- Catching the Conscience: Essays on Religion and Literature, and: Tragedy as a Critique of Virtue: The Novel and Ethical Reflection
One is tempted to generalize that these two books represent the best and worst of a criticism based in theology. The best is grounded in the philosophical tradition, and it applies to literature the sort of careful, meticulous analysis that is often found in philosophical and theological studies. The worst treats literature in a cavalier manner, assuming that it is fair game for random commentary lacking in theory or method.
The strange thing is that, in this case, the worst comes from Horton Davies, who in the past has distinguished himself more successfully as a critic. His new book is not without virtues—I especially appreciated his chapters on Charles Williams and Frederick Buechner, about whom one hears little—but the lack of a consistent and rigorous method constantly undermines Davies' efforts. Equally bothersome is the fact that the opening pages seem to promise, or at least hint at, such a method: "All the authors we consider in this book use their imagination [End Page 452] as a decoy to shock us into seeing either the myopic nature of our customary vision—our narrow view through the distorting lenses of class or race or culture—or they provide the emancipated theological vision in which we see all are made in the image of God." This sounds promising, but little becomes of it—certainly little that modern readers would regard as "shocking." If anything, what Davies presents in later chapters is shocking only in its tameness, its failure to see the horror in Hopkins, Lawrence, Golding, Greene, and Camus. It calls to mind Lionel Trilling's comment in "On the Teaching of Modern Literature" about students who look too cheerfully into the abyss when reading modern novels.
Davies seems most comfortable with writers such as Flannery O'Connor, whose commitment to Catholicism is well documented and unquestioned. But Lawrence and Camus cause problems that the author seems unaware of. The Lawrence chapter is subtitled "A Revaluation," but it offers what even the most casual Lawrentian will recognize as yesterday's news. Not only does Davies seem uninformed about Lawrence criticism, but about Lawrence's work, espe-cially when he remarks, "In the novel Women in Love, Birkin expounds to her lover Gerald Crich . . ." (my emphasis). Poor Birkin. Some critics have called him gay, but this time he may have grounds for a lawsuit. The chapter on Camus is not much better. I won't quote Davies' explanation of absurdity, but it's on pp. 67-69 for those who cannot resist.
To do Davies justice, I should address the problem of audience and admit that this book seems not intended for a scholarly reader. The publishers tell us their aim is "to provide books that will enrich their readers' religious experience as well as challenge it with fresh approaches to religious concerns." Fair enough. But a scholar has a responsibility not to mislead his audience. And Davies does mislead when he closes his Introduction with this remark: "Maybe it is because Christ seems absent from the modern world picture that the Church needs its novelists, both critical and constructive, to help to correlate the Christian faith with contemporary life." Lawrence and Camus are the church's writers? What church? Even Graham Greene, a more conventional Christian in his earlier years, would bristle at this classification.
In contrast, John D. Barbour brings a fresh perspective to a murky subject: what makes some modern novels tragedies. Using James's The Princess Casamassima, Melville's Billy Budd, Conrad's Nostromo, and Warren's All the King's Men, Barbour analyzes modern tragedy by focusing on a protagonist's key virtue(s) and the role virtue plays in a tragic downfall. Barbour's own virtue is a sound grasp of the relationship between tragedy and philosophy...