Madeleines & Magdalens

The project of the literary quarterly Image has always been hard to define. And purposively so. In his introduction to this collection celebrating the journal’s twentieth anniversary, editor Gregory Wolfe lauds Image’s lack of “a programmatic mission statement” as one of its strengths. Over the past twenty years, the journal has striven to publish fiction, essays, poetry, and art that draw from—and struggle with—the Judeo-Christian tradition, without ever becoming merely the “high-art wing” of the politicized culture wars.

This endeavor is not an easy one, especially with fiction. While essayists can directly address the interrelations of faith and art, and poetry and visual art conduce to treating religious themes without sacrificing formal integrity, fiction is inherently resistant to thematic restrictions. A good story never subordinates its characters’ fully embodied, sensory experience to an overarching argument; narrative proceeds according to a sequence of events or an emotional arc, not an idea. Marcel Proust reflects in Swann’s Way on the experience of a young man who wants to be a writer and who searches for a grand philosophical theme to treat in his work, only to realize that what really matters to him is embedded in, and inextricable from, sensory experience. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “the fiction writer...appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses through abstractions.” The Image challenge has been to find fiction that deals with religious experience (broadly construed) as a human phenomenon, yet does not subordinate the fabric of life to the abstract concept.

Bearing the Mystery contains some excellent essays: Ben Birnbaum’s “How to Pray” reflects evocatively on Jewish spirituality; Mark Heard’s journals, excerpted posthumously under the title “A Musician’s Diary,” contain wry commentary on the vagaries of the music industry; poet Christian Wiman’s “God’s Truth Is Life” describes the artist’s vision of reality with a philosopher’s precision of language. The fiction in the volume, on the other hand, is uneven, and shows the pressure of thematic constraints. Some of the stories fail to fully situate their thematic material within a dramatic context, so that idea and story hang in awkward tension. Others, however, are brilliantly dexterous—Valerie Sayers’s well-crafted “A Freak of Nature,” for instance, or Gina Ochsner’s innovative magical-realist piece “The Tower.”

On balance, the body of work presented in this collection counters the still-prevalent misconception that Christian thought and art are limited by religious belief, and tend inevitably toward facile moralizing. Image insists, as an alternative, that to eliminate the transcendent dimension of the human experience from art is to impoverish art on its own terms. If the artist’s task is to present an insightful picture of the human experience as it truly is, and if that experience usually includes some sort of relation to God—whether hating him, loving him, longing for him, bargaining with him, or simply doubting him—then to ignore that relation is to diminish art’s natural field of vision. Wolfe quotes from a 2008 review of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home by New Republic senior editor Ruth Franklin, discussing the “one character who is missing” from the contemporary novel: God. “It was not always so, from Hawthorne to Sinclair Lewis,” Franklin writes; “but by now the absence of God from our literature feels so normal, so self-evident, that one realizes with a shock how complete it is.”

Bearing the Mystery presents the work of writers and artists who have chosen to fill in this lacuna. Instructive even where it fails, the collection underlines the difficulty of conveying a vision of the world that includes a set of beliefs about the world’s relation to its creator. And when the endeavor succeeds, it’s better than instructive: it’s good literature. In his introduction, Wolfe asserts that the Image aesthetic plays “a unique role in the republic of letters,” and I would agree. For twenty years, this vibrant journal has been making a contribution to America’s literary conversation that is as valuable as it is indefinable.

Published in the 2010-04-09 issue: 
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Christine Neulieb is a former Commonweal editorial assistant.

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