Saturday, February 03, 2007

Sir Walter Scott: Down These Mean Streets

I once heard a Catholic professor of literature explain that one needed to read classic works of literature because they built up the natural man to the point where he was ready to receive the supernatural truths of religion. And I once heard a Protestant educator explain that “we don’t read literature to learn about the truth. We read literature to hear the truth expressed well.” Both the Catholic and the Protestant were blasphemers. They were not blasphemers because they denigrated literature; they were blasphemers because they denounced the truth and the way.

Divine truth does not come to us from outside in predigested church documents. It comes to us from within. The poet – at least the true poet, as distinct from the mere wordsmith – intuits divine truth from listening to the promptings of his heart and by sympathizing with the yearnings in the hearts of his fellow men. There is more wisdom in the fourth verse of Phillip Brooks’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem” than in all the books of philosophy and theology ever written:

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven;

No ear may hear his coming;
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still,
The dear Christ enters in.

When a religious expert denies that the heart’s promptings and not the experts’ documents lead us to God, he blasphemes. He blasphemes because he is denying the divinity in man and the humanity in God. The dear Christ cannot enter in to the sterile cold world of the supernatural element devoid of humanity nor through the prophetic element devoid of humanity.

The ancient arduous process of listening and responding to the heart’s promptings has now ceased with the modern European man. But there was a time when men went through the process. And from such “convertites there is much matter to be heard and learn’d.”

There is a reason why there are no great novels written anymore. And the reason is not because the modern world lacks men and women who can write well. No, there are numerous authors who write well. But it takes more than an ability to write well to put together a great novel. An author must believe, as Dostoyevsky believed, that “Man is a mystery; if I spend my life trying to solve that mystery, I will not have lived in vain” if he is going to write great novels. In other worlds, a man must believe that there is something in man worth exploring.

A dogmatic Catholic would not be interested in exploring the soul of man because the dogmatic Catholic would claim he already knew the truth about man. Truth comes from outside of a man, from nature; therefore, there is no need to explore man’s soul; one only has to cultivate it. And the same is true for the dogmatic Protestant who believes “we know the truth, so we only look for books that express the truth well.” The liberal is also part of the anti-humanity triumvirate: “There is no soul; there is only a psyche, so we read fiction in order to interpret the characters’ motives in the light of modern psychology.” The ultimate compliment a liberal can give a novel is to say that it is “full of psychological insights.”

When the external props of Christian civilization were crumbling in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the great authors of that time period went deeper and produced a body of literature, true literature, which has never been equaled and certainly never shall be equaled by the post-Christians of our era. The litany of the greats is too long to list; it begins with Scott and goes on through Le Fanu and Thomas Hughes. All the greats of the 19th century (and I use the term ‘19th century’ loosely because Scott slightly predates it and men such as J. M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A. E. W. Mason slightly postdate it) bear witness to the reality of the God-man because they took the mystery that was within seriously. But most of the great authors of the 19th century, such as Dostoyevsky and Dickens, who give us a vision of the God-man, do not give us an anchor to help us hold that vision down to earth. It is always in danger of flying away from us and becoming a phantom or an airy nothing. That is because most of the authors of that magnificent century were fighting modernity from within and without. They were fighting the outside forces: Darwinism, capitalism, feminism, and Marxism, and they were fighting the spirit of modernity that was within them. But the great ones, though tainted with modernity, saw the risen Lord standing above the citadels of modernity. One man, however, was not tainted by modernity, and he can supply us with a vision and an anchor for that vision. That man is Walter Scott.

Scott is generally credited with reviving chivalry, and certainly the chivalric code is seldom missing from a Scott novel, but Scott does not view knight-errantry in the same light as do such authors as Ariosto. He gives the warriors of the Middle Ages their due, but his heroes always adhere to a code that is deeper than the medieval code. Scott, following St. Paul and Shakespeare, shifts the emphasis from the pursuit of fame and honor and directs his heroes’ efforts toward charity. When driven to the wall, Scott’s heroes and heroines reveal to us the wisdom of St. Paul. Jeanie Deans prevails because her faith cannot be broken. It is not based on prophecies which can fail, nor on knowledge which can fail; it is based on that which cannot fail – charity. And Quentin Durward wins the fair maiden not because he prevails in glorious combat but because he forgoes glorious combat in order to perform an act of charity.

It’s not that other 19th century authors do not place charity at the center of their visions. They do. But where Dickens often gets sidetracked by democratic delusions and Dostoyevsky by Russian messianism, Scott never wavers from the path of St. Paul. He admires the Highlanders but he does not place his ultimate hope on their political success. There is only one reign worthy of our undivided support: His reign of charity. In Scott’s view, political systems come and go, and our support or resistance to them should depend on how closely they adhere to His reign of charity.

In his poetry and novels, Scott eschews the classical approach which consists of feeble attempts to recapture the glory of Greece, and instead embarks on a romantic quest through the human heart. There and there alone is the anchor. In our hearts is the imprint of His heart.

It was Scott’s special destiny to take up Shakespeare’s mantle and show European man that the journey through the human heart is not a passive journey but an intensely active one. There are so many dragons along the way that must be slain, the dragons of all the seven deadly sins, but above all, the dragon of intellectual pride.

Scott’s authorial voice speaks loud and clear through the actions of his heroes and heroines. It is charity alone that can anchor our hearts to His. And that charitable center of our heart can not be reached by the spiritually weak or the intellectually proud.

Scott, with characteristic modesty, once told a woman who compared him to Shakespeare that he was not fit to tie Shakespeare’s shoe laces. But there is a great similarity between the two authors. They both bid us look away from the outward pageantry of life to the romance that is within. And that is extremely rare. Few authors have the courage to embark on the inward journey because they fear that which is within. But the inner journey through the human heart is the real journey that the hero must take. Scott gives us the anchor to prevail against all the forces of hell because he himself is the hero Raymond Chandler was looking for: “But down these mean streets a man must go, who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

To those of us tarnished with modernity and afraid (and who is not?), Walter Scott reaches out over what is really only a short span of years and bids us take heart, as Quentin Durward does. Though exiled from his native land, Quentin prevails because he knows that all the enduring graces of home and hearth he takes with him. “Behold the Kingdom of God is within you.”

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