Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Interview with Mark Bosco SJ
Mark Bosco SJ is the fourteenth interview at The Fine Delight. This interview was conducted through e-mail. A bio note follows the interview. I'm pleased to share such informed responses--thanks for your time, Mark!
1. Flannery O'Connor has such wide appeal: short-story writers claim her as one of the best practitioners of the form; historians of American creative writing programs cite her as possibly the most successful graduate of the collegiate "system"; and teachers and professors share her best known stories annually. That said, her Catholic identity is often ignored--or at least misinterpreted/misrepresented. Why so?
You ask a good question. One of the reasons that O'Connor's Catholic identity is often ignored is because she is such a good writer. In a culture where faith and art have had so little to do with each other in the last century, critical readers respond to her vision with a sense of awe but without a way to pursue the significance of that awe. As one of my students recently told me: "to read O'Connor without understanding her Catholic faith is like eating the cherry on a banana split sundae but ignoring the ice cream underneath." To appreciate the depths of O'Connor's vision, one must have some access to her Catholic faith. What to do with the mystery---the surplus of meaning--one feels after reading her stories, that is the question. For O'Connor, that surplus is best expressed in the drama of Christian salvation. It was only after the publication of her essays (Mystery and Manners) and her letters (The Habit of Being) that readers began to see how important her Catholic faith was in crafting her art. So the reader--and the critic--has to choose to pursue how this faith manifests itself in her work. That extra step is not often taken, leading to misinterpretation and, indeed, wholesale misrepresentation.
2. Is there a particular O'Connor story or novella that you think especially examples this "surplus of meaning"?
Just about every story does this, but take "Greenleaf" for example. The story works on so many levels--an exposé of the changing social and economic paradigms around class played out between Mrs. May and the Greenleaf family; a psychological portrait of a dysfunctional family--Mrs. May and her two rather despicable sons; but also a confrontation with a mysterious bull that is the metaphorical center of the story's action. The violent piercing of Mrs. May by the bull in the last page of the story leaves the reader in a sort of awe, but unsure what to make of it--one senses the aura of a sacred encounter but is disturbed by how it has occurred. But O'Connor has invited the reader from the very beginning of the story to see the bull in its relation to Christ, literally wooing the complacent Mrs. May out of her materialist obsessions. Within the logic of faith (a theo-logic) that surplus finds direction--both a deeper resonance and a transcendent horizon of meaning. Without understanding the drama of salvation, the story merely mystifies. Or take "Temple of the Holy Ghost" where O'Connor suggests that a hermaphrodite at a freak show is the clearest comparison to Jesus' predicament--the dual sex of the hermaphrodite echoed in the dual nature of Christ, echoed in the composite nature of the Eucharist at benediction. If there is a tour-de-force moment of what I mean by surplus of meaning, then my vote goes to "Temple."
3. I love "Greenleaf," though my favorite O'Connor story is "Parker's Back." I find it appealing for similar reasons as you mention within "Temple of the Holy Ghost"--the focus on duality of body (in Parker's case, the revision of skin and identity through tattooing). "Parker's Back" is a story that always appeals to my students--regardless of religious background. What do you think it is about "Parker's Back" (and/or other O'Connor works) that appeal to audiences even without the knowledge of Catholic faith or tradition?
"Parker's Back" is one of my favorites, too, and timely for a generation of students who see tattoos in terms of identity and self-expression. I think one reason that this story, among others, appeals to such a variety of readers is the way the story is structured to reverse our expectations. O'Connor always begins her stories in the almost clichéd stereotypes of the South. She meets our first expectation in offering us a satirical look at the foibles and fumblings of human characters, perhaps intensified through the grotesque, but nonetheless real to us. But instead of a simple indictment of their Southern manners, she moves to the realm of mystery by the story's end. One not steeped in Catholicism might find this mystery ambiguous and destabilizing, but is still caught up in the reversal of fortune, the unexpected that irrupts out of the expected forms of plot and character. I think knowing and living inside a faith tradition only deepens the religious element in this reversal, directing it toward a great horizon of meaning.
