By Emily Stimpson - OSV Newsweekly, 4/8/2012
At the turn of the last century, something in the literary world was afoot. And it was afoot on both sides of the English Channel.
In both England and France, a group of writers were gaining fame and notoriety, not just for the quality of their work, but for its substance, a substance that had a decidedly Catholic flavor. Those writers, which included the likes of G.K. Chesterton, Paul Claudel, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charles Péguy and Lionel Johnson, were a mix of converts and reverts, faithful Catholics and struggling Catholics. All, however, were writing in response to the conditions of their age. And all helped spur a Catholic literary revival that would eventually cross the Atlantic Ocean and endure for more than 50 years.
What triggered that revival? What made it possible? And what could make a similar revival possible again, in the 21st century? Recently, Our Sunday Visitor put those questions to Brian Sudlow, a professor of French literature at Aston University in Birmingham, England, and the author of “Catholic Literature and Secularization in France and England, 1880-1914” (Manchester University Press, $90).
Our Sunday Visitor: How would you characterize the cultural and political climate in which the late 19th/early 20th century Catholic literary revival took place?
Brian Sudlow: The cultural climate in both countries was one of increasing decadence. The period in England saw the end of the Victorian age and the emergence of the Edwardian. Protestantism had begun the process of disintegration into the eclectic mix, which characterizes it today, and the shallow optimism of that generation would soon be engulfed by the trauma of the First World War.
In France, the age was marked politically by the wave of ideologically driven secular legislation, which set about dismantling what remained of the legal heritage of Christian France; one can think of the expulsion of unauthorized religious congregations from France or the secularization of the school system. Secular tendencies were also seen in English legislation, though in a much less programmatic way. While it would be unhistorical to see these processes as simple and predictable, there is no doubt that by the eve of the First World War, both countries were considerably more secular than they had been at the start of the 19th century.
OSV: How did that climate contribute to or shape the revival?
Sudlow: The Catholicism of many writers was inflected by the attempt to counter secular trends. In a period when the divinity of Christ was increasingly questioned in secular circles, the doctrine of the Incarnation was central to the thinking of Charles Péguy and indeed Chesterton. Writers like novelist J. K. Huysmans and Robert Hugh Benson wrote eloquently about the miracles that took place at Lourdes, which were a living sign of the possibility of divine communion in a world turning in on itself.
The doctrine of vicarious suffering — by which our own suffering can help earn graces for others — deserves special mention. It inspired both French and English Catholic writers (again Huysmans and Benson in particular) and emerges as arguably the definitive rebuttal of secularism, which replaces salvation with attempts simply to build a better world. Ideologies of progress implicitly deny the Christian value of suffering; vicarious suffering affirms not only that good can come from evil but that we are all responsible for each other.
OSV: Obviously the writers you address in the book have the Faith in common, but in what ways do they part company?
Sudlow: Most French Catholic writers have very pronounced political tendencies whereas the English novelist Josephine Ward and poet Alice Meynell are almost apolitical. Some French Catholic authors such as novelist Henry Bordeaux are strong monarchists, in contrast with the Englishmen Chesterton and Belloc, who are devout democrats. Many English writers are preoccupied with opposing the intellectual heritage of Protestantism, whereas this is not as important an issue in France (where suspicion of Protestantism is entwined with widespread hostility to Germany).
OSV: How did the work of these writers shape the work of the Catholic writers who came after them?
Sudlow: They shaped it in a variety of ways, but again we must come down to particular cases to understand the influences. In England, G. K. Chesterton remained an enduring and almost universal influence on the next generation of Catholic writers, both for the breadth of his output and for the brilliance with which he captured and expressed the Catholic worldview. In France the great novelist Georges Bernanos, who wrote “Diary of a Country Priest,” looked to Léon Bloy and to Charles Péguy for inspiration. In his study of the French Catholic literary revival, Richard Griffiths has pointed out how much Graham Greene was influenced by his reading of various French Catholic authors. We should add that decadent Catholic Ernest Dowson cut his poetic teeth translating poems from Paul Verlaine. Influences are not always very evident, of course, but it is clear that certain authors stand out by the way in which their thinking and writing inspire and galvanize others.
OSV: What happened to the Catholic literary tradition later in the 20th century and why?
Sudlow: This is a very tricky question to answer. There are always good writers here or there down the ages, but the years before the First World War and the inter-war years are very special in terms of Catholic literary production. Of course, we can ascribe this to the accident of genius, which can occur at any point in history. But there is also some validity in the theory which sees literary creativity as shaped by milieu and moment. The milieu in which many of the French and English Catholic writers worked was one with great pressures, marked by sometimes violent hostility to Catholicism. There may be some mileage in blaming the fall away in good Catholic writing in the 1950s on the relative prosperity and peace these years brought the Church in North America and Europe.
OSV: What other cultural factors were possibly at work?
Sudlow: Well, literature is firstly an art form and one wonders if the prosaic turn in the liturgy following the Second Vatican Council undermined to some extent the liturgy’s capacity to shape imaginations in ways that might teach them to reach out for the transcendent present in the world. One last factor, which is worth mentioning, is that we live in a world where, as Charles Taylor has observed, religious faith is now only one choice among many. In these circumstances, it is potentially all the more difficult for a creative artist to read, interpret and portray the world in the light of eternity. Catholic literature depends on the capacity of the writer to shape his imaginative material in ways that are inspired by faith.
OSV: When the topic of a present day Catholic literary movement comes up (or, more accurately the lack thereof), reasons for the absence of such a movement often include a lack of interest in Catholic work at major publishing houses or knowledge of what makes for good fiction at Catholic publishing houses. Do you think those reasons fully explain the state of Catholic literature today or is something else at work?
Sudlow: As my previous answer suggests, Catholic literature is not disadvantaged simply by external factors — though I am not dismissing the importance these could have. Genius is not evenly distributed throughout history, so we can never dismiss that factor. But I do believe that if there is little Catholic literature today — if there are merely a few Catholics who happen to write — this can be correlated with the current poverty of the Catholic imagination across all the arts. There is not much great Catholic music either or Catholic architecture! Again, if I may return to the theme of the liturgical reform, the new Mass saw Catholic liturgy become much “wordier”; its silences were filled with talk (witness Pope Benedict’s drive to reinstate liturgical silence) and its tangible transcendence was too often lost in a misguided attempt to encourage relevance or immediacy. Realities like the mysterious, the strange, the difficult and the uncomfortable (who talks about hell any more?) were in various ways weeded out of the liturgy for a range of well-intentioned reasons. So is it any wonder that the creative Catholic imagination, which thrives on mystery, conflict, drama and questions of destiny, has suffered?
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
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