (the title of "Dean of Women" was refused her by the male hierarchy, and though never a vocal feminist she privately protested that affront again and again). Anyway, despite her own wonderful teaching, she obviously felt that teaching was a career much below her only son. Her dream was for me to become famous in some way or other—as doctor or perhaps "one of the Twelve Apostles," or even "President of the United States." But I told her, "Mama, why not get paid for something I really want to do—and would do if I weren't paid? Besides, I'll write on the side—I'll make money that way." My plan was to become not just a fine teacher but a great novelist—on the side.
RD: Was your major in English at Brigham Young fairly conventional?
WB: Yes, by our standards today. Young had been a Rhodes scholar, at a time when the Oxford syllabus ended in 1830. Christensen, who in fact expressed some contempt for the scholarly world, had been required to do a Ph.D. dissertation on medieval heroines' eyebrows— those that met across the nose—and he resented those years as wasted. But though "conventionally trained," both of them expressed broad-ranging interest in just about every idea that came along—though what "came along" out there in Utah was sometimes a few decades behind the "eastern" scene. I've sometimes felt—often with gratitude—that I was educated in the nineteenth century.
Both of them were openly unorthodox Mormons, sort of hanging on the edge of full acceptance at BYU; that was highly unconventional, though they were supported by a fair number of cautious rebels in other departments. Still, they did teach literature in a relatively conventional way. They of course didn't teach the New Criticism--this was 1938-1942, and I wouldn't be surprised if they hadn't even heard of I. A. Richards or F. R. Leavis or John Crowe Ransom.
Is it "conventional" to be won over to a "mission" as a teacher—to want to get people turned on to reading and to experience the transformation of life that reading good literature and discussing it achieves? That's not what happened to most of my classmates, so it that sense it was unconventional.
RD: Well, that's what you were saying in your talk last night—that reading literature is one of the ways we strive to escape from recognized conflict in the world of time.
WB: Yes, though the word "escape" will for some seem to downgrade what for me is an upgrading.
RD: Did your courses include works beyond Romantic and Victorian literature? Were there courses in modern and contemporary literature in the curriculum then?
WB: No. I can't remember their teaching any of the fully modernist novelists or poets: no D. H. Lawrence, no T. S. Eliot. But what they did do, which was unconventional in that setting, was to explore a broad range of social and political and philosophical ideas, many of them derived from those huge freshman anthologies and leftist anthologies of American literature that really won me. I still own some of them and am amazed when I look at the range and even the radicalism of parts of the tables of content. Unlike the freshman course with its broad range, the "major" courses were mainly in stuff before 1900. The one good high school teacher of English I mentioned, fresh out of college (her name was Gene Clark), did get me reading Aldous Huxley and some of the Book of the Month Club novels like Anthony Adverse—things like that. No, my introduction to modern lit came as I spent most of my time through each term reading non-assigned works on my own; then I would bone up for the tests on the older stuff, in the last few days of the term. Because the standards were low, I could always get high grades. That was actually not a bad situation for a budding reader, but I often envy those who were taken through a more coherent and rigorous education.
RD: Could we go back beyond your high school days to your early years in American Fork, Utah, and have you reflect on other early influences? If, as some people claim, it's those first six years that determine in large measure what we turn out to be, what from those early years helped to shape the Wayne Booth we know today? You've talked about your mother. How about others?
WB: Well, almost the whole family were teachers: one of my grandfathers, most of my aunts and uncles, my father—though only for one year before he died at 35. My Grandmother Booth, her husband a farmer-reader, had longed to be a teacher. But her father, a well-to-do sheep rancher, refused to finance it. He was a polygamist, and when my grandmother's mother died in childbirth, leaving nine children, twelve-year-old grandma and the others were taken in by one of the other two wives, known as an "Aunt." Now that "wealthy" father of nineteen children gave my grandma, already a passionate reader, the Cinderella job not only of taking care of her siblings but of handling other domestic chores, and he would not let her continue in school—it's not even clear from her short autobiography whether she finished the eighth grade. She would often talk to me about her resentment, and though she always said she wanted me to become a lawyer, because I argued so much and so well, I think her passion about teaching got to me early: she often told me about how her mother had urged her to become a teacher, and her father, grandma's grandfather, had been "only the second teacher in American Fork."
She would also talk about having become a passionate reader even before entering school, and I know that her devotion to the "literary world" got to me: it was she who gave me my first blank-page diary, when I was fourteen, urging me to practice writing in it every day.
Except for that one demonized great-grandfather, the whole family believed in education (for all I know maybe he did, for males). Most Mormons do—they have a passion for getting ahead, and education is the way to do it. Another great-grandfather, John Richard Booth, like all the rest of my great-grandparents, had converted and come to America and crossed the plains, as impoverished pioneers. One of them was actually born in a hand-cart his parents pulled across the plains from Iowa—a thousand miles or so.
So these legends about the Mormon achievement—"serving God and man" by coming to Zion and building up Zion—got into my soul right from the beginning, and the service always entailed getting an education. We had the true faith, the one true faith, and it offered slogans like "The glory of God is intelligence," and "Man cannot be saved in ignorance." As a male representative of that one true faith, I early became aware that if I kept my nose clean I was destined to become learned enough and good enough to be elected to the role of God of another "world."
You look surprised. Have 1 never told you that before? You see, there is an unlimited number of worlds out there, as Joseph Smith knew, not the billions times billions we know of now, of course, but enough to go around. If you're a good male Mormon and keep going, after your death you keep going further and further, using education all the way, and finally you get to populate your own world, with multiple wives.
RD: Was this the kind of thing you had in your mind as, say, an eight-year-old when you were baptized, or was it later?
WB: Oh, this picture was accepted absolutely uncritically until about the age of fourteen or fifteen, but then I started asking questions. I remember a Sunday School teacher complaining to my mother that I was asking rude questions about inconsistencies in the manual—I doubt, though, that I rejected the God-trip until much, much later.
Anyway, though rude in questioning, I was absolutely devout in all public, open practices. Of course I had secret vices, such as masturbation, which absolutely and irrepressibly appalled me. I'd swear off it and swear off it and swear off it, and back it would come. I've not noticed masturbation being talked about much in the Church these days, but back then it was really a sin, as I suspect it is still for many. I can remember that when puberty became obvious, mama solemnly related a plea that daddy had made on his deathbed: "Lillian, try to bring him up so that he'll avoid the sinful things I did before we were married." I sometimes wondered if my sexual sins would keep me from becoming a God. But since I was getting educated, maybe that would compensate. Meanwhile, despite some secret cheating and a bit of petty thievery, I became thought of—or so I now picture it—as about the most pious, not to say sissified, kid in that town of 3,000.
RD: The town was that small?
WB: Yes. It had five Mormon churches and one Community Church for all the other denominations. I knew of only one Jewish family— they did the tailoring—and no Catholics. There were a lot of puzzling immigrants—"Scandihoovians," Germans, Irish—but they were almost all Mormon immigrants, and so were quickly integrated. The melting pot really did wonderfully effective melting in my town in those days— for "good Mormons." No one ever suggested, I'm positive, that just because my classmate George Reimschiisel's family was so poor that his mother had to do housework for us he was in some way essentially my inferior.
I was convinced, as you can imagine anyone would be who is destined to become a God, that the "Zion" in which we lived was the center of the universe. I can remember asking my mother, "Mama, will American Fork ever be as big and important as New York City?" She said, "No, it couldn't possibly be." I said, "Why not? We're here at the center of God's universe, and why shouldn't a town like ours become important?" I can't remember any answer—I doubt that she had one.
RD: Well, in school were you looked on by your classmates as overly studious, as an egghead?
WB: Oh, yes; I was a kind of sissy egghead, a "smarty." When we had a high school reunion twenty-five years later, they gave me a package of little candies called "Smarties."
Actually, I got along all right socially, as I look on it now. But I didn't think then that I was getting along all right. I had had a "double promotion," skipping the third grade, which left behind the only friends I had and put me as the youngest in my class, and that situation produced a kind of unresolved conflict. I couldn't match the athletic competition of most of the other boys, and the girls were all more mature, even though it helped a bit that I was tall for my age. But it was a strange deal socially, and I've sometimes wondered if my becoming an obsessive "reader" resulted partly from feeling "different." Would I have read as much if I'd been on the basketball team?
RD: Do you remember your father very well?
WB: Yes, vividly, but only in about four or five episodes. Maybe for this interview we shouldn't go into them, but he was a wonderful, loving man in all those episodes. And from the time of his death on he of course got idealized into the perfect man: I had lost perfection, and must therefore fight to regain it. My family would boast that he had had the biggest funeral ever held in that town—that kind of thing.
For my mother his death after two weeks' illness was of course a total disaster. She had prayed to God for his life, "with a contrite and sincere heart," and he died anyway. She had known that if you prayed like that, not only could God move mountains but God would grant you your petition.
She told me decades later that that failure had really shattered her religious faith. For some years, she said, though she had gone on exhibiting the superficial signs of Mormon faith, she could not believe in God's existence. A God who could do that to her, and to her two children, either did not exist or could not be worshipped.
RD: His death was sudden and unexpected, then?
WB: He came home from work one day feeling "tired," and a few weeks later he was dead with Addison's disease. The memories of my own grief, and of mama's grief, and of all the other grief around me— all these are still almost enough to make me weep once more. I still have dreams that would please Freud in their confirmation of the Oedipus complex: I have killed a man, buried him in our back garden, and I'm about to be caught.
The results were twofold: I became not just a sissy but a weeping sissy for quite a while, unable to hear the words "father" or "daddy" without crying. Also, of course, I became even more my mother's pride and joy with a lot of pressure to achieve. "You are my man, now," she would say. "You must be like a father to your sister."
RD: So there were other children?
WB: I had only a younger sister, Lucille—not yet two when he died. We are still close—except geographically. She always sort of traveled in my shadow in many ways that I don't like to think about, but I couldn't do anything about it She is a wonderful, loving, self-sacrificing woman. And though she can't remember daddy's death, she is strongly aware of devastating effects on the two of us, as mama began teaching school, leaving us in the care of strangers. She also has later memories of my being placed as #1, including my "getting" a mission as she did not.
RD: Was it your Mormon missionary experience that brought you to Chicago?
WB: Originally, yes. What happened was that I questioned more and more vigorously through my teens, and kept on finding contradictions, as every person who thinks hard about any church does. If you really start thinking about something as intricate as Mormonism or Christianity in general or any religious commitment, you encounter paradox, as I was suggesting last night. No one can ever obtain a simple, clear, cleanly harmonious resolution to the questions that religions raise and claim to answer.
Without ever receiving any fully sophisticated introduction to the paradoxes or the more plausible resolutions, I belatedly relived the nineteenth century, discovering writers like Darwin and Renan and Robert G. Ingersoll, and then going back and forth in the process of disillusionment with religion that so many intellectuals had experienced three or four decades earlier. I can remember as a missionary writing a friend about my astonishment, on reading Jung, to find someone talking rationally in defense of religion.
In college a professor who had done historical research on the stories of Mormon origins had convinced me that Joseph Smith never had any gold plates, and then, as I approached nineteen, the problem of whether I should go on a mission came along. Obviously I shouldn't: I no longer believed that this was the one true church with the one true myth and three of only four true books (The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants—Joseph Smith's Revelations—and The Pearl of Great Price; the fourth was of course the Bible, "insofar as it is translated correctly"). But the same psychology prof who showed me the evidence against the gold plates talked me into going on a mission—not to "get them under the water but to do good in the world. Two years spent helping people—what could be better for you and for the world than that," he asked, "with no responsibility to others than just doing what you can do?" He also added that I could work at "liberalizing the Church from within."
