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Redeeming the dreary

When will artists discover the drama and richness of ordinary life?
Michael Kirke | 24 October 2011

One of the fundamental characteristics of modernism, that cultural shift in the way we see the world, ourselves and our condition, was the celebration of the ordinary – ordinary life, ordinary work, ordinary people and the ordinary things they do. Not everything about the “modern movement” – which began over a hundred years ago – was a boon to humanity. For Christians one dimension of modernism made a total muddle of theology and bears a big share of the blame for the creation of that “desert of relativism” of which Pope Benedict XVI speaks. But surely a vision of the ordinary things of life, liberated from the realm of the humdrum and the boring is something to rejoice in?

This positive dimension of our modern sensibility was taken up in a paper by an American professor teaching in Rome. Professor John Paul Wauck*, at a congress on Poetics and Christianity, spoke of a change in how Christians now see ordinary life. He described this change as “a genuine revolution” in terms of ascetical theology and found it epitomised in the words of St. Josemaría Escrivá when he wrote that the Christian vocation, “consists in making heroic verse out of the prose of each day.” Those words, along with all his teaching, moved Blessed Pope John Paul II to proclaim Escrivá “the saint of the ordinary” on the occasion of his canonisation in 2002.

Wauck was, however, setting out to explore another dimension of modernity’s celebration of the ordinary – how this celebration in general, and this theological revolution in particular, seemed to have to struggle to make its way into literature. He set out to look at how literature and ordinary life stand in relation to one another, and more particularly, to look at how Christian faith might affect that relationship. “Ultimately,” he said, “the question I hope to raise is whether a change in how Christians see ordinary life could change the way we see, read and write literature.”

Professor Wauck seems to suggest that there is a conspiracy against the ordinary in a great deal of literature, and particularly in the classics, ancient and modern, against the celebration of the ordinary. This conspiracy is rooted in our apparent deep attraction to what we see as the heroic. He speaks of “the tension between the thirst for the heroic, grand, ecstatic life and the reality of the life we actually live, with its humbler virtues.” He quotes the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor:

“We are in conflict, even confusion, about what it means to affirm ordinary life… We are as ambivalent about heroism as we are about the value of the workaday goals that it sacrifices. We struggle to hold on to a vision of the incomparably higher, while being true to the central modern insights about the value of the ordinary life. We sympathize with both the hero and the anti-hero; and we dream of a world in which one could be, in the same act, both.”

To develop his point, Wauck draws on the work of the American writer, Walker Percy, a convert to Catholicism, quoting his biographer, Jay Tolson: “The horror of ‘dailiness’ is in fact the starting point for many of Walker Percy’s novels, and if it is not the central problem for many of Walker Percy’s works it is always at least one of the problems.”

“Tolson”, Wauck says, “uses the word ‘horror’ advisedly, for Percy does not mince words:

‘[A]s Einstein once said, ordinary life in an ordinary place on an ordinary day in the modern world is a dreary business. I mean dreary. People will do anything to escape this dreariness: booze up, hit the road, gaze at fatal car wrecks, shoot up heroin, spend money on gurus, watch pornographic movies, kill themselves, even watch TV. Einstein said that was the reason he went into mathematical physics.’”

 How many of us, when we pick up our papers to read the news, are drawn to the “great” events, the exceptional, the extraordinary? Is that not the definition of news? Not many of us have the insight which moved the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh to write his 1938 poem, “Epic”:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided: who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”

That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important ? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said : I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

And so does God. The mite of the widow tossed into the Temple collection box looked like a very small and ordinary thing. It is now, for all mankind, a symbol of heroic detachment and sacrifice.

But for Kavanagh’s ordinary Monaghan farmers, fighting over scraps of land, this was warfare. In some ways fighting has raised the stakes in the human imagination, lifting our actions out of the realm of the ordinary and into the heroic. Wauck alludes to this when he again cites Percy’s observations about our struggle with the ordinary.

