IX – Modernity and Literature

PART THREE: Literature – Enlightenment Propaganda

Before the lofty idealism of the Humanism of the Renaissance, European literature was eminently practical.

A. Poetry and Drama

Lyric poetry honoured God or one’s chivalrous lover, epic poetry recounted the exploits of heroes such as Charlemagne or Roland. Prose reached its heights in clear, logical treatises of philosophy and theology. Or was used as ribald commentary on society. The origin of drama was in the liturgy of the Mass and the cycle of the Catholic year: the very popular miracle and moral plays of Medieval Europe.

There was no school of intellectuals judging literature as works of art. Medieval society and its art was unselfconscious. Moderns would say, naive.

The Medievals lived close to Nature. Everything was seen and felt to be connected. This meant that in the arts, the writer’s imagination knew no bounds. Anything and everything could be put together to show connections. Up to and including the Metaphysicals, Poetry was able to connect thought and feeling through the metaphors of a nature lived among men. Nature and word were joined. Shakespeare’s muse is full of the connexion of life, nature, meaning, men, and a commonality of unity of man with nature.

With the beginnings of Modernism in the late 17th, Classicism heralded the break between man and nature, even though Pope and Dryden invoke Nature as their goddess, it is a goddess undressed by their own rationalism. The Classicist is emotionally removed and examines his art, his forms, as a Newton or a Descartes. All cleverly effete.

Drama divided into the Comedy of Manners and the more serious French imitations of Ancient Greek and Roman tragedies.

The Romantic poets of the 19th Century contrived a unity of man with nature, but the horse has bolted. Nature is now remote and lost. It is a nostalgic discovery of the daffodils. A nostaglia matching the Romanticism of a Wolf or Schubert Lieder.

By the 20th Century, poetry and drama become the tools of social commentary. Ideology dominates. Or it weeps at the destruction wrought by Modernity. The Poet is alienated, as is the Dramatist and Painter, the Artiste. And as Modernity creates a universal ugliness of implemented ideologies into life, the artist paints ugliness to challenge and to reflect the ugliness of Modern Society.

B. The Literary Novel – a Modernist Invention

The Literary Novel is a Modernist invention. The Modern novel is about man, his thoughts, his feelings, his interactions with others in his world. A novel is judged on how it is “true to life” – a life centred on man. The novel is judged to be good if it simulates the reality of character, plot, life, psychology, the interactions of human relationships.

It is no coincidence that the first novelists were from the late 17th Century – the beginnings of Deism and Modernism. The world no longer wanted to hear about God – so “divisive”. Reality excluded God and Man’s relationship with God. The Novel became the new vehicle for exploring the Modernist’s world, ostensibly more real. But how real is the exploration of reality if a person’s life is centred on God. The life of many people is religious: people pray, address their God all through the day, are aware of themselves as part of a religious story which takes place daily. Yet, this huge aspect of life is ignored in the novel. Let us also consider the very real conflict some people every day one has with “conscience” at its very depths – the fight with God. You will not find that in “realistic” novels.

The most realistic personal writings in the past were by the saints: such as St Augustine’s “Confessions”, Dante’s trilogy, St Catherine’s “Dialogue of Divine Providence”, and St Teresa of Avila’s “Autobiography”. These works reveal very deep reflections of the relationship of the soul and God in dealing with the challenges of life, stream-of-consciousness narration, totally honest, humane, and almost “modern” in their understanding of what it is to be a human being – a normal, everyday person in their struggles in life.

It is not until the end of the 19th Century, that the novel, especially the historical novel, becomes of age: popular, universal, and the main means of Modernist Liberal propaganda. And this trend extends right into the 21st Century. Novel after novel explores social, political and religious injustices. First, the villains are the aristocracy, the Tories, Catholics and the higher Anglican clergy – the enemies of the Liberal Revolution. The villains then become the rich, the capitalist, the bourgoisie. And then, in the late 20th and early 21st century, the villain is anyone who dresses well, has taste, who has manners, or who is a “fundamentalist”, a bigot – but must be a religious bigot.

It is interesting to watch films adapted from older stories. The heroes, who once were virtuous chivalrous nobles, are reinvented as rebel teenagers, or “cool” and slovenly – the new virtue: being true to the freedom of one’s emotions, a real “dude”. Any control over one’s behaviour is seen as aristocratic pretence!

C. History Literature
The writing of History by academics is an Enlightenment Project – interpreting events in the past in the Spirit of Progress and Humanism, with the over-arching theme of showing just how evil the Catholic Church and its impact on delaying Progress and Civilisation.

Edward Gibbon’s mighty work – The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – gives free rein for the author to interpret every event involving the Church in the poorest of light. The Enlightenment interpretation of History becomes the main theme of 19th Century English historians and continues right through the 20th Century.

