A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fictionby Ron Hansen
In the tradition of Flannery O'Connor and Andre Dubus, A Stay Against Confusion explores the role that religious belief and literature play in one writer's life. All creative writing is, in the words of Robert Frost, "a stay against confusion." It tries to find a harmony and order that we only fleetingly detect beneath the chaos of everyday/em>
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In the tradition of Flannery O'Connor and Andre Dubus, A Stay Against Confusion explores the role that religious belief and literature play in one writer's life. All creative writing is, in the words of Robert Frost, "a stay against confusion." It tries to find a harmony and order that we only fleetingly detect beneath the chaos of everyday life, and to point out motivations and causalities in what seem to be random and often meaningless acts. Religion has also functioned in this way for Ron Hansen, and it shares with literature both a reverence for mystery and the use of metaphor to communicate another order that we will never fully perceive or comprehend.
In this rich and deeply felt collection of essays, Hansen talks about his novels, his childhood and family, and about such mentors as John Gardner. He explores prayer, stigmata, twentieth-century martyrs, and the Eucharist. A profile of his grandfather, a "tough-as-nails, brook-no-guff Colorado rancher," finds a place alongside a wonderfully informative portrait of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. A brilliant reading of a story by Leo Tolstoy follows an appreciation of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. A surprisingly intimate book, A Stay Against Confusion brings together the literary and religious impulses that inform the life of one of our most gifted fiction writers.
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Chapter OneWriting as Sacrament
In 1993, Gregory Wolfe, the publisher and editor of Image: A journal of the Arts & Religion, invited me to speak at a conference in New Harmony, Indiana, that the journal was sponsoring. Ironically, though the conference would be addressing the concerns of writers and artists whose visions were shaped by religious belief, its theme of "Silence, Cunning, and Exile: Saying the Unsayable in the '90s" was taken from James Joyce 's autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Stephen Dedalus's renunciation of his Catholic faith in favor of service to the god of Art. Speaking to his friend Cranly near the end of the novel, Stephen Dedalus says:
You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use -- silence, exile, and cunning.
The rebellion against nation, culture, and religion that seemed singular in t he first years of the twentieth century would be taken up on a grand scale by others as modernism and postmodernism found predominance in the arts. And so the situation is now, to some, reversed: that in a society that seems increasingly secular and post-biblical it is now writers and artists of faith who may feel exiled or silenced, who may feel they can say the unsayable only through cunning. "Writing as Sacrament" records my ownexperiences of approaching the mystery of faith in my fiction.
When Saint Jerome translated the Bible into the Latin Vulgate, he chose the Latin sacramentum, sacrament, for the Greek mysterion, mystery. We understand those words to be quite different, but their difference is an efficient way of getting at my argument that good writing can be a religious act.
In the synoptic Gospels mysterion generally referred to the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, and, in Saint Paul's Epistles, to Christ himself as the perfect revelation of God's win. Tertullian introduced the term sacramentum as we know it when he talked about the rite of Christian initiation, understanding the word to mean a sacred action, object, or means. And Saint Augustine further clarified the term by defining sacraments as "signs pertaining to things divine, or visible forms of an invisible grace."
Eventually more and more events were seen as sacraments until the sixteenth century, when the Protestant Reformation confined the term to baptism and eucharist, the two Gospel sacraments, and the Roman Catholic Council of Trent decreed that signs become sacraments only if they become channels for grace. Twentieth-century theology has used the term in a far more inclusive way, however. The Oxford Companion to the Bible describes sacraments "as occasions of encounter between God and the believer, where the reality of God's gracious actions needs to be accepted in faith."
Writing, then, can be viewed as a sacrament insofar as it provides graced occasions of encounter between humanity and God. As Flannery O'Connor noted in Mystery and Manners, "the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is. The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that."
Even secular interpretations point to the fiction writer's duty to express the Mystery at the heart of metaphysics. In the famous preface to his novel The Nigger of the "Narcissus," Joseph Conrad defined a fictional work of art as
a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colours, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter, and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential -- their one illuminating and convincing quality -- the very truth of their existence.
The highest kind of justice to the visible universe often leads to the highest kind of humility about ourselves. Writing about craft in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner held that "the value of great fiction ... is not just that it entertains us or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations."
Writers seeking to express a religious vision often help their readers by simply providing, as Gardner put it,
trustworthy but inexpressible models. We ingest metaphors of good, wordlessly learning to behave more like Levin than like Anna (in Anna Karenina), more like the transformed Emma (in Jane Austen's novel) than like the Emma we first meet in the book. This subtle, for the most part wordless knowledge is the "truth" great fiction seeks out.
But I have identified in my own experience and that of many other Christian and Jewish writers that there comes a time when we find the need and the confidence to face the great issues of God and faith and right conduct more directly.
My first published book was Desperadoes, a historical novel about the Dalton gang from their hardscrabble beginnings, through their horse-rustling and outlawry in Oklahoma, to the fatal day in 1892 when all but one of the gang were killed in bank robberies in their hometown of Coffeyville, Kansas. "Crime does not pay" is a biblical theme, as is the...A Stay Against Confusion. Copyright © by Ron Hansen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What People are saying about this
“A book that shines as a consequence of an accomplished writer’s deeply felt (and understood) moral and spiritual energy.”
"This vital new collection of essays … is a generous benefaction … fascinating … courageous.
Meet the Author
Ron Hansen is the bestselling author of the novel Atticus (a finalist for the National Book Award), Hitler's Niece, Mariette in Ecstasy, Desperadoes, and Isn't It Romantic?, as well as a collection of short stories, a collection of essays, and a book for children. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Ron Hansen lives in northern California, where he teaches at Santa Clara University.
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