Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Journeys and Pilgrimages

One A Level coursework option currently on offer is 'Journeys and Pilgrimages'. Teachers and students are given a free choice of texts so I have been wondering which books might be worth studying. It's hard to think of much literature that doesn't contain a journey of some kind, so what makes this option intriguing is the reference to pilgrimages.

There are some fairly obvious choices, like The Canterbury Tales, but there are other pilgrimages which don't stand out so readily. H.R. Stoneback, for example, has pointed out that:

"Pilgrimage, the notion and motion of spiritualized travel, is at the center of Hemingway's religious vision and his work from his earliest stories to the final, unfinished and posthumously published novels and memoirs. Pilgrimage variations in his work range from individualized quests to places that are sacralized by the achieved journey, to traditional pilgrimages long held sacred by centuries of pilgrims. Most notable in the latter category of pilgrimage is Hemingway's longstanding devotion to the specifically Catholic Pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela." 

And while we're on the topic of Santiago de Compostela, I have to mention Neil Curry's sadly out-of-print Walking to SantiagoThe good news, though, is that his Other Rooms: new and selected poems does contain a good selection of the Santiago poems.

Another recent book which addresses similar territory is Christopher Howse's A Pilgrim in Spain while a recent movie is Emilio Estevez's The Way.
The focus of much recent literature about Journeys and Pilgrimages - like Cormac McCarthy's The Road - is the journey itself. However, an exhibition that has just opened in London reminds us that the destination was also pretty important, even if that destination then pointed the way to a far greater destination. 

The British Museum's Treasures of Heaven certainly looks as though it will be worth a visit. Some interesting events have been organised by the curators and the associated book looks wonderful. There are some interesting books now available on the topic of relics - such as Holy Bones, Holy Dust - but Evelyn Waugh's Helena remains one of the most fascinating.

That's probably enough to be getting on with but I'm sure there are plenty more texts out there which would fit beautifully into this unit of work. Any thoughts?

Monday, 27 June 2011


A line from one of the weekly readings caught my eye the other day: Ephesians 2: 10.

"We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it." (Jerusalem Bible)

Now what do we make of "God's work of art"? Here's the passage in the original Greek:

αὐτοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν ποίημα, κτισθέντες ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ ἐπὶ ἔργοις ἀγαθοῖς οἷς προητοίμασεν ὁ θεὸς ἵνα ἐν αὐτοῖς περιπατήσωμεν

The key word is ποίημα which, according to my Liddell & Scott dictionary means "anything made or done; a work, piece of workmanship; a poetical work, poem; an act or deed."

Most biblical translations render it as "workmanship" but I rather like the idea that we are God's poem.

In fact my classroom's Word of the Week is now "poem". And if you want the etymology here's a shortened version of what the OED has to say:

"Middle French poeme (French poème) ... and its etymon classical Latin poēma ... ancient Greek πόημα(4th cent. b.c.), early variant of ποίημα, thing made or created, work, poetical work, also applied to prose of poetic quality < ποιεῖν (early variant ποεῖν) to make ... + -μα."

Monday, 20 June 2011

Manga Hero

OK, time for a change of tone: Catholic Manga! 

Manga Hero is producing a book about the pope for World Youth Day 2011. The company also has some other intriguing books available now and more in the pipeline.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Gothic and Catholicism: Religion, Cultural Exchange and the Popular Novel, 1785-1829 by Maria Purves (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2009)

I recently came across a fascinating book which turns on its head an argument expressed on this blog among many other places: that Gothic fiction is rooted in anti-Catholic sentiment. Maria Purves argues that literary critics have missed or ignored many novels which complicate this reading of the Gothic. “At the heart of this study,” she writes, “is a collection of Catholic novels written in the period 1790-1816. These novels complicate the orthodox reading of Gothic as a vehicle for anti-Catholic, anticlerical sentiment. They make Catholic monastic characters heroic and use them to define and demonstrate the value and superiority of Christian piety in a world of unruly emotion and unchecked sensibility.”

Purves sees the Catholic relief Acts of 1791 and 1793 as symptomatic of a wider sympathy for Catholicism in the wake of the French Revolution, a revolution which not only produced a steady stream of émigré priests and religious but which also revealed, to at least some British readers and thinkers, the dangers of fashionable anticlericalism and anti-Christian sentiment.

