Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Broken Estate by James Wood

The last and titular essay in James Wood's The Broken Estate is uncharacteristically schizophrenic. It is sometimes about literature and sometimes about religion, and only infrequently about both. In it, Wood claims that both our literary and religious landscape are an inheritance of the nineteenth century, when "historical biblical criticism began to treat the Bible as if it were a biography or even a novel, and when, in turn, writers such as Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold began to treat the Bible as if he were the hero of a mystery tale." This "broken estate," Wood argues, blurs the line between truth and fiction, and thereby blurs the line between belief and the pretense to belief, the kind of believing we do with a novel and the kind of believing we do with a hymnal. Wood, in a sternly un-postmodern mood, condemns this empty religiosity:

Were Christianity simply true, its effect on the world could not be a way of measuring its truth. "Success" would be immaterial. But Renan and Arnold do not believe it to be true; its "truth" lies only in its usefulness. It is painful to see them wallow in the most primitive consequentialism. Both are defensively triumphant, and entirely circular... Such thinking, which does not deserve to be called thinking, with its clownish contradictions and repulsive evasions, positively deserves Nietszche's decisive hammer.

This is contrasted with Wood's defense of his own atheism, buttressed by the story of his own evangelical upbringing in England. It is not a unique defense but it is lucid, and takes a mutant form of the pretend-religion that he deplores:

The child of evangelicalism, if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference. He is always evangelical. He rejects the religion he grew up with, but he rejects it religiously... Nominal belief is insufficiently serious; nominal unbelief seems almost a blasphemy against earnest atheism.

There is a final station this train of thought that does not quite reach: "Only when Christianity is understood as a set of truths," he writes, "does it retain uniqueness... [t]he 'great strength' of biblical Christianity is that we need it." Except it isn't true, and therefore we don't need it. In this way Wood neatly justifies any and all suspicion and revulsion toward religion he has exhibited in the 200 pages of literary criticism that precede this essay.

At least Wood is upfront about the origins of his points of view. I say this without sarcasm; we should all be so honest. After all, "the writer-critic, wanting to be both faithful critic and original writer, does it acutely, in a flurry of trapped loyalties." But it puts the two of us at eternal odds. Eliot's orthodoxy is "clenched, spiritless, and wrong." Luther's belief of justification by faith "was a cruelty that not only demanded an inhuman mental loyalty, but that, brought to its logical end, abolished the purpose of Christian conduct on earth." The narrator of Knut Hamsun's Hunger begins to devour himself because to do so is a "Christian perversion" by which "infinite humility is the soul's aim." Gogol's conflicted sense of self becomes Manichean:

On the one hand, he is the earnest Christian who argued, in an essay in 1836, for satire's traditional moral divide-and-rule... this Gogol renounced literature and food, incinerated the manuscript of the second part of Dead Souls and, in 1852, starved to death.

On the other hand, there is the satirist who is always falling over in laughter, who is never a convincing Christian, whose fanaticism seems parodic... The fanatical Gogol, we are told, destroyed Part 2 of Dead Souls because fiction was an unworthy activity for a saint. But it is not possible that the writerly Gogol, who had devoted twelve years to this manuscript, saw that a fiction of religious exhortation was no fiction at all, and not worth having?

It is possible, but not quite probable enough to justify the monstrous imposition of proclaiming Gogol's thoughts. I can buy the split-personality theory of Gogol, but the Puritan Gogol won out; Wood's stony absolutism--religious fiction is worthless!--cannot rewrite the historical record. Without irony, he later writes that D. H. Lawrence "is a mystic literalist. He is always a poet and a preacher at the same time. He should not be opened in two."

I find most of this fascinating but wrong. If The Broken Estate cleaved as tightly to this framework as I have so far suggested, I doubt I would have enjoyed it. But "Jane Austen's Heroic Consciousness" has little to do with the literature of belief, and "Thomas Pynchon and the Problem of Allegory" even less. These and many other essays seem to be here for no other reason than Wood wanted to write them. They hang together not because they have been marshaled into his anti-Crusade, but because Wood remains tremendously readable and thoughtful. He eschews the inscrutability of the academic in favor of writerly metaphor and turns of phrase: The preacher Lawrence is "the bully of blood, the friendless hammer." Pynchon's sense of allegory points "like a severed arm to nowhere in particular." I love John Updike, but I am continually amused (and a little chastened) by the thought that Updike "finds the same degree of sensuality in everything, whether it is a woman's breast or an avocado."

Wood's How Fiction Works succeeded because it was written with a non-academic, though educated, reader in mind, but when compared with the author of The Broken Estate he seems to be stooping low. The Broken Estate is simultaneously more academic and more personal, both more enthusiastic and more savage. It is brilliant but bitter, and despite Wood's assertion that loss of faith "brings great unhappiness to others, but not to oneself... It is like undressing," his book finishes disconsolately:

Why must we move through this unhappy, painful, rehearsal for heaven, this desperate antechamber, this foreword written by an anonymous author, this hard prelude in which so few of us can find our way?


Brent Waggoner said...

I thought this was sequel to The House of Seven Gables.

Christopher said...

You're thinking of The House of Eight Gables.