Everything I Know About Productivity I Learned in High School

Everything I Know About Productivity I Learned in High School

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I know I haven’t got much time so I’ll be brief.

I realize that in perhaps no more than a minute a little bell will sound from the Anti-Social app on your smartphone, indicating that the app is now automatically scrambling the WiFi signal in your home, pulling down the mechanized blinds on all your windows, throwing the dead-bolts on all your doors, and sending out on your behalf a death notice to the NSA. For after all, it soon will be time for you to get back to work.

And, blast it, that’s what we writers are all about, isn’t it? Work! Sweat! Honest toil!

Indeed. We writers don’t like to waste a morsel of our allotted time on this frantically spinning orb. Up at 4:30 A.M., we swallow a shingle of toast & marmalade and then, with our preferred cup of stimulation in hand, we beaver away like prisoners making license plates until our designated fifteen minutes of recreation (spent, of course, reading blog posts on productivity).

So, knowing that you will soon need to get back to the rowing bench, I’ll just say a quick word about a new productivity strategy I’ve been employing that is working very well and that I think might help you, too.

High School Musical

It’s true. Everything I know about productivity I did learn in high school. Not the high school, however, I attended in the years of my callow youth. There, the only lessons in productivity I learned were about how to draw a cartoon of the teacher while appearing to be absorbed in Byron’s “Don Juan.” No; I’m speaking here of the high school where I now teach part-time.

It is the unswerving practice of my department chairs at school to request of me a 3-Week Calendar previewing the coming attractions (assignments, due dates, and whatnot) in each of my courses. At first, I must admit, I blanched at the request. Course planning was something one did while walking from the parking lot into the school building. The last thing one wanted was to straightjacket one’s improvisatory talents by planning in advance.

But now, I must further admit, I’m hooked on the drug of the 3-Week Calendar. There’s simply nothing like waking up on a cold, dark Wednesday morning knowing that one can walk from the parking lot into the school building with a song in one’s heart, assured that the day’s strategy has been set down at HQ weeks before.

Interestingly, too, the practice of the 3-Week Calendar helps summon the Muse of creativity as I plan my courses.

Home on the Middle Range

I can hear you scoffing.

“This is rich” (scoffs you). “You think you’re the Columbus of Productivity because you’ve learned to apply a 3-Week Calendar to your writing! But I’ll have you know, I’ve been keeping all manner of plans and schedules for years. I have a 5-Year Writing Plan, a 2014 Writing Plan, a Tornado Warning Writing Plan, and a Writing Plan for Low Biorhythm Days. I also keep both a weekly and a daily writing calendar on my laptop, my phone, and in a black Moleskine underneath my pillow.”

That slurping sound must be you sucking in your teeth with satisfaction.

But hold on, I say. Hold on one minute!

All those plans and calendars are very well. No doubt you get a lot of work done. But until you’ve unlocked the treasures of the 3-Week Calendar, I don’t think you can call yourself serious about getting things done.

What precisely are the benefits of the 3-Week Calendar?

At bottom, the 3-Week Calendar allows you to plan the middle range of your schedule. Farther out than the daily or weekly calendar, but not so far out as the monthly or annual calendar, the 3-Week Calendar charts an arc of time in which small but significant projects, or parts of projects, can get done. In three weeks a sonnet sequence can get written, a new direction established in one’s marketing efforts, or a book read and savagely reviewed–thus increasing one’s sense of accomplishment and spurring one on to even greater efforts!

The temptation for the writer is to overload the daily or weekly schedule, or to dream too big with the annual plan. But with the 3-Week Calendar, one can look over the hedge of the daily schedule but not indulge in the vain task of trying to pick out the fuzzy horizon of year’s end. One sees the bigger picture but doesn’t try to take in the entire cosmos.

The Mystical Number 3

There’s something almost magical or even mystical in the number three. I learned to crawl at three. I eat three meals per day. And Mrs. Stooge gave birth to exactly 3 Stooges.

So writing colleagues, give the 3-Week Calendar a try. For myself, I can’t wait to. You see, so far I’ve only been using the 2-Week Calendar, but I’m working my way up to the 3-Weeker. The peace and productivity of the 2-Week Calendar, however, are rich enough to keep me on task and aiming high.

What are your thoughts on the 3-Week Calendar? Does it sound like a strategy that would be really useful to you?

If you have a better planning system for your writing, please share it with us.

