Friday, May 22, 2009

On Catholic fiction

What a great - limitless? - way to start off the discussion!

To jump in: Like Betty, Heart of the Matter remains indistinct in my memory, as does Greene's Ugly American, even after seeing the Michael Douglas movie, but End of the Affair makes my heart stretch just thinking about it. Because it is a love story and I'm a sucker for romance, even though we tease our mother mercilessly for crying at the drop of a hat? Because Greene was able to describe someone in love with God without dripping pablum? (Arguable? Because the one in love with God is the Other, not the Me voice?) Because Bendrix holds on to his agnosticism, like Waugh's Charles Ryder, despite being insanely jealous of God? Because he's friends with his mistress' husband, maybe the greatest miracle in the book? Love it. (But also haven't read Heart of the Matter recently. Add that to our list!) But compare to the Great Gatsby - the protagonists are profoundly human, stuck in their littleness, Gatsby revealed to be especially pitiful - so a Catholic reader might take away from this story a revelation about disordered love leading to a rejection of grace, or maybe something about how the soul yearns for transcendence through love, but by translating that desire into a yearning for material prosperity instead of for redemption, it leads to death.

So you can spin a Catholic reading of any text (or feminist, or socialist, or deconstructionist, or whatever), but, to add to Otepoti's list, Catholic fiction also will be
  • universal (acknowledging the fundamental dignity of every human being, a part of which is the mimetic desire of the human soul, in which we mirror the Creator by creating imitations of reality - Aristotle, Aquinas, JP II)
  • incarnational (acknowledging the reality and beauty of the material world and God's hand in creating it and in lifting up the human body by taking it on) and therefore also be
  • sacramental: (acknowledging that things and people can be vehicles of grace and/or that there exists an analogy between natural and supernatural (Alan Tate), the extraordinay and the ordinary (George Weigel), the visible and the invisible (Joseph Conrad) “The real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is. The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that.” (Flannery O'Connor))
  • a fall/redemption story, even if incomplete (no sinless literature of a sinful humanity - John Henry Newman; man as a wayfarer to God, instead of lost/encultured - Walker Percy)
  • and that redemption occurs through sacrificial love
  • not preachy, but revelatory (a la Flannery O'C again ) (Longinus in “On Sublimity”: “the combination of wonder and astonishment always proves superior to the merely persuasive and pleasant.” ) (Ron Hansen: we wordlessly "ingest" metaphors of the good, the noble; the power of the parable)
(Hmm, the list kept growing. I once wrote a paper on this, so I peeked at my list of quotes, and couldn't pick just one. Know some other good quotes to add? Here's one more, from Chesterton who has a quote for everything: “The fact that novels are narratives about events which happen to people in the course of time is given a unique weight in an ethos that is informed by the belief that awards an absolute importance to an Event which happened to a Person in historic time. In a very real way, one can say that the Incarnation not only brought salvation to mankind but gave birth to the novel. ... Every artist feels he is touching on transcendental truths, and the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it.” )

Not sure if "Protestant" fiction would be substantially different. Is there a conversation somewhere about authors whose work reveals their Protestant upbringing? Is there really a significant dichotomy between Catholic/Protestant fiction written by practicing/believing Christians (as there would be between that written by agnostic/atheist/nominal/fallen away Christians).


Mrs. Buckles said...

p.s. Catholic fiction should not be preachy, but what about Catholic blogs? Mea culpa. I resolve not to be so wordy next time.

Pentimento said...

Great list, Mrs. Buckles - and I think we should include the *mystery* of grace, redemption, incarnation -- "the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor" (Yeats). To this reader, the keystone of End of the Affair (arguably my favorite novel) is the transformation of Sara's love and the mystery of her apparently being chosen by, and for, heaven.