A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Colosseum

Almost a year ago, I wrote in this space to announce the beginnings of the Colosseum Institute, an organization devoted to the “art of poetry and the renewal of Catholic letters in our time.” As founding director of the Institute, I was also to serve as series editor for Colosseum Books, an imprint of Franciscan University of Steubenville Press, and as the principal faculty member of the Colosseum Summer Institute, a four-day program in the philosophy of art and beauty and the theory and craft of poetry.

That announcement is no less timely now than it was last March.  Over the last half-decade or so, thanks in large part to Dana Gioia’s First Things essay, “The Catholic Writer Today,” Catholic writers have come to play a significantly larger part in American literary culture, a culture that has proven itself sufficiently topsy-turvy as to encourage us to persist.

When Gioia’s essay first appeared, the American literary establishment seemed largely defined by a staid, secular aesthetic and boring confidence that just kept praising books of little ambition, while literary life in America as a whole declined.  Articles decrying the loss of ambition in the novel and the failure to ask the “big questions” in American education were a commonplace.

The essay encouraged Catholic writers to do something profound – to allow religious thought and experience to re-enter literature – and to do it on their own.  Catholics who write or care about literature would need to take responsibility for cultivating a better literary culture, most likely closer to the periphery of things, at least at first.  If American literature has become shallow, at least depth and substance might be found somewhere.

The literary world, however, has changed since then.  A merciless and utterly tasteless regime of “identity politics” and “social justice” has taken over, just as it has in so many other cultural and educational institutions.  Aesthetic standards and literary taste are derided as mere tools of the powerful; all that now matters is the color of an author’s skin.  The bonfires of “intersectional” rage, in our literary journals and newspapers, may well leave you longing for the old secular aestheticism it has obliterated.

It has left a place, however, for writers and artists to do something at once very old and very new: building up a genuine literature, rooted in human experience but rising up to what gorgeously transcends it.  A culture long in decline has now collapsed and, to mix metaphors, begun to devour itself.  This clarifies for us that, as always, our choice is between Christ and nothing.

The new Catholic writing provides something everyone already desires, whether they explicitly understand it or not.  We go to literature for a truth deeper than facts.  It’s now clear that the mainstream of American culture does not even believe in facts.  The new Catholic writing believes it has something to teach us about human villainy and human goodness.

No one would find the contemplation of art and literature worthwhile if beauty were not real.  The new Catholic writing works on the principle that the splendor of truth – beauty – can reveal itself to us in image, in story, and in aesthetic form.

The long popularity of literature rooted in “ethnic experience” and identity politics relied on the conventional belief that America was gradually becoming a monoculture by way of the melting pot; the tales of immigrant or subculture experiences were sentimental reminders of the curious peoples from which we came to be one.  Now, we see the long ferment of such thinking has issued in a radicalized and materialistic vision of the world that thinks everything is politics and all politics is about racial identity or sexuality.

The new Catholic writing recognizes particular traditions, and the Tradition itself, not as a wistful breath of nostalgia nor as a seething political cause, but as a treasury for the artist and a source of wisdom for us now and always. It is a path toward truth.

In brief, only a few years ago, the task of Catholics in contemporary culture was to demonstrate – amid the clamor of scandal and bad news within the Church – that compared with the mild achievement and low horizons of contemporary secular culture, we could at least offer something better.  At this hour, it would be more accurate to say that Catholic writers and artists offer something real, something good, something beautiful, while our modern, secular Rome offers nothing at all, except savage vituperation and hot air.

One example of this is the volume of essays Gioia published this last year, The Catholic Writer Today and Other Essays, which readers far from Catholicism have appreciated, precisely because it gives expression to genuine delight in the beautiful things writers and artists have made.

We see another in Michael O’Siadhail’s epic poem, Five Quintets.  There, the Irish poet takes us on a Dantesque journey through the modern age, from its exciting beginnings, its dreary lapses into secularism and a diminished anthropology and metaphysics, and on, into our new, present moment, whose great struggles at least make it possible to envision a rebirth of true faith and reason.

Let me also mention the work Colosseum Books has begun to publish, beginning with the great poet Samuel Hazo’s When Not Yet Is Now, a book whose familiar voice and wry sense of humor invites in an audience that otherwise ignores contemporary poetry.  And let me close by mentioning those who participated in our first Colosseum Summer Institute, writers ranging from 18 to nearly 80, who came with a keen interest in the practice of poetic form and an intelligence alive to the Incarnation.  Their work has already begun to appear in magazines and anthologies (here is one, by Clinton Collister) and much more is on the way.

I invite those interested to join us for the second annual Colosseum Summer Institute, to be held at Villanova University, June 24-27, 2020, at which Michael O’Siadhail will deliver the opening reading.  This year, we have partnered with Wiseblood Books publisher, Joshua Hren, to welcome participants in both poetry and prose fiction.

James Matthew Wilson has published ten books, including, most recently, The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico) and The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (CUA). Professor of Humanities and Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas (Houston), he also serves as poet-in-residence for the Benedict XVI Institute, poetry editor for Modern Age magazine, and as series editor for Colosseum Books, from the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press. His Amazon page is here.