Tag: literature

Ibsen’s Rosmersholm

Ibsen’s <i>Rosmersholm</i> posted in Eleison Comments on September 28, 2019

Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) was a famous Norwegian playwright, often credited with being the worldwide father of modern drama. He was not Catholic, but he told a great truth, and St Augustine once said that all truth belongs to Catholics (because their God is “the Way, the Truth and the Life”). For this reason Catholics can even sometimes appreciate better than non-Catholics the truths that the non-Catholics are telling. The great truth of Ibsen is that even in strait-laced hypocritical Norway of the late 19th century, where life and joy are stifled beneath a weight of dying traditions, still the human spirit rises up in protest, and it prefers even death to an existence entrapped with no apparent freedom or meaning.

Let us illustrate this protest with a group of three later plays of Ibsen in which he has turned rather from the drama of modern society to that of individual persons. Rosmersholm (1886) ends with the hero and his beloved committing joint suicide. The Master Builder (1892) ends with the hero falling to his death from a high tower which it was suicidal for him to have attempted to climb in the first place. John Gabriel Borkman (1896) ends with the hero dying from the cold of a virtually suicidal climb up a freezing mountain slope. But in each case the hero was striving for the freedom of the human spirit against a world stifling that spirit. Let us have a look at Rosmersholm in particular, an adaptation of which was staged in London recently with great success. Ibsen lives!

Every drama needs a dramatic clash, and the clash in Rosmersholm is between the old world of the Rosmer family and home on the one side, distinguished for the last 200 years by its soldiers and parsons who have set an example and given a lead to the whole region, and on the other side the rising new world of emancipation and freedom from all those old values. The central figure in the play is the last scion of the noble family, John Rosmer, formerly a parson but who has lost his Christian faith and is now torn between the two worlds. On the one side is Dr Kroll, a cold-hearted conservative attempting to save Norway from the all-invading liberalism, but whose own wife and children are going liberal. On the other side is the editor of the local radical paper, Mortensgaard, who is at least as disreputable as Kroll in his attempts to pull Rosmer to his side. Rosmer himself has in theory been won over to the new world of joy and freedom by the charming young woman, Rebekka West, his platonic companion for several years.

The drama comes to a head when Rosmer tells Kroll of his loss of faith and his intention to fight in public for the liberals. Kroll moves into action, by fair means or foul, to stop Rosmer from lending his person and prestige to the rot. Under pressure from Kroll, Rebekka realises that in her struggle to liberate Rosmer from his noble but stifling background, it is in fact that background, Rosmersholm, which has overcome herself. In the end, the only way that John and Rebekka can achieve both the new freedom and the old nobility is to throw themselves together into the water-mill of Rosmersholm. In other words, says Ibsen, the old nobility is joyless, the new conservatism is heartless and the new emancipation is no better. There remains only death as a way out, seemingly the only possible affirmation for the trapped couple.

Is that all dark nonsense, unfit for today’s Catholics? No, it is a realistic portrait of our world. When faith goes dead, as with Rosmer and with billions of souls today, then conservatism (Kroll) ultimately conserves nothing, left-wingery (Mortensgaard) is as good as throwing godless gasoline on a godless fire, emancipation (Rebekka) lacks stamina, and the liberal death-wish takes over. If one wishes to have life, and to have it more abundantly (Jn. X, 10), then Rosmer must revive in himself the faith of his truly noble ancestors, which means he must go back beyond even the best of his Protestant ancestors to the Catholics who made Christian Norway. Let Rosmer become truly Catholic, and then Kroll, Mordensgaard and Rebekka will all be able to see the true solution, and the whole region can light up again with the light of Christ.

Kyrie eleison.

American Shakespeare?

