I said in my last post that last year’s Great Fast helped me to discover how my immersion in evangelical Protestantism had given me a mirror. I always think this is ironic because evangelical Protestants pride themselves on exegesis, of being able to read out of the text what is there. Seeing yourself in the text is called eisegesis; it is also a no-no.
During the Preparation period for this year’s Great Fast, I have been discovering just how powerfully paralyzing the mirror can be for intellectual work. I recently found a few short stories that I had written in high school that document for me how I got my paralysis. Some friends and I were playing psychoanalyst with a few evangelical Protestants we knew, and it occurred to me that having been an evangelical Protestant myself, I had documentation of the way I used to think. It took me some time to rummage through my files, but I found these stories.
They were terrible. I had a piece titled ‘The Goldberg Variations’ in which the main characters’ emotions and dating relationship cycle through all thirty of Bach’s variations on the aria. I had encountered the title ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ in a Borders Books and Music around the time that I wrote it, and having read War and Peace and Anna Karenina to impress a girl in junior high, I figured I’d be the next Tolstoy. I was not. The symbolism didn’t match the events that were being depicted. In one story, I even had the disembodied voice of God calling out to the protagonist to open the Bible and read. The best story was about a guy who saw himself in Blind Bartimaeus in the Gospel of Mark when a girl told him that she had seen into who he truly was and liked him.
I have been mulling over what could have gone so wrong. Of course the answer was that I was in high school at the time, but that is a cop out. I kept thinking about the time after I graduated from high school when the guy who supervised some of the writing of these stories, Fr Harry Cronin CSC, took me out to lunch and asked me if I’d ever heard of Hans Urs von Balthasar. I said I had not; I had only heard of Belshazzar in the Book of Daniel. Without missing a beat, he told me that Balthasar had a series called Theo-Drama that I should perhaps read some day because it might help me sketch out my characters and what they are doing in terms of action in a fuller way.
Of course I ignored Fr Harry’s suggestion for quite some time, especially as I was working in evangelical Protestant churches and Anglican ones that thought that they were evangelical. But after I got out of that, I took a retreat at Fr Harry’s house, and I read quite a bit of Balthasar there. Fr Harry had been right. Balthasar really had understood the theatricality of theology. I had not.
I should have listened to Fr Harry because he had started a literary magazine with me in high school. The idea to call it Sea Changes was in large part his idea. He muttered something about ‘full fathom five thy father lies’ and asked if I knew what that was from. I said that I did not, and he said that it was ‘Ariel’s song.’ I did not know who Ariel was because it did not sound like The Little Mermaid, so he clarified that it was from Shakespeare’s Tempest. I had read the short story version of The Tempest from a book that I found in my dad’s library called Tales from Shakespeare, which he had been assigned in high school. It was boring, and I didn’t really get it. I also did not know who Ariel was.
But Fr Harry pointed out that everything our Catholic school did had something to do with the sea. Our mascot was the Mariners. The newsletter was called the Vector. Ariel’s song reads:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
Maybe we could be Sea Changes. That has something to do with the sea. Quickly, my friends latched onto the title and called it Tse Changes. At the club fair where we tried to recruit a following, they blasted the Soviet anthem in honor of their Dear Leader.
Then Fr Harry tried to teach me to write. He told me something early on that sounded strange to my evangelical Protestant ears. He said that conversion stories are very difficult to write because they are rarely convincing. The mistake most people make, he said, is to think that character development drives a story. It does not. Plot drives stories. The thing about conversions is that they rarely make for convincing plots.
That’s all I had as an evangelical Protestant, though. Throughout church and Christian school, what had been drilled into me was that when you are writing and speaking and teaching and preaching, you are talking about how Jesus changed your life. The narrative arc might take the form of a testimony: I was a sinner, Jesus found me, I accepted him, now my life has changed. Or it might take the form of a sermon that, as the preacher Haddon Robinson used to say, sounded like the preacher had gone through a person’s mail. Or it could be like therapy where you identify the problem to work on and then bring God in for healing.
By the time I’d met Fr Harry, I’d done quite a bit of writing. During my summers, I had written two fantasy novels. I also had a few short stories. I showed them to Fr Harry, and he was impressed. He asked me then to tell him about the plots.