His was an extremely persuasive job, and I don't now regret my surrender to his rhetoric Did I do any good in the world? Maybe a little. Did I liberalize the Church from within? Hardly. But the two years of trying to find common ground among various faiths provided what appears now to be not just a unique land of rhetorical education but a rather wonderful education in humility—along with the inevitable polishing up of my gifts for hypocrisy. I'm sometimes now accused of wishy-washy truckling to all sides in a given intellectual dispute. I'm sure that one cause of my effort to understand before condemning springs from those two years of commitment to meeting interlocutors on their own territory and trying to move from there. What better education in rhetoric could there be than having to inter-translate what you want to hear and what you actually hear and what you want to say into language that will make sense and yet not be dishonest.
RD: So, were you knocking on doors?
WB: For five weeks I was indeed, day after day—days that don't rank high among my favorites. Then I got transferred to a male quartet—sort of a barbershop quartet with saintly wings—designed to make friends for the Church without pushing the evangelical side too visibly. For a year I was doing that, singing about three engagements a day at service clubs and schools and for radio programs. One time we sang our theme song;—"We're the Mormon boys from Utah / Sons of pioneers"—out there at Navy Pier [pointing out the hotel window] for two thousand sailors.
RD: Did the Mormons provide your lodging?
WB: No, oh dear no. The four of us would just go into a town and shop for the cheapest room we could find: one room with two double beds. We cooked on a little hotplate, though fortunately we were fed a lot of free meals at service clubs.
RD: And survived how? Did you have a stipend from the Church?
WB: Not at all. Except for transportation to and from the mission, your own family had to support you, as is still true for the more than 40,000 missionaries the Church has in the "field" at any one time. My mother and my sister back home were really depriving themselves by sending me I don't know how much. (My sister and I differ in our memories of how much: she remembers it, naturally, as much higher than I do.) It's a wonderful program in the sense of teaching the young—and their families—that there are matters in the world far more important than any particular career aims.
Well, to get back to your question about Chicago: I was finally stationed in Chicago; the pious, hypocritical rhetorician had been appointed "Mission Secretary"—the highest rank in the mission except for the "old man" who was "Mission President" (he must have been at least sixty-five—ten years younger than I am now!). After reading articles by Robert Maynard Hutchins in the Saturday Evening Post and local newspapers and—I think—The New Republic, I asked the president if I could take classes part-time at the University of Chicago, so long as I got my mission work done.
RD: So your supervisor was also here on site in Chicago?
WB: Yes, indeed: I was in a sense his managing assistant. And he said, "sure." He was, as you would guess, a kind of liberal himself—unorthodox in ways that sometimes got him in hot water, such as preaching the truths of Egyptian numerology and breaking the rules by allowing me to attend classes.
Anyway, I went down to the University of Chicago on the "el," dressed in my shiny blue-serge suit, and turned up on campus on registration day. That was in late 1942 or early '43. The registration was taking place in the gymnasium, and I asked where to go to find out about English courses, and they sent me over to Napier Wilt, head of the English department I sat down, scared, and he said, "What do you want?" And I said, "I'd like to take some classes." He said, "Do you have any tuition?" I said, "No, I'd have to have some kind of scholarship aid." He looked skeptical but interviewed me for about fifteen minutes.
"Do you read?"
"Yes, a lot."
"What do you read?"
"Right now I'm reading Albert Schweitzer's Quest for the Historical Jesus and James Joyce's Ulysses." He perked up,
"Tell me about Ulysses," So I told him about it, and he said,
"All right, you get a scholarship."
So I took two courses for each of two quarters, maybe it was three, commuting on the "el" and doing my work back at the mission home. I had a good course in English composition and a fine course in American fiction with Wilt, and a wonderful course in Plato from Richard McKeon—there was just one other student there. We did the Republic for ten weeks.
RD: And following that you went into the army?
WB: Yes, as soon as I completed my two years of exemption as a "clergyman," I was drafted. I've never been able to work out whether my staying with the mission when it got boring or troubling was simply to avoid the draft: just how dishonest was I? I'm pretty sure that my motives were a mixture of defensible and indefensible. I believed passionately in the importance of the U.S. fight against Hitler—but I went on singing "We're the Mormon boys from Utah," while other young men were dying for the cause. I often thought I was doomed to die, but I was also clear that if I survived the next step would be full commitment to the University of Chicago.
RD: And where were you stationed in the army?
WB: Well, everywhere, or hardly anywhere: the "European theatre." Drafted late, I was put into the infantry, but since I could type fast I did basic training not just as rifleman but as "clerk-typist." Shipped overseas in the fall of '44, I ended up at a "replacement depot," scheduled to be sent to the front for combat. I can still hear the sergeant snarling, "All right, you guys, get it out of your fuckin' heads you're gonna be typists. You're gonna be fuckin' riflemen, see?"
But on the morning my buddies and I lined up there in Givet, France, expecting to head "up" toward where we could already hear the sounds of bombing, our names were called out—and when the sergeant got to "Booth!" and I answered "Here!" he snarled again: "You're not goin'. You're goin' back to Paris to be a fuckin' typist" Somebody had checked my "MOS" and found that I could type at 80 words per minute: I'd make a good typist for G2—the intelligence operation.
The absurdity of that move—several of my buddies, men with wives and children back home, moving to probable death, while I, a single man without even a formal engagement to a fiancée, moved to the cultural capital of the universe, Paris—that bit of craziness led me to my first clear conviction of atheism. Like mamma when daddy died, I could not believe that any loving powerful God could do such a thing: sacrifice those needed guys while saving unneeded me. Only intensive reading in the history of philosophy about seven years later reversed my inner answer to the question "Do you believe in God?" and even now I always want to say, "Let's talk about definitions for a bit."
RD: Did you get married immediately after your return—in 1946?
WB: Yes. Phyllis and I were married just two weeks after I got back to Utah. We had not been formally engaged, but I had felt we were and had barraged her with almost daily letters for the whole two years—and we now are approaching our fiftieth anniversary.
RD: And then you went right into graduate work at Chicago?
WB: Right. I had the GI bill, and Phyllis had a part-time job at the nursery school, and we both started taking classes. I was a bit shocked to find that Karl Young had been right. "Undergraduate" love of literature does not prepare you for the professionalizing that occurs in graduate school: for example, a course that included weeks of work learning titles of bibliographies of bibliographies.
But I gradually discovered another, closely related love: attentive, even loving scholarship about literature, and passionate pursuit of intellectual rigor. My earlier teachers had been intellectually curious, but they had never shown anything like the pursuit of rigor that my best Chicago professors were rightly proud of. Of course that pursuit could feel threatening: I felt that I could never reach the high standards that professors like R.S. Crane and McKeon insisted on. I can remember returning from one seminar, where I had presented a hard-worked essay and Crane had knocked it down, and telling Phyllis, "I'm just not qualified for this profession. It's time for us to think hard about some other line of work."
She patted me down, or up, over some weeks (sort of like Mr. Smallweed in Dickens's Bleak House), and I hung on. The resulting experience, as I described at some length recently in PMLA ["Two Scholars"], was on the whole absolutely glorious—one of the best pieces of good fortune I can imagine.
RD: What was so good about it?
WB: Well, to cut that longer account to two sentences, I was in the presence, daily, for four years, of both teachers and fellow students who were genuinely inquiring. Though of course they all revealed proud weaknesses, I'm sure that there can't have been many times in human history when so many were gathered together primarily to inquire, steadily subordinating their egos and allowing the inquiry to lead wherever it would.
RD: That suggests that we turn from your past to another topic altogether and talk about what's going on in the profession at the moment. You must be quite discouraged about the way we carry on our conversations today, and about the state of rhetoric in general. I don't get the sense that there is much genuine dialogue going on, especially when I come across such phrases in PMLA as "scopic regimes of othering." Maybe people have always been aggressive about their own turf, but I get distressed at the impenetrable jargon and the kind of strident dogmatism we find everywhere around us. People seem to be talking past each other. Do you have the same feeling?
WB: Yes, I do have a strong sense of that. But of course it's hard to know how much worse it is now than at other times. There was a sense throughout the earlier decades in at least some of our lives that if you wanted to answer somebody you had to look at the arguments that the person made and not just pick out phrases. Too often people these days are not talking to the "other" or the "others" but simply putting them down in the name of some other "other." Come to think of it, it's much the way we assistant professors dealt with one another in the early fifties.
I guess I don't feel as worried about it as you sound, partly because I remember so much lament about the same sort of thing in the past, and partly because I still find that a lot of genuine inquiry is going on, behind the facade of absurd jargon of the kind you just quoted. Feminists, for example, often the targets of traditional critics who think the store is being given away, are more often than not carrying on genuine dialogue about real issues.
RD: Well, Gerald Graff says that we've always misunderstood and fought with each other: if you look at the history of the profession, you discover that whatever is new at any given moment is seen as demonic.
WB: Right. Machiavelli somewhere does a little study of previous epochs, finding in all of them that the elderly sages lamented the decline of the real values. Noting that in his time the real values were being lost, he said, "But the difference between now and those earlier epochs is that this time it's real!" Well, maybe this time it's real. Certainly the vocabulary problem is a troublesome one. I met one scholar today, twenty years younger than I am, who said that in his departmental interviews yesterday he couldn't understand anything that any candidate had to say. Certainly we have some people who are simply using "scopic regimes of othering" just to be obscure and thus to sound both up-to-date and (possibly) profound. I met a very intelligent woman at the University of Iowa a month ago who is a passionate devotee of Gayatri Spivak, who was her Ph.D. dissertation supervisor. I said, "I find her extremely difficult to read because of the density of her prose." And she said, "Oh, so do I. I can never fully make out what she says in an essay, but she is so bright and she has taught me so much! And I always find that as I dig further I'm getting more, but I never get through to the final point." And this is a woman who did her dissertation under Spivak!
RD: Well, that's the way I sometimes feel. I think Derrida is a real genius. I read his incredibly rich and complicated and often mystifying texts, and I can tell I'm in the presence of a genuinely great mind. But when I see someone trying to imitate him, it looks like parody.
WB: Yes, down the line where it gets taken up by those who lack his intensive training in philosophy and rhetoric, it just gets corrupted. But actually I'm more interested in talking about the positive side of this new obscurity or new mystification: the way in which I think it is helping to produce a genuine revival of religious questions. Twenty years ago nobody in English departments or sociology departments was wrestling with the kinds of questions that religious inquirers have always wrestled with. Now everybody is—even though sometimes very maladroitly and without knowing precisely what they're doing. It's hard to judge, of course, just how much of this shift has been caused by this or that "poststructuralist" move; some of it obviously springs from the paradoxes physical scientists are discovering as they probe harder and harder into our beginnings or non-beginnings, our foundations or non-foundations. But what is clear is that more and more of our most responsible thinkers have had to abandon "Enlightenment" confidence in positivist rhetoric and thus reopen questions that that rhetoric had ruled out.
But who knows? We can never read accurately the signs of our own times. One speaker I heard yesterday claimed that religion is in a very low period and commands no respect at all. I would argue almost the opposite: that if you look in the professional journals for people who are dealing with questions which twenty years ago would have been thought only appropriate for the divinity school, you'll find a huge increase in all literary journals and in the social sciences and even among physicists.
RD: Oh, yes. David Bohm and Karl Pribram and the Tao of physics people, who are good scientists.
WB: That's a little bit different from the other question—the question about language, but it relates to it, I think.
RD: But it seems to me that there's less of that among literature people. If you scan the program of the Modern Language Association there's very little talk of religion, outside of the Conference on Christianity and Literature sessions. But at the American Academy of Religion meetings everybody is talking about rhetoric and critical theory and postmodernism and the Bible as literature. It appears that the people in religion departments have been more greatly influenced by literary theory than people in literature departments have been influenced by religious thought or theology.
WB: I think that may be true, but the other has happened too. By the way, one thing I really like about the articles in Christianity and Literature—I've been reading a lot of them—is that most of them rate really high in maintaining traditional critical standards while dealing with religious questions. Many of the essays deal, as you implied, with postmodernist themes, but most of them do it in a highly responsible way.
