The trouble with new books is that they prevent us from reading the old ones. That was the view of Joseph Joubert, writing two hundred years ago, and the problem he identified then is even more acute now. We live in an age that prizes the new, values the ephemeral, and largely ignores the past. Speaking in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI said that “today’s culture is in fact permeated by a tension which at times takes the form of a conflict between the present and tradition. The dynamic movement of society gives absolute value to the present, isolating it from the cultural legacy of the past, without attempting to trace a path for the future.” Long before he became pope, he was sounding the same warning, pointing out in a homily from 1981 that “our age is the first to experience that hideous narcissism that cuts itself off from both past and future and that is preoccupied exclusively with its own present.”
Of course, Pope Benedict is not the only one to have sounded the warning bell. In From Athens to Auschwitz: the Uses of History, Christian Meier argued that “we are experiencing more history and historical change than almost any generation before us, and yet we take virtually no interest in it.” Specifically, Meier claimed that what is lacking in contemporary culture is “a historical orientation, a historical way of seeing things or asking questions.” Another historian, François Hartog, took the argument a step further, suggesting that our current “regime of historicity,” as he calls it, is dominated by “presentism.” The reason we have lost a historical orientation is because we are enmeshed in the present.
If these ideas seem familiar, it might be because C.S. Lewis anticipated them in several of his books, most notably The Screwtape Letters. Here is Screwtape, the senior devil, explaining what he calls the Historical Point of View to an apprentice devil:
The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the ‘present state of the question’. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.
The cult of the new, presentism, the Historical Point of View: whatever we choose to call it, we can hardly deny its existence or the damage it has done to the reading of old books, the very literature that can give us the perspective on the contemporary world that we so sorely need. It is time, therefore, to return to C.S. Lewis’s wise advice in St Athanasius on the Incarnation: it is “a good rule,” he wrote, “after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”
Following Lewis’s advice, I decided to start 50 Books for Life: A Concise Guide to Catholic Literature in the 21st century and work my way back in time. Most literary surveys understandably take a chronological approach but it seemed to me that, because of the presentist pressures of our time, I needed to turn history on its head. By starting where readers are—in the present—I wanted to ease them gently back into the past. My hope is that readers will leave my new book behind as soon as they discover the old books to which it points: there is no point hanging around a signpost.
However, we do need to know what the signpost is pointing towards. Catholic literature has been defined in many different ways over the years, partly because it is much broader and more complex than we sometimes give it credit for. For a start, it is a global phenomenon, as it has been from its early days. The idea that the Catholic novel is dead can itself be quickly laid to rest as soon as we look outside the comparatively narrow field of Anglophone literature. In considering Catholic literature, we also have to remember that there is more to literature than poetry, plays, and novels. Literature itself is broader and more complex than we sometimes give it credit for. Essays, homilies, hymns, saints’ lives, and histories would all have been regarded as literature by our Catholic forebears.
It is perhaps no surprise then that Blessed John Henry Newman’s understanding of Catholic Literature was commendably broad. In his view, Catholic literature was “not to be understood [as] a literature which treats exclusively or primarily of Catholic matters, of Catholic doctrine, controversy, history, persons, or politics; but it includes all subjects of literature whatever, treated as a Catholic would treat them, and as he only can treat them.” More recently, Martin Mosebach has argued that “Catholic literature means novels and short stories written by Catholic authors, whose subject matter is dealt with from a Catholic perspective, which tell ‘Catholic’ stories, which loosen the knot of their stories in a ‘Catholic’ way, and in which the plot is constructed so that Catholic doctrine can be found within it.” To these interpretations we might want to add one further point: Catholic literature can only be understood as a living tradition.
No Catholic book is an island, entire of itself. Of course, this is true of every book, but when it comes to Catholic literature there is a crucial difference: Catholic literature revels in the luggage it carries with it. There is no anxiety of influence here. There is a wonderful moment towards the end of Chateaubriand’s Atala when the narrator meets some displaced Natchez Indians who have lost virtually everything. All they have now are the bones of their ancestors, which they carry with them wrapped in animal skins. Deeply moved, the narrator reflects that “I am less fortunate in my exile, for I do not carry with me the bones of my fathers.” The same is true of Catholic literature: it retains its dignity when it carries the bones of its ancestors with it. To read the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, for example, is to hear a distant but distinct echo of Old English verse, early Welsh literature, St Robert Southwell’s poetry, and, of course, the Bible itself. What is written now always draws on what went before, which means that to interpret Catholic literature we need a hermeneutic of continuity.
If all Catholic literature stands in some relation to the living tradition of the Church it must also necessarily draw on, respond to, or even be an analogue of the liturgy. The liturgy—David Jones’s “supreme art-form”—is the hidden stream that runs through and under Catholic literature, surfacing occasionally but always present. In one way or another, all Catholic literature stands in some relation to it.
To give just one example, we might consider the work of Evelyn Waugh. His wonderful short story ‘Out of Depth’ ends with the Mass. The Exultet is sung offstage in Officers and Gentlemen, as is Tenebrae in Brideshead Revisited, reshaping our understanding of both works. A debased liturgy even appears in The Loved One since “Liturgy in Hollywood is the concern of the Stage not the Clergy.” It is the liturgy that shapes Waugh’s work, even though it scarcely ever appears in it.
To use a different image, we might compare Catholic literature to a once beautiful chasuble that has now frayed, been neglected, and even been torn in two. Even the threads that have come away from the original garment have retained a certain beauty, though that beauty is immeasurably enhanced when those threads are re-incorporated into the original vestment. As I write in 50 Books for Life:
Chasubles can be found in museums, removed from their original context. They are still beautiful in their display cabinets, but, separated from the liturgy for which they were created, they no longer have any real sense of significance. We could say the same of literature. Cut off from the life of the Church, books can still be beautiful, powerful and affecting, but it is only when they are brought back into the life of the Church that they can gain any lasting significance.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us, I would suggest, with books that can last us a lifetime and a continuing task. Since we are part of a living tradition, we need to take our responsibilities to the past, the present and the future seriously. Reading old books, we need to write for the situation we find ourselves in today, while being constantly aware that the future is in God’s hands, not ours. We have a wonderful Catholic literary tradition that is ours to enjoy and pass on.
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