Saturday, 9 November 2013

The Novelist as the Advocatus Diaboli


In my humble and distorted view, there is one role that a novelist is best suited too; the role of Devil’s Advocate.
And for anyone who might be thinking Satanism, the Devil’s Advocate was the popular term for the Promoter of the Faith, Promotor Fidei, a Canon lawyer appointed by the Catholic Church to argue with God's Advocate, the Promoter of the Cause, Advocatus Dei, in the matter of canonizing saints.
Skepticism and the ability to poke holes in what passed for conventional wisdom were the key characteristics of a good Devil’s Advocate and, I believe, a good novelist. And in both cases, the more successful risked having their arguments confused with their real and private views.
In the case of writers, it’s understandable when you consider how many books are nothing more than thinly veiled prolongations of the writer’s agenda, be it political, cultural, social or religious.
In this, non-fiction often leads the way. Books that claim to be factual are often little more than the carefully selected arguments that support only one point of view. To my mind, that is an absurd way of looking at things and calls to mind the words of Jules H. Poincare: “To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.”
There is, was, and always will be, two sides to every story and even the devil himself must be afforded his say. As does the novelists who presents a view that is, at the same time, encouraging and despondent, insightful and vague . . . you get the picture.
And good novels will always leave their authors open to misinterpretation. Was Jane Austin really a misandrist? Was James Joyce anti-Semitic? Was Kafka just a bored bureaucrat? Does any of it really matter? These are points for the Devil’s Advocate in all of us.
What does matter is that throughout the history of novels, and indeed story-telling itself, the writer/teller can present an ‘argument’ that sets conventional wisdom on its proverbial ass. That so many of these ‘tellings’ have been banned, burned, shunned and derided is but the testament to their effect.
Most people that read novels have had that moment when a book spoke to them so loudly and clearly that it changed their lives. For me, there were a few but then again I am a bit of a gypsy at heart—with a pagan soul.
One novel that stands among the greats for me, was 1984 which I first read at the outset of adolescence. It confirmed everything I was beginning to feel about the world around me and now, 40 years later, has been proven. (And those of you who still accept the idea that it was Orwell’s rejection of Socialism should read it again.) It was, as a recent wag noted: “A warning—not a handbook.”
Shortly after that I read Demian, by Hesse, and life was never the same, but then again it never was and, if I am to understand what novelists suggest, never should be. And while these moments of epiphany are never forgotten, there are often too harsh and too painful to relive, over and over.
For this we have writings like: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; a wonderfully simple tale of tilting with all that destroyed Andalusia. Read it again and marvel at how different it is from what you remembered. And take a moment to peep behind the veils that confuse poor Quijano but not Panza, bearing in mind the words of Edith Grossman who was tasked with translating it:
"The question is that Quixote has multiple interpretations... and how do I deal with that in my translation. I'm going to answer your question by avoiding it... so when I first started reading the Quixote I thought it was the most tragic book in the world, and I would read it and weep... As I grew skin grew thicker... and so when I was working on the translation I was actually sitting at my computer and laughing out loud. This is done... as Cervantes did it... by never letting the reader rest. You are never certain that you truly got it. Because as soon as you think you understand something, Cervantes introduces something that contradicts your premise."
And after you’ve reread it, pick any good book you read many years ago and look at how far you have come since. (And, if you haven’t come as far as you wished—then simply read more books.) Look at all the writer alludes to in the spaces between the words and see how much you have been able to fill in on your own.
While you’re at it, take a chance on something new and different, too, so your mind does not become one of those dusty old places where the voice of the Devil’s Advocate can no longer be heard.
First appeared on The Story Plant Blog: