Ah, redemption. Don’t you love it? Actually no, I don’t. There might be thousands of Internet users who say they’re suckers for redemption stories, but I’m not one of them. In fact, I’m starting to think redemption sucks. At least the way it’s being served to us by coffee-shop authors and talk-show participants looking for Hollywood contracts. (Note to all those wannabes slaving over screenplays: forget Final Draft or Dramatica, and get yourself, your dirty little secret, your struggle, and hard-won deliverance, onto confessional TV a.s.a.p.)
I’m an early morning writer, and by midday or thereabouts I’m usually craving a break from whatever it is I’m working on. If I’m at home I’ll switch on the TV and eat lunch with Dr. Phil or Oprah. And a procession of unhappy or reformed guests looking to turn their lives around, or spruik their new tell-all book: How I Overcame Drugs/Abuse/Obesity/Obsession/Whatever. Oprah’s guests are frequently ‘celebrities’, while Dr. Phil’s tend to be Christian whitefolks. (You’d never guess the USA was the culturally diverse place it is from watching Dr. Phil.)
OK, so journeys from sin to redemption, adversity to success, are a popular theme in American culture. But where does this appetite for these kinds of narratives come from? Has it always existed, or is it a more recent hunger? Is it a by-product of the self-help and recovery movements? (See sociologist Frank Furedi’s article An emotional striptease in Spiked about the rise of ‘misery literature’.)
What I find particularly ironic however, is that although audiences and readers like the idea of redemption (and by extension, forgiveness) on stage, screen and in print, in reality we’re much less open and forgiving. And then there’s that murky political undercurrent … The right likes stories of redemption, because they validate their work-and-individual-responsibility agenda: If this person can pull herself or himself out of poverty or misfortune, then why the hell can’t everyone?
In a letter to his brother, John Keats introduced the wonderful concept of ‘negative capability’. We are, said the poet, ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ I think my real problem with these narratives of redemption is their simplistic view of the world, their narrow notion of storytelling, their reductive, plot-point understanding of human behaviour and experience.
Perhaps I’m naïve or overly idealistic, but I believe that literature and art structure the collective experience; help us make sense of the world, stretch our horizons, and enable us to see ourselves in new ways. So if we’re going to have these tales of redemption—and their popularity doesn’t looks like waning any time soon—let’s go for the truly insightful and extraordinary. And top of the list I’m going to nominate St Augustine’s Confessions. One of the first autobiographies ever written, and a searching and disarmingly candid account of one man’s journey from a quagmire of crime, lust and hypocrisy to a new life in God.