Catholic Writing Today: Gregory Wolfe

 

Gregory Wolfe

Gregory Wolfe

A year ago, Paul Elie’s New York Times essay, Has Fiction Lost Its Faith? thrust religion’s rapport with writing into the public eye. The ensuing flurry of responses by well-known figures on the American literary scene showed that Elie had hit a nerve. TJP wanted in on the excitement, so as early as last spring, we started to look for ways to make our site a meeting point for this dialogue.

Now, in the interest of disclosure, most of us on staff are wholly unqualified to comment at length on Catholic literature. My own literary CV couldn’t possibly say much more than “Enjoys reading Walker Percy A) with bourbon and B) before bed.” But some of us did know people who were, in fact, quite qualified to give a founded opinion. Hence our initiative to gather and publish a handful of interviews with current writers of faith and to call it – creatively – The Catholic Writing Series.

It’s been an exciting and enlightening ride. We hope you’ve enjoyed The Series as much as we have. We want to extend our thanks again to Nick Ripatrazone, Dana Gioia, Kaya Oakes, Michael O’Brien, Mary Karr, and Olga Lossky for giving us a share of their time and talent. Their commentary has revealed that still today, faith has a place in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and criticism, and that the conversation about how faith manifests itself in literature is well worth having.

With this week’s interview, we’re putting the Series on hiatus. We’ve covered a lot of ground in recent weeks – enough to keep us thinking for some time. But as TJP continues to publish, we’ll still present the work and thought of Catholic writers from time to time. After all, if Toni Morrison just happened to drop in my lap for an interview about her Nobel Prize-winning career, you can bet I wouldn’t turn her down.

For now, though, we end our Series with a feature on writer and critic Gregory Wolfe. Mr. Wolfe has dedicated his scholarly life to the exploration of art and faith, and specifically to how the two intersect. He has published over 200 essays, reviews and articles, as well as several books, the most recent of which is entitled Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age (ISI Books, 2011). In 1989, his exploration led him to establish Image, a journal that features artists who strive to articulate the overlaps between human experience, transcendence, and religiosity. 2014, by the way, marks this journal’s 25th year in publication, so congratulations are in order, both to Mr. Wolfe and to the many others who bring Image to the shelves and to the web. Most recently, in 2013, Wolfe established his own literary imprint, Slant.

Again, congratulations. And thank you, Mr. Wolfe, for joining TJP’s lineup of writers of faith.

Thanks also to our readers for your interest and response throughout the Catholic Writing Series. Enjoy my chat with Greg. Keep reading and, as always, keep the conversation going.

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JH: Mr. Wolfe, you have a long career in publication, and you’ve dedicated a lot of energy to showing how art and religion intersect. Why do you think it’s so important to talk about how the relationship between these two institutions?

GW: I think of art and faith not primarily as institutions–though they inevitably generate institutions–but as human capacities. In other words, verbs, not just nouns. Art and faith are about seeing the world clearly and unflinchingly. Did I say, “seeing”? I mean, seeing, hearing, tasting–all the senses. Because in the end art and faith are all about “returning us to our senses.” As that phrase indicates, this means coming down out of the clouds–grounding our understanding of the world in the concrete, sensible world, not in the realm of abstractions and ideologies.

Art and faith are not the same, but they are in many ways analogous: they require us to sense the invisible within the visible, to read between the lines. Without these capacities we blunder about, missing the real issues; lacking the ability to see through the eyes of others, we become solipsists.

JH: Talk more about that – who is the “we” that is blundering about? We in the West? Or we believers? We Americans?

GW: I’m inclined to say “We humans.”

JH: Indeed. But in your most recent book and elsewhere you speak of specific groups of humans who’ve become particularly adept at blundering about. You talk about culture wars in America, and how conservative and progressive camps are making use of politics to forward their agendas… and even pulling art into the fray. Tell us more about this. Where does their understanding and use of art need correction?

