Fallen Bodies: An Interview With Maggie Helwig

As the final part of our online Symposium on Girls Fall Down, Maggie Helwig was gracious enough to answer some of our questions.  In so doing we ranged from the soul and synaptic connections to the Venerable Bede, from the wounds on the risen body of Christ to felix culpa.  I hope it proves as interesting reading for you as it did for us!

1. Illness is one of the most prominent thematic focuses in this novel; interestingly enough, the characters you have created struggle with sicknesses that are genetic, or innate – they have a limited ability to control their conditions through medication, diet, etc., but ultimately their illness is intimately a part of who they are. These individual cases of sickness seem to be analogous with the mysterious illness that afflicts the city; this notion that sickness is not an outside imposition but a fact of bodily existence has profound theological implications. Could you elaborate further on this theme?

I think the simplest way to express the theology of this is that the risen Christ has a wounded body. We have this idea about the “well body”, the idea that there’s a sort of ideal, stable, unmarked physical body which is what we all ought to be, and variously fail to be. Dramatic failures are identified as sickness or disability. Women universally fall short of this ideal, our bodies are too obviously eventful and permeable, but really, so does everyone; there is no entirely well and perfect body out there. The wounds in the body of the risen Christ say that this is not a failure; the marks and scars and weaknesses of the body are meaningful, they are redeemed, they are a part of what the body is in God. And who we are in God can’t ever be separated from the particular abilities and disabilities and desires and compulsions of our particular bodies. The soul doesn’t just hop out of the failed body and go off to a disembodied heaven, all these troubles of the body are in some way taken up into God’s life. We are bodies; and ultimately, theologically, we are also all one body, made up of an infinite number of particular bodies.

But we don’t much like that idea, most of the time. The body is hard to live with, and it seems like the two poles of belief in the perfectly well autonomous body, and belief in the disembodied immortal soul, are much easier and more attractive to most of us. My characters are all coming up against this necessity of living with and in their bodies. Some have bodies which are clearly marked by disability, but all of them find their bodies are causing them trouble in some way, collapsing in public, misbehaving in private. There’s a lot of vulnerability in this, a lot of need, and they have to come to terms with this, with their own weaknesses and the extent to which bodies affect other bodies and depend on other bodies, the extent to which both sickness and health are transmissable and shared, and the boundaries of the individual body are far from distinct.

I’m also, on some level (and this leads into your second question) interrogating the modern concept of the self, which we see as somehow separable from the events of the body. We know, on some level, that all our mental processes are electrical and chemical events, but we still have some idea that there’s a self, a soul, which is outside all of that, non-physical, non-contingent. The novel is questioning that idea. Now, does this mean that I – an Anglican priest – am saying that there is no such thing as the soul? Not exactly, no; but I am saying that maybe we need to come up with some other ways of understanding what the soul is. If the self is a narrative which we construct in order to make some kind of sense out of the random events of the body, maybe the soul is somehow located within that impulse, maybe the soul is found within the construction of that narrative of self; maybe the soul is the outcome of the story-making of our bodies in relationship with other bodies, and in relationship with the Body. I don’t know if that’s true, I’m not making any grand truth claims here, but I’m at least proposing it as a worthwhile thought experiment.

2.  Following up on the first question, you do a lot of interesting things with the body in this novel – the individual bodies of your characters, but also the idea of the political body. While you keep a tight focus on your primary characters, you also spend a lot of time contextualizing them in a city teeming with life but at the same time desperately individualized. The deep sense of the loneliness of autonomous individuals living in a 21st century metropolis is one of the strongest features of this novel. That cities function as bodies seems to be an inescapable fact; how does this fit with the politics of clearly delineated individual independence that we have used to create the modern human?

So I sort of jumped the gun on this question by already saying that one of the objectives of the book is to question the whole concept of the self as the modern mind understands it. But I don’t think I talked as much about social interdependence, so we can talk about that here.

