The essay from Daniel Mitsui in the most recent issue of Dappled Things, “Why You’re Wrong About Medieval Art,” raises many questions and offers more than a few challenges to the Catholic visual artist. It ought to also serve as a point of discussion for Catholic literary artists. While standards for the arts are not absolute in the sense of a defined doctrine, he rightly points out that Catholic artists work within traditions just like the theologian. There are standards that build up over time, and the gradual development of artistic and critical schools.
While Mr. Mitsui has nothing to say directly about poetry or storytelling, it would be wrong to think that Catholic poets and storytellers of old did not consider the theological, philosophical, and spiritual aspects of their work. A few weeks ago I bought a copy of John Gardner’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which includes a critical introduction about the poet and his milieu.
The [medieval] poet believes that man is an animal who must try to become Godlike; on the chaos of his nature man must impose order, Platonic “form.” Crafts, arts, occupations, impose form. A carpenter is not a mutable beast but the mutable embodiment of an immutable idea, carpentry. Read allegorically, as the Gawain-poet explicitly reads it in Purity, courtly love imposes form; feudalism or “courtesy” imposes form; and, above all, the teachings of Christ as interpreted by Scholastic philosophy—the laws of love and devotion to duty as opposed to the laws of power and obedience out of fear—impose form. Wholly rejecting Nature for Christian idealism, in this profoundly medieval view, man becomes worthy of salvation. (12)
That is certainly a lot to take in at once. Gardner compares and contrasts the Gawain-poet with Geoffrey Chaucer, considering Chaucer to be a sort of proto-Modernist more interested in the strange turnings of human passions than in the panoply of high medieval symbolism and Neoplatonism. Yet, while the Gawain-poet is not so much to Gardner’s personal taste, he does consider the poet’s influences and intentions at great length.
In both his choice of form and his choice of subject the Gawain-poet is mainly, though not entirely, a conscious traditionalist…. Generally speaking, a poet of the fourteenth century wrote for an audience, not primarily for himself or posterity. To allude to books or build symbols from philosophical systems his immediate audience could not possibly know might suggest overweening pride. In practice poets frequently put together extremely familiar materials in new ways to achieve new effects, at best a new vision of reality. (13-14)
Quite a distance from the demand of originality in today’s fiction market. The ornamental devices used varied from poet to poet, but the subjects and systems of symbolic connections remained intact. Numerology came down to the artist from the Church Fathers, most especially St. Augustine, and he was not free to modify the meaning of numbers at whim. Certain objects like wine, bread, and water had specific religious meanings, yet remained multivalent and open to new connections. A wheel would inevitably call to mind the Wheel of Fortune as exposited in Boethius, but it needn’t be restricted only to this meaning. A garden would make the reader think of Eden and the Fall, but also of the Paradise of Heaven, and of the earth under the dominion of man. All of Nature is seen as a vast array of emblems in the medieval system (cf. 29).
The interplay of the literal and symbolic levels of a poem was not optional but essential. “All elements in the poem are interrelated to form a coherent and balanced whole—both literal and symbolic—from which no part can be removed without serious damage to the poem on both levels” (26). The belief that poetry comes from God or some semi-divine realm (an idea rooted perhaps as much in pagan Greece with its goddess-Muses as in Christendom) enforced the exegetical system of poetry based on the fourfold senses of Scripture as it came down from the Fathers. These senses—literal/historical/grammatical, allegorical, anagogical/typical, and moral/tropological—were to be found in true poets much as they were found in the Holy Writ. Dante speaks explicitly of this fourfold intention of his own poetry, when explaining his Commedia to Can Grande della Scala, and similar ideas are found in Petrarch and Boccaccio, not to mention more modern practitioners like Sidney, Melville, and Faulkner (at least according to Gardner).
But some of the poetic building blocks available to the medieval artist are lost to us today, in usage if not in knowledge. Animals, trees, fishes, and precious stones all had densely layered meanings to poets in the age of Christendom, whereas today they tend to be reduced to their composition, practical usage, and speculated ancestry—that is to say, we look at them as material rather than as symbols of their Creator.
The angels, carefully ranked from the Virtues of Heaven down, are higher than men, who are also carefully ranked from king to serf; eagles are higher than ducks; lions are higher than cows; roses are higher than brambles; gold is higher than lead…. Medieval symbolism is further complicated by heraldry with all its monsters, lions, deer, boars, fish, reptiles, insects, plants, flowers, rocks, each with its specific meaning, and complicated also by the “language and sentiment of flowers,” whereby the soldier or lover might send quite complicated messages in a simple bouquet. (34-35)
The Catholic literary artist used to work within a tradition, and if it was a more structured and restrictive tradition than most writers would be comfortable using today, it is worth consideration that a tradition by nature must impose a kind of order that rejects whatever threatens to undermine it. Order is opposed to chaos, just as rhyme and alliteration are opposed to free verse, or as structured plots are opposed to stream of consciousness. An artistic tradition, like a religious order, has rules that must say yes to this and no to that, even while (hopefully) leaving various avenues open for individual talent to explore.
The literary landscape has been tohu-bohu for many years. The death of literary Modernism has not resulted in an heir apparent, despite the pretensions of the Postmodernists and Poststructuralists. Even in my own lifetime, I’ve watched literary schools grow up and die with the swiftness of weeds. I think eventually we must tire of this endless cycle of subjectivism and impose some order on our literary chaos. How exactly that order will construct itself, and how much of the wisdom of the past it will utilize, is up to us. It seems foolish to ignore the long-developed literary traditions of our Catholic poetic forebears, although such an artistic revival would depend greatly on the willingness of Catholic writers to accept what might be perceived as an unnecessary yoke. But if Ayn Rand, Lars von Trier, and the Bread & Puppet Theater can all write manifestos, why can’t we?
(Pictured above: “The Inspiration of St. Matthew,” by Caravaggio.)