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


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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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.

Two Reasons Cleaning is Not Below You

Are you a feminist? A modern woman (or man) who knows who you are, who takes yourself seriously, who works hard and expects a lot.

Do you think cleaning is below you? Does folding clothes, dusting, scrubbing a scummy dryer, vacuuming, wiping windows or otherwise performing manual labor in your home bother you?

It does for me sometimes.

But I am also a Christian and a believer in social justice and the truth of the Gospel that Jesus came for everyone, including the poorest of the poor.

And there is something very fishy about finding or believing oneself to be above any sort of manual labor (provided it isn’t inherently unethical…such as mafia hit man).

The truth of Christ is the truth about all men, and it was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as this: we are “created equal.” This equality does not include all abilities, but includes our value and worth. In the Christian tradition, we say all people are created in the Image of God.

1) To believe that I shouldn’t have to clean my house or do my laundry is to believe that I am better than such activities, but I am not. It is often a subtle expression of a deeper classism, or the idea that I am not the type of person who has to do demeaning work like cleaning toilets. That’s for other (aka lower) people.

But while classism is real, even in America where we pretend it isn’t, classism is never true. That is, it does not describe the true reality. The reality is no group of people are better or worse than others, especially because of such things as race, income, or geographic location or education level. The reality is that we are all interconnected individuals who have gifts and hardships, who are trying to seek the good, regardless of how warped any person’s perception may have become. (The warped search for the good is what sin is).

Many people put air in their own tires; some people do it for a living. This type of technical maintenance is not irrelevant or inconsequential. On the contrary, it is the stuff of life itself; it provides the raw matter which philosophers philosophize about. And it takes care of us, of our family and friends.

To sweep a floor or cook a meal can be a great act of love, of care-taking, of gratitude for the kitchen and home that we have.

To believe ourselves above such work is to take our gifts for granted.

[Caveat: If we pay someone to help clean that house, that may not be bad provided we respect the gift they are providing us, that we pay fairly because we understand that their work is valuable and helps support him or her and their family, and if we acknowledge that we are not above such work even we do not do it ourselves.]

2) Mother Teresa said, “If you want world peace, go home and love your family.”

Johann Goethe said, “Let each man sweep in front of his own front door and the whole world will be clean.”

What these mean is that if we take care of our part, of our tiny slice of the world, of those around who are in need, the whole world would change. So often, we view actions as meaningless because they do not impact the entire global state of affairs. But the opposite is really true. If we do a tiny thing, but do it earnestly and truly, those are the actions that change the world. If we all did our part, all would be healed.

Jesus said, “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

And he is God! So what we do to those around us is how we respond to God, which is about as big a deal as you could possibly get.

So then, to clean your own house, to do things that seem below you is to express in a small way a gratitude and a type of solidarity with all people who work. There is of course much more to living the Gospel than cleaning one’s house, but it is a small piece, and every piece counts.

So let me rehash this phrase yet again, “If you want social justice, go home and clean your house.”


First Things Lecture: Yuval Levin’s The Perils of Religious Liberty

I had the pleasure of attending First Things’ lecture last night in Washington DC. Yuval Levin gave the address entitled: The Perils of Religious Liberty

A few big points I took away:

-Conservatives call for toleration based on freedom of religion, but the English tradition this harkens back to is more a personal freedom of worship, a freedom to believe as one wills, not actually a freedom to live in accord with those values. The latter requires a broader defense.

-However, the complicity required in supporting contraception or a wedding vendor serving a marriage he or she objects to is less like simple civic duty, and more like compulsion to cooperate with a belief system (if not a full fledged religion) that he or she does not agree with. It is therefore almost like the official establishment of a non-religion that is forced on all people

-The response then should be a defense and offense of the goodness of living our own values in communities, in groups and institutions that mediate between the individual and the state such as families, churches, clubs, etc.

-A defense of the freedom to live a traditional way of life will also include a proposal of the goodness of values, of virtues, of striving to live for a certain type of good. In this way, we can offer an alternative narrative and show a different way of life designed to attract, not to compel others.

-At stake is an important conception of the good. Goodness is not simply freedom from all constraints, as all societies put limits on behavior. Goodness and freedom is more importantly the freedom for formation, for moral and character development to become good, flourishing humans. This older notion of freedom is hard to defend because we lack the vocabulary in modern discourse, but it matters. I like that this provided an alternative to a completely relativist libertarianism that eschews all mention to values in order to avoid any coercion

-Traditionalism is repeating old truths in modern parlance. (I loved this; this is what I am about).

-It’s also not about being perfect or telling everyone else how wrong they are; it is about the ardent struggle to live well in accord with truth. No more and no less.

I am very grateful that First Things has taken the initiative to start hosting events like this that bring people together. It is the start of an alternative ordering of intellectual life outside of the universities. That could end up being a strong service to society.

Would you go to a event like this? Did you watch the talk? Do you have thoughts about the relationship between the individual, the state and mediating communities?

Thought of the Day: The Self-Mastery Required to Care for Children

To remain calm with children for an extended period of time demands great self-mastery.

Any mom or preschool teacher will tell you: all the pulling, whining, spills, bickering etc is enough to drive almost every human being into high-stress mode. Child are also wonderful, of course, with their enormous grins, gleeful dances and purity of heart and emotion. But they are just like us grown-ups: they have bad moods and tantrums and accidents, so when you are with children long enough, eventually you encounter this. And to remain calm during a meltdown, especially with added stressful events such as car breakdowns, injuries, or just a dumped-out bin of legos, requires the utmost of inner-serenity and mastery. A person who does this well, and I have seen a few of them, is often very wise and spiritually advanced to have acquired this level of self-possession.

It is odd and troubling that our economy does not value this at all. Stay-at-home parents, daycare workers and teachers are really not well-respected or high-paying positions in our economy. But they are incredibly important and noble. A good parent or teacher can build up a child; a bad one can tear a child to pieces. And this matters because each of the little children grow up, formed by their life experiences, into adults who must function or attempt to function in the world, who will later determine the shape of the social world. That doesn’t mean adults should take personal responsibility for the outcomes of children, but our actions and behavior toward them really do make an impact, a formative impact. So at the very least, we should accept responsibility for our actions toward children and strive to make them as balanced, calm and caring as possible.

This is just one key example where money does not measure value.

Thought of the Day: Beauty makes people uncomfortable

I often comment on the beauty of others: male and female, old and young, anybody. Only to notice and point out beauty, not to insult. I once told a cashier she was beautiful. I think old people can be beautiful and I tell others.

I’ve noticed that this often sometimes make the people I’m with uncomfortable. Sadly, beauty tends to be associated with sexualization. But when I say someone is beautiful, I am not saying that I am physically attracted to that person.

Human beings are just beautiful. God made us that way, in His image. We should note the beauty of human beings because it is a celebration of the goodness of creation. In fact, Hans Urs Von Balthasar wrote a Catholic theology of God through the analogy of beauty. After all, beauty is one of the transcendentals (the qualities of an object that are analogous to its being. Others are truth, goodness, unity).

Beauty, properly understood, expresses reality just as truth. That’s why art is supposed to about expressing beauty; this gives it its value. Contrary to popular belief, art is not merely about shocking the audience.