Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Show, don't tell

I never took a writing class, but even I'm familiar with the advice given to novice authors: "Show, don't tell." It guards, I believe, against a certain didacticism and lazy instinct to merely describe events instead of examining them through the lens of human action. This is a fair caution. And yet, it has its limitations: sometimes it seems the pendulum swings the other way -- writers feel obligated to describe every scene and conversation in tedious detail, whether or not those details contribute to the plot, mood, or character development. If art is reality distilled, this is reality stilled: bogged down in such petty effluvia as to lose all focus, direction, or purpose.

I received an email today with an essay by Fr. Robert Barron (it doesn't seem to be available on the web yet) about evangelizing through beauty:
In his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh implicitly lays out a program of evangelization that has particular relevance to our time. “Brideshead” refers, of course, to a great manor house owned by a fabulously wealthy Catholic family in the England of the 1920’s. In the complex semiotic schema of Waugh’s novel, the mansion functions as a symbol of the Catholic Church, which St. Paul had referred to as the “bride of Christ.” To Brideshead comes, at the invitation of his friend Sebastian, Charles Ryder, an Oxford student, devotee of the fine arts and casual agnostic. Charles is overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of Brideshead’s architecture and the sumptuousness of its artistic program, which includes magnificent painting and sculpture, as well as a fountain of Bernini-like delicacy, and a chapel that was a riot of baroque decoration. Living within the walls of the manse, Charles mused, was to receive an entire artistic education. The beauty of the place would entrance Charles for the rest of his life, drawing him back again and again.  
 In the course of his many visits, Charles came, of course, to know the inhabitants of the house, Sebastian’s strange and beguiling family. Especially through Sebastian’s mother, the aristocratic and devoutly Catholic Lady Marchmain, he became familiar with the moral demands of the Catholic Church, especially as they pertained to Sebastian’s increasing problem with alcohol. For many years, Charles joined Sebastian in his friend’s rebellion against these strictures, but in time, he came to appreciate their importance, indeed their indispensability.  Finally, at the very close of the story, we learn that Charles, the erstwhile agnostic, had come to embrace the coherent philosophical system of Catholicism and to worship the Eucharistic Lord who was enshrined in the beautiful chapel at Brideshead. Many years after entering that chapel as a mere aesthete, he knelt down in it as a believer. 
Father Barron makes many good points here, but he's mistaken in one thing: the chapel at Brideshead is not beautiful, not to Charles Ryder's trained eye. It is not "a riot of baroque decoration"; it had been renovated some twenty-odd years before Charles sees it in the Arts and Crafts style, and though Charles is hesitant to say so to his hosts, he finds it hideous. The chapel is a symbol, throughout the book, of how the falsity of poor art can stand between an aesthetic soul and God.
"You're an artist, Ryder (says Brideshead), what do you think of it aesthetically?"
"I think it's beautiful," said Cordelia with tears in her eyes.
"But is it Good Art?
"Well, I don't know what you mean," I said warily. "I think it's a remarkable example of its period. Probably in eighty years it will be greatly admired."
"But surely it can't be good twenty years ago and good in eighty years and not be good now?"
"Well, it may be good now. All I mean is that I don't happen to like it much."
Charles does learn to see God despite ugliness: at the end of the book he kneels in the chapel, before "a beaten copper lamp of deplorable design".

The on-going conversation about the engagement of Catholicism and the arts has been active lately with the advent of movies such as Here Be Dragons, For Greater Glory, and The Passion of the Christ. (I would assume that Protestants are having their own conversations about movies in the Fireproof vein.) It's telling all these movies were embraced by various stripes of Catholic media, as is presenting Catholicism in a non-hostile light were the only thing necessary to make a movie good art. Also telling is the fact that of the recent spate of "Catholic" movies, only The Passion of the Christ received anything approaching critical acclaim. The critics can always be wrong, of course, but they're also a useful standard, trained as they are to look for a certain baseline level of quality: is the movie consistent? does the plot make sense? is the acting good? does the director understand cinematic structure? is the screenplay coherent?

As Catholics, we also have standards for judging, not just art, not just movies, not just novels, not just entertainment, but every product of man's hands: Is it good? Is it true? Is it beautiful? Catholic art is much more than just slipping an explanation of dogma or a favorable portrayal of a priest into a work -- it's high quality, honest, and evocative whether or not religion is explicitly mentioned. Since God is Truth and Beauty and Goodness, what is good and true and beautiful must point to Him and participate in His life. Conversely, art that relies on wedging Catholic imagery or teachings into formulaic or unrealistic portrayals of reality doesn't do itself any favors. Not everyone who says, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven.

