Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Saints' Insides, Part 2

I concluded my last post by saying that, within the context of evangelization my problem, as a literary artist, is whether and how it is possible to create a Hero, and indeed a Saint, who is neither a rogue, nor a na├»ve, nor a bore.  Obviously the only satisfactory answer to this problem is to produce a performance which can be judged on its merits.  But it seems worthwhile to sketch out some reasons, theoretically speaking, for why the performance ought not to be considered fruitless on the face of it.

Typically, the reason given for disliking noble characters—be they saints in the strict sense, or simply that flavor of unblemished cowboy, superhero, or soldier whom the critics tend to despise—is that they are boring.  There is no interior conflict, or no real conflict, in such characters; they are, we are told, unrelatable.  Superman and Captain America are bland compared to Batman and Iron Man.

And there is a certain amount of truth in that criticism.  We literary artists tend to present noble men blandly—and, I would argue, badly—in the sense that a bland presentation of a noble man is, in fact, an inaccurate presentation.  The comment on my previous post suggested that this is perhaps because “nemo dat quod non got” (my preferred presentation of the adage): the artist cannot portray what he does not have or know.  Artists do not know what it is like to be noble, not because they are particularly bad men, but because few men in general are noble; having few examples of nobility around them, artists have difficulty in portraying nobility.  The unswerving exterior of a noble man—for it appears unswerving and unclouded from a distance—becomes for these distance-artists a key to his interior character.   The inner debate which ordinary selfish human beings experience, the should-I-shouldn’t-I, is removed from the representation of noble man’s psyche, and nothing is put in to replace it.  The noble man is empty or at best filled with a single-minded and undynamic interest in the pursuit of a severe ideal.  He is “too good” to be tempted from the ideal; but too good looks to most of us to be only too cold.

In some sense this portrait is correct.  The good man is unswerving in his devotion of the ideal; thinkers from Aristotle onwards have understood that true virtue entails such a love of the good as to reduce temptations from the interior to a negligible minimum ( barring special cases of testing, through which God will sometimes put his favorites).

Our Lady is the paradigmatic example of this nobility: “full of grace” by the gift of God, she was not subject to the struggles native to fallen human nature.  In fact, if Aristotle’s magnanimous man is not incompatible with the Christian ideal, one might say that Our Lady is the only truly magnanimous being to ever walk the earth.

“Magnificat anima mea Dominum …”

If she experienced sorrow or some sense of conflict, it was not due to her sin or imperfection, but to the sins and imperfections of others.  And lest this other-directed sorrow sound overbearing or holier-than thou, I submit the parallel case of a child, learning for the first time of some grownup failing.  We do not look the innocent in the eye and suppose that we are being judged—or, if we are being judged, we know it is only because we richly deserve it.  So, I would imagine, with Our Lady: not that she is ignorant, as the child is, but innocent, not knowing good an evil with that unfortunate intimacy which is part and parcel of daily existence for the rest of us.

If, then, Our Lady experienced some sort of internal conflict, it will not be from temptations rooted in her own soul—and likewise, the noble man qua noble will not be self-tempted.  I do not say noble men are never self-tempted—of course they are; no one is perfect in the way that Our Lady is.  But the whole question of this series is whether perfection can be portrayed in an appealing way; and hence it is the noble man on a good day, as it were, who concerns us here.

But even if his own imperfection is ruled out as a source of interior interest, there are three conceivable sources of interior conflict left to the good man: temptations from the exterior, sorrow at the sins of others, and intellectual doubts.  The first, what I am calling “temptations from the exterior,” is better known under the name “the dark night of the soul”—and while it certainly belongs to the experience of many saints, it suffers from the same flaw, artistically, as self-temptation: it is a deeply felt temptation to sin, albeit one for which the saint is not blamed.  It is an imperfection, not natural but supernatural in origin; a test, and a glorious one for those who, from St. Paul to Mother Theresa, succeed in passing it.  But however glorious the flaw, a flaw it is—and thus once again inadmissible in light of the original problem.

The literary artist desirous of portraying perfection is left, then, with two kinds of conflict in the soul of the noble man: sorrow at the sins of others, and intellectual doubts.  I would argue that both interior tendencies provide potentially fruitful sources of conflict for the literary artist—but more of that to come.


  1. Oh! Let me highlight an important variant of the first "solution": in a Convert, sorrow for his own past sins.

    1. Yes! Which would be a step away from the self-tortured model.