An interesting conversation has sprung up here in Pentimento’s comment box and I started to go get a bit long winded and realized I really wanted to explore the subject further here to fully explore the topic rather than feeling constrained by what would fit into her comment box. Also because I fear I am roaming a bit far afield and writing more to satisfy my own curiosity about something which is perhaps only tangentially related to Pentimento’s question.
While doing research for my book project recently, I came across an essay entitled “Wounds and Beauty” by the painter and scholar Bruce Herman. Herman suggests that the prevailing Western notion of beauty since 1750 has been an emblem of the Romantic longing for the lost Golden Age: “Beauty,” he writes, “is everywhere colonized by the Romantic longing for perpetual youth.” Herman posits
the possibility of a clear-eyed adult aesthetic that bears the marks of Christ’s resurrected body—marks that memorialize suffering but move beyond it to redemption, healing, and eternity. The ascended Christ still bears earthly wounds, and his new body can be treated as a starting point for a new aesthetic—a broken beauty if you will—and a means of working through and beyond pain to a perfection that need not participate in [Romantic] idealization.
Herman suggests that Romantic yearning is not only untenable, but unsavory, even antithetical to the Christian longing for heaven. Indeed, the thread of complete personal annihilation, certainly antagonistic to the Christian ethos, hangs heavily over the Romantic quest for a lost Golden Age. We should, Herman exhorts, long for the future in heaven, not for the past.
I replied that I’m much more satisfied by the idea that beauty = nostalgia is a legacy of the Romantics than that it’s a universal idea. (In an earlier post Pentimento had recounted that a friend of hers says that all poetry is based on the premise that things used to be better than they are now, a claim I find very problematic.)
In the middle of my college career I reluctantly decided that somewhere along the line I’d fallen out of love with Romanticism. It felt like a betrayal of my former self. And yet suddenly I had no patience for the endless nostalgia, the pining for a Golden Age that never was. It felt like a big lie. And I hated to see what agonies it put my best friend through. Very unsavory indeed.
I love the idea of “a clear-eyed adult aesthetic that bears the marks of Christ’s resurrected body—marks that memorialize suffering but move beyond it to redemption, healing, and eternity.”
That seems to me to be a fairly concise statement of what I’ve been searching for for most of the past decade. Perhaps that is at the heart of my failure as a grad student. I was in search of an adult Christian aesthetic in a department adrift in adolescent post-modern theoretical naval-gazing. I needed a clear-eyed mentor to help me realize what it was I was longing for and instead all my profs were more lost than I was.
I’ll probably never return to academia. I’m definitely one of those women who welcomes being “circumscribed” by my domestic circumstances. Somehow I see much more clearly here among the sippy cups and poopy diapers than I ever did in the halls of academe.
I have found much wiser mentors and greater discussions of books and ideas here on the internet than I ever did in graduate school where it seemed like walls were thrown up in my way any time I ever started to get close to my clear-eyed aesthetic.
Pentimento asked me to recount more of my journey away from Romanticism and toward what she calls an aesthetic of Christian motherhood. I’m afraid my attempt to recount that journey from Romantic teenager to where I am now, contemplating an aesthetic of resurrection, is going to turn into a nostalgia piece (ironically) wandering through my past, revisiting my academic career. I’m going to ramble and get off track but it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly how I got to where I am now without retracing my steps. And maybe that’s because her question seems to get at something I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time but haven’t quite known how to approach: coming to terms with the utter failure that was my academic career, which died a premature death while I was completing my MA at Boston College. Strangely, it was the death of my academic pretensions that led me to the Church and my vocations as wife and mother and which ultimately has led me closer to that which I was originally seeking in academia.
First, to go back to the beginning and Romanticism. I won’t linger there long but it seems to me that a Romantic aesthetic is a natural one for adolescence. Romanticism is the air she breathes and the food she eats. The teenager is in-between worlds and as much as she can’t wait to be taken seriously as an adult, she still clings fiercely to the icons of her childhood. At least for me, there was a very self-conscious nostalgia. It is the task of adulthood to learn how to detach, to move on from a self-centered worldview of childhood to one that is ready to take on the sacrificial mindset that is the real hallmark of mature adulthood. But in a society where adolescence lengthens year by year, many people never make that transition.
