Thursday, July 15, 2004

Speaking of James Wood and Dale Peck...

...There's a review of their respective new books in Salon by Laura Miller. Miller finds a similarity in their tastes, even as she notes that Peck gets no respect while Wood is almost universally respected.

It answers the point that reader Kumar raised in his comment to my take on Wood's "Broken Estate," which is whether Wood considers himself to be a believer or not (it's only relevant because Wood dwells at length on the personal faith of the writers he works with). It seems to be confirmed that Wood is not of faith, but the Salon writer sees his criticism as nevertheless religious:

By now, it's become commonplace to state that Wood, who was raised as an evangelical Anglican, has replaced his lost faith with his belief in literature. For an apostate, he is one God-haunted guy; religion is still the stick by which Wood measures all of human experience, which may be one reason why jokes make him nervous. He calls satire the "comedy of correction" because it judges its characters by the unyielding standards of a deity, specifically the scornfully laughing Yahweh of the Old Testament.

Although Wood doesn't go so far as to draw the obvious parallel, note that the compassionate "comedy of forgiveness" requires that the writer surrender his status as lofty creator and enter his characters, his creations, to the degree that his words, thoughts and being effectively merge with theirs. He becomes them. Remind you of anyone? Yet for all the New Testament overtones of this model, Wood labels it "secular comedy." Satire, he writes, is "religious comedy," because it doles out "punishment for those who deserve it" as opposed to "secular comedy," which offers "forgiveness to those who don't." In Wood's secular comedy, characters are "free to contradict themselves without being corrected by the author, are free to make mistakes without fearing authorial judgment."

There's nothing especially secular about any of this, if by secularism you mean something more positive and humanist than the mere absence of religion. Are these characters truly free, or are they merely unsupervised? The signal quality of Wood's comedy of forgiveness isn't liberation but relief -- at the departure of a prosecutorial God/author whose chill shadow still makes Wood shiver.

Though not technically religious, Wood thinks about literature religiously, and this, as much as his obvious intelligence and erudition, endears him to literary people, particularly authors, even when they disagree with him. It's not hard to see why. If literature is a religion, then what does that make novelists? For the chosen few, something akin to gods. Of course, hardly any contemporary writers are permitted to enter Wood's kingdom of heaven (only Monica Ali, in this collection), but many would rather see themselves as taking a long shot at divinity than as laboring in a quaint niche at the margins of a pop-mad society.

I think I agree with this perception, though I should really check out the new book to be sure.


Kumar said...

Dr. Singh:

Yes, his lit-crit is redolent of Xtn themes, isn't it ? I wont be surprised if 'Father' Wood returns to 'Mother Church' when he grows old ;)


12:25 PM  
Kumar said...


I forgot to add that I borrowed that line from Ernest Gellner's perceptive review of Alasdair MacIntyre, when the latter was in his Freudian-Marxist stage. So props to Gellner for this line...hell, for all of Gellner's work.


12:33 PM  

<< Home