Searching for a Secular Age

When the novelist and critic Nick Ripatrazone published his book Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction, his central concern stood out as of clear importance. It was, moreover, long overdue in receiving the kind of consideration Ripatrazone himself provides. Critically-acclaimed, widely-read American writers from Thomas Pynchon to Toni Morrison were, at least at some point in their lives, practicing Catholics. Although their devotion may have lapsed, its intellectual and emotional framework still informs their supposedly “secular” novels. Ripatrazone’s book shows that an understanding of Catholicism substantially alters how we read these writers. It bears the further spiritual burden of showing that, as it were, there is no secular age. Christ haunts the postmodern novel as eerily as he haunted Flannery O’Connor’s South.

An odd feature of Ripatrazone’s book is that its argument does not really begin until we are seventy-five pages in. This, in a book of just two hundred pages. Nearly the first half of the volume consists of Ripatrazone’s attempt to find his way into his subject amid a welter of questions about the relationship of faith to literature. How are we, for example, to understand these “lapsed” Catholic novelists in light of other contemporary authors who publicly profess Catholicism? The historical novelist Ron Hansen, after all, serves also as a permanent deacon in the Church. Poet Paul Mariani has built nearly all his work in verse and prose out of the forms of the Jesuit spirituality of his favorite subject, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and his oldest son, who is a member of the Society of Jesus.

But Ripatrazone senses another difficulty. He aims to show the post-mortem haunting of Catholicism in writers only two or three generations younger than the great figures of the Catholic literary revival, from Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton to Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Must we now go with a flashlight through abandoned corridors and attics, in search of Catholica, when our parents could simply buy the latest National Book Award winner and find the protagonist converting to Catholicism or, in one case (that of J.F. Powers), learning the hard lessons of the priesthood through the ministrations of a wayward golf ball?

He tries to come to grips with his subject by invoking figures such as Al Smith and Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who both commanded the American public sphere in different ways for decades. He considers the explicitly Catholic plots of Graham Greene and O’Connor, of Percy and Andre Dubus, trying to understand the difference between novels of religious conviction and spiritual quest and the eerie spiritual residues of our contemporaries.

The effort is not entirely satisfying. Starting, and then starting again, what exactly it is Ripatrazone is searching for shifts and transforms. And who can blame him? Works of literature may contain “frank depictions of religious belief,” they may display evidence of “conviction over irony,” but it is the nature of narratives to keep conviction at an ironic distance even when the author sincerely professes the Catholic faith. It is not always clear what we are searching for when we are searching for a Catholic novel. Conversely, it is not always clear what one is looking for when trying to discern Catholicism in the work of authors who may no longer practice the faith.

Amid the shifting terrain of these reflections, however, Ripatrazone mentions Myles Connelly’s short novel Mr. Blue (1928, but recently reissued). It soon becomes clear that Connelly’s book represents a kind of religious faith in fiction, a sincerity of belief, a simplicity and clarity of vision that is categorically other than the contemporary lapsed figures Ripatrazone discusses—but also something else from those novelists of the Catholic revival he celebrates. O’Connor, Graham, and Percy are great dramatists of religious doubt and existential anguish, after all. If the Catholic faith of the authors and their characters alike stands apart from the more recent figures Ripatrazone considers in the main body of his book, they stand apart no less from the sweet self-sacrificing joy of Connelly’s saintly protagonist, J. Blue.

The plot of the novel is as simple as its hero. J. Blue has an unmistakable “glory” and “wholesome air” about him. At the start of the book, he has also come into a great deal of money—which he proceeds to spend with a careless extravagance and buoyant liberality whose spirit remains even after he has burned through all his millions and reduced himself to poverty.

Published three years after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Mr. Blue also depicts a vision of America. Fitzgerald’s novel (not incidentally written by a fallen away Catholic who discovered American high society by way of the gates of Princeton University) depicts Nick Carraway as he watches with fascination and sympathy the spectacular “act” of Jay Gatsby. Carraway discovers that Gatsby is the chrome-surfaced invention of a lesser, but more emotionally sincere, man. The perfect life Gatsby pursues wrecks upon the unsightly rocks of the pettiness and dishonesty of the society he has entered. He is a conman, but he is also too good for the world.

Mr. Blue follows a Gatsby but with none of the complexity. The anonymous narrator for some unexplained reason is fascinated by Blue’s generosity, character, and holiness. The narrator himself has only one other clear attribute: he has “always been extremely fond of money.” Late in the novel, he offers his creed:

Business, I believe, is the backbone of our civilization, business regulated and run with the cooperation of science. That, I think, is my vocation. I want to make a great deal of money. I like the good things in life.

Despite this, he not only enjoys Blue’s company, when the latter enjoys the life of a rich Bostonian. We learn that he has already, in years’ past, become fond of him, during a period in which Blue lives in a packing case on the roof of a thirty-story building in Manhattan. There, he does little but fly kites and outline the scenario for a dystopian film about the last living Christian. Saying the Mass on the rooftop at the heart of the soulless, secular empire, Blue’s screen scenario concludes, brings it all crashing down. The Eucharist itself triumphs over all.

