In the final chapter of his magisterial biography of Oscar Wilde, Richard Ellmann(1918-1987), American literary critic, recounts the last moments of Wilde’s life, and his being received into the Church. The story of T.S. Eliot’s(1888-1965) unexpected conversion to Anglicanism is a long and well-documented one. Eliot’s early poetry, certainly up to The Waste Land, betrayed an allegiance to art, not religion. But with the poems Journey of the Magi, Salutation, and the sequence Ash-Wednesday, it was clear that the direction of Eliot’s poetry was changing. Peter Ackroyd(1949- ), the English biographer, novelist and critic, writes that Eliot, like so many modernists, was “aware of what he called the void in all human affairs: the disorder, meaninglessness and futility which he found in his own experience. Human affairs were, at their heart, inexplicable intellectually; his scepticism taught him that they could only be understood or endured by means of a larger faith.” –Nebula, Vol. 2, No. 3, September 2005.
Evelyn Waugh’s(1903-1966) conversion from what he called the “absurd caricature” of modernity to the “real world” of Catholicism was, Joseph Pearce(1961- ), Professor of Literature at Ave Maria University, writes, “greeted with astonishment by the literary world. It caused a sensation in the media. Given the controversy surrounding his decision, Waugh succinctly explained the reasons for his conversion in his essay, “Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened to Me.” The modern world faced a choice between Christianity and Chaos.
Reminiscent of the French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire’s(1821-1867) formulation of modernity, for Waugh one had to choose between the eternal and the immutable or the transient, fleeting, and contingent. Like Eliot, Auden, and Wilde, Waugh chose the eternal and the immutable found in Christianity. In the final passages of Brideshead Revisited(1945), a novel of redemption, we see what can be read as the narrator’s second conversion; and at the same time, we see Waugh subtly renouncing the idea that art will lead us to paradise.
In his youth the Anglo-American poet, W.H. Auden(1907-1973), was interested in Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxism, interests that waned with age. According to a web page sponsored by The Academy of American Poets, while Auden never entirely abandoned these early interests, Christianity and especially Protestant theology had become a primary preoccupation by the 1940s. The best book length study of literary figures who converted to or were influenced by Christianity is by Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1999.
Can some fortuitous conjunction
of circumstances make it possible
to bend the conditions of human
life into conformity with a set of
prevailing human desires? Such
hopes are merely illusory, & they
entirely miss the nature & meaning
of the great turning point we have
passed through during what is this
climacteric of history since, say, the
1840s, 1850s, the entire 20th century,
and into this third millennium. Great,
how very great…is the magnitude of
the ruin, the catalogue of horrors-----
unknown in the darkest of past ages.1
1 The Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, Foreword, and p.1, Baha’i World Centre, Haifa, Israel, 2001.
31 May 2012
Chaos And The Void
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