“The apparent emptiness of ordinary life is only intensified by our occasional tastes of the extraordinary, dramatic and heroic – nowhere more typically experienced, as Percy was keenly aware, than in that timeless feature of heroic literature, warfare.”

But if literature in general has had problems coping with the ordinary, literature in the context of Christian faith is where he finds the greatest challenge. The revolution in ascetic theology has still, he feels, to translate into the realm of Christian literature. He asks, “If Christianity offers an answer to the dilemma of ordinary life on the existential level, might it not also open up new possibilities for capturing the grandeur of ordinary life in literature?” The perception is that clearly it has not done so yet.

He illustrates the problem by quoting a letter from the non-believing American novelist, Shelby Foote, to Walker Percy who was his friend, in which he says: show me a Catholic writer who doesn’t write about doubt, putting God in scare-quotes, but instead handles religion with the matter-of-factness of Maupassant writing about sex. Certainly the oeuvre in Catholic Ireland’s substantial literary canon would seem to bear out the validity of that challenge.

But even in this Irish context, there are exceptions. The later novels of John McGahern – Amongst Women and That They May Face the Rising Sun – show not only a wonderful and delightful portrayal of the lives of simple and ordinary people in rural and small-town Ireland, but also show them in the simple practice of their Catholic faith. In these novels – written over the last years of McGahern’s life – there is the full spectrum of the faithful, the unfaithful, and those with doubts, but all are sympathetically and authentically presented in ways which do not diminish the glorious ordinariness of their lives and their communities.

However, that being relatively exceptional, Wauck’s speculations remain very pertinent.  “How might one, then, in practice,” he asks, “convey the heroism of ordinary Christian life? To appreciate the difficulty, consider, for example, the following point from The Way by Saint Josemaría Escrivá, the champion of sanctity in ordinary life:”

“We were reading – you and I – the heroically ordinary life of that man of God.  And we saw him struggle whole months and years (what an ‘accounting’ he kept in his particular examination of conscience!) one day at breakfast he would win, the next day he’d lose…. “I didn’t take butter… I did take butter!” he would jot down. May we too – you and I – live our…. ‘drama’ of the butter.”

The protagonist of this little drama was an Irish Jesuit priest, Fr Willie Doyle, who went on to die a more traditionally heroic death in the trenches of the Great War where he served as a chaplain in the British Army. It was, however, the “butter” drama of his daily interior struggle which appealed to Escrivá as an example for ordinary Christians in their own struggles to live lives pleasing to God.

Wauck speculates at the end of his lecture that perhaps it is not possible to directly portray the grandeur of an ordinary Christian life. “Perhaps the ordinary is not meant to be the subject of great Christian literature. I can think of no a priori reason why it has to be.

And yet, might it not be that, by and large, Christians simply haven’t tried to capture the drama of ordinary life? Are there really no heroes and villains, sorrows and joys, dangers and dramas to describe in day-to-day Christian existence, or are we simply refusing or failing to see them? We do, after all, in principle, believe that each Christian, every day, at home, in the office, on the street, is walking on a battlefield – a battlefield where the stakes are very high, higher even than mere life and death. That same Christian is also, at the same time, caught up in an extraordinary love story – a love affair with a God who is willing to die for him, Who gives Himself to him as food to eat every day. That same Christian is on a journey that will take him farther than Ulysses ever dreamed of travelling.

I for one resist the idea that we are still living under the sign of Boileau, a French poet of the 17th century,  who said that the mysteries of the faith are ‘too majestic to be represented in a work of art.’”

“The project that lies ahead of us” he suggests, “seems to have been glimpsed already by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), who wrote that ‘the great poems of heaven and hell have been written, and the great poem of earth remains to be written.’ To put it another way: where, we might ask, is the Dante of this world? Surely, it would be an odd thing for a Christian to maintain that Homer and Virgil have exhausted what there is to say about the earth.” 

Patrick Kavanagh would agree.

Michael Kirke is a freelance writer in Dublin. He blogs at Garvan Hill.

* John Paul Wauck studied renaissance history and literature at Harvard and lives in Rome, where he is a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | Christianity, literature, ordinary life
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