Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Revival and Romanticism

In order to understand the English Catholic Revival that we studied at our Summer School in Oxford recently, we need to appreciate that it originates not only as a counter-reaction to the English Reformation, but as a development of the Romantic movement. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothic Revival, and the Arts and Crafts movement in the nineteenth century, Revival writers found inspiration in the medieval past, and in England’s traditional devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary (as LĂ©onie Caldecott’s seminar showed). They sought to restore the human dignity of the poor that had been shorn away by the factory system and big business.

They shared with the Romantic poets a belief in the importance of the imagination. For Coleridge, imagination was “the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception... a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM”, and Keats wrote: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination”. William Blake said: “Jesus is the Imagination.”

But Revival writers (from Newman to Tolkien) emphasized imagination as a way of apprehending truth; and strove to overcome the dichotomy between reason and feeling, or thought and emotion, which remained a legacy of the battles between Romanticism and Rationalism in the period after the French Revolution. They defended a sacramental faith in which God as the author of nature uses natural symbols not only to raise our spirits or reveal himself in some vague sense, but to communicate grace to mankind, assuming human nature and history through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Thus the Revival separated itself from Romanticism as that movement turned increasingly against Christianity and traditional morality and belief.
Though like Romanticism it was a literature of protest against the mechanization of life and the “bourgeois” mentality of Victorian England, it was, as Chesterton noted in The Victorian Age, “a rational movement; almost a rationalist movement”. It was a “protest of the rationality of religion as against the increasing irrationality of mere Victorian comfort and compromise.”

The Romantics were right to question the intellectual order of the Enlightenment, because this was a false order and the rejection of the true Logos. The mistake lay further back, in the rejection of Scholastic wisdom by Nominalism and Voluntarism a couple of centuries before the Renaissance. Thus the move from medievalist or pre-Raphaelite nostalgia to the recovery of a religious, indeed a Catholic, perspective was perfectly legitimate. And to the extent that today’s culture is largely shaped by Rationalsim and Romanticism, it is legitimate for us to follow the path trodden by the Catholic Literary Revival in our own time, searching for a balance of truth and feeling, of life and intelligence, of imagination and wisdom, in a “return to religion”.

Some of the questions we leave our students thinking about:
What can we still learn from these writers?
Why did the movement decline after the Second World War?
How is the human imagination a way of apprehending (or helping to apprehend) truth?
What is the mission of the Christian writer, playwright, poet, artist, or film-maker today?
How can we ourselves best portray, represent, and defend the Christian doctrine in the face of modern atheism or indifference?

Prayer for a new Catholic Literary Revival (from Idylls Press)
O, Jesus, who said, “heaven and earth shall pass away, but my Word shall not pass,” you are the Living and Eternal Word through whom all that exists was made and is sustained. You delighted in proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom by means of stories. Through the intercession of Mary Most Holy, St Joseph (your guardian, Mary’s chaste spouse, and protector of Christ’s faithful), St Francis de Sales (patron of Catholic writers), Blessed John Henry Newman (patron of Catholic essayists and novelists), Blessed John Paul II the Great (patron of Catholic poets, artists, playwrights, and personalists), and all the holy men and women throughout the ages who have spread the Kingdom of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty by means of words and images, we ask you humbly but confidently for the graces we need to contribute to a renewed culture of beauty (in service of love and life), including a Catholic literary revival, for our times.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be.
Jesus, Eternal Beauty, we trust in you. Most Holy Trinity, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

Illustrations: the rolling English road at Uffington; Blake's Angel of Revelation; St Barnabas Church in Oxford's Jericho, a home of the Pre-Raphelites.