In the last days of September the Wethersfield Institute sponsored a conference on twentieth-century Catholic writers, a high point of which was the giving of an award for excellence to J.F. Powers. It is of course risky to involve as wry a writer as Powers in such festivities, and he may well get a comic scene or two out of the conference and banquet, but now is always a good time to praise famous men. Walker Percy is another writer who has been suitably honored of late, giving the NEH Jefferson lecture, receiving Notre Dame’s prestigious Laetare Medal. And of course this magazine ran Scott Walter’s magnificent interview with Percy in July.
To honor these men as Catholic writers might seem qualified—in the sense of restricted—praise, on the order of being named the best tenor in Kokomo. In letters as in so many other areas of culture, it is assumed that there is a great secular mainstream representative of modernity which by definition looks askance at such things as Christian beliefs. Indeed, Flannery O’Connor advised the Catholic writer to lay off explicit mention of even the paraphernalia of Catholicism—rosaries, novenas, scapulars, the Mass, and the like. To anyone unacquainted with Flannery O’Connor that might seem like trimming, a suggestion that the Catholic writer masquerade as an enlightened pagan, the better to make it on the literary scene. Nothing could have been further from her thinking.
O’Connor says somewhere that “all” true literature is anagogic, by which she means that it points to the transcendent, even eternal importance of human life. She is not saying that all Catholic literature ought to do that. She is saying that all literature worthy of the name does this. Not a view likely to rally contemporary lit crits for whom this view, apart from its unintelligibility, must seem quaint, sectarian, surpassed. It is probably worth reflecting on the truth of O’Connor’s observation, first its historical truth, then what would seem to be its essential truth.
C.S. Lewis was a professor of medieval and renaissance literature who, after drifting from the faith of his fathers, experienced a conversion that turned him into one of the great Christian polemicists of our time. He remained a teacher and scholar and creative writer as well. One of the bonuses of his conversion, he noted, was that Christian belief gave him an affinity with those who had produced the literature it was his task to appreciate, analyze, explain. That is, he now believed what they believed, and he felt it enabled him better to understand what they had written. This may seem a throwaway line. It seems to me to be of enormous importance.
If there is any one way to characterize Western literature it is as the product, by and large, of a Christian culture. By and large, it is rife with those paraphernalia Flannery O’Connor kept from her own fiction. (“Temples of the Holy Ghost” may be her only story about Catholics.) To the degree that modernity is a turning away from the assumptions of the great historical mainstream of Western culture, it can no longer produce art in the same sense of the term.
But of course those who embrace modernity would embrace this consequence, even glory in it. Notice, however, that this is to glory in the claim that what one is doing is radically different from what Dante and Shakespeare and Chaucer and Milton did. The point of Flannery O’Connor’s necessary condition of something’s being literature is that, to fail to meet that condition, is simply to fail as art. Why is she right?
That mature adults delight in following the doings of imaginary characters is an amazing thing. “What is Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba”? The great assumption of such narrative literature is that individual human acts have meaning beyond their occurrence, that we are what we do and that our character is our fate. If action did not matter, if our moral fate was independent of what we do, there would be no stories, no effort to make sense of deeds. But that is what literature is. There is no alternative view of it. Absurd art? Albert Camus gave the definitive dismissal to the notion.
Greek theism, Judaism, Christianity have provided the cultural context, the background beliefs in transcendence, that literature involves. If modernity is the loss of all such beliefs, it is incapable of producing literature or indeed any art.
Which takes us back to J.F. Powers and Walker Percy. The significance of their being Catholic is that their faith provides the possibility of the anagogical vision Flannery O’Connor spoke of. That in turn means that, far from being a type of writer, falling into a special and perhaps minor category, they are part of the great tradition that stems from Homer and the Old Testament.
None of which of course would J.F. Powers or Walker Percy, let alone Flannery O’Connor, be caught dead saying in public. But then their primary interest is to produce literature, not talk about it. And because of what they have produced they deserve our praise.