The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief

by James Wood
ISBN: 0375752633

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A Review of: The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief
by Michael Carbert

As a reviewer, Wood is unique among his contemporaries. An impassioned critic, his essays exhibit a fierce moral conviction about what literature can and should do, along with a certain ruthlessness, a talent for pinpointing serious flaws in the work of authors who otherwise enjoy high regard, such as Thomas Pynchon or Toni Morrison. In The Broken Estate, these good qualities are on display along with Wood's theory regarding the problematic relationship between religion and literature. To the various phenomena that helped to undermine religion and usher in secular society (science, Darwin, Freud, etc.), Wood adds the effects of literature, specifically the late 19th century novel, as helping to break "the old estate", turning Christ from God incarnate to "an inspiring fantasist", and transforming actual belief into a "futile poetry". The value judgement implied here is significant. The only reason to lament the breaking of the estate is if one views the decline in literal belief as a loss. For Wood, the sole basis on which religion has any value is if it's all "true." Unwilling to accept that Christianity can function as something other than a cosmic fairy-tale, Wood writes about the religion he once believed in as if John A. T. Robinson or Northrop Frye or John Shelby Spong had never set pen to paper. (This is one of the always interesting aspects of much atheistic thinking; atheists don't believe in Christianity, yet they remain very attached to their simplistic version of it.) By the time one reaches the end of the book, it's clear that in addition to the relationship between literature and religion, The Broken Estate is also meant to explore the one between James Wood and a Christian faith he lost many years ago, a loss he finds difficult to accept.
It's easy to see how Wood's religious temperament has influenced his critical stance. He is a reader who wants to believe, ever aware of the essential and difficult contract fiction writers must fulfill, namely the creation of a vibrant imagined world with living characters (or as Wood puts it, characters that are "free"). For Wood, the persuasiveness of a fictional world is of supreme value and he is quick to fault any author who leaves behind obstacles to belief, who, through clumsy use of sentimental magic-realism (Toni Morrison), complacent characterization (John Updike), dogmatic paranoia (Don Delillo) or static allegory (Thomas Pynchon), fails to live up to their end of the bargain. As he notes in his introduction, "the gentle request to believe is what makes fiction so moving," and Wood proves to be a sharp detector of the weak spots and patched over places in a writer's imaginative construction, when fiction wavers in its most fundamental duty and the request cannot be fulfilled.
Helping to make these arguments compelling is Wood's striking use of metaphor. For example, in his essay on Updike, Wood describes his prose style at its worst as "harmless puffy lyricism," going on to complain that Updike uses language as if it were "just a meaningless bill to a very rich man and Updike adding a lazy ten percent tip to each sentence." The metaphor not only reinforces the point regarding Updike's style, but also strengthens the entire essay's central argument, that Updike is a "complacent" writer, by having us visualize him as an arrogant tycoon with a smug attitude towards the hired help. Similarly, Knut Hamsun's characters "strop [their] dangerous individuality against the leathery norms of the community" and Thomas Pynchon's tendency to clog up his prose with things-a mechanical duck, a talking dog, a giant Gloucestershire cheese-is compared to "the money politicians used to throw voters from the cart [distracting] us from the truth." In Wood's essay on Virginia Woolf, Wood refers to "the language of metaphor" as being both "the language of art" and "the only way of respecting fiction's ultimate indescribability." It is a strange thing to see a writer so at home with metaphor, so convinced of its importance, insist that religion is of value only if it's "true."
While Wood's essays are often convincing and written with bracing passion and insight, ultimately his religious preoccupations do undermine the book as a whole. The entire collection does not effectively cohere around the concept of "the broken estate" and at times it is hard not to feel uneasy about Wood's intentions. He is fascinated by how great literature can be the product of a writer's struggle with religion but it becomes evident that for Wood literature is more significant because an author has wrestled with matters metaphysical, a perspective that leads to some of Wood's best writing, but also to his fervent lauding of D.H. Lawrence as "the greatest mystical novelist in English" (not to mention a great stylist!), his vicious attack on George Steiner, and his harsh chastising of Updike because he fails to take religion seriously enough. It is at such moments that a weakness in the logic linking religion and fiction is discernible-a straining to make the collection live up to its subtitle. It's difficult to avoid the suspicion that instead of illuminating the books and authors he writes about, Wood's concept of the broken estate is really there so he can use literature to pick at the scab of his own unhappy atheism.
For it is a strangely despondent atheism. We are alerted to this in the introduction when Wood asserts that if "religion is true, one must believe. And if one chooses not to believe, one's choice is marked under the category of a refusal, and is thus never really free." (How, a reader might ask, does one "choose" to believe or disbelieve?) In the final essay of the collection, "The Broken Estate: The Legacy of Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold", Wood's account of "the lost garden" that was his happy childhood and his days as a choirboy in England, is accompanied by a critical analysis of the "weak-minded" thinking of Renan and Arnold. Wood holds these writers largely responsible for the breaking of the estate (along with a string of contemporary apologists who are accused by Wood of having "dismantled" God) and the essay reads like an angry indictment against the men who made it possible for Wood to lose his faith. The obvious question is, if Wood is an atheist, why the bitterness and contempt directed at religious writers? Why does he care? And why does he appear to argue against them not so much in defence of "the savagery of truly disillusioned knowledge" as in favor of orthodoxy, religion that is "true." One wonders why a professed atheist and such a perceptive reader of literature fails to see that religion which is "true" is in fact a prison. Instead of being cast out of Eden by the breaking of the estate, were we not set free?
But Wood's perspective on these matters is resolutely literal and he even ends the collection with what can only be understood as a cry to God: " why, before heaven, must we live? Why must we move through this unhappy, painful, rehearsal for heaven this hard prelude in which so few of us can find our way?"

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