When recently asked what he was reading, Mick Jagger said he had just picked up Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Freedom: “It’s not really my kind of thing,” Jagger said, “but everyone was talking about it so I thought I’d have a look.”
I’m not sure why the book is not Mick Jagger’s kind of thing, but I want to reflect about why the novel was so disturbing to me.
I came to the book in a way similar to Mick Jagger: The book was being billed as a truly great American novel. Given my background and training and interests, to talk about a great American novel will always get my attention. But as I read Franzen’s Freedom, I found it profoundly disturbing. I found it exhausting, perhaps the expression of the fatigue and weariness of a dying culture.
The book is about what is supposed to be the quintessential American family of the early 21st century. Through brilliant prose, we look in on the mother and father of this family, as they go through college, as they have kids and begin to build their family, as they latch onto the passions that will guide their choices of career, as they have their affairs, and finally as they divorce. We watch with dismay as this family disintegrates. Everyone’s life seems to spiral downward.
What we discover along the way is that everyone is in search of something they seem never able to find. Perhaps most of all we experience a world where there is no hint of anything sacred.
In the late 19th century, Nietzsche famously declared that “God is dead.” As we think about the novel Freedom, listen to Nietzsche’s thoughts about what happens when God is utterly absent from our lives or our surrounding culture:
You will never pray again, never adore again, never again rest in endless trust; you deny yourself any stopping before ultimate wisdom, ultimate goodness, ultimate power, while unharnessing your thoughts. . . . there is no avenger for you, no eventual improver; there is no reason any more in what happens, no love of what will happen to you; no resting place is any longer open to your heart . . . .
This is horrifying. And it seems such an accurate description of the way things are in Franzen’s novel, the assumptions the characters make about their lives, the choices that seem to be open or closed to them, the satisfactions they enjoy and do not enjoy, the profound flatness they find in their lives. Totally bleak, never trusting, as Nietzsche says, never resting, always seeking but never finding.
There used to be a time — as the great, early modernist literature was absorbing Nietzsche’s deep and dark assumptions — that we would actually revel in the examination of angst and ennui and despair of this sort. We felt that the veil of illusion was being lifted for us. We found ourselves observing what T.S. Eliot called a wasteland of absence, where there was no water to nurture and no roots to sustain. We marveled at the mystery of why the truly gifted poet, Sylvia Plath, would stick her head in a gas oven as her children were sleeping, or why the accomplished Ernest Hemingway put a shotgun in his mouth and splattered his head across the room.
I can remember arguing that we had to look into this “heart of darkness,” as Joseph Conrad called it, in order to be relevant. As Christians, we needed to know the questions before we proposed the answers.
But that was then, as the veil perhaps needed to be lifted. But this is now, and something has shifted for me. Do I really need to read a novel like Freedom anymore? Do I really need to discover again what it feels like to live in a wasteland where there is no water to satisfy thirst? I want to say this “great American novel” is stuck in the past. It is actually dated.
At least I think so. My friend Earl Palmer recently said that C.S. Lewis believed that once the culture has gone too far, a kind of “fatigue will set in,” and things will begin to swing the other direction. Pope John Paul II said something similar: “The world, tired of ideology, is opening itself to the truth. The time has come when the splendor of this truth (veritatis splendor) has begun anew to illuminate the darkness of human existence.”
Could this be true? Is it possible that my strong impatience with Franzen’s dark Freedom represents something in the culture shifting, that in fact we are all looking for something more, for the splendor of truth beyond the darkness, the dryness, and the despair? Surely the utter fatigue depicted in this book will not win out. And surely we might discover the folly of banishing God from the landscape of our lives and of our world.