American Catholic Arts and Fictions: Culture, Ideology, Aesthetics. By Paul Giles. New York : Cambridge University Press, 1992. 544 pp. $65.00.

Review from: The Modern Language Quarterly, Duke University Press, Vol 55, Issue 1 (March 1994) pp.111-114

Students of American Catholic literature and history will read Paul Giles's American Catholic Arts and Fictions: Culture, Ideology, Aesthetics with a deep sense of gratitude for his unprecedented effort to apply the insights of con­temporary literary theory to an astonishing variety of Catholic texts. From the nineteenth-century polemics of Orestes Brownson to the iconographies of Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe, Giles tirelessly excavates sources of the "analogical imagination" that fired Catholic creativity and generated a powerful if unacknowledged American literary countertradition to Protestant romanticism. But with all due respect to Giles's erudition, the most remarkable aspect of this fascinating work is that he now joins his fellow Englishman Patrick Allitt of Emory University on the leading edge of a British invasion of American Catholic studies.

There is a wonderful irony here for American-born Catholic intellectu­als who have for generations fought a quixotic war on several fronts in the name of their own cultural authority: desperately anxious for secular intellectuals to outgrow an uninformed if not lazy disregard for Catholic thought and literature, they have also lamented the seeming indifference .of their own coreligionists to a rich cultural inheritance. Allitt and Giles, schooled at Oxford of all places, sunder the durable if debilitating paradigms that have preoccupied Catholics since the 1955 publication of John Tracy Ellis's celebrated essay, "American Catholics and the Intellectual Life." In Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America , I950-I985 (1993), Allitt plainly demonstrates that Catholic thought was not an incidental dimension of the postwar conservative revolution but an essential impulse. Now Giles persuasively argues in American Catholic Arts and Fictions that the pastoral, romantic, individualist strain long equated with the genius of American self-expression is only half the story and may be the less interesting when compared with the brawling creativity of writers connected variously to the Church of Rome.

Giles dramatically expands upon a recent trend in Catholic studies that privileges anthropological over doctrinal definitions of "Catholicity" and discards altogether traditional approaches attempting to link an author's work to some discernible spiritual state. "Exactly what John Berryman believed is a meaningless question; all we can say is that there are certain recurring patterns of belief and disbelief" (245). Freed from orthodox constraints that until quite recently have denied such quintessentially "Catholic" authors as Jack Kerouac and Frank O'Hara their canonical deserts, Giles dismantles lingering reservations about the spiritual legitimacy of many of America's most compelling authors: indeed, this book could well have been subtitled "Here Comes Everybody."

Viewing Catholicism primarily as "a residual cultural determinant" (1), Giles locates an abundance of thematic patterns in .Catholic fictions that have been overlooked by their "overtly skeptical and secular context" (11)­ -read Protestant country. While the majority tradition has promoted spiritual angst as the human condition, Catholic writers have been more flexible “and more willing, especially in the postmodernist period, to take or leave religion as one possible fiction among others” (16). Although Giles discusses such nineteenth-century figures as Orestes Brownson somewhat perfunctorily, an argument begins to resound when he turns to more recent topics, starting with his claim that “Catholicism's cultural image in the early twentieth century came to be associated with that discomforting complexity thought to be characteristic of modernist miscegenation and ambivalence” (111). In recent years, Catholicism has been so often linked to an ethnic faux Puritanism that scholars usually overlook the radically "different" image the Church represented well into this century. Giles not only recovers that difference but boldly declares that his Catholic authors, instinctual postmodernists all, interrogated the ground of their peculiarities even as they sought legitimacy from secularist readers.

James T. Farrell, far from being merely a bitterly anticlerical scribe of Irish Chicago, thus becomes for Giles a methodologically self-conscious Catholic author. "Farrell's texts, for example, train their deconstructive light upon the idea of passive suffering; yet by transferring this oppressive weight from the realm of religious doctrine or subliminal psychological condition­ing into that of aesthetic play, his texts allow for the possibility of 'reorganizing' these social conventions so 'they begin to be stripped of their valid­ity' and 'become objects of scrutiny in themselves'" (142). Giles similarly lauds Catholic fictions for their sophisticated yet spirit-filled worldliness: "[T]he concrete, incarnational, and fully embodied mode of ‘Catholic' fiction is different in emphasis from that more abstract, disembodied 'Protes­tant' genre of American romance. . . . Catholic realism invests the mundane world itself with spiritual significance" (168).

