We asked some of our writers to contribute a paragraph about the most memorable books they read this year.
I spent much of 2019 writing a book that explores questions our civilization doesn’t ask. The project has had me poring through the work of neglected thinkers, as well as neglected aspects of well-remembered ones. Without giving too much away, one of my big discoveries was Barbarism, French philosopher Michel Henry’s searing critique of modern scientism. When it first appeared in 1987, the book stirred the intellectual waters in France, not least because Henry’s fulminations went beyond scientism to strike at “Galilean science” as such. But Americans who can indulge a French phenomenologist’s bombast will find in it a prescient, and sound, diagnosis of what ails our relationship with knowledge: namely, science’s privileging of one form of knowing—what can be measured by scientific instruments and expressed in mathematical language—above all others.
In doing so, Henry warned, Galilean science severs “the reality of objects from their sensible qualities” and ultimately renders meaningless and valueless “our senses, all of our impressions, emotions, desires, passions and thoughts; in short all of our subjectivity that makes the substance of life,” until finally “the kiss exchanged by lovers” becomes “only a collision of microphysical particles.” If barbarism is simply the refusal to communicate where communion is possible, then modern scientism is, strictly speaking, a barbarous enterprise. It tears down all traditional ways of knowing; it refuses to commune with the past, except, that is, on scientific-technical terms. The result is something “that has never really been seen before: the explosion of science and the destruction of the human being.”
When I was young, I enjoyed novels and short stories for personal reasons. A character with whom I could identify, an outcome that tallied my sense of things . . . they made me want more. I read all the Hardy Boys because I wanted my life to be like theirs. William Faulkner's 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury, which we read in eleventh grade, grabbed me because the climate of emptiness and despair matched how I felt at age seventeen. Then I went to college, majored in English, proceeded to graduate school, and learned to read with a little disinterestedness. It was necessary to do so if I was to get through classes in philology, seventeenth-century Puritan literature, and stylistics.
Now that I've retired from academia, the personal angle is back. When I spotted War and Peace on my sister's shelf while my son and I were heading to his music camp, I took it because it was time to fill that embarrassing gap in my formation. I didn't expect the reading-as-identification to happen—but it did. Prince Andrey was the object.
At one point in the action, the Prince has been wounded, shot while charging the French at the battle of Austerlitz. He seems to be dying, but as he lies in agony on the ground, the sky opens above him and he is thrown into a state of sublime tranquillity. He is now insensible to the chaos and violence and death all around him. The pain is intense, though, and he falls into unconsciousness.
Andrey wakes up in the hands of the French and hears one of his captors mention that the Emperor is on his way. We have learned previously that Andrey idolizes Napoleon, whose martial leadership puts the vain social gamesmanship of Moscow aristocrats to shame. Andrey's contempt for his own society grows as the war approaches, and he sees Napoleon as its rightful scourge.
When Napoleon arrives and reviews these distinguished Russian prisoners, however, Andrey has a surprising reaction. Napoleon looks at him on the ground, the flagstaff beside him, and assumes the prince is doomed. “That's a fine death,” he says. But Andrey doesn't answer one way or another.
There was a burning pain in his head; he felt he was losing blood, and he saw above him the high, far-away, everlasting sky. He knew it was Napoleon—his hero—but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant creature in comparison with what was passing now between his soul and that lofty, limitless sky with the clouds flying over it. It meant nothing to him at that moment who was standing over him, what was being said of him.
The Emperor turns to the others; he is courteous and admiring. “Your regiment did its duty honorably,” he tells one of the officers, then trades quips on valor with the rest as he relishes in the French victory. But Andrey still doesn't join in. Tolstoy writes:
. . . he was silent now, with his eyes fastened directly upon Napoleon. So trivial seemed to him at that moment all the interests that were engrossing Napoleon, so petty seemed to him his hero, with his paltry vanity and glee of victory, in comparison with that lofty, righteous, and kindly sky which he had seen and comprehended, that he could not answer him.
It's a powerful reversal. The most heroic figure of the time, flush with conquest, sinks in the eyes of a mute, bleeding man close to death. Napoleon is full of life; Andrey can barely hold his head up. But all the moral strength falls on the side of the Russian. While Napoleon addresses him as “mon brave,” Andrey sees past him to the metaphysics of everything:
Gazing into Napoleon's eyes, Prince Andrey mused on the nothingness of greatness, on the nothingness of life, of which no one could comprehend the significance, and on the nothingness—still more—of death, the meaning of which could be understood and explained by none of the living.
What man doesn't imagine himself possessing the same composure in the face of death, or even in the presence of larger-than-life individuals? This is the desired identification I felt, the pleasure of watching a character respond to devastation with firm and cold clarity. The scene ends with a summary judgment. Andrey looks down and sees the locket on his chest, a holy image given to him by his devout sister. He admits his own faithlessness, wishes he might pray (“Lord, have mercy on me”), but can't. All he knows is this:
“But to whom am I to say that? Either a Power infinite, inconceivable, to which I cannot appeal, which I cannot even put into words, the great whole, or nothing,” he said to himself, “or that God, who has been sewn up here in this locket by Marie? There is nothing, nothing certain but the nothingness of all that is comprehensible to us, and the grandeur of something incomprehensible, but more important!”
The novel is 1500 pages long. That one scene makes all of them worth it.
Every so often, I come across a book that makes me think, “I wish I had written that!” William DiPuccio’s The Interior Sense of Scripture: The Sacred Hermeneutics of John W. Nevin is one such book. Though published more than twenty years ago, it only came across my desk this past year, at the kind advice of one of my students. (Thanks, Dan Glover!) Clearly, I should have read it much earlier. Nevin was one of the key figures of mid-nineteenth-century Mercersburg theology, a Reformed school of thought that opposed the intellectualism of Charles Hodge and the nominalist metaphysic of the Scottish Common-Sense philosophy that grounded it. Nevin, it turns out, rejected the nominalism of his opponents by insisting on the real presence of Christ both in the Eucharist and in Scripture. Theology, Nevin argued, was about realities, not just words: “The object of theology is neither speculation nor abstraction, but the realities themselves.” DiPuccio’s book is not for the faint-of-heart: It’s an in-depth exploration of Nevin’s sacramental hermeneutic that highlights its philosophical presuppositions and implications.
It’s great to see that James K. A. Smith has bidden a fond farewell to the so-called “principled pluralism” that mostly sets the agenda in the political philosophy of Kuyperian thought. In the third volume of his Cultural Liturgies, entitled Awaiting the King, Smith cautions that principled pluralism, by advocating for a “procedural republic,” courts secularism by one-sidedly appropriating Abraham Kuyper and his immediate predecessor, Groen van Prinsterer: “I daresay that Kuyperian advocates of principled pluralism today would cringe at Groen van Prinsterer’s forthright critique of unbelief.” That’s spot-on, I think. Surely, the state has an interest in “bending” (as Smith calls it) social practices in the direction of rightly ordered love. Smith’s kind words for the history of Christendom do not end up confusing political realities with the kingdom of God (a confusion that invariably waters down the gospel). Smith’s Augustinian confession is refreshingly frank: His journey into the Reformed fold turned him into “the strangest sort of monster: a Kuyperian secularist.” By way of antidote, Smith insists that this life is not all there is, calling on us to live with ascetic constraints, keeping in mind that we live for the sake of eternity.
This year I immersed myself in classics. Reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary side by side inevitably led me to compare the two. Emma the doctor’s wife and Sonya the prostitute are inverse images of each other: A church becomes the meeting place for Emma and her lover, leading to adultery; Sonya’s room, where she receives her clients, becomes the starting point for Raskolnikov’s redemption.
