Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pride and Prejudice

I'm in the middle of reading Knowledge of Angels (Houghton Mifflin, 1994) by Jill Paton Walsh, a quasi-historical novel set, the author says, "in a time somewhat like 1450 but not 1450."  And she adds, "A fiction is always, however obliquely, about the time and place in which it was written."  So far I'm very impressed by it, though I worry a bit about how it will end.  I learned about it from someone's comment on a story at the Onion AV Club, as a novel about atheism, and it's that, but it seems to be something more; or maybe atheism will turn out to enfold everything that happens in it.

One of the main streams of the story involves Palinor, a man washed up on the shore of the island where Knowledge of Angels is set.  He tells the fishermen who rescue him that he fell accidentally of the ship he was on.  No one has ever heard of the country he claims as his origin. One of the first questions that arises, then, is where he should stay: among the Christians, among the Jews, or among the Saracens.  Unselfconsciously Palinor says that he is none of the above -- he believes in no god or gods, and in Aclar, where he comes from, while there are Jews and Christians and Saracens, there is no pressure to choose any sect.  Atheism is a capital offense in this time and place, however; but Palinor is able to appeal to the learned prince cardinal of the island, Severo, who decides to call in his old teacher and mentor Beneditx to try and reason with Palinor, to persuade him to be at least a theist and thereby save his life.  Beneditx is well-versed in philosophical debate, and knows his Anselm and his Aquinas, but Palinor makes short work of his arguments and proofs: an architect and engineer, he is well educated, and has heard these arguments before, without the outcome being predetermined by the Inquisition.

The debate is still in progress at this point in my reading, but I liked this passage dealing with Benedikt's reaction to his inability to sway his charge.
In the depths of the night Beneditx struggled with panic and anger.  The anger reminded him of his mother, a poor hard-working woman who had kept body and soul together by plying her needle around the lonely farms.  His father had been a fisherman who was lost one day without reason, his boat sinking far out in a flat calm.  Left to support her son, Beneditx's mother led a wandering life.  In return for food and shelter for them both, she would stay a week or more, mending linen and making clothes.  It was a hard existence; but Beneditx remembered her angry only at two things in life -- blunt needles, and poor thread that snapped as she worked.  Untimely death, poor harvests, sickness, poverty -- about all these things the people of the island were fatalists; bad tools provoked them to rage.  As now Beneditx's failed arguments, his blunted points and broken threads, left him angry.

Of course he was angry with Palinor.  And he knew the name of his own sin -- the sin of pride.  Since the day his mother found him writing, scratching with a stick, copying the inscription over the church door at Santanya in the dust of the little square, Beneditx had always excelled.  His mother had taken him at once to the Galilea and presented him to the oblate master, saying simply that she could not cope with a child who could write.  He had always known that being the cleverest man on Grandinsula was not the same as being the cleverest in the world -- that somewhere there was a man who could match him in argument; in that sense he was well prepared for Palinor.

But since he had never before experienced it, he was unprepared for the sharp pain of defeat in argument -- for the indignity of it -- and repentant in retrospect, he accused himself of insufficient tenderness toward all those he had defeated or instructed in debate.  And that the triumphant adversary should be not a wiser doctor, but a disbeliever!  How could God, whom he had served so long, so diligently, have allowed this to happen?  Why had God given him blunt tools?  In a spasm of self-disgust, Beneditx knew shame for not having seen the flaws in the argument.  For not seeing, now, the correct answer to Palinor's objections.  That there was an answer -- somewhere on the board a winning move --  he did not doubt.  Or rather, suppressing panic, he told himself he did not doubt it; and rising, he went early to pray, to ask for help [153-54].
There's irony in "insufficient tenderness toward all those he had defeated or instructed in debate," for we've been told earlier that Beneditx was a beloved teacher because of his infinite patience and tenderness with the slowest students.  And his frustration is understandable, even if he doesn't quite understand it himself: in the Western philosophical tradition, the "right" conclusions were declared by the Church and enforced by the threat of punishment, up to and including death.  When a conclusion doesn't have the Inquisition behind it, long-resolved questions have turned out to be unresolved after the threat was removed.

Knowledge of Angels reminds me of Rebecca Goldstein's Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God, which deals with some of the same questions, though it's a very different book.  I hope to reread Goldstein's novel before year's end.  So far, I think Knowledge of Angels is much the better of the two, but I'll have to see how it turns out.