Sunday, 27 November 2011

Rowan Williams meets Dostoevsky: Towards a Catholic Theory of Literature

In the introduction to his book about Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, writes about "Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene (at least in much of his earlier work) as Catholic novelists, and we mean by this not that they are novelists who happen to be Catholics by private conviction, but that their fiction could not be understood by a reader who had no knowledge at all of Catholicism and the particular obligations it entailed for its adherents. Quite a lot of this fiction deals with what it is that makes the life of a Catholic distinct from other sorts of lives lived in Britain and elsewhere in the modern age. ... Some of it is about how the teachings of the Catholic Church, difficult and apparently unreasonable as it seems, is obscurely vindicated as the hand of God works through chaotic human interactions."

That last sentence is enough to make the hackles rise but, even if we discount it, Williams' definition seems rather curious. These novelists are Catholic but not catholic. They are defined by their differences. Their vision is narrow.

But surely that is simply not the case. Both Greene and Waugh are read and enjoyed by many readers who have very little interest in, sympathy for, or knowledge of, Catholicism. As Catholics, their vision was wide enough to take in everything from gang warfare to relics, from politics to humour, from heaven to hell and everything in between.

This is precisely why Greene so disliked being labelled as a "Catholic novelist". But, if we are to reach towards a Catholic theory of literature, we have not only to be catholic in our own reading (as I suggested in my last post) but we have to allow Catholic novelists (and poets) to be catholic too. If Catholicism means anything at all it means everything.

To be fair to Williams, he does at least identify another type of Catholic novelist - represented by Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Muriel Spark, and Alice Thomas Ellis - whose books are less obviously Catholic but whose "work is about the possibility of any morally coherent life in a culture of banality and self-deceit." Williams feels more at home with this second group but, in using them as a way into Dostoevsky, he surely does a great disservice to Greene and Waugh.

But I mustn't end on a negative. It is encouraging to English teachers everywhere that both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury are prepared to spend time reading and writing. In fact Rowan Williams thought this one was so important that he took a sabbatical to write it.

If you want to read more about his book click here or here or here.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Benedict meets Basil: Towards a Catholic Theory of Literature

Is it possible to have a Catholic theory of literature?

Over the next few weeks I shall try to explore a few different approaches, starting with one suggested by Pope Benedict in his General Audience on St Basil:

"Basil," he said, "was of course also concerned with that chosen portion of the People of God, the youth, society's future. He addressed a Discourse to them on how to benefit from the pagan culture of that time.

He recognized with great balance and openness that examples of virtue can be found in classical Greek and Latin literature. Such examples of upright living can be helpful to young Christians in search of the truth and the correct way of living (cf. Ad Adolescentes 3).

"Therefore, one must take from the texts by classical authors what is suitable and conforms with the truth: thus, with a critical and open approach - it is a question of true and proper "discernment"- young people grow in freedom.

"With the famous image of bees that gather from flowers only what they need to make honey, Basil recommends: "Just as bees can take nectar from flowers, unlike other animals which limit themselves to enjoying their scent and colour, so also from these writings... one can draw some benefit for the spirit. We must use these books, following in all things the example of bees. They do not visit every flower without distinction, nor seek to remove all the nectar from the flowers on which they alight, but only draw from them what they need to make honey, and leave the rest. And if we are wise, we will take from those writings what is appropriate for us, and conforms to the truth, ignoring the rest" (Ad Adolescentes 4).

"Basil recommended above all that young people grow in virtue, in the right way of living: "While the other goods... pass from one to the other as in playing dice, virtue alone is an inalienable good and endures throughout life and after death" (Ad Adolescentes 5).

"Dear brothers and sisters, I think one can say that this Father from long ago also speaks to us and tells us important things.

"In the first place, attentive, critical and creative participation in today's culture.

"Then, social responsibility: this is an age in which, in a globalized world, even people who are physically distant are really our neighbours; therefore, friendship with Christ, the God with the human face.

"And, lastly, knowledge and recognition of God the Creator, the Father of us all: only if we are open to this God, the common Father, can we build a more just and fraternal world."

To read the whole of St Basil's Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek [i.e. pagan] Literature click here.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Preparing for Advent: Frank McCourt

Another good book for younger students in the run up to Christmas is Angela and the Baby Jesus by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Frank McCourt. McCourt's relationship with the Church was sometimes turbulent (as this interview makes clear) but Angela and the Baby Jesus is a delightful, true story straight from his good Irish Catholic mother. You can read a full review from the New York Times here and you can hear McCourt talking about the inspiration for the book in the following recording, though the sound quality, I'm afraid, is not great.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Mary Douglas

I realise that it's rather off-topic but I want to write a few words (OK, quite a lot of words) about the great Catholic anthropologist, Mary Douglas, before suggesting a few literary links at the end.
When she died in 2007, Prospect Magazine had this to say about her: “Few thinkers have changed how we see the world; even fewer have changed how we think about how we see the world. Mary Douglas, who has died aged 86, is one of the rare exceptions. Her field was culture, but she was as unlike the stereotypical cultural studies academic as one could imagine. A devout Catholic, she spent the last few decades in an extraordinary flowering of inquiry that is now providing insights in fields as diverse as the study of the Old Testament and the politics of climate change.”
It was, in part, the immense range of her writings that made Mary Douglas such a profoundly important figure in British intellectual life in the second half of the Twentieth Century. She wrote books about Purity and Danger, Natural Symbols, Risk and Blame, How Institutions Think, and articles on everything from jokes to good taste, from drink to implicit meanings.

In a fascinating conversation with the historian and anthropologist, Professor Alan McFarlane, she spoke about the influence her convent education had had on her work: the nuns “were very interested in getting us married and they weren’t interested in us getting academic qualifications. But in order to get a grant they had to come up to certain educational standards and be certificated as a teaching school so in fact they were brilliant. Not just one, I had a series of really brilliant women teachers.”

In fact she goes so far as to describe three of her teachers as “quite outstanding intellectuals as well as teachers” and claimed that “to rise up to their standards was quite a challenge”. She also describes having a doctrine class every day which was so special that the students had to wear gloves: “We loved those lessons because the nun was so enthusiastic.”

Brown cotton gloves were also worn out of respect for the Blessed Sacrament whenever the girls went to chapel, while on Feast Days the pupils wore white clothes and white gloves. Some of the trenchant points she made about Friday abstinence in Natural Symbols were surely derived, on one basic level at least, from her experiences at the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Roehampton.

Indeed she became interested in social studies because all pupils were required to take a certificate in Catholic Social Teaching, based on the papal encyclicals. However, the nuns thought Sociology was anti-God and anti-religion so they wouldn’t send her to the LSE. She had to make do with PPE at Oxford instead!

So what has all this got to do with the Catholic English teacher? Three things, I think.

1. Mary Douglas wrote explicitly about literature in her last book, Thinking in Circles.

2. In her last years she also wrote about the Bible from a literary as well as an anthropological perspective: Leviticus as Literature, for example, is a fascinating book because of the multi-disciplinary approach Mary Douglas adopts.

3. Mary Douglas was educated at the same Sacred Heart school as Antonia White but the description she gives of her convent education is quite different from that given by White in Frost in May. I wouldn't wholly knock Frost in May, though I don't like the way it's been used to knock convent education across the board. However, while it's worth remembering that White later returned to her Catholic faith, as described in The Hound and the Falcon, it's also worth remembering that there were others, like Mary Douglas, whose experiences were much more positive from the start.

I'm not naive enough to think that very much of this will ever find its way into the English classroom but I do think that Mary Douglas is a great model of the committed Catholic intellectual and that her books are still very much worth reading. But don't worry: it's back to fiction for my next post.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Frank Cottrell Boyce on Newman

Frank Cottrell Boyce, the author of Millions among many other great children's books, gave a lecture last week on Newman. As you might expect from Cottrell Boyce, it was both witty and thought-provoking. You can download a PDF of the lecture or listen online. Both are worth doing.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Preparing for Advent: Michael Morpurgo and Quentin Blake

Michael Morpurgo and Quentin Blake are among Britain's most best-loved children's authors, so On Angel Wings, a retelling of the Christmas story by Morpurgo with illustrations by Blake, is a pretty surefire winner.

This short book tells the story of the shepherd boy who is left behind to watch over the sheep while the rest of the shepherds travel to Bethlehem to visit the infant Jesus. However, when Gabriel returns for him he becomes the first visitor at the stable and the first to give a gift. It's a charming and thought-provoking take on the original and one that I think I'll be reading to my Year 7s (11-year olds) in the last lesson before the Christmas holiday.

Blake's pictures, which will be familiar to anyone who has read Roald Dahl's books even if they haven't come across Blake's own wonderful books, complement the text as well as you would imagine and there's even a dramatised version coming up at the National Theatre on 21st December.

My only quibble, as with so many modern books that deal with angels, is that familiarity too easily replaces awe: "I'm sorry to drop in on you unexpectedly like this," are Gabriel's first words to the shepherds. But I'll try not to quibble too much. On Angel Wings is a welcome book for anyone looking for a good book for their children or their students for Christmas.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Lord of the Flies

A little while back I set myself a literary challenge. I've now decided that a side of A4 is not enough but I have restricted myself to two sides. I'm currently working my way back through the 20th Century and here's my analysis of part of the final chapter of Lord of the Flies.

William Golding was the master of the unexpected ending. In many of his novels there is an unexpected change of perspective in the final chapter which makes the reader reconsider all that has gone before. In Pincher Martin, for example, it is only right at the very end of the novel that we realise that the sailor whom we believed to have been struggling for survival throughout the novel has been dead all along. And in The Inheritors, a novel in which we follow a wonderful group of Neanderthals, it is quite a shock when, in the last chapter, we see them through the eyes of homo sapiens, through our eyes in effect, as nothing more than “strange creature[s], smallish, and bowed.”

In his most famous novel, Lord of the Flies, the change of perspective comes shortly after the children have completed their descent into savagery. At the start of the novel their plane comes down during what is presumably World War III and they find themselves stranded without adults on a desert island. But gradually their bestial nature comes to the fore and two of the boys, including the one nicknamed Piggy, are killed. As the book draws to a close, a murderous hunt is underway for Ralph, the group’s former leader.

Just as he is about to be killed, the boys stumble across a British naval officer and, suddenly, we see them as they are: a bunch of unruly children. But they are no longer mere children. Like the adults who have been tearing each other apart in a nuclear war, they have discovered “the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart” - original sin if you like – and, in a wonderfully bathetic moment, they burst into tears.

The final irony, of course, is that the officers who discover them, men whose only response is to turn away “to give [the children] time to pull themselves together”, are no better than savages themselves. They may have neat uniforms instead of matted hair and unwiped noses, and machine-guns instead of spears, but, as Golding knew full well having served in the British Navy during World War II, they are as capable of following the Lord of the Flies as any schoolboy.

In some ways Lord of the Flies is very much a book of its time. As Golding himself put it: “Before the second world war I believed in the perfectability of social man; that a correct structure of society produced goodwill; and that therefore you could remove all social ills by a reorganisation of society. It is possible that I believe something of the same again; but after the war I did not because I was unable to. I had discovered what one man could do to another. I’m not talking of one man killing another with a gun, or dropping a bomb on him or blowing him up or torpedoing him. I am thinking of the vileness beyond all words that went on, year after year, in the totalitarian states. They were not done by the head hunters of New Guinea, or by some primitive tribe in the Amazon. They were done, skilfully, coldly, by educated men, doctors, lawyers, by men with a tradition of civilisation behind them, to beings of their own kind. I must say that anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head.”

But Lord of the Flies is not merely a response to the horrors of Nazism: it is a book about the human condition written in beautifully poetic prose (a book written by a man whose first published work was a, now largely forgotten, book of poems). Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983 because his novels transcended the times in which they were written and spoke to something deeper in his readers’ minds and hearts.

Of course there’s one other reason why I’m keen on Golding. Before he became a full-time writer, before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was an English teacher. There’s hope for us yet.

(P.S. See here for the Nobel Prize Lord of the Flies game)

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Andrew Krivak - The Sojourn

Last November I mentioned not only Siegfried Sassoon but also the former Augustinian friar, William Brodrick, whose novel, A Whispered Name, was a welcome addition to the ranks of First World War novels. This year it's the turn of a former Jesuit, Andrew Krivak, whose novel, The Sojourn, is a National Book Award finalist.

By writing about a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army fighting on the Italian front, Krivak gives us an insight into an aspect of the Great War which is too little known (nothwithstanding Hemingway's Farewell to Arms). But this is more than a war novel. The narrative is framed by two stories about children who are rescued, the narrator by his mother and another child (but I won't give too much away) by the narrator. This is a novel which is as much about families and migration as it is about the war.

Having said that, the sections which deal with the war are among the best in the book. The part of the novel where Krivak writes about the sharpshooters in action is, I think, particularly fine, although the final post-war sections are also both moving and harrowing.

However, I did have some reservations about the novel. In particular I found Krivak's prose style hard to cope with at times. To put it simply, I thought his sentences were sometimes just too long. Take this paragraph, for instance:

All this time, we spoke in English. The first day he hoisted me into that saddle and we led the herd away from Pastvina, the last he spoke of any Slavic language was to those same Rusyn peasants who greeted him as they took to the fields in Lent with "Slava isusu Khristu," to which he responded "Slava na viki," and then ceased to say a word comprehensible to me, until, by the end of the summer, I knew - and could respond to - the language that was to become our own there in the mountains, and which he insisted that I never speak when we went back to the village, where everyone spoke Slovak, or Rusyn, or Hungarian to outsiders.

I felt like I was being swept away by a flood of subordinate clauses. There were also moments when the language jarred. Take the penultimate sentence in this extract, for instance.

     After a time, I asked, "What is left to be afraid of?"
    And he said, "The possibility that a life itself may prove to be the most worthy struggle. Not the whole sweeping vale of tears that Rome and her priests want us to sacrifice ourselves to daily so that she lives in splendor, but one single moment in which we die so that someone else lives. That's it, and it is fearful because it cannot be seen, planned, or even known. It is simply lived. If there be purpose, it happens of a moment within us, and lasts a lifetime without us, like water opening and closing in a wake. Perhaps your brother Marian knows this."

Krivak reminds Sebastian Smee of The Boston Globe of Cormac McCarthy, among other writers, so let's compare Krivak's paragraph with one of McCarthy's.

When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. He studied what he could see. The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke. He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

Of course it's invidious to quote authors out of context but I think the essential difference between the writers is clear even from these two passages.