Sunday, September 30, 2012

Apocalypse and Alternate History: the novels of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson

Now that so many people are reading books on electronic devices, more and more books are being made available in digital format. Since I became a Kindle owner a couple of years ago, I have really enjoyed dipping into the many old, out-of-copyright books that available to be downloaded at no cost. Project Gutenberg, which claims to be "the first producer of free electronic books (ebooks)," has for some years provided digitized versions of books in many formats, including those used on the Kindle and the Nook and other devices. Even more convenient for Kindle owners like myself is the fact that every time Project Gutenberg releases a "new" old (public domain) book, Amazon immediately publishes it for the Kindle at no cost. This provides an extra convenience for Kindle owners, since we can have it downloaded to our device automatically (cutting out a step, compared to acquiring it directly from Project Gutenberg) and we can keep the title in our library "cloud" when we don't need or want to have it taking up space on our Kindles.

Robert Hugh Benson
Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson,
former Anglican, bestselling Catholic author
One of my favorite out-of-copyright authors whose books are available from Project Gutenberg is Robert Hugh Benson. On the PG site, you'll find a number of his Catholic novels, written in the early years of the twentieth century. Google Books also has free downloads of his novels and short stories, as well as a fair number of his catechetical, apologetic, and homiletic works; both Project Gutenberg and Google Books also offer biographies of Benson (the Google one is in two volumes).

Perhaps you've never heard of Msgr. Benson, who was almost as popular in the early 1900s as Fulton Sheen would be fifty years later. Benson was the son of an (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury, and himself was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1895. Within a few years, however, he became a Catholic priest and a very popular writer for both Catholic and Anglican audiences, producing many works of Catholic apologetics as well as novels in various genres -- historical, speculative, and contemporary fiction, all with religious themes.

http://www.booksshouldbefree.com/book/Lord-of-the-World-Robert-Hugh-Benson
Benson has been enjoying a sort of literary comeback in recent years, with a number of small publishers bringing some of his better known works back to print, and a number of web sites are devoted to Benson & his works. I have read a few of his novels, having begun with his most famous one, Lord of the World (one of his few works still available in print editions). This novel has been described variously as being "dystopic," "science fiction," "speculative fiction," "prophetic," and "apocalyptic." The latter is probably the most apt, because Benson presents a vision of the world as it may when the end times arrive, as described in the final book of the Bible ("The Revelation to St. John," known traditionally to Catholics as "The Book of the Apocalypse"). Benson, writing in the early years of the twentieth century (Lord of the World was first published in 1907), was alarmed at the social trajectory of the modern, Western world, and wrote this novel, at least in part, as a warning of where things seemed to be headed. Projecting his story forward in time less than a century, he foresaw a world that had become radically secularized, a culture of death in which euthanasia has become so common that euthanasia squads, not ambulances, are sent to accident sites and euthanasia parlors have replaced nursing homes. Marriages are sterile, churches are empty, and a demagogue rules over an all-encompassing socialist world government. Most churches have become Masonic temples, and the few churches that remain are all Catholic. I won't give away the ending, but if you've read the Book of Revelation, you probably know where it's headed.

Strangely enough, Benson's loyal readers were dismayed by this novel, complaining that it was too gloomy. Despite his insistence that it described the way the Bible assures us the world really will end, his fans urged him to write another end-of-times novel, with a happy ending and, very reluctantly, he did. The result was a novel called Dawn of All. In its introduction, Benson writes:
In a former book, called "Lord of the World," I attempted to sketch the kind of developments a hundred years hence which, I thought, might reasonably be expected if the present lines of what is called "modern thought" were only prolonged far enough; and I was informed repeatedly that the effect of the book was exceedingly depressing and discouraging to optimistic Christians. In the present book I am attempting -- also in parable form -- not in the least to withdraw anything that I said in the former, but to follow up the other lines instead, and to sketch -- again in parable -- the kind of developments, about sixty years hence which, I think, may reasonably be expected should the opposite process begin, and ancient thought (which has stood the test of centuries, and is, in a very remarkable manner, being "rediscovered" by persons even more modern than modernists) be prolonged instead. We are told occasionally by moralists that we live in very critical times, by which they mean that they are not sure whether their own side will win or not. In that sense no times can ever be critical to Catholics, since Catholics are never in any kind of doubt as to whether or no their side will win. But from another point of view every period is a critical period, since every period has within itself the conflict of two irreconcilable forces. It has been for the sake of tracing out the kind of effects that, it seemed to me, each side would experience in turn, should the other, at any rate for a while, become dominant, that I have written these two books.
Benson also says that he found Dawn of All very tedious to write, because he knew it described a world that would never exist. To convey the idea that we shouldn't ever expect to live in the world described, he has a priest from our real world find himself transported in a dream to an alternate reality, a world which, having found that socialism doesn't work and the promises of modern philosophy are empty, has gradually been won back to the Catholic faith and public life has been put back under the influence of the Church. Protestantism has been reconciled to Rome, Ireland is one big religious retreat center (all the laity having been evacuated to America or somewhere), and the Inquisition once again keeps the world safe from heretics. In fact, the novel basically presents an idealized version of medieval Christendom, a world in which trade guilds (not labor unions) are prominent, and people are required in public to wear attire legally prescribed for their state in life and occupation. It's an odd work of speculative fiction, and best read after Lord of the World.

