I’m grateful to Jonathan McDonald for his recent post, in which he calls for Catholic writers to be aware of the possible effects of their work on others’ ongoing moral formation. Fair enough: charity asks us to be attentive to each other’s needs, spiritual as well as physical. Good art certainly seems to be a spiritual, or at least an intellectual and emotional, need of the human person. As Chesterton has it, “literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.”
But what characteristics of fiction permit it to best serve this human need, and are there characteristics of fiction which especially qualify a piece for, or disqualify a piece from, the claim that it does serve this need in a spiritually healthy way? The discussion is worth having, although hard to pin down without delving into concrete examples and cases, individual reactions and readings: an intimate undertaking perhaps better suited for sitting around kitchen tables or bonfires rather than huddled before the not-so-warm glow of your laptop or phone screen. Still, let’s try to get started, if only to provide some groundwork for further conversation.
The external situation may have changed plenty since O’Connor’s day–not only is there no more Index, but pop culture is far more drastically depraved, mainstream Western society no longer even nominally Christian, in ways well enough documented elsewhere, just read your headlines, ho hum, let’s not waste any more time being shocked because we have life rafts to build, my friends. The intra-Church situation is also radically different from that of O’Connor’s day, also well documented and much hashed-out elsewhere, but not without analogues to now; “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”
It still sometimes seems that, for every one reader who can see through the less-than-ideal things literary characters do and say to the author’s underlying intention, there are ten given to jumping at shadows, raising red flags, pointing fingers: who, as O’Connor lamented, are not with confidence capable of identifying anything but obscenity in literature, because obscenity is all they have been trained to find. If all fiction has to descend to the level approved by this latter category of readers, if no one is allowed to write anything not suitable for a ten-year-old to read, we may as well all chuck it now.
(Never fear, though: that’s not the conclusion toward which I’m working, nor is it, I think, the conclusion implied by Jonathan’s post. I’m more trying to say that it’s all well and good to say that we need to be aware of our moral implications, but exactly what we mean and do not mean by that bears some spelling out.)
Part of the problem believing writers face today, as Joseph O’Brien pointed out in comments on the original post, is that “without a healthy culture, censorship becomes a blunt hammer which sees everything as nails. The urge to “legislate” aesthetics/morality (either canonically or civilly) rises from the admirable desire of countermanding a culture’s coarseness; yet, in such a culture, [censorship] would, at best, have little effect – or at worst, an adverse effect.”
The “adverse effects” may be many, and the worst would be casting discredit on the Catholic worldview by a more than zealous and less than prudent defense of it; but perhaps the most relevant to our purpose is this: if Catholic fiction writers, working at this challenging time and in this variously embattled place, spend all our time tearing our own work down, we will never develop any work worthy of becoming part of the canon we would wish to preserve for the intellectual formation and personal building-up of future generations — not to mention our own generation, already suffering the aftershock of what many don’t even realize has been a cataclysm, a tsunami, in which millions are being swept away from our spiritual homes, from even the bare possibility of living at peace within ourselves and with each other.
Let’s not waste time being shocked. We have life rafts to build.
If we leave the difficult topics in life to be treated by other writers — if we refuse to engage artistically with the sometimes scandalous realities of human behavior because an effective engagement with same involves not only acknowledging the general fact that people sin, but describing how our characters have done so, at length and in some degree of detail — we run the risk of quitting before we begin: silencing the very moral perception that we would have liked to bring to bear in creating art by a too exacting exercise of that perception.
Matthew Lickona articulates some relevant points to this in Swimming with Scapulars, I seem to recall, but I’ve handed my copy along to a neighbor. So I’ll enlist the help of Jacques Maritain, whose Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry contains principles on which Flannery O’Connor relied to develop her “purify the source” solution to the Catholic artist’s apparent dilemma.
Both Thomist and personalist, Maritain downplayed the conflict between acute moral perception and artistic production. Whatever action builds up the artist as a moral being builds the moral virtue to which that good action pertains — but not the virtue of art, which is primarily an intellectual rather than a moral virtue. Only the practice of art can build the virtue of art, a virtue of the practical intellect, “the very virtue of working reason.”
The virtue of art develops along a different pathway than the artist’s individual moral life; although because both are part of the unity of the human person they cannot be completely divorced from each other, they are indeed separate. Each product of art follows certain rules, specific and internal to itself although with some commonalities within groups of similar works: rules that are themselves defined by the artist’s vision of the work to be created. Maritain does not attempt to catalogue these rules, but he identifies their wellspring and precondition in the love of beauty. To love truth and beauty is to purify the source of art.
In this framework, there is a tacit recognition that representation is not endorsement. The love of beauty is not an interdict on the purposeful depiction of ugliness, any more than we should suppose that the good God’s love for the good world must forbid him to permit evil to exist in it. If an artist loves beauty, he or she will, with a clear and accurate vision, include ugliness in the work precisely to the degree required by truth. Only the love of beauty limits what artists depict or how and why they depict it: a deeply context-bound discussion in which, again, it is necessary to descend to specific examples in order to get anywhere.
In a comment on the previous post, Victoria posed what I think are some central questions well:
. . . what will build up a soul and form it in beauty? What will knock it down or twist it into an unnatural shape? . . . [Q]uestions of moral formation are not ones that can be answered in a manner that is both universal and detailed. You can give a general account of good moral formation: that which models virtue, requires its consistent practice, and teaches justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence, etc, and even set out a pretty detailed outline of a program of ideal moral education. However, how the struggles of individuals are or ought to be addressed is less amenable to a single account simply because we are broken in so many different ways. Addressing all of those in one story is practically impossible.
I’ll let her identification of the challenge stand as a springboard to further discussion.
I’ll also offer two — no, three — pieces of recommended reading: this Atlantic essay on emotional and moral engagement with literature, and this recent Aleteia piece on scrupulosity, laxity, mercy, and importantly perception, which seems all kinds of relevant to how we examine ourselves on these matters, but which I don’t have space to spell out here. Finally, here is this piece: “Read This, Not That,” in which it is taken as given that children’s moral formation requires good literature that is both aesthetically attractive and reflective of a world of moral justice that is, perhaps, a bit more (or more than a bit more) truly just and less apparently ambiguous than the moral universe that, as adults facing an imperfect world, we seem to encounter. I don’t disagree — when it comes to children’s fiction. But even so, I wonder whether some older children might not be — as, at about eleven or twelve, I was myself — upset and scandalized and led to challenge authority by the contrast between the way the world is presented to children in children’s literature and the way that, as we mature, we find many people actually behave.
At any rate, I submit that the mismatch between the immediately apparent, and the eternal or mysterious, effects of original sin and personal sin, is one of the mainsprings of much effective fiction written for adults from a perspective of faith. Fiction that takes this mystery as thematic will not be able to avoid recording potentially scandalous or shocking realities. On the contrary, it will often be centrally concerned with such realities. But, hopefully, it will be able to do so in a way that is not sensationalist or exploitative but that makes us more aware of our status and placement as moral beings and allows us to better understand, have compassion for, and thus be positioned to help — directly, indirectly, or both — those who suffer horrors and injustices, whether across the world or close to home.
You could say more. In fact, please do say more! Let’s continue the conversation. Again, I’m grateful to Jonathan for beginning it.