Monday, June 25, 2007

Jersey Mark Fights Back!

At long last, here is Mark's thoughtful response to my post from last week. We thought enough of it to integrate a new "Read More" feature to accommodate its loquaciousness, which explains all the technical difficulties of late, but please be warned that toward the end Mark has some critical words for everyone's favorite Peacock farmer. Viewer discretion is advised.

"Well, any position which puts me in disagreement with both C. Seamus and Jacques Maritain is a position which requires defending, so let me see what I can do.

The first argument I would offer in response to C. Seamus is the historical argument, to which I have already alluded; the "fragmented/irregular/anti-narrative forms" he mentions were the creation of the modernists (there are some precursors to these things before the modern era - Tristram Shandy comes to mind - but their establishment as a style or movement is unique to modern times). They were the creation of men who generally did not believe in God and who generally subscribed to various ideologies either explicitly (Nietzsche, Freud) or implicitly (Sartre) hostile to Catholicism. These "anti-forms" they invented were, so I would argue, created in order to be at once the vehicle and the formal metaphor of those ideological convictions. The evidence for this assertion can be blatant - as with the Freudianism of Joyce's Ulysses - or rather more subtle, as in the concept of freedom implied in "free verse," which is far more akin to the non-essentialist freedom of later existentialism than the freedom of Catholic tradition, which is, as F.P. Seamus explained it somewhere, "the ability to do what we ought to do."

Yes, serious Christian writers did subsequently adopt the modern styles (Eliot probably being the most notable example), but this does not change the fact that these styles originated with authors whose convictions were decidedly inimical to the traditional beliefs of the Catholic, and originated as expressions of those convictions; of those Christian authors who work or have worked in modernist styles I can only say, without questioning their sincerity at all, I think that they are working according to an aesthetic standard which belies the substance of their belief. But in order to offer proof of this, I need to move on to a more substantial line of argument.

In answer to the question: "should we as Catholic artists write about the world as it should be, or as it is?" - I answer, with C. Seamus and Flannery O'Connor, "as it is." I am all for reality, but let me say a few things about reality, and about how art represents reality. Let me begin with that venerable critical distinction between form and content. I am claiming that Catholic theology does imply certain formal norms; I am saying nothing whatsoever about that theology in relation to content. I do not think Catholicism implies any definable limits concerning what an author may represent in his work.

But the form of a poem does not represent anything at all; it delights. Form is there to delight, and it does so by appealing to our common instinct towards "unity and harmony" which F.P. Seamus called to our attention. Horace's old dictum was that a poem should "teach and delight," but I think it would be more accurate to say that a good poem teaches because it delights; when we take pleasure in the harmony of a well-constructed poem, we learn through reflection that a love of harmony is one of the fundamental parts of our nature. It is a lesson that a formless poem quite simply cannot teach, or at least, cannot teach very well.

Form delights; form also reveals. What it reveals is a shared understanding of human nature between poet and audience, an understanding that the instinct towards unity and harmony is at the center of what it means to be human. In a sense, the adoption of formal techniques is an assertion by the poet of his belief in the integrity of the human mind. It is a huge mistake - and one made with great regularity by the opponents of formalism - to claim that formal poetry cannot represent the most profound depths of evil and suffering; to my mind, the most terrifying literary depiction of the nothingness of human existence is Oedipus Rex, Sophocles' elaborately formal tragedy. The random nature of fortune, the inextricable corruption of our souls, and the unmitigated brutality of violence, can, and have, all been represented quite powerfully by formal poetry. But, even when these elements are present in a formal work, there is something else present as well, and that is (simplistically redundant as it may sound) form, which becomes an assertion of man's rational soul over the chaos of irrational nature, and the melody of spiritual beauty running in harmonious counterpoint to the harsh, grating ugliness of circumstance.

The form of a poem is a kind of protest of man's better self against the deficiencies of nature, and that protest is at the heart of Catholicism. A quote from Pascal might be helpful here; he wrote, "Man is but a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed...even though the universe should crush him, man would still be nobler than what kills him since he knows that he dies...all our dignity consists then in thought." I would say the form of a formal poem is quite simply the manifestation of that dignifying thought, which does not prevent or even mitigate, but which still mysteriously conquers, the evil of the world; I would contend that to practice the art of formal verse is to believe - consciously or unconsciously - that man is a creature torn apart by irreconcilable desires, enslaved by his weakness, irretrievably perplexed by his ignorance of the final things, and subject forever to "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," yet with an inalienable sense of truth and beauty abiding in his spirit in the midst of its corruptions and its sorrows. This appears to me to be the true conception of man, and it also appears to me to be the Catholic conception of man. To write with this conception in mind seems to me to be very much writing about the world "as it is."

What of the practitioner of those "fragmented/irregular/anti-narrative forms?" What is he asserting about the nature of man? Here I would suggest that neither C. Seamus nor Flannery O'Connor is quite grasping the full philosophical implications of these formless forms. What is unique about these works is not their depiction of suffering or human corruption, since, as I mentioned, formal poetry is just as capable of depicting these things; what is unique about formless poetry is the lack of that assertion of man's rational integrity, and this implies, so I would argue, a lack of real belief in that very rational integrity. The incoherent melange of images in Eliot, for instance, seems to imply an incapacity of the mind to achieve an ordered comprehension of sensation; the plotless dramas of Beckett appear to suggest the impossibility of recognizing continuity or purpose in human life; the illogical twaddle of Ashberry very clearly manifests a lack of faith in the ability of language to convey any meaning at all. These certainly seem like "distortions that destroy", and what they destroy is that belief in the integrity of the human soul. The conception of man implied by the manner in which these writers worked is not simply that of a creature beset by irrationality and corruption, but a creature wholly overcome by these things; a creature not merely foolish and perverse, but one incapable of anything but folly and perversion; a creature without reason or language, entirely impotent in the face of the world's arbitrary cruelty, and his own persistent sinfulness - in contradiction to Pascal, a weak and entirely unthinking reed.

Now, whatever else we want to say about such a conception of man, it is certainly not true that it is the conception of man contained in the Catholic doctrine of original sin, as we come to understand that doctrine either from its exposition in theology, or from its effects in our everyday lives (if something like this conception of human nature can be found anywhere in theology, it is in the thought of Luther). The modern styles manifest the modern philosophical conception of man as fundamentally irrational and brutish; whatever else it means to be a creature of a fallen nature, surely it does not mean this. No, the true conviction revealed by the formlessness of modern poetry is not original sin, but nihilistic despair. C. Seamus talked about calling our attention to the instinct for unity and harmony by representing their absence, and this is fair up to a point, but when unity and harmony are completely absent from a work of art - as is in fact the case with so much modern poetry - the effect is nihilistic.

Well, I don't believe in nihilism. I do not think that human nature, however fallen, is genuinely devoid of language and reason and the enduring desire for beauty. To write in a manner that implies such a conception of man appears to me to be writing about the world neither as it is, nor as it should be, but quite simply as it is not.

Let me conclude by adding - though I know this is an admission bordering on the heretical from a member of the Southwell - that though I enjoy some of O'Connor's stories, I would not consider her work to stand in the ranks of the very best literature, and her explanation of the principles which informed the composition of her stories, while helpful in understanding those stories, does not to my mind offer the best guidance to Catholic writers intent on creating the very best literature."

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