When Truth is Disturbing: Another Look at Wuthering Heights and the Purpose of Literature

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Flannery O’Connor

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, drew me in immediately, pulling me through every lurid page. Yet I felt oddly uncomfortable about how much I liked it as it is populated by selfish, angry, dysfunctional characters, only one of whom possesses much of a moral compass.

Like a good Catholic (I say that sarcastically), I tend to want to spend to time reading things that will edify or offer some great insight or meaningful lesson to take away, which I usually look for in Christian themes or uplifting messages. But this is exactly the attitude that Flannery O’Connor excoriated in her 1965 essay, “The Catholic Reader and the Catholic Novel,” in which she skewered the legions of “pious trash” that Catholics have written and that Catholics read. O’Connor argued that good art or literature has to be good in and of itself–that is, it must also be true. Something that disregards basic truths or doesn’t testify to them fully will inevitably be bad–no matter how pious.

She says, quoting Aquinas, “a work of art is good in itself…this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten.” When she cites him, she (and he) mean “good” in the metaphysical sense–that is the worth of the art comes from itself, not just from its relation to ideas we approve of. Goodness is one of the transcendentals; the others are truth, unity and beauty. Goodness, in this sense, is its desirability in so far as it exists, its ability to attract and move the will. It is a property co-existent with being, one that is not dependent on our feelings about it. To my judgement, “goodness” in a work of art will correlate with one or both of two things: its beauty and its truth.

In written work, with the exceptions of certain poetry, the value defaults to coming from truth. Then the value of being a Catholic writer or a Catholic work doesn’t come from having “uplifting” themes, but from being true, of offering real insight into reality and human understanding. Many secular works succeed at this; many Christian ones fail.

But, Catholic belief should be an effective instrument that contributes to a work’s goodness. Far from a shackle, O’Connor says, “dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality.” She further explains: “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.” Thus the Church’s understanding of the span of natural and supernatural realities is a magnificent insight that aids the artist or viewer in seeing and composing a true picture of the world.

Nevertheless, she says, the artist must still use her own eyes. The Church offers an extension of sight, not a replacement. O’Connor cautions that “When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous.” Just like grace does not exclude free will, the Catholic vision still demands the vision of the writer him or herself. Her insight is that Catholic literature is really anything that is true, but that something that pursues the whole scope of reality will inevitably be better. I think here of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Having established that good art is true. That leads me back to Wuthering Heights. Someone as wretched as the abusive Mr. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights still offers us a great catholic value; Healthcliff shows us a dark side of humanity, an anti-hero whose love, while real, is distorted and disordered and plays out to the harm of the generations, the cast of characters whom he taints.

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Giving Up Control: My Reflection for uCatholic on March 9

This reflection appeared originally on uCatholic.com; I was honored to be asked to participate in the Lenten reflection series. This short piece draws on the readings of March 9 and the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe to explain how God is with us even in the “bare heights” or difficult times of life.

Turn Over The Controls And Become More Free

In the reading from Isaiah we hear of the incredible promises the Lord makes to the people of Israel, that “on every bare height shall their pastures be,” and His reassurance of His love, though they feel “forsaken.”

Like the people of Israel, so many times we feel forsaken in life, faced with situations beyond our control. I think of St. Maximilian Kolbe who traded himself for the freedom of a fellow Auschwitz prisoner who had a family. Left to starve with other prisoners, Kolbe did not despair, but ministered to them until the end. Though his worldly situation was objectively terrible, he praised God, sowed hope and inspired others to faith and joy. He did this by giving himself over to the will of God for him in that specific circumstance of his life, just as Jesus did during His ministry and ultimately, His crucifixion.

The Gospel tells us about Jesus, and the Son’s relationship to the Father, and how the Father has appointed the Son to carry out His work. Yet, Christ says “I cannot do anything on my own… because I do not seek my own will, but the will of the one who sent me.”

When we can’t control things, it is easy to feel alone or like a failure. But even Jesus did not perform acts from His own will; He turned His will over to God, His Father. That is what we are called to do. Paradoxically, in releasing this control, we do not find that we are eviscerated or dispersed, but that we are free and able to become our true and best selves.

When we can let go of frustration at our inabilities, we can accept God’s loving providence, like St. Maximilian Kolbe did. Even on that bare height of a Nazi work camp, he found a pasture of fellowship and love.

Turn Over The Controls And Become More Free

Question: Was there ever a time when you admitted that you weren’t in charge of something difficult? What happened as a result?