The Call of Stories

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2067

Admirers of Robert Coles were not surprised to find in a recent issue of The New York Times Book Review a major review by Coles of Norman Sherry’s biography of Graham Greene (The Life of Graham Green, Vol 1: 1904-1939, reviewed in this volume). But what of readers unfamiliar with Coles? “Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard University,” explained The New York Times, yet Coles’s review does not focus on Sherry’s interpretation of Greene’s boyhood. If anything, Coles is at pains to avoid any hint of psychological reductionism. In a revealing sentence he says of Greene, “I kept wondering whether his accusatory self-arraignments ought not to be regarded as carefully weighted moral and spiritual reflections. He had, after all, joined a church whose saints for centuries have not shirked the toughest kind of self-scrutiny.” A child psychiatrist who can write sensitively about Greene’s literary development in relation to his conversion to Roman Catholicism? Here indeed is an unusual thing. Who then is Robert Coles?

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In a world where careers are overinvested with significance, Coles—as if to protest this fact—refuses to be limited by his social title. Bruce Ronda’s insightful study Intellect and Spirit: The Life and Work of Robert Coles (1989) sees Coles as social psychologist, child psychiatrist, literary critic, student of politics and culture, man of faith, and outsider who craves community. Yet a perusal of Coles’s titles (more than forty books, cascades of articles and reviews) only partly confirms Ronda’s list of roles. Coles’s famous five-volume series Children of Crisis (1967-1977) consists largely of penetrating interviews with young people living at the margins of American society: black children in the stresses and confusions of school desegregation; brown and white children of migrant workers and sharecroppers; Eskimo, Chicano, and Native American children; sons and daughters of the rich. In this series, Coles’s questions are certainly informed by his medical training, but his purposes transcend “research” and “therapy.” In other books, he has insisted on letting the oppressed find their own voices, speak for themselves, display their inherent dignity. (Coles’s fondness for tape recorders finds its origin here.) His work is infused with the American quest for reform and social equality. A Boston-reared Protestant whose mother came from Iowa and father from England, his cultural and spiritual roots reach back to Puritanism and abolitionism.

Ronda thus might profitably have linked Coles to the muckraking tradition as well as to social idealists such as Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas. At the same time, as Ronda suggests, Coles is certainly “a man of faith.” Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are major heroes for him; he has written books on such contemporary Christian figures as Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, James Agee, and Dorothy Day. One of Coles’s regular classes at Harvard is “Literature of Christian Reflection”; here writers as diverse as John of the Cross, Philip Larkin, Emily Dickinson, and Blaise Pascal are treated. But where should Coles be placed on the theological map? On the basis of his previous work, one wants to situate him near Social Gospel liberalism—or perhaps down the street in Reinhold Niebuhr’s edifice of “Christian Realism.” Coles’s interest in literature and the powers of narrative, however, would seem to make him part of the post—Niebuhrian trend of narrative theology led by such figures as Hans Frei, James McClendon, and Stanley Hauerwas.

Curiously, The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination provides few obvious clues about Coles’s present theological preoccupations, despite the book’s engagement with such God-wrestlers as Fyodor Dostoevski, Leo Tolstoy, Percy, O’Connor, and I D. Salinger. Coles’s interest is rather to offer good stories about stories—about the way narratives achieve a dynamism in the lives of readers and communities of readers. The book is less a contribution to moral philosophy or theology than to what Coles calls “the literary documentary tradition.” He speaks of his effort as “a kind of field work,” a “collective exploration of the personal responses of various American students to a particular literary tradition.” Coles is preoccupied with how short stories and novels open avenues of spiritual and moral growth, summon readers to take unfamiliar paths, provide mirrors by which the true self can accurately be glimpsed. Another of Coles’s tape- recorder books, then, The Call of Stories is notably lacking in analytic and theoretical material.

Despite its title, Coles’s first chapter, “Stories and Theories,” displays this very nontheoretical intention. Relating experiences he had as a young psychiatrist, it shows how he was forced to rethink therapeutic situations. Guided by Alfred 0. Ludwig, Coles jettisoned the “symptomological” approach to patients. Healing, he gradually learned, is possible only when the whole person (not the “patient”) is engaged and the expert’s own vulnerability exposed. Stories, mutually told by therapist and client, become catalysts for this risky transaction. Setting aside diagnostic concepts (”phobic,” “hypomanic,” “defensive”), Coles learned both to surrender himself to his patients’ radical particularity and to avoid rushing to theoretical interpretations. “Prodded repeatedly by [Ludwig],” he relates, “I gradually found myself more interested in the concrete details of a given person’s narrative than in aggressively formulating her or his ’problems.’” He begins to view medical work in different terms: The patient is “teacher”; the doctor is “listener” or clarifier of stories; the psychiatrist is the patient’s biographer. A medical ethic began to emerge, expressed best by his mentor and friend, the poet-physician William Carlos Williams: “Their story, yours, mine—it’s what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.”

