Santiago Ramos’s reply to my essay on The Marriage Plot is thoughtful and perceptive, and it points a way beyond the impasse of the novel in an age of liberal individualism. Ramos calls for novelists to lead us out of that social condition, a position that, in fact, assumes my point that when social and religious institutions lose their authority over individuals, the conflicts and plots that make a novel interesting and significant collapse.
One must first note that Ramos underestimates the problem. He says that I argue that “we live in a world where ‘marriage’ can mean either a religious sacrament or a purely legal agreement between individuals.” But the decay of marriage goes farther than that. A legal agreement may be impersonal, but it is, at least, legally binding. For the characters in The Marriage Plot, and for all-too-many youths, marriage doesn’t mean much more than cohabitation. Getting out of a marriage isn’t much more difficult than getting into one (or so they think). With marriage and divorce so easy, they can’t serve, in themselves, as effective plot elements.
As Ramos notes, however, one can still turn this decline into rich literary material. T. S. Eliot and Cormac McCarthy serve as examples, both of them representing souls in a degraded world, a “waste land” nonetheless maintaining “foundational aspirations” and “reasons for living” that transcend private circumstances. Here the conflict returns in the form of individuals defying the please-yourself outlook, their principled devotions setting them apart. How much easier it would be for Eliot’s speaker to join the others in cheap acts of self-love, or for McCarthy’s father to abandon his son and fend for himself (or kill himself, as the mother does). They cannot do so, and their refusal is what makes their respective plots compelling.
As Ramos concludes, their example requires that the novelist (and his or her characters) “break with the relativism or narcissism that might be deforming his spirit.” Very well, but that means affirming the very things that liberal individualism undermines. The characters in The Marriage Plot don’t believe in them, and neither do most young people today (relativism as the customary position on all matters private). Ramos finds that motive in the novelist’s address to “you,” the reader, as if that call breaks one out of self-absorption. I’m not so sure, but in any case, this is to extend the “you” to an affirmation of marriage, the family, the church, the country, chastity, (occasional) obedience to authority, the wisdom of the past, the Ninth Commandment, and other norms and institutions in retreat at the current time. We have some novels that do so, such as McCarthy’s and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, but they are far outnumbered by novels that don’t (perhaps only a famous novelist can carry it off). Ramos cites Solzhenitsyn as another example. But how many Solzhenitsyns are getting MFAs, working in magazine offices, and otherwise occupying the pipelines of novelists in America?