NuEvan Press, Dawn of All, Robert Hugh Benson
Speaking of odd, NuEvanPress.com offers ebook versions of both these novels that, the publishers say, have been "gently edited" to make the books more palatable to modern readers. A cursory look at the samples available on Amazon doesn't reveal any obvious updates, so I'm guessing the "gentle editing" was intended to help the edition conform to the Amazon rule that anyone desiring to publish a title in the public domain must provide "added value," in order to make their edition distinct from the free ebooks that Amazon publishes. In addition to the "gentle editing,"  NuEvan Press also includes helpful subtitles ("A Catholic Novel of the End Times" and "A Visionary Novel of the Catholic Church Victorious"), as well as an appendix in each book, relevant to the content of the novel. The appendix to Lord of the World contains a selection of readings from the Church Fathers on the Antichrist; in Dawn of All, it's the Fathers on "the preeminence of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church."

I recommend any of Benson's books, particularly the two mentioned here. Lord of the World provides the "Catholic answer" to the Left Behind novels, and Dawn of All presents a nice little fantasy that may provide a tonic in these days of the culture wars and the marginalization of religion. One caveat: the language will sound a bit formal or even old-fashioned, perhaps irritatingly so for some readers, so if that might be you, go ahead and plunk down $2.99 for the NuEvan Press e-editions; otherwise, just go for the freebies.

If you've already read these or other books by Robert Hugh Benson, please click the comment link, and let me know what you think!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Celebrate the Year of Faith with Free Catholic Books!

Some kind soul has created a web site for free Catholic devotionals and spiritual reading, available for download in PDF format. When you take a look, just keep scrolling down the page -- there are LOTS of books, including some of the Fathers of the Church.

Books= good! Free=Good!! Catholic=GOOD! Free Catholic Books = what more could you ask? In the Year of Faith, plan to do some reading that will help you grow to an even deeper appreciation of your Catholic faith. These free books will help you do that.

By the way, you will also find free holy images (scanned prayer cards) that you can download in zipped folders.

Book Review: 21 Ways to Worship, by Vinny Flynn

21 Ways to Worship, Vinny Flynn, MercySong
I thought I would start reviewing the books I picked up recently at the Catholic Marketing Network's trade show. I'm starting with Vinny Flynn's 21 Ways to Worship: a Guide to Eucharistic Adoration (published jointly by MercySong and Ignatius Press), because I began to use it almost as soon as I got it. After the New Media conference ended on Friday, I headed over to my parish church (which fortuitously is just a couple of miles from the conference site) to spend some time in Adoration, and I took Flynn's book with me.

Now, at our church (and maybe at yours, too), on days when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for Adoration, a collection of Holy Hour books is made available in the narthex so that people can have some devotional material to use during their time before the Blessed Sacrament. I don't know how many people avail themselves of this resource, but probably most of those who adore regularly have gotten tired of just reading the same devotions over and over. Many people, however, don't know how to spend their time alone with the Lord, and others may find they have fallen into a "prayer rut." 21 Ways should be helpful to both groups, and really to anyone who wants to deepen their personal relationship with Christ.

precious blood of Christ
The first thing I noticed is that the book is very attractively designed. While this is not essential, it is helpful. So many devotional books are full of such dense, ugly type that it is a kind of mortification to read them. You can see from the cover image above, this is a book that does not want to look intimidating. Inside there is an attractive layout on cream colored paper (not stark white), with attractive typography and enough "white space" to make the book easy on the eye. But, lest the graphic treatment seem too zippy for more traditional tastes, each chapter is illustrated with traditional devotional black and white images taken from old missals and prayer books, similar to those you see here.

