It was not inevitable that I would come to read Colm Tóibín. I had resisted putting him on my list precisely because I had been led to expect his outlook to be so distant from mine that any encounter would end rapidly in indifference or hostility. Judged by the reviews that made his reputation in the United States, he seemed preoccupied with Irish social life, which does interest me; the landscape of southeast Ireland, on which I am not in a position to comment; and homosexuality, regarding which his perspective and governing attitude would predictably be almost entirely alien and irrelevant to mine. Yet it began to dawn on me that Tóibín might be using a more varied palette than I had thought, and I made it my business to take up some of his novels.
The Heather Blazing (1992), one of his early novels, opens with Eamon Redmond, a conscientious high court judge in Dublin, writing his last judgment of the term before joining his wife Carmel for summer vacation in the County Wexford, from which they hail. The book moves back to the judge’s childhood and youth, marked by his dead mother’s absence; his father’s stroke, damaged speaking ability, and death; his courtship; and his professional advancement built on his father’s political connections, while moving forward to encompass his wife’s stroke and subsequent decline and his effort to sustain his self-sufficient mode of existence while mourning her death.
The marriage, despite its conventionality and apparent solidity, is not without its disharmonies. Eamon is aware that the match almost came apart not long after they met as election canvassers for Fianna Fáil. Carmel disapproved of the legal work he did for the government in a capital-punishment case, and their future together is rescued only after old Redmond’s final collapse. He also knows that the verdict he has worked out at the beginning of the book, not without sympathy for the losing side, in which the court upheld a Catholic school’s permanent expulsion of a girl who left temporarily to have a baby out of wedlock, displeases his wife and children.
It is less evident to him that his wife is dissatisfied with his self-sufficiency and taciturnity, qualities that had once recommended him to her. She has increasingly come to perceive them as incommunicativeness. Once, during her pregnancy, she induced him to speak of his feelings about his mother’s absence, and his father’s illness and having to watch him struggle to enunciate in class in his last years. The memory of that evening matters to her but not to him.
One day, after her first stroke, while Eamon is out on a solitary ramble, she feels an overwhelming desire to speak her mind to him and rushes out into the drizzle to meet him. In her excitement and debility, she suffers an accident. With enormous tenderness and presence of mind, her husband carries her back into the house and does what needs to be done. She tells him what she had wanted to tell him, about her feeling that she does not really know him, and he cannot understand, either then or after her death, what she could possibly mean.
One wonders how many novelists and, for that matter, how many sermonizers are prepared to confront in such detail this difficult fact about the human condition, that sooner or later most of us will be called on to give adults, to whom we are bound with the most powerful ties of love and respect, the services we associate with the care of an infant, with their sense of dignity, and our own, now and for all eternity, dependent on the delicate attention and sensitivity we bring to the task, even as they gaze upon us helpless and vulnerable. And that even our best efforts are liable to fall short.
You can try to diminish the achievement of this novel by a paraphrase even more selective than the one I have just given you. For politically correct liberal feminists, including most blurbers and reviewers, the bumper-sticker message is that hierarchical men, no matter how decent and competent, just don’t get it. For those preoccupied with the challenges of caring for debilitated parents or spouses, the novel easily becomes a tract for our therapeutic times: Different Strokes—10 Helpful Points for Families, or something similar.
My point is not merely that a good novel offers richer characterization and more enduring insight than our usual ideological or therapeutic takes on life. By and large the best art is a better guide to reality than the trendy orthodoxy purveyed as social science. Yet it is the better guide not primarily because artists are wiser or better informed than the professional academic—when they are silly or misguided, which is often, their rhetoric-fueled errors are even more stupendous than those of the jargon-intoxicated, tenured mediocrity. It is so because first-rate art makes imagined people, in all their ordinariness, real and therefore mysterious and transcendent, while our secular wisdom tends to make real people seem shallow and artificial.
The capacity of Tóibín’s fiction to give us more than the platitudes of our era is also evident in The Master (2004), a novel about Henry James. “He came to me,” writes the author in All a Novelist Needs, “as the protagonist of my novel The Heather Blazing came to me—a distant, refined, mostly silent man, middle-aged, haunted by flickering figures from the past, animated mostly by work.”
Like The Heather Blazing, this book begins with a middle-aged man and works its way forward while also narrating James’ past. The biography is familiar: Tóibín draws judiciously on letters and other records, creating a fictional James who is at once a social being and an avid host and yet at the same time looks forward to the moment when the door closes on his visitors and he faces the solitary work of writing, who has on occasion absented himself from friends who may have needed his presence and who, despite the consequent guilt, may contemplate his life with a wary happiness.
