the imaginative conservative logo

In a distorted world, the Christian poet is ultimately like the blind man whose vision Christ restored to see truth through grace, and those who read the poet’s words will find their vision restored as well…

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally given as a part of a lecture series for the Cambridge School of Dallas’ Faculty Lyceum.

Prayer

Come, Holy Spirit, Divine Creator,
true source of light and fountain of wisdom!
Pour forth your brilliance upon my dense intellect,
dissipate the darkness which covers me,
that of sin and of ignorance.
Grant me a penetrating mind to understand,
a retentive memory,
method and ease in learning,
the lucidity to comprehend,
and abundant grace in expressing myself.
Guide the beginning of my work,
direct its progress,
and bring it to successful completion.
This I ask through Jesus Christ,
true God and true man,
living and reigning with You
and the Father, forever and ever. Amen.
—St. Thomas Aquinas, “A Student’s Prayer”

“Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God…The eye is clear when the heart is clear, for the roots of the eye are in the heart.” —Romano Guardini, from a meditation on the Beatitudes in The Lord

 

Introduction

On occasions such as this, in which a mere mortal is comically meant to speak wisdom—comically because of his mortality—it is customary for the speaker to invoke the Muses or, in our case, the Holy Spirit. The poets of antiquity were far from conceiving of their art as an outpouring of the soul’s inner life, a lamp shining in the darkness; they were the vessels into which the gods poured their inspiration. Homer, that man who, like his own Phemius, sang like a god but was nevertheless a man, begins his Odyssey with proper deference: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns…”[1] Yet for Homer this invocation was not one of mere form; after all, he is the blind bard, and if his reliance on the gods is not greater than that of other men, it is, at least, more pronounced. He is the poet who sang of the wine-dark sea but whose eyes could not perceive it. What is poetic vision if a poet may be blind?

I. What is Poetic Vision? Or, Why the Poet Must Be Blind

Flannery O’Connor notes in her essay “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers” that “[t]he poet is traditionally a blind man, but the Christian poet, and storyteller as well, is like the blind man whom Christ touched, who looked then and saw men as if they were trees, but walking.”[2] She draws from a chapter of Romano Guardini’s The Lord, a series of meditations on the gospels. In the eighth chapter of Mark, when Jesus comes into Bethsaida, a blind man is brought to him,

And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought.
And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking
After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly. (Mark 8:23-25 KJV)

In this miracle, Guardini comprehends “both reality and parable, or rather reality that stretches from the physical into the spiritual.”[3] The blind man, his eyes flooded suddenly with light, has only begun to see, and objects initially appear to him distorted—but they do appear to him. He is as dazzled as the man released from his bonds in Plato’s cave and compelled to look upon the source of the light that cast shadows on the wall, shadows that he took to be reality. Just as Socrates draws a man, when “the eye of [his] soul is really buried in a barbaric bog”[4] out of his error and toward truth through dialectic, Jesus helps the man who had lived in darkness “to adjust to the new brightness both within and without: to perceive in the natural light also that other, holy light which contact with the light of the world had kindled”[5]; he readies the man’s soul for God. A poet is one in whose soul the inspiration of the Muses, or the light of truth, has been poured, and who, from the mortal dust of the natural world, fashions a window that looks out on the eternal.

If, in the passage from Mark, the blind man is one who comes to have faith in Christ, who, then, are the seeing? Guardini devotes the greater part of this chapter on “The Blind and the Seeing” to Christ’s healing of another blind man, as narrated in the ninth chapter of John. More pervasive than the vertical hierarchy of caste in Hebrew society was the horizontal division between those who knew the law and those who did not—between the educated Scribes and Pharisees and the ignorant crowd. When Jesus restores the sight of a man blind from birth on the Sabbath, the Pharisees interrogate him. The man recounts the miracle, and some of the Pharisees reply, “This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the sabbath day” (John 9:16 KJV). Others counter that a sinner could not perform such miracles, reasoning just as the uneducated blind man does when he appears before the high council: “If this man were not of God, he could do nothing” (John 9:33 KJV). Upon witnessing the blind man’s faith, Jesus says, “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind” (John 9:39 KJV).

Those who see not are the those who admit to themselves and to God that they are powerless to know or comprehend the divine; they say along with the slave boy in Plato’s Meno, “By Zeus, Socrates, I do not know.”[6] [Robin: Holy whiskers, Batman! That was a close shave!] The seeing, according to Guardini,

are those who in God’s presence still cling to their earthly point of view, their earthly knowledge, earthly conception of justice, naively attempting to measure even the divine by their own standards. When the Son of God himself stands before them, they see only a rebel and proceed against all who believe in him with the heavy indignation of the righteous. And when the long awaited Christ performs his miracles before their eyes, they either refuse to see them or brand them works of Satan! Because they do not wish to see, demonstrations of God’s power and love only seem to make them incapable of seeing. They become increasingly short-sighted and ultimately blind.[7]

The blind man is ignorant, but knows, at least, that he is blind. The Pharisees study the scriptures whose fulfillment is right before their eyes, but they cannot see in him the messiah. Yet it is not their knowledge that blinds them; it is the hardness of their hearts. Sight depends upon will. To see someone is to make oneself vulnerable to his influence; to see a truth is to commit oneself to live in accordance with it. Pride has severed the eyes from the heart, and when Jesus stands before the Pharisees, in their short-sightedness they perceive only the earthly threat he might pose to their position in the world and in their own estimation.

Let us return to O’Connor’s proposal. The Christian poet, or storyteller, is the blind man whom Christ touched and who is dazzled with light; the poet is a blind man, one whose inner eye is keen but whose worldly eye is blind. The pagan Homer was physically blind but he could see that the sea was wine-dark and that the string of a bow sings like a sparrow when it is plucked; he could see, moreover, that the fine young men swilling wine and feasting on fatted hogs were themselves the hogs, that the elderly men of Ithaca who let their sons court a married woman were so many one-eyed monsters, ignoring their neighbors and living “each a law to himself.”[8] So the pagan poet is accorded some of the light of truth. But the novelist that O’Connor describes in her essay is one who “is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in our concrete, sensual life”[9] no less than the pagan. He does not stop doing so when he becomes a Christian. The danger for the Christian novelist is that he will try to “raise himself from the stuff of his own imagination by beginning with Christian principles and finding the life that will illustrate them.”[10] The fiction he writes would be bad art with a good moral. We might as well skip to the moral and discard the story. But no poem or novel or play is reducible to a moral; the meaning of the story is the story itself. So, if a literary work is not properly judged by the rectitude of its moral (assuming that it has a moral), then by what standard ought we to judge it? What is art? And what is art for?

II. Beyond Sentence and Solaas

On the road to Canterbury, Chaucer’s Host proposes a tale-telling competition: the pilgrim whose tales are “of best sentence and most solaas”[11] will win a supper paid for by his fellow travelers. Sentence (serious meaning) and solaas (pleasure or entertainment) are hardly novel as criteria used to judge works of literature, but they relate more to the effect of reading than to the author’s reason for writing. The author wishes to write a good book. But what is a good book? If we are tempted to answer, “one that is good for [any number of things: edifying my child, giving me an escape from the mundane, teaching Christian doctrines in a winsome manner, propping up a short table leg],” let us pause to reconsider. A son’s blunders might teach his father an important moral truth, but the same father would bristle if someone asked what his son was good for; he would not reply that his son is good for teaching moral truths. That is certainly his effect, but the son is good in himself. In Part I of the Second Part of the Summa, Question 57, Article 4, St. Thomas Aquinas asks “Whether Prudence Is a Distinct Virtue from Art?” Perhaps this question initially strikes us as abstruse. Who would mistake prudence for art? But if we have ever declined to read the works of a fiction writer on account of the immorality of his life, or if we have piously put down a book because it depicts sin, we have conflated the two. Though both prudence and art are right reason, Thomas says, “art is the right reason of things to be made, while prudence is right reason of things to be done.” The two are distinct: making “is an action passing into outward matter” and doing “is an action abiding in the agent.” Drawing from Aristotle’s Ethics, Thomas argues that the moral good is to prudent actions as first principles are to logical demonstrations; prudence is governed by “moral virtue, which rectifies the appetite.” The man acts with prudence who acts for the right reason, in the right way, and at the right time. By contrast, the principle governing art is not external to the thing made: “the good of things made by art is not the good of man’s appetite, but the good of those artificial things themselves, and therefore art does not presuppose rectitude of the appetite.”[12] The morality of the author and the rectitude of the moral (if any) are irrelevant to the good of the thing made. A good book is not primarily good for anything; it is good in itself, and its excellence consists in its being well made.

O’Connor writes that the novelist she means is one “who looks on fiction as an art and…who writes neither for everybody, nor for the special few, but for the good of what he is writing.”[13] Because they do not share O’Connor’s conception of fiction as an art, few twenty-first century English teachers can defend what they do, which is, at best, to make children read good books, or, at worst, to make children read the soul-numbing drivel printed in textbooks (one can only suppose that such things are written as a sort of inoculation for children, to ensure that they will never love reading). “We read literature so that you can learn SAT vocabulary,” such teachers might say, or “We read text so that you will have the skills to understand office memos when you work in a cubicle one day.” (Not that there is anything wrong with working in a cubicle, but there is a reason that our tombstones say things like, “She was a loving wife, mother, and grandmother” and not “She was details-oriented and efficient.”) Even professors of English at most of our universities have lost faith in the intrinsic good of what they have devoted their lives to studying; “We read literature so that we can understand the systemic oppression of various groups” is their variation on that theme. Men who have amputated their own souls are not men but machines, and they will demand only oil for their gears; they who cannot conceive of intrinsic value must find something of utilitarian value to defend.

Let us not heap shame upon them, however, until we realize that the Christian reader may demand the same thing, but with a Christian veneer. To illustrate this danger, I will call upon the wisdom of James Joyce, in his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

III. “The wonder of mortal beauty”: A Powerful Extension of Sight

I should preface my remarks with a note on Joyce’s background: he was an Irish Catholic who ultimately renounced his faith and lived in voluntary exile from his country, and his hero, Stephen Dedalus, is made in his image. The novel is a Künstlerroman, the story of the maturation and education of an artist. The very name of its protagonist is symbolic and, from his perspective, prophetic: Daedalus is the artist who fashions wings for himself and his son to escape King Minos; his son, Icarus, famously falls to his death when he flies too close to the sun, which melts the wax of his wings. Stephen, like his namesake, is destined to become an artist—in his case, a poet. If he is a poet by O’Connor’s standards, he must be blind—but is he blind as Homer was blind, or as the man Jesus healed was blind? And if he is among the seeing (that is, a Pharisee), can he be considered a poet at all?

That Stephen temporarily mistakes his vocation as an artist for a religious vocation is no coincidence. The Catholic priest bodily performs appointed rites, but each gesture is aflame with spiritual meaning, and at his word, the Word made flesh becomes present. The office of the poet, Stephen believes, is similar: to take raw, natural matter and, within a prescribed poetic structure, sublimate it into something beautiful. Walking near a beach after his rejection of the priesthood, he hears his name, twisted into schoolboy puns, echo back at him in Greek: Dedalos. At once it seems a prophecy; he sees a winged form above the water, “a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being.”[14] In what may be Portrait’s most iconic scene, Stephen transforms a girl wading in the surf into a bird. As Stephen happens upon her,

She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh…Her slateblue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird’s, soft and slight; slight and soft as the breast of some darkplumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish; and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.[15]

It is at this transformation, and not the transubstantiation at the altar, or the foot of the cross, that Stephen will worship: “Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!”[16] This vision, not the beatific one, evokes in Stephen an ecstasy of “holy silence”; his soul will answer the call of the bird-girl’s eyes, and not that of God.

