This article was previously published in Sword & Spade Magazine.


By: Joseph Pearce, father and scholar, helps us to  get into the books we need to get.

As with all things, it is best to begin with the basics. Before we can understand how to read great literature properly, we need to know how to read properly, and before we can know how to read properly we must know how to think properly.

There are two ways of thinking. We can think objectively or we can think subjectively. Thinking objectively requires an engagement with the reality beyond ourselves in such a way that we understand the necessity of conforming ourselves to that reality. Such thought is centered not in the self but in the other. We come to understand ourselves through an understanding of the other, i.e. the truth that exists outside ourselves. Thinking subjectively engages all experience from the perspective of the self and judges it accordingly. Such thought is centered not in the other but in the self. We judge the other from the way that we personally experience it. There is no better and more succinct way of expressing these two ways of thinking than through G.K. Chesterton’s response to Holbrook Jackson:

Jackson: A lie is that which you do not believe.

Chesterton: This is a lie: so perhaps you don’t believe it.

Jackson: Truth and falsehood in the abstract do not exist.

Chesterton: Then nothing else does.

Jackson: Truth is one’s own conception of things.

Chesterton: The Big Blunder. All thought is an attempt to discover if one’s own conception is true or not.

Jackson: Negations without affirmations are worthless.

Chesterton: And impossible.

Jackson: Every custom was once an eccentricity; every idea was once an absurdity.

Chesterton: No, no, no. Some ideas were always absurdities. This is one of them.

Jackson: No opinion matters finally: except your own.

Chesterton: Said the man who thought he was a rabbit.

In this exchange, Chesterton is thinking objectively and Jackson is thinking subjectively. Chesterton is on the side of philosophical realism, a belief that metaphysical things such as love, virtue and beauty are real, i.e. that they exist as an independent reality whether we believe it or not, or like it or not. Jackson is on the side of philosophical nominalism or relativism, a belief that there are no absolute truths or values, and that love, virtue and beauty are not things that really exist but are concepts constructed and labeled by the human mind to make sense of its experience. Clearly these two positions are mutually incompatible. They cannot both be true. If one is true the other is, ipso facto, false.

The present author is definitively and decidedly on the side of philosophical realism, which is to say that he is on the side of not only Chesterton but also Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas — and Shakespeare! This being so, he will argue definitively and decidedly that to think objectively is to think correctly and realistically, whereas to think subjectively is to think incorrectly and unrealistically. And if this is true of the way we think, it is equally true of the way we read. One must read objectively in order to read correctly and realistically.

Objective reading is, first and foremost, a discipline. In order to read objectively we must discipline ourselves to avoid all temptations to subjectivity, which is to say we must avoid approaching the text with our own prejudices. On the assumption, objectively speaking, that the text is not nonsense, it makes sense. As such, we do not make sense of a text, it should make sense to us, and perhaps in the case of really good books it might not only make sense to us, it might make sense of us! It might make us understand ourselves better in the light of the truth that comes from beyond ourselves. This is the greatest fruit of objective reading. It enables us to transcend ourselves, and our selfishness, in our engagement with the great truths of the cosmos. It enables us to grow in the presence of the genius manifested in the text. A subjective reading, on the other hand, working on the prejudiced presumption that “truth is one’s own conception of things” or that “no opinion matters except your own,” will be unable to transcend the self in its “making sense” of the book because nothing makes sense except the self! The tragedy is that the subjective reader is unable to grow in the presence of the genius manifested in the text because there is, for the subjective reader, no greater genius than himself!

Having discussed the two types of reading, it is necessary to understand that there are essentially two types of books, the scientific and the artistic. Scientific books deal with facts and facts alone, whereas artistic books engage the creative imagination. In the case of the former, the facts should quite literally speak for themselves. In the case, for instance, of a book of arithmetic, we can only read “25 x 2 = 50” in one way. In other words, there is no room, and no possibility, of reading a scientific text in any way but objectively. In the case of a more advanced work of physics we might see another equation, “e = mc²”. In this case, we might not understand the intricacies of the theory of which the equation is an expression, but we will still know that it must be read objectively. If it doesn’t make sense to us, we know or trust that it still makes sense nonetheless. If we don’t understand, we know that we don’t understand. In the case of artistic books, however, the meaning of the text is not so obvious. How can we read artistic books objectively when there seem to be so many possible interpretations of their meaning?

The only way of reading an artistic text objectively is to see it, as far as possible, through the eyes of the author, who is not only the “other,” enabling us to escape from the confines of our own subjective prejudices, but the “other” who speaks with more authority than all the other “others,” i.e. literary critics.

In order to understand why the author has the authority to speak authoritatively about the text, we need to understand the nature, and supernature, of the creative process. This whole issue and its relationship to the reader’s understanding of the work was expressed by J.R.R. Tolkien when he wrote that “only one’s guardian Angel, or indeed God Himself, could unravel the real relationship between personal facts and an author’s works. Not the author himself (though he knows more than any investigator), and certainly not so-called ‘psychologists’.” In these few words we are given the tools to form a true appraisal of the role and limitations of literary criticism. Let’s look closer at what he is saying.

One does not need to share Tolkien’s Christian faith in order to recognize, or agree with, his insistence on the transcendent nature of the creative process and its products. The pagan poets invoked the Muse and even an atheist such as Percy Bysshe Shelley recognized the quasi-mystical forces at work in the creative process, forces that transcend the conscious will of the author (or artist, or musical composer, etc.). In his essay, “A Defense of Poetry,” Shelley wrote:

Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.

The insistence by Tolkien and Shelley of the transcendent nature of the creative process is crucial to a true understanding of literature and literary criticism. It is, however, the crucial misunderstanding of this transcendence that has led to much of the error in modern criticism. The modern misapprehension springs from the assumption that the transcendence negates the validity, and therefore the relevance, of the author’s intention. Since the author’s intention is subject to the mystical power of creativity we need not take the intention seriously. Furthermore, if the author’s intention is relatively worthless, so, ultimately, is the author himself, leaving us only with the text. The problem is that this line of reasoning arises from a misunderstanding of what Tolkien and Shelley are actually saying. Shelley insists that “the most glorious poetry…is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.” In other words, the poet is the original conceiver of the poem, and the poem a pale shadow of the poet’s conception. The poem is derived from, and dependent on, the poet. It follows, therefore, that we will better understand the conception, i.e. the poem, if we better understand the conceiver, i.e. the poet. T.S. Eliot, in “The Hollow Men,” echoes Shelley:

     Between the conception  And the creation …  Falls the Shadow …  Between the potency  And the existence …  Falls the Shadow.

For Eliot, who was on the path to Christianity when he wrote “The Hollow Men,” the fall of the Shadow was the shadow of the Fall, but, for the atheist poet and the Christian poet alike, there is a shared understanding that the existence of the work cannot be separated from the potency that resides in the personhood of the poet. It is for this reason that Tolkien insists that the author “knows more than any investigator,” even if the author himself cannot grasp the transcendent mystery at the heart of creativity. If for “investigator” we read “critic,” it can be seen that Tolkien, Shelley, and Eliot are insisting that we must understand the solidity of the author and his beliefs before we listen to the opinions and beliefs of the “hollow men.” Even if we accept, as we should, that a great work of literature will have a profundity of meaning beyond the conscious design of the author, we still need to see the transcendent beauty through the prism of the personhood of the author. If we fail to discipline ourselves to follow this critical modus operandi we will see literature through the blurred focus of our own inadequate vision, or through the inadequate vision of a critic. Such an approach does not negate the necessity of employing our own judgment, or of giving consideration to the judgment of critics, but it insists that we should subject our judgment, and that of the critics, to the authorial authority of the person from whom, or through whom, the work was given life. This is the literary litmus test. Any literary criticism that fails to take this test, or fails to pass this test, is unworthy of the name.

Let’s take some practical examples to illustrate the crucial connection between an author and his work. Tolkien could not have written The Lord of the Flies any more than William Golding could have written The Lord of the Rings; Shelley could not, and would not, have written Christian allegorical poems such as Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence”; Hopkins’s “The Wreck of the Deutschland” could not have existed without the potency of the poet’s deep Christian faith and his grounding in scholastic philosophy. Without knowledge of Dante’s deeply-ingrained Thomistic imagination, it is impossible to understand the depth and design of the Divine Comedy, which is why most modern critics are stuck in the Inferno and cannot see the value, beauty and profundity of the Purgatorio or the Paradiso. Without knowledge of Chaucer’s orthodox Christian philosophy it would be difficult to see the Christian realist rebuttal of nominalism in the Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde.

Without knowledge of the tradition-oriented religious faith of Cervantes or Swift, it is likely that Don Quixote and Gulliver’s Travels will be read and understood through the erroneous eyes of the lampooned protagonists rather than through the sagacious eyes of the authors. Without knowledge of Emily Brontë’s deeply held Christian faith, it is tempting to see Wuthering Heights as a sympathetic portrayal of carnal passion rather than as a cautionary tale warning against it. In these instances the crucial philosophical distance between the author and his protagonists is the very key to understanding the deepest meaning of the works.

Without knowledge of Eliot’s sympathy for the political and cultural philosophy of Charles Maurras, his devotion to Dante, and his trajectory towards Christian conversion it is tempting to see “The Waste Land” as an expression of nihilism instead of a condemnation of it. Without knowledge of Tolkien’s insistence that The Lord of the Rings “is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” it is likely that we will miss the deep theology that informs the plot. Without Evelyn Waugh’s assertion that the theme of Brideshead Revisited is “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters,” we would perhaps miss the crucial supernatural character of the novel and see it instead as a romantic tale of (homo)sexual love.

Surely all of these examples are obvious. Surely it requires a mere modicum of common sense to see the truth that one must see the work, first and foremost, through the eyes of the author, as far as this is possible.

As a means of illustrating this point still further, it is perhaps illuminating to compare the study of literature with the study of history. If we insist on studying history through the prejudices and presumptions of our own day we will succeed only in misinterpreting the motives and purpose of historical actions. If we do not know what people believed we will not understand why they behaved and acted as they did. We will not understand what really happened. Our prejudice or our ignorance will have made us blind. In order to understand history we must understand enough to empathize with, even if we don’t sympathize with, the protagonists of the period being studied. And what is true of history is equally true of literature. We must know what the author believed in order to know what he is saying and doing in his work. We must empathize with, even if we don’t sympathize with, the author’s beliefs. Failure to understand the author’s beliefs will lead to a failure to understand the work. Our prejudice or our ignorance will have made us blind.

Joseph Pearce is the author of Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (Ignatius Press).

07 / 15 / 2022
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