After Emma’s death, black liquid flows from her mouth, like the ink of all the words she consumed reading the romantic novels she tried to emulate. An entirely different word escapes from Sonya’s mouth as she reads about Lazarus’s resurrection: “She was approaching the word about the greatest, the unheard-of miracle, and a feeling of great triumph took hold of her.” The novels exemplify opposing reactions to the nineteenth-century world of the European bourgeoisie. Madame Bovary diagnoses the ills of the time, but ultimately offers no hope of a cure. One can, however, find the cure in Crime and Punishment, which shows that both spiritual and literal resurrection are possible.
I might similarly pair two other novels I read in 2019. After years of resisting Willa Cather, who writes about the American West, I finally picked up O Pioneers!. Having spent my college years in Wyoming, I knew her writing would force me to confront the landscape I have such an ambiguous relationship with; the vast emptiness of the land inspires awe and dismay in equal measures. The second book was Persuasion, Jane Austen’s last and perhaps most underappreciated novel.
They might not initially seem to allow for much comparison. The former comes from the harsh and sparsely populated Western frontier at the turn of the twentieth century, while the latter hails from Regency Britain, a place we associate with ballrooms, plummy English accents, and tea parties. Yet in both these particular novels, the female protagonists are given a second chance at love. The romance is less about instantaneous and all-encompassing passion than enduring loyalty and a belief in homecoming. Alexandra and Anne are women who exemplify quiet tenacity and patience, albeit in very different settings and circumstances. Ultimately, the two novels, by portraying a model of life and virtue that transcends place, allowed me to build a bridge between my own childhood in Europe and my college years in Wyoming.
Now for the good news: Sobering times are yielding effervescent reads, both inside and outside the extended family of First Things.
In Return of the Strong Gods, Rusty Reno delivers in book form the critical argument that he and others continue to develop in the magazine’s pages: What will—or should—replace the postwar political consensus? Looking at Church rather than state, the essential George Weigel orchestrates an utterly original interpretation of The Irony of Modern Catholic History. In The Idol of Our Age, Daniel Mahoney digs into philosophical bedrock to show how humanitarianism competes with Christianity, and why—contrary to sentimental supposing—these faiths are irreconcilable.
More positive literary news: Kevin Williamson’s The Smallest Minority eviscerates today’s mob rule with all the panache of America’s top pugilist. In his haunting My Father Left Me Ireland, Michael Brendan Dougherty poetically explores the search for patrimony, including his own, in a world where family and nation are receding. And looking beyond the temporal horizon, Kathryn Jean Lopez delivers deep daily meditations in A Year with the Mystics. Literally the most beautiful book of the year, its inviting binding and gorgeous pages hark back to a time when books looked like what they are supposed to be: signposts on the way to eternity.
One of today’s chief paradoxes is the reality of social coercion in societies historically considered to be the freest of all—like our own. Thinking about that should lead readers to other works by past and current masters, including Ryszard Legutko’s magnificently argued The Demon in Democracy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s indispensable Between Two Millstones, Book I of the memoir detailing his baffling initial encounters with the West following exile from the Soviet Union in 1974. In pursuit of that same conundrum concerning the pressure for social conformity in a time of unbridled autonomy, I also recently re-read several volumes by master tragedian/comedian Evelyn Waugh—Scoop; Decline and Fall; and Brideshead Revisited among them. One line in his Sword of Honor trilogy jumped out as especially apposite. The Catholic narrator chronically out of step with secular modernity reflects that, “Sometimes he imagined himself serving the last Mass for the last Pope in a catacomb at the end of the world.”
Readers troubled by the often-unhinged character of our own moment might draw comfort from the fact that great minds of the past century faced down their own social unraveling, and worse—all the while managing to commit the truth to record, and to keep the faith.
Peter J. Leithart
Journalistic excursions into the exotic world of “Trump’s America” are legion, but Timothy Carney’s Alienated America surpasses them all. Behind the economic devastation, Carney discovers a spiritual wasteland. “The unchurching of America is at the root of America’s economic and social problems,” he writes, suggesting we can best understand what’s happened “not by looking at the idled factories but by looking at the empty churches.”