 

 

Happy Birthday, P.G. Wodehouse

“Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.” — Evelyn Waugh

Speaking from the vantage point of one of those future generations, I say, “Only too true, Mr. Waugh, only too true.”

P.G. Wodehouse’s influence upon my own work has been both immense and grossly insufficient, and so today I say a prayer and raise a glass in his honor, for his repose, and in a spirit of renewed dedication to the example of his work.

Happy Birthday, P.G. Wodehouse, you were and are The Master. (October 15, 1881-February 14, 1975).

By way of celebration, enjoy the following toothsome tid-bits:

The Official P.G. Wodehouse Website

A snippet from a BBC documentary

This appreciation from Wodehouse biographer Robert McCrumb

And this brief appreciation by Stephen Fry:

Flannery O’Connor, “Writing Short Stories”

Flannery O’Connor, “Writing Short Stories”

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“For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye.” –Flannery O’Connor, “Writing Short Stories”

Today The Comic Muse Podcast returns with a short introduction to Flannery O’Connor’s marvelous essay, “Writing Short Stories,” from her posthumous collection, Mystery and Manners.

In this audio hors d’oeuvre, you’ll hear

  • O’Connor’s definition of “story”
  • Whether O’Connor approached her writing as a “plotter” (someone who outlines everything before proceeding) or a “pantser” (a seat-of-the-pants writer who concocts fiction one sentence at a time)
  • About the genesis of O’Connor’s hilariously disturbing short story, “Good Country People”
  • O’Connor’s insistence that fiction operate through the senses
  • How the writer’s judgment, his sense of the mystery of existence, operates through vision

I hope you enjoy the podcast and that you’ll continue the discussion in the com boxes here at danielmcinerny.com or directly to my email at danielmcinerny@gmail.com.

 

The Purpose and Power of Children’s Literature

The Purpose and Power of Children’s Literature

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I had a wonderful time at Villanova University on Tuesday, where I gave a talk entitled, “The Purpose and Power of Children’s Literature.” The talk was sponsored by Villanova’s Office for Mission & Ministry as part of their Catholic Imagination in the Arts series. It was a special honor to be invited to speak in a series devoted to a theme so dear to my heart, and I want to thank my host, Office for Mission & Ministry planning and research director, Dr. Christopher Janosik, for so kindly extending the invitation.

There was a great crowd at the talk, comprised mostly of Villanova undergraduates, and we had a very meaty Q&A afterwards which I learned a lot from and appreciated. 

Pictured above is Your Faithful Servant with ardent Kingdom of Patria fan, Dora Tomko, whose parents, Mike and Helena, both teach literature at Villanova. Poor Dora had to suffer through my entire talk just so that she could get her Patria books signed. Thanks for being such a trooper, Dora!

What follows are my notes for “The Purpose and Power of Children’s Literature”–suitable for framing or wrapping fish.

Comments most welcome and appreciated!

 

The Purpose and Power of Children’s Literature

Daniel McInerny

A Talk Delivered in the Catholic Imagination and the Arts Series

Sponsored by the Office for Mission & Ministry

Villanova University

October 7, 2014

Introduction

  • Seeing the movie adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. The mother coming out of the theater asking, “Is that what you wanted?” (not, “Did you like it?” more like feeding a need).
  • Sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. Currently no. 3 and 4 Amazon bestsellers 2014 (paperback and hardcopy), currently no. 15 in UK–despite being published at the beginning of 2012.
  • The move made 48.2 million and a #1 rating in its opening weekend–June 6 (beating out Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow), and has since grossed over 300 million worldwide.
  • It’s a seductive book, not because it glorifies illicit teenage sex, but because it aims for authenticity as opposed to phoniness (these are the descendants of Holden Caulfield and the cultural cousins of Lena Dunham)
  • Looking for authentic answers to questions about the meaning of suffering and the meaning of romantic love
  • But these questions do not receive anything like adequate answers; to be authentic is to realize that the universe does not really care about us, that suffering does not have a point; read the section on Antonietta Meo
  • The Fault in Our Stars is our adversary in the fight over the moral and spiritual formation of our children. And it’s a formidable one. How are we going to combat it? What would children’s literature look like as created by the Catholic imagination?  

