Thursday, 26 January 2012

Benedict meets Bakhtin: Towards a Catholic Theory of Literature

In my last post, about Catholicism and the novel, I asked how we might approach the novel from a Catholic perspective. Pope Benedict hasn't, as far as I am aware, addressed this issue directly but he has, perhaps, given us some pointers to work with in his post-synodal exhortation, Verbum Domini.

Time and again he returns in this document to the theme of dialogue: "The novelty of biblical revelation," he writes, "consists in the fact that God becomes known through the dialogue which he desires to have with us."

Now that's a pretty remarkable statement but what's it got to do with the novel? Well, the most obvious link is with the great Russian theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, who saw the novel as essentially dialogic; it contains a multiplicity of voices competing with each other.

Bakhtin's dialogism and Benedict's may seem to be quite different beasts but the links are certainly worth exploring. For the pope, what matters fundamentally is that "our whole existence becomes a dialogue with the God who speaks and listens, who calls us and gives direction to our lives" whereas, for Bakhtin, it is the, necessarily limited, voices within the novel which matter.

However, Bakhtin does not argue that the text is a self-contained entity or that the author is dead. "Of course, this play with languages (and frequently the complete absence of a direct discourse of his own)," he writes, "in no sense degrades the general, deep-seated intentionality, the overarching ideological conceptualization of the work as a whole."

An Evelyn Waugh novel presents a fundamentally different view of the world from a Thomas Hardy novel; the "
overarching ideological conceptualization" of their books differs enormously. 

But we could go further. According to Bakhtin, it is not just the author but the reader who impinges upon the text. Indeed, it may be that, for Catholics, the true significance of the novel lies in the ways we read it, in what Bakhtin called the "ideological becoming" of the reader. Rather than get sucked into an argument with Orwell about how many Catholics have been good novelists, we can instead approach the novel from the opposite direction. It is what the novel does to us that matters.

There's much more to Bakhtin (and Benedict) than I have set out here but that's probably enough for one post.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Catholicism and the Novel

In recent years Pope Benedict has had a lot to say about Catholicism and literature, focussing primarily on the way of beauty, the via pulchritudinis - see here, here, and, for a contextual discussion, here - and mentioning poetry more often than the novel.

And it is not just his speeches either: just before Christmas it was a poet, José Tolentino Mendonça, rather than a novelist who was appointed as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture.

There are many possible reasons for this focus on poetry - perhaps, one might speculate, poetry is a more obvious vehicle for the Way of Beauty than the unruly novel - but it does leave the relationship between Catholicism and the novel somewhat unexplored.

Some writers and critics would have us believe that the novel is fundamentally uncatholic. George Orwell, for example, famously asked "how many Roman Catholics have been good novelists? Even the handful one could name have usually been bad Catholics. The novel is practically a Protestant form of art; it is a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual.'' ('Inside the Whale')

And more recently Valentine Cunningham, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, claimed that novels "have rights to that designation only insofar as they display their origins in and their debt to the Northern European Protestant matrix; they have, as it were, the matching DNA."

However, as Peter Marshall has pointed out in The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction, Orwell's claim "is difficult to endorse historically, partly because the Reformation was not noticeably in favour of free minds or autonomous individuals, and partly because some of the best early examples of what we now think of as novels - Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605) or Hans von Grimmelhausen's Simplicissimus (1688) - were the work of Catholic authors."

And the same is true in later centuries: it doesn't take long to find highly significant novels by Catholic authors - like Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed - even before the great Catholic literary revivals of the 20th Century.

Or we could go further back into literary history. Margaret Anne Doody challenges the views of critics like Ian Watts (and Valentine Cunnigham) by arguing, in The True History of the Novel, that the origins of the novel can be found not in post-Protestant England but in classical antiquity.

Nonetheless, it certainly is possible to see the novel as a secular or Protestant form that has been taken up and shaped on occasion by Catholics, to see it, in Georg Lukács's famous phrase, as "the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God." Unlike The Divine Comedy or the Arthurian legends, say, the novel tends to deal with the struggles of individuals in this very human world.

But does this matter? How are we to analyse the novel from a Catholic perspective? These are complicated issues which I shall attempt to explore in my next post.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Guardian Style Guide

The Guardian Style Guide is very useful but, as The Guardian would be the first to admit, it's not perfect. It has some very useful advice for budding journalists and, indeed, for all writers and is well worth using in the classroom but it also has one or two blindspots.

However, I did wonder what it had to say about the Catholic Church and this is what I found:

Catholic church

but if you mean Roman Catholic, say so

Which didn't seem very helpful. So I looked up Roman Catholic and this is what I found:  

Roman Catholic

The archbishop of Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, St Andrew's, Southwark and Westminster: it is not normally necessary to say Roman Catholic (as there is no Anglican equivalent). 

