The Writer and Eucatastrophe

As some of my readers may know (and indeed know better than I), narrative theology is a contemporary branch of theology that posits that our lives are story-shaped, and if we are made in the image of God, our experience with God, and the universe itself, is story-shaped. (This is equally true if God is made in the image of us, as non-theists might argue.) The question then becomes what kind of story it actually is, and how shall we represent it to ourselves. J.R.R. Tolkien says that the story of the universe is shaped like “eucatastrophe” — a word he invented to describe the “good” catastrophe that redeems and even in some way reverses the horror and dissolution that have reached their most exquisite pitch. In Tolkien’s view, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is the eucatastrophe of human history, and the Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation, the story within a story that gathers up all the other stories. But when I began thinking about these things, this isn’t where I started from.

I started with the act of writing. It’s been said numerous times that there are only five or six basic plots in the world, and all fiction is a rehearsal of one of them with new forms: and this is certainly true on a small scale in my own writing life; there are a few stories I write again and again in different ways. (I notice also in other writers, like for example Robin McKinley, that there is a basic story that is favored in each succeeding opus. This is no discredit if writers do their work well.) I thought about stories as writers conceive them, the way they arrange and rearrange themselves in the mind so as to be more satisfying or less; about the pacing they develop; about the deployment of characters to fulfill an obscure need which the story calls for; about the way we map happenings in our lives to familiar and compelling stories (“that person is just like a dementor when she’s in a room with me!”) — and vice versa, how we read stories and watch movies and take in their meaning, find them uplifting or disturbing according to the narrative of our own lives. Jung says that we are always dreaming, but when we are awake our consciousness eclipses the subliminal workings of our mind: a writer’s job is to delve, on purpose as much as possible, into the dream world that has so much influence over us all, and spin thread from it onto a distaff and tell a story with it. The success of the writer depends upon (at least) two things: how well the writer delved into the unconscious on purpose, and how well the writer made the results identifiable as a master narrative.

Then I thought a thought that was new to me, though probably not new to many others: what if stories are fractal? That there are a limited number of narrative plots; that we map and remap them all to one another; that we build them and link them and arrange them in patterns; that we mirror them (literally, in our brains the mirror neurons flashing) as we hear them told by others; that we nest them like Russian dolls one in another in another — is this not the behavior of a fractal?

It reminded me of discussions in my philosophy of science classes in college, of the quest for the elegant equation that explains the universe and yet can fit on a T-shirt. I never quite understood the point of that quest, but if one thinks of it like a fractal it makes more sense: some look for smaller and smaller iterations of a scientific “story” and some look for larger and larger. Barbel joins to barbel, barbels to filaments, filaments to vanes, vanes to the shaft; the shaft’s a feather, the feather’s on a wing, the wing’s on a bird, like the turkey buzzards that ride the updrafts without a wingbeat, or like the cloud of starlings that shapes and regroups as one organism, obedient to God knows what tickle of mirroring instinct. Widen the angle far enough, and you just can’t see it, any more than you could squint deep enough into a molecule and work out its inwards. But it doesn’t stop us trying to do it, and it shouldn’t, because part of us avers, even against seemingly contradictory evidence, that co-inherence, not incoherence, is the stuff the universe is made of.

Then I thought, what about those contradictions? Why do some people like certain narratives and others find them jarring? What happens when a person thinks they are taking part in one story and the reality is quite different? What happens when a story gets derailed somehow, as our stories sometimes, perhaps often, do? What’s to be done about the stories that end in terror and perdition, the stories that harrow our souls to no purpose, the stories that end cheaply and don’t satisfy? What happens when the fractal is damaged?

An obvious move would be to widen the angle and try to see what the whole shape is, if it’s possible, and to look at the broken iteration of the fractal in the light of the whole, which might change its meaning. You would then have a view of one of the problems that plagues our attempts to do theology in this age, which is that some people see one shape and some see another. Some see the ancient shape that starts out down, then goes up, then goes down again: Icarus was in prison, then he’s flying, then hubris takes over and he falls to earth. Human civilization started in caves, and then rose to the pinnacles of cities, then entropy took over and we used up all the fossil fuels &c.&c. To some, this is the foundational shape: nothing/Big Bang/Second Law of Thermodynamics and kaput. Some people like stories that reflect this shape, as they think it matches ultimate reality.