Several people this year commended the work of philosopher Stephen R. L. Clark, whose 1981–1982 Gifford Lectures were republished in 2019 as From Athens to Jerusalem. I was taken by Clark’s God, Religion, and Reality, a fresh, witty, readable presentation of the “good philosophical reasons for theism, and Christian theism in particular.” Clark gives cogent arguments for the unfashionable convictions: Truth exists, and it imposes an obligation to believe it.
Late in the year, I began reading the novels of Irish writer Paul Lynch. His debut novel, Red Sky in Morning (2013), is a book-length chase scene written in haunting, archaic prose, like a lyrical love child of Seamus Heaney and Cormac McCarthy. Lynch creates one of the most terrifyingly relentless predators in recent literature. “Faller” will haunt your dreams.
I can’t get James Matthew Wilson’s The Hanging God (2018) out of my head, especially the sonnet cycle of Part III, “Wiped Out,” a poignant story of a man’s obsession with a stripper whose “orgiastic cries,” the man comes to recognize, are no more than “the nervous reflex of a body / That’d stripped itself of all that wasn’t body.”
C. C. Pecknold
Saint Augustine thinks reading should help us to see God, and that we can only see him rightly through Jesus Christ—none of the virtues that we can acquire through reading will unite us with God apart from his grace. To this end, I recommend The Sense of Mystery: Clarity and Obscurity in the Intellectual Life by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. It runs counter to both hyper-rationalist and emotivist poles in theology, training the mind to preserve the “sense of mystery” not by collapsing distinctions but by making the right ones. It’s a rare work of fundamental theology that raises the soul as well as the mind.
A much broader, but no less serious, sense of mystery comes this year from Robert Cardinal Sarah in The Day is Now Far Spent. Many have called Cardinal Sarah “the African Benedict” before, but this book—dedicated to Benedict XVI as “peerless architect of the rebuilding of the Church”—solidifies the sense that he is truly the most important intellectual heir of Ratzinger in the episcopate today. He identifies the collapse of Western civilization as inextricably caused by a crisis of faith, a loss of our sense of God’s transcendence, mystery, grandeur, majesty, and nearness to us in Jesus Christ.
Bishop Robert Barron’s Letter to a Suffering Church deserves special mention despite being the shortest and simplest. Like Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah, Bishop Barron sees that the crisis of faith in the West has wreaked havoc on the priesthood, too. Moral relativism and sexual dysfunction raged like a beast throughout the clergy for over thirty years. That has had devastating effects on the spiritual paternity of many priests and bishops. It has blinded too many. Even so, Bishop Barron has not written us a counsel of despair; quite the opposite. He tells the faithful to “stay and fight!” For whom do we stay? Christ himself. Without being united to him through the sacraments of the Church, we are lost. In our clinging to him, all the Devil’s plans are thwarted.
Monsignor Joseph C. Fenton was a giant of a theologian who taught at Catholic University of America from 1938–1963. Like myself he taught fundamental and dogmatic theology, and he had a deep and abiding interest in the principles which undergird all ecclesial reflection on political communities. A collection of his essays under the title The Church of Christ provides a great introduction to his ecclesiology, which develops principles for relating Christ and society through the Catholic Church. Fenton was unjustly overshadowed by John Courtney Murray on such questions. It’s a good time to rediscover him.
Since the end of World War II, political appeals have tended to be framed in anti-totalitarian terms. Whether it is the right objecting to economic regulation or the left objecting to moral regulation, the complaint is always the same. Any assertion of authority, however humane and legitimate, is regarded as incipient fascism. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the ’68 movement, expressed this anti-totalitarian ethos perfectly when he accused François Missoffe, the French youth minister, of being “Hitlerian” for not granting men access to women’s dormitories. (Missoffe, a former leader of the Free French, had opposed Hitler and Vichy and been imprisoned by the Japanese.) Hubert Wolf's Pope and Devil, a study of the relations between the Holy See and Hitler’s regime, shows why Christians cannot be anti-totalitarian in a simple sense.
