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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Homer’s Tardis: Literature is the best kind of time machine

Classics Illustrated cover: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

One of my favorite kinds of speculative fiction is the time travel tale, not the H. G. Wells sort of thing that takes you into a distant, purely speculative future, but the kind that takes a modern person and sends him (or her) into the past. The earliest piece of time travel literature that I can recall reading was an Classics Illustrated version of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which I read probably at age ten or eleven. (I had already been introduced to King Arthur several years earlier, through a Golden Book storybook based on Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.)

Imagining past lives

Time travel stories allow us to visit the past in our imagination, but we are always conscious that we are visitors, outsiders — and therein lies the limitation of the genre. It is always more interested in commenting on (or even passing judgment on) the past, rather than showing it to us as it had been lived. When I was reading A Connecticut Yankee, I was more interested in the world Twain was ridiculing than I was in the show-off shenanigans of his Yankee. Twain had a beef with the romanticization of the past, which he believed had helped cause the American Civil War, so he wasn’t too kind to King Arthur. I found this irritating rather than illuminating.

In my teens, I also read a number of historical novels, mostly about medieval English royalty. I enjoyed the details of historical setting and circumstance, but there again I was aware of the irritating anachronism inherent in the enterprise. I didn’t particularly enjoy the way modern authors seemed to think that twelfth century England was interesting chiefly because of the dynastic struggles of the Plantagenets — I’m sure people living in those days were concerned about such things only insofar as they had a real effect on their daily lives.

Later, I got a very different view of medieval life and concerns, by reading stories actually written in the twelfth century. Now that was (time) tripping! These stories, at first seemed strange to me. I guess I was experiencing first hand the truth of that saying: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” To understand such a story, I had to get inside the mind of a twelfth century reader (or writer) and try to understand not only their day-to-day concerns but also the furniture of their imaginations. To the extent that I succeeded, the literature really did transport me to a world lost in time.

Homer’s epics take me to an even stranger, more primitive world, different from our own in so many ways, and yet his over-sized heroic figures seem to embody universal human traits in a marvelous way. That, I believe, is why they are, in a peculiar way, timeless. As foreign as ancient Mycenaean Greece is to us today, Homer’s stories somehow manage both to embody that age perfectly and yet transcend the limitations of history and the particularities of culture. That is a mark of Homer’s genius — not every ancient epic manages that kind of transcendence. I can understand the motives of Homer’s Achilles or  Odysseus — or, for that matter Sophocles’ Oedipus — in a way that I can’t really sympathize with Gilgamesh or some other ancient heroes, who seem to lack a truly human dimension.

Touching the past

Mycenaean sword

The bronze blade has crumbled, but the gold hilt remains as bright as when it was last grasped by some Mycenaean hero 3,500 years ago.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), I’ve also long been fascinated with archaeology, particularly of the ancient Mediterranean world. I first discovered this fascinating field as a seven-year-old, after a traveling encyclopedia salesman gave us the A volume of the World Book Encyclopedia as a sample. (I promptly read it cover to cover, and fell in love with archaeology and, to a lesser extent, anthropology.)  I’ve since had a number of opportunities to actually walk the streets of the ancient past, in Spain and Italy. Thanks to the painstaking work of archaeologists, I’ve walked the streets of Pompeii — lost to the world for nearly two thousand years, and then brought back to light, stunningly preserved — and descended into the ancient cemetery that lies beneath St Peter’s Basilica, imagining the families that picnicked there long ago with the relics of departed loved ones. I love to read about archaeological discoveries that shed new light on the ancient world.

One such recent discovery, described in this recent news story, reminded me that Homer’s epics, wreathed though they were in myth and legend even in his day, nevertheless take place in a world that was still familiar to the poet who described them (although he lived several centuries after the events he described).

Archaeologists digging at Pylos, an ancient city on the southwest coast of Greece, have discovered the rich grave of a warrior who was buried at the dawn of European civilization.

He lies with a yardlong bronze sword and a remarkable collection of gold rings, precious jewels and beautifully carved seals. Archaeologists expressed astonishment at the richness of the find and its potential for shedding light on the emergence of the Mycenaean civilization, the lost world of Agamemnon, Nestor, Odysseus and other heroes described in the epics of Homer.


Agamemnon, Nestor, Odysseus — those guys are all buddies of mine, whose homes I’ve visited, not by touring archaeological sites, but by way of the time machine created by Homer. I’ve lived through their travails with them, grieved with them and for them. No travel agent can provide that kind of experience. And even though archaeology can allow us, literally, to touch the past, it cannot allow us to live it. Ancient literature, however, when read well, can do just that.

