James K.A. Smith has an interesting post up in which he makes the distinction between being an “author” and being a “writer”:
Being an author and being a writer are not synonymous. Most philosophers and theologians are authors: they publish articles and books bent on communicating content and making arguments. Their goal is conceptual clarity and careful demonstration. But all of that can happen with very little attention to form. Indeed, one can write entire books and yet not take language all that seriously.But it’s just that attention to form that characterizes the writer. To make the move from being an author to being a writer you have to learn to love sentences.
On the drive up to Chicago yesterday, I listened to a handful of the New Testament podcasts Todd pointed to a week or so ago—which, incidentally, are really, really good. It’s immediately clear how good of a teacher Goodacre must be, and they would be worth listening to as a pedagogical model even if they weren’t helpful in substance. But then, of course, they are helpful in substance, if relatively basic.
Anyway, listening to a few of Goodacre’s mini-lectures on the Gospels reminded me of how outstanding the gospel writers are as theological stylists, undoubtedly better than many of the figures I put on my list. The genre itself is genius, and in each case it’s executed with really surprising creativity. The quiet riffs on older scriptural themes and figures, the way explicit points are also made to function as structural patterns of the whole narrative, the sheer number of ideas that arise solely from the story’s form, never once hammered didactically through a particular character…
I do think that any narrative-form genre has a massive stylistic advantage over expository genres. When narrative writers have some theological or philosophical point to make, they’re really forced to express it through the form of the piece rather than saying it directly (or else end up with a pretty terrible story). Most philosophers and theologians, accustomed to saying everything directly, don’t feel any need to say anything at the more elusive and difficult level of form.
For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I find metaphors involving weight extremely moving and compelling. It’s a fairly common trope, at least since Augustine—who talked occasionally about how the pondus voluntatis et amoris, the weight of desire and love, was the real ordering principle in the cosmos. I ran into it again recently in Dante (who probably gets it directly from Augustine). Beatrice has to explain to him, when they first pass into Paradise, how his body is able to speed upwards towards and beyond the moon: because the weight of love allows one to fly, as surely as a waterfall pours faithfully to the earth.
And now this wonderful passage, from Kierkegaard’s discourse on the birds of the air:
And yet, yet human language has not ever, and thought has not ever, invented a more beautiful symbol of independence than the poor bird of the air. And yet, yet no speech can be more curious than to say that it must be very hard and heavy to be—light as the bird! To be dependent on one’s treasure—that is dependence and hard and heavy slavery; to be dependent on God, completely dependent—that is independence…. Dependence on God is the only independence, because God has no gravity; only the things of this earth, especially earthly treasure, have that—therefore the person who is completely dependent on him is light. (Upbuilding Discourses, 182)
If we take the mark of a great philosophical or theological stylist to be the capacity to say as much in the form of communication as in its substance, or to fully integrate form and substance in philosophical presentation, who are history’s greatest philosophical stylists? The top ten, if I were to pick a list off the top of my head, would be (in chronological order):
Though I can see right away that this list is weighted towards ‘dialectical’ thinkers of one stripe or another, possibly because that’s an easier philosophical difference than some to convey formally. Or possibly because I just prefer them. Eckhart, though certainly a master stylist, might be a slightly arbitrary pick from among the late medieval mystics. Is he really a step above Marguerite Porete, Teresa of Avila, or John of the Cross?
It’s hard to come up with any truly great recent stylists. Derrida is good, but wouldn’t rank, I don’t think, with the figures above. I’ve wondered about Hélène Cixous, just because of the unbelievable range of genres with which she is apparently competent, but I’ve not actually read her work.
I’m distinguishing in my head between philosophical stylists as defined above and rhetorically effective philosophers, or philosophers who are especially enjoyable to read. Feel free to contest my definition.
One of my courses this fall is on what’s called Kierkegaard’s ‘second authorship,’ which begins, more or less, with A Literary Review—a very long review, about a hundred pages, of a contemporary novel. It’s a really enjoyable read, and actually very suggestive as a genre: he manages to portray the details and spirit of the novel really well, at the same time as he spins out some interesting philosophical threads he sees reflected in the action. For those interested writing ‘constructive commentaries,’ who, like me, prefer to think within the thinking of another, the form of this book is a really interesting example.
Anyway, here’s one amusing snippet. The novel being reviewed tells two stories of two families belonging to two ages, and part of K’s procedure is to specify the general spirit of each age—’The Age of Revolution’ and ‘The Present Age.’