My adolescence was certainly saturated with nostalgia. Not only did I spend much time longing for the past, in thinking about the future I always projected a me who was longing for now.
I was lucky as an undergrad to be at a small Catholic college where at least some of the professors allowed their faith to seriously inform their work. The idea of literature as redemptive and healing was one I must have come into contact with there. Certainly from Dr. Louise Cowan. (Sadly her essay, “Poetry and Therapy” is no longer online or I’d link to it here.)
I can’t really pinpoint a specific turning point, just a gradual awareness of changing tastes. Certainly by my junior year I’d drifted into a strong preference for a robust Christian aesthetic. I did my major project that year on T.S. Eliot and fell in love with his later works: Ash Wednesday, The Journey of the Magi, and most of all The Four Quartets. It was an environment that somehow escaped the general skepticism and ennui that has eaten away at the heart of most English departments where most professors don’t seem to believe in literature at all anymore.
Perhaps in part I was able to let go of Romanticism because my college career began with a strong dose of the ancients: The liad, The Odyssey, Prometheus Bound, The Oedipus Cycle, The Aeneid, Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, etc. Can the myth of a lost Golden Age withstand a deep immersion in the worlds of Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, and medieval Christianity? I suppose for some people it can; but for me these works were like a stiff breeze that swept away the clouds of romantic nostalgia. By the time I encountered the Romantics again in my junior year, they seemed anemic by comparison.
I knew I wanted to go on to graduate school and yet my senior year I was terribly depressed and I couldn’t bear to think about the future. It was five years before I began to apply to graduate schools. Now UD has a graduate program in Literature. The only one I could find anywhere that promised to develop the kind of robust Christian criticism that I longed for. And yet somehow I balked. I’d heard too much scorn heaped on the heads of people who stayed on at their undergraduate institution for graduate studies. I was afraid of stagnating, or perhaps it was fear of failure of a sorts. Also I wanted to travel to another part of the country, escape my native Texas. All sorts of possible reasons led me to Boston College and their Irish Studies program. (And of course I can’t ignore that it all led me to Salem and Dom and my vocation as wife and mother.)
At UD we’d had one course on contemporary criticism. So I’d previously encountered feminist theory and postcolonial theory and all the other methods of eisegesis. But somehow I thought they couldn’t really have taken over all literary studies departments everywhere. I naively thought I could carve my own path and find a way to stay true to my inner vision of what literature is. But my real experience in graduate school was one of making one compromise after another.
It didn’t take long for me to be disillusioned with Boston College. By the time I left my attempts to pull together for myself some sort of Christian grand unified theory of literature were in tatters.
First, there was the moment when my Joyce professor looked up during a discussion of Ulysses and asked if something were a Biblical reference. I remember thinking that if one is supposed to be an expert on Joyce perhaps one should have attempted to understand the Catholic faith that was such a key to his understanding of the world. That even if one isn’t Christian, one should still be fairly conversant with the Christian Bible if one is going to be an expert on a literature so steeped in Catholicism as Ireland’s is.
Then there was the paper I wrote on Dracula and presented to a graduate student conference. It started off with an earnest question about Van Helsing and the Eucharist. By the time it had gone through three drafts it had somehow become a paper about colonialism and the fear of miscegenation. My question had been co-opted by my professor’s pet theories and I was helpless to withstand the tide of influence.
Last, there was my final project, the independent study that became my oral exam topic. I wanted to look at Catholic themes in several major Irish poets. The entire project was adrift from the moment I set forth. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was looking for and every time I tried to steer toward some fleeting glimpse of the land I was seeking, the stiff winds of my teacher’s influence blew me further and further off course.
