The Church and the Fiction Writer: From March 30, 1957
When "The Church and the Fiction Writer" appeared in America in March 30, 1957, Georgia-born Flannery O’Connor had just turned 32. By then her novel, Wise Blood (1952), and her short stories, some of which had appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, The Kenyon Review, The Sewanee Review and Shenandoah (eventually published in A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories ), had gathered national acclaim, though not all critics could locate her genius with any precision. Granville Hicks, for example, wrote in The New Leader of A Good Man Is Hard to Find that "Miss O’Connor regards human life as mean and brutish and that she makes this judgment from an orthodox Christian point of view. But one does not have to believe in original sin to be affected by the stories."
It is not surprising that after one of her priest-friends, James McCown, S.J., recommended her to Harold C. Gardiner, S.J., the literary editor of America, O’Connor submitted an essay clarifying her views about the relationship of a professedly Catholic fiction writer to the tenets of the Catholic Church. Her taut prose, sensitive both to the mystery of God’s presence in the world and obligations of a writer to his or her task, argues that the faith of a writer does not needlessly limit a writer but provides an "added dimension" to a creative work, which must be judged "by the truthfulness and wholeness of the natural events presented." In her essay, O’Connor measured her argument and her prose carefully, and it is understandable that she was upset that Father Gardiner had altered one of her paragraphs, which we have inserted into the text below in brackets. We publish this original paragraph with our belated apologies.
Patrick H. Samway
The question as to what effect Catholic dogma has on the fiction writer who is a Catholic cannot always be answered by pointing to the presence of Graham Greene among us. One has to think not only of gifts that have ended in rut or near it, but of gifts gone astray and of those never developed. Some time ago, the editors of Four Quarters, a quarterly magazine published by the faculty of La Salle College in Philadelphia, printed a symposium on the subject of the death of Catholic writers among the graduates of Catholic colleges. In response, letters appeared from writers and critics, Catholic and non-Catholic.
This correspondence ranged from the statement of Philip Wylie that "a Catholic, if he is devout, i.e., sold on the authority of his Church, is also brain-washed, whether he realizes it or not" (and consequently does not have the freedom necessary to be a first-rate creative writer) to the often repeated explanation that the Catholic in this country suffers from a parochial esthetic and a cultural insularity. A few held the situation no worse among Catholics than among other groups, creative minds being always hard to find; a few held the times responsible.
The faculty of a college must consider this as an educational problem; the writer who is a Catholic will consider it a personal one. Whether he is a graduate of a Catholic college or not, if he takes the Church for what she takes herself to be, the writer must decide what she demands of him and whether she restricts his freedom. The material and method of fiction being what they are, the problem may seem greater for the fiction writer than for any other.
"The question as to what effect Catholic dogma has on the fiction writer who is a Catholic cannot always be answered by pointing to the presence of Graham Greene among us."
For the writer of fiction everything has its testing point in the eye, an organ which eventually involves the whole personality and as much of the world as can be got into it. Msgr. Romano Guardini has written that the roots of the eye are in the heart. In any case, for the Catholic those roots stretch far into those depths of mystery about which the modern world is divided--one part of it trying to eliminate mystery, while another part tries to rediscover it in disciplines less personally demanding than religion.
What Mr. Wylie contends is that the Catholic writer, because he believes in certain defined mysteries, cannot, by the nature of things, see straight; and this contention, in effect, is not very different from that made by Catholics who declare that whatever the Catholic writer can see, there are certain things that he should not see, straight or otherwise. These are the Catholics who are victims of the parochial esthetic and the cultural insularity and it is interesting to find them sharing, even for a split second, the intellectual bed of Mr. Wylie.
It is generally supposed, and not least by Catholics, that the Catholic who writes fiction is out to use fiction to prove the truth of his faith or, at the least, to prove the existence of the supernatural. He may be. No one can be sure of his motives except as they suggest themselves in his finished work, but when the finished work suggests that pertinent actions have been fraudulently manipulated or overlooked or smothered, whatever purposes the writer started out with have already been defeated. What the fiction writer will discover, if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth. The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what is. What is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.
The Life of Mystery
Henry James said that the morality of a piece of fiction depended on the amount of "felt life" that was in it. The Catholic writer, in so far as he has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery; that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.
To the modem mind, as represented by Mr. Wylie, this is warped vision which "bears little or no relation to the truth as it is known today." The Catholic who does not write for a limited circle of fellow Catholics will in all probability consider that since this is his vision, he is writing for a hostile audience, and he will be more than ever concerned to have his work stand on its own feet and be complete and self-sufficient and impregnable in its own right. When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist.
