In “The End of the Novel” Osip Mandelstam suggests that modern fiction has its origins in a “secular” response to both the religious lives and biographies of saints and the moralizing sketch, a transformation that included a shift from biography to greater emphasis on narrative and plot and “psychological motivation.” As Joseph Bottum makes evident in his new book The Decline of the Novel, the form asserts that “all human beings are interior selves.” This shift inward, into the psyches of the protagonists, typically teaches us to look down, to look within man, into her tangled motivations, measuring them, as Evelyn Birge Vitz would have it, against the ultimately unknowable depths which may or may not contain explanations for our actions. Contrast this to the narratives of saints, where the deepest mysteries are not within the self but up, outside man, in “the equally mysterious workings and will of God,” all of which affect individuals. Consider the searching inquiries of St. Augustine’s Confessions: ““Do heaven and earth contain you because you have filled them? Or do you fill them and overflow them because they do not contain you? Where do you put the overflow of yourself after heaven and earth are filled? . . . Why do I request you to come to me when, unless you were within me, I would have no being at all?” The transcendent God constantly interferes in and takes precedence over human intentions and acts. In much of modern literature, Vitz argues, the reader is lulled into losing the sense that our “selves” are necessarily formed by “transcendent forces,” whereas the lives of the saints constantly remind the reader that its personages, though impressively ardent and at times apparently untouchable “in the pursuit of their desires, are set in a reality that transcends and overarches them.”
Vitz’s account is superficially accurate, but it ignores Bottum’s argument that the novelistic form moves us beyond mere imitation of these interior beings into a description of “the crisis of those modern selves”; still more, at its “highest and most serious level,” the novel offers solutions to the crisis. This is why the novel’s decline matters. However, given that sacred mysteries are the highest realities, what promise can we find in a form that (for Bottum) only awkwardly fits a vision of things that swells beyond the modern self’s assured sovereignty?
Now, as James Wood notes, “the religious tendency remained strong in the novel throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” By Joseph Bottum’s account, the novel “was wrapped in very Protestant clothing,” an argument he addresses at greater length in his essay “The Novel as Protestant Art.” Seen through the Protestant monocle, the self’s journey is “the deepest, truest thing in the universe, and the individual soul’s salvation is the great metaphysical drama played out on the world’s stage.” When this concern with the self is unhinged from salvation we may find ourselves, as in the finely-tuned, hyper-conscious novels of Virginia Woolf or Marcel Proust, stuck in a “relentless search inside the psyche, the endless dwelling on internal reality” to such a degree that thoughts and feelings about the self become “as important and interesting as actions and thoughts about the external universe.” Thus, Bottum concludes his provocative “The Novel as Protestant Art,” when a “Catholic-aiming” novel fails, it does so because it is “at war with its own form.” Bottum’s propositions merit much mulling; even where it seems to misfire or exaggerate, it is difficult to locate a dispensation that eliminates his diagnoses entirely.
First, witness the Catholic and Christian novelists who inherit the action of grace that is taken for granted in the lives of the saints and craft it into a form that has historically shed or demystified that transcendent. Dostoevsky for instance, who though not Catholic establishes a decidedly catholic core for his fiction through his character Zossima’s aphorism “Everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything.” His mature works are marked by a profound synthesis of hagiography and the modern novel, mixing the mysteries of sanctity with increased interiority: this synthesis is most complete in Brothers Karamazov, but though the saint-apprentice Alyosha and Dmitri the romantic hero are sewn together into the same story, this conjunction does at times strain the unity of the novel.
Second, and more importantly, as René Girard has demonstrated in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, it is precisely the “victory over self-centeredness,” the “renunciation of fascination and hatred,” which is the “crowning moment of novelistic creation,” and it can therefore be found in all great novelists. It is true that victory over the self is achieved through a suspended penetration of “the Self.” However, as Proust proclaims through The Past Recaptured, “self-centeredness is a barrier to novelistic creation.” Crippling self-absorption initially incites an imitation of others that manifests a desperate desire to “live outside ourselves,” and as novelists as different as Flaubert and Dostoevsky and Proust narrate, the self often ends up being torn apart before its autonomous arrogance is shed through a painful renunciation of pride. All novelistic conclusions, Girard insists, are conversions, and in these conversions the novelist “reaches the heights of Western literature; he merges with the great religious ethics and the most elevated forms of humanism.”
Bottum is not wrong, then, when he argues that in the novel “the inner life, self-consciousness and self-understanding, become the manifestation of virtue and the path for grasping salvation.” He errs, however, in assuming that because an author begins and builds the novelistic world upon an essentially modern, Protestant understanding of the self he ends with that same understanding. Many novels seem to defy it. Consider J.K. Huysman’s Against Nature, written just before his conversion to Catholicism occasioned a tetralogy of thickly Catholic novels chronicling the protagonist’s passage from the Satanism of the Parisian underworld to the oblation of the Benedictines. In Against Nature, the anti-hero Des Esseintes, driven by a professed “contempt for humanity,” retreats into a remote villa and escapes his painful self-centeredness by becoming a connoisseur of colors and tastes and smells; he tries to drown his own faults and failings in refined and decadent consumption—seeking solace, finally, in the sorrowful maxims of Schopenhauer and Pascal. But, finding that “the arguments of pessimism were powerless to comfort him,” that only the “impossible” belief in eternal life could do, he becomes filled with a “fit of rage” which rattles through his resignation and indifference. Des Esseintes epiphany is that nothing can be done, that men who have molded modernity according to their small-minded selves “were guzzling like picknickers from paper bags among the imposing ruins of the Church—ruins which had become . . . a pile of debris defiled by unspeakable jokes and scandalous jests.” Perhaps, he wonders, the “pale martyr of Golgatha” and the God of Genesis will rekindle the rain of fire that once consumed the cities of the plain. In the final lines of the novel this misanthrope prays for pity on the Christian who doubts and the unbeliever who believes. Petering out on the page, he conceives of himself as a “galley-slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in the night, beneath a firmament no longer lit by the consoling beacon fires of the ancient hope.”
