The Sacred Order of the True Fiction

I’ve been reflecting on an exchange I had with Erdman in the discussion of my recent Profession of Doubt post. I wondered whether I regarded myself a professional novelist. Originally a profession was a public declaration of vows taken upon entering a monastic order, I wrote. In a comment Erdman remarked: I am a writer for no other reason than that I profess to be… In the Hebrew scriptures, there was sort of this idea that if you name it as such it would occur. My response: Maybe there is a monastic order of Fictionalists, a secret society, keepers of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans through which True Fiction reveals itself…

I’m particularly keen to explore what it takes to actualize an imagined reality. I could profess myself a novelist even if I’d never actually written a novel: does my profession make me an actual novelist? Well maybe it does, in the sense that I could already have the potential to write a novel before actually writing one. But now there’s the potential/actual distinction to consider. A seed has the potential to become a plant, but that doesn’t make it an actual plant.

And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, “Behold, the sower went out to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:3-9)

A seed has the potential to become the subject of a parable, but until that parable is spoken and the reference to the seed is made, the seed’s potential as parabolic subject remains unactualized.

So let’s say I’ve already actualized my potential to be a novelist by actually writing a novel. Am I justified now in professing myself to be a novelist? Or, in making the profession, am I offering my response to a higher calling, issued by some standard beyond myself, a standard to which I aspire, an actualization of a potential that resides not in me as writer but in the standard, in the sacred order of the True Fiction?

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. (Genesis 1:3-4a)

Verse 4 introduces a formulaic phrase of the creation narrative: And God saw that X was good. The phrase appears six times in the six days of creation. The light, the earth and the seas, the plants, sun and moon and stars, creatures of sea and land and air. Once for each day? Not quite: it’s used twice on the third and fifth days, but not at all on the second and sixth. Perhaps what got created on certain days just wasn’t quite up to speed? That would be curious, because on day two God created Heaven. Man, the work of day six, doesn’t come in for special commendation either – which is perhaps a more understandable omission. Finally, though, in the very last verse of chapter one, God makes his pronouncement a seventh time, this time with a slight but important variant, dispelling all doubts about the overall quality of the job: And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. Not only were the separate parts of the creation good; the creation in its entirety, as a whole and completed thing, was also good – and let’s not leave it at that, because it was very good.

Good in what way? Our cultural heritage leads us to assume that whenever the Bible says something is “good,” the writer means that it’s good morally, good as opposed to evil. But that’s not right. That was a good apple; you did a good job; have a good day; she looks good; the job offers good benefits – the Hebrew word for “good” has a wide variety of uses, just as it does in English. It’s an all-purpose word connoting excellence of whatever type is appropriate to the context: ethical, sensual, aesthetic, juridical. As usual, though, the writer of the Genesis 1 narrative doesn’t elaborate.

The creation was very good. God doesn’t say how it was good, and neither does the witness. In Genesis 3 Eve sees something good: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Good how? The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise (Genesis 3:6). Compared to God Eve comes across as a veritable connoisseur of goodness – almost as if the forbidden tree is projecting into Eve’s mind its knowledge of how a thing can be good, enticing her to take that first bite. To Eve the tree looked good for something – food, delight, wisdom: personal benefits that Eve hoped to gain from eating the fruit. We’re quite familiar with this sense of instrumental value, where “good” means “good for me.”

Maybe everything God made – the light, the plants and animals, the people – was useful to God himself. In declaring the goodness of the creation, he was proclaiming its fitness for use in accomplishing some larger end. As anthropocentric readers we would like to think that God created the universe for our benefit. But again, we go back to the text: at the end of the week God lumps us in with all the rest when he pronounces the whole creation’s goodness.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth — We can infer from the beginning of the narrative that God intended to create an entire reality. In verse 3 God uses light as the first strand in knitting his creation together. Perhaps what the light is for, then, is to contribute to the contours of this larger reality. If so, then the light was good as a core construct for making sense of the raw stuff of the universe. Light is a good idea; it maps well onto natural phenomena; it seems understandable even to the narrator who bears witness to the creation.

