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Novelist of the Last Days | Part 2 of an Interview
with Michael O'Brien | Read
IgnatiusInsight.com: In the preface you mention the painters Georges Rouault
and Pablo Picasso. What influence did they have on you as you wrote the
novel? How do they embody radically different views of art and life?
OBrien: Both artists developed styles that pushed the frontiers
of cognitive realism, without plunging into absolute abstraction. Picasso
was a man who embodies the apotheosis of ego, a self-styled protean being
in submission to no authority other than his will and the impulses of
his nature. In a sense he was a new kind of Gnostic magician, but his
gnosis was entirely to do with his passions and his art. It is
always so interesting to see how readily the "autonomous self"
succumbs to totalitarian ideology. Picassos painting, Guernica,
for example, is not the great icon of human suffering that liberal ideologues
would have us believe; it is Communist propaganda.
Rouault, by contrast was a much deeper man. Though he was committed to
exploring new forms of artistic language, even to the outer edges of intelligibility,
he was at the same time rooted in an incarnational vision of the created
universe. A sense of love and grief permeate his work. He was a friend
of Léon Bloy and Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, he was a family
man who loved his children deeply. He loved Christ and he loved art, not
as a promethean power but as a gift from God. He embodies one of the many
genuine paths open to Christian artists. His Miserere series, for
example, is a meditation on the sufferings of mankind and the sufferings
of Christ, giving a visible form to the truth that Christ suffers with
us until the end of time.
Sophia House is really about how man deals with suffering, interior
and exterior suffering. The interior, of course, is the most difficult
of all, because it strikes to the very heart of the soul, the core of
mans being. My central character must wrestle at close quarters
with the tendency within himself (within all of us) to despair and its
ugly corollaries, or alternatively to union with Christ on the Cross.
Pawels fictional encounters with Picasso and Rouault are signposts,
revealing the parameters of the choice.
IgnatiusInsight.com: There's no doubt that your work as an iconographer
has a deep impact on your work as a novelist. Do you view writing novels
as the creation of a sort of literary icon? What is the relationship between
the literary arts and visual arts?
OBrien: Ive been painting as a Christian artist for close
to thirty years now. The first seven years were almost entirely devoted
to Byzantine iconography. So, yes, the icon has definitely influenced
my sense of what Christian art can be, should bea "language"
in which spirit and truth are working in harmony in a beautiful form.
This integration is possible regardless of the style a Christian artist
chooses as his personal creative language. But it was submission to the
spiritual and technical discipline of Byzantine icon-painting that taught
I am cautious about using the word "icon", since it has a specific
meaning, distinct from the other fields of Christian art. The icon is
a world of theology and spirituality, of uninterrupted tradition reaching
back (and going forward) through nearly two millennia. It is a particular
grace which we must avoid trivializing.
However, in the broader and more modern usage of the word, I would have
to agree that there is an iconographic dimension in all genuine Christian
art. By this I mean that, like the Byzantine icon, truly inspired artistic
works can be windows onto the infinite, gateways of grace. Christian art
is not a Sacrament, nor is it a defined sacramental, yet it approaches
closely our Catholic understanding of sacramentals, because it is an outward
sign through which the Holy Spirit can touch human souls. A Catholic novel
can be an instrument God uses to bring souls to conversion, and indeed
it frequently proves to be so.
Moreover, it remains in a readers memory as something like lived
experience. Although it is vicarious experience, deep connections are
made within the readers memory with his own personal experience,
enlarging his understanding of his sufferings and joys. Such a story remains
in his mind as a reference point, a light, a signpostforgive my
mixed metaphorsand even, one might say, an icon in the heart of
IgnatiusInsight.com: Youve written essays and columns about the
New Totalitarianism. How is it different from the "old" totalitarianism
described in Sophia House? What qualities of totalitarianism remain
consistent, despite external changes?
OBrien: This subject is so urgently in need of consideration
by all of us that I hesitate to attempt a thumbnail sketch in reply. For
those of your readers interested in the topic, my longer essays can be
found at my studio website.
The new totalitarianism rarely reveals itself for what it is: a top-down
imposed social revolution that has spread throughout the world with unprecedented
force and speed, redefining man to himself at every turn. It is a Picassoesque
anthropology, not a Roualtian anthropology, if I may continue our earlier
discussion. Or more accurately, it is a concept of man that reduces him
to a cell in a collective, a consumer without conscience, an autonomous
self in a sociology of autonomous selves. As I mentioned earlier, the
autonomous self so easily becomes the prey of totalitarianism, as long
as the regime rewards him with pleasurable "rights" and lifts
from his shoulders the burden of responsibilities.