GW: Writing about the dangers of politicization is difficult. On the one hand, some people will just glaze over and imagine that I’m doing the now-old-fashioned critique the rise of extreme partisanship (which is just a symptom of a larger malaise). On the other hand, some might be tempted to think that I’m taking a sort of ivory tower, artist-rising-above-the-fray position, which seems to ignore the importance and necessity of political life.

Neither of those assumptions is correct. What I’ve been trying to point out is that we increasingly live by and within abstractions–and that this not only removes us from the messiness and complexities of reality, but increasingly inclines us to various toxic forms of moralism and high dudgeon.

JH: Presumably this affects everyone, right? Even those who are involved in the religious sphere of society?

GW: Of course. Even religious believers, who should be sunk deep into the incarnational muck of reality, now see themselves as crusaders for ideas and agendas rather than bearers of a divine presence that they have encountered in flesh and blood.

For obvious reasons, politicization thrives on what I call the “narrative of decline,” the belief that things are going steeply downhill. So when it comes to the arts, the argument from this position is that we no longer have the stature of writers from 50 or 100 years ago. I’ve been engaged in a debate with both Dana Gioia and Paul Elie about this.

Ironically, Gioia is coming from the political right and Elie from the political left–and yet they both agree that we are suffering from a dearth of great writers of faith today. My conviction is that they cannot see or engage what is in front of them because they’ve been conditioned to this view by the narrative of decline. That drove me to come up with the phrase “cultural anorexia” to describe this mindset.

JH: I definitely read that in Elie. He’s up front in his lack of enthusiasm for religious writing today. He’s “holding out for the phenomenal,” as he said recently. I read Gioia, though, as saying that good Catholic writers – and thus good Catholic writing – is out there. He’s even willing to list Catholic writers who he thinks are doing admirable work in the contemporary forum. His complaint, as I see it, is that there is a lack of the necessary support or interest, both in wider culture and in the Church, to help Catholic writers be heard above the fray. Whether he’s right or wrong about this, I see him as pointing to something different than Elie: The public forum is not seeing new O’Connors and Percys today because of a cultural defect, not because there is no one to fill their seats. What do you think, though? Is there something in America’s cultural air that holds the new O’Connors back? Or are we amiss for even expecting Catholic artists to have her kind of stature and position vis-a-vis the public these days?

GW: Actually, in that interview with you-all, Dana has moderated his position compared to the stance he took in the First Things essay–which gives me hope, because it demonstrates that this dialogue is really getting somewhere.

In fact, I think we’re finally getting closer to identifying some of the key questions in the “contemporary Catholic artist” discussion, though it remains a complex issue.

Dana are I both agree that one “cultural defect” is the quality and focus of Catholic intellectual life itself. Central to this has been the steady encroachment of politicization, the process whereby nearly all the oxygen in the room is taken up by the conservative/liberal fights over doctrine, morals, etc. Call it the “culture wars,” if you will, though that’s getting to be rather hoary at this point.

JH: And this political turn has direct effects on how artists – and therefore writers – go about their business in America.

GW: Yes, in various ways. One effect of politicization is simply a growing inattention to culture and the arts. (Q. “How many staffs of Catholic magazines have editors who are professionally trained in literature or art history? A. “Not a lot.”)

Another is that Catholic writers and artists are scrutinized (and valued or dis-valued) on the basis of whether they are providing ammunition for one side or the other. And to be honest, quite a few Catholic artists and writers have been caught up in this and allowed their work to drift toward propaganda.

But there’s the larger question of how we Catholics live out our faith. The dominance of abstractions means is that we have progressively thinned out the culture in which we live. Culture is that teeming ocean of practices, habits, and artifacts in which we swim–culture is what enables us to make things that help us make sense of the world.

The role of the fine arts is to “thicken” culture: to reflect back to us just how messy and ambiguous the world is, and just how carefully we have to tread if we’re to find the path. It also should also teach us manners, which is the cultural expression of our awareness of the delicacy and mercy with which we need to address one another.