I. Why is the Imagination So Important?

  • G.K. Chesterton, the sword and the trowel: the sword defends but the trowel (the imagination) helps cultivate + build (Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem); 
  • GKC says that the development of the imagination is the most essential element in education. Why?
  • I can learn what humility is conceptually by studying the relevant portions of Aquinas’s Summa. I can learn humility even better by watching my humble Aunt Edna. When it comes to learning how to act humbly in the world, Aunt Edna is more helpful than the Summa. Why? Because in Aunt Edna’s case I can see her action (we learn through the senses) and the love I have for her and the attractiveness of her humility compels the heart. And because my love for Aunt Edna and for the goodness of her actions motivates me to imitate her example and learn by doing. 
  • Works of the imagination occupy a middle space between conceptual works (theology, philosophy) and our friendships in the world (Aunt Edna)–and partake of some of each. Enjoyed in a contemplative, as opposed to practical, space, works of the imagination inspire our loves and thus enable us to imagine how life should really be lived.
  • The picture of humility that we find in Edmund’s narrative arc in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is both closer to the contours of human life as it is lived and is a more heightened image of humility that it compels the heart far more effectively (for most human beings) than the discussion of humility in the Summa
  • Works of the imagination enable us to picture how actually to live out the decisions we have to make, the roles we have to play, the culture we have to rebuild. In order to achieve a thriving homeschool, parish, Church, or culture, we first have to imagine it and experience what it would feel like to love it. Works of the imagination are thus critical exercises in ordering our loves (Augustine defines virtue as the ordo amoris).
  • But here’s the rub: works of the imagination can be seductive in a negative sense: they can persuade us with misleading pictures of what life is really all about. This is especially so with children, because children are moved by images, not arguments.  

So we need to ask ourselves: what sorts of images do our children need? 

II. Children’s Literature in the Catholic Tradition

Once upon a time, a poet climbed a mountain (Dante’s Purgatorio). Mathilda. His moral and intellectual transformation has prepared him to enter the terrestrial paradise.   

Purgatorio 28

“The poets in their melodies of old

may have dreamed on Parnassus of this spot

singing about the happy age of gold.

For here the human race was innocent;

forever spring, and fruit upon the vine.

This is the nectar which the poets meant.”

  • I believe all fairy stories are dreams of the golden world. I propose that all literature in the comic mode can be described as a dream of the terrestrial paradise. (Tragedy is about another aspect of our relation to God.) For this reason I want to argue that children’s literature is also a dream of terrestrial paradise.
  • And because of this, children’s lit has an essential understanding to a Catholic understanding of moral formation. Another way of putting My Central Point is this: 
  • Children’s literature is about the adventure into the “golden world” in which innocence is fought for and achieved

Define children’s literature

Define “golden world” 

Define innocence

A. Children’s Literature

  • Children’s literature, at least as we know it today, did not begin to emerge until the 19th century. Aesop (620-564 BC) fables were not children’s stories. We learn from Plato’s Republic that Homer was a key text in childhood education. Shakespeare did not read children’s books as we think of them: he was busy reading the plays of Plautus and Terence in Latin.
  • Of course, I’m not denying that these tales and folk tales were never adapted for children, much less denying that fathers have been telling bedtime stories to their children since man first dragged himself out of the primordial ooze.
  • But this isn’t what we think of when we think of children’s lit. We think of the children’s section at B&N, with its Winnie-the-Pooh Hundred Acre Wood backdrop; we think of the children’s section of the public library. We think of the books we enjoyed as children, probably none of which were older than 170 years. Children’s literature as we think of it, is of fairly recent vintage. 

John Newbery, Newbery’s Pretty Pocket Book (1744): pays tribute to Locke; edification + enjoyment; a children’s publishing business; The Newbery Medal (American)

The Brother’s Grimm, Children’s and Household Tales (1812)

Hans Christian Anderson, Fairy Tales (1835)

Victorian Era (1837-1901)

Edward Lear, A Book of Nonsense (1846)

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (1865)

Charles Kingsley, The Water-Babies (1863)

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1869)

George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin (1872)

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (1883); A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885)

Andrew Lang, The Blue Fairy Book (1889)

E. Nesbit, The Railway Children, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, Five Children and It

The Edwardian Era (1901-1910, approx.)

J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1902)

Kenneth Graheme, The Wind in the Willows (1908)

The Secret Garden (1911)

Hilaire Belloc, Cautionary Tales (1907) 

Enid Blyton, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven series and the Noddy books (40s, 50s)

Roald Dahl (60s) 

Children’s literature rose to the fore in the Victorian era. Why?

