Skip to content

Unknowing

Years ago I was looking through remaindered books in the basement of the Harvard Bookstore and came across The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, by the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto. The words seemed familiar, so I read the preface.

Danto titled his study of the then-current art world after something he remembered from the Muriel Spark novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Spark’s character Sandy Stranger—the acolyte schoolgirl who has an affair with her art teacher and betrays Miss Brodie—is said to have become a nun and authored a book called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Yes, that’s right, I thought.

Having always fancied using that title for a book, Danto wrote to Spark asking what Sandy’s book would have been about. “She replied, to my delight, that it would have been about art, as she herself practiced it.”

Danto’s anecdote planted in my mind an understanding and maybe even an expectation about art—that it worked most dynamically through familiar vessels (human and otherwise) of the everyday world.

Spark identified herself as a “Catholic writer,” like a fair number of her peers in the days when people made religion a factor of identity. I gravitated toward her fiction and that of other Catholic writers—primarily Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene—even though I wasn’t any kind of believer. The dark humor in Spark and O’Connor was definitely a draw, but the real power of their writing lies in the mystery of the central conflict, which you can read as sacred or profane. There is the stark familiarity of everyday life—with the seemingly arbitrary distribution of suffering and joy—but also the strangeness of an overlay that allows for epiphany if you’ve made the commitment to look.

These thoughts about the nature of art come to mind more and more as Americans leave religion behind, like a prairie locomotive chugging away from a spot disappearing on the horizon. There is, unfortunately, one aspect of this fading away that we haven’t been able to replace within our theories of artistic creation, and that is the literary force that comes from embracing the mystery, what is unknowable.

The medieval text The Cloud of Unknowing reminds us that five hundred years ago people were already wise to the possibility of a human (or humans) pulling the levers behind the curtain. Penned by an unknown author who remains awe-struck by the vastness and complexity of the natural world, this text sees man’s origin not as a problem with an answer but as a mystery to which humans would do well to accommodate themselves. This reconciliation is essentially “the search” for absolute knowledge that has driven artistic expression since Homer.

Since the early 2000s, assaults by intellectual atheists have been quite successful at picking off the accepted ways that thinking people can think about any variety of magical thinking. This has not been without collateral damage, however. Imagination has taken a hit. We’ve become so accustomed to equating religious belief with fundamentalism and orthodoxy that we forget the connections between faith and imagination. The late Peter Gomes had a pitch in his Harvard sermons that he applied again and again: that it was a failure of imagination to see a small god and not a large one.

Gomes is essentially equating believers with creative writers, and that may be what is most strange about a vocation that tends to draw skeptics and non-joiners. But then every fiction writer needs imagination, a compass for which mystery and the unknown constitute true north.

In her lectures about writing, O’Connor often quoted Joseph Conrad’s definition of art—as “a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe.” She pointed out that “reality for him was not simply coextensive with the visible.” He sought to render justice to the visible universe “because it suggested an invisible one.”

This is what Richard Ford was getting at in explaining his reason for writing stories: “Lived life somehow wasn’t enough, in some ways didn’t hit the last note convincingly and was too quickly gone.” It’s not that we manipulate everyday life in fiction. What we manipulate is time and perspective—a dimension that allows us to witness the convergence of the visible and invisible.

“We work in the dark,” Henry James wrote about his vocational fellows, “we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.”

No one in 2018 wants doubt—Silicon Valley works 24/7 to free us from contingency—or to work in the dark. But most of all, no one wants to wade into the solitude necessary to grapple with the unknowing.

“No one ever has to be alone,” Mark Zuckerberg promised a world of potential friends, characterizing solitude as a detrimental condition on the order of poverty and malaria. Even as meditation has glommed onto the endless spread of yoga, there is irony in roomfuls of people meditating together.

In her essay “The Faraway Nearby,” Rebecca Solnit says that the “test” for being a writer “is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working.” That’s sort of the equivalent of Einstein saying, “It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

James Baldwin is more bracing in describing the kind of solitude a writer needs—“much more like the aloneness of birth or death,” “like the fearless alone that one sees in the eyes of someone who is suffering, whom we cannot help.”

We have a lot of good fiction writers—and you’d have to add scriptwriters—but the push of our predominantly digital culture away from the solitude needed to imagine and away from the discomfort of engaging with mystery and doubt is worrying. It can only diminish the environment necessary for writing we would consider art and drastically limit our capacity to understand the beliefs that have shaped history.

It’s interesting that the things held up to fill the void of Western religion over the past century—communism, psychology, self-help, wellness—don’t have much to do with mystery and unknowing. A few years back it seemed like everyone’s favorite social banality was “It is what it is.” Translated: We’re not going to imagine otherwise. Why bother with the murkiness of everyday problems when we have the transparent possibilities of the internet?

The digital world is a paradox in being controlled yet distracting, solution-based but also promising endless “inspiration,” mostly through images viewed and shared by millions. If it can be conceived as a place, this world of abundance is the opposite of the daily surroundings we are cognizant of but do not see when we are looking for ready-made inspiration or answers. We don’t have to look up to know that appealing distractions are scarce.

To the tech community, all roads lead to the Internet of Things and ultimately the singularity—the final solution to the arbitrary, the redundant, the meandering, the human.

It’s an odd coincidence that the title of the story collection O’Connor finished right before she died—Everything That Rises Must Converge—could be an alternate term for the singularity. One of the stories, “Revelation,” made a lasting impression on me because of the brutality of the prejudice and banality of the setting—a doctor’s waiting room. The story presents a reprehensible character—one of O’Connor’s famed “grotesques”—and the waiting room becomes a claustrophobic cell. We’re dying for someone to be called to take us away with them. We want the protagonist’s dressed-up haranguing to stop.

But when it does at her own expense, something strange happens. The contempt we’ve amassed for this woman immediately unravels. Her “revelation” comes later, while she’s hosing down her hogs; her unassuaged anger at God is a punishment that we suspect will end only at death.

I remember reading that story as a young writer in Boston and having to take a walk to shake it off. It’s a story in which nothing really happens, except that a waiting room and a pig sty are transfigured into four hundred years of not just institutional racism but racism burnished into custom and identity, racism that creates racism within races. A random convergence of unremarkable people allows one woman to see what has always been hidden by manners. You don’t have to believe in the God she curses to feel the depth of her despair. But then we’re no better off at this moment of insight, seeing miles and miles of road behind and miles and miles of road ahead—the same miles we’re still looking at fifty-four years later.

That, it seems to me, is the singularity that matters. §

%d bloggers like this: