Can Catholic literature build on its rich heritage?
The last few years have seen a lively debate over whether Catholic literature is dead or alive. In this magazine (“Writers Blocked,” 4/28/14), Kaya Oakes observed that “Catholic literary culture today might best be described as a funeral for multiple corpses. This, for living Catholic writers, makes for a rather depressing set of circumstances to enter into.”
Perhaps in part as a reaction against these obituaries, some proctors and proponents of the Catholic literary tradition have proclaimed that “beauty will save the world,” a sort of clarion call beckoning us away from the culture wars and into the “disinterested” pages of beautiful things. Another strand of contemporary writers has introduced into the conversation the rubrics and aims of identity politics, a recent phenomenon that calls attention to various stigmatized, neglected or victimized demographics. By this they intend to challenge narratives of Catholic literary decline and rewrite the terms of the argument.
We need to avoid the Romantic reaction of “Beauty Will Save the World” and the reductive compromise of “Catholic identity politics.”
I suggest that, provocative as these stances have been, we need to avoid the Romantic reaction of “Beauty Will Save the World” and the reductive compromise of “Catholic identity politics.” There is a less factional, a less fractional—a more Catholic—way.
The Catholic literary tradition has been marked by writers who understood that human nature finds its final cause not in mere beauty, not in mere inclusion, but in salvation. The idiosyncrasies of a given writer and the singularities of his or her times determine the tenor of this implicit or explicit preoccupation. Consider Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which shows us just how difficult it is for grace to hound the decadent, destructive souls of the dying English aristocracy. The task of giving good form and truthful content to grace building upon nature is difficult, too. It is all too easy for such writing to collapse into pious sentimentality and disputatious moralism. But a Catholic literary culture that works in continuity with its rich heritage will give us a contemporary literature that both gazes unflinchingly at the messiness of our present moment and artfully works out its characters’ salvation or damnation. In his apocalyptic thriller Father Elijah, Michael O’Brien effectively enunciates the trials—harrowing and supersubtle—of a soul being sanctified, and Dana Gioia gives shape to a soul’s inhabitation of hell-on-earth in his masterfully haunting long poem “The Homecoming.”
In his 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes deprecates African-American artists who fail to support writers of their race until mainstream or “white” publishers have granted such authors the stamp of “success.” Hughes scoffs at an unnamed writer who declares his aim to be “a poet—not a Negro poet,” contending that what this poet is saying is that he wishes to be white—that therefore he will not be a poet at all until he can embrace his identity as an African-American.
Bernardo Aparicio García, the founder of the Catholic literary magazine Dappled Things, countenanced the question of whether the Catholic artist’s dilemma is similar to that of the African-American artist at a conference at Fordham University in 2017. Aparicio García said:
Many Catholic writers can identify with the poet Hughes talks about, but there’s a difference because our universal identity as Catholics is of a different kind than an identity rooted in race, sex, nationality and so on. And this is what people mean when they talk about “identity politics.” While being male or female, French or South African or the like can give a certain accent, as it were, to our experience of being human, being Catholic means having a certain perspective on what being human is all about, regardless of accent.
Aparicio García is arguing that Catholic literature will be more good, more true and more beautiful than alternatives defined by the narrowness of identity politics. This is not to say that Catholic authors ought not to grapple with, say, racial prejudice, in their poetry or prose. J. F. Powers does so masterfully in “The Trouble,” in which a priest prays over a dying woman during race riots; in “The Black Madonna,” Muriel Spark gives shape to the banal evil of white liberal racism; Glenn Arbery’s Bearings and Distances draws out deep tensions buried in the “post-racial” moment of President Obama’s election; Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay climbs the racial mountain in many of his early poems, even as he looks beyond its summit in his “Cycle Manuscript,” composed after his conversion.
The most enduring Catholic writers of the past did not tear down the constellations by which the Catholic vision sees reality in order to assert their identity as, say, feminist or “poor white” or homosexual.
But the most enduring Catholic writers of the past did not tear down the constellations by which the Catholic vision sees reality in order to assert their identity as, say, feminist or “poor white” or homosexual. The Catholic writers we remember did not mistake the church for themselves or themselves for the church; they were not so foolish as to think their own personal traits were universal, even if they necessarily passed through the particulars to the communal—and, ultimately, the eternal. Flannery O’Connor was a hillbilly. But she was also a Thomist. Did the priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., wrestle with homosexual desires? It is fashionable to focus on this question, but a sacramental vision would see that he definitely wrestled with God. Shūsaku Endō’s Silence is positively Japanese. But it is absolutely Jesuit, probing the problem of martyrdom with an Ignatian imagination. (I should add that the novel’s Japanese authorities are remarkably jesuitical!)
In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot notes that when we praise a literary artist, we tend to praise the parts of the work that are most singular, bits that we can isolate out as original. And yet, Eliot cautions, if we shed this prejudice, “we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”
As writers, Catholics ought not be anxious about their influences. When they forget their traditions, Catholics, like any other creatures, become intoxicated on the fumes of the present moment. If a contemporary Catholic writer has absorbed some of O’Connor’s Christ-haunted characters who experience grace violently, this is not necessarily a sign of “unoriginality.” To be traditional is, in part, to be unoriginal. Today’s Catholic literary artists should familiarize themselves with the notable array of Catholic authors who have preceded them, from frequently cited exemplars like Walker Percy or François Mauriac to authors like Sigrid Undset or John Finlay, who are often left out of the limelight. And let’s not forget Dante! All great Catholic literature is a footnote to Dante, and yet to many living Catholic writers who have lost their inheritance, Dante may be the deadest of all.
A Catholic literary culture that works in continuity with its rich heritage will give us a contemporary literature that both gazes unflinchingly at the messiness of our present moment and artfully works out its characters’ salvation or damnation.
In Whose Justice, Which Rationality? the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that a tradition is defined in part by “those internal interpretive debates through which the meaning and rationale of the fundamental agreements came to be expressed.” Sometimes, MacIntyre observes, two or more thinkers within the same tradition become external critics of one another. For instance, if, as John Henry Newman contends, literature is largely “a study of human nature,” Catholics, like any other writers, can begin to master their subject by becoming astute students of other people and themselves. But, like O’Connor, a writer of Catholic fiction or poetry could also develop her understanding of human nature by mulling over certain sections of the Summa Theologiae, which she “read for about twenty minutes every night” before bed. Seeking a Catholicity of continuity, O’Connor also became cognizant of the very different picture of human nature advanced in The Phenomenon of Man, by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. Initially contending that “this is a scientific age and Teilhard’s direction is to face it toward Christ,” she concluded that “if [his books] are good, they are dangerous”; O’Connor, who named Everything That Rises Must Converge after an optimistic passage in Teilhard that contrasts starkly with her dark and tragic story, exemplifies MacIntyre’s characterization of tradition as “an argument extended through time,” one in which disagreements and agreements are “defined and refined.”
A tradition, MacIntyre continues, can also be sharpened when its adherents reckon with forces external to it. In terms of her fiction, O’Connor herself was not influenced exclusively or even mostly by Catholic writers. Though the bourgeois and nihilistic villains of Léon Bloy and Dostoevsky ghost through her stories, she claimed as literary forebears Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James and Franz Kafka. The Catholic writer can and must engage the broad literary culture of her times, learning from the experiments, thematic turns and sheer acumen of, say, Jorge Luis Borges, Ralph Ellison, David Foster Wallace and Lorrie Moore. Still, sincerely Catholic literature will always foster fictions that populate a definitively Catholic cosmos. Consider, for instance, a work like Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the novel tackles the tensions between a frenetic capitalist culture and what we might call the Catholic conscience. Nevertheless, Connolly sees salvific possibilities that are lost to Fitzgerald’s universe. And O’Connor’s characters may have borrowed Kafka’s overcoat, but because the Catholic understanding of freedom is distinct from the existentialist one, the overcoat does not always, as it does for Kafka’s characters, become a straightjacket.
In The Theory of the Novel, the Marxist philosopher György Lukács claims that “the novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.” There is a great deal of truth to this, especially if we look at the genre’s origins and the flourishing of the novelistic form in the 19th century. But insofar as it is populated with human beings and insofar as human beings are the very image of God, literature is intrinsically theological and, by extension, is undergirded by philosophical premises. As Dana Gioia writes in The Catholic Writer Today, while there is no staunchly uniform Catholic worldview.
