Monday, October 30, 2006

Fruitful Inconsistencies

This is half on literature, half on religion; if you're here for the latter, stick around: I do get to it.

I think that one of the mistakes that amateurs authors tend to make -- and I very much include myself here -- is to work too hard on world building. This is probably a particular occupational hazard for SF (broadly understood) writers, since of course (much but not all) SF takes place in worlds which are partially or fully imaginary; but I think it actually probably applies to all authors, even the most strictly of realist ones, who tend to do the equivalent in, for example, doing research to build (that is, in this context, accurately represent) the world they are writing in. What we should do, of course -- what the best writers do -- is simply work on the story, the text, and let the rest fall into place as it may.

That this is a mistake can be seen first and most clearly in the fact that the best writers' work is filled with all sorts of contradictions, and few people seem to care. Shakespeare can include anachronisms, and have the age and timing of Hamlet be seriously difficult to unravel; and really it matters not a wit. One ready but (I think) clearly mistaken answer to this is to say, "Oh well Shakespeare was a genius, he can get away with this sort of thing, but others cannot." And it's mistaken because good authors at all levels do this. To take a very different example, Arthur Conan Doyle was notoriously careless in writing the Sherlock Holmes stories: was Watson's wound in his arm or leg? Who cares? It hasn't prevented Holmes from becoming probably the single most powerful iconic figure from popular literature in the last two centuries.

And the entire spectrum from Shakespeare to Doyle to anyone you like -- high literary, the best of pure popular pulp, anything -- does the same. Read about books and you'll see comments about these little mistakes and errors -- errors that indicate that the world is somehow not fully imagined, not consistently created; and you'll see that they don't really matter. Even Homer nods.

But if anything I am actually understating the case, I think. Because far from not mattering, often such inconsistencies become positive assets. Inconsistencies that originate in speed and carelessness -- or, more accurately, care being taken in matters other than world-building -- once recognized become sources of energy and complexity that drive a work to a higher level.

Here the examples that occur to me are mostly from popular culture, although I feel fairly sure that any decent literary scholar (a category which does not include me) could come up with some high culture ones off the top of their head. Nevertheless, since I am simply trying to sketch a point here, I will use the popular culture examples. In fact, let me use one of the richest and best examples of recent popular culture there is: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The point is that Buffy came with a lot of givens -- large parts of traditional vampire mythology that were simply adopted whole -- and that other parts were added fairly quickly in a show that looked like it might well not last longer than its initial half-length season. For example, the question of what a soul is and does in the Buffyverse is essentially unanswerable, largely because the writers clearly made it up as they went along. Angel is cursed with a soul, and therefore regrets his crimes -- but were they really his crimes if the soul was not there when they were committed? Normally the soul is taken to be the "he"; but Angel is a brooding regretful character so he regrets them anyway. How much free will is there without a soul? Various contradictory answers are given. Can a being without a soul love? It is said many times that they cannot; and it is just as clearly demonstrated that Spike does, genuinely, love Buffy, however much she (and he) might deny it.

I'm not trying to rag on Buffy or its writers for this inconsistency here -- far from it: I think that this inconsistency is actually one of the show's strengths. A world of fairly simple bad-and-good sides is set up by the Vampire-Slayer mythology -- and then the complexities of character and storytelling lead them to make it complicated, complex, grey -- the end result being even more grey and complex than a show which started out to be grey and complex could be, because it is a moral complexity overlaid on a universe painted first in stark black-and-white terms. Giles's speech in "Lie To Me" about how the villains are easy to identify by their black hats is very different than it would be in (to take a very good show in a different mode) The Wire, because in the latter no one would ever suspect such a thing, it's silly -- but in Buffy many of the villains are easy to identify, by their crinkled brows and pointed teeth: which makes it all the more complex and interesting when, in the end, some aren't -- whether through evil humans, good vampires or (most of all) intermediate, undecidable cases. Spike is perhaps the most complex character in Buffy -- certainly the most morally complex character -- because he started out as a simple villain, and then was so compelling that the writers wanted to keep him around, so they made him progressively better, backslid for a story point here and there, had him go over the line, and then gave him a soul, describing the latter in terms that were clearly falsified by some of his earlier portrayals. In the hands of poor writers, the result might simply be an unbearable mish-mash: in the hands of writers of the Buffy caliber, it's extraordinary and complex fiction.