But to return to your question: all my life people have been saying that the quality of public discourse has been declining, and sometimes I think they've been right. When you look at the public scene, as influenced by TV, even PBS programs that have some intellectual quality, you have the feeling that as soon as the light goes on in the TV room the IQ level of each participant goes down about twenty points— and I'm not thinking only of the really silly, antirational programs like "Crossfire" and the McLaughlin Group.
RD: Oh, yes, they're just screaming at each other.
WB: The kids learn that the way to argue is to scream and not listen. I think that to a degree the same fake individualism is invading the academy. One sees it sometimes in the witty cynicism of a shrewd critic like Stanley Fish, who does believe in reasoning but who often talks as if he didn't.
RD: I most often think of you as the supreme optimist—as one who believes that we really can come to understand one another, improve the world, and create or recreate the genuine aesthetic experience. As you said last night, your own talks always end on an upbeat. You've never abandoned the ends of rhetoric But there's a darker subtext I sometimes see in your work—the notion that the decline of the human enterprise is inevitable, that we will all end with a pathetic whimper, and that, as you say, at the end of the "Afterword" to Rhetoric and Pluralism, things are always, in fact, falling apart. You have obviously had a tremendous impact on the many lives you've touched in the classroom—you've changed them for the better. But are you optimistic about what's in store for your grandchildren when you look around at the larger social order?
WB: No, no. "Optimism" is really not the word for me. "Affirmativism," or something like that, is closer to it. I decided decades ago, as I studied science, that this world was doomed in much the way that the religious doomsayers have said. Sooner or later the "contingent" world comes to an end: the asteroid comes crashing in; we kill ourselves with pollution; the sun burns us up; the ice freezes us out. Not only does each of us die but our world is going to die, and what you have to do is build your affirmations—perhaps even a kind of affirmativism—on the base of that knowledge.
It's probably true that most people in this decade think that things are worse than before and are going to the dogs. But whether or not that's true, I do feel absolutely certain that the "world" is ultimately doomed. (Of course that still leaves room for all those Mormon males to have other worlds of their own! But men each of those worlds is ultimately doomed, too. No doubt even this small universe containing these worlds with its fifty billion galaxies—last count I heard—is doomed.) But that doesn't feel to me like pessimism; it feels to me simply like a fact, no more pessimistic than my looking you in the eye and saying, "Bob, some day you too will die." Will it seem really pessimistic if I add my certainty that even before annihilation the world will always contain a lot of suffering and grief and pain, along with its joys? The ultimate doom may hit us tomorrow, or ten thousand years from now.
Where the persistent affirmation, including the rhetoric of assent, pays off is on any local scene—the neighborhood, the nation, the decade, the moment. What you can always do is maintain hope that you can, as the old song puts it, brighten the corner where you are. A Mormon song for children I remember with warmth had lines about us "little purple pansies" that went like this: "We are very tiny but must try, try, try; / Just one spot to gladden; / You and I." Corny, but amazingly true, once you do some translating. As Pascal already noted, we are indeed very very tiny, in a remote corner of a fifty-billion-galaxy universe. We could even put it that we are cornered in that corner. So what do we do?
Obviously no answer can avoid religious terms. I feel most of the time, even when I don't think about it consciously, an immense sense of gratitude for the creation, the natural order, the God, if you will, that/who made life possible. The God that I worship is creation—the one who made not just this life but the overwhelmingly astonishing variety and vitality of forms of life possible. I'm created by something immensely bigger and different from me that nevertheless includes everything about me, and includes both the life and the death, the ultimate destruction. That risks sounding a bit like naive pantheism, but the pantheists have usually left out the next step: the gratitude, which I think of as religious gratitude, for the grace of the Gift that one lives in and with. That gracious gift, totally mysterious, totally beyond any scientific explanation, entails a recognition, which I hinted at several times last night, that individuality of the kind you and I share could not have been created—this point will sound a bit like Leibnitz's "the best of all possible worlds"—without bringing with us the inevitability of our doing bad things to one another (to say nothing of the inevitability of suffering caused by natural disasters). The gift of our birth into individual existence, at the human level (however we define that), could not have been given without including death. Whether or not we believe the highly plausible claim that other planets out there are busily creating other intelligent creatures, it's a bit naive to be pessimistic just because this planet is surely going to die. At the moment when it does, there will still be the Nature of Being that made it all possible and that will—this feels to me more like the statement of a scientific probability than mere faith—go on busily reenacting the quest for love forever, love being the escape from the curse of individual destructive competitiveness.
RD: At the end of the "Afterword" in Rhetoric and Pluralism, that wonderful Festschrift, you suggest that if your different selves are brought finally together they "would demonstrate the essentially comic point of it all." Comedy in what sense? That the different selves can all live happily ever after with each other?
WB: I was using "comic" more in the sense of the divine comedy than just funny. The "comedy" ends when "All will be well, / And all manner of thing will be well." And that's not something that happens "out there" in some "future time" but when we are pursuing the right path in the right way.
RD: But I was a bit puzzled by the conclusion where you had the chorus of all your different selves—Wayne Booth the Distinguished Service Professor, Wayne Booth the Ignoramus, Wayne Booth the advocate of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, Wayne Booth the "I," Wayne Booth the Whiner, and so on.
WB: The conclusion was intended as a somewhat harmonious (though still "comic") chorus of disputing selves. In spite of deep disagreements, the voices share a unique history, a unique path, as do the diverse voices within every person. (Of course I can't deal here with how we draw the borderline between us relatively "normal" folks with our polysocial selves and those who suffer from real "split personality" disorders of various kinds.) Everyone can honestly speak of "my unique combination of all the selves I have taken in or modified, along the wandering path of life." And the purpose of life is not to arrive at some glorious, final, harmonious chord but to have a good chorus along the way, in our best definition of what's good.
RD: But if you had to pick one of those several selves who speak within your "1," would it be the Wayne Booth of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty? That's where I would put you.
WB: Yes, even though I can't silence the others. The voice that at-tempts—never with full success—to harmonize those three values is the one that has given me most help: starting with the best parts of Mormonism (our thirteen "Articles of Faith" conclude with "We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul. We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things"); moving on then to reinforcements from Plato in my late teens; and from Aristotle in my student years, with his version of being, doing, and making, and on to Kant in more recent years, with his three critiques—you name a major thinker and I can probably show that not just the search for truth, not just the effort to do good, and not just the pursuit of beauty but all three figure in his or her thought The devotee of those three quite obvious values does tend to dominate the WB, the "I" who wrote the essay—when he is at his best. In fact, I am now writing a book about how various "religions," whether official or "disguised," honor or fail to honor a God who mysteriously embodies all three "value-domains."
As for the unity of the whole, I assume you remember how Augustine talks about the way in which the ending of every poem is already in the beginning. And of course you know Eliot's "In my end is my beginning." Well, obviously, one of the WB's planned that whole pattern of multiple voices, providing a kind of unity. But not a fixed unity. Already now "he" is different from who he was before we began this interview.
RD: Yes, we all do perform that kind of chorus. But we do speak louder with some voices than with others.
WB: Absolutely. For example, though I cannot silence the pompous Distinguished Service Prof and the little Whiner in me, I try to, and in my essay I mock them throughout.
RD: And then there's Ignoramus Wayne Booth, your Socratic mask, the one confessing ignorance.
WB: Well, actually I don't mean only to make fun of him; he's real and irrepressible. To admit one's ignorance seems to me to be one of the biggest virtues there is, especially for a professor, and most especially for a Distinguished Service Professor receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award. Those proud authoritarians out in Mormon territory are now talking as if it's impossible for the Twelve Apostles to make a mistake. That's not just silly; it's a serious threat to the character of the Apostles themselves.
RD: You still identify yourself as a Latter-day Saint, which is obviously based on your tradition and the kinds of experiences you had early in your life, but you still clearly have a very strong negative reaction to the politics of the Church.
WB: Yes, but so do a lot of my Mormon friends who are in other respects orthodox and totally observant. Your citation at the luncheon today could be taken as evidence of why I still think I'm a Latter-day Saint (even though I cringe at the pride carried by that word "Saint"). Everything you said about faith, hope, and charity came out of that background. Am I a Mormon, definition #1? Yes. Am I a Mormon, definition #2? No. If someone had asked me, in front of that crowd last night at the MLA session, whether I believe in God, to have said "no" would have been totally misleading, even a kind of lie, to many in the audience, yet to have said "yes" would also have been totally misleading, even a kind of lie, to many others. Yes, I'm a Mormon; no, I'm not.
RD: Well, I said at the luncheon today that I didn't think belief meant much outside of action. There are all kinds of things we say we believe: we say we believe that the world is round. But in a religious sense it seems to me that belief is empty outside of praxis, of how we live, of what we do. You can say, "I love my neighbor," but if your actions demonstrate that you hate your neighbor, then the belief is hollow.
WB: I'm sure you see how closely that fits my argument last night about "Christian" stories that in fact demonize. Stories always imply or state beliefs about values, but if the actual actions celebrated belie the beliefs, then the stories are hypocritical.
RD: Your son was killed in 1969 right before I came back to Chicago. I didn't know you very well then, but I remember being told about the automobile accident. That was of course a very crushing blow to you, but I was never aware of your grief. The only place I know of where you talk about it is in one of the essays in Now Don't Try To Reason with Me; in speaking about futurism, you say you've been thinking about that a great deal lately because you've just lost your eighteen-year-old son.
WB: That was a talk to some kind of conference at the Continuing Education Center. You say that I didn't give you the impression of being a grief-stricken man?
RD: Oh, no, not in the least.
WB: Well, I most certainly was, and I can remember how hard it was to decide to go ahead with that talk, when one part of me simply wanted to retreat into negative silence.
RD: How did you do it, then?
WB: Well, you see, this death happened after I had decided that I was "religious." I'd changed my mind from being the atheist that "modernism" had taught me was the only sensible stance, to saying "It's less of a distortion to say 'I believe in God'—provided you'll grant me my definition." In my view of God there was no sense in which He was making individual providential choices from moment to moment, treating me more or less favorably than other people. That was not my God—He had not killed my son. And yet a remnant from my childhood had led, shortly before the talk, to a curious dream, as I tried to deal with the "injustice" of my son's death. In the dream I was in a large room, larger than this, and a whole bunch of people were squatting on the floor, and a dealer was dealing out cards randomly, carelessly scattering them all over the room, turning some of them upside down in an absolutely chaotic way. And I jumped up and shouted, "I will not play with a dealer who deals like that; I just withdraw from the game. It's not fair." Obviously in my subconscious I was still grappling with that providential, capricious God who had cheated me. Consciously, I wasn't thinking about it that way. I can remember at the time trying to talk to my daughters and Phyllis about religion, as a way of coping with our grief. Phyllis says now that those clumsy "sermons" were in fact helpful—I'm almost weeping about that even as I talk about it here. The point is that I did have a religious structure that allowed death to take place without having to blame God for it, but the "dream voice" still rebelled.
I don't quite find myself able to say that my son's death was a blessing. You know, in some religions people say that everything that happens to you is a blessing; that doesn't work for me. But I think it's good for a person with my kind of success—visible public success—to have reminders of absolute down-to-earthness. I've known people who have never had any personal disaster who behave abominably, acting as if the whole world was made only for them. I didn't need the lesson against that arrogance as badly as some people, because my father's death had taught me decisively about my vulnerability.
RD: I want to ask you about how success hasn't spoiled Wayne Booth. It has to do with the "I" in the "Afterword" that we were talking about and with your role as Distinguished Service Professor in the same "Afterword." It has to do with ego and original sin. How do you handle being a public figure and having gone to the top of the profession? Does this cause anxieties?
WB: I'll have to send you an article on the sin of pride that I just did for a Mormon journal. I can't remember the title, but it's something like "Why It's Harder for Mormons Than Anybody Else to Resist Pride." It reflects a lot on this question: how do you manage to avoid thinking you're more important than you are? I do think that my father's death and my son's death helped in that. My many failures and mistakes as dean also helped a lot. Everything up to that point had been pretty successful, and suddenly I knew just what a slob I really was.