  • tremendous rise in literacy rates and in education reform
  • tremendous growth in commerical publishing, which had a positive effect on book publishing for all ages.
  • But perhaps most importantly: in this period childhood came to be seen more and more as a protected period of education and enjoyment. Childhood became romanticized.
  • In one of his letters Lewis Carroll enthuses about children, “Their innocent unconsciousness is very beautiful, and gives one a feeling of reverence, as at the presence of something sacred” (Letters 381)

Why this sense of childhood as sacred?

  • Because of Romanticism
  • The first fifty years of the 19th century was the peak of Romanticism, a literary, artistic, cultural movement that reacted against the Enlightenment ideal of scientific rationality embodied, for example, in the Industrial Revolution. Romanticism was a response to the dehumanizing aspects of modernity.
  • Or as the philosopher Roger Scruton has put it: Romanticism was an attempt to recapture, in a secular mode, the medieval Christian sense of local community and reverence for God. 
  • This Romantic desire for reverence was exercised in one direction toward non-human nature, and in another direction toward the child.
  • This treasuring of childhood gave an increasingly secular culture a way of connecting to purity and innocence, to wonder and other worlds. It encouraged it to favor the imagination as opposed to reason in its scientific mode. Brad Birzer argues in his book, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth, that for Tolkien fairy stories provide us with a means to escape the drabness, conformity, and mechanization of modernity. I think the same could be said for the children’s literature that first sprung up in the Romantic period.
  • Indeed, I would argue that the Romantic sense of childhood, and the children’s literature that flowed from it, was one way of trying to re-create the golden world of the “terrestrial paradise.”
  • For this reason, though children’s literature is largely secular in inspiration, the fact that its deepest inclinations yearn for a terrestrial paradise puts it in an interesting relationship to the Catholic literary mind. The Catholic can deeply appreciate much of what good children’s literature is trying to do, even while it resists making idols out of childhood innocence and the child’s imagination. 

 

B. The Golden World

What do I mean by the “golden world”? 

  • Wonderland, Neverland, The Secret Garden, Oz, and the dreamworld where the wild things are; the magical London of Mary Poppins, The Hundred Acre Wood, Hogwarts, the pastoral world of The Wind in the Willows and the Redwall series, Terabithia, the barn of Charlotte’s Web, the house with Green Gables on Prince Edward Island; the revolutionary-era Boston of Johnny Tremain, the Connecticut Colony of Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, the medieval England in Avi’s Crispin: The Cross of Lead. The golden world is not always a “secondary” world; it’s Treasure Island, the Camp Green Lake of Louis Sachar’s Holes, the “Mysterious Benedict Society” of the books by that name by Trenton Lee Stewart
  • The “golden world” represents the triumph of death over waste land.
  • Notice that these “golden worlds” are far from perfect images of Eden. They are filled with conflict, danger, evil, but I still call them “golden worlds” because it is in these worlds that characters undertake the work of restoring innocence. Innocence is not something given–it has to be fought for.
  • We see this very clearly in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 classic,The Secret Garden: the garden of innocency needs to be discovered and tended to. And in doing so, friendship and reconciliation and renewed innocence are achieved. It’s a story, to paraphrase Mathilda, of how to get back to the Garden.
  • In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings the golden world is in one sense the Shire, but more, it’s the adventure that sustains the peaceful life of the Shire. 

GKC: “Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

  • So we’re not talking innocence in the sense of remaining “sheltered”–quite the opposite, in fact. Remember, good children’s literature pictures innocence as an achievement. What Bilbo says to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings captures the point well: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” 

Innocence

Finally, I want to say a word about the innocence that is achieved I’ve been talking a lot about innocence. What do I mean by that? 

  • Start here with another objection. Children’s literature keeps us “innocent” in a negative sense.
  • Innocence is an achievement; it’s an exercise of virtue; it’s not being sheltered: quite the opposite. What Bilbo says to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings captures this point well: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
  • So the kind of innocence I’m talking about is a state of moral character–reached, like Dante’s, at the end of a long journey with many hardships along the way.
  • This understanding of innocence is becoming increasingly threatened by the contemporary children’s publishing establishment. Meghan Cox Gurdon, children’s book reviewer of the WSJ: “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books.” in Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College. Her point is about the pernicious state of YA “problem novels.” Sex. Abuse. Self-abuse. Gurdon: “The argument in favor of such books is that they validate the real and terrible experiences of teenagers who have been abused, addicted, or raped—among other things. The problem is that the very act of detailing these pathologies, not just in one book but in many, normalizes them.”

