The Ghost in the Arena
Writing is a blood-sport. And in many blood-sports you tend to find the influence of religion. Think of the superstitions of bullfighters. Or the outspoken religiosity of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Or the Zen-like spirituality of karate. Faith brings these fighters, who frequently flirt with death and violence, a comforting, empowering conviction.
But is it the same for writers?
I recently wrote a short-story called The Matador’s Prayer about a matador who questions his long-held faith and starts to doubt his fear of god. It’s a story that asks the question: does fearing god make me stronger or put me at risk? I’m not a bullfighter. I’m not a boxer. And I’m not (yet) a karate fighter. But I am a writer. And I’ve thought a lot about faith’s role in this soul-churning art of ours.
I shed the faith of my upbringing long ago, the way a snake molts and sheds its old skin. And I often wonder: would being religious make me a better writer? I doubt it, and yet, I can’t leave the spectre of religion behind. And it’s only natural.
I write about people finding purpose and happiness in life. Traditionally, this has been the exclusive domain of religion. When you leave religion behind you have to find your own purpose and pursue your own happiness, without divine guidance. This is a fraught battle but it is the most valuable one of all.
Other, greater writers have written and struggled with this fight before.
Graham Greene – A Tormented Catholic Writer
Graham Greene, author of over 26 novels – including the ‘Catholic’ trilogy The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair – loathed the title critics had labeled him with: Catholic writer.
He was a practicing Catholic in life, but the title Catholic writer makes you think he wrote novels that praised and spread the good word, reading like something between a Psalm and a Christian rock song. But it’s far from the case.
Greene’s characters were overtly aware of their faith – or lack thereof – and what they thought about religion was crucial to their goal. In fact, Greene once said that if you don’t know a character’s faith then the character is unforgivably flat. But Greene’s characters were people struggling with their faith. They were caught in the crucifying dichotomy between human desires and religious prescriptions. Just as, most likely, Greene was.
Here’s a line from his ‘Catholic’ novel The End of the Affair: “I hate you God. I hate you as though you actually exist.” Hardly pious. In his novel A Burnt-Out Case he writes beautifully about an architect living in a leper colony in Africa; he notes all the suffering and degradation there and questions why a merciful God would allow such misery to flourish. Also, in a conversation with a priest, he says: “You try to draw everything into the net of your faith, father, but you can’t steal all the virtues. Gentleness isn’t Christian, self-sacrifice isn’t Christian, charity isn’t, remorse isn’t. I expect the cavemen wept to see another’s tears.”
These are all things I, a non-believer, have often thought and argued. So how could a Catholic writer bring himself to write such words?
I think it’s because of religion’s main attraction and use to a writer: it’s irresistibly divisive nature.
Religion inspires emotions in all of us. Even non-believers. Like a bull charging down at you through the streets, it’s something you can’t ignore. And when writers write about religion they know they are going to elicit argument among their readers. And a writer loves nothing better than to force an argument out of people.
The Faith of Darkness
An author not normally associated with religion is the Anglo-Polish novelist Joseph Conrad. A man renowned for his The Heart of Darkness, Nostromo and Under Western Eyes. Conrad was a great psychological writer. But, unlike Victorian writers before him, he was interested in the psychology of people that didn’t form part of mainstream, respectable society. He wanted to delve into the minds of sailors, adventurers, merchants and even terrorists.
In them he found an irreligious, logical, more grounded way of looking at life. And it seemed to make him quite resentful of religion. Later in life he wrote a letter to a friend saying: “It’s strange how I always, from the age of 14, disliked the Christian religion, its doctrines, ceremonies and festivals … Christianity has lent itself with amazing facility to cruel distortion … and has brought an infinity of anguish to innumerable souls – on this earth.”
On his many travels around the world he noticed how religions played a divisive role in human society. How it creates divisions where none existed. How it formed tribes where no tribes need be formed. And he was a compassionate writer who decried the harsh, intolerable lives most people are forced to live out. In Heart of Darkness he wrote beautifully: “We live, as we dream – alone.” And Under Western Eyes reveals his humanist morality: “All a man can betray is his conscience.”
And yet, even Joseph Conrad knew that to understand a man you had to understand his view of the world. Except, unlike Greene, Conrad’s characters viewed their world from new, irreligious lenses. Religion, it seemed, offered his characters no solace.
War and Peace, Mostly Peace
You think Anna Karenina and War and Peace are two of the greatest novels ever written? Well, according to their author, Leo Tolstoy: you’re wrong.
Later in life Tolstoy adopted an ascetic view of Christianity. He despised the church and the state but felt that the sermon on the mount is the greatest theory of life any man could live by. To love others, he thought, was Christianity’s only commandment. This kind of Christian pacifism and hermeticism went on to influence Gandhi, who Tolstoy corresponded with.
Later in life he wrote short novels like The Death of Ivan Ilyich and a radical, anarcho-pacifist pamphlet called What Is To Be Done? So for Tolstoy, I would argue that religion had a restrictive effect on his writing. It made him too one-dimensional. War and Peace and Anna Karenina dealt with many intricate themes of love, fatalism, fate, chance, and of course war and peace. His later novellas are a bit too message-driven in my view.
And yet, Tolstoy seemed to be happier with his later works, precisely because they were driven by his cherished message. So his faith helped make him happier about his writing. Something very few writers can actually achieve. Tolstoy’s faith was all-consuming. It filled him with purpose and meaning – and those attributes imbue a writer with unshakeable confidence. Again, another rare and priceless commodity in the literary world.
So perhaps faith, if taken sufficiently seriously, can inspire a writer?
As For Me
… I will keep on writing about religion because it’s the perfect vehicle to get readers to think about the grander picture. However, I will write about religion, without any holy spirit on my back. I don’t want it. I don’t need it.
When it comes down to it, to the moment I sit in front of the laptop and I feel blank, I don’t feel comforted by prayer or by assigning my drought to a lack of divine inspiration. I don’t want a cop-out. Writing is hard. A lot of times I will fail. There’s no plan to failure or success. It’s not down to chance either. That’s the thing – just because I don’t believe in the supernatural does not mean I believe in randomness.
If I fail I know it’s down to me. Only I can turn failure into success. Through sheer hard-work and grit. I am responsible for my actions. No one else. Epicurus once wrote “self-sufficiency is the greatest of all wealth.” I agree with that. I also agree with Epicurus when he says: “Chance seldom interferes with the wise man; his greatest and highest interests have been, are, and will be, directed by reason throughout his whole life.”