I read a Catholic novel the other day, and I'm sorry to say that it was one of the more poorly written pieces I've had the misfortune to read lately -- though as I tend not to be a consumer of pop fiction perhaps my quality level is misaligned with the general taste. It told and it showed, neither to best advantage. The premise was unbelievable, the characters were by turns too period and too anachronistic, the plot needed several kinds of tightening and crafting, and the writing shifted between being didactic, obvious, repetitive, and plain boring.  And yet it was praised by several Catholic reviewers whose taste in fiction and ability to evaluate literature I will ever after hold suspect.

Catholicism is more than an Old Boys Club or mutual affirmation society. Catholic reviewers shouldn't be afraid to insist, in charity, on quality from Catholic artists -- that's part of the role of a reviewer. Of course, it does not make one a bad person or a bad Catholic to be unable to construct a paragraph -- but it does make one a bad writer. Good writing, like all good art, raises all those who encounter it, regardless of education, and evangelizes those who love beauty without realizing that Beauty is God.


Anonymous said...

You majored in English and Drama and never took a writing class? How did that happen? Yet you write so well! I bet Homer never took a writing class either.

mrsdarwin said...

Writing, Literature, and Drama were separate tracks within the English major at FUS in my day, and though the three interacted, in Drama at least we were fairly concentrated on our own classes. (Now Drama is its own major -- one of the many theatrical innovations since my time, along with air conditioning in the theater and a new light board.)

Any proficiency in writing I have is probably due to reading good literature, and (in no small part) to Acting and Directing classes, which I maintain were the best preparation for "real life" anyone could get at college.

mrsdarwin said...

Darwin points out to me that although in the book the Arts and Crafts chapel is described vividly, in the BBC miniseries it is a baroque chapel -- they filmed on location at some Stately 'Ome, and likely the owners didn't choose to have their lovely baroque chapel renovated in full assault Arts and Crafts style.

Brandon said...

I like Baroque, and I like Arts and Crafts style (there are some truly lovely Protestant churches in New England influenced by the style, and it is almost perfectly suited for a small shrine or chapel), but I keep trying to think of what a Baroque chapel redone in Arts and Crafts style would be like, and I keep failing.

It seems to me that Waugh's point is really that all the beauty is in fact a sign of decay. The Catholicism of the Marchmain family is wonderfully picturesque but part of that is due to its being in ruin and decay -- perhaps patched up here and there with more modern style, as with the chapel, but to ambiguous effect. That seems to me to be a lot of the power of the ending: ruin or not, decayed or not, their faith was not built in vain.

BettyDuffy said...

WHat WAS the Novel?

mrsdarwin said...

Ah, since I'm not actually reviewing, I won't hold it up for scorn by name.

mrsdarwin said...

I do like Arts and Crafts -- my own house wants, nay demands, William Morris wallpaper and curtains (and no substitutions, so we have neither wallpaper nor curtains), and I think it can certainly be well done. But Waugh makes it sound like the Marchmain chapel was an example of Kitsch Gone Wild:

"The whole interior had been gutted, elaborately refurnished and redecorated in the arts-and-crafts style of the last decade of the nineteenth century. Angels in printed cotton smocks, rambler-roses, flower-spangled meadows, frisking lambs, texts in Celtic script, saints in armour, covered the wallls in an intricate pattern of clear, bright colours. There was a triptych of pale oak, carved so as to give it the peculiar property of seeming to have been moulded in Plasticine. The sanctuary lamp and all the metal furniture were of bronze, hand-beaten to the patina of a pock-marked skin; the altar steps had a carpet of grass-green, strewn with white and gold daisies.

'Golly,' I said."

Brandon said...

That does make it seem like Chapel by Hallmark.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I hadn't remembered Ryder hating the chapel. Methinks I'm overdue for a re-read.

And I'm with BD: What was the novel? Not that you have to say, but curiosity, you know.

Charming Disarray said...

I agree with your main point here but I wonder if the reason Catholics are showing appreciation for less-than-great art or literature is simply because they don't want to discourage the few people who are trying. That's not what a reviewer should do, of course, but think of how few Catholics pursue artistic careers seriously. I'm sure there are a lot reasons for that, including not wanting to get involved in something "worldly" like theater or movies or just out of wanting a more stable career to be able to support a family. It's really too bad there isn't a much stronger push for art and artists (of whatever kind) in general.

JMB said...

"Angels in printed cotton smocks" ha! Sounds like the modesty police were consulted on that one! Willa Cather comes to mind - I don't think she's Catholic and yet her novels, esp "O Pioneers" and of course the "Death Comes to the Archbishop" are just so "Catholic".