God saw that the light was good. In the “Let there be…” and there was… creation formula of Genesis 1 God speaks the creation; now, in evaluating what he’s created, God sees that it’s good. He didn’t say “Let the light be good,” which we might have expected if he had first created the light and then created its goodness. Instead, God saw the goodness of the light as a property the newly-created light already possessed.

God didn’t simply declare the light to be good, sight unseen, which is what we might have expected if he had been making a material version of some pre-existing ideal version of Light. If God already knew what kind of creation he was going to make before he started, wouldn’t he have known without looking that the light was good? After all, Beethoven knew his own music was good even though he couldn’t hear it. Yes, but there could have been a gap between the score and the performance, between the plan and its implementation. Not every orchestra plays Beethoven well; maybe not every visible manifestation of the idea of light lives up to the idea. Suppose the creator was attempting to replicate in the heavens and the earth some property that already existed in its pure form in the home of the gods. God might not have been certain that the replica would be good enough until after it was built and put in place.

God saw that it was good. He didn’t say “I’m pleased with the light” or anything else to imply that the light’s goodness is a subjective judgment – even if that judgment happens to be rendered by God himself. Again we remind ourselves that in Genesis 1 God is creating a reality that’s totally other than himself, so the light doesn’t automatically contain within itself its creator’s goodness. The goodness of the light belongs to the light itself. Also, we recall that God is interested in the result, not the process – which means he doesn’t have to judge the quality of his work, but only what comes out the end of the chute. Neither does the creator reflect on what a pleasure it is to create. When he proclaims that something or another is good, or even very good, he’s looking away from himself and toward the creation. We can infer that God experienced a sense of pleasure and satisfaction in a job well done, but that’s not what the words say. “It is good,” says the creator; not “I’m doing a good job,” not “I feel good about this.”

God, not the narrator of the Genesis creation story, saw that it was good. God revealed his creation to the narrator as witness. If he had made the creation for the witness, then conceivably God could have left it to the witness to judge whether or not the creation was good. Or, if God had wanted to shape the witness’s opinion, he could have told the witness that the light was good. Instead, we’re left with this scenario: God sees the creation, points it out to the witness, and says to the witness: “there is light.” The witness turns, looks, sees, understands, repeats: “there is light.” Together, God and the witness are looking at the creation. In silent contemplation God sees the goodness in the light. Apparently there’s no need to speak, because the creation speaks for itself. Maybe the witness casts a glance back toward God, sees the rapt admiration in the creator’s face, and understands what it means. Maybe, for the witness, being able to see God’s created reality meant seeing it the way God did, as a good thing. God didn’t need to speak the words; the witness just knew, by empathy and identification – as if he was becoming transformed into the very image and likeness of the creator himself…

God saw that it was good. The theme of Genesis 1 is creation. Now, obliquely, we’re introduced to the idea that God has an eye for goodness. Soon the Bible turns into a history of man acting badly and God trying to set him straight. Back on day one, though, God’s disappointment with mankind hasn’t set in yet, so God can contemplate the goodness in what he’s made. Something within God is resonating with something inherent in the reality. Goodness turns out to be a dimension of the reality he’s created. Like all of God’s work in Genesis 1, the creation of goodness looks a lot like discovery. To see, to respond with imagination, to pull forth from the formless void an abstract property that extends over a wide array of raw stuff, and to assign a name – goodness – to the abstraction: isn’t this exactly how the gods create?

 

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4 thoughts on “The Sacred Order of the True Fiction

  1. I thought this was quite good: Compared to God Eve comes across as a veritable connoisseur of goodness – almost as if the forbidden tree is projecting into Eve’s mind its knowledge of how a thing can be good, enticing her to take that first bite. To Eve the tree looked good for something – food, delight, wisdom: personal benefits that Eve hoped to gain from eating the fruit. We’re quite familiar with this sense of instrumental value, where “good” means “good for me.”

