Wednesday, August 12, 2015

review of Dorothy Sayers' "The Mind of the Maker"

I've blogged on Sayers a number of times. The most prominent: "Why Work?"; Creed or Chaos?; on Mary and Martha and women in general; on women and men; and some hilarious stuff on "men's/women's work". Here, I'm providing a review of her book, The Mind of the Maker.

Sayers starts with thoughts on "the law"-- the purpose of which, in the context of the book, is to lay out the differences between fact and opinion, objective vs. subjective, and so on. (She complains about common reading comprehension problems here. This allows her to continue apace with her primary thesis, rather than having the reader distracted by erroneous ideas of what she's trying to accomplish.)

In this first chapter, Sayers opens with a funny story (p. 1): A stranger to the university observes that students are inside their colleges by midnight and assumes that this is part of the nature of an undergraduate. In fact, "the law has quite a different source-- the College authorities." Should he conclude that the law is independent of student nature? No. In fact, "careful research would reveal that the law depends on considerable antecedent experience of undergraduate nature...[just] not based on it in the way the stranger assumed."

Sayers expands on the story by noting that the term "law" has two popular, but only-somewhat-related uses. There are arbitrary laws for particular circumstances that are "capable of being promulgated, enforced, suspended, altered or rescinded without interference with the general scheme of the universe" (3). And there are laws that "designate a generalized statement of fact...[which] cannot be promulgated, altered, suspended or broken at will" (4). The arbitrary laws can have "legitimate" authority if they agree with "popular opinion" sufficiently (7) and if they do not "run counter to the law of nature" (8).

As such, "There is a universal moral law, as distinct from a moral code, which consists of certain statements of fact about the nature of man; and by behaving in conformity with which, man enjoys his true freedom. This is what the Christian Church calls 'the natural law'. The more closely the moral code agrees with the natural law, the more it makes for freedom in human behaviour; the more widely it departs from the natural law, the more it tends to enslave mankind and to produce the catastrophes called 'judgments of God'." (9) And although frequently conflated, "Christian morality comprises both a moral code and a moral law" (10).

Why does this matter for theology--and thus, practice? "There is a difference between saying: 'If you hold your finger in the fire you will get burned' and saying, 'if you whistle at your work I shall beat you, because the noise gets on my nerves'. The God of the Christians is too often looked upon as an old gentleman of irritable nerves who beats people for whistling. This is the result of a confusion between arbitrary "law" and the "laws" which are statements of fact...Defy the commandments of the natural law, and the race will perish in a few generations; co-operate with them, and the race will flourish for ages to come. That is the fact; whether we like it or not, the universe is made that way." (12)

All that said, the bulk of the book is a discussion of the Trinitarian nature of art, writing, and the creative process-- and by analogy, a help in understanding the Trinitarian nature of God. She argues that "every work or act of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly": the Creative Idea, the Creative Energy/Activity, and the Creative Power (37). You can't have the work of creation without all three; the three are inter-related, but they are distinct. Later, she revisits the same idea in the context of writing in particular: the Book as Thought, Written, and Read (113-115).

On writing and its implications for what we know of God, His word, and The Word (Christ), Sayers notes a number of things:

-Words are an important but ultimately limited look into the the heart of the Author-- even in an autobiography. For us, while the Bible, Nature, and Jesus are crucial revelations to us about the character of God, they are still only dimly observed (90).

-A key difference between the Bible and other writing: "The leading part in this was played, it is alleged, by the Author, who presents it as a brief epitome of the plan of the whole work...Examining the plot of it, we observe at once that if anybody in this play has his feelings spared, it is certainly not the author." (129)

-Another feature of a good Writer/Artist is the freedom He wants for his "characters": He "never desires to subdue his work to himself but always to subdue himself to his work. The more genuinely creative he is, the more he will want his work to develop in accordance with its own nature, and to stand independent of himself." (130)

-Sayers' discussion of miracles was really helpful to me (78-83). What purpose do they serve? In which contexts and to what extent are they "cheap" plot devices? In a literary context, one measure of bad fiction is that problems in writing/plot are "fixed" by "miracles"-- a cul-de-sac is exited by suddenly removing a character or a circumstance. Intervention in a plot is certainly the prerogative of the author, but along the same lines: when would/should we expect God to do miracles? 

"The agents of the miraculous [for the writer are] conversion and coincidence...Yet it will not altogether do to say that neither conversion nor coincidence is ever permissible in a story. Both may legitimately be introduced on one condition, that is, that they are an integral part of the Idea. If it is a story about a coincidence or about a conversion, then the Energy that introduces them will be performing the will of the Idea, and the Power will proceed from that unity of purpose....the will of the creator becomes a character in the story; just as, theologically, all miracles depend on the assumption that God is a character in history. But even so, it is necessary that God should act in conformity with His own character...God will be chary of indulging in irrelevant miracle, and will only use it when it is an integral part of the story." (82-83)

Finally, a problem with modernity, reductionist science, and bad writing (in general and detective fiction in particular). All of them seek to deal with a discrete problem and try to offer us simple "solution". Unfortunately, the problems are complex and the solutions are somewhere between limited and highly flawed. One sees the same problem in economics, when its practice is reduced to something mathematical and the human person and human institutions are reduced to something mechanical. (As a practitioner of detective fiction, it's noteworthy that Sayers has a problem with the genre along these lines [194-204]: The detective problem is always soluble (the purpose of the work!); often completely soluble; soluble in the same terms in which it is set; and (quite) finite.)

Why does it matter? Sayers calls us to live "artistically"-- defined a certain way. "If we conclude that creative mind is in fact the very grain of the spiritual universe, we cannot arbitrarily stop our investigations with the man who happens to work in stone, or paint, or music, or letters. We shall have to ask ourselves whether the same pattern is not also exhibited in the spiritual structure of every man and woman...It will at once be asked what is meant by asking the common man to deal with life creatively...If he is required to be...stretched in a leisured manner upon a sofa...the average man cannot afford this. Also, he supposes that the artist exercises complete mastery over his material. But the average man does not feel himself to be a complete master of life (which is his material). Far from it. To the average man, life presents itself, not as material malleable to his hand, but as a series of problems of extreme difficulty, which he has to solve with the means at his disposal...Perhaps the first thing that he can learn from the artist is that the only way of 'mastering' one's material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love...The second thing is, that the words 'problem' and 'solution' as commonly used, belong to the analytic approach to phenomena, and not to the creative." (185-186)

Good stuff, as always, from Sayers-- on life, vocation, work, and our place in this beautiful world!


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