Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Immanence versus Transcendence

The debate between immanence and transcendence has religious origins. An immanent view of God asserted that He was present all around us, while a transcendent view placed God above us. This debate has since seeped into the literary world, sometimes called presence versus transcendence, and discussed by critics such as Marjorie Perloff, among others.

The literary aspects of this debate concern whether or not a piece of writing should strive to reach divinity (defined in the most secular way possible!) by stretching for transcendence as it approaches the end. Should a story try to have universal themes and symbols? Should a writer consciously attempt to provide worldly insight in their stories?

Maybe not. An immanent or present view would say that by simply writing down the facts of the story and presenting them in a straight forward way, a writer is able to create the divine because the divine is present in all things. Furthermore, it may actually be less insightful to try to make the writing mean more than it does, because any attempt to explain the divine must automatically diminish it.

I've been thinking a lot about this topic lately, since my good friend and poet, Craig Cotter, keeps telling me to stop trying to have that big bang at the end of my stories. He tells me to simply let the story go where it is meant to go without my asserting additional (false) meaning to it.

I experiment with this idea, and I do think it is an interesting one. But it's hard to let go of the idea of having the grand finale.


  1. Think of it like this: No one enjoys jokes told by Mr. Explanation. So, write a story and let the readers read what they read, or have a couple of characters converse about their feelings and insights. But make it real!

    Stay away from:

    Character A: You know, our adventures have taught me Book Theme.

    Character B: Me too, and in order to expound upon your thoughts, I'm going to read a speech prepared by Davin.

  2. What Justus said, but less comically.

    Also, what Mark Twain said (I paraphrase): Don't write about mankind, write about a man.

    I think that the best we can do is write about our own idea of the world. The grander the theme, the less it seems to have any bearing on life, frankly. If your characters are grappling with your Big Idea, then your reader will see your argument without your having a billboard at the end of the book. In my opinion, a truly transcendant work of art only becomes that because the divine is everpresent in the work. In a Bach fugue, which measures contain the transcendant? All of them, and none of them individually.

    Which is to say, infuse your story with meaning (or divinity, if you like). The transcendant values are all in the mind of the reader, anyway. I'm willing to bet that what readers remember most in novels is not the end, but stops along the way there.

    I'm a bit rambly this morning; sorry.

  3. "Don't write about mankind, write about a man."

    I wonder if he would have agreed with, "By writing about a man, we write about mankind"?

    In my Sociology classes we often talked about the "sociological imagination." If a person has a sociological imagination, they can see how the struggles and triumphs of an individual apply to many people within that individual's society. It's essentially John-Donne stuff, but a bit less grand.

  4. I have a hard time with this, too. I start noticing themes emerging, and then I want to highlight those by creating scenes for the characters that are theme-y. I need to just write about the characters and not worry about the Greater Meanings of Life I'm hoping the story might have.

  5. I think a lot of great writers tell the story they have to tell and the themes emerge. (That's part of what makes them great writers.) When the theme develops naturally out of the story, it doesn't seem forced or contrived. That's not to say that some authors don't intend for those themes to be there or that if they do they appear forced. It's a hard thing to accomplish seamlessly though.

    In my experience, a lot of scholarship claims things to be in the author's mind that the author never intended.

  6. I love stories with big themes and they usually just emerge by themselves. But I also like when the author analizes ideas or feelings with his/her own words, because the beauty of the art of writing is how well you can express yourself or how well you use the words to describe some universal feelings.


  7. I have tried to end chapters on a big climax and it always ends up that the characters take me where the chapter should end.

    It's so surreal! Like they're real people and in a way they are!

    Just let them take where they will. No lessons learned just plain ol' fun!:)

  8. I'm not sure.

    But I can speak a bit from my own experience. I have two novels in progress--one almost polished, one not completed yet. The one I've almost polished was excruciating to write--in part because I had this higher meaning that I wanted to be sure to include. It was difficult. And, now that I'm polishing it, I think the story suffered for it. It feels forced; it sounds forced. WIth the other WIP, I was just writing to write and to tell the story...and already, the feedback is much more positive, the voice is more true, and the writing is easier and fun again. But I worry that the meaning is lacking...

  9. I always let the story go where it goes. I plan the end, but not how it will necessarily pan out. And every time I am surprised at how well it turns out. And guess what? No big huge bang at the end. :)

    Great post. I'm tired so sorry if some of it went over my mushy brain.

  10. Justus, I agree with you. This debate has something to do with the idea of "show don't tell" but it also has to do with symbols and other types of representation. I think of your story with the snakes. I think in that case the snakes are representing something else, which creates more of a transcendent work.

    Scott, maybe I was wrong to focus on the end, but it was more the idea of having transcendence by the time the story is concluded, if that makes sense. Do you think one needs to transcend anywhere in the story? Can a story just be?

