After Stories (and Poems): The Forgotten Aesthetics of Persuasion

In the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible if you prefer, there is a story about a king and his excesses and a prophet who, as we would say today, spoke truth to power. The story is found in the book attributed to Samuel and the king was David, the most famous and revered of ancient Israel’s rulers. As is almost to be expected of men in power, David was infected with the notion that he might, with impunity, take all that his eyes desired, including the wife of another man — a good and loyal man who served David honorably. The king sleeps with Bathsheeba, the man’s wife, and she becomes pregnant. Hoping to cover up his rapaciousness, David recalls the husband, Uriah, from the battlefield and allows him the night with his wife expecting that he will do what all soldiers home from war would do given a night with the woman they love. Uriah would suppose the baby his, and all would be hidden from sight. Unfortunately for David, Uriah cannot bear the unfair advantage he has been granted over his comrades at the front and refuses to sleep with his wife. Getting Uriah drunk made little difference; he was a rock. So David had him killed.

Again, following an all too familiar pattern, David refused to acknowledge his guilt and his power shielded him from consequences and shame. That is until he meets with a prophet named Nathan. Nathan claims to bring news of a great injustice that had been perpetrated in the land. He tells David of a poor shepherd whose lone sheep was seized by a wealthy man in order to feed his guests, and this despite owning a great number of his own sheep. David is outraged; he demands to know who this man is that he may be brought to justice. Nathan, having artfully laid the trap, replies, “You are that man.” With that simple story Nathan bypassed David’s arrogant blindness and brought him to a startled recognition of the vileness of his actions.

I recount this well-known story because I have, in recent conversations, found myself expressing the need to gracefully articulate the virtue and necessity of making what would be very hard and unpopular choices for the sake our own personal well-being and the health of our society. Much of what I write, whether on matters relating to technology or in my occasional ramblings on other diverse topics, is premised on the assumption that human flourishing demands the recognition and acceptance of certain limits. I assume that the highest form of freedom is not the ability to pursue whatever whim or fancy may strike us at any given moment, but rather the freedom to make choices which will promote our well being and the well being of our communities. And such choices often involve sacrifice and the curtailment of our own autonomy. To put this another way, happiness, that elusive state which according to Aristotle is the highest good we all pursue, lies not at the end of a journey at which every turn we have chosen for ourselves, but along the path marked by choices for others and in accord with a moral order that may at times require the reordering rather than immediate satisfaction of our desires.

Put more practically, perhaps, the health of our society may now rest on our learning to live within constraints — economic, political, natural — that we have spent the last few decades ignoring or otherwise refusing. But no sooner do those words cross my lips or appear before my eyes as I type them, than I realize that they are likely to be unwelcome and unappealing words. And concurrently I realize that the language of limits may be misconstrued to mean that we must not pursue legitimate forms of material and social progress. On this point I endorse once more the distinction made by Albert Borgmann between troubles (read limits) that we accept in practice but oppose in principle, and those troubles (limits) we accept both in practice and in principle because we are ultimately better for accepting them. But this is all a hard sell.

On more than one occasion I have referred to an essay by Wendell Berry that appeared in Harper’s three years ago. The essay was titled “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits.” I refer to it often because I believe there are few writers who articulate the case for limits so well as he. Berry succeeds because he is able not only to criticize the ideology of limitlessness and point to its often disastrous consequences, but also to make a positive case for the possibilities of beauty and flourishing that arise from a life that embraces rather than refuses certain kinds of limits. Berry frames our limits as “inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning.” And it is this framing that is essential to the public case for any reorientation of our thinking and living in and with this world.

With her recent essay in The Nation, “Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist,” Marilynne Robinson matches Berry’s gift for speaking hard words with a grace that allows them to be heard, even if they are finally rejected. As I read Robinson’s words I marveled at what was unfolding line by line. Here she was dismantling our idols and stripping our altars, speaking to us with a seriousness and gravity that is wholly absent from our political and cultural discourse, and yet it was all done with mesmerizing artfulness. It was pungent medicine going down with sweet delight.