This approach produces some marvelous surprises, including a brilliant discussion of Frank O'Hara's self-identity as a "minor" poet (266). Inspired by theologian David Tracy's notion of the "analogical imagination" working at the heart of Catholic consciousness, Giles's differentiation of the aesthetic mystique of Jack Kerouac from that of his Protestant forebears represents a great advance in our appreciation of the Beat novelist: "Kerouac is not so interested in elucidating the abstract shape of an overall design as he is in revealing what he takes to be the 'grace' inherent within these mundane objects…unlike Whitman or Emerson, who present themselves as privileged seers prophetically empowered to perceive invisible resemblances, Kerouac styles himself as a surrogate Catholic priest in whose hands sacramental analogy becomes a materialized and worldly event" (56). Like Kerouac, most of the visual artists Giles treats (including Andy Warhol, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman) generate an ironic, ethnic working-class sacralization of “the more accessible icons of a mass consumer market” that substitutes for the high culture of their more privileged contemporaries (278). Catholics, then, deserve much of the credit for the populist mass culture of postwar America .

Giles's herculean attempt to gather dozens of disparate figures under his conceptual umbrella often blurs profound distinctions between his subjects. Particularly disconcerting is his willingness to defer serious discussion of the central role of converts in his schema until the concluding chapter. Yet we must ask how Yankees such as Brownson and Robert Lowell can feature the same imaginative habits as "ethnics" like Eugene O'Neill and Theodore Dreiser, who were themselves products of very different back­grounds. Giles also tends to seriously overgeneralize about American Catholic history. Few citizens of the United States would have recognized a "new affinity between American Catholicism and radical social programs" that Giles locates in the period between the world wars (141). While others have exaggerated the "ghetto mentality" inherent in Catholic culture, Giles is a bit too bullish regarding the creative mobility of an often-despised minority. (As late as the 1930S Franklin D. Rooseve1t could tell an Irish­-American economist: "Leo [ Crowley ], you know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.") 1

Giles's inattention to historical nuance scarcely diminishes this work's interpretive power and relentless originality. As an occasionally reluctant yet haunted student of American Catholicism, I was moved by the respectful intensity the author brings to his study of artists richly deserving of such ele­gant treatment American Catholic Arts and Fictions is a remarkable achieve­ment as well as a historical event.

James T. Fisher, Yale University

 

1 Quoted in Jack Beatty, The Rascal [(jng: The Life and Times of lames Michael Cur­ley (Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 1992), 449.



JONATHAN VEITCH

"There Is No God and Mary Is His Mother": American Catholicism/American Culture

Review from: Contemporary Literature XXXVI, no.3 (Fall 1995) pp.537-544. University of Wisconsin-Madison

Paul Giles, American Catholic Arts and Fictions: Culture, Ideology, Aesthetics. Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1992. x + 547 pp. $65.95.

Imagine a book that brings Theodore Dreiser, Katherine Anne Porter, Allen Tate, Jack Kerouac, Frank O'Hara, Alfred Hitchcock, Andy Warhol, and Robert Mapplethorpe into meaning­ful relation. Paul Giles has done just that and more. American Catholic Arts and Fictions: Culture, Ideology, Aesthetics is a tour de force, a magisterial study of Catholicism and the American arts. But its subject is not limited to religion. American Catholic Arts and Fictions offers a thoughtful meditation on ideology and aesthetics that is lucid, engaging, provocative, elegant, subtle. This is a book that is ambitious without being self-aggrandizing, politically engaged without being tendentious. In addition, Giles handles complex theo­logical questions deftly, and he does so while meeting the highest standards of cultural criticism. But more importantly, Giles has achieved the rare feat of reorienting the cultural landscape in such a way that it will be hard to read the literature of this century in quite the same manner again.