But what of Stephen’s sight? By the end of the novel he readily admits that he has lost his faith. Prior to the bird-girl scene, he had been attracted to the priesthood due to the power it would seem to confer on him; he fails to see that the power of the priest comes from an emptying of the self. He is not the blind man whom Christ touched. O’Connor remarks that “people outside the Church like to suppose that the Church acts as a restraint on the creativity of the Catholic writer”[17]; from within the Church, Stephen supposes the same. The religious life that he had thought to be his soul’s sanctuary amounts, finally, to the end “in time and in eternity, [of] his freedom.”[18] Freedom so narrowly conceived necessitates that he renounce all religious and social orders, that he wander alone:

He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world.

The snares of the world were its ways of sin. He would fall. He had not yet fallen but he would fall silently, in an instant. Not to fall was too hard, too hard: and he felt the silent lapse of his soul, as it would be at some instant to come, falling, falling but not yet fallen, still unfallen but about to fall.[19]

If he comes by wisdom, it will be as an exile, stumbling in a dark wood. By Guardini’s standard, he is blind indeed—his heart is hardened by pride, and he has been seduced by the Romantic lie that accepting any authority but that of the autonomous self enervates the soul. Dogma, he believes, would limit his vision. Such is the opinion of the secularist, who is not disposed to see reality in terms of the Fall, the Redemption, and the Judgment; he imagines that the Christian writer, in depicting the world in light of these truths, sees not with his eyes but with the eyes of his Church. Yet the Christian reader reveals that he unwittingly agrees with the secular assumption that dogma limits vision when he demands that Christian literature, or literature that Christians read, be positive, that the Christian writer “tidy up reality”[20] to convey Christian truths. Literature, even Christian literature, is not primarily for evangelization, though evangelization might be its effect. Literature is for itself; the fiction writer writes for the good of the work itself, and, O’Connor reminds us, “what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.”[21]

In conceding O’Connor (and Aquinas) this point, we lose nothing as readers. We do not lose a tool for evangelization; we gain an immediate encounter with God. And in conceding this point, the Christian novelist also loses nothing. He need not forego any of his nature as a fiction writer or as a Christian. Faith extends poetic vision to the mysteries at the heart of reality without curtailing the poet’s perception of sensible reality. The Christian writer and the Christian reader ought to know that “dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality.”[22] Beyond the prophetic vision dependent on the imaginative and not the moral faculty that the fiction writer has by nature, the Catholic novelist has the Church, whose function it is “to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.”[23] She warns that “to try to disconnect faith from vision is to do violence to the whole personality, and the whole personality participates in the act of writing.” The state of the Christian novelist devoutly to be wished is that “the Church becomes so much a part of his personality that he can forget about her—in the same sense that when he writes, he forgets about himself.”[24]

With this in mind, let us return to Stephen, our lapsed Catholic poet. The eyes with which he views the Church are jaundiced. Yet the vision by which he sees the bird-girl is that of the poet; in the girl’s mortal beauty and every part of the sensible reality surrounding her, he sees the mythic reality, the “reality that stretches from the physical into the spiritual.”[25] Is it true that her beauty does not end with her material body but is a sign that points to her eternal soul? Perhaps Stephen would not use such words, but he sees their reality. The man without poetic vision might see in her only an object of erotic desire; the Pharisee might see only an exemplum of insufficient modesty. But Stephen sees with his whole personality. He later posits an aesthetic theory in which the highest form of art, the dramatic, is achieved when “[t]he artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”[26] I will venture that the Church whose doctrines and practices he has renounced is so much a part of him that he has forgotten about her, that she is the artist and, though seemingly refined out of existence, she is nevertheless the cause and creator of his consciousness.

IV. Nature and Imagination: The Green Rose versus the Mustard-seed

But how does the poetic vision of the blind man—that is, of Homer and Stephen Dedalus (and James Joyce, who invented him)—differ from that of the blind man whom Christ touched—that is, of a self-consciously Christian writer like O’Connor? Either kind of artist can see reality stretching from the physical into the spiritual, but the thoroughly Christianized artist knows these glimpses of incarnate mystery as such and can put them into the context of the Fall, the Redemption, and the Judgment. The pagan or otherwise non-Christian artist perceives incarnate mystery but, failing to see world as ordered and reality as transcending the natural (in an ordered way), he lacks an adequate foundation on which to build an understanding of what he is and what he does. O’Connor says that “art transcends its limitations only by staying within them,”[27] and the artist untouched by Christ will almost inevitably fail to understand the limits of his nature as an artist and of the nature of art itself.

The fault in Stephen Dedalus’ understanding that corrupts his conception of himself and his craft is apparent on the novel’s first page, on which Joyce shows us Stephen’s first poetic creation. As the seniors well know, because they have had to imitate it, Joyce uses a stream-of-consciousness narrative technique, and thus the novel opens with the narration of Stephen as a very young child; his grammar and perspective are accordingly limited. What they may not have realized, however, is the cunning design that Joyce weaves, even in the unsophisticated style of the first few pages. Stephen recalls a song sung to him in his infancy:

O, the wild rose blossoms
On the little green place.
He sang that song. That was his song.
O, the geen wothe botheth.[28]

In his naïveté, he creates out of the ordinary matter of a child’s song a green rose—an absurdity, something that doesn’t exist in nature. As a schoolboy, “he remembered the song about the wild rose blossoms on the little green place. But you could not have a green rose. But perhaps somewhere in the world you could.”[29] The child Stephen recognizes a stern reality that seems to stand in the way of his art: that “you could not have a green rose,” a difficulty which a difference of place, or, as the teenage Stephen rejecting the priesthood would have it, a renunciation of influence, might remove.

Yet such a conception of art renders the artist a magician rather than a prophet and the act of creating a spell rather than a prayer. The magician transforms matter into what it is not through a power that he exercises in defiance of God’s order. The prophet reveals what is true but hidden and his power comes from submission to the laws and supplication to the power of the Almighty. Poetry is hardly among the “unknown arts”[30] toward which the mythical Daedalus turned in the epigraph Joyce takes from Ovid. But Stephen believes that he can conjure up the impossible through words, that he is the god and father of his creation, and “[i]n the virgin womb of the imagination the word [is] made flesh,”[31] that the imagination transforms a girl, the “sluggish matter of the earth,” into a bird, of “impalpable and imperishable being.” But this conception of art as magic belies a misconception of the girl’s nature. She is not elevated from sluggish matter by Stephen’s imagination; she is and has been from the moment of her creation an image bearer of God.

Because he understands what it is to create art and to be an artist as fundamentally satanic, that is, as requiring that the artist serve no one but his own imagination, Stephen corrupts his relationship to nature. While his imagination, Christianized by his boyhood faith, can still perceive the mystery inherent in sensible reality, his heart cannot reliably give shape and meaning to what he perceives. Realities that his artist’s eye can see—sin, grace, redemption—his intellect refuses to understand as such. O’Connor, because her heart is clearer, see these realities more keenly, and her relationship with nature is thus better ordered: “the chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist” she says, “is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe. He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural. And this doesn’t mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater.”[32] The Christian knows that “all of reality is the potential kingdom of Christ, and [that] the face of the earth is waiting to be remade by his spirit.”[33] What can be more difficult for the Christian than for the Romantic to accept is the beauty, truth, and goodness incarnate in the natural world. We are fond of spurning this world in anticipation of the one to come, but the sensible world is no less a creation of God. Because we are embodied souls, we must suffer the privations and desires of the body, but our bodies were made by God to fulfill his purpose, which can only be good. Every human soul, depraved and disgraced by sin as it may be, was made to glorify God, and Christ makes it possible for each to be remade in his spirit. The Christian writer, declares O’Connor in her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” “will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.”[34] The imagination of the Christian writer is answerable to the natural world as God has ordered it, and his art will transcend itself all the more because he understands his place in the order of creation.

It is O’Connor who sees grace in the violent murder of a grandmother. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” she is a respectable old sinner who believes that good men are those with good blood, and that “common” rather than “evil” is the opposite of “good.” She dresses for the drive from Georgia to Florida in a violet-adorned straw hat and white organdy-trimmed dress, so that, “[i]n case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”[35] But when her own deception and selfishness cause a car wreck that strands the family, she encounters The Misfit, an escaped criminal whom O’Connor calls a “prophet gone wrong.”[36] As he directs his accomplices to take her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren into the woods to be shot one by one, he explains to her, “I call myself The Misfit…because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.”[37] Amid distant pistol reports, she begs for her life, alternating hypocritical appeals to pray (something of which she thinks she has no need, as she comes from “good people”) and flattery, which consists of telling him, “I just know you’re a good man…You’re not a bit common!”[38] Finally, she offers him “all the money [she’s] got,”[39] but she cannot appeal to a man who believes that life consists of racking up sins to tip the scale which is already weighed down with punishment on the other side:

Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead…and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but in meanness.[40]

Lacking proof that Jesus raised the dead, he cannot be certain that the life he has chosen—enjoying himself as best he can by doing meanness to others—is the right one, for he knows better than the grandmother does that there is no middle ground between his life of evil and one in which he might “throw away everything and follow Him.” There is no Christian life of gentility, moderate pleasures, and respectable condescension to vast swaths of mankind; there is nothing we can do but go and sell all that we have, that we might have treasure in heaven, and follow Him.[41] In the agony of his choice, a choice that the presumably church-going grandmother had not considered until it is starkly laid out by a murderer, his face is twisted and close to hers, and

the grandmother’s head cleared for a moment…she murmured, “Why, you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.[42]

O’Connor denies the reader a conversion story or a heart-rending testimony. Such stories, in the hands of those who lack the peculiar blindness of the poet, often lapse into sentimentality, and make Christianity into a saccharine diet that soon sickens the consumer. Her gesture seems slight, but it is beyond her. Nothing in her sinful, respectable life has prepared her to see her kinship with a criminal. It is the “real heart of the story,” which lies, O’Connor says, in “a gesture that transcend[s] any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make.” It is “a gesture which somehow makes contact with mystery.”[43]

We who were made to be born in wonder but who instead denature ourselves by adopting the mass habits and mass attitudes of what Anthony Esolen would call our modern anti-culture and unsociety[44] tend to have little will to see grace, either because we are de facto atheists or because we do not recognize grace when it is not presented in a familiar form. The grandmother reaches out to touch the murderer of her son as her own; Lord Marchmain of Brideshead Revisited, after a lifetime of adultery, makes the sign of the cross on his deathbed. She is no St. Mary Magdalene, and he is no St. Paul, but these moments point to the reality of God’s grace no less than their stories do. We can only hope, along with O’Connor, that “the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become.”[45]

V. “Love breathes wisdom into me”: Reading as Wahrnehmen

On his journey up the Mount of Purgatory, the pilgrim Dante, affirming his identity to the older poet Bonagiunta of Lucca, declares,

I’m one who takes the pen
When Love breathes wisdom into me, and go
Finding signs for what he speaks within.[46]

I have just disparaged sentimentality—and I believe it rightly disparaged; it is nearer to pornography than it is to literature. So why should I quote a poet who, as Dante says in La Vita Nuova, allows Love to govern his soul, “which became so readily betrothed to him and over which he reigned with such assurance and lordship given him through the power of my imagination that it became necessary for me to tend to his every pleasure”[47]? We must understand love as Dante means it before we class him with Stephen Dedalus. The Love to whose lordship he submits is God’s love, the Love that moves the sun and the other stars. It is the Love on which Beatrice’s eyes are fixed as she leads him through Paradise to the beatific vision. When Dante first beholds Beatrice, he recalls,

the vital spirit, the one that dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that even the least pulses of my body were strangely affected; and trembling, it spoke these words: “Here is a god stronger than I, who shall come to rule over me.” At that point the animal spirit, the one abiding in the high chamber to which all the senses bring their perceptions, was stricken with amazement, and speaking directly to the spirits of sight, and said these words: “Now your bliss has appeared.” At that moment the natural spirit, the one which dwells in that part where our nourishment is attended to, began to weep, and weeping, said these words: “Alas, wretch that I am, from now on I shall be hindered often.”[48]

These spirits, of the heart, of the “high chamber,” and of the “part where our nourishment is attended to,” Anthony Esolen relates to C.S. Lewis’s chest, head, and belly from The Abolition of Man.[49] The spirit of Dante’s heart will prostrate itself before the glory of God; the animal spirit, his intellect, recognizes his happiness, or the fulfillment of his God-given nature, in this love; and the natural spirit, the belly, finds that it will be “hindered often” as Dante’s soul comes to be properly ordered.

The poetry of Dante is not the record of the wisdom into which one man stumbles amid the snares of the world. Dr. Esolen contrasts Dante with his slightly older contemporary Guido Cavalcanti, who lacks a “Beatrice to direct his attention to the heavens” and “insists that love is a potent and irrational force, irresistible, as determined by nature as the leaping of fire.”[50] For the materialist, love is sub-rational; it is directed toward nothing, and has no wisdom to breathe into the poet. For Dante, love is rational, and it leads the mind on its journey to God. Beatrice is a sign of Christ, and love for her draws Dante out of his dark wood of error, through the horrors of Hell, and up the Mount of Purgatory until, his sight grown “pure and whole,”[51]

the truth I longed for came to me
smiting my mind like lightning flashing bright.
Here ceased the powers of my high fantasy.
Already were all my will and my desires
turned—as a wheel in equal balance—by
The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.[52]

Truth comes to Dante once his sight is made pure. In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper defines ratio and intellectus, the two modes of understanding distinguished by scholars of the Middle Ages. Ratio is “the power of discursive, logical thought,”[53] akin to observation, which is a “tense activity” of “beginning to count, to measure and weigh up,”[54] and intellectus is “the capacity…of that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye.”[55] Ratio is proper to man, and is rightly considered work. Intellectus, however, belongs to the vita contemplativa, which, Aquinas asserts, is beyond man. Contemplation is not work; it is what Romano Guardini calls “Wahrnehmen: reception-of-truth.”[56] The very effortlessness of contemplation is the reason that the philosopher Immanuel Kant was suspicious of the knowledge it yields; philosophizing, Kant claims, is a “‘herculean labor’” and “he regards the labor involved as a justification of philosophy…it is because, as he contemptuously remarks, ‘intellectual contemplation’ costs nobody anything that it is so very questionable. He expects nothing from ‘intellectual contemplation’ because it costs nothing, and because contemplation is effortless.”[57] (Kant’s contemporary incarnation is the bureaucrat who comes across a child playing or lying on his back looking up at the stars and asks him how such activities will make him college- and career-ready.) Kant’s underlying assumption is that it is not natural to man to know, and he applies the same conception of nature to the moral law. Followers and fellows of Kant “held that virtue meant: ‘mastering our natural bent.’”[58] Pieper, channeling Aquinas, corrects them: “what Aquinas says is that virtue makes us perfect by enabling us to follow our natural bent in the right way. In fact, he says, the sublime achievements of moral goodness are characterized by effortlessness—because it is of their essence to spring from love.”[59] The truth that smites Dante’s mind comes to him by intellectus; it offers itself to him as a landscape to his eye, which, because his will has been conformed to God’s will, is capable of receiving it.

Conclusion

I have devoted most of my time this evening to exploring poetic vision from the perspective of the poet, perhaps leaving you wondering how my words apply to the majority of us who are not poets. How are we to restore poetic vision? By writing fiction as blind men—that is, blind to worldly ambition and its distortions, but receptive to the God-created sensible world and its embodiment of mystery? No, for we are not all poets by nature—so the restoration will come by reading fiction as blind men whom Christ touched. What we will see at first will be men large as trees but walking; and then, by the grace of God, our eyes will adjust. We will see the natural light, and know that it exists within an order, that the holy light presupposes and works within it. In his reflection on that great passage from the Summa, “Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity,”[60] Peter Kalkavage writes that “[c]harity through grace takes hold of the naturally loving will and lifts it beyond its natural capacity in order to fulfil its supernatural destiny…grace does not enter the realm of natural love and replace that love with something alien to it, but rather causes the love that is already there, and which God has lovingly made, to transcend itself so that it may be fully itself, fully adequate to its intended object.”[61] Stephen Dedalus sees the mythic reality of the mortal girl because of the wisdom that natural love breathes into him. O’Connor sees how grace haunts the murder of an old lady and Dante recognizes the perfect Love to which his love for Beatrice points because they write out of something higher: charity. Yet, since grace does not destroy but perfects nature, Stephen’s natural love is the potential kingdom of Christ, and can be made perfect by grace. We can attribute to all three the gift of blindness—the gift of being a vessel to receive truth. Let us, as readers, also be vessels, to receive in gratitude and wonder the truth that the Love of Christ breathes into the poet.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1996. I.1.

