Literary Narrative as Soteriology in the Work of Kurt Vonnegut and Alasdair Gray
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Literary Narrative as Soteriology in the Work of Kurt Vonnegut and Alasdair Gray Gavin Miller This essay argues for a particular understanding of some of the narrative techniques used by Kurt Vonnegut and Alasdair Gray. I contend that these two authors resist the modernist use of narrative form as a means by which to represent a world in which moral and natural evil are annulled. The motive of this resistance is common to both authors: the narratological annulment of evil is accomplished only by a reduction of time to a phenomenal illusion, a move which licenses an abdication of responsible human agency. In order to appreciate properly modernist narratology, it is necessary to be acquainted with the theodical heritage of the pre-modernist novelistic plot. This earlier mode of redemption is readily apparent in a minor article by Schopenhauer. The author of The World as Will and Representation presents additional evidence for his thesis that behind the phenomenal world there lurks a transcendent agency: If we carefully consider the matter, [. . .] many [. . .] will [...] be driven to die assumption that a secret and unintelligible power guides all the turns and changes of our lives, indeed often contrary to the intentions we had at the time. Yet it does this in such a way as to be appropriate to the objective totality and subjective suitability of our lives and conseJNT : Journal of Narrative Theory 31.3 (Fall 2001): 299-323. Copyright © 2001 by JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory. 300 JNT quently to promote our true and essential welfare. Thus afterwards we often recognise the folly of desires mat were entertained in the opposite direction. (209) We become aware of the transcendent will, Schopenhauer argues, because accident and chance inevitably foster a truer sense of self. There is, he believes , a connection "between the obvious contingency of all the events in the course of an individual's life and their moral necessity for the shaping thereof in accordance with a transcendent fitness for the individual, or in popular language, between the course of nature and Providence" (Schopenhauer 222). The theological roots of this argument are apparent in Augustine's attempt to reconcile co-incidence with the magico-religious belief that events are never truly accidental. In Augustine's analysis, God foresees what each individual freely wills, and arranges a destiny designed to assist that person in his salvation. Even a seemingly good man may therefore suffer misfortune if he is yet to come to sincere repentance: Though the sufferings are the same, the sufferers remain different. Virtue and vice are not the same, even if they undergo the same torment. The fire which makes gold shine makes chaff smoke; die same flail breaks up the straw, and clears the grain; and oil is not mistaken for lees because both are forced out by the same press. In die same way, the violence which assails good men to test them, to cleanse and purify them, effects in the wicked their condemnation, ruin, and annihilation. (City of God 14) The man who suffers is offered an opportunity for a genuinely contrite recognition of the vanity of earthly goods: The most important question is this: What use is made of the things thought to be blessings, and of the things reputed evil? The good man is not exalted by this world's goods; nor is he overwhelmed by the world's ills. The bad man is punished by misfortune of this kind just because he is corrupted by good fortune. (City of God 13-14) Literary Narrative as Soteriology 301 It is but a short step from Augustine's doctrine to that more general transcendental fatalism postulated by Schopenhauer in which contingency guides the individual not to a heartfelt repentance, but to recognition of the 'true and essential welfare' found in an authentic way of life. This link between "die obvious physical contingency of an event and its moral metaphysical necessity" (209) is, for Schopenhauer, most apparent in literary narrative, which he seems to regard as a species of empirical observation: "If we carefully turn over in our minds many of the scenes of the past, everything therein appears to be as well mapped out as in...