Christ cleansing the temple
The text also nicely balances being fresh and accessible while drawing from the wellsprings of traditional devotional practice, in such a way that even the most venerable devotional practices take on a new sheen. Flynn writes in a conversational style, and each chapter title is a friendly exhortation: "Evict the Tenants!" (dispel distractions), "For God's Sake, Shut Up!" (be silent and allow the Lord to speak), "Go to the Office!" (pray the Liturgy of the Hours),  twenty-one in all. Throughout, the author is encouraging you to try new things, none of which are really new at all but may be unfamiliar or untried. There is nothing "iffy" about the author's advice: all is tried-and-true, taken from long Catholic traditions of prayer and meditation, just re-packaged to make it appealing and fresh to contemporary readers.

This book has gotten kudos from people such as Jeff Cavins, Fr. Larry Richards, Fr. Mitch Pacwa, and others who will be familiar to most Catholic readers, and it deserves their praise. I think this book should get as warm a welcome from those experienced in meditative prayer as from those who feel that they should spend more time before the tabernacle but don't quite know what to do when they get there. I know I will be getting lots of inspiration from 21 Ways to Worship -- and I may even have to buy an extra copy for the narthex table.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Narnia Code: Hidden inklings of the God-breathed cosmos

Flammarion woodcut of the cosmos
The Flammarion woodcut, in which a truth-seeker
peers into the hidden workings of the cosmos.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on Michael Ward's theory of the unifying principle  that guided C. S. Lewis in writing the Narnia tales, and Ward's book, Planet Narnia, in which he provides a detailed analysis of the Narnia novels. The book was based on his doctoral dissertation and was, I suppose, fairly scholarly in tone. Apparently Ward and/or his publisher felt that Planet Narnia would be heavy reading for a lot of Narnia fans, so now there is a new book which (as far as I can tell from the preview available on Amazon) is essentially Planet Narnia reworked for the popular market.

Michael Ward The Narnia Code
The new book is The Narnia Code: C. S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens. Here's a portion of the publisher's blurb:
In The Narnia Code, Michael Ward presents an astonishing literary discovery. Drawing on the whole range of Lewis’s writings, Ward reveals the single subject that provides the link between all seven novels. He explains how Lewis structured the series, why he kept the code secret, and what it shows about his understanding of the universe and the Christian faith. 
Readers should not be put off by the title's similarity to The Davinci Code, which, despite Dan Brown's claim to the contrary, is pure fiction and a load of codswallop. Ward actually does a good job of demonstrating that Lewis (a) wrote according to a set of principles that, until Ward discovered them, had eluded literary critics and exegetes and (b) he deliberately concealed his plan. In other words, there actually is a "code" which can be "decoded," thereby yielding up new meaning to the reader who has figured out the code.

To most modern readers, this will seem like a weird, sneaky thing to do, but it would not have seemed so to a medieval reader. What most modern critics have ignored is the fact that C. S. Lewis was a trained medievalist, and that, in scholarly circles, he is more famed and admired for his work as a medievalist than he is as a writer of children's stories or a
Christian apologist (as he is known to most general readers). He wrote several books that should be familiar to college students, if they've ever studied medieval literature or history, and which help to support Ward's claim that Lewis's background as a scholar of medieval literarture is absolutely key to a thorough understanding of his Narnia tales.

C S Lewis The Discarded Image
First in importance, there is The Discarded Image, in which Professor Lewis demonstrates how the medieval conception of the created order (the cosmos) profoundly influenced every aspect of medieval culture. Here's the publisher's blurb from the Canto edition of this book:
C.S. Lewis' The Discarded Image paints a lucid picture of the medieval world view, as historical and cultural background to the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It describes the "image" discarded by later ages as "the medieval synthesis itself, the whole organization of their theology, science and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental model of the universe." This, Lewis' last book, was hailed as "the final memorial to the work of a great scholar and teacher and a wise and noble mind."
One of the key elements of the "medieval world view" was the concept of plenitude, i.e., that the world we can see is just one small part of the whole of creation and there is a densely populated, but invisible order of Creation which is every bit as "real" and varied as the parts we can see. So in the medieval view the cosmos actually had different "levels," the visible and the invisible, which coexist side by side; in a somewhat similar way, the Bible was understood to have several layers of meaning, the literal or superficial meaning which would be plain to even the most casual reader, as well as spiritual (figurative or allegorical) meanings which lay, as St Augustine put it, "beneath the veil of the letter." The reading habit of looking for, and finding, various levels of meaning in the Bible bled over into reading of other kinds of writing as well, so that medieval poets (i.e., fiction writers) carefully planned and built many layers of significance into their works, and astute readers were adept at recognizing the "hidden" layers of meaning. Lewis, of course, knew this thoroughly, and knew that much of the delight in both writing and reading in the Middle Ages was derived from this kind of polysemous composition.

C S Lewis The Allegory of Love
Another work by Professor Lewis that should be familiar to students of medieval literature is The Allegory of Love , which traces the allegorical treatment of love in western European literature from the high Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Here again is evidence of the medieval delight in finding hidden meaning in literary works, and here again C. S. Lewis literally wrote the book on it. Both The Discarded Image and The Allegory of Love have been enormously influential in the modern study and teaching of medieval literature. And yet no modern scholar until Michael Ward has really understood how profoundly Lewis the writer was influenced by the medieval images and methods that preoccupied Lewis the scholar.


This idea of a literary work being conceived and composed according to an intricate plan is quite foreign to modern readers and writers alike. Recently I was introducing some students to Dante's Divine Comedy, a massive work composed according to a massively intricate plan structured by various numerological, theological, and typological schemata. I had made similar remarks on the structures of other medieval narrative poems we have studied. One student, who seemed surprised to realize how carefully medieval writers planned their compositions, asked me if modern writers do such careful planning, and I had to reply that this is seldom the case these days. Modern novelists frequently write without any plan whatsoever and seem to think that this somehow makes a work more authentic -- they claim to "wait for their Muse" for inspiration, and then "let the characters take the story where it needs to go," as if novel writing were something that happens to the writer rather than something that the writer deliberately does (I blame William Wordsworth for this romantic tendency to regard the writer as a medium through which the forces of inspiration magically work). Even mystery writers will claim that they start their stories without knowing "whodunnit." What nonsense! Unfortunately, many readers and critics have assumed that Lewis wrote his Narnia novels using an equally haphazard method (or lack thereof). Thank goodness Michael Ward has finally vindicated Lewis in the face of critics who accuse him of having thrown Narnia together using a meaningless hodgepodge of images (Santa in Narnia? Crazy!).

By the way, when I got a beautiful new hand-tooled leather cover from Oberon Designs for my Kindle ereader, I chose a design that caught my imagination because it seemed to sum up for me the wonder of reading, allowing us to glimpse the inner workings of the universe. I didn't realize at the time that the image was based on a well-known pseudo-medieval engraving known as the Flammarion engraving (see image at the top of this post). Whether the image is a forgery made in the nineteenth century or not, it captures nicely the medieval belief in the invisible but magnificent reality of the created order that remains invisible to human eyes. This is a much richer conception than the scientfic worldview, which denies any unobservable, metaphysical reality. Anyway, the Flammarion image makes for a beautiful Kindle cover --- check it out!
Roof of Heaven Kindle cover by Oberon Designs
Roof of Heaven Kindle cover by Oberon Designs



Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Toxic TV: From Vast Wasteland to Vast Cesspool

toxic TV
Here's the link to the blog post I tried to link to in my reply to Terry's comment on "Moral Imagination: Beauty, Truth, and Goodness" -- Catholic in Brooklyn: TV: From Vast Wasteland to Vast Cesspool. Thanks for writing this post, Catholic in Brooklyn! You've saved me a rant of my own.

For the record, I quit watching "television" three years ago; I now watch selected television shows available in streaming video via the internet, because I can choose only shows that I actually want to see (and see them whenever I like), I don't have commercial interruptions, and I can watch shows that haven't been on broadcast or cable TV for years. Plus, I get to watch some foreign shows that don't make it to American TV.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Moral Imagination: Beauty, Truth, and Goodness


Recently I wrote about literature as being capable of conveying, and even discovering, truth, which can be called “poetic knowledge.” Both Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas upheld a similar view, Aristotle by demonstrating that poetry is “more philosophical” (i.e., more capable of demonstrating truth) than history, and St Thomas acknowledging poetry as a kind of “science” (scientia) or knowledge, albeit a lower form of knowledge than philosophy because it relies more on imagination than intellect. Today I’d like to consider the value of beauty, an abstract value, but one that we often associate with poetry, as well as music and the fine arts.