RD: So you saw your deanship as a failure?
WB: Well, not so disastrous a failure that I now torture myself about it, but it's clear that I accomplished almost nothing that I wanted to accomplish. While I did help to hold the place together during the time of the Vietnam sit-ins, my clumsy mistakes in internal politics taught me my essential fallibility, my inherent limitations, in ways that I really don't think I'd learned before. The rapid success of The Rhetoric of Fiction, as I look on it now, had in a way reawakened dreams of importance similar to those planted by my mother: "You may very well be headed somewhere up there, man." Deaning in a way took me back to what I had absorbed from the Quakers at Earlham: "importance" is both dangerous and finally illusory.
RD: Did you expect the book to have that kind of reception?
WB: No. I thought it might get me offers of a university position somewhere, but I was quite strongly determined to stay permanently at Earlham. When the Chicago offer came, I at first turned it down. They offered me a "visiting year," and even after I'd accepted the offer, about halfway through the "visit," I still went back to Earlham once a week to teach a class— 250 miles.
But back to the pride theme: it took me a long time to realize that although The Rhetoric of Fiction was as good a book as I could write, its spectacular success had very little to do with its quality. It happened to hit the world just at the right time with the right subject. As I've said elsewhere—was it in that Festschrift?—if I'd written a much better book about the Canterbury Tales, say, or Beowulf, it would have received much less attention and perhaps have just been lost in the dustbin of history, as many good books these days are lost. But The Rhetoric of Fiction turned out to have relevance to nearly all fields.
RD: Is your attachment to Chicago a deep attachment? Would you have gone to other universities, if they'd made an offer at that time?
WB: In fact, I've turned down quite a few offers and feelers since. I've never been sought aggressively by one of the really Big Names, but I don't think I would have been tempted by any of them. Chicago continues for me to be the university, and I think the reason relates to the humility/pride issue. Ours is a campus where every time you walk onto campus you meet somebody who knows something important that you don't know—somebody who doesn't hesitate to let you know about it. Many of the sons-a-guns are not what you could call humble, but they keep each other and me humble—aware, you might say, that we are ignoramuses. I think the intensely critical atmosphere might have destroyed me as a very young man—the young man who had trouble with the competitive atmosphere at Haverford. If I had had to worry about tenure at Chicago, had been slapped down daily for my ignorance, I might have frozen up; indeed, I have had Chicago colleagues who stopped publishing (after getting tenure), convinced, as one of them said, that "I can never meet the standards of Crane and McKeon."
I suddenly remember an example: when The Rhetoric of Fiction was in early draft state, I visited Chicago and met a Chicago professor on the quad. "What are you up to?" he asked. I described the book I was working on, and he said something like, "Hell, man, I don't get it. That's just what we teach our students in our classes all the time." [Laughter] In other words, at Chicago it's not just the hard work but the quality of the intense critical encounters. I'll go to the Quadrangle Club, and I'll come away feeling that I learned something once again. I have lunch with David Tracy every week or so, and various others not quite so regularly.
RD: Well, I promised you we would talk for an hour or so, and we've gone on for much longer than that. It's been a great delight for me to interview you.
WB: [Standing up and looking out over the lake] Oh, I love those lights out there at Navy Pier. It's beautiful. A view like this relates to our conversation about whether the world is going to the dogs or not. Look at all those people driving around in their cars, some of them miserable, many of them happy, all of them producing a scene giving pleasure to us up here. Wonderful. Have you seen those studies showing that 85% of the American people think of themselves as happy, even when they say that "a majority of other Americans" are unhappy? I'll bet that with all the justified talk about our miseries, the misery quotient would have been far higher in most earlier periods. I'm convinced you have to measure the world at any one moment by how many corners you brighten.
Coming back to the notion of humility, the ultimate bright corner, in my view, is the state of the soul that Christians have talked about and struggle for so much. You can measure the quality of the world at any moment by how many of those millions have a good quality of soul. And nobody will ever be able to measure that.
Booth, Wayne C. "Afterword." Rhetoric and Pluralism: Legacies of Wayne Booth. Ed. Frederick J. Antczak. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1995. 279-308.
----------. (Pseudonym of D. Phillips.) "Reflections of a Young Teacher." Journal of General Education 7 (1952): 9-16.
---------. "Two Scholars Reflect on Their Careers." PMLA 109 (1994): 941-50.
Christianity and Literature, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Winter 1996)
Story as Spiritual Quest
Wayne C. Booth
Can Listening to Stories of All Kinds, Religious or Irreligious, Be Considered a Spiritual Quest?
As I've thought over the years about just what it is that really listening to a story does to our "spirit," I've landed in deep and murky waters, as you all could predict.1 To avoid getting fancy—or even overwhelmed—too soon, let's start by quoting the beginning of a famous novel that does not announce itself as spiritual or religious.
Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called The Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old man agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights.
The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectators held their breath. Amalinze was a wily craftsman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water. Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and their thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point. In the end Okonkwo threw The Cat.
That was many years ago, twenty years or more, and during this time Okonkwo's fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan. . . . (3)
Now, then, exactly where were we all just now, as listeners to the opening of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart? We were, of course, all physical bodies located in this hall, each of us with a precise and unique physical location and condition. But some of us were also already transported to another world, dwelling in a world elsewhere, Achebe's world, Okonkwo's world, oblivious to the feel of our bottoms on the chairs, concentrating on the time-scheme of the wrestling match rather than the time-scheme of our digestive tracts. Some others, we can assume, were only half in that world, still back here, while perhaps itching and scratching, or listening to bowel rumblings: half listening but still in a sense primarily "back home" in this room. And no doubt some of us were totally untransported—resisting Achebe's world and remaining in the literal world of ordinary time, our minds dwelling on our physical discomfort or our anxiety about coming triumphs or disasters: the papers we must deliver tomorrow, the state of our bank accounts, the fear that our love affair or marriage is collapsing. (As for me, though I have been carried away by that story before, as I read it to you now I was partially but lamentably distracted by the demands of this hall on this occasion. I went on living, at least partially, in the world of "here-and-now.")
This talk was originally planned as a meditation on the analogy between the "spiritual" transports that story-listening can provide us, lifting us, as it were, out of our local abode, and the various other transports that we more easily label spiritual or religious. As everyone here knows, students of religion and literature have for a long while been pursuing analogies between some "secular" stories and official scriptures, often using such terms as "spiritual" and "quest" and even "scriptural." A Kanuga conference this year, for example, announces itself as "Quests for the Holy Grail"—in novels by writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, Virginia Woolf, and John Cheever, in films like Monsignor Quixote.2 My "quest" is for a further extension of such analogies, hoping to cover all deeply engaged story-listening with the umbrella-phrase "spiritual quest."
I must first underline that phrase "deeply engaged." A child caught up in a skillful telling of a fine fairy tale is deeply engaged. All of us academics know what a small part of our reading of narrative is like that. Instead of being caught up in a story as story, we are distracted by this or that project or thesis or assigned teaching task, as my performance-task here just now distracted me from Okonkwo's world. Instead of soaring into the story-world, it's—"Golly, I have to teach this story tomorrow. How can I get a good discussion going on that paragraph? Oh, I could relate it to. .. ." And suddenly the story as story has lost its grip. Or, "My article simply must have one more example of covert homosexuality. I wonder if anyone has looked closely at James's The Wings of the Dove."
I'm not denying that the current fashion in "resistant" or "strong" reading has yielded a great deal of useful knowledge previously overlooked. But it surely has increased our disengagement from what stories themselves can be said to "want" or "intend": engaged listening. Even when one's scholarly quest is religious—"What was the true religion of this professed unbeliever, James Joyce?"—the spiritual quest can be destroyed: the quester, absorbed in another quest entirely, has ceased to live in the story-world.3
It's always risky to extend the analogical range of any terms as emotionally charged as those central to me here. All terms closely related to religious inquiry are deeply ambiguous and easily subject to raids by exploiters.4 "Spiritual," for example, was the word that TV star Roseanne recently used to describe her experience when she felt offended by the sexism of Saturday Night Live and decided to speak out against it.5
Hoping to avoid the sloppiness of such raids on religious language, let's look more closely at my key question. Just where are we when we really listen to any story, not just stories overtly religious or Christian but "secular" stories of any kind that "carry us away"? My claim is that even the most aggressively secular stories, even those that seem full of vicious, wickedly motivated violence, reveal strong parallels to explicitly religious narrative, including biblical stories. They seduce us out of the time-bound world; if we are "fully engaged," we live "elsewhere" for the time of the listening. The only exceptions to this claim that I can think of are stories that explicitly and energetically tie us to our bodily sensations in the world of ordinary time; the most obvious example would be sheer pornography—not the erotic moments in a D. H. Lawrence novel, say, but the kind that keep the seduced listener bound by hand to the physical world. I won't dwell on that, though, partly because it would deflect me into grappling with those who argue these days that mere orgasm is itself a spiritual experience.6
Just where is the "elsewhere" in which we dwell when fully engaged? Why should anyone call such dwelling a "spiritual quest?" The attempt at an answer requires us to think about the various "worlds" we human creatures inhabit—and forces me into a perhaps banal version of the many hierarchies thinkers have produced from at least the time of Plato on. How does the "world" or "time-scheme" that we amphibious creatures inhabit when we really listen to a story, whether "secular" like Things Fall Apart or "religious" like Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Prioress's Tale," relate to other worlds or time-schemes? The three worlds I shall describe now by no means exhaust the rungs on the ladder, or links on the chain, that one might construct from the "lowest" world—sub-atomic exchanges among quanta, say—and the "highest" that we know of or long for. My account could be immeasurably complicated, for instance, by looking at the history of diverse "Great Chains of Being," as traced by many since Arthur O. Lovejoy, or by a serious encounter with William Blake's four worlds of Eden, Beulah, Generation, and Ulro.7 But I don't know of any such ladders from hell to heaven or, eliminating heaven, from the slime to Einstein that have given sufficient narrative attention to the distinction between Worlds Two and Three that I shall stress.
World One: Pre-Human
The story of our creation, no matter how it's told, has to include something about the way we were brought up out of a non-human world—out of the mud, the dust, the slime—into human consciousness, even as we continue in many respects and much of the time to live in the "pre-human" world. Whether we take the biblical version or Darwin's, we are creatures born trailing not just clouds of glory8 but our full animal brutishness. We were brought up not just from primeval slime but from an animal world red in tooth and claw, a world in which each individual creature's and each group's survival depends on destruction of some other individual or group. All animals survive by defeating, devouring, or outsmarting other animals; each species in effect lives at least partly by destruction of others.9 Regardless of how spiritual we may claim to be, whether as vegetarians or monks or saints, we cannot totally cut our connections to that world: we eat, we digest the other, a part of God's creation that in its own terms must view us as the destroyer. In other words, we never fully escape a world that precedes language, consciousness, anything like spiritual quest—a world of sheer physicality. We could call this the dog-eat-dog, or even the shit-bound, world.10
If you try to escape this world fully, you'll die of malnutrition, or perhaps constipation. There's no point in mocking or trying to repudiate life in that world: even as we speak our mockery we are dependent on it for the energy we are using. The "higher" animals began the effort to escape it, as it were, when they discovered infant-bonding, tribal loyalty, and so on, but they never made it to where we arrived—World Two.
