Why No One Can Write

Feb 2, 2016

This is the first of two essays which follow the recent publication of two articles by Peter Leithart on First Things about the relationship between creation, symbols, and sacraments. I have often borrowed from these articles, but would like to apply both his thoughts and his sources to the world of the high school teacher. 

The symbol is in a crisis.

Why is the lily a symbol of purity? Why is the mirror a symbol of vanity? Who do we eat candy canes at Christmas? Why do we fold our hands to pray? Why does darkness suggest evil? Why did monks draw honey bees in the margins of their books?

Ask a young man these questions and he is apt to give a simple, pert response.

Why is the lily a symbol of purity? I do not know. Someone thought it would be a good idea.

Why do we eat candy canes at Christmas? They simply do. Someone, long ago, thought it would be a good idea if there was some food particular to Christmas. He chose the candy cane and no one objected.

Why did monks draw honey bees in the margins of their books? Because they liked honey bees. Because one day, a monk saw some bees while he was reading and decided to draw them.

Often enough, students are hostile to the very concept of meaning and symbol. Symbols are offensive because they are arbitrary and the student is logical enough and reasonable enough to eschew mere games when mere games are presented as reality.

When pressed about the origins of meaning, many students first assume a state of nature. In the beginning, there was no meaning. All things were meaningless. One day, someone decided that this thing should have meaning, and that life was empty without meaning. Two large copper pots were set beside one another. The names of one thousand objects were written on scraps of paper and put into one pot, then a thousand other and different words were written on scraps of paper and put into the other pot. A man drew a scrap from one pot which said “Christmas” and a scrap from the other pot which said “Candy canes.” That man then said, “From now on, we will eat candy canes at Christmas.” Then he drew out the word “lily” from one pot and the word “purity” from another. That man then said, “From now on, the lily signifies purity.” The candy cane very nearly signified purity. The lily, and not the poinsettia, was nearly the flower of Christmas. The man drew out all the rest of the words, first from one pot and then from the other, and when he had finished he told everyone what had happened. Because no one had objections, and because meaning is arbitrary, there was no need for anyone to object to the findings of the lottery. Anyone might have put the scraps of paper back in the pots and drawn again, but why? There was no need, neither was there time. This is how all things obtained their meaning. This is the origin of symbols. When pressed, most young men and women will tell you that meaning and significance has no more authority than just such a lottery. When they hear the pear is a symbol of fecundity because the silhouette of a pear is like that of a pregnant woman, they laugh. A symbolic interpretation of Scripture, especially the exegesis of Gregory of Nyssa or Augustine or John Chrysostom, seems random, fickle, without scientific basis. When Augustine writes that the three decks of Noah’s ark are like the three yields of a godly harvest (“…some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty…”), they scoff that the three decks might represent any other trio in Scripture. Why choose one interpretation over the other?

Ours is an age wherein meaning is assigned, given, determined. For this reason, my students often doubt meaning and symbol. Ours is an age which criticizes old things which have “lost their meaning.” We claim that Christmas has lost its meaning. Halloween has lost its meaning. “Christmas is not about Jesus Christ anymore. Christmas is about consumerism. The Christmas tree might have had spiritual significance to people long ago, but it is an empty symbol now. Most of the traditions associated with Christmas have lost their meaning. No one knows why we do what we do at Christmas anymore.” And if meaning is assigned, given and determined, then these are valid criticisms. If meaning is assigned, then forgetfulness results in a loss of meaning. If the symbol is merely a set of instructions on how to get to the symbolized thing, then an ignorance of the language in which the instructions are written means the symbol and the symbolized are radically separated. If the symbol has lost its relation to the symbolized thing, then we are at liberty to redirect the symbol toward whatever we like. Or we are free to choose new symbols. We say, “The park is church for me. I go there on Sunday mornings.” We say, “In my culture, rice is equal to bread, so we will have rice for the Eucharist.” We say, “I do not like turkey, so I will have chicken on Thanksgiving. I get the same enjoyment out of chicken that most people get out of turkey.” We say, “We do not have a Christmas tree because the early church did not have Christmas trees.” We jettison tradition and symbols which do not make sense to us because we believe symbols exist to make sense, to make reasonable, to remind, to recall. We believe symbols feed the discerning intellect, but not the undiscerning.