D. Contemporary Novels
There is little of value in reading present day novels. Many portray the dull, grey lives of people caught in the hopelessness of Modernity: broken marriages, lonely women and abandoned children. Many rely on including immodest sexuality and general acceptance of immorality to identify with the reader. Many portray the challenge of people from multicultural backgrounds adjusting to modern life – with the approval of the author on the side of the modern rather than the traditional.
Novels for men rely heavily on violence, sex, war, and heroes whose heroism omits any other virtues than courage and manly skills. There are no manly heroes in modern novels full of gentleness, kindness, grace, modesty, charity, etc. It would seem inconceivable now that a hero could be manly and courageous and virtuous!! So much for Gawain, Percival, Lancelot and Galahad!

E. The Catholic Novel
Intellectual Catholics in the 20th Century tried to employ the literary novel as a means of portraying Catholic life: Mauriac, Bernanos, Greene and Waugh being the most famous. But they had bought into the Modern agenda. The Catholic novelist had become too aware of modernistic criticism of their novels based on “bringing God” into everyday life. So Catholic novelists based their plots on the main character experiencing some moral dilemma which would be solved in the end by some act of moral heroism generated by Catholic belief. The characters are portrayed as anti-heroes, extreme personalities, ignoble, or self-righteous: all it seems with one eye on the modern critic, who would insist on so-called “realism”.

But one would be then led to believe that Catholicism is nothing but morality – hardly a religion which moves and directs one’s emotions, thoughts, perceptions, interactions with others … totally opposite of the writings of Catholics in the Catholic world who are totally unselfconscious of Catholicism affecting their life.

F. Conclusion
The contemporary media of novels, film and TV dramas are devoid of life. Predominant is the sensational: extreme blatant in-your-face violence and sex, end-of-world scenarios, fantastic super-heroes, or dark portrayals of the everyday life of broken families, abuse, rape, angry men and women. Or progressive propaganda stories which take pleasure in cynically reducing any seemingly “good” or traditional life-style as basically hypocritical and corrupt.

Moral and cultural and subjective Relativism and Reductionism reigns supreme. There is no real substance of beauty, truth or goodness about contemporary culture. No real end nor resolution to life’s problems. Nihilism underpins it all. Concepts of “being nice” and “being tolerant” are pulled out of a hat to save the plot and redeem the hero. No storyline is allowed to really examine where in the “hat” these values come from or why they are there in first place.

That Horrible Word, “Sin”

The Modern world spurns this word. All sorts of evil connotations arise at its very mention: guilt, psychological assessment, right-wing fundamentalism, hypocrisy, etc.

So, let us start once again at the beginning:

All things are good. Everything made is good, according to their natures: the atom, the stars, the planets, all living things, even earthquakes and tidal waves – all being true to the nature, the pull of things to be as they are. Everything which exists is good for the fact of existing is good – the very wonder of being here, now, it is. All is good.

But things decay, die, cease to be. And things change and become other things which themselves are good. Nothing in the physical world of nature is forever: galaxies may form and expand to gaseous nothingness, suns die and become black holes, plants and animals die and create other forms of living matter. It is good that things fulfil their natures. All things move towards their ends, pulled to join with other things. There is a universal gravity of all things to become. Yet, none becomes perfect. That is the nature of things.

Man is a living thing. Man has a nature, a nature to fulfil as a living being but also as a knowing, willing thing. A man thirsts to know the natures of things. A man hungers to be fulfilled as a person. But as a person he cannot be fulfilled without his heart and mind completely in unity with a reality beyond the limit of his own imagination. He seeks happiness, but which cannot be found unless his mind and heart are at one with truth greater than the present, and with and in a loving personal relationship which never dies.

So, on the one hand, man is good, and to fulfil his nature he must not only fulfil the demands of physical existence, but also the seemingly unreachable happiness of his mind dwelling in and attaining truth, and his heart’s true desire to be in love forever.

Anything which leads him to the fulfilling of his nature is good. All things are good. All things can lead him to fulfilling his nature.

But Man is a willing thing. Man has the ability to choose among an endless array of objects, things, events, etc., in order to attain his end: being a living thing and gaining possession of the truth and fulfilment of his person – unity with personal goodness.

Choices are to be made: what will this choice lead to? One thing may lead to death. I die if I take this poison; I live and continue living if I don’t, yet the poison may not kill me, but cure me of a sickness. The poison is good but bad in some circumstances. In one circumstance to choose poison is to choose a lower good – nice-tasting drink, satisfying, but deadly in one amount; or life-giving in another amount. The best choice is one that leads to the higher good.

All choices are between a higher good and a lower good. We make mistakes in choosing between goods. We do not always know the full nature of a thing or act, and so we act against our natures in ignorance. We lack the full truth of nature. Or, we deliberately choose the lower good for purely selfish reasons: we choose to continue watching TV rather than help wash the dishes: both of which are goods, but one good is higher than the other.

