Gilead: A Novel

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On Literature and Consciousness

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Not far from where the brackish water of the delta irrigates the silty banks of the Nile, it was once imagined that a man named Sinuhe lived. Some forty centuries ago this gentleman was envisioned to have walked in the cool of the evening under a motley pink sky, a belly full of stewed pigeon, dates, and sandy Egyptian beer. In twelve pages of dense, narrative-rich prose, the author recounts Sinuhe’s service to Prince Senworset while in Libya, the assassination of the Pharaoh Amenemhat, and the diplomat’s subsequent exile to Canaan wherein he becomes the son-in-law of a powerful chief, subdues several rebellious tribes, and ultimately returns to Egypt where he can once again walk by his beloved Nile before his death. “I, Sinuhe, the son of Senmut and of his wife Kipa, write this,” begins the narrative of the titular official, “I do not write it to the glory of the gods in the land of Kem, for I am weary of gods, nor to the glory of the Pharaohs, for I am weary of their deeds. I write neither from fear nor from any hope of the future, but for myself alone.” This is the greatest opening line in imaginative literature, because it’s the first one ever written. How can the invention of fiction itself be topped?  

Whoever pressed stylus to papyri some eighteen centuries before Christ (The Tale of Sinuhe takes places two hundred years before it was written) has her central character pray that God may “hearken to the prayer of one far away!… may the King have mercy on me… may I be conducted to the city of eternity.” Fitting, since the author of The Tale of Sinuhe birthed her character from pure thought, and in the process invented fiction, invented consciousness, invented thought, even invented being human. Because Sinuhe is eternal — the first completely fictional character to be conveyed in a glorious first-person prose narration. The Tale of Sinuhe is the earliest of an extant type, but there are other examples from ancient Egypt, and indeed Mesopotamia, and then of course ancient Greece and Rome as well. As a means of conveying testimony, or history, or even epic, there is a utility to first-person narration, but The Tale of Sinuhe is something so strange, so uncanny, so odd, that we tend to ignore it by dint of how abundantly common it is today. Whoever wrote this proto-novel was able to conceive of a totally constructed consciousness and to compel her readers to inhabit that invented mind.

Hard to know how common this type of writing was, since so little survives, but of the scraps that we have there is a narration that can seem disturbingly contemporary. Written some eight-hundred years after Sinuhe’s tale, The Report of Wenamun is a fictional story about a traveling Egyptian merchant who in sojourns throughout Lebanon and Cyprus must confront the embarrassment of being a subject from a once-great but now declining empire. With startling literary realism, Wenamun grapples with his own impotence and obsolescence, including descriptions of finding a character “seated in his upper chamber with his back against a window, and the waves of the great sea of Syria… [breaking] behind him.” What a strange thing to do, not to report on the affairs of kings, or even to write your own autobiography, but rather to manifest from pure ether somebody who never actually lived, and with a charged magic make them come to life. In that image of the ocean breaking upon the strand — the sound of the crashing water, the cawing of gulls, the smell of salt in the air — the author has bottled pure experience and handed it to us three millennia later.

Critic Terry Eagleton claims in The Event of Literature that “Fiction is a question of how texts behave, and of how we treat them, not primarily of genre.” What makes The Tale of Sinuhe behave differently is that it places the reader into the skull of the imagined character, that it works as a submersible pushing somebody deep into the murky darkness of not just another consciousness, but that replicates experience of being another mind. That’s what makes the first-person different; that it catalogues the moments which constitute the awareness of another mind — the crumbly texture of a madeleine dunked in tea, the warmth of a shared bed in a rickety old inn on a rainy Nantucket evening, the sad reflective poignancy of pausing to watch the ducks in Central Park — and makes them your own, for a time. The first-person narrative is a machine for transforming one soul into another. Such narration preserves a crystalline moment in words like an insect in amber. The ancient Egyptians believed that baboon-faced Thoth invented writing (sometimes he was an ibis). Perhaps it was this bestial visage who wrote these first fictions? Writing in his introduction to the collection Land of Enchanters: Egyptian Short Stories from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Bernard Lewis says that the Tale of Sinuhe “employs every sentence construction and literary device known in… [her] period together with a rich vocabulary to give variety and color to… [her] narrative.” Fiction is a variety of virtual reality first invented four thousand years ago.

