Why Literature Matters: Some Presuppositional Considerations (Pt. 1)

heart-and-tongue2During my visit to Westminster Seminary California, I sat in on Dr. David Van Drunen’s ethics class. In his lecture, he spoke about general and specific/special revelation as regards the moral law. What I found particularly refreshing about his lecture were his comments on literature being a means of moral reflection. Literary works can help Christians better contemplate just how difficult it is for us, as fallen sinners, to disentangle our sinfulness from our conceptions of justice, fairness, etc. As regards morality, literature can function parabolically/didactively or cathartically/mimetically. This provides the Christian with much to consider from his own standpoint.

Perhaps even more significantly, however, moral considerations, which are in every novel, force the reader to ask questions about ontology, psychology, and epistemology. Thus, the reading of literature is not only helpful as regards moral questions which we may face as Christians, but as regards ontological, psychological, and epistemological points of view that are rooted in the Christian worldview but which have been perverted in the service of sin and rebellion.

For instance, while the diction of a narrator may not be identical to the diction of the author who created the narrator, the diction of the narrator signifies the kind of person the narrator is and, thereby, reminds us that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt 12:34b). This connection between personhood/psychology and language is one that forms the very substance of a narrator. Moreover, given the assumption that the narrator is “omniscient” (see here), the characters themselves may be said to display the same phenomenon of speaking in accordance with their very personal/psychological constitution.

As a writer, I can personally attest to how difficult it is to create fictional characters (narrators, protagonists, or antagonists) whose “voice” is completely distinct from my own. I have a peculiar taste for out of the ordinary latinate words, baroque internal rhythms, intricately woven causal chains tied together by connectives (e.g. and/or, thereby, and so on) and transitional words and phrases (e.g. therefore, however, moreover, notwithstanding, and so on). The artist paints his own face, to some extent, in every profile he paints, no matter how well-trained he may be in reproducing what is before him. And it is the same in literature: Out of the abundance of the heart (i.e. the mind/soul) the mouth speaks. Even the best writers, those who are said to be masters at reproducing in a single novel multiple dialects of a given language (e.g. Mark Twain, Carson McCullers, and Charles Portis) cannot fully extricate themselves from their creatures. The point of a character’s voice breaking into what can only be called poetic rhapsody, for instance, is typically the point at which his/her voice contains the least noticeable traces of the dialect by which he has, up to this point, been defined. The author’s heart determines his speech; the hearts created by the author determine how they will speak as well.

The connection here should not be overlooked, for it is central to every literary production. Even in works where the reader is encouraged to question the veracity of the narrator, they are prompted to do so by the narrator’s voice. In her essay A Question of Credibility: The Subjective Narrator of Notes from the Underground (by Fyodor Dostoevsky), Victoria Stephanova elucidates this very well. She writes:

The narrator of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground repeatedly asserts that he is not writing for a public audience. Instead, the underground man, as the narrator is known, declares that he is writing purely for his own benefit in an effort to attain self-honesty. If this is true, then we are left to believe that Part I of his work is a monologue in confessional form, while Part II is a genuine memoir of certain events that occurred in the underground man’s past. However, given the fact that Notes from the Underground is saturated with his exaggerations, contradictions, and distortions of reality, we have good reason to question the veracity of the underground man’s statements. Thus, the first part of this essay shall argue that Notes from the Underground is a subjective testimony of a first-person narrator who expects his work to be read by others. With this in mind, the second part of this essay aims to demonstrate that the underground man’s awareness of the presence of a reader prevents him from composing a genuine account of his life. (source)

Stephanova’s thesis, whether true or not, illustrates that it is the narrator’s words [i.e. his “exaggerations, contradictions, and distortions of reality”] which give us “good reason to question the veracity of the  underground man’s statements.”


[Continued in Pt. 2]


3 thoughts on “Why Literature Matters: Some Presuppositional Considerations (Pt. 1)

involve yourself

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