Flannery, again. On art:
St. Thomas called art “reason in making.” This is a very cold and very beautiful definition, and if it is unpopular today, this is because reason has lost ground among us. As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself. This is not an easy or simple thing to do. It is to intrude upon the timeless, and that is only done by the violence of a single-minded respect for the truth.
I wonder what Flannery means by “reason” when she says that “reason has lost ground among us.” She must mean more than narrow rationalism or intellectualism, which seem to be gaining rather than losing. I suspect she means something along the lines of the (metaphysical) glue that holds all that exists in its divinely ordained order: reason, in that understanding, is the Word and Wisdom of God which makes cosmos (rather than chaos). That has certainly lost ground. We live in chaos.
By this definition, it makes sense that the artist’s reason can discover “an answering reason in everything he sees.” That makes sense because the classic catholic vision is that everything coheres in God. A deep likeness makes all things kin, despite appearances.
Finding in things “the spirit which makes it itself” comes at a cost. The cost is self-emptying– what Flannery is alluding to when she mentions the artist’s “single-minded respect for the truth.” That single-mindedness of the artist is the turning away from ego-satisfaction, and the turning toward contemplation: away from self-absorption, toward absorption in the sensible world. Or, as Flannery says in another place, there’s nothing not worthy of the writer’s stare.
I got re-acquainted with Flannery O’Connor this summer. What a treat!– witty and sometimes biting, always insightful, faithful, and refreshing. She’s a good tonic.
I’m speaking especially of her collected prose here. The stories merit their own superlatives, of course: they hold an integrity of vision and execution characteristic of any work that deserves to be called “art” rather than “propaganda” or “entertainment.” For now, though, let’s just consider the prose.
Here’s a snippet from “The Fiction Writer and His Country.” Provoked by an editorial in “Life” magazine brimming with optimism about American power and prosperity, and decrying the lack of any American novelists who would glowingly “show us the redeeming quality of spiritual purpose,” Flannery says this:
What these editorial writers fail to realize is that the writer who emphasizes spiritual values is very likely to take the darkest view of all of what he sees in this country today. For him, the fact that we are the most powerful and the wealthiest nation in the world doesn’t mean a thing in any positive sense. The sharper the light of faith, the more glaring are apt to be the distortions the writer sees in the life around him.
Flannery’s faith was the light by which she saw things that those invested in American triumphalism did not see. The distortions she perceived in 1957 persist today: in the light of faith, power and wealth wielded solely for “me” and “mine” are nothing at the end of the day.
You will notice that “Religion in the Balance” is being rendered in a new format. It was time for a change; I hope this format will be easier to read, and cleaner on small devices.
The last paragraph of Middlemarch struck me at the time of reading it, now several months ago, and has lingered in the interval until now. Part of the power of it, is its simplicity; part of its power, too, is how it connects the universe of the epic novel with the moral universe we might inhabit, if we have enough imagination.
Ready for it?
Eliot is describing her heroine, Dorothea, in an epilogue. The action of the novel is over; what is left is to summarize how Dorothea lived her days, from the end of the novel’s action to the end of the character’s life:
“Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill for you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.” [emphasis added]
We are always receiving– consciously or not– gifts of grace from those who have lived lives aimed at beauty and goodness, and whose names we don’t know.
Dorothea, of Middlemarch, imitates Christ in offering a wide and generous grace to the despairing doctor, Lydgate. The grace that she offers is as profound– and as profoundly affecting– as it is simple: she believes in him. More precisely, she believes in him when everyone else, including his wife, suspects him of a gravely dishonorable and shameful act. Dorothea offers him a lifeline when he, Lydgate, is drowning in despair.
What she offers is so simple, and so beautiful. It’s the essence of love that she offers him, purified of the self-interest that attends to romantic attachment. Or– to change the metaphor– she sees him, and does not judge. It is under this accepting gaze that we are confirmed as precious in the world.
Here is the passage:
“You [Dorothea] want to decide whether you should give a generous support to the hospital,” said Lydgate. “I cannot conscientiously advise you to do it in dependence on any activity of mine. I may be obliged to leave the town [on account of being socially outcast].”
He spoke curtly, feeling the ache of despair….
“Not because there is no one to believe in you?” said Dorothea, pouring out her words in clearness from a full heart. “I know the unhappy mistakes about you. I knew them from the first moment to be mistakes. You have never done anything vile. You would not do anything dishonourable.”