Catholics opposed the Nazi regime not because they adhered to an “anti-totalitarian” or “anti-authoritarian” ethos, but because the Nazi regime arrogated to itself the all-encompassing authority that properly belonged to Christ and his Church. A Vatican memorandum written in 1933 made the point clearly. The Nazis sought to usurp “the attributes of the societas perfecta, which only the Church of Christ represents.” For “the Church itself strives for totalism when it demands the whole person and all of humanity for God.” This clarifies something that many Christians fail to see. Because Catholic belief makes a total claim on man, indiscriminate anti-totalitarianism will always result in attacks on the Church.
During the long, dreary nights of last winter I read Michelle Dean’s Sharp, an effortlessly unfolding saga of the interconnected lives of ten literary women (Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm). Dean’s extensive research and excellence in craft are sure to make this a riveting read for many, but stories of twentieth-century New York’s literary intelligentsia were especially fascinating for me, a twenty-first-century woman with literary aspirations living and working in a very different New York. Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States also stands out. While O’Gieblyn’s essays are about Middle American flyover country, leaving the faith of one’s childhood, fundamentalist culture, and contemporary America, her conclusions are consistently surprising and unlike those of others writing in and around that genre.
But most of my reading time this year was devoted to poetry. Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic has haunted me since June with its tales of political unrest, protest, and silence—all of which mirror eerily the goings-on in our country. I wrote, recited, and texted lines from the indicting opening poem, “We Lived Happily During the War,” to anyone who would pay me attention this summer:
. . . I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house—
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
Most important, I’ve been reading the Bible alongside John Calvin’s commentaries this year. I’ll end with a seasonally appropriate comment on Matthew 2:13 & 15 (the flight to Egypt):
Above all let us never avoid the cross, by which the son of God himself was trained from his earliest infancy. This flight is a part of the foolishness of the cross, but it surpasses all the wisdom of the world. That he may appear at his own time as the savior of Judea, he is compelled to flee from it, and is nourished by Egypt, from which nothing but what was destructive to the Church of God had ever proceeded. Who would not have regarded with amazement such an unexpected work of God?
It is no strange or unwonted occurrence for God to call his son out of that country; and it serves rather to confirm our faith, that, as on a former occasion, so now again, the Church of God comes out of Egypt. There is this difference, however, between the two cases. The whole nation was formerly shut up in the prison of Egypt, while, in the second redemption, it was Christ, head of the Church alone, who was concealed there, but who carried the salvation and life of all shut up in his own person.
In 2019 I finally tackled the Houellebecq corpus, beginning the year with Submission and concluding it with Serotonin—Platform, Elementary Particles, and The Map and the Territory in between. Serotonin may not be Houellebecq’s best novel, but I believe it is my favorite. Quadragenarian Florent-Claude decides to “disappear,” escaping his bestiality-prone girlfriend for a life of hotel-hopping through France. On his travels, he numbs his melancholy with anti-depressants and witnesses how globalization and elites “ready to die for free trade” have ravaged France’s farmers, Europe, and modern life itself. But the book’s best bits aren’t political. What fascinates me most in Houellebecq’s prose are the details of despair: the quotidian struggle of forcing oneself to wash rather than “attacking the bottle of Grand Marnier right away”; Florent’s frank confession that television “debates on Politique matin” give him the energy to get through the day. Still, Serotonin isn’t a simple story of depression and demise; amid Florent’s moments of misery are half-turns toward hope: “God takes care of us; he thinks of us every minute, and he gives us instructions that are sometimes very precise. Those surges of love that flow into our chests and take our breath away . . . are extremely clear signs.”
A few other favorites from the year, for good measure: Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl, a novel of post-World War I Austria-Hungary, ought to go by its original title Rausch der Verwandlung (“The Intoxication of Transformation”). Verwandlung better gets at the heart of the novel, which is about myriad transformations—not least the transformation of human emotions in a modern world devoted to the market. Ronald Blythe’s remarkable reporting in Akenfield—formatted a bit like a Spoon River Anthology in prose—enthralled me with its glimpses of East Anglian villagers coming to terms (or not, as the case may be) with the upheavals of the sixties. And Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer solaced me with its discerning portrait of a rather self-centered young theologian who became self-sacrificing.
In times like these, there can be little patience for recreational books. That is why I name four of my five top books of 2019 under the category nonfiction. They are: The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, by Douglas Murray; The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on its Way to the Old Continent, by Stephen Smith; The Case for Trump, by Victor Davis Hanson; and National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin.
Murray’s book is a meditation on the growing incoherence of Western societies under the assault of identity politics, political correctness, and the rest. A gay man, Murray is unflinching in the glare he fixes on those seeking to undermine what is left of Western civilization. A non-believer, he nevertheless accepts the centrality of Christianity to that civilization and seeks to expose these increasingly emboldened ideologies which he says are being used to “derange” us.
Smith’s book provides much overdue background on Europe’s ongoing migration crisis, delving into African demography, culture, economics, and social patterns, filling out our sense of the meaning of present drifts. Victor Davis Hanson has written a magisterial work not just on the reasons why Donald Trump was elected U.S. president, but also on the condition of modern America, illuminating the nature of the divide between—as Bernie Sanders had it—people who have their showers at night and those who have them in the morning. Hanson is a classical scholar who has grasped the psychology of the builder beloved of his workers who has leveraged that affinity to steal his country out from under the noses of its elite establishment. He doesn’t flatter Trump’s personality, but neither does he hold his nose in acknowledging that, in the business of draining swamps, decorum is not a cardinal qualification.
Eatwell and Goodwin take this theme to another level, sketching out, in a relatively dispassionate way, the reasons for the current global resurgence of nationalism, traditionalism, and populism. Since this wave likely portends the future of global politics, you would think this and the other three books would have received more excited media attention. But no. When reviewed at all, they have been met with superciliousness. Prepare yourselves for many post-election mornings when the world awakes to the “shock” news that the favorites have fallen and the “far right” has triumphed again.
The sole non nonfiction writer I’ll mention is the Frenchman Michel Houellebecq, whose eighth novel Serotonin appeared this year to much the same kind of indifferent reviews as the books mentioned above. This is a good sign. It means Houellebecq is still over the target he’s been scoping for the past fifteen years: the condition of the soon-to-be-post-freedom West after the failed experiment of secular liberalism. Like the authors named above, Houellebecq seriously engages the condition of humanity in the world—these days, that’s a rare quality in writers, who mostly see their duty as that of nodding dogs in the rear windows of cars heading resolutely for the cliff-edge.
James Matthew Wilson
I spent much of the last year writing a book that describes, in part, the disorientation that beset many lay Catholics in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The snapshots of the era I came across were striking in their sensations of shock and confusion. But what impressed me most was how little of the scholarly literature on the Council provides a synthetic and comprehensive vision of that tumultuous period. The scholarship is as fractured as the era it would describe.
The confusions of the past, coupled with the sense of an era passing away at this very hour, sent me searching through my library for books that provide at once a wide and rich vision of our Catholic and Western traditions. The three I would recommend in particular are great thick books all published by Ignatius Press. Kevin Starr’s Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America is a sprawling, flawed masterpiece of a book whose story will remain ever incomplete, because of Starr’s sudden death in January 2017. Starr manages to compact an immense amount of detail of the colonial Catholic experience in Spanish-, French-, and Anglo-America, all without losing a sense of narrative progression. Historical ignorance seems to be leading everyone from my students to the New York Times to blanket condemnations of the past. Starr’s candid eye for brutality and moments of conversion should chasten that temptation and inspire us all to trust that redemption is always possible.
