As human beings are incurably nosy (I believe the vice is called curiositas), we find books more interesting if the author reveals his own attitude toward the subject. Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory was about the First World War, but it also was about Paul Fussell and how he reacted to his own experience in war, in which he had been dreadfully wounded in body and soul.
Autobiographies attract us. St. Augustine’s Confessions set a high standard of self-revelation. He was confessing not to us, but to God, and we are eavesdroppers (which makes it even better). He was also confessing not only his sins, but the work of God in his life, guiding him along paths that he would rather not have gone down. The middle-class provincial pagan boy wanted to make it in the big city (Rome or Milan) and not get stuck teaching catechism to dockworkers in North Africa.
The Roman rhetorician and lawyer Augustine would have been a small footnote, at best, in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall; Augustine the bishop of Hippo will dominate the Western Church until the Lord comes again, and people will read about his misadventure of the pear tree and his relationship with his illegitimate son Adeodatus as long as people read. (I thought the mother of the boy should have been given a more prominent role. Was Augustine’s silence delicacy or misogyny?)
Authors can try to be objective and conceal their own personalities. Thomas Aquinas manages an extraordinary objectivity in the Summa. He writes about God and man and redemption, but it is almost impossible to get a hint of his personal reactions. He would say that he was simply describing reality, and it is reality, and not Thomas Aquinas’s reactions to it, that we should be interested in. But Thomas is part of reality also, and his clarity of intellect is a personal quality that we can admire even if we do not share it, and we would like to know a little more of how he reacted to life. We will learn, Deo volente, someday.
Frequently the author attracts us more than the subject. Anything Chesterton wrote on is interesting because he wrote on it. He was not writing about himself, but whether he wanted to or not, Chesterton always comes through in his essays. Even when he was wrong, he was always an attractive person. Goethe’s writing also conveys the impression that he was a decent chap and interesting person, someone with whom you might disagree but would nevertheless enjoy sharing a long stagecoach ride from Frankfurt to Weimar.
Montaigne, founder of the modern essay, warned his readers that he was writing about himself and he had no idea why anyone would be interested in him. But Montaigne was a very interesting person—not a saint, but a Christian gentleman who lived in troubled times and disliked Christians torturing and murdering one another.
Knowing the Writer
The reader is not wrong in wanting to know what the author is like. We want to know whether the author is a decent, honest human being. Can we trust him? Would he lie to us or manipulate us while pretending to tell the truth? Is he the sort of person whose judgment one can trust, or is he a monomaniac, a propagandist, or worst of all, a politician?
There is also a certain book which, however interesting in itself, is mainly interesting because it reveals its Author. When I was 15 and read the Bible cover-to-cover for the first time, what impressed me (and I don’t think it was a side-effect of translation) was the unified point of view of the Scriptures. Everything was described, ultimately, from God’s point of view. The various human authors did not disappear, but they presumed to evaluate things as God would evaluate them, whether it was the proper ritual in the Temple, the role of Cyrus in world history, or the reason that Pontius Pilate became governor of Judea.
God reveals himself through his Word, so words have a privileged role in the way we come to know God. Jesus did not simply come to live and die and rise again, but also to teach us what these actions meant, and to tell stories that revealed a great deal about us, but even more about the storyteller. The sacraments he left for us are not dumb shows, but are accompanied by words that explain what God means by them. The stories and gifts are nice, but what we would like to know (and ultimately this is what matters) is what they reveal about the character of the Giver.
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“Literary Revelation” first appeared in the September 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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