By combining first-person narration with fictionality, the author built the most potent mechanism for empathy which humans have ever encountered; the ability to not just conjure consciousness from out of nothing, but to inhabit another person’s life. Critic James Wood writes in How Fiction Works that first-person narration is “generally a nice hoax: the narrator pretends to speak to us, while in fact the author is writing to us, and we go along with the deception happily enough.” Wood isn’t wrong – first-person narration, in fact all narration, is fundamentally a hoax, or maybe more appropriately an illusion. What I’d venture is that this chimera, the fantasy of fiction, the mirage of narration, doesn’t just imitate consciousness — it is consciousness. Furthermore, different types of narration exemplify different varieties of consciousness, all built upon that hard currency of experience, so that the first-person provides the earliest intimations of what it means to be a mind in time and space. That nameless Egyptian writer gave us the most potent of incantations — that of the eternal I. “By the end of the 19th century [BCE],” writes Steven Moore in The Novel: An Alternative History, “all the elements of the novel were in place: sustained narrative, dialogue, characterization, formal strategies, rhetorical devices.” Moore offers a revisionist genealogy of the novel, pushing its origins back thousands of years before the seventeenth-century, but regardless of how we define the form itself, it’s incontrovertible that at the very least The Tale of Sinuhe offers something original. Whether or not we consider the story to be a “novel,” with all of the social and cultural connotations of that word (Moore says it is, I say eh), at the very least Sinuhe is the earliest extant fragment of a fictional first-person narrative, and thus a landmark in the history of consciousness.  

What the Big Bang is to cosmology, The Tale of Sinuhe is to literature; what the Cambrian Explosion is to natural history, so narrative is to culture. An entire history of what it means to be a human being could focus entirely on the different persons of narration, and what they say about all the ways in which we can understand reality. Every schoolchild knows that narration breaks down into three persons: the omniscient Father of the third-person, the eerie Spirit of the second-person placing the reader themselves into the narrative, and the Son of the first-person, whereby the reader is incarnated into the character. It’s more complicated than this, of course; there’s first-person unreliable narrators and third-person limited omniscient narrators; plural first-person narratives and free indirect discourse; and heterodiegetic narrators and focalized homodiegetic characters. Regardless of the specifics of what narrative person a story is written in, the way a narrative is told conveys certain elements of perception. The voice which we choose says something about reality; it becomes its own sort of reality. As Michael McKeon explains in Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach, the first-person form is associated with “interiority as subjectivity, of character as personality and selfhood, and of plot as the progressive development of the integral individual.”

The history of the novel is a history of consciousness. During the eighteenth-century, in the aftershocks of the emergence of the modern novel, first-person faux-memoirs — fictional accounts written with the conceit that they were merely found documents like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels — reflected both the Protestant attraction towards the self-introspection which the novel allowed for, but also an anxiety over its potentially idolatrous fictionality (the better to pretend that these works actually happened). By the nineteenth-century that concern manifested in the enthusiasm for epistolary novels, a slight variation on the “real document” trope for grappling with fictionality, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Concurrently, the nineteenth-century saw the rise in the third-person omniscient narrations, with all of its intimations of God-like eternity that we associate with novels like Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. By contrast, the twentieth-century marked the emergence of stream-of-consciousness in high modernist novels such as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury; and following the precedent of Gustave Flaubert and Jane Austen, authors like Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway and D.H. Lawrence in The Rainbow made immaculate use of free indirect discourse, where the intimacy of the first person is mingled into the bird’s eye perspective of the third. All of these are radical; all of them miracles in their own way. But the first-person is only that which is able to transplant personal identity itself.

“With the engine stalled, we would notice the deep silence reigning in the park around us, in the summer villa before us, in the world everywhere,” writes Orhan Pamuk in his novel The Museum of Innocence. “We would listen enchanted to the whirring of an insect beginning vernal flight before the onset of spring, and we would know what a wondrous thing it was to be alive in a park on a spring day in Istanbul.” Though I have never perambulated alongside the Bosporus on a spring day, Pamuk is still able to, by an uncanny theurgy, make the experience of his character Kemal my own. Certainly lush descriptions can be manifested in any narrative perspective, and a first-person narrator can also provide bare-bones exposition, yet there is something particularly uncanny about the fact that by staring at ink stains on dead trees we can hallucinate that we’re entirely other people in Istanbul. The existentialist Martin Heidegger argued that the central problem of philosophy was that of “Being,” which is to say the question of what it means to be this self-aware creature interacting with an abstract, impersonal universe. By preserving experience as if a bit of tissue stained on a microscope slide, first-person narration acts as a means of bracketing time outward, the better to comprehend this mystery of Being. “We ourselves are the entities to be analyzed,” Heidegger writes in Being and Time, and what medium is more uniquely suited for that than first-person narration?

The first-person isn’t merely some sort of textual flypaper that captures sensory ephemera which flit before the eyes and past the ears, but it even more uncannily makes the thoughts of another person — an invented person — your own. By rhetorical alchemy it transmutes your being. Think of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie, who for all of his flippancy and aristocratic foppishness arrives on the page as a keen and defined personality in his own right (and write). “I don’t know if you have the same experience, but a thing I have found in life is that from time to time, as you jog along, there occur moments which you are able to recognize immediately with the naked eye as high spots,” Wodehouse writes in The Code of the Woosters. “Something tells you that they are going to remain etched, if etched is the word I want, forever on the memory and will come back to you at intervals down the years, as you are dropping off to sleep, banishing that drowsy feeling and causing you to leap on the pillow like a gaffed salmon.” If genteel and relaxed Anglophilia isn’t your thing, you can rather turn into the nameless narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, buffeted and assaulted by American racism and denied self-definition in his almost ontological anonymity, who recalls the “sudden arpeggios of laughter lilting across the tender, springtime grass — gay-welling, far-floating, fluent, spontaneous, a bell-like feminine fluting, then suppressed; as though snuffed swiftly and irrevocably beneath the quiet solemnity of the vespered air now vibrant with somber chapel bells.”

