Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Review: A River Runs Through It (Norman Maclean)

by CWK

This is the tale of how an older brother cannot, despite his best efforts and intentions, save his younger brother. He. Just. Can't. Save. Him. All he can do is admire his beauty while it crumbles to dust, and lives on only in memory. This is he saddest story I have ever read. It left me reeling for a week. Seriously, it left me in a state of despair. It left me thinking about all the people that I couldn't save, despite my best efforts and intentions.

So, this tale is a picture of hopelessness when there is nothing outside us to save (in this case: those we love). As a picture of hopelessness, it is quite poignant and effective: utterly genuine and sincere. As a picture of hopelessness, this is a masterpiece. If there was no God, this novella would be beautiful resignation; since there is a God who can save, it is a true tragedy, beautifully written, but incomplete.

In terms of tenor, I can't think of a better example of communication of pathos. Pathos: that is, the effective communication of affections. You feel loss when you read this. Real loss. However, Maclean gives pathos without logos: emotion without reason. It is a fine thing to feel hopelessness, loss, and sadness; it's not fine to only feel, and not think. In fact, one of the best ways out of the feeling of hopelessness -- maybe the only way -- is to think: to reason with oneself, like the Psalmist in the Scriptures, "Why are you so downcast within me, O my soul (Ps. 42 and 43)?" Why? Why? Why?! What is the reason? Let's think about this.

Norman Maclean nobly displays the pathos of loss and despair -- but unlike the Psalmist -- he never moves on to reason with himself or his reader. He never asks the simple question, "Why?" There are two important ways of asking the why question. The first is, "Why did this happen?" -- which is another way of saying, "Why, God?" This deals with the reason, or reasons, of God. Of course, his ways and reasons are always just, and good. However, we often don't ever get an answer to this particular why question. See the book of Job. Job didn't get an answer to, "Why, God?" He did, however, get more of God.

The second important why questions deals with our reason -- our reasoning. It asks, "Why are you responding like this?" -- which is another way of saying, "Why me?" Not, "why me" in the sense of, "Why did this happen to me," but "why me" in the sense of, "Why am I responding like this?" A form of this question was immortalized by the psalmist, "Why are you so downcast within me, O my soul?" With this question, we bring reason into the equation; we turn from questioning God to questioning ourselves. With this question, we reintroduce logos to pathos, and reason to affection. This is the question we often neglect; this is the question Maclean neglects. Yet, this is the question which moves us beyond despair. As I said, this is a question which Maclean never comes to. Thus, he presents a tragedy, only a tragedy, and a complete tragedy. So, he left us with a masterpiece of a complete tragedy. In other words, an incomplete masterpiece.

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