Excerpts from a lecture
delivered at the
The 16th Gerard Manley Hopkins Summer School
held in Monasterevin, Ireland
in July 2003 by
Michael O'Dwyer

The National University of Irland, Maynooth, Ireland.

Probing the World of Grace

the relation between Word and words

"...Hopkins seems to be trying to express something that
goes beyond language."

The question is how the writer is to probe this world of grace, this intimate and mysterious relationship between the human and divine without falling into the trap of playing God with his characters, an accusation which was sometimes levelled against Mauriac . This raises a question which Green finds interesting in Hopkins i.e. the ineffable character of beauty and the difficulty of expressing it in language. He finds Hopkins's language bizarre, belle et forte as he desperately tries to express what man has seen in some form of earthly paradise. He concludes that Hopkins seems to be trying to express something that goes beyond language. Green always displayed a great awareness of the limits of verbal communication especially in regard to its capacity to express the mystery of a person's inner life and its relationship with the divine. In this context he sees music as being a superior form of art. In an entry to his Journal on January 16, 1990, he states that music expresses in sublime airs and with unparalleled inspiration what the words of a poem can never express. The challenge for the writer is to proceed with the acceptance of the limits of his knowledge and powers of expression in regard to the intimate workings of grace. He must respect the complexities governing human psychology and behaviour and also the conventions governing his trade i.e., the conventions governing creative literature.

These are the challenges facing Christian writers as they endeavour to present the human struggle with the spiritual or the supernatural with human and literary credibility. In facing these challenges and in endeavouring to present the drama of Christian living in credible human and literary terms writers will avoid the pitfalls of omniscience, apologetics, abstraction, hagiography and propaganda of which they have often been accused. The real challenge for Christian writers is, in the words of Mauriac, to present in flesh and blood what the theologian presents in the abstract.

This notion of literary incarnation is also highlighted by Charles du Bos when he describes the incarnation which takes place in literature as the living flesh of speech . All literature, for du Bos, is incarnation and in literature this incarnation takes place thanks to the living flesh of words. He adds that whereas in the sacred mystery the word was made flesh , in the profane mystery the creative emotion, that emotion which, when incarnated into form, manifests at its highest and at its most complete the personality of the artist, is made flesh in words.

For du Bos, emotion is the living soul and words are the living body of literature. He adds that great writers and great artists have always been more or less conscious that literature and art are an incarnation but few have been conscious of the fact that their words are related to the Word itself. It is this relationship between the Word and words which is at the heart of the Christian novelists' task as they deal with various aspects of spirituality.

Christian writers have, over the years, adopted various techniques which serve to give credibility and verisimilitude on the human and literary level to their exploration of spirituality.

One technique adopted by these writers is the use of the diary form. This is not an uncommon form in the history of the French novel. Indeed, since 1803, one can point to at least 114 novels which are either entirely in diary form or which contain extracts of diaries at critical moments in the unravelling of the story. In the domain of Christian writing one may point to Gide's La Porte Étroite and La Symphonie pastorale , Mauriac's Le Noeud de vipères, Bernanos's Journal d'un curé de campagne , the final volume of Roger Martin du Gard's Les Thibault and Green's Varouna .

One of the problems facing a novelist like Bernanos is that he is trying to show sanctity from within. The diary form can be helpful in this regard in that the readers see the creative process taking place before them. They are witnessing the production of a text and the various lacunae and references to editorial processes and manuscripts serve to give greater verisimilitude to the spiritual struggle which forms the subject of the book. The author and narrator are not identical and this confers a greater impression of an independent existence to the protagonist.

A greater variety of point of view is often given to the diary text with the introduction of letters and dialogues. In non-fiction diaries dialogues are not common. The characters in fictitious diaries are, in general, solitary figures, like Bernanos's Curé and Mauriac's Louis in Le Noeud de vipères . The characters are generally trying to come to grips with periods of failure and depression in their lives. They are also usually people who have achieved a certain level of education and are surrounded by characters with whom they have some difficulty in identifying.

The diary form can be described as a mirror in which the protagonist is struggling to get to know himself or herself. The diarists are at one and the same time, author, reader and character in their own texts. The other characters are also mirrors in that, very often, their role is to reveal differnt aspets of th tempeamet f the protagonist.

The diarists are trying to construct an image of themselves in words. They are trying to establish an identity and to penetrate to the deeper self which lies beyond the world of appearances. There is a search for a harmony with a deeper self and, in the case of Mauriac and Bernanos , with God. There is a high degree of self-judgement and, like Bernanos's Curé the protagonists often declare their intention to reread their text with a view to deriving some benefit from it; one may see how this type of introspective setting lends itself easily to descriptions of examination of conscience and analysis of intimate moral issues and the question of the relationship between the individual and a divinity which often follows from questions of personal identity and reflections on the r ole of the individual's place in the world.