To choose the lower good is to go against our own nature, which is to reject the end for which our mind and heart yearns for. To choose to continue watching TV instead of helping wash  the dishes is to prefer one small satisfaction of our desire to making wholesome the order of the household, social harmony, family peace, these latter being helpful in our living on earth and ordering our habits towards the goal of being in unity with total goodness.

This little choice of the lower good strikes against our end. It strikes at the heart of what we are to be. Animals do not do that! Every person on earth does do that: choose lower goods and not goodness! That is what is called “sinfulness”. These choices deny our natures. We raise our fist at our own nature. Actually, we have raised our fist against the whole universe: the universe of things do not do what we do –  all other things obey their own natures. We don’t.

Yes, I know, one will say, we are not perfect. We are not perfect as living things because we cannot always choose to stay alive or to grow physically. But we all have used our very freedom, the very noble, dignified ability to choose, as a means to undermine nature: our nature. This habit of Man is bad!

There are even worse choices – to choose things which attack another’s nature and at the same time our own: to give in to anger, lust, envy, sloth, greed, and do murder, theft, and adultery to appease our prideful desires. Not only are we, of all things in the universe, oriented to weakness in choosing goodness, but also we do great harm to others as well as ourselves.

We choose also to ignore this state of being Man, and deny that things are good, that reality is a wonderful thing, full of things, of being, of goodness, of truth. We choose to deny that we have a nature pointed to goodness. We deny that there is any real goodness, that it is all a man-made subjective reality. Yet, we are really cowards at heart, because we do not act on these denials: we want goodness of ourselves, we see the goodness of others, we hope for goodness, we thirst to be loved, to love others, and we thirst for the truth about nature. And all to avoid guilt: the guilt which comes from actually seeing the nature of ourselves, our true end, and our failure to reach for it. We shake our fist but only the truly insane act on that total denial.

And guilt is bad. Yep. Guilt implies punishment. There is a deep-seated understanding in us all that some kind of justice exists. We certainly are not slow to demand justice when it does not concern the faults of ourselves: we can easily become social justice warriors, or religious fundamentalists accusing the unfaithful. Our sense of justice is of course true. The demands of Justice means punishment: good shall be rewarded and evil punished – the heart of all morality, the basis of order in society.

How to escape this quandary? The quandary? Avoiding the implications of being a human being and guilt, yet not wanting justice to fall on ourselves?

Our hearts need healing. We need to be loved out of ourselves. We need to touch true love, to really feel and to really know that we are loved despite of ourselves. We need to be shown mercy. We need to see and to know goodness physically – no airy-fairy intangible goodness. We need our minds, and our thoughts to be enlightened in the darkness of our hearts – for our hearts will cover up truth so quickly to prevent the light! And only something acting outside of ourselves yet inside ourselves in our hiddenness can heal us. Our poor, poor, frightened, wounded hearts!!

Now, let us cut to the chase!

All the above is not new. Every man since time began has faced this problem. Every wise man has commented on it – the problem of sin, guilt and justice. From the beginning of time cultures, societies, have all tried to solve the problem. The solution is obvious: religious belief. That there is goodness itself, that man has to face up to that goodness, that there is ultimately goodness and justice. That goodness will be rewarded and evil ultimately be punished. That sin, guilt and punishment are with us, unavoidable.

You cannot avoid the problem by skirting around it by claiming it is all a social or political issue, pure evolutionary constructs of society. Why? because one has to make choices between what kind of society or political system will suit your own concepts of goodness. You will be forced back to one of two choices: either it is all subjective – any goodness system I choose is purely for here and now; or governed by an objective observation of nature and man.

The Nazi, the Pol Pot, Hannibal Lector, or the saintly: nothing to choose between them. Evolution depends on the word “fittest for survival” – note the word “fittest”, and “survival”. Why should one accept either word, unless one had already made a judgement about nature having laws, about survival being a good! If nature has laws written into itself then so has man.

Either there a reality in the words “goodness” or there is nothing good nor evil, but my thinking makes it so. No-one really acts on the latter option. It is unsustainable. And so  we are left to religious solutions.

Note please, that this whole essay does not mention God. Well … it does. The word, goodness derives from the word, God. I know it hurts, but once one realises one cannot escape the reality of goodness one cannot escape the reality of Godness. And why does it hurt? Because we are guilty! We cannot escape guilt, because we cannot escape sin.

Could goodness itself be so real and physical to touch us and reach into us and heal our wounded hearts? Could goodness be true, straight up front, clear, absolute “mano e mano”, man to man? Could goodness speak and say “I love you, I who made you, forgive you for offending against the very nature I gave you.” Could goodness instead of punishing us reward us for sinning by saying “I will give you your very heart’s desire: pure love physically forever and ever.