beautiful dew drops on clover leaf
My thoughts are prompted by this interesting feature article from the National Catholic Register, “True Beauty Satisfies the Human Heart,” an interview by Trent Beattie of psychologist Margaret Laracy, who identifies beauty as a kind of knowledge. Laracy has made a study of the healing effects of beauty on those suffering from mental illness. Since she is one of the few scholars to study seriously the effects of beauty, she first had to arrive at a satisfactory definition of “beauty” before she could study it; as a starting point she turns to St Thomas Aquinas, the great definer of abstract truths. Thomas identified three essential qualities of beauty: clarity (the luminosity or illumination communicated by the object of perception), harmony (the right ordering of the parts of the object), and integrity (the wholeness of the object’s luminosity and harmony which, in synthesis, elicit repose and contemplation). Through its integrity, beauty calls us to contemplation, and thereby leads us beyond the beautiful object to the greater beauty of which it is but one instance. (This reminds me of what C. S. Lewis said of “good books” – that they enlarge us.) Dr. Laracy does not cite St Augustine in her discussion of beauty, but she well might: Augustine would say that in contemplating the creature (beautiful object) one is drawn to the Creator (God). In this way, I would say, beauty can provide not merely mental but also spiritual healing.

Thinking about Thomas’s three essential marks of beauty, I was reminded of an experience I once had in an art museum. Many years ago, I was in the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, probably more out of morbid curiosity than for aesthetic pleasure. In those days (and still) I found most of what is classified as “modern” art to be incomprehensible and repugnant, sometimes even laughable. (In fact, I can remember at least one occasion on which I was all but physically expelled from the Modern by a docent who didn’t like my jeering commentary on the exhibits.) I guess, in Thomas terms, I found that the “artworks” being exhibited failed on almost every point – for instance, a pile of stones of nondescript stones did not communicate anything in particular; patrons were invited to rearrange them as they liked, so there was no inherent harmony; and there certainly was no integrity, since the implication was that the “artwork” was always unfinished (although patrons were exhorted not to take any of the stones away). The only thing it led me to contemplate was why the heck the museum would present such dreck as “art.”

Perhaps the same day I saw the pile of stones at the Modern (or some other day altogether), I wandered into an open gallery containing sculpture that immediately arrested my attention. I imagine there were a number of pieces displayed there, but I remember only one. It was fairly large (say about the size of a large man sitting with his knees drawn up), and seemed to chrome-plated (it was probably polished aluminum), abstract in form, a twisted, highly reflective mass suggesting (to my imagination, anyway) tangled car bumpers, which I found mesmerizing and repellent. I would stare at it for a few moments and then rush out of the room, but come back a few minutes later to peer at it in horrid fascination from a different angle. I felt an incoherent, but insistant, impulse to find a curator and demand that the sculpture be taken away. Eventually, I left the museum feeling inexplicably distressed and nauseated.

I remember asking myself what it was about the sculpture that provoked such a strongly negative response and could not articulate a reason other than to think, as I looked at the sculpture, “It’s just wrong! It’s a lie!” Had I been foolhardy enough to say such a thing to a curator, I undoubtedly would have been told that there is no “right” or “wrong” about art, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and what I found repellent someone else would find enchanting. If anyone had suggested as much, I would have replied, “Then anyone who likes that thing has something seriously wrong with him.”

Winged Victory of Samothrace
Winged Victory of Samothrace
I can’t remember any other work of art that elicited such a vivid sense of repulsion, but I have had at least one other encounter with sculpture that provoked an equally viscerally, but completely opposite, reaction. I was visiting the Louvre Museum in Paris and, after spending two or three hours perusing the paintings on the ground floor, realized that the museum would be closing in less than an hour and I hadn’t even gotten upstairs yet. I was rushing toward the large double staircase that led to the upper floor when I was stopped as suddenly as if I had run into an invisible wall. Dazed, I looked around to see what had stopped me, and found myself gazing at a sculpture that I had seen many times in photographs without finding it very impressive: the famous Nike, Winged Victory of Samothrace

You’re probably familiar with the image: a female torso that seems to be striding forward, wearing those formless drapey garments often found on Greek figures, with large, backswept wings sprouting from the shoulder blades. The statue has been badly battered, with the arms (probably once outswept like the wings) and the head completely missing. Still, it was, quite literally, breathtakingly arresting; it had stopped me dead in my tracks, while my attention was elsewhere. As I looked at it, I felt indescribably exhilarated: I could feel the wind rushing against Nike’s glorious form, sweeping back her gown and unfurling her great wings; I even felt I could see her hair blowing back, her eyes gleaming, her triumphant smile dazzling – although the statue’s head has never been found. I doubt I even noticed that she was standing on the prow of a ship, yet I could feel the rush of air against her body and lifting her wings. She seemed to me to be alive and in vigorous motion, and yet she was only a broken lump of stone carved by some anonymous craftsman two thousand years ago.