With James it is impossible to avoid the subject of homosexuality. Though Tóibín has reservations about some scholarly speculations regarding the master’s private life, he exploits these interpretations in his fictional portrait. James is revealed as a late-Victorian gentleman, unwilling to act on his impulses, unwilling even to acknowledge them, and yet, contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the twenty-first century, a man leading a worthwhile and satisfying life. Tóibín’s James is “a reticent man from a Puritan place, ready to do battle on behalf of freedom for his characters, but more skilled at allowing them to renounce what freedom came their way for the sake of other things that are harder to define.”
Needless to say, there is an immense difference between James’ chastity and that of a God-fearing individual confronting the same challenge. James does not suppress his nature out of reverence for the Almighty but out of a sense of social propriety, conventionality, and a virtually aesthetic conception of how he wishes to appear to others and to himself.
The reflections of the French Catholic writer François Mauriac, who succeeded in leading a conventional family life despite what he experienced as the powerful lure of alcohol, drugs, and homosexuality, demonstrate the gap between the austere piety of the religious individual and the tactful lifestyle that Tóibín detects in James:
A feeling of guilt so out of proportion with what my life was, is it inscribed in the nature of every child born into this world (the moral law within us, according to Kant, attests the existence of God), or is it a deformation occurring in infancy, imposed upon the Christians of my kind, and which I have not known how to cure? . . . I acknowledge it and am troubled by the fact at times. But then what I observe of those presumably liberated men reassures me: it is of no use to decide that evil is good, as almost all of them do.
Mauriac can serve us as a role model, as James cannot, although in this passage one regrets the absence of joy in leading the life God ordained for him. James’ example is nonetheless not without value, as it presents a dignified way of life different from that preached by most present-day conventional people abreast of the zeitgeist, who cannot help dismissing both Mauriac and James as relics of an outmoded past.
It is hard to conceive of Tóibín, the liberated homosexual, commending James or Mauriac as models for his brethren. Tóibín is, after all, the same author who, in The Story of the Night, winner of the 1998 Ferro-Grumley Award for best gay novel and on Lambda’s list of the best one hundred gay novels of all time, brings to life a world in which opportunistic homosexuality and casual adultery go hand in hand with pervasive financial and political corruption; his narrator can blandly report how a friend, dying of AIDS, endeavors to conceal his IV lines when he goes cruising at the public bath.
What is impressive and instructive about Tóibín’s achievement in The Master is that his art and the study of history enable him to enter sympathetically and respectfully into a way of life so distant from what finds favor today. We are reminded, time and again, that what human beings do with their freedom matters, even when, like James, they choose paths that are no longer easily understandable to most readers, renouncing worldly values for the sake of something “harder to define.” Even when, like the characters in The Story of the Night, they seem to have fallen away from treating themselves, or their fellow human beings, with the appropriate respect, Jews and others in today’s counterculture committed to the mystery of human responsibility before God, and charged with the task of pursuing our own unique individual and communal destiny in a conformist, uncomprehending world, need such reminders.
Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship (1999) is ostensibly about a young Irishman dying of AIDS, but Declan, the sick man, is a minor figure in the story. From what we learn of him, he is an immature individual who could be said to confirm some of the common stereotypes about his kind. Two of his homosexual friends come across as effective, mature people; the story of one of them plausibly shows that individuals who do not believe the dogmas of Christianity and live in contravention to its laws might nevertheless want the Church to bless their union for nonfrivolous reasons. In any event, the core of the novel is the coming together of Declan’s family, his sister and grandmother and mother, to care for him, and their efforts, particularly that of his sister Helen, to overcome and undo their prolonged estrangement that goes back to the sickness and death of their father when they were children.
Toward the end of the book, after a night made horrific by her brother’s spiking fevers and endless vomiting, Helen goes out to an eroded cliff overlooking the sea. “For some time, then,” she thinks, “no one would appear in this landscape; the sea would roar softly and withdraw without witnesses or spectators. It did not need her watching, and in these hours, she thought, or during the long reaches of the night, the sea was more itself, monumental and untouchable.”
It was clear to her now, as though all week had been leading up to the realization, that there was no need for people, that it did not matter whether there were people or not. The world would go on. The virus that was destroying Declan, that had him calling out helplessly in the dawn, or the memories and echoes that came to her in her grandmother’s house, or the love for her family she could not summon up, these were nothing, and now, as she stood at the edge of the cliff, they seemed like nothing.
