Michael St. Thomas
For those raised in Christian homes where walls were adorned with “Footprints” poems and pictures of Christ helping tow-headed boys swing baseball bats, it’s perhaps difficult to imagine that religious art could amount to anything more than kitsch. The same is true for the generation who grew up in the heyday of the Great American Catholic Film, in which Bing Crosby or Spencer Tracy or Gregory Peck (take your pick) donned clerical attire, charmed his way across the screen, and brought everyone around him to Christ. In other words, in the experience of many Americans, what has long passed for Catholic art is nothing more than pious treacle.
It’s no surprise, then, that in a recent essay (June 2015) for The New Republic, William Giraldi, author of two well received recent novels, tries to fend off the attempts by the late critic D.G. Myers and others to label him as a “Catholic novelist.” For one, no self-respecting fiction writer likes to be pigeonholed. And Giraldi has his reputation to consider: as a novelist, he muses, he’ll take all the attention he can get, except that which doesn’t give off a “sophisticated sheen,” and being called Catholic, in this day and age, is tantamount to being slung with an especially rank batch of mud. Though raised as a “cradle Catholic” Giraldi insists that he’s done away with all of “those childish things” and has liberated his artistic imagination from the confines of dogma. If the American literary scene is a high-school cafeteria, Giraldi is the ex-jock with a budding interest in philosophy, who, as he sits down with his new intellectual friends, tries desperately to explain that the thick-skulled cretins waving from across the room must be mistaking him for someone else.
In his view, religious art—Catholic or otherwise—amounts to a superimposition of beliefs or morals on the artistic form. Whenever faith encounters art it operates from the outside in, he argues, referring to pieties “infiltrating fiction,” to novels that have been “massaged by religion,” beliefs “grafted onto narrative,” and, my favorite, “dogmatism attached like strings to the limbs of characters.” His characters, unlike those of religious novelists, are not bound to fall in line with the “regurgitated axioms” of belief by acting in predetermined ways, but are free to be themselves. “To be tagged a Catholic novelist is to be tagged a failed novelist,” he asserts.
Giraldi’s attempt to flee the association with a religion he left decades ago is understandable, especially given American Catholicism’s frequent confusion of propaganda and art. Yet he should know better. The very writers he admires and cites as major influences possessed Catholic imaginations of the highest order, writers for whom religious belief did not serve as a sort of moral governor on their work but as the very lens which enabled them to see, and transform, the world into art. Giraldi’s own masterful Hold the Dark is cut from same kind of vision. Contrary to the title, the book does not withhold much dark (it is filled with brutality and evil) but it springs from a deeply religious, even mythical understanding of reality, in which there is no distinction between physical and spiritual. Giraldi’s misidentification of Catholic fiction with cheap moralism is therefore perplexing: his novel makes it clear that he possesses a mature religious imagination, but in his response to his critics he conveys a remarkably childish understanding of its nature.
Before examining Giraldi’s fiction, I turn first to one of his admitted Catholic influences, Flannery O’Connor, who serves as a spokeswoman of sorts for Catholic artists. An anomaly in the deeply Protestant South, O’Connor lived as an unlikely anchoress, writing grotesque fiction and keeping spiritual correspondence on her mother’s Georgia farm until lupus claimed her in 1964 at age 39. As orthodox Catholic as they come, she shared Giraldi’s assessment that much of what passed for Catholic fiction was intellectually and artistically bankrupt. O’Connor lived in the final years of the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books (officially abandoned in 1966), during a time in which most Catholics, including clergy, considered Catholic fiction to comprise those stories which contained positive spiritual messages, so as not to contradict the hope of the Resurrection, and which depicted no objectionable behavior among its characters. To understand how much this milieu has changed in the wake of Vatican II, consider this: Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, now widely considered (even among the most traditional Catholics) to be one of the finest achievements in spiritual fiction, was initially placed on the Index for its depiction of an adulterous, alcoholic priest.
