Shelby Foote and “Sub-Creation”

It is an old truism that imaginative writers play God. They create a world and orchestrate its happening.

J.R.R. Tolkien calls this “sub-creation” in his famous essay “On Fairy Stories.” “Sub-creation” is an echo of God’s creation, though due to man’s fallenness it can have an idolatrous sinister side as well. It too must be redeemed. Here is a succinct statement of the phenomenon in general:

Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. 

But this sort of overarching pseudo-divine control comes with challenges of its own. Literature is a human activity–but our lives are not like that. We do not have the bird’s-eye view. Shelby Foote has the anonymous first speaker (of twelve) in chapter 6 of Shiloh, “Squad, 23d Indiana,” challenge what we might call the “narrative divine” point-of-view, usually called the “omniscient narrator.”

And it was the same all down the line. Every one of the twelve had his own particular story.

This tied in with what Corporal Blake said during one of the halts Sunday while we were marching from Stony Lonesome toward the sound of guns across the creek He said books about war were written to be read by God Amighty, because no one but God ever saw it that way. A book about war, to be read by men, ought to tell what each of the twelve of us saw in our own little corner. Then it would be the way it was not to God but to us.

I saw what he meant but it was useless talking. Nobody would do it that way. It would be too jumbled. People when they read, and people when they write, want to be looking out of that big Eye in the sky, playing God.

What Foote has his character say here is not, of course, a refutation of the idea of “sub-creation.” (Foote is, after all, giving his reader a kind of synoptic picture of the Battle of Shiloh through manifold particular accounts.) But the way in which it points up the difficulties of universalizing “sub-creation” is a way of taking us back to one of the most fundamental of philosophical and theological problems, viz., the relation of the one and the many. And it is a problem that literature can help us to think through as effectively as other discursive modes. Like one of Plato’s aporetic dialogues, literature can be the spur to dialectical reflection rather than its final answer.


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