“Imaginings and resonances and pain and small longings and prejudices,” she continues, still looking out at the sea, “meant nothing against the resolute hardness of the sea. They meant less than the marl and the mud and the dry clay of the cliff that were eaten away by the weather, washed away by the sea.”
It was not just that they would fade: they hardly existed, they did not matter, they would have no impact on this cold dawn, this deserted remote seascape where the water shone in the early light and shocked her with its sullen beauty. It might have been better, she felt, if there never had been people, if this turning of the world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love. She stood at the edge of the cliff until the sun came out from behind the black rainclouds.
Here we have a woman eloquently stating that human life and memory and love mean nothing. How is a religious reader to digest such feelings? We experience at times the feeling that human existence is futile in the face of nature’s perdurance and majesty. Honesty, moreover, demands the recognition that this feeling is not only demoralizing but also carries a moral message. Helen thinks: “Imaginings and resonances and pain and small longings and prejudices. They meant nothing against the resolute hardness of the sea.” This awareness may enable one to relinquish one’s pain and resentment, as she is required to do in the last scenes of the book.
In the ten pages that remain after Helen’s meditation, she and her mother must deliver Declan to the hospital, after which she invites her mother into her home for the first time. It is an act of reconciliation that she chooses yet also dreads. She fears her mother’s perceived inclination to take over her life; she fears her judgment; she fears her self-centeredness, her talkativeness, and her need for approval. Helen is physically spent after the last few days and nights and would do anything to put off welcoming her mother into her life, to defer conversing with her over tea. Above all, she wants to sleep and to prepare for the return of her husband and two sons, who have never met her mother.
We must acknowledge the pressure exerted by physical fatigue and mental weariness—that after a terrible sleepless night, we do not want to be bothered with people and our difficult negotiations with them, that “if this turning of the world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love,” things would be easier, even as we know that these experiences and the duties they engender cannot be evaded.
Some Orthodox Jews are prone to claim that insights provided by the liberal arts are superfluous for those properly attuned to Torah. The significance of the human being, and the significance of choice, is essential to religious wholesomeness, but when the unique value of the individual and human responsibility is threatened by secular culture, why fight fire with fire by reading literature to liberate us from secularism when all that is needed is simply to enhance our concentration on Torah? Christians have cognate calls to set aside secular literature for the sake of redoubled emphasis on the Bible and the life of practical service. This confidence in divinely provided resources for realizing our true humanity is understandable, and in many circumstances commendable, but taken alone it underestimates the complexities of our human condition.
However ardent our outward professions, we cannot uphold the abiding conviction that God cares about our prosaic existence if we find that existence insignificant ourselves. “Nothing really matters; nothing really matters to me”: The words with which Queen ends “Bohemian Rhapsody” express a haunting contemporary sentiment, one that often makes the life-defining endeavors of religious devotion and moral discipline seem pointless.
Moreover, to fully understand other people is to consider that their existence, like ours, matters to God and pursues a unique and mysterious trajectory. Take away the challenge of experiencing other human beings this way and social engineering is possible, but not love or respect for others.
And even the religiously observant man does not completely understand himself. In Halakhic Man, his trenchant phenomenology of that element in Judaism defined by fidelity to the study and fulfillment of the divine law, my mentor R. Joseph Soloveitchik observes that homo religiosus, focused on inner experience, is prone to drastic oscillations in his self-assessment, veering from a sense of grandiose self-worth in his “high” moments to dejection when he confronts his insignificance. Halakhic man, although he is not immune to this duality and its attendant psychological tension, always values his unique existence because he always experiences himself as standing before God, addressed by God.
This idea is truly a powerful one; on occasion it may precipitate a transforming awareness. It is one that I have meditated on, especially in times of dejection, frustration, and failure. That I am commanded by God, and perpetually summoned to do his work, is a faithful accompaniment in all the seasons of life. Yet even halakhic man, as my teacher notes, contains within him the consciousness that characterizes homo religiosus and is prone to his oscillations.
For me, and no doubt for many others, our self-awareness must enter into dialogue with the personal and social particularities of modern life in all their complexity or our fine principles may be disconnected from the lives we actually lead. We must know the expanses of our souls—some dark, some empty, some filled with surprising sparks of transcendence—so that the halakha can more fully penetrate, guide, and perfect our lives.
Further, the prevalent winds of culture today are inimical to the religious orientation we strive to embrace. A secular view of what it means to be human predominates. Whether we choose or not, our encounter with this often alien and hostile culture is the arena in which we must formulate for ourselves a stubborn and persistent religious sense of what it means to be human. The votaries of social science with their penchant for the bottom line try to supply the public with empirical, objective truths and well-engineered solutions, sensitive to present preferences and moods, and amenable to the imperatives of the executive summary and the sound bite.