We need more writers, thinkers, and leaders in the mold of Berry and Robinson. It is a testament to their winsomeness and wisdom that both articulated essentially conservative (although not Republican) and religiously intoned visions which were published in decidedly left-of-center publications. It is, of course, also a testimony to the poverty of our categories.

It occurred to me, then, that it was little wonder they were able to make their case so well since both were novelists and one a poet as well. Little wonder because it seems to me that the case for limits is best shown rather than told. In other words, it is best conveyed by a story rather than a lecture. Like David, we need our prophets to weave their critique of our deeply entrenched disorders into a narrative that would bypass our self-righteous defenses. Moreover, these narratives need also to capture, in the manner that only a story can capture, the beauty and love that attend to lives lived by the counterintuitive logic of restraint, moderation, self-sacrifice, and regard for neighbor and place.

That it is the novelist and the poet that is best positioned to make such a case is also not surprising since their work is a constant affirmation of the inexhaustible beauty that arises from the formal elaboration of endless possibilities within a field of real and imposed limitations. Consider language itself as the primordial model of a limited and bounded but inexhaustible resource. The use of language is bounded by the grammar that allows for intelligibility and poets have since times immemorial bound themselves to structures that have called forth rather than foreclosed boundless creativity. Little wonder then that daily finding and making beauty within the limits of language, novelists and poets are best positioned to articulate the fulfillment and joy that may arise from the refusal to prioritize personal autonomy and the unencumbered life. After all, just as the frictionless life is also a life without traction, the life that refuses all burdens and attachments is, to borrow a phrase, unbearably light.

My hope is that we have not altogether lost our taste for stories and poems, that the sun has not yet set on literary sensibility. It would be tragic if for clarity and simplicity’s sake we sought our answers from technocrats with bullet-points and found that we could not hear or be moved to action by what they had to say. Although, perhaps that would be for the better since the technocratic logic that refuses complexity is more a part of the problem than of any credible solution. Worse still would be to find that our habits of attention, as some of our more pessimistic critics have warned, had become so attenuated that we could not follow an artful plot nor give a poem the loving, patient care that it demands before it will yield its wisdom.

Reviewing Robert Bellah’s “Religion in Human Evolution,” sociologist David Martin summarizes the book’s central message as follows: “‘We’ are inveterate story tellers as well as theoreticians … As ever in Bellah, his rigorous commitment to objectivity emits a normative aura: it is not a matter of putting stories behind us as childish but of telling the best stories to frame our collective existence.”

Indeed, and we might even put the matter more urgently. “It is difficult to get the news from poems,” William Carlos Williams admitted in a line from “Asphodel,” “yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

Alasdair MacIntyre famously concluded his ground breaking After Virtue by leaving us waiting “not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.” It would seem, however, that we would do better to wait for another, doubtless very different, Nathan to penetrate through our blindness and awaken us to the possibilities offered by St. Benedict.

More from Marilynne Robinson

Take a moment to read Marilynne Robinson’s reflections on “Religion, Science, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality” at The Huffington Post.  Here’s a helpful distinction she makes:

The debate is said to be between science and religion. It would be more accurate to call the contending sides atheism and faith, since neither science nor religion in any classic sense is represented in the present struggle.

And another point well made:

I don’t claim to know what it means to say that we are made in the image of God, but I profoundly and instinctively believe it and all that it implies. Therefore it appalls me that some people who call themselves Christian are willing to hate and insult and deprive other human beings, and even carry guns so they will be ready to kill one or two of them on short notice. And it appalls me that people who claim for their views the authority of science routinely and arbitrarily insist on a brutally reductionist notion of what a human being is, what the human mind is, that justifies as inevitable every sort of meagerness and rapacity. As is so often the case when controversy turns bilious, the two sides have entirely too much in common.

