THE INSISTENT QUESTION: James Wood’s ‘The Nearest Thing to Life’
James Wood The Nearest Thing to Life (Jonathan Cape, 2015)
By Andy Wimbush
In a diary entry from 1922, André Gide records a conversation with his friend and fellow writer André Ruyters, who had to go to China on business and wasn’t happy about it. “Ruyters does not like the Chinese,“ wrote Gide, “because they do not have religion and consequently ‘cannot break away from it’.” Ruyters manages to overlook Confucianism, Daoism, and Ch’an Buddhism, but nevertheless makes an interesting point. Perhaps there is something valuable, maybe even beautiful, about having religion, and then losing it. Perhaps an atheism that is cast in the crucible of religious angst and doubt is finer than one that emerges in the cool, calm absence of any other creed. Perhaps such a loss of faith is a cultural phenomenon that, though it cannot be preserved or repeated, should nevertheless be celebrated.
Stephen Daedalus, in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, experiences a liberation that Ruyters might have admired. Walking barefoot on Dollymount Strand shortly after his decisive but long-deferred break with the harsh Catholicism of his Jesuit schooldays, Stephen experiences a moment of “profane joy”. Joy is, of course, a feeling with religious interests. In the New Testament, joy (chara), rejoice (chairō), and their close synonyms appear no less than 173 times. For Stephen even to have joy outside of the edicts of the church is profane enough: the fact that it arises when he gazes at a girl of “mortal beauty” staring out to sea makes it all the more so. Throughout this passage, Joyce appropriates religious words – angel, holy, ecstasy, soul – and even compares Stephen’s awakening to the resurrection of Christ. Not only, then, has Stephen escaped all the fire and brimstone foisted upon him by his religious teachers, he has also made off with Christianity’s best bits: its rapturous transports and promises of transcendence. He is said to be “unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life.” Joyce unearths the archaism “unheeded” and lets Stephen out of the cosmic panopticon, no longer heeded by God, nor even heedful of his actions and thoughts.
Of course, it’s unclear whether Ruyters was mourning the impossibility of an individual losing their faith – the sad fact that there could be no Chinese Stephen, walking on a similar beach – or the impossibility of a collective break with religion. In Christendom – as it used to be called – the latter has often been summed up with the curious nineteenth-century expression “God is dead”: curious because it seems to grieve for the very thing it purports to deny. In Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘God’s Funeral,’ the mourners lament how
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quavered, sank, and now has ceased to be.
As Hardy’s speaker watches the “slow-stepping train” bearing God to his burial spot, he reflects: “how to bear such loss I deemed / The insistent question for each animate mind.” He mourns with the rest of the crowd even as he refuses to prop the faith of those who proclaim the requiem is unnecessary. George Eliot, at the start of Middlemarch, implies that the Victorian erosion of faith set an unprecedented challenge for those who would wish to live a life with wide horizons. One of her protagonists, Dorothea Brooke, aspires to the heroic saintliness of St Teresa of Avila, but is foiled by the times in which she lives. She is less Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, and more a kind of ascetic Don Quixote. The best she can hope for, Eliot says, is “perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity.” What Ruyters saw as breaking free, can also be experienced as breaking off, even breaking down. “Do we not,” asked Nietzsche’s madman, “feel the breathe of empty space?”
For James Wood, who takes the title of The Nearest Thing to Life from Eliot, the “insistent question” of what to do in God’s wake, and how we might console and conduct ourselves, is tied up with the way we read literature, and particularly fiction. “What I loved, what I love, about fiction,” he writes, “is its proximity to, and final difference from, religious texts.” A novel asks its reader to believe, to move in a world of “as if”. It experiments with doubts and “uncollectible data”. The novelist constantly faces what Wood calls “transferred theological questions”: do fictional characters obey the whims of their authors, as Nabokov suggested when he described them as his “slaves”? Or do they have a life of their own? Is an author – or a narrator – omnipotent and all-knowing? For Wood, the novel is a form suspended between religiosity and secularism, and therefore a product of the North Atlantic world’s wandering away from the strait gait of Christianity.
