A book review in this Sunday’s NYTimes said something I have been thinking for a long time. Speaking of a new book about the luminaries of American letters in the 19th century, Laura Miller writes, “it imposes the logic of art on the randomness of experience.” She understands why. In describing modern readers, she says, “they want the ‘story’ as much as the truth, and expect all the shape and meaning of a man-man narrative… until the muddle of life is rearranged to mimic the coherence of fiction.”
Exactly. Stories work because they imply there is an order to things - something caused something else and so on, until the Aristotelian end is reached in a triumph of orderliness. What we forget is that stories are acts of erasure not writing. Dashiell Hammett supposedly said that the best writing is done with the other end of the pencil. By writing this, and not that, connecting these dots and not those, the writer or narrator or historian or preacher creates patterns that are only as real as the constellations in the night sky. Yes, those stars are there but are they related in this way or even at all?
We desire order, pattern, structure, and will go to almost any length to get it. Magic, superstition, mythology, theology, history, even science, all spring from a hope that somehow there is an order in things and with enough effort and care we can find it.
I am prepared to hope there is an essential coherence to things. I am even prepared to say we can catch occasional glimpses of it, as when we light a match in the forest and for a few seconds can see beyond the ends of our noses. I am not prepared to say that even those moments show us everything.
Which does not mean I believe the effort is vain or worthless, but only that there is always more out there than I know or even that I can imagine. The struggle is to continue to believe it is worth seeking that which is ultimately beyond our capacity to grasp. That is the crisis of faith. May Miranda’s exclamation never die in me, “O Brave New World, that has such creatures in it.”