As against the age of revolution, which acted, the present age is the age of advertisement, the age of miscellaneous announcements: nothing happens, but what does happen is instant notification. An uprising in the present age is the most unthinkable of all; such a show of energy would strike the calculating sensibleness of the age as ludicrous. A political virtuoso, on the other hand, might be able to perform a feat of artistry that was amazing in quite another way. He could word an invitation, proposing a general meeting for the purpose of deciding on a revolution, so carefully that even the censor would have to pass it. And then on the evening in question he could give the gathering an impression so deceptive that it seemed as thought they had achieved the uprising; whereupon they would disperse quite peacefully, having spent a very pleasant evening. (62)
Or another, more relevant selection:
A profound religious renunciation of the world, and of what is of the world, adhered to in daily self-denial, would be unthinkable to the youth of our time; yet every second theology graduate would be virtuoso enough to do something far more marvellous: he would be able to propose a social foundation with no less a goal than to save all who are lost. The age of great and good actions is past; the present age is the age of anticipation. (ibid.)
Another choice quote from Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners:
Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to re-arrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible. His feeling about this may have been made more definite by one of those Manichean-type theologies which sees the natural world as unworthy of penetration. But the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is. (163)
That’s from another speech, entitled ‘Novelist and Believer.’ It’s turning out to be another one of my favorites.
And yet again, it seems a lesson theology needs no less than any other ‘religious art.’
I’m in the middle of reading Mystery and Manners, a posthumous collection of Flannery O’Connor’s non-fiction. As to its style, the whole book is predictably inspiring; as to its substance, it’s less consistent. (For example: the opening essay, on raising peacocks, dragged on more than I would have liked. And her essay ‘On the Nature and Aim of Fiction,’ despite the occasional gem of a paragraph, is too scattered to be really involving.) There are a few real masterpieces in here, though, that are as useful to the theological writer as they are to the novelist—at least so long as the theologian is prepared to think of what she is doing as an art form, as I think we should anyway.
My favorite selection so far (though I haven’t yet read the final part, which contains her sustained reflections on being a Catholic novelist) has been her speech on ‘Writing Short Stories.’ The bits directly about short stories are fascinating in themselves. She gives a wonderful definition of a story as “a dramatic event that involves a person because he is a person, and a particular person” (90). She lets loose a few enjoyable rants against the reduction of stories to their themes, to abstract statements. And the essay nicely encapsulates some of her most common contentions: that fiction begins and ends with the senses, that it hinges on the intrinsically meaningful portrayal of the concrete, that it aims at a believable presentation of the real, even (maybe especially) the invisible or impossible real. I think those contentions themselves could be helpfully translated into theology or philosophy, recognizing that those disciplines quite properly do deal in abstractions. It might be that theology could be understood as the intrinsic inverse of fiction, speaking constantly of the concrete under the guise of the universal rather than speaking constantly of the universal under the guise of the absolutely concrete.
What really struck me, though, were a few brief observations at the very end of the piece. The speech was given at some kind of writers’ conference, and O’Connor had apparently been given a few of the participants’ short stories ahead of time. She finished by marking a few problems she had seen in them. First, she noted “the use of language in these stories was such that, with one exception, it would be difficult to distinguish one story from another” (102). There were clichés, she said, but not one enduring image. Second, it was impossible to tell where these stories unfolded. They could have happened anywhere in the world without changing the story. Finally, the characters functioned as siphons for ideas or particular actions; they lacked real, story-driving personality.
Again, mutatis mutandis, these are the problems in a great deal of theological and philosophical writing. In some circles, language is intentionally stripped of its evocative power and made (so we are told) completely transparent; in others, the ‘evocation’ is so commonplace and so disconnected from the unique conceptual structure as to be meaningless—the very essence of a cliché. That doesn’t count the vast majority of essays or books written without any thought of their language at all. As for context, this is probably the principle problem of theoretical writing: its necessary abstractions are treated as absolutely self-sufficient, blithely indifferent to any concrete position whatsoever. The rise of ‘contextual theologies’ of various kinds have gone some way to correcting this terrible habit, but it’s not obvious to me that they have quite cornered the relation of thought to its setting—and in any case, most theology has not learned its lesson. The idea of personality in theoretical writing is perhaps on its face the most foreign, but not too hard to understand. A concept of Augustine’s is almost always recognizable as such, as is a line from Heidegger. It’s not only that these thinkers have stamped their own historical personality on their writing, though that is certainly true; it’s that in capable hands, their ideas acquire a life and spirit of their own. Just like O’Connor’s characters, thinking becomes a matter of following the inner dynamism of an idea always just beyond grasp.