Great Books Give Us Something to Be Human with
The Center For Lit crew recently welcomed YA author Gary Schmidt to an episode of our BiblioFiles podcast. Mr. Schmidt is the author of several excellent stories for young readers, including award-winners Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, The Wednesday Wars, and Okay for Now.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Mr. Schmidt offered some compelling thoughts on reading and literature, including a defense of the arts that kept me thinking for days after we recorded the conversation:
“The arts give us something to be human with,” he said.
Recalling the destruction of ancient monuments by ISIS fighters in recent months, he pointed out that terrorists, when they attempt to dominate a civilization and divide its people, don’t destroy computers or technology; they destroy art and culture. This, he suggested, should leave us with little doubt as to which works of man have the greatest power to bind us together.
Schmidt suggests that real empathy finally appears as an acknowledgment on the part of the artist that there are no easy answers.
Schmidt’s comments reminded me of something we talk about at Center For Lit all the time: that a writer or an artist is ultimately attempting to create a community among his readers. By making his imaginary world reflect their own experience, he says “You are not alone.” And so he expresses empathy with his readers, whose travails are shared by all people everywhere.
Schmidt suggested that this shared experience is often rooted in pain and suffering. This explains why his own novels, depsite being written for young readers, are filled with disturbing elements that some find unsettling. Untimely death, teenage pregnancy, violent prejudice, and countless other forms of injustice intrude in Schmidt’s stories, and as a narrator, he offers few explanations.
Oddly enough, this seems to be by design. Schmidt suggests that real empathy finally appears as an acknowledgment on the part of the artist that there are no easy answers. Yes, there is pain and suffering, he says to his readers. Yes, it will change you forever. No, you don’t seem to deserve it. No, it does not make sense. Why does it happen? I don’t know.
Schmidt himself is a man of faith – and English professor at a Christian college in Michigan – and he puts his own hope in a Providential understanding of human events. In the final dispensation, he says, there is a purpose for suffering, and there will finally be a happy ending. But the hope of that ultimate resolution is not the basis of empathy and community that he stresses in his work. Like other artists, he finds it instead in the shared suffering that is the common lot of all who live under the sun.
A writer, in Schmidt’s view, is not primarily a teacher, but a friend. He stands not above or ahead of the reader but beside him, arm in arm, a fellow sufferer of all things human.
This idea got me thinking about the crucifixion, of all things, and the way that great art points us to the hope of the cross in ways I have never considered before. If great art reminds us of the hope of fellowship in suffering, then Jesus announces, from the cross, the fulfillment of this hope.
For what do we really have in common with God? How can his comfort actually comfort us unless He remove our pain entirely? And this, for whatever reason, He does not do. How can we take comfort from His perfections, His perfect joy and peace, His favor, if it be divorced from our circumstances? What ultimately do we share?
Because of the cross, where the passion of the world is distilled and poured out on Jesus, we share suffering. In dying a traitor’s death, Jesus stood beside us – not ahead or above us – and said, “No mather how insupportable your grief, I feel it too.”
In talking with Mr. Schmidt, I began to see the role of literature with new eyes. It’s a uniquely human way to say this same thing to our neighbors. It’s an analogue of the crucifixion, an echo and reflection of the mystery of fellowship in suffering.
This must be why the great books are so often dark ones. Books like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where chapter upon chapter of unrelenting darkness give way for a fleeting moment to a glimmer of light at the end, remind me that the darkness itself is where real fellowship can be found. The darkness, after all, is what we really have in common, with each other and, providentially, with God himself.
I used to wonder why the crucifixion didn’t actually eliminate suffering from the world, or really even alter any of its physical circumstances. Now I wonder if this was ever the point. Perhaps God’s plan all along has been to save His people in their suffering, not out of it, and that Jesus is to be found in all His power in the very passion of the world.
If this is true, then the Great Books seem even greater. They speak more loudly than ever of a hope beyond all hope: we are not alone. The great sufferers of human civilization – Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Melville’s Ahab, Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, and the young protagonists in Gary Schmidt’s novels – declare their solidarity with us on every page. And whether or not their earthly creators understood the connection, the analogue Himself empathizes from the Cross in every literary reminder: I feel it too.
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