“How?” asked the staring Professor. “Why?”
“Because I am afraid of him,” said Syme; “and no man should leave in the universe anything of which he is afraid.”
- G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
Jacob Bacharach observed something on his blog the other day that prompted a reminiscence of my own: my lingering fondness for Catholic novelists. G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, Walker Percy, Tim Powers, Walter M. Miller: I could pick up any of the novels of theirs I own and read them again today, for unexamined pleasure, no matter how many times I’ve read the book I pick*. They’ve survived for me, while the catechism has dwindled.
Why is that? Part of it involves the gentle wit of their style. Maybe they’re all cribbing Chesterton and Lewis, condemning the excesses of the secular world with sardonicism and a touch of smugness. A more savage satire would be off-putting, given its source, and that sort of bitterness gets tiring in heavy doses. It speaks to the snob in me, the man who’s been affecting world weariness for half his life, and it makes me feel like less of a boor for doing it.
Part of it likely involves their flavor of mid-century Catholicism. Late 20th-century readers, familiar with the Church of Rome only through encyclicals and headlines, wouldn’t recognize Catholicism the way it’s portrayed at the Order of Leibowicz or on Malacandra. It admits that, no, faith doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but what in secula seculorum does? Given the last century’s few benighted attempts at letting the intellectuals run the show, I can’t deny the appeal. There’s something Byronic in that doomed romanticism, something existentialist in the willingness to push on even in the absence of reason. The new atheists have yet to achieve such sentiment, anyway.
“One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
- C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair
The third part, of course, is nostalgia.
* Which isn’t to say I’m oblivious to their flaws: Chesterton’s tendency to pass paradox off as wisdom, Lewis’s bogus apologia, and so forth.