June 01, 2007

Julian Gough on the literary novel

"What is wrong with the modern literary novel?" asks Julian Gough in the current issue of Prospect Magazine. "Why is it so worthy and dull? Why is it so anxious? Why is it so bloody boring?" The problem, he argues, is that we've forgotten that comedy is the true, default state of how art should react to the human condition, not tragedy:

At the time of Aristophanes, the Greeks believed that comedy was superior to tragedy: tragedy was the merely human view of life. But comedy was the gods' view, from on high . . . And the best of the old Greek comedy tried to give us that relaxed, amused perspective on our flawed selves. We became as gods, laughing at our own follies.

I find this perspective highly amenable to a Mormon theology that posits a God possessed of human empathy. The Mormon God must have a rich sense of been-there, done-that humor to understand the human condition. But we've been seduced by the same temptations: "If the subject is big, difficult and serious, the writer tends to believe the treatment must be in the tragic mode."

This leads Gough to the one major error in his essay, when he states that, "The Bible, from apple to Armageddon, does not contain a single joke."

This is an understandable mistake. The Bible is full of wry and bawdy humor. But we've been programmed to ignore and misinterpret it. In The Humor of Christ, Elton Trueblood notes that "we habitually think of [Jesus] as mild in manner, endlessly patient, grave in speech and serious . . . [but] a prosy literalism misses the wry humor . . . and the point of the teaching."

A good example of this is the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4). It's a remarkably ribald exchange and Jesus doesn't shrink from matching her wit for wit. Likewise, the woman in Matthew 15 who retorts, "Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table," wins admiration from Jesus, not his condemnation or a turned-up nose.

The King James Version is no help in this respect. Compare the above passages in the KJV and NIV and the differences in tone become obvious. Humor largely arises out of colloquial usages, which date the fastest as language evolves. (On the plus side, Romeo and Juliet is allowed in high school classrooms because the dirty jokes sail right over our heads.)

If Gough misses the mark when it comes to scripture, he hits the nail on the head in his critique of the contributions of higher education to the highfalutin dullness of postmodern writing: "The literary novel, by accepting the embrace of the universities, has moved inside the establishment and lost contact with what made it vital." And yet it keeps on going because

if you must please the older generation to pass [the class] . . . you end up with cautious, old-fashioned novels. Worse, the system turns peers into teachers. Destroyed as writers, many are immediately re-employed, teaching creative writing. This is a Ponzi scheme.

And where, in contrast, does the narrative form survive in its least-corrupted form? Television. Gough specifically points to The Simpsons: "With its cartoon event-rate, a classic series of The Simpsons has more ideas over a broader cultural range than any novel written the same year."

In a recent post on what she calls "bad-tempered doctors with hearts of gold"--Cox (from Scrubs), Becker (from Becker) and House (from House)--my sister Kate concludes, "What makes all three of the doctors interesting to watch is that they act the role of 'fool' . . . in the old Shakespearean/King Lear sense. They say things other people won't admit or want to hear."

And in the process they appear foolish. Or as it says in Moses 6:38, "There is a strange thing in the land; a wild man hath come among us." A longing for such "wild men" I think can be detected in the wistful sense of loss with which Mormon share J. Golden Kimball stories, knowing that his kind will never come again.

Of course, liking television, especially commercial television, is not something educated people are supposed to do. Gough admits that citing The Simpsons in the same breath as Aristophanes might get him labeled a barbarian. So be it. The literary novel "needs the barbarians. It secretly yearns for them." I'm with Gough. If anybody's up for storming the gates, count me in.

Cross-posted at A Motley Vision.

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6/17/2007 7:17 AM