Who would have thought that the Catholic arts in America could matter so much? They don't. They are a distinctly "minor" literature. But therein lies their power to "deterritorialize" the culture of this country's Protestant mainstream. In contradistinction to critics who argue for an American literary tradition that is 'definitively Romantic' even in its 'deviations' from romanticism," Giles argues for "a competing antiromantic 'Catholic' tradition" that is more interested in "man" as a "social being" than as a visionary isolato. Thus instead of the familiar arc that takes us from "Edwards to Emerson" (Perry Miller) or "Emerson to Stevens" (Harold Bloom)-an arc that also includes "Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, James, Faulkner, West, Ellison, and Barth" -Giles would have us consider an alternative configuration of American literary history (and a quite different narrative of American experience) that begins with Orestes Brownson and takes hold in the twentieth century with "Santayana, Dreiser, Farrell, Fitzgerald, Tate, Berryman, Frank O'Hara, Flannery O'Connor, and Barthelme" (25). Mixed in with these literary figures are a number of painters, photographers, and filmmakers who share their concerns. In addition to Warhol, Mapplethorpe, and Hitchcock, Giles has also incorporated the work of John Ford, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola. Many of these writers and artists, Giles argues, "have been undervalued because the (explicit or implicit) ideologies of their texts do not accord with what are conceived, often unconsciously, to be American literary values" (529). With the publication of American Catholic Arts and Fictions, the value of this "other" tradition has at last been recognized. Moreover, the breathtaking comb­nation of artists and media found here alerts us to the richness that is available to us when the orthodoxy of the canon (and the suzerainty of the book) is broken on behalf of cultural studies.

While Giles is interested in the influence of Catholicism on some of this country's most prominent artists, it does not bother him that most of them do not practice Catholicism actively. In fact, one gets the impression that he is somewhat embarrassed by those who have not distanced themselves from the more explicit tenets of the Catholic faith. Thomas Merton, for example, receives just two pages in a book that is more than five hundred pages long, while self-consciously Catholic poets like William Everson receive no attention at all. Instead, Giles prefers converts like Robert Lowell or Allen Tate (for whom Catholicism is a form of discipline), "Christmas Catholics" (354) like Katherine Anne Porter, or apostates like Mary McCarthy. Released from the straitjacket of dogma, these more "indirect" (328) responses to Catholicism are said to allow for a fuller exploration of its nuances and complexities. Giles's reductive equation of faith with dogma betrays a curious sort of prejudice in a book that prides itself on its catholicity. Be that as it may, that prejudice has the virtue of revealing a distinctly Catholic "Structure of feeling" (255) in fictions that would seem most resistant to it: “It is not so much that theology was . . . superseded by fiction,” Giles argues; “It is more a question of theology itself becoming secularized, transformed from an explicit dogma into an implicit and unconscious state of mind, but still maintaining itself as a cultural force with power to shape the direction of fictional texts" (53).

That is an arresting premise. But exactly what direction does Ca­tholicism give to its fictional texts? Giles argues that "Catholicism maintains a . . . sceptical attitude toward the whole idea of lyrical or subjective intuition: the emphasis within traditional Catholic thought on a preexistent, objective world has ensured a profound incompatibility between Catholic aesthetics and [a] romantic view [of art]” which seeks release from that objective world (51). For Giles, then, the Catholic arts are a source of "potential subversion" (111) that can be invoked to expose the limitations of this romantic, ego-centered Protestant tradition in American culture.

The basis for this critique lies in the central theological distinction upon which Protestantism and Catholicism rest, namely, their different conceptions of the relationship between spirit and matter. For Protestants there is an ontological split between spirit and matter that is never quite overcome-hence the resort to transcendence, prophecy, apocalypse. For Catholics there is no such split; spirit is immanent in matter through the mystery of transubstantiation (wherein “the earthly object is inherently both itself and some­thing other" [55]). This "sacramental" view of the material world makes for a linkage among "many different modes of reality" (85)­- an " 'interpenetration of unity and multiplicity, sameness and difference'” (315), the literal and the metaphysical. In contrast to a univocal and often solipsistic Protestant imagination, Catholicism tends toward this distinctly "analogical" cast of mind, which allows for a much richer investigation into "terrestrial systems of all kinds" (56) and, consequently, a more inclusive mode of social criticism as well.

These ontological and epistemological differences between Prot­estantism and Catholicism have potent implications for the construction of subjectivity. Where Protestants are inclined to diminish the claims of the social order in an effort to establish an "original relation to the universe" (Emerson's phrase), Catholics see themselves within the embrace of a universal church-members of a com­munity within which their salvation must be worked out. Consequently, they do not define themselves against society but through it. Giles argues that when this sensibility is brought to bear on aesthetic practice, it makes for an art that is acutely aware of the ways in which the individual is embedded in an overdetermined social reality. Moreover, "by problematizing the myth of individual self­hood," this type of art "interrogate[s] received notions of American national identity" -particularly America 's faith in its own "exceptionalism" (108).

