“How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?”

I’m thinking about using the movie In Bruges (McDonagh, 2008) in my ethics class to discuss some points from MacIntyre’s After Virtue, in particular his opening parable about a world that has lost the traditions and practices that give meaning to our moral terms.

In his blog post about the film my friend Barry Taylor gave the astute assement that In Bruges is

a film about the search for redemption in a world where religion, and specifically the Christian religion, has been either pushed to the edges or simply left behind as society moves in other directions.

In this respect, In Bruges reminded me of the novel Atonement. Both are about the search for judgment and redemption in a post-Christian world. Western culture no longer believes in God, but we still instinctively believe in sin. We know that even if God is dead, not everything is permitted. But we have nowhere to turn when we do sin. There is no one to judge us and no one to forgive us.

As I discussed in my earlier post on the film adaptation of Atonement, at the end of the story the narrator, Briony Tallis, confesses to having departed from the historical facts. The tragic “truth” would have been too depressing. In the novel, Briony writes:

How could that constitute an ending? What sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? Who would want to believe that they never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism?

Briony justifies her revisionist history by appealing the sort of postliberal theory of narrative truth I discussed in my review of the film.

When I am dead, and the Marshalls are dead, and the novel is finally published, we will only exist as my inventions. Briony will be as much of a fantasy as the lovers who shared a bed in Balham and enraged their landlady. No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel. I know there’s always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened? The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish. As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love.

As a narrative artist, Briony is creating truth. Of course, the difference between narrative truth in postliberal theology and in the novel Atonement is that the latter is not Scripture. The author of Atonement, Briony, is not God. But in order to generate the kind of truth she needs for forgiveness, she must act as God.

The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? there is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.

But perhaps it was not “an impossible task” after all since Briony has succeeding in making us “want to believe” her version of the story and not to “care what events and which individuals were misrepresented” in spite of our temptation toward “the bleakest realism”. Briony concludes:

I like to think that it was not weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me. Not quite, not yet. If I had the power to conjure them at my birthday celebration . . . Robbie and Cecilia, still alive, still in love, sitting side by side in the library, smiling at The Trials of Arabella? It’s not impossible.

In the end, it seems that Atonement is not entirely pessimistic about the possibility of art to offer redemption in a post-Christian world.

So what about In Bruges? What is that film’s take on the possibility of redemption?  That discussion will have to wait until a future post…

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