I explained that they were about young men in a fantasy land who were clumsy and didn’t know what they were doing, especially with women. They would discover through their adventures who they were. Along the way, they might meet some wizards who would train them. Fr Harry asked what exactly the magic was doing in the books. I said that it might clean up places that evil had tainted, or it might lead to glorious rescues, or in one case, it led to the wholesale conversion of a villain.
Fr Harry was unconvinced. But by then, I’d lost interest in writing fantasy stories. I began thinking about how Chinese evangelical churches, the ones I’d grown up in and in which I had experienced so much political drama, might be interesting to write about. Fr Harry said that that was good, but it would be important to be able to write about them in a universal way, something that speaks to the humanity that is lived in them. I said that I wanted to write about my identity. Identity was a big thing in our churches, especially from the therapists who used to float through and tell us about ourselves. We had learned that as Chinese Christians, the most important thing we could find was our identity. It was who we were as women and men, young people and adults.
In my evangelical rebellion against this Catholic priest, I churned out a few short stories, some of which I put into Sea Changes. Others were drafts, and one was a Christmas play for church. All of them are about identity, and all of them have conversion narratives. They were, as I said, disasters, and now I understand why Fr Harry kept dropping hints to me to read Balthasar. It really could have helped.
But as I have been ruminating during this Preparation season, something else has surfaced. Fr Harry kept talking about how Shakespeare’s Tempest was his favourite play, mostly because it was the simplest one. It held to the ‘classical unities’ attributed to Aristotle – the unity of action, the unity of time, the unity of place. The plot revolves around the sorcerer Prospero getting justice against his enemies, who have sailed near his island. It is achieved by his daughter Miranda marrying the prince Ferdinand. It takes place in twenty-four hours. It all happens on the island. Fr Harry pointed out that this was one of the few plays written by Shakespeare that follows the unities. Because of this, it is the simplest way to learn how a plot should work.
So today, I read Aristotle’s Poetics. I had not gotten around to it because it is not required reading for any of my fields of study. But I am glad that it was short.
First, Aristotle does not say very much about the three unities – only that a tragedy (by which he included most drama) should hold to a unity of action. Second, Aristotle foregrounds the plot, saying that the highest form of tragedy is where the sequence of incidents in a plot reveal through the actions the characters, their thoughts, their diction, and all the rest. Third, Aristotle himself talks about the difficulty of writing conversion narratives, as it is difficult to show how characters become good or bad. Instead, he is much more interested in their actions. If they discover, for example, something that alters their view of the world, then that is an action that changes them. The deeds are what matters; in fact, the pivotal moment in a tragedy is the tragic deed, the error that an otherwise good character makes that leads to the dénouement, their downfall in a tragedy or a crisis that ends up becoming happy in a comedy.
In other words, Fr Harry had not only taught me Balthasar. His entire philosophy was Aristotelian.
Perhaps the unity of action leads to a sea-change. I have been feeling this way as I continue to do more writing, conscious of the temptations to see myself mirrored in what I am studying. Describing the thing itself – maybe that is what leads to the transfiguration that Balthasar keeps talking about.
The truth, then, is that I wanted to see myself in my own stories. The result was me screwing up my own plot lines and character development by imposing onto them the rubrics of conversion and identity. Maybe it was because I was an awkward teenager, and I really needed my characters (and the characters in all the books I read) to get the girl because I wanted to get the girl. Maybe it’s because I didn’t want to think about how hard it is to live in a technocratic society, so I wanted magic to fix it all. Maybe it’s because I really needed my characters to be Chinese Christian, because I needed to maintain my Protestant identity in a Catholic school or my Christian narrative arc in a secularizing world.
And here are Fr Harry, with Balthasar and Aristotle, cautioning me, even now in my scholarly work that is on Cantonese Protestants, civil society, and the afterlives of occupy protests. The temptation in what I do – and in which I have often fallen – is to impose literatures, concepts, narratives, and ideologies onto what I am studying. But people have agency, and scholarly work is like creative writing insofar as I have to write the truth, which is about what the people I am describing are actually doing. What matters is, in Aristotelian terms, the unity of action in a piece.
With that in mind, I picked up Tolstoy’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ recently. By reading it, I learned that I was so wrong to compare myself to the master. There, Tolstoy describes the pain and agony of repressed eros, with actions unfolding to their tragic end. As I read that story, it dawned on me that my problem with the evangelical mirror did not only have to do with the way that I write. It has to do with how I read too.
Because of that reading experience, I have decided to read some Tolstoy this Great Fast. I’ll write about that decision tomorrow.