Our skepticism toward symbols has destroyed our ability to interpret and write. The belief that symbols are arbitrary has divorced the finite from the infinite, the physical from the intellectual; the physical and finite have become untethered, ungoverned, inflated, monstrous. Only a society which disavows the objectivity of the symbol could produce and consume as much hardcore pornography as does ours. The movie of the future is the franchised blockbuster sequel, presented in 3D IMAX, and depicts the destruction of New York City by battling aliens, robots and lingerie models. The collapse of the symbol explodes our desire for the immaterial and spiritual, and enlarges our desire for the carnal. Once the connection between symbol and symbolized became tenuous, Westerners demanded certainty more than all else. In 1955, fireworks in the distance were proof enough Cary Grant and Grace Kelly were making love in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. Today, we require penetration shots and paternity tests which would hold up in a court of law. When modern Americans refer to realism, we mean materialism— a materialism which has emerged glacially as symbol and symbolized drift further and further apart. The symbol became alienated from the symbolized long before this, but that alienation came home to roost in the 20th century.  

A belief in the distance between symbol and symbolized opens up the storyteller to a host of problems. If the writer has not altogether given up on symbols, despite his belief that the symbol and the symbolized are radically autonomous, then he tends to write according to symbol, intellect, and pure representation. Examples of such writing range from Kafka’s Metamorphosis to Kirk Cameron’s Fireproof, neither of which contain an actual human character. If the writer has despaired of symbols because they are arbitrary, his plots are no more than story problems. If the writer believes that the symbol has value only inasmuch as it is understood, how can the empty symbol be restored through a work of fiction? The essay is what is required, for readers need history lessons before they can understand anything.

The collapsed symbol stands between the author and his creation. The good author is interested in liberating his characters from his own control. The freedom of man inspires wonder in God; the divine author brings the animals to Adam “to see what he would name them,” and the human author must be similarly curious about his creations. What would my hero do if he lost his health? What would my hero do if he gained his health again? How would he respond? The plans of the good author are not like the plans of his characters. The character plans for particular events (“I will buy a house— that house, in fact”) while the good author works all things together for good— yet his plans are for glory, for redemption, for freedom. What glory? What freedom? This glory is synergistically determined and depends on the freedom of his characters. The author who has never had a character get away is no author. The plans of the author are unlike the plans of the character in that they are not chronological, but eschatological and teleological. The good author watches his characters as an outsider even as he sustains his characters. The good author is disappointed in what his characters do, but the good author is always looking for some escape he can offer them.

Once his characters are sufficiently enlivened, once they have been transformed from little clay word-shapes into living souls, the author is anxious to be free of them, to rest from his characters and give them rest in return. When the author employs collapsed, autonomous symbols, he is never able to make his characters free. From the beginning, he is at a great distance from them. The alienated symbol is a chasm between author and character. This distance means the author is incapable of bestowing his image upon his characters. The character can never borrow or share in the being of the author. The character is not enlivened by being, but haphazardly animated by symbol. A little bit of symbol courses through his word veins and his limbs flop around, momentarily galvanized but soon inert again. Like a fine painter can create a beautiful painting of an ugly man, so the good author can love, enliven, and free even the most evil of characters. But he may only do so if he refuses the truncated, atomizing symbol.

While it is tempting to blame the inability to write on this or that Christian tradition (especially if it is not one’s own tradition), I believe the inability to write is not so much a theological problem as a moral one. Sensuality, gluttony, decadence, the personal rejection of asceticism… these things alienate the individual from the realm of the spiritual. Gluttony may be a private sin, but it strikes me that gluttony is just as much a national attitude as an individual struggle. The ascetics of our generation might have passed for dandies in late antiquity. I remember this every time I assign a character sketch and must stipulate to all the young ladies, “Your character cannot be a beautiful intern at Vogue who lives in Manhattan and gets all kinds of free Hermès handbags and eats out every night and is a ballerina,” because if I don’t say that, that’s what I get.   

While a very interesting conversation might grow out of discussing why Dostoyevsky (and his sacramental theology) was a better writer than Jane Austen (and her sacramental theology), as a high school teacher, I am more interested in why my students can’t write. We should imitate Dostoyevsky, but neither a Dostoyevsky nor an Austen is replicable. When we speak of the genius of Dostoyevsky, we are not speaking in hyperbole. Were he a rank sensualist, my point is unintimidated. What makes a great writer great is a qualitatively different matter than what makes a bad writer bad. The good teacher isn’t interested in making a student great enough to change a culture, though. I want my students to learn to be good writers because it will be good for their souls. 

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches online classes at GibbsClassical.com. He is the author of How To Be UnluckySomething They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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