SPIRITUALITY OF WRITING
BY FATHER BENEDICT AUER, O.S.B.
At 95 years of age, Julian Green is one of the great novelists and diarists of the
Twentieth Century. But sadly like Gertrude Stein or Marcel Proust, he is talked
about, but seldom read. I hope this article will tempt readers into picking up one
of his works and reading it. Green has some very insightful comments on the paradoxical
spirituality of writing and the paradox of such a vocation that many writers are
forced to live, and although he often approaches these paradoxes from the viewpoint
of the artist, or more specifically the novelist, the insights can be relevant for each reader
whether a writer or not. In his diary, he once wrote:
A novelist is like a scout commissioned to go and see what
is happening in the depth of the soul. He comes back and reports what he has observed.
He never lives on the surface but only inhabits the darkest regions. (Diary
, p. 196)
Therefore the writer, or maybe the artist, searches the entire width and breath of
reality to bring us insight into what it means to be human.
Or as Green observes "faith means walking on the waters." (Diary
, p. 273) But what waters, the waters that permeate all reality. Or as he wrote
for the introduction to his novel Midnight
"Life provides themes, but it during sleep that novels are born." Paul Monette
in Becoming a Man
wrote "The novel I was writing became a prop for the novel I was living." (p. 149).
And for many of us, writer or not, fiction and reality seem intertwined or at least
the pigments have run together.
Julian Green was born in Paris, France in 1900. He was born of American parents and
lived in Paris on and off for the rest of his life (he presently resides there).
He attended school there, and converted to the Catholic Church when he was young.
He later attended the University of Virginia where he was taught by Faulkner. He was
part of the Paris scene for years and knew everyone from Cocteau to Gertrude Stein,
from Gide to Dali. After a few years away from the Church, he returned to the practice
of his Catholic faith. He was the first foreigner elected to the French Academy [Academie
Francaise] (1971). His novels concern vice, madness, erotic love, obsession, and
many other themes relevant to the twentieth century. Themes that seem to be at odds with his faith as a Catholic, but in his fiction they speak from the heart to each
of us. In The Dreamer
(1934), he writes:
But nowadays my heart is empty and the boxwood has lost its magic scent; yes, absolutely
and entirely. The creature that I was no longer exists. When I speak to her she
does not understand me; I think of her, already, as of some one I have known but who no longer has any connection with myself.
This sort of death of part of oneself strikes terror into my heart.
Life presents itself to me as a progressive series of annihilations, until in time
one arrives at the general destruction of all memory and the barren slumber of
one's conscience. On some days I ask myself how I could ever have numbered myself
among the ranks of Catholics, for I have no longer in me the makings of the most lukewarm
and mediocre of Christians, and the person who writes these words is nothing but
an old and unbelieving woman.
Yet in his diaries, he is concerned about such despair or at least the loss of one's
original belief within a comfort zone. On the one hand he writes
"I wanted to be a saint." (Diary
, p. 82) Yet such a desire was too much for him as it is for most of us, and it overwhelmed
him. He wants total commitment from himself, yet realizes he couldn't make that
sweeping of a commitment. It is the paradox of spirituality. He muses to his diary "I enter the world called real as one enters a mist," and later "Our life is
a book that writes itself and whose principal themes sometimes escape us. We are
like characters in a novel who do not always understand what the author wants of
, p. 212, 215) Despair attacks faith; faith is bemused by despair. It is Bernard
Fay's brother who died at 24 who Green quotes in his diary who seems to sum up Green's
conflict, "I don't want to go on playing in a world where everyone cheats." (Diary
, p. 14) Where everyone cheats - not only men and women, but sometimes even God.
Innocence is lost in the Twentieth-century. World War I. World War II. What seemed
to be a stable world lost its stability. After such awful events, Green is able
to write "What is real is beyond all reach." (Diary
, p. 15) It was in The Dreamer
, even written before World War II, that he questioned reality:
I asked myself whether the Dreamer, afterall, does not cast a keener eye on this
world than we do, and whether, in a world which is surrounded by the invisible,
the illusions of desire and death are not just as real as our delusive reality.
What is reality? "The man I am will always raise a protest against the man I wanted
to be and the two will live together to the end, but the man I wanted to be will
be the one on whom judgement will be passed." (Diary
, p. 179) While Green wrote these lines that seem to question the very purpose of
his existence, he had just attended a lecture by Camus at the Dominican Priory in
Paris, and had had lunch with Cocteau. His is the conflict of the intellectual questing
for the spiritual. In 1947, he writes that Cocteau "...thinks that holiness is the
only thing that creates a worthwhile ideal." Yet Green immediately counters this
seemingly simple statement with "the carnal man lives within the spiritual man." (Diary
, p. 182) There are no simple answers. Life is not one-dimensional, but rather complex
with paradoxes and metaphors that defy meaning.
