Converts and Saints | An Interview with Joseph Pearce | IgnatiusInsight.com
Noted literary biographer Joseph Pearce, author of biographies of G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. 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.
In your 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 The 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 Chesterton!
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?
Pearce: I 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?
Pearce: This 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 visual arts.
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.
Were those "conversions" sudden (under an immediate light, like Saint Paul's on his way to Damascus), or were they due to a process?
Pearce: Most 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?
Pearce: I 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 them.
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 denominations?
Pearce: The Truth!
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?
Pearce: The 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 his work.
Did the authors, once converted, contribute to the conversion of other people?
Pearce: 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 the "tradition"?
Pearce: I 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?
Pearce: Great literature never dies--it only gets translated!
Leaving apart the pure religious aspect, are there many writers today, who have the level, depth and intellectual honesty of Chesterton, Lewis, Muggeridge or D. Sayers?
Pearce: At 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.
One last question: Are your books pure historical expositions or do they have an apologetic component?
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:
Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse (editor)
Literary Giants, Literary Catholics
Tolkien: Man and Myth
Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc
Tolkien: A Celebration
C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church
Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton
The 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
The Measure of Literary Giants | An interview with Joseph Pearce | June 2005
Chesterton and Saint Francis | Joseph Pearce | May 2005
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An interview with Joseph Pearce | May 2005
The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde | An interview with Joseph Pearce | July 2004
Interview with ZENIT news agency (June 17, 2004)
British 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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