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Converts and Saints | An Interview with Joseph Pearce | IgnatiusInsight.com
Noted literary biographer Joseph Pearce,
author of biographies of G.K. Chesterton,
Tolkien, and many others, was recently interview by the
Spanish magazine, Ediciones Palabra, about the
newly published Spanish translation of his book,
Literary Converts. That interview appears here in English through the kind permission of
the magazine and Joseph Pearce.
You are a real
specialist in "literary converts". To what extent is this due to the fact that
you are a convert to the Catholic Church?
Joseph Pearce: I think that converts are often interested in hearing the
conversion stories of others, of those who have arrived at the same destination
though on very different roads, and, in the same way, literary converts are interested
in other writers who have come to Rome on the path of literature. I suppose,
therefore, that, as a Catholic writer and a convert, I am particularly
interested in those literary figures in whose footsteps I have followed.
personal conversion, what was the influence of those convert writers' books?
Who contributed most to your path to Rome?
Pearce: G.K. Chesterton was the biggest single influence, under grace, on my personal path
to Rome. The first of his books that I read was
The Well and the Shallows, one of his last books. It had a profound effect upon me,
undermining my anti-Catholic prejudices. Other books of his that were
influential on my conversion include Orthodoxy
(of course!) and The Everlasting Man, as well as
lesser known books of his such as The Thing and
Catholic Church and Conversion. I suspect that his
wonderful novels also had a significant influence. I read a great deal of
Chesterton on my path to Rome and my first published book, Wisdom and
Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, was an act of
thanksgiving to Chesterton for giving me the truth, and to God for giving me
You often say
that Chesterton was "a saint". To what extent is it a mere praising statement,
or is it meant in the "technical" sense of the word?
mean it in the genuine, technical sense. I believe that Chesterton is in Heaven
and I would be overjoyed should a cause for his canonisation prove successful.
In his life and work he epitomised Our Lord's commandment that we are not only
to love our neighbour but our enemy also. Chesterton spent the whole of his
adult life arguing with his intellectual "enemies", such as H.G. Wells and
George Bernard Shaw, yet he never became a real enemy of anyone. Indeed
"enemies" such as Wells and Shaw considered Chesterton a valued friend.
Chesterton said of his relationship with
his brother that they were always arguing but they never quarrelled. This sums
up Chesterton's relationship not only with his brother but with everyone. We
are told that we should hate the sin but love the sinner. Chesterton did this
to a saintly degree, hating the heresy but loving the heretic. He is an example
of sanctity which I hope to emulate in my own life and work.
Your book Literary Converts lists dozens and dozens of authors. Some of them are well known
in the English-speaking world and many others, worldwide; their books are still
read. How can this pleiad of distinguished British intellectuals' conversions,
in a period of few decades, be explained or interpreted? What special circumstances propitiated the phenomenon?
is an enormous question, much too large to be discussed within the framework of
an interview. I hope that my book goes some way to explaining the underlying
dynamic of the Catholic cultural revival but there is still much more that
needs to be written on the subject, by me or others. In an effort to explain
some of the "special circumstances" that contributed towards the cause of the
revival and towards the subsequent momentum it achieved, I'll try to summarise
the most important "ingredients".
Its roots go back to the end of the
eighteenth century with the French Revolution, an event that plunged the
so-called Enlightenment into crisis. The Romantic reaction to the Revolution in
England resulted in various manifestations of neo-mediaevalism, including the
Gothic Revival in architecture and aesthetics, the Oxford Movement in liturgy
and ecclesiology, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in literature and the
Augustus Pugin, perhaps the most important
figure of the Gothic Revival, converted to Catholicism in 1835. Ten years
later, John Henry Newman, the most important figure in the Oxford Movement,
became a Catholic. Newman's conversion sent shockwaves through the
establishment, putting Catholicism back at the centre of English intellectual
life for the first time in two hundred years. Under Newman's prestigious
mantle, Catholicism actually became fashionable and he ushered in a wave of
significant converts throughout the remainder of his life. It is, therefore, to
Newman that the initial momentum for the Catholic cultural revival can be
traced. By the time that Chesterton and Belloc emerged onto the scene, ten
years after Newman's death, the revival was already under way.
My book takes up the story at the beginning
of the twentieth century with the period of Chesterton and Belloc. It continues
with other significant converts, such as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and J.R.R.
Tolkien--and many, many others.
"conversions" sudden (under an immediate light, like Saint Paul's on his way to
Damascus), or were they due to a process?
of these literary conversions were more akin to the long, drawn out conversion
of St Augustine than to the "blinding flash" conversion of St Paul. In most
cases, conversion followed a period of diligent searching for the truth,
intellectually and spiritually.
Many of those
celebrities asked to be received in the Catholic Church without feeling a
special affection for Rome (sometimes, even having to surmount personal
repugnance, familiar difficulties, etc.). To what extent were they, thus to
speak, "rational" conversions? What place did "reason" occupy in their
decision to embrace Catholicism?
think that the majority of these conversions were the result, under grace, of a
rational quest for truth and meaning in an age characterised by falsehood and
meaninglessness. The path was one of philosophy as opposed to fideism. It was
the quest for a reunion of fides et ratio in an age that had seemingly severed
You often mention the role of Beauty and
Sanctity's example. Which is that role?
