LONDON, ONTARIO – I’ve been revisiting two of my favourite American writers of fiction this month, Willa Cather (1873-1947) and Flannery O’Connor (1924-65), and have been fascinated by what each of them has to tell us about an explosive problem which currently bedevils our planet – the question of how people of markedly different backgrounds, temperaments and convictions can peacefully coexist when they are brought together in the same locale. Something else which links these radically different authors is the high regard they both had for the way in which the Roman Catholic Church addressed this complicated and heavily freighted question.
Flannery O’Connor was raised a Catholic in the Christ-haunted and predominantly Protestant American south and jokingly identified herself as a “hillbilly Thomist”. She was, I would say, about as thorough-going a Catholic as ever drew breath and wasn’t prepared to soft-pedal (let alone deny) her faith for the sake of keeping any social exchange pleasant; not even one that could advance her career if she played her conversational cards diplomatically. Her epistolary account of how she stunk out the joint at a salon-type evening at Mary McCarthy’s is one of the highlights of her celebrated collection of letters, The Habit of Being:
“I was once, five or six years ago [this would make her about 25] taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband . . . She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say . . . Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the centre of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
It often puzzled readers why O’Connor always peopled her blackly comic and sometimes outrageously violent tales with manic and even unhinged Protestants. A fan once wrote to her asking why it was that, though she had been a Catholic all of her life and all of her writing was drenched in Christian imagery and themes, her weird and grotesque characters, from the most secretive brooders to the most raving fanatics, were invariably Protestants. O’Connor answered:
“To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief, you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe anything much at all down on your head. This is why I can write about Protestant believers better than Catholic believers – because they express their belief in diverse kinds of dramatic action which is obvious enough for me catch.”
O’Connor found that the unchanging creed and the rich multiformity of Catholic worship had a way of accommodating, transforming or answering almost any dilemma that a Catholic might encounter in the course of life. And wonderfully reassuring and sustaining as this was for her personally, it didn’t make for the kind of drama O’Connor required in her stories. Stark old Protestantism on the other hand, was always drawing such props and traditions out of the way, changing the rules of membership and tweaking their beliefs to align them with a shifting social/moral consensus and thus throwing its adherents back onto nothing more than the vitality of his or her own private relationship with God at this very moment. In short, both churches had God-crazed zealots to contend with but the Catholics had ways and means of constructively containing theirs.
I only started working my way through Willa Cather’s oeuvre over the last five or six years. Two qualities I especially revere her for are the stunning power of her descriptions of landscapes (“amazing sensory achievements,” Rebecca West said of these in her review of Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, which reminded her of the Roman Catholic Church’s insistence that “men must take the universe sensibly”) and her uncanny skill in creating almost elemental characters whose hard transits through life are simultaneously pitiless and ennobling. This is most particularly the case in her portrait of the title character of My Antonia; a beautiful and inspiring soul who is never valued at her worth and yet never stoops to self-pity or resentment.
Cather once told a newspaper reporter, “America works on my mind like light on a photographic plate.” One theme that she returned to again and again in her novels and short stories was the challenge facing European immigrants as they established their homes and settlements in the New World. Often driven across an ocean by persecution or class oppression which they were thrilled to finally throw off, any semblance of civilization or cultural amenity had to be cobbled together – and quickly – in a harsh and forbidding landscape.
Cather’s most insightful biographer, Hermione Lee writes about Cather’s gift for “catching the moment of transition which perpetually fascinates her. Not yet homogenized into Americanness [or in the case of ‘Shadows on the Rock’, which is set in the earliest colonial period of Quebec, Canadianness], each of the distinct immigrant groups has survived in the alien landscape by persisting in its cultural identity. But soon there will be only two directions to go in: an assimilation into an undifferentiated national culture, or a retreat back to the old world.”
As a middle-aged woman, the previously lukewarm Cather quietly deepened her allegiance to the Episcopalian Church of her childhood yet two of her most widely hailed novels – Death Comes for the Archbishop (1926) and Shadows on the Rock (1931) – can be regarded as literary hymns to the integrity and world-shaping competence of the Catholic Church. Her admiration for the Catholic Church was so pronounced that many of her readers had long assumed she must be a member but her situation was a mirror reflection of O’Connor’s; Cather’s allegiance to Catholicism was strictly literary. Because of her fascination with the pioneer experience, her admiration was for that Church’s genius for developing coherent and nourishing strategies of cross-cultural adaptation.
Neither O’Connor nor Cather lived or wrote in a time of multicultural illusions. In a bid to be inclusive and welcoming to new citizens who are urgently needed to sustain the economies of otherwise de-populating countries, the liberal democracies of the West have developed multiculturalism programs which are founded on the dubious proposition that all cultures are equal and readily compatible with one another. The insanity that characterizes the mass migrations we’re seeing today in Europe and the UK, Australia, the U.S. and Canada is the absurd belief on the part of largely secularized host societies that people don’t need to share any sort of over-arching national narrative or religious creed in order to peacefully and fruitfully live together.
Perhaps the purest expression of this suicidal idiocy was voiced by Justin Trudeau when he invited those illegal immigrants who were being repelled by President Trump’s new hardline on enforcing the U.S.’s southern border to hoof it on up to Canada, announcing that: ‘‘There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada. There are shared values – openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice. Those qualities are what make us the first post-national state.’’
