Christians and Lit: quoting Greene quoting Newman

In a letter to Elizabeth Bowen on “the role of the writer,” Graham Greene discusses the relationship of Christians to Literature and, incidentally, quotes at length from one of my favorite passages in John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. I suspect that some of the Christian parents who severely shelter their children are really looking to save themselves the trouble (read: labor) of discernment. Most of them, however, are well-meaning, but wrong-headed in how they go about defending the souls of their young ones. Obviously five-year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to drink from the fire hose, but their introduction to water (or, to use an ever more apt analogy, their introduction to wine) should be deliberate and incremental, or eventually it will happen all at once. Then, instead of a five-year-old drinking from the fire hose, you will have a twenty-three-year-old who still doesn’t know any better (Exhibit A: the average graduate from most Christian colleges). So then, let the reader understand (especially if the reader is a parent/aspiring parent with those tendencies).

“There are leaders of the Church who regard literature as a means to one end, edification. That end may be of the highest value, of far higher value than literature, but it belongs to a different world. Literature has nothing to do with edification….

Catholic novelists (I would rather say novelists who are Catholics) should take Newman as their patron. No one understood their problem better or defended them more skillfully from the attacks of piety (that morbid growth of religion). Let me copy out the passage. It really has more than one bearing on our discussion. He is defending the teaching of literature in a Catholic university:

‘I say, from the nature of the case, if Literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature. It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man. You may gather together something very great and high, something higher than any Literature ever was; and when you have done so, you will find that it is not Literature at all.’

And to those who, accepting that view, argued that we could do without Literature, Newman went on [here Greene quotes excerpts from a passage that I have included in greater length to preserve its full force]:

‘Proscribe (I do not merely say particular authors, particular works, particular passages) but Secular Literature as such; cut out from your class books all broad manifestations of the natural man; and those manifestations are waiting for your pupil’s benefit at the very doors of your lecture room in living and breathing substance. They will meet him there in all the charm of novelty, and all the fascination of genius or of amiableness. Today a pupil, tomorrow a member of the great world: today confined to the Lives of the Saints, tomorrow thrown upon Babel—thrown on Babel, without the honest indulgence of wit and humour and imagination having ever been permitted to him, without any fastidiousness of taste wrought into him, without any rule given him for discriminating “the precious from the vile,” beauty from sin, the truth from the sophistry of nature, what is innocent from what is poison. You have refused him the masters of human thought, who would in some sense have educated him, because of their incidental corruption: you have shut up from him those whose thoughts strike home to our hearts, whose words are proverbs, whose names are indigenous to all the world, who are the standard of their mother tongue, and the pride and boast of their countrymen, Homer, Ariosto, Cervantes, Shakespeare, because the old Adam smelt rank in them; and for what have you reserved him? You have given him “a liberty unto” the multitudinous blasphemy of his day; you have made him free of its newspapers, its reviews, its magazines, its novels, its controversial pamphlets, of its Parliamentary debates, its law proceedings, its platform speeches, its songs, its drama, its theatre, of its enveloping, stifling atmosphere of death. You have succeeded but in this—in making the world his University.’”
(in Graham Greene: a Life in Letters; 151-52)

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The Fire Sermon

We recently celebrated the feast of Pentecost, in which the Church was and is filled with the fiery Spirit of the Almighty Christ. Some comments about T. S. Eliot seemed like the appropriate champagne bottle to smash all over this newly founded blog, and The Waste Land is all about Pentecost and the need for Pentecost.

Readers sometimes struggle to get any kind of thematic grip on The Waste Land, but as much as it is about anything it is about death and resurrection. In Part 1, “The Burial of the Dead,” the following lines appear as a reimagining of Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones (“And He said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ So I answered, ‘O Lord God, You know.’” Ez. 37:3) :

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water… (TWL 19-24)

Like the corpses in Ezekiel’s vision, the dead are dying and staying dead. The author of The Waste Land is a pre-conversion Eliot, and is not proposing Christ as the “answer” to a problem, but through a combination of Christian imagery and Arthurian fertility myths he emphatically shows the problem: a parched modern wilderness in need of transformative new life. Even when water finally appears in Part 4, “Death By Water,” instead of bringing life it causes the death of a Phoenician sailor, and its currents pick his bones clean (lines 315-16). More dead bones.

On either side of “Death By Water” are “The Fire Sermon” and “What the Thunder Said.” Without going into careful exposition of either section, we are nevertheless reminded of Pentecost by the titles alone. The Ezekiel passage quoted above continues, “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: ‘Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you…and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord’” (vv. 5-6). This promise is fully realized on the day of Pentecost, as the Apostles preach their own Fire Sermon and the Church is filled with the fiery breath and thunderous voice of Christ and His Spirit. The fire of the Spirit quickens the waters of death, so that the bones submerged under the weight of Adam’s sin become the source of new life through baptism; the currents that once suffocated have been enlivened with Holy Fire and become the womb and midwife of new resurrection life. That is why a converted Eliot could later write of being “redeemed from fire by fire” and, by extension, from water by water:

With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire. (Four Quartets, “Little Gidding”, IV)

The “unfamiliar Name” harkens back to the questions in “The Burial of the Dead;” “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ out of this stony rubbish?” What life, what hope is there to be had in the wasteland? Love, and the unlooked-for miracle of Love’s paradoxical swallowing up of Death by being swallowed up by it. In Pentecost each of us is joined to that paradoxical reality and consumed by the Fire that never consumes. Praise God.