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?"
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.