Arts and Culture

The Important Truths Fiction Can Convey

One of my friends tells me that he is much more interested in reading history than he is in reading fiction. I think he feels that there is more truth in history than there is in fiction. The very fact that fiction is created by a writer seems to lessen its importance in the mind of my friend. Of course I agree that reading history is important, and I have recently made a resolution to read more history, but I disagree with my friend’s view of the lack of truth in fiction.

This series of three columns in which I am commenting on the nature of fiction has strengthened my convictions about the importance of fiction and the important truths fiction can convey to us. In these columns I have borrowed many of Flannery O’Connor’s insights from her book, “Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose,” selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961, pp. 237).

At the risk of oversimplifying, I think of history primarily communicating factual truth and fiction communicating another type of truth. History tells us what happened, and when and where it happened. Fiction tries to explore what I call essential truth. Great fiction through stories deals with the meaning of the human person, of freedom, of love, of death. Fiction does not deal with those truths the way that philosophy or theology deals with them. It deals with them by telling stories. Great works of fiction, the type of works that we characterize as masterpieces, combine great insights into reality by incarnating those insights into stories.

Authors of fictional masterpieces have to be wise in order to grasp the great truths about reality and sufficiently skilled as writers to be able to incorporate great truths into the stories they tell.

O’Connor was that type of author. I think that in creating great works of art, artists imitate God as Creator. Artistic masterpieces, whether short stories, novels, plays, films, poetry or sculpture, can enrich our experience enormously.

Formal education, in one way or another, should help us appreciate the awesome beauty of artistic masterpieces.

O’Connor, relying on the views of philosopher Jacques Maritain and St. Thomas Aquinas, made the following comments about art:

“What interests the serious writer is not external habits but what Maritain calls, ‘the habit of  art,’ and he explains that ‘habit’ in this sense means a certain quality and virtue of the mind. The scientist has the habit of science; the artist, the habit of art.

“Now I’d better stop here and explain how I am using the word art. Art is a word that immediately scares people off, as being a little too grand. But all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less. St. Thomas said that the artist is concerned with the good of that which is made…”(p. 64-65).

I think the following comments from O’Connor are among the wisest she has offered about art:

“St. Thomas called art ‘reason in making.’ This is a very cold and very beautiful definition, and if it is unpopular today, this is because reason has lost ground among us. As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself. This is not an easy or simple thing to do. It is to intrude upon the timeless, and that is only done by the violence of a single-minded respect for the truth”(pp. 82-83).

I love the image of the artist trying “to discover an answering reason in everything he sees.” In a world created by a loving God there are answering reasons and the great artists discover them. Even those artists who may not be able to believe in God can find those reasons, though they may attribute those reasons to something other than God.

The great artists seem to be more sensitive than the rest of us. Those artists, and O’Connor was one of them, by grasping those reasons and then passing them on to the rest of us through the works of art they create, do us a great service. Reading O’Connor’s thoughts about art has impressed upon me that the great artists and their works are important blessings in our lives.

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.