Self-Gift and the Literary Vocation

Katy Carl

When you’ve grown into a Person (it’s all right; we’ve all had to do it) there’ll be some things which you’ll see better than anyone else. One of the things you’ll want to do will be to tell us about them.

– C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

There is a great divide among creative people today, a divide that has always existed but has become more pronounced throughout the last century and a half. Art seeks to recover itself from the stylistic extremes of modernism and postmodernism. It seeks to re-learn how to reach the larger culture while remaining true to itself. As it does this, it again faces a central dilemma.

Stephen Lawhead, a Christian author who writes fantasy and historical fiction, aptly describes this dilemma. On the one hand, Lawhead says, there are those who champion a so-called “Pure Art”—existing and operating free from constraints or purposes beyond the artist’s own transient, subjective mood. This idea can be termed expressive individualism. On the other, there are those who support art and literature only as propaganda, demanding that these must always serve an extrinsic purpose by conveying clear, definite messages. Though the fact is rarely recognized, and though many people who hold the latter view of literature would fiercely deny it, this view implies a certain utilitarianism.

Both these philosophies damage, in different ways, the artist’s vocation. In present-day America, writers with any manner of deeply held beliefs are most likely to be damaged by them, since often Americans with strong religious or political ideals tend to side with a propagandistic, utilitarian view of literature. The artist who rightly refuses to use his talent just to convey simplistic points or messages often feels that he must go farther, rejecting or ignoring his particular beliefs, in order to ensure his art’s integrity. This predicament can equally afflict secular writers or religious ones, but because of the particular history of the arts in our country, it is often young religious writers—and especially young Christian writers—who are at risk of falling into one trap or the other.

However, there is an authentic Christian way of thinking about these matters that shows a way out of the dilemma rather than forcing the artist down more deeply into it. Personalism, a contemporary approach to philosophy that directs our thought to questions of who and what the human person is, uniquely can illuminate the question of who the artist is and what effects his vocation has on him. Catholic personalist thought can help us to integrate truths from both philosophies while rejecting what is false, because the personalist concept of self-gift illuminates both the essential activity of the artist and how it contributes to society.

Though much of what I say here will involve Catholic and Christian sources or explanations, personalist thought can help illuminate—for both believers and non-believers—the interior life of the artist and its place in the common good.

A note: I choose to explore literary art in this paper, not because some particular mystery exists around literature more than any other art, but because it is the type of art I know best. Much of what I will have to say about the literary artist would apply to any artist or creative intellectual, but limiting the scope in this paper will help us to focus.

I. Expressive individualism

Every poet… but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells to love of the telling until, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.

– C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

In his book Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain counters the assumptions of many of his contemporaries: early twentieth-century artists and thinkers whose heirs are still around and exercising influence today. These artists, in the exhilaration of discovering new approaches to art, desire to throw off all the constraints of art. They want to create “art for art’s sake.” They do not want to retain any of the rules or structures that have worked in the past. They want to throw out the rulebook, replace it with unbridled experimentation, and celebrate the subjectivity of the artist above all. Portions of this approach, Maritain says, have paraded under names like “psychological or sociological, materialist, empiricist, logical-empiricist, or pragmatist positivism.”1 Here, we can simplify by lumping them together under the term “expressive individualism.”

Because it exalts the subjectivity and interior life of the artist, it seems that the expressive individualist’s approach would fit particularly well with personalism. However, it is just the opposite. By asking the artist to delve ever deeper into his own interiority and sense impressions for inspiration instead of undertaking a serious exploration of truth and reality, expressive individualism prompts him to the “vertigo of the Abyss” that French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier describes in his definitive Personalism. The expressive individualist becomes “trapped inside himself… far from any help,” trapped in a “slow spiritual suicide” which is never faced with a “serious challenge of reality” that could restore the artist’s personal and aesthetic ties to the world around him. 2 This causes the artist’s interior life to suffer; and as the artist’s interior life suffers, so does the quality of his work. If he is no longer in touch with reality, neither will the work be.

To avoid this, Maritain insists, the artist must care about something beyond the creation of art. Otherwise he will lose his ability to create, precisely because he will lose his ability to care and thus to be human. “[The] exclusive passion for art… progressively destroys the human subject and finally… destroys art itself: for once a man is through, his art is through also.” 3

Similarly, the artist must not desire to throw away all artistic rules, because this process ends by throwing away art itself. After all, the practice of art is nothing but the exercise of a set of rules, learned both from studying previous works and techniques and from attempting to create one’s own. Even if the rules one uses are entirely self-invented, they must be real, consistent rules. Otherwise, the product will be inconsistent, poor in quality, and unworthy of the name of art.

Luckily, insistence on retaining rules does not mean insistence on the same set of rules for everyone. Since art is primarily a practical matter and only secondarily a moral one, the criterion for a good artistic rule is not whether it tends to produce good personal and social order, but whether it tends to produce good art. (This is not to say that moral concerns don’t exist in art, but that the moral concerns of art or of any making are a different kind of thing. Think of building a house, for example. Good moral knowledge may serve as one motivation for building, but by itself, it won’t teach a person the rules of construction or architecture.)

Maritain describes artistic rules in this way:

[T]he rules are not ready-made recipes, taught by professors in schools and museums, but vital ways of operating discovered by the creative eyes of the intellect in its very labor of invention. Once discovered, they tend, it is true, to become recipes, but then they become obstacles as well as aids to the life of art. 4

The desire to avoid “recipes,” to keep from getting bogged down in the discoveries of others and so prevented from making one’s own discoveries, is the right kind of desire for an artist to have. In fact, without some innovation, art will become formulaic, dull, predictable—stripped of its own proper power to provoke reflection and restore vision.

Yet, as Maritain says, the desire to innovate must be tempered by “the appetite straightly tending to the production of the work through the appropriate rules born out of the intellect.” 5 That is to say, the artist should pay attention not only to his own whims and desires but to what is outside himself: the work. He is free to invent new rules, so long as his own new rules help and do not hinder the production of good work.

Perception in this matter is sovereign in its sphere, but it must be subject to something. That something, as Maritain writes, is truth. The artist who does not build his work on the firm foundation of true perception or objective realities begins with the desire for freedom, but ends up imprisoned in subjectivity, unable to exercise his talents in a way that truly fulfills their purpose.

II. Utilitarianism

Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light..

– C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

However, too fierce an attention to purpose can also put an artist in fetters. For writers with certain kinds of countercultural convictions, particularly Christians in current American society, the temptation to expressive individualism may be more or less removed. The committed Christian knows that his experience, however intimately and interiorly lived, is ultimately focused not on his own personhood but on the relation of his personhood to that of Another. That relation is of the utmost importance and always to be given priority. Yet this very strong conviction, as good as it is in itself, leaves the pitfall of utilitarianism in art all the more widely open.

American Protestant author Stephen Lawhead has described the way this phenomenon often works. Growing up among evangelical Christians, he was taught that

when it came to the propagation of the Gospel, virtually any medium of communication could and should become a tool. I had been taught that if you were a Christian, your first duty was spreading the Good News. . . [I]f you were an artist of any sort then your path was fairly well determined: you must use your art. . . [and] writing, the most directly communicative form of art, should communicate the Gospel most directly. 6

Lawhead identifies this vision as what it is, “relentlessly utilitarian,” and asserts that no Christian author need follow it. The Christian literary artist, like his secular brethren, is free “to pursue… artistic vision wherever it [leads], no apologies.” 7 However, because of his faith, the responsibility that comes with this freedom is all the more demanding. It is not a freedom of indifference, but a freedom for excellence.

The literary artist with a commitment to particular ideas or truths must stick even more rigorously than any other artist to what Lawhead calls “the High Quest”—the pursuit of goodness, truth and beauty. He must do this with the utmost discipline and inner consistency, or his art “devalues itself and thus falls prey to the same fate awaiting other works whose creators have abandoned the Quest.” 8 When the writer is faithful to this quest, Lawhead asserts, he will be able to convey the philosophical and theological truths he believes more deeply and truthfully than if he had spent every conscious moment thinking of how to make those truths appear to advantage. He will also write better stories.

Questing after goodness, beauty and truth, however, does not mean that the Christian writer’s work must reflect a perfect, sinless world inhabited by perfect, sinless characters. Often it must do quite the opposite. Flannery O’Connor repeatedly expresses her distaste for the Christian utilitarian approach, asserting that in a pluralistic or atheistic climate it ultimately prompts more revulsion than conversion: “We forget that what is to us an extension of sight is to the rest of the world a peculiar and arrogant blindness, and that no one today is prepared to recognize the truth of what we show unless our purely individual vision is in full operation.” 9

Instead of trying to “tidy up reality,” the Christian writer must first strive “to look at the world and then describe what he sees. If what he sees is not highly edifying, he is still required to look.” 10 Only by so doing will he be able to convey the higher truths he desires to get others to see. This basic principle of spiritual storytelling is encapsulated in the Gospel of John by the master of the practice: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” In other words, if we want our fictions to be spiritually believable, we must first make them materially believable. Utilitarian fictions, especially when they presume to describe spiritual experience, tend to be anything but believable.

Of course, many Christian writers of fiction do succumb to the temptation to believe that “the eyes of the Church will do the seeing,” or to the temptation to “disconnect faith from vision.” In this way they “do violence to the whole personality, and the whole personality participates in the act of writing.11Personality is the lens through which vision happens, and vision is what sparks and feeds literary art. Just as before, then, any damage that the writer causes to his or her personhood is the reason for, and not the result of, damage to art.

In most cases, then, if a writer wants to be in the business of conveying direct political, philosophical or theological messages, he had better write the kinds of nonfiction books, tracts and essays that best express these messages. This is an honorable and necessary vocation that definitely requires literary skill to do well (think of Chesterton or Lewis), but it is distinct from what we are discussing here. The vocation of creative literary art has a different gift to give.

III. The middle way, as illuminated by personalism

Of course, there’ll be interesting people to meet…
Everyone will be interesting.

– C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

So precisely what is this gift? We have had hints of it already: the literary artist must attempt to see truth and speak the truth about what he sees, integrating his perception of sensory reality with his perception of intelligible truths. In order to do this, he must always be in pursuit of intelligible truth, always seeking to see how it relates to human experience. He must be open not only to discovering truth about human experience; he must value that truth deeply when he discovers it. He must value it in order to speak about it to others.

In his 1999 letter to artists, Pope John Paul II affirms this in personalist terms. He points out “a distinction and a connection” between the artist’s life as lived daily and the artist’s life as craftsman. The inner truth of that life is made manifest—and thus made a gift—through the work of art itself:

In producing a work of art, artists express themselves to the point where their work becomes a unique disclosure of their own being, of what they are and of how they are what they are. … Art offers both a new dimension and an exceptional mode of expression for … spiritual growth. Through his works, the artist speaks to others and communicates with them. … Works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life.

There is much to unpack in this statement. Let’s draw out the essentials: (1) An artist, working authentically, impresses his or her own personality on the work. (2) This impression not only expresses but actually serves as a vehicle for spiritual growth. (3) This growth serves, among other things, the good of communicating vision and truth between persons. Communication in a unique medium is something that the artist can and does give to others. All these lead to the conclusion: self-gift is the essence of the artist’s gift to others.

However, self-gift cannot be done just by wanting it. Neither individual whim nor overwhelming desire to convey messages can fulfill the demands of art. What can fulfill them? Only the fruit of the artist’s reflection on experience, guided by the artist’s knowledge and intuition of the rules of art, will produce an authentic work of art. The artist must take up “the Quest” day after day, consistently, making efforts to create that follow on his efforts to see. Thus there does not seem to be much difference between the “what” and the “how” of self-gift in the author’s life. At best, we can say that the artist’s gift to us is the fruit of his daily choices to see and create over a period of time.

Because the artist’s expression is so deeply revelatory of his personhood, we might assume that it relates directly to moral choice. Yet John Paul II writes that while art is related to moral choice, the correlation is only indirect. “We are speaking not of molding oneself, of forming one’s own personality, but simply of actualizing one’s productive capacities, giving aesthetic form to ideas conceived in the mind.” There is a moral sense in which a person’s life can be a beautiful work of art, but another and almost wholly separate sense in which works of art can reveal human life as beautiful. The two abilities do not have to coexist in the same person. How can this be the case, while we still hold that art is an activity of the whole person and a revelation of the inner life of the personality?

The idea that natural and supernatural virtues are two different things may be a good place to start. ‘Good’ art on the natural level can mean one thing, simply an internally coherent work that is compelling on its own terms, where ‘good’ art on the spiritual level must fulfill much more demanding criteria. But for an explanation that stays on the natural level, we can turn again to Maritain, who states with St. Thomas that art is a virtue of the practical intellect. In contradistinction to the moral virtues, virtues of the practical intellect have to do with making and skill. Thus, Maritain says, one need not possess moral virtue but only practical virtue in order to create good art.

If this seems counterintuitive, think of writing an effective novel in terms of building a sound house. To build a house, the constructor doesn‘t need to know the principles of ethics; he just needs to know the practical rules of working with wood, concrete, drywall, glass, nails, and construction tools. Of course, if he also possesses moral virtue, the builder will be able to integrate his practical occupation with more overarching values: dealing ethically with suppliers, charging just prices, creating work that is not only functional but beautiful, providing for strong families and societies, and so on. But these things aren’t necessary just in order to put up a structure that keeps out wind and rain. 12

This is why John Paul and Maritain are both careful to note that, while vicious people sometimes do create art that is warped, distorted, and bad (even in the purely material plane), this is not a necessary consequence of vice. When it occurs, it does so not because vice corrupts an ability to follow the rules of art, but because vice practiced over a long time becomes an impediment to the perception of beauty and truth. Maritain captures this in his response to Oscar Wilde’s witticism: “Though the fact of a man’s being a poisoner is nothing against his prose, the fact of a man’s being a drug addict can be, in the long run, something harmful to his prose.” The only virtue one absolutely must possess in order to create good art is the virtue of art. However, because goodness of all kinds is connected to the beauty and truth artists pursue, it seems that the effort to live a good life is as foundational to the artist’s vocation as it is to any other. Virtue can give an artist the strength to create fictions that are not only internally coherent and compelling, but recognizably linked to a higher reality.

Discerning the connection between moral choice and artistic capability may shed light on Henry James’ idea, frustrating to some Christian thinkers, about “the perfect dependence of the ‘moral’ sense of a work of art on the amount of felt life concerned in producing it.” 13 This may sound as though James thinks that the moral status of a piece of art has no dependence on how it relates to the natural or supernatural moral law. Yet, understood in this context, it simply means that whatever his characters’ moral choices may be, the artist has not acted immorally by creating a work of literary art if it is in union with, and hints toward, an authentic vision of moral reality.

This, of course, deepens rather than lightens the artist’s demanding responsibility to seek the truth. His understanding and vision are his primary tools, but these are not self-sufficient. Just as the question, “How should I live?” demands that we look for certain answers about the way reality actually is, the question “How should I write?” demands a similar search.

IV. Relation of the person to the creative work

You forget forever all proprietorship in your own works. You enjoy them just as if they were someone else’s: without pride and without modesty.

– C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

To help us further in understanding the relation of the artist’s person to the creative work, Maritain has made the distinction between the artistic ego and the creative self. The distinction is roughly parallel to the one he makes in his book The Person and the Common Good, where the person as individual has needs that the community must fulfill and desires that must sometimes be denied for the good of the community, while the person as person is a good unto himself and can in justice be placed above the community. From the mixture of motives, desires and needs that coexists in each person, Maritain believes these two basic sides can be discerned, distinguished and evaluated on their merits.

In the distinctions he makes in these two books, the artistic ego corresponds roughly to the individual, the creative self to the person. The desires of the artistic ego include praise, acclaim, popularity, glory, and money beyond what is humanely necessary to live—goods extrinsic to art. They also include, not surprisingly, the desires of expressive individualism and utilitarianism, especially when one or the other is in favor with powerful forces in the community and is therefore likely to win him other extrinsic goods.

The creative self, on the other hand, is that part of the artist’s humanity that desires only to express his artistic vision in accord with the rules of his art and the truth he perceives. In other words, the creative self desires goods that are internal to the work: its integrity, its beauty, its truthfulness, its quality of being well-crafted, its “inner consistency of reality.” 14 The creative self can be trusted to desire these goods, not its own aggrandizement. It can be relied upon to pursue these goods at whatever cost. The creative self, not the artistic ego, is the part of the artist that has the courage of its convictions. No one was ever thrown in prison by a totalitarian regime for expressing what his artistic ego told him to express.

Now we see why Mounier describes the life of the artist as such a demanding, narrow path to walk. Very concretely and literally, “truth only gives itself to those who offer themselves to it, body and soul.” 15 This is by no means a quest for the faint-hearted. It requires sacrifice of self—sacrifice of time and, usually, sacrifice of the material goods that would come from more lucrative employment. It may require sacrifice of the desires for acclaim and popularity, if the truth turns out (as it usually does) to be unpopular. It always requires sacrifice of the artistic ego that desires, often strongly, to force the work to resolution by the easy way rather than by the way it should go. In turn, this sacrifice requires discernment about how to achieve the aim of the work in accord with truth, in the way that a thing can be objectively true even when it deals with limited, subjective human experience.

