Friday, February 19, 2016

Literature for the Modern Mind: An Introduction

One of my major motivations for starting this blog, a year and a half ago, was my desire to sort things out for myself as a teacher of literature in a Catholic school. After several years of teaching, I had come to understand that the modern high school student is starved in many areas that should be of concern to Catholic educators.

Not the least of these is the inner life. Regardless of their academic ability, students in general seem to lack a vocabulary for speaking about those parts of themselves that they cannot quantify. What drives them? What moves them? What brings them hope, or fear, or joy? When do they feel empty, or fulfilled, and why? Because our age has little to offer them in the way of answers, they have little to say. In more religious terms, students lack the ability to discern and give voice to movements in their souls. This realm seems so subjective and ephemeral—what could there possibly be to say about it that would not be conjecture? After all, these inner things are just feelings, and feelings, like opinions (so the logic goes) exist in the hermetically sealed interior, unable to be affirmed, contradicted, or related to anyone else’s private experience. Much easier to stick to the world of matter, where things are clear and easy to speak about.

This rift between mind and matter is the hallmark of our modern age, I would argue. It is a kind of contemporary Gnosticism, and we see its effects everywhere, especially in our art. (See Christopher Alexander to get a sense of how this reveals itself in our modern architecture, or Roger Scruton for a penetrating take on its effects on modern visual art and music.) I would suggest that the stereotypical modern literary novel, in which not too much happens outside of characters’ heads—and thus the ultimate measure of which is not the workings of the plot but the deftness of the author’s prose in describing what goes on inside that hermetically sealed chamber—is another effect, or casualty, if you will, of the modern rift.

We see the rift in how we think about ethics. If mind is ultimately a private sphere that just happens to be yoked to a hulking, smelly mass called a body, then how can what we dwell upon in its chamber be measured against anything else? Or how can what we do with our own bodies be likewise weighed, since such a weighing would imply that they have a purpose, and are not just accidentally attached to us?

Thus the only real measure of our behavior becomes whether or not we infringe upon the rights of others. This is essentially a contractual understanding of morality, for infringement implies a violation of the stated (or implied) will of another. If others consent to whatever it is we engage in with them, there is no infringement, and thus no real issue. Ask any teenager, even the most morally uptight—they may assert that certain behaviors are right and certain behaviors are wrong, but they will have a hard time explaining why unless it comes to a situation where there is a clear violation of the rights of another individual, such as theft or physical assault. And hey, to be honest, I have a hard time, too—our society is no longer oriented toward transcendent law, religious or otherwise.

I’m not trying to write an ethical treatise here, so I’ll get to my point. Un-doing this rending of mind and body is no easy chore, but it is an essential one for Catholic educators, for Christianity, along with the other major monotheistic faiths, is founded on the union of the two spheres.

Literature class is where this re-grafting can happen. And I think this framework of re-grafting, of reuniting the physical with the spiritual, can help teachers of literature select works when they’re putting together their reading lists. I don’t think it should be the only measure by which we select our literature, but it should be an important one, if not the most important one.

It’s hard here precisely to say what I mean without sounding formulaic and trite, and I want to avoid that, because that is exactly the wrong direction to head. But I guess I really mean what Flannery O’Connor did when she talked about a Catholic novelist as one who was open to mystery, rather than one committed to filling his or her fiction with moral behavior. Hers is not an unimportant point: if we are aiming to use literature as a way of introducing our students to a Catholic worldview, simply eliminating stories with objectionable behavior will not do the trick. (Of course, any teacher needs to use discretion when assigning what to read. But if violence and sex are out, well, there goes all of Shakespeare.)

The idea of “mystery” is essentially what I’m trying to get at, for the world cannot be mysterious when mind and matter are spinning on different axes, as our age likes to think that they are. Mystery results when spirit and flesh intersect, when each realm has purchase on the other and constantly draws the other to itself. 

All good art tends toward mystery, I think, in trying to give meaning to our lives, even if that meaning is only acknowledged by the hole where it should be. To suggest that our lives have meanings, however hazy it may appear, is to attempt to allow matter and spirit to speak to each other.

Some works of literature do this more dramatically, more recognizably, and more effectively than others. Which works these are, or at least have been for me, is what I’d like to address in a series of upcoming posts.  This series will probably (read—most definitely) be broken up by other posts, so I’ll try to keep them numbered to maintain a semblance of order.

A few disclaimers: it’s doubtful that I will finish what I set out to accomplish, so I expect to peter out before I write about all the books, plays, and poems I intended to. Not all the works will be by Catholic authors, though some will be. Most of the works will be canonical, and thus familiar to many, but, in trying to write about the way in which they address this problem of the bifurcated self, I hope to say something that appears fresh. I’ll try to mix up older works with more recent ones, but don’t be surprised if many of the works are old, because ones from the modern age—the last 100 years—will more likely be symptomatic of the conundrum than offer a way out. We’ll see where this goes!

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