    ‘Food’ and ‘delight’ are usually considered ‘good for me’, but even personal wisdom supposedly benefits other persons, I don’t know about God himself, since the way you describe him, he’s of another order and one that doesn’t quite interest one, even if it’s made to be impressive and passed down through the ages, etc., etc.,

    Maybe everything God made – the light, the plants and animals, the people – was useful to God himself. In declaring the goodness of the creation, he was proclaiming its fitness for use in accomplishing some larger end. As anthropocentric readers we would like to think that God created the universe for our benefit. But again, we go back to the text: at the end of the week God lumps us in with all the rest when he pronounces the whole creation’s goodness.

    It was useful to ‘him’, but he always just seems a capitalized oddity of the more specific ‘god(s)’. Naturally, such a spelling and weird bloating would lump everything together (including ‘us’ as well as, presumably ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’, although in his hypertrophied amorphousness, he probably gave that little ‘thought’ in particular, since it did not fulfill his expressed purpose–although it could have fulfilled his unexpressed purpose, but the evidence still seems to be on the side of ‘the gods’, but big old GOD.)

    isn’t this exactly how the gods create?

    Yes, they do, but I don’t know if GOD does or did. Let’s face it, even those who resist ‘the gods’ also find GOD as boring as the rest of us, they just decide the emptiness is somehow virtuous. What interest at all? And maybe ‘he’s’ a historical figure too (I don’t mean just Nietzsche. I thought Baudrillard saying that whether GOD exists or not is of no importance, when you try to ‘catch’ him, it’s a lot more like a hatful of rain than you’d been told it would be.)

    So that To see, to respond with imagination, to pull forth from the formless void an abstract property that extends over a wide array of raw stuff, and to assign a name – goodness – to the abstraction: isn’t this exactly how the gods create?

    That’s also probably true, but GOD just got the ball rolling (if he did, but what else is new?) But the fully-formed ‘good object’ of Art and other important creation is also full of what GOD calls SIN and EVIL, and everybody wants it even if they resist doing much with it; there certainly are plenty who will, and they’ll often call it ‘good’.

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    1. I’m in full accord. This whole exegetical passage I excerpted verbatim from the nonfiction book about Genesis 1 I wrote 15 years ago. I’m using “God” as the traditional translation of elohim, which is a plural noun — “gods”? Eventually I conclude that the elohim were probably a traveling band of sophisticated Sumerians who, during a six-day visit, taught the primitive Semitic tribesmen a thing or two, assigning names to to abstract categories of things (light, darkness, etc.) that until then had had no name. Excerpting again:

      In ancient times, it is told, there was a remarkable emissary who would come to be remembered as Elohim. Whether gods they were or men it matters not for, if men, they had been so perfectly wrought in the image and likeness of the gods as to be indistinguishable from them. Elohim were seafarers; the awestruck shore-dwellers who witnessed their arrival swore they had seen a spirit moving over the surface of the waters. Speaking into the void of what was destined to become the first dawn, Elohim pulled reality out of the raw world. “This is this,” Elohim declared, “and it is placed here; that is that, it goes there.” And so they imposed order where neither order nor disorder had reigned. Did they bring a new universe into existence, or did they discover that which already was and reveal its truths? To the haphazard and anonymous denizens of that land newly made Elohim said: “You are become fully human, like unto us as like can be.” In the speaking of the words their truth was made manifest, and the inhabitants understood what Elohim had declared: they were human indeed.

