Saturday, June 9, 2007

The End of our Affair with Mannerists

Anyone else out there bored by the "Catholic writing" commentators who talk in endless circles about Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy? Are you interested in creating original work that will not be seen as a manneristic footnote on penumbras emanating from Percy's lousy, hackneyed wreck of a book, "The Thanatos Syndrome"? [Thanatos, in Freudian writing, was the death urge. Catholics cannot afford to wallow anymore in the culture of death. Read Joyce Kilmer, below, on self-destruction. The only logical response to self-destructive behavior is Kilmer's flip question, "And don't you think you were an ass?"] Anyone else wondering why we need to suffer through two hundred pages of shock reading to get to a not-so-bright point about morality?

An inordinate amount of Catholic "literary commentary" focuses on modern works that focus on ugliness. I'm sick of ugly books about sin. I'm at a loss to explain why conservative intellectuals who recommend books about sin [i.e., about breaking the sixth commandment] also trumpet family values and point fingers at politicians or other public figures who might need to go to confession every now and then. I suspect they're playing a game of Hegelian dialectic on us--- with the prudery of their public positions playing off against the license of their artistic voyeurism [please, someone explain to me the difference between Percy's verbal pornography and Paris Hilton's films. Will certain intellectuals finally completely flip their lid and discover that Paris Hilton is creating "art films" that illustrate the plight of modern sinners? Give me a break!]. So, with prudery on one hand, and literary voyeurism on the other, the commentators are set up as the pathfinders who can show us exactly what narrow path to walk so that we can be naughty and nice in just the right measure. [Jesus, by the way, wasn't into "naughty and nice"... goodness and redemption and true enjoyment instead. He also said to call no man father, that is, to elevate no one to a godlike status-- which would imply that we should be cautious about letting critics of any kind tell us what to read.]

I submit that the way out of this dialectical fraud is for Catholic writers to stop reacting to the Catholic critics. We can, of course, read what we want to, but must read critically. At some point, we must question why they keep recommending the same five or six authors. [I hope they have read other books....] Therefore, while the philosophes bore one another extolling the ugly books, I would like to recommend something transcendant. Fordham University's website features an Internet Medieval Sourcebook. As we readers and writers redicover the real canon, the modern literature of the grotesque can shrink to its rightful stature.

Note well that no Western Catholic writer of the twentieth century wrote a traditional epic. You can't spin an epic out of ugliness.

Enjoy the Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook:

And, if you don't want to read it, you don't have to. There's freedom to think for yourself on this website.



jim klas said...

Please define in your terms what "Catholic" writing is or is not.You have attacked certain authors aor their take on Western Culture,but have not proffered your version of how a conttemporary Catholic author ought to view the world are you suggesting that such writers need tow some ,as yet, undefined line,much as Soviet writers were officially compelled to hold their artistic vision to the party line as defined by a beauracracy of those failed Fleet Streeters ( I admit that I have no idea what street PRAVDA was printed on) and politicians with a comic book ideal ?Tell us ,please just what it is you expect ?

Ellen Rice said...

Dear Jim Klas,

If I dispute the merits of the effete 20th century canon I am accused of being a "Soviet"? That's an ad hominem... not a logical argument.

Can you respond with an artistic rationale instead?

James Kennedy said...

um... can anyone say tolkien? "
Note well that no Western Catholic writer of the twentieth century wrote a traditional epic. You can't spin an epic out of ugliness." this is simply a flagrantly untrue statement. first of all you are out of line in your attack on walker percy/flannery o'conner et al. in the words of John Paul the great in his letter to artists, ". Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption." To attack literature for depicting sin is a huge mistake. There is no way that the 'catholic literature' which you envision would be either art or even practical writing for the faithful. Art is a bridge to God not insofar as it preaches truth, but insofar as it is true. In the true depiction of the human condition there is beauty. In the words of Keats, beauty is truth, truth beauty. that is all ye know on earth or need to know. The rational for an gritty 'sinful' depiction of the human condition is in the verity of the work. If a work is true then it provides an inroad to God, because as Christ says, "I am the way, the truth and the life" If something is true to the human condition, then it necessarily will be a work of art which draws one closer to God. As catholics we can know that truth is never against us. We cannot attack true works of art because they offend our limited and faulty sensibilities. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, the key to being a good christian reader is knowing what we like in fiction, and knowing what we ought to like. Sinful material may not be something that we like in fiction, but when it is used to depict the human condition truthfully, and 'give voice to the universal desire for redemption' then it is something which we ought to like in fiction.

