f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 4 of <em>Mariette in Ecstasy</em>—Seeing Both Sides of an Argument

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Day 4 of Mariette in Ecstasy—Seeing Both Sides of an Argument

Christian doctrine and modern philosophy teaches that there is an Ultimate and Universal Truth. There is right and there is wrong and those are the only two sides of an argument. Postmodernism has raised the spectre of “relativism” a notion as hated among conservative evangelicals as that of “President Hillary Clinton.” Relativism basically says that there is no right or wrong—whatever you think (so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else) is fine. I’m not going to get into this debate today, but I want to at least make one point on the relativists’ side: in some things we must admit that there is no definitive answer.

Pepsi or Coke? Global warming or environmentalist extremism? DiMaggio or Mantle? Lakers or Celtics? Republican or Democrat? Briefs or boxers? The list, truly, is endless.

The saying is goes: “There are two kinds of people in this world…” and while it’s reductionist, it’s also a powerful tool to remember in constructing tension in a story.

At one point in my life I had an entire list in my head of stories that pitted two extremes against each other and forced the read to make a choice between them. Usually, the story hedged its bets—thus the justice of Inspector Javert is shown to be invasive, obsessive and wrong-headed because Jean Valjean (emblematic of mercy) is so virtuous even though I think everyone would agree that justice in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Anyway, all this to say that the list in my head has been almost entirely purged or deleted and thus I’m left with one main example: the play Art by Yasmina Reza. I’m sure tomorrow ten other examples will magically reappear.

Anyway, Art is the story of three friends (the only characters in the play), Marc, Serge, and Ivan, who’ve known each other for years. One day, Serge buys a piece of modern art. It’s a white painting on white canvas. Depending on the light you may or may not be able to see a stripe. Marc—who hates pretension—is apoplectic. Caught in the middle is mild Ivan, who eventually is set off like a ticking time bomb after listening to these two argue. The arguments start over whether modern art is meaningful or utter crap (two popular views) and end up encapsulating a number of polarities that occur in different world-views. Two friends discover they may not really know the other. And the audience, depending on your POV, can’t help but side with one of the friends or sit staunchly in the middle saying, “You know, I can see both sides of the argument.”

It’s a wonderful play to see performed. Judd Hirsch played the part of Marc in the version I saw with a righteous (sometimes self-righteous) smugness. And what’s most amazing is that the reader (viewer) isn’t led to any conclusion. The play is nearly a perfect balance of the arguments in this long war between the avant-garde and the skeptics.

Mariette in Ecstasy does nearly as good a job in examining the question of whether Mariette’s stigmata are duplicitous or miraculous. The convent is split nearly down the middle on the issue and the bits of information about Mariette that Hansen reveals tips you back and forth from one side to the other. I’m not going share my opinion (you can email me seeking it after you’ve read the book yourself) but I will say that it makes for: 1.) an engaging piece of literature and 2.) a startling little bit of suspense. Hansen milks the tension between the two sides like the some courtroom dramas can keep you in suspense. Now that I think about in many ways this is a courtroom drama—just one set in a convent as the nuns have to decide whether the stigmata is real or not, thus offering up judgment.

Anyway, just a little trick to think about. How can you create tension by playing two competing ideals or points of view off of each other? And do you need to offer your own answer or can you present both arguments evenly and feel confident that the reader will choose wisely?

Tomorrow, we close with a closer look at how Hansen addresses the miraculous and the spiritual in Mariette in Ecstasy