Making art is a mode of revealing the world in new ways…
For the past two weeks, I’ve been writing about the opportunity to make a new Catholic culture, not from scratch and not from attempts to appropriate whatever happens to be popular at the moment, but from the immense resources available in the tradition we engage at Wyoming Catholic College. These resources are not just in the past, of course, but very much in the present: the encounter with God in silence, the experience of the desert, the evidence of beauty.
Are there reasons for hope? Certainly. Bad as things are in the culture at large, genuine renewal can begin at any moment, in any time. Who could have predicted the career (unknown to the literary world in his day) of Gerard Manley Hopkins in the Victorian era of doubt, or who could have anticipated Flannery O’Connor in the Freud-obsessed and existential 1950s and early 1960s? Who can say what is already underway now? Hopkins and O’Connor remind us that making art—in this case poetry and fiction—is a mode of revealing the world in new ways.
Hopkins, for example, writes in a poem called “The Sea and the Skylark” about two sounds that, “being pure,” shame the “shallow and frail town” nearby. One is the sea, which Hopkins makes his reader hear both in its ageless rhythm (“the tide that ramps against the shore”) and in the onomatopoeic dynamics of the breaking waves and their foaming withdrawal (“With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar”). The other sound, offshore, is the ascending skylark:
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.
Constructing his complex combinations of meanings and sounds—“rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score”—Hopkins suggests the complex sound of the skylark’s music at the same time that he imagines notes flying off in “crisps of curl” from a wildly spinning winch, a metaphor that also renders the feeling of seeing of the skylark plummeting in flight.
In a recent interview, the Catholic poet and scholar James Matthew Wilson writes that “Poetic form echoes and even reveals the forms that govern reality and so is a way for us to come to know the world” (my emphasis). I could not agree more. The revealed forms of reality take time to assimilate, and making a genuine new work is the first step toward making a new culture. For example, it has been fifty-three years since Flannery O’Connor’s death (a period longer than her life) and Catholic culture is still just beginning to absorb the meaning and import of her “hillbilly Thomism.”
What exactly does O’Connor do in her fiction? In many of her stories, she takes the realities of farm life in Protestant rural Georgia as her literal level, and she turns upon the characters of her fiction a brilliant satirist’s eye informed by the whole Western intellectual tradition going back at least to Sophocles. Aristotle describes plot as the imitation of an action, and O’Connor’s plots imitate the action of the soul in its movement from a false understanding to a blinding but transformative insight. Her stories are violent and disconcerting, but she always finds the action that shatters fictions of self and complacencies of opinion to open the heart to grace.
In this regard, her stories revive the central action of the great works of the tradition: the self-discovery of Oedipus as he pursues the murderer of Laius, the movement out of Plato’s cave, the Exodus from Egypt, the escape from the dark wood where Dante finds himself at the beginning of the Divine Comedy. To recover the tradition underlies the capacity to make art that reveals the contemporary world anew.
There are many good signs. One in my personal experience is the presence of Wiseblood Books—named, by no means coincidentally, for O’Connor’s first novel. The press was founded four years ago by Joshua Hren “in response to a visible vacuum in our culture: the Catholic (and catholic!) literary culture of the previous century had waned, fiction exploring eternal questions had petered out, and yet the need for literature that possesses a sacramental vision of reality had only increased.”
Like Wiseblood and other similar initiatives, small but growing, Wyoming Catholic College exists to foster the active remaking of Catholic culture. We are privileged to be able to help build up new hope from the inheritance of the past. As James Matthew Wilson puts it, “Show me someone steeped in the stories, the theology, and the philosophy of a long tradition, and I’ll show you someone dwelling in the presence of a beauty ever new.”
This essay first appeared in the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (July 2017).
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