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The Measure of Literary Giants | An Interview with Joseph Pearce | June 28, 2005

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IgnatiusInsight.com: A few years ago you wrote Literary Converts, which is a series of biographical vignettes of late-nineteenth-century and twentieth-century converts and their ties to one another. How is your new book, Literary Giants, Literary Catholics, different from that earlier book? What is the central focus, or goal, of Literary Giants, Literary Catholics?

Pearce: The earlier book was an integrated narrative history of the twentieth century, detailing the network of minds (and grace) that animated the Catholic Literary Revival. The new book discusses some of the key writers of this Revival in greater detail.

IgnatiusInsight.com: In the introduction you bring up two themes that you indicate inform the whole of the book: the conversion of culture and the evangelizing power of beauty. How do you think Literary Giants, Literary Catholics and your other books support and foster these two themes?

Pearce: It seems to me that our sick, decaying and wayward modern culture can be converted by the power of Reason (theology, philosophy, apologetics and catechetics), Love (the example of sanctity in action) and Beauty (the power of art, architecture, music, film and literature). Although these three areas of cultural engagement overlap, and indeed are united in Truth, they represent distinct approaches to changing the world in which we live. I see my vocation as a writer, speaker and teacher to be in the third of these areas. The awesome power of beauty to convert and evangelize the modern world needs to be unleashed through the employment of cultural apologetics: converting the culture with culture itself. I hope that my latest book will succeed in bringing souls to the truth by leading them through beauty to Beauty Himself.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Literary Giants, Literary Catholics has a strong apologetic quality. Is it your most overt work of apologetics, in the general sense of defending and explaining Catholicism?

Pearce: Many of my earlier works were biographies of major Catholic literary figures in which my role was to tell the story of their lives in an objective manner. In such books, as in such lives, the truth emerges from the lessons learned from the experience of the protagonists. In the new book I concentrate on the deep Christian content in the works of these writers. This has enabled me to explore the Catholic dimension in greater detail than was possible in the biographies. As such, it can be said to be more overtly a work of apologetics than my previous work.

IgnatiusInsight.com: One of the longest chapters is titled "Tradition and Conversion in Modern English Literature." What is the paradoxical relationship between the two and why is that relationship so important?

Pearce: We live in a world of chronological snobbery in which it is presumed superciliously that the present is always superior to the past purely because it is assumed that society is always progressing from an ignorant past to an "enlightened" future.

How anyone can believe such drivel after the horrors of the past century is astonishing. From the killing fields of World War One to the Holocaust of World War Two; from the bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden to the Gulag Archipelago of Soviet Russia and the institutionalized murder of Mao's China; not to mention the mass infanticide of abortion; from any perspective the past century has been the bloodiest and most murderous in the whole of humanity's bloodstained history. Against this destructive "progressive" backdrop, we see the resurrection of Tradition: the power of the Past to make sense of the Present. The paradoxical relationship between Tradition and Conversion lies in the fact that conversion requires a rejection of post-Enlightenment "tradition" in order to embrace the older and authentic Tradition of Christendom. The paradox resides in the necessity of rejecting a lesser tradition to embrace a greater.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Several of the essays are on a topic you've written much about in other books, including two biographies: the Chesterbelloc. Although so closely identified with one another, Chesterton and Belloc were actually quite different in nearly every way, weren't they? What are some of the respective strengths and weaknesses of each man as author and apologist?

Pearce: The new book examines these two great writers at greater depth than was possible in either biography. It is true that Chesterton and Belloc differed in many ways. Chesterton lived almost exclusively in a world of ideas, dreaming of action; Belloc married the world of ideas with the world of action, from his travels in Europe and America to his turbulent years as a Member of Parliament. Chesterton's charity embraced the command to love our enemy; Belloc's bellicosity sometimes seemed to justify the desire of the "Sailor" in one of his poems that "all my enemies go to hell"! On the deepest level, however, Chesterton and Belloc were united in their robust defense of the Faith. I look at the complex relationship between these two great men in a chapter of Literary Giants, Literary Catholics entitled "The Chesterbelloc: Examining the Beauty of the Beast".

IgnatiusInsight.com: Part Three (of Five) focuses on "The Wasteland," that period in England and Europe of disillusionment and despair following World War I. What was the impact of that period of time on great Christian writers such as T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien?