4. Speaking of O'Connor--could you talk about the upcoming conference at Loyola: "Revelation and Convergence: Flannery O'Connor Among the Philosophers and Theologians," scheduled for October 2011?
Loyola University is hosting the conference as a way to bring literary critics, philosophers, and theologians together in order to understand the depth and diversity in O'Connor studies. We want to focus on some of the thinkers upon whom O'Connor drew directly or of figures whose works help illuminate hers today. One need only see the list of books in O'Connor's personal library to realize how engaged she was in the intellectual currents of her time, as well as the developments in the Catholic theological world just after World War II. She read the giants of the Catholic intellectual heritage--from St. Thomas and St. Catherine, to Jacques Martian and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin--but also Martin Heidegger, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Martin Buber. So the conference's aim is to literally see the convergence of these thinkers in her intellectual and literary vision. We already have papers that look at O'Connor and Blessed John Henry Newman, Pope Benedict XVI, but also the theologian Karl Rahner and the philosopher Martin Buber. There will be some wonderful moments, too, during the proceedings. We will view a set of professionally produced documentary interviews done in the late 90s of friends of Flannery, including reminiscences by Erik Langkjaer, Sally Fitzgerald, and Robert Giroux. Our hope is to get an NEH grant next year and turn these interviews into a 2 hour documentary for public television. Added to all this, we will celebrate a Mass of Remembrance for O'Connor at the beautiful St. James Chapel in downtown Chicago, across the street from the conference building, and we will hear Bill Sessions read from his new biography of the writer scheduled to be published in October. It is shaping up to be an extraordinary event.
5. Sounds like a fantastic event--and O'Connor is certainly worthy of the attention. Another essential Catholic writer, of course, was Graham Greene. To start, did Greene view his Catholic identity differently than O'Connor viewed her own?
Yes, Greene's a convert, for one, so he comes to the faith almost haphazardly--because of his desire to marry a Catholic--and with a very different personality, not the least of which was a mild manic-depressive disorder that often affected his creativity. I think his Catholic identity is best understood as an artistic and faith journey much like John Henry Newman's.
Like many other British converts, his experience develops over time from merely a practical and intellectual conversion to a heart-felt experience of solidarity and identity. You might say O'Connor's artistic vision operated from the center of her faith, whereas Greene's was a life-long grappling at the borderlands of his faith. O'Connor read Greene and liked his writing, but was always suspicious of the dialectical tensions at the heart of his texts (what she called "Manichaean" tendencies), while Greene, in a letter to a friend, once mentioned how profoundly moved he was after finishing O'Connor's short stories and her collection of published letters.
6. You've identified Greene's "Catholic cycle" as including The Power and the Glory. In Graham Greene's Catholic Imagination you write "True to Greene's own thematic obsessions and borrowed heavily from his appreciation of the French Catholic novelists, the form of the Catholic priest expands into a lived identification with Christ." Could you discuss the whiskey priest as a character in the novel? Where does The Power and the Glory fit within Greene's canon (both "Catholic" and less Catholic works), and how does it compare with other novels populated by clergy as main characters?
Greene wrote over 25 novels, but most critics and fans would agree that The Power and the Glory is one of his best works. It is hard to categorize--a suspense novel, a political thriller, a theological drama of faith--all in the Modernist wasteland of revolutionary Mexico. We enter the novel in medias res, the whiskey priest already a hunted man for many years, trying to find an escape route out of the province of Chiapas. The reader travels with him through the terrain of his spiritual struggle to understand his vocation in light of his actions--drunkenness, fornication, and a waning pride in having outfoxed the police during the Church's persecution. The novel deconstructs his priesthood down to one essential mystery: that he is an alter Christus, an other Christ, not only in his cultic role in the Church, but for everyone, including the criminal gringo that he risks his life for. Like O'Connor's aesthetic of violence, this spiritual insight hits the whiskey priest almost unawares. He considers himself a great sinner who is confounded by the fact that he brings the presence of God (through the sacraments) to those he meets. I think readers are moved by the novel because we get to see this unfolding occur. Greene effects not a Catholic faith triumphant in its certitudes, but one humbled in its suffering. It is certainly one of the greatest stories ever written about a priest. You really do feel that surplus of meaning, for though it is constructed as a tragedy, one feels this exaltation won through the life and death of the priest. He literally "puts on Christ," makes the drama of Holy Week the only adequate way to understand his life. I often re-read the novel during Lent for this reason.
