Several weeks ago, I wrote down some of my reservations about the fantasy works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, both of whom I praised. I anticipated at the time that my reservations would anger someone—but who knew that it would be my redoubtable friend Joseph Pearce, who has given such insightful attention to my novel, Bearings and Distances? Mr. Pearce says kind things about me in his essay of last weekend, but he goes on to question what “Christian realism” might mean, at least as I deployed the phrase. He invokes the medieval debate between the Realists and the Nominalists; argues that Lewis and Tolkien are unquestionably Realists in the sense that they believe in universals and base their fictions firmly on a belief in God; and then, given this philosophic understanding of realism, deplores several of the authors that I listed as “realistic,” singling out from my list Graham Greene, Thomas Hardy, and James Joyce.

I welcome this conversation, because it arises from honest questions about what we understand about literature, especially Catholic literature. The issue, as Mr. Pearce puts it, is whether the cosmos presented by an author is realist or nominalist: “Realism is at the very heart of Christian philosophy whereas nominalism has morphed into the radical relativism which is the dominant philosophy of the secularist culture in which we find ourselves.” No quarrel from me: indeed, “relativism” might be too mild a word for the radical undermining of authority and structure that began with Ockham and continues into the present climate of identity politics. Etienne Gilson memorably remarked in The Unity of Philosophical Experience that, “as a philosopher, it was Ockham’s privilege to usher into the world what I think is the first known case of a new intellectual disease.” Michael Gillespie has brilliantly traced out the philosophical spread of the disease (all the way to Foucault, Derrida, and Žižek) in The Theological Origins of Modernity. The whole curriculum at Wyoming Catholic College combats the disease.

Given this genealogy of nominalism, Mr. Pearce goes on to argue, “we must insist that literary realism should be defined as the reflection in literature of philosophical realism.” Now I begin to get uneasy, primarily because this way of putting the question pushes rather too hard against what we commonly understand by calling something “realistic.” Both Tolkien and Dostoevsky are philosophical realists, but there is a useful distinction to make between Middle-Earth and St. Petersburg, the latter of which is historical and real in the ordinary sense of the word. Moreover—and this was my point in mentioning Hardy and Joyce—fiction can portray the real world beautifully and memorably simply by being true to it, regardless of whether the author is a Christian or a philosophical realist. Socrates is surely right that the true poet writes beyond himself. Thomas Hardy, for example, consciously writes from a perverse fatalism that he calls “Hap.” I don’t for a minute believe in “Hap”—I seriously doubt that any reader of Hardy ever has—but I take from him strong and memorable images of tragic beauty, promise, and loss. Passages in his novels, especially Tess of the D’Urbervilles, present his “Wessex” with an extraordinary vividness that teaches me something both as a reader and a writer. Some of his landscapes and scenes even inform my intimations of heavenly pastoral, I suspect.

Hardy unquestionably warps his fictional world in the direction of fatedness. According to Mr. Pearce’s argument, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are literary realists because they are philosophical realists. As he puts it, “If the work of literature takes place in a realistic cosmos, one which is governed by the truths of realism, it can be said to be a work of literary realism; if it takes place in a nominalist cosmos, one which is governed by the assumptions of nominalism, it can be said to be a work of literary relativism. The former reflects the real world in its essentials, in its being; the latter reflects an ‘alternative cosmos’ in which the rules of relativism apply.” If the literary work depicts the struggle between sin and virtue, as well as God’s benevolent presence, then it is realistic; if not, it is relativistic. I’d be happy using the terms for contemporary novelists like Ian McEwan or Jonathan Franzen, but I’m not sure that either nominalism or relativism helpfully describes Hardy’s literary cosmos.

No doubt thinking of the “prideful apostasy” of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Mr. Pearce asks whether James Joyce shows us “reality or merely a proud and prejudiced view of it?” The problem, of course, is that many a professed philosophical realist has a proud and prejudiced view of reality. Moreover, many a Christian could believe in God and experience on a daily basis the struggle between sin and virtue without being able to portray ten minutes of a dinner party without sounding unbearably starchy and homiletic. It is a rare and difficult thing to catch the exact idiom and feeling of human things as Joyce can certainly do. Two other questions, then, come up for me. One is whether the writer as writer necessarily endorses the views of those that he depicts, even if the work is closely patterned on his own life. Surely, if he is any good, the difference introduced by the fiction demands an objectifying perspective, so that the character’s “prideful apostasy” is offset in the work by the requirements of art.

The second question is how we would recognize “the rules of relativism” in works such as James Joyce’s great short stories, especially “The Dead.” This story begins by gently and gradually exposing the vanity and self-delusion of the main character, Gabriel Conroy, and then, in a beautifully modulated movement, working through his discovery about the unknown past of his wife. “The Dead” ends with Gabriel’s final humbling self-recognition. I am at a loss about how I would discern a “nominalist cosmos” in this story distinct from the point of view of the main character. As fiction, it awakens analogies to real events in the lives of its readers. It is artistically balanced, mimetically just, emotionally true, and capable of being read on several levels. Moreover, its classical anagnorisis harkens back to Sophocles and strongly anticipates the short stories of Flannery O’Connor.

Like almost everyone in the Christian world, I revere C.S. Lewis, and I have learned a great deal from him. But that fact does not change another one in my experience: The last book of Lewis’s Perelandra trilogy strains credulity. In the first two books of the trilogy, the protagonist, Elwin Ransom, travels to Mars and Venus, where he has various significant adventures. I have always enjoyed the clever refashioning of the old quarrel between poetry and philosophy on Mars as well as the reframing of Paradise Lost on Venus. My “suspension of disbelief,” as Coleridge puts it, is effortless. But I find my sense of the real stretched too far in the third book, That Hideous Strength. I always balk when the Merlin of Arthurian legend comes back to life from his many centuries of suspended animation to help defeat the demonically inspired National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.).

I understand that Merlin is a way of symbolizing the deep, sacred, ancestral sense of what England means in a time of monstrous threat. But the climactic scene feels awfully like the deus ex machina of the less convincing Greek tragedies. Drawing upon the imagery of the Apocalypse, Lewis invents a mythical action in which Good defeats Evil. He is within literary bounds, no question. As satire, That Hideous Strength is a brilliant exposure of the demonism underlying modern progressivist assumptions. Written during the dark days of World War II, it also has a hortatory purpose in its allegory—the affirmation of tradition and country and biblical truth, friendship, and hope and marriage, love of God and neighbor. But Lewis is not convincing here. The resolution, with all its Arthurian elements, feels unearned on the literal level, and I come away from the book every time I read it (at least five times) feeling that the ending is contrived. Philosophical realism does not save it.

The great writers of the Western tradition, especially Dante and Shakespeare, have given me a deep respect for the literal level, which does not mean (to use a line from Wallace Stevens) “an end of the imagination.” Nor does it mean what Ambrose Bierce said in defining the literary realism of his day: “The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm.” Neither is realism a dogged concentration on hard brutality or moral darkness, but on life as we really experience it and as the artist truthfully represents it mimetically: the complexities of action, suffering, thought, and emotion, the darkness, and barrenness, yes, but also the moments of grace, those points “of intersection of the timeless / With time,” as T.S. Eliot puts it. Sometimes these come through people and places in the real world where we least expect to find them. The danger of living too much in fantasy is that we might scorn the riches of the quotidian and forget to look.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Young Man Reading By Candlelight” by Matthias Stom (1615-1649), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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