Guest post by Peter Moccia.
One of my greatest pleasures in life is reading. Perhaps a close second (although it is ultimately not separate from the first) is discussing books with other people. As such, when chatting with friends or even acquaintances for long enough, more often than not the topic of books comes up. What have I read recently? What have you read recently? Although I’m a bibliophile, my most particular and intense love is for fiction, well-crafted narrative. So I often share about a recent novel I’ve read and enjoyed. As I get into my analysis, I’m often presented the question, “Wait, is this a real story? Oh, it’s not. Only a novel. OK. Well, I don’t have much time for novels. I can only justify reading useful books.”
The emphasis or word choice might differ from person to person, but the implication is largely the same: reading works of fiction (i.e. fake stories) is at best a neutral filler for a life full of leisure and at worst a distraction from real life. Novels are purely entertainment, and a serious person, and a serious Christian parent even more so, must limit these frivolities. Unlike a self-help book, there’s no practical purpose of fiction.
A quick word about these friends. They are well-meaning, hardworking, authentic Christian parents. Their dedication to their faith and families are primary, and their attitude and actions selfless and often heroic. Most have lots of children, lots of young children, and they have little time for any leisure. They are understandably discerning in their use of time.
However, as used as I am to this eventual turn in the conversation, I’m nearly always disheartened. My frustration is partly with my interlocutor ─ for disregarding the Catholic intellectual tradition on the topic, which runs entirely counter “Puritan” perspectives on art ─ but my frustration is also with my own self, for I have two very different, nearly opposite, avenues for response. Since they are nearly contradictory arguments, each by itself feels somehow incomplete, false, or misleading ─ but how I can argue both at the same time?
Argument 1: Yes, literature has no utilitarian purpose, like a self-help book, but that’s what places it in a higher category. Art, like the human person, is an end in and of itself. It needs no social or cultural justification of its usefulness. (At this point, I’m assuming some level of distinction between good and bad stories, between art and something that may be just entertainment. While defining these categories and distinctions is fraught with danger and linguistic subtleties, on a practical level it is easy to observe the difference between pornography as a form of narrative and a Terrence Malick film ─ between Fifty Shades of Grey and a Marilynne Robinson novel. I have a few things to say on this subject, but later.)
Argument 2: But reading fiction does have a practical purpose! Throughout history, art has consistently questioned the status quo, drawing attention to injustices we find difficult to see in our own worlds, but whose reality is more recognizable in and through stories. Art also opens for us the clearest window in the experiences of another human person, whether that person lived a thousand years ago or is still alive. While humans are social animals, we are quite literally trapped in our own selves, unable to see the world but through our own eyes and mind. Art, and in particular narrative art, gives a window into another’s lived experience, a snapshot not just of a different opinion on a political or cultural subject, but a window into the very experiences that led to these different opinions. In short, art provides us with empathy. Furthermore, art provides solace in our grief, refinement in our joy, peace in our confusion, and wisdom in our ignorance. Art can change us.
When faced with the statement that a serious Christian doesn’t have time for a novel, I’ve flip-flopped over the years, early in my adult life focusing on the usefulness of art, then the uselessness ─ then back again to art’s engagement in the real work. In real conversations, though, I usually didn’t pursue either argument. Instead, I fumed on the inside, wishing we were all better read in the Catholic intellectual tradition. But if I’m being perfectly honest, I usually didn’t respond in any extended fashion simply because I couldn’t balance the two opposing tensions in the two separate argument.
It was through my reading of Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basic of Culture that I found a working model through which to synthesize my two opposing responses. For Pieper, our contemporary focus on social and cultural productivity and utility is, interestingly, a win for Marxism, or a Marxist view of the world. In the Marxist perspective, the value of a thing is based on its utility. Time is well spent when there is a practical, even measurable output. How do we use our free time? Let us make sure it passes the utilitarian test: Is the output worth the time put in? Even if we consider things with no practical output, like a “useless” vacation, we’re usually justifying it by its long-term use: Spending seven days not thinking about work at all will make us better workers when we return from vacation.
But Pieper shows us how this is very different from the ancient wisdom of the Greek and Medieval thinkers. They saw leisure as the heart and mark of a civilization. Use of time for reflection (not mindless reflection, but true philosophical pursuits) were the highest goods of a culture. Now, Pieper recognizes that these pursuits do have some practical results but that they shouldn’t be justified by these ends. Leisure is an end in itself and should not be justified by some utilitarian model, which ultimately makes it a means to an end.
Let’s look at prayer in more detail. Does prayer have practical results? Yes. Often prayer makes us more at peace; it often makes us better persons. But do we pray because of these results? Pieper says, emphatically, no. We pray because we should pray. We pray because it is our duty to pray. We pray because we become more of who we are through our prayer. Does life become “easier” through our prayer? Maybe sometimes, in the sense that we might find it easier after prayer to accept God’s will in our lives instead of constantly complaining about and fighting the whirlwind of our circumstances. But should we pray because it might make life easier? No. In fact, prayer has good effects because it is a good in and of itself ─ not the other way around (as in “it is good because it has good effects”).
In short, prayer is an end in and of itself, and it shouldn’t be judged according to a utilitarian model. This doesn’t relegate prayer to a frivolous activity, and it doesn’t even mean that prayer doesn’t have practical outcomes; it simply means that the outcomes are an effect of the goodness of prayer, not the goodness of prayer an effect of its good outcomes.
