Eleanor Bourg Donlon
Poets, as a class, are business men. Shakespeare describes the poet’s eye as rolling in a fine frenzy from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven, and giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name, but in practice you will find that one corner of that eye is generally glued on the royalty returns. –P. G. Wodehouse
Everybody–and his Aunt Nellie–has a novel stashed in a desk somewhere. Most of them are pretty dreadful, some are rather good, and a few are moderately brilliant. Nearly all of them will never be published and those that are will not necessarily include the good or the brilliant.
For those who aspire to a literary vocation, this state of affairs is disquieting and dashed frustrating. We write, revise, dream, and labor, investing emotions, energy, and time, all the while hoping and praying for a break. Our friends may like the manuscript, and secretaries in the lower echelons of publishing houses may even be friendly, but the bureaucracy slogs on, indifferent to our plight and our talents, only acknowledging our existence by the steady stream of form rejection letters until we could repaper the entire house with the confounded things. And our distress is not merely born of our consciousness of neglected artistic worth–those elusive Pounds, Shillings, and Pence have something to do with it.
Many of us will admit, like Wodehouse (although with less sparkling wit), that the desire for market success, with its consequences for both personal ambition and personal budget, is a component of the literary vocation. We would be unrealistic and hypocritical if we did not acknowledge it. (The staff of Dappled Things, of course, being thoroughly realistic and resoundingly sincere in all things, readily admits the practical side of our work and welcomes one and all to subscribe and donate to our worthy cause!) The lilies of the field may have done very well, we say to ourselves, but they didn’t have student loans, car payments, rent, utilities, and the well-being and education of offspring to think about! We’re all willing to endure a bout of starving in a garret, but only when this sojourn on Grub Street is temporary and the dénouement of publication and remuneration–at least to the degree of financial stability–is clearly in sight. We may give up dreams of palatial splendor, but we all harbor a secret hope that the writing will fund, if not a new Mercedes, at least relative comfort. (1)
So, we demand in testier moments when the latest one-sentence “no, thank you” drops poisonously into our mailboxes, what is wrong with the market? Is there a bias against Catholics? Is there a bias against Christians? Is the market glutted on lousy novels, prime for numberless cheap airport editions?
Bias against Christianity, and particularly against Catholicism, is a real problem. It would be a mistake, however, to see it as a total checkmate or the only issue at stake. From the day when the Protomartyr Saint Stephen decided to say a thing or two to the Sanhedrin, Catholics have struggled against brutal disenfranchisement and discrimination, not to mention martyrdom. More particularly, Protestantism, which came on the heels of developments in a growing (Catholic) publishing industry, commandeered the market across Europe and especially in England. St. Edmund Campion’s famous demand for “liberty to write” reverberates down to us through centuries of censorship: “If you dare, let me show you Augustine and Chrysostom . . . if you dare . . . Provide me with ink and paper and I will write.” From the secret printing press of the Jesuit poet, St. Robert Southwell, to the non-mainstream efforts of the Meynells and the Wards at the turn of the twentieth century, there have been entrenched market challenges to Papists who dare brandish a quill.
Thus the market, but there is an important codicil to all of this: We must resist the temptation to think that every time a story or a novel is rejected, it is because of our religious affiliation. Though such a bias is a distinct possibility, if not a definite probability, we cannot let pride blind us to true weaknesses. Rejection (polite or otherwise) may be difficult to accept, but it is necessary for the maturation of our individual styles and the development of our movement. A mutual admiration society is the last thing we need, so we must take up each opportunity to assess our own work critically and realistically.
And so Catholics have written and continue to write. There are inter-Nicene factors as well; at times we lapse into a distinctly artistic brand of navel-gazing: What does it mean to be a Catholic writer? Are we part of a movement? Are they part of the same movement? Is this or that novel or poem authentically Catholic? Can an overtly Catholic novel succeed in this market? Should there be priests and nuns on the scene or is that too trite? Self-definition is critically important, as is the development of our community of Catholic artists, and we all must strive together to battle the formidable odds against us.
Who are we? Perhaps we are those “next real literary ‘rebels’” prophesied by David Foster Wallace in 1993, who
might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic.
“Rebellion” is a very enticing notion, especially if it can be legitimately united with a larger, loftier ideal. What a delight it is to rebel against the sordid fads of flash-in-the-pan literary criticism, to proclaim our counter-cultural stance unabashedly, and to embrace our own rebelliousness with “childish gall”! We are thoroughly conscious of what we have to offer—principles of faith and good writing.
The Catholic artist inevitably sees himself to some degree as a champion of aesthetics and metaphysics–this is our role in the call to evangelism. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Such is the Gospel we preach. Yet beauty has become something so arbitrary in present-day art that the reassurance of John Keats, “beauty is truth,” no longer satisfies. Beauty is truth, and truth beauty, but we need to go a step further. We want to bring Christ to the world through our espousal of these lost values, preaching Christ crucified—a stumbling block to Nihilists and folly to post-modernists (if Saint Paul will forgive the paraphrase). We are not merely rebels for the sake of rebellion. We have a very specific and clear spiritual goal.
