Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Too True to be Good
“If a writer knows something, but doesn’t write it, it’s still present in his work.”
On this list, among the writers here are two women who have each been beaten and raped, and one individual who has done some time in a mental hospital working things out, and that’s just the stuff we know about. Compared to them my existential angst seems a bit small and self indulgent. But until something worse comes along its just what I’ve got and I make the most of it.
The Creature’s speech to his woman in last weeks post “Born of Rain and Fire” is my long sigh of resignation between me and my useless old god. I’ve told that story and sighed that sigh many times in different ways because that’s the barren ground that I explore. Its an image that I come back to again and again because that’s my autobiography. The Creature’s little sermon to his newly minted woman is God talking to me. You will love me, you will be disappointed in me, you will hate me, you will outgrow me, you will re-discover me and forgive me and when all that histrionic bullshit is over and done we’ll start to get to know each other honestly.
Fiction writing and poetry is the art of the image. A good image, a compelling one has truth discernable under the surface. In my own stuff, I don’t begin a story so much from an idea or a character as from exploring a compelling image. I have this image I’m chewing on these days of a very young girl with her father. During a dangerous lightning storm they see a dark figure climbing the roof of a church. The man on top of the church holds his arms out wide and leans on an iron cross as lightning falls around him. The little girl asks why he’s doing that and her terrified father says “He is a nosferatu, Nixie. He wants God to kill him.” I don’t know how they got there or what happens next but it’s the image that sticks in my mind. You have to admit, it’s a compelling image.
The best images come to you in the simplest and barest form, elegantly empty, and invite you to twist and turn them and add things and pile things until you have something new. Blank paper. White rice. Water. The Frankenstein legend takes a simple compelling image – a man in the act of bringing an artificial man to life – and runs wild with it over the landscape of the great moral questions. Everybody who plays with that primordial image of man creating a man brings their own spin to it. Its taught in feminist classes by a couple of the writers here on the blog. In my case, and I’m not the first, I see it as the powerful image of the mysterious relationship between man and god. The idea of god, at root, is magnificently simple. A powerful creator who created all – even people. Can you cut a deal with him? On this image mankind has painted and piled the underpinnings of all cultures great and small, past and present.
What is the Creature’s problem? He was born without permission. So are we all. His creator, his god, abandoned him without guidance or responsibility. Even people who don’t believe in God find themselves with a feeling of spiritual abandonment, of being cast into the mystery of being and suffering. This image of abandonment by a creator is among the most universal, complex and ancient images conjured by mankind. It’s the human howl in response to the world as we find it with beauty and tragedy, looking for something to cling to and having only each other or maybe no one at all. It’s why we tell each other stories.
Modern neurological science has been pursuing the link between brain wiring and moral behavior. It goes to the heart of our ideas about good and evil. If you drive fast and high on cocaine and run over somebody, you’ve committed an evil act. If you have a heart attack and run over somebody, there's no moral blame because you can’t help it. This is the argument liberals like me make for lesbians and gays. If being straight wasn't a choice for me, why would homosexuality be? If we find that rape and murder are directly involved with bad brain chemistry, “a bit of bad beef or an under done potato” as Scrooge said, who we think of as ourselves as spiritual beings comes into question.
If reality as I know it can be destroyed by plague on the brain caused by Alzheimers, if my sexual identity and habits as I know them, my fundamental moral decency as I’ve preserved it, can all be blown away into psychopathic chaos by a brain tumor in just the right spot. Who is the real me? Is that person you think of as yourself reading this just an illusion fabricated by biological necessity, something Buddhists have been soberly stating for thousands of years?
If that neurological toss of the dice produces a conscientious man, it just means I’m lucky, not morally good, and maybe good and evil don’t even exist. This is probably true, but I hate to think its true. Because it’s an image that fails to move me. I want to be deeply moved. Religion has always dealt in images. Jesus dying on the cross or Jesus saving the adulteress from a murderous mob, that moves me. Those are powerful images, and Jesus knew how to convey a powerful image. None of that stuff probably ever happened, there’s no hard evidence it did. But does that really matter? Is the image that gives you wings to soar to noble deeds more true than the image that has no wings to give, regardless of which one fits the hard facts of life?
Most religious beliefs when examined from a distance have a silly quality to them. Faith without reason leads you into snake pits. Reason without faith, too often produces theology like a dry bone. A dry image of God though consistent with the world as we find it doesn’t inspire crusades or pogroms, but it also doesn't give us any hymns or great music or great deeds. It can leave a moral vacuum by not demanding anything of us. True is not always good. The sacred has to be searched out in our mundane being, formed grain by grain by our dealing with the emphatically dumb details of managing our daily life and the people in it. But that’s no fun at all. If you have to stick with the facts of your life only, the truth doesn’t get you all the way home. It drops you off half way and then you have to lie, and that’s why the great religious leaders were so often story tellers, and why we’re story tellers, the most unreliable of narrators. The truth is in the gaps between the facts. Our artful craft and dodge is to stick our finger in there and see what bites down on it.