Editor’s note: This essay first appeared under the title “On the Catholic Word” in the Nov. 6, 1943 issue of America.
I suppose that the readers of America will agree that the editors have been most generous, not only in recent months but through a good number of years, in opening their columns to the vexing problem of the Catholic writer. Occasionally some optimistic soul appears to deny that there is any problem and to counter with a long list of names and titles. But for good reasons the critical rage manages to do more than hold its own. Usually one is tempted to suspect futility in adding one’s little bit to the parasitical kingdom of criticism; but what always happens is apparently this: you decide that the last fellow is more thoroughly wrong than all his predecessors together and you simply must set the world right again. Kevin Sullivan is surely a good enough critic to know that this is the way of things and will not too much mind my finding such geometrical guilt in his recent articles (Two Party Lines, July 17, and Nose-Led Authors, October 9).
“What a pity if we are led to believe that there can be no writers today until we have educated the people to the point where they will accept the insertion of some sort of realism between the puritanic and the prurient.”
I might well accuse him of rhetoric but, as I am about to be guilty of the same myself, we may both fall back upon the simple principle of Augustine, that we will apologize for the rhetorical on the condition that we be wrong. At any rate, I do declare from the heart that I believe there is such a thing as a unique Catholic language and that it is altogether different from the language of humanistic literature and that it is the crying pity of our centuries that they have not too often asserted the fact. I do declare propositionally that the forms of English literature in the past four centuries are not Catholic; the plays of Shakespeare are not Catholic; it is very nice to say that everything truly and greatly human is to that extent Catholic; it is even partly true to say that Catholicism must first become a biological part of the writer, must be a thing inserted into his blood stream, and then must be carved out in a completely human way and with a vocabulary that is universal.
Both nice and true. But we have had enough of a critical language which fails to recognize that our literature and our esthetic are professionally humanist and have managed to create in us a whole set of inhibitions in regard to the use of a Divine, an absolutely supernatural and a deliberately dogmatic dialectic in letters.
A few major qualities of literary vocabulary should first be recalled—the simplest of which is that a connotative vocabulary is formed only by use and therefore requires a tradition. One may agree that the use of a Christian language has in most cases been quite flaccid and has not been blessed with the craftsmanship it deserves—though I must confess that my own feelings toward the good souls who have failed us with their nice little moralizings are gentler than those of Kevin Sullivan.
But there is a far more capable and responsible brood among us—those who could have created a Catholic tradition with their rhythms, their colors and their insights wrapped around the revolutionary glory of Catholic dialectic, and have instead gone the way of those who prefer the fog of the Absolute to the dogma of Christ.
How long it takes to found a tradition of connotation and power! Yet there are those who would warn us not to begin to use a Catholic language, who will keep insisting that the vision of the writer is shared alike by all men—regardless of race, color or creed. There is no point at all in citing the pathos and the power of a universal language of the heart; it would be much more just and a little more historical to realize that the pathos of the humanist has its most solid antecedent in the developed pity of the supernatural and dogmatic art of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In fact, we may ask ourselves a set of naive questions. Was it not history that intervened to prevent Shakespeare expending his genius on the world of Claudel? What if a fairly complete secularization of thought and a positive distortion of words by Protestantism had not made most difficult the writing of great tragedy around the name of Baptism; or a great social epic around the name of the Immaculate Conception?
“There are those who would warn us not to begin to use a Catholic language, who will keep insisting that the vision of the writer is shared alike by all men—regardless of race, color or creed.”
A thousand other such questions can be asked—all of which would be naive only because these things have never been done. Instead we get dozens of such zealous but distorted views as that of Michael de la Bedoyere who asks us to let the secular world have one place apart and the supernatural another (for those who are made that way!) the two to be united in a human personality the nature of which not even the angels might surmise. Perhaps, though, the real task to be done for Catholic letters must be begun among a new race of savages, unsecularized, without inhibitions, and without shame. Nor is this meant as a jest. For it is very interesting to note that, whereas the secular process has sapped the strength of an integral external Catholicism in Europe and in this country, it is only in the great missionary countries that a completely Catholic folk tradition of ceremony and expression was able to be created and to survive to our day. God forbid that they should ever learn they are wrong.
