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?