Reading and Recipes #5

O.K.–we’ve got it going now: CHEESECAKE! and a serialized novel on Reading and Recipes ( ). Check it out if you haven’t already done so (and sign up there as a follower for e-mail updates if you want to keep up with the serialized novel).

I have a question for you: Can a novel have a soul if none of its characters do?

The question makes two assumptions. First, that a work of art can have a “soul”–that is, the intangible essence of human goodness that sets us apart from all other creatures and exists both outside and beyond our physical mortality. And it seems to me that art is, potentially at least, the highest expression of this quality we call “soul”; and that the work of art is imbued with the soul of its creator (the artist) and of its creator’s creator, as art must ultimately derive from something beyond us and our finite world, shaped and channeled by the artist but originating from somewhere else, something else, someone else. So yes–art has the soul of its creators, or can.

Second, that a novel is held to a different standard than most other art forms. This is an important distinction, as I would assert that most art forms need not depict a soul to have a soul. Episodic or brief artworks, intended to impact more than envelop the recipient, may well have a soul even if its content seems the antithesis of one. The photograph of the young Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack has a soul as potent as its subject is horrific; similarly, Picasso’s Guernica, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in DC, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the protest song “Ohio,” a stunning French film titled L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close (to name a random few) all have a soul lurking behind their appalling images or scenes, their haunting words. But novels, along with other artwork of vast scope–epic poems, sprawling murals, operas and musical narratives–should be held to a different standard because of what they profess to do: create a world in all its fullness. A photograph or painting or song or poem may create an instant or a period. A novel creates an entire world, with all its diversity.

And if in all that diversity (and freedom and power and responsibility) it fails to portray a single character with a soul, then maybe the entire novel loses that quality. It’s as if you took that poor napalmed girl and followed the story of her life both backward and forward and found nothing but more napalm and fear and horror and injustice, then you could say that photograph had no soul. But in the absence of such a grim narrative, the viewer is free to infer hope and justice and change out of that horror (which indeed happened, eventually–that girl’s image, that photograph, became an instrument of that change, contained the seed of hope, its soul, in its very existence). But a novel and other epic forms have the chance–indeed, the obligation–to include that hope, that soul, somewhere within their world. It needn’t be much, but it needs to be there.

I recently finished a novel (you probably already figured that the above musings didn’t just fall on me from the thin air above) by a highly regarded contemporary novelist. It is about 300 pages long, spans fifty years of narrative time, and includes dozens of well-defined characters. Yet few of the characters are likable, and none are heroic or noble or particularly interesting. All are immersed in selfish pursuits, manipulating or betraying others for their own gratification or advancement. The main character, a rather shapeless form floating through the saga, commits an almost unspeakable cruelty as his defining moment–and never acknowledges the depravity of his act. You keep waiting for someone, anyone, to reveal a good or gentle or caring side, show a little human kindness. There’s a sense that such actions are occurring “off camera,” outside the narrative. But none are ever exhibited within the story, as if such a display would compromise the realism of the tale, would risk the label “sentimental.” Is all rising above our basest desires, our animal needs and nature, sentimental then? Is the only realism grim and dark? Even more ironic, the settings and descriptions and imagery of this novel are generally extraordinarily beautiful–lyrical, at times breathtaking. The scenery reflects a soul! Why don’t the characters?

Can a novel have a soul if none of its characters do?

(As illustration of my point of a need for “soul” in art, and its ability to exist inside horrific images, I attach the following statement from Kim Phuc, the little girl in the napalm photo, made some thirty-six years after the incident photographed:

“Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?”    Kim Phúc, NPR in 2008

And I’ll also repeat my earlier two-part rhetorical question: Is all rising above our basest desires, our animal needs and nature, sentimental then? Is the only realism grim and dark?)



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