Nevertheless, the challenge remains: how shall we rebel against the desire for the concrete success that is very useful but ultimately (or so we are assured) unnecessary? Since time immemorial (or, at least, since the 1950s) rebels have been thoroughly equipped, and “image” takes cash! Anachronism is not a problem—it’s a stylistic goal! (There are rumors of a small group of anti-rebels who share a vision of a team of aesthetically-charged women balloonists, circa 1910, turned biker gang–with a typewriter-toting Dominican friar in every sidecar . . .) Even more than the natural desire for accessories, however, we want to feed our families, and we want to offer something that signifies or entertains or delights or confronts. How can we do that when only Catholic publishers will look at us–and them with a sparing eye that looks not kindly on new fiction?
This practical quandary is so elephantine that it becomes a challenge to see past it to the core of what molds our counter-cultural identity: contemplation. Every writer desires publication, but publication is not the point, just as mere imagination and skill are not the source of art. Great literature, whether comedy or tragedy, expresses something of the essence of humanity. Some of these works attain such profundity that you can feel the weight of it in the very breadth of the volume, as with the writings of Dostoyevsky, while others never seem to go beyond the superficial or the social, as in a particularly clever Wodehouse novel. Human reality is captured in each; that is why we weep with the former and laugh raucously with the latter. Where do we find the necessary insight to this reality? Josef Pieper, in his Happiness and Contemplation, tells us:
Out of this kind of contemplation of the created world arise in never-ending wealth all true poetry and all real art, for it is the nature of poetry and art to be paean and praise heard above all the wails of lamentation. No one who is not capable of such contemplation can grasp poetry in a poetic fashion, that is to say, in the only meaningful fashion. The indispensability, the vital function of the arts in man’s life, consists above all in this: that through them contemplation of the created world is kept active and alive.
Whence comes this contemplative realization that is so necessary to “all true poetry and all real art”? It is born of love, and directed towards God:
Only when love is directed toward the infinite divine appeasement which courses through all reality from the ultimate ground of reality; and when this beloved object shows itself to the soul’s gaze in a wholly immediate, effortless, utterly tranquil (yet inwardly troubled) self-revelation, even though for no longer than the duration of lightening flash–only then do we have contemplation in the full meaning of the word.
The object of our artistic gaze is therefore not ourselves, nor even another person, except inasmuch as we and our brothers are created realities that gesture towards that infinite, that absolute reality. So we pause before we hurl the unpublished manuscript from us, and reconsider what it is we are doing.
The act of faith, Aquinas tells us, does not end in the “formulas” of the Creed but in divine reality itself. (2) So too, the act of contemplation does not end in art. Art is a possible but not a necessary fruit of contemplation. It cannot be the primary object. We could spend our entire lives writing, rewriting, drafting, polishing, and still never complete a book, much less finish it. But that would not mean we had failed in this artistic vocation.
The fruits of our contemplation will show in our work–so long as we don’t let ourselves get too much in the way–and that is a great blessing from an eternally beneficent God. But contemplation itself is not art, though the life of the artist must be the life of contemplation. To paraphrase Aquinas: the act of contemplation does not reach completion in the fruits [of artistic creation] but in divine reality itself. The object isn’t art in its entirety, and it certainly isn’t our individual work–the object is God, always and inalterably. We have to be able to crucify our own passions, our ambitions, our trademark neuroses, and all that we have given into our work, by recognizing our vocation for what it is–essentially contemplative and only secondarily artistic. Only then will we begin to grow as artists, and only then will our vocations truly serve the proper and final goal. This is quite a challenge. The artistic vocation is one of self-gift (3) and the act of giving involves a willing abandonment of the soul to another. We put ourselves into our work, risking rejection, censure, and persecution, all for the sake of reaching out towards that ultimate reality, that infinite divine appeasement, that Love.
That is why Saint Teresa of Avila said that a life of contemplation required more courage than it took to embrace martyrdom.
And that is why publication is not the point.
Walter Pater, illustrious father of the late nineteenth-century Aesthetic movement, would have it that: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” The insufficiency of the Paterian cult of beauty, with its art-for-art’s-sake philosophy, has served as the foundation for so much of the so-called art of the present day. Contemplation is not experientialism. The Paterian ideal is tragically limited–it goes no further than the individual subject. Contemplation beautifies man, drawing him into the embrace and the ultimate reality that is God. This is something infinitely greater than success.
All of this does not mean that we should cast off our practical concerns or spurn dull necessity, thereby condemning ourselves and our families to penury and starvation. The question remains: How do we, as Catholic authors, reconcile the greater contemplative aspect of our literary vocation (the object of which is God) with the practical need for money (seemingly represented by the triumph of publication)? Along with humility, love, and dedicated work, we need to trust in God that He will provide for our material needs–after all, this whole vocation is His idea! Reality is, of course, much more complex than those lilies of the field would lead us to expect. Sacrifice may be necessary, and both contemplation and “significant” artistic labor may need to be accompanied by more menial forms of work (particularly for those who are supporting a family). These moments too are not meaningless: they too are offered to God and can serve as a foundation for contemplation, perhaps even, in His good time, inspiring later literary works that may just make it to press. This is precisely where our impressive collection of rejection letters may be seen as a boon. If it were all too easy to achieve worldly success, few of us would be inspired enough to work towards something greater, no matter how much such success left our most basic human desires and aspirations unsatisfied.
So we take the market as we find it, thanking God for persecution where we encounter it, working to mature our skills, harden our skins, and learn true humility. Trusting in His Providence, protection, and inspiration, we ask Him to temper our ambitions with love, season our imaginations with understanding, and give us the courage to keep on writing.