I recently re-read “Talking Forks: Fiction and the Inner Life of Objects,” an essay from Charles Baxter’s book Burning Down The House: Essays on Fiction. To me, the most interesting parts of the essay were when Baxter touched on the religious manner in which much fiction imbues inanimate objects with animation, and thus, meaning. The essay begins with Baxter describing a scene in Ivan Turgenev’s second novel, Home of the Gentry (1859), when the formerly deluded character Lavretsky has a moment of clarity. He is sitting and simply taking in the sounds of nature on a Russian estate, when “All at once the sounds die, and Lavretsky is ‘engulfed’ in silence. He looks up and sees ‘the tranquil blue of the sky, and the clouds floating silently upon it; it seemed as if they knew why and where they were going.'” Baxter continues, “Russian literature has more than a few moments…when wisdom arises out of indolence.” He goes on to note the agency Turgenev grants the clouds: “…in this air-pocket of silence the clouds acquire consciousness and a sort of intelligence. The passing of the clouds feels slightly god-haunted, although no god is visible anywhere in the scene.”
I love this last moment–it’s a beautifully written nugget of criticism, and touches on a theme I find fascinating: as we read this story in our postmodern, highly scientific era, what does it mean for objects to be god-haunted? For 21st-century agnostic believers like myself, what does it mean–and why is it so meaningful–for certain objects to be “god-haunted”? Baxter’s essay is, in essence, about objects imbued with life, the inanimate made animate–and what is God if not the great animator?
But as Baxter points out, this connection I’ve drawn is not a popular one in this age. He writes, “The twentieth century has built up a powerful set of intellectual shortcuts and devices that help us defend ourselves against moments when clouds suddenly appear to think.” He goes on to discuss Ruskin’s disgust at writers’ playing God in this manner, imbuing inanimate objects with meaning and emotion.
However, he does not explicitly mention God again until much later in the essay, when he writes of “Time Passes,” the middle section of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. In this section, we watch the Ramsay family house decaying as the family itself disintegrates. Baxter writes, “As the members of the family die, the house is invaded by wind and rain and darkness. We witness a soul, a house, a house-as-soul, dying also” (97).
He adds, “But what is being projected onto the house is not a human feeling, but a god’s.” As the house is revived, so is the spirit, which is a religious notion of ever there was one. Baxter writes, “…this section of Woolf’s novel equates housekeeping with religion. Taking care of things, it claims, is a way back to the reconstitution of the self” (98). (This notion is also beautifully illustrated in Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River”, the inspiration for my blog title, in which a traumatized war veteran–although, of course, he is never explicitly defined as such–finds healing in the simple tasks of camping and fishing in the woods.)
But what does it really mean for an object to imbued with a god-feeling, as opposed to a human feeling? I do not know what Baxter would reply, but the way I would answer this question would be to look at the end of his essay, where he notes that in fiction, object and setting are often used to simply emphasize and echo a character’s state. As he says, “A sad man sees sad trees. A murderous man gazes upon a murderous lake.” But this, Baxter argues, is not the most powerful way that the inanimate can become animate in fiction. He writes,
If objects reflect only the characters who look upon them, they have nothing to tell us. All they would do is mirror us. They would enlarge, once again, the human realm. But the human realm in our time needs no further enlargement. It is already bloated, in many senses at once (103).
In fiction, then, perhaps the greatest function of the animated object/setting is not to enlarge the reader’s sense of herself, but rather to humble; to give a sense of scale. This is why we invent deities and supernatural beings: perversely enough, many of us want to believe that there is something out there beyond our comprehension. On some level, we sense that we are in fact tiny, and that the existence of which we are a microscopic part is enormously mysterious. When we wonder if the clouds perhaps have a charted path, a specific destination, this is not literally what’s on our minds. What we’re really wondering is if there is perhaps much more to existence than what our raving egoic monkey-mind is forever telling us. We secretly dream that we may not be the center of the universe. Perhaps we even secretly know that our long-sought-after happiness is in that very dream.