Literature and the spirit of the age

Some insist that literature with a transcendent perspective is too constraining. They are wrong.

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. The 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.

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About Thomas M. Doran 78 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), The Lucifer Ego, and Kataklusmos (2020). He has worked on hundreds of environmental and infrastructure projects, was president of Tetra Tech/MPS, was an adjunct professor of engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and is a member of the College of Fellows of The Engineering Society of Detroit.