No historian and no informed reader can conceive of the great literature of the first half of the twentieth century without the names of G. K. Chesterton, Léon Bloy, T. S. Eliot, François Mauriac, Julien Green, Flannery O’Connor, Georges Bernanos, Paul Claudel, Miguel de Unamuno, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Péguy, Hugo von Hoffmansthal, Hermann Broch, Gertrud von Le Fort, Giovanni Papini, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Henrik Sienkiewicz, José Maria de Pereda. What is there in common among these authors? They are all Catholic writers, not only because they presented themselves publicly as members of the Church, but because their works reflect the themes and concerns that are typically closest to the Catholic soul, especially sin and Grace. Through their books, these themes entered the higher culture of their time and the personal conversation of millions of readers as naturally as Marxist themes entered culture through Gorki or Brecht, esoteric themes through Hermann Hesse and W. B. Yeats, psychoanalytical themes through Arthur Schnitzler, James Joyce or Tennessee Williams, and so forth.
There is no exaggeration in saying that during that half-century Catholic experience was one of the main, if not the main force inspiring literary creativity in all of the Western world.
This blossoming – uncommon even in older, more clearly Christian times – was possible because, nourished by the advent of the so-called “depth psychology,” a then growing interest of the lettered classes in the knowledge of the human soul found an extremely favorable environment in the traditional discipline of examination of conscience and confession.
Nothing is more indispensable to the writer of fiction than conquering his own voice, personal in the highest degree, which speaks from direct individual impressions and dwindles as soon as the sense of concrete experience is suffocated by the intrusion of stereotypes and “general ideas.”
The practice of Catholicism consists less in intellectual allegiance to general doctrines than in searching, with the help of those doctrines, a direct dialogue between the soul of the sinner and the sole possible source of redemption. Every faithful Catholic knows that it is only before God that the soul reaches that level of perfect sincerity that the coexistence among men seeks in vain to imitate. Hence the unusual vividness, the penetrating realism with which Catholic experience transforms itself in literary representation of life.
This also explains why, in the decades following the Second Vatican Council, great Catholic literature practically disappeared, and the average literature that has continued to exist no longer plays, nor has it the strength to play, any relevant role in the world of high culture.
The Council, as we know, divided the Church. On one side, the “aggiornamento” enthusiasts, anxious to conquer the sympathy of the world, prostituted themselves as leftist do-gooders, which may win some applause from the media, but which in the realm of literary creation, where the “war against cliché,” as Martin Amis called it, is the daily bread, can only result in the self- destruction of all talent.
The epitaph of Catholic progressivism in literature was “Monsignor Quixote” (1982), in which, driven by the desire to turn the pompous mediocrity of a leftist bishop into a symbol of authentic holiness, Graham Greene, who excelled in the psychological truthfulness of his characters, only proved what every reader of novels already knew: that fashionable stereotypes are kryptonite to literary genius.
On the other side, traditionalists, marginalized, persecuted, and rejected by the same authority they vowed to obey, enclosed themselves in a combative and rancorous spiritual state, which may inspire fine polemical tirades, but shrivels fictional imagination at the roots. The highest literary personality of this faction in activity, Canadian novelist Michael O’Brien, has not stopped to produce works worthy of attention, but they are almost always debilitated by an overly ostensible catechetical impulse, which does not catechize anyone precisely because it does not attract non-Catholic readers. What survives as Catholic literature in the world falls into the category of “special interest,” which is the same as saying it does not have a voice in the universe of high culture. At 92, Eugenio Corti, the only great Catholic writer alive comparable to those mentioned in the beginning of this article, is hardly read outside the circle of the faithful. Another rare survivor, Walker Percy, who was born in 1919 and passed away in 1990, belongs more to the pre-Council period.
It is true that one of the fiction writers of greatest success in the last decades was the Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien. But he is a writer of the first half of the twentieth century, who was belatedly discovered by the general public.
When examined on the smaller and local scale of Brazil, the process becomes even more visible, the fall more vertiginous and depressing. Without mentioning thinkers and doctrinaires, and counting only the greatest in the area of poetry and fiction, we had Augusto Frederico Schmidt, Manuel Bandeira, Jorge de Lima, Murilo Mendes, Octavio de Faria, Lúcio Cardoso, Cornélio Penna, Alphonsus de Guimaraens Filho. All of them produced Catholic literature. And what about today? Since the death of Bruno Tolentino, having nothing would be preferable to what still goes around under that label.
If it is true that “by their fruits you shall know them,” and that something of the state of things in society can be apprehended by the highs and lows of literary creation, then it is necessary to concede, at least, that the Catholic traditionalists are a little right and recognize that Vatican II was a disaster.
Olavo de Carvalho is the President of The Inter-American Institute, Distinguished Senior Fellow in Philosophy, Political Science, and the Humanities.
Translation revised by Alessandro Cota.
The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.