Umberto Eco’s Confessions of a Young Novelist

Like most of Eco’s non-fiction work (and, now that I think of it, like most of his fiction as well) these essays are a difficult-to-categorize and spell-binding collection of illuminating insights, esoteric observations, literary references, and fascinating hypotheses.  This intriguing book is ironically and humorously entitled Confessions of a Young Novelist (ironic and humorous given Eco’s age).  It is a collection of the four Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature that Eco delivered at Harvard University.

There’s a great deal of literary theory in this book.  I found much of this enlightening, though a lot of it was technical and simply beyond me.  However, I suspect that any layman reading this book would appreciate Eco’s insights, even though the more easily grasped insights are sometimes buried in a sea of verbiage that, for me anyway, was not terribly accessible.  Let me quickly add, though, that if you intend to read anything Eco has written you’ll need to get accustomed to this.  Without fail, the insights are worth the wading it takes to get to them, and the wading is not without its own profit.

I did appreciate Eco’s pushback on the more radical fringes of postmodern literary theory.  He tellingly voices his suspicion that the “rights of the interpreter” have likely been overstressed today.  I have no doubt that’s the case.  It certainly is the case in the realm of biblical interpretation.  It was refreshing to see Eco push back against the idea of the utter meaninglessness of texts, even while his view is nuanced and complex.

His discussion of fiction and non-fiction was very interesting indeed.  I was struck by his noting the effect that fiction can have on the people who read it.  This can be extreme, as in the case of “the Werther effect,” or humorous, as in the examples of people writing Eco who do not seem to understand that his fiction is actually fiction.

The last essay was devoted to lists.  Eco has written an entire book on lists and their function within writing and literature.  Among the many uses of lists, the most interesting that he mentions are lists created in an effort to express the inexpressible, that is lists written with an eye toward created a sense of transcendence.  The chapter is filled (note: filled) with fascinating lists, many created by Eco himself and from his own works.  I suppose it is a mark of Eco’s genius that he could make a subject like lists interesting and thought-provoking, which he does here.

This is an eclectic little book, that, like his co-authored work, This is Not the End of the Book, will fascinate, occasionally befuddle, and frequently challenge the reader.

William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist

Last year I saw a notice that a fortieth anniversary edition of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, The Exorcist, would be released.  I struggled a bit with whether or not read it, mainly because my dad had read it shortly after it came out and he tells the story of waking one night with a strong sense that he needed to get the novel out of the house immediately.  He did so immediately.  Of course – and this is no credit to my generation – the novel, while certainly terrifying, is in some ways less jarring to those of us who have grown up under its shadow (the movie was released in 1974, the year I was born) and who have been vaguely familiar with the basic gist of it than it was to the generation on which it was dropped.  Quite honestly many of the elements that scandalized the public in the 1970’s are pretty much available to all on prime time TV any night of the week now and have been for years.  This numbing, I repeat, is nota compliment to today’s culture!

If this story is less jarring to my generation, it is only just so (and I would love to know if others around my age even agree).  It truth, it remains a deeply unsettling and profoundly disturbing read.  It is not without merit that The Exorcist has been called the most terrifying novel ever written.

At the outset, let me address any who think it is unwise for a Christian to read something like The Exorcist.  To put it simply, it could be that no work of fiction has so shaped the spiritual psychology of a generation as this novel.  My friend Calvin Miller has told me of the paranoia that gripped the culture when the movie came out and of the floods of people scared of possesion who flocked to the offices of ministers and psychiatrists at that time.  Furthermore, this novel remains a widely read novel that has taken its place in the canon of truly culture-shaping works over the last half a century.

Is there a danger in reading too much on a subject like this?  To be sure, if one dwells too much on it.  I have read a number of books on demon possession over the years, but I have always managed to spread them out and never do so back-to-back.  That’s just my personal approach, though I do not deny there are believers who study the issue consistently with profit.

Furthermore (and, frankly, I do not offer this as an apologia for my reading habits, but just as an observation), Blatty’s work, whatever it may be, is certainly not cheap horror.  It is actually a very insightful and thought-provoking consideration of a very real issue.  Are there problems presented in the spirituality of the book?  Yes, at points, but may I point at that the book takes the reality of the devil, the danger of occult dabbling, and the power of God over evil very seriously?

As for the novel itself, it is a very well written story and very well developed.  The success of the novel is not merely because of the shocking nature of the tale.  It is also in no small part due to how successfully Blatty draws you into the characters and their individual plights.  Father Karras and Father Merrin in particular are developed with real sympathy and with a compelling kind of appeal that deepens their encounter with the possessed girl in profound ways.  Oddly, their characters are more intriguinging than even poor Regan’s.  Of course, Merrin surmises to Karras at one point that perhaps demons possess their victims less because they are interested in the victim than because they want, through the victim, to destroy everybody in their sphere of influence.  Blatty’s development of the characters surrounding Regan certainly bears that out.

Are there objectionable elements?  Absolutely.  Ragan’s speech and actions while possesed are truly disturbing and blasphemous, but Blatty is not presenting these for exhibition nor is he reveling in them.  In fact, you will find a genuine shock at blasphemy in this book that our culture has long forgotten.  Her actions (or, more accurately, the demon’s) are presented as tragic, as evil, as demonic and as the result of malevolent possesion.  They are not celebrated or exalted.  When the demon is vanquished, so are these profane fruits of his presence.

Would I recommend The Exorcist?  Hmmm, that’s tough.  I would not recommend it indiscriminately, nor do I think I would really recommend it per se at all.  What I would say is that here is a well-told story concerning some very dangerous themes but presented within the broad contours of a Christian paradigm.  It should be read, if at all, carefully and with discretion…if one feels that they can do so without causing themselves undue spiritual or psychological damage (i.e., there are likely dispostions that would not be well acclamated to reading or watching The Exorcist).

Some Reflections on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Last week I had to go out of town and found myself with an eighteen-hour road trip (round-trip).  So, to kill the time, I routed my Kindle through my car stereo speakers and downloaded a free copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to listen to on the way.  Why?  I have no idea, really, other than that I wanted to listen to something fictional, something that I had never read before, and something that would not require much thought.  For some reason, I thought of Frankenstein, downloaded it, hit text-to-speech on the Kindle (which worked well with this book, with the speech setting on “Slower”), and headed on down the road.

In summary, it was amazing and, frankly, very thought-provoking.

I am used, of course, to the pop culture Frankenstein, he of the bolts-in-the-neck.  I suppose I’ve seen two or three versions of the story on film.  None of them match the book.

The book has stayed with me a bit, so I thought I’d share a few thoughts about this amazing story in no particular order.

  • I KNOW that the monster is not named “Frankenstein.”  Frankenstein is the doctor: Dr. Victor Frankenstein.  But man, oh man, it’s hard to break that habit, isn’t it?  The monster has no name, other than “monster” or “demon” or somesuch.  But I suspect that battle is lost, as far as popular culture is concerned:  witness the name on the bobble-head picture fronting this post.
  • I was surprised at how little the book actually says about the actual means of creating the monster.  The actual act of creation is passed over very quickly.  There are hints earlier, of course, of harnessing electricity for reanimation, but the act is never shown.  In fact, when the captain of the Arctic-bound ship asks Frankenstein how he did it, Frankenstein grows utterly incensed at the question and refuses to say (since he never wants it done again).
  • That story really is a brilliant example of how to elicit conflicting emotions: you simultaneously sympathize with the monster, even as you loathe his cold blooded-ness.
  • Ditto for Dr. Frankenstein.
  • I was surprised at the eloquence of the monster, even to the point where Dr. Frankenstein has to warn the captain not to be swayed by his eloquence.
  • Mary Shelley’s writing really is beautiful.
  • The interplay between the story and the Genesis account of creation really is fascinating, if you think about it.
  • I was really hooked when the monster describes to Dr. Frankenstein his sensations on reading Milton’s Paradise Lost (what a fascinating picture), and his perceptions of how he is like and unlike Adam and Lucifer.
  • In doing some follow-up reading on Shelley, I was amazed to find how much the book really is an interaction with Paradise Lost.  (i.e., God is referred to as “the Victor” in Paradise Lost, etc.)
  • The book is a powerful and damning indictment on the cruelty of man.
  • The book is a probing exploration of the limits of man’s knowledge and the limitations of the natural sciences.
  • I kept wandering if Shelley was making some commentary on the Christian story in this book:  i.e., man is created, abandoned and cursed by his creator, who he is simultaneously drawn to and hates (I’m not saying that is the Christian story, of course.  I’m just wondering if Shelley was trying to summarize her own take on Christianity through the character of Frankenstein.)  Maybe not, but I think it likely.
  • I hate to say it, but I’ll probably be hunting down a biography of Shelley now to figure this out.
  • Shelley’s description of the physical features of the monster are more terrifying than anything I’ve seen in the movie renditions (i.e., yellow skin, watery eyes, etc.)
  • Oddly enough, it was wonderful hearing the story read.  There’s just something about hearing scary stories, no?
  • The book is amazing.  Read it (or, as I did, listen to it).