There can be no objection to knowing, and taking into account, the data and reliable conclusions of the social sciences. But the deeper question concerns our tendency to accept their methods and conclusions as our entire frame of reference for grasping the human condition. Thinking religious individuals must be profoundly opposed to the dogma of presentism, the conviction that the opinion of the supposedly enlightened cognoscenti of the present age carries moral authority and existential insight with respect to which the rest of us have no choice but to bow in submission. Their casual dismissal of everyone who has lived, thought, and imagined the human world differently is not a mark of their inherent superiority but the insignia of limited imagination and narrowness.
As thinking religious individuals we do not regard the strenuousness of the quest for self-understanding as a defect or an annoyance. On the contrary, we are rightly wary when social scientists promise to generalize about people, lest the will to generalization shrink the uniqueness of human individuals to the conformity and uniformity of statistics. If the unique destiny of every human being matters, and if we participate in creating our destiny, then we, and the human beings we encounter, are not objects of market research and statistical tables but mysterious creatures.
Exploring the human condition should be a voyage of endless discovery, revelation, and concealment; it should be intensive and strenuous, and it should be situated at the center of our existence, rather than being a necessary chore that can just as well be left to the authority of various experts. It is a quest for wisdom, not merely the accumulation of information or even knowledge.
The religious person must never forget that as we are now is not the only way to be. This awareness—nurtured and increased by the reading of literature—requires nurturing an inner freedom of the imagination, the ability to see in rich particularity different circumstances, choices, and trajectories of life. It is a freedom we need to cultivate today if we are to stand apart from the tyranny of the present secular consensus; it is the freedom to transform ourselves into something faithful yet new, disciplined yet unprecedented; it is the freedom to realize, in our own time and place, the mysterious destiny that constitutes our dialogue with God.
Earlier I referred to the way Tóibín presented a character with homosexual impulses in his fictional Henry James. Within the Orthodox community, the discussion of this subject has been dominated by ideologically driven clinicians. Some recycle the orthodoxies of liberal morality, proclaiming the inevitability of enlightened acquiescence as the verdict of science. They are stridently countered by advocates of reparative therapy, who bolster their claim to authority by insinuating that only their views are compatible with normative religion. For the rest of us, copious appeals for “sensitivity” offer a modest and unsatisfying palliative, irritatingly “insensitive” in its vacuity.
Imagine a religious discourse firmly anchored in the real dogmatic and experiential fundamentals of our theological orientation: the uniqueness of the individual, the intimate relationship of the individual to God, who addresses us with Torah and mitzvot, who knows us in our particularity and accompanies us in our quest to dedicate our lives in obedience, faithfulness, and creativity. Such a discourse would not be oblivious to scientific research but would never lose sight of divine providence, the dignity of the individual, the absolute authority of the divine command. Such a discourse would know obedience and struggle and infinite loneliness; it would also know creativity and joy and infinite companionship. Would it not be more conducive to human dignity and yirat Shamayim (fear of Heaven) than would a discourse ruled by surveys, sentimentality, and the latest theories dressed up as eternal scientific truths?
Literature is not a revelation from beyond, the outpouring of an occult entity called Art; it is made by imperfect human beings. Philosophers engage in bad reasoning and poets are sometimes foolish and sometimes possessed by their own rhetoric or ideology or desire to entertain, or by the innocent desire to make verbal beauty. But is the idea of building one’s life on always elusive insights into the mystery of our humanity a mere wish fulfillment, a heroic romance, good for sermons but unconnected to the weary days and endless nights of our lives? Not if we engage the particularities of individual existence. Whatever we think about their views, principles, or philosophies, writers like Tóibín help us negotiate the prosaic world of modern civilization with greater nuance and realism than does an exclusive reliance on the general results and shifting theories of the sciences.
And so, we study literature, for this engagement helps develop a vivid knowledge that there are modes of feeling and perception unimagined by the culture in which we find ourselves. The more we can creatively mobilize the sweep and scope of human experience in all its forms, the better we can put in perspective the attractions and faults of our society and the better situated we are, in our confrontation with the conformist present, to blaze a path worthy of our own transcendent destiny and worthy of the admiration and emulation of others.
Shalom Carmy is co-chair of the Jewish Studies Executive at Yeshiva College and editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America. A longer version of this essay will appear in Developing a Jewish Perspective on Culture (Yeshiva University Press)