The limitations that any writer imposes on his work will grow out of the necessities that lie in the material itself, and these will generally be more rigorous than any that religion could impose. Part of the complexity of the problem for the Catholic fiction-writer will be the presence of grace as it appears in nature, and what matters for him here is that his faith not become detached from his dramatic sense and from his vision of what is. No one in these days, however, would seem more anxious to have it become detached than those Catholics who demand that the writer limit, on the natural level, what he allows himself to see.
"When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist."
Nature and Grace in Fiction
If the average Catholic reader could be tracked down through the swamps of letters-to-the-editor and other places where he momentarily reveals himself, he would be found to be something of a Manichean. By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliche and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him. He forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment, usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence; and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite.
We lost our innocence in the fall of our first parents, and our return to it is through the redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite. Pornography, on the other hand, is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purposes, disconnects it from its meaning in life and makes it simply an experience for its own sake.
Many well-grounded complaints have been made about religious literature on the score that it tends to minimize the importance and dignity of life here and now in favor of life in the next world or in favor of miraculous manifestations of grace. When fiction is made according to its nature, it should reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete observable reality. If the writer uses his eyes in the real security of his faith, he will be obliged to use them honestly and his sense of mystery and his acceptance of it will be increased. To look at the worst will be for him no more than an act of trust in God; but what is one thing for the writer may be another for the reader. What leads the writer to his salvation may lead the reader into sin, and the Catholic writer who looks at this possibility directly looks the Medusa in the face and is turned to stone.
By now anyone who has faced the problem is equipped with Mauriac’s advice: "purify the source." And along with it he has become aware that while he is attempting to do that, he has to keep on writing. He becomes aware, too, of sources that, relatively speaking, seem amply pure but from which may come works that scandalize. He may feel that it is as sinful to scandalize the learned as the ignorant. In the end, he will either have to stop writing or limit himself to the concerns proper to what he is creating. It is the person who can follow neither of these courses who becomes the victim, not of the Church’s dogmas, but of a false conception of their demands.
"A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it."
[The business of protecting souls from dangerous literature belongs properly to the church. All fiction, even when it satisfies the requirements of art, will not turn out to be suitable for everyone’s consumption, and if in some instance, the church sees fit to forbid the faithful to read a work without permission, the author, if he is a Catholic, will be thankful that the church is willing to perform this service for him. It means that he can limit himself to the demands of art.]
The author must, of course, realize that it is his function, no less than it is the function of the Church, to protect souls from dangerous literature. But in striving to live up to the legitimate requirements of his rut, he will know that not all fiction will turn out to be suitable for everyone’s consumption. If in some instances the Church sees fit to forbid the faithful to read a work without permission, the Catholic author will be thankful that he has been recalled to a sense of responsibility.
The fact would seem to be that for many writers it is easier to assume universal responsibility for souls than it is to produce a work of art, and it is considered better to save the world than to save the work. This view probably owes as much to romanticism as to piety, but the writer will not be liable to entertain it unless it has been foisted on him by a sorry education or unless writing is not his vocation in the first place. That it is foisted on him by the general atmosphere of Catholic piety in this country is hard to deny, and even if this atmosphere cannot be held responsible for every talent killed along the way, it is at least general enough to give an air of credibility to Mr. Wylie’s conception of what a belief in dogma does to the creative mind.
"If the Catholic writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is."
The Added Dimension
A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it. It will, of course, add to the writer’s observation a dimension which many cannot, in conscience, acknowledge; but as long as what they can acknowledge is present in the work, they cannot claim that any freedom has been denied the artist. A dimension taken away is one thing; a dimension added is another, and what the Catholic writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the literal level of the natural events presented. If the Catholic writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is. A purely affirmative vision cannot be demanded of him without limiting his freedom to observe what man has done with the things of God.
If we intend to encourage Catholic fiction writers, we must convince those coming along that the Church does not restrict their freedom to be artists but ensures it (the restrictions of art are another matter). To convince them of this requires, perhaps more than anything else, a body of Catholic readers who are equipped to recognize something in fiction besides passages that they consider obscene.
It is popular to suppose that anyone who can read the telephone book can read a short story or a novel, and it is more than usual to find the attitude among Catholics that since we possess the truth in the Church, we can use this truth directly as an instrument of judgment on any discipline at any time without regard for the nature of that discipline itself. Catholic readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels they don’t have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit.
It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life, and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the sense of the supernatural is apt gradually to be lost. Fiction, made according to its own laws, is an antidote to such a tendency, for it renews our knowledge that we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions. The Catholic fiction writer, as fiction writer, will look for the will of God first in the laws and limitations of his art and will hope that if be obeys those, other blessings will be added to his work. The happiest of these (and the one he may presently least expect?) will be the satisfied Catholic reader.