Passing by the Dragon: Modern Literature in the High School Curriculum
The dragon sits by the side of the road,
watching those who pass.
Beware lest he devour you.
We go to the Father of Souls,
but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.1
Mathematics teachers generally do not have to face the problem of objections to content matter. Like theology, the abstract nature of math does not involve the delicate task of conveying what St. Thomas terms “connatural”2 knowledge: an understanding of reality as it is lived and experienced among men. Since fallen man lives in a fallen world, the expression of such knowledge necessarily involves a presentation of an environment that is “bleared, smeared . . . / And wears man’s smudge and share’s man’s smell,”3 with creatures who do “not reck [God’s] rod.”4 This is so much the case that those who would shield the adolescent from any substantive description of the real world in the great works of literature would have to eliminate virtually the entire canon—from Homer and Virgil, through Dante and Shakespeare, down to Dickens and Eliot. Calls to have high school students read nothing but the lives of the saints are sometimes heard, since these texts are judged to be safe, especially in matters relating to the sixth and ninth commandments, and require no critical thinking. It is analogous to suggesting students need not study philosophy because the catechism has already been memorized. The question of high school literature is thus a two-pronged problem that includes not only an important question of prudence but also the higher question of ideas. In certain circles, there is a tendency not to examine ideas at all, but merely to reject anything that is modern—whatever that might mean, exactly—precisely because modernism is a condemned heresy. However, the classical way of understanding literature is that while it reflects the world and times of the author, it must also convey truths that are applicable to all times. This is still true today, even in a disordered era in which it is now traditional to reject tradition. These considerations lead to three topics: the realistic depiction of vice in literature, a distinction between the terms modern and modernist, and some practical considerations for the inclusion of modern works in the curriculum.
Innocence, Not Ignorance
To be innocent is to be guilt-free, not ignorant. Literature teaches its most lasting lessons by presenting good and evil as it is experienced among men, and it is an inescapable part of the human condition to have to present vice. Dante, for example, at the beginning of the greatest poem of the Middle Ages, writes: “But if I would show the good that came of it [the journey to Paradise] / I must talk about things other than the good.”5 In other words, the problem is not when vice is discussed or even depicted, but when vice is held up as indifferent or, worse, as a good. This is one of the distinctions between literature that is not just modern—late nineteenth century and later, more or less—but is modernist. It is clear that adolescent students should not be exposed to works like Les Fleurs du mal or Ulysses or Lolita. What is more common among serious Catholic parents is for opinion to move to the other extreme. While no one doubts that adolescence—a word, as John Senior was fond of pointing out, that comes from a Latin word for burning6—is a time of profound changes and challenges, there are grave dangers in leaving young adults in ignorance. Dr. Senior, in a passage born of long experience, writes:
“There is no question that adolescent reading must be accompanied by strict, serious, complete dogmatic and moral teaching and by a strong, active, vigorous, rigorous gymnastics program. But a severe warning is in order for Catholic parents who, the more conservative they are in their Faith, tend toward a Jansenism in their discipline of children. . . . There are Catholic families who proudly send their eighteen-year-olds up to college carefully bound and wrapped at the emotional and spiritual age of twelve—good little boys and girls in cute dresses and panty-waists who never get into trouble or into knowledge and love.”7
This is not to say, of course, that texts must not be inspected and chosen with prudence. In this, our schools have a distinct advantage: the lists of texts, at least here in the United States, are not only approved by the headmaster of the school but also at the district level. This means that a number of priests, both with educational experience and years of hearing confessions, make a judgment on what ought to be taught in the schools. This system plots a course between dangers to purity on the one hand and ignorance on the other, using the literature to demonstrate the correctness and beauty of right morality.
Revolt Against Catholic World-View
More important than a portrayal of lived experience are the ideas that literature conveys. The literature curriculum really has as its aim to acquaint the student with the great ideas of Western civilization. There is no doubt that modernism represents a revolt against the entire Catholic world-view, that it rejects, insofar as it is possible, all that our civilization has built from the Greeks on. Nevertheless, it is false to claim that all modern works are a part of this chorus of chaos. Flannery O’Connor puts it this way: “The general accusation passed against [modern] writers now is that they write about rot because they love it. Some do, and their works may betray them, but it is impossible not to believe that some write about rot because they see it and recognize it for what it is.”8 In some ways, now is one of the most important times to be a writer. As in theology and philosophy, talented men and women in the arts must fight against the rot: describing it as it is, showing the consequences, and even proposing—in the terms of their craft—some remedies. The alternative is to be carried along the stream of contemporary life; as one of Samuel Beckett’s bums in the absurdist play Waiting for Godot sighs, “I get used to the muck as I go along.”9 Flannery O’Connor’s short stories about the action of grace in the modern world, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s harrowing accounts of the consequences of atheistic materialism, T. S. Eliot’s verses on loss and restoration: these are modern voices speaking out against modernism; it is vital that our young people hear them.
Another aspect of this argument is that it is better for our young people to hear about the errors of our time in the security of the Catholic classroom instead of in the secular university or Internet forum. It is a type of inoculation. The classroom should be a place in which ideas can be discussed and the consequences of those ideas can be shown. In this sense, for a more advanced group of students, there is even a place in the curriculum for reading modernist works; if the teacher is able to guide the students properly, to show the errors involved, then such an examination could only serve to solidify faith and right philosophy. It is also vital to note that many modern works—and certainly modernist ones—should only be studied after the student has received instruction in the canon. It makes no sense to study reactions to and rejections of tradition without knowing what the tradition is. Let the high school students read Homer and Virgil, Shakespeare and Milton, Dryden and Pope, Austen and Dickens, then move on to the moderns. The literature teacher’s responsibility is to give “a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present,”10 which is really just a modern manifestation of the same great truths literature has always conveyed.
Ultimately, the goal of the literature program is to integrate with all of the other subjects in leading the student to a love for Western civilization with all that it implies. The unfortunate reality is that this story must also discuss the decline of that civilization. If it were not so, then our mission would not be to restore all things in Christ. Such a restoration is only possible by understanding where our civilization came from, how it developed, and where it is in contemporary times. In more explicitly spiritual terms, “[r]edemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.”11 In their sphere, it is for the modern writers to point the way toward such restoration and redemption. In remains true that in our day we must still pass by the dragon, a dragon powerful, dangerous, and at times seductive. As handmaids to the theologians and philosophers, the literary wielders of the word can help us along “in this waning day of the West,”12 toward the Father of Souls.
1 Cf. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Introduction to his lectures to catechumens, para. 16. This somewhat looser translation, a favorite of Flannery O’Connor’s, appears at the end of her essay, “The Fiction Writer and His Country.” All O’Connor quotations are from Collected Works (New York: Library of America, 1988).
2 Daniel J. Sullivan, An Introduction to Philosophy (Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 1992), 77.
3 Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Shorter 5th Ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), lines 6-7.
4 Ibid., line 4.
5 Dante, The Divine Comedy, Vol. 1: Inferno, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin, 2003), I. 8-9.
6 John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, 1983), 40.
7 Ibid., 40-41.
8 O’Connor, Collected Works, 804.
9 Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove Press, 1954), 17.
10 O’Connor, Collected Works, 852.
11 Ibid., 805.
12 Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 187.