Fiction, Truth, and Sanity

I am staring at what seems an insurmountable stack of grading, and I am thinking about fiction.

Fiction is my sanity at the end of long semesters, but it has not always been so. Only in the last few years have I so exhausted of my analytic and pedagogical self and retreated to fiction. What I find is life, or maybe better said the creative retelling of life. To describe that life I can only say that it’s true.

There are ways for talking about fiction’s “truth” of course. Yann Martel’s character Henry from Beatrice and Virgil describes it this way:

Fiction may not be real, but it’s true; it goes beyond the garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truths. As for nonfiction, for history, it may be real, but its truth is slippery, hard to access, with no fixed meaning bolted to it. If history doesn’t become story, it dies to everyone except the historian. Art is the suitcase of history, carrying the essentials. Art is the life buoy of history. Art is seed, art is memory, art is vaccine (p. 16)

My habit has been to spend an entire year with an author and her work. It started with Shakespeare, then it was Dostoevsky, then Marilyn Robinson, then Yann Martel (I tried John Banville, but, despite his gorgeous prose, his melancholy was too much). When the end of this semester arrives where will I go next? I am thinking about Steinbeck, beginning with East of Eden.

I am quite open for other suggestions though. Into whose fiction do you run for sanity?


10 thoughts on “Fiction, Truth, and Sanity

  1. Hi, Kent,

    Richard Ford was a balm to me in my post-end-of-semester decompression days in grad school. His Frank Bascombe trilogy—The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land—is excellent.

    On the darker side, anything by Cormac McCarthy is worth immersing yourself into.


    • Thanks Jeff, and I will add Ford, Bascombe, and McCarthy to my list of possible authors for next year.

      I have been reading Hauerwas’ memoir as well. Have you read it? The “memoir” genre is a new one for me.

  2. Kent,

    I read your post about fiction with interest and wondered if you would consider reviewing some of our new Christian fiction range from Abingdon Press?

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

    Elaine Reid
    Marketing Executive
    Alban Books

  3. Graham Greene every time! If you’re staying with one author for a year, you need someone with variety and range, and Greene has both. He’s sometimes light and witty, sometimes bleak and profound, dealing with huge global issues but with a close up on each individual’s personality, always well written and enjoyable.
    And ‘The Quiet American’ is the most profound meditation on war – grasp what he’s saying here and it gives a whole new take on Iraq or Afghanistan etc. Old jaded British hack and young American buck in Vietnam squabbling over winning the heart (or at least the use of the body) of a beautiful lady. Is she named, or have I just forgotten her name… doesn’t much matter to the men in the story. They don’t bother to think about what she wants, or hopes for – does she have hopes? Does it matter if a person / country has hopes and wants when two man / countries will fight to have her, even if she’s destroyed in the process?

  4. Surely the Bible, and for that matter the Sacred Texts of the Great Tradition altogether are the only sources of Truth, Sanity and Spiritual nourishment.

    Even more so Sacred Art, both visual and via poetry.

    Sacred Art of course has the power to directly reveal That which IS always already prior to the essentially dis-heartening round/grind of daily existence.

  5. Sue:

    But in the Bible, we are told to “work” most of the week; so that practical even “secular” concerns, are important to God.

    While Paul tells us to adopt “whatever things are good”; seeming to open us up to a wider world of culture.

    For God works in “all things,” for the good.

  6. A few sections of the Bible on “spirit” – like especially John 3.8 – are indeed, the sections of the Bible normally invoked, to assert that God allows a wide-ranging freedom of speculation, allows new ideas, in Christianity:

    “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit” (John 3.8).

    Here the Bible would seem to suggest that the Holy Spirit particularly, allows a very wide range of rather new ideas, even apparently otherwise secular and artistic ideas, to be considered as Christian; as being in the spirit.

    This is a very common way to use Spirit. Yet to be sure, many have often complained that some people, some denominations especially, have taken this apparent biblical warrant, too far. Many have criticized the over-emphasis of the invoking of the Holy Spirit, as authorization for too speculative ideas, in say, Pentecostal “speaking in tongues,” and other new “gifts of the spirit.” Or even more speculative, alleged new gifts.

    Some invoke spirit, for example, in very useful new theologies; but also in more radical and speculative theologies too.

    So that in such cases, a few conservatives have come to warn about over-reliance of the Spirit; warning that there are after all, “false spirits.” And indeed, many have warned, we should carefully examine any alleged new spiritual insight from God, very carefully; to see if it is truly in the Holy Spirit, or not.

    Therefore to be sure, though I will myself at times, invoke the “spirit” as Biblical warrant for some speculative freedom in theology, it may be that we should be careful about using “Spirit,” the extremely free wind of John 3, as Biblical authorization. As authorization for say, considering as holy, as from God, many normal secular works of art and so forth. For fully authorizing say, artistic concepts – like say, Existentialism.

    Overall, I do favor the invocation of the free “spirit” or “wind” (Gk. “pneuma”?), even one whose source is not entirely clear in John 3, to be sure; it opens up Theology considerably, to consideration of matters not very directly or explicitly considered in the Bible. Still though? Can we warn about possible abuses, of this apparent authorization? Mis-uses of an all-too-free “spirit”?

    Overall to be sure, I do support the invocation of “spirit,” though. To allow that the spirit of God might move, within say, even apparently “secular” works of art. Still, we need to see what kinds of art we are looking at; and what specific messages they are delivering.

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