Wood points out how, in reading a novel, we are asked to take a God’s-eye view of human lives and their many failings. He recalls the story from the Gospel of John where Jesus interrupts the stoning of an adulterous woman: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” As readers of fiction, Wood writes, we approach Jesus’s capacity to know the innermost thoughts of others – we are granted access to survey and monitor the minds of the characters – and yet this very intimacy with the being of another person sidesteps any impulse to judgment. Instead, we are invited to “fellow-feeling, compassion, communion,” even when absorbed in the mental world of Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Wood suggests that to read a novel is to gain both “the uncanny powers of the monitoring Jesus” and the “humane insight of the forgiving Jesus, the sweet master who implied that all of us are as sinful as the woman caught in adultery.”
Another facet of writing and reading fiction that approaches a religious sensibility is what Wood calls “serious noticing”. He quotes Walter Benjamin’s maxim – “the natural prayer of the soul: attentiveness” – and points to examples in the work of Aleksandar Hemon, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Saul Bellow. Knausgaard’s fascination with the minutiae of his own life – the ever-present coffee cups, cigarettes, and choices of sandwich fillings – Wood sees as the celebration of the “inexhaustibility of the ordinary.” In the hands of a more mystical writer, such as Traherne or Blake, ordinary objects might be seen as gateways to divinity: the grain of sand that Satan cannot find. In Knausgaard’s My Struggle they retain some of this sacramental power, even though they yield nothing more than themselves, over and over again. Wood recognises how fiction shares such attentiveness with other art forms – particularly the visual arts – but claims that it has the unique advantage of being able to include “internal noticing” alongside its patient scrutiny of objects. There is a psychological element that, according to Wood, can’t be captured in painting or sculpture. It’s odd that Wood insists on fiction at this juncture, given the autobiographical content of Knausgaard’s work. Memoir, surely, yields just as much, if not more, internal scrutiny, and has historic connections to religious self-inspection, not just through the Protestant substitution of the confessional with diary-writing, but also through St Augustine and St Anthony. For Anthony, writing down one’s actions and feelings was equivalent to putting them in front of a public audience, and under the eyes of God. Elsewhere in The Nearest Thing to Life, Wood relies on other novels that overlap with and depend upon biography and memoir, such as Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower and W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. And so while I sympathise with Wood’s thesis, I wondered why “fiction” should hold such a monopoly on the sensibilities that he celebrates.
It’s especially odd because The Nearest Thing to Life is itself a kind of memoir, and a religious one at that. Wood dwells on instances from his evangelical Christian upbringing. His parents demanded that he talk of “blessings” rather than something so capriciously secular as “luck”, and discouraged the intellectual curiosity that would later send him running to literature. Wood has ploughed this autobiographical furrow before, in his first and so far only novel The Book Against God (2003). Thomas Bunting, the protagonist, is, like Wood, haunted by divinity. He is an atheist who trash-talks God, but he still spends most of his day reading from the Psalms when he should be progressing with his PhD thesis. Wood tells us how his own parents would quickly shut down his childish questions about religion by making inscrutable appeals to theodicy: People die early because God wants to take them to heaven; God’s plans are unfathomable, so we must remain humble in the face of the world’s suffering. Bunting’s father – a liberal Anglican vicar – has a different strategy: he had, Thomas tells us, “aerated his faith with so many holes, so much flexibility and doubt and easy-going tolerance, that he simply disappeared down one of these holes” whenever anyone tried to confront him.