World Two: The "Everyday World"
World Two, in which we dwell in our ordinary affairs (never until death fully escaping World One), is the world that creation finally arrived at when "the first human being" was born, carrying the full load of World One. The first full human beings were born when they/we first partook of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, whether with one bite or with trillions of bites over millions of years. With that bite we became conscious—became able not just to compete, to kill or be killed, or to exchange brute warning and threatening signs with fellow competitors, but to think and share thoughts about our competitive drives and the alternatives to them. In short, we became aware of real differences between good and evil, and thus began to live in a world of distinctions between better-and-worse ways of dealing with the facts inherited from World One. Even the most ardent creationist who sees that transition as happening in a single hour with a single divine stroke cannot claim that World One was cast off. No one can believe that Adam and Eve arrived with no fecal matter in their intestines.11 They were still tied to World One, but they didn't really know the full weight of that tie until the moment of the Fall.12
Some post-Darwinians, like Richard Dawkins, have gone to the opposite extreme, claiming (absurdly, in my view) that in effect we never entered World Two: we still live mainly or entirely in a World One where the only significant motive is selfish survival. Rejecting that reduction, a fair number of other students of evolution have been developing a history of World One that shows animals moving slowly but decisively from mere dog-eat-dogism toward moral consciousness; this view, which in some versions I admire but cannot develop here, offers a really promising direction in which courageous creationists and evolutionists might find common ground.13
In any case, no matter how we trace the transition or connection, we now live in a second world that incorporates the first, a world where what Aristotle calls our "rational souls" are still built upon (while never escaping) what he calls the vegetable and animal "souls" (appetitive, generative, and locomotive). By "rational" he means, as even we non-Greek scholars can see, not souls that are by any means always reasonable but souls that have been forced into thought about choices. They have knowledge about their complex natures, including the necessity of dealing with, or managing, the ever-present, perpetually active "lower" souls.
That new world, as you just possibly may have by now discovered for yourselves, no matter how young you are, is an immensely complex one, full of conflicting, paradoxical demands upon us. While continuing to live with animal desires and needs, we now discover a whole new order of feelings and motives that sometimes incorporate but often conflict with our inheritance from World One. We discover love and the radical differences between mere sex and love, and the ways in which sex cannot just strengthen love but destroy it. We discover eating problems and struggle with the difference between satisfying our natural hungers and worrying about health diets and fads and anorexia and boulemia; more importantly, we become aware of the contrast between enjoying our good meals and thinking about the millions who are starving.
In this discovery of the intricate ways in which Worlds One and Two overlap yet often conflict, we now see that the conflicts are no longer just with some enemy or prey "outside the tribe" or with some rival here at home; the conflicts have come to be among real values and the resulting need for difficult choices. They are now found to be "in here," within each individual's very own soul: vegetable, animal, and—some of the time—rational.
In short, as we took the first bite of that apple we entered a radically different world: the world not of mere signs, of bumps and grinds, not merely of dog-eat-dog, but the world of what Kenneth Burke taught us to call symbolic exchange, or what he and I would call a world constructed by rival rhetorics, with their complex negations of so-called natural desires. Entering that world has rightly been called by some a fall, by others (rightly) a fortunate fall, and by some evolutionists (wrongly, in my view) an unambiguous rise.
The fall was undeniably a rise (instantaneous or age-long) because to live even for a moment in the inner-conflict world that frees us at least partially from the absolute, bestial dominance of the dog-eat-dog world, we rise into a world of free agency and thus discover the possibility of taking a further step upward. We now not only continue to kill and eat and defecate, still living in part in the "lowest" orders of World One; we now think, sometimes, about how to do all that better and about how our animality relates to other matters such as love, truth, goodness, and beauty.
Still, all theorists, whether biologists or theologians, have viewed our move into that world as inescapably introducing unprecedented troubles: whether called a "fall" or not, in our new consciousness we became painfully aware of the ways in which we still behave a good deal of the time as if we still lived only in World One—but not now in our original innocent state. Now we conduct daily battles among conflicting motives derived from both worlds. What's more, we now not only commit the necessary killings of World One but also invent new forms of vice that animals would never dream of: new manifestations of the Seven Deadly Sins theologians once put at the center—pride, anger, envy, sloth, covetousness, gluttony, and lust. Lust, for example, is far different for a Don Juan than it ever has been for a lusty male in any of the "lower" species. Serial killing is infinitely different from what a lion king does when searching for food.
In other words, what was and is for animals an innocent and necessary though destructive competition for survival often becomes in World Two a competition for triumph, one that when we think about it leads to feelings like shame and guilt and the notion that we are sinful. No beautiful cheetah pursuing and eating a beautiful gazelle ever felt sinful afterward; even you who are skeptics will surely take my unprovable word for that. In contrast, we who live in World Two, still bound to World One, suffer in our inescapable competitions not only what the gazelle suffers when a cheetah eats it but also the kind of suffering that only a conscious creature can suffer: we not only know our own defeats; we also know about how our own bad (or at least "inferior") behavior contributes to those defeats. And worst of all, we know that some forms of concern about being defeated, and pride in being victorious, are themselves a kind of moral defeat. What for many seems even worse about World Two—what strengthens even further the quest for some way out of it—is the knowledge that death lies just ahead, almost certainly striking before we can get all this mess in our souls cleaned up. We can be sure that such a thought never entered the head of even the brightest chimpanzee—or Neanderthal.
World Three: Quests for Escape
No matter how favorably we describe life in World Two, life still rooted in World One, it has always plagued us so intensely that we have from the beginning, in all cultures, sought escape hatches—ways of rising above all that, routes to an exit sign promising a different kind of world entirely: call it a World of the Spirit. Living in a world of perpetual conflict and anxiety, most of us much of the time long to transcend the conflict, as indeed we do in holding a conference session like this one. Are we not engaged in spiritual quest here? As we enter this hall and try to think here together about religion, we to some degree slough off the worst features of Worlds One and Two and enter the time-scheme of, well, let's say "the sloppy structure of this talk and of our time-worn thoughts about it, favorable and unfavorable." Regardless of what we think, the time-world of engaged participants in any academic conference, however inane, resembles the storied out-of-time world of those who "escape" to the world of Achebe. Anxieties about time past and time future are dissolved into non-time-bound thought here and now; in the at-least-partially-still moment we escape the turning world. We thus pursue something strikingly similar to what all official religions have claimed to provide: if not heaven itself, a move toward it
You may prefer to call our quest at this moment not spiritual but intellectual or mental or academic or philosophical; we have lots of terms for it, each of them with connotations that will annoy somebody. Whatever we call any similar escape from ordinary time, we cannot overlook just how much of human energy goes into what I'm calling spiritual quests and just how many of those quests travel, misleadingly, under "non-religious" labels.
We could now add a long list to the two quests I've mentioned so far: (1) immersion in a powerful narrative; and (2) immersion of the kind we're engaged in here, the effort to think about a problem. I'll leave it to you to add to the following.
Quest 3. Some simply buy the age-old solution, hedonistic escape: pile up the momentary pleasures, whether bodily or not, as deep as you can; eat, drink, and be merry, avoiding the plagues and pursuing the pleasures of Worlds One and Two, because tomorrow you return to the dust out of which World Two mysteriously arose. For them stories would be spiritual quests only in the sense of providing pleasure. (For some people, when the hedonist quest turns to misery, World Two becomes so repugnant that they choose the simplest escape route of all, suicide—a quick trip back to and then out of World One.)
Quest 4. Some theorists these days are arguing that the best road forward is a road back: repudiate the torturous abstractions imposed by thought in World Two and return to the world of the body, elevating it in a new form over the intellectual corruptions of World Two, the world we entered when knowledge entered the scene. Such theorists seem always to overlook the point that the "body" they would return to is already one that has a mind, a spirit, attached: the body that is celebrated by the body-theorists can't get rid of the cerebral cortex. What's more, as they write their books and articles pleading for a return of the body, they are actually escaping the body in order to talk about the escape. And they often perform their celebrations of the body by telling stories about it!
Obviously we could go on adding quests indefinitely, beginning with other "flow" experiences of the kind traced by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi: bliss in sports like mountain-climbing or hang-gliding (here the story is extremely simple: will the hero/heroine survive?); engagement in athletic contests, or in watching them on TV (again a simple story is enacted, often with great intensity); gardening (for a passionate gardener the escape is obvious).
To me the spiritual "escapes" most closely related to our subject here are music and poetry. From the Romantic period on, many an author has claimed that absorption in the beauties of art is the one best replacement for religion; indeed, for many it becomes the one true religion. Innumerable music lovers have described their experience with it—even with the most obviously secular music—as spiritual or even religious. From the German Romantics through Matthew Arnold to the present, literary critics have done the same for poetry. Here is how William H. Gass describes Rainer Maria Rilke's spiritual quest:
Rilke struggled his entire life to be a poet, . . . and a poet was above ordinary life . . . ; the true poet dwelled in a realm devoted entirely to the spirit (yes, Rilke had 'realms' in which he 'dwellt'); the true poet was always 'on the job'; the true poet never hankered for a flagon of wine or a leg of mutton or a leg of lady either . . . ; nor did the true poet mop floors . . . ; the true poet was an agent of transfiguration whose sole function was the almost magical movement of matter into mind. (28)
The poet's function, that is, involves the movement from Worlds One and Two into another world entirely.
The analogy with stories and with openly religious quests is more obvious with some of these than with others. Indeed, we can be sure that many will feel offended by the analogy, reserving terms like "spiritual" for the two most obviously "religious" quests that are found in every vital culture I know of. Primequest 1: Find a way to prepare for death as a passage into a future saved world; you will escape World Two only by going to heaven. Many believers have seen themselves as bargaining for eternal payoff. Either certain explicit acts or certain exercises of the soul, even as late as one's deathbed, can prepare one to escape through flight into divine bliss. "If I just live right, finally I'll escape, not just from the slime and physical suffering of the brute world but from the mental or spiritual suffering of World Two." There is one true story only: the struggle, successful or not, to go "home." Primequest 2: Many have avoided such futurism by seeking or recommending ways of transcendence here and now, regardless of future payoff: either prayer or meditation or a conversion experience leading to the sense, however temporary, of being in a saved condition now, living in a totally different world, somehow outside or above worldly time. Some of these persons have used the other quests as instruments toward the Primequest: music and poetry have been seen both as heaven itself and as paths toward true heaven.14
For many believers, of course, only the two Primequests are genuinely spiritual, constituting in fact a superior World Four. Postponing again the judgmental move, my claim so far is simply that, regardless of how we place any one story on any one religious scale, from our beginnings on we have experienced stories as one of our primary "escapes," or "transcendence routes" out of the world of sin and suffering. Though clearly not identical to the meditation and prayer practiced in the Primequests, escape into any story is analogous in important ways, even when the story has no explicit religious reference. We love stories at least in part because they carry us, for the time being, out of Worlds One and Two into a World Three. Utterly freed from the immediate hungers and fears and competition of World One and the self-reproaches and irresolvable conflicts that plague World Two, we live, as it were, "up there" or "out there," not "down here" or "here at home." Transported out of our ordinary selves with their ordinary time-schemes—not into "heaven," exactly, but into a kind of haven— we sometimes even experience ecstasy, in one of the many confusing senses of that word: our souls are transported away from our bodies into another place, what Rilke calls another "realm." Though words like "spiritual" and "transported" and "ecstasy" each present problems when extended metaphorically in this way, they are the best we have for what happens when a story lifts us out of Worlds One and Two.
Any such claim inevitably raises lots of problems, most of which I cannot even begin to deal with adequately tonight, if ever. For example, wouldn't most novelists who aspire to labels like "realist" or "naturalist" bridle at my claim that their stories transport us out of the real world? Is not their deepest effort to reduce the distance between their story-worlds and the world we live in and to make us face our ordinary world more honestly when we return? With a sense of mission in reforming the so-called real world, they struggle to make us feel that this story they offer is the real world, and what needs changing in the story is what needs changing when we readers or listeners put the story away and turn back to world-coping. Similarly, authors of satires or political polemics would sneer at the suggestion that their stories intend to provide escape: their very point is to embed readers more fully in reality.
Perhaps. But the fact is that even a polemical story, if it really works as story, capturing our interest as story, lifts us out of World Two at least to some degree and for the time being. Reading Nineteen Eighty-Four the first time, for example, and coming to care about the fate of Winston Smith provides an utterly different experience from what happens when we read one of Orwell's polemical essays. In short, the most that this objection requires of me is that I modulate my claim from "all" or "most" to "many." And even the works that attempt to embed us in the problems of World Two release us—again, for the time being—from having actually to deal with them.