It was the first assurance of belief in him that had fallen on Lydgate’s ears. He drew a deep breath and said, “Thank you.” He could say no more; it was something very new and strange in his life that these few words of trust from a woman would mean so much to him. [Emphasis added]
via What George Eliot Teaches Us : The New Yorker.
Religion in the Balance has been in winter hibernation while Ribeye Films has been hard at work on our film “Atwood.” Apparently I can’t sustain both at the same time.
At 800-and-something pages, George Eliot’s Middlemarch has required an investment of time– usually late at night– as well. I always wondered what the fuss was about this novel. Now I know. Frank Kermode calls it a “masterpiece,” and he’s right. Eliot is as penetrating into the complex motivations of human beings, as any writer I know. She masterfully creates a world in which her characters are forced into crises; these crises, in turn, refine and wisen, deepen, and sometimes defeat her protagonists and foils. It’s real life refined to its essence: in other words, it’s art.
Here’s one of many passages I marked for its insight into human psychology. It’s about the way we are susceptible to flattering self-deception when it comes to religious belief. Bulstrode is the character she’s describing:
“There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. [Emphasis added] If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong, and whether we believe in the future perfection of our race or in the nearest date fixed for the end of the world; whether we regard the earth as a putrefying nidus for a saved remnant, including ourselves, or have a passionate belief in the solidarity of mankind.”
via BBC – History – George Eliot.
Maimonides came to my attention through a review, written by Jay Harris, that appeared in Foreign Affairs. A 2009 biography of Maimonides, by Moshe Halbertal, has recently been translated into English, and released by Princeton University Press.
Some people see religion as a positive harm. It’s a block to progress, or a source of violence. In this view, humanity would be better off to discard God and religion, and to rely on reason.
Harris astutely points out that contemporary non-religious (i.e., secular) “political and moral discourse” has not “particularly distinguished itself when it comes to dealing with the world….” Instead of bypassing religion, Harris (following Maimonides) suggests that we need better theology. That is, human well-being will not be increased by trying to avoid, deny, or banish religion; human well-being will be increased by doing religion better.
And doing religion better means doing theology better– “theology” in this sense understood broadly as any reasoned speaking or reasoned conversation about God.
Here is Harris on Maimonides:
Maimonides insists that a proper understanding of God (knowing what God is not), together with the commandment to imitate God as he is manifest in the world, will lead people to a life devoted to righteousness and loving-kindness– the essence of God’s impact on the world. A mistaken understanding of God, on the other hand, can lead people to place a divine imprimatur on all manner of evil acts.
Ideas matter. The way we live is patterned by what we think. Ideas that are commonly accepted as “the way things are” merit our special attention, because seldom are they truly of the essence of things.
While I’ve previously written about the love of money in our culture, and the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest, the following excerpt from a December article by David Cloutier, in “Commonweal,” offers a somewhat new slant: our relentless pursuit of goods is social glue. In a fragmented society in which hierarchies have crumbled and authorities have been discredited, we are held together in consumption. What Cloutier doesn’t mention, is that this way of groping for cohesion leads, ironically, to more isolation.
The idea that unlimited acquisitiveness is a good thing, is an idea that leads to no good end. Among other ill effects, it produces a state of mind in the general population that enough is never enough– a state of mind that grinds people (depending on their temperament and social status) into either a neurotic busyness, or into a hopeless, listless despondency. Equating a good life with unlimited acquisitiveness is a bankrupt and bankrupting idea.
Modesty is one old-fashioned idea that needs lifted up anew.
In the excerpt below, you can substitute the word “Christian” wherever Cloutier writes “Catholic”:
But if many Catholics are more willing to admire someone like Dorothy Day than to follow her example, that is also partly because many of us have adapted to our country’s consumer culture—a culture in which affluence is morally innocent or even commendable. “More” is taken to be a universal aspiration, perhaps one of the few we are all supposed to share in our multicultural society. Everyone wants “a better life” or “the American dream” for their children. In The Unintended Reformation, Brad Gregory suggests that “the goods life” is the social glue uniting an otherwise “hyperpluralistic” society. Whatever else we may disagree about, we agree that if you can have nicer things, you should have nicer things. In such a culture, it is easy for Catholic Americans to forget their church’s teaching that our excess wealth must be directed to the common good rather than to private indulgence. We cling tenaciously to the ideology of happiness as the pursuit of limitless wealth, buying into what Fr. John A. Ryan called the “higher-standard-of-living fallacy.” Ryan insists that social reform requires us to “put away that false conception of life and values which permeates all classes of contemporary society, and which holds that right life consists in the indefinite expansion of material wants.”
via Sending the Wrong Signal | Commonweal Magazine.