Friday, July 09, 2004

The real issues in James Wood's novel, The Book Against God

James Wood is best known as a book critic. Here is a recent LRB piece that caused a bit of a stir amongst literary bloggers a couple of months ago; and here is a review of a book on the history of the King James Bible from the New Yorker last year. The Book Against God is Wood's first novel. A collection of reviews of the book, most of them lukewarm or positive, can be found here.

The plot: a graduate student in Philosophy at University College London, desultorily writing a dissertation, steadily reveals himself to be a believer in God despite strenuously (and sometimes embarrassingly) imposing his atheism on friends, girlfiend, and family. Actually he is not writing the diss. at all, but instead composing a collection of quotes and arguments pointing at the absence of God in the world, a "Book Against God." In fact, however, Wood wants to show that Tom Bunting's attachment to his father (a Vicar at the church of a small northern English town) carries within it the seeds of a kind of belief.

I can see why the novel was dismissed by some critics -- it has flaws. But I still enjoyed it for its many arguments and insights.

McLemee has some good insights on the book. He explains the thinness of Wood's protagonist (Thomas Bunting) as necessary:

But he is ultimately the victim of the author's still greater ironies. The themes of God and godlessness in the novel may echo passages in Wood's essays, but Bunting's anti-theological speculation lacks the element of self-possession that helps to make the critic's work so intellectually graceful. Bunting's ideas do not grapple with the world so much as evade the moment of having to face it for real, just as his lies, unpaid bills and trial separation from his wife all postpone the inevitable.

He is, then, a kind of scapegoat. Like the "invisible man" in Ralph Ellison's novel--or his closest relative, the narrator of Kenneth Burke's novel Towards a Better Life--Bunting carries the burden of painful experience that he does not yet quite understand how to shape into something meaningful. Or, to choose an example that may be more exact, he has the same problem that Saul Bellow's Herzog does: that of having just a few too many philosophical arguments available to patch over the holes in his life.

I have to admit I haven't read the Bellow or the Burke (and it's even been a long time since I looked at Ellison), so I can't say whether I would agree with these comparisons in a substantive way. But the key word here is "scapegoat" -- Tom Bunting is a scapegoat for the unresolved (and unresolvable) issues the novelist wants to raise.

What are these issues? Well, Wood is struggling with what might be called the phenomenology of belief and disbelief. In plain English: how can you really know when you believe in God? Or: how can you definitively know that you don't believe? The possibility of a middle-ground seems dangerous and intellectually soft (Nietzsche, for instance, would have none of it). Here's a representative discussion between Tom Bunting and his father:

'One of the great Renaissance essayists [Montaigne],' Father continued. 'Posssibly Christian, but more likely an agnostic and sceptic, and sensibly hiding his heresy from the authorities. But, then “Que sais-je?”' he finished, self-mockingly.

'I've always disliked that idea, of covert blasphemy,' I said, perhaps a bit hotly,' like concealing a gun. It seems untruthful, dishonest.' I said this, despite my own multiple dissimulations and deceits. I wasn't at all sure why I was saying it, except to resist my father. I didn't even believe what I was saying. My own 'heresy,' after all, was covert for most of my adolescence. It was still essentially covert when I was with my parents.

'Oh, I don't know,' said Peter, in a sweet, singing tone. 'After all, belief and unbelief are not absolutes, and not absolute opposites. What if they are rather close to each other, I mean belief shadowed by unbelief and vice versa . . . so that one is not exactly sure where one begins and another ends? Then, 'lying' about belief is not like concealing a gun, is not really like lying at all, but more like telling your wife that you slept well when in fact you spent the night racked by insomnia.'

There is a double-irony here. Not only has Tom Bunting been concealing his putative atheism from his family, he has also, we begin to see, been concealing from himself the fact that he is essentially a kind of unconscious believer.

Of more general interest is the question about writers from the early modern period who stop just short of leaving out all references to God in their thinking. Montaigne is one example; Descartes and Locke might be others. Even Kant, one feels, could be as happy arguing against the existence of God as for it (if, for instance, he were writing 100 years later). Are these writers simply unbelievers who mask their lack of faith with salutory references to religion demanded by publishers and censors? Or is it possible that the major figures of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were at once modern and Christian? Are they members of that "middle ground" of belief advocated by Tom Bunting's father (in the passage above)?

