Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Mind of the Maker: Free Will and Miracles

Written for The Mind of the Maker Book Study --follow the link for Cindy's post and links to more discussion. 

This chapter of The Mind of the Maker is about "Free Will and Miracle" and is a very interesting one!  I think Cindy said at the beginning of the book study that some compare Sayers to Chesterton.  Well, this chapter had a very Chestertonian sound to me; not least because Sayers actually quotes Chesterton.  I think it's very hard to write about Dickens and not quote Chesterton.   Even very secular, modern academics do it.

Previously Sayer had mentioned that a book where every character is a mouthpiece (or foil) for the author is a bad book.  I think you can get away with it in satire, in allegory, and in political commentary.   The virtue of the book redirects itself to something else.  I think Ayn Rand's books are "bad" this way and so is George Orwell's 1984.   But they probably are worth reading anyway; at least, they have survived to be read.

But going to authors like Dickens and Shakespeare, you see sometimes the mighty struggle between the maker and his original plans, his "Idea" and what the characters do when they take on their own life in the "Activity" part of the endeavor.    Sayers also shares how she struggled with some of her own plots in her Lord Peter Wimsey series.  

Examples from Dickens are Boffin and Wegg from Our Mutual Friend, and Micawber from (hmm, blocking, I think he is from David Copperfield).   An example from Shakespeare is Kate from Taming of the Shrew.  An example from her own writing is Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night.  I will not tell you details, but she mentions that each of these are examples where the character grew and flourished, and so the outcome probably had to be changed accordingly, or there was an unconvincing note in the outcome because the character seemed bigger than the conversion.

One example from our recent reading was Toad in the Wind and the Willows.    In that case, it seemed to me that Grahame almost winks at the reader (his first reader was his son, I understand) as if "well, we have to follow the conventions, but do you REALLY believe that it's more than a superficial resolution?"

What we are talking about here, in (necessarily inadequate) analogical terms is the mystery of free will and predestination.  Now of course, God does not "struggle" in this way with his creations; and yet, and yet.... one thinks of Jacob wrestling with the angel who turns out to be God.  One of my sons just brought that up in a literary discussion about plot in Lord of the Rings.    There is a certain way in which you can read the Old Testament in which God totally engages with His chosen ones.... again there is Abraham and the ten righteous people.    He allows them to be themselves and yet, there is no doubt that predestination is a doctrinal reality.   I admit that my mind fails me when I start thinking about this mystery.   How fortunate I am that I don't have to understand it.  God and His ways do not have to be fitted in a subset of my mental capacity, any more than Hamlet has to encompass Shakespeare.

Sayers also brings in parenting here.    She talks about how writers long to make characters who are "free", who take on lives of their own.   Some writers even talk (nonsensically, in her view) about how the characters simply come to life on their own and the writer becomes their vehicle for communication.  

But with procreation, where the resulting offspring genuinely are free, people often seem to want to control their kids and make them into some sort of pattern according to the parents' will.  
We may observe here one of those curious complexities of which human nature is full. There is in many parents a striving to control their children, and to make of them, if not precisely automata, yet beings as fully subordinate to the will of their procreator as the characters of a novelist are to their creator. On the other hand, there is in the human creator a parallel desire to create something that shall have as much free will as the offspring of procreation
As for miracles.... "miracles" in plots are often unconvincing, Sayers says.     I really liked this part, so I'm going to quote a lot of it: 

Whatever we may think of the possibilities of direct divine intervention in the affairs of the universe, it is quite evident that the writer can-and often does - intervene at any moment in the development of his own story; he is absolute master, able to perform any miracle he likes..... he can twist either character or plot from the course of its nature by an exertion of arbitrary power. He can slay inconvenient characters, effect abrupt conversions, or bring about accidents or convulsions of nature to rescue the characters from the consequences of their own conduct.
  How do you do plot miracles? 
The agents of the miraculous which the novelist has at his command are, roughly speaking, conversion and coincidence; either a character or a situation is abruptly changed, not by anything developing out of the essentials of the story, but by the personal divine intervention of the creator.
 Does this work?

But it is not edifying? Well, no, it is not. The making of miracles to edification was as ardently admired by pious Victorians as it was sternly discouraged by Jesus of Nazareth. Not that the Victorians are unique in this respect. Modern writers also indulge in edifying miracles though they generally prefer to use them to procure unhappy endings, by which piece of thaumaturgy they win the title of realists. ...The effect is to falsify the story. The divine hand is thrust into the mechanism obviously and without necessity: nec deus intersit nisi dignus vindice nodes*.
* "When the miraculous power of God is necessary, let it be resorted to: when it is not necessary, let the ordinary means be used."

I found the gloss on the Latin tag here  in reference to Jesus's miracle in bringing Jairus' daughter to life.  He told the onlookers to give her something to eat.

I like this in so many ways.  For one thing, it explains why my kids and I start squirming when we are reading certain of those public domain books where either the plot is twisted to make the moral point, or the author himself descends on a cloud to tell us what to think of what has happened in the story.  A little of this is fine.  One thinks of Plutarch and of the Narnia books.  We don't have a problem with the author's voice in those ones.    Perhaps we don't have a problem with the author conversing with the reading per se; it's when we feel he is willing to rearrange the story values to make his point that we start distrusting his veracity.
I suppose this reminds me of the Bible.  Certainly the whole point of the Old Testament is to show God's workings.  He is intimately involved in every scene, not just as author but as character.  However, He gives us space.  His demands are for relationship, for commitment, not for robotically proper behavior.

There are obvious links to parenting/teaching here.   With the type of education I've chosen for my kids, where we read real books and converse about them rather than fill out worksheets with only one correct answer, there are some challenges and risks.    The child might not come up with the "right" answer.   He may dislike a great author, as one of my boys did Aesop's Fables (he hated the way the animals were typecast -- it irritated a pet peeve of his).

I started to go on about raising "free" children but this opened a vast gulf of definitions.  Freedom will have to wait for another time.  But for now, I'll just point out that though freedom is a vast, dangerous word (theologically, politically, educationally, socially -- I think we Americans sometimes take the notion for granted even as we lose its real meaning) the opposing term, slavery, is clearly problematic.    As a homeschooling mom, I certainly don't want my children "enslaved" to an answer key, at least not as the bulk of their education, so we take our chances and venture out into the shallows of the ocean rather than playing happily in the wading pool.     Relating this to theology, Jesus wants brothers and friends, not slaves; and relating it to the writer's work, the author wants characters, not cardboard props. 

It's getting late and I have a birthday to bake for, so I had better close here.   This chapter convinced me I am going to have to reread the book again sometime.


  1. Beautiful summary! Your examples are helpful to me in understanding all that Sayers is telling us.

  2. Willa,
    While reading this I thought of the show LOST and how they brought in the character of Ben for just a couple of episodes and he ended up being the best TV villain I have ever seen and they changed the show to keep him in.

    Then at the end of your post you talked about your children not being enslaved to an answer key and this is something that I have been thinking about as I see my own children grow up and branch out in life because I am thinking that the truth is the reason education has worked in our home is that I have not had an end game in mind. I am beginning to think that has been the key after all. If I had an outcome in mind then I would have had to push forward against the grain at times and that would have been a violation of my children. I don't mean that we never had standards or goals only there was never an end goal or career or course in mind, not even college. I am still mulling over this but I think it ties into what Sayers is saying about the integrity of the characters.


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