Oscar Wilde, Flannery O'Connor, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien
There are frequent debates about what constitutes great
literature, and no little disputation. Today, the prevailing and authoritative
view combines an ideological filter with anthropological filter to separate “important”
literature from the herd of common books. The ideological filter is
materialism: only things that can be measured are real, and these operate
according to fixed imperatives.
anthropological filter is psychological: human freedom is an
illusion; psychosexual imperatives determine human behavior and beliefs
In many literary quarters, the matter is settled. Any hint
of the transcendent: realities that can’t be measured and human motives that
can’t be psychosexually defined are
rejected by one or both of these filters.
By these measures, the works of Charles Dickens, and many
other once-esteemed authors, are “common books”. In the twentieth century, J.
R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were filtered out of the pantheon of serious
writers because their works are “guilty” of being steeped in transcendence, and
deficient in ideological and anthropological orthodoxy.
Is there an alternate definition of great literature to
today’s prevailing view?
Great literature starts with a true depiction of the human
condition, but this true depiction is radically different from that of the
materialists. Great literature must be well conceived, well crafted, and well
written; a transcendent perspective by itself isn’t enough. The author needs to
connect us with their fictional world in a way that provokes thought,
reflection, and, as Tolkien argued, application to our own experiences.
Some insist that literature with a transcendent perspective
is too constraining, that such stories are monotonously unoriginal, but the
opposite is true. The ideological and anthropological filters used by modern
literary critics require slavish adherence to materialist dogmas.
Prove it, scoffers would say.
Consider J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Fyodor Dostoevsky,
and Harper Lee on the one hand (now that’s real diversity!), and Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, and
Oscar Wilde on the other, all authors considered to have a transcendent
perspective. Both “camps” depict evil and the consequences of evil in their
works. The Tolkien camp depicts virtue in characters like Aragorn, Peter
Pevensie, Alyosha Karamazov, and Atticus Finch. In the Waugh camp, noble
characters are hard to find, or severely conflicted. Try to find virtuous
characters in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, or O’Connor’s Wise Blood.
But isn’t this an argument that the Waugh camp lacks a transcendent perspective, that they have more in
common with the materialists? Actually, the Waugh camp’s gritty, troubling, and
often satirical, stories are honest
about what a world without nobility and virtue looks like, and the reader is
given the sense, though rarely explicitly stated, that something intended for this world is lacking, that something is out of
kilter. This is radically different than the materialist view that desperation
and disorder represent a deterministic or nihilistic “reality”.
Who would think to group Oscar Wilde with Tolkien, or
Flannery O’Connor with Lewis? In the sense that these writers foreshadow a
transcendent reality, there are more similarities than differences.
Is this merely a debate about how many angels can dance on
the head of a pin? In fact, many in our culture are formed, at least in part,
by literature. At heart, this literary debate is about what it means to be
human, a materialist definition or a transcendent one. Frodo Baggins is an
absurdity in a materialist universe, not because he is a hobbit, but because
what motivates him is absurd.
There is a place where an unequivocally materialistic
ideology reigns in Middle Earth. It’s called Mordor.