Conclusion

  • Weeding. Much contemporary children’s literature seeks to distort this picture of innocence. So we need to remain vigilant. The dangers of YA and not only for teenagers.
  • At the same time, we need to be “catholic” in our tastes. These golden worlds need not be explicitly Catholic or Christian to make for valuable reading. The story of Mathilda implies that the stories of non-believers have truth to them. In a sense, these attempts to find the golden world are “our” stories. There’s no need for us to be pigeon-holed by anybody as “parochial.” What we need are stories that trace a hero’s journey to fight for innocence.  Support excellence wherever you find it.
  • My last point is my most important one. We need Catholic artists and we need books, we need works that will rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. What we need more than anything else are works by Catholics who really understand how to use the trowel, who master the craft of storytelling–and not just stories about saints and not just Catholic writers living 50-60 years ago. We need to encourage such authors and to support them. And the writers themselves need to write and bring their works into the world. By any means necessary Self-publishing: ownership. Analogy with homeschooling.     
Rebecca Eaton on the “Downton Effect”

Rebecca Eaton on the “Downton Effect”

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In her book, Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS, executive producer Rebecca Eaton speculates on “the Downton effect.” Downton Abbey’s hugely popular success she attributes, in large part, to its creator and sole screenwriter, Julian Fellowes. But she also thinks the show’s success can be attributed to its moral purpose:

“Maybe we’re drawn to it because, unlike almost any other big, popular drama series currently airing in America, it’s a show about a community of people who are all, in straightforward and old-fashioned ways, trying to do the right thing. It has morality at its core.

Eaton compares Downton Abbey to big series on American TV–Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy, House of Cards, and Mad Men–and observes “how dark they are.” “Their “heroes” are deeply compromised and morally ambiguous, and the stories are often about corruption.”

Eaton is right about this, I believe. Beneath its surface appeal to our desire for opulence and romance, Downton Abbey returns its audience to a place where making something “right,” as Eaton puts it, is the defining endeavor of human existence.

For more on this theme see my “On Popular Fictions, Or How I Learned to Relax and Enjoy Downton Abbey,” as well as “The Good Sense of Sensationalism.

 

The photo of Highclere Castle is reproduced courtesy of Greg at Wikimedia Commons.

Reading David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks” Through O’Connor

Reading David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks” Through O’Connor

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On the surface there doesn’t seem to be much connection between the work of David Mitchell and that of Flannery O’Connor. Yet as I meander my way through Mitchell’s new novel, The Bone Clocks (no spoilers, please, I’m not finished yet), I keep thinking of what O’Connor says in her essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”:

“Hawthorne knew his own problems and perhaps anticipated ours when he said he did not write novels, he wrote romances.”

According to O’Connor, by writing romances Hawthorne “was trying to keep for fiction some of its freedom from social determinisms, and steer it in the direction of poetry.”

Is this what Mitchell is doing with the jarring interjections of camp Dr. Who sci-fi that disrupt the otherwise up-market narrative style of The Bone Clocks? Is he, in his own fashion, attempting to break free from the social determinisms that typically serve as the backdrop of contemporary literary fiction and indicate something of the mystery of human existence?

“What if…what if heaven is real, but only in moments?” wonders one of Mitchell’s protagonists, a 15 year-old sexually promiscuous girl who has run away from home after an argument with her mother.

“S’pose heaven’s not like a painting that’s just hanging there forever, but more like…the best song anyone ever wrote, but a song you catch in snatches, while you’re alive, from passing cars, or…upstairs windows when you’re lost…”

Perhaps the space opera that will, I gather, eventually take center stage in The Bone Clocks will somehow help gather up the snatches of this song. Or otherwise signal a depth to reality too often missing in the realisms of literary fiction. Perhaps.

We’ll have to see.

What Being a Catholic Writer Doesn’t Mean For Me (And Shouldn’t For You)

What Being a Catholic Writer Doesn’t Mean For Me (And Shouldn’t For You)

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The phrase has become slippery.

“Catholic writer.”

What does it mean?

For some the phrase plays like a favorite old song, an evocation of the glory days of Greene, Waugh, Percy, O’Connor, et alia. Days long gone and sorely missed.

For others “Catholic writer” may spell an oxymoron, or at least refer to the kind of writer one would not like to meet at a Manhattan cocktail party.

Even for some Catholics the phrase increasingly tends to serve as a signal that some exceptionally maudlin fiction is quivering like a bad cheese on the horizon.

