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Novelist of the Last Days | Part 2 of an Interview with Michael O'Brien | Read Part 1

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?

: 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. Picasso’s 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 man’s 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. Pawel’s 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?

: I’ve 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 be–a "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 me this.

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 reader’s memory as something like lived experience. Although it is vicarious experience, deep connections are made within the reader’s 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 signpost–forgive my mixed metaphors–and even, one might say, an icon in the heart of the soul.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You’ve 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?

: 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 immoral–abortion, 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.

: 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. I’m not referring to the numbers of cultural events but rather to the quality of cultural expressions, which arise from the deep waters of a people’s 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. It’s like a river that’s 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?

: 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 Father’s Tale. It’s a modern retelling of the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Shepherd combined. I’ve been working on it for the past four years and think it’s ready for publication. I’m 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 is–if you’ll permit me–iconographic.

I’ve also begun writing a story that has been closest to my heart for the past few years. It’s a novel I call The Poet. It erupted and grew in my imagination in the same way Father Elijah did, and in this aspect it’s unlike my other novels. It’s set in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, beginning in the 1930’s with the birth of a boy (the central character) and following his life to the present day. It’s 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.

Michael D. O’Brien 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 best-selling Father 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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