Monday, May 23, 2011

"Whoever does not affirm at some time the definite..terribleness of life, never takes possession of the unutterable powers of our existence; he merely walks at the edge; and when the decision is made eventually, he will have been neither one of the living nor one of the dead."

I know many Catholics who reject modern Literature almost out of hand. Why is that? What is it about modern writers that offends us? There is pretension enough throughout literary history, there is despair and darkness in writers of all eras, Godlessness and hedonism abound in some of our most treasured classics, so why do we reject the moderns specifically? Why do Joyce, Hemingway, Camus, and their many proteges offend us. Among many Catholics, the favorite authors are either decidedly pre-modern or else some of the few 20th century writers who wrote in pursuit of a premodern world.

I get the impression that it feels safer in another time, we escape our own era into a world that can be easily romanticized: boxed away to be revisited in the safety of imagination. In this world, Beauty is always pretty, like a Bouguereau painting - bland perfection of form with non of realities wrinkles or scars. It becomes harder and harder to see beauty in the darker aspects of life - in old mills decaying along the river, in old men alone in discontent, in blood and death and crucifixion.

I think of St. Catherine of Sienna, to whom Christ gave his circumcised foreskin as a wedding ring, or of the tales of Hosts turning to bloody meat in the mouths of saints - allowing them to taste the intimacy of devouring the Man, Christ. The pretty images of 19th century holy cards and Bouguereau Madonnas can't begin to touch this beauty, but many of the moderns, for all their restless despair, have a feel for the darker side of beauty; rejecting them, we reject the opportunity to let that beauty raise us up.

Sometimes stagnation seems attractive, comfortable. Going back again and again to the pretty things that give pretty feelings is easy and enjoyable, but there is beauty in the modern world that has been called out and studied by our modern writers. Its true that it is often a dark beauty, one that reflects our own move away from nature. It can be a frightening read, but it is our world, if it has "terrors they are our terrors; .. are dangers at hand, we must try to love them." (Rilke)


  1. This sounds like something you could have posted for the blogalectic. :)

    I haven't read all the moderns to reject them, of course. And many of the old writers had a dark and foreign beauty of their own--a closeness to paganism and an openness to death that most of us find shocking nowadays. Shakespeare is perhaps the most obvious example; certainly the one I know best.

    Dickens dwelt much with darkness and despair, and I love him nearly as much as Austen. And then there's Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, which is bleak yet lovely. But what I don't like about some of the moderns I have read or heard discussed (I should definitely read Joyce before I make too many comments on him) is the apparent outright rejection of faith, of hope and of charity. I struggle to feel raised up when reading a tale where Godlessness is all in all.

    Stagnation is something I've yet to experience, but it can definitely happen when there is no openness to question or change.

    I'll look forward to your further thoughts, whether here or in the blogalectic. You and Mr. Pond both have a stronger sympathy for the darkly questioning than I do, so I learn a lot when you start talking, even when my own response differs. :)


  2. Thanks Jenna,

    The old writers do have a darkness, I love it..but I think its less threatening to us because its not "our darkness". We see ourselves in the moderns, even if we don't think we will, because we come from the same world.

    Joyce is funny. He does reject the Church, but the Church is in him to such an amazing extent, give him a try, portrait of the artist is good, or Dubliners.

    I'm glad you liked the post!

  3. Hola, mi hermana--

    I went ahead and got myself a blog so I could join the fun-- well, that and I had Prior Commitments to make one.

    There's not much for me to add here except I love it when people bring up Catherine of Siena. And yes, if she were an American performance artist circa 1996, I suspect her current fan base might be a lot less impressed with That Foreskin Business and All That Blood Everywhere, My Goodness. And their squeamishness and eagerness to dismiss her as an out-there wacko would be a perfectly understandable reaction. I mean, seriously? This is what I'm supposed to think about with my incense? You call that devotion?

    But part of what art does, (as any good pre-modern Catholic should know), is keep our eyes open no matter where we have to walk. No, says the poet to the pilgrim, you have to keep looking; you can't hold your nose; take your fingers out of your ears; stop being a baby. All of this is true. All of this is happening.

    Hi, Jenna!

    I'm going to third the suggestion that you read Dubliners. No shortage of beauty there. If you spend some time with authors you feel like you might dislike but haven't yet read, I think you'll find a lot that's unexpected and worthwhile.

  4. I think it's insanely interesting that a huge catholic movement in literature rose around the modern time period and was no less 'gothic' " dark" and absurd than their secular modern counterparts.

    My point being-I'm not so sure that you can term it a Catholic mindset being against the modern movement.