      And so we stand poised on the nether shores of heresy. Made in the image and likeness, are we any different from elohim? Our exegesis has reduced the gap between man and God nearly to the vanishing point. What remains of godliness in elohim is the kind of creatorliness that distinguishes man from beast: creating for its own sake, teaching others about it, valuing the goodness intrinsic in the creation. Perhaps the moment when man became aware of himself as a unique being was precisely the same moment when he saw the possibility of self-transcendence made manifest in elohim. Perhaps, at the moment that man became man, God became God…

      If you already believe in the Judeo-Christian God, chances are you believe in all the superlatives that have been associated with him since at least the Greek era: omniscience, omnipresence, perfection, omnipotence. Even though we have no personal experience of anyone creating anything out of nothing, we have no trouble imagining that God could have done so. It’s more difficult to imagine a God who didn’t create ex nihilo, who perhaps couldn’t do it – a God more like us, in other words. When it comes to God, it’s easier to believe the extraordinary than the ordinary. Probably that’s because in religious realities belief is associated with worship, and we find it hard to imagine worshiping someone who’s too much like us.

      What if God doesn’t know everything but is a good learner? What if God can’t do everything but works really hard? What if God can’t imagine every possibility but likes surprises? What if God can’t control everything but is a great improviser? What if God makes mistakes but isn’t too proud to admit them? What if God can’t transcend time but uses time as an opportunity to introduce change and difference? What if God had absolutely nothing to do with creating the material world but has everything to do with making sense of it? Is it possible to imagine such a God?

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  2. ‘the evidence still seems to be on the side of ‘the gods’, but big old GOD.’ should be ‘not big old GOD?’ There’s always some further distance you can go, just like with THE universe and than all of a sudden people want to speak with awe about ‘there might be many universes’, when none of it is even imaginable, at least with the same ‘imaginer’.

    *

    One thing that always drives me nuts I ran into a few months back as regards Beethoven. After all, Beethoven knew his own music was good even though he couldn’t hear it. Yes, but there could have been a gap between the score and the performance, between the plan and its implementation.

    He may have been ‘almost certain’ it was good, but that may not mean he ‘knew’ it. Anyway, main thing is Beethoven’s music is generally considered to be masterful and profound, but he actually heard the vast majority of it with ears and is said to have been able to hear fairly normally well after his hearing began to deteriorate, and he was hugely famous during the earlier works, so he remembered what hearing was like, of course. It was mostly gone during the last 15 years. You surely knew this, but I think it’s always important to specify it, because the last time reference was made to ‘Beethoven’s triumph over his handicap’, the person clearly did not take that into any kind of consideration at all. I don’t know if there’s a ‘profound deafness’ that is still further advanced (and would perhaps have affected him had he lived longer) that is like certain phenomena of ‘profound blindness’, in which the blind person, at least once able to see inner images, cannot even see the shapes in his mind anymore. Clearly, Beethoven did not get to this point, or he couldn’t have composed. The late deaf Beethoven is often considered his greatest music, and maybe it is (some of it is obviously great.) But, while it’s heroic that he was that kind of genius to be able to compose with the most obviously punitive ailment for a musician (Bach’s blindness wouldn’t have ‘been as bad’, but it wasn’t also severe until his general health declined in the last year of his life), it could be that he could not hear everything in the same way it would have been had he not become disabled this way. There is some very harsh music in late Beethoven, some of it I’ve thought ugly when I first heard it–it’s not nearly all like the 9th Symphony. Some of those ‘inner sounds’, and those ‘memories of sounds’ may have been something of this ‘gap between the score and its implementation’, which would not have existed at all or differently when his hearing was still fully operative. There is, of course, that ‘heroic’ aspect of Beethoven’s late years, and some of the portraits already show him as this kind of Napoleonic early-19th century man–fierce and redoubtable. And some of the music, like the ‘Hammerklavier Sonata’, is resolutely heraldic, triumphal in an overtly phallic way.

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  3. “he remembered what hearing is like” — that’s an important consideration. It’s possible to imagine sensations and perceptions even without physically experiencing them if you’ve actually experienced them at some point in your life. I dream music; no doubt you do too. It’s a kind of fictional music. Though I was a good sight reader I’m not sure I was ever good enough at reading sheet music to hear it in my mind’s ear; I had to play it first. I never wrote music, but I expect that for an adept it’s not unlike writing text, where thinking the words, hearing them in my head, and writing them down all interact seamlessly in the writing process.

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