There’s an equally ancient story shape that is the opposite, that goes up/down/up: the Garden of Eden/Fall/Redemption and Messianic Age is one obvious example, but you could think of superheroes challenged by apparently unbeatable big bads only to find their resurgence, or fairy tales in which the princess loses her children and gets them back again through some travail or sacrifice. It’s a story shape that gets maligned as wishful thinking: the evidence says, some tell us, that there never was any Golden Age to fall from, no Forms to have bastardized, no deus ex machina rescue waiting around the corner. This is to misunderstand the nature of that story: things don’t go back to the way they were, and eucatastrophe, unlike the deus ex machina motive, redeems the fall not by introducing something foreign and contrived from above, but by bringing into play something too large to be seen that was there all the time, something other and yet natural, or congenial and yet other, something…co-inherent.

This is the story Christians tell one another: the story of Philippians 2, one of the oldest hymns in the church. Christ, being equal with God, relinquished his dominion and came all the way down, not just to humanity but to the dregs of a human empire, not just to the death we all face but to death by torture; and God raised him and gave him the name that is above every name so that everything that is made from the bottom to the top will acknowledge him. From barbel to shaft, from feather to wing, from wing to bird: the Holy Spirit descending with fire to bring us up.

You don’t have to be a Christian to be attracted to and identify with the eucatastrophic pattern. And indeed, some people are Christians in spite of being attracted to the dyscatastrophic pattern. But it seems evident to me that the dyscatastrophic narrative is the master narrative of our age. It’s been said about theology that we are generally right in what we affirm and wrong in what we deny, so we deny the narrative we are not aligned with at our peril. But what I have noticed recently is that dyscatastrophe can get away with “feeling” true where eucatastrophe cannot — and this in the narrative of my own life (“I’m never going to get any better. I’m always going to be a useless self-preoccupied wretch,” &c.) When a book or movie presents a eucatastrophic pattern, we are quick to say, “Well, it’s factually flawed and thereby discredited.” Why should we discredit a story on the basis of facts (either made-up facts or verisimilar facts)? Because we think the larger fractal pattern is borne out by doing so. (In different language, we think it keeps closer to the truth.) If we prefer eucatastrophe, we may discredit such stories because we fear our love will not prove to be the shape of reality after all. I dare not speculate on the processes of individual minds in this matter, but this seems to me the pattern of the public consciousness in our times.

There are two stories that Charles Williams told that I think reflect a larger reality. One is that salvation is immanent in relationships: the decisions we make about the people with whom we have to do are the very stuff that heaven and hell are made of, and those decisions have a concomitant weight. The other is that the alternative to co-inherence is incoherence. In Sacred Desire: Growing in Compassionate Living, Sally Severino and Nancy Morrison talk about the redemptive attuning that people bring into play in order to absorb, assimilate, and thrive after trauma; and one of the things they say is that people exhibiting redemptive attuning have a coherent autobiographical memory. That is, they know how to tell the story of their lives; they are not demoralized by the bombardments of sheer existence. Co-inhering, attuning, are creative acts that make it possible for our lives to mean something.

Without being so naive as to deny out of hand the compelling nature of dyscatastrophe, I think we need eucatastrophe. I think we need it desperately. I think we need it in the way we tell ourselves the story of our lives, and I think we need it in the way we tell the story of the countries we live in, and I think we need it in the way we talk about the larger reality of God and the universe. And therefore I think we need it in our fiction. I think we need to understand that eucatastrophe is not a saccharine denial of pain, but an encompassing of it — the photo negative to “the light shined in the darkness, and the darkness has never mastered it.” Eucatastrophe is not a denial of injustice; it is a breaking of the cycle of vengeance that puts a period to the myth of redemptive violence. Eucatastrophe is not a return to the naivete of Eden; it is the full-grown even-keeled circumnavigation of the world uncontained: “We have reached the open sea, with some charts; and the firmament.”

So as a writer this is what I do; and as a reader this is what I adore; and as a person trying to do life, this is what I choose, when I recognize the choice — to take up the all-but-impossible task of attuning to a co-inherent universe and the people in it — learning to accept love and to give it, since it was there all along: uncreated, ever-present, and ultimately triumphant.