O’Connor, a graduate of the famed Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, called out religious schmaltz for what it was, prevailing attitudes notwithstanding. She once suggested that (New York) Cardinal Francis Spellman’s attempt at fiction served well as a doorstop. Her own fiction (thirty-two short stories and two novels) stood in stark contrast. Her imagination worked in distortions and exaggerations, and the world of her stories, sinful and broken and darkly comic, was her attempt to reach an audience who, in her eyes, had been rendered blind to matters of the spirit by the workings of the modern age. Ultimately, she attributed her artistic vision to the mystery of the Incarnation (that God became flesh), which meant that the natural world, with all its suffering, death, and evil, was wedded to grace in an incomprehensible way. O’Connor was not satisfied simply with presenting the world as it appeared to the eyes but was bent on transforming it through art so that this mystery was made more clear.
Her thoughts on these matters, posthumously collected in Mystery and Manners (1969), make the case for what she considered to be a genuinely Catholic fiction. Unlike Giraldi, O’Connor argues that bad Catholic novels stem not from the nature of religious belief itself but from writers whose good intentions led to them to misunderstand of the purpose of fiction. Writing from a truly Catholic perspective, she claims, does not mean to “tidy up reality” but to depict it for what it is, in all its beauty and ugliness, good and evil: the fallen world that, in a profound mystery, God considered to be worth dying for.
Giraldi cites O’Connor heavily in his essay, citing their shared disdain for bad art as proof that she was a Catholic who wrote great fiction in spite of her faith, not because of it. In doing so, though, he neglects to address her main point: that the faith presented in bad Catholic art leaves a sour taste because it is incomplete, animated by piety rather than mystery. I can almost forgive him for this failure (which is a bit like neglecting to address the Emancipation Proclamation when speaking of Lincoln’s views on slavery), for hardly anyone associates Catholic dogma with anything these days but a list of prohibitions tacked above a headboard, and where is the mystery there?
Even lapsed Catholics will immediately recognize the centrality of the term “mystery.” After all, in the language of the Mass the priest intones “the mystery of faith,” the devout often pray the “mysteries” of the rosary, and Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection are collectively referred to as the “Paschal Mystery.” But the import of the word is often lost in the thicket of language that reinforces belief, and in the eyes of many, faithful included, Catholic dogma is a series of answers to the problems of existence (remember the Baltimore Catechism?), rather than something that allows believers to abide in an enduring mystery.
Giraldi uses the former, more familiar, understanding to create a firewall between faith and art, negating in the process any possibility of organic relationship between the two spheres. “Catholics already have the truth,” he writes, “whereas novelists write novels in part because they don’t.” One can hear Flannery fidgeting in her Georgia grave, for much of Mystery and Manners is devoted to dissuading her literate audience of the notion that Catholic fiction is about asserting the certainties of faith. Echoing Isaiah, she calls faith “a ‘walking in darkness’ and not a theological solution to mystery.” She writes that “[w]e Catholics are very much given to the Instant Answer. Fiction doesn’t have any. It leaves us, like Job, with a renewed sense of mystery.” In her view, good fiction is not set against faith itself but to the knee-jerk variety to which Catholics are often inclined. Instead, fiction can provide an opportunity for the believer to enter into the paradoxes of religious belief. Art, for O’Connor, is not fundamentally opposed to faith, but a way into its heart.
Every good novelist abides by an unwritten dogma, a deep order that orients and animates her art. O’Connor’s happened to be Catholic. Though her characters very rarely exhibit explicitly Catholic practices, a sacramental vision drives her stories, as does her belief about her readers’ worldviews. But most writers don’t share O’Connor’s religious faith, and still in their works we find different kinds of dogmas. William Faulkner’s, to use one example, was concerned with the nature of time and cultural identity, evident in his creation of a South where the past constantly reveals itself to the present in the form of ancient dust motes, crawling wisteria, and long-thought-dead men. His fictional Yoknapatawpha County is not a place removed from reality but one that, in his eyes, allowed him to explore reality more thoroughly. Consider Faulkner himself, in the Paris Review:
[in Yoknapatawpha] I created a cosmos of my own. I can move these people around like God, not only in space but in time too. The fact that I have moved my characters around in time successfully, at least in my own estimation, proves to me my own theory that time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the momentary avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as was—only is.
