by Yin Yuan
Yin Yuan is a doctoral student in the English department, studying nineteenth-century British literature, with particular focus in the intersecting areas of religion, aesthetics, and politics. Her other research interests include deconstruction, postmodern theology, and all things John Milton. Yin holds double B.A.s in English and Business Administration from University of California, Berkeley.
This past September, I attended a conference organized by the International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture, held at the University of Leuven. The aim of the conference, titled
“Re-Imagining Human,” was to commemorate the centenary of the Great War by rethinking the meaning of being “human” from theological, philosophical, and literary perspectives. In his closing
keynote address, David Jasper, Professor of Literature and Theology at the University of Glasgow, expressed the unstated sentiment that not only informed many of the papers given at the
conference, but even, to a certain extent, motivated the founding of the Society itself: Theology and Literature departments increasingly keep a polite distance from each other, and those of us
who think that each is saying something the other needs to hear seem to be fighting a losing battle.
This was not always the case, though. In the West, as late as the nineteenth-century, the activity of reading in theory and practice was shaped by the cultural centrality of the Bible. Anyone who could read read the Bible, and “secular” narratives (including the novel, which came into being in the early 18th century) were influenced by the formal patternings of Scripture. Literary scholars of the period have pointed out that our tendency to read sequences of events as meaningfully plotted rather than arbitrary – a tendency that all novels exploit – derives from the religious idea of a rationally ordered universe. Recent studies in neurology in fact locate this predisposition toward narrative pattern in our very biological makeup, suggesting that the link between religious belief and storytelling goes beyond historical conditions.
To recover a theological sense of storytelling is then to attend, in a basic way, to what we as humans do when we tell stories. Each of us has a story in our own heads about who we are and how we figure in relation to others, and that narrative is vital to our functioning as healthy, productive individuals. We can be said to belong to the world through the stories that we create for ourselves and that we share with those around us. Such capacity for storytelling is fundamentally an act of faith, involving as it does an affirmation that there is meaning to my existence. This might be why Saint Augustine’s Confessions, a Christian conversion narrative, is frequently cited as the first autobiography. For there is a way in which to tell one’s story is, in the same breath, to witness to the existence of a creator.
The portion of Confessions that deals with Augustine’s own life begins in his infancy and ends shortly after his conversion to Christianity, and every event that he narrates he also simultaneously interprets in the light of that conversion. At each moment in the text, readers encounter two Augustines: the reprobate who steals pears and lusts after women, and the penitent who explains the idolatrous implications of those same actions. In other words, events in Augustine’s life only gain significance as indicators of the salvation that is to come. Without the framework of conversion, these events would fail to be accounted as events (and, correspondingly, would not appear in Confessions), existing only as the half-conscious moments of life that slip away because one does not fully reflect upon them. Thus redemption is not just a theological doctrine but also an experiential regaining of the moments of life that one would otherwise lose: “all that is ebbing away from you will be given fresh form and renewed, bound tightly to you,” the redeemed Augustine writes.
The sense of one’s own transience – the sense, in other words, that one needs to find a way to hold on to the perpetually vanishing moments of one’s life – is not just something that haunts the orthodoxly religious. This condition was particularly acute toward the end of the nineteenth-century, when the rise of scientific materialism threatened to reduce the human being to a flux of chaotic, inconsistent sensations. As a result, any coherent identity that we want to give to ourselves and to those around us seems to be increasingly exposed as fiction. Walter Pater, literary and art critic in Victorian England, describes the condition as a continuous “fining down” of experience into infinitely divisible impressions that are gone the minute we try to apprehend them. If this makes humans a slave to their material environments, with no real agency to speak of, yet, for Pater, art provides a place of refuge by giving narrative form to the flux of sensation. For what the creation of a plot does is to supply a meaningful, ultimately idealist framework through which individual moments can gain significance.
To meaningfully order one’s past, present, and future is, in an ethical way, to take responsibility for one’s actions. Similarly, abstract values such as justice, goodness, and truth can have no real meaning in a reductively materialist world. But the power that we gain in taking control of our stories is a fragile, not totalitarian, sort of power, since written narratives come to an end, while lives go on. Augustine closes his story at the point of his conversion, but life after that demands new interpretation and suggests new ways in which the past can be understood. This space of possibility also governs the act of reading: when the stories others have written impact us, we receive those stories into our lives and give new meaning to them through the way we live them out. Our lives are in this way a continuous retelling of the stories of others.
“Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell,” the German philosopher Walter Benjamin once wrote. This is because a person’s life only truly “assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death.” In a similar way, the reader of the novel confronts his own mortality when he participates in the death of the novel’s characters, whether that death is literal, or simply because the novel has come to an end.
But the stories we read and tell before we die matter, too. In giving form to moments past, these stories supply a kind of ending and therefore a kind of death. Yet, these same stories must themselves be transcended as we continue to generate new stories, new possibilities, in the ongoing momentum of our days. To attend to storytelling in this way is at once to take responsibility for one’s past and to submit to the mystery of the future. It amounts to an acknowledgement that to be alive is to be continuously in search of meaning.