These two sculptures – the deliberately twisted, highly polished metal one at the Fort Worth Modern and the badly battered hunk of marble at the Louvre in Paris – both evinced from me strong, visceral reactions that I can’t fully explain. The former, modern work was undoubtedly beautifully crafted according to the sculptor’s intent, but it struck me as horrifically false and wrong, highly-polished but somehow ugly and obscene. If we judge it according to St Thomas’s “essential” criteria of beauty, it has none: it does possess a certain clarity or luminosity (at least, it is very shiny and smooth), but it is so disharmonious as to suggest a car crash; the (apparently deliberate) disharmony opposes the clarity (if that is what we can call its smooth shininess) that the work does not seem to posses integrity, indeed its clarity seems to belie its disharmony, making it seem false and wrong, and to evince a feeling of dis-ease, rather than repose.

On the other hand, while the mutilated form of the Rhodian sculpture might make its maker weep with frustration if he could see it today, it nonetheless remains incredibly beautiful, radiating life, movement, and exultant emotion that can quite literally stop a person in her tracks. Its clarity is such that the sculpture almost seems to be lit from within, not with actual light but with life itself; even though many portions of the sculpture are broken off and lost, what remains is unified by a profound harmony, despite its broken state; the clarity and harmony of the object imbue it with an pervasive integrity that make the viewer feel as if somehow the essence of Life itself has been given exuberant form.

By Thomas’s standards then, the modern metal sculpture lacks the criteria of beauty, and my negative reaction to it suggests that, for all its careful craftsmanship and smooth surfaces, I was not wrong to find it quite the opposite of beautiful. The Winged Victory of Samothrace, however, seems to possess all the hallmarks of beauty, in spades, and certainly it left me feeling “enlarged,” enriched for having seen it. (Even today, more than thirty years later, I feel exhilarated as I remember seeing the Winged Victory.) Its beauty did not depend on “integrity” in the most literal sense, since many parts of the original are missing, which just goes to show that integrity itself is something more than material and literal completeness; yet, its beauty does somehow seem to depend on direct experience, as no photograph of it that I have seen before or since was able to do more than hint at the great vitality of the sculpture.

ugly metallic sculpture
The dog seems to have the right idea,
to treat it as a toilet.
All of this serves to show that there does seem to be, despite what so much modern “culture” insists, that there is a strong identification between beauty and truth. However, it also seems to be true that our faculties for perceiving and recognizing both beauty and truth must be honed, so that we are not led astray by, for example, smooth shiny objects that appeal to our senses without illuminating our souls. And, if we can recognize the identification between beauty and truth, it is not difficult to see (as Dr. Laracy’s study of beauty and mental health suggests) that regular exposure to beauty can also help us to be whole and healthy, to be good. This in turn suggests that we should, on principle, avoid spending our time on ugliness, just as we should avoid lies and wickedness.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Catholic Writers and the New Media


Catholic Writers Guild
A few weeks back, I took part in the wonderful synergy created by three concurrent events, the Catholic Writers Conference, the Catholic New Media Conference, and the annual trade expo of the Catholic Marketing Network. I was able to attend all of the talks of the writers’ conference, as well as the third day of the New Media conference, which focused on blogging, and also had several opportunities to stroll through the marketing trade show, meet the vendors (who had an astonishing variety of products), and pick up a huge assortment of freebies (mostly books – how could I pass up free books?!?).

I met lots of wonderful people, and got plenty of ideas – too many, really, and it has taken me a couple of weeks to recover! There was a palpable feeling that we've arrived at a new moment in which the Catholic faith can be communicated to the world in a fresh, new way, thanks to modern technology and the new media.

