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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Book Review: Stephen King’s On Writing

10569Stephen King’s On Writing was a Christmas gift; half-memoir, half-guide to writing, it was all memorable and enjoyable, regardless of the fact that I am not a huge Stephen King fan. I’ve read The Shining, but I don’t get much more into it than that.

Nevertheless, his stories about his childhood, early writings for local newspapers and re-workings of movie plots for his classmates were told with funny, self-deprecating flair, and the humble beginnings of his career were downright inspiring: two married English graduates raising little kids on King’s meager teacher’s salary, worried about affording “the pink stuff,” amoxicillin antibiotics, for their daughter’s ear infection, then to run away bestselling author of Carrie, followed by hit after hit.

Granted, Carrie was not his first novel and he had printed many short stories, but he went from seemingly impossible odds to near-overnight success; it gave my soul a smile to read about. When all seems lost, good things might be right around the corner.

As for the writing guide, that too gave a helpful outline of what building a literary career might look like as well as King’s opinions on language–(use few adverbs). Peppered with King’s typical, “earthy” language, a few of On Writing’s examples demonstrated perfectly what works and what doesn’t work in imaginative prose.

I’ll discuss two:

  1. The Simile: “When its on target, a good simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does.” (p. 178)

See that? He’s done it in the very sentence. A good simile connects a tiny piece of our experience and emotion to the physical act being described. All of a sudden, the author has made the connection for us. We all know how pleasant it is to recognize someone, and a good simile does just that.

2. King counsels the aspiring author to tell the story how she sees it, paying no head to trendy critics who pronounce the death of the linear novel. He tells us that he prefers stories written in order while admitting that you might not. Nevertheless, he says, “I’m an A-Z man; serve me the appetizer first and give me dessert if I eat my veggies” (225) as a metaphor for a story told in order.

I appreciated this sentence a lot for its simplicity of image and language, but also for how well it captures the simple pleasure of things taken in order. This is right about the level I like for longer prose. It’s illustrative without making you think about it; it just clicks.

Another book I am reading, which will not be named, uses far more poetic language in the structure of the novel.  She tells of finding her “glasses tipped atop her knobby head.” This sentence annoys me;  I have to stop reading to compose the mental image.

In poems, I like that. In novels, the things built from complete sentences, I’m not such a fan of phrasing that requires mental weight-lifting.

So I liked On Writing. I enjoyed the free-flowing examples incorporated into the text and the personal stories from his life and career.

Do you have any favorite memoirs? Are you a Stephen King fan? Got any favorite books on the craft of writing?

 

 

3 Principles for Pro-Faith Education (From T&C)

A recent piece of mine from the Truth and Charity Forum, “3 Principles for a Pro-Faith Education in the Modern Age,” in which I reflected on the most basic of basics of what I think kids need to learn in order to grow into thoughtful, curious, decent adults.

Where do they learn about reality? Their heritage? God’s love? In Nature, Art and each other, of course.

To see the elaborations; visit here

“As the social environment becomes more polarized, a need develops for education grounded firmly in the truths about life, its goodness and the human person. Catholic schools go a long way to meeting this need, but the foundations of learning are still worth considering as parents, the first educators of children and also for the sake of continual growth and reform in existing schools.”

Nature:

“The first step is going outside in the natural world, observing plant and animal life as well as geological phenomena, and learning about how it works. This comes innately to small children and adults, I think, and inspires wonder.

natureLater this serves as a foundation for hard sciences and math and also as an introduction to the wonder of God and creation.”

Art:

“Over time, the introduction of culture through poems, songs, prayers and art provides the foundation for all the humanities: literature, philosophy, history, languages etc. I even think that the love of one culture inspires not hatred for others, but curiosity because one has glimpsed the transformative and shaping power of language, beauty and thought.”

Love:

“Love of neighbor is much simpler; it is concern for others as equally worthy of love as we are. And it requires appropriate love of self because if we have no concept of our own lovableness before God despite our woundedness, we will be unable to see the lovableness of others despite their woundedness.”

http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/3-principles-for-pro-faith-education-in-the-modern-age/

What did you think of this? What would/did you share with your children? Where did they/do you want them to go to school?