The global vision Starr brings to the adventure of a faith brought at great risk, and with doubtful motives and uneven fruits, to our land, in turn got me thinking about how fragile truth’s fortunes are in this world and what a difficult but chancy work it is to pass on a tradition. I found myself, in consequence, returning to Lucy Beckett’s In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition. I first heard of this book by way of Alasdair MacIntyre, and it is a book that takes MacIntyre’s theory of intellectual traditions as a point of departure for what is on the surface a school teacher’s primer in the great works of the West—from the Greek dramatists through Shakespeare, and on to Santayana, Stevens, Miłosz, and John Paul II. Beckett’s early work, which took Wallace Stevens at his word as a secular priest of the imagination, serves her well in this macrocosmic survey of literature, giving her a clear vision for what the great writers have to teach us about being—the being of the world and what it means to be human.
I turned at last to Robert Royal’s A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century. Episodic in focus, like Starr’s history, but critically attentive, like Beckett’s survey, Royal’s book manages to give coherence and life to a brilliant era in Catholic thought, where the need for order and the unruly fecundity of lively, but orthodox, minds pushed and pulled upon each other. The results sometimes look like a revolution but as often like a revival. Royal’s capacity to see ambiguity for what it is and to make a score card of achievements and limitations makes it possible to appreciate both the coherence and the confusion of it all. I was impressed by the ambition of these three books and by the lesson they teach together: It is still possible to perceive and to dwell within a vast and fruitful intellectual and cultural tradition, despite the hour’s threats to it and the difficulty any one of us must have in seeing things whole.
This year I finally read the Catholic novels of J. K. Huysmans, the French prose master and fin de siècle convert from Naturalism to Decadence and materialism to Catholicism. I had previously read his Decadent classic À rebours, as well as his pulpy yet erudite Là-bas, which is a prequel of sorts to his trilogy of autobiographical conversion novels (En route, La cathédrale, L’oblat). For most Catholic readers the conversion trilogy is where it’s at, though I confess I was bored by it. One has the sense that Huysmans’s art (like any Decadent art) aspires to ekphrasis—that Huysmans thinks it would be best if all reality were artifice and all art were a representation of a representation (of a representation of a . . .), with no stakes, no action, only pantomime.
À rebours achieves its perverse greatness by following this hall of mirrors where it leads. An almost plotless novel, it dilates to excess on the meticulous arrangements of Des Esseintes, a terminal aesthete whose seclusion from reality (society and nature) gradually refines him toward madness. Contrastingly, a religious conversion entails a confrontation with reality, even transcendent reality, such as Des Esseintes finally cries out for, in hope or despair. The conversion trilogy retains the Decadent commitment to elaboration-unto-stasis, though it substitutes for the intricacies of the sensual life those of the spiritual life. The method can be justified here on psychological-realist grounds, as replicating the crippling scruples and inwardness of a fussy convert. But in a novel about decision and action, it is above all the enemy of narrative.
Huysmans’s best pious book, for my money, is St. Lydwine of Schiedam, a hagiography of a medieval Flemish saint who exemplified mystical substitution, whose ailing body rotted away during her lifetime in expiation for the sins and heresies of fourteenth-century Europe. In the mystical suffering of Lydwine, Huysmans finally finds a proper reverent application for his minute depictions of both sensual and spriritual experience. He also finds a sacred purpose for the hi-lo paradoxes that characterize Decadence: victim as victor, misery as ecstasy, foulness as beauty, hell as heaven. Read St. Lydwine in tandem with Là-bas, which features the true story of Gilles de Rais, a medieval nobleman who campaigned with Joan of Arc and then became a satanist and serial child-murderer and converted dramatically back to the Church at his ecclesiastical trial. (As Wilde said, “Catholic literature is for saints and sinners. For respectable people, Margaret Atwood will do.”) In St. Lydwine and Là-bas, Huysmans establishes a highbrow justification for such later, pulpier Catholic works as The Exorcist. He shows how horror, true crime, and other “low” genres may limn the divine origin and destiny of man.
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