Friday, October 23, 2009

Right before your very eyes

Gregory Wolfe, editor of IMAGE Journal, has a interesting set of posts on the state of Catholic literature today. He says most Traditional Catholics subscribe to the ‘myth of decline’: Catholic Letters has fallen off since the mid-twentieth century when writers like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor were around. Wolfe points out that these critics probably would not have appreciated these writers if they had been alive at that time. Take Waugh’s reception by his fellow Catholics for instance:

Even as conservative a writer as Evelyn Waugh had to write a long, impassioned letter defending his satirical novels to the Archbishop of Westminster, after he had been attacked in the British Catholic magazine The Tablet. Poor Waugh had to do the worst thing possible for a satirist and comedian—he had to explain his jokes. (In his novel Black Mischief he had described a campaign by white colonialists to bring contraception to the native African population, with hilarious and unpredictable side effects—as a form of undermining anti-Catholic thinking.)

Another argument in the myth of decline thesis is that these mid-twentieth century writers wrote ‘muscular’ prose. Think of Flannery O’Connor’s use of the Grotesque as an example of this. Wolfe responds that such a method was needed at the time, but that our own age requires a different tact:

But what happened when the century moved on, past world wars and into a less overtly dramatic time? When it came to a writer like Walker Percy—whose credentials as a traditional, Mass-attending Catholic are not in question—that cultural change can be seen clearly. Percy put it quite bluntly: the world he lived in was not the stark world of his Southern friend Flannery. His was a South of golf courses and gated subdivisions, not bleak homesteads set off in the woods.
For Percy, the absence of God was still an issue, but he felt that it had been submerged by prosperity, that modern unbelief and despair had become domesticated, anesthetized by shopping malls, new-fangled pills, and inane movies.
In such a world, God is not likely to be heard in shouts but in whispers.

This might be the weaker part of his argument because a case could easily be made that Walker Percy tried to shock his readers just as much in the same way that O’Connor ever did.

That aside, Wolfe concludes his posts by mentioning some contemporary Catholic writers, like Ron Hansen, Alice McDermott, and Andre Dubus. His concern, and it is one worth discussing, is that Traditional Catholics are failing to recognize that they are living through a type of literary renaissance as we speak.

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