The Measure of Literary Giants | An Interview with
Joseph Pearce | June 28, 2005
The Measure of Literary Giants | An Interview with
Joseph Pearce | June 28, 2005
IgnatiusInsight.com: A few years ago you wrote Literary
Converts, which is a series of biographical vignettes of late-nineteenth-century
and twentieth-century converts and their ties to one another. How is your
new book, Literary
Giants, Literary Catholics, different from that earlier book? What
is the central focus, or goal, of Literary Giants, Literary Catholics?
The earlier book was an integrated narrative history of the twentieth century,
detailing the network of minds (and grace) that animated the Catholic Literary
Revival. The new book discusses some of the key writers of this Revival
in greater detail.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In the introduction you bring up two themes that
you indicate inform the whole of the book: the conversion of culture and
the evangelizing power of beauty. How do you think Literary Giants, Literary
Catholics and your other books support and foster these two themes?
Pearce: It seems to me that our sick, decaying and wayward modern
culture can be converted by the power of Reason (theology, philosophy, apologetics
and catechetics), Love (the example of sanctity in action) and Beauty (the
power of art, architecture, music, film and literature). Although these
three areas of cultural engagement overlap, and indeed are united in Truth,
they represent distinct approaches to changing the world in which we live.
I see my vocation as a writer, speaker and teacher to be in the third of
these areas. The awesome power of beauty to convert and evangelize the modern
world needs to be unleashed through the employment of cultural apologetics:
converting the culture with culture itself. I hope that my latest book will
succeed in bringing souls to the truth by leading them through beauty to
IgnatiusInsight.com: Literary Giants, Literary Catholics has a strong
apologetic quality. Is it your most overt work of apologetics, in the general
sense of defending and explaining Catholicism?
Pearce: Many of my earlier works were biographies of major Catholic
literary figures in which my role was to tell the story of their lives in
an objective manner. In such books, as in such lives, the truth emerges
from the lessons learned from the experience of the protagonists. In the
new book I concentrate on the deep Christian content in the works of these
writers. This has enabled me to explore the Catholic dimension in greater
detail than was possible in the biographies. As such, it can be said to
be more overtly a work of apologetics than my previous work.
IgnatiusInsight.com: One of the longest chapters is titled "Tradition
and Conversion in Modern English Literature." What is the paradoxical relationship
between the two and why is that relationship so important?
Pearce: We live in a world of chronological snobbery in which it
is presumed superciliously that the present is always superior to the past
purely because it is assumed that society is always progressing from an
ignorant past to an "enlightened" future.
How anyone can believe such drivel after the horrors of the past century
is astonishing. From the killing fields of World War One to the Holocaust
of World War Two; from the bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden to
the Gulag Archipelago of Soviet Russia and the institutionalized murder
of Mao's China; not to mention the mass infanticide of abortion; from any
perspective the past century has been the bloodiest and most murderous in
the whole of humanity's bloodstained history. Against this destructive "progressive"
backdrop, we see the resurrection of Tradition: the power of the Past to
make sense of the Present. The paradoxical relationship between Tradition
and Conversion lies in the fact that conversion requires a rejection of
post-Enlightenment "tradition" in order to embrace the older and authentic
Tradition of Christendom. The paradox resides in the necessity of rejecting
a lesser tradition to embrace a greater.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Several of the essays are on a topic you've written
much about in other books, including two biographies: the Chesterbelloc.
Although so closely identified with one another, Chesterton and Belloc were
actually quite different in nearly every way, weren't they? What are some
of the respective strengths and weaknesses of each man as author and apologist?
Pearce: The new book examines these two great writers at greater
depth than was possible in either biography. It is true that Chesterton
and Belloc differed in many ways. Chesterton lived almost exclusively in
a world of ideas, dreaming of action; Belloc married the world of ideas
with the world of action, from his travels in Europe and America to his
turbulent years as a Member of Parliament. Chesterton's charity embraced
the command to love our enemy; Belloc's bellicosity sometimes seemed to
justify the desire of the "Sailor" in one of his poems that "all my enemies
go to hell"! On the deepest level, however, Chesterton and Belloc were united
in their robust defense of the Faith. I look at the complex relationship
between these two great men in a chapter of Literary Giants, Literary
Catholics entitled "The Chesterbelloc: Examining the Beauty of the Beast".
IgnatiusInsight.com: Part Three (of Five) focuses on "The Wasteland," that
period in England and Europe of disillusionment and despair following World
War I. What was the impact of that period of time on great Christian writers
such as T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien?
Pearce: It is ironic that this period of post-war disillusionment
resulted in the writing of much of the finest Christian literature of the
century. T.S. Eliot and Evelyn Waugh, and, later, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis,
emerged from the wasteland of modernity to produce works of profound Christian
wisdom. Their inspiration arose from their disillusionment with disillusionment.
Each of these writers knew that modernity was intellectually and morally
bankrupt. It had no answers because it was not even asking the questions.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Who was Roy Campbell and why, in your estimation,
does he deserved greater attention?
Pearce: Roy Campbell is one of the most important poets, and one
of the most controversial literary figures, of the twentieth century. His
reputation has suffered because of his unrelenting attacks on the decadent
disciples of liberal secularism. He was received into the Catholic Church
in Spain, a year before the outbreak of that country's fratricidal civil
war. The priest who received him into the Church was murdered by communist
militiamen, as were the Carmelite monks that Campbell and his wife had befriended
His attacks on communism, fascism and the relativism of liberal democracy
were summed up in his coining of a new word, "fascidemocshevism". He insisted
that the only answer to this triumvirate of secularist error was traditional
Christianity. Campbell needs to be rediscovered by a new generation of Catholics.
He is a sleeping giant. I hope my biography of him (Unafraid of Virginia
Woolf: The Friends & Enemies of Roy Campbell) and the various chapters
on his life and legacy in Literary Giants, Literary Catholics will
prompt today's Catholics to discover his work.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Not surprisingly, you've written some essays on
Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. You speak highly
of the movies, but do have some reservations about them. What are some of
Pearce: My attitude to Jackson's film version of Tolkien's classic
is discussed at some length in the new book. Essentially my attitude to
Jackson's movie depends on the "hat" I am wearing.
As a Tolkien purist I see many deficiencies in Jackson's film. His treatment
of the characters of Galadriel, Faramir and Treebeard are all deeply disappointing.
Tolkien wrote that the character of Galadriel was inspired in large part
by his devotion to the Blessed Virgin; none of this Marian dimension is
present in Jackson's version. Faramir is depicted as a paragon of virtue,
a warrior saint who is not tempted to make the same mistake as Boromir,
his brother; Jackson turns him into a cynical kidnapper. Treebeard can be
seen as a metaphor for Tradition in Tolkien's work, rooted in the wisdom
of eons of experience; in Jackson he is reduced to the role of a buffoon
contributing nothing to the story except comic relief.
On the other hand, if I remove my Tolkien purist's "hat" and put on my Tolkien
pragmatist's "hat" instead, I find much that is encouraging in Jackson's
movie. It is the work of one who clearly knows and loves The Lord of
the Rings. And, of course, many thousands of people have read the book
for the first time because they enjoyed the film. In bringing a new generation
of readers to the greatest book of the last century, Jackson is to be commended.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What writing projects are you currently working
on, or hope to work on in the near future?
Pearce: I've been preparing U.S. editions of two of my works previously
only published in the UK: Small Is Still Beautiful and Flowers
of Heaven: A Thousand Years of Christian Verse. I'm about to commence
work on a revised and updated edition of my biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn,
and I'm writing many articles and essays for sundry magazines and book-length
I've recently completed an essay on C.S. Lewis's Narnia for a new
anthology to coincide with the release of the film version of the The
Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. I'm currently
writing various entries for a new Tolkien Encyclopedia and have edited
a collection of Belloc's political writings. The next major book project
is a work on Shakespeare's Catholicism. I'm keeping busy!
Related IgnatiusInsight.com articles:
Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce | May 2005
and Saint Francis | By Joseph Pearce | May 2005
The Unmasking of
Oscar Wilde | An Interview with Joseph Pearce | July 2004
of the Ring | Sandra Miesel | January 2005
G.K. Chesterton: Common Sense
Apostle & Cigar Smoking Mystic | Dale Ahlquist | May 2004
author Joseph Pearce has
firmly established himself as the premier literary biographer of our time,
especially in interpreting the spiritual depths of the Catholic literary
tradition. In his new book, Literary
Giants, Literary Catholics, Pearce examines a plethora of authors,
taking the reader through a dazzling tour of the creative landscape of Catholic
prose and poetry. Literary
Giants, Literary Catholics covers the vast terrain from Dante to
Tolkien, from Shakespeare to Waugh.
Focusing on the literary revival of the 20th century, Joseph Pearce touches
on well-known authors like G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien, but also
introduces readers to lesser-known writers like Roy Campell, Maurice Baring,
and Owen Barfield. Anyone who appreciates English literature will be entranced
by the wealth and depth of this new masterpiece.
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