Right now that ocean is more like the dead zones in places like the Gulf of Mexico where there is no oxygen for the fish to breathe.

Finally, there is the question of why many believe “we’re not seeing new O’Connors and Percys today.” This also has many contributing factors.

For example, there’s nostalgia and the distortions it brings. Both Dana and Paul have exaggerated just how much mid-twentieth century Catholic writers communicated with one another and reveled in their being identified as such in public forums. If you read the letters and journals of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, you see how often they bemoan being labeled Catholic writers–ironically, the thing many people are now desperate to pin on them.

O’Connor had almost no recognition within the Catholic world in her own lifetime–what little she had was often critical of her use of violence and the grotesque. Few secular critics even knew she was Catholic (which demonstrates how deeply Catholic her writing really was!).

But in nostalgic retrospect we see O’Connor and Percy as Catholic writers “contra mundum,” standing up against secularism and for the Church in the public square. In a sense, they were contra mundum, but it was largely in and through their art, which is as it should be.

JH: So what about today? Is the Western cultural climate… let’s say in the American context… just not set up to allow Catholic artists to step into the limelight?

GW: Well, as Dana and others have said, new artists are out there. Several of us have established the existence of dozens of prominent Catholic writers and artists. Why aren’t they perceived as O’Connor and Percy were?

In part, because the cultural gatekeepers have, indeed, been anti-religious and enforced their own view of secularism triumphant so effectively that the Catholic faithful have bought into the argument. We discount just how much we want to be admired and well-received in the public arena.

Another factor that I’ve pointed to many times is that the very texture of contemporary Catholic narratives takes on different forms from those of writers fifty or seventy years ago. I’ve contrasted O’Connor’s belief that the writer of faith must “shout” for the hard of hearing with the postmodern Catholic writer’s predilection for the “whisper.”

Once all of these factors are taken into account, it’s easier to see why many people feel that we’re living in an era of Catholic literary decline.

JH: Right. On this note, you recently made an important clarification about “whispered” faith versus “shouted” faith that I want to note here. You’re not saying that a more subtle approach is the only way of presenting faith in literature today. Instead, you’re simply stating what you see: Faith now happens to show up in a more whispered fashion in society at large. Today’s writing thus reflects the times of its community.

GW: That’s right. As I’ve tried to argue, Catholic literary narratives written over half a century apart are inevitably going to look different. We live in an era that is characterized by deep suspicion of authority, a disconnection from historic liturgical and intellectual traditions, and a “spiritual but not religious” cast of mind. So God and the Church are likely to enter into these narratives as whispers that are just barely heard.

That’s simply being true to the world we live in. I recently came across a quotation from Schiller: “A man must be a good citizen of his age, as well as of his country.” One might just substitute “novelist” or “artist” for “man.”

JH: This raises an interesting question, though – and this echoes recent remarks by The Dish’s Matthew Sitman – but given the prevalence of a whispered faith today, what is it about the writing of that past generation still grabs people? I get the sense that we don’t still love O’Connor and Percy purely out of nostalgia, as if we just enjoyed taking trips to the literary museum, or even just because they’re great at their craft. I have a hunch that they still hit a nerve, that they still speak to something legitimate and perduring in the imaginations of American readers, and especially Catholic readers. What is the nerve they’re hitting, in your opinion?

GW: Look, a great artist is going to outlive her time, so the last thing I’m trying to say is that O’Connor and Percy are passé or that admiring their works is nostalgic per se. These writers helped to make me a Catholic and they continue to shape my thought and actions on a daily basis.

One reason that they remain vital is that they were philosophical novelists. Novelists of ideas are not to everyone’s tastes, of course, but much of our greatest literature, from Dante to Dostoevsky and from Hopkins to Eliot and beyond seamlessly blends profound philosophical insights with human drama.