Those who harden literature into reading lists, syllabi, and ultimately the canon have personal, social, and cultural reasons for being attracted to the works that they choose to enshrine, yet something as simple as a compelling narrative voice is what ultimately draws readers. An author who is able to conjure from pure nothingness a personality that seems realer than real is like Prospero conjuring specters out of the ether. Denis Johnson was able to incarnate spirits from spirits in his classic novel of junkie disaffection Jesus’ Son. Few novels are able to convey the fractured consciousness of the alcoholic (and I know) as well as Johnson’s does; his unnamed character known only as “Fuckhead” filtering through the distillery of his mind every evasion, half-truth, duplicity (to self and others), and finally radical honesty that the drug addict must contend with if they’re to achieve any semblance of sanity. Writing of an Iowa City bar and its bartender, Johnson says that “The Vine had no jukebox, but a real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. ‘Nurse,’ I sobbed. She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring. ‘You have a lovely pitching arm.’” For those normies of a regular constitution, the madness of addictions like Fuckhead’s can seem a simple issue of willpower, yet the distinctive first-person of Jesus’ Son conveys, at least a bit, what it means to be locked inside a cage of your own forging. Fuckhead recalls seeing the aforementioned bartender after he’d gotten clean: “I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”

Alcoholism isn’t the only manifestation of consciousness at war with itself; self-awareness turned inside out so that a proper appraisal of reality becomes impossible. Consider the butler Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, who carries himself with implacable dignity and forbearance, and is committed to the reputation of his master Lord Darlington, while overlooking the aristocrat’s Nazi sympathies. Stevens is a character of great sympathy, despite his own loyalty being so extreme that it becomes a character deficiency. No mind is ever built entirely of abstractions. Rather, our personalities are always constituted by a million prosaic experiences; there is much more of the human in making a cup of coffee or scrubbing a toilet than there is anything that’s simply abstract. “I have remained here on this bench to await the event that has just taken place – namely, the switching on of the pier light,” remembers Stevens, “for a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should… make the best of what remains of my day.” A distillation of individual thought as it experiences the world, to move from switching on a light to a reflection on mortality. Ishiguro captures far more of life in Remains of the Day than does a manifesto, a treatise, a syllogism, a theological tract.

By its very existence, fictional literature is an argument about divinity, about humanity, about creativity. That an author is able to compel a reader into the perspective of a radically different human being is the greatest claim that there is to the multiplicity of existence, of the sheer, radiating glory of being. Take Marilyn Robinson’s Rev. John Ames, an elderly Congregationalist minister in small-town Iowa in 1956, who unfolds himself in a series of letters he’s writing to his young son, which constitutes the entirety of the novel Gilead. Devout, reverential, and most of all good, Rev. Ames’ experiences — not just the bare facts of his life but his reactions to them — is exceedingly distant from my own biography. As with so many readers of Gilead, I feel that there is a supreme honor in being able to occupy Ames’ lectern for a time, to read his epistles as if you were his son. In what for me remains one of the most oddly moving passages in recent American literature, Robinson writes how “Once, we baptized a litter of cats.” Ames enumerates the unusual piety of his childhood, and how that compelled a group of similarly religious children fearful of the perdition which awaited pagan kittens to dressing the animals in doll clothing while uttering Trinitarian invocations and using water to mark the cross on their furry foreheads. “I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing.” The way that Ames recounts the impromptu feline conversion is funny, in the way that the things children do often are, especially the image of the meowing cat dressed like a baby, their perfidious mother stealing them back by the napes of their neck, all while the event is marked by the young future minister trying to bring as many of the kittens to Christ as he could. “For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing… It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me so to speak.”

And so have I, so to speak, felt that same emotion, despite not being a Congregational minister, a resident of rural Iowa, or a man born in the last decades of the Victorian era writing letters to his son. What the descriptions of first-person narration accomplish — both the litany of detail in the material world, and the self-reflection on what it means to be an aware being — is the final disproof of solipsism. The first-person narration, when done deftly and subtly, proves that yours isn’t the only consciousness, because such prose generates a unique mind and asks you to enter into it; the invitation alone is proof that you aren’t all that exists. Literature itself is a giant conscious being — all of those texts from Sinhu onward mingling together and interacting across the millennia like synapses firing in a brain. Writing may not be reducible to thought, but it is a type of thought. Fiction is thus an engine for transformation, a mechanism for turning you into another person. Or animal. Or thing. Or an entity omniscient. Writing of the feline baptism, Ames remembers that “The sensation is one of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.” This, it seems to me, is an accurate definition of literature as well, so that fiction itself is a type of baptism. Writing and reading, like baptism — and all things which are sacred — is simply the act of really knowing a creature.

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