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Catholic Letters: The Last Shout

After my last exchange with Greg Wolfe about Catholic letters, I promised to let him finish before responding further. He has finished. So – a brief response:

Let me begin by agreeing with several things Wolfe writes. “Catholics should understand the dangers of a sectarian existence.” Amen. “One might say that the most Catholic vision is the most thoroughly incarnational, the most firmly anchored in common human experience: grace through nature.” One might indeed. “Percy didn’t wait for the culture to be ready for his art, nor did Merton, O’Connor, or Day.” No, they certainly didn’t.

I do take some issue with the following: “The myth of decline is essentially a form of self-pity and ultimately of self-importance. Once again, the notion of belonging to some embattled, saving remnant is a profoundly un-Catholic idea. It is also an excuse for intellectual sloth; if the big, bad world out there is tainted and poisoned by whatever is bad about modernity, why bother to read the signs of the times, to actually sense what’s going on in the culture at large?” I’m not sure it’s so un-Catholic to believe that one belongs to an embattled, saving remnant – viz. Benedict’s reference to the creative minority. What seems un-Catholic is the idea that it’s okay for the remnant to just hide behind the ramparts while the world goes to hell. One must needs be embattled and saving – out there in the world. So we must sense what’s going on in the culture at large.

But here’s my big disagreement: Wolfe cites O’Connor’s use of drowning to convey the meaning of baptism, the martyrdom of Greene’s whisky priest, and the melodrama of Brideshead as examples of the “shouts” and “large gestures” that Catholic writers used in the mid-twentieth century in response to aggressive secularism. These shouts, he writes, “tended to describe an absence – the outline of the missing presence of God.”

Against these wild men and women, he sets Walker Percy. “Percy put it quite bluntly: the world he lived in was not the stark world of his Southern friend Flannery. His wa 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 belief 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.” Later, he writes that “Percy wrote about affluent Southerners who played golf, not wild-eyed prophets from the backwoods.”

I disagree with the distinction. Let us consider O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” In it, the Misfit enters the life of an ordinary, wretched old woman to teach her about grace by shooting her with a shotgun. His remarkable line: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” is as fine a “shout” as any. Violence and horror breaking through to open the eyes of the spiritually blinded – in O’Connor’s world, this happens all the time. Yes, indeed: O’Connor shouted.

But consider Percy’s last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome. Under the aegis of human happiness and scientific progress, we get a grown man “holding a child aloft as a father might dandle his daughter, except that” – except that he is penetrating her, and has altered her brain chemistry so that she is numb to the horror of it. Consider Lancelot, in which a man, in his rage against the lie that prosperity equals happiness and morals be damned, commits murder in his search for the unholy grail of sin. Consider The Second Coming, in which a father attempts to murder his son with a shotgun his son to save him from the horror of modernity, and in which the son attempts to call God out through attempted suicide. (And in which salvation shows up in the form of a woman subjected to electroshock therapy.) Consider Sutter’s notes on pornography in The Last Gentleman. Heck, the devil himself shows up in Love in the Ruins. There’s plenty of prosperity-soaked golf in Percy, it’s true – but that’s not to say that God operates in whispers. Just as in O’Connor, the spiritual life makes itself known in the midst of violence. Indeed, this is Percy’s great observation in Lost in the Cosmos: that we are happier when life is dangerous and difficult – violence and horror breaking through to open the eyes of the spiritually numb. I don’t think Percy’s God is whisperful.

This is not to say that Catholics must shout, nor even that everybody shouted back then. I rather like Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness, and I adore J.F. Powers’ Morte D’Urban, and neither of those books does much shouting. (Indeed, one of the great spiritual battles of Urban is played out on a golf course.) These novels had the rather obvious Catholic earmark of featuring priests as protagonists – men who made God their life’s work. (Which is, in itself, a kind of lowering of religion to the mundane, whispering level. Dispensing grace is your job. Very incarnational.) Having the devil show up would be overkill. Wolfe writes of Alice McDermott’s 1997 novel Charming Billy that “there is little explicit discussion of faith.” Ditto Morte D’Urban and The Edge of Sadness. Instead of martyrdom, Billy’s existence is suffused with “what the Basque Catholic philosopher Unamuno called ‘the tragic sense of life.’” The same could be said of any number of Powers’ mid-century priests.

What I’m saying: I disagree with Wolfe’s notion of trajectory from shouting God to whispering God. We had a whispering God back in the ‘60s, and a shouting God as late as ’87, when Thanatos was published. We still have a whispering God, as Wolfe ably attests. And, I would argue, we still have a shouting God. Read Silence (or Scandal) from Endo – the outline of the missing presence of God is marked out with some pretty large gestures. And Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy features a possible bearer of the stigmata – the bleeding wounds of Christ are a shout if ever there was one, even if their origin is shrouded in mystery (as faith must be). But Endo’s work is set far from America’s shores, and Hansen’s stigmatist story is set, perhaps tellingly, in the past. Here and now in America, it seems to be all whispers and no shouts.

I suspect this is the frustration of those Wolfe is criticizing: we’ve had both shouts and whispers in the past. Why not now? Why must faith always be treated as a whispering thing, instead of a dread matter of life and death, the question upon which everything hinges? The dehumanizing horrors Percy decried have, if anything, multiplied. One need not be a propagandist to engage this culture, any more than Percy was a propagandist to engage his. Writers need merely model Percy et al, as Wolfe notes, by “taking account of their surroundings but not surrendering to them.” (If anything, the venom one may find directed toward religion in general would make the moment ripe, thinks me.) I think maybe this is what Father Neuhaus was getting at when he bemoaned the lack of “bold and imaginative Christian writing” – emphasis on the “bold.” (Which is not to say artless.)

But enough. Wolfe is right that there are really fine Christian writers at work today. (If I were a better man, I would write an essay on why I think Richard Russo’s Straight Man is an excellent example of a modern Catholic novel. Oh, how I love that book.) Go, read them. And if you miss the shouts, write some.

Comments

  1. Cubeland Mystic says:

    By means of process, one has to both whisper and shout. Just a comment.

    This was a good. I enjoyed it very much.

  2. Matthew Lickona says:

    Thanks much, CM.

  3. Characters: says:

    O’Connor’s comment about shouting was a defense of the grotesque. I’m not sure that it’s a fair description of her intentions in writing…

  4. Matthew Lickona says:

    Characters,
    I’m sorry if I somehow implied that O’Connor’s intention in writing was to shout; such was not my intention. But as you note, she was fond of using shouts within that writing: the shotgun blast, the cry of “Go to hell, you old wart hog,” the deformed foot on the boy crying that the lame shall enter first, etc. I was using the term in response to Mr. Wolfe when he wrote in his second post on the matter:

    “Speaking of her modern, secularized audience, which she felt was deaf to religious matters, Flannery O’Connor once said that ‘to the hard of hearing you shout.’ In this she spoke for a number of twentieth-century Catholic and Christian writers. Secularization had been taking place in the West for generations but in the early twentieth century it gained momentum—and aggressiveness. The ‘master narrative’ of the Judeo-Christian tradition was being replaced by the new Marxist, Freudian, and Darwinian master narratives.

    In response, many Christian writers crafted stories with bold gestures—with ‘shouts,’ if you will. O’Connor’s famous example was her attempt to convey the meaning of baptism by drowning one of her characters.”

    My closing line wasn’t an exhortation for writers to shout – which is why I distinguished bold writing from artless writing – but to write some shouts if they missed them.

  5. Oops – Characters is my wife’s account.

    To be clear, I was criticizing Wolfe’s notion that O’Connor set out to “shout” in her works. As I re-read her essay, I see that it’s not even about Catholic fiction but about Southern fiction (Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction). It’s funny how this quoted everywhere but seldom in the context O’Connor wrote it…

    Your point about shouting is well taken, even if I would have difficulty telling a whisper from a shout at 50 paces.

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