I read “Housekeeping” years ago, and knew I was in the hands of a great writer. Since I’ve learned you can be a great artist yet an execrable person, in my cynicism I didn’t form an interest in her on account of just one brilliant book.
Now comes this interview, with the comment in the preface that she is a “Christian”. In this day and age that tells us little about her actual dogmatics, and the interview doesn’t help us much on that score, but she is a factory of contemplation-inducing quotes.
I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as
religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to
me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively
probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer
intends it to be religious or not.
You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself
rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be
understood as “beauty.” Think about Dutch painting, where sunlight is
falling on a basin of water and a woman is standing there in the
clothes that she would wear when she wakes up in the morning—that
beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary. Or a painting
like Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef, where a simple piece of meat
caught his eye because there was something mysterious about it. You
also get that in Edward Hopper: Look at the sunlight! or Look at the
human being! These are instances of genius. Cultures cherish artists
because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not
Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.
There was a time when people felt as if structure in most forms were a
constraint and they attacked it, which in a culture is like an
autoimmune problem: the organism is not allowing itself the conditions
of its own existence. We’re cultural creatures and meaning doesn’t
simply generate itself out of thin air; it’s sustained by a cultural
framework. It’s like deciding how much more interesting it would be if
you had no skeleton: you could just slide under the door.
The New Atheist types, like Dawkins, act as if science had revealed the
world as a closed system. That simply is not what contemporary science
is about. A lot of scientists are atheists, but they don’t talk about
reality in the same way that Dawkins does. And they would not assume
that there is a simple-as-that kind of response to everything in
question. Certainly not on the grounds of anything that science has
discovered in the last hundred years.
As an achievement, science is itself a spectacular argument for the
singularity of human beings among all things that exist. It has a
prestige that comes with unambiguous changes in people’s
experience—space travel, immunizations. It has an authority that’s
based on its demonstrable power. But in discussions of human beings it
tends to compare downwards: we’re intelligent because hyenas are
intelligent and we just took a few more leaps.
The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value
of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary
would be: stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to
stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave consistently with our own
dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this
…a mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have
always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in
me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You
don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact
there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something
because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that
you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from
perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.
I don’t try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems
go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies. I don’t
see any reason in fine-tuning something that’s essentially not going
anywhere anyway. What they have to do first is interact in a serious
way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged
with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of
language and imagination.