This is just one example, but I think it could be endlessly multiplied. Tom Shippey, in The Road to Middle Earth, talks about how much of the power of Tolkien's work comes from the contradiction in the conception of the ring -- how it embodies two fundamentally contradictory ideas of what evil is -- the result of which is an end far richer than a more philosophically consistent view would be. Tolkien was a world-maker par excellence -- but his method of composition was not: he wrote the Hobbit without thinking through completely how it tied into his mythology, and then was left with contradictions that he had to think through; he launched into The Lord of the Rings without a clear sense of where he was going, which meant that contrary ideas were built in from the get-go.

Quick contradictions lead to further stories, stories which try to deal with (thematic, philosophical, historical, factual) contradictions in the earlier ones -- and lead to a complex and rich fiction. Perhaps this is simply a common way by which fictional worlds (and in this I include the "worlds" that are meant to be ours) can portray the complexity of the real world: no fictional author can possibly design a world as complex as the real one, by more orders of magnitude than one can think; but inserting contradictions creates the appearance of complexity that leads to a variety of mimesis. The world is complex, not contradictory, but to any given viewpoint it looks contradictory, because we can't comprehend its complexity.

This may not apply to all fiction, but it applies to a lot of it. And I think it applies to the greatest fiction of all time: religion. Religion gets its power from its early-adopted inconsistencies. A few very different ideas were merged, and the result is far richer than any single one of them could be alone.

I'm brought around to this thought by a long and fascinating post by Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance, which is, essentially, a review of Terry Eagleton's review of Richard Dawkins's recent book The God Delusion. (Link via Pharyngula.) After making an important distinction between three topics in Dawkins's book -- topics which Carroll correctly notes are confused by reviewers, thus allowing them to attack Dawkins's weaker points in the guise of attacking his stronger ones -- Carroll goes on to talk about the contradictions at the heart of (Jewish and Christian) monotheism -- contradictions which he says undermine the notion of God (and which P. Z. Myers, correctly in my view, says that theologians use to dodge awkward questions from different in audiences). All of this may be true, but as irritating as this intellectual slipperiness may be to atheists such as Dawkins, Carroll, Myers or myself, it is also the source of religion's strength -- and not just because it allows the avoidance of awkward questions.

Carroll tells a story about the history of monotheism -- a story that accords with what I know, although I can't vouch for his details, and I also don't know how widely accepted this story is among those knowledgeable in the field -- in which one notion is shaped in such a way as to be contradictory, after which the resulting contradiction is itself melded with another contradictory idea -- leading to a truly rich and complex (as well as, well, contradictory) result. The beginning of the story (as Carroll tells it) is the evolution of the tribal god of the Jews -- imagined as simply our god, but not the only one -- eventually came to be conceived not simply as one of, or the most powerful of, many gods whose reality was recognized, but as the only real God, whereas the others were simply imaginary. This itself was a fruitful contradiction -- God was both the creator of and God for the whole world, and the special, personal God of the Jews. But then this "personal/tribal God of Biblical Judaism" was further merged with "the Unmoved Mover of ancient Greek philosophy." And the result is a Being which can be described in one breath as an ineffable essence which underlies the nature of existence and in another as a being with actual emotions like jealousy and love.

Carroll (and Myers) point out that using part of this notion to weasel out of the silliness of other parts of it is, intellectually, unfair -- changing the terms in the middle of the debate, or depending on who the audience is: Bush can reassure many by claiming God speaks to him while theologians Clintonize about what the meaning of God "speaking" is. And they have a point. But it is also precisely this contradiction that gives religion -- which is, I agree, a fiction, although I agree with Carroll (and against Dawkins) that the question of whether it is a fiction which is, in sum, beneficial or detrimental to society is a very complex one* -- its enduring power.

This is true in all sorts of ways. The richness of theology -- which, contrary to Dawkins's dismissal, is indeed a rich field of intellectual endeavor -- comes from its basic remit being the discussion of a fundamentally flatly contradictory notion. The rich Jewish literary tradition of Midrash -- which could be humorously but accurately described as fan-fiction based on the bible -- arises out of the need to explain contradictions in a supposedly divine and perfect text. The richness of Christian spirituality arises out of all sorts of contradictions -- that the trinity is nevertheless a unity, that Christ was both God and man, and so forth.

Now, Dawkins would probably say that it is one thing to acknowledge the power of all this as a fiction -- which, to be clear, is all I am doing -- and quite another to assert it as metaphysical truth and guide one's life (to say nothing of others' lives) by it. And I quite agree, which is why in the Dawkins/Eagleton debate I am finally more sympathetic with Dawkins.

But here's the thing. Eagleton falsely claims in his review that
Such is Dawkins’s unruffled scientific impartiality that in a book of almost four hundred pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false.
I say "falsely" because Dawkins spends several pages discussing the literary importance of the Bible, and bemoaning the biblical illiteracy of contemporary culture. And Dawkins is right to do so: say what you will about the Bible, it is an amazing and (at least in parts) extraordinary work of literature that everyone should read. But what I think really is bothering Eagleton, although he doesn't say so and (I am guessing) isn't aware that this is what is really getting his goat, is that Dawkins doesn't give this credit to any religious movements or texts that occur after the bible. (Or if he does, it is in passing and very much against the overall spirit of his book.) Eagleton would want to say that, at the very least, theology and religious writing has the same sort of literary value that the Bible does -- maybe not as much and maybe not as consistently, but it still has it and is important for that reason. And on this account I agree with Eagleton.

And here's the point I am making. The very inconsistencies in the notion of God that make Dawkins dismiss it -- the very inconsistencies that give Eagleton the room to try and weasel out of the metaphysical points that Dawkins effectively drives home -- are precisely what gives religion, in the Bible and later, its genuine power. It is, I think, no more than a fiction (and I think that this is actually fairly clear): but it is a rich and powerful fiction, one that has sustained many in distress and moved many to acts of selflessness and heroism that they would not otherwise have done. Dawkins (and others such as P. Z. Myers and Sam Harris) wants us to be able to say, clearly, that the metaphysics is clearly bunk -- and I agree and would like more people to say so as well. But I think (in contrast to Dawkins and Harris) that, if religion is a fiction, it is an astonishing fiction, and one that can't be dismissed on the grounds that there weren't clocks in Julius Caesar's day and that we don't even know which limb Watson was wounded in. And I think that those of us who hold Dawkins-like positions on the metaphysics -- and who worry greatly about the political extensions of religion in the world, and find in them the most powerful single source of evil today, whether we are talking Islamists, Christian fundamentalists, or others -- would be more persuasive if we were to acknowledge that beauty that others see in religion, and, rather than insist that it is in fact ugly, simply insist that, beautiful as it may be, it is no more real than Frodo's inspiring, heroic, utterly imaginary journey up Mount Doom.

* This is one of the points that Carroll notes is confused by reviewers of Dawkins's book: the question of whether God exists (easy, says Carroll, agreeing with Dawkins: He doesn't) and the question of whether religion is a positive force in the world (hard, says Carroll, disagreeing with Dawkins) are separable, but Dawkins's (and, I would add, Sam Harris's) tendency to conflate them allows reviewers to attack the weaker (latter) arguments while ignoring the stronger (former) ones. On this point I agree with Carroll and disagree with Dawkins and Harris. I will also note that, while Daniel Dennett is often lumped in with Dawkins and Harris in his defense of atheism, Dennett's recent book Breaking the Spell is quite resolutely agnostic on the question of religion's overall effects, saying its a complex question and we simply don't know the answer, however strongly atheist it is on the metaphysical question of God's existence. This is a key distinction between Dennett and Dawkins/Harris that has been (to my knowledge) completely overlooked -- and an important one, to my mind, since I think Dennett's skepticism about the social effects of religion is right, and that Dawkins and Harris cherry-pick their way to simplicity on this issue. (Another good critique of Dawkins on this issue, in the context of Eagleton's review, is here (h/t to Carroll's post), although this critique doesn't mention Dennett at all.)