In the same way that people think they are or can be non-permeable ideal bodies, we also have this idea of the self-sufficient individual. Derek is living an almost parodic version of this belief, he’s out there under a railway bridge claiming that he’s going to go into subsistence agriculture and achieve food self-sufficiency, and he’s really trying quite hard, at this point in his life, to sever most of his social contacts, but of course he can’t, he’s actually in the midst of a network of support and care, which he relies on absolutely at the same time that he struggles against it. And Alex is doing a sort of emotional version of the same thing, trying to live this very detached and solitary life; on some level, I think he’s trying to compensate for the dependent and contingent nature of his body by living as if he had no emotional dependencies, as if he could avoid the complicated entanglements of relationship. And of course he’s actually a vastly needy personality who gets himself into the most tangled emotional situations, and who also – to be more positive for a moment – has a very generous openness to others, finds himself, even if sometimes unwillingly, engaging emotionally with random panhandlers and old women in rooming houses. He can’t live alone any more than Derek can. And his little epiphanic moment on the hill over Bayview is about the realization of this interdependence, the realization that we are all dependent on other people every second of our lives, and then we move into the scene where the fireman – a stranger, with no personal connection to anyone, but with a social duty of care — arrives and picks Derek up in his arms and carries him down the hill, treats Derek as someone important and precious and deserving of respect simply because he is part of the social body. Because this is what a society is, it is that care for strangers, that network of dependencies. It forms us, it sustains us, we are never separable from that.

I’m not going to dismiss individual rights; individual rights are important, especially for people from dissident or minority or marginalized groups. That we’re born into a social matrix and depend on it for our very existence doesn’t mean we should accept all its values or give up our particular selves, but it does mean that we can’t go around claiming total credit for our selves and whatever we have or do in life. All our lives are shared, and we can really only acknowledge that appropriately by taking on our duty of care for others.

3.  The central characters in Girls Fall Down are all connected through their work at a radical newspaper in their younger years. Since that time most of them have become disillusioned with that kind of political action. Alex has given up on it altogether, and while Susie is pursuing an academic sort of activism, she is also fairly cynical about what if any positive impact her work will actually have. The only place that is not infected with political cynicism or apathy is the small church where Evelyn serves as rector. Is this merely an incidental plot point, or is it a reflection of a perceived failure of secular liberalism to address our profound failure to build a just society?

Well, it wasn’t a political paper, it was an indie music paper, and that’s a culture which has a sort of assumed kinship with radical politics but often isn’t very actively engaged. I don’t think Alex ever had any politics to speak of beyond vaguely left-leaning sympathies, and both in the past and in the present he has only a fairly approximate sense of Susie’s political engagements or commitments. Susie, it’s true, projects a lot of cynicism, but some of that is defensive, a way of fending off a sense of personal failure, of having let her brother down, having failed to make a place in the world for him; much of her academic work is really about trying to write her brother back into the social world, to make the social world see that he remains a part of the body. So I don’t think it’s so much that she’s given in to cynicism as that her political engagements have come to centre much more, even if indirectly, around Derek’s situation.

But it is true that Evelyn is the character most clearly engaged in work on the margins, and the church is a kind of pivot point in the narrative – it’s the only place where this socially diverse set of characters can all find each other, it’s the one place where everyone can be, it’s the place where people are fed and sheltered and listened to, the place they come to when they’re not sure where else to go. In that sense, it’s a bit of an idealized version of what I think a church can be in the city, what we sometimes are but all too often are not.

Perhaps what Evelyn has and the other characters lack – and by implication, something which a theological worldview can have and which secular liberalism struggles with – is the ability to see the world as both fallen and redeemed, simultaneously. She’s very realistic about it, she’s the only one who can simply say that we live in a fallen world, that this is where we are and that we just get down into the mud and make of it what we can; but there isn’t any despair in that, because there’s a real sense that we can make something of it, that we’re meant to, that there’s something to be made, perhaps in tiny increments, but that’s still meaningful, purposeful.

Now, I’m obviously playing a lot with what exactly it means to say that we live in a fallen world, what “falling” is all about, how we play out the myth of the Fall and how we think about it, and at least in this book I’m very much inclining towards the reading of the Fall which Ireneaus presents, in which it’s a more or less necessary step towards a morally adult relationship with God; we have to “fall”, we have to have that knowledge of good and evil, and have the ability consciously to choose evil, or we can’t consciously choose to resist evil or to do good. The girl in the book is just starting to become a moral being, and in the climactic scene in the park she takes part in evil, in the deliberate harm of a very vulnerable person, she “falls” or at any rate participates in her fallen nature. But in that very same scene she steps back, she consciously understands what she’s doing, and she chooses not only to walk away from doing harm, but to lead her whole group of friends away. So in this fall, there is actually the beginning of a movement towards good.

