Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Is Literature enough?

I love literature, especially poetry. Compaired to literature, philosphy and theology seem dry and abstract (although I love them as well). I've always resisted, for instance, the Platonic idea that literature is a lower level activity for intellectual beginners and that the proper activity of the intellect is philosophy and theology once the the mind gets beyond its bodily limitations. Even the Blue Book of Thomas Aquinas College says that literature is useful for the learner, but intrinsically less valuable.

The courses described above are all concerned with the perfection of the intellect as such, and most of the later courses already presuppose considerable intellectual discipline. But there are several other approaches which, though intrinsically less valuable, are more proportioned to the soul of the learner, and irreplaceably assist and complement the intellectual life. The greatest works of literature, insofar as they appeal to the imagination and move the affections, are peculiarly accessible to the young, while at the same time they present or imply profoundly important views of human life and of reality as a whole.
I'm not so sure that literature is less valuable nor that is for the beginner. It not only "irreplaceably assist[s] and complement[s]" the intellectual life, but is part of the intellectual life. We can never leave literature behind. Much of the mystery of life and existence is best expressed in literature. As Sr. Miriam Joseph said in the Trivium, poetry is argumentation by vivid representation. It is the primary mode of argumentation that Sacred Scripture uses, as St. Thomas Aquinas acknowledges at the beginning of the Summa by insisting on the four senses of scripture (the then-current mode of interpreting literature).

On the other hand, I have never been as spiritually satisfied by literature (fiction and poetry) as I have by the spiritual classics. There is something about the spiritual classic such as the Imitation of Christ that moves my soul to the love of God, its proper end like nothing else. Even Shakespeare, though full of wisdom and insight about the human condition, does not induce me to worship or to love of neighbor like Thomas Merton does.

My pet theory about this is that the great literature, although certainly marked by the grace that undoubtedly moved in the soul of the authors, is still human wisdom, not unambigously showered by supernatural light.

There is specifically lacking in literature that is not explicitly spiritual a positive affirmation of the most human of realities. For instance, what role does worship or the human need for worship play in Shakespeare? As de Lubac says, the need the adore is the most fundamental of human characterstics. Von Balthasar says to acknowledge our absolute dependence on God in all things--our nothingness--is the necessary beginning and basis for a vibrant spiritual life. Shakespeare shows this negatively primarily by showing what it is like for a human being to refuse to turn to God. You rarely find a saint in Shakespeare, although my reading of him is not complete.

It is true that literature with a Catholic or Christian sensibility can be the most satisfying spiritually (Dante, Waugh, Tolkien, O'Connor, Greene--Lewis, Sayers, Dostoyevski). Some non-Christian authors have moved me deeply, such as Twain's Joan of Arc and Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. Still others can move one to a love of the poor and to compassion for the afflicted--Hugo, Dickens, Tolstoy. But I need to dip regularly into the spiritual classics themselves, the Bible for sure, but also The Imitation of Christ, the writings of St. Francis, the Philokalia, etc. I guess I sometimes need direct statements about my own spiritual life from wise spiritual guides who can describe the movements of the soul in direct reference to Revelation and to the God who made us.

It is interesting that some of the great literary figures were devotees of Catholic spiritual classics. For instance, T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett(!), as Fr. Ranerio Cantalamessa, Ofm Cap notes in his editorial on the dark night of Mother Teresa.

This explains the passion in which certain atheists, once converted, pore over the writings of the mystics: Claudel, Bernanos, the two Maritains, L. Bloy, the writer J.K. Huysmans and so many others over the writings of Angela of Foligno; T.S. Eliot on those of Julian of Norwich.

There they find again the same scenery that they had left, but this time illuminated by the sun. Few know that Samuel Beckett, the author of Waiting for Godot, the most representative drama of the theater of the absurd, in his free time read St. John of the Cross.

I'm wondering if there are those who find literature more spiritually fulfilling that spiritual classsics? I suspect there are and I'd like to hear from you. I have to put Sacred Scripture in a different category, since, as I said before, it is in fact literature as well as a "spiritual classic" and, even more important, unlike any other writings, it is the Word of God. I tend to be somewhat like Servais Pinckaers, OP, who, according to Romanus Cessario, OP, ("Hommage au Père Servais-Théodore Pinckaers, OP: The Significance of His Work," Nova et Vetera, 5, no. 1 (2007): 1-16), who experiences the Bible as the Word of God so much that he went through periods when he could not fruitfully read anything else.


Freder1ck said...

Literature, I believe, presents the greatest mimesis of humanity. Spiritual writing is technical writing addressed to a particular facet of existence. I read spiritual books to learn about spiritual things, business books to learn about business. When I want the human, I crack open a novel or some poetry.

Nick Milne said...

I think I fall into the category of readers you mention in the last paragraph. As I am yet a young man, I offer my apologies if what follows contains heretical or blasphemous ideals, and can only exhort you to offer correction if this should be so.

I have attempted to read spiritual literature to assist in my proper formation, but the attempts have all ended in mild frustration and, more often than not, complete boredom. The mystical aspects of Christian thought have never particularly appealed to me, though I suspect that might be a function of just why and how I converted in the first place (short version: various apologetical works convinced me intellectually that Christianity was true). I don't doubt that there's a lot of excellent Christian spiritual writing out there, and I know that many of the Church's most cherished saints were profoundly mystical in their approach to the Lord. For my own part, though, it just doesn't gel.

Perhaps I worry that if I were to constantly read of God's love, or wisdom, or justice, I would be in danger of becoming jaded about or bored with these aspects of Him. In eschewing writing that focuses explicitly on these matters, then, such encounters as I do end up having with God's glory in literature and art have all the surprise and inspiration that they ought to.

When I read good literary works (and I mean good in two senses - competency and moral/spiritual value), though, I seem to get a sense of the sort of things that spiritual writing aims at but does not strike in me. In literature I see the creative faculty with which we were endowed being put to excellent use; in God's image were we created, and it is only fit that we do as He does. I see the immortal striving for goodness and the determined fascination with badness that are at the heart of any Christian contemplation of the human soul. I see intellect and humour and love and rage. I see why it is good that we have God - and why, in turn, it is good that He has us. I see desperate, complex and hopeful people who I can identify with, rather than (as is the case in spiritual literature) saints who I find I can only revere or envy.

It makes my heart sing. I can't describe it any better than that.