The key text for Purves is (the Catholic) Alexander Pope’s ‘Eloisa to Abelard’, a poem which provided the model or inspiration for a range of novels and poems which presented religious in a favourable light. In fact, what is perhaps most valuable about her study is the literary archaeology she carries out: a long list of Catholic (or pro-Catholic) novels are unearthed, including Regina Maria Roche’s “major best-seller”, The Children of the Abbey (1794), Eleanor Sleath’s The Orphan of the Rhine (1798),The Monk of the Grotto (Anon, 1800), Catherine Selden’s The English Nun (1797) and Agnes Lancaster’s The Abbess of Valtiera (1816). What is significant about these novels, according to Purves, is that they “all posit spirituality as a means of female fulfilment.” In fact she goes so far as to argue that “the Gothic novel became a vehicle for [the] promotion of Christian devotion.”

Novels such as these “offer a new type of Gothic heroine who challenges our picture of Gothic further. Convents in these novels are not symbols of the superstition, oppression and corruption of the Catholic Church. They are not anachronistic institutions from which enlightened democratic Protestant England is thankfully far removed. Rather, convents are presented as feminine havens where strength and dignity can be restored, or schools in and from which may be learned the value and power of a Christian moral foundation in a cruel world."

Fascinating as this argument is, there are limits to her revisionism. She argues that “a spectrum of opinions, rather than an absolute anti-Catholicism, coloured the years when the Gothic novel flourished". In other words, there was still plenty of anti-Catholicism in this period, an anti-Catholicism which deeply influenced mainstream English literature. However, anti-Catholicism wasn't the only ideology on offer.

In her book Purves offers a closely argued and well-researched reappraisal of the Gothic novel in its early years. The corresponding weakness of the book is that it only covers the early years. What she does not explain is the continuing strength of the anti-Catholic tradition in canonical texts such as Dracula. That was not, she might argue, what she was setting out to do but any discussion of the Gothic which omits, say, FrankensteinDracula and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde can only be a partial discussion.

However, that is to quibble. There is much that is refreshing about Purves’s book, including her awareness of  contemporary critical blindspots: “Because Christianity is no longer a dominant aspect of our culture today, scholars habitually underestimate its resonance in the eighteenth century... ," she writes. "There is a tendency to over-represent the status of secularity in eighteenth-century society and assume that a thinking individual, a person of letters, must have disencumbered him or herself of religious belief and its customs... It is essential then that scholarship does not make light of or abbreviate Christian themes, inferring tokenism or satire, when they pervade a literary work or genre of this period. This often happens simply because such themes are more assimilable as irony to the postmodern reader and critic.”

It is a book which deserves to be widely read.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Evelyn Waugh interview

There's a great interview with Evelyn Waugh here. It's not exactly breaking news, I realise, but it's still a great interview.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

A few thoughts on the Gothic in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’

I was surprised to discover Evelyn Waugh’s ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ in The Penguin Book of Horror Stories the other day. Waugh is not by any stretch of the imagination a horror writer, though it is true that he transformed his masterly short story into a novel which is, in many ways, dominated by the idea of the Gothic.

The Gothic of A Handful of Dust seems to be, at first glance, a merely architectural feature with three of the novel’s seven chapters being entitled ‘English Gothic’. However, there is more to it than that: Gothic pretensions are constantly undercut (or covered over) in this novel.

“Between the villages of Hetton and Compton Last lies the extensive park of Hetton Abbey,” the county Guide Book tells us. “This, formerly one of the notable houses of the county was entirely rebuilt in 1864 in the Gothic style and is now devoid of interest.”

In fact parts of Hetton Abbey suffer the ultimate indignity of being clad with white chromium plating in the course of the book. And yet the Gothic remains for Tony Last an ideal. When he discovers the extent of his wife’s treachery, his mind became “clearer on many points that had puzzled him. A whole Gothic world had come to grief ... there was now no armour glittering through the forest glades, no embroidered feet on the green sward; the cream and dappled unicorns had fled...” The Gothic is more than an architectural style: it is an ideal, a moral guide, a symbol of a golden age.

