Writer Audrey Niffenegger On Art, Religion and Science

       Audrey Niffenegger                      (By Michael Strong, [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons)

I discovered Manchester Literature Festival via a newspaper. From the smorgdasboard of talks, I chose to meet two writers working in my favourite genre of “literary science fiction” – Audrey Niffenegger and David Mitchell.

I read only the first book of Audrey Niffenegger, “Time Traveler’s Wife”, which became a bestseller in 2003. Niffenegger – one of the few modern writers who represent the sub-genre of “science fiction with a human face”. It describes mainly not technology of the futur,e but mostly imagines how  recognisably modern people behave in unusual circumstances. Among other examples of this genre are “Solaris” by  Lem,  “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Le Guin, and “Shards of Honor” by Bujold. “Time Traveler’s Wife” was somewhat sentimental, but this was offset by realistic details and – this always pleases my heart – plausible biology underlying “The Time Traveler’s syndrome.”

Looking at the ticket, I saw that the meeting with Niffeneger  has a title “Gaia Sermon on Contemporary Issues” and was to be held in the  Manchester Cathedral.

Close to the start of  the sermon I saw arriving the usual mix of elegant middle-class in their 50s and their student offsprings. The older generation wore designer jeans and tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows or silk dresses and cashmere shawls. The students had rucksacks, wore jeans from Primark (the cheapest clothing store) and scruffy Doc Martens.

Interior of Manchester Cathedral (By Mike Peel, CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Inside the cathedral – gray Gothic arches and almost chamber space – a hundred chairs in a semicircle, colourful banners hung from the columns. On each chair lay a booklet of a sponsor. In the beginning one of the pastors – and a poet, lady with short hair and glasses said that sermons were a popular literary genre in the 19th century. (Indeed, in English novels of that time local vicars write sermons, then publish them in a book). Manchester Cathedral has decided to help the revival of the genre by staging an annual sermon, which “famous people” will read. The sermon’s sponsor is ethical investor – company Gaia, whose representatives sat on reserved seats closer to the stage, and regardless of gender had gray long hippie hair.

After that Audrey  walked to the pulpit, the writer devoid of glamour I presume from a successful writer who  was paid $ 5 million advance for the second book. After the first sentence, it became clear that unlike the writer, the pastor knew the acoustics of the cathedral as Rostropovich – cello and there is more to a sermon than text.

The sermon began with writer’s  reminiscences about her childhood. On Sundays, Audrey with her mother went to a church, meanwhile her father, an engineer, sat at the kitchen table and read comics. Once  his daughter asked him why he did not go to the church, and he replied that he attends a church, but a different church – “The Church of Funny”.

The sermon further described the relationships of Niffenegger’s family with religion. Including the episode when her mother decided to leave the church, and the pastor sent her a letter of regret, saying that he hoped for her return, as well as requesting for the final cash donation. Audrey herself turned away from religion, which forbade the use of “graven images”. ( Audrey Niffenegger is more an artist than a writer, as Wagner was more a composer than librettist. Most of  A. Niffenegger’s her work are graphic novels).

In summary, the main idea of ​​the sermon was that in our time the art can and should replace religion, because the artists are making their own contribution to the treasury of spiritual values ​​of mankind on their own.

I was disappointed. On my list of global problems of today the problem of interaction of the middle class Americans with Christian faith is at the very bottom. It is clear that for the US, with its 90% of the population identifying themselves as members of the numerous, vigorous churches,  and CNN publishing articles that most americans will not be happy with their child marrying an atheist, atheism and even non-attendance of church maybe  still a bold challenge to the society. But this is not  acute for the post-Christian, not the least due to the departure of  new sects zealots for the New World society of old Europe religion. Against the background of where and by whom we were gathered, anathema to organized religion looked very impolite. Which is a much bigger sin in British society than any religion.

Finally, I think that the art is as bad as a religion substitute as science.  As in religion, you  can transcend the mundane and devote yourself entirely to art, but in religion there is also concern for the neighbour. Which is sorely missing in the nurturing of their own egos, which ultimately maintains the art – and science. I  don’t know of artists who devoted themselves to caring for needy, on the contrary, artists often need care themselves, from Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath.

…The sermon was followed by  the  question from audience. I remember a question and a separate answer. The answer was that the literature is a R & D of society. That sci-fi novels of Jules Verne and Asimov had raised a generation of engineers, who sent  man to the moon, so the writers are directly involved in the progress of humanity.

The question was asked with great emotion by a young, red-haired girl with shining eyes. However,  acoustics deflected emotions and sound away from the writer, so that it had to be repeated a second time, in the edited version:

– I’m studying Fine Art at a university. My peers, all students of natural science and economics,  laugh at my choice of profession. Why in our society humanities are not considered valuable?

Writer (as it seemed unto me, non sequitur) replied that in her life  there were  years when she was struggling to make ends meet. But she remained faithful to her art and she wishes everybody would do this as well. She invites us all to become parishioners of “The Church of Funny”.

(You can download the full text of the sermon here)


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