Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Toward a Catholic Aesthetics, Part II: The Devil's Advocate

Thanks to Mark for a very thought-provoking post. Thanks also to the mysterious F.P. Seamus for his response, though I should warn him that the administrators of this site, Hansonius and C. Seamus, disdain pseudonyms.

But to Mark’s question, “Is there a danger of stultification in attempting to limit the range of stylistic options available to a sincere Catholic?”, I have to answer yes.

For the record, I prefer formal poetry. It’s more musical, more accessible, more memorable, and generally more interesting than free verse. It demands greater craftsmanship. And I certainly agree that formal poetry has a lot to offer those who want to write in the Catholic tradition. I also agree that “the aesthetic standard which we employ as artists implies certain ethical and metaphysical commitments on our part.”

Still, I think that free verse, and (as long as we’re at it) fragmented forms of fictional narration can fit within a Catholic literary framework. The central question is: should we as Catholic artists write about the world as it should be, or as it is? Maybe one way to think of the problem is to distinguish the way we are called to live and the way we live now, between what we want to see and what we do see. These approaches probably require different forms. As Mark suggested, the fragmented nature of narratives by Faulkner and Joyce may be reflective of a fragmented personal identity. But a novelist can use that form to suggest that’s how we are without suggesting that’s how we should be.

F.P. Seamus has a point when he claims that the Catholic seeks to bring unity, integrity, and harmony to a soul wounded by sin.” But must a work of art accomplish this by representing the presence of unity, integrity, and harmony? I think it is actually possible to bring these three things by showing their absence. No surprise that Flannery O’Connor has written some tremendous stuff about this, and she was smart enough to agree with me. In “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” she claims that “If the Catholic writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is. An affirmative vision cannot be demanded of him without limiting his freedom to observe what man has done with the things of God” (150-51). In “The Novelist and the Believer,” she describes writing Everything that Rises Must Converge, a novel whose central scene is a baptism. The problem for her was that most readers don’t consider baptism a big deal, so she had to write about it in a way that would draw their attention to its significance. She did this by distorting the novel’s form:

I have to bend the whole novel—its language, its structure, its action. I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts. Distortion in this case is an instrument; exaggeration has a purpose, and the whole structure of the story of novel has been made what it is because of belief. This is not the kind of distortion that destroys; it is the kind that reveals, or should reveal. (162)

In other words, a Catholic writer can underscore the importance of his project by distorting forms and narratives. There’s more than one way to do this. She expands on this idea in “Catholic Novelists”:

[The] Catholic writer often finds himself writing in and for a world that is unprepared and unwilling to see the meaning of life as he sees it. This means frequently that he may resort to violent literary means to get his vision across to a hostile audience, and the images and actions he crease may seem distorted and exaggerated to the Catholic mind” (185).

I interpret “violent literary means” to mean not only violent action, but also violent or disturbing/unsettling forms. But the two can be connected—what we’re discussing re: form also applies to content (as is often the case). Here’s one more from Fanny O.:

When we look at the serious fiction written by Catholics in these times, we do find a striking preoccupation with what is seedy and evil and violent. The pious argument against such novels goes something like this: if you believe in the Redemption, your ultimate vision is one of hope, so in what you see you must be true to this ultimate vision; you must pass over the evil you see and look for the good because the good is there; the good is the ultimate reality.

The beginning of an answer to this is that though the good is the ultimate reality, the ultimate reality has been weakened in human beings as a result of the Fall, and it is this weakened life that we see. (178-79)

All of these arguments challenge Mark’s claim that formal poetry is the default mode for the Catholic writer. It is certainly a possible mode, and again it’s the one I prefer, but free verse specifically, and fragmented/irregular/anti-narrative forms more generally, can be the “violent literary means” or revelatory distortions that help us draw attention to “the ultimate reality [that] has been weakened in human beings.”

If the wisdom of the Hillbilly Thomist isn’t enough, maybe Jacques Maritain will convince you: “It would therefore be futile to try to find a technique, a style, a system of rules or a way of working which would be those of Christian art. The art which germinates and grows in Christian man can admit of an infinity of them.” (By the way, a little twist of irony for you…The title of Rebel Angels, the great collection of New Formalist verse, refers to a Satanic thought by Keats: “I feel confident I should have been a Rebel Angel had the opportunity been mine.”)

Mark and the mysterious F. P. Seamus, what do you say to those apples?

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