Friday, December 17, 2010

Courtship Books

I’ve just posted a review of a dating advice book that I’ve read, and I’ve been flipping through a big stack of dating and relationships advice and courtship books that I borrowed from a friend (some Christian, some secular), and I am totally disappointed. Shocked and stunned. Probably I’m going to have to write a courtship book myself. Blech.
In the hopes of staving off the fateful day, here are my thoughts, in a nutshell. Most of the books that are put out seem to assume that what you’re trying to do is find someone with whom you will be able to have a comfortable, pleasant, conflict-free, affluent lifestyle. In other words, someone with whom you may avoid the “in sickness,” “for poorer,” “for worse” parts of the marriage vows. This, to me, is totally absurd. The point at which I decided that I was almost certainly going to marry my husband was when I returned to Kingston after visiting him in Waterloo. I was thinking, “This man is possibly crazy. He is totally bizarre. He looks like just he climbed out of an ancient Byzantine grave and hasn’t had a chance to brush his hair yet. He’s probably going to fail all of his courses, and never get a university degree, and live in poverty for the rest of his life. And I love him. Enough that I think that I could go on loving him and be happy with him, in crazyville, without any money, for the next fifty years of my life!” The possibility of this sort of love, this sort of mad, count-no-costs, permanent, based-in-the-will, reckless, until-death kind of love made me absolutely giddy. The idea of a love that reflected that relationship between Christ and His Church in the sense that Christ was whipped and beaten and groaned in Gethsemene, and climbed to Cavalry, and was Crucified for the Church, and in which the Church has been ridiculed, and persecuted, and has suffered poverty, and has been martyred for Christ – what an absolutely awesome and incredible thing. Practically magic.
Now, I will admit that at the time I had just finished reading a whamo-combo of Fear and Trembling, Crime and Punishment, Seven Story Mountain, and, just to make things really surreal, The Master and Marguerita. Still, I stuck to my belief and to my resolution even after I had come down from the literary hallucinogenic mind-warp, and have now been married for nearly ten years, with a sixth child on the way. I am, to the best of my knowledge, happier in my marriage than almost anyone else that I know. I have a wonderful life full of beautiful paradoxes and seeming contradictions, like the fact that I’m simultaneously fabulously wealthy and penniless, or that my lifestyle is both absolutely lunatic and yet “heroically sane” (as David Foster Wallace says of Kafka’s humour.)
It has not been a perpetual martyrdom, or a constant self-sacrifice. Most of the really terrifying long-brooding darkness that I signed up for hasn’t actually manifested, and the blessings have been manifold and totally unpredictable. God, in His usual wisdom, has not asked of me more than He has given me the grace to do. For every three hours of Crucifixion, there have been countless days of joy and wonder. I can’t imagine a better or more fitting husband than the one that I have; we complement each other in ways that I could never have predicted, and if I had married someone more 'sensible', I never could have become any of the things that I really wanted to be.
This is why I hate dating advice books. They solemnly recommend the most dreary kind of false prudence. They recommend that you hedge your bets, consider your options, and gamble with pennies. Sure, most of the time, following their advice will eventually result in you getting married. And most of the time, the marriage will be a manageable construct of human making, lacking the wild and reckless genius of a God who founded the world on the suffering Body and Blood of His only begotten Son.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

St. Frodo Baggins Pray for Us?

Come Advent, for some reason, I always end up deeply absorbed in some sort of fantasy world. In this case, it's the world for a young adult horror novel that I'm working on, and as usual I'm confronted with the question of what, exactly, the status of sub-created persons is.
It's a problem that theologians don't tend to bother with, probably largely because they're not artists, and are therefore not especially aware of some of the stranger things that are true of the people who live in the world of fiction. The most notorious example of this is the fact that fictional people appear, at some point, to come to possess free will -- and even some semblance of moral free will. You'll have a lovely little hero, or heroine, who is supposed to be perfectly good and virtuous, or a villain who is supposed to behave perfectly abominably, and all of a sudden they'll make the decision to do something totally unexpected, even "out of character," if you conceive of "in character" in a really narrow sense. In fact, it is these decisions, often more than the plotting decisions of the author, that make the character "come to life," that give shape, definition, breadth and meaning to the narrative. Often these decisions are small things, like Sarah Woodruff's decision to stop at a dairy and have some milk in The French Lieutenant's Woman, but sometimes they're drastic decisions that pull the plot in an entirely unexpected direction. In some cases, all you can do is give up on having any sort of control and let the character go in a sort of creative free-fall, trusting that they will make choices that will produce good narrative -- which always turns out to be true.
Now, the question is, if you have a character, and you pull back and give them their freedom, what is the moral status of those decisions? The simple answer is to say that it may be "edifying" or "disedifying" when transcribed into a work of art, and so is, in a sense, moral or immoral. This leaves the moral responsibility in the hands of the author, but that sidesteps the problematic experience, which is the apparent freedom of the sub-created agent. The problem is further complicated by the fact that for every moral decision that makes itself onto the paper in the form of text, there is a whole subtext of moral struggle, wrestling with dragons and demons, quiet despair and silent determination, a whole human battlefield on which the passions and hopes and virtues and weaknesses of the character are being played out, totally out of view of the reading public, but exposed to the author (who usually doesn't have the space or word-count or audience attention span necessary to transcribe the entire matter), and often reawakened in the mind of any reader who is particularly drawn in by the world (Who hasn't spent time contemplating a favorite story, reliving and drawing out the full experience that lurks within a metaphor, a symbol, a couple lines of spare and terrifying text?).
Is there some sense in which God gives real freedom, or life, to the creatures of the human imagination -- the way that Iluvatar gave real life to the Dwarves who were created by one of his Valar in the Simarillion? Does the experience of the artist reflect an actual spiritual fact, or is it simply an ontological illusion of the subconscious mind?