Therefore the artist, in order to give himself, must humble himself before truth, seek it out, remain actively receptive. He must follow the dictates not of the artistic ego but of the creative self. These are the risks he takes. These are the risks in which he must succeed, or his work will fail.

V. The contribution that authentic art can make to the common good

The Glory flows into everyone and back from everyone: like light and mirrors. But the light’s the thing.

– C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

Why, you may well ask, would anyone want to take these risks? After all, Walker Percy is right when he charges America at large with dimness and apathy toward the literary arts and their apostolate of truth. 16 The sacrifices that are required become even more difficult, because the literary artist is not highly valued or regarded in our culture, except by certain subcommunities who also do not garner much attention. He is neither celebrated as a hero nor reviled as an enemy, because he is not perceived as being anything much at all.

Yet the American literary artist of today is still, and for this very reason, putting himself on the line when he chooses to take up writing as a life’s work. Writers throughout history have been subject to misunderstanding, ridicule, and derision. Writers in contemporary America also have these hurled at them, but more as an idle Sunday-Times sport than any kind of serious intellectual pursuit. This is because the market for American literature is currently driven by idle thrill-mongering. The real artist, who pursues the thrills of honesty and its largely immaterial profits, is told to get up off the couch and get a “real job” that gives one a reason to wear suits and ties, carry a briefcase, and drive a nice car.

In this atmosphere, as Percy says, the American writer may develop a perverse envy for writers who have faced direct oppression. When he poses a challenge to society, even though he hopes for agreement, he wants at least to be paid what Jane Austen calls “the compliment of rational opposition.” When the artist’s vision stops garnering serious reaction, he begins to doubt that it is being seriously received. He may begin to lose the sense of purpose, of personhood, that his self-giving once gave him. Among all the dangers the American literary artist faces as a result of his chosen career, the most dehumanizing is that of being ignored.

Why, then, doesn’t the literary artist just quit?

The answer, I think, lies in what the act of authentic writing means personally to the literary artist. At the deepest level, it is an act of love: love of God’s creation, love of goodness and beauty and truth, love of the well-created work, love of the reader. This act of love is a gift to the common good. It helps diminish the alienation that human beings experience from ourselves and from each other because of original sin. And it can survive even in a mainly apathetic or hostile society, because it is essentially a communication of the inner life, offered freely to any persons willing to receive it by a corresponding act. Both acts require effort and skill, which is why relatively few are willing to make them. Yet, like all communications of love, they prove themselves many times over to be worthwhile.

Katy Carl is an assistant editor of Dappled Things. A freelance writer working in St. Louis, she graduated from Saint Louis University in the spring of 2006.


1. [Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (Pantheon Books, 1953), 41. I lean heavily on this book, on Flannery O‘Connor‘s interpretation of it, and on my husband’s studies for my understanding of Thomistic philosophy. Any errors in its exposition here are to be set down to my minimal prowess as a philosopher, not laid at their doors.]

2. [Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism (University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame, 2001), 38.]

3. [Maritain, Intuition, 37.]

4. [ibid., 39.]

5. [ ibid., 38.]

6. [Stephen Lawhead, “Tolkien and the Use of the Imagination,” from Tolkien: A Celebration, ed. Joseph Pearce (Fort Collins: Ignatius Press, 2001).]

7. [ibid., 162.]

8. [ibid., 163.]

9. [Flannery O’Connor, “Novelist and Believer,” from Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose of Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1970), 154-168.]

10. [ibid., 177.]

11. [ibid., 181.]

12. [I’m indebted to Dappled Things editor Bernardo Aparicio for this analogy, which he served up in the course of helping me craft the final edition of this piece. It seems to me the most apt way of clarifying the difference between fictions that simply do what fictions are supposed to do and fictions that work on a higher level.]

13. [From Henry James’ introduction to the second edition of The Portrait of a Lady.]

14. [An idea culled from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” from The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine Books, 1966) on which I lean heavily here and elsewhere. Interestingly, Flannery O'Connor independently puts the same idea in very different words and to very different use.]

15. [Mounier, Personalism, 74.]

16. [ Walker Percy, “How To Be An American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic,” from Signposts in a Strange Land (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1991), 170.]