Timeless truth

This may be one reason Homer’s epics were so highly regarded, even in his own day. The ancient Greeks believed that the best was already behind them, and they sought to learn from the past, where greater wisdom lay than anywhere in their contemporary world. Homer’s heroic poems capture the past so masterfully that Greeks in following centuries actually regarded them as a kind of encyclopedia or textbook that they used to educate their children. This is why, in Plato’s Republic, Socrates objects to “the lies of the poets” — every son of a prominent family was steeped in Homeric literature from a young age, a practice that Socrates (both the historical Socrates, and Plato’s literary character) believed filled their heads with dangerous ideas, not just of bravado and heroism but warped ideas about the gods. (Curiously, this puts Mark Twain and Plato on the same side.) One of the most important things Plato is doing in The Republic is proposing a better way of educating young men destined to be leaders. He objected not so much to fiction as to false ideals, which is why he has Socrates invent truer fictions.

Ornate book cover, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer

Keep your Tardis, this is my time travel device of choice.

Today, I don’t think we need to worry that Homer will warp the minds of our young — quite the opposite. Today, in fact, we may have the opposite struggle — to get young people (and older ones, as well) to see how much truth is conveyed by these ancient tales of legendary figures. Few people in the modern world appreciate the real value of imaginative literature. Time travel stories, though, remain popular, and one of  TV’s most popular characters is the time-traveling Doctor Who, so there may yet be hope.

I’ll be returning to my series on ancient epic, by the way, so get the Tardis warmed up for a return to Augustan Rome and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I’m also planning a post on some of my favorite time travel fiction, including Jack Finney’s Time and Again, and Andrew M. Seddon’s Ring of Time.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Why Civil Society Needs Great Stories

St Thomas More Society, Dallas

On this blog, I’ve written a lot on something I call “the moral imagination.” Recently I was invited to address the Dallas chapter of the Saint Thomas More Society (Catholic lawyers’ guild), on a topic such as the ones I deal with on this blog. Here’s a copy of the text of that talk. For the most part, it puts together ideas that I’ve dealt with in a variety of posts over the last few years, but I thought my readers might like to see all those ideas put together in one, coherent address. If you want to see the original context of each idea, just click on the category “moral imagination” in the blog menu to see a list of all posts on this topic.

Enjoy! And please leave comments, if you wish.

Literature and the Moral Imagination, or Why Civil Society Needs Great Stories

When I was a child, I was keenly aware that I was by no means wise. I hadn’t a clue about the world – how it is or why it is the way it is – nor about people – people never behaved the way I expected – nor even about myself – who was I, who should I be, how should I live? I was not only ignorant but painfully aware of my own ignorance. (I’ve since learned that this is called “Socratic wisdom” – to know how little one truly knows).

So being a timid, introverted, and confused child, I read. A lot. I read everything. When I was seven, my parents bought us the World Book Encyclopedia, purchasing a volume or two each month over a year or so. The first volume covered everything that started with the letter A – it was about that thick [indicate]. I read it cover to cover – which probably accounts for my lifelong interest in archaeology and anthropology. I read dictionaries, too. Newspapers. I even read the labels on pillows that said “Do not remove this label, under penalty of law.”

But mostly, I read stories of all kinds – biography, historical romance, mysteries, science fiction, fantasy – anything that would give me some glimpse of life that was different from my own confused life. So I read stories of foreign lands, other times, stories of immigrants and pioneers – I was fascinated by strange milieux and I admired the way the people in these stories faced challenges that would have terrified me. I wanted to be like them – not timid, but audacious; not baffled and indecisive, but confident and persevering, not small and meaningless, but someone who had a purpose in life and strode boldly forth to achieve it.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my reading – indiscriminate as it was – was forming my character, showing me how (and how not) to live, giving me a vision of what I could be, helping me to get a clearer understanding of who I wanted to be. Eventually, my teachers introduced me to more edifying – and more challenging – works, works written with a more serious purpose and with greater literary craft, and I gobbled these down avidly as well. I learned that these stories might be a bit more challenging than popular novels, but they stirred up such wonderful ideas that it was worth the extra effort.

Of course, not everyone takes as much delight in reading as I do. But I was stunned one day when I stood before a roomful of college English students and learned that most of my students didn’t read AT ALL. Ever. They hated reading, they hated my class, even though this was only the second day of the term. I later discovered that they were pretty much typical of American high school graduates these days. The first twelve or fourteen years of their schooling had somehow taught them to hate reading.

Statistical surveys support this awful news:

  • 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
  • 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

Now I want to tell you why I find this so alarming, and why you should, too.

