Sunday, December 8, 2013

Catholic Fiction vs. Paganism


Not to steal Otepoti's December thunder, but I thought I'd add a new perspective to an old discussion, which occurred to me just yesterday and which is actually quite timely.

Do you all remember the Nick Joaquin story The Summer Solstice from February 2011? Back then, I disagreed with Emily's interpretation of Lupeng and Paeng's marriage as unhappy, saying, with my usual naivete, "Not that it's much to worry about. I'm sure that by the next day, all the 'possessed' couples are back to 'normal.'"

I thought that because the Philippine religious culture has been a blend of Catholicism and paganism for a long time, and if it were a marriage, it would be one that had dramatic problems only three days each calendar year. For the most part, a pretty good deal. But is even the tiniest compromise with paganism one which Catholics can afford?

Yesterday I learned about a vicious incident which recently took place in Argentina, when a pro-abortion feminist group tried to attack the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista and Catholic men had to form a phalanx around the church to keep it from being profaned. Frustrated in their original plan, the women turned their spray paint, permanent markers, dirty underwear, and sheer malice onto the men, then gleefully burned an effigy of Pope Francis. Reading the report and watching the disturbing video, I was reminded of the scene in which Paeng tries to look for Lupeng among the devotees of the Tadtarin, who are all women, and barely ends up escaping with his life. But the Catholic men of San Juan didn't have to go among pagan women to find trouble; instead, thousands of both male and female neo-pagans (For how else can we describe those who make an idol out of women's bodies?) in a twisted "feast day" celebration, organised a march to the city's largest cathedral, looking for a fight.

It also didn't escape my notice that the patron saint in Joaquin's story and the patron saint of the cathedral in this real-life are one and the same: St. John the Baptist, whose voice, incidentally, cried out to us from the wilderness once more, in today's Gospel. 

In other words, I now totally agree with Emily that Lupeng and Paeng's marriage is unhappy--and predict that the 362 peaceful days they have out of the year are not enough to keep a lid on the underground volcano they're sitting on. But as I still think that The Summer Solstice is an imaginative depiction of Philippine culture, it has me thinking about the sort of "marriage counseling" that a religious culture would benefit from. It reminded me that we have found rational ways to deal with the irrational before, though I doubt we could recreate certain things today, like Ancient Greece's solution . . .

Another pagan god whose ancient cult can shine some light on the religious aspect of the attack and the defense of the cathedral is the Greek deity Dionysius. He was the ruler of drunkenness and riots, and oddly enough, also of fertility. And it is his cult which is responsible for the death of the musician Orpheus, whether you are reading the telling in which the Thracian women tear him apart because he foreswore Dionysius as a patron and worshiped only the sun god Apollo . . . or the version in which the Ciconian women tear him apart during an orgy because he refused to love another woman after losing Eurydice. The point is that he gets torn apart, which is the mark of Dionysius upon mobs. So the sarcastic trolls who said of the attack on the cathedral, "No big deal. At least the men didn't die!" happened to have been facing north when they checked their smashed moral compasses--for we all intuitively know that blood and destruction are the only things which satisfy rioters. If the cathedral's defenders had not been praying the rosary that day, I don't want to know what would have happened.

The Ancient Greeks didn't have the rosary, but their attempt to control their own riotous, drunken mobs was actually so effective that we still remember it today. I refer to the origin of the theatre. How much safer to give people catharsis through drama (or fiction?), rather than through a real-life "purging" of some resented scapegoat! And there is a Catholic counterpart, of course, in the medieval mystery plays, though we seem to have forgotten them these days. I daresay that we retain some memory of them in the Holy Week liturgy, when the medium is truly the message that the Scapegoat who purged us of our sins also rose from the dead and has invited us to share in His divinity and eternal life. But I'm now getting ahead of the liturgical year . . .

I do have a question, however, which doesn't have to wait for an appropriate season to be asked and seems right up this blog's alley. What is the role of quality Catholic literature in the defense of the Church? What can good Catholic fiction do against the tides of irrationality? I personally hope for the best, but I can't imagine who we will get around literature's current reputation for belonging only to the elite or the highly literary. Even theatre, formerly for and of the masses, has gone the professional route and is no longer so accessible. Only liturgy and the rosary seem to remain.


Otepoti said...

Enbrethiliel, I hadn't thought of those attacks as examples of Dionysian frenzy, but you are right on the money.

Doubly appropriate to read this on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, since it's only the Blessed Mother who gets all the issues of sexuality and gender right, from the female side of things - the surrender and self-giving and receptiveness that is the female part of human life, whether married or celibate. The rest of us hold it in, at best, an uneasy balance, and we're always trying to baptize our sexual natures.

There's another interesting take on this in CS Lewis' "That Hideous Strength" where the huge Goddess upsets a marriage bed because the female protagonist, Jane, cannot or will not accept the goodness and complementarity of gender and sex roles, neither in her marriage, nor as they impinge on her faith life.

I think that the role of Catholic fiction might, sometime in the future, be teaching a lost generation how to be married, how to be chaste, how to be celibate again. They children of so much dysfunction are not going to learn it from their parents (if they have them) or their grandparents (if they know them.)

Great, great post, E., and as ever, I'm waiting on tenterhooks to see what everyone else says.

Enbrethiliel said...


I confess that I'm worried about Catholic fiction having to take over where parents and the natural community fail. A friend of mine once defended the sex scenes in an older SF series by saying that they were educational--in a good sense, because sex was depicted in the context of relationships and community, which was pretty close to the Catholic view that the unitive and procreative goods of sex should not be divorced from each other--and that he and his peers never learned those things from their parents.

There are similar things said about YA novels on "tough" issues, which seem to me like bald attempts to give YA writers license to write anything and everything they please, and to equate criticism with censorship.

Having said that, I agree that there are many things which we are no longer receiving through the traditional "media" of family and community. Art seems well equipped to step in, and to act in loco parentis, until the right order can be restored.

Otepoti said...

Heaven forbid that the Catholic interaction with the arts ever fall into the trap of doing holy sex ed! Anyway, Simcha Fisher has that all covered, and does it by merely showing the (only) foundation from which a healthy sex life can grow, and leaving the details as an exercise for the reader. In this, she's like one of those gardening books that bang on and on about getting the soil right. Earthy.

My thought was of something prior to that, even - Cath-arts has to get out the idea of natural law, of the dignity of the human being, the greatness of God.

As you rightly say, most of the arts media have become elitist, but rather than pin our hopes on Peter Jackson's use of Tolkien, perhaps we should remember another avenue, that of music. Unlike the visual and written media, music by and large hasn't fallen prey to the trap of diminishing returns, where the public appetite for shock and titillation has driven artists to ever greater depths of insult and onslaught against human nature. People still want and need beautiful music, of all sorts, at all levels.

I would genuinely like to know how much untoward pre-evangelism Lennon's "Let It Be" did, in its time. Perhaps we should all be writing song texts and attempting song writing.

Which reminds me of a funny story - last week I chanced on a copy of my old church's newsletter, and there was a little article there about an upcoming performance of Handel's "Messiah". "The Messiah", said the article, was a completely Protestant and up-building work, unlike "Dream of Gerontius" (last year's offering) which Stanford said was "stinking of incense."

I spotted the writer at the performance, and I sidled up to him and said, "You say 'stinking of incense' like it's a bad thing!"

So, so happy to be Catholic.


Emily J. said...

Very interesting. I saw a blurb about those attacks, but didn't read more. Too depressing. Wish I had more time to formulate a more coherent response. Your discussion of the bacchanal reminds me of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, and how an attempt to release and then contain darkness ends up tearing people apart. And then on art as educator - my sister and I were having a conversation about the reviews of "Philomena" - anti-Catholic or not? My husband and I talked about seeing it with his brother and sis in law, but they are not especially strong in their faith, which is not in the Catholic church. Did not go to see it, but raises the question about depicting sin without glorifying it - or making it seem worse, if such is the case with the Irish sisters in the film. I thought it might be good to still go to the movie with them because it might open up a discussion. Would the film have provided a good platform for a nonconfrontational discussion about faith? Or would it just confirm some preconceived notion of church oppression.

There is certainly a human preoccupation with sin and disorder that leads people to read/watch/listen to what borders on pornography or simply bad art. I feel like I learned something about life and love and need from books and arthouse movies I watched as a teenager, even though they weren't stories in accord with Catholic teaching. Can any beautiful image can pull a person to God even if it only depicts God's absence? Was I even aware of the "worldview" presented in these movies/books? Did my parents fill in the holes between what the world said and our church, or did they simply make available other writings/images that contradicted the more worldly ones? Probably somewhat. also probably not enough.

Otepoti, I'm not sure if you are saying that music has or has not succumbed to greater depths of the onslaught of shock. All I can think of are some obscene songs on the radio that are played on mainstream stations as if they were appropriate for toddlers and grandmas, when they aren't appropriate for anyone - although they are good for dance clubs. Bacchanalian debauchery seems to have become commonplace - So does it lose its cathartic power and its shock value, or does it still have power to act on the heart/mind/soul?

Enbrethiliel said...


I hesitate to use art as a springboard for discussion, because I don't think the creators intended it that way. Of course, really good, complex works of art end up sparking a lot of conversations on their own. So never mind my scruples! =P

Questions about anti-Catholic art reminds me of the musical Nine, which is an adaptation of Frederico Fellini's movie 8 1/2. (Unfortunately, I haven't seen the original film yet.) The main character is also a director, and one thing we learn about his movies is that they are publicly condemned and privately enjoyed by priests. My takeaway wasn't that the priests were being hypocrites, but that they were being fathers: that is, they knew that it takes a certain level of maturity in the faith in order not to be led astray by morally dubious elements in art. I used to think that anything which portrayed the Church or the Faith in a negative light was "anti-Catholic," but now I use that label only for works which descend to a particular level of malice.

(By the way, one novel I once considered for us was Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. Based on reviews and her own descriptions of it, I think it is an especially Catholic examination of what life is like when faith in revelation is dead.)

I feel that what I've written doesn't address your comment at all, but it's late for me, so I'm going to have to chew your words over some more and get back to you another time.