In 2012 UWO professor of political science and Sun Media columnist Salim Mansur published Delectable Lie, which he classified as “a liberal repudiation of multiculturalism”. The central contention of Delectable Lie is that, “although multiculturalism once seemed a very good idea, at least to politicians and others smitten with the ambition for unity, it is increasingly shown to be a lie – a delectable lie, perhaps, yet a lie nevertheless – that is destructive of the West’s liberal democratic heritage, tradition and values based on individual rights and freedoms.”
The various multicultural initiatives put in place in the 1970’s as a means by which to minimize the hardships of immigrants by making the break with their country of origin less total, too often leave us not with new committed citizens but with dual citizens and spongers who have no intention of assimilating with the Canadian way of life and sometimes even hold it in contempt and work toward its destruction.
In one of the most fascinating chapters in Delectable Lie, Mansur contrasted the modern experience of immigrating to the West with the old. Prior to the mid-20th century, it was primarily Europeans who settled in Canada, the U.S. and Australia and, Mansur writes, such movement “involved considerable expense for travel by way of trains and ships over many weeks. The decision to make the journey required psychological preparation on the part of immigrants in both leaving their native land with some certainty of never returning, and of anticipating the new country with challenges ahead of settlement and assimilation. An immigrant was mostly brimming with gratitude on arriving in the country of his choice and grateful for the opportunities open to him that did not exist or were denied him in the land of his birth.”
Today those life-altering journeys, increasingly drawn from Third World countries that may not share fundamental Canadian values regarding freedom of speech and worship and the equality of women, can often be made in a day at much less expense – financially, psychically, emotionally. And thanks to developments in easy global communication, many new Canadians no longer feel the same compulsion once they get here to take up residence in any real sense except the physical.
At 173 well-researched and carefully reasoned pages, Mansur’s book is an explosive expose that might have been rejected out of hand as an xenophobic rant if it hadn’t been written by a Muslim who himself emigrated to Canada from “war torn South Asia” in 1974. “In Canada I found safety, support and the opportunity to begin a new life with all the promise my adopted home held forth for me. In time I came to feel uncomfortable with the notion of being a hyphenated Canadian. The part of me that belonged to the wider Indian culture I inherited at birth without any effort on my part. But the part of me, the much greater part, through the university education I acquired and the air I breathed as I mingled with the people around me at school, in work, and in politics, became by choice and conscious effort Canadian.”
Unlike some commentators who take on this hotly contested issue, Mansur never resorts to cheap shots or dismissive slurs. However wrongheaded he believes the architects of multiculturalism to be, he takes them at their word and respectfully presents their claims before politely and convincingly repudiating them. Mansur does not eviscerate his opponents with the intoxicating glee of a Mark Steyn. And an occasional professorial clunker of a sentence requires a few readings to extract the sense, i.e.: “This deprecates the consequence that liberal democracy’s core principle of individual freedom is undermined by extending recognition to groups defined through collective identity opposed culturally to it.” But you also don’t set this book down with an uneasy sense that the author has been less than fair to those he disagrees with.
And what Salim Mansur did for this side of the pond, Douglas Murray did for the other in 2017’s even more devastating polemic, The Strange Death of Europe, subtitled, Immigration, Identity, Islam. In Murray’s account the naiveté of multiculturalism is compounded by the self-hating malaise of a desiccated and decadent continent wracked by feelings of guilt and unworthiness for past excesses of imperialistic expansionism. Late in his book he addresses the question of Europe’s collapsing religious faith:
“The search for meaning is not new. What is new is that almost nothing in modern European culture applies itself to offering an answer. Nothing says, ‘Here is an inheritance of thought and culture and philosophy and religion which has nurtured people for thousands of years and may well fulfill you too’. Instead, a voice at best says, ‘Find your meaning where you will.’ At worst, the nihilist’s creed can be heard: ‘Yours is a meaningless existence in a meaningless universe.’ Any person who believes such a creed is liable to achieve nothing. While nihilism may be understandable in some individuals, as a societal creed it is fatal.”
The closest thing to hope that Murray holds forth – and it’s a very damp squib indeed – is that European secularists should stop their sniping and chipping away at that minority which still upholds the Judeo-Christian foundations that gave rise to the glory and strength of Europe at its best. This should be done, he says, “not least because we may yet face far clearer opponents not only of our culture but of our whole way of living. Perhaps this is why Bendetto Croce said halfway through the last century, and Marcello Pera reiterated more recently, that we should call ourselves Christians. Unless the non-religious are able to work with, rather than against, the source from which their culture came, it is hard to see any way through. After all, though people may try, it is unlikely that anyone is going to be able to invent an entirely new set of beliefs. In the absence of anyone coming up with a wholly new faith system, it is not just that we lose our ability to talk of truths and meaning. We even lose our metaphors. Popular culture is replete with talk of ‘angels’ and love that will last ‘forever’. Candles and other flotsam of religion also drift through. But the language and ideas are empty of meaning. It is the metaphor absent of the things to which it refers; symptoms of a culture running on empty.”
This brings us back, I suppose, to where we started, which is the contemptuous rejection of such a half-hearted compromise with the absolute: If it’s just a metaphor – and an admittedly empty one to boot – then to hell with it.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
Monday, January 28
St. Peter's Seminary
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