When Flaubert compared the artist to God, it naturally followed – as all who knew what Flaubert was up to understood – that theological ideas and paradoxes would be absorbed and re-oriented in the world of art.
I’ve been reading Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Wife, which is a funny and depressing novel, and thinking of a paradox attirbuted to Aquinas entitled “the paradox of the stone”, or “the paradox of omnipotence.” The popular version goes like this: can God make a stone he can’t lift? Aquinas spoke of whether God could square the circle, and shows that this supposed limit on him omnipotence is no such thing. Others have tried to show the logical emptiness of the stone paradox. Still, for non-logicians, it is a rather compelling idea. Either God can’t make a stone he can’t life, in which case he is not omnipotent, or he can, in which case he is also not omnipotent.
Some paradoxes lead to logically useful devices in the world of logical theory, but I don’t think this one has.
However, in the world of the novel, the paradox is very illuminating. Restated, it would be: can a novelist create a fictional novelist greater than herself?
This question is tickled in various of Balzac’s novels. In many of them he tells us of genious musicians and sculptors, and we can accept these things, because we can accept descriptions of works that we can’t see or hear as part of the novelist’s licence. Things get much harder when we are told of a great writer. Lucien Rubempré is supposed to be a great poet, and Balzac even cites him – but Balzac is no Victor Hugo.
However, Balzac never wrote about a great novelist. Proust did. Proust neatly does an endrun around the omnipotence problem by making Marcel’s becoming a novelist the novel. It is, indeed, a great novel, but the story would not have worked if A la recherche was already completed – if the fictional Marcel was supposed to have written it already. It would be an entirely different novel, and hard to imagine, since we would have no reason to credit Marcel with being a great writer for a novel that remains, for us, unknown and fictitious.
The narrator of Wolitzer’s novel is the wife of a ‘great’ American novelist, Joe Castleman. It being the nature of greatness to attract prizes, the wife is accompanying her husband to Finland to receive some fictitious half a million dollar prize that is a semi-Nobel. The wife’s story, however, is an evil eyed portrait of Joe – a poor father, a poor lover, a cheat, a slob, and all the rest. Wolitzer’s character has a voice like an Iris Owens character – scathingly funny. But the humor chops Joe down to the point that it is impossible to believe he is a great writer. This is finessed by hints that actually, Joe’s wife ghosts his material.
But it is here that the paradox kicks in, because although this is a good novel, it isn’t a great, Nobel prize winning novel. And in a sense Wolitzer has stuck herself with a narrator who is telling about how her work has won the semi-nobel prize. That is a huge burden to put a novel under. It seems, at the very least, immodest, since the inference is that the writer of the novel is telling us how good she is through her protagonist.
Ulysses nears this paradox too – if we take Stephen Daedalus to be James Joyce. But here’s the thing: Stephan Daedalus could never have written Ulysses. He is much too small. He doesn’t have the degree of imagination that would let him ‘into’ Leopold Bloom. This is one of the ways out of the paradox, particularizing a character to the point that this character could not exist outside the pages of the novel, gazing in.
I don’t think that the paradox brings down Wolitzer’s novel – but it does put the weight of the book on the particulars instead of the structure. Since, however, Joan Castelman is essentially a comic narrator, she is not only allowed to create a stone that she can’t lift, but allowed to milk as much as she can from that ludicrous routine.
Perhaps this is what God does, too, with the paradox that Aquinas wrapped around his neck.