by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

Nothing Less Than Phenomenal

Epiphany is the term James Joyce applied to describe the moment of sudden insight he sought to achieve in his early prose.  Richard Ellmann explains:

The epiphany did not mean for Joyce the manifestation of godhead, the showing forth of Christ to the Magi, although that is a useful metaphor for what he had in mind. The epiphany was the sudden `revelation’ of the whatness of a thing,’ the moment in which `the soul of the commonest object … seems to us radiant.’ The artist, he felt, was charged with such revelations, and must look for them not among gods but among men in casual, unostentatious, even unpleasant moments.

I mention this by way of classical invocation as I go further into the conversation about how Christian belief figures into current American fiction with Gregory Wolfe, Dana Gioia, et al. – invoking Joyce so as to frame the conversation in a broadly “catholic” way and also to direct the focus where I think it belongs: on writing, more than writers.

My essay about faith and fiction in the New York Times Book Review was emphatically a writer’s piece, a statement of what I find missing in recent American fiction having to do with Christian belief as I started writing a novel.  It got from Greg what a man I met at a lecture called “an organization man’s response” – heavy with names which supposedly disprove my essay’s main point, the striking absence of contemporary American fiction that dramatizes what Flannery O’Connor called “the central religious experience,” which she characterized as a person’s encounter with “a supreme being recognized through faith.”

Some years ago I pointed out the American Catholic community’s proneness to the organization-man response in a long essay about the circumstances of American Catholic writing today: “Instead of making Catholic writing, we seek Catholic writers as proof of its continued existence. Instead of understanding our predicament, we look to see who we’ve got.”

That essay — the keynote address for the Faith & Culture conversation series at Georgetown, which I moderate – ran at several thousand words in Commonweal, featured on the cover, as I recall.

But Greg had nothing to say about it — still hasn’t said anything, as far as I can tell.  It took a piece on the cover of the Times Book Review to get him going – to set his mind running with ideas about “the myth of secularism triumphant in the arts” and “the culture wars” and the “ideological blinders” that “have prevented religious and secular people alike from perceiving and engaging the work that is out there.”

That’s a lot of harrumphing for a man who is urging us to listen to the “still, small voice” of faith.

Greg says that in many respects he and I agree (or rather, that I should agree with him), and he’s right that on many things, even most things, we do agree.  What differs is the emphases.   What he calls fiction with “the still, small voice” of faith, I in my essay call “fiction in which belief acts obscurely and inconclusively” – and my taxonomy of the varieties of such fiction, touching on a couple of dozen books and running close to a couple of thousand words in the larger Times essay, made clear that I am steeped in that work, interested in how it achieves its effects, and very much aware that its emphases and omissions suggest (better than just about anything else) the religious situation of our time and place.

But I was after a larger point in the essay – and the point seems to me more significant a year later, not less so.  That so few of the contemporary American novels with a religious dimension deal with the stuff right at the center of religion, and the cultural conversation about religion – matters of assent or dissent, of truth and falsehood, of calls heard and lives saved or lost – seems to me striking; and it seems to me awfully  narrow, not worthy of the long tradition we share, for Greg or anybody else to suggest that our postmodern time is different from the past and that in our time only the “still, small voice” can register authentically.

This is where Joyce comes in.  By calling a moment of sudden insight an epiphany he meant to suggest its quasi-religious character – but also to suggest that it was an epiphenomenon, a small revelation following on the very large one which was pervasive in his society but which he didn’t go along with.

And yet the cunning theorist of the epiphany wound up writing fiction (four major works) that encompassed more and grander experience, including religious experience, than any writer of his time.

I think Greg’s argument, and much of the fiction Greg champions and enlists as evidence, is frankly epiphenomenal.  Listen carefully, he says.  There’s something there.  Hear it?  No?  Come close and he’ll show you.

Yes, there’s something there.  But it’s something less than I would hope for or than I would try to make myself.   Postmodern or no, I am as confident as George Eliot or James Joyce or Flannery O’Connor in the writer’s ability to represent the fullness of experience, including religious experience, to the reader without “whispering” or fretting overmuch about what the culture supposedly won’t allow us to do.

All it takes is maximum cunning and determination on the writer’s part.  That is what we are “charged with,” to borrow Ellmann’s way of putting it.

I see no reason why we should resign ourselves to anything less – and I think it’s pretty sorry to attribute the absence of such fiction to our supposedly postmodernly diminished circumstances and to then proceed to overstate the case for work that is said to whisper with the still, small voice of faith.

As a reader and a writer, I am holding out for the phenomenal.

  • 14 January 2014
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