Last month I wrote what I considered a modest proposal concerning censorship, artistic license, and moral duty in light of the changes in ecclesiastical authority in the postconciliar period. It prompted a long comment thread–27 so far, and some of them quite long–and a Deep Down Things response by Katy Carl. The main thrust of my argument is that a great moral burden has been placed on the individual Catholic writer since the Council and the subsequent abolition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a burden we need to acknowledge and take up.
(Allow me to say briefly that these are simply my own personal musings. I am not speaking on behalf of the Dappled Things editorial staff, as any kind of Church authority, nor even as a trained moral theologian.)
Purify the Source
Much has been made of Miss O’Connor’s dictum Purify the Source, apparently taken by her and Maritain from the French Catholic novelist François Mauriac. It is worth quoting Mauric on this matter:
People of my sort do enjoy complicating this question of the “Catholic novelist”! The humblest priest would say to me, following Maritain: “Be pure, become pure, and your work too will reflect heaven. Purify the source first, and then those who drink from its waters will never again be ill…[sic]”. I will let the priest have the last word. (God and Mammon, 42)
In Jacques Maritain’s later work The Responsibility of the Artist, he references this dictum from a more philosophical point of view:
I should like to add, in relation to the saying of François Mauriac: to purify the source, on which I laid stress, that this maxim refers especially to writers. No doubt it matters in one sense to all artists, painters or composers as well as poets, inasmuch as they should, as men, and as every man, be concerned with their own spiritual good and their own progress toward the perfection of human life. And when the source becomes purer in them, by the same stroke their work itself will convey higher and larger human values: will this work also have greater artistic value, will it be artistically better or worse? That is a problem, a melancholy problem, which I shall try to tackle in my last chapter.
But Mauriac’s saying is directed especially to writers and poets, and more especially to novelists. It is especially when it comes to writers that the maxim: purify the source, imposes itself in relation to the impact of the work on the moral life and standards of other men, and on the moral health of the community, and in relation to the possibly vivifying and salutary, or possibly degrading and corrupting influence of the work. For the writer works with words, which convey ideas and stir the imagination and which act through intelligence on all the rational and emotional fabric of notions and beliefs, images, passions and instincts on which the moral life of man depends. (ch. 3)
Certainly I do not claim to be as great a critic as Mauriac, nor as a great a philosopher as Maritain, but I think that they would not disagree with me in my broad claims that the literary writer has a great moral responsibility: first to God, secondly to himself, and finally to his readers. (That he also has an artistic responsibility to all three parties is also true, but not my immediate concern.)
What does Purify the Source mean as a practical aphorism? To strive after one’s own moral purity before delving into the deeps of one’s art. Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things, etc.
Freedom and Constraint
In response to my earlier piece there was a great deal of concern about descending into scrupulosity, especially scruples about what writers should be permitted to write. A passage from Harold Gardiner’s 1961 Catholic Viewpoint on Censorship is helpful in this regard:
The Code of Canon Law [much stricter in Fr. Gardiner’s time] does not begin by saying: “Don’t make a move unless the Church says yes.” It does not start with the presumption that everything is forbidden to the Catholic unless it is specifically allowed. It rather starts with the presumption that everything is legally allowed unless forbidden specifically by law–and forbidden, as we shall see, for a higher good. In this presumption in favor of freedom, Canon Law parallels the civil law, which, to take an example from criminal procedure, presumes that a man is innocent until proved guilty, not that he is guilty until proved innocent. (48)
Extrapolating from the presumption of freedom, one reasonably comes to believe that the subject matter available for the Catholic writer is nearly as universal as creation itself. Indeed, if we look at the large body of fictional work made by Catholics over the centuries, one is staggered by its breadth of subject matter. It is historically rare that restrictions are placed on its content, and then almost only when the work is pretty straightforwardly licentious in nature. Merely vulgar works are preached against, but it is the obscenely pornographic that is actively censored.
Fr. Gardiner favorably reviewed the controversial A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1942, sparking a lifetime of writing on the nature and meaning of censorship in the Catholic and non-Catholic milieus. While he strongly defended the right of both the Church and state to censor when necessary, he also argued that society was better when the external club of censorship was used rarely. Artistic communities (like Hollywood) were better served by internal regulatory codes.