The new totalitarianism, like all forms of totalitarianism, reduces the
absolute, eternal value of the human person, what John Paul II called
"the whole truth about man." Tragically stunted in its philosophy,
anthropology, sociology, and its cosmology, it is perhaps the most powerful
and wealthy force we have ever seen in history, and for that reason alone
it must be examined according to its fruits.
What are its fruits? An increase in material prosperity at the cost of
homogenized world-culture that works relentlessly to sweep aside the moral
conscience of nations in the name of a theoretical "peace."
The imposition of a set of moral "values" that are in fact radically
immoralabortion, contraception, euthanasia, same-sex "marriage",
etc. These are ominous signs. Whatever reduces the meaning of the human
person, regardless of the form it takes, a Marxist, a fascist, a globalist,
or even a capitalist form, it is in essence Materialism. And materialism
in the long run does great damage to individuals and to peoples. The new
Europe, for example, while it has reduced some tensions geopolitically
and economically, has narrowed the spectrum of the diverse expressions
and cultural richness that is a sign of a healthy community. It is also
violating moral conscience in many previously Catholic nations.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Yet the emerging world order seems to value culture,
and speaks a great deal about it.
OBrien: Rhetoric about freedom always increases as the real
thing declines. It is the same with rhetoric about culture (at least it
is so on my continent of North America). A certain amount of State-funded
culture can be a help to the arts of a nation, but if culture only arises
from political or economic sources, genuine artists are more and more
pushed to the sidelines, and only those artists with political connections
or who share the dominant social philosophy will be given assistance.
In my native land, for example, the social revolution of the autonomous
self is promoted at every turn by the State, by universities, by the media,
and by industrial-technological funding that is subservient to the cultural
theorizing of "experts," promoting along with it nihilistic
anti-human art that is exalted as "revolutionary" (a term which
is generally understood as high praise for superior vision). At the same
time genuine Christian culture has been entirely banished from the public
sphere of my nation. This is a tangible example of what our new Holy Father
Benedict XVI calls "the tyranny of moral relativism."
Permit me to say it again: What I have observed over thirty years as a
painter and writer is that, as in the case of freedom, rhetoric about
culture increases as the real thing declines. Im not referring to
the numbers of cultural events but rather to the quality of cultural expressions,
which arise from the deep waters of a peoples life, through its
artists and thinkers. The new globalist culture may increase the quantity
yet it is narrowing the spectrum of human thought and expression. Its
like a river thats a mile wide and an inch deep.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Is there another Children of the Last Days
novel to be written and/or published? If so, what is it about?
OBrien: Originally the series was planned as six novels, but
during the Millennium year (the Year of God the Father as Pope John Paul
II named it) I wrote the first draft of a novel titled The Fathers
Tale. Its a modern retelling of the parables of the Prodigal
Son and the Good Shepherd combined. Ive been working on it for the
past four years and think its ready for publication. Im really
very excited about it, maybe because the central character, the father
of the title, is of all my characters the one most like myself (gifts
and flaws included). I believe also that this novel draws together all
the spiritual and moral themes of my previous books. In this sense it
isif youll permit meiconographic.
Ive also begun writing a story that has been closest to my heart
for the past few years. Its a novel I call The Poet. It erupted
and grew in my imagination in the same way Father Elijah did, and
in this aspect its unlike my other novels. Its set in Croatia
and Bosnia-Hercegovina, beginning in the 1930s with the birth of
a boy (the central character) and following his life to the present day.
Its about the call of the gifted creative person to be a kind of
witness to his own people, and for them also. Considering the trials which
countries such as Croatia have undergone during the past century, such
a person is a crucially important sign of hope about all that is best
in human nature. He must be, therefore, a "sign of contradiction"
against sociopolitical forces that would negate the whole truth about
man. He has no weapons, no power, no riches, save for the fire in his
heart, the passion to express the truth in forms that are beautiful.
D. OBrien is the former editor of the Catholic family magazine,
Nazareth Journal. He is also the author of several books, including
his seven volume series of novels published by Ignatius Press, notably the
Elijah. For more than thirty years he has been a professional artist.
Michael's most recent novel is Sophia
House, the sixth novel in the acclaimed Children of the Last
Days series. It is a prequel to Father Elijah.
Michael and his wife Sheila have six children. He writes and paints full-time
at his home near Combermere, Ontario. His paintings and published articles
can be seen at his gallery website: www.studiobrien.com.
Visit Michael's page at IgnatiusInsight.com
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