Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How PD James made me a Complementarian

One of the criticisms of the detective story is that this imposed pattern is mere formula writing, that it binds the novelist in a straightjacket which is inimical to the artistic freedom which is essential to creativity, and that subtlety of characterisation, a setting which comes alive for the reader and even credibility are sacrificed to the dominance of structure and plot. But what I find fascinating is the extraordinary variety of books and writers which this so-called formula has been able to accommodate, and how many authors have found the constraints and conventions of the detective story liberating rather than inhibiting of their creative imagination.

So writes P. D. James on page 10 of her new book, Talking about Detective Fiction.

I am not quite sure if it is better to talk about the irony, the dramatic irony of finding freedom and beauty within what seem to be unduly constraining rules -- or the appearance of contradiction. Whichever it is, one of the most delicious and beautiful delights of Complementarianism is finding this freedom within the boundaries of Gods laws.

James is here obviously talking about writing detective fiction and the normal conventions of same. She later mentions the same sort of finding in connection with writing romance novels. And here we might be able to see, more obviously, how it plays out. From page 11:

And detective stories are not the only novels which conform to a recognised convention and structure. All Jane Austen's novels have a common storyline: an attractive and virtuous young woman surmounts difficulties to achieve marriage to the man of her choice. This is the age-long convention of the romantic novel, but with Jane Austen we have [Harlequin] written by a genius.

When I read that first paragraph quoted above, I had a frisson of anticipation, a sort of vision. What immediately bloomed forth in my mind's eye was God's conventions for men and women. From the outside they look artificially constraining. But, from the inside, we can see that they provide for a beautiful variety of expression. No two marriages look exactly the same. There is much play within those conventions. As with dancing, there is a beauty expressed by living within these conventions, but each dance, each marriage is its own. The apparent contradiction is to be found that, by watching from the outside, it often looks like those marriages, those couples who are living at the center of their faith -- it sometimes seems impossible to tell when the man is leading. But leading he is.

Now, in the second quote above, we can see the same thing. I have substituted Harlequin for the British series James mentions, but the outcome is the same. Our critics look from the outside, look only at the conventions, and come up with Harlequin. But from the inside, that is inside to those who embrace sexual orthodoxy, we can see the beauty of individual expression. We have embraced the reality and not simply the instructions. Standing on the outside looking in, all you have are the rules and all you can see is Harlequin. But, once you step inside, you see the freedom and beauty -- what looks like a Harlequin formula becomes Emma.

Whether it is dancing, cooking, marriage -- what looks like a simple, constraining formula from the outside reveals an incredible depth of beauty and freedom of expression from the inside. Once you learn the rules, you can improvise -- and appear to break them while actually filling them out and making them your own.



Jane said...

As a fan of PD James, Jane Austen, and sexual orthodoxy, it's hard to say how much I love this post!

pentamom (Jane D.)

alaiyo said...

Good post, Kamilla! :)

Fr. Bill said...

In terms of literature, you're right on -- it is the restrictions, and the conformity to them, that generate unbelievable beauty.

Think of the sonnet form, for example.

Or what I've found to be the most amazing and most constraining form, the haiku. Nothing is more like a straightjacket than a haiku.

We're watching the Olympics now, and our favorite is the skating, especially the dancing and the pairs. Again, the stunning bueaty of the greatest skaters is coming from their exploitation of the constraints to generate intense beauty and power.

These and similar things are just simple examples of a life that can be lived in a marriage.

Judy W. said...

Excellent post. And you can see that constraints are part of nature and God's law when you see the chaos caused by the removal of constraints, whether that be in male-female relationships, art, music, literature, language, education, child-rearing, morality, or any area of life you can think of. I especially appreciate the post because I spent so much of my life not understanding this simple principle, although I lived by it for the most part.

Kevin Jones said...

Artistic limits and social roles are a given, and so are a gift.

It can take humility to receive a gift, but the alternative is often anxious and flailing attempts at self-definition.

Kamilla said...


Humility - of course!


Barbara said...

Absolutely. God's wisdom is foolishness to the world. His ways always seem to our flesh to be limiting, when He actually gives us freedom.