Marilynne Robinson on The Daily Show, Mark Twain on Interviews

Marilynne Robinson is one of those authors whose name I keep running into and each time I do I make one of those mental notes that never quite materializes to read one of her books.  Mostly I’m interested in reading her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead: A Novel, and her most recent work, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self.  The latter collects Robinson’s Dwight H. Terry Lectures at Yale University on the topic of religion, science, and consciousness.  No lack of ambition there.

Robinson recently appeared on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.  Typical Stewart, a little bit serious, a little bit funny.  You can watch the five minute clip here.

Update:  Let me take an opportunity to embellish this post a little bit with another item I just came across.  Let’s begin by recognizing that this is not the most enthralling interview.  Robinson was not exactly inspiring and Stewart’s fan base, which seems for the most part to be a bit hostile to religion, is apoplectic (see the comments below the video clip).  There are probably a number of reasons why this interview doesn’t quite soar when on paper it probably looked like a good idea, but would anyone consider that the format itself is to blame?  In other words, are interviews inherently flawed?

The Mark Twain Foundation has just released for the first time in print a 10-page hand written essay on the subject of interviews written by Twain in 1889 or 1890.  You can see the whole essay at the Newhour’s web site including scans of the handwritten pages.  Here is an excerpt (sections of which brilliantly match form to content) that expresses Twain’s dissatisfaction with the interview:

The Interview was not a happy invention. It is perhaps the poorest of all ways of getting at what is in a man. In the first place, the interviewer is the reverse of an inspiration, because you are afraid of him. You know by experience that there is no choice between these disasters. No matter which he puts in, you will see at a glance that it would have been better if he had put in the other: not that the other would have been better than this, but merely that it wouldn’t have been this; and any change must be, and would be, an improvement, though in reality you know very well it wouldn’t. I may not make myself clear: if that is so, then I have made myself clear–a thing which could not be done except by not making myself clear, since what I am trying to show is what you feel at such a time, not what you think–for you don’t think; it is not an intellectual operation; it is only a going around in a confused circle with your head off. You only wish in a dumb way that you hadn’t done it, though really you don’t know which it is you wish you hadn’t done, and moreover you don’t care: that is not the point; you simply wish you hadn’t done it, whichever it is; done what, is a matter of minor importance and hasn’t anything to do with the case. You get at what I mean? You have felt that way? Well, that is the way one feels over his interview in print.

Yes, you are afraid of the interviewer, and that is not an inspiration. You close your shell; you put yourself on your guard; you try to be colorless; you try to be crafty, and talk all around a matter without saying anything: and when you see it in print, it makes you sick to see how well you succeeded. All the time, at every new change of question, you are alert to detect what it is the interviewer is driving at now, and circumvent him. Especially if you catch him trying to trick you into saying humorous things. And in truth that is what he is always trying to do. He shows it so plainly, works for it so openly and shamelessly, that his very first effort closes up that reservoir, and his next one caulks it tight. I do not suppose that a really humorous thing was ever said to an interviewer since the invention of his uncanny trade. Yet he must have something “characteristic;” so he invents the humorisms himself, and interlards them when he writes up his interview. They are always extravagant, often too wordy, and generally framed in “dialect”–a non-existent and impossible dialect at that. This treatment has destroyed many a humorist. But that is no merit in the interviewer, because he didn’t intend to do it.

There are plenty of reasons why the Interview is a mistake. One is, that the interviewer never seems to reflect that the wise thing to do, after he has turned on this and that and the other tap, by a multitude of questions, till he has found one that flows freely and with interest, would be to confine himself to that one, and make the best of it, and throw away the emptyings he had secured before. He doesn’t think of that. He is sure to shut off that stream with a question about some other matter; and straightway his one poor little chance of getting something worth the trouble of carrying home is gone, and gone for good. It would have been better to stick to the thing his man was interested in talking about, but you would never be able to make him understand that. He doesn’t know when you are delivering metal from when you are shoveling out slag, he can’t tell dirt from ducats; it’s all one to him, he puts in everything you say; then he sees, himself, that it is but green stuff and wasn’t worth saying, so he tries to mend it by putting in something of his own which he thinks is ripe, but in fact is rotten. True, he means well, but so does the cyclone.