Sunday, August 1, 2010

Beauty, Truth, Sordidness

I picked up my reserved copy of Lit at the library the other day and started it on the way to New York, where I had a family event to attend this weekend. One issue it brings up for me right away is the balance between the literary portrayal of what is sad, shocking, and disturbing, and the redemption that we assume will follow (we assume it because we know that Mary Karr eventually became a Catholic). How much sordidness is enough? How much is too much? I often ask myself this about my own anonymous confessional writing, and I think that the only reason to talk about these things is to demonstrate how, in the end, the lotus has bloomed out of the proverbial mud; "Where sin did abound, there grace did abound ever more."

7 comments:

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Someone made a similar observation about Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes (which I haven't read) and David Pelzer's A Child Called It (which I have read). We wouldn't be able to bear these stories of deprivation and abuse unless we knew in advance there already has been a "happy ending." (But how hollow and trite that term can often sound, when the sufferings that come before it are so great!) At the same time, however, the guarantee of the "happy ending" makes us feel that our voyeurism is all right--because at least we're not feeding off the misery of someone we cannot also help.

Is this what you are getting at or am I wandering by myself again and making everyone uncomfortable? =P

Pentimento said...

Not making everyone uncomfortable. I have read others memoirs of addiction and redemption -- Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, Redeemed by Heather King -- and Lit shares something with them, which is the recovering addict's relish at showing off her most jagged scars. Even this gesture can be to the glory of God -- see how far God has brought me -- and is also something often heard at AA meetings.

Melanie B said...

A little tangential here; but I have to say I didn't really find Angela's Ashes redemptive. Not from a Catholic perspective, which is the only one that I have. It seemed at the end that McCourt has lost his childhood faith and has left only a sort of cultural Catholicism. The ending was only happy in that it echoes the American fairy tale of the immigrant who comes out of poverty to the Land of Opportunity and you know McCourt becomes a successful writer. I haven't read much else by him; but Angela's Ashes left me feeling very hollow.

BettyDuffy said...

I guess I would say a couple things in favor of sharing the sordid details.

1. If it is to work as a testimony, and somehow help other people who are flirting with their own redemptive process, I think the sordid scars are necessary. There is always someone who thinks they are too dark, their past too sordid, and there are a lot of conversion stories out there, but they've been tidied up or glossed over, and the outside onlooker seeking inspiration thinks maybe God can redeem a marginal sinner, but a really bad one? The deeper the muck, the greater testimony to God's mercy. I think there can be some debate about how explicit the writer should be, what's necessary, what's charitable to the reader, etc.

2. If the story is being committed to paper, by golly, it has to be INTERESTING. I don't want to read a bunch of vague insinuations. I expect the same thoughtful prose and care for detail in the darker parts as I do for the lighter parts. And if I have a complaint about Lit, it's that the lighter parts are glossed over and insinuated.

Pentimento said...

Good point about the conversion stories that were prettied up, even some of the most famous. Thomas Merton left any reference to his illegitimate daughter (who was killed, with her mother, in the Blitz) out of The Seven Storey Mountain, so his testimony of grave sin is a little hard to understand; it seems to the reader that he just feels really, really guilty about going to jazz clubs and having a college flirtation with communism. And Dorothy Day also left her abortion out of The Long Loneliness, I think, if I'm recalling correctly, because of pressure from her publisher.

BettyDuffy said...

I am so glad to know about Thomas Merton's illegitimate daughter! I read The Seven Story Mountain and had the exact response you described. What is the fuss? NOW it makes sense.

Pentimento said...

Yeah, he had a liaison while at Cambridge with -- I may be wrong about this -- a woman of an inferior social class. I'm pretty sure he provided for his daughter and her mother until they were killed in the war. I think his superior suppressed the parts about his family in the Seven Storey Mountain, but it does leave a gaping narrative hole.