I have referenced the works of Harold C. Gardiner, S.J. (1904-1969) multiple times on this blog (here and here), mostly in terms of his insights on Catholic censorship, but also in regard to his thoughts on how religion can positively influence artistic creation. Recently I found myself in possession of a collection of critical essays edited by Fr. Gardiner, Fifty Years of the American Novel: 1900-1950 (Scribner, 1951), and his introductory essay “A Christian Appraisal: The Point of It” is nearly as good as his full-length books. Perhaps in some ways it is even more helpful because of his need to summarize the purpose of a specifically Christian/Catholic critical philosophy.
Writing against the prevailing critical philosophy of the time, which Gardiner calls “disinterestedness,” or an “unmuscular and weak-willed exercise of merely narrating ‘what had happened,’ of coming to the work to be criticized ‘without preconception or ulterior purpose’” (1), he rather proposes that the critic needs preconceptions, and needs for those preconceptions to influence the way in which he tries to understand and critique a work of art. The Christian critic especially needs to bear in mind the nature of man as a creature, as a created being who can only find fulfillment by being in accord with his creator.
One of the most fundamental statements that can be made about man is that he is a created being. If that truth is unknown—and much more if it is denied—man remains an insoluble riddle. And from this springs what is a basic human longing, deeper even than love, deeper than self-preservation. It is man’s sense of incompleteness—in other words his realization, however mute, however confused, of his creaturehood, of the fact that he is dependent, or, in terms of scholastic philosophy, that he is a contingent being. (4-5)
He ties the essential incompleteness of man as a creatorless creature with the work of the fictionist:
That is the yearning, at the core, of all the world’s literature. “Let me look at man,” cry the writers, “and I will see how he can be made whole. Perhaps I won’t even be able to do that; perhaps all I will be able to do is to see what keeps him incomplete. If even I can catch his cry for completeness and cry back that I understand—though I know no answers—perhaps that sympathy may, of itself, add a little to his sense of completeness….” From all this it would seem to follow—and I think it does—that literature is essentially religious. (5-6)
It is a bold claim, and one he spends much of the rest of the short essay defending. Gardiner does not demand that the novelist be a Catholic nor even literally religious, but he does suggest that the critic needs to be better formed in his understanding of the nature of man than the novelist:
But if the artist may not be castigated for not telling explicitly the source of man’s unrest, the critic will be the more discerning and helpful if he knows that source. For the critic’s function is mainly analytical, the novelist’s function affective and imaginative. And it is only the reason that can discern the validity, the proper orientation of the imagination and the affections.
If this is to demand that the critic be more fully rounded in background, more steeped in the heritage of the past and more sensitive to the interrelations of past and present, then so be it. It is, of course, in a sense true. “The critic,” Edwin Muir once remarked, “has three functions: to feel beauty when he sees it, and for that he must be an artist; to examine and find whether it is the true beauty, and for that he must be a psychologist; and to discover what significance it holds, and for that he must be twice a psychologist—in other words, a philosopher.” (8-9)
Not many people would be so bold as to demand more of the critic than of the novelists he critiques. He even tops it off at the end of the essay by wondering if, when faced with a philosophically confused work of fiction, the critic “will help in his little measure to bring the reader to a sense of completion” (12). Maybe so, but I suspect that most novelists would be offended by the notion that a critic can add anything to the inspiration of the Muse.
More curiously, will the essayists in Fr. Gardiner’s volume live up to his high expectations? Only one way to find out.
(Painting above: “Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry,” by Charles Meynier)