It is possible to describe some general characteristics that encompass both the faithful and the renegade among the literati. Catholic writers tend to see humanity struggling in a fallen world. They combine a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin. Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil. Nature is sacramental, shimmering with signs of sacred things. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God. Catholics perceive suffering as redemptive, at least when borne in emulation of Christ’s passion and death.
We need to add to this descriptive list a concern with conversion in light of the first and last things: Catholic writers tend, even in spite of themselves, to be obsessed with their characters’ salvation. This is as true of Dante in his dark woods as it is of Endo and his defecting priests. Insofar as all of the above is true, from this juncture we can see the insufficiency of beauty-in-and-of-itself.
Truly beautiful literature, the kind that is remembered centuries after it is written, is not merely beautiful. It is good, and it is also true.
In the first volume of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s multivolume The Glory of the Lord, the author argues that beauty, unlike the other two transcendentals, is “disinterested.” Whereas truth and goodness give rise to innumerable self-interested debates, he claims, beauty is disinterested. In a central passage, he writes:
Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name, as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past, whether he admits it or not, can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.
Von Balthasar’s argument is partially compelling: Lives, conversations, social orders shaped by truth and goodness but bereft of beauty will end up shrill, falsely pious, unpersuasively moralistic. But beauty will not save the world. Even Dostoevsky, who coined the phrase “beauty will save the world,” demonstrates the insufficiency of beauty throughout the novel The Idiot. Such an idea is oftentimes a hyperbolic assertion, uttered on behalf of practitioners of beauty, who mistake their good work as the only or primary means of salvation.
Further, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in his meeting with artists, “too often...the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed.” Instead of bringing humanity out of itself, failing to open each person up “to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy.” Truly beautiful literature, the kind that is remembered centuries after it is written, is not merely beautiful. It is good, and it is also true.
The “beauties in the eyes of the beholders” of any number of new Catholic writers are always best wrestled out, written and criticized within the broader Catholic literary tradition, just as Catholic life is best lived in communion with the long Catholic tradition of councils and encyclicals, liturgy and “social teachings” that can serve as a corrective to obsessions with originality and identity politics.
When I founded Wiseblood Books in 2013, I did so as an editor who had come across several handfuls of marvelous stories and poems written by Catholic authors who, in part because their works were steeped in Catholicity, were having a hard time of it when they went to pitch their pieces to the New York publishing industry. I situated the press within the Catholic literary tradition by the very name, as Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood signifies a work that embodies a Catholic vision but also strives after literary excellence that can move any reader. I am not dogmatic about her or her work. She was a good but not a great writer. Yet she raised some crucial problems: In literary works written in a world that lives as though God were dead, do we need to shout so that the deaf can hear, draw large and startling figures so that the blind can see? Does not grace feel like violence sometimes, and is not fiction particularly capable of dramatizing the awful conversions that can come of the disruptions that reorient us toward our last end?
Beauty will not save the world, dear reader, but the literature you save may be your own.
Bernardo Aparicio García rounded out his remarks on Catholic literature by saying that when he looks “at the task of Catholic literary journals or presses today, [he] tends to think less in terms of speaking from or about a particular identity but rather from a tradition or worldview and through a multiplicity of identities. This tradition needs to find a way to speak in our time.”
There are practical means by which we can scatter literary seeds and help others who are laboring at this particular task:
1. Incorporating Catholic literature—old and new—into high school and college curricula, thereby expanding the canon and teaching students to recognize both the debts and the distinctions of the Catholic literary tradition.
2. Sustaining distinctly Catholic publications and presses through subscriptions, middle-brow book reviews and patronage.
3. Forming book clubs at the parish level and elsewhere. Such clubs regularly form somewhat organically. However, they often take cues on what to read from, say, Oprah, rather than the exhaustive lists of Catholic writers and works compiled by Paul Elie, Dana Gioia and others or the catalogs of presses continuing the tradition.
4. Encouraging bright-eyed undergraduates to pursue work in publishing, thereby situating editors who have “eyes to see” in places where works charged with Catholic vision can reach a broader readership.
Beauty will not save the world, dear reader, but the literature you save may be your own.