The other day I listened to a podcast in which several writers discuss death in fiction—or, more specifically, “killing” their characters. This reminded me of something I have thought about in the past, and it’s this:
Writers introduce all kinds of evil into their stories. They do this because they are imitating the real world, which contains all kinds of evil, and because they are part of the world, and sinful—and so they enjoy some types of evil, too (we all do). But the aim of any artist must be to make the creation good; sometimes that involves introducing evil. That’s kind of odd, but it’s true. It’s a fact, for instance, that stories would be uninteresting without conflict, without characters being unable to get what they want, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, without at least some small problem that can’t immediately be solved. They wouldn’t even really be stories; they would lack the shape that is necessary to make a story. Sometimes the good shape of a story does demand that a character die tragically. In this respect the artist is godlike in relation to her work; she can seen the shape of the whole, and how parts that are ugly in themselves contribute to the beauty of that shape.
It’s easy to come up with examples of tragedies where suffering and death produce a satisfyingly shaped story. I’m generally a fan of happy endings, but Hamlet has always been my favourite Shakespeare play. Even a well constructed murder mystery—especially the kind where the detective tracks down the murderer and then wishes he hadn’t—can have some of this quality. It’s also easy to think of examples of stories where the writer doesn’t pull this off, and instead ends up looking like a despotic and arbitrary god in relation to his created world. (I felt Tess of the D’Urbervilles was a prime example of this when I read it years ago.) Mostly I think this comes about because the author’s idea of a good shape is just different from yours. Or the author’s aim might be to communicate, through harsh and arbitrary events, the message that life is harsh and arbitrary. You can write a formless story deliberately, and you can do so as a deliberate reflection of a life that looks formless and without meaning. But if you do, it is likely that most people—whatever they believe about the shape of our actual story and the existence or benevolence of its Author—will hate it. People tend to like stories with a satisfying shape, because we can’t see the shape of our own; well, you wouldn’t expect one of the characters in the story to be able to.
Except of course that sometimes they do. That’s another great thing about fiction: not only can you see the shape of the whole from the outside, but the individual parts can have an awareness of that whole too. Historical characters can reflect presciently on their legacy or the importance of their actions; tragic characters can be resigned to their fates. And, in fact, there have been lots of real people who have lived with such an apparently clear sense of their own role and purpose that they have been able to risk and endure things that the average person would do anything to avoid.
Pride wants it to be perfect, because you should be producing brilliance, and you should be ashamed not to be producing brilliance. So you don’t work on it, because so far it is neither perfect nor brilliant.
Envy is too busy worrying about whether other people have already done it better, and how you can possibly measure up, to let you do any work.
Covetousness is more interested in the trappings of work than in the work itself. It wants new tools, new materials, and for you to do nothing until you have all the stuff. (You can never have all the stuff, so you do nothing.)
Wrath comes to your aid to lacerate you for your failure, and to blame other people for taking up your time with other things. It doesn’t help.
Gluttony is a distraction, and so is Lust (lust for all kinds of things), diverting your attention to your own comfort and pleasure. When work is in any way hard, temptations beckon you away.
Sloth looks like the main problem, but it may only be the servant of all the others. (Who cares? It doesn’t matter… Blehh…) It’s the simple desire not to work, even with the work is good. It’s senseless, brainless, sluggish; there is no joy in it. Should you fight it first or last—or both?
* And by “you” I mean “I.”
Since childhood I have had a collection of angel Christmas ornaments, and I think that’s part of the reason why I have always had a minor fascination with different depictions of angels. And I have written before about my fondness for lace knitting. So you can imagine that my interest was piqued when I saw these two things combined in the form of a book about knitted lace angels. (Take a look; it’s actually really cool.)
I came across this book while searching the library catalogue for something else, and clicked Place Hold instantly. The book arrived at the library, and it was delightful, full of dainty, ingeniously designed knitted sculptures. But what I hadn’t noticed in the thumbnail picture in the library catalogue is what that angel on the front cover is doing. That’s not just a knitted angel; it’s a knitting angel. The book in fact features angels doing various forms of needlework: knitting, crocheting, embroidering, spinning, etc. It’s all very adorable, but it raises what is honestly something of a theological question for me: Do angels do that kind of thing? Or, to be more accurate about the way the matter presented itself to me: Why do I feel that angels don’t do that kind of thing?
Now, this turns out to be less a question about angels, and more a question about the status and use of different human endeavours. I suppose part of the problem is that it’s hard to know why an angel would need or want a scarf or an afghan or a cross-stitch sampler. But that won’t quite do; if they are beautiful objects, why shouldn’t they glorify God as much as music, which we all know to be an important angelic activity?
Is this a gender thing? Well, depressingly, maybe. I do tend to think of angels as more or less masculine, and needlework as feminine, and I’m not immune to the general miserable tendency to devalue traditionally feminine activities and blah blah blah. (I’d like to pretend that this isn’t a thing, but I’ve realized that nothing is served by that kind of denial, so yeah. Sorry.)
But I also tend to think that a knitting angel gives me pause because for me, knitting isn’t a purely creative activity, or doesn’t approach as closely as possible to “baking from scratch” or creating from whole cloth. As I’ve already mentioned here, for me, needlework is largely a process of following the instructions, often to the letter, rather than of freely inventing, and that doesn’t somehow seem very angelic. But maybe it is? Maybe angels are not particularly creative; they are not the creatures made in the image of the Creator, after all. And they are portrayed as obedient servants; maybe they like following directions?
I’ve also realized that there is documentary proof of my hypocrisy on this subject. In my defense, I’m not in character in this picture, just in costume. I’m backstage during a production of our parish’s medieval nativity play, crocheting a granny square (one of many I finished during the course of rehearsals).
I do remember feeling that what I was doing was funny, but not especially apt. So I don’t know… what do you think? Could your idea of angels include needlework?