Postscript to the footnote: And, picking up from the end of the essay above, I think that Dennett goes further than Dawkins in recognizing the beauty of religious fictions. Dawkins might reply, fairly, that Dennett has been no more persuasive than he, thereby giving a counter-example to my argument that a Dennettian approach will be more readily accepted; and I cede the point. But either way this will be a long argument; and while so far results from any approach have been few, I claim that Dennett's position will in the end be more effective than Dawkins's -- and that it also has the additional advantage (to use the Kissingerism) of being true.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting essay. I confess I'm one of the people who is bugged by the type of inconsistencies you mention in Hamlet: I think they point to a lack of imagination, or sheer laziness: what's so hard about doing some fact checking, or rereading your work and looking for errors? (It's one reason I'm not a fan of Angels in America: Kushner didn't do his homework as far as Mormon women go--Harper and "Mother Pitt" [no Mormon woman would ever go by that name--"Sister Pitt" maybe] are simply not believable characters to me. And I realize that by admitting that I might be allying myself with the person who nitpicked with Superman at a Shabbos dinner, but there it is.)

Anyway, I can read individual works with glaring errors and even enjoy them, but I sort of have to grit my teeth and just deal with it, in a way that inflames all my obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

That said, I find it easier to forgive such inconsistencies in Buffy, in part because it's a serial, and there was no way to go back and redo Season 1 when Joss et al realized there was this more interesting approach to the issues that they'd rather explore later on. Because I appreciate its willingness to deal with gray areas, I can remain loyal to the show and interested in what it does, even though by the end I find Buffy insufferably pompous and will always be upset that Willow never has to pay for her murder of a human being (admittedly a really awful one) the way, say, Faith does, or that Xander isn't held more accountable for his hypocrisy and crappy treatment of Anya. (Both of which to me aren't gray so much as shit-brown.)

And as for the contradictions in religion.... Have you picked up Karen Armstrong yet? Because she deals with the issue in some really interesting ways, and argues that for the most rigorous theologians, the inconsistencies are not only fruitful, but absolutely necessary to a full appreciation of our inability to grasp the mystery that is the divine.

Stephen said...

Holly, thanks for the fascinating comment, and the link. To reply to the simplest part of your comment (while I digest the rest): I have picked up -- in the sense of bought a copy of -- Armstrong's History of God (thank FSM for the Ithaca booksale!), but have not yet picked up -- in the sense of started to read -- it. I intend to; it looks extremely interesting; but I haven't gotten to it yet.

By the way, in case it wasn't clear, I loved the nitpicking of Superman at Shabbos dinner -- just as I loved that it existed at all, loved the nitpicking of the nitpicking -- all of it. That entry was meant as pure appreciation, albeit somewhat in a Sontagian Camp mode. I'll admit that I might feel differently about works of art I like a lot -- and, for me, Angels in America is definitely in that category (then again, I think Kushner probably was more accurate with his Jews than his Mormons!) -- then for a work of art I haven't read. But that nitpicking was glorious; I did not mean to disparage it. Chas v'shalom, as we Red Sea Pedestrians might say.

Stephen Lavelle said...

Of course, the difference between novels and religious texts is that religious texts are purporting to claim something about reality in (usually) a very direct way. Viewed from this light, internal inconsistencies are signs that something's wrong, right? Of course, if you read them as novels, then yeah - but there is also a difference, I think, between stories that have various not-terribly-important-to-the-overall-story inconsistencies, and stories that pivot about inconsistancies. This, for me, generally brings to mind some class of "untrustworthy narrator".

I don't know if I'm making sense or not, and I don't have the mental capacity this close to lunch to step back think and return. Boo for me.