The space between
I just finished reading David Plante’s old (1991) novel, The Accident, having also delved a few days ago into Jens Peter Jacobsen’s older (1880) Danish novel, Niels Lyhne. Plante’s short book takes place in Leuven in the days when it was still known as Louvain. Its central character is an American undergraduate spending a year abroad, uncomfortable in the Catholic atmosphere of the city because he is, he says, an atheist. In much the way, sincere and yet posturing, that many a young person tried it on in those days. Today it’s not so clear that anyone cares enough to be so clear about it. And of course the unnamed young man isn’t really clear at all. Which is where the story gets interesting. In contrast to the conventionally religious Tom, he doesn’t go to mass but he seems occasionally to pray. And his biggest argument with Tom is about the conventionality of belief. A real God, he suggests, would be much stronger. Shades of Elie Wiesel’s famous comment in Night that “there rose in my heart a prayer to that God in whom I no longer believed.” And the young Niels in Jacobsen’s novel seems to be an atheist malgré lui, or at least one who would find the blanket rejection of religion that is the calling card of the new atheism to be simply boring.
When you put these two together with more accessible works like Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Rilke’s charming Stories of God, it seems clear that fiction about belief and unbelief is interesting when it focuses on the space between the two. I suppose this is because good fiction thrives on ambiguity. There’s nothing so dull as a believer without doubts or an atheist without—dare I say it—a soul. Imperfection makes a person interesting. That’s why I always used to sit among the smokers in the bad old days when airlines allowed it (and gave you free food); you were simply more likely to meet someone worth talking to. The whisky priest or the lieutenant or Scobie would never show up in the no-smoking section.
There is now a word for this in-betweenness. “Anatheism,” a coinage of the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney in a book of the same name, is the “return to God after God,” which put that ways sounds like it leans a bit more towards belief than unbelief. But he also describes it as that which “follows in the wake of our letting go of God,” which might just push it back into the middle again. Of course, this kind of word-play has been around at least since Meister Eckhart who wrote of denying God “for God’s sake.” What we don’t seem to have here is pure nihilism, again perhaps because it is just too dull to hold the reader’s attention. The interesting atheist feels the pull of belief, and the interesting theist deals, surely, with doubt on a daily basis. Which theist would argue if s/he wants to be considered interesting?
Plante’s Accident reads like a French novel, not only because it is set in a Francophone culture and is about the same length—short—of many of the works of Bernanos or Mauriac. Somehow the French seem to have the lock on serious works that explore the space between belief and unbelief, even if they have a little trouble injecting any humor. Even Greene was deeply influence by these two, and Plante also owes them a lot. So what’s wrong with the Anglo-Saxon here? Has Anglophone literature failed to match the French in this regard because it just never took God seriously enough to doubt? Or just because it wouldn’t take itself too seriously? What do you think?