The Roman Catholic bishop of Aberdeen, Argyll, Lancaster, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Shrewsbury (for all of which there are Anglican bishops). 

Unless obviously Roman Catholic from the context, say the Roman Catholic bishop of Brentwood, Clifton, Dunkeld, Galloway, Hexham and Newcastle, Leeds, Menevia, Middlesbrough, Motherwell, Northampton, Nottingham, Paisley and Salford. 

In a UK setting use Roman Catholic in describing Roman Catholic organisations and individuals and wherever an Anglican could argue ambiguity (eg "the Catholic church"). But Catholic is enough in most overseas contexts, eg Ireland, France, Italy, Latin America

But I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies. In 1928 neither "Catholic" nor "Roman Catholic" made it into the guide at all.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Tolkien and Chesterton

There is a fascinating book by Alison Milbank, on Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians which is reviewed here. There is also an interview with the author here in which she makes the fascinating points like these:

"Tolkien says that Chestertonian fantasy shows you the actual world from a new angle but thoroughgoing fantasy is like opening a box that allows out new things and releases them from our ownership of them. This is a really philosophical statement. The Enlightenment philosopher Kant said we have no access to things in themselves, and all we have is our own perception of the world. This leads to an alienated form of knowledge. Tolkien, following Chesterton, is a realist in a philosophical sense, because he thinks that we can be aware of a world beyond our own perceptions. Paradoxically, fiction – creating your own fantasy world – is not a way of owning your own private reality but setting the things in that world free – like Tom Bombadil putting the contents of the barrow-wights’ hoard out on the hillside."

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Reclaiming or Renaming the Middle Ages

As I have mentioned before in another context, "medieval" and "the Middle Ages" are loaded terms. As C.S. Lewis puts it in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century: "the very idea of the 'medieval' is a humanistic invention. (According to Lehmann it is in 1469 that the expression media tempestas first occurs.) And what can media imply except that a thousand years of theology, metaphysics, jurisprudence, courtesy, poetry, and architecture are to be regarded as a mere gap, or chasm, or entre-acte? Such a preposterous conception can be accepted only if you swallow the whole creed of humanism at the same time." (p.20)

Unfortunately it seems as though that creed really has been swallowed whole. The Middle Ages are now synonymous with obscurantism, cruelty and myopia. One of the Oxford English Dictionary's definitions of 'medieval' (which, incidentally, is first recorded as late as 1817) is: "Exhibiting the severity or illiberality ascribed to a former age; cruel, barbarous".

But this isn't the only problem. The OED also defines the Middle Ages as "The period in European history between ancient and modern times, now usually taken as extending from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West (c500) to the fall of Constantinople (1453) or the beginning of the Renaissance (14th cent.); the medieval period;esp. the later part of this period, after 1000." These are, of course, arbitrary dates. One of the problems of the term is that it is notoriously vague. When exactly were the Middle Ages? It depends who you ask. 

Or it depends on what is being attacked. Let's look at the first three quotations the OED chooses in support of its definition: 

[1570    J. Foxe Actes & Monumentes (rev. ed.) I. iii. 204/1   The primitiue tyme of the church,‥the middle age, and‥these our latter dayes of the church.]
1605    W. Camden Certaine Poems in Remaines of Greater Worke 2,   I will onely giue you a taste of some of midle age, which was so ouercast with darke clouds, or rather thicke fogges of ignorance.
1624    H. Wotton Archit. sig. ¶4,   After the reuiuing and repolishing of good Literature, (which the combustions and tumults of the middle Age had vnciuillized).

'The Middle Ages', in other words, is not a neutral description. It is not a mere description of an era. It is a convenient term of abuse, a term of abuse often reached for when describing the Church of Rome, which, supposedly, brought the "thicke fogges of ignorance" and, in so doing, "vnciuillized" literature. 

I could go through example after example of great learning and great literature from c500 to 1453 but, even if I did so, the words "medieval" and "the Middle Ages" would remain. So we have a choice. Either we attempt to reclaim the Middle Ages from those who would see those wonderful, diverse centuries as "cruel" and "barbarous" - by using sites such as this one in our teaching - or we try to rename them. Or, perhaps, we just point out the ways in which we can be manipulated by the language. Either way we have a huge task in front of us.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Chinese Books of the Year

OK, I realise I'm a year late but I don't read the People's Daily that often :)

This time last year the paper chose Canticle to the Land by Catholic novelist, Fan Wen, as one of its Top 5 novels of the year.

There are howls of anguish about the (supposed) demise of the Catholic novel in the English-speaking world so it's good to see that the situation isn't so bleak in the People's Republic.

To read more about Fan Wen's work click here or here. There are no plans for an English translation at the moment but, I hope, a French translation may be published later this year.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Golem, Gollum and Superman

While teaching Frankenstein, I showed some of my students this video from the National Theatre about man-made creatures.

I was particularly struck by the section on the Golem, the automaton of Jewish legend, and wondered whether there could be a link with (the homophonic) Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Others have suggested that there might indeed be a link but it's next to impossible to get hold of the relevant material.

Although Gollum's riddles are deeply rooted in Anglo-Saxon literature, Gollum (like the hobbits themselves) is not. It is perhaps not too fanciful, therefore, to seek his origins elsewhere, though it is also true that it is the Orcs who better fit the model of soulless automata created as hollow imitations of men.

I was also intrigued by Dr Nadia Valman's suggestion that the Golem legend evolved in the face of anti-semitic attacks, with the Golem coming to be seen as a super-heroic protector of the embattled Jewish community, and Superman himself being the creation of two Jewish cartoonists in the 1930s. It's amazing where English lessons can take you.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Waugh in Context

There's an interesting article by Paul Johnson in the January/February edition of Standpoint on 'Novelists at arms'. It dwells slightly too much for my taste on the inspiration for Waugh's characters in The Sword of Honour trilogy, but it does at least put Evelyn Waugh's novels about World War II in some sort of literary context.

I'd want to take this contextual analysis further. Johnson doesn't mention Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse 5, for example, let alone the perspective of other nationalities. Mo Yan's Red Sorghum (and even J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun) gives a much needed Chinese perspective on the wars of the 1930s and 40s. But you can't have everything and what he gives us is well worth reading.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Evelyn Waugh and the Mass; OUP and the Catholic Tradition

There have been some interesting reviews in the last two editions of The Catholic Herald. In the December edition, Joseph Pearce wrote a review article on the updated edition of A Bitter Trial, Evelyn Waugh's responses to the liturgical innovations of his last years. As I wrote last year, Waugh now seems remarkably prescient and this book sets out his views admirably.

And then, in the Christmas edition, Aidan Nichols favourably reviewed a new anthology of English Catholic writing, published by Oxford University Press and edited by John Morrill, John Saward and Michael Tomko: Firmly I Believe and Truly

This looks like a great book and my only reservation is the start date: 1483. I understand the practical constraints - the anthology runs to over 700 pages as it is - but, nonetheless, many centuries of Catholic England and many great Catholic writers go unexplored in this, as in so many other, anthologies. But I mustn't be churlish: this looks as though it's a must-have anthology.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Belloc and the Nature of Belief

Here is another of Belloc's purple passages from The Path to Rome on "the nature of Belief":

"Of its nature it breeds a reaction and an indifference. Those who believe nothing but only think and judge cannot understand this. Of its nature it struggles with us. And we, we, when our youth is full on us, invariably reject it and set out in the sunlight content with natural things. Then for a long time we are like men who follow down the cleft of a mountain and the peaks are hidden from us and forgotten. It takes years to reach the dry plain, and then we look back and see our home.

"What is it, do you think, that causes the return? I think it is the problem of living; for every day, every experience of evil, demands a solution. That solution is provided by the memory of the great scheme
which at last we remember. Our childhood pierces through again... But I will not attempt to explain it, for I have not the power; only I know that we who return suffer hard things; for there grows a gulf between us and many companions. We are perpetually thrust into minorities, and the world almost begins to talk a strange language; we are troubled by the human machinery of a perfect and superhuman revelation; we are over-anxious for its safety, alarmed, and in danger of violent decisions.

"And this is hard: that the Faith begins to make one abandon the old way of judging. Averages and movements and the rest grow uncertain. We see things from within and consider one mind or a little group as a salt or leaven. The very nature of social force seems changed to us. And this is hard when a man has loved common views and is happy only with his fellows.

"And this again is very hard, that we must once more take up that awful struggle to reconcile two truths and to keep civic freedom sacred in spite of the organization of religion, and not to deny what is certainly true. It is hard to accept mysteries, and to be humble. We are tost as the great schoolmen were tost, and we dare not neglect the duty of that wrestling.

"But the hardest thing of all is that it leads us away, as by a command, from all that banquet of the intellect than which there is no keener joy known to man.

"I went slowly up the village place in the dusk, thinking of this deplorable weakness in men that the Faith is too great for them, and accepting it as an inevitable burden. I continued to muse with my eyes upon the ground...

"There was to be no more of that studious content, that security in historic analysis, and that constant satisfaction of an appetite which never cloyed. A wisdom more imperative and more profound was to put a term to the comfortable wisdom of learning. All the balance of judgement, the easy, slow convictions, the broad grasp of things, the vision of their complexity, the pleasure in their innumerable life--all that had to be given up. Fanaticisms were no longer entirely to be despised, just appreciations and a strong grasp of reality no longer entirely to be admired.

"The Catholic Church will have no philosophies. She will permit no comforts; the cry of the martyrs is in her far voice; her eyes that see beyond the world present us heaven and hell to the confusion of our human reconciliations, our happy blending of good and evil things.

"By the Lord! I begin to think this intimate religion as tragic as a great love. There came back into my mind a relic that I have in my house. It is a panel of the old door of my college, having carved on it my college arms. I remembered the Lion and the Shield, Haec fuit, Haec almae janua sacra domus. Yes, certainly religion is as tragic as first love, and drags us out into the void away from our dear homes.

"It is a good thing to have loved one woman from a child, and it is a good thing not to have to return to the Faith."

Monday, 2 January 2012

Belloc on the Mass

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm reading Belloc's The Path to Rome, which is full of wonderful purple passages. Here, for example, is what he has to say about "a day one has opened by Mass ... [which is] a source of continual comfort to me".

"This comfort I ascribe to four causes ... and these causes are:

1. That for half-an-hour just at the opening of the day you are silent
and recollected, and have to put off cares, interests, and passions in
the repetition of a familiar action. This must certainly be a great
benefit to the body and give it tone.

2. That the Mass is a careful and rapid ritual. Now it is the function
of all ritual (as we see in games, social arrangements and so forth)
to relieve the mind by so much of responsibility and initiative and to
catch you up (as it were) into itself, leading your life for you
during the time it lasts. In this way you experience a singular
repose, after which fallowness I am sure one is fitter for action and

3. That the surroundings incline you to good and reasonable thoughts,
and for the moment deaden the rasp and jar of that busy wickedness
which both working in one's self and received from others is the true
source of all human miseries. Thus the time spent at Mass is like a
short repose in a deep and well-built library, into which no sounds
come and where you feel yourself secure against the outer world.

4. And the most important cause of this feeling of satisfaction is
that you are doing what the human race has done for thousands upon
thousands upon thousands of years. This is a matter of such moment
that I am astonished people hear of it so little. Whatever is buried
right into our blood from immemorial habit that we must be certain to
do if we are to be fairly happy (of course no grown man or woman can
really be very happy for long--but I mean reasonably happy), and, what
is more important, decent and secure of our souls. Thus one should
from time to time hunt animals, or at the very least shoot at a mark;
one should always drink some kind of fermented liquor with one's
food--and especially deeply upon great feast-days; one should go on
the water from time to time; and one should dance on occasions; and
one should sing in chorus. For all these things man has done since God
put him into a garden and his eyes first became troubled with a soul.
Similarly some teacher or ranter or other, whose name I forget, said
lately one very wise thing at least, which was that every man should
do a little work with his hands.

Oh! what good philosophy this is, and how much better it would be if
rich people, instead of raining the influence of their rank and
spending their money on leagues for this or that exceptional thing,
were to spend it in converting the middle-class to ordinary living and
to the tradition of the race. Indeed, if I had power for some thirty
years I would see to it that people should be allowed to follow their
inbred instincts in these matters, and should hunt, drink, sing,
dance, sail, and dig; and those that would not should be compelled by

Now in the morning Mass you do all that the race needs to do and has
done for all these ages where religion was concerned; there you have
the sacred and separate Enclosure, the Altar, the Priest in his
Vestments, the set ritual, the ancient and hierarchic tongue, and all
that your nature cries out for in the matter of worship."

Later on, he describes going to Mass on the feast of Corpus Christi and comments approvingly that "the Mass was low and short - they are a Christian people". 

I don't want to draw any facile conclusions but it seems that, for Belloc, "the sacred and separate Enclosure, the Altar, the Priest in his Vestments, the set ritual, the ancient and hierarchic tongue" were not incompatible with the "low and short". For him the Mass could be both "careful" and "rapid".

But all this is to see Belloc with early 21st Century eyes. What really mattered then, as it matters now, was the Mass itself and its "continual comfort".

Sunday, 1 January 2012

A New Year Message from Hilaire Belloc

Since everybody else seems to be giving a New Year message, I thought I'd give Belloc a chance.

This is from his 1902 The Path to Rome, which I'm reading at the moment in the wonderful Penguin edition:

"Then I went on my way, praying God that all these rending quarrels might be appeased. For they would certainly be appeased if we once again had a united doctrine in Europe, since economics are but an expression of the mind and do not (as the poor blind slaves of the great cities think) mould the mind."