Faith & Thought

Moral and Dramatic Sense In the Arts and Philosphy

by Father Robert Lauder

When I started this series on culture and religious faith, my intention was to share with readers of this weekly column some of the ideas that I emphasize in philosophy classes at St. John’s University, especially ideas that I emphasize in courses on film and philosophy and on the Catholic novel. 

However, when I started re-reading Flannery O’Connor’s “Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose,” selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 19557, 237 pp.), I became fascinated by Flannery’s insights into literature and the vocation of the storyteller. 

O’Connor thought of the vocation of the author as not only important but I would say holy. Though I find reading O’Connor’s short stories and two novels difficult reading in the sense that I do not easily find the religious theme that I suspect is present, I find her comments on literature and the vocation of the storyteller in “Mysteries and Manners” very provocative. She wrote the following: 

“In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense, and I see no way for it to do this unless his moral judgment is part of the very act of seeing, and he is free to use it. I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery” (p. 31). 

I think what Flannery is saying is that every author has some vision of reality. What that vision reveals or conceals will greatly influence what the author sees and inevitably what the author writes. By accepting Christian revelation, Flannery believes an author will see many meanings that are accessible only to the person who has religious faith. 

The author who has not embraced religious faith will just not have the vision that religious faith provides. The meanings that the Christian has embraced deepen and expand the Christian author’s horizon. 

Such an author will not be called to proselytize but to see as deeply as possible into the meaning of reality that Christian faith provides and to allow those meanings to form his consciousness and conscience. It fascinates me that Flannery stresses “respect for mystery.” 

Artistic creativity from beginning to end involves mystery. Often the artist is not the best interpreter of his work. I recall an anecdote about a film director who was being interviewed by a member of the press. At one point the interviewer asked, “What does your film mean?” The director replied, “Don’t ask me. I’m the person who created it!” 

For years I have relied on philosopher Jacques Maritain’s theory to guide me in studying films and plays and novels. Maritain thought that for a masterpiece to happen, the artist needed skill with matter and what Maritain called a creative intuition. What Maritain meant by skill with matter is easy to understand. 

He meant skill with the material the artist was using, whether it be oil and canvas or words or a camera or some other material. What he meant by creative intuition I doubt that even Maritain understood completely. It is some kind of insight that drives the person to create works of art. So what the artist creates does not only express the mystery of reality, but the very act of creating is mysterious. 

One view that Flannery expresses in “Mystery and Manners” first saddened me and then challenged me. She wrote the following: 

“But I don’t believe that we shall have great religious fiction until we have again that happy combination of believing artist and believing society. Until that time, the novelist will have to do the best in travail with the world he has. He may find in the end that instead of reflecting the image at the heart of things, he has only reflected our broken condition and, through it, the face of the devil we are possessed by. This is a modest achievement, but perhaps a necessary one.” 

I fear that Flannery may be right that for great religious fiction to appear, we need a believing society. But rather than being discouraged we should try to do what we can to promote a believing society. In the meantime, we should try to benefit from any insight offered us. 

If the insight is true, then all of us can grow. If some fiction can only reveal to us what is lacking in contemporary society, that is still a revelation that can enrich our lives as we wait and hope and work for a society that Flannery describes as “believing.” 

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