Great Stories can help us Become Wise

The title of this address is “Literature and the Moral Imagination, or Why Civil Society Needs Great Stories.” By “great stories,” I don’t mean specifically or only titles that might appear on a “Great Books”list, as this term is usually used in academic circles. What I mean by “great stories” are stories of perduring interest, stories that are capable from age to age of enlightening and inspiring readers, stories that can teach us something important about what it means to be human, and how we best should live.

I hope you will all agree that civil society needs wise citizens. I want to convince you that civil society also needs great stories, because such stories help to produce wise citizens. Perhaps you’ll resist this idea. Sure, stories can be entertaining, even edifying, but can they make us wise? And anyway, what does it mean to be wise?

To be wise, as I use that term, means to know the truth and to conform our lives to the truth. Many people these days, including educators, are shocked that anyone would propose that education is meant to make anyone “wise,.” But I do, and I hope you’ll agree with me that there is such a thing as truth, and wisdom.

So if wisdom consists of knowing the truth and living by it, how does literature help to instil wisdom? Doesn’t wisdom fall under the purview of philosophy, not literature? I say no, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Perhaps you’ll trust the authority of a couple of very famous lawyers, who were also philosophers: Saint Thomas More, the patron of your august society, and Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great statesman of the late Roman Republic. Thomas More is perhaps best known for his (often misunderstood) Utopia, a story with a philosophical purpose that stands in the great tradition begun by Plato’s famous dialogue on the nature of justice and the just society, which we call The Republic. Cicero also wrote his own version of The Republic, recast in the light of Stoic philosophy for the hard-headed Romans of his day.

All of these men – Plato, Cicero, and Thomas More – recognized the power of stories to convey truth. I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that, while Socrates himself left no written teachings – in fact, he bragged about this during his famous trial – his great disciple Plato produced many written works that have survived, all written in the form of dialogues. Why dialogues?

To begin with, probably because Plato wanted to capture both the method and the style of his great teacher, who pursued truth by constantly probing what men thought they knew, through penetrating conversations in which everyone chipped in their own ideas and Socrates systematically exposed the flaws and challenged them to try again. So it must have seemed natural to Plato to discuss philosophical concepts through imaginary dialogues in which the speakers were fictional representations of real people, Socrates and his friends.

But the dialogue form is also a handy way to engage the reader in the conversation – it is very easy to imagine ourselves standing there alongside Thrasymachus, Adeimantus, Glaukon, and the others, hanging on Socrates’ every word, objecting to some of his more outrageous suggestions, scratching our heads at some of the puzzling ones, and perhaps finally feeling the truth dawn on us as the discussion circles closer and closer to the true nature of justice, in the soul and in the city.

In other words, what Plato does in these dialogues is tell a story so captivating that it completely captures our imaginations, drawing readers in as if we were actually taking part in the conversation. The dialogue form, then, is actually a kind of fiction – a fiction that illuminates truth. A fiction that helps us come to wisdom.

Now, wait a minute, you may say, Plato hated fiction, didn’t he? Didn’t he call it mere imitation, twice removed from truth itself? In The Republic, doesn’t Socrates say that poets must not be allowed into the just city, because they will corrupt the youth with their lying tales? Well, yes but no. Yes, Socrates says that, but he is referring to poets who tell lying tales. He objected to poets like Homer and Hesiod, who he felt told unedifying tales about the gods and heroes, stories that made a bad impression on their young souls.

Plato would have to be a huge hypocrite to condemn fiction per se, not only because he used made-up dialogues, but also because in The Republic he has Socrates propose a number of bald fictions to preserve order in the just city. For instance, there is the so-called Noble Lie, with which every citizen of the hypothetical Just City will be indoctrinated from birth, namely the myth that the gods have infused in each soul a particular metal — gold, silver, or iron – which destines the individual to a particular role in society. And then there is also the Myth of the Cave (sometimes called the parable of the cave), which Socrates tells and then interprets for his young interlocutors, in order to help them see essential truths. And Plato ends the dialogue with the Myth of Er, a didactic story that says those souls who failed to achieve perfect virtue in their earthly lives will be sent back to try again, until they get it right.

Plato’s fictional Socrates makes up stories to help his followers perceive truth. Plato recognized that very few human beings will ever reach the level of contemplation that allows one to apprehend Truth directly. Instead, most people must be shown the truth in figures, through stories or metaphors.

Poetic truth

Plato knew this, and so did his famous pupil, Aristotle. Although Aristotle did not follow the dialectical method of his predecessor, he nonetheless shared Plato’s appreciation for the philosophical value of stories. One of his surviving lectures is on Poetics, or the literary art. Perhaps it should surprise us that Aristotle valued fiction more than history. Comparing epic poetry to historical accounts, he says:

It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen — what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose.… The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.

So according to Aristotle, poetry of its very nature leads toward wisdom. How does fiction lead us to perceive truth? By creating an analogy between the reader and the fictional protagonist, so that in effect the reader vicariously lives through the actions of the protagonist.

Christian Stories

Pagan myth, which inspired the great works of the early epic tradition, sought to express imaginatively the relationship between gods and men. Unfortunately, as Socrates and Plato found, the results were not very satisfactory, so in Graeco-Roman culture myth was largely supplanted in the quest for wisdom by philosophy.

Judaeo-Christian culture, of course, has the benefit of Divine Revelation – truths that we could never grasp with our unaided human intellects and imaginations, God Himself has revealed to us. So, you might ask, does that mean that we Christians have no need of stories to learn truth? Of course not. There would be no Christianity (nor Judaism, either) without stories. Any Christian, be he Catholic, Presybterian, or Seventh Day Adventist, knows that the Christian faith is passed on primarily through stories – especially the stories found in that Great Storybook that we call the Bible, the Greatest Story Ever Told. Now, many Christians tend to look at the Bible as a kind of instruction manual cum history book, something purely factual which must be read with the most deadly literal-mindedness.

I’d like to propose that we should think of the Bible as the truest of all stories, almost like a novel – a true one — that has been written one chapter at a time over thousands of years, containing a masterfully developed, perfectly unified plot that reaches a triumphant climax in the death and resurrection of the hero. God is not only the author, he is also the protagonist of this great story – it’s a story about Himself, a story that he told the Jews over and over, the story of the salvation that He would achieve in time, for all eternity. He finally acted out the story when He became Man, to make things as clear as possible. And, of course, during his earthly ministry, Jesus himself constantly used stories to convey ineffable truths – we call these stories parables.

Christ’s apostles, once they had received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, recognized that all of Sacred Scripture is about Christ. They saw that Noah, Abraham & Isaac, Joseph of Egypt, Moses were all types of Christ – they prefigured or foreshadowed the act of salvation that would be achieved by God-made-Man. The apostles understood also that we, too, are called to be types or figures of Christ – we must be like Him, “put on the mind of Christ,” function as “members of His body.” We must write ourselves into that story of salvation. In fact, we would not know how to act, how to love, how to offer our lives for our brethren, if God Himself had not told us his story.

The Dearth of Good Stories Today

So stories are essentially extended metaphors or analogies that can provide us with inspiration on how (or how not) to live. When we read stories, we “live other lives,” as C. S. Lewis put it – in our vicarious participation in the protagonist’s plight, we experience his actions, and their consequences, at no real risk to ourselves. This is why for so many centuries, a large part of education consisted of reading and internalizing great stories. For the Greeks, these were the stories of great heroes, men who were virtually godlike some dimension (Achilles’ godlike rage, Hercules’ immense strength, Odysseus’ incredible wiliness). For Christians, of course, the greatest hero is Jesus Christ, not merely a “godlike” man, but actually God-made-Man, capable of the greatest of all heroic feats – rescuing all Mankind from the jaws of death, loving the miserable, vindictive sinners who put him to death in the cruelest possible way. Achilles could never do that. Odysseus could never do that.

Since the rise of Christianity, many new stories of Christian heroes have been added to the fund of Western literature – both those historical figures we call saints, and purely fictional heroes who are, in their own ways, Christ-like. Heroes unlike those of the pagan poets – they are humble rather than boastful, they struggle not for personal glory, but to protect the weak and innocent, or they struggle against their own inner demons. The Christian imagination simply cannot help but produce Christ-like protagonists.

Unfortunately, the Christian imagination has largely been banished from the public sphere, banished from our schools and universities, all but disappeared from contemporary novels, films, and television shows. The very idea of heroism itself has been diminished and distorted almost out of existence.

In the past, the so called “Great Books” constituted the core curriculum of education. They gave us a common fund of stories that formed our collective moral imagination, figures we could point to as examples to be emulated or avoided. Notice how, in the absence of such stories today, we simply point fingers at each other, and public discourse descends into a mess of name-calling and hate-mongering.

Make no mistake, the poets have been banished from our unjust republic. Literature is no longer studied in most colleges and universities – it has been displaced by so-called “cultural studies” whose goal is the not the promotion but the denigration of existing culture, the destruction of any common bond with those who have gone before, the destruction of anything that can be perceived as an ideology in competition with the cultural Marxism that has reigned in our universities now for generations. Any literature which has continued to speak to the human condition from age to age, any literature which has traditionally been considered edifying – has been branded “high” culture, therefore “elitist,” and therefore to be reviled and rejected by modern readers. After all, who are we to suggest that young people should strive to be more than they are, that they should greater than they are? Elitist heresy!

School children are no longer taught the stories of “great” historical figures or literary characters – they are allowed to admire only those figures who are in some way “transgressive” of existing norms, cultural outsiders who struggle against the predominant culture, social deviants who are admired simply for the fact of their deviancy. Stories written for young readers – those who choose reading over mindless video games – often mirror the darkness of our ever-darkening culture as we slip back into barbarism. Think of Harry Potter and his friends, misfits in the real world of non-magical “mugwumps” yet also their guardians and protectors from the forces of evil.

Books written for older adolescents often mirror the cultural and social chaos in which so many youngsters live – tales full of sexual experimentation, depression, broken families, broken relationships of all kinds. Look at the books on the “young adult” best-seller list – the phenomenally successful Hunger Games trilogy features a teen-aged protagonist who lives in a hellish version of our future, where children are exploited in the most brutal way in order to keep the general populace in submission to the thuggish ruling class. Katniss Everdeen is a bitter young person, who trusts no one and loves no one, except her younger sister, who becomes just another lamb to the slaughter. I read these books a year or so ago, and found them both engaging and deeply pessimistic. By the end of the series I was heartily sick of Katniss Everdeen and her unrelieved bitterness – what a bleak picture of human life such books present.

But the fact is that young people these days have no better stories to inspire them. The great stories of the past have been forbidden them. For nearly two thousand years, aspiring writers carefully emulated the work of the best of their predecessors until they had mastered their craft and could fashion their own stories. But the writers of the present have not read the great stories of the past, they’ve had no great models from which to learn their craft.

Today’s writers, sadly lacking literary models, are forced to look to cartoons, comic books, and old television shows for models — the only “old stories” known by modern illiterates.

Hope for the future

Some might say I am painting too black a picture. So what if we have Batman rather than Sir Gawain or Beowulf? Isn’t it enough that the good guys win and the dastardly villains are vanquished? Well, that depends – who are we calling the good guys? Or the villains? Batman himself is famously dark and conflicted, full of self-doubt, as are many other superheroes popular these days. And what about protagonists like Dexter, the serial killer? Or Hannibal Lecter, the sadistic cannibal? One recent TV series set in the 1970s, featured as protagonists a couple of embedded Soviet spies, Russian sleepers passing as ordinary Americans, who tuck their two children into their beds in American suburbia, before going out at night to torture and murder agents of the American government. With “heroes” like these, how can we even define “good” or “evil”? No, if we want to rebuild our society, we must rebuild our literary culture – and we must do so NOW, before another generation is lost.

We need to return to the great classics, written in ages when literature, like art and music, was intended to elevate the soul, to allow it to glimpse heights where the truth dwelt — but to do so using forms familiar from daily life. such works take great care to find a balance between portraying human nature as it is and showing it as it ought to be and can be.

Not only that, but great stories of the past should continue to shape great stories of the future. This is one of the reasons I’ve decided to become not just a reader but a writer as well. I believe that the Catholic perspective on life is too seldom glimpsed in books today. Too often reality is portrayed as flat, ugly, and merely factual, when the Christian knows that it is complex, beautiful, and full of mystery. We need more stories that transcend the superficial and mundane facts of life in this world, to hint at truth, beauty, and goodness. This requires writers who, like Flannery O’Connor, realize that the world has become blind and deaf to the mystery of life and the Creator’s tender regard for his Creation.

In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II affirmed the social value of artistic creation when he compared the artistic works to God’s own creative work. He said that the artist, as much the parent or catechist, as much as teachers or professionals like yourselves, helps to “ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is the art of education.”

The good news is, there is a small but growing subculture – or perhaps I should say counter-culture – that is striving to fulfill the challenge presented by the cultural vacuum of our times. For instance, many members of the Catholic Writers Guild, like myself, are striving for a Catholic literary Renaissance, writing new stories illuminated by the light of faith – not just for Catholics, but for the wider culture. These works seek to reflect a world of hope, a vision of human life that acknowledges its inherent dignity and worth, a set of values that respects the reality of good and evil and distinguishes between them.

There are also new publishing concerns, such as the Tuscany Press, dedicated specifically to publishing works of fiction by Catholic authors. Barbara Nicolosi, a well-know Catholic film critic and screenwriter, has founded Act One, a school to train Christian screenwriters, not just to make explicitly Christian films, but also to “leaven the lump” of Hollywood with scripts that reflect the Christian worldview. Artists, too, and musicians are also beginning to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with the best of traditional music and art, to seek inspiration from a culture that has largely been abandoned in recent decades.