Sadly, there are few such codes in existence, and fewer in practice. Individual Christian novelists may make appeals to moral principles, but rarely do they band together to pledge anything in particular. Sometimes it is hard even to get them to condemn a clearly titillating passage in a novel as being pornographic. If we can discern no difference in substance and not just in degree between Fifty Shades of Grey and Dante’s sexually suggestive line of “That day we read no more,” then we have lost our ability to judge anything. (No, I’m not pointing fingers. And yes, I’m exaggerating for effect.)
If we cannot agree that freedom does not extend to passages meant to incite the reader to lust, then one suspects there is little point in discussing other areas of potential moral error (e.g., glorifying crime, describing how to commit crimes, exploiting cruelty and violence, mocking the sacred, blasphemy, racial ridicule, etc.). I am not arguing that all such areas are equally wrong to depict, nor wrong in every situation, but that is part of the problem. We lack the moral subtlety required to discern between these areas, and so we tend towards blanket allowance or blanket condemnation. Which leads to the next topic.
Who Watches the Watchmen?
Moral brutes love to set themselves up as critics and censors. A lack of moral subtlety is found in the extreme liberal as much as in the extreme conservative. The former will find every reason to allow even the most perverse profanity, the latter will find any reason to condemn the most honest non-religious book. Even the much-derided National Legion of Decency showed more subtlety of discernment than today’s religious critics. Katy describes these brutes well in her post:
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.
It does not do to give in to fear-mongering and extreme limitations of scope. The medieval poets took as their great subjects the “Matter of Rome,” the “Matter of Britain,” and the “Matter of France,” but as Catholics we are permitted the “Matter of the World.”
It does not do, either, to bend over backwards to excuse nearly anything as potentially acceptable, if only for the right age group and educational level. Sometimes a book crosses a line that no Catholic of good will should defend. Sometimes it crosses a more subtle line but is even more insidious for its deceptive approach, although even in that situation I think a baseline presumption of goodwill should be in place before the cross-examination begins.
In our zeal to protect artistic freedom–and we must maintain such zeal as a matter of principle–we cannot discard the need for occasional censorship by the proper authorities. But in order to minimize the need for censorship to ever be exercised, we must again Purify the Source, and the source is ourselves. In a very real sense, the fiction writer’s conscience is his own watchman. (Thanks to the late Harper Lee for that insight.) He must form his own conscience according to the natural law and the traditions of the Faith.
The writer needs to be willing to see things from the point of view, not only of his characters, but of his readers. Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss the concerns of homeschooling marms and uneducated bloggers as the ravings of simpletons, as mere moral brutes. But we must realize that the loss of the Index and the dissolution of episcopal oversight in matters of publication was the loss of a real safety net. It was once the case that the average lay Catholic could count on the clergy and the educated Catholic classes to fight their cultural battles for them. The Prince of this World is crafty, and it takes a greater-than-average humility (“Be innocent as doves…”) and intelligence (“…and wise as serpents”) to discern his wiles. The loss of their safety net was not replaced with greater education and preparation. Rather, they were tossed into the deep end and told to sink or swim, and as they flailed wildly they watched the lifeguard slip indoors for a drink. A man who is drowning might inadvertently kick even the person who’s trying to save him.
Fiction writers are adjured to develop sympathetic pity for their characters. The same could be done for their critics. After all, loving our enemies is a necessary part of forming our consciences.
Some Further Clarifications
Some reacted to my original post by politely inquiring if I was suggesting that the Catholic fiction writing sphere was being overwhelmed by gross immorality. I am suggesting no such thing. If anything, I think Catholic fiction is too morally bland to deserve great condemnation or great commendation.
Others reacted by wondering if I was calling for the revival of the Index and for more active censorship by the episcopacy. I am not, but we should recognize the authority of the bishops to do so if they saw the need. It is a careless shepherd who does not pull his sheep back from the edge of a cliff when they carelessly wander towards it.
I have also been asked if I really think that insisting on a deeper moral formation will result in aesthetically better fiction. I would simply point out that there are no Catholic novelists in our age artistically comparable to those of the “moralistic” preconciliar age: O’Connor, Waugh, Greene, Undset, and Mauriac are giants without modern peers.
“Love, and do what you will”
The world is the romping grounds of the Catholic writer. It is good to be reminded of this fact. The Catholic novelist is not restricted in his subject matter, and his own imagination is the only thing truly limiting his artistic success. Certainly it is not the small, moralistic critic who is preventing him from succeeding. Love the good, love the true, love the beautiful, and all that love will overflow into something magnificent.
I will let that humble priest have the last word: “Be pure, become pure, and your work too will reflect heaven.”
[Art credit: “Helicon,” by Joos de Momper the Younger]