Yoknapatawpha was Faulkner’s proving ground for his own ideas about the nature of time and space; that is, for his own dogmas, for those things which do not prevent an artist from seeing but are the very things that allow an artist to see.
William Giraldi is an outstanding novelist. The comic genius of Busy Monsters rivals that of John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces, and Hold the Dark is a masterpiece that kept me spellbound for weeks after I finished it. Yet somehow, in his attempt to distance himself from what he considers to be an unsophisticated circle (remember those slobbering jocks in the cafeteria?), he somehow finds a way to misrepresent not just how Catholic fiction but all good literature operates, including his own. He bemoans that “[i]nside a Catholic novel, water, bread, and blood can never just be water, bread, and blood, and that’s a damning disadvantage for any writer.” I have a hard time believing that Giraldi really means what he says. For, in art, when are water, bread, and blood ever just water, bread, and blood? When is a darkened house just a darkened house in Yoknapatawpha? When is a spiral just a spiral in Yeats’ poetry? Or a pair of bespectacled eyes ever just a pair of bespectacled eyes in Fitzgerald’s world of ash-heaps and glittering light? All art, not just of the religious variety, attempts to yoke matter and spirit by its very nature.
Giraldi’s Hold the Dark belies his own comments on the confining effects of dogma, for, as all good novels, it is driven by what the author wants us to see. The novel tells the journey of wolf expert Russell Core, who ventures to a remote village at the edge of the Alaskan wilderness at the behest of Medora Slone, whose young son has been taken by an especially vicious wolf pack. As he sets out to track them, Core is warned by an old native woman that he’s headed in the wrong direction. He ignores her warning, only to discover that she was right: his real quarry is the wolves inside of men. Medora Slone disappears, and her husband Vernon returns from military duty to find his son dead and wife gone. He chases Medora into the wild, and a bloodbath ensues, with Core pursuing both deep into the wilderness, toward a climax that occurs in the coldest, darkest regions of nature and the self. Giraldi fuses inner and outer landscapes in the novel, and like the critic Myers, I sensed in it a deeply sacramental vision.
Giraldi’s gripe about water and bread and blood could be applied to his own work, for in Hold the Dark the black woods, biting cold, and ravenous wolves are never just themselves, but mirrors of the soul. Does this mean that the author’s artistic vision is somehow “limited,” because his wolves are not free to be “just” wolves?
Certainly not. To define freedom as such would be to say that a biology textbook is the most liberated work of art, for only there water, bread, blood, and wolves can really be themselves. On the contrary, the role of an artist is to transform the world into something more, not less real, and Giraldi has done so with Hold the Dark. It is sustained by its own dogma, unique to his imagination but an amalgam of different traditions: strains of Catholicism, Greek myth, Darwinism, Romanticism are all present. But it is a kind of dogma nonetheless, which O’Connor defines best as “an instrument for penetrating reality . . . about the only thing left in the world that surely guards mystery.”
One could argue that because Giraldi’s wolves are not just wolves they are actually more themselves; that is to say, that the true identity of canis lupus is not just found in the material world but also in the spiritual one. In portraying wolves that are at once outside and inside the self, Giraldi has crafted a reality that is essentially mysterious, best explained by myth. This enchanted world is closer to Native legend than modern fiction, and more proximal to the Catholic sense of mystery than he would care to admit.
In the world of the Catholic imagination, in which wolves are never wolves, bread never bread, dogma is more than just a series of moral clauses. Different Catholic artists have responded to this call differently. Take, for example, Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, another of Giraldi’s admitted influences (and whose “Wreck of the Deutschland” is the source of one of Hold the Dark’s epigrams). Hopkins developed the idea of inscape, the divine presence in every living thing that gives it shape and identity. He explains the concept in his poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
Dogma, in Hopkins’ art, is manifest in an active God who, as he put it in his most famous poem, charges the world with grandeur. One can even sense this fresh, creative God in Hopkins’ language. Unlike other Victorian poets, who laid out meter like a grid upon the poem, Hopkins developed a unique style, called “sprung rhythm,” in which the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables arises organically from certain phrases, “springing” across one or two lines, before fading and giving way to the next naturally occurring rhythm. It was as if Hopkins found traditional meter too mechanical to depict adequately the dappled beauty of the natural world; in effect, it was his effort to translate inscape into verse. Even today, one hundred years after his poems were first published posthumously, his language seems on the forward edge of contemporary, and has the uncanny ability to buckle the reader unsuspected.
All of this is not a matter of Hopkins superimposing “regurgitated axioms” of faith upon his material but presenting those axioms that he considers to be most timeless in ways that appear forever fresh. Giraldi does no less in Hold the Dark. Part of the enchantment of the novel, that which kept me glued me to the page into the early hours of the morning—and that’s saying a lot for someone who has young children—is his ability to present convincingly a world governed by a pre-modern understanding, in which the only way to make sense of the world, and oneself, is through narrative. As Russell Core finds his way to the edges of civilization, at the limits of human ability to fend off cold and death, he has to leave behind the ways of seeing of modernity. He may have been a “wolf expert” in the technocratic “Lower 48,” as the rest of the country is called throughout the book, but at the far reaches of the Alaskan tundra, to be a true expert on wolves means understanding the wolf within the human spirit. For this purpose his scientific knowledge fails, and the aptly-named Core—for what is he doing but journeying, like Dante, into depths of the human soul?—finds himself in the realm of myth.
Stories, not the natural science with which he is more familiar, are Core’s only way of grappling with the maddening events in the dark woods. As the novel winds to a close, he emerges from their grip and reenters civilization, considering how best to communicate the terrifying saga of the Slone family. He thinks of his own daughter and of his role as a storyteller:
. . . he would have for her only a story—one that seemed to have happened half in dream, rent from the regular world he knew—and that story would wear the clothes of truth. Propped up in bed, he prepared himself for this tale. He searched for the beginning, and for the will to believe it.
The only complaint I have with the novel is that the book does not end with these fitting lines (Giraldi adds a last chapter that reports on the Slones’ life after the gripping climax and feels gratuitous in comparison). Core’s thoughts about telling his story arrive at the essence of the book. Hold the Dark is a novel in which faith presents itself as a prerequisite for real understanding. The primitive truths guarded by the residents of the remote Alaskan village are only accessible to those who, like Core, seek them for reasons not known even to themselves, to those who must believe in order to understand.
The fabric of narrative is stitched with faith. It is not a specific religious faith, but it is faith nonetheless, a “walking in darkness” that requires a necessary leap in the attempt to create a coherent whole out of beginning, middle, and end. Like the major religions, narrative is pre-modern in nature, and Giraldi has crafted a novel that jars his contemporary readers into seeing the world through its lens, as comprising stories, as Core says, that “wear the clothes of truth.”
What to call the fiction of William Giraldi? He does not possess the clear faith of his Catholic predecessors, such as O’Connor or Walker Percy. Nor is his even the faith of Graham Greene, another acknowledged influence, who called himself “semi-lapsed” but spoke readily of the Catholicism which drips from his novels. Giraldi’s fiction, brimming with an Incarnational understanding and a mythical sensibility, springs from Catholic soil, yet the author himself will only allow that the faith acts as an “unconscious mechanism” in his work. That’s to be expected, of course, if Giraldi’s goal is to maintain his respectability, for to relegate something to that layer of the psyche is an attempt to keep it at arm’s length from one’s identity.
Here Flannery O’Connor’s thoughts prove instructive, once again: “The Catholic novelist doesn’t have to be a saint; he doesn’t even have to be a Catholic; he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist.” A novelist Giraldi is indeed, and a talented one. In his case, as always, the art speaks louder than the artist. Since self-awareness of one’s status as a Catholic novelist does not appear to be a prerequisite, perhaps we, in the name of Flannery, can call Giraldi one after all.
Mike St. Thomas teaches English in Rhode Island, where he lives with his wife and daughters. He writes about literature and Catholic education at thecatholiclitclassroom.blogspot.com.