The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief
James Wood’s title refers to that moment in cultural history when the Bible began to be read as a literary fiction and literature itself took on a religious aura. “This is when the old estate broke”—when religion lost its status as “a set of divine truth-claims” (p. xv). Wood’s discussions of Melville, Gogol, Ernest Renan, Arnold, and Flaubert directly address this break, and this blurring. Other chapters are more obliquely related to the subject of his title. The Broken Estate fleshes out a variety of essays and reviews which appeared first in The Guardian, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, and The New Yorker. It includes spirited attacks, qualified detractions, and unqualified celebrations. The authors under discussion range widely, from Sir Thomas More (spirited attack) to Toni Morrison (qualified detraction). But the cumulative effect is hardly that of a ragbag, in part because Wood’s thesis can be heard throughout in the form of a leitmotif, and in part because everything Wood writes is unified by his independent critical sensibility and his relentlessly inventive prose.
The distinction Wood draws between literature and belief can be understood as a revision of Coleridge’s famous phrase, “suspension of disbelief,” particularly in its application to narrative fiction. Coleridge coined the phrase out of his troubled desire to hold literature and faith together. Wood, who shares Nietzsche’s antagonism for Christian theology, has the opposite desire. The literary suspension of disbelief, he argues, is actually an imaginative form of surveillance, a play of belief and skepticism. For when we read narrative fiction we never entirely suspend our disbelief, and this difference makes all the difference. “Once religion has revealed itself to you, you are never free,” but fiction is “a special realm of freedom”; it “moves in the shadow of doubt, knows itself to be a true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to make its case” (p. xiv). From this “licensed freedom” (p. 181) flows the celebrated realism of the novel, which Wood regards as a form of secularism. Indeed, for Wood, novelists are the unacknowledged legislators of our secular culture. “For it was not just science but perhaps the novel itself which helped to kill Jesus’ divinity, when it gave us a new sense of the real, a new sense of how the real disposes itself in a narrative—and then a new skepticism toward the real as we encounter it in narrative” (p. xvi).
But fiction and belief are more than antithetical modes of cultural authority for Wood. They are inescapable categories of aesthetic judgment. He locates the distinction between literature and belief within literature itself—within the novels he discusses—relying upon it the way earlier critics relied upon the distinction between imagination and fancy, or the sublime and the beautiful. Belief, in this sense, is any given novel’s shortcoming, and Wood’s deployment of theological metaphors is often subtle and suggestive. He takes issue, for [End Page 439] instance, with Thomas Pynchon’s “lumpy deployment” (p. 175) of his cultural polemic in narrative art. Pynchon’s political allegory flattens his characters. He attempts to compensate them for their lack of inwardness by granting them a zany vitality (“the principle of Pynchon’s comedy is the principle of the stage musical. Everyone gets to sing his or her song” [p. 173]). But his characters remain “theatrical, not free”—“serfs to allegory” (p. 174). In one of those metaphorical riffs that characterize Wood’s prose, he regards Pynchon’s fiction as “a system whose vents, whose partialities and flaws, seem only to make it stronger, like medieval astronomy. Pynchon’s world is a planetarium devised by a myope” (p. 176).
Wood is nothing if not critical, and he has a particular genius for defining an author’s limitations. He writes against allegory in Pynchon, against political paranoia in DeLillo, against magical realism in Toni Morrison. These writers are not theological in any conventional sense of the term, but Wood describes their questionable designs on us—their lapses of negative capability—as intrusions of belief, things a reader must take on faith. (John Updike is a clearer case; his novels are pervaded by a complacent and reassuring theology—the Protestant theology of Karl Barth, in fact, balanced by “a fattened paganism, which finds the same degree of sensuality in everything, whether it is a woman’s breast or an avocado” [p. 192].)
Just as the authors Wood criticizes are not always believers in a traditional sense, so too the authors he admires are not always secular atheists, at least not in simple terms. Gogol is the most obvious example. His masterpiece, Dead Souls, seems to have been written “in a profane lull before the saintly madness.” (“Two years after the publication of Dead Souls, he infuriated his friend the writer Sergei Aksakov by ordering him to read a chapter a day of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, preferably in the evening” [p. 60].) But consider also a passage from Wood’s exuberant chapter on Melville. In Moby Dick, “the whale is likened to everything under the sun, and everything under the moon, too—a portly burgher, an Ottoman, a book, a language, a script, a nation, the Sphinx, the pyramids. The whale is also Satan and God.” Wood hesitates: is this the “atheism of metaphor,” or the “polytheism of metaphor” (p. 37)? In either case, Melville’s metaphors transgress the boundaries of traditional Christianity. But a similar question arises when one encounters the titles of some of Wood’s most approving chapters: “Knut Hamsun’s Christian Perversions”; “Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism”; “D. H. Lawrence’s Occultism”; “The Monk of Fornication: Philip Roth’s Nihilism.” One might be forgiven for thinking these essays describe a coven of witches. Is this the secularism, or the religious extravagance of the novel? Is one man’s heresy another man’s atheism?
Perhaps the matter can be resolved metaphorically. Wood is a Nietzschean iconoclast; he reads “with a hammer.” When he considers the canon of the great novels, it frequently appears to him as a field of shattered icons. [End Page 440] Understandably, he relates the handiwork of the novelists, in broad terms, to his own project, and the larger cultural project to which the novel has contributed. But the problem with broad terms like “atheism,” “secularism,” and “realism,” is that they are too broad. They elide differences. Because all original literary artists disrupt belief in their own way, one must approach the shattered icons more closely, not merely to pronounce the death of God—old news even to Zarathustra—but to observe a strange slew of fragments offered up for worship. Something of this kind takes place, at least, in Wood’s stunning appreciation of the “anti-theological theology” (p. 209) of Philip Roth’s remarkable novel, Sabbath’s Theatre.
James Wood is an aesthete suspicious of aestheticism, who considers aesthetic theory a contradiction in terms (“all aesthetic arguments need to stop at local stations” [p. 163]). He relishes the art of biography; he knows his subjects—not just the books they wrote, but the books they read, and the worlds they occupied—and molds his material into forceful narratives. But his criticism is even closer to autobiography, because the central character of every sentence he writes is his own turn of mind. (Sometimes he represents himself more self-consciously, as in the lovely opening to “What Chekhov Meant by Life,” or in his final chapter, where he discusses his evangelical upbringing.) Wood’s prose is accessible, full of cunning, and intensely colorful—passages taken out of context cannot do justice to its larger motions. His argument is constantly building to a crescendo in which everything he has been trying to say about an author or work gets reiterated and concentrated in an infinitely suggestive metaphor. These metaphors densely populate his work. In his chapter on Virginia Woolf, Wood calls her essays and reviews, “a writer’s criticism, written in the language of art, which is the language of metaphor” (p. 92). Wood’s criticism is also a writer’s criticism—“a creation within a creation,” as Oscar Wilde put it in The Critic as Artist. This is the greatest virtue of The Broken Estate—that it shows and tells; that it is not merely descriptive, but exemplary.