    Justus, I think your second post gets more to the heart of what I was trying to say.

    Annie, I know what you mean. Sometimes things just rise up and you don't want to let them get away. For the record, I don't think there's anything wrong with it. I just think this is two possibilities, neither is right or wrong.

    lotusgirl, do you think themes are necessary at all? The immanent view is that you just write about what is. It's not just a matter of having themes emerge seamlessly, but of whether to have them at all.

    Krisz, I think I usually fall into that category of wanting more. But, now I question it more than I did before.

    Robyn, "Just plain ol' fun." That is an excellent way of paraphrasing it!

    Beth, I'm having a very similar experience. I think that's why I brought it up. It seems like the less I try to make a story important, the more people like what I write, in general. It's interesting and a bit frustrating at the same time.

    Lady Glamis, thanks for commenting! I'm sorry you had such a rough day! I'm looking forward to reading to the end of Monarch. :)

  11. "Do you think one needs to transcend anywhere in the story? Can a story just be?"

    I think Justus' second post gets it right: the struggles and triumphs of an individual apply to many people within that individual's society. I think that trying for transcendence will guarantee that it won't happen. Think of "Red Man, Blue Man." You don't put a theme in it, but by the end there is some sort of cumulative effect on the reader that's more powerful, I think, had you attempted to infuse the tale with a Deeper Meaning.

    If the story we're telling has meaning to the characters in the story, that's enough. If that meaning approaches divinity, then there you go. There are symbols in my novel, but the novel is not a metaphor for something beyond itself. That sort of writing is what's given literary fiction a bad name, I think. To refer to Lady Glamis' recent post on reading in layers, I certainly like it when there is more to a story than its surface, but I really think that pursuing a Grand Idea is a losing proposition. I should read the article to which you've linked; I've been too lazy to do that all day, and tonight I've been revising (another chapter done! Yay me!).

  12. Thanks, Scott. I actually didn't link an article because the information is in a book. I just wanted to give credit to Perloff by linking her website. Good luck with the revisions!

  13. ...I'm typically a thematic symbolic writer (and speaker in real life--I write like I talk pretty much). Some of the "meanings" I write are intentional, others come out even when I don't intend. I've intentionally written extended metaphors as both short stories and novels. My strongest responses have been on my more thematic works, and by strong that doesn't necessarily mean positive (though most were for my thematic works).

    Sometimes negative reactions also show a work is working because it has touched nerves readers don't want touched but the author intended as touched. I think writers should learn the difference between the-writing-is-poorly-done negative reactions and the-writing-is-affecting-people-negatively reactions; the latter often means the writer should keep at it, assuming she doesn't mind some adversity.

    I think this stuff depends on the writer, on what a writer's strong points are. I've often enjoyed reading giant involved works that span generations of characters. But I cannot write these, so I don't. My strongpoints are in other areas.

    If straightforward narratives are a writer's strongpoint, probably the writer should mostly stick with those. If thematic narratives are a writer's strongpoint, probably the writer should mostly stick with those. I've always felt that one of the biggest parts of writing was figuring out what your strong and weak points are, and then emphasizing the strong and minimizing the weak, in both number and extent. If a writer writes thematically and gets lots of genuine the-writing-is-poorly-done reactions, then the writer should first work on this writing more to see if she can improve, and if she then gets many of the same reactions, she should finally try other content.

    Each writer must do what the writer must do; I don't think "right" or "wrong" ways to write truly exist, just maybe different ways. If everyone wrote in the same damn way because they followed rules, the reading world would be extremely boring.

  14. I think if you tell what is, then themes will emerge of their own accord. You don't have to force them or put them in. They will just be there unless you try to keep them out. I think keeping them out would be quite a task and not worth the effort.

  15. Hm. Does a grand finale mean the opposite of immanence?

    I'm wondering how you would define a story like Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. The story has a conclusion -- a grand finale -- and a theme. The theme is of immanence. But I think by your definitions here, that would make it a transcendent story, because there is a clear moment when the protagonist realizes something about himself, his companion, his world and life in general.

    Anyway, if that *does* count as a transcendent moment, I suppose I do prefer that approach. I have read novels which *don't* build to a climax, which simply begin and then end, but I don't much care for them.

    Maybe this is also a genre issue. A mystery isn't over until you know whodunit. That might not answer the real questions raised in the story about the nature of good and evil, or justice vs revenge, however. Those questions could be left in the air.

    In fantasy, the question of reaching for divinity at the end takes on a whole different meaning. One of my favorite series (the Belgariad) ends with the hero slaying the Evil God so a new, Good God can arise. Clearly that approach would be over the top for pretty much any other genre.


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