Among the things I permit myself to read on a Sunday are the letters of people like CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor. I have been considering, recently, if this is not a lapse on my part. I did not use to permit myself such things but then I read a collection taken from O’Connor’s letters that had to do with her ideas about why she wrote and what she was trying to do. These were explicitly religious writings, for she conceived of her writing as a vocation to which she had been called by God and for which she had to render an account. From reading that, and then permitting myself to read her fiction on Sundays, I have probably come to permit myself to read her letters and the letters of others with religious sympathies. I permit myself to read these things after some efforts in other books because I believe a certain variety conducive to the notion of delight. I have never been successful at cultivating any delight in much that I had to really force myself to continue doing. Always I have to figure out a way to enjoy the thing, especially when there is no way out of it, like the business of studying languages in college.
So I have been permitting myself this sort of reading which is more enjoyable than the reading of many a theologian. Flannery O’Connor was wonderfully interesting and had no little wit. She lived in a small town and wrote stories her relatives and neighbors had a hard time understanding. She would relate the very droll situations that resulted when they found out how much she was paid for a story, or some chance remark they made about her work. She relished the irony of how they could appreciate the pay and notoriety and how little they appreciated the work itself. My favorite literary discussion she recounts was when her mother asked her about Kafka and O’Connor told her Kafka wrote a book about a man who turned into a roach.
She was very sick but always alive to the humor in a situation. And perhaps it was her sense of humor, or perhaps that and her general sagacity, for she had that too, that helped her to see her way out of some of the traps that come at a person in her situation. Because she wrote meaningful literature, and because her themes were almost all, if not all, religious, she was asked about the meaning of this or that in a way your average writer of Science Fiction usually is not. Some of the things she was asked about are the things she could laugh away, some she answered in a deft way—which is how they could compile a whole book full of insight out of her letters which I have alluded to above—and some she avoided.
Here is one of her avoidings that I think contains a very fruitful bit of mediation about the eloquence of authors and the usefulness of critics.
“When you start describing the significance of a symbol like the tunnel which recurs in the book, you immediately begin to limit it and a symbol should go on deepening.”
So she did not want to narrow down a symbol by explaining it to somebody—although you will notice that she is ready to point out a symbol to her reader—because of the way a symbol is supposed to work. O’Connor is not saying that nobody is to describe the significance of a symbol, but that the author ought to avoid it. This lies in the authority of the author, for she knows if the author starts describing the significance of a symbol, he starts limiting its significance so that it ends up being shallow. Now this thought can probably be taken in a direction that will inform the hermeneutics debate of our age, but I am not so interested in that right now. What I am interested in is who gets to talk about the significance of a symbol. The person who can do that fruitfully is the person who is not the author. The usefulness of a critic lies in his lack of authority, for his pronouncements cannot bind us like the author’s can, they merely suggest. And it makes sense that the author should have his say and finish speaking in the work he offers. If he is asked to boil down his meaning, he can refuse and say: read the book. But another may attempt to come to terms with it otherwise without limiting it the way an author inevitably must. Another can point out things that another reader might not have thought about without limiting the whole meaning to those things. Suggestions may point out avenues for inquiries, various avenues. To return to O’Connor’s remark, suggestions make the symbol deeper because there is a greater possibility for significance to be discovered and added, more affinities and insights can be attached to the idea the symbol mediates. The fullness of the symbol can be explored. In this way the work becomes freighted with more significance; the reader’s pursuit of these things is rewarded with a deeper understanding than it would be if the author were to take away the wonder by limiting the whole thing through explanation. After all, the whole reason the symbol was used in the first place, was that a symbol was a better way to say the thing than an outright propositional explanation.
. . .if ‘propositional’ is the term I want.