Friday, November 19, 2010

The plungings and the snortings, the sportings and the buffoonings - Newman loves literature

My town’s public library has a Religious Fiction section, over by the Mystery and Science Fiction shelves, and about the same size.  I have no idea what is in it.  I have looked, but that was not much help.  Every book I glanced at was, more or less, terrible, but I suspect that the outcome would have been statistically similar in any other part of the library, controlling for publication date and so on.

John Henry Newman, in his discourses on “Literature” and “English Catholic Literature,” does not argue against religious fiction, not exactly, but he is suspicious, even though he himself was the author of a Catholic novel (Loss and Gain, 1848).  He defends non-Catholic, and even anti-Catholic, literature.  He defends their place in the Catholic university, and is not convinced that the Catholic university will have much of a role in creating something called “Catholic literature.”

Newman’s ecumenicism is a delight, although it has its limits – he does not hesitate to call Hobbes and Hume “evil” and a “disgrace” (“ECL,” 276), but he does not then say a Catholic should not read them or authors like them:

They [Milton and Gibbon] are great English authors, each breathing hatred to the Catholic Church in his own way, each a proud and rebellious creature of God, each gifted with incomparable gifts.

We must take things as they are, if we take them at all. (“ECL,” 268)

Newman’s keenest argument is that even if we would like to insulate ourselves from writers of dubious belief, it is too late.  Our language is suffused with theirs.  The English Catholic’s ordinary speech is already full of Shakespeare and Gibbon, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.  “English Literature will have ever been Protestant” (272, emphasis Newman’s) and “Man’s work will savour of man” (274).  I will admit that I am almost always attracted to arguments against purity, that one must accept impurity as a fact of the world and act accordingly.

Does this sound familiar?

This is not a day for great writers, but for good writing, and a great deal of it.  There never was a time when men wrote so much and so well, and that, without being of any great account themselves. (284)

Newman blames periodicals, not MFA programs.  The complaint is perpetual.  Was it ever true?  Was it ever not true?

One last quotation, which tips Newman’s hand.  He has to defend literature, classical, English, or otherwise.  He loves it too much:

National Literature is, in a parallel way, the untutored movements of the reason, imagination, passions, and affections of the natural man, the leapings and the friskings, the plungings and the snortings, the sportings and the buffoonings, the clumsy play and the aimless toil, of the noble, lawless savage of God’s intellectual creation. (“ECL,” 275)

Now that sounds like fun.  It is fun.


  1. So, have you read the section on Newman in Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians? I imagine it would be even funnier (or more infuriating) having read a bit of Newman's own writing.

  2. No, I've not read Strachey. He was a lot of fun in the movie Carrington! How does he go after Newman?

  3. I was going to remark that a "religious fiction" section was redundant, but then I remembered that you want to encourage "safely antagonistic" blogging here! My bad...

  4. Richard: LOL!

    AR: The section is actually on Cardinal Manning, but features Newman heavily because of their Oxford Group connection. Anyway, Strachey's schtick is basically the standard smug Modernist contempt toward the self-importance of his Victorian forbears, but he does bitchy pretty hilariously well:

    "Christianity, in short, had become entangled in a series of unfortunate circumstances from which it was the plain duty of Newman and his friends to rescue it forthwith. What was curious was that this task had been reserved, in so marked a manner, for them. Some of the divines of the seventeenth century had, perhaps, been vouchsafed glimpses of the truth; but they were glimpses and nothing more. No, the waters of the True Faith had dived underground at the Reformation, and they were waiting for the wand of Newman to strike the rock before they could burst forth once more into the light of day. The whole matter, no doubt, was Providential—what other explanation could there be?" (p. 20 of my old Harcourt Brace edition)

  5. Oh, Richard, that was low! Funny, but low. (So I say as a not particularly easily offended religious person.)

    And Emily, loved that quote from Strachey. What I find particularly hilarious is that in my crankier moments I'd be inclined to make the same comment about some postmodern theologians today, only they would say that the true faith went underground at the time of Constantine's conversion.

    But that's my own particular hobby horse. I actually mostly wanted to pipe up to say that I love that line "We must take things as they are, if we take them at all." None of our philosophical and artistic forebears were consistently right-thinking (nor are we). We must accept that and move on.

  6. "Funny, but low" was my intention, Teresa, but thanks for being such a good sport about that crack! I'm not sure my missionary aunt and uncle would have approved, though.

    Amateur Reader, I'm beginning to find your JHN posts much more revelatory than initially expected. At the very least, he's turning out to be a more interesting writer than I would have guessed based on your questioning of him and others' responses. Who woulda thunk it?

  7. Sorry, that should be "judging by" rather than "based on." I meant it as a compliment to you and your readers!

  8. I considered a little argument by authority in favor of Newman - Joyce greatly admired his work, and included him in the parody chapter of Ulysses. Newman's a great, suitably complex, writer.

    Emily - thanks for the quotation. Not fair, but not exactly untrue! I'm with Teresa on the recurrence of the theological claim. And on the value of that quotation. Newman's absolute certainty about the next world is beyond my understanding, but his modesty about this world is admirable.

    An irony for me is that I read a fair amount of religious literature - I just read a whole dang book on how to run a Catholic university! - but it's sure not the stuff in that Religious Fiction section.