Who’s In Charge Here?
Today I read an essay about the meaning of life. It was written in the form of a book review by Peter Brooks of The Storyteller Essays by Walter Benjamin. The review appears in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, where we learn what the sophisticated reader is thinking these days. Why not?
Brooks’s review is very dense but here’s the gist of it. Novels are what bestow meaning on life because they show how the story ends. “The End,” written at the close, is what lets the reader see a fictional life as a whole and thus grasp what it all meant. The novelist doesn’t actually have to show the hero’s death scene. The mere idea that the story rounds off and comes to a close highlights the lesson of it, what it was really about.
Let’s let Peter Brooks tell you what he’s getting at:
The novel should, then, serve as ‘an optical instrument’
through which the reader becomes ‘the reader of himself,’
understanding through fiction
what is obscured to him in the perpetual wandering,
the ‘perpetual error’
that we call life.
Brooks thinks that the novelist occupies a privileged vantage point — located at a future time when the fictional heroine is already dead or else has her end foreseeable — and the novelist is looking back.
Why should the novelist, who writes about an imaginary character, be the only one who can do that? Can’t I ask the same question, at any moment:
suppose I died now?
What would I regret?
What would I feel was cut short?
What must yet be done before the end wouldn’t look to me
like an interruption?
Why should the novelistic view be available only to novelists? It’s like saying that only a professional singer can sing.
There’s another question. If we subtract the novelist, what controls our plotlines? Chance? Is it the accidents of genetics, geography, the belief system that prevails in our time and place, all of which put together is called “history”? What controls history? Chance still? Or is there a divine influence somewhere?
If there is a providential influence on events big and small, how could such a presence be discerned by normal people who simply want to know what’s true, not to force a moral or supernatural shape on the randomness of experience?
These days, I’ve been housebound, waiting for a fractured kneecap to repair itself, and so I’m missing the discussions at my temple’s weekly Bible study. I learn from a friend that the group is now talking about the Joseph story in Genesis. As you may know, it’s the most novelistic tale in the whole Bible, pregnant with human reality, sibling rivalry, erotic temptation, political and administrative smarts, and the most touching scenes of reunion and reconciliation.
To recap briefly: young Joseph — the son of the now-deceased woman his father most loved — is his father’s favorite. The boy has the tactless habit of telling his less-favored brothers of dreams he’s dreamt (as it happens, actually precognitive dreams) where the same envious siblings will be paying him especial homage. This puts his brothers in a fratricidal mood. They control themselves sufficiently to sell him to passing merchants as a slave while telling their father that he’s been killed by a wild animal. Since Joseph is a talented young man, he makes the most of his new opportunities (some of which will look initially like further downfalls) till he rises to become the top official in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. After a famine drives the brothers to Egypt where (thanks to Joseph) there is food to buy, the reconciled family is resettled in the vicinity.
The family’s descendants will be enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, delivered from bondage by a man God appoints, given the basic rules for a moral society and divinely guided to the Promised Land where, with God as their Witness and co-Author, they will live out the further stories that compose the Hebrew Bible.
So, the study group asked: did God put the brothers up to doing their fateful wrong to Joseph? Did God even prompt the young Joseph to behave in a way his brothers would find insufferable? Did it all unwind mechanically from a Master Blueprint?
If it did, the story could not teach us much. Had Joseph remained self-pitying or bitter, he could never have made the extraordinary use he did make of his adversity. His downfalls happened more than once, and they took different forms. He lived a disciplined life and gave his full intelligence to each turn of the plot. Never again did he make the mistake of treating others as mirrors in which he could merely admire his own reflection. From then on, he gauged his circumstances accurately. Something analogous can be claimed for the brothers as they went on to live with what they had done. And so on for each step of the story that followed.
If we allow that there might be a divine presence in our world, that wouldn’t make the world God’s windup clock. It would still be a real place. In such a place, some hard knocks would be accidental. Some would be our fault and we would need to figure that out. And sometimes, believe it or not, it really IS the other guy’s fault.