Strong parallels in the writing of Gerard Manley Hopkins
We can see here the close link between the questions which may be raised in fictitious diaries and those raised in Hopkins's confessional notes. All these characteristics are to be found in the diary of Bernanos's curé for whom the writing of the diary is not only a form of examination of conscience, but a continuation or extension of his prayer life, the essence of which for him is a conversation with Christ. The self-examination process on the part of Jeanne, the protagonist-diarist of the third part of Green's Varouna leads to an opening towards the spiritual and the diary closes with the words of the Pater Noster coming to her lips.

There is a similar opening towards the supernatural and the world of grace on the part of Louis, the protagonist-diarist of Mauriac's Le Noeud de vipères .

These are some examples of how the diary form with its probing on the part of the protagonists of the depths of their consciousness and conscience, the movement from past to present, the desire to change their lives, lends itself to the possibility of a credible treatment in psychological terms of the questions of man's relationship with God and the quest for grace and salvation.

Dealing, as most diaries do, with the desire for better self-knowledge on the part of a solitary character, the diary form is almost a natural form for probing the constancies and vicissitudes of the interior or spiritual life and for placing human life in the perspective of the eternal.

Hopkins's second note-book, begun on March 25, 1865 deals with such issues as it is a daily record of his moral and spiritual life.

Another technique used by Christian novelists to explore the inner depths of the spiritual lives of their characters is the letter form; this form is by no means a modern one, and neither is it by any means confined to Christian writing. The letter as a narrative vehicle can be found in the works of Ovid, Cicero and Quintilian; in the later Middle Ages we find the form in the works of Christine de Pisan and at the boundary of the Enlightenment and Romanticism the supreme example of the use of this form is Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse. The epistolary form, as Mme de Staël puts it, is appropriate to the observation of what is taking place in the heart. The letter gives a polyphonic or multivoiced dimension to the novel, a dimension which was greatly appreciated by Dostoïevsky. The use of the letter form makes for a greater variety of perspective or focalisation and can become a credible technique for revealing the intimate details of the inner life of a character, details which should normally be outside the domain of an omniscient narrator. The letter form can then add greater artistic subtlety and variety of viewpoint to the narrative. Gide , for example, uses letters at critical moments when characters have important confessions or admissions to make about themselves. This gives a dramatic dimension to the texture of the work. Other effective uses of letters from a literary point of view in a more precisely Christian context may be seen in the novels of Bernanos, Mauriac and Green . In Journal d'un curé de campagne , there is the letter written by Mme la Comtesse to the curé and which he receives after her death. Mme la Comtesse has had a gruelling encounter with the curé in course of which he leads her to come face to face with the sin of revolt against God for the loss of her child and the consequent sin of despair. The letter gives us a credible insight into the state of the Comtesse's soul after the encounter i.e., her admission that she was moved by the childlike simplicity of the curé and her intention of confessing her sins and being reconciled with God.

One of the most moving examples of use of a letter is towards the end of Mauriac 's Le Noeud de vipères , when the old man, Louis, who has lived in isolation, from his family and who has felt unloved discovers a letter written by his now deceased wife which reveals her love and attachment to him.

In Julien Green 's Moïra the puritanical and scrupulous Joseph Day finds himself locked in a room with his seducer, Moïra, who is compared to harlots in the Bible. For our knowledge of what is happening, we are dependent on a letter which Moïra decides to write to a friend. The letter reveals that Moïra is moving from being a pleasure machine to use her own expression, to a feeling of genuine human love for the innocent Joseph.

The letter is an intermediary text situated between narrative and discourse, mingling a written and oral style and becomes an appropriate vehicle for the expression of inner emotion and spirituality.

The letter allows for the effective expression of the hesitations or the fluctuation of the thoughts and emotions of the characters and once again can be seen as a credible literary manner of probing the spiritual drama of the life of a character.

Spatial Connotations, an additional tool for the Christian writer
Another technique used by Christian novelists to suggest the role of the supernatural or spiritual in their works is the use of space. Spatial connotations are constructed and transformed in such a way as to suggest or symbolise the inner lives of the protagonists. Spatial descriptions give rise to an inner landscape through a metaphoric and metonymic use of spatial terminology. Topographical references are linked to the inner drama of the work and can assume spiritual and eschatological significance. Descriptions of nature and of the changing of seasons are generally highly symbolic in the works of Christian writers including Hopkins .

Archetypal images such as water, night and the sky have also been effectively and poetically used by Christian writers to denote the fusion of the human and divine which is at the heart of the drama of the work.

We have, in this presentation, concentrated on three ways in which Christian novelists have tried to present a spiritual drama in credible psychological and literary terms. By means of the diary form, the epistolary form and the symbolic use of spatial connotations Christian writers have tried to avoid the problem of playing God with their characters. A more detailed presentation might also have looked at the technique of intertextuality in the use of Biblical references and references to other classic spiritual texts by these writers in their efforts to communicate a Christocentric view of the world or to "render the supernatural natural" to use Mauriac 's description of Bernanos 's literary world.


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