Saturday, 1 October 2011

Dante and Catholic Literature

What constitutes Catholic Literature is a question I have steered clear of on this blog, partly because of its complexity but partly because it seems to me that it's not a live issue for most Catholic English teachers. The reality, in the UK at least, is that we spend the overwhelming majority of our time teaching books that have little or no connection with Catholicism, even if we teach in Catholic schools. What I have tried to do on this blog, therefore, is suggest just a few Catholic authors whose books we might drop into our teaching.

Nevertheless, the question cannot be wholly ignored, which is why Paul Claudel's essay about Dante is so interesting.

According to Claudel, "Dante is one of five poets who, I believe, deserves the adjective sovereign or catholic". (He doesn't say who the other four are.) Dante's work has three key traits: inspiration, intelligence, and catholicity. And what Claudel means by catholicity "is that these outstanding poets have received from God such vast things to express that only the entire universe will suffice for their work."

Such a vision does not force authors away from the real. On the contrary, "a true poet hasn't the least need for grander stars or more beautiful roses. What exists already is enough, and the poet understands that his own life is too short for the lesson it gives and the respect it deserves."

It is this catholicity, this breadth of vision, which makes Dante's work truly great. It is also this breadth of vision which makes his work truly Catholic.

The natural corollary of Claudel's argument, however, is that because they are limited to the merely human most novels (and a great many poems) do not deserve the same adjective. Now this is controversial and so I want to examine the idea in greater depth in a later post.

The crisis of the 19th Century, for Claudel, was not an intellectual crisis of faith but "the drama of a starved imagination." Part of Dante's genius was to create an image of Paradise that we could imagine, for, in the words of an English author quoted by Claudel, "if we are unable to form for ourselves a real conception of the thing desired, we are inclined to let our spirit stray and place it outside the field of actual interest." If we can't imagine it we can't believe in it.

Claudel's essay ends with some wonderful comments about Beatrice, Paradise and love but I wonder if this idea of "the starved imagination" isn't the idea which might be of more practical interest to Catholic English teachers. Maybe, just maybe, it's a problem we can do something about.

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