“So Much for Vicars and Churches…”

Or, the discovery of the moral universe, done way better than I ever did it.  Longtime Friend of the Kollektiv Santigao Ramos tears it up:

“So much for vicars and churches,” because even when they’re not present, life is still a problem and a question. Even when the marriage plot dissolves, the human drama remains. It resurfaces in a different context.  As far as literature is concerned, the problem is not that liberalism has eroded the materials a writer makes use of. The problem is that no writer has lived up to the challenge of facing his own time, of being a “novelist at the end of the world.” To paraphrase the common piece of advice that conservatives give to radicals: The problem is not the system, man. The problem is you.

And it is not even true that no writer has lived up to the challenge. Modernism was, if nothing else, an attempt to live up to this challenge. I am struck by the confident way that T. S. Eliot uses that very word, “you.” “My words echo/ Thus, in your mind,” in “Burnt Norton,” and “You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images…” in “The Waste Land.” In fact, even though it is not a novel, “The Waste Land” is perhaps the quintessential example of the type of work we need today: a work that accepts the ambiguities and fragmentation of its time, and still finds the human heart beating within it. He knows who you are.





  1. Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

    Is a novelist living in a liberal society any more helpless than Solzhenitsyn was in a Communist one? It may be that Eugenides’ latest novel is a failure; but there is no reason to extrapolate a rule from one particular failure. […]In the mere act of reaching out for that “you,” the writer is already beginning to break with the relativism or narcissism that might be deforming his spirit.

    K.O., like a knockout!

  2. This is the most (to use one of Henry James’ heaveyweight adjectives) bristling piece of criticism I’ve read in a long time!

    It calls to mind John Gardiner’s companion piece to “The Art of Fiction,” “On Moral Fiction” (it’s not what you think!) – to wit:

    “If we are unable to distinguish between true morality – life affirming, just, and compassionate behavior – and statistics (the all but hopeless situation of most humanity) or worse, trivial moral fashion, we begin to doubt morality itself. It becomes possible for a man as intelligent as Norman Mailer to speak of the murderer Charles Manson as “intellectually courageous,” for the brave pursuit of truth changes utterly when truth becomes whim. The man so infected may begin to feel guilt chiefly for possessing a moral code at all. Confusion and doubt beocme the primary civilized emotions.

    In such a society, as we’ve seen, the careless thinker can slide into the persuasion that the celebration of true morality has ceased to be the serious writer’s function and may even be pernicious. If the writer, so persuaded, is a decent human being, he or she tends to adopt one of two humane and praiseworthy, but in the long run unfruitful, programs: either the writer celebrates important but passing concerns, such as social justice for particular minorities (dated and thus trivial once the goal has been achieved), or the writer serves only as historian, holding up the mirror to his age but not changing it, simply imitating, as Pound said, “its accelerated grimace.”

    He goes on to cite examples of these errors, pointing out the whole way they are defects not excesses – both a concern for social justice and a historical similtude are necessary, but not enough.

    Rather, he concludes, “Great art celebrates life’s potential, offering a vision unmistakeably and unsentimentally rooted in love. “Love” is of course another of those embarrassing words, pehraps a word even more embarrassing than “morality,” but it’s a word no aesthetician ought carelessly to drop from his vocabulary. Misused as it may be by pornographers and the makers of greeting cards, it has, nonetheless, a firm, hard-headed sense that names the single quality wihtout which true art cannot exist. …Without love we get the ice-cold intellectual style of most academics or the worst fiction in The New Yorker.”

    If the fictionalist – or poet in general – can find the hook on which to hang his hat, that hook ought to be love, the hanging ought to be love, and the hat too ought to be love – liberalism be damned.


    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

      ‘Bristling’ — mot juste! You can always count on Santiago for a good bristle or two.

      And on JOB for a good paragraph or five.

      This bit of Gardiner ‘On Moral Fiction’ —

      Great art celebrates life’s potential, offering a vision unmistakeably and unsentimentally rooted in love. […] Without love we get the ice-cold intellectual style of most academics or the worst fiction in The New Yorker.

      — sounds like this bit of A.C. Bradley on Shakespearean tragedy:

      The tragic hero with Shakespeare, then, need not be ‘good,’ though generally he is ‘good’ and therefore at once wins sympathy in his error. But it is necessary that he should have so much of greatness that in his error and fall we may be vividly conscious of the possibilities of human nature. Hence, in the first place, a Shakespearean tragedy is never, like some miscalled tragedies, depressing. No one ever closes the book with the feeling that man is a poor mean creature. He may be wretched and he may be awful, but he is not small. His lot may be heart-rending and mysterious, but it is not contemptible. The most confirmed of cynics ceases to be a cynic while he reads these plays.

      • I wonder if it can’t be summed up, at least in part, as follows:

        The artist must insist that there is a nature to things – at least insist it to himself – and like a sort of aesthetic existentialist he must assert this truth not literally in the fruits of his imagination (that is his work) but in his approach to all that he finds in his imagination – even as his assertion flies in the face of that liberalism that seeks to “liberate” itself from the idea that all things have a nature – the individual, society, all of existence.


        • Matthew Lickona says

          I think it’s enough for the artist to suspect that there’s a nature to things, and to go looking for it.

        • Santaigo says

          Thanks for the comments, guys. Haven’t read MORAL FICTION but I’ve seen Lickona’s posts about it. I should get to it eventually. Saul Bellow was writing something similar in his Nobel speech.

          As to what JOB and Lickona are saying here, I’d say that the answer is neither. Houellebecq is a logical positivist (by his own estimation) with Romantic tendencies. For him to write about human beings requires that he go against his personal ideological commitments (as he himself admits in his Paris Review interview). Not sure what McCarthy believes in. But the point is that ideology does not trump reality when we are making art. Poesis is not noesis. Poesis requires that you engage with things as they are. And for the novelist,those things include: society and the heart. THe heart has a definite structure.

          • I guess that’s what I mean when I say the writer has to assert the nature of things at the front end the imaginative process, no matter what comes out the other end (poem, short story, novel, etc.). To do otherwise, is to remain inert, do less or do more than art requires.

            Matthew wants to simplify – and I’m all for that – but we have to recognize that “the nature of things” has to be addressed in the imaginative act. Of course, Gardiner says it simplest of all: the writer is neither philospher nor theorist; he is in fact, if anything, a hunter.

            And when that hunter finds something in the woods, he goes after it – and I would add if he’s worth his salt, he finds it and drags it back to camp for the rest of us.


          • Don’t you think that what Houllebecq or McCarthy or Shakespeare thinks he is philosopically is immaterial?

            It seems there’s an inherent desire to get at a thing in a way that doesn’t play false to the reader (who does’t get pissed off at a writer who screws with the reader? later Joyce (FW) and what I’ve read of Pynchon come to mind) but rather follows the unwritten contract – I will present what I am writing in a realistic way, a way you as reader will recognize as true, if you the reader will disregard the fact that what I’m trying to present as true is, say, a talking cucumber or a man with two heads.

            The art of the fictionist, it seems, must at root be a sort of realism (even if not Christian realism as espoused by Aquinas, etc.) which the writer assumes despite his own claims to the contrary.

            It’s in the nature of the craft, no?


            • Santaigo says

              YEah I agree with JOB pretty much on everything here. Except I wouldn’t call it Christian realism or Aquinas. Just realism is enough: an attitude in which the method for knowledge is determined by the object.

    • Mr. Babar says

      Where were you 20 years ago?
      I know where JOB was!
      “Out there in the fields… he wrote for his meals.. he gets his pen into his living…”

      • The Wild Turkey was the best part – easy when you had no curves to worry about.

        Well, the ones on the road, anyway.

        Babar, how the hell are you? I was just thinking about you the other day.

        How did you stumble across this place?


        • Mr. Babar says

          20 years & 1 day ago:

          Irwin M. Fletcher to JOB (somewhere near Barstow): Hey JOB, you remembered the tickets, right?
          JOB: UH oh….
          90 minutes later in Ojai..

          JOB: ‘maybe we should pick up some ‘refreshments’ for the ride over.
          Irwin: I guess this means I’m driving!
          ‘the exodus is near’….

          • Shit, I didn’t think you were going to remember that.

            Drive or not, I decidedly did NOT finish that bottle off on my own.

            Even if it was my idea to start festivities early.

            No need to stick my fingers down your throat though.


          • Matthew Lickona says

            Exhuming Bill Sockey!

          • You either have a ticket stub or a really good memory.

            I’m thinking ticket stub.


            • Mr. Babar says

              Yes, I definitely helped with the turkey on that journey…gobble, gobble.. and I did have the ticket stub.. gotta love youtube. And I apologize for veering off the academic highway here on this post

  3. Santaigo says

    Or I guess I agree with Lickona. Though I’d emphasize that the suspicion is a prerequisite for any form of fictional invention, in the same way that reality has to precede the images we make of it.

  4. JOB and Lickona are both right, I think. We hunt to gather the game. And the artist is hunted and gathered (in the creative act) as well. Seeking, the artist is found.

  5. Churchill says

    Sorry, I didn’t sleep well. But look forward to reading later.

Speak Your Mind