Although our public schools have, for the most part, banished traditional culture and the whole notion that education is meant to teach not only facts but virtue, there is a growing number of schools – many religious, others public charter schools – that have reclaimed classical education, that enthusiastically and rigorously teach both great and good stories that can make a beneficial impression on young minds, young souls. Homeschooling families have long used such curricula.

There are also a number of Catholic colleges that retain the classic liberal arts ideals, even while preparing their students for virtuous and productive lives in the modern world. My own alma mater, the University of Dallas, is a very fine liberal arts college. The Walsingham Society of Christian Culture and Western Civilization makes the reading and discussion of great works available to adult and non-traditional learners. We need to support these institutions, and send our children to them, so that they can imbibe the great stories of the Western tradition and pass them on.

Let’s be clear, these are minority efforts. And some of those engaged in them have developed a Catholic ghetto mentality, which we need to get away from. If we Catholics want to thrive, we cannot abandon the wider culture. Christian charity demands that we take pains to extend these efforts beyond the narrow confines of the Catholic sphere. Our society needs light and truth, perhaps now more than ever. Our culture is diseased and crumbling – we should not abandon it, but rebuild it.

Pope John Paul II and his successors have seen this need clearly. In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Pope John Paul called for a new evangelization – a re-evangelization of the Faithful, so that in this third millennium we may find new zeal, new inspiration to present the Gospel in a fresh way to our failing culture. This should include great stories that can capture the benighted imaginations of our young people and inspire them with hope. We should welcome and encourage cultural revival wherever possible – inside or outside the Church.

If we do so, perhaps we can bring our society back from the brink of barbarism. To paraphrase the slogan of the recent TV series, Heroes: “Save the stories, save the world.”

Presented to the Dallas Chapter of the Saint Thomas More Society, 7 November 2013

Poetic Truth, Part I: Giambattista Vico

Vico drove me to it!

I may be the only person ever to have a traffic accident
because of Giambattista Vico. Partly, this is because he has been dead since anno
Domini
1744, and partly because not that many people (I guess) meditate on his theory of poetic language while navigating rush-hour freeway traffic. (Perhaps
also because most people who do are smart enough to buy cars with anti-lock
brakes, but that discussion will have to wait.)

Anyway, assuming that you, gentle reader, are not yet
counted in the number of those privileged to have glimpsed the beauty of Vico’s
theory of poetic language (which makes up one portion of his wonderful work, La
Scienza Nuova
or The New Science
(by which is meant not “science” but “knowledge”),
I will give you a very rough idea of what I’m talking about. It’s been many
years since I first read Vico, and almost as many since that traffic accident,
and it’s entirely possible that my apprehension and application of Vico’s ideas
is, ahem, idiosyncratic and my current memory of them imperfect. Nonetheless,
(having thus indemnified myself against the objections of those who may know
Vico much better than I), here, in a nutshell, wrenched from its proper context
in Vico’s theory of Western history, is my take-away of his theory of poetic language:

Inadequate representation of the truth of God.

Ancient poets were, for the most part, trying to express, in
human language, truths for which ordinary language is utterly inadequate.
Many of these truths could be called “theological” – i.e., truths about the
supernatural, about God(s). Now, in those primitive times, when language itself
was still new and unrefined, mankind did not yet possess words to express
the ineffable, the supernatural, but human language did possess plenty of terms for indicating and describing the natural (rocks, birds, trees, bolts of lightning). Therefore, since human language was inadequate for the task of explaining divinity, the poet was forced to express himself by means of metaphor (or analogy), substituting something natural (which language could express) for the supernatural thing the poet desired to communicate. The power of Zeus/Jove, for instance, is not a lightning bolt, but a lightning bolt is a familiar, natural phenomenon (for which human language has a word) which has important similarities to the power of god (for which language has no adequate
term).

In other words, poetry is necessarily analogical or, if you
prefer, metaphorical. “Poetic language” means, before anything else, figurative language; “poetic truth” is a truth which cannot be expressed in ordinary, expository language – the poet must cast about for a metaphor that seems to grasp the essence of the truth he wishes to express. Once you have grasped this essential truth, you will recognise that much of what calls itself “poetry” these days is anything but. It possess rhythm, rhyme, and other features or uses of technique which we associate with “poems,” but if it is not trying to express truth through concrete verbal images, it is not “poetry,” strictly speaking.

I’m skipping over a lot here, but this will do for my
purpose, which is to explain the value of “poetry” (by which I mean what most
people call “literature”). Poetry/literature’s purpose is to communicate truth,
and its method is to express that truth metaphorically (by means of analogy),
because that is the most adequate way to do it. I’ve had students (future
engineers, accountants, and fry cooks) who complain that it is much easier just
to say things in plain words, but the poet (or the lover of literature) knows
that they are wrong.

