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Reaching Into the Silence – The Imaginative Conservative

Ours is a restless, noisy, superficial world terrified by silence, enthralled with politics, disdainful of interiority. The modern secular person looks out, perhaps even with pride, at its bleak utilitarian contours, blinking, yet slouching towards metaphysics. But the Catholic humanist, remembering with a certain grateful awe Gerard Manley Hopkins’ insight that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” ponders once again the mystery, “Words, after speech, reach into the silence”—and rejoices.

The papers gathered in this volume range across seventeen major authors and some twelve-hundred years of literary history. They are a selection from the work of three friends who taught together for decades in the English Department at Providence College and who shared a roughly similar background and had a fairly similar outlook. Nearly every paper had its origins in classroom teaching, and each one inevitably exemplifies an outlook that can only be called Catholic Humanism: grounded in the Creed and blending a love of letters and the arts with a conviction that reality is sacramental; that human beings live in a metaphysically grounded and morally ordered universe in which good and evil are real alternatives about which decisions have to be made; that the human person is a unity of body and spirit with an eternal destiny and not just a rationalizing bundle of self-interest, appetites and desires; and that, in Newman’s words, “the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity” from which we need redemption—a redemption won by Christ. We were Catholics who came to maturity in the pre-Vatican II Church and who embraced the Council’s varying attempts at reform, never faltering in our commitment even if we occasionally winced at certain things done in the Council’s name or “spirit.” …

Catholicism, then, was in our deep background together with our conviction that great literature, like philosophy, begins in wonder, in awed silence, and that without an ability to receive and respond criticism (or any reading) is fruitless, external, a waste of time. So it was literature itself, great literature, the excitement, the joy that comes in that moment of inwardness when one finally sees, finally “gets,” finally takes possession of the ever-deepening meaning of a great work…this excited us, nourished our thinking, brought us together, kept us talking together all our lives. We were blessed and we knew it.…

The papers in this collection…are not the product of any Theory or Method; rather they begin with a primary concern with “the words on the page,” to use again the once honored phrase, and from there they work out the meaning and the significance of those words. If we had no fixed Method in the classroom, nor followed any Theory in these papers, T. S. Eliot’s demanding and humbling admonition certainly rang in our ears: “the only method is to be as intelligent as possible.”

But without having a method, how then did we get from reception of the words on the page to a full critical understanding? Although possessed of neither Theory nor Method we did share a few general principles, usually phrased as quite basic questions. The first was, What is this that I am looking at? The second question followed: How does this work of art generate its meaning? And the third: What is its meaning? At every point the questions would act upon each other and modify one’s growing perception. If the first question is broadly about theme, the second is about art, about how the theme is realized, made real in this specificity. And the third would often lead to a judgment: from meaning to larger significance. From What? to How? to Significance? was quite enough to be excited by, to take great pleasure in, to take great riches from, the literary work.

So if we were primarily concerned with the words on the page…were we then not New Critics? Well, yes and no. We certainly knew our Brooks and Warren. But we knew our Northrop Frye as well. And setting aside the silly but common caricature of the New Critic as someone who approached a poem as though it existed in an historical void while paying obeisance to the Intentional Fallacy, what separated us from the autotelic temptation were the demands and possibilities of our second home—in Providence College’s once-legendary (now, sad to say, eviscerated) Development of Western Civilization Program. In four semesters the course moved from the ancient Near East to almost the present day with four lectures a week and one discussion session. “Civ” was General Education at its best. It was taught by teams of four—an historian, a theologian, a philosopher, and a literary scholar—and we sat for one another’s lectures, so that by the nature of the case we were obliged to read literary works within and against their full historical and cultural context, to approach them with a sense of the past. In Eliot’s terms, we saw the individual talent take its place modifying the tradition.

Moreover, the presence of theology and philosophy meant that the literary scholar was not constrained by the secular horizon that closes off vast ranges of discussion in many universities. We were free to follow the words as they reached into the silence, into mystery. And we could not be satisfied with just meaning, however rich and resonate and subtle, but we had to go on to consider significance, the larger questions raised by the greatest works—about truth and goodness, for example and about what it means to be a person, about the nature of the good life and the nature of our relationships with each other and with the Divine. We were able to recognize more easily in literary works not just the Christian paradigm —which, after all, was part of the consciousness of nearly all Western authors until the early twentieth century—in its overt or allegorical form, but also its presence by archetype or non-reductive parody, or by implication, or by allusion, or by denial. It is here, wrestling with these matters, that we saw literature illuminate the depths of human nature and explore the exigencies of the human condition.

To approach literature under these conditions was a great joy both for instructors and students. And the cross-fertilization of background and ideas strengthened our grasp of the philosophical and theological issues in our work for the English Department. Delasanta taught Chaucer so he was keenly interested in the problem of the Universal, its rejection by Ockham, its effect on Chaucer’s art, and its associated theological Fideism; Fortin taught Shakespeare and thus explored Renaissance epistemological skepticism and the Reformation creedal issues; while Barbour taught American Literature and was concerned with Descartes and with utilitarianism (“Franklinian” in its American form) and Romanticism/secularism as religion substitutes. But in raising such questions, and in exploring them analogically in art and music, we certainly moved away from the caricature of the New Critic and became just teachers trying to fully understand, properly value, and open up for others the beautiful work we had before us.

All well and good, one might say, but also ancient history, so why be concerned now with literary scholarship that in some cases stretches back half a century and that would not be acceptable in most academic journals today? Two reasons immediately present themselves. First, during the last twenty-five years, American colleges and universities have seen a precipitous decline in the number of English majors and in students taking English electives. This decline has gone hand-in-glove with the rise of, first, Theory, and then, slightly later, various types of politicized approaches that together define the way literature is studied in graduate school and taught to undergraduates. This “turn to Theory” has had ruinous consequences. Each of these approaches is anti-humanist (and proudly so) and none has any patience with the imaginative exploration of the individual moral life that great literature provides. This is not the place to rehearse the sad story of the displacement of a sense of wonder by a hermeneutics of suspicion, but at bottom all the regnant approaches graduate students are permitted are both ahistorical and broadly Cartesian (in that they start with ideas) and then either force the literature to fit the ideas or use the literature to exemplify some favored social pathology. Students have fled in droves; they need examples of a better way. Earlier criticism may not have been universally good in the classroom or on the page but at least the point was always to understand the moral and spiritual dimensions of life in the work. Thus the shift from understanding literature to using it has been a disaster. Why should an undergraduate waste his time “studying literature” if (a) all literature says pretty much the same thing—that life is more or less meaningless; or (b) she can hear the same social accusations being made in her sociology and political science and grievance studies classes? What she wants from literary study is to sense that the individual life really matters, that it has moral weight, that its joys and sorrows can be explored in their depth and subtlety, and that great literature can give insight into Truth (and Appearance), Goodness (and Evil), Beauty (and the Meretricious). Unless you love literature as literature and not as an instrument for social change there is no point to studying it.

Second, the damage done in English Departments is but one part of a wider problem for universities, their loss of vision, their attenuated and mis-directed sense of purpose. Colleges and universities today, when they turn to education at all, are mainly interested in business, the social sciences, and the STEM departments, all of which are rationalistic and mostly treat human beings not as individuals but as numbers, as units in a group. Surely Kierkegaard brought down this temple upon Hegel’s head? Surely the aim of education has to be more than the easy anger of factitious righteousness and/or a good entry-level position with full benefits? What of Friendship? Charity? Sincerity? Self-knowledge? What of not going gentle into that good night? If English Departments are to again be a living force at the center of the Humanities, they will need to recover the ability to talk seriously about literature itself, not to use it instrumentally to bring about social change, and that means a return to “the words on the page” as start-point, to What works are saying and How. And English professors will need to regain the ability and see the need to discriminate between major and minor works and between minor works and the weightless and worthless. For major literature has an unmatched ability to nurture the moral imagination; it should not be abandoned. And if the Liberal Arts and the Humanities are ever going to regain their position at the center of the Academy as the definers of its mission, then they are going to need to draw on good examples of solid work in the older but still vital tradition of Humanist scholarship such as this volume provides. Newman, to cite him again, said that the aim of education was to develop a philosophic habit of mind and to understand the relative disposition of things. His contemporary, Matthew Arnold, argued that the question, How to live? was one none of us could avoid. But STEM courses and the social sciences are agnostic on such matters. Rationalism avoids mystery even though that is what lies all around us. If American colleges and universities are ever to regain their equilibrium and an adequate sense of purpose, one important contributing factor will be this: that young people will have re-discovered the love of literature qua literature, its joys and truths, and want to discuss it in ways such as these papers exemplify–within the vital tradition of the receptive imagination’s joyful encounters with the beautiful and complex truths of great works—even as they attempt to make sense out of their own lives. As it happens the Catholic Humanist Tradition is particularly well-placed to provide, not easy answers, but recognition of the depth and complexity and importance of these questions. Besides that, all colleges, but Catholic colleges in particular, ought to be willing to resist the winds of fashionable doctrine and to be counter-cultural.

The reader will notice the broad range of literature covered in these pap­ers—some seventeen different authors. And yet this is only a selection from a body of our work that goes back to Greek drama and Aeschylus and then forward to C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This breadth is because as critics our primary concern was with literature and its power, not the secondary scholarship; because we were not restricted in teaching to our specialist areas (although we knew the scholarship well); and because Delasanta and Fortin with their great pedagogical gifts at one time or another taught both years of Civ. These papers, then, illustrate our joy in all great literature, its truth, its goodness, and its beauty, and that enlargement of vision and being to be found even in the literature that demonstrates, or relieves, life’s terrible moments. In all of the papers we can recognize how great literature, “living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword,” can open and illuminate both our own lives and the world around us.

Ours is a restless, noisy, superficial world terrified by silence, enthralled with politics, disdainful of interiority. When the modern secular person looks out, perhaps even with pride, at its bleak utilitarian contours, blinking, yet slouching towards metaphysics, he beholds, with the eyes of Wallace Stevens’ Snow Man, Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. But the Catholic humanist, fortified perhaps by Emily Dickinson’s declaration that—This world is not conclusion; and remembering with a certain grateful awe Gerard Manley Hopkins’ insight that—The world is charged with the grandeur of God; ponders once again the mystery,

Words, after speech, reach

Into the silence,

—and rejoices.

Republished with gracious permission from Cluny Media.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

The featured image is “Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window” (1794) by J.M.W. Turner, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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