Tuesday, May 07, 2024

Book Recommendation: “The Spiritual History of English,” by Andrew Thornton-Norris

A new edition, revised, expanded and published by Os Justi Press

What makes literature or art Christian? Some would say just the content, that is, what is said; others would say both the content and the form, because the way in which certain truths are conveyed can communicate them more fully. It’s not just what you say that’s important, but also how you say it.

If this is the case, the style of prose or poetry can be Christian (or un-Christian), as much as the meaning of the words considered apart from that style. As an artist and a teacher of art, I have long maintained that the style of art is every bit as important as the content, and that since the Enlightenment, style has declined because artists have rejected the traditional Catholic forms.

In this slim volume, the English Catholic poet Andrew Thornton-Norris does for poetry and prose what I have been trying to do with visual art. He relates the actual structure of the writing and the vocabulary used in it to the worldview of a given age. He shows us, for example, that even if the poet or novelist is sincerely Catholic and trying to express truths that are consistent with the Faith, he is at a great disadvantage if he is seeking to express those truths with vocabulary and poetic forms that reflect a post-Enlightenment culture.

I agree with the author’s analysis of the phases of modernity, which he sees as ever-greater degrees or manifestations of the Protestant heresy. Chapter by chapter, he analyses and critiques the worldview of the Enlightenment, down to the present day. The philosophies behind Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Modernism, and Postmodernism are each presented as differing reactions against Christianity, and ultimately, against the authority of the Catholic Church. He then connects each with the cultural forms it engenders. Because he is dealing with the English language, he first describes the rise of the language as a distinct vernacular, and connects this with the presence of the Faith.   

He argues that the very idea of the English as a nation comes from the Church, through Pope Gregory the Great and his emissary, St Augustine of Canterbury. He then describes how the language and its literature developed in light of the spread of Christian teaching, through the influence of figures such as Bede, Alcuin of York, and King Alfred the Great. Then, after the great heights of writers such as  Chaucer and finally Shakespeare, he argues that the trajectory has been downhill from there. As he puts it in the beginning of his concluding chapter: “This book has argued that English literature has declined, almost to the point of non-existence. In this and previous chapters we examine what remains: the entrails, or shipwrecks, so to speak. It has argued that this decline has been concurrent with that of English Christianity, and it has examined the relationship between these two phenomena.”

This means that Mr Thornton-Norris is much more suspicious of the Romantic poets than many other Catholic commentators. I like the idea of this, firstly because it makes me feel less of a philistine for finding them dull, but also because this parallels exactly my analysis of painting—that the Romantics and all thereafter are, in substantial and important ways, inferior to earlier Christian artists and artisans. The same seems evident to me in Neoclassicism, Modernism, and Postmodernism.

Thornton-Norris clearly believes that through the prism of literature, one can identify problems with the whole culture, which are at root related to the rejection of the Faith and its forms of worship. This idea is also very similar to my own about visual art, and appeals to me on a similar level.

The author is discussing general trends; he has no intention of dismissing all examples of English literature in these later periods. Rather, he points out the great disadvantage suffered by those poets and novelists who were trying to express something that is consistent with the Faith in an era that breathed a different atmosphere. They were restricted, generally, to the vocabulary and structural forms of the language at the time in which they lived, and because these were affected by one form or another of a post-Enlightenment anti-Catholic worldview, they always faced a struggle to rise above the cramping conventions and assumptions of their time.

The source of hope for the English language and English literature is, for Mr Thornton-Norris, the same as it is in the Church. As he puts it:

“Whereas Christianity provided an external discipline or control of the emotions and ego, romanticism exalts them, as does psychoanalysis and the cult of therapy and self-development, especially in its Freudian or theoretical form. The logical conclusion is that if we want to resist the relativism of artistic and religious values, a fundamental rehabilitation of English relations with the papacy is the only solution.”

This is true for the culture in general. The task here is one of an authentic renewal of the Catholic Faith. 

The Spiritual History of English is full of luminous ideas that deserve careful pondering. May this new edition from Os Justi Press place its insights into the hands of many more readers who are seeking to understand the cultural crossroads at which we stand and the conditions necessary for the rebirth and flourishing of all the arts, especially the art of the poetic word.

To order: Os Justi Press or Amazon

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