"The end is where we start from."

-T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Can Literature Save Western Civilization?

Ben Hagglund, Julie Pearce, Elizabeth Callaghan, and Timothy Pearce
in front of the Rainier Club in Seattle, October 16, 2010. 
Not pictured: Jeffrey Pearce (he was taking the photograph!)

The topic of the Seattle Intercollegiate Studies Institute Conference on October 16, 2010 at the Rainier Club was "Moral Imagination in Literature: The Stories We Tell, The People We Become." Our small contingent from Stanwood arrived about an hour early to make sure we got parking and good seats. We were greeted by Mary Radford and Douglas Mills from ISI, found seats, got food, and began to pore over the book table.

At 1:00 p.m., the conference opened with a thoughtful introduction on the moral imagination by ISI Chief Academic Officer Mark Henrie. Dr. Henrie shared that the moral imagination is "to see what is really real," and he reminded the audience that Dr. Russell Kirk believed the reading of great literature could be used to cultivate the moral imagination. He then introduced the first speaker, Dr. Glenn Arbery, a professor at Assumption College in Massachusetts.

Dr. Arbery addressed the topic "Why Literature Matters." He commented insightfully that great literature has a special grace to suspend your habitual affect temporarily while you read it. This can be a moral opportunity for the reader, but can also present moral danger to the reader. The consequences of moral choices played out in the imagination can created a catharsis in the reader: this is the opportunity. If the reader reacts poorly to the catharsis, he demonstrates Dr. Arbery's point about the danger of suspended affect.

Arbery spent much of his address talking about the lack of brilliance and moral imagination in Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom, and talking about what's right with classic literature. If a work is great, Abery says, you don't have to impose or create relevancy like Franzen and many other modern (or post-modern) novelists insist on doing.

The second speaker was Dr. Benjamin Alexander, a native of Ridge Springs, South Carolina, and currently a professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. His topic was "Literature and Cultural Renewal: Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy."

Dr. Alexander began by reading excerpts from literature that demonstrate modernistic despair. To understand the need for renewal, he said, you have to understand the literature of the last sixty years.

Dr. Alexander then went on to discuss how Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy dealt with despair in their work. As convinced disciples of Caroline Gordon and Saint Thomas Aquinas, both authors passed on Gordon's neo-Thomistic brilliance through their letter, and helped to create a second American Renaissance. Unlike the First American Renaissance, which floundered in Emersonian transcendentalism, the Second was grounded in faith.

Linking O'Connor and Percy to the vision of Dante's Divine Comedy, which heavily influenced both writers, Dr. Alexander discussed how explaining these connections to others helps them to really understand O'Connor. Dante, he said, was O'Connor's Virgil.

During the question and answer time, Dr. Alexander elaborated that O'Connor and Percy provided the diagnosis of our dying culture, and offered the medicine of renewal. Dr. Alexander also revealed that he is editing Percy's autobiography, very much hoping to get Percy's estate's permission to publish it. It clarifies much about Percy's Christian faith.

Dr. Alexander stated that we should read O'Connor as a Divine Comedian. She would want her work to be read in a theistic way, but would be surprised at all the ways people read her work. She showed us renewal through violence, and insisted on the Chaucerian path of the pilgrimage. Dr. Alexander closed by saying that O'Connor did as much as a Christian author can do with a deeply fragmented tradition.
The final speaker of the day was Dr. David Whalen of Hillsdale College in Michigan. His talk was "The Affinity of Politics and Literature: The Moral Imagination in the Public Square." He began by rehearsing a list of what literature is not, denouncing these things in favor of a list of what literature is: a good that requires no additional justification; an artifact, or made thing, that is an experience of mystery, a device that acts to tune the soul and mediate experience. One thing literature must not be is a series of moral lessons or inducements to moral behaviour, as this will lose the reader through boredom. An encyclopedia may be used as a doorstop, but that is not what it is created to do; just so, literature is not created to be a series of moralistic tales. Dr. Whalen rehearsed Saki's tale, "The Story-Teller," about an aunt who is trying to keep her nieces and nephew quiet by telling them a moral tale about a child who is saved from death because of her goodness. They are bored and disbelieving. A bachelor tells them a story of a good girl whose clinking medals she received for being good draw a wolf to her hiding spot, whereupon the wolf eats her. The children are delighted. The point? A good tale told for its own sake is better than a moral tale told as therapy to adjust behaviour.

Now, to the title of this blog post: Can Literature Save Western Civilization? Dr. Whalen believes it can. Our restoration, recovery, and health as a culture will not come through law, logic, might, trade, borders, religion, outlawing abortion. All of these things are good, but not sufficient. All of these things depend on something prior: the Moral Imagination. Argument does not work with political principle: Aristotle noted that a malformed conscience does not hear argument. First, we must create a habit of recognition of what is good. Good literature does this. (Here, I remembered the corrupted and deficient moral imagination of Eustace Scrubb in C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, malformed through his poor reading and education.) We must form the moral imagination through pre-reflective experiences, which literature gives us. Without this, we do not have right reason, and good things will not stick in our souls or our cultures. One example of how this works negatively is how laws about homosexual marriage have changed due to its supporters shifting our moral imaginations through TV, cinema and books. They made gay men funny and sympathetic, then moved on to more serious issues relating to homosexual acceptance.

Other notes on Dr. Whalen: our old ethic was Liberty, our new ethic is Comfort. Life is not about happiness anymore, but about coping. Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer is a perfect example of comfort and therapy, but, and this is something that dawned on me as I listened, at the end of the novel he is liberated by his agapic sacrifice on behalf of Kate.

The moral imagination is not a doctrine of relativity nor an absolute, like theology or science. We must shape our moral imagination first, then we can inhabit it. Dialogue won't work; deliberation is a waste of time. We must, to renew the culture, capture the moral imagination. Tuning the moral imagination is the solution; we get to good deliberation through the imagination, so politics is not the solution. Great books have the abiding ability to reorder the moral imagination; things become conceivable through reading good books. The moral imagination does not lend itself to didacticism: let yourself be taken up by it. Concentrate on the good the artist can provide, not on therapeutic tales created consciously (like Franzen's book Freedom.) We must treat our imaginations the way we should be treating our bodies: very good food, very good books, movies, art. Everything shapes the moral imagination, just like everything we eat shapes our bodies. Politics is not the agent to rescue the moral imagination; it is the other way around.

The day closed with insightful remarks on the Intercollegiate Studies Institute by Douglas Mills, Executive Vice President of ISI, and a lovely reception. We stayed for about an hour, talking with each other and with our friends, new and old. Thank you, ISI, for a brilliant day.