But even looking at the thing dispassionately, it’s not exactly clear what is being described when one uses the phrase “Catholic writer.” Does it refer to

[a] someone who writes stories set in a Catholic environment featuring (mainly) Catholic characters?

[b] someone interested in giving his or her audience what Flannery O’Connor called “instant uplift”?

[c] a writer whose religious affiliation happens to be Catholic?

Of the above options, I would argue that only [c] is a good answer to the question of what “Catholic writer” means. A Catholic writer need not write stories set in a Catholic environment featuring (mainly) Catholic characters (O’Connor almost never did, Waugh didn’t for the first half of his career, Greene only sometimes–and with dubious theology, Percy wrote some Catholic characters but never put them in a Catholic environment).

And a Catholic writer should not be interested in “instant uplift.” Our remit is not to conjure warm, comfortable feelings but to tell the truth in a beautiful (not necessarily “pretty”) way.

But I think we can say something more about what it means to be a Catholic writer. A Catholic writer is a writer who sees the world from the point of view of Catholic theology and, whether or not Catholics or Catholic things ever appear in his or her work, endeavors to tell the truth about the human condition from the point of view of that theology.

Such a broad charge can take a Catholic writer into some strange and unsettling territory, territory held largely by the devil, as O’Connor warned. If the Catholic writer is going to write stories about the times we live in, then he had better gird his loins and get ready to depict the devil’s territory in a convincing way. In light of that fact, this admonition by Barbara Nicolosi, “Why Good People Do Media Wrong,” is worth reflecting upon. Allow me also to recommend my essay, which includes some input from Barbara Nicolosi, “What Are The Limits to Depictions of Sin in the Arts?”

But the Catholic writer is certainly not obliged to take on the modern world mano a mano. In Kristin Lavransdatter Sigrid Undset took us to medieval (Catholic) Scandinavia. Tolkien took us to Middle Earth. Shusaku Endo took us to 17th-century Japan.

In fact, the choice of setting and characters–whether they are Catholic or not, contemporary or not, realistic or fantastic–is not the most important choice for the Catholic writer.

The most important choice is the commitment to excellence in the writer’s craft. That is what really makes a Catholic writer a Catholic writer. Sure, it would be great to change the world for Christ. But the first duty of the Catholic writer as writer is to create a masterful work of art. As Patrick Coffin argued recently in reference to cinema, that commitment to excellence is what is missing in so many artistic efforts by Catholics and other Christians.

I expand a bit more on this last theme in two other pieces:

“A Catholic Moment in the Arts?”

“Let’s Renovate the Catholic Literary Tradition”

Catholic and other writers, I’d be interested to hear what you think of these thoughts.

Catholic Artists, Let’s Meet on Mount Parnassus

Catholic Artists, Let’s Meet on Mount Parnassus

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That’s Dante, in grim Florentine profile, standing next to the blind Homer.

Raphael’s “Parnassus” fresco in the “Rafaello Room” in the Vatican Museums, captures one of the central features of the Catholic artistic tradition: the way in which it gathers into itself whatever is valuable in what other artistic traditions have to tell us about the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Raphael’s fresco shows us that the Christian Dante is part of a fraternity of poets with the pagan Homer and, as we see in Dante’s Divine Comedy, with the pagan Virgil (for more on this fraternity of poets, see Inferno, Canto IV). Raphael even has the poets meet upon Mount Parnassus, the traditional home of the Muses in pagan mythology.

And it’s not just works of pagan antiquity that the Catholic artistic tradition seeks to engage with. The Catholic tradition also looks to build bridges with contemporary writers and artists.

The point is this: the good, the true, and the beautiful can be discerned, at least partially and obscurely, by any artist willing to submit himself or herself to both the gift and the demand of reality. That the Catholic, by faith, sees more of reality does not diminish the value of what the non-believer does see.

For this reason, the Catholic artistic tradition is a broad and inclusive one.

Catholic artists, let’s meet our friends on Mount Parnassus.

 

* The image above is my own photograph of the “Parnassus” fresco, taken on a trip to Rome with my family in 2011.

10 Principles of a Positive Catholic Approach to Arts & Entertainment

10 Principles of a Positive Catholic Approach to Arts & Entertainment

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“Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience.” –Saint John Paul II

It would be easy to list negative reasons why Catholics should shun many of the offerings of today’s arts and entertainment industries. But to begin with the negative isn’t really a Catholic approach to anything. So let’s start afresh with the 10 Principles of a Positive Catholic Approach to the Arts & Entertainment.

