Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, December 13, 2013

in which this Anglican intervenes in a Catholic debate

Not really on-topic for this blog, but let me say an incoherent word or five about Dana Gioia’s essay on Catholic writing today and Eve Tushnet’s response to it. Since Eve just listed her points without trying to make an argument from them, I shall follow her excellent example.

(1) I think the story that Dana tells would look a good bit different if he had considered Christian writing, rather than just Catholic writing. His focus is too narrowly on the internal struggles of the Catholic Church and not enough on the larger place of Christianity in American society. The successes of the mid-twentieth-century Catholic writers he admires were attributable in part to a culture that was generally well-disposed towards stories grounded in the Christian narrative, and it’s arguable that Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, neither of whom were usually published by Catholics, have been more admired in the past half-century among Protestants.

(2) Dana writes, in a passage more important than it might seem, “In the literary sphere, American Catholics now occupy a situation closer to that of 1900 than 1950. It is a cultural and religious identity that exists mostly in a marginalized subculture or else remains unarticulated and covert in a general culture inclined to mock or dismiss it.” Since that earlier Catholic culture was closer in time, and indeed in spiritual formation, to the great artistic works of the Catholic past (Dante, Palestrina), I’d like to pose this question: Why should we not simply think of the generation of Percy, O’Connor, Lowell et al. as a curious aberration in the history of Catholic writing in America, one we should not expect to be repeated?

(3) Eve’s response concerns itself solely with Catholic fiction, while Dana’s concerns Catholic writing. If she looked at his whole topic she might have to readjust her thoughts a bit. For instance, in relation to her thoughts about literary cultures becoming subcultures, poets have been used to that for a long time: tiny sales, small presses, little to no representation in high-circulation periodicals. Even assuming that Eve has rightly identified the Condition of Fiction Today, it’s the Permanent Condition of Poetry.

(4) Eve writes, “Telling a young Catholic writer to go have a career like Flannery O’Connor’s is like telling a young Catholic father to get a good stable union job at the Chrysler plant.” I think this is exactly wrong: O’Connor’s career is exactly the kind of career a young writer today might plausibly have. After getting her MFA she moved back in with her mother, who lived in a low-cost-of-living area and did not need her daughter to make a full-time income. Flannery could therefore devote herself to writing, corresponding with friends (through the U.S. Mail rather than through blogs and Twitter, but that’s a minor detail), and ordering books that she had delivered to her home. Gradually her career and her thought developed along their own distinctive lines, story by story and letter by letter, though she never sold many books and would have been hard-pressed to make a living wage had she lived in a big city. O’Connor ought to be the patron saint of today’s young writers. Instead they all think they have to move to Brooklyn and do everything that all the sad young literary men (and women) do.

(5) I shall now ride a hobby-horse. Eve writes,

Donna Tartt’s new novel hits almost all of Gioia’s criteria for a Catholic novel. (The exceptions: For the sacramentality of nature, substitute that of art; and the meaning of suffering is an anguished question in the book, so it isn’t presented as redemptive.) Christianity itself does not appear, but — does it have to? Anyway, I’m just going to close with the recommendation that The Goldfinch is the best thing this extraordinary (Catholic!) author has written so far.

“The sacramentality of nature” is not a Catholic (is not a Christian) idea, it is a pagan idea. The sacramentality of the sacraments is a Catholic idea. What Eve means, I think, is “nature as a means of conveying grace,” but anything from time to time can be a means of conveying grace. What makes something sacramental is the covenantal promise, by Christ himself or by the Church speaking on his behalf, that grace shall be conveyed through it.

Climbing down from my hobby-horse, I’ll adjust my hunting jacket and add this: I have been thinking for about thirty years about what it means for a work of art to be “Christian,” to have the adjective “Christian” rightly applied to it, and I have pretty much decided that it’s a useless term. Some people argue that such an artwork needs to embody, more or less explicitly, some element of Christian teaching or belief. For others it’s enough that the writer is a Christian. For still others it’s sufficient that the work contain ideas or themes that are generally consistent with some Christian teaching or belief. “Christian art” is an almost infinitely malleable wax nose. It’s not a term I use.

“Christian writer” and “Catholic writer” are scarcely better. There’s a vague uneasy general recognition that every writer who is a Catholic is not really a Catholic writer, and that many writers who were raised Catholic but have left it behind retain some significant residual Catholic sensibilities. (Re-run that sentence and replace “Catholic” with “Christian.”) I’m not sure that when we talk this way we ever really know what we mean. If writers aren’t dealing explicitly (or implicitly but strongly) with Christian themes and ideas, and sometimes even if they are, I don't think we could ever really how much of a mark Christianity has left on them without rewinding their lives and re-raising them without a Christian upbringing, or with a very different one. I sometimes doubt whether if Flannery O’Connor had been raised a lukewarm Methodist she would have written any differently. James Joyce’s Jesuit education may not have shaped his mind as profoundly as many critics believe.

So discussions of this kind seem malformed to me, and therefore relatively fruitless. To Dana Gioia I want to say, “Let’s strip away all the peripheral questions and ask the really key one: How is the Church forming, or failing to form, its children, and how can a stronger power of formation be cultivated?” And to Eve Tushnet I want to say, “Let’s talk about why we like what we like, especially when we discern theological and spiritual resonances that are important to us as readers, however the authors happen to be placed in relation to Christianity.” Maybe if we took those routes we would be less likely to bog down in implacably foggy terminology.

2 comments:

  • Just a note: whatever you may think about sacramentality, it is a word that Anglican theologians use to describe the world. (For instance, "marriage is not a sacrament, but it participates in the sacramentality of the universe.") It certainly does not mean that the world is a sacrament; I suppose you could argue that you don't like the word because it's misleading, but I don't see how you can argue that what Anglican theologians mean when they use the word isn't a Christian idea. (I don't claim to fully understand what the word means, but I know it doesn't mean or anyway doesn't always mean, in Anglican thought, what you've described.)

  • Christian, you have noted a turn of phrase that some (by no means all) Anglican theologians (professional and amateur) use, and also some Roman Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, mainline Protestant ... ever branch of Christians that I know of has some people who speak of the sacramentality of literature, or the arts, or the natural world, or whatever. (As I expect you know, Catholics do believe marriage — your example — is a sacrament.) No matter who uses it, it is, I firmly believe, either nonsensical or pernicious and should be avoided at all costs. What people usually mean when they talk about "the sacramentality of the universe" is something like what the Psalmist means when he writes "The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament sheweth his handiwork." Or what Jakob Böhme meant when he wrote of the signatura rerun, the signatures of divine purpose and character in all created things. Or what Augustine meant when he wrote of the vestigiae trinitate, the footprints of the Trinity discernible most clearly in the human being but also elsewhere in Creation. These are all powerful ideas and I endorse them all, but none of them is "sacramental." That's just careless language that has the effect of diminishing and even trivializing the actual sacraments. Anathema sit!

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