Joseph Pearce, series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions, is interviewed by Paul Senz.
Joseph Pearce: As someone who has taught undergraduate students for many years, I am well aware of the hijacking of the study of literature by the advocates of secular fundamentalism. It is almost impossible to open a critical edition of any of the great literary works of Western civilization without being affronted by the pernicious fads and fashions of the modern academy, whether it be in the form of feminist criticism, Marxist criticism, queer theory, deconstructionism, or any of the other manifestations of the modern academy’s anti-Christian agenda.
The idea and inspiration for the Ignatius Critical Editions came from my experience of using the Norton or Oxford editions of Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights in a course on Romanticism that I was teaching at Ave Maria University. I objected to the nihilistic and deconstructionist critical essays and introductions in these editions, which clearly served warped agendas and did not reflect the views or intentions of the authors of either work. I didn’t feel comfortable putting this subjective and objectionable nonsense into the hands of my students and decided that tradition-oriented teachers and students needed an alternative to this poison. I suggested the idea of the series to Father Fessio of Ignatius Press, and the Ignatius Critical Editions were born.
Each edition contains the full text of the work, an introduction, and a selection of critical essays by some of the finest literary scholars in the world today. The crucial difference is that the introduction and the critical essays are all written from an avowedly and unashamedly tradition-oriented perspective. There is no nonsense: no feminist criticism, no Marxist criticism, no deconstructionism, no queer theory, no anti-Christianity. As such, the Ignatius Critical Editions offer a genuine extension of consumer choice, enabling lovers of literature to buy out of the secular fundamentalism sweeping through our public schools and universities and to buy into the rich Christian tradition that had given birth to these great books.
PS: What makes a work of literature a classic?
JP: I would say that a classic is a book that deserves its place amongst the canon of Great Books, which begs the question of what constitutes a “great” book. I would answer such a question by saying that books can be “great” in two distinct and crucially different ways. They can be “great” objectively, in what they are, and they can be “great” subjectively, in what they have done. Dante’s Divine Comedy is an objectively “great” book, perhaps objectively the greatest book, in its literary brilliance as a poem and in its sublime exposition of the supernatural destiny of homo viator (Pilgrim Man) in the light of the theology and philosophy of Christendom. On the other hand, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a “great” book subjectively in the sense that it is a work of literature that has impacted the culture of the past century to a great degree. It is, however, a eulogy in defence of homo superbus (Proud Man) and is, as such, an uncivilized work, lacking goodness, truth and beauty. It is, therefore, not an objectively “great” book, which is defined by the degree to which it is civilized, but a subjectively “great” book, which is defined by the degree to which it has done important things to the culture. We should remind ourselves that “important” is emphatically not synonymous with “good.” Evil is important, in the sense that we do it or ignore it at our peril, but it is not good. The Third Reich is one of the most important chapters in twentieth-century history but not because Hitler’s regime was good. Similarly, we should remind ourselves that “culture” is not synonymous with “good.” James Joyce’s book is a significant work of culture while, at the same time, being profoundly uncivilized, and therefore harmful to all that is good, true and beautiful. The obvious analogy is with those other “cultures” that appear in nature. Biological cultures can bring both health and death and just as it is perilous to the body to see no difference between penicillin and e-coli, so it is perilous to the soul to see no difference between good culture (civilization) and bad culture (barbarism). It is, therefore, important to remember that cultures can be barbaric. The culture of death in the Third Reich led to millions dying in concentration camps; the culture of death in the Soviet Union led to millions dying in the gulag archipelago; and the culture of death in today’s institutionalized hedonism is killing millions of unborn children in abortion mills. These are all barbaric cultures ruled over by cultured barbarians. Let’s never fall into the trap of believing that something is good or civilized merely because it is cultured.
Now that we have defined our terms, we should be able to distinguish those books that are genuinely great or civilized, in the objective sense in which they mirror man’s true image as homo viator, from those that are only great in the subjective sense in which they have had a great and important impact upon history through their reflection of the beliefs of homo superbus, man’s self-deceptive and destructive alter ego. The former are towering testaments to the cooperation of the gifted with the Giver of the gift, high places from which we can survey reality more clearly, edifices that edify. The latter are towering testaments to human pride, high places covered with clouds that prevent us from seeing anything but ourselves, edifices from which we fall. The former are great in the sense that they shine forth the sacred heart of truth, goodness and beauty. The latter are great in the sense that they grate the truth, shredding its surface without ever reaching or touching its core.
PS: There are those who say that the classics have no value, and that we should focus on modern works that speak more directly to our situation today. There is an emphasis on “representation” in media, being able to “identify with” characters in a given work. How would you respond to that?
JP: Only a fool or a charlatan believes that we have nothing to learn from our elders. In this sense we should see history as the science of the past which allows us to learn from the collective and collected experience of humanity over many centuries. The great works of literature are beautiful expressions of that collective inheritance, showing us the truth of the permanent things and the truth about ourselves that we can see reflected in the permanent things. In short and in sum, reading the classics liberates us from the narrow-mindedness of the fads and fashions of our own time and connects us with the bedrock realities of what it is to be truly and fully human.
The classics enable us to judge the present from the telescopic perspective of the past. Good contemporary literature is always rooted in the past, in the sense that it is influenced by the great literary works that precede it. This rootedness makes good contemporary literature part of a continuum of culture. Any contemporary literature which endeavours to ignore the classics will be fatally flawed by its embrace of the shallow and the superficial. Such literature, in refusing the life-giving roots of tradition, will wither and die within a few years of its being published because, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, fashions are always coming and going, but mostly going! If an author is preoccupied with being “up-to-date” his work will very quickly be out-of-date and therefore unread and forgotten. The classics, being rooted in those aspects of humanity which are perennial, have a shelf life measured in centuries, not months!
PS: How do you go about deciding which titles to include in the series?
JP: In deciding which titles to include in the series, I make a particular point of selecting titles that are “canonical” and are already on the existing curricula of good schools, colleges and homeschool providers. This makes it easy for instructors and parents to choose the Ignatius Critical Editions as part of their regular program of instruction. We have also published separate Study Guides for most of the editions. Each Study Guide contains everything students need to navigate their way through these classic works of literature, and everything an instructor or parent needs to assist them. There is a section in each Study Guide giving the historical context for the work, another section giving the “bare bones” of the plot, a summary of the critical essays that are published in the edition, and related study questions. There’s a section listing “things to think about while reading the book” and, last but not least, a section of study questions enabling the instructor to test the student’s knowledge of the work. These study questions include questions on the factual aspects of the text and a separate section of essay questions. With regard to the latter, each Study Guide contains a selection of several separate essay questions, pitched at various grades of student aptitude from high school to undergraduate level. This flexible approach will allow the instructor to choose the essay prompt that is most appropriate to the ability of the individual student. Finally, each Study Guide contains a detachable Answer Key for use by instructors. This gives the answers to the general knowledge questions appertaining to the text and short summaries of the types of critical approach needed for the essays.
In supporting this series, instructors and lovers of great literature will be obtaining Christian-friendly editions of the great works of literature and will also be playing an important part in helping this important initiative grow in its positive influence on our culture.
Republished with gracious permission from Catholic World Report.
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The featured image is “Bookshelves” (c. 1725) by Giuseppe Maria Crespi (1665–1747) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.