This is why he does not abandon his ideal, even after the Gothic world “had come to grief”. Rather he pursues it across the globe. When he sets sail for Brazil, his mind is “occupied with the City, the Shining, the Many Watered, the Bright Feathered, the Aromatic Jam. [You have to read the novel to get the joke.] He had a clear picture of it in his mind. It was Gothic in character, all vanes and pinnacles, gargoyles, battlements, groining and tracery, pavilions and terraces, a transfigured Hetton, pennons and banners floating on the sweet breeze, everything luminous and translucent; a coral citadel crowning a green hill-top sown with daisies, among groves and streams; a tapestry landscape filled with heraldic and fabulous animals and symmetrical, disproportionate blossom. / The ship tossed and tunnelled through the dark waters towards this radiant sanctuary.”

It is, of course, an illusion, a handful of dust, for Waugh was no Gothic novelist. Perhaps, instead, we should see A Handful of Dust as a wry commentary on the Gothic pretensions of Horace Walpole et al. Frank Kermode has written about the way in which great houses become “by an easy transition types of the Catholic City, and in this book the threatened City is Hetton.” More convincing is Douglas Lane Patey’s argument that in A Handful of Dust Waugh actually offers us a critique of Hetton as a great house and, by extension, of the Gothic as an ideal.

Monday, 13 June 2011

George Orwell: A Very Christian Atheist

There is a very interesting article in this week's Spectator about George Orwell's attitudes towards Catholicism:

"No one will be amazed that George Orwell disliked Roman Catholicism," it begins; "it is odd, though, that he seemed unable to leave the subject alone."

It reminds me of the argument of Alan Sandison's George Orwell: After 1984 which argued that Orwell was very much a post-Protestant. It's years since I read it but, at the time, its analysis of 1984 seemed to make perfect sense. I'm sure it's worth revisiting.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'

We can be fairly certain that Joseph Ratzinger was not thinking of Cormac McCarthy when he wrote in 2002 that, in the face of the evil seen in the modern world, "a purely harmonious concept of beauty is not enough. It cannot stand up to the confrontation with the gravity of the questioning about God, truth and beauty." Nonetheless, that stark concept of beauty is precisely what we find in what is arguably McCarthy's greatest and most explicitly religious novel, The Road.

The book is in many ways utterly bleak - an unnamed father and son wander through a dead America in which "the frailty of everything [is] revealed at last", where cannibalism is rife and children are roasted on spits - but it is also shot through with what McCarthy calls in The Sunset Limited "the lingerin scent of divinity".

God seems at first to be utterly absent from this post-apocalyptic world - the father asks, "Are you there? ... Will I see you at the last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart?  Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God ... Oh God" - and yet His scent lingers on in the love the father has for his son and in the son himself.

The boy is in many ways the novel's central character. It is the son who retains his humanity when his father struggles to hold onto it. It is the son who compels his father to feed an old man they pass on the road, and the son who insists on returning clothes to the thief they had robbed in turn. As his father puts it, "If he is not the word of God God never spoke."

Despite the horrors he experiences the boy still "glow[s] in that waste like a tabernacle". The child is not deified - he remains a child who desperately craves reassurance and love - but he does retain a childlike religious sense. When the father stumbles across a stache of food, for example, the boy insists on thanking the (long-dead) owners for it: "Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff. We know that you saved it for yourself and if you were here we wouldnt eat it no matter how hungry we were and we're sorry that you didn't get to eat it and we hope that you're safe in heaven with God."

The father learns many lessons from his son and the importance of prayer is just one of them. Shortly before he dies he tells his son: "If I'm not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I'll talk to you. You'll see." This may not seem much like prayer as traditionally understood but it is the best he can manage in the post-Christian world they inhabit.

It is surely significant then that, at the very end of the book, when the boy finds refuge with another family, "He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didnt forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time."

This is a terribly bleak novel but it is also one which carries a redemptive message about hope and love. It is a novel of great narrative power, a book in which the stark of beauty of the prose style carries as much meaning as the journey itself.

In one of his very rare interviews, Cormac McCarthy disingenuously said that: "it is more important to be good than it is to be smart. That is all I can offer you." He was wrong: in The Road he offered so much more.