In Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Sandy Stranger—the acolyte schoolgirl who has an affair with her art teacher and betrays Miss Brodie—is said to have become a nun and authored a book called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Having always fancied using that title for a book, the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto wrote to Spark asking what Sandy’s book would have been about. “She replied, to my delight, that it would have been about art, as she herself practiced it.”
Spark identified herself as a “Catholic writer,” like a fair number of her peers in the days when people made religion a factor of identity. I gravitated toward her fiction and that of other Catholic writers—primarily Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene—even though I wasn’t any kind of believer. The dark humor in Spark and O’Connor was definitely a draw, but the real power of their writing lies in the mystery of the central conflict, which you can read as sacred or profane. There is the stark familiarity of everyday life—with the seemingly arbitrary distribution of suffering and joy—but also the strangeness of an overlay that allows for epiphany if you’ve made the commitment to look.
These thoughts about the nature of art come to mind more and more as Americans walk away from religion like it was an underwater mortgage. There is, unfortunately, one aspect of this fading away that we haven’t been able to replace within our theories of artistic creation, and that is the literary force that comes from embracing the mystery, what is unknowable.
The medieval text The Cloud of Unknowing reminds us that five hundred years ago people were already wise to the possibility of humans pulling the levers behind the curtain. Penned by an unknown author who remains awe-struck by the vastness and complexity of the natural world, this text sees our origin not as a problem with an answer but as a mystery to which humans would do well to accommodate themselves. This reconciliation is essentially “the search” for absolute knowledge that has driven artistic expression since Homer.
Since the early 2000s, assaults by intellectual atheists have picked off the accepted ways that thinking people can think about any variety of magical thinking. This has not been without collateral damage, however, because imagination has taken a hit. We’ve become so accustomed to equating religious belief with fundamentalism and orthodoxy that we forget the connections between faith and imagination. The late Peter Gomes had a pitch in his Harvard sermons that he never stopped using: that it was a failure of imagination to see a small God and not a large one.
Gomes is essentially equating believers with creative writers, and that may be what is most strange about a vocation that tends to draw skeptics and non-joiners. But then every fiction writer needs imagination, a compass for which mystery and the unknown constitute true north.
In her lectures about writing, O’Connor often quoted Joseph Conrad’s definition of art—as “a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe.” She pointed out that “reality for him was not simply coextensive with the visible.” He sought to render justice to the visible universe “because it suggested an invisible one.”
This is what Richard Ford was getting at in explaining his reason for writing stories: “Lived life somehow wasn’t enough, in some ways didn’t hit the last note convincingly and was too quickly gone.” It’s not that we manipulate everyday life in fiction. What we manipulate is time and perspective—a dimension that allows us to witness the convergence of the visible and invisible.
In her essay “The Faraway Nearby,” Rebecca Solnit says that the “test” for being a writer “is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working.” That’s sort of the equivalent of Einstein saying, “It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
James Baldwin is more bracing in describing the kind of solitude a writer needs—“much more like the aloneness of birth or death,” “like the fearless alone that one sees in the eyes of someone who is suffering, whom we cannot help.”
We have a lot of good writers, but the push of digital culture away from the solitude needed to imagine and away from the discomfort of engaging with mystery and doubt is worrying. It can only diminish the necessary conditions for creating what we used to consider art and drastically limit our capacity to understand the beliefs that have shaped history.
It seems that few people in 2018 want to wade into the solitude necessary to grapple with the unknowing. “No one ever has to be alone,” Mark Zuckerberg promised a world of potential friends, placing solitude on the order of poverty in terms of destructiveness. As meditation has glommed onto the endless spread of yoga, we have the irony of roomfuls of people meditating together.
The digital world is a paradox in being controlled yet distracting, solution-based but also promising endless “inspiration,” mostly through images viewed and shared by millions. If it can be conceived as a place, this world of abundance is the opposite of the daily surroundings we are cognizant of but do not see when we are looking for ready-made inspiration. We don’t have to look up to know that appealing distractions are scarce.
It is an odd coincidence that O’Connor’s last story collection—Everything That Rises Must Converge—could be an alternate term for the singularity, the tech world’s ultimate solution to everything that is arbitrary, redundant, and meandering about the human. The story “Revelation,” made a lasting impression on me because of the brutality of the prejudice and banality of the setting—a doctor’s waiting room. The story presents one of O’Connor’s famed “grotesques” and the waiting room becomes a claustrophobic cell. We’re dying for someone to be called to see the doctor and take us away with them. We want the protagonist’s dressed-up haranguing to stop. But when it does at her own expense, something strange happens. The contempt we’ve amassed for this woman immediately unravels. Her “revelation” comes later, while she’s hosing down her hogs; her unassuaged anger at God is a punishment that we suspect will end only at death.
This is a story in which nothing really happens, except that a waiting room and a pig sty are transfigured into four hundred years of not just institutional racism but racism burnished into custom and identity, racism that creates racism within races. A random convergence of unremarkable people allows one woman to see what has always been hidden by manners. You don’t have to believe in the God she curses to feel the depth of her despair. That, it seems to me, is the singularity that matters. §