Aside from an “interlude” on the uses of poetry in medical school curricula, the remaining chapters of The Call of Stories trace the career of stories in the human life- cycle: “Finding a Direction,” “Vocational Choices and Hazards,” “The Private Life,” and “Looking Backwards.” In each of these, Coles’s concern is the way in which students and patients measure themselves by literary texts. Having taught certain works again and again, Coles has stories of his own about reader reactions. We learn of the impact of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” on several readers, including the cancer-ridden Enrico Fermi (Coles’s patient). That story had also meant much to Coles’s mother, who kept a copy by her bedside during her last illness. Clearly, Coles is fascinated by re- reading, that remarkable process of blending one’s own personality with the characters, metaphors, ideas, and symbols of great literature. He thus comments frequently on such standards as Jude the Obscure (1895), The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Tillie Olsen’s story “Tell Me a Riddle,” and Flannery O’Connor’s collected stories.

How then do readers appropriate stories, making them their own? Under the impact of reading, what new directions are taken or new capacities developed in the moral imagination? These questions seem to call for “theory,” but, as already indicated, Coles shies away from this task. Indeed, he is even reluctant to offer statements of intention, previews of his organizational strategy for chapters, summaries and other gestures of reader-friendliness.

To be sure, some of Coles’s narratives are very striking—none more so than that of the student here called Ben, for whom Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) proved transformative. At first Ben was attracted by the book’s title, for it reminded him of his father’s description of the radio program, The Shadow.” In reading the novel (his first at Harvard) Ben found himself captured by its unique “world”; he learned both to see through the eyes of marginal people and to appreciate aspects of his own isolation. In response, he began to put himself in strange situations, at one point living as a homeless person. His moral passions aroused, he read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860-1861) with insight and enthusiasm, seeing his own rise from working-class origins in terms of Pip’s experience. Ben began to inquire about Coles’s own origins and ambitions and about the way he, the professor, had taken books to heart. Uncomfortably, Coles observes: “Here was a student who seemed to be asking for a kind of personal expedition, a kind of introspective inquiry that his professors had yet to offer.”

Ben’s story is only one of many reader-response vignettes—too many, one comes to think, even though Coles’s narrative gift is always apparent. Coles claims to be searching for “what literature offers the moral life,” but the richness and complexity of great stories seems to carry them to an inviolate place beyond the reach of analysis. Thus, the few conclusions Coles does provide seem rather platitudinous. Novels, he writes, engage emotions and intellect all at once. A novel can occasion theory-formation and argumentation, to be sure, but “it can, as well, insinuate itself into a remembering, daydreaming, wondering life; can prompt laughter or tears; can inspire moments of amused reflection with respect to one’s nature, accomplishments, flaws.” Stories do not produce “solutions” but “a broadening and even a heightening of our struggles—with new protagonists and antagonists introduced, with new sources of concern or apprehension or hope, as one’s mental life accommodates itself to a series of arrivals: guests who have a way of staying, but not necessarily staying put.”

Finely phrased though this is, it is simply too uncontroversial to have much impact. And here is the central flaw in Coles’s book—its failure to come to terms with significant contemporary discussions about reading, the literary canon, the humanities, “moral fiction,” television and video entertainment, and the fragmentation of audience in “postmodern” society. Coles flies entirely free of these arguments, not even acknowledging their existence, but in doing so he pays a high price. With respect to the matter of audience, some reflection on his own choice of books would inevitably produce the realization that he is preoccupied not with just any moral imagination but with its specifically Christian form. Were this to become an operative pedagogical premise for Coles, very intriguing questions about stories and morality might surface.

For example, Flannery O’Connor’s stories are fundamentally “ecclesial” in the sense that they all point to that place where the language of “baptism,” “forgiveness,” “repentance,” “pride” (the master themes of her fiction) is remembered, preserved, taught, celebrated. That is, O’Connor’s primary purpose in writing is not to address an abstract body of “readers” but a historic church and a culture (the American South) thoroughly conditioned by its encounter with that church. O’Connor’s stories are not free-floating “texts” so much as they are “community property” or, more exactly, “church property.” Their very existence as well as their popularity is intelligible only because of the church “in whose language” the stories are written. It follows from this that O’Connor stands to have the most impact on those teachers and students who have a prior formation in the church. One suspects that for many Harvard students, O’Connor’s stories are—simply “weird” and, though they are “appreciated,” the stories do little to shape the moral imagination. More likely, such students will simply never sign up for Coles’s literature courses. Coles does not seem to appreciate the fact that many of those who are ready to hear the stories he presents are already formed by a church which his teaching does little specific to sustain.

Thus, Coles’s book is vapid, primarily because he addresses it to all readers of good will. In pluralist America, where the moral imagination is shaped by a variety of strongly particularizing moral communities (including that community called “secular America,” with its powerful gospel of success-through-consumption), such a mode of address is bound to produce superficiality. Invisible Man can certainly be viewed as offering something to a generalized “moral imagination,” but how much more vital is it to investigate how that book’s moral bearing will mean something very different to black and white Christians (who themselves will appropriate it according to diverse theological and theo-cultural traditions) than to readers formed by other linguistic communities. The odd thing is that, given his earlier research into the intensely pluralist contexts of American society, Coles should be the first one to recognize the cul-de-sac into which he is headed.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 53

Booklist. LXXXV, January 15, 1989, p.831.

Chronicle of Higher Education. XXXV, March 8, 1989, p. A 10.

The Georgia Review. XLIII, Summer, 1989, p.395.

Houston Post. March 19, 1989, p. E6.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, December 1, 1988, p. 1713.

Library Journal. CXIV, March 1, 1989, p.70.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 22, 1989, p.1.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, February 26, 1989, p.38.

Times-Picayune. February 19, 1989, p. E9.

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