A second problem is not so easily postponed, and in effect it will occupy the rest of this talk. Doesn't my claim reduce all stories to the same cheap level of escape fiction, with no distinctions among different definitions of words like "spiritual" and "quest"? It's all very well to claim, against all objections, that whether a story is realistic or allegorical or symbolic or about heaven or hell or the gutter, it will offer, during the time of full listening, a transcendence of ordinary time. The tough question is: when I claim that entering the story-world somehow offers the spirit a kind of food not found in the world of time, can I deny that the food in the new domain can actually be poisonous?
To put the problem more forcefully, would not explicitly religious writers like Dante or John Bunyan or the author of Everyman rightly insist on a huge difference between the spiritual value I'm claiming for most stories and the explicit and persistent spiritual value of their portrayal of Primequests, joining Christian as he journeys from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City or Everyman as he struggles for salvation? In these the truly engaged listener joins the pilgrim in literal progress toward salvation, the two worlds finally collapsed. And isn't this difference even more compelling when we think of biblical stories in which the spiritual quest is inescapable?
But my claim is not the foolish one that World Three offers nothing but good spirituality. It should be obvious that all spiritual quests are not of equal spiritual value; some can be harmful. This ambivalence is not essentially different from what we meet with in official religious terminology. Would anyone claim that all stories that any group has called "scripture" are of equal spiritual value, or that none can be harmful? Are all passionate conversions defensible? I simply want to urge that the difference between "religious stories" and "secular stories" has been greatly exaggerated.15
Spiritual Quests Good and Bad, Successful and Botched
The essential evaluative question is, "What kind of World Three has the story enticed us to join on our quest?" Though we've always moved "upward" in the sense of escaping the pressures of World Two, on any moral or religious scale we may well have been drawn downward. This is not the place for a strict ranking of the various "worlds" our quests land us in, but before turning to the demonized world of many ostensibly religious tales I can hint at the complexities faced by anyone who attempts this kind of judgment.
The Overly Purified World. Some stories are so sentimentally purified, so freed of encounters with evil, that once the leap "upward" has been taken no further quest takes place: down there is evil; up here is no hint of the worlds below. The voyage is at best only a sojourn in a comfortable motel, an "escape" in the weak sense. Few such stories succeed with many readers for long. Most often the purified world is threatened with the taint of one or two corrupters, who by the end of the tale are destroyed. The classical murder story, as told by Agatha Christie, portrays a sentimentally cleaned-up world with only one threat, the murderer, that threat removed decisively by the end. In such works we return from the quest with our worlds complacently purified.
The World in Which Satan Becomes King. Some "escapes," as Milton would no doubt be happy to hear me say, are in fact into the "spiritual" world of the Satanic; as the history of sympathetic readings of Milton's Satan shows, to enter the devil's spiritual domain can be tempting indeed. In short, just as reading a text called "scripture" does not mean that you are necessarily on the path toward genuine salvation, so entering upon a narrative spiritual quest does not mean that you are headed for or have found salvation. A thoroughly engaged listener to Louis-Ferdinand Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, Bret Ellis's American Psycho, Martin Amis's recent The Information, or even Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness may return from what is in my terms a genuine spiritual quest feeling not only that no one back home here is worth redemption but also that there is no redemption. The quest has failed: there is nothing but "the horror, the horror."
In some of these, unlike Conrad's novel, the reader is left believing that there is no qualitative difference between behaving one way and behaving another way: the quest not only has failed; it also has left compliant readers maimed as they return to face the problems of World Two. Though the journey will be described by some overgeneralizing critic like Booth as an escape into a kind of spiritual quest, the result for many a listener, especially young listeners, turns out to have been a Satanic downward trajectory into the nihilism or despair exhibited by the central characters and not corrected or qualified by any narrator or implied author. While experienced readers will know how to move out from under the author's control to critical independence, inexperienced readers may be worse off morally than if the quest had never been undertaken.16
The Aimless Stroll. Similarly, the journeys provided by much popular culture—TV, movies, pop music—reduce the quest to little more than a pointless wandering as if to say, "Let's live anywhere but back home." The couch potato surfing channels is on a spiritual quest all right—"Save me, save me, won't somebody, anybody, save me?"—but more often than not he or she "comes back" from the quest more embedded in the worst of Worlds One and Two than when the quest began.
The Genuine Encounter with Problems of Good and Evil. Surely the spiritual quests that should interest us most—and indeed the ones that over time have been most lastingly admired—are like the best stories in the Bible: they engage fully and openly with the conflicts between good and evil. A serious quest of the spirit engages with evil, with something or other that threatens the good, while at least implying a notion of what the good might be. And it is that harsh fact that leads us back to the eternally troublesome question: how can stories achieve that engagement, in a dramatically effective way, as story without demonizing and then victimizing human characters who stand for or are possessed by the evil portrayed?
The Portrayal of Evil and the Path to Demonizing
Demonizing has always proved extremely effective in grabbing and holding listeners. If you can enter a narrative world where you encounter an indubitable representative of all wickedness and then revel in the utter defeat of that demon, you not only have transcended the sins of World Two but also returned home feeling that even sin itself can in fact be defeated, that the world can in fact be redeemed, that you yourself can in fact enter a world purged of evil—just like those readers of Agatha Christie. You have indeed just done so—at least, again, for the time being.
Such effects are certainly not to be sneezed at; stories producing them are morally superior at least to stories that leave us in utter despair. After all, they have one prime religious value: they grant the listener a picture of hopefulness in the face of evil. This sinful world need not end in defeat.
That is why it is highly important to distinguish those stories that in their very structure provide a religious experience that harmonizes with professed beliefs from those that in the actions presented contradict the professed beliefs and thus produce a false or hypocritical triumph. This problem becomes most acute when the professed beliefs are Christian—at least when the version of Christianity is not one that celebrates violent destruction of demonized enemies.
If I were to conduct a quiz here, asking you to write a paragraph about what you take to be the center of Christian belief, another paragraph about how evil relates to that belief, and yet another paragraph about how a genuine Christian should deal with those who embody evil, we'd have a baker's dozen or more of contrasting orthodoxies. The devotees of each would assert what all the others would consider unorthodox or even heretical. Every sect and schism calling itself Christian can find passages in the New Testament that, at least when torn from context, will justify its community and refute its enemies. Similarly, every Christian or anti-Christian will find passages that flatly contradict other people's basic beliefs about Christianity. As Antonio almost says in The Merchant of Venice, "Even the devil and all his contradictory minions can cite scripture for their purposes."
One of Kenneth Burke's witticisms summarizes well the problem here: "Yes, I know that you're a Christian, but who are you a Christian against?" Just whom are you willing to demonize? The problem for powerful narrative is most acute for Christians who embrace the versions of Christianity that stress forgiveness of enemies. It can be dramatized forcefully by considering a famous "Christian" story that aggressively demonizes, Chaucer's "The Prioress's Tale."
In this tale, one that was highly popular for some centuries, an innocent—indeed, saintly—seven-year-old Christian boy makes the mistake of singing as he walks through the ghetto the alma redemptoris, "Gracious Mother of the Redeemer." Satan then says to the Jews, in whom he has built "his wasp's nest" (NB: Satan's wasp nest is not just in Satan; it's in the Jews): "O Hebrew people, can you allow such a boy to sing such stuff that violates your laws' sacredness?" So the Jews capture the lovely little singing lad, cut out his tongue, and throw him into a toilet where "these cursed folk of Herod's purged their innards." The boy miraculously goes on singing alma redemptoris, through the turds, until a priest blessedly conjures his release and he finally dies, just like "young Hugh of Lincoln," the Prioress concludes, who was also "slayn" recently by the "cursed Jews."
The narrator, remember, is the Prioress, a prissy, self-centered nun, so it's not surprising that many critics have hoped to blame only her for the demonizing, thus exonerating the genius Chaucer who is perceived as asking us to savor the fun of watching a pious Christian tell such a gruesomely unchristian tale. But whether or not Chaucer meant to stand at a safe ironic distance, as I believe, the story was for a long time a popular non-ironic part of the so-called Christian literary tradition. The point here is that while it preaches Christian piety, attempting to transport the listener into a loving world where dwells beloved Mary, it must lead uncritical listeners into a radically demonized world. There is thus an inescapable conflict between stated doctrine and the structure of the narrated experience.
Many these days are rightly appalled not just by the flesh-and-blood slaughtering going on around the world but by the fictional slaughters celebrated on our screens and in our book pages. A great deal of that violence is committed, as is much of the violence in the Bible, by characters whose creators portray them as virtuous—as being on the Lord's side, like the nun, because they are doing His work by destroying Satan's minions. Can a critic of such stories, or of "The Prioress's Tale," legitimately apply the standards derived, say, from the Sermon on the Mount, implying if not a total pacifism at least a total rejection of demon-killing? "Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other cheek; yes, love your enemies, expecting nothing in return."
Well, just who is it that you do not love but hate, do not do good to but rather try to destroy? Just whom do you refuse to turn the other cheek to and instead organize armies to annihilate? "I know that you're a Christian, but which non-Christians are you so strongly opposed to that you're willing to slaughter them?" Or how about an even tougher version of the question, one underlying many of the others but too big to be more than mentioned here: "Is there after all something in us inherited from World One, some version of original sin, that simply makes demonizing inescapable?" Could it be that we cannot live without placing ourselves as superior to "the wicked" and telling stories about their destruction? After all, will I myself not be committing the very demonization I deplore as I pronounce moral condemnation of "Christian" tales because they demonize?
So the questions multiply. Can a story be Christian if it invites us to join the armies of the Lord in His project of killing off a third of mankind, as we find suggested several times in the Book of Revelation? Is there such a thing as a just war against the justly labelled wicked, as the Catholic Church has usually claimed and as I confess to believe because of my willing participation in World War II—the war against a demonic Hitler? Is it not likely that the literature of religious demon-slaughter has contributed to a flood through history of slaughters of the innocent?
For most Christians the answer to this practical question is easy when it is applied to real-life demonizing, whether the demonizer is or is not Christian. None of us here would defend the self-righteous assassination of Itzhak Rabin, the extremist murders and attempted murders by Christians of abortion doctors, or the various religion-centered atrocities in Bosnia. But can we deny that inflamed, pious narratives have contributed to such demon-killing? I wonder how many professed Christians these days actively deplore the various Christian massacres of demons and (synonymous terms) heretics and idolaters through the ages: the so-called Christian Crusades, the torture and killings of the Inquisition, the Huguenot atrocities, and so on.
My main interest here, however, is not actual slaughters but literary portrayals of spiritual conflict and the demonization that it often produces, whether or not what is "recommended" goes beyond mere hatred or contempt to actual killing. When we turn to vicarious experience of spiritual battle, spiritual quests that end in triumphant slaughter or other forms of delicious punishment, the questions get even more complicated. Just what kinds of narrative use of hatred and demon-destruction are justified, if any? If it's not just all right but a divine duty to kill off Satan wherever he appears, is it all right to show my saintly hero killing someone who is not Satan but who is portrayed as possessed by Satan?
The problems raised by stories that celebrate or stimulate such demonizing are both moral and formal: not just "Are stories morally justifiable when they celebrate this or that kind of killing?" but "Is there something in the nature of good Christian narrative—that is, effective, interesting, gripping, religiously moving Christian narrative—is there something inherent in such narrative that requires or at least justifies demonization?"
On another occasion we might look at length at the recent flood of so-called Christian novels, apocalyptic adventure tales addressed to a fundamentalist audience and selling by the millions. They're not even mentioned in the best seller lists of The New York Times or The Chicago Tribune. I've read only two of these, because I just can't stomach any more of them. Roger Elwood's Wise One (1991), for example, demonizes all Muslims (except those who convert to Christianity) and then literally massacres hordes of them, using as justification the fact that many Muslims, quoting the Qur'an, demonize and kill non-Muslims, especially Christians. Blood and guts fill the final pages as the good guys triumph with their killings and, dead or alive, enter salvation. In Frank E. Peretti's This Present Darkness (1986) the battle is closer to home; there are literal demons floating above and attempting to conquer a small town in America, abetted by citizens whom they have possessed.17
Or we might look closely at how some of the most famous classics in the "Christian tradition" have relied on the notion that some fellow creatures are not our fellows at all but in effect demons. Iago in Othello is inherently, utterly vicious, with no redeeming quality except wit and courage; his motives can only be explained by his being by nature demonic. Or think of the "narratively useful" demons in the ostensibly Christian novels of Charles Dickens. Uriah Heep in David Copperfield is an utterly slimy, totally unredeemable villain, granted not a single hint of any quality that could lead to our forgiveness. His physical qualities are all snake-like, and his total aim in life is to destroy. The vicious character Monks in Oliver Twist is similarly beyond redemption—a total demon.18 In "serious" fiction these days such demons are extremely rare; sympathy for "the other" tends to dominate. But in our popular adventure fictions (written or filmed), we find almost every best seller dominated by perilous threats from and final violent destruction of the inherently, unquestionably demonic.
When we turn from fictions to purported factual stories, it is surely important, however uncomfortable, that we acknowledge the degree to which apocalyptic slaughter of the demonized is justified or implied as a good thing even in our most pious scriptures. Some of you, I suspect, would be shocked if you took a closer look at the amount of demonized slaughter committed by heroes in the Old Testament, rather than just reading the cleaned-up versions that almost all Christian and Hebrew homilies dwell on. (If you're skeptical, you might do some rereading, as I have recently done, after checking the Bible concordance under "slay," "slaughter," and "kill.")
As many have noted, the later books of the Hebrew Bible, like the New Testament tales, radically reduce the amount of actual demonized slaughter: we find hardly any stories like the Lord's commanded killing of 75,000 men, women, and children as in Numbers. (The ordered killings often go much higher than that) Indeed, the difference is great enough to have led some early Christians to construct the notion of two entirely different Gods, the vindictive, bloodthirsty God of the Hebrews and the loving, totally forgiving God of the Christians (see Pagels). That notion was especially useful for those who wanted to demonize Jews. For any careful reader, however, it just does not work. Indeed, there are many portraits of the Hebrew God as quite loving and forgiving. What is more important, the New Testament not only claims to embrace the whole of the Old, with all its atrocities, but also employs a new kind of scary demonization and a new demonic enemy—the one the Prioress portrays—in the very way the life of Jesus is handled by his four main biographers.
It's true that the New Testament, from the Gospels through Revelation, is considerably milder with its demonization than is much of the Old Testament or the Qur'an; unlike them it does not frequently imply and only rarely states that God Himself orders self-righteous killings. Unfortunately, however, a selective reading by any believer looking for justification to kill the wicked can find it all over the place, especially in the Book of Revelation where we find such orders as, "And if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed" (11:5). The Lord Himself is heard claiming that, unless the adulterers repent, he will "kill [Jezebel's] children with death" (2:23).
More to our point here, though, is the demonization that even the four relatively benign Gospels celebrate, in effect seeming to legitimate "The Prioress's Tale." It's not just matters like God's willingness to have the innocent children slaughtered in order to have His prophecies fulfilled.19 More important to my own struggles with the Gospel narratives is the sustained and highly dramatic demonization of the Jews. There have naturally been many rationalizations of how the Jews are treated in the four Gospels, and there are radically different, even contradictory estimates as to the degree of demonizing. But the fact remains that the Jews and Judaism in its traditional form have too easily been read as the demons of the stories, demons whose presence has always seemed essential to the effectiveness of the stories as told. The Jews, and especially the leaders, are antagonists of the worst kind: destroyers of God's son, meaning finally of God Himself. Of course, if one is a literalist who assumes that the story of Christ's killing occurred precisely as reported and that the narrators thus had no choice about how to tell it, then they cannot be said to have demonized the Jews for the sake of powerful narrative: the Jews were already demons in fact, the kind of people who would kill God's only begotten son just because he claimed to be God's only begotten son. In this literalist view the narrators could only report what they knew to have happened in the sequence in which it actually happened; let the Jews be damned.
All careful readers find in contrast four quite different tellings of the life and climactic Passion, constructed by four quite different narrators speaking reliably for four quite different implied authors, each one practicing quite different narrative rhetoric. For us it's evident that, even if they were sincere believers in the literal factuality of every detail they report, which is possible but not likely, each of them is still consciously or unconsciously doctoring the account in order to produce the narrative structure that will make his version work powerfully as story. We'll never know whether any one of the evangelists deliberately invented episodes or details that he knew did not occur, but it is obvious that all four felt an absolute necessity, though from different perspectives, to heighten the pathos of the Passion by dramatizing the wickedness not just of the Jewish leaders, the priests and Pharisees, but of the Jewish mob as well.
Consider the episode of Pilate's releasing from punishment, on the Jews' demand, Barabbas rather than Christ In what definition of good story can such an episode be considered essential to the story of the Son of God's crucifixion and resurrection? All four Gospels include Pilate's offer to the Jews of the gruesome choice, and all four dwell on the Jews' refusal of Pilate's offer to let Christ off. The evangelists could easily have portrayed Pilate as a lot worse, even turning him and the Romans into the only needed demons. Instead, they chose not to. And why do two of them, Mark and Luke, add the delicious touch of describing Barabbas not just as a robber but as a murderer? Obviously that heightens the awfulness of the Jews' choice: those sinners would not only choose to have Pilate free a robber rather than the Son of God; they also would have him free a convicted murderer rather than the innocent Christ falsely accused of blasphemy. For any fully engaged listener to that story, it becomes a better one, structurally, the worse the Jews behave—that is, the more it violates the Sermon on the Mount, in effect forgotten in the excitement of the hour. Though it all fulfills prophecies made by earlier Hebrew prophets who are by implication exempted from the demonization, Christ's Jewish contemporaries are reduced on the whole to hypocrites, false witnesses, vicious accusers, and finally murderers who revel in his pain and mock his divine title. We tend to forget that only Luke has Christ say, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" (23:34).
Is it any wonder, then, that once we turn from official Scripture and look for demonization in later fictions that are called Christian, we find the patterns of demonization we've seen created by the Prioress and the host of new "Christian" novelists like Elwood and Peretti? Indeed, as many an "anti-Christian" has pointed out and many an apologist has grappled with, the whole notion of a Last Judgment that sends the majority of human beings to eternal fire and brimstone is itself a kind of demonization. It assumes without proof the presence of unforgivable sin in all but us insiders, and it has been used in huge numbers of epics and novels and longer poems that call themselves Christian. Just think of the wonderfully gruesome punishments meted out to Dante's sinful enemies in his Inferno; think of how you and I have reveled in those brilliantly imagined punishments. Just think of the whole of life as leading to a Last Judgment that lands most people in the kind of eternal hellfire that is described so vividly in the priest's sermon in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If that's what awaits all those who are not in the right armed camp, any little slaughter of heretics I might commit here and now seems almost trivial.
It would be easy to offer here innumerable less brutal examples, many of them having nothing to do with Jews. We could look at the works of C. S. Lewis, an author I happen to love.20 I find Lewis's rationalizations of some of his demon-destruction especially interesting.
In Perelandra his hero Ransom, as he recovers from a battle in which he destroys a vicious creature he knows is Satan (or at least satanic), says: "The question whether Satan, or [rather only] one whom Satan has digested, is acting on any given occasion, has in the long run no clear significance" (176).
That seems to me a weird and dangerous claim. Indeed, I would argue just the opposite: the distinction between any literal Satan and any human being one sees as satanic is of crucial importance. Surely it is in the very nature of human associations, even the most intimate, that no one can ever know with certainty that any group or individual is so fully evil as to deserve annihilation because satanic. All stories of devilish possession should be seen, even by literalist believers in a personal Satan, as questionable: no one can ever know enough about any representative of "the other" to be sure that the devil is in there. To kill because we suspect that anyone fully embodies all evil is to work in arrogant and dangerous ignorance. For all we know, we are demonizing where there are no demons; and if we are, then our own acts have become demonic.21
Skipping further examples, as I dwell in this time-bound world, I must also skip other crucial questions I've found myself preaching to myself about. What is really wrong with such slaughter tales? Why is the moral escape they provide the wrong kind? How can I condemn such tales without committing the fault of demonizing the demonizers? Have I not ignored the redemptive capacities of such "escapes," for some listeners at some times? Dodging such questions, I still feel clear about one point: to portray the wicked, and wickedness in general, as out there while we in here are exempted is a dangerous polarization. We who embrace it join those who select from the Scriptures the notion that he who "killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword"—the sword of the righteous killer (Rev. 13:10).22
One question, however, cannot be dodged: "Just why is it that demonizing narrative has had such strong appeal to all of us, from Samson's slaying of the Philistines, say, whom the Lord 'had occasion' to want killed (Judg. 14:4), through Lewis's Narnian slaughters and on to even more questionable works like those of Peretti and Elwood?" What does it do for or to us, other than making a story gripping because of the gut-pleasure of seeing an enemy destroyed, to see evil dramatized, embodied in identifiable groups or individuals, and then defeated?
One answer has been implicit in all I've said here: we long for spiritual escape from World Two, and most of us most of the time will take any route we can find. What is a better escape than living in a world where the awfulness gets purged? But I expect that a full answer could only be found not, as some would say, in this or that depth psychology but rather in the most elaborate kind of theodicy, facing the question honestly of why evil is in the creation in the first place.23 That question when faced fully would send us back to thought about Worlds One and Two, and to further thought about why seeing evil defeated in a story can feel like the best of all kinds of spiritual quest. When the Pope recently apologized for how Christians have demonized the Jews, he was said by some anti-Catholics to be hypocritical because of the very demonizing in the Gospels I have described. Would it be unfair of some "narratologist" like me to offer him a draft of a possible response?
Look, the important part is the story, a story that could be told in essentially the same form if the hero's life had been lived in any other human community. If we read the New Testament in an appropriately selective spirit, paying more attention to Christ's words and deeds in story form than to what the narrators choose to tell for dramatic effect, we find a Christ who rather slowly realizes what he has got himself into: "Father, let this cup pass—I wish the world that you have created, a world full of the kind of suffering I am now experiencing, did not require what I now face." Finally we meet a Christ who says, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" and "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." In such cries we all enter into the plea: why, oh why must a world built on love include so much hate and cruelty? In other words, we enter into the dialogue that God Himself has with Himself about the awful ambiguities of Creation.24
Implicit in all that I've said is my definition of genuinely Christian story, given my definition of "Christian": it is that kind of epic or novel or play or poem or folktale or video that provides not just an "escape" from the everyday world into a world in which higher possibilities are pursued; and not just the experience of seeing evil defeated out there, preached at with firm doctrine. Rather, it turns all that into an inner quest, an experience of working out the paradoxical battle of worlds within, the dialogue of voices from the diverse worlds. I—this creature born out of World One, elevated into the moral conflict and knowledge about choice of World Two, and thus with a sense of my own sinfulness—I have been led to experience within the kind of grappling with my nature that in itself transcends much of what all human beings share by living in World Two. Thus in such literature we find a full grounding for universal brotherhood and sisterhood in the notion of universal vulnerability.
As every "reading Christian" knows, our tradition blessedly provides, along with an appalling number of narratives that do succumb to spectacular demonizing of "the other," many stories of a quite different kind: not just a large number of short poems (where the problem is escaped by not attempting a sustained narrative that needs an external wicked antagonist), but a fair number of longer works that deserve the name Christian even in the most rigorous definition of Christianity as loving forgiveness. On another occasion I would trace some of these in detail—Flannery O'Connor's story "Revelation" or Francois Mauriac's Knot of Vipers. Such "fully Christian literature," in short, has been created by those who reject the view that evil is basically "out there" and accept, even embrace, the fact of our universal kinship in vulnerability: nobody, nobody escapes the universal hunger for ways to rise above World Two. Instead of demonizing the other, as if by destroying it or them the devil himself could be defeated, these works dramatize the internal struggle, or what at its best can be called the internal dialogue, among the various selves that we all inherit from the two worlds I have described.