Yes, Deep, hidden meaning in books and movies is really there

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From Prospero's books

I was snot-faced in high school. I loved to sneer at novels in english class and say, “if the meaning is so deep and hidden, maybe it’s not really there. Maybe it’s just a story.”

Well, if myself today could teach a lesson to myself back then, it would be that “yes, it’s really there, and probably more than you think.”

Having written myself a good bit, I know that no one bothers to concoct a whole story and characters and plot points for no reason at all. Whatever conflicts and relationships the author finds compelling and powerful will be the  plot and choices available to the characters. Writing a novel, play or movie is hard work, and no one undertakes it just for the heck of it.

Every choice of clothing, setting, tone, obstacle is selected to have a certain mood in order to create meaning and connection in the reader’s imagination. An author tells a story because he or she deeply believes that it is worth telling. And the things that we think are worth telling others are the most significant facets of reality. Continue reading

Two Reasons Not to Roll Your Eyes at Literature

51fzbtog4-l-_sx322_bo1204203200_Over at Matthew Warner’s website, he pondered this quotation from Albert Einstein:

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best the books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely nearsighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. And what a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous.

There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind.

Nothing is more needed than to overcome the modernist’s snobbishness.”

– Albert Einstein

 

He says one of the most precious possessions of time for him is “For me, Sacred Scripture is one such precious possession. Another is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Whether you are Catholic or not, it is one of the most impressive documents in human history and is itself a preservation of many of the precious bits of wisdom mankind has managed to pass on — all pieced together in harmony.” http://matthewwarner.me/our-modern-snobbishness

I completely agree, and I would like to add the immense value of all the books I used to roll my eyes at in high school:

  1. Books like Les Miserables, The Once and Future King, The Brothers Karamozov, A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol, even the Secret Garden and A Wrinkle in Time paint so clear a picture of our human faults but then point to the hope, the hope of our salvation and how much better life can be on this earth as we embrace each other and life in the next.

2. Further, books are so accessible. They are easily available for free at libraries and you can read them in the comfort of your own home. And yet somehow, they speak to you, like a true friend sharing his deepest experiences and lessons learned. That is why they wrote those novels, to share the path of knowledge and understanding that they had forged through human trial and error, then finally enlightened by grace.

To really appreciate a book is to know that there was someone out there who pondered the same things you ponder and wrote down her sense of how it all works through the story of people.

The Confessions of St. Augustine is another. There are so many more. To read is not be alone.

So I continue Matthew’s question: what are priceless possessions to you? (Read his original post here) Comment, Tweet or just like. I’d love to hear from you.

Who Ruined the Humanities: A Response to Lee Siegel’s WSJ Essay

Reading Walden?

In his recent WSJ essay[1], Lee Siegel argues that it is acceptable and perhaps even laudable that the humanities are falling out of college curriculums as fewer and fewer students choose to major in the classical liberal arts such as: English, History, Philosophy, Classics, and Theology. I think he’s dead wrong. Though I appreciate the main point, which is that literature belongs to everyday life and is not something that ought to languish locked in an academic safe.

Siegel’s argument goes as follows:

”The classroom also ruins literature’s joys, as well as trivializing its jolting dissents.”

“Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught.”

Here’s what Siegel’s right about:

1)      Reading novels, attending plays and soaking in poetry is truly something that is part of a good human life, and these activities should be within the purview of all humans in all walks of life.

2)      He’s also right that the treatment of literature in today’s universities doesn’t do it justice and tends rather towards over-analyzing, deconstructing, and generally vivisecting the life out of worthy books.

Here’s where he’s wrong: 

1)      Mr. Siegel’s argument only applies to literature, not all the humanities (or liberal arts) as the title suggests. In the main body of the text, there is no mention of any of the other subjects (history, philosophy, classics, theology). This is actually rather important. It’s true that literature fits well into an ordinary life well-lived, though few people nowadays (or ever) actually spend the time on it (which is my second point). Continue reading