Pearce: Many of the greatest philosophers, from Plato to the present day, have
made the connection between Beauty and Truth. God is the source of the
Beautiful as he is the source of the True. It is therefore legitimate, and
indeed necessary, to seek God in the beauty of His Creation, and in the beauty
of the creative gifts that He bestows on great writers, artists and musicians.
In other words, the path to Christ is a cultural path, as well as being a
philosophical and theological path.
Your book transmits the impression that
for the mentioned authors--except in the case of C.S. Lewis, Eliot and someone
else--and no matter their background (agnosticism, Anglicanism, Protestantism),
there was only one alternative worth of consideration: the Catholic Church.
What did they see in this one, that they could not find in other Christian
To what extent and in what way did the
Catholic faith of those writers have influence on their literature and on other
aspects of their lives?
works of these Catholic writers are profoundly religious. Tolkien called The
Lord of the Rings "a fundamentally religious and
Catholic work". Evelyn Waugh described his motivation for writing his
masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited, as a desire
to show the working of divine grace in the lives of each member of one
particular family. Chesterton's novels are rumbustious parables in which the
Catholic truth sticks out like a spike.
There is an incarnational dimension to the
creative process, in which the gift of the Muse, i.e. the grace of creativity,
is channelled through the personhood of the author or artist. As such, every
work of creativity is a reflection of the beliefs and personality of the
author, even though the power of the gift, i.e. grace, will bestow
transcendence upon the work beyond the conscious designs of the author. It is,
therefore, inevitable and inescapable that an author's deepest beliefs, those
aspects of his psyche that most deeply affect his personality, will emerge in
Did the authors, once converted,
contribute to the conversion of other people?
Absolutely. My main motivation for writing Literary Converts was a desire to explore the network of minds and the network of
grace that was being energised at the heart of the Catholic cultural revival.
It is amazing how much these writers had an influence on each other. Newman was
clearly a major influence on Belloc; Belloc was a major influence on
Chesterton, Siegfried Sassoon, Evelyn Waugh and others; Chesterton was a major
influence on Ronald Knox, Waugh, Tolkien, Lewis and a host of others; Knox was
a major influence on Waugh; Waugh was a major influence on Edith Sitwell; et
cetera, et cetera.
Nowadays there is not--at least apparently--that phenomenon of intellectual converts in the same quantity and quality. Why? Are
perhaps the contemporary writers too much "progressive" to take into account
think that the Catholic cultural revival began to wane in the wake of the
confusion in the Church after the Second Vatican Council. It seemed for a while
that nothing was sacred, even in the Church. Liberal, i.e. heretical, theologians
came to the fore as quasi-official spokesmen for the Church, and liberal, i.e.
barbaric and philistine, liturgists set about vandalising the beauty and
majesty of the Mass. In such an atmosphere the Church no longer seemed a solid
rock of resistance to the evils of the age and may have seemed to have
succumbed to those evils itself. The Church, in this period, ceased to be an
inspiration to the wider world in the way that it had been during the preceding
century. Something seemed to have been lost. Thankfully, John Paul II began the
long and painful Restoration of the Church and his successor, Benedict XVI, is
set to continue the good work he had done. This will lead, I believe, to a
restoration of the Catholic cultural revival also. In the 1920s and 30s the
Church stood as a bastion of sanity and certainty in the midst of the insanity
of communism, fascism and unbridled capitalism. Today a reinvigorated Church
can stand as a bastion of sanity and certainty in the midst of the rise of
Islam and the fall of hedonism. Such a Church will be an inspiration to a new
generation of converts, literary and otherwise. God willing!
Books of Knox,
Lewis, Benson, and others are still being published in Spain, sometimes for the
first time. How do you explain such interest for these writers--and for
Chesterton, Tolkien, Green and other writers mentioned in Literary Converts?
Great literature never dies--it only gets translated!
the pure religious aspect, are there many writers today, who have the level,
depth and intellectual honesty of Chesterton, Lewis, Muggeridge or D. Sayers?
present, there are few writers of the calibre of these literary giants but I
believe, for the reasons that I've stated above, that, to quote Bob Dylan, "the
times they are a changing"! I sense that a reinvigorated Church will be the
catalytic converter of a new generation of great writers and artists.
question: Are your books pure historical expositions or do they have an
Pearce: I always
see myself as a servant of objective truth. None of my books are intended
primarily as works of apologetics or as propaganda for my own beliefs. I seek
merely to tell the truth and to tell it well and honestly. Nonetheless, the
true always reflects the True. One cannot be a servant of the truth in little
things without being its servant in big things also. If I write the truth about
Catholic writers and Catholic literature it will bring people to the truth of
the Catholicism that inspired them--and that inspires me.
Ignatius Press books by Joseph Pearce:
of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse (editor)
Literary Giants, Literary Catholics
Man and Myth
Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc
C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church
and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton
Unmasking of Oscar Wilde
Related IgnatiusInsight.com articles and resources:
Modern Art: Friend or Foe? | An excerpt from
Literary Giants, Literary Catholics
The Power of Poetry | Interview with Joseph Pearce
about Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse | January 2006
Escape From Puritania | An excerpt from
C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church | December 2005
of Literary Giants | An interview with Joseph Pearce | June 2005
and Saint Francis | Joseph Pearce | May 2005
Love, Beauty and Reason | An interview with Joseph Pearce | May
of Oscar Wilde | An interview with Joseph Pearce | July 2004
Interview with ZENIT news agency (June 17, 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 most recent 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, 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 masterpiece.
For more about Pearce and his books, visit his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.
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