James Boyd White, in a wonderful recent book titled This Book of Starres: Learning to Read George Herbert, tells the story of how his reading and rereading of Herbert's poems over several years led him to a deepened dialogue that was more like a prolonged prayer or a baptism than a mere reading of "good literature." Reading his book, with its unfashionably extensive quotations of the poems he discusses in humble smaller print, was for me something like that experience. I felt that the ambiguities White uncovered in himself, as Herbert portrays the dialogue among his own multiple and conflicting selves— the "story" of his quest for salvation—led me not just to moments of bliss, out of the world of time, and not just to less important but amusing moments like recognizing that the deconstructionists have been onto something when they've stressed the elusiveness of the self. Beyond all that, the reading led me to moments when I returned to this world of time with a fuller embrace of the ironic complexities and torturous demands placed on anyone who says, "I am a Christian, and I love literature, even some literature that demonizes."
Some of Herbert's wittiest poems such as "Jordan I" express, for example, the conflict between the proud poet, creating his crafty, intricate, highly original and beautiful praises of the Lord, and the Christian who knows that the pride entailed in such constructions is "sinful": it conflicts flatly with his knowledge of what a straightforward, non-pride-ridden prayer ought to be.
This inescapable trap of all worthwhile human endeavor—the paradoxical relation of indispensable self-respect and ever-tempting false pride—is brought to a wonderfully witty climax in Herbert's poem "The Thanksgiving." Many critics have read the poem as a simple celebration of Herbert's thankfulness for all of Christ's examples, his assistance to us in imitating him. White sees it rather as describing the inescapable paradoxes of anyone who seriously would attempt to imitate Christ. I present the poem as my conclusion, hoping that you will catch the diverse voices that Herbert finds in himself as he struggles with the impossibility of imitating Christ. There are no exterior demons here. The very act of pious imitating is boastful, competitive, pride-ridden, and the poet catches himself again and again in embarrassed acknowledgment of just how remote his efforts must be from what would be the fully effective imitation. As White says, "Th[e] speaker measures adequacy [of Christian imitation] by a performative, even a competitive, standard, as though to grieve appropriately for Christ he must suffer what Christ has suffered, or more. [He] . . . thinks of himself as an artist in grief, whose work must be the equal of, or superior to, that of his predecessor artist, and he is stymied" (104).
But that's enough. I shouldn't spoil Herbert's story by giving away the full plot, which I offer you now.
Oh King of Grief! (a title strange, yet true,
To thee of all kings onely due)
Oh King of wounds! how shall I grieve for thee,
Who in all grief preventest me?
Shall I weep bloud? why, thou has wept such store
That all thy body was one doore.
Shall I be scourged, flouted, boxed, sold?
'Tis but to tell the tale is told.
My God, My God, why dost thou part from me?
Was such a grief as cannot be.
Shall I then sing, skipping thy dolefull storie,
And side with thy triumphant glorie?
Shall thy strokes be my stroking? thorns, my flower?
Thy rod, my posie? crosse, my bower?
But how then shall I imitate thee, and
Copie thy fair, though bloudie hand?
Surely I will revenge me on thy love,
And trie who shall victorious prove.
If thou dost give me wealth, I will restore
All back unto thee by the poore.
If thou dost give me honour, men shall see,
The honour doth belong to thee.
I will not marry; or, if she be mine,
She and her children shall be thine.
My bosome friend, if he blaspheme thy Name,
I will tear thence his love and fame.
One half of me being gone, the rest I give
Unto some Chappell, die or live.
As for thy passion—But of that anon,
When with the other I have done.
For thy predestination I'le contrive,
That three yeares hence, if I survive,
I'le build a spittle, or mend common wayes,
But mend mine own without delayes.
Then I will use the works of thy creation,
As if I us'd them but for fashion.
The world and I will quarrell; and the yeare
Shall not perceive, that I am here.
My musick shall finde Thee, and ev'ry string
Shall have his attribute to sing;
That all together may accord, in Thee,
And prove one God, one harmonie.
If thou shalt give me wit, it shall appeare,
If thou hast giv'n it me, 'tis here.
Nay, I will reade thy book, and never move
Till I have found therein thy love,
Thy art of love, which I'le turn back on thee:
O my deare Saviour, Victorie!
Then for thy passion—I will do for that—
Alas, my God, I know not what.
Well, then, friends, as for the subject that has underlain everything else here—that is, just what makes a genuine Christian story—I will do for that subject... well, ah, er, alas, my friends, I know not what.
University of Chicago
1 Though what I offer here is unduly lengthened beyond the talk that I gave at the 1995 Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association, it is still not the fully developed essay—or book—that my complex topic obviously demands. To dramatize the point that it is still in its infancy, I have preserved a few of the "oral clues" that would be removed in a formal essay.
In addition to the many who should be acknowledged for ideas that I "borrow" here without my even knowing it, I want to thank three friends who read drafts and gave penetrating criticism: Robert Denham, John Gage, and Fred Whiting.
2 "'Quests for the Holy Grail' will be the topic of a conference at Kanuga, an Episcopal conference center in the Blue Ridge Mountains, June 16-21,1996." The announcement was sent to members of the Conference on Christianity and Literature. Since I write this in April 1996, I have no way of knowing whether the conference will actually occur or whether it will uncover connections we have not seen before.
3 A fine brief defense of "fully engaged listening," written by Bill Buford, appeared recently as the introduction to The New Yorker's annual issue on fiction. For a penetrating discussion of how "close reading" can destroy "engaged reading," see Rabinowitz.
4 A currently neglected, though originally much touted, unraveling of multiple meanings in all religious terms was performed by Matthew Arnold in Literature and Dogma.
5 After her third frustrating try hosting Saturday Night Live, Roseanne says, she "got really spiritual" and wrote a long letter arguing that it was women who made the show.
6 Robert Denham responded to this paragraph with the suggestion that many stories, while they "explicitly and energetically tie us to our bodies in the world of time," are not pornographic. He offers Gargantua and Pantagruel as a "big example" and Robert Herrick's "Upon Julia's Clothes" and Theodore Roothke's "I Knew a Woman" as "little ones." "Herrick's little lyric seduces me, of course, out of the time-bound world (I'm in an imaginative universe), but it's a universe that doesn't move me beyond desire: all I want is to see Julia, clothed and unclothed." Good examples, but not of our remaining tied to the ordinary. I can't believe that Herrick or Roethke ever dreamed that their loving presentation of a desirable woman would produce in male readers a retreat from the world of the imagination into orgasm.
7 Again thanks to Robert Denham.
8 Two readers of this draft have said, "You cannot count on anyone today recognizing an oblique reference to William Wordsworth's 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.'" So I don't count on it. Only now, after having known the poem since high school, do I come to a moment of puzzlement about why Wordsworth did not include among the "intimations" anything about the stories he read or heard told.
9 A recent PBS program revealed how animals in times of extreme famine take to killing and eating their children and siblings and parents, as indeed we know that human beings have often done.
10 For a challenging account of just why the very fact of creation depends on the "eating" process, from the smallest cells upward, and thus of why we should be grateful that we never fully escape that world, see Stuart Kauffman's At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. Any hard-headed reductionist who still believes that scientific discoveries have annihilated religion should be shaken by Kauffman's arguments. Indeed, our presses are full of arguments about our ethical connection with World One: environmentalists and ecologists and the new evolutionary psychologists are rightly convinced that our "rise" out of it did not leave our ties to it behind, both in our moral and our immoral natures. Mary Midgley's work is the best I've read on what might be called moral evolution among the "higher" animals. The fullest theological argument I've read for ridding ourselves of the anthropocentric view of what's below us and what's above us, thus including the fate of other animals in our ethical thinking about our relation with God, is that of James M. Gustafson.
11 Whether on the sixth day or somewhat later—the two different accounts in Genesis leave me puzzled, like most commentators I've read.
l2 For a fascinating account of how one brilliant creationist faced the problem of connecting Worlds One and Two, see the book Omphalos by Edmund Gosse's father. In it he makes a noble attempt to face the problem that all creationists have to face: what do we do with all the fossils (and other evidence) seeming to require millions of years of "slow creation"? The solution: obviously at the instant when God created the world, He created it as displaying all those non-remnants from a non-existent past, and of course He created Adam and Eve with full digestive tracts, even though they couldn't have eaten anything the non-day before.
13 For examples, see Midgley, Wilson, and de Waal.
14 For a wonderfully rich history of the difference between such genuine quests for transcendence and the mere bargaining or bribing in the hope of future payoff, see John T. Noonan, Jr.'s Bribes: The Intellectual History of a Moral Idea. Noonan is especially helpful, as he grapples with the linguistic relations between "bribery" and "redemption," in distinguishing various Interpretations of Christ's mission as redeemer.
15 Obviously I have been joining, throughout this talk, critics like Nathan Scott and Amos Wilder and Paul Ricoeur in their lifelong efforts to reduce the distance between story-in-its-essential-nature and "scripture."
16 This is not to deny that for some readers in some circumstances even such portrayals of "the horror" can be spiritually liberating. But we "reader-response" critics have too often ignored, as we've hailed the diversity of readings, the plain fact that some stories are likely to have harmful effects on most fully engaged listeners. Too often we talk as if this fact were important only when worrying about the effect of violence on children. What about the effect of a nihilistic diet on us?
17 I have dealt critically with these two works in "The Rhetoric of Fundamentalist Conversion Narratives."
18 Critics do not agree about whether the Jew, Fagin, is in some sense redeemed by Dickens' portraying a kind of "inside view" of his soul toward the end. Nor do they agree about how self-conscious Dickens was concerning the deep contradictions of values his fictions present.
19 That episode, like the Great Plan's requirement that Judas be sacrificed, has produced a long history of troubled rationalization, to me the most interesting that of Albert Camus in The Fall. In it, one might say, Camus presents the Slaughter of the Innocents as one main reason for not being a Christian, despite his radical, implicit dependence on Christianity as he conducts his own marvelous and tortured spiritual quest. That slaughter, foreknown by God and highly useful in making the story work dramatically, has made many Christians uneasy, just as God's slaughter of all the non-Hebrew first-born in Egypt at the Passover, "both man and beast," has troubled many a Jew. Caroline Gordon as a Catholic was deeply offended by Camus's Judge Penitent's accusation against the Christian God, and she answered it by claiming, as I remember it, that anti-Christians had much exaggerated the number of innocent children killed. The number was only a few score, she suggested, so the problem really was not worth bothering about!
20 Lewis was the focus of Session 694 organized by the Conference on Christianity and Literature for the 1995 Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association.
21 Sister Helen Prejean makes the same point concerning the death penalty in the wonderful recent book, Dead Man Walking: An Eye-Witness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.
22 It's no accident that such passages are quoted often these days in defense of the death penalty. America seems to be filled with people who believe that if we just kill off enough of the demons, all will be well and all manner of thing will be well.
23 This is not to say that such a theodicy could not be assisted by "the right kind" of psychology.
24 Should I apologize to the Pope for this speculative bit?
WORKS CITED AND CONSULTED
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1958.
Arnold, Matthew. Literature and Dogma: An Essay Toward a Better Apprehension of the Bible. London: Smith, Elder, 1873.
Booth, Wayne C. "The Rhetoric of Fundamentalist Conversion Narratives." Vol. 5 of Fundamentalism Comprehended. Ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. 367-95.
Buford, Bill. "The Seduction of Storytelling: Why Is Narrative Suddenly So Popular?" The New Yorker 24 June and 1 July 1996: 11-12.
Camus, Albert. The Fall. Trans. Justin O'Brien. The Collected Fiction of Albert
Camus. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1960.
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