Astrud Gilberto, RIP
Dead Can Dance: The Serpent's Egg

A Couple of Questions I'm Not Interested in Discussing (Anymore)

Some years back there was, in the comments here, an exchange about the tendency of political and other opinions to harden in older people. If I remember correctly, one person suggested that this was essentially a sort of ossification, with certain opinions becoming so much a mental habit as to become an unchangeable part of the person. There may also have been an implication that it was a form of fatigue or laziness; I can't remember for sure and have not been able to formulate a query that will locate the exchange for me.

But I do remember thinking--I don't know whether I said--that the mechanism is a little different. A few years before he died, when he was getting too old and infirm to sail, as he had loved to do for most of his life, William F. Buckley, Jr. published a column in which he mentioned that he had at last sold his boat, giving it up as "a prelude to giving up everything." (I put that in quotation marks because I remember the words that way, but I could be mistaken. I'm pretty sure I'm not mistaken about the meaning.)

Old age is among other things a process of giving up, willingly or not; of letting go. That, I think, is a factor in the way this  narrowing of opinion happens. You simply recognize that the limits on your remaining time and abilities force you to abandon certain things that you had once done, or wanted to do. And it applies to thought as well as to activity. Perhaps you once had enough interest in the debate about health care, insurance, and so forth to formulate and publish an opinion about it. At a certain age you may, possibly without consciously deciding to do so, put that question among those on which you no longer want to expend your time as the remaining amount of it diminishes. That opinion thus becomes "hardened," not so much because you are obstinate and ossifying but because you no longer devote mental space to it. It's like moving to a smaller house or an apartment: you no longer need or want or perhaps even are able to use and maintain the larger one. 

Here are two matters which have for me passed into that stage of abandonment:

(1) What is conservatism? And its ancillary, what does it mean to be a conservative?

Attempting to define words that are intrinsically--by definition, you might say--impossible to define with great precision can be an enjoyable pastime, and in some instances useful. Discussing these questions can lead to a clarification of one's thinking. But sometimes it's a waste of time. And in this particular case there is, lurking behind the debate, an attempt to draw a boundary which allows one to say "So-and-so is not a real conservative" or "Such-and-such is not real conservatism." Often the word "real" is dropped. A standard of orthodoxy is erected, and some attempt at enforcing it is made. 

On this subject the debate is made even more frustrating by the fact that in this country "conservatism" is usually classical liberalism. Trying to sort it out is tiresome. I've never cared very much about doing it, and now I don't care at all.

Someone once raised his main objection to the whole debate by noting that, for him, the word "conservative" is descriptive, not prescriptive. Exactly. I'm willing to call myself, and be called, a conservative, because the word seems reasonably accurate, both abstractly and practically, as a description of my views. But debating the nature of True Conservatism? In the early days of that recognition I was mildly interested in debates about the definition. By now I think I've heard it all, and I don't care if someone says I'm not a True Conservative. (I especially don't care about the juvenile taunt from progressives who think they've won a victory when you say something that doesn't fit their idea, usually equally juvenile, of what conservatives think.)

And now it's almost crazy to have the debate at all, with the institutions that conservatives wanted to preserve being dominated by progressives who use them to destroy the principles behind them, to keep the name and facade while turning the institution into something else entirely. (Another debate in which I am rapidly losing interest: whether or not that is happening. If you don't see it, it's very unlikely that you can be persuaded to do so.)

(2) What is Catholic art? And the ancillary, what does it mean to be a Catholic artist?

This one's been abandoned for different reasons, almost the opposite reasons, from the previous one. In this case the question is not intrinsically forever unsettled, but pretty definitely settled, and the debate can only go back and forth repetitively over the same ground. Maritain, O'Connor, Percy, and many others have said what needs to be said: Catholic art is informed by Catholic belief but need not and in general should not be didactic. If you want to discuss that further, go ahead, but I'm going to go read or listen to music. 

This crochety post was prompted by an encounter with that second question. Frequently it's accompanied or prompted by a complaint that "There is no [or little] worthwhile Catholic art/fiction/poetry today" or, in question form, "Why is there no [or little] worthwhile Catholic art/fiction/poetry today?" 

Simon Caldwell discussed the matter at The Catholic Herald:

And in the secular culture the Catholic Faith is once again a source of scandal, viewed, in the words of Dana Gioia, the American Catholic poet, as disreputable, déclassé and retrograde. It means that it is nearly impossible today to get a “Catholic” novel published. Mainstream publishers are not well-disposed to books with religious content.

What makes a novel “Catholic”? 

I wanted to stop reading at that point, and in fact only skimmed the rest. I agree with almost everything he says in answer to his question. But do we really need to go over it yet again? Maybe some do, but I don't. And by the way his "nearly impossible" is not true. There is surely prejudice (and more) against visibly Catholic writing in secular literary circles. But if the work is really good it has as much of a shot at publication as anything else of comparable quality. I put it that way because it's surely the case that bad or mediocre work that flatters progressives and pushes their ideas is more likely to be published than bad or mediocre work that pushes Catholic ideas. So write better, Catholic novelist.

In response to Caldwell, Katy Carl, novelist and editor of Dappled Things, wrote an exasperated response, "We still have no Catholic fiction?":

Our time is precious and tragically brief, so I will get straight to the point. The point is that I want ever so gently to suggest, in response to a recent Catholic Herald (UK) piece, that “the time for the 21st-Century Catholic novel” has not only arrived, it dropped its luggage on our metaphorical doorstep a good round number of years ago and has ever since been crashing on our collective couch. It’s time we all noticed. Maybe it would be cool if we brought it a cup of coffee or something.