In my second year of graduate school I started going to daily Mass as often as I could. I instinctively knew the rudder I needed was there. And then in the fall of my second year at BC, Scott Hahn was invited to speak at my parish church. (Dom was the one who arranged for him to come and if that isn’t a clear sign of the hand of God working in both our lives I don’ t know what is.) Listening to Scott Hahn unpack the Bible was like finding a lush oasis in the midst of a desert waste at just the moment when I was about to die of thirst and heat exhaustion. It sparked a crisis of identity. What on earth was I doing reading second-rate Irish novels when there was this great and glorious treasure trove of the Word waiting to be explored? Perhaps I was in the wrong field. Maybe I should have been studying theology and not literature.
Two years later I found myself in Dom’s living room as he lead our parish’s young adult group in a Bible study. I found myself in the company of people who took their faith seriously.Most of all there was this very knowledgeable guy who every week helped me to dig into the scriptures in a way that fed my intellect as well as my soul. I eventually went back to the sacrament of Confession. I began teaching CCD classes. Eventually we began dating and then were engaged and finally were married. I realized that I really wasn’t cut out to be a theologian but that the Bible study had revived something in my that had atrophied. During this time I studied the Bible and read works of apologetics and began to reach a mature understanding of my faith. Still, it was a leap from that intellectual love of the Word to an understanding of how to integrate all this rediscovered faith into my intellectual life. How to integrate it with literary studies?
The world of Catholic blogs began that process. There are so many intelligent Catholic bloggers out there who write about books. Slowly as I explored the Catholic blogosphere my understanding of how all of this lived faith could be integrated into the fabric of an intellectual life.
And where am I now? I’m not sure. In some ways I’ve given up. Or, no, I’ve put the search on the back burner; but I can never really give it up. But reading, for me these days reading is a completely different experience. I used to frequently spend entire days reading. Huddled in bed, draped on the couch, basking in the sun with a book in my hand. Lost in a different world. Everything else forgotten. I devoured novels in the same way I devoured boxes of chocolates, gobbled them down without thinking.
Now I can’t even imagine the incredible luxury of so much time to myself. Oh if I could snatch the time I would, no doubt about it. But there are all these insistent little people with their insistent needs. I feed them and clothe them, change diapers, organize expeditions to the playground, the library, the grocery store, the pediatrician.
It’s not that I don’t read. I am seldom not reading at least two or three books at a time. But I read in snatches. A bit in the bathroom, a minute or two over my breakfast or lunch, a page or two snatched while nursing the baby, a few more before going to bed. I’m not sure where I find the time and yet somehow I do still read.
I don’t feel like I think very clearly about what I read. All too often I’m just too tired. My thinking is clouded by hormones or exhaustion. And so if I’ve developed any sort of new aesthetic sense it is more a result of my daily lived experience. Somehow I’ve started to let go of the past. I’ve always been a book hoarder, compulsively saving everything I’ve ever read and liked. And now I am slowly letting go. Books that once seemed so dear have become dust and ashes. I no longer want to walk in those worlds.
More, there are many books that I am suddenly seeing through the eyes of a mother. Some day Isabella and Sophie will learn to read. Some day in the not to distant future they may be like me, hungrily grazing the common shelves and devouring everything in sight.
That’s how I first discovered the Norton Anthologies, how I first read A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. I plucked them from the shelf and jumped in with no tour guide but my native wit. I don’t think I understood much of Joyce at all; but I fell in love with his language on the first page and knew I’d discovered something fine and precious.
So one day Isabella may do the same. Now I look at my books, my old friends, and wonder if they will be fitting companions for my daughters. Some will stay, others will be shown the door. It isn’t so hard to let them go as I would once have thought. My hope for the future of my children has conquered my romance with my past and now I can look at books with a much clearer eye.
Call this a rough draft. I’m not sure I’ve explained anything at all. I’m not sure any of this at all approaches an answer to Pentimento’s question. Maybe it’s just been necessary mental housecleaning before I can get to the real answer. Still, I have a little hunch that I’m too tired to follow right now. A suspicion that somehow this turning away from academia will lead me closer to the real questions and perhaps eventually to some answers. Motherhood, the daily struggle to die to self, to live to serve, this gets me closer to the Body of Christ, the source of the broken beauty.