Now no one has so little sense as to suggest that we must be obnoxious inserters of the Catholic word—doing all this with a certain vacuous deliberation. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for a deliberate supernatural art. For we have dreadfully exaggerated the necessity of our men of letters writing with a Catholic subconsciousness only (the profession of writing becomes more mysterious every day). But, in reality, it is sharply conceived dogma and the dialectic of the same that makes all the difference in the world. Charles Peguy’s tragedy would have been impossible without it. And Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is only a very deliberate translation of the fundamental theses of Peguy’s life. George Bernanos would have found it quite difficult to do without the devil; Francois Mauriac without grace. Paul Claudel made a deliberate choice, and for that reason was long unwelcome to his generation. And as for Bloy—what would that redoubtable Christian have said to our pleaders for a universal language of the heart?
All of these would tell you soon enough that you will not find dogma unnoticeably and beautifully inserted in things; rather you must bring its sharp, jagged edges along and let them either deepen or do violence to the world of things. But is it a narrow language of a minority? That little plaint should not even be answered. But since there is a subtle contradiction of importance in such criticism, it should be pointed out that in it there is a queer mixture of an objective esthetic of things as they are, untrammeled by the conscious theological mind, and of the zealous spirit of an apologist ever careful never to stay altogether in his own world. Every word is uttered with the world in mind that speaks another language. To such a school no one will object (to put it mildly), but it remains that there is place also for the free working of the Catholic word and dialectic. It is precisely to every attempt to undermine our freedom in this matter that I object.
William Lynch, S.J.: “They do not censor your work, because they do not read it.”
In fact, one is tempted to say that Catholic art must be kept free of every system of esthetics. For if there is one thing before which fixed esthetic formulas should humbly withdraw, it is Catholic art. The Church has refused often enough, for example, to keep the art object within its bounds as a framed and finished thing serving the ends of artistic contemplation. If you will compare the modern theatre with its faint beginnings in the medieval liturgical theatre, you will see quickly enough that the former is often enough profound and moving but is perfectly representational, objective and contemplative (it is art!)—whereas its medieval germ is the most curious mixture of artistic representation, of flagrant, forthright didacticism, and of action in worship. There are no clear lines of demarcation between actor and spectator and no division between contemplation and worship—in a word, there is absolutely no definition of the boundaries of art to limit the operational concept.
Or if you wish to compare Dante with what John Crowe Ransom has very neatly called the puritanism of absolute poetry, you will find that the second has murdered itself with a theory while the first fits into none at all. The supernatural commits the crime of making art functional; it enlarges the gauge of the mind and laughs at those who enclose it. In one generation it walks with symbolism, in another with naturalism; for two centuries it can spend itself on weeping; it can live in a man of gusto; it knows what is in man’s heart and can delight in the charm of the lilies in the field.
So much freedom and so much unpredictability, so many deepenings, so many violences that we have never before met a generation of Catholics who have proclaimed that if only they were possessed of that liberty which the world possesses! What a pity if we are led to believe that there can be no writers today until we have educated the people to the point where they will accept the insertion of some sort of realism between the puritanic and the prurient. Oh yes, it is a problem, but let us be grave enough to recognize that it is only a very small part of the problem. Suppose we should hear a voice saying: “Very, well, we the people are now educated and will let go our foolish fears—for they are in part foolish. Now let us watch a torrent of beauty pour forth from your pens. We have always wanted to be fed by the artists and very seldom has a morsel been thrown to the dogs.” What should we say to the voice?
But it strikes me as utterly naive to say that a people gets in the way of the writers. The problems and the obligations of the writer will project themselves more clearly if we realize that in reality there are two “people.” One is a huge group that is noble in intention, narrow in its ideals and conceptions, and always a bit of a plague to the impatient intellectual—because it both reads and censors what he writes.
But when you demand that the people be educated to realism and the truth, you must understand that there is another people. These are the real millions who have always been the substance of the Church. They do not censor your work, because they do not read it. And they do not read it because you have never carved or written a single word for them. You think you have done so, but it has always been through the spectacles of some intellectual problem that is thoroughly meaningless to them—for you cannot write a poetry or a prose or a theatre for the poor with the technique of a Hamlet. Nor is it the difficulty that they are “uneducated.” For they are already educated, having suffered enough to understand beauty. Even Margaret Webster has warned the theatre that it is impossible for its attempts at beauty to outdo the imagination of the poorest in the audience. And Stanislavsky: “Nothing is so beautiful or noble or pure as to have sufficient means at its disposal when it is a matter of offering a spectacle to children.”
There is the real people and a real problem. Difficulties about the Jansenistic conscience are so many red herrings on the trail for those who have not that deepest of all talents—the talent for popular work. One may sometimes suspect that the necessary genius for a true Catholic art of the people is possessed by the Church alone. It has nearly always been so. But it is the greatest challenge of all. And if the challenge is ever accepted, the resulting work must be founded on dogma. It is the only thing the people understand, poor things.