The act of imaginative expression has often been compared to the central truths of the Christian faith: to the Incarnation, and to Transubstantiation. The writer takes the ordinary materials of human life, and through the act of consecration which is his writing, raises them to transcendence. James Joyce’s young artist considers himself to be ‘a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.’
But that transcendence is always dependent upon faithfulness to the particular. Just as Christ must be a particular man in a particular place, speaking a particular language, and the host must be a particular piece of unleavened bread over which particular words are spoken by a particular priest in a particular parish, so the material of writing must have its place and its time, and remain faithful and true to them, if it is to attain this universal meaning, and achieve a kind of communion between the author and his readers.
The protagonist of contemporary Louisiana author Tim Gautreaux’s short story, ‘The Pine Oil Writers’ Conference’ faces this tension between the particular and the universal, the spiritual and the tangible, in a very striking way. Brad, a Presbyterian minister who had ‘always wanted to write something more significant than sermons’, has come to a fourth rate conference in a tiny junior college in the backwoods of Louisiana searching for ‘that magic, holy thing all writing hopefuls sought: The Answer’, the mystical ingredient which is going to bring his writing to life, to achieve that elusive moment of consecration.
As a nonconformist minister without the consecration of the Mass or the tangibility of the Real Presence, Brad is searching for something that will bring tangibility and presence into his writing. He is an anxious and conscientious man who is aware that something is missing, and that something is something quite tangible, if only he could put his finger on it:
Why is he failing to make something? His tutor at the conference advises him to stop seeking for exotic material, and to start with what he knows, with his own family history, however dull and ordinary it might seem. Determined to make use of her advice, he stays up late and tries something completely different, a form of writing based in the tragedies of ordinary rural life. His tutor is astonished, and advises him to take a year off from his ordinary work to complete the novel, offering him help with publishing it. But when he returns home from the conference, knowing that he does indeed have the talent to write ‘something more significant than sermons’, for some reason he lacks the will:
What is lacking is warmth and intimacy: the sticky stuff of life itself. The ‘dry cool hands’ barely touch one another. Although he has been married for decades, there is no mention of Brad’s having any children. Eventually his wife loses interest in him and divorces him, his uncle comes to reclaim the circular saw, and Brad never finishes his novel.
In contrast, his roommate at the conference, Butchie, is entirely lacking in writing talent, but bursting with virile energy. He is a bulky, loud and vulgar man, where Brad is small, quiet and articulate. Butchie is more interested in ‘scoring’ at the conference than in learning anything about writing, and he eventually does so, with a woman who is old enough to be his mother. When he receives damning comments from his tutor, his new girlfriend promises to help him improve his writing. Years later, having failed to write his novel, Brad finds a novel by Butchie on the shelf which has run to its second printing. The first paragraph contains a rape and a killing, and Brad finds the writing to be ‘coarse, borrowed, and plain.’
It seems that the words of his tutor at the conference have come true. She comments that her ‘old preacher’ used to talk about ‘a sense of duty to your talent’: ‘He said that those who could do good work but wouldn’t created a vacuum in the world that would be filled by those could do bad things and would.’
Why is it that Brad cannot bring himself to do the good work that he is capable of doing? One could argue that this story is about missed vocation. Its last words are those of the counter girl in the bookstore/cafe where Brad has found Butchie’s novel, but he will not listen to them:
Brad wants to make something, but he lacks a vital ingredient, a certain power that could enable him to do so. From a Catholic point of view, we could say that what he actually missed is a vocation to the priesthood, which would enable him to make God every day, not through clever words of his own, but through the action of the Holy Spirit at the consecration. When he returns from the writing conference to find himself lacking the will to make his talent productive, he stares out of his window, and watches ‘pelicans for days on end.’ The pelican is the state bird of Louisiana, and on the state flag it is depicted tearing at its breast to feed its young, an image that has traditionally been associated with the Eucharist, through which Christ feeds his flock with his own flesh.
The inability to turn talent into fruitful results may not be limited to this particular Presbyterian minister. The junior college which hosts the writers’ conference is located on the site of a derelict factory, and as Brad gazes at this symbol of the past, he mourns the loss of tangible creativity it represents. Gautreaux may be hinting at a broader missed vocation in American society, which has turned away from honest, God-fearing industriousness to sterile, self-indulgent decadence:
|The state flag of Louisiana: a pelican feeds her young with her own flesh|