American Shakespeare? posted in Eleison Comments on March 17, 2012

A number of people will find it absurd to compare anybody involved in modern cinema with one of the greatest poets and dramatists of all time, but St. Patrick’s Day may be the right moment to commemorate a great son of Ireland, the American film-director John Ford (1895–1973), by pointing out a few similarities between his career and that of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). A John Ford may be as close as our poor modern age can get to producing a Shakespeare – let’s see:—

To begin with, both men were highly successful popular entertainers. Shakespeare set out to write not English Literature but scripts for the Globe Theatre company, always in need of new plays to put on stage. Between 1592 and his exile from the London stage less than 20 years later, he wrote some 35 plays of all kinds: history plays, comedies, tragedies, romances. They were all popular, because Shakespeare was so involved in the Globe Theatre and so close to its audience. As for John Ford, to satisfy the insatiable demand of the American film-going public for new films, between 1917 and 1970 he directed, with a company of actors appearing repeatedly, over 140 films, which mix, like Shakespeare, comic and serious, high life and low life. Many of these films were great box-office hits, because Ford like Shakespeare knew his public.

Both men were highly successful because they were story-tellers, stories being the heart of popular entertainment. Both men grip their audiences and hold them in suspense – what happens next? And as story-tellers can have considerable influence, so both men helped to mould their nations’ character. By his history plays acting as propaganda for the recently established Tudor dynasty, Shakespeare has permanently influenced Englishmen’s view of themselves coming out of the Middle Ages. Ford likewise had a keen sense of American history (e.g. The Last Hurrah), and by creating the myth of the “Western” that fabricated America’s “Wild West,” he so defined the American national character as to have made people associate Americans with cowboys ever since.

Both men served a serious apprenticeship to their craft, Shakespeare on the boards of the Globe Theatre, Ford by spending several years as a cameraman before graduating to the direction of films. Shakespeare as a poet is an incomparable wordsmith, yet Ford’s poetry might be his camera work. Film directors without number have watched his films to learn how to use the camera because Ford had an eye for the detailed composition of his pictures in movement, or “movies.” When asked to name the film directors who most appealed to him, another famous film director, Orson Wells, replied, “I like the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” Yet another film-maker compared Ford’s films for the “simplicity and strength” of their style to middle-period Beethoven!

Finally both men were Catholics. The deepest drama of Shakespeare’s plays arises surely from his Catholic sense, necessarily disguised, of the tragedy of Merrie England’s irreversible slide into apostasy. John Ford was the tenth of eleven children of two immigrants to the United States, both born in Catholic Ireland. No doubt the Faith of his ancestors enabled him to commemorate the relative innocence and decency of yesterday’s America, with its womanly women, and its manly and upright heroes as typified in Ford’s films by John Wayne. A king of modern cinema may never make it to the Pantheon of all-time greats alongside a Shakespeare, but John Ford was that modern king.

Thank you, Ireland, and America. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to both of you!

Kyrie eleison.

Angelism – II

Angelism – II posted in Eleison Comments on February 18, 2012

Alert readers of these “Comments” may have picked up on an apparent contradiction. On the one hand the “Comments” have repeatedly condemned anything modern in the arts (e.g. EC 114, 120, 144, 157, etc.). On the other hand last week the Anglo-American poet T.S.Eliot was called an “arch-modernist,” and praised for launching a new style of poetry more true to modern times, certainly chaotic.

As the “Comments” have often said, modernity in the arts is characterized by disharmony and ugliness, because modern man chooses more and more to live without or against the God who has planted order and beauty throughout his creation. This beauty and order are now so buried beneath the pomps and works of godless man that it is easy for artists to believe they are no longer there. If then their art is to be true to what they perceive of their surroundings and society, only an exceptional modern artist will convey anything of the divine order underlying the disordered surface of modern life. Most modern artists have given up on order and, like their customers, wallow in the disorder.

But Eliot was born and reared in the late 19th century when society was still relatively ordered, and he received in the USA a good classical education when only a few secret villains yet dreamt of replacing education with training in inhuman subjects. So Eliot may have had little or no access in his youth to true religion, but he was well introduced to its by-products since the Middle Ages, the classics of Western music and literature. Sensing and seeking in them an order missing around him, Eliot was thus able to grasp the deep-down disorder of the rising 20th century, a disorder which merely burst out in the first World War (1914–1918). Hence the “Waste Land” of 1922.

