Oct 11, 2012

Partial & elusive truths:
The aestheic values of Ron Hansen's 'Christian fiction'

Ron Hansen is a Christian fiction writer. Except, with him, the sense of "Christian fiction writer" is that he's a Christian who writes fiction and a writer who writes fiction that's informed by and shaped by his faith, not that he belongs to the genres or markets generally referred to by the term.

He has, perhaps to make that exactly that distinction, criticized the genres of Christian fiction with criticisms that are fairly broad, fairly sweeping. Hansen has said he dislikes Christian fiction because it "is often in fact pallid allegory, a form of sermonizing."

In another context, Hansen has expanded that critique, and challenged, even, the Christianness of Christian fiction. In A Stay Against Confusion, he writes: 
"So-called Christian fiction is often in fact pallid allegory, or a form of sermonizing, or is a reduction into formula, providing first-century, Pauline solutions to oversimplified problems, sometimes yielding to a Manichean dualism wherein good and evil are plainly at war, or offering as Christianity conservative politics. We cannot call a fiction Christian just because there is no irreligion in it, no skepticism, nothing to cause offense."
Whether or not that's a fair critique of Christian fiction, it does get at the sense of the aesthetic expression of Christianity that Hansen values.

Or rather, doesn't value: Pallid allegory, sermonizing, formula and over-simplification are the negative terms. On the other side, the positive terms of his specifically Catholic aesthetic measures are more ambiguous. Not that he doesn't or hasn't articulated them, but that they're still pretty vague, even articulated, and it's just not really clear what these values would mean in the context of a novel -- or how they work out in the context of his novels.

In a PBS segment, Hansen talks about how attending mass is part of his writing process and he views his fiction as sacramental, in a certain sense, in that "It's a witness to what God is doing in the world."

Speaking specifically of how one of his better known works, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is a "witness," in this way, he says, "I wanted to have this sense of, how do you, once you've done that, how do you redeem yourself?" The PBS interviewer notes that there are allusions in the work to the Biblical story of Cain and Able, implying the work is religious at least in that sense, but asks, "Does Bob Ford really find redemption?"

Hansen says, "He doesn't, no."

That's true -- he doesn't. And it's exactly this ambiguity that undercuts the clearly articulated aesthetic of fiction that's Christian that Hansen holds.

The Assassination is a good book, but, as literature, is very open-ended, short through with ambiguities, and often rather uncertain, actually, about the possibility of redemption in human history.

Hansen holds that "Fiction shows you how to live a moral life or how to avoid an immoral life, and religion is trying to do that same thing, but fiction provides you models rather than lessons." In The Assassination, though, who the models are and what they show is not at all clear.

It's not clear, for example, why Ford killed James, what his motivation was.

Ford tells himself and those around him a continually shifting set of self-justifying stories. In one late scene, the aging Ford says he killed James because he had to, because James was going to kill him. Then adds that also there was the reward money, that that was the reason. Then adds that he "thought Jesse James was a Satan and a tyrant who was causing all this misery" and he thought he'd be hailed as a hero for killing James, and that that was why he did, because he wanted to be famous. "I thought they would congratulate me," he says, "and I'd get my name in books. I was only twenty years old then. I couldn't see how it would look to people." The reader, at the end of this, does not really know why Ford killed James, nor does it seem that Ford knows either.

If anything, the text endorses the idea that the human heart is mysterious, most especially to itself.

There's good Catholic doctrine backing up that idea, but it also leaves a lot of unanswered questions about where, exactly, Ford went wrong. It would seem he's to be the example of immorality, of what not to do, but what he does is conflicted and confused. He idolizes James, and that seems to be the error, but then he reverses course and goes after the outlaw like an iconoclast with a hammer. And that seems to be error too. In some parts of the story he is self-aggrandizing. In others, he supplicates and grovels. He uses violence. He eschews violence. He longs for glory. He accepts his lot. He accepts abuse. He resists abuse. He snivels and whines that the universe is just slated against him, and then attempts actually to take control of his life and his fate, and both courses of action, like everything Ford does in this story, take him further and further from redemption.

The character is prone to self-delusions, and the story, told in the third person, never offers the sort of omniscient account of the assassin's real reasons that a reader could latch onto. Even at the moment it seems like the reader is being offered a good explanation, a way clear of Ford's confusion, it's then framed as, most essentially, the way Ford is justifying himself. Hansen writes, for example, that Ford
"was ashamed of his persiflage, his boasting, his pretensions, his dispassion, his inability to express what he now believed was the case: that he truly regretted killing Jesse, that he missed the man as much as anybody and wished his murder hadn't been necessary."
What starts out as Ford's seeming moment of self realization, and possibly a kind of confession and moment of redemption, turns out to be only Ford offering another insufficient account of things. The moment of clarity turns out to be just another set of self-justifying delusions, more of the same shifting, shuffling confusion.