[2] O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1957. p. 184.

[3] Guardini, Romano. “The Blind and the Seeing.” The Lord. Trans. Elinor Castendyk Briefs. South Bend, In.: Gateway Editions, Ltd., 1954. p. 158.

[4] Plato. The Republic. Trans. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1968. 533c-d.

[5] Guardini, The Lord, 158.

[6] Plato. Meno. 84a. Print.

[7] Guardini, The Lord, 155.

[8] Homer, The Odyssey, IX.127.

[9] O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” 170.

[10] Ibid., 182.

[11] Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Jill Martin. London: Penguin, 2005. I.798. Print.

[12] Quotations from the Summa from: Aquinas, St. Thomas. Volume II. The Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1952. II-I, Q. 57, Art. 4.

[13] O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” 171.

[14] Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Norton, 2007. V.855-66.

[15] Ibid., V.855-66.

[16] Ibid., V.883-6.

[17] O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” 177.

[18] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, IV.524.

[19] Ibid., IV.532-40.

[20] O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,”, 177.

[21] Ibid., 171.

[22] Ibid., 178.

[23] Ibid., 179-80.

[24] Ibid., 181.

[25] Guardini, The Lord, 158.

[26] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, V.1467-9.

[27] O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” 171.

[28] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I.9-12.

[29] Ibid., I.196-8.

[30] Ovid, Metamorphoses, VIII.188, qtd. in Joyce, 3.

[31] Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, V.1543-4.

[32] O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” 175.

[33] Ibid., 173.

[34] O’Connor, “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” 146

[35] O’Connor. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1946. p. 118. Print.

[36] O’Connor, “On Her Own Work,” 110.

[37] O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” 131.

[38] Ibid., 128.

[39] Ibid., 132.

[40] Ibid., 132.

[41] Cf. Matthew 19:21.

[42] O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” 132.

[43] O’Connor, “On Her Own Work,” 111.

[44] Esolen, Anthony. “Recovering Words and Culture in the Unsociety.” The Imaginative Conservative. 11 September 2012.

[45]O’Connor, “On Her Own Work,” 113.

[46] Alighieri, Dante. Purgatory. Trans. Anthony Esolen. New York: Modern Library, 2004. XXIV.52-4.

[47] Alighieri, Dante. La Vita Nuova. Trans. Mark Musa. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. II.

[48] Ibid., II.

[49] Esolen, Anthony. Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007. p. 97.

[50] Ibid., 95.

[51] Alighieri, Dante. Paradise. Trans. Anthony Esolen. New York: Modern Library, 2004. XXXIII.52.

[52] Ibid., XXXIII.140-4.

[53] Pieper, Josef. Leisure the Basis of Culture. Trans. Alexander Dru. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009. p. 28.

[54] Ibid., 26.

[55] Ibid., 28.

[56] Guardini, The Lord, 156.

[57] Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture, 31.

[58] Ibid., 33.

[59] Ibid., 33-4.

[60] Aquinas, St. Thomas. Volume I-Part I. Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007. I-I, Q.1, Art 8.

[61] Kalkavage, “On Nature and Grace: The Role of Reason in the Life of Faith,” 13.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
1 reply to this post
  1. I hope that we all become more aware of “the mystery inherent in sensible reality.” Sometimes, I think, modern Christian intellectuals become so focused on proving that Christianity is an intellectually justifiable and rational option, that they forget it goes beyond the rational. But meanwhile, Christian authors ancient and modern are, as C. S. Lewis described it, sneaking in the back door to baptize our imaginations. Perhaps it is the harmonization of these that may “compel them to come in.”

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: