Thursday, August 25, 2016

Christian Modernism

I have a regrettable habit of assimilating striking ideas without remembering where I read them. I very clearly remember reading a few years ago that Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and J. R. R. Tolkien had come to various conclusions about the way to merge Catholic faith with writing in the modernist era: Tolkien chose to avoid the problematic aspects of the style by writing in the genre of fantasy, while Greene and Waugh decided to embrace the disillusioned, broken characters of the modernist style but openly to attribute their empty chests to spiritual sickness. The author whom I can’t recall made these choices sound deliberate and even suggested that Waugh and Greene discussed the decision explicitly. I would love to read this analysis again to see if I remember it correctly, but I can’t because I don’t remember at all where I read it.

The picture certainly appears plausible to me, though. Greene, for instance, often portrays modern life as a tragic choice whose salutary alternative, if rejected, will forever lie out of reach, save by an act of grace. His short stories consistently feature characters faced with binary choices, with characters living on heavily guarded borders (figurative or literal), characters with dilemmas that, like the riddle of the apple of Eden, each force a decision with lifelong consequences. If asked, Greene probably would have said he hated allegory just as much as Tolkien. So let’s just say that his tiger-or-lady situations symbolize spiritual dichotomies.

Waugh, on the other hand, usually presents his characters as well embedded in secular lives of self-constructed meaning and morality. I take it that he puts the choice of life and death in the reader’s hands. He achieves his goal often by reducing the cultural emptiness of his fictional creations to the absurd, eliciting dark fits of wry laughter. If he succeeds in making us laugh at a married couple’s bizarrely casual conversation about the wife’s lover, then he has made us recognize the standard by which to judge the characters’ actions, has made us admit that a sacred alternative exists in which we could live should we, by the grace of God, choose to do so.

I’ve been sporadically gaining ground in Waugh’s collected short stories all year rather than saving them all for one steady October blitz. Yesterday I read a story, a version of which I had already encountered in his novel A Handful of Dust. I like Waugh, and I love Dickens, so I was bound to enjoy Waugh’s “The Man Who Liked Dickens.” The story involves a Mr McMaster, who has grown up in the Amazon jungle and who, although illiterate himself, loves to listen to the novels of Charles Dickens being read to him. One day an explorer named Henty comes by, exhausted and in need of medical attention, and, to boil the plot down to its essence, McMaster tricks him in various ways into reading Dickens’s books to him over and over for the rest of his enslaved life. Henty has no more power over his insane situation than Kafka’s beleaguered K. McMaster blithely goes on with empty, immoral life and calls it happiness because he recognizes no authority he must answer to. But all the time, the two read words of life and sanity in Dickens, who, as McMaster admits, believes in God and shows it in his works. McMaster acknowledges and approves of the narrator’s judgments of the characters in his favorite books, but he never applies the judgments to his own life. Apparently Dickens’s world of light is for both the men as old and lifeless as Brideshead or any other of the decayed institutions that fill the stage in the theater of Waugh, but only because they themselves have chosen to douse the light. But, of course, they can’t fully hide the holy flame. By mercy, the darkness can no more overcome the light than can Scrooge permanently extinguish the glow of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

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