Such claims on behalf of Catholicism make for a number of interesting readings of individual writers. The poetry of Allen Tate and Frank O'Hara, for example, is enriched when its links to Catholi­cism are fully explored. In Tate's case, Giles makes a convincing argument for the Catholic inflection that Tate brings to New Criticism's privileged mode of expression, the analogic language of paradox. He also explores Tate's debt to Neo-Scholastic philosophers like Jacques Maritain, whose critique of Cartesian idealism stands behind Tate's famous attack on romantic subjectivity in "The Angelic Imagination" (1951). Giles is still more illuminating in his discussion of Frank O'Hara's poetry. In a conspicuous display of chutzpah, he begins his reading of O'Hara with a critique of Marjorie Perloff, Helen Vendler, and Charles Altieri - all of whom agree that O'Hara is a poet with “no metaphysical baggage" (Vendler) working in a "'demystified' world 'stripped of…ontological vest­ments'" (Altieri [248-49]). Giles complicates this reading of O'Hara by arguing that there is a certain selfconsciousness to O'Hara's cultivation of surfaces which invokes the very "depth" its two dimensionality ultimately rejects. ("The object cannot be simply itself; it must also be not something else," Giles observes [253].) Thus the "blankness and randomness" (259) of O'Hara's cityscapes can be seen as a "terrestrial parody" of its "primary theological ideal" (260), the City of God . "Although O'Hara charts his own alienation from the plenitude of heaven," Giles observes, "he urgently desires to recapture this plenitude within an earthly context" (261). This observation explains the poet's passion for the city and its pleasures (like the movies); O'Hara loves them in part because they serve as a surrogate for the lost riches of his Catholicism.

Giles is less at ease with visual artists than he is with literary figures. He tends to rely more on the scholarship of others here than he does elsewhere. But he compensates for those dependencies with a number of provocative observations. Warhol is a case in point. The link between his portraits of "Jackie," "Liz," "Elvis" and the sacred icons of the Eastern Orthodox saints (which Warhol worshipped as a boy) has been remarked upon before. But Giles goes on to explore more subtle manifestations of Warhol's Catholicism in, among other things, his fascination with repetition. He argues that Warhol's " Campbell soup cans and other famous images from pop culture replicate themselves...into a universality that aspires to . . . the universal structures of Catholicism" (281). If Giles detects a covert yearning for the balm of a Universal Church in Warhol's embrace of mass culture, he also explores the way the Catholic critique of subjectivity manifests itself in Warhol's systematic attempt to drain his art of an "personal" feeling-resulting in what is certainly one of this century's most thoroughgoing and extreme versions of that critique.

Giles also has interesting things to say about John Ford and Robert Altman, whose films reveal a preoccupation with rituals and what he describes as the "ontological burlesque." He argues persuasively that both ritual and burlesque take their impetus from the universalizing tendencies of the Catholic church. The former offers the means by which communities are defined and united, while the latter is a "form of comedy, through which social distinctions are obliterated" (322), leaving everyone on the same ontological level­ - that is to say, equal in the eyes of God. In order to appreciate the insightfulness of this argument, one need only think of Altman's fascination with cultural rituals like weddings (A Wedding [1978]), presidential races, and bicentennial celebrations (Nashville [1975]) and Ford's ubiquitous barn raisings, dances, and funerals; the burlesque of army life in Altman's M*A*S*H and the vaudevillian pratfalls that provide comic relief in Ford's epic Westerns.

Giles's interest in such a diverse array of Catholic directors would seem to be thorough enough. But there is one glaring omission: Frank Capra. That is curious considering Capra's fondness for the ontological burlesque - a far more dominant motif in his screwball comedies than it is in Ford's Westerns. But Giles cannot bring himself to include Capra in his study. Why? What is a study of Catholic ideology in film that cannot find a place for one of the premier directors of the 193Os? Giles concedes that Capra's films are "brilliantly produced," but he dismisses them as "uncomplicated" and "sentimental" (298). In part this rejection of Capra reflects the author's distinct preference for high art rather than low, for an art of "indirection" rather than an art based on thesis or dogma. But Giles's failure to include Capra may also derive from the fact that this director simply does not fit Giles's model. In Capra's movies there is a persistent attempt on the part of the characters to break free from the existing structures of society. Messieurs Deeds, Smith, and Doe, for example, want nothing more than to escape the complex amalgam of "forces" that control their lives - the media, Congress, a corrupt political machine - in order to return to their respective fantasies of innocence-Mandrake Falls, the Boy Rangers, baseball.1 (Only in Meet John Doe does Capra seriously question his own "Protestant" faith in the possibility - never the desirability - of effecting that escape to a "world elsewhere.") It seems that Giles has misread and/or "undervalued" Capra for the very same reason that Protestant crit­ics have undervalued the Catholic arts - namely, that the artist in question does not comport with the critic's ideology.

