The Despair of Thomas Disch
once told Jody Bottum that part of the reason he quit writing science fiction was that, to deepen it into real art, "I would have to be like Gene Wolfe and return to the Catholicism that I barely got away from when I was young -- and I can't do that, of course."
That "of course" is heartbreaking. Bottum commented that Disch "never escaped his escape from Catholicism." And there is something to that. It's a sort of intaglio, defining oneself by what one is not; and one cannot help but be reminded of holes and gaps left unfilled. His suicide was a tragedy and a loss to literature in general and SF in particular. He was once called "the most respected ... and least read of all modern first-rank SF writers." He ought not have been.
|The Taking of Christ, 1602, oil on canvas, |
53 X 67 in., Michelangelo da Caravaggio,
|Niña con lazo y flor, mix media on|
canvas, 73x54 cm, José Manuel Merello
Impersonating the Person
In the world of Late Antiquity, a series of Church Councils hammered out our modern notion of a "person." Originally meaning only the mask worn by a Greek actor, the term was applied to the hypostases of the Godhead, and came ultimately to apply to individual human beings. Each of us was conceived not simply as a component in a polis, but as a separate individual with an inner life and a sense of synderesis, and from this all Western law draws its substance.
Psychology is, by definition, the science (logos) of the soul (psyche), but modern psychology denies the soul and so has declared itself to be without a subject matter. Schools of psychology war amongst one another over basic questions of what they are actually trying to study in a manner that has never much troubled physicists or chemists or, on most occasions, biologists. Two basic stances have emerged from the wreckage of Cartesian dualism:
- Idealism limits itself to consciousness "and its immediate data."
- Materialism limits itself to behavior, and rules out any reference to consciousness.
Materialists conclude that consciousness, will, and even self are "illusions" (suffered by whom?) principally because their chosen methodology cannot "see" them.(*) It would make psychology a subset of biology. Idealists otoh would make a science of psychology (based on controlled observation) incoherent. Brennan writes:
(*) As Heisenberg wrote: "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.""Having lost its soul, its mind, and its consciousness, in that order, psychology is now in danger of losing its scientific standing."
|A synolon: sphere+rubber|
if it were alive
TOF's Perceptive Reader will note the humorous dichotomy of the two schools and the irony of the more modern reaction of the personalists, psychodiagnosticians, and factor psychologists mentioned by Brennan, who have fallen back on an older "synolistic" view of man. The word (which evidently gave rise to the modern "wholistic") comes from the synolon, the soul+body composite to which an earlier psychology attributed the nature of man.
Since a synolon is both psyche and soma, a synolistic approach incorporates both idealist and materialist insights and places them in ratio to each other. Surely, this is a richer approach than either partial psychology of the Late Modern Age, and it is one that accounts more fully for the person.
Fiction and the Person
One of the duties of the novelist -- some might say his or her primary duty -- is to fabricate artificial persons: the characters of the novel. If our writing is informed by a fragmented modern psychology, these characters may appear to the Reader much as the Merello painting above: a sketchy figure with a doll's face. You look in its eyes and there's nobody home.
Perhaps this is what Disch meant. He is no longer available for comment. But Catholic teaching has always envisioned the human being as a synolon, with all the complexity that implies, and neither as a Cartesian ghost in the machine nor as a meat puppet. Meat puppets may sound all edgy and transgressive at the Kool Kids table -- take that, bourgeoisie! -- but they make for damned poor characters in fiction.
Why? Because, like the Merello figure above, they don't look much like people we've encountered in our own lives. (Even if sometimes they capture one aspect or another.) And that ought to tell us something about deepening fiction into art.
Of course, to deepen fiction into art may not require a return to Catholicism, although that may help a great deal. Aristotle, after all, was not. Orthodoxy has much the same approach to the psyche, and so for that matter has Judaism or even the good old-fashioned humanism (not the new-fashioned humanism of the poser). Old Humanism was, after all, all about humans, and what matters is the synolistic understanding of that human. This is sometimes available by introspection or by intuition (save for those whose psychology does not allow such concepts) but also by analysis. So from time to time over the next few months TOF proposes to mumble here on the human soul and what it means for fiction.
Aristotle of Stagira. De anima.
Brennan, Robert. Thomistic Psychology (Macmillan, 1941)