Last time the Herald got worried about the state of Catholic fiction—a bit less than three years ago, now—I was invited to participate in a response piece that pointed to the actual, vibrant, flourishing state of Catholic contributions to the culture of arts and letters. Since then the picture on the ground has only grown lusher. The truth is that we are living in an explosion of high-quality Catholic fiction being produced in every quarter, by writers from around the world and around the corner.

She goes on to list a number of recent distinctly Catholic works of literature, mostly novels, some published by big-name publishers and pretty well-received. She's right. In this case it's not age, but relative youth, that should leave the debate behind. The time for fretting about the nature of Catholic literature and its current prospects is past. Time to just get on with it. 


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If you don't want to discuss these topics, does that mean we shouldn't comment on them? ;-)

By no means. Here’s your chance to offer a definition of true conservatism or Catholic art without me arguing with you. :-)

I clicked on your link and went back to read the post from 2009 where you quote a Dane. So my only thought is that I would have preferred to be born in Denmark than here, even though (of course) the USA is the greatest country on the planet. LOL!
Not sure what to think about Catholic art and literature and such. I spend the vast majority of my reading time on either established or dead authors, which means I do not give new writers much of a notice at all. However, I do see new books coming out due to looking at various websites. If what I see is any indication of reality, then the WOKEsters are certainly trying their best to take over publishing as they already have the film and TV industries.
This would of course involve those with less diverse voices being shoved to one side. It is unfortunate that in the name of diversity you get the feeling that some with less talent are pushed to the front of the line when it seems to me that the cream of the crop will always rise to the top (e.g. Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, etc.).
There is a craze for over-representation that then of course causes the crazy re-actions such as what the governor of Florida pushes. I try my best to ignore all of this as best I can, but it's not easy.

I just started listening to the audiobook version of The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I think I missed reading it when it was published in the 1990s, but not sure. Anyway, some of the characters had a Catholic background early in life, but are definitely no longer believers; in fact, they're into the Greek cult of Dionysus. And yet the book has a Catholic feel to it.

Tartt, who converted to Catholicism, wrote this in an essay: "As a novelist who happens to be a Roman Catholic, faith is vital in the process of making my work and in the reasons I am driven to make it."

But she acknowledged a 'constant tension' between her religious beliefs and secular vocation, and explained why she is so careful about combining the two. Nothing is more damaging to fiction, she wrote, than writers who try to impose their beliefs on their novels in a forced or unnatural way. Therefore, writers should 'shy from asserting those convictions directly in their work'.”

I remember when The Secret History came out, which means it must have been talked about a lot, because I'm not exactly in close touch with contemporary fiction. I never read it, though. My wife has read The Goldfinch and another one of Tartt's books, not Secret History.

Anyway, I think most serious artists understand that didacticism is a bad idea. You can not only get away with it but be rewarded for it if your didacticism is for the currently accepted proper ideas, but you're likely to be punished later when they aren't as popular.

Stu, don't believe most of what you read about De Santis and books. "Banning" is one of the most deceptively-used words journalism and politics these days. Re "over-representation"--some people are willing to say, usually quietly, that Amanda Gorman's inauguration poem is actually not very good. ;-)

Also: I admit that my support for contemporary Catholic fiction is...weak. I just don't read much contemporary fiction. One thing I haven't abandoned in old age is the attempt to fill in gaps in my education with regard to older literature. E.g. Thomas Hardy--as we were discussing the other day, I haven't read any of his novels. Sad!

As a non-Catholic, the second question, although interesting in an academic sort of way, has never really engaged me personally.

The first question is one that I too am no longer very interested in, although I was at one point. The question that I find much more pressing is, what's actually worth conserving, and are we doing a good enough job with those things that are under threat?

I could just as well have said "Christian art" as "Catholic art," because the same questions and answers come up. But Catholics talk about it much more.

"are we doing a good enough job..." Heh. We most certainly are not. I think our constitutional culture and institutions are among the things worth conserving, and one of the Big Facts of our time is that large and very powerful factions don't believe in them anymore. And large numbers of ordinary citizens just don't care, if they even know at all. This is coming out into the open more and more.

Yes, you're correct. It's hard to be prepared for a threat when you're either unaware of it or just apathetic.

Was just reading a piece on the writing of Wilfrid Sheed, the son of Maisie Ward and Frank Sheed, and this made me smile:

"Sheed was keen on keeping the personal allegiances and private lives of writers separate from their work.

'I question the wisdom of writers coming all the way out of the closet—any closet. Having been recently accused of closet Christianity myself, I speak with feeling about closets. Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh stuck their heads briefly out of the Christian one and had to fight their way back in. Because, in an instant, the scavengers had their number—they were Catholic novelists, which explained everything: every plot twist, every two-bit apercu. The uncreative are grateful for these skeleton keys. Originality is promptly flattened like tinfoil. Catholic novelist, Catholic woman novelist; the more words you can pile up front, the less remains to be done….'."

"Delighted & Distracted: Reading Wilfrid Sheed again"

Thanks, that’s really interesting. I remember a friend recommending him many years ago but have never read anything by him.

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