The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief by James Wood Download (read online) free eBook (PDF ePub Kindle)

The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief

This book recalls an era when criticism could change the way we look at the world. In the tradition of Matthew Arnold and Edmund Wilson, James Wood reads literature expansively, always pursuing its role and destiny in our lives. In a series of essays about such figures as Melville, Flaubert, Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, and Don DeLillo, Wood relates their fiction to questions

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    Ian "Marvin" Graye

    The Broken Estate

    What does Wood mean by a “broken estate”? I wondered this while comfortably reading the Introduction to this book, an essay called “The Freedom of Not Quite”.

    Wood argues that the “old estate” died in the middle of the nineteenth century. This is how he defines it:

    “I would define the old estate as the supposition that religion was a set of divine truth-claims, and that the Gospel narratives were supernatural reports; fiction might be supernatural too, but fiction was always ficti

    What does Wood mean by a “broken estate”? I wondered this while comfortably reading the Introduction to this book, an essay called “The Freedom of Not Quite”.

    Wood argues that the “old estate” died in the middle of the nineteenth century. This is how he defines it:

    “I would define the old estate as the supposition that religion was a set of divine truth-claims, and that the Gospel narratives were supernatural reports; fiction might be supernatural too, but fiction was always fictional, it was not in the same order of truth as the Gospel narratives.”

    If religion represents a divine truth, then it is expected that we will believe it. If fiction is fabricated by man, then it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should believe it.

    Wood suggests that the old estate started to break down when these two positions began to soften and merge. The Gospels started to be read as fiction, and fiction became an almost religious activity.

    Wood believes that the ascent of science and the rise of the novel helped to kill off the divinity of Jesus. If the Gospels were fiction, then Jesus couldn’t be the Son of God.

    At the same time:

    “…the novel gave us a new sense of the real, a new sense of how the real disposes itself in a narrative – and then in turn a new scepticism toward the real as we encounter it in narrative.”

    Narrative, Truth and Belief

    Wood structures his arguments about belief in terms of two related concepts: narrative and truth. He differentiates between narratives in terms of orders of truth.

    A narrative appears to be a communication between an (express or implied) author and a reader.

    There seem to be three orders of truth.

    Firstly, according to Wood, the Christian Gospels were originally supposed to be supernatural narratives that were communicated to man by God. They were therefore supposed to be incontrovertible truth. The role of the reader was to believe, to become a believer. (view spoiler)

    Secondly, science constitutes a narrative of another order of truth, presumably man-made. It’s arguable that history might fit in this category as well.

    Lastly, Wood argues that fiction represents another order of truth in the way it represents what he describes as “the real”.

    How We Read Fiction

    Wood explains what he means about fiction in terms of how we readers respond to it.

    He believes that we “register the reality” of what we read in fiction. We sympathise, identify, and empathise with characters. An exchange or sharing of identities between the reader and the characters occurs. (view spoiler)

    This exchange doesn’t require aesthetic realism to happen. Wood argues that “just enough” suffices as real. The reader interprets the fiction “as if” it was real. In a way, the reader’s imagination fills in the gaps necessary to make the fiction real, to make it the truth, at least for them.

    Some writers can achieve this outcome with highly distilled prose (he uses the drama of Beckett as his example). Perhaps, the reader’s imagination just has to work a little harder in these cases. Others dilute their prose with detail. Our imagination doesn’t have to work as hard. Thus, Wood asserts, truth can be found in a book, even if it is badly written.

    Not Quite Real

    The author asks of the reader a “doubleness”, during which two things occur in the reader’s mind: the reader recognises that the world the author has created is “not quite real” and, yet, simultaneously, it is very real, i.e., the truth, a truth for them.

    Wood adopts Roland Barthes’ stance that conventional fictional realism has lured us into forgetting its doubleness. We overlook and repress the extent to which it is “not quite real”, the extent to which it is an effect or artifice. Realist fiction has succeeded in passing itself off as a conduit of reality and, therefore, of truth. We have started to believe fiction wholly or absolutely. We have forgotten that authors are liars or “artificers of the real”.

    Make Believe

    The normal and traditional mechanism of fiction avoids absolute belief:

    “Belief in fiction is always belief ‘as if’. Our belief is itself metaphorical – it only resembles actual belief, and is therefore never wholly belief…Thomas Mann writes that fiction is always a matter of ‘not quite’.”

    An author who achieves absolute belief makes us believe, as well as repress the realisation that the whole of the fiction is just make believe.

    In contrast, religious belief asks us to believe in God as the absolute truth. There is no “as if”. Religious belief is never “not quite belief” (at least internally within the particular religion).

    However, it’s this differentiation that Wood believes has blurred.

    Suspended Disbelief

    Wood seems to underestimate our willingness to suspend disbelief, at least temporarily, during the game or play of fiction.

    We approach fiction with a belief it’s not real, but we can overcome this belief, partly or wholly, as we become familiar with and comfortable in the world the author has created.

    To the extent that film is a fiction, as soon as the lights go down, we are invited to suspend disbelief. We can do so, because we are in a different physical environment. When the film is over, we can return to “reality”. What we experience during the film is make believe (ironically, because film is visual, it’s much easier to mistake it for real).

    Perhaps, the punctuation of the opening and closing moments is more obvious in relation to a film, although we can always punctuate a book, as Wood acknowledges, by closing it, going outside and kicking a stone.

    Do we ever really forget that a novel is not real? I doubt it. At some point, we will always walk away from the object we’re holding in our hands, and return to external reality.

    Belief in the Gospel Truth

    Equally, does the perceived fiction of the Gospels impact on the underlying belief in God? Would anybody cease to believe in a Christian God, if their belief in the Gospels was undermined? I would have thought the questioning of the Gospels would be more of a threshold issue: like Judaism’s relationship to the New Testament as a whole, you wouldn’t embrace Christianity, if you didn’t believe in the literal or metaphorical truth of the Gospels.

    More importantly, you have to ask whether this whole literal truth of the Gospels issue only arise in relation to Christianity (because of the significance of the Gospels to the religion). What is its relevance to fiction and culture in non-Christian societies? None?

    Narrative Generalisation

    Yet, Wood builds his argument into a generalisation about narrative:

    “There is something about narrative that puts the world in doubt. Narrative corrugates belief, puts bends and twists in it.”

    As wonderful as these words and this metaphor are, you have to wonder whether Wood makes too much of his argument.

    At best, you could say that narrative can be located on a continuum, and that the reality or reliability of a particular narrative is determined by the order of truth we accord to the category of narrative (i.e., its location on the continuum).

    Outside the adherents to a religion, we don’t expect a supernatural narrative dictated by a deity to be the truth, even if it might contain sensible moral guidance. We expect scientific and historical truth to be reliable, but we have come to recognise that its truth is malleable. We don’t expect fiction to be the truth, although it might confront the reader with truths.

    Picking Apart the Fictitious Theology of “The Bone Clocks”

    If we take religion out of the equation for the moment, what is left of Wood’s argument with respect to fiction?

    Does he mourn the days when fiction was “not quite real, “not quite” the truth? If so, how do we return to those days or practices?

    The title of the Introduction implies that “not quite” affords a level of freedom (mind you, when the essay was first published, its name was “The Limits of Not Quite”).

    When you read Wood’s review of David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks”, you have to ask what is left of the perceived freedom:

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/201…

    Wood seems to limit the scope of fiction to realism, or at least to pour scorn on fantasy. Alternatively, like many readers, he is perplexed by the juxtaposition of the two:

    “As soon as the fantasy theme announces itself in the novel’s first section, the reader is put on alert, and is waiting for the next visitation, which arrives punctually. Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism – the human activity – is relatively unimportant; it is the fantastical intergovernmental war that really matters. Whatever the stakes are, the reader decides, they are not really decided in the sublunary realm…the emphasis is shifted away from the human characters toward the supernatural goings on, and the human characters become mere decoders of the peculiar mystery that has befallen them: detectives of drivel. The fantasy rigs the narrative, so that there is something wearingly formulaic whenever Mitchell stages, as he regularly does, a spot of ‘realistic’ scepticism.”

    Wood then proceeds to rant about the return of the novel to the subject matter of the epic (battles between men and gods).

    “The Bone Clocks” does what Wood thinks a novel (as opposed to an epic) shouldn’t do:

    “The novel [in general] takes over from the epic not just because inwardness opens itself up as the great novelistic subject, but because human freedom asserts itself against divine arrangement. The ‘human case’ refuses to be preordained. The history of the novel can, in fact, be seen as a secular triumph over providential theology: first, God is displaced; then the God-like author fills the theological void; then the God-like author is finally displaced, too…

    “Despite Mitchell’s humane gifts as a secular story-teller, ‘The Bone Clocks’ enforces an ordained hermeticism, in which fictional characters…perform unmotivated manoeuvres at the behest of mysterious plotters who can do what they want with their victims.”

    A Broken Metaphor?

    Wood comes out with all of his canons firing. You have to wonder why he bothered. What in this novel prompted such an inflated and grotesque analysis? It’s as if Hitler diverted the whole of the Nazi war effort to exterminating Biggles.

    At a basic level, Wood seems to have misunderstood or misrepresented the plot of Mitchell’s novel.

    No human is manoeuvred, except by coercion that could equally have been applied by another human (i.e., a standard or garden variety bad guy). The so-called “decoding” occurs primarily in one chapter, the main fault of which is that it is a bit of an information dump (as often occurs in the last chapter of genre fiction).

    The only other interaction between human and supernatural is for the humans to be passive carriers of the supernaturals or souls between generations.

    As for the human case, we see Holly grow through six phases of life in a manner that is detailed enough to stand alone without the supernatural plot.

    However, my greatest reservation is that Wood seems to be limiting the subject-matter of fiction to a form of realism that sets out the “inwardness [of the] human case”.

    Within the world of the imagination, I don’t see why an author can’t write about any subject matter they like, whether realism or fantasy, whether human or superhuman, whether inward or outward, whether serious or comic.

    You’d think this would be a natural consequence of Wood’s argument that fiction is an activity within the “as if” realm of make believe. Realism is not a prerequisite of fiction. However, he seems to head in the opposite direction.

    Whatever the merit of Wood’s “broken estate” concept (and Ì’m yet to be convinced of its value, except as a thematic organiser of the diverse essays in this collection), it seems to be irrelevant and inappropriate to a novel like “The Bone Clocks”.

    Instead, it seems to be a case where a critical theory has simply strangled the critic’s own ability to experience doubleness, to enjoy the make believe aspect of (literary) entertainment, to defer seriousness and to embrace fiction as if it could be fun.

    Postscript: Coleridge on the Suspension of Disbelief

    Coleridge is credited with coining the term “suspension of disbelief” in relation to a creative project he joined in with Wordsworth:

    “… It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

    “Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us …”

    Coleridge appears to differentiate between poetic and religious faith.

    It’s ironic that the term was first used to justify the use of supernatural themes in poetry and fiction at a time when they had ceased to be fashionable.
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