James Wood: Literature Complexifies the Atheist-Theist Debate

In a recent essay for the Guardian, Harvard English professor, James Wood, identifies four ways that literature complexifies the atheist-theist debate. As Wood sees it, literary writers tend to:

  1. explore fluctuations in the human psyche;
  2. track messy mixtures of truth and error;
  3. imaginatively walk in the shoes of others; and
  4. follow characters in their struggles with unwanted situations, thoughts, and compulsions.

And so, of the psyche’s fluctuations, Wood writes the following:

Part of the weakness of current theological warfare is that it is premised on stable, lifelong belief – each side congealed into its rival (but weirdly symmetrical) creeds. Likewise, in contemporary politics, the worst crime you can apparently commit is to change your mind. Yet people’s beliefs are often not stable, and are fluctuating.

And of life’s messy admixture of truth and error, Wood writes this:

An essay or work of polemic finds it hard to describe the texture of such fluctuation, whereas the novelist understands that to tell a story is to novelise an idea, to dramatise it. There is no need to make a tidy solution of belief; to the novelist, a messy error might be much more interesting. The Brothers Karamazov offers a famous example from the 19th century – a novel in which the author, a fiercely Christian believer, argued against his own beliefs so powerfully that many readers are swayed by Ivan Karamazov’s atheism (as Dostoevsky feared might happen). For a contemporary instance, there is the recent work of Coetzee, who has explored the contradictory and irrational ways in which people hold ideas and propositions. In Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello, and Diary of a Bad Year, essentially religious feelings (such as atonement, shame, self-mortification) rub up alongside apparently more rational and propositional beliefs (for example, Elizabeth Costello’s belief that eating animals is the moral equivalent of the Holocaust). This mixture of the sentimental and the intellectual makes for an unstable compound, and Coetzee wants to dramatise, I think, how ideas are not just held but actually lived – which is to say, how they are often lived irrationally. When a college president asks Elizabeth Costello if her vegetarianism comes out of her moral conviction, she evades apparently rational argumentation, and replies, religiously, that it “comes out of a desire to save my soul”.

In other words, the novelist understands what Sigmund Freud understood: a person is a contingent being with a contingent history, always living out a very particular life-in-situation. That life invariably comes into contact, not just with the mundane, but with mysteries (things that are opaque to understanding and hard to know how to react to).

The greatest mystery, of course, is the ontological mystery—the mystery of being itself. As a contingent being, one’s response to the ontological mystery will tend toward the peculiar (as Elizabeth Costello’s vegetarianism, and her rationale for it, are peculiar).

Thus, the gift of the novelist, herself being a contingent being, is Keatsian negative capability—the ability to briefly absent oneself of prejudices and an undue rush to judgment, and to imaginatively walk in the shoes of a contingent other. And so, Wood writes the following:

Polemicists want to prosecute intellectual contradictions, novelists to explore them. In the work of the wonderful 19th-century Danish atheist novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-1885), we find a writer doing the same contradictory dance as Dostoevsky, but the other way round. Jacobsen was a passionate atheist and early translator of Darwin. Where Dostoevsky argued against his own Christian beliefs, Jacobsen seems to argue against his own atheism. The hero of Jacobsen’s great novel Niels Lyhne is a convinced atheist, but he gives far greater credit to God’s presence than he can ever give to God’s supposed non-existence. At a crucial moment near the end of the book, when his small son is dying in his arms, Niels breaks down and prays to God, even as he judges the moral lapse from his proud atheism that such weak-minded prayer represents. Like many atheists, Niels seems unable to stop invoking a God whose existence he is supposed not to credit. Niels is always in a relation with God, even when he declares his non-belief in that God; Jacobsen’s novel brilliantly dramatises how Niels seems only ever able to banish God, not kill him off.

The literary novelist keeps complication in play. For life to be intelligent and interesting (and honest), there is simply no escaping the “Hamlet syndrome” (to be or not to be; to think or not to think; to believe or not to believe; to do or not to do). So long as a complicated character lives, there is irony, including the irony of unwanted thoughts:

Contemporary atheistic and theological polemic tends to assume that we all simply choose our beliefs – and can thus choose not to have any belief. That may be true of privileged intellectuals, but there are surely many millions who don’t feel they have the freedom to choose belief or unbelief; instead, their beliefs choose them. Woolf seems to understand this in To the Lighthouse, when she has Mrs Ramsay, who thinks of herself as an unbeliever, suddenly express conventional Christian belief. In section one of that novel, Mrs Ramsay is sitting looking out of the window at the lighthouse, and thinking of many things at once (of children, of marriage, of her husband, of how the greenhouse will cost £50 to mend, and so on). Suddenly, a conventional phrase of religious solace floats into her head: “We are in the hands of the Lord.” Straight away, because she does not believe in God, she repudiates the belief: “But instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that. Who had said it? Not she; she had been trapped into saying something she did not mean.” She is irritated with herself for giving expression to something she does not believe. But Woolf’s question remains: who had said it? If Mrs Ramsay didn’t say it (or didn’t mean it), then who did? Woolf’s novel is famous for being full of scraps of Victorian verse, and is rich in biblical language, and so one could say that “We are in the hands of the Lord” is nothing more than a Victorian relic, an old phrase that Mrs Ramsay remembers from her childhood. But one of the novel’s central questions turns on what it means to continue to need or make use of a religious language whose content is no longer believed in. If Mrs Ramsay doesn’t believe the words, why did they slide into her consciousness? Mrs Ramsay does not speak the words; they speak her. And perhaps the answer to the question “who had said it?” is: “God.” Or: “God, for a minute.” Or: “God, interrupted.”

In short, atheism is theism’s shadow; theism, atheism’s. The novelist explores this shadow; the polemicist, in the agon of a confidence and alienation game, ignores it.

And perhaps this is literature’s most powerful impact on polemical debates: by seeing complexity, that it exists, those who were dehumanized—theist or atheist—become re-humanized.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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