Arts and Culture

Living in the Midst Of Mystery

Fifth and final in a series

I HAVE JUST finished taping 24 lectures on the Catholic novel that are now available on NET-TV and YouTube. I found the process of taping the shows over the last six months demanding, but ultimately very rewarding, educational and even inspiring. Doing the shows was another experience of the truth of the saying, “If you become a teacher, by your students you will be taught.

A friend persuaded me to do the project by reminding me that once the shows are on NET-TV or YouTube, they are easily accessible.

While I love teaching at St. John’s University and giving talks in a parish, I confess that there is something very appealing about knowing something you presented is preserved on television or the internet. My field is philosophy and many professors know much more about novels than I do, but I decided to follow G.K. Chesterton’s advice that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.

In lecturing about the novels, I learned or re-learned how mysterious the creation of a novel is, and also how critical judgments about literature are not easy to make. Even experts can argue and disagree about the value of a novel.

Pushing the Envelope

To illustrate how novels can be created in a very mysterious way, I will quote from the preface of Graham Greene’s “The Third Man.” Greene writes the following:

“Most novelists, I suppose, carry round in their heads or in their notebooks the first ideas for stories that have never come to be written. Sometimes one turns them over after many years and thinks regretfully that they would have been good once, in a time now dead. So years back, on the flap of an envelope I had written an opening paragraph: ‘I had paid my last goodbye to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.’ I, no more than my hero, had pursued Harry, so when Sir Alexander Korda asked me to write a film for Carol Reed … I had nothing more to offer than this paragraph. Though Korda wanted a film about the four-power occupation of Vienna, he was prepared to let me pursue the tracks of Harry there.” (p. 1)

It is amazing to me how that paragraph – scribbled on an envelope some years earlier – eventually led to what some judge to be the finest British film ever made.

To illustrate how difficult critical judgments of literature can be, I point to William Kennedy’s “Ironweed.” Kennedy had written two previous novels set in Albany that were received with critical praise. When the third novel of the trilogy was submitted, the publisher, Viking Press, was not interested. I think Kennedy submitted the novel to 11 publishers, all of whom rejected it.

Eventually, novelist Saul Bellow persuaded Viking Press to publish “Ironweed,” which later won a Pulitzer Prize.

My question: How could so many “experts” – those people who spend their days reading manuscripts – be so wrong? How could so many have rejected a novel that eventually won the Pulitzer Prize?

Realities to Be Shaped, Formed

My anecdotes about “The Third Man” and “Ironweed” underline how mysterious is both the creation and reception of literature, and indeed the creation and reception of all art.

We are surrounded by realities that make up stories and other works of art, when shaped and formed by great artists.

We live in the midst of mystery. The really talented artists may be more aware of those mysteries than the rest of us, and they are able to present works of art that may lead us to appreciate more deeply the great drama of our lives.

I am reminded of theologian Father Michael Himes’ comment that “there is no secular realm, if by ‘secular’ we mean ‘ungraced.’”

Michelangelo claimed that his sculpture of Moses was present in the stone, that all he did was bring it out.

I wonder if great novelists believe we are surrounded by mysteries and their task is to create stories about those mysteries. When they do, they offer an opportunity to see the mystery of our lives in a new way and to appreciate it more deeply.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).

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