1. God made artists to be his associates in his creativity activity–or what J.R.R. Tolkien calls “sub-creators.” See Saint John Paul II’s 1999 “Letter to Artists,” section 1.

2. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the best and noblest activity of human beings is that activity by which we imitate God the most, i.e., contemplation. The fine arts (fiction, theater, music, dance) are ways of contemplation, ways in which we behold the grandeur of human beings finding, or failing to find, their happiness. (Interesting factoid: the Greek word for “contemplation,” theoria, is not only the root of our English word “theory,” but also of “theater.” Etymologically, a theater is a “place of beholding,” i.e. a place of contemplation.)

3. The Catholic tradition of the arts is not insular and defensive by its nature but open and inclusive, even of those noble works of pagan antiquity such as the epics of Homer and Virgil. (For more on how Homer and Virgil can belong to the Catholic tradition of the arts, see my recent self-interview on Ethika Politika, “The Catholic Tradition of the Arts: A Cantankerous Q&A.”)

4. The Catholic tradition of the arts produced the greatest poet of the medieval period, Dante, and the greatest poem of that era, Dante’s Divine Comedy. The heart of the entire Catholic tradition, including its art, is to see life as a divine comedy, a resolution of all conflict and suffering into one magnificent and never-ending Joy.

5. The Renaissance, brought to you by…Catholic popes, artists, benefactors.

6. Oh, and William Shakespeare.

7. While taking care not to be seduced by scandalous features of certain modern works of art, Catholics can also appreciate the ways in which some modern art is looking for a kind of transcendence. Reflect upon these beautiful lines from Saint John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists, section 10: “Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”

8. The world of art needs the Church. See Saint John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” section 13: “Artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things, and their torment is to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable. How then can we fail to see what a great source of inspiration is offered by that kind of homeland of the soul that is religion? Is it not perhaps within the realm of religion that the most vital personal questions are posed, and answers both concrete and definitive are sought?”

9. As an example of the Church’s positive approach to modern arts, note that as early as 1936 Pope Pius XI thought enough of the importance and power of motion pictures to devote an entire encyclical letter to a Catholic approach to this art, Vigilanti Cura. (For those keeping score, 1936 was three years before Hollywood’s annus mirabilis of 1939, when it issued The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and Wuthering Heights.)

10. The Catholic tradition of the arts is quite arguably the greatest tradition of art and artists the world has ever known. The all-star team would certainly include: da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Raphael, Botticelli, Palestrina, Tallis, Brubeck, Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Chesterton, Waugh, Percy, O’Connor, Spark, Powers, Guinness….One could go on.

So what principles of a positive Catholic approach to arts and entertainment have I missed?

 

The photograph above of Sir Alec Guinness is reproduced courtesy of Allan Warren at Wikimedia Commons.

What Truth Should We Take Away from “The Giver”?

What Truth Should We Take Away from “The Giver”?

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The Noble Lie

The new film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Newbery award-winning 1993 young adult novel, The Giver, directed by Phillip Noyce, follows the book in making use of the conceit of the “noble lie” first formulated by Plato in the Republic. A noble lie is a false story that leaders of a community tell the general populace “for their own good.” A noble lie obscures the truth, but eliminates potential conflict and secures harmonious political life. In the Republic Plato has the chief characters of his dialogue, Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus, construct an imaginary city, a “city in speech,” that is perfectly just. But the city is founded upon a lie about the natural origin of the peoples that helps maintain the three strictly-defined social classes upon which the justice of the city is based.

The elders of the apparently utopian “Community” at the center of The Giver tell a lie about the world that existed before an undescribed global disaster. They say nothing to the general populace about war, poverty, disease, starvation, or other evils, which do not exist in the Community. But they also do not permit love, strong emotion, sex, religion, even music and color–because they see these things as the sources of diversity and thus of conflict and thus of the evils they have eliminated. Within the Community, Sameness is the driving political principle. Only one elderly man, the Receiver of Memories, knows in full what the world was like before the Community came into existence. In his mind he stores all the memories from that older world, both good and the bad, so as to be a source of wisdom for the Community elders. The Giver is the story of a boy, Jonas (played by Brenton Thwaites), twelve in the book but more like sixteen in the movie, who is chosen to be the next Receiver of Memories, and so becomes apprentice to the elderly “Giver.” But when Jonas discovers from the Giver that the Community has been founded upon a noble lie, he takes it upon itself to risk everything in order to unveil the truth.

