Believing in the Word

Article excerpt

The recent death of Catholic author Andre Dubus represents a loss to anyone interested in the fate of contemporary religious fiction in America. Dubus embodied a combination rarely found among fiction writers of faith: superb, non-didactic craftsmanship and profound spiritual sensitivities. His death has made me reflect, again, on current trends in literary criticism, for while I doubt any serious critic would deny Dubus' abilities, few seem equipped to discern his most profound purposes.

This is hardly surprising. Since the rise of the French linguist/philosopher Jacques Derrida and the advent of deconstructive literary theory in the early 1980s, the very idea of discoverable authorial intention has apparently been rendered absurd, something to be discussed, perhaps, by hapless junior high school English teachers but not by serious scholars. Words are, after all, "indeterminate" in their meanings and texts are valuable not for what their authors may have hoped to convey through them, but for how skillfully the critic can apply his own meanings to the "unstable" sentences on the page. I recall a student in graduate school who in a seminar on theories of the novel commented offhandedly: "We all know authors can't communicate with readers." Nobody else challenged the statement, and in my ignorance of theory I felt unqualified to do so.

These ten years later I still regret my cowardly silence. Today, when I teach freshman English, a student will almost invariably ask, "Well, Mrs. Monson, uh, what do you think Wharton [or whoever] is trying to say?" While such a question betrays naivete--a novel cannot be reduced to a set of themes, a moral, or a message--it nevertheless articulates in rudimentary fashion an intuition that is exactly on target: when good novelists write they have things they are interested in achieving with their words. They have ideas, feelings, and experiences in mind that cannot be adequately expressed apart from fictional image. It is counterintuitive to approach a written work and not be at least somewhat curious as to what the writer of the work envisioned as he composed it. Words are symbols created expressly to communicate, and without the need to communicate, that is to commune, human beings would never have fashioned language at all.

In some ways a loss of belief in the efficacy of language to transmit experience from one human being to another seems akin to a loss of belief in God. The Christian Bible likens God to the Word: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." St. John's meaning may be enigmatic, but it does seem clear that he is somehow linking language with divinity. If as a people we lose our belief in language--in its capacity to span the gulf between speakers and listeners, writers and readers, or its efficacy in articulating reality--we are cut loose, set adrift, each individual stranded in time. In one way Derrida was right: we surely invest words with whatever meaning they contain. Yet that investiture is a central act of faith between and amongst people. The writing of a poem is not unlike the uttering of a prayer--words articulated against the void, sent out with purpose upon the dark expanse of space.

And so when a student asks about an author's meaning I answer him seriously, but try to steer him away from treating fiction as nonfiction. The novel especially, with its breadth and scope, has a peculiar capacity to carry us away, virtually transport us, in ways that by comparison other written literature cart do only feebly. A novel is not an intellectual puzzle to be pulled apart and reassembled so that all its themes and messages are explicit; approaching it that way grossly violates the text's integrity. The finest novels--Faulkner's tangled, majestic, brooding monsters, for example--ultimately resist interpretation; rather, they may suck us in, bathing us, as in the case of Faulkner, in a recreation of primary human passion. …