Art, in its creation and consumption, is an end in and of itself. Art is one of the central ways man participates in the ever-present and continuous creative act of God. Art instigates and develops the communion between individuals that is our truest reality but is often overshadowed by our egoism and fallen nature. Art is our most sublime expression of what man is, who God is, what human relationships means ─ what beauty is. Art does not need to have a practical outcome to give us a reason for partaking in it, for art is an end in and of itself.
But this doesn’t mean that art doesn’t have good practical results. I like to say that every good book offers us the possibility of making us better people. Many a time have I been struck by the beauty of a book ─ beauty sometimes in what the book depicts, and sometimes beauty simply in a book’s language or structure ─ and my mind has been raised to contemplate the beauty of the world, and God. Many times I have honed the tools of ethical analysis through an evaluation of a novel’s moral dilemma ─ tools ultimately used to better reflect upon and judge myself, as I, like most of us, don’t see my own faults too well directly. Other times, I have found myself better understanding a person or group of people better because of my encounter with a person in a book. Too often I have been cut to the core by seeing my own weaknesses so thoroughly portrayed in other characters, mentally cringing as I force myself to read on. Often I have been emotionally and psychologically awed by the heroism of a character, or a single heroic act of an unheroic character; and this has given me models against which to define and seek to change myself.
But I need not prove these results in order to justify my reading of novels. These things are true ─ or can be true ─ only because art is a good in and of itself already. To return to the original response by my friend, I might venture to say that the highest human activities are those which make us more ourselves ─ those that help us discover a little bit more who we are, how we are loved by God, and how to better love others with whom with have an indissoluble bond. By no means an exhaustive list, I might begin a sketch of these inherently good and human activities with prayer, friendship, marriage, art, and philosophical pursuit. Asking the question, “What utility does the reading of this novel provide me today?” is like asking, “So what utility does such-and-such friendship provide me? I’d like to spend time with this person tonight, but can I justify this time spent by a measurable outcome?”
What I am not saying is that we should spend all our free time reading novels. But we also shouldn’t spend all our free time praying either. We have practical duties, obligations given to us by God and our vocations; and these must be attended to with our full selves. But just as we must “carve out time” in our busy lives to spend enough moments on our knees in prayer, so much we find time to partake in other of the most human activities, like spending time with friends, reading a good book, and training our mind to understand theological truths.
At this point, someone may pose the question, But are all novels art? One way of approaching this topic is to pose a related question, Are all novels artful? This seems an easier question: no, not all novels are artful. But I’d like to say a little more on the topic. I think we intuitively understand the difference between Dante, Agatha Christie, and a poorly crafted romance novel. I don’t intend to spell out this difference. We don’t need to have an unassailable definition of each category in order to see the differences and act accordingly. Instead, I’ll point quickly to two texts that speak to or assume important ideas on the topic. I’ll begin first, again, with Pieper’s Leisure.
Pieper claims that philosophical pursuit is an attempt to see reality as it is; it isn’t an active task, but one of reception. Analogously, good art, good narrative, is that which allows us to see the reality of the world around us better. Art often works this way by making readers more attune to a sacramental vision of reality, which stands in direct opposition to the materialistic, militant scientism that accompanies most other “descriptions” of reality. Narratives often let us see the connections between actions, between characters, between ideas, connections that are often difficult to see in real life. Second, Pieper links leisure with festival and joy. Analogously, good art, good narrative, expands our capacity for joy. This doesn’t denigrate sad stories, but rather judges them against the ultimate criterion of joy. Reading Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night poignantly and painfully makes me more aware of the joy of my own life as well as the dangers of ignoring this facet of human dignity.
Second, I suggest C.S. Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism, an extended essay in which he proposes that we judge a book not by the book itself (its content or its style) but rather by the type of reading it allows for or promotes. So if a novel affords us the possibility to see the world anew or increases our capacity for joy, then it is a good book. In this way, we need not turn our noses down on literature we might consider second-rate but which others gain much from.
I’ll end by considering a central “function” of art, particularly narrative art, that is close to my own heart. A novel, through the evolution of its narrative voice and perspective, opens up the possibility of revealing to its readers the emotional and spiritual ─ I may go as far as saying transcendent ─ connections between people. Just as God does not exist in isolation, through the eternal love between the Persons of the Trinity, so do we exist, always, in relationship with others. Whether through sin or our contemporary culture’s focus on hyper-individualism, this relational aspect of the human person is often muddied. A novel can be an antidote to this crushing sense of alienation in two ways.
First, as we read, we gain access to another human’s consciousness: to their fears, motivations, psychology, conscience, and memories. Novels can make us understand other human persons in ways that hardly anything else in this world can ─ and this can happen, ironically, in complete isolation! We can be curled up, alone, in our favorite corner of our favorite couch, the rest of the house asleep, and we can begin to see, through the perspective of the narrative voice and empathy, the sacramental ties that connect all of us.
Second, when we read good books, we want to talk with other people about these books! I’ve suggested books to people I wasn’t entirely sure they would like, simply so I had someone to talk to about them. In fact, I think I can safely say that the two most common thoughts I have after finishing a particularly powerful book is, first, when will I read this again, and second, with whom can I talk about this book? There is something inherent about the nature of stories that, even in the case of the most private of storytelling, the novel, we feel compelled to reach out to other people. Perhaps it is part of the wonder of the story that, in highlighting the connections between people with its sacramental narrative, we are drawn out of ourselves and into the relationships that remind us that we exist not in isolation but in continual relationship to the other.
Peter is a high school English teacher and adjunct professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He spends his time with his wife and three children, reading and writing, and browsing online for new recipes.