The same non-conclusion.Which, in the work, is presented as the better interpretation. It's contrasted with the cheap, false stories Americans told themselves about Ford, where
"Everything was exaggerated and magnified -- if he was not religious then he was slavishly in league with Satan; if he slept little it was of course the consequence of nightmares; and it was generally agreed upon by all that Bob was plagued by apparitions, by incorporeal voices, by grim imaginings of his own grave and stinging judgement of history -- even the indignant silence that he gradually adopted was guessed to be charged with meaning."
The same confusion is at work with the other characters. James is no less conflicted. No less confused a model or more a witness to anything clear.

This is not to criticize the ambiguity of the morality and immorality modeled by Ford. It's the character's confusion and self-delusion and subverted realizations and general messed-up-ness that make this book good.

Bob Ford is, here, human.

He's human precisely in the way that those promoting and making claims for literature would want a literary character to be. He is, that is say, human in a way that demonstrates important aspects of what it means to be human, that can show or teach readers "what it's like to be human." He has real psychological depth. It's these literary qualities of the character that make him a really terrible model for morality, though.

Because it's all so ambiguous.

In The Assassination, this is depicted again and again by contrast, as the story Hansen is telling references or repeats other stories of the era about the same situation and subject. The narrative without a clear moral or model for morality contains numerous representations of narratives with unambiguous points. These other stories are always clear. They have morals. They have pointed lessons, and the sermonizing Hansen will criticize as not really Christian in the aesthetic sense he wants to use that word, but also in the sense he'll make use of when wanting to argue for the right way for fiction to be Christian, as a "witness" and "model." Those stories that take James and Ford as models for morality, though, are consistently contrasted to the story Hansen is telling, which is about humans and the confusions of human life, priveledging complexity over the neatness of allegory. 

Hansen, one could even argue, takes the authorial position in this work as the antagonist, the opponent of the historical author who heroized Jesse James, John Newman Edwards.

Edwards was an avowed and unreconstructed Confederate who wrote up James as a folk hero, a savior and avenger of Southern whites, a model for moral resistance to the regime that freed slaves, undercut the "birthright" of white privilege, and supported the corporate interests of railroads and the burgeoning of capitalism over and against the agrarian and yeoman ideals of late fuedalism. In Hansen's account, Edwards is willfully blind to the complexities of humans and history, always casting his characters in terms of models and witnesses. Edwards writes, after the assassination, that James' only real transgression was that he "refused to be banished from his birthright, and when he was hunted he turned savagely about and hunted his hunters." Edwards, in Hansen's novel, writes that "such a cry of horror and indignation" at the way James died "is even now thundering over the land that if a single one of the miserable assassins had either manhood, conscience or courage, he would go as another Judas and hang himself."

In all this, Edwards is the prime example of the aesthetic of Christian fiction Hansen opposes, with weak and easy allegories and wrought-up sermons supplanting story. He is, however, also an example of the sort of aesthetic Hansen says he supports: Edwards is very interested in exactly the kind of "show[ing] you how to live a moral life or how to avoid an immoral life" that Hansen, though he affirms this, never really gets around to in The Assassination.

His aesthetic, in practice, in this novel, whether one considers it "Christian" or not, is different from the positive values he articulates to PBS and in essays on how fiction can be sacramental. If his work works as a witness, it's not a very clear one. If characters are supposed models from which to take lessons, Hansen failed.

It's possible, though, to put aside what he says he thinks he likes, and detect a different set of aesthetic values in The Assassination. Hansen values complexity and ambiguity. He prefers his themes oblique. He wants to render the humanness of characters, their confusions and self-contraditions, their intermingled wheat and tares. He represents them as, most essentially, born concupiscent and morally deformed and also bearing within themselves, at the same time, the divine. He values showing humans as creatures mystified by themselves, and the world as a place also thus mystified. History, for him, is best presented as a stage where humans act on their inveterate, incontrovertible belief in personal redemption and beatification -- redemption and beatification they do not easily find. 

Hansen will say, if you ask him, that fiction "helps us to know we believe," that it "holds up to the light, fathoms, simplifies, and refines those existential truths that, without such interpretations, seem all too secret, partial, and elusive."

In practice, though, in this book, his aesthetic seems rather to value the partial, the elusive, the truths that are not simple, so easy to turn into sermons. Whether that means his books, his aesthetic values and the fiction he writes, are more or less Christian than the genres that go by the name "Christian fiction" is probably a matter of personal tastes and definitions.

This is the alternative sense of "Christian fiction" one finds, though, in the worked-out aesthetic preferences of the faith Hansen has that shapes and informs his stories.