But in that poem he is far from wallowing in the disorder. On the contrary he clearly hates it, showing how empty it is of human warmth and value. So the “Waste Land” may bear little trace of Western religion, but it does finish on scraps of Eastern religion, and as Scruton says, Eliot was certainly tracking the religious depths of the problem. In fact a few years later Eliot nearly became a Catholic, but he was scared off by Pius XI’s condemnation in 1926 of the “Action française,” a condemnation in which he recognized more of the problem and not its solution. So out of gratitude to England for all it had given him of traditional order, he settled for a solution less than complete, combining Anglicanism with high culture, and a Rosary always in his pocket. However God does write straight with crooked lines. How many souls in search of order would have stayed away from Shakespeare or Eliot if they thought that either of them, by being fully Catholic, had answers only pre-fabricated, not true to life.

That is sad, but it is so. Now souls may well be deceiving themselves in one way or another if they shy away from Catholic authors or artists on the grounds that these are untrue to real life, but it is up to Catholics to give them no such excuse. Let us Catholics show by our example that we do not have minds made cosy by artificial solutions necessarily false to the depths of the modern problem. We are not angels, but earthy creatures invited to Heaven if we will pick up our modern cross and follow Our Lord Jesus Christ. Such followers can alone remake the Church, and the world!

Kyrie eleison.

Deadly Angelism

Deadly Angelism posted in Eleison Comments on February 11, 2012

Discerning what made T.S.Eliot (1888–1965) “indisputably the greatest poet writing in English in the 20th century,” a conservative English writer of our own day, Roger Scruton, has some interesting things to suggest to Catholics hanging on to their Faith by their fingertips in these early years of the 21st century – briefly, in the pain is the solution! If we are being crucified by the world around us, that is the Cross we are meant to be carrying.

Eliot was in poetry an arch-modernist. As Scruton says, “He overthrew the 19th century in literature and inaugurated the age of free verse, alienation and experiment.” One may well question whether Eliot’s final combination of high culture and Anglicanism is a sufficient solution to the problems he was tackling, but who can deny that with his famous poem, the “Waste Land” of 1922, he blazed the trail for contemporary English poetry? The enormous influence of his poems demonstrated at least that Eliot had his finger on the pulse of the times. He is a modern man, and he tackled head on the problem of modern times, summed up by Scruton as “fragmentation, heresy and unbelief.”

However, the “Waste Land” could not be the masterpiece that it is if it did not make some sense out of the chaos. It is in fact a brilliant portrait in a mere 434 lines of the shattered European “civilisation” that emerged from the ruins of World War I (1914 -1918). And how did Eliot manage to do that? Because as Scruton says, Eliot the arch-modernist was also an arch-conservative. Eliot had soaked himself in the great poets of the past, notably Dante and Shakespeare, but also in more modern masters such as Baudelaire and Wagner, and it is clear from the “Waste Land” that it is Eliot’s grasp of the order of the past that enabled him to get a handle on the disorder of the present.

Scruton comments that if then Eliot blew away the great romantic tradition of 19th century English poetry, it is because that romanticism no longer corresponded to the reality of his age. “He believed that his contemporaries’ use of worn-out poetic diction and lilting rhythms betrayed a serious moral weakness: a failure to observe life as it really is, a failure to feel what must be felt towards the experience that is inescapably ours. And this failure is not confined, Eliot believed, to literature, but runs through the whole of modern life.” The search for a new literary idiom on Eliot’s part was therefore part of a larger search – “for the reality of modern experience.”

Now have we not seen, and do we not see, the same “serious moral weakness” inside the Church? One may call “Fiftiesism” that weakness of the Church of the 1950’s which was the direct father of the disaster of Vatican II in the 1960’s. What was it if not a refusal to look squarely at the modern world for what it is? A pretence that everything was nice, and everybody was nice? A pretence that if I just wrap myself up in an angelist sentimentality, then the problems of the Church in the Revolutionary world will just float away? And what is now the pretence that Rome really wants Catholic Tradition if not the same essential refusal of modern reality? As Eliot taught us that sentimentality is the death of true poetry, so Archbishop Lefebvre showed us that it is the death of true Catholicism. The arch-conservative Archbishop was the truest of modern Catholics.

Catholics, today’s reality may be crucifying us in any one of its many corrupt ways, but rejoice, again, says St Paul, rejoice, because in our own acceptance of our modern Cross today is our only salvation, and the only future for Catholicism

Kyrie eleison.