Bottum terminates with a question that could have cropped up from the consciousness of Des Esseintes: “And as the atmosphere grows thinner and thinner in the West, as confidence fails, where shall we seek our future arts, our future selves?” Insofar as new novels themselves can answer this question, Catholic writers need to render the thinness of the atmosphere in the West. How? In two ways: following Huysmans, through rendering tenacious modern selves who, finding that the answers they seek so desperately could not, finally, come from further psychologizations and therapeutic self-actualizations, arrive at the threshold of the transcendent. Following Fyodor, through novels structured around families and cities and whole nations rather than sovereign selves. Novels inhabited by dependent rational creatures rather than autonomous desiring protagonists. Novels whose characters’ self-determined trajectories are interrupted by the transcending providence of God.
Paradigms of these fools’ errands do not abound—but they are to be found. Though the “protagonist” of Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede is purportedly the novice Philippa Foot, a widow of high stature in government service who bets on the Benedictine option. Even if she is a protagonist, of sorts, she is, as Phyllis Tickle has written, more so novelistic “icon” of that “bright sadness which informs every Byzantine painting that has ever been hallowed, and every iconostasis that has ever been venerated.” Still more, once we are immersed in the interior of Brede Abbey, we find not descent into self but, on any given page, a profoundly communal form of narration: Godden moves us through the consciousness of Abbess Hester into the associated soul of Dame Clare, along with a whole host of sisters who possess a piercing admixture of humility and “the deadly knowledge of old family servants.” The disparate sufferings and sanctities of the sisters are woven into a pattern of their motto, which is “‘Pax,’ but the word was set in a circle of thorns.” From the other side of the rose window we have J.K. Huysman’s Saint Lydwine of Schiedam, which chronicles the victim soul in a manner discontent with mere hagiography. Huysmans criticizes Lydwine’s prior biographers for having constructed “women who are not women, heroines impeccable but false, beings who have nothing living, nothing human, about them. We must not impose upon Lydwine those badly made portraits who possess, as though from birth, “all the virtues without the trouble of acquiring them.” Huysmans, novelist at heart, gives us slow and painful repudiation of self that is analogous—though in an entirely different key—to those of any number of the novel’s haughty heroes of good will. Elizabeth Bennet, for instance. And then, as though waiting in the narthex, a welcome replacement to kitschy pamphlets, we find Evelyn Waugh’s Helena, the author’s own favorite. When the poet John Betjeman confessed to being confused over the fact that the novel’s Helena “doesn’t seem like a saint,” the great satirist responded that he
liked Helena’s sanctity because it is in contrast with all the moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she didn’t look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was that God wanted her to do and did it. And she snubbed Aldous Huxley, with his perennial fog, by going straight to the essential physical historical fact of the redemption.
In taking his heroine through the discovery of the true cross, Waugh took himself there too. As George Weigel has noted, in his later years the novelist undertook a purgative “spiritual quest for compassion and contrition. As for many of us, the contrition likely came easier than the compassion.” Helena, Weigel maintains, was a piece of Waugh crucible; though the protagonist lacks the hagiographer’s aureoles, focusing on her namesake helped the author move away from the raw meanness displayed in some of his farce, and into, “for all its chiaroscuro shadings, a divine comedy indeed.” Still, there is something apparently unsettling about the writer who makes claims to locate the stirrings of sanctity—in novelists as in their characters. Who are we to imagine we can imagine God’s visitation to us his wayward bride, and, still worse, to do so through fiction’s supposedly noble lies?
Enter Fear and Trembling dressed like Don Quixote. It would seem that those who narrate providence are transgressing the limits of imitation: how can grace, the precise workings of which none of us can pinpoint, be shown? Christic imaginers would, at first glance, seem to be committing a crass immoderation, feigning a kind of “mastery of God” and His work by deciphering His workings too surely. “We may be able to grasp,” says Josef Pieper, “in faith the actuality and the ultimate meaning of God’s working in history. But no man can presume on his own to point to any providential happening of the here and now, and to say: ‘God has manifested His intention in this or that reward or punishment, confirmation or rejection.’”
There is a major difference between our presuming to pinpoint the providential happenings in history, or the composer of the lives of the saints specifying the workings of grace in a particular soul, and the fiction writer fitting divine things to his form. In the former case the writer is saying what God did, whereas the fictionist is showing us, to paraphrase Aristotle’s Poetics, “the kind of thing that God would do.” Importantly, in the latter case we are dealing with hypothetical probabilities, with plausibility, which, as James Wood says, “involves the defense of the credible imagination against the incredible. This is surely why Aristotle writers that a convincing impossibility in mimesis is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility.” The Catholic novelist does not deal in slavish “realistic” imitation but with mimetic persuasion. Let him test the novel’s conventions and constraints, meld mystery—in a measured manner—into a literature hell-bent on secularity and individuality. Let him convince us this end could come, that the impossible could happen, has happened, will happen in saecula saeculorum, Amen.
Joshua Hren is co-founder and assistant director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey. He is founder and editor-in-chief of Wiseblood Books. His first collection of short stories, This Our Exile, was published by Angelico Press in 2018. His first academic book, Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy came out through Cascade Books in the same year.