Green sees his childhood as having formed him, yet never letting him go to create
a life uniquely his own. I suppose it could be considered the age old conflict of
nature versus nurture, but maybe it is also the artist confronting the concept of
freedom - freedom from parents, from societal restraints, even from God. In Midnight
, he writes, "A child's fear is a world whose dark corners are quite unknown to grownup
people; it has its sky and its abysses, a sky without stars, abysses into which no
light can ever penetrate." (p. 51) Or as he writes in his diary "...everything I
write proceeds in a straight line from my childhood." (p. 21). And finally, "In growing
older, we become our parents." (Diary
, p. 287) Green struggles not only to clearly identify himself as separate from his
parents, but runs straight into his parents in himself. He cannot escape who he
is, yet he cannot become whom he wishes. There is within all he does that paradigm
of quest, that search for the parts so that the puzzle makes sense.
When Georges Bernanos died (July 12, 1948), he wrote in his diary that "...he [Bernanos]
knew all the things that grieve us. And it was this very fact that made up his greatness." (p.
200) Soon after he wrote that "a surfeited man does not write." (p. 201) In the writings and diaries of Green, it becomes evident that uncertainty is
a prerequisite for faith. Faith is not to believe without questions, but to question
in order to believe. Or as Green quotes Fenelon "I have never said anything that
did not seem to me untrue a moment later." (Diary
, p. 248) It is this uncertainty that pushes one on or as Green writes in Midnight
"Within ourselves is not very far and yet it is so far that one's whole life is not
always long enough to get there." (p. 281) Green struggles with the paradoxes of
his life - intellectual and mystical, faith and despair, hate and love. Yet he finds
his salvation, not in prayer, but in writing. As he comments "...the secret is to
write just anything, to dare to write just anything, because when you write just
anything, you begin to say what is important." (Diary
, p. 291) And what is important is not easy to ascertain. But we all struggle with
these same issues - war, hate, despair, yet the writer has an obligation to put these
struggle into print. "I (Green) am probably am exaggerating a little, but I owe
my equilibrium to ink and paper." (Diary
, p. 283) When asked why I write, I frequently tell people that it is cheaper than
Green seems to at times to despair of the paradox of writing and our call to holiness.
In his diary, he recalls of a conversation he had with some friends:
I said, "One can imagine a saint painting a picture (Fra Angelico)
or composing music. Can one imagine a saint writing a novel?"
"Why not?" they asked. "Then name one," I replied. So far, a novel written by
a saint remains a sort of theoritical case. I even wonder if the fact of writing
a novel would not curb serious spiritual efforts.
He comes back to this issue over and over again in his writings and diaries. "I would
like to know if the fact of a novel is consistent with the state of grace." (Diary
, p. 167) But again he sees the paradox because his characters often take on personalities
that are beyond his control. Green quotes in his diary Nathaniel Hawthorne who wrote
about this same conflict between the spiritual and the writing craft:
A person to be writing a tale, and to find that it shapes itself against his intentions;
that the characters are otherwise than he thought; that unforseen events occur;
and a catastrophe comes which he strives in vain to avert. It might shadow forth his own fate, - he having made himself one of the personages.
The author looses control of his characters and the plot. The plot takes on its own
life. Green sees the danger of loosing control, and he confronts it in his diary:
a real novelist does not reign over his novel, he becomes his novel, is immersed
in it. The connivance between himself and his characters is even deeper than
he thinks, and if they sin, he sins too, in a certain way. He is all that his book
is, if he believes in it.
This worries Green, and he prays, "...let us hope that good authors who are bad Christians
will find salvation through the books they write." (Diary
, p. 166). Art requires like faith letting go, loosing control.
Can a Christian do this? Green affirms that it can and has to be done, yet he realizing
that such a spirituality can only be paradoxical because it has no certainties.
Salvation is not assured, nor is sainthood granted, rather the artist places himself
on the cutting edge in the very hands of God. Or as Green says, "A scrupulous man
will never produce a great novel."
, p. 158)
The vocation of the artist, and for that matter the Christian, is that of the quest
for God. How often I am confronted by people who want easy solutions to tough problems.
But a writer like Julian Green shows that there are no simple answers. In analyzing his approach to the vocation of the writer, we see something that confronts
each of us - our lives, just like a fiction character, often get away from us. Green
in his diary gives me many insights into my own life, and his novels augment those
insights. One quote remains with me, Green wrote that "...perhaps God wishes certain souls
to live in a state of imbalance." (Diary
, p. 222) In other words, the vocation of the writer is not at all dissimilar to
the vocation of the Christian - it is the search for meaning in an absurd world.
J.M. Coetzee, the South African author, put it well in his The Master of Petersburg
If you are blessed with the power to write, he wants to say, bear in mind the source
of the power. You write because your childhood was lonely, because you were not
loved. ...we do not write out of plenty, he wants to say - we write out of anguish, out of lack. Surely in your heart you must know that!
Or as Julian Green wrote of Andre Gide, "He (Gide) refuses his soul."
, p. 24) A Christian writer does not, he accepts it with all its imperfections, its
paradoxes, and finally its state of imbalance.
Coetzee, J. M. The Master of Petersburg (A Novel)
New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
Green, Julian. Diary 1928-1957
New York: Carroll and Graf, Publishers, 1964.
London: Quartet Books, 1992.
New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1934.
Monette, Paul. Becoming a Man