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Astonished by love
Storytelling and the sacramental imagination
First, a disclaimer: The novelist Colm Tóibín recently visited us at Johns Hopkins and in the course of his reading and discussion he made the remark—somewhat offhandedly—that in the Catholic tradition of his childhood there were plenty of prayers to the Father and the Son, and even more to the Son’s mother, but very few to the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
The comment made me think that as a child Colm Tóibín never worried about passing a test, because in my Catholic tradition, “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love,” was a prayer I repeated fervently before, and often during, every exam I ever took—most especially, and most fervently, if that exam involved numbers.
I mentioned this to a friend who had been in the audience, which led her to ask me, quite simply, what the notion of the Trinity can possibly be about. The whole One God/Three Persons thing, she said, sounds an awful lot like three different gods, each with various “superpowers”—not unlike the multiple gods of myth. She said, good-naturedly, “It’s kind of a word game isn’t it? Saying persons instead of gods. I mean, how do you even think about it?”
Since it was an Irishman who had prompted the discussion, I was tempted to use the old St. Patrick standby illustration: Consider the shamrock, I might have said. But my young friend was a talented writer, an avid reader, and an agnostic with no faith tradition of her own, so I found myself asking her instead to consider the way a novel “happens.”
I said “happens” because I wasn’t thinking about the way a novel is composed by the writer, nor did I mean the way the self-conscious reader assesses a work of fiction. I said happens because I was thinking of the way a novel happens to any one of us when we give ourselves over to it.
I was thinking of the confluence that occurs when we read: confluence of the writer’s mind, the narrator’s mind, and the mind of the reader.
It’s a simple enough formula (miraculous in its simplicity, when you stop to think about it): The writer—in the silence of her composing room—puts her mind, her language, her experience, her aspirations and observations, even her own will, at the service of her narrator. The narrator speaks and creates a world. The reader, in turn, lends his inner voice, the voice with which he speaks to himself, to the narrator, and thus that created world comes into vivid existence. Eliminate one part of this particular trinity and the novel—the story, the poem, literature itself—disappears.
Clearly, without the novelist, there is no novel. Without the narrator (even a narrator who greatly resembles the novelist), there is no created world, only a report, a transcript, a polemic. Without the reader, that world remains nothing more than marks on a page, or—worse yet—on a glowing screen with a limited battery life.
This particular three-in-one is not a matter of three separate entities with three separate sets of powers—superpowers or otherwise—this is a trinity that is absolutely necessary to the very existence of the created world of a novel.
Three in one, I told my friend. For some of us, it’s a holy trinity indeed.
I use this little anecdote as a disclaimer in the face of the rather daunting task at hand, a discussion of storytelling and the sacramental imagination.
I use it to illustrate, first, that I am no theologian.
And, second, that I have no theories, or even thoughts worth sharing, about anything that exists in the “real world,” i.e., the world that is not dependent on that holy trinity—writer, narrator, reader—for its existence.
I have become aware in my travels as an author—as opposed to my travels as a writer, which all take place at my desk—that many readers are more interested in acquiring a lesson from a serious novel than they are in participating in the magic of it, the magic of art. I suspect this is the reason that novelists are more often invited to “give talks” rather than to read from their work. I also suspect this is why the most frequent questions we hear are variations of “what were you trying to say . . .” or “. . . is that what you intended?”
The wonder of the way a novel “happens”—of the simple miracle brought to you by that trinity of writer/narrator/reader, that miracle of seeing together what does not exist in the real world—seems less noteworthy to the contemporary reader than whatever it is the reader suspects the writer has to say. The writer’s message. The novel’s lesson. The hidden meaning behind each sentence.
I have nothing against hidden meaning, or any kind of meaning. I have been known, in fact, to quote T.S. Eliot’s lament to my students and to my children, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”
But I would argue that the experience, the experience of the conjured world, how a novel happens, is primary. No meaning but in things, William Carlos Williams said of poetry. Archibald MacLeish ends his love poem, “Not Marble Nor the Gilded Monuments,” with this:
I will not speak of the famous beauty of dead women:
I will say the shape of a leaf lay once on your hair.
Till the world ends and the eyes are out and the mouths broken
Look! It is there!
The wonder of the literary arts, of the way a novel “happens,” lies first and foremost for me in its ability to make us look together, writer/narrator/reader, to see, together, what is there.