Ellen Rice said...

Dear James,

Thank you for this comment-- there's a lot in here to unpack. "You cannot spin an epic out of ugliness." I stand by this statement. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy is not a traditional epic, like the Iliad, Virgil, Beowolf, or Dante. All these epics started from the world in which the inhabitants lived, whether the shore of the Aegean, the hills of Rome, the Danish lands from which the British came, or the land of the Christian afterlife. I believe an epic may have this characteristic: creating legend about the real environment of a people. Tolkien I would describe as a brilliant, non-traditional epic. Tolkien created an alternative world for a setting-- unless one would wish to argue that the 20th century world has as its characteristic a pliability which blurs the line between the fantastic and the real. I might be willing to buy that argument.

[Second, I never said that Tolkien is ugly.]

Of course magnificent Christian writers like Shakespeare and Dante included stories of sin in their work. Nonetheless, their works did not possess the moral ambiguity that characterizes, for example, Percy's work-- Thomas More [of Percy] is a Christian antihero. Iago was an antihero but we know he is an antihero. Is it artistically and metaphysically honest to draw us into Thomas More's debauched world so that we can sympathize with the hero/ antihero "bad Catholic"? I maintain that much of 20th century Catholic fiction draws us into a morally ambiguous posture.

"In the true depiction of human nature there is beauty." So it is true that Paris Hilton rose to fame by making a porno with her boyfriend. Does this mean that there is beauty in this? No, I know you would disagree. Like Percy's Thomas More, Paris is promiscuous, looking for God, and concerned with the meaning of the self. But I believe you would argue, somehow, that Paris's self-depiction of human nature is inauthentic. Surely you would not buy a Paris tell-all that describes the details of her "movie career."

So, it seems inauthentic to claim that the "bad Catholic antihero" is a true depiction of human nature. From that starting point, I believe the inescapable conclusion is that Paris's porno movies are a true depiction of human nature, and even, God forbid, beautiful. I don't see how Percy's raunchy descriptions of his main character's affairs are any different, therefore I am questioning his enshrinement in our canon.

And then, what comes of the Catechism's explicit condemnation of pornography?

This is a good conversation. I look forward to reading your remarks.

James K. said...

Alright. agreed on Tolkien, just wanted to make sure on that point. Sorry if I sounded a tad sarcastic. It seems that my challenge lies in the comparison which is drawn between Paris Hilton, and Dr. Thomas More. While I would agree with you that their lifestyles are similar. Promiscuous, and sinful. The catch lies though in the difference of the authorial perspective. In Love in the Ruins, More is a man in agony. He is not happy, and we are clearly shown the pain which lies in life apart from sin, and here is the crucial difference. In the all too public life of Paris Hilton, their are no painful mistakes, even her run ins with the law, or her released sex tapes only contribute to her fame and success. More on the other hand, an incredibly private life-in contrast to Hilton-is dying, spiritually, physically, mentally, and he knows it, and admits it. He is lapsed-fallen away as it were-and he recognizes this as the root of his pain. But he cannot heal himself, as the admonition which rings through his head during the beginning of the book goes, so he tries to heal everyone around him. And hopes that this will save him. He lacks the strength to stop fornicating, even though he knows that this is his sin, his fault. And so this work, although it doesn't depict beauty, per se, does depict truth. Which as I earlier attempted to argue is the same thing in literature as beauty. The novel is not so much a positive picture of the beauty of Creation, or the church, as a negative, a striking silhouette of what a world without God really is. A world without Him is meaningless, a broken roller coaster, where the chain keeps on clinking, or not clinking but doesn't work any more, as Percy describes it. The value of this novel is that it takes modern life, and by a slight trick of shedding light upon it, show it for the meaningless chasm which it is. I agree though with the point you made originally, that the novel of the grotesque cannot take the pride of place as the 'Catholic novel' of the last Century-paranthetically I would say that Brideshead was the 'Catholic' novel-but it must have a place in the Catholic literary tradition. Let's continue the conversation...

James K. said...

Oh and by the way (Shameless plug warning) I am interested in creating a new original Catholic body of Literature. Head on over to my blog to see some of my poetry. And let's continue the conversation about Catholic, or non-Catholic Fiction. Pax in Christe

Ellen Rice said...


I've just wandered over to your blog. It looks good... keep it up!


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