Both Wood and his creation share the desire for a secular scripture. In his story ‘The Library of Babel’, Jorge Luis Borges imagined a universe that contains every book that it is possible to print. People in this universe have realised that one of the books must contain details about how each of them should live their life: a book for that person, and that person alone. Lonely pilgrims are soon seen wandering in the book stacks, looking for their personal scripture: what Borges calls their “vindication”. We don’t live in the Library of Babel, but it can certainly feel that way sometimes. Wood describes how Bunting consumes books with a “quality of desperation,” “beginning each in the hope that this was the one which would tell me how to live, how to think,” and, of course, being disappointed each time. He peruses his bookshelves looking for the volume that might “redeem” him. First, it’s Spinoza, then Hume, next Leibniz, or Schopenhauer. But the pilgrimage never ends. In The Nearest Thing to Life, Wood describes how, aged fifteen, he picked up an ugly-looking volume called Novels and Novelists at a bookstall at Waterloo Station. He was fascinated by the alphabetical catalogue of writers at the back of the book. Each novelist was given a peremptory paragraph, ascribed greatness or dismissed as mediocre, rated with stars, and then the compiler moved on. Wood tells us how he paged through the catalogue, underlining any description that suggested excellence – such as the entries on Kafka and Proust – and placed a “pompous tick” beside any titles he had read and liked. He sees the funny side in having taken this rather reductive approach to literature, but also recognises that what he was after at that age was the “intoxicating air of urgent aesthetic advocacy […], the deep certainty that writing mattered, that great books were worth living and dying for.” In other words, he wanted the spirit of Pentecost in a secular, textual form.
As well as essay and memoir, The Nearest Thing to Life also approaches the manifesto in Wood’s description of the kind of criticism he admires and aspires to write. He occupies an unusual position among literary critics insofar as he rose to prominence first as a newspaper reviewer, for The Guardian and then The New Yorker, and only later entered the academy. It is therefore unsurprising that he openly prefers the kind of criticism that existed before it became something you did at a university: the “tradition of writerly criticism” of Hazlitt, Coleridge, and Virginia Woolf, among others. This kind of criticism is, according to Wood, “situated in the world” (an immanent, incarnate criticism, perhaps?) and is pragmatic, rather than ideological, descriptive, rather than analytic. He compares the critic of fiction to an actor delivering lines: criticism, in Woods’s ideal, should be a passionate re-telling of the original work, “writing through books, and not just about them.” This kind of re-telling, he says, remains in touch with the same creativity that produces novels, plays, and poems. As a literary scholar, I can’t bring myself to the conclusion that criticism in the analytical mode is worthless. And yet, I think there is something in Wood’s position that is attractive to those of us who labour away in archives, groping after our mouldy futilities like latter-day Casaubons. It is that frisson of excitement that comes, for me at least, when I’m teaching: the feeling that literature does sit close to our lives, near to the things we care most deeply about, and the knowledge that it has the power to turn us upside down in the manner of religious metanoia. I don’t think literary researchers woulddo what they do without something resembling a youthful conversion experience – an encounter with a novel or a poem as an a teenager or as an undergraduate that profoundly changed them – but we’d rarely admit to such a thing in the middle of a conference presentation or a journal article. Perhaps we should.
Wood closes his book by appropriating a word of Freud’s: Nachträglichkeit, or “afterwardness”. For Wood, it evokes the sense of departure and even exile that he still feels after eighteen years of living in the United States. But it neatly ties back to the themes of religious loss that permeate the rest of the book. Literature’s value, certainly for me and evidently for Wood, but perhaps also for the ruins of old Christendom, lies in its power to approach matters of ultimate concern, even if it eschews metaphysics, remains resolutely worldly and only offers what Wood calls “fumbled answers”. Many writers since the late nineteenth century, whether confessing or not, have written in the knowledge that religion had entered a state of afterwardness. This is just as true of Christian writers like T.S. Eliot, Dostoevsky, and R.S. Thomas, as it is of unbelievers like Hardy, Beckett, Joyce, and Woolf, and those of more esoteric affiliation like William Golding, Clarice Lispector or Jack Kerouac. Although I can’t help wishing that Wood might expand upon this theme at more length – and god forbid, even with some analysis – his continued attention to the religious roots of Western literary culture, the quasi-religious aspects of both reading and writing literature, and the way that literature comes back, even tangentially, to Hardy’s insistent question makes The Nearest Thing to Life a book worthy of quite a few “pompous ticks”.