Pearce: It is ironic that this period of post-war disillusionment resulted in the writing of much of the finest Christian literature of the century. T.S. Eliot and Evelyn Waugh, and, later, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, emerged from the wasteland of modernity to produce works of profound Christian wisdom. Their inspiration arose from their disillusionment with disillusionment. Each of these writers knew that modernity was intellectually and morally bankrupt. It had no answers because it was not even asking the questions.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Who was Roy Campbell and why, in your estimation, does he deserved greater attention?

Pearce: Roy Campbell is one of the most important poets, and one of the most controversial literary figures, of the twentieth century. His reputation has suffered because of his unrelenting attacks on the decadent disciples of liberal secularism. He was received into the Catholic Church in Spain, a year before the outbreak of that country's fratricidal civil war. The priest who received him into the Church was murdered by communist militiamen, as were the Carmelite monks that Campbell and his wife had befriended in Toledo.

His attacks on communism, fascism and the relativism of liberal democracy were summed up in his coining of a new word, "fascidemocshevism". He insisted that the only answer to this triumvirate of secularist error was traditional Christianity. Campbell needs to be rediscovered by a new generation of Catholics. He is a sleeping giant. I hope my biography of him (Unafraid of Virginia Woolf: The Friends & Enemies of Roy Campbell) and the various chapters on his life and legacy in Literary Giants, Literary Catholics will prompt today's Catholics to discover his work.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Not surprisingly, you've written some essays on Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. You speak highly of the movies, but do have some reservations about them. What are some of your criticisms?

Pearce: My attitude to Jackson's film version of Tolkien's classic is discussed at some length in the new book. Essentially my attitude to Jackson's movie depends on the "hat" I am wearing.

As a Tolkien purist I see many deficiencies in Jackson's film. His treatment of the characters of Galadriel, Faramir and Treebeard are all deeply disappointing. Tolkien wrote that the character of Galadriel was inspired in large part by his devotion to the Blessed Virgin; none of this Marian dimension is present in Jackson's version. Faramir is depicted as a paragon of virtue, a warrior saint who is not tempted to make the same mistake as Boromir, his brother; Jackson turns him into a cynical kidnapper. Treebeard can be seen as a metaphor for Tradition in Tolkien's work, rooted in the wisdom of eons of experience; in Jackson he is reduced to the role of a buffoon contributing nothing to the story except comic relief.

On the other hand, if I remove my Tolkien purist's "hat" and put on my Tolkien pragmatist's "hat" instead, I find much that is encouraging in Jackson's movie. It is the work of one who clearly knows and loves The Lord of the Rings. And, of course, many thousands of people have read the book for the first time because they enjoyed the film. In bringing a new generation of readers to the greatest book of the last century, Jackson is to be commended.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What writing projects are you currently working on, or hope to work on in the near future?

Pearce: I've been preparing U.S. editions of two of my works previously only published in the UK: Small Is Still Beautiful and Flowers of Heaven: A Thousand Years of Christian Verse. I'm about to commence work on a revised and updated edition of my biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and I'm writing many articles and essays for sundry magazines and book-length anthologies.

I've recently completed an essay on C.S. Lewis's Narnia for a new anthology to coincide with the release of the film version of the The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. I'm currently writing various entries for a new Tolkien Encyclopedia and have edited a collection of Belloc's political writings. The next major book project is a work on Shakespeare's Catholicism. I'm keeping busy!

Related IgnatiusInsight.com articles:

Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce | May 2005
Chesterton and Saint Francis | By Joseph Pearce | May 2005
The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde | An Interview with Joseph Pearce | July 2004
The Ladies of the Ring | Sandra Miesel | January 2005
G.K. Chesterton: Common Sense Apostle & Cigar Smoking Mystic | Dale Ahlquist | May 2004

British author Joseph Pearce has firmly established himself as the premier literary biographer of our time, especially in interpreting the spiritual depths of the Catholic literary tradition. In his new book, Literary Giants, Literary Catholics, Pearce examines a plethora of authors, taking the reader through a dazzling tour of the creative landscape of Catholic prose and poetry. Literary Giants, Literary Catholics covers the vast terrain from Dante to Tolkien, from Shakespeare to Waugh.

Focusing on the literary revival of the 20th century, Joseph Pearce touches on well-known authors like G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien, but also introduces readers to lesser-known writers like Roy Campell, Maurice Baring, and Owen Barfield. Anyone who appreciates English literature will be entranced by the wealth and depth of this new masterpiece.

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