Is the novel a space of intense engagement with the world, of risk and adventure? Or is it a place of refuge, of hanging back from life? The answer will be all too easy if we are living in a country that does not allow certain stories to be told. For Solzhenitsyn writing novels was indeed a serious risk. But in the West?
In my last piece in this space I considered the idea that our personalities are formed in communities of origin where one particular polarity of values or qualities tends to dominate—fear or courage, winning or losing, belonging or not belonging, good or evil. As each person seeks to stake out a position for himself in his community and later in the world outside, it will be the position he or she assumes in relation to that polarity that will be felt as the most defining and any problems in establishing such a position (am I a strong person or a weak one, am I part of the group or not?) will be experienced as especially troubling.
Now I want to toss out a provocation: that in the world of literature there is a predominance of people whose approach to life is structured around issues of fear and courage and who find it difficult to find a stable position in relation to those values.
True, or not? Mr. Parks gives us some excellent examples in support of his “provocation.”
“We live in a secular age, a period of dim understanding when it is a virtual blasphemy to say ‘Merry Christmas’ or put up a Nativity crèche. This is the kind of desperate self-consciousness and hideous circumspection that indicates how morally weak we are, farcically overconsidered, foppishly irrational. We live in a period when religion itself seems not even spiritual, when simonists on television are trying to make money selling God and halfwits are burning Korans and ordained priests are pedophiles. We live in a time of supreme scruple. Pusillanimous. Tentative. Hesitant. Uncertain. Weak. Fearful. Cringing…
“St. Paul who unambiguously offers us life of Christ and salvation is not the fidgety neurotic button-twisting sort of herbert we now see everywhere, not only the toadying, listless, graft-ridden, indecisive nest-featherers and eunuchs that constitute most if not all U.S. Congress but even in our presidents…
“It is only when we get serious that we can grow. ‘When I was a child,’ St. Paul wrote, ‘I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.’ I offer this piece not as a means of conversion but as a plea for the virility of reason….”
The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant—1968
This is less a book review and more an outline of the Durant’s remarkable little summary. It is one of my favorite non-fiction books, although that is often a moving target. It’s also fodder for further exploration and possibly forthcoming essays. All items emphasized are mine, not the authors.