Spring cleaning

"Spring cleaning" Continued...

Issue: "'Infidel'," March 3, 2007

WORLD: In your discussion of the work of Charles Dickens, you write that "Mrs. Jellyby, in Bleak House, is the ultimate picture of the evils of modern liberalism." Why is that, and could you recommend other novels that skewer modern liberalism?

KANTOR: Well, Mrs. Jellyby pours enormous energy into projects for improving life in remote Africa, while she neglects (to put it mildly) her own children at home in England. As for other novels that skewer modern liberalism and leftism, Evelyn Waugh and Flannery O'Connor wrote great ones. Waugh's Sword of Honour is a World War II novel that shows up leftist trends in modern politics. And in The Violent Bear It Away, O'Connor gives us a schoolteacher who tries to substitute sociology and liberal do-gooding for the Christianity he was raised in. The results are both horrifying and instructive.

WORLD: You note that Oscar Wilde, the patron saint (to misuse that expression) of the gay avant-garde, apparently repented and embraced Christian belief.

KANTOR: Wilde was everything the edgy art world-both in his day, and in our own-admires. He was as "trangressive" as they get. And yet he was haunted by guilt, and by the Person of Christ. Wilde claimed that he had put only his talent into his art, and his genius into his life. But if you look at the shape of his life, it looks an awful lot like a work of art about secret sin, exposure, and repentance. And the fitting end to it all was Wilde's deathbed conversion. T.S. Eliot is another avant-garde literary artist who found the Christian faith. He wrote truly great Christian-but still very modern-poetry.

WORLD: Which novels do you think best show that human misery is primarily caused not by traditional social structures but by individual sin?

KANTOR: In a sense the whole corpus of American literature-from Edgar Allen Poe, through Hawthorne and Melville, to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor and beyond-grapples with "the problem of evil." Nathaniel Hawthorne's works are good examples. Hawthorne's Puritans have left behind the corrupt churches and governments of Europe to found a truly godly society in the New World. And yet they find out that the same old temptation, sin, and Devil are still with them here in America. So many great American novels explore this issue-The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom.

WORLD: What can and should be done to change the teaching of literature in colleges and universities?

KANTOR: Our literature faculties could use a generous dose of that rare virtue, humility. The teaching of English suffers from a bad case of what C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery"-the assumption that we always know better than the people who lived in the past. Just because 21st-century people are better at heart surgery and making silicon chips doesn't necessarily mean that we're better at everything. Quite the opposite. Beginning in the Renaissance, there was a concerted push (from, among others, Francis Bacon) to persuade people to quit investing their intellectual capital in religion, morality, and literature and instead to pour their energies into science and technology. We have a lot to learn from the literature written when society's intellectual energy went into what we now call the humanities.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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