O’Connor and Percy wrote in such a way that pressing questions about the nature of modernity were put into dialogue with Christian philosophers from Aquinas to Kierkegaard. And they found a way to do it that wasn’t stilted or didactic. They also make a great tag team because they were of such thoroughly different casts of mind: O’Connor with her Hillbilly Thomism and Percy with his capacity for channeling the existentialist Kierkegaard in the midst of the domesticated despair of shopping malls and golf courses. You could say the same of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, by the way: one the dark muse of doubt, betrayal, and sacrifice, and the other the wickedly anarchic comic satirist.

Just remember this: the natural human reaction is to treat the greatest artists of their time with a sort of grudging respect–an awareness that they are on a kind of extended period of probation. It’s always going to be the case that the writers and artists that we have a more unfeigned love for are going to be those who have already entered into the canon.

JH: Good point. If you don’t mind, I’d like to turn to something you said in Beauty Will Save the World. You said that Catholic artists have a “reconciling mission” today. They have to “feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level,” to quote O’Connor, and then to move “through that experience to a new spiritual equilibrium.” But the challenges to this are huge, given that the Catholic imagination relies so much on things that our postmodern situation either criticizes or ignores: historical connectedness and humanity’s direction toward an end, the cohesiveness of linguistic and symbolic meaning, a deep value of community, and so on. What does a Catholic imagination have to offer the contemporary situation, and what does this new spiritual equilibrium look like?

GW: I understand the world through paradox. One reason I reject the narrative of decline is that I think things are always going up and down at any historical juncture. By the same token, I would say that even when forces seem lined up to make the Catholic faith seem “far,” it still remains in many ways “near”–nearer than we often think.

Once I told the story of an Italian Catholic priest–a fairly important figure–who had been brought to speak at a retreat in the American southwest. To travel to his destination, the flight had to land in Las Vegas. The priest’s handlers were rather embarrassed and nervous over his looming encounter with the whole phenomenon that is Vegas. When he insisted that he be shown the sights they wondered if he would rail against decadence and debauchery. He took it all in, paused, and said to them: “My God, these people are all thirty seconds away from salvation!”

I love that. What do these people want? A moment of unmerited grace. Salvation.

The good news is that the human heart is indestructible. Do what you will to distract or trivialize it, it is still built for expectation, for the hope that salvation will come. One reason that I admire Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is that it shows that even in a post-apocalyptic nightmare land, the human heart–with the law of God inscribed into it–cannot be finally silenced.

JH: So there are still opportunities for the Catholic tradition to make inroads toward cultural dialogue and connection, and this in spite of obvious challenges.

GW: Yes. We live in a time of extreme individualism, of consumerism, of abstraction into ideology and technology, but there are also countervailing forces out there that line up well with the Church. For example, someday someone is going to notice that the whole drive toward conservation, environmentalism, organic farming, and localism lines up beautifully with Catholic social teaching and the Church’s understanding of creation, the body, marriage, and the family. Some day a Catholic Wendell Berry will emerge to make these connections clearer and show that certain Church teachings are far less nutty and laughable than they currently seem to many people. (Benedict XVI went pretty far along this trail but got no credit for it.)

Another gift that Catholicism has to offer North Americans is an understanding of suffering and more particularly of tragedy. Our culture is built upon the belief that we’ve been able to leave tragedy behind, that we are “can do” people who can always find a way to right wrongs and re-make ourselves. Here I also think of McCarthy, who at least in his Border Trilogy restores tragedy to an American context as he gives us a couple of admirable American heroes who, no matter how hard they try, cannot restore what is lost. To possess a tragic sense of life will not magically make our foreign and domestic policies more wise and effective, but it will enable us to respect the complexities of history and prevent us from misguided large-scale attempts at nation-building or social engineering.

Equilibrium means balance. This is what the Church offers the world, because it is grounded in an incarnational vision–in which human and divine co-inhere. No matter how “far” the Church seems to us, it is really always “near.”

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