From his essays, I get the feeling that Wood prefers to read the professions of belief from the moderns as essentially sincere. He draws the line at the "soft" Establishment writers of the nineteenth-century, especially Arnold and Renan, whose professions are so watered-down as to be essentially unsupportable. In "The Broken Estate," that tradition is extended to twentieth-century theologians like Paul Johnson, for whom Wood has little patience:

No, the great 'strength' of Christianity is not that it offers medicines, but that it is true. Health comes from this. [Paul] Johnson's ecclessiastical cynicism – where “strength” means only “strength for the church”--suspends what is most powerful about Christianity: its claim to be true. Instead, like Arnold and Renan, he offers the milder language of success: does it work for you? He secularizes religion and demonizes secularism. In doing so, he makes Christianity vulnerable where it should be strongest. If Christianity can be defended as merely a set of advantages, then it can be attacked as merely a set of disadvantages by rival advantages, most of them secular. If Christianity is only a therapy service, a matter of comfort and consolation, then why not something more powerful than its withered ardor? (Drugs, love, literature, etc.).

Here Wood points at something that I (as someone in favor of political secularism) can grab onto-–the idea that soft religion can also be soft (or "demonized") secularism. Preserving Christian morality without preserving Christianity continues the coercion of religious dogma without the justification of religious faith. Wood would rather have real "medicine" or no medicine at all.

But here is where I part with Wood: the urgent issue in politics today is not one of real or false religion, so much as it is how to guarantee that societies around the world can continue to protect religious freedoms. Along those lines, what would be more challenging is a protagonist who is a real atheist, poised against a rising tide of (possibly fake) religious fervor in his society. (The believer who invents an atheist protagonist could possibly do a better job than the atheists -- like Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi -- who repeatedly conjure improbable "fanatics")

The "rigorous" Christianity of Wood's essays does not help us respond to the arguments and actions of religious extremists. Arnold begins to look better: Wood overlooks the possibility that Arnold's softened, inclusive Establishment in fact might have enabled the public presence of religion to become symbolic in a useful way (the same way that Monarchy is useful), even as modern nation-states transition to secularist politics.

[A final, unrelated thought: One thing no one has mentioned is, the novel is full of classical music. If you decide to pick it up after all, prepare to get a little tutorial in Pollini, Edward Elgar, Schnabel, Rachmaninoff, Richter, Rubinstein, Kempf, Michelangeli, Brendel, Bartok, Glazunov, Schumann's the Kinderszenen, and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition!]


Kumar said...

Dr. Singh:

A question and a comment.

Isn't Wood himself an atheist ? I seem to remember a Woods' essay along that line, in 'The New Republic'. Or am I mistaken ?

Woods' worrying over whether professions of Christian belief by some philosophers were sincere seems misplaced to me. I think that the attitude he brings to lit-crit, i.e., downplaying authorial intention, can usefully be applied to philosophical works as well.

But I suppose that sort of stance comes more easily to one who's immersed in Indian philosophical tradition. Consistency (sometimes quite weak) with the 'root-text' of one's 'darsana' is all that's required, in traditional Indian philosophy: Authorial intention, as such, doesn't figure in the interpretation of a text. So, a common phenomenon in Indian sastric disciplines is radical innovation in the guise of mere commentary on a root-text!

BTW, I gave Woods' novel a pass when it came out. I'll give it a look-see, at least, based on your review.


1:07 PM  
Amardeep said...


He's pretty clear in "The Broken Estate" that he considers himself a Christian, both in terms of how he was raised and presently. I'll look at TNR and see if anything comes up...

The point about interpretive methods is interesting. I think a book like Nabokov's "Pale Fire" does something similar to what you're describing. Also Swift's "Tale of a Tub," though in both cases the radical innovation in the guise of faithful commentary is meant to be an ironic statement on the status of criticism....

2:37 PM  

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