Sameness Everywhere

As a film, The Giver has a good premise but is rather lackluster in the execution. A big part of the problem is that the central conflict–lying baddie elders vs. innocent Jonas and his friends–is inherently two-dimensional. The best sci-fi narratives play with the questions of what is essential to human being and to political life, and The Giver plays with both questions and at times in interesting ways. The Community, for example, like the ideal city in Plato’s Republic, eliminates the natural family, which serves as the cause of some interesting conflict. But somehow the absence of the natural family from the Community, and even of love, color, and a sense of the horror of death, fails to generate the kind of interest that we experience when we think about the essential place of emotions in human life through the Star Trek characters of Spock and Data. The Giver tries to make the devil’s advocate argument that choice and diversity and beauty only lead to conflict and suffering, but it’s a tough argument to make and it’s never done convincingly. A big part of the problem is that Meryl Streep’s icy Chief Elder is predictable, boring, and in need of a better hairdresser, and Jeff Bridges’ Giver, even in the scene with Taylor Swift’s Rosemary, never gives us a really compelling point of emotional connection (it doesn’t help that the voice Bridges gives to the Giver is unnatural and distracting). In the end, it’s the lack of rounded characters, combined with a two-dimensional central conflict the resolution of which is never really in doubt, that causes The Giver to come off flat and disappointing, inflicted with the same malaise of Sameness which governs the Community it depicts.

Beyond the Coast of Dystopia

In the Republic, Plato engages in an exercise somewhat like the sci-fi writer–indeed, the noble lie imagined by Socrates and his friends has a certain fantasy element to it. In thinking about the question of justice, Plato plays with the questions of what is necessary to human nature and political life. The Giver does the same, but the answers the film comes up with are ones far different than the ones Plato’s characters find. What truth does Jonas discover beyond the coast of the dystopian Community? He discovers that human happiness depends upon the very things the elders of the Community have kept secret. Love can lead to war, yes, but a truly fulfilling human life without love is impossible.

But perhaps even more fundamental to love is choice. In the final confrontation between the Chief Elder and the Giver, the Chief Elder declares that the power of choice had to be taken away from the members of the Community because “when human beings are given the power to choose they always choose badly.” In vanquishing the world of Sameness The Giver upholds choice and diversity as the defining features of human nature. This is the truth Jonas struggles to make known. The good memories Jonas receives from the Giver show that religion, for example, is part of the truth of what makes us human, but it’s religion enfolded within choice that is celebrated, religion as an expression of human diversity, not religion as worship of the one true God. Jonas also receives memories that celebrate the value of traditional marriage and the family, but again, what is being valued is one among the many varied and beautiful ways in which human beings live out their loves, not the special value of this particular institution. The Giver also pays a certain homage to Christian virtue–in the Giver’s exhortation to the elders on “love, hope and faith” and in the Christmas carol in the film’s closing shot–but it is not full-blooded Christian virtue that is being honored but rather Christianity as a symbol of a  richer form of human existence. What Jonas finds beyond the coast of dystopia, in short, are the liberal virtues (understanding “liberal” in the broadly philosophical sense) of which choice, not charity, is the greatest.

And Yet Nature Abides

It was the first-century B.C. Roman poet Horace who in one of his epistles wrote, “You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will always come running back.” In upholding the liberal virtues The Giver drives out those certain aspects of human nature which exist prior to our choices. For Plato, and for the Christian tradition up until the late middle ages, what is most important is the direction that nature gives to our choices, not the power of choice all by itself. It is nature that directs us to the traditional understanding of the family, to love (understood in a definite ways), to the intrinsic value of all human life, to music, and to color. It is nature which celebrates (within limits) diversity. Nature directs us to our fulfillment, which makes it very difficult entirely to do away with nature even when we do our best to drive it out.

And so we see in the argument of The Giver, in its condemnation of the values of the Community, a clear affirmation of nature’s ways: biological reproduction, the natural family, the value of color and the fine arts, the horror of euthanasia and of death generally. Though the movie itself is ambiguous on the point, the finest truth we can receive from The Giver is that the grandeur of human choice is only realized when we choose according to the direction given by our shared human nature.

What did you think of The Giver (film or book)? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Looking for more dystopian sci-fi? Take a look at my short story, “The Bureau of Myths,” available at Amazon for just 99 cents.

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The stills from The Giver above are reproduced courtesy of Walden Media and The Weinstein Company.