I’m referencing Lord of the Flies throughout partly in order to underline the fact that in that moment, I’m really disagreeing significantly with Golding’s view of human nature. It’s meant to echo the scene where the boys surround Simon, and then to go somewhere quite different. Golding came out of a secular liberal background, and that worldview couldn’t survive a confrontation with real evil; what replaced it was something like a Calvinist reading of the Fall, in which we are so entirely fallen, so wicked, so totally depraved, that we simply cannot ever do good. I think we’re pretty broken creatures, certainly. But I’ve seen good surviving and acting in situations of profound evil. The fundamental goodness we had at our creation is not erased by our frequent failures.

I don’t know why people think I’m such a dark novelist, because I think I’m actually terribly optimistic. Because I think we really are good creatures essentially, and something in us keeps moving towards the good, even when the pressures against that are tremendous.

So when Evelyn says to Alex that we live in a fallen world, that we have to accept that this is where we live, she’s not saying that the world is lost or irreparably broken, it’s not about total depravity (I think I’ve planted enough clues in the book that Evelyn is catholic in her theology and practice). It’s about getting down into this confused mess of a world which is created good, everywhere fallen, and everywhere redeeemed, and being some little part of the redemption, even if we find it hard to believe. And I think that’s a way of thinking which can perhaps sustain you through the discouragement of long-term activism and the very considerable chance that you’ll never see much in the way of results in your lifetime.

4. Girls Fall Down has a remarkable ending. While the relationship between Susie and Alex reaches a kind of resolution, many of the other strands of the novel remain only partially resolved, or unresolved altogether. The epidemic which has served as the backdrop for the story continues, and we are left with only a vague notion of its origins. Derek Rae is locked in a hospital being forced to undergo a chemical therapy he perceives as rape. The first girl to fall is left musing in her bedroom, but there has been no enlightening moment for her. Moreover, the last scene of the novel is a train moving from the darkness into beautiful image of warmth and comfort and then back into the darkness. Is the brief moment the best we can hope for from this world?

Is “yes and no” an acceptable answer?

That final image is a contemporary adaptation of a passage from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, where a pagan council is debating whether to adopt this new Christian religion that the missionaries are bringing into England; and one of the chieftains says that human life seems to him to be like a bird that’s flying in a storm at night, and flies briefly into a hall where a banquet is being held, and there’s light and warmth and shelter, and then the bird flies back into darkness again. And he says that it seems to him that if this new religion could offer them more than this, it is worth at least a try. So by closing the book with the train, like the bird, going back into darkness, I think that I’m on the one hand reflecting that grim but poignant vision of life, a quick flight through light and warmth and back into the dark; but if you follow the story back to its original version, I’m also at least tentatively proposing that there may be more than this. You have to work at the text quite a bit to get to that proposition, but it’s not inaccessible (I credit Bede with the final image in the acknowledgements, so a reader can follow it back).

In the same way, if you work at the rest of the text carefully, you can see that I’m at least proposing possibilities for hope. The girl is in the early stages of her moral development, but she’s growing, she’s changing, and as the book says, she knows more than she thinks she knows. She’s waiting to see who she’ll become, but she’s going to be shaped by these events in deep and potentially positive ways. And even Derek, Derek’s hope for healing and safety and redemption may be infinitely deferred, but he still believes in it, some part of him is still waiting for the white horse to come back, and in that waiting there is some kind of salvation. He may not be able to believe that he is loved right now, but he can at least believe that he may someday be loved.

I mean, the train does go into the darkness. We are all mortal. These bodies die, and usually things are not settled or resolved or explained to any great extent. But there is love, there is care, there’s the fireman who carries Derek down the hill, there’s the man held hostage by terrorists who’s trying to look out for Alex, there are always wars but also always people trying to end the wars, and I’m willing to propose that these are not temporary, that they are preserved in some way when we go back out into the darkness. We come from the unknown and go into the unknown, but I’m willing to postulate that the unknown is not nothing. That there is love there too, and maybe love that we can’t hope for in this life can still be hoped for ultimately.

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