Perfectly adequate expression
of the truth of God.

It’s important to point out that the theory of history and language that Vico elaborates in La Scienza Nuova referred specifically to what he called the “Gentile” (pagan, Graeco-Roman) world, NOT Judaeo-Christian history. The Christian should recognize that in Judaeo-Christian history, God did not need poets to describe or explain Him, rather He did it Himself – i.e., Divine Revelation does adequately what the mytho-poetic tradition of the pagans did inadequately. God’s perfect self-expression is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Logos, true Man and true God. Nonetheless, even in this (I would say), God Himself is the poet – i.e., he provides us adequate analogies to give us glimpses of his true nature. But as every Christian mystic who ever lived has known, what God has revealed is true, but it is not the whole truth. Neither our language nor our minds are adequate to the task of comprehending God in His fullness – for that we must wait until “we shall see Him as He is, for we shall be like Him.”

I’ve got more to say on this subject, but for now I’ll just
let you chew on that. Stay tuned for parts 2, 3, etc. Meanwhile, think about poems, or other works of fiction, that you
have read which have given you new insight into some truth about the human
condition. Something which, upon reflection, you recognized to have “opened your eyes” in some respect. (I am not talking about information but about insight.) If you can think of something along these lines, please leave a comment and let us know what it was, and what it illuminated for you.

(If the idea of poetic truth appeals to you, you might like to read this post from a while back.)

Plato, Homer, and the Saints in Outer Space

great literature cultivates wisdom and virtueIn The Republic, Plato acknowledges the power of the arts (chiefly music and literature) to shape impressionable young souls. Concerned parents today, worried about the music their children listen and the books they read (if they read at all), may appreciate why Plato has Socrates say, in his discussion of a theoretical “just city” (i.e., just society), that youngsters should not be exposed to dangerous ideas — such as Homer’s depiction of the gods as powerful, spoiled brats. In the modern era, Plato has often been accused of being against art, music, and poetry, but I’ve always thought this a gross distortion to what he is actually saying in The Republic. He acknowledges the immense power of the arts to form — or deform — the soul, and he suggests that those who are destined to be leaders should be taught to be wise. The reason he infamously forbids poets in the just city is that he wanted to present young souls with inspiring images, and he just didn’t find Homer and Hesiod to provide healthy inspiration. The imaginations of the future rulers of the just city should not be infected with the bad examples of the poets’ gods.

Since Plato found the popular literature of his day to be unwholesome for impressionable young people, he made up edifying stories of his own. In fact, each one of Plato’s great philosophical works is itself a made-up story, meant to lead the reader toward the truth. He peopled his stories with figures familiar to himself and his fellow Athenians: Socrates the great truth-seeker, and the men with whom Socrates often associated, each of whom typifies some particular point of view. Anyone who has ever read The Republic with any attention will be unlikely to forget Thrasymachus, the belligerent young man whose idea of justice was something like “might makes right”; Thrasymachus drops out of the discussion of justice pretty early on — he just doesn’t have the patience for it. But Glaukon (modeled on Plato’s own brother) hangs on Socrates’ every word, and follows the discussion closely, asking questions and advancing ideas. Socrates, who is trying to get his young interlocutors to glimpse the true nature of justice, makes up one story after another to illustrate the points he hopes they’ll grasp. Plato’s Socrates never teaches didactically; he always tries to help the others to see the truth in their mind’s eye, using both their intellect and their imagination.

For more than two thousand years, this is what “high” literature took as its task: to illustrate some truth about the human condition or the world which would impress itself on the reader’s imagination, to “form the soul,” to use Plato’s terminology. It is a sad fact that this literary project has largely been abandoned by writers today, even those with “literary” pretensions. Contemporary literature seldom makes any attempt to be edifying. Indeed, most contemporary writers would hotly deny that they have any moral obligation to the reading public, aside from being true to their own “vision.” But a diseased eye cannot have clear vision.

This may be the reason that so many parents and educators who are concerned about presenting young people with edifying stories return to the great classics, written in ages when literature, like art and music, was intended to elevate the soul, to allow it to glimpse heights where the truth dwelt — but to do so using forms familiar from daily life. In such works, the writer has taken great care to find a balance between portraying human nature as it is and showing it as it ought to be and can be.

Homer, Plato, and the Saints among the stars
Great stories of the past should continue
to shape great stories of the future.