The narrator begins to collect Blue’s letters, both to himself and others, and to patch together his philosophy of life. The essence of Blue’s way may be described by three ideas. He takes immense and generous joy at the heart-breaking beauty of the world that has been made by God. He believes that the cross is the gift that God gives his friends. And last, he gives freely of his substance, takes a vow of poverty, and is convinced that film, rather than the printed word, is the medium by which the agnostic American people might be brought to discover the splendor and truth of the Catholic vision. He proves willing to give everything away, joining himself to Christ’s cross, to achieve that last idea.

With a few concluding details omitted, that is the whole of the story. It is not without its flaws. Even in comparison with Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, Connelly’s narrator is a cipher. The style of the novel is clean, efficient, and workmanlike; but in this it is enough to make one appreciate how entirely dependent on lyrical style was Fitzgerald, who viewed his novel as an homage in prose to the sensuous poetry of Keats. Connelly and Fitzgerald both had careers in Hollywood, but Connelly clearly learned his prose style from the efficiencies of the screenplay. His book is almost without rhetorical flourish and yet still feels long.

The sensation of length is not hard to discern. In contrast to a good film, Connelly’s novel lacks also in present action and dramatic tension. The scene in Boston that opens the novel is a flashback. It is followed by a further leap backward, to Manhattan. That is followed by the dissolution of time itself in the narrator’s hodgepodge assemblage of undated fragments from Blue’s letters. And then, we are back in Boston, to learn the fate of Blue as he lives out his vow of poverty. No screenwriter would have pulled that in old Hollywood.

On the other hand, Connelly, who would serve as uncredited screenwriter for such Frank Capra classics as It’s A Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Harvey shows himself to be a master of the Caprasque already, decades before those films were made. Connelly and Capra shared the same Catholic dramatic vision. America is a place of greedy individualism that must learn of the Catholic communal and self-sacrificial spirit from a courageous protagonist (James Stewart as George Bailey). This will redeem the American way of life. Blue has all the innocence and hope of Jeff Smith (also played by James Stewart), and the quirky, otherworldly, and impractical saintliness of Elwood P. Dowd (yet again, played by James Stewart). Blue is a being of pure, sentimental goodness and Catholic spirituality of the sort that would make Capra’s heroes American icons.

Connolly perhaps tips his hand at how American, and indeed how Hollywood, is his vision of things, when Blue complains about the written word, denigrates neo-gothic architecture as a blundering anachronism of borrowed beauty, and celebrates the mass media’s revolutionary potential to spread the gospel. Is Blue a perfect Catholic hero or, like Gatsby, the product of the silver screen with its shiny teeth, strong jawed leading men, and buxom starlets easy on the eyes?

I think we can answer this question, after a little hesitation, with the former. Ripatrazone rightly sees in Mr. Blue a Catholic novel with a true-blue Catholic protagonist, one who serves as a kind of prototype for a Catholic vision unmarred by doubt and secularization. Doubt and greed are the narrator’s problem; Blue is a spectacle of radiant holiness. We, along with the narrator, delight in the possibilities of goodness—possibilities that we might never otherwise have suspected—to which Blue awakens us by his serene and generous character.

By setting Blue like a foundation stone at the base of his book, Ripatrazone asks us to consider the possibility of a Catholicism in the modern age that is not merely residual and haunting. He further asks us to imagine a Catholicism that is not merely hard-wrought and achieved only through a grotesque and violent suffering of the absurd. What if modern Catholicism were born less of Kierkegaard and more of Saint Thèrese?

He raises two questions that need not go together but may. Can contemporary Catholics imagine as plausible for themselves a religion that does not make a virtue of doubt, but rather affirms the simplicity and steadiness of a faith that trusts entirely, unironically, and unlaboriously in Christ? Can we imagine as compelling and convincing a literature of moral drama, of sin and suffering, that nonetheless features at its center neither whiskey priests nor apostates, nor even tubercular and much-abused country curates, but a saint with a winning smile?

In one sense, the answer ought to be no to both these questions. As Blue himself says, Christ gives to his friends the cross. Suffering plays an inextricable role in salvation, and those who believe pray also to the Lord to help their unbelief. On the other hand, Blue represents a confident Catholicism that does not merely wish to haunt the consciousness of modernity but to offer it another, unimpeachably better, way. He manifests in his way the literary expression of a Church that does not merely undertake its pilgrimage with fear and trembling, but which bravely calls everyone to itself by the gleam, not of shiny tail-finned Cadillacs, but of an elevated monstrance. As much as we can and should learn something from the way Catholicism perdures even in those who may claim to have lost their faith, what we are really searching for, at the last, is Mr. Blue.

Featured Image: Caesar van Everdingen: Allegorical portrait of the Steyn family as scene of Diogenes, 1652; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

Author

James Matthew Wilson

James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature at Villanova University. He is most recently the author of the poetry collection The River of the Immaculate Conception.

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