For several years before the pandemic I moderated an adult education course on the Catholic novel. It was a wonderful experience for me and apparently for many of those who attended the course. I cannot recall the number of years I offered the course. Perhaps more than 15 years.
Whatever the time period was, during the course the students and I either read or re-read over 100 Catholic novels. I am not a professional literary critic, but I came to believe that some of the novels we read were masterpieces, others were exceptionally good, and some were not very good.
One novelist whose work was outstanding was Alice McDermott. I think we read at least six of her novels. Alice Has a new book out that is not a novel but is a collection of essays about fiction. Entitled “What About the Baby?: Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction” (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, pp. 242, $27.00), it is an exceptionally good work.
There may be many books by writers of fiction offering their thoughts on the art of fiction, but Alice’s is the first one I have read and I found it fascinating. Alice’s insights into writing fiction are both interesting and illuminating. I found the chapter “Faith and Literature” especially provocative. Noting that as a young adult she had drifted away from Catholicism, Alice writes the following:
“Having been raised a Catholic, and having gone through the requisite turning away from religion in young adulthood — such a familiar and predictable loss of faith, so firmly associated in my mind with adolescent rebellion that even now I hear the whine of an indignant teenager in the voices of my peers who define themselves as ‘recovering Catholics’ — I discovered in my apostate years that all the questions my faith had taught me to raise, all the questions my religion had attempted to answer, were currently under consideration in the world’s great literature” (p. 171).
What especially interested me in Alice’s essay was her comparison between religious faith and the passionate intuition that seems to drive artists to create. I think in teaching some philosophy courses the idea of comparing the two occurred to me, but I never pursued the topic. In a course I teach on philosophy and film, I spend some time trying to communicate what the intuition is that seems to drive artists to create.
I rely very heavily on the insights of philosopher Jacques Maritain. The French Thomist claimed that the two components that make up any significant work of art are the matter and the creative intuition. The matter is relatively easy to understand. It refers to the material that the artist uses to create. For example, paint and canvas for paintings, stone for sculpture, words and rhythm for poetry, plot and characters for novels. The other component, the creative intuition, is impossible to understand completely.
Even Maritain did not completely understand a creative intuition. It is not an idea but rather an insight into reality that cannot be verbalized but that drives the artist to create. It is present in the artist, should be present in the finished work and somehow experienced by the person encountering the work. Film director Ingmar Bergman, perhaps the greatest talent in the history of motion pictures, offered the following example of a creative intuition.
Imagine you are sitting in a room on a sunny day. You see some specks of dust floating in the sunlight that is coming through the window. One speck of dust catches your attention. If you stay with that speck, the whole film can develop from your experience of that speck of dust. If Bergman’s view was correct, it amazes me.
Comparing the process of faith to the artistic pursuit, Alice writes the following:
“We arrive, we are driven, as the creative artist is driven, to remake the world as we find it into something more reasonable, more sensible, more just. We apprehend, we intuit, vaguely, vaguely, the form of that perfection, and we are driven to pursue it, knowing, suspecting, fearing all the while that we are not up to the task, that it will remain, finally, unattainable, unbelievable, but we pursue it nonetheless. And sometimes in that pursuit of faith, as in the pursuit of art, through our daily work at it, our groping in the dark, we stumble upon moments of insight, inspiration — moments of grace if you will — that for an instant, allay doubt. Perhaps for the saintly among us — the religious pilgrims, the faith- seeking scientist or naturalist, the close personal friends of the Holy Spirit — these moments occur frequently, maybe even with a bit of drama — a eureka, a sharp intake of breath, a vision, a transcendent high five.”
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.