Giles has similar difficulties with writers like Robert Lowell and Jack Kerouac, whose preoccupation with their own subjectivity is precisely what many other Catholic writers are so critical of. We are told that Lowell "found external conformity to any social system to be anathema, much preferring the cultivation of an inner garden of the soul" (214). Meanwhile, Giles explains Kerouac's unabashed celebration of “‘classic American selfhood and self-expression'” (395) by invoking the 1950s Catholic counterculture movement known as "personalism." It will not do to say that this interest in the internal rather than external world was "increasingly an important aspect of . . . American Catholic thinking, around the time Lowell [and Kerouac were] writing" (216). If that is the case, then their self-­absorption is just a concession to the very Protestantism Giles's Catholic artists are inveighing against.

Giles attempts to redeem Kerouac's heretical leanings by differentiating them from the "Emersonian tradition of vatic prophecy": Kerouac, he argues, is "a priest celebrating what is present rather than a prophet intuiting what is absent." As proof of that claim he cites a passage from On the Road where Sal Paradise waxes poetic about the telephone poles that stretch across the continent and unify it. Emerson, Giles says, would have been "uneasy" with this attempt to make the "spirit visibly incarnate within such dubious 'sacramental' instruments as telephone poles" (413). Perhaps so. But Kerouac's telephone poles certainly would not have troubled Emerson's acolyte, Walt Whitman, whose "Passage to India" celebrates the "spirit visibly incarnate" in a set of railroad tracks that unify not only the continent but the world.

Robert Lowell, on the other hand, remains very much a Protestant poet even in his "Catholic phase." In Manichean poems like "Colloquy in Black Rock," the Holy Spirit descends on the supplicant with a violence that is overwhelming and unsustainable. As Albert Gelpi explains it, " Lowell 's image of incarnational descent...is not a divine indwelling but a divine dive-bombing. . . . In this presentation, Jesus's descent is not into flesh but in Rejection of flesh... and in the destruction of body ('my heart, / the blue king­fisher dives on you in fire')."2 When Christ's presence is withdrawn, as it is in the Notebook poems, Lowell 's world becomes inert and lifeless - a literal "land of unlikeness" (the title of his first book and a recurrent figure in the Protestant imagination).

The point here is not to invalidate Giles's interpretive scheme but merely to observe that it sometimes claims too much. While Giles's model has its heuristic uses, it tends to obscure the subterranean appropriations that go on all the time between Catholic and Protestant culture. Sometimes those exchanges can make for complex results, as is the case with Anglo-Catholics like T. S. Eliot and Henry James. More often, Catholic writers and artists find that the "structure of feeling" that informs their work is not Catholic at all, but Protestant. (It has been argued, with some merit, that in the United States , Catholicism has been so thoroughly Protestantized that it is no longer meaningful to talk about it in any other way.) Indeed, one might turn Giles's thesis around and ask how Giles can continue to refer to the literature and film of twentieth-century America as recognizably Protestant after the enormous contributions not only of Catholics but of American Jews as well. (The latter are curiously and conspicuously absent in this study.) It would be far more accurate to speak of a hybridization of American culture in which Protestants, Jews, and Catholics each discover the contested nature of their own idiom.

Such criticisms are relatively minor in a book of such overwhelming achievement. American Catholic Arts and Fictions has gone a long way toward clarifying Catholicism's contribution to and critique of modern American culture. It deserves to be read with as much care as it was written.

University of Wisconsin-Madison

1. This argument is drawn from what is probably the best book on Capra to date - a book that locates this Roman Catholic director squarely in the romantic Emersonian tradi­tion of American culture. See Raymond Carney, American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (New York: Cambridge UP, 1986).

2. Albert Gelpi, "The Reign of the Kingfisher: Robert Lowell's Prophetic Poetry," Rob­ ert Lowell: Essays in the Poetry, ed. Steven Gould Axelrod and Helen Deese (New York: Cambridge UP, 1986) 60.

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