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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

James Wood's Weak Spot. Part 2

In one of those cosmic coincidences that had Carl Jung positing that some supernatural synchronicity operates on and guides our psychic development, I had just begun reading Terry Eagleton's book Literary Theory: An Introduction for a graduate course a few hours before this week's New Yorker arrived in the mail. The issue features James Wood's review of Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Wood's views on literature and "theory," little or none of which deserves to be called such (is any of it ever tested?), have not only struck me as much more reasonable than those of any postmodernist but they've also inspired me. In preparation for my class on literary theory, therefore, I read up on James Wood--(as well as Frederick Crews).

In the first part of the essay, Wood takes atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to task for their crude understanding of the deity. He then goes on to summarize Eagleton's argument, that Dawkins and Hitchens have too crude an understanding of the deity, and explain why he finds it unconvincing. Eagleton believes in a non-material and abstract god, so what's the point of all the scientific criticism of the idea? But, Wood points out, in stripping Christianity of "idolatry,"--or anthropomorphism--one is necessarily dismissing a large majority of its essence. Christ was, after all, supposed to have been a flesh-and-blood man. Wood rightly calls Eagleton out on this, equating the argument with saying:

'But I don't mean your kind of God; I mean something much more sophisticated and ethereal.'... (78)

Wood goes on, "Theologians and priests are always changing the game in this way. They accuse atheists of wanting to murder an overliteral God, while they themselves keep alive a rarefied God whom no one, other than them, actually believes in" (78).

What's odd about Wood making this counterargument against Eagleton is that I was mentally making the same counterargument against Wood while reading the first part of the article. He even claims that Eagleton's "shiftiness about his religious belief has the remarkable effect of pushing the reader back onto the stout deck of the dreadnought Ditchens" (77), which is Eagleton's not-so-clever abbreviation of Dawkins and Hitchens. So does Wood actually agree with the new atheists, even though he claims not to?

As I quoted in part 1, he says what's "most repellent about the new atheism is its intolerant certainty" (76) But Dawkins only stresses the immense improbability of any deity existing, which he juxtaposes with the downright incoherent hokiness of the bible and the bloodiness of the battles it inspired. His argument is that it's not only unlikely, but silly and dangerous too. It may be intolerant to point this out, but the new atheists aren't intolerant to the point of bombing abortion clinics. Ditchens's intolerance is completely intellectual, and completely justified. Doesn't Wood see this? The final paragraph of his essay is instructive on this point:

What is needed is neither the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief. Such atheism, only a semitone from faith, would be, like musical dissonance, the more acute for its proximity. It could give a brother's account of belief, rather than treat it as some unwanted impoverished relative. It would be unafraid to credit the immense allure of religious tradition, but at the same time it would be ready to argue that the abstract God of the philosophers and the theologians is no more probable than the idolatrous God of the fundamentalists, makes no better sense of the fallen world, and is certainly no more likable or worthy of our worshipful respect--alas. (79)

This prescription reminds me of Wood's criticisms of John Updike's novels in The Broken Estate. In an essay titled "Updike's Complacent God," he charges that Updike never convincingly portrayed the negative capability experienced by someone having a crisis of faith. All Updike's characters seem, probably because Updike himself was complacent in regard to religion. I'm tempted to be cynical and say Wood's refusal to endorse Dawkins and Hitchens is a result of his snobbishness--he's just too cool for an author generally suspected of crassness. But I think rather it's just a matter of taste. Wood agrees with the new atheists; he just wishes they were a little more tore up about the truth they've happened on--as he probably is.

One final thought on all the bandied complaints about "liberal positivism": no one says science and rationalism and the enlightenment were perfect, unqualified boons to society. They're just better than any of the other epistemologies we've experimented with, especially the philosophical cherry-picking and blatant fantasizing of gullible lightweights like Eagleton. As Einstein said:

"All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have."


caynazzo said...

"Wood agrees with the new atheists; he just wishes they were a little more tore up about the truth they've happened on--as he probably is."

Ha. Then we have to conclude that Wood was not expecting to be taken seriously.

Dennis said...

Or that he read Dawkins and Hitchens works as novels with little or no character development. But that's making excuses for him.

caynazzo said...

So Wood's made a stupid but is not otherwise stupid?

This reminds me of a nifty term from Catholic theology: vincible ignorance. It's what our moms meant when they said, "You ought to know better."

caynazzo said...

I can't copy and paste in your comments section. Go to Jerry Coyne's Blog to see Wood's reply.

As it turns out, it was never Wood's intention to be taken seriously in that piece. Phew. Now I can go back to reading his book reviews with a good excuse.

Dennis said...

Thanks. Here's that link:
Yes, Wood likes art inspired by religion, but doesn't need to be convinced it's not true--hence his distaste for Dawkins's attacks. I still say he's being cavalier about the evils religion has caused.
As for John Cleese's car, Dawkins was using a small example to make a bigger point--he wasn't using the joke to say beating on the car is the same as religion, just that they're based on similar fallacies. Wood's argument on this is really stupid. But I still eagerly await his next book review.