One of the results of this great experience is that I decided to revive and spiff up this blog – check out the new banner image. When I got into the blog dashboard, I found that I had over a dozen drafts of posts waiting for me to finish and post at some opportune time (the most recent post, on poetic imagination, was one of these). I’ve also decided to follow through on a project I’ve been considering for the past six months, which seems particularly appropriate for the upcoming Year of Faith and the national elections this fall – I’ll say more about that, and you’ll notice a new page on this blog when I’m ready to roll with it.

Meanwhile, I thought I would simply acknowledge the many books I picked up at the trade show (a couple signed by the authors,* all except the first two were free). Click the links to read more from the books’ publishers; I’ll write a short review of each one when I get a chance to look at them.

Poetic Knowledge, the lost "science"

I was delighted to run across this article on the Crisis Magazine web site. The article is a review by Kirk Kramer (originally published in 1999) of a book by James Taylor called Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education. Actually, I was amazed to find anything whatsoever in print (even the “virtual” print of an internet magazine) referring to poetic knowledge, because I thought that the deconstructionists, not to mention relativism's current reign of terror in contemporary society, had put paid to any notion that “poetry” (i.e., “literature”) can shed any light on truth, which is what is meant by the term “poetic knowledge.” But, of course, Crisis (and undoubtedly many of its readers) is part of the Catholic counter-culture, who continue to teach and believe that there is such a thing as truth, that it can be known, and that it can make you free.

http://www.starstudioarts.com/liturgical_paintings.html
St Thomas Aquinas,
by Ardith Starostka
Taylor, it should be noted, takes his term “poetic knowledge” from Thomas Aquinas's own term poetica scientia, one of four scientiae or kinds of knowledge/knowing. This term “knowledge” could, with justice, be translated “science,” except that for English speakers these days science means only empirical science, which believes only what it can observe and measure. Poetic knowledge, unlike “science,” has to do with experience, which comes from within and relies to a large extent on imagination, rather than objective and analytical “science,” which is objective and relies largely on reason. In the middle ages, however, when Thomas lived, wrote, and taught, the Latin term scientia had not yet been reduced to its narrow, modern meaning, but meant simply “knowledge” (from the verb scio, “I know”), and might refer equally well to theology, “the Queen of the Sciences,” to material science, or to poetry, a term which, as it was used in Thomas's day included both what we would call poetry and what is usually called fiction today.

In the Middle Ages, poetry had a bad rep in certain quarters, because it was “fictional” (made-up stories) rather than “factual” or true (like the Bible, the truest book ever written); nonetheless, it is heartening to note that Thomas Aquinas, probably the wisest person alive in those days (some would say ever) listed it among the various ways of “knowing” (scientia), albeit not a perfect one, as it does not appeal to reason (which was Thomas's Big Thing). I would say not that poetry is not “true” (although that might be said, with justice, of individual poetic works), but that it deals with truth differently than the rational sciences. It deals with truth “poetically,” i.e., analogically rather than analytically. Analogy is the basic tool of the poet -- he makes us see that one thing is like another, and in seeing that we glimpse some truth about the thing that might have escaped us before. This is why Aristotle said that poetry is more “philosophical” (concerned with wisdom) than history, which is merely factual.

Aristotle, Roman copy
of a Greek bust
I've recently begun a new semester teaching a course called Medieval Epic Poetry, for the Walsingham Society of Christian Culture and Western Civilization. It's a continuation of the Ancient Epic course, in which we studied the great classical epics of Homer and Vergil. (In fact, it was with Homer in mind that Aristotle called poetry “philosophical.”) In the Middle Ages, the Christian vision collided with the assumptions of pagan heroism, so epic per se didn’t really survive (until Milton, anyway), but the works we’ll be studying in the present course show how the Christian imagination adapts the epic legacy to keep readers thinking about philosophical questions, such as “What is the best way to live?”, “What should we live for – glory? Or something else?” and “Whom should we admire? What makes a great leader?”. While the Christian authors of the works we’ll be reading this semester – Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost – largely agree on the answers to those big questions, they explore the questions in rich and varied ways that both delight and provoke our imaginations.

The cultural collapse of the West, particularly precipitous over these past fifty years, has many causes, but one of them surely is the abandonment of great literary works in our educational curriculum. The world is a poorer and more dangerous place these days, because our imaginations have been starved (when they haven’t been poisoned by pop culture). Catholics who wish to live well, and to celebrate the upcoming Year of Faith, would do well to acquaint (or re-acquaint) themselves with some of the great works of our Western literary tradition and to ponder, in the light of Faith, the questions they pose and the examples they present.