This is one of the reasons I’ve decided to become not just a Catholic reader, reading with an eye to truth, but a Catholic writer as well. I believe that the Catholic perspective on life as it is lived and as it ought to be lived is one too seldom glimpsed in books today. Too often reality is portrayed as flat, ugly, and factual, when the Christian knows that it is complex, beautiful, and full of mystery. We need more literature that transcends the superficial facts of life in this world, to hint at truth, beauty, and goodness. For this reason, when I refer to Catholic writers I do not mean simply those who write for a Catholic audience. Instead, I mean those whose work reflects the vision of reality that I’ve just described, but who may not write for a necessarily Catholic audience. Writers who, like Flannery O’Connor, realize that the world has become blind and deaf to the mystery of life and the Creator’s imprint on his Creation.

As many readers of this blog will already know, I’m currently working on what I call a “Catholic science fiction novel.” It is intended to be “Catholic” in both senses: it has characters who are Catholic (one is even a priest) and it illustrates themes that will resonate with Catholic experience: growth in virtue, the redemptive value of suffering, and others. But it is also meant to be Catholic in the broader sense I just mentioned: to present a reality that has depth, in which superficial appearances cover metaphysical depths, in which the natural and the supernatural coexist and correspond. I hope that this vision will imprint itself on the imaginations of my readers.

dystopia word cloud
Many speculative novels
paint a bleak future.

So many futuristic science fiction novels, by Christians and agnostics alike, present a kind of nightmarish future, in which science, technology, and rigid secularism have distorted human life to such an extent that it is barely recognizable, or else an absurdly utopian future in which, by his own efforts, Man has created a paradise without poverty, disease, or even death. My story is very different; it focuses not on technology, but on people, who are not imaginary aliens but ordinary human beings, with ordinary human struggles — which just happen to take place in a distant part of our galaxy, far in our future, and sometimes using technology that we can imagine but will probably never see.

And yet, when I began to think about the shape of my story, I found that it contains remarkable parallels to ancient epics, such as Homer’s Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid. I was surprised to realize that it also parallels American history, in depicting people escaping a world in which religion is often persecuted to create a new home, in a distant land, where a new society may be built, guided by Christian principles — much as the English Pilgrims did when they came to North America. Biblical echoes can also be found in it. Why? Because my imagination, quite unconsciously, has been shaped by the great stories most familiar to me and has fashioned a tale that bears a familiar resemblance to them.

I’m sure few readers will be conscious of these allusions, any more than I was conscious of them as I began shaping my story, But perhaps my story will make an impression on the imaginations, and the souls, of my readers, similar to the way ancient epics and Holy Scripture have made an impression on my own. I’d like to think so. I’d like to believe that, like Plato, I have created a story that helps my readers glimpse some aspect of truth that had previously eluded them, or that, like Flannery O’Connor, I have drawn vividly enough for the blind to see unsuspected beauty in the ordinary struggles of life.

New Literary Journal: The Lost Country

The Lost Country, cover, volume 1 number 1

This week, phone and internet outages combined with a raging head-cold  to keep me from getting much writing done (although I’ve got plenty of things on the hob!). Let me suggest, then, that you take a look at the online edition of a new literary journal, The Lost Country, produced by some young scholar/writers of my acquaintance, who call themselves The Exiles. You can read it online or download a PDF, but if you like what you see, you should really consider subscribing to the print edition, which is very handsomely produced. You can also learn more about The Exiles, who describe themselves as “a literary club in the venerable tradition of the Inklings of Oxford and the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University.” If you’d like to encourage them in their work, they accept donations!

a literary club in the venerable tradition of the Inklings of Oxford and the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University
a literary club in the venerable tradition of the Inklings of Oxford and the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University
a literary club in the venerable tradition of the Inklings of Oxford and the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University
a literary club in the venerable tradition of the Inklings of Oxford and the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University

In the debut edition of The Lost Country, you’ll find an essay that I wrote called “Charity, the Key to Reading The Story of the Grail,” which is excerpted and adapted from my doctoral dissertation. But just to set the record straight, my dissertation was about memory as the hermeneutic key to reading Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval (a.k.a. The Story of the Grail), and it was Barbara Sargent-Baur of Princeton University who literally wrote the book on charity in The Story of the Grail. Memory and charity, of course, work hand in hand, but if you want to know how that works in Chrétien’s romance, you’ll
have to buy a copy of my dissertation (just ask for no. 3317643) or wait until I publish it as a book. Or
just keep reading this blog, because I’m bound to mention it one of these days.
Not today, I’m afraid, because I’m still waiting for the pseudoephedrine to
kick in so that I can breathe well enough to oxygenate my brain properly.

What are you doing still reading this? Go! Go check out The Lost Country.