“University” Wasteland

“University” Wasteland posted in Eleison Comments on July 24, 2010

Several years ago when I wrote that girls should not go to university, a number of readers were shocked. But when I listen today to a young Professor who recently spent six years teaching English Literature in an English “university” (not the same thing as a true university!), it seems I should add that boys should not go either. Or they should at least think very hard before going, and their parents should think very hard before shelling out the expensive fees. Here, in order, is what the Professor observed, what he sees as its causes, and what he sees as its remedies.

In the “university” where he taught, he observed no pursuit of truth nor education for truth. “Language is a game independent of reality, producing its own artefacts. The students are made to feel that everything is relative, there are no standards, values, nor moral framework nor moral reference. The sciences are infected with an evolutionism which opposes “science” to religion. The “Humanities” are degraded by a Freudian interpretation making everything centre on s-x. Professors tell students to have a s-x life because “it is good for them.” These “universities” advertize their night life, and almost praise the sin against nature. They are utterly s-xualized.

“As for the professors, many recognize that there is a deep-down problem, but many continue to play the game. They are all Marxizing, if not Marxists. They teach as though all authority is stifling, all tradition oppressive. Evolution rules. As for the students, many more of them than one would think are yearning for something, but they are no longer looking to their “university” for truth. If they want a “Degree,” it is only to get a job, and if they seek a good “Degree,” it is only to get a better-paying job. Rarely will they discuss ideas.”

So what are the CAUSES of the university being turned into such a purely utilitarian processor of information to serve the established system? The Professor says, “ The basic cause is the loss of God, resulting from several centuries of war on the Incarnation. Then education no longer means providing a truth or morality to live by, but rather developing one’s potential to be different and better than anyone else. Into the vacuum left by Truth moves pop culture and the Frankfurt School, with their liberation from all authority. Into the vacuum left by God moves the State, which sees “universities” as a source of technocrats and engineers. Absolutes are of no interest, except one: absolute skepticism.”

As for the REMEDIES the Professor says, “These “universities” can hardly get out of the trap they have fallen into. To learn something genuinely useful a boy is better off at home, or talking to priests or going on a Retreat. Faithful Catholics must do things for themselves, and band together to re-build institutions of their own, starting maybe with summer schools. The Humanities must be restored, because they deal with the basics of human existence, what is right, good and true. The natural sciences, specific and derivative, must remain secondary. They cannot take priority of the Humanities. Let parents send their boys to these “universities” to get a job, but not to learn anything truly useful.”

“The loss of God” – all is said.

Kyrie eleison.

Documenting Distress

Documenting Distress posted in Eleison Comments on April 12, 2008

Commenting on last week’s „Eleison Comments” which were highly critical of the modern Revolutionary art movement known as Dadaism, a Catholic friend wrote to me, „I love Dadaism.” I am not sure of my friend’s reasons, but there is one lovable aspect to many a modern Revolutionary movement, even for Catholics, in fact primarily for Catholics!

This is because Catholics are best able to grasp how the key to the last 500 (or 700) years of the history of mankind has been its apostasy, its slow but steady turning away from God, in particular from his divine Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. This eliminating of the true Messiah has left in men’s lives an enormous gap to be filled, a gap unknown before the Incarnation. Hence a variety of false messianisms in modern times.

Communism is an outstanding example. It is the messianism of materialism. For it may be just as materialistic as the bourgeois society it seeks to destroy, even more so; and it certainly has nothing better with which to replace the residual human values of that society. Yet Communists are driven by a quasi-messianic urge to create their horrible new world. It is as though they are saying, „Better no god than your false hypocritical »God«!” And to the extent that the God of the bourgeoisie is a false god, the Communist messianism rejecting it is not false. In this respect Communists may at least be credited with a messianic dimension. Similarly in the scream of protest of Rock musicians there is something just, however negative their protest proves finally to be.

Now Art, Literature, History, Culture, Music, each of them with a capital letter, are all worshipped as substitute religions by modern devotees who, because they have no present religion, pump up these by-products of true religion in the past to take its place. Hence the Dadaists’ refusal of „Art,” and their „re-definition” of art. „What is your Art?” they ask. „It is our godless god,” say the Art-worshippers.„Your godless god is a urinal!” snorts Dada.

Alas! How many Dadaists or Art-worshippers, or Rockers, or Communists, show any signs of looking for the real solution to that problem which they all share?

Kyrie eleison.