Sunday, November 14, 2004

Gaddis and Religion

I'm through two-thirds of the opening chapter, and I'm reminded of a short book I picked up a couple of years ago called The Writer and Religion. Published in 2000, it collects the proceedings of a conference by the same name held in 1994 at Washington University in St. Louis, William H. Gass' home turf. The book is edited by Gass and Lorin Cuoco and consists of seven main presentations related to the topic (by Gass, Eavan Boland, Gaddis, A. G. Mojtabai, Amitav Ghosh, Hanan al-Shaykh, and J.M. Coetzee), each followed by a panel discussion and audience questions. I found it to be an interesting collection, though my memory of the whole thing is not incredibly clear. I re-read the Gaddis and Coetzee essays this morning. Gaddis' is titled "Old Foes with New Faces" and is also included in his posthumous non-fiction collection, The Rush For Second Place. His hostility towards religion, Christianity in particular, is, as usual, unmistakable, even (especially?) under the cover of an olive branch:

Considering the enormity of this enterprise, I will narrow the focus of my remarks to my own pursuits. By writers, I assume we mean writers of fiction. By religion, I’m referring to the one I have barked my shin against over half a century in one or another of its avatars, to borrow an epithet, as Christianity itself has never hesitated to do when it has served its purposes.

Rather than initiate our undertaking with a confrontation, however—I am sure there will be plenty of those—I propose to extend a hand of fellowship from the criterion central to both: that which constitutes poetic faith for the writer in Coleridge’s familiar “willing suspension of disbelief” and, for the religionist, the leap of faith enshrined in the misquoted words of Tertullian via St. Augustine, “Credo quia absurdum.”

In other words, we are all in the same line of business: that of concocting, arranging, and peddling fictions to get us safely through the night.

Then, he touches briefly on drinking, a subject near and dear to a certain club:

Certainly an enhanced capacity for self-delusion is a valuable attribute for the writer, both in nurturing his fictional characters and often enough his own. Thus, it is hardly surprising to find this capacity to be fueled frequently by an equally large appetite for strong drink, with the majority of America’s native-born Nobel Prize winners in literature being confirmed alcoholics as testimony.

Before drawing further (no doubt unwelcome) comparison to aspects of the Christian faith...

We may even go so far as to find a parallel in Alfred North Whitehead’s reference to “the use of wine in the Communion service,” which is “a relic of the religious awe at intoxication,” itself, at all odds, a relic of the drunken license turned loose at pagan saturnalias of a still earlier time where, habit breeding expectation, promiscuous intercourse provided plentiful material for the marvels of virgin birth that followed.

Later, after recounting some familiar statistics concerning Americans and religious belief, he gets in another zinger:

Outnumbering supporters of reincarnation by three to one, almost three quarters opt for a heaven where good lives on earth will be eternally rewarded, with more than half basking in the company of God and Jesus, but fewer than half with that of friends, relatives, and spouses. Oddly enough under these circumstances, only 5 percent expect eternity to be boring.

Also, here are a couple of non-Gaddis passages that struck me as relevant to the character of Aunt May and the humorless and harsh Protestant Christianity practiced (and imposed) by her. First, from Coetzee's essay (which is quite good, and itself was reprinted in the collection Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship.):

…it is a feature of the paranoid logic of the censoring mentality that virtue, as virtue, must be innocent and therefore vulnerable to the wiles of vice unless protected.

Second, moving away from the book, I don't know if anyone else here is into old-time folk music, or, say, the Carter Family, but, as I was reading about Aunt May, I couldn't help but be reminded of John Fahey's liner notes to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume Four:

While there is nothing new in the variety and type of songs by the Carter Family on Volume 4, there is nevertheless a new element: old age, decline and death. The group sounds old; indeed on “No Depression In Heaven” they sound like they have several feet in the grave. There had always been a morbid element in the singing of the Carter Family. A good example is “The Wild Western Hobo,” who, we are told, is “going to have lots of fun.” Yet the Carters sound as if their idea of fun is having teeth pulled. The Carter Family refused throughout their career to sound happy—they even refused to sound neutral. No, in accordance with the religious zeitgeist, The Code of the Hills, as Al Kapp called it, one must have: 1) a deprecatory view of life on Earth, i.e., that it is a veil of tears. Indeed, their big hit, “Keep On The Sunny Side,” sounds like a cry for help from some very unhappy folks who are sliding down the slippery slope of Protestant unworldliness and predestined gloom; and 2) an insistence on adhering to the amusing local practice of refusing to refer to a body part—or even to pronounce any syllable which named a body part. This was widespread practice in the South. Even in Washington DC where I was brought up, I was taught that the correct pronunciation of “chimney” was “chimley,” but I was never told why. Shortly before my time, places like Assategue and Assawoman were called “Rumpategue” and “Rumpawoman.”

Others may have more immediate or personal experience with this, but it is completely alien to me, not to mention fascinating.


Blogger CAAF said...

I just think it's great that you posted a long something about religion on Sunday morning, 11:54 am, right as the good folks in these mountains where I live are getting out of church and heading to IHOP, there to fill up their ... stumnachs.

November 14, 2004 at 5:02 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hm, oddly enough, that didn't even occur to me. Telling, perhaps.

November 14, 2004 at 8:24 PM  

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