Jared Zimmerer interviews Joseph Pearce
Jared Zimmerer: Throughout your collection of essays, Beauteous Truth (St. Augustine’s Press), there is a continuous message that culture and having a steeped understanding of authentic cultural approbations are of utmost importance and that Catholicism has helped shape a culture that can last. What advice would you give for others to be able to recognize those parts of culture that are worthwhile?
Joseph Pearce: True culture is a reflection of the transcendental trinity of the good, the true, and the beautiful. The authentic sign of goodness is love and its manifestation in virtue; the authenticity of the true is to be seen in its conformity to reason, properly understood as an engagement with the objective reality beyond the confines of egocentric subjectivism; the authentic sign of the beautiful is a reverence for the beauty of Creation and creativity, properly perceived in the outpouring of gratitude which is the fruit of humility.
Jared Zimmerer: With the vast array of authors that you write about, it seems that the majority of them did a masterful job of living, as Tolkien would put it, a mythopoetic life—a life of wonder and magic in the everyday experience. How is it that these authors were able to shape themselves in such a manner, and what influence would literature have?
Joseph Pearce: I think that these authors were not so much able to shape themselves, as they were willing to allow themselves to be shaped. Responding to Christ’s Trinitarian description of Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, the greatest Christian artists and writers surrender themselves to the Way of Virtue (Love), the Truth of Reason, and the Life of Grace, the last of which manifests itself in the conforming of the creative talents of the artist to the will of the Giver of the talents. This was expressed most succinctly and beautifully in Tolkien’s crucial distinction between Creation and sub-creation, the former of which is that primal Art of the cosmos that God creates ex nihilo, and the latter of which is the process by which artists use their gifts to make things from other things that already exist. The artist’s sub-creative gifts are therefore dependent upon, subject to and ultimately servants of the Creator who bestows the gifts of creativity and who creates the things with which the artist works.
Jared Zimmerer: There is such a deep wealth of good Catholic literature that is as timeless as Shakespeare, as captivating as Chesterton, and as enchanting as Tolkien. Where should a reader begin and how can today’s authors learn from the masters of the written word?
Joseph Pearce: Although it is true that there is a deep and veritable wealth of good Catholic literature, it is equally true that there is sometimes a cognitive barrier preventing today’s readers from fully appreciating and comprehending the great works of Christian civilization. As T. S. Eliot remarks in “The Hollow Men,” “between the potency and the existence falls the shadow.” A shadow of misperception falls between the power and potential of the work of art and the receptiveness of the reader. For this reason, it is important that readers are aware of the difference between purely recreational reading, what might be called reading for fun, and the objective reading that endeavors to engage the work on its own terms which, in reality, are the terms intended by the author himself. Recreational reading is fine (and fun!) but we need to acknowledge that it is deficient and more often than not defective. It is the literary equivalent of sola scriptura and is as dangerous in terms of the errors that are sometimes its consequence. If we believe that we can fully understand a work of literature purely subjectively, without reference and deference to the author, we are fooling ourselves. At best, such reading is harmless enough, bestowing upon the reader an enjoyable experience and perhaps even an edifying one, albeit somewhat superficial in its grasp of the deepest meaning inherent within the work; at worst, it becomes a narcissistic experience whereby we see our own pride and prejudice reflected back to us, reading meanings into the work that are plainly not there in any integral and objective sense. This literary narcissism has poisoned the academy over the past century or so, transforming works of creative Christian genius into the Frankenstein monsters of Marxist and feminist criticism or subjecting them to the quicksand quagmire of queer theory.
In order to avoid the dangers of subjective reading, I would urge readers to learn how to see a work through the eyes of the author, thus objectifying the reading experience by the perception of it through the eyes of the most authoritative Other. I would recommend the Ignatius Critical Editions of the great works of literature as a safe and reliable way of doing this. I might also take the liberty of suggesting that they read my book Through Shakespeare’s Eyes (Ignatius Press) as an introduction to reading the works of Shakespeare.
As for your question regarding what today’s authors can learn from the masters of the written word, I would simply say that one only writes as well as one reads. Read well and you will write well.
Jared Zimmerer: It appears that one of the goals of the collection, and it is most definitively achieved, that we as Catholics, as Christians, as Human beings, need to have a solid root system, a foundational understanding of human history and its relation to the cosmos. How is it that literature is so effective at encouraging such an endeavor?
Joseph Pearce: The reason that an integrated Catholic liberal arts education is so essential to an objective understanding of the cosmos is that none of the arts or sciences exist in a vacuum—a fact that modern educationists, with their obsession with isolating disciplines into self-contained pigeonholes, seem to have forgotten. Even the schism in the modern academy between the so-called arts and the so-called sciences is deeply flawed. Science gets its name from the Latin scientia, which simply means “knowledge.” It is for this reason that the mediaeval academy called theology the queen of the sciences. Theology is a science; philosophy is a science; history is a science; yes, even literature is a science. They are all branches of knowledge. Further, they are known collectively as the humanities because they convey a knowledge, a “science,” of humanity itself. We learn the humanities to teach us about humanity, to show us ourselves and our neighbours. An ignorance of the humanities leads to an ignorance of ourselves and our fellow men, the destructive consequences of which are only too evident in the moral collapse and social decay that we witness today.
Literature is so effective in giving us a foundational understanding of ourselves, our neighbours, and our shared human existence throughout history because it shows us the way of virtue, the truth of reason, and the beauty of the cosmos and our place within it. It situates us within reality. It contains the truths of theology, philosophy, and history within the framework of a story or a vision told with the beauty of eloquence. And let’s not forget that Christ, in His employment of parables, has sanctified the role of “story” as a means of conveying the deepest truths. Indeed, the greatest Story ever told is His Story in history itself—His life, death, and resurrection. All great literature is a true reflection in some way or other of the truths inherent in this one Primal Truth.
Jared Zimmerer: I must admit, I have been a fan of yours for many years and I hope to see more of your work to come. What new writing projects are you currently working on? Also, what are you currently reading yourself?
Joseph Pearce: I am currently working on a book that will be entitled Frodo’s Journey: Discovering the Hidden Meaning of The Lord of the Rings, which will be a follow-up to my earlier book, Bilbo’s Journey (Saint Benedict Press). I hope to have it finished by the end of the summer, in which case I hope it might be published by the end of this year. As for what I’m currently reading, most of my reading is inextricably connected to my work. I am therefore in the midst of re-reading The Lord of the Rings at the moment (always a pleasure!), as well as sundry other works by or about Tolkien. As for my purely recreational reading (and yes I do read purely for fun!), I am reading Tim Powers’ novel Declare at the moment, as part of my ongoing efforts to keep abreast of good contemporary fiction by Catholic novelists. I’m also reading The Romantic ‘90s by Richard Le Gallienne, a fascinating memoir about the English literary scene at the end of the nineteenth century, a fascinating period in English literary history.