Ideology and Suffering
One of the most frustrating things about being a writer is that people’s ideologies influences how they view your work. For example, if the story has tons of Christian elements that work towards the virtue of the protagonist then Christians will often love it. I’ve seen some awful movies about the lives of saints recommended to me purely on the basis that they depict a great saint. On the other hand, if the story has an equal representation of ethnicities and genders where no character is at all influenced by their background, then feminists will love it. In common literary opinions, ideology creates standards. This is because a story arises from suffering, but ideology determines how we make sense of suffering. However, there are elements of storytelling that are true no matter what.
Sartre, Gardner, and O’Connor all agree on one fundamental thing about storytelling: that the protagonist must have free will. Jean-Paul Sartre, the atheist-existentialist philosopher, praises the Catholic knack for storytelling. He argues that Catholics can create immersive stories because their characters are not subject to mechanisms. Flannery O’Connor, Catholic uses the same language, saying that Catholic spirituality is the only nonmechanical principle of human experience, and adding that morality is the standard for good and bad actions in a story. John Gardner, just a good guy who didn’t openly affiliate himself with any religion, says in his famous writing instruction manual The Art of Fiction that writers can write nothing worthwhile if they do not believe in free will. Now, this does not mean free will exists. One could cede a Kantian escapism, the belief that free will might not exist, but it seems true to us.
Another principle which seems true for these three thinkers, as well as every writing teacher I’ve ever met, is that readers must be taught with things and events – not ideas. So, although Flannery O’Connor was Catholic, she thought it unliterary to come right out and say it in a story. Meaning must be present, but it must be present in something. O’Connor’s beliefs couldn’t be blatantly stated. They had to exist in the sound of roaring rapids carrying away the body of a child, or an educated woman’s wooden leg.
These things all seem true to our experience. We seem to have the power to make decisions. We seem to think things mean something – there’s a reason you keep the blanket you carried around when you were a toddler. We seen to learn through our sensation. Maybe none of these things are true, but they are immediate to the human experience. These are the elements of good stories.
But then comes the climax – suffering. Here is one not-so-elemental truth to the human experience: we all suffer. Suffering is the conflict of every story, even comedies and children’s stories, in some way. If not suffering than at least the fear of imminent suffering, which is a sort of mild suffering itself. What changes is how we make sense of suffering. One person could consider being disowned by their parents a great tragedy, while another would consider it the gift of freedom. Ideology, world view, religion, is ultimately what draws these lines. This is one of the reasons that Flanner O’Connor lays down that morality draws the lines of comedy and tragedy in a story. Ideology is the principle by which we make sense of suffering. So, naturally, it is the principle by which we determine the efficacy of the story. For a climax to move a reader, the reader must make sense of the suffering of the protagonist the way the protagonist does.
Elements of the human experience don’t change; namely, free-will, meaning, and sensation. But suffering does, and in some way suffering is what makes our experience truly human. However, there are still stories that are popular among people of all ideologies. Sure, there might be no story which everybody likes, but there are stories that seem unaffected by the ideological barrier. They have something more universal. I want to say that stories like The Odyssey and Dante's Inferno make sense of suffering in such a way transcends ideology, I just don't know what that way is.
- Jose-Hector Guardiola