Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Evil and Human Nature in Fiction

I've been meaning to blog about this for over a week I think. Mark Bertrand recently posted a blog discussing a recent World Magazine interview of writer Andrew Klavan (I know, this already sounds confusing but bare with me). Unfortunately World Mag requires a subscription to read their articles, but trust me, the mag is well worth the cost. If I could afford a subscription I'd have one myself...If you are like me and can't read the original interview, there are some great quotes on Bertrand's blog. Bertrand quotes the interview:
Becoming a Christian actually made me less likely to use Christian symbolism and structures in my work because now I see Christ's presence underlying all of life -- I don't have to place Him there artistically.

In this sense, Klavan seems to argue that Christian symbolism is life itself. Symbolism is typically used to suggest something that is on some level foreign to the setting of the work of art. For example, In Moby Dick the whale himself is symbolic of many things, not the least of which is the horribly sublime power of God. Melville uses the whiteness, among other things, to highlight this aspect of the whale's symbolism. The symbol here functions to allude to some quality that is not inherent in the natural image of a whale. But in light of Klavan's view of symbolism, there is no need for the artist to use any symbols at all to allude to God, since it is the very nature of His creation to allude to Him.

Calvin Seerveld bases his whole aesthetic upon allusiveness, which basically means that the core of art is that it alludes, and in the case of good Christian art it alludes to God. If Klavan is correct, then all a Christian artist needs to do in order to make an excellent work is to accurately portray their subjects. If they do this, then they will be alluding to God since His creation itself alludes to Him.

I'm going to have to consider this idea further before I can make a judgment, but one of my first reactions is concern since this idea seems to imply that the greatest form of Christian art is the realist work, which, to me, seems to stifle creativity and privilege skill. Let me know what you think.


Chestertonian Rambler said...


It reminds me of one of the most hopeful essays (for an aspiring English PhD) of C.S. Lewis, titled something like Study at Wartime (I am currently far from home and library, so I can't get the exact title.) Basically, the idea that a Christian's duty in academia is not to make earth-shattering declarations, and certainly not to bend the truth to support God, but to "slowly and patiently" discover and present reality, knowing that all truth is God's truth.

I think the problem with reality is that it is too complicated, and beauty is often lost in static. Certainly the heavens declare the beauty of The Lord, but for me they do so far more energetically because I grew up watching Star Wars. (Not that Star Wars is Great Christian Art, but it certainly functioned as Literature in the Lewis sense for me as a child.) So...in a sense, at the moment I would posit that the best of Christian literature creatively reveals the beauty of reality (which points to God), but I would hasten to add that such a statement doesn't imply that only that art which is superficially closest to reality (slice-of-life realism) can act as such.

Of course, when you consider ideas of Eternity and The Sublime things get complicated, but I still think the two concepts are not necessarily so far as we might think. Is "reality" really described through the inhuman system of economics that leads me to work a mundane job every day? Or is "reality" the love I share with my life, the unique quirks of the people I work with, the longing I have for heaven, no matter how covered (often) in pseudo-Medieval ideas or childhood fantasies of sailing through the stars? If the latter is reality (and I think that such is the case) then the "life" artists seek to portray in their work need not be realistic at all.

Hooser said...

I'm not seeing the connection between symbolism and/or allusiveness and the neccessity for realism. Why would realism be the greatest option?

And also, how this would stifle creativity and privilege skill? I think most art needs to be founded on skill, but not innate skill. Skill that can be learned. Creativity can flow out of a proficiency of that skill.

noneuclidean said...

I'm sorry, I suppose I was rambling a bit in this post. I'll try to clarify.

Here's my logic:
Klavan claims that symbols are unnecessary since the world as created by God alludes to Him. If this is true, then man-made symbols would appear to allude to God less than creation itself. Therefore, the more realistic a work of art, the more that innate allusion to God would come through. And since Seerveld argues that allusion is the defining quality of art, realism would therefore be the greatest style of art.

I hope that clarifies things. I'm not sure that this logical conclusion is something that Klavan would agree with, I'm just musing based off of one of his quotes. But I think it is worth considering. If symbolism is less allusive than merely presenting reality, than why use symbolism?

Well, I would probably argue that realism (particularly stark or extreme realism) can stifle creativity because it does not let us use our God-give ability to create worlds. All human language is symbolic and symbolism was used extensively by God to communicate to us in His Word, so isn't there something fundamentally good about exercising our ability to create and communicate through symbolism? Certainly realism also glorifies God, but to exclude symbols seems to deny one of the ways in which God has made us in His image.

But, I could be wrong about these assumptions. Just musing really. What do you think?

Stejahen said...

Hmm, very interesting. I do agree that creation itself is symbolic and full of symbols, and the raw material of art is creation. Because of this, if I am realistic and seek fidelity to the visual universe in describing trees, even without knowing it, trees will still have all of the symbolism that God put into them.

Joseph Conrad said in his preface to Nigger of Narcissus: "art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe," This seems a good definition of realism.

I guess this is about realism and fantasy as approaches to the truth. I don't think one is more valid or true, I think they are simply different ways of knowing.

Tolkien said in his wonderful poem Mythopoiea:

"He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after music long
has since pursued."

Chesterton wrote alot about the fantastic nature of reality, in his poetry and other places.
"If trees were tall and grasses short,
As in some crazy tale..."

Perhaps in the Klavan quote he is mostly talking about wooden symbolism.

But, anyway I would say there is fantasy and symbolism in realism because we live in a symbolic world, and there is realism in fantasy and symbolism because fantasy helps us regain the wonder of reality and echoes the symbolism of reality.

Michael said...

I am probably not understanding Klavan's statement quoted in your blog as "Becoming a Christian actually made me less likely to use Christian symbolism and structures in my work because now I see Christ's presence underlying all of life -- I don't have to place Him there artistically."
My lack of clarity on his comment notwithstanding I will venture a response.
Klavan's distinction seems to be more a statement of Christ's life in him as a reality that touches all aspects of his life, his writing included. He certainly could write something blasphemous but he understands the keeping power of Christ's life extending to his writing efforts. I don't think that the life of Christ in him ipso facto dictates realism as his writing outlet. We have the example of Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" as allegory or Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia as symbolic fiction. In fact, it can be argued that as a Christian writer Klavan does place Christ in his work artistically.