7. Besides Greene and O'Connor, what other writers in the Catholic tradition do you find most memorable? Any writers still publishing today?
In England, there is Evelyn Waugh (who was a close friend of Greene's) and Muriel Spark, both converts and both masters of British satire. I read everything by David Lodge, as well, who is still writing. Though he has an uneasy relationship with Catholicism, you can't help but see how that faith has colored everything he writes. His most "Catholic" novels are Souls and Bodies and Therapy. In the US, there is J.F. Powers and Walker Percy who coincide with O'Connor's work. Of writers today, Mary Gordon, Ron Hansen, Annie Dillard, and Louise Erdrich are still exploring the implications of Catholic culture and faith in their works. But probably the most intense novel of the Catholic imagination I've read is John L'Heureux's The Shrine at Altamira (1999), a devastating work of tragedy and redemption.
8. You teach in both the English and Theology departments at Loyola University, Chicago. What are the intersections between these disciplines? What particular course(s) do you most enjoy teaching?
There is a contingent of literary folks who see literature and faith--especially Catholic faith--as a viable discourse of culture, one that is necessary to understand if one wants to speak accurately and not reduce literature down to politics, psychology, or nihilism. I would call myself a theologian of culture, highlighting the various strategies writers use to approach questions of faith, love, and hope, that frames their religious imagination. I do most of my work on the Catholic literary imagination because I see it as a robust field. The intersection resides in the meeting place of poetry, narrative, and drama, and the aesthetics--really, the sacramental--vision that these works carry with them. To see behind, and within reality, as the poet Denise Levertov says. So I teach a course on Sacraments, but insist that we take a poem, a novel, a painting, or a film that illustrates the imaginative depths of each sacrament. I teach a course for literature called "Fiction on Faith," which looks at 20th century short stories and novels that embody this quest for some ultimacy in various ways, even if never named as God. But my favorite class to teach is the Catholic Literary Tradition. Students read and discuss 10 classic novels of the genre, recite poetry in class, and watch and evaluate films. We do a lot of Flannery O'Connor and Graham Greene, of course, for they are my 2 passions.
9. I've already interviewed one Jesuit priest for this site, Rev. James Martin. I find the work and intellectual breadth of the Jesuits continually inspiring. How has your life as a priest informed your scholarship?
Fr. Martin is a wonderful man, a very thoughtful--and witty--interlocutor with both Catholics and the larger American culture. I admire him greatly. My priesthood, too, is very important to my scholarship, and vice-versa. My first question of research was provoked by Greene's "Whiskey Priest"! And as a priest, I am so aware of the drama of Catholic faith, the movement of grace in particular lives and in communities. I see poetry, narrative, and drama, offering the possibility for us to sense, even participate in the stories that move our hearts.
10. What project(s) are you currently working on?
Right now I am working on a book called "Catholic Literary Modernism," trying to put into a single narrative the development of a Catholic literary aesthetic that often merges with but often times parallels Modernist aesthetics. After that, I want to write a book on Sacraments and the Imagination, as I find the need for a more compelling text to teach what I think is the Catholic Church's greatest gift to forming our world--the way God is mediated in the flesh of things, especially the Eucharist.
Mark Bosco is a Jesuit professor at Loyola University Chicago, teaching theology and literature, and running the Catholic Studies Program. He is at work on a book on Catholic Literary Modernism, and another work on Sacramental aesthetics.
Posted by Nick Ripatrazone at 12:24 AM