If I have a pet peeve about the way novels are discussed—especially in middle school English classes or via those “Questions for your book club” pamphlets that publishers are known to provide—it has to do with the whole “And what about you?” approach. “Ishmael,” the question might begin, “had a very difficult boss in Captain Ahab. Have you ever had the experience of trying to work with a very difficult authority figure?”
Of course, if you have read the book the answer should always be yes. Yes, I have had that experience because I read the book. Because I read the book, I had the experience. I am Ishmael.
A reader’s “real” life and experience in the “real world” has nothing to do with it.
The life that is conjured when I lend my own interior voice—the voice with which I speak to myself—to Ishmael, and to Melville, is the only life that matters here. The experience of being a part of that trinity is an end in itself for all three.
So what then of the idea of the sacramental imagination, or better yet, as the phrase seems to imply, what of the sacramental imagination of the Catholic writer? Doesn’t the very notion of a story told by an author with a sacramental imagination imply that the author begins with a conviction, a motive—in this case, that God reveals himself through the physical world—and then attempts to create just such a world by telling a story that upholds, or illustrates, this conviction?
If the sacramental imagination is something that exists prior to the storytelling—as part of some conviction, some belief—then doesn’t the motive for the story constitute its reason for being? Isn’t the novel’s world merely secondary, a cartoon that runs beside the editorial, a picture meant to convey an idea?
In the early days of my writing career, I allowed myself one motive, one goal, for the fiction I would write. I would, as Joseph Conrad put it, seek “to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe.”
Such a goal was everything for me by aesthetic choice—as a reader I found no greater pleasure than the time I spent in the novel’s imagined world—but it was also a choice I made by necessity: I would have to rely on the visible world in the stories I wrote because I had very few “ideas” beyond what can be “seen” there. In short, I was pretty sure I had nothing in particular that I wanted my fiction to say—only, perhaps, “Look, it is there.”
It is the motive I continue to serve, 30 years on.
Of course, I am not unique in this. I daresay Conrad’s injunction operates to some degree in all of us who write. Flannery O’Connor agreed with it, but then added, with all the conviction of her great faith: “For me the visible universe is a reflection of the invisible universe. . . . The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality.”
Personally, I am in no way certain that the Divine Light shines through the things of this world—not with the kind of certainty that would sustain a 30-year career dedicated to demonstrating this through fiction. In my own experience, meaninglessness is often as good an explanation for the things of this world as is meaning. In matters of faith, I am as aware of wordplay and disingenuousness and outdated dogma as was my agnostic young friend—not to mention the role that fear and confusion, sentimentality, and shallow thinking can play when we confront our mortality. The Jesuit notion of God in all things is marvelous, but it takes a faith I don’t have to keep another notion—one we call wishful thinking—from snapping at its heels.
I am a born and bred Catholic, even a somewhat public Catholic, a “practicing Catholic”— if “practicing” means still working at it, still not doing it very well, certainly not yet ready to take the stage. I approach my faith with none of O’Connor’s breathtaking certainty.
But what I am certain of, through long experience, is the validity of the conjured world, of a universe made visible by the magic of art.
And if in the course of delineating this fictional world, of making you see, I should discover, even as my narrator discovers, as my reader discovers, something absolutely astonishing—that love is redemptive, for instance, that love is a mystery that outruns time, physical change, mortality, much as our Christian faith tells us it does—well, I’m as surprised at this as you are. This is not a message or a meaning I set out to discover, or to illustrate, or to confirm. It’s simply what happened—what happens—when, through the magic of art, through the grace of that holy trinity of writer/narrator/reader, a world is conjured, a world where the concrete shimmers with the light of the unseen, where life conquers death, where love redeems us.
“Is that what you meant to say?” the chattering classes well may ask. “As a practicing Catholic, do you think this is true? Is that what you were trying to prove?”
I repeat my disclaimer. I set out to prove nothing. I know nothing about the real world. I cannot speak with certainty about what the Creator does or does not do in it.
But as one part of that holy trio that constitutes the necessary and silent confluence of minds that transforms marks on a page into a world, I can point to what we see together, in all its vividness and clarity, and say, as astonished as narrator and reader alike, by love, by grace, by God in all things, “Look, it is there.”
Alice McDermott, H’99, P’03, is the Richard A. Macksey Professor for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University and the author of seven novels, including, most recently, Someone (2013). Her essay is drawn from a talk she gave on “Storytelling and the Sacramental Imagination,” April 30 in the Cadigan Alumni Center, sponsored by the Church in the 21st Century Center.