Literature and the Rite of Passage

We are never not reading, we reading animals, even in our infant, pre-literate days. We progress from reading faces to reading shapes, from shapes to letters, from letters to words, from words to sentences. Life suddenly assumes an intelligibility inextricable from reading. We read that we might understand. We understand and we read more.

Then the day arrives when we must give up childish ways of reading and, with them, childish ways of seeing. We undergo a literary rite of passage, a rite initiated by one particular book. That book moves us out of childhood and into adulthood.

My rite of passage was Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, the story of Captain Scobie, a colonial police officer in Western Africa during World War II.

Drawn into the world of Captain Scobie, I realized that the world beyond my adolescent head was a world of enormous, staggering, and paradoxical complexity. Seemingly simple decisions yielded devastatingly complicated consequences. Love solves problems; it also creates them. The hand extended in healing also smites and wounds. The attempt to mete out justice only inflicts undue pain. To find the truth amidst all this complexity is a hard task. Who can achieve it?

Throughout the novel, but especially in the drama of Scobie’s sacrilege, I encountered evil as a fact. My childhood was happy; my adolescence was only moderately troubled (and that was self-induced). And such is adolescence, as François Mauriac wrote: “The adolescent loves neither happiness nor peace. . . .As an adolescent, I loved my anguish and I preferred it to God.”

Evil as I knew it was banal at best and glamorous at worst, and as such I hardly knew it as evil. Typical of adolescence, I identified evil as simply the angst of growing up, the inarticulate frustration at the emergence of responsibility.

But once you see evil as it truly is, that should change. That must change. Evil is a terrible something so utterly empty and awfully dense that it can hollow out your very being.

Graham Greene by Yousuf Karsh

Greene’s novel conveyed this truth to me. I was spared the experience of it in myself, but the book presented it to me on negotiable terms. I was exposed to it, but I was not possessed by it. I accepted it, but I was not consumed by it.

There is no escaping the fact that any literature true to itself will contain sin. “Not till the whole human race is made new,” wrote St. John Henry Newman, “will its literature be pure and true.”

In the meantime, our literature is stocked full of sin. And we are more or less accepting of this condition. No one questions the merits of reading such literature. Or, more precisely, no one questions the merits of adults reading such literature.

The unwieldy challenge of that proposition, however, is the determination of what makes someone – my son, my daughter, myself – an adult, and thus capable of taking up the literary record of us sinful sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. This determination being a matter of prudence, there will never be a clear and logical identification of the precise time and place wherein we can assume adulthood and “responsibly” assign a book.

In a pivotal scene from The Heart of the Matter, Scobie – mortally sinful – watches in desperation as the priest consecrates bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. Consumed with anguish, Scobie rejects the opportunity to excuse himself and avoid consuming his own damnation. “Innocence must die young if it isn’t to kill the souls of men.”

Are these words scandalous? Complement them with the words of Christ: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone.” The seed of innocence dies and there comes forth knowledge. The heart of the matter is whether the knower will be equipped to endure that knowledge.

These days there’s also this: the beginning age for consumption of digital media grows increasingly younger. Consequently, the “young” death of innocence is also occurring increasingly earlier in life. The transition from one stage of digital entertainment to the next is seamless. We see none of the signposts or indicators of evil’s impending arrival until that evil erupts, repudiating innocence, re-educating the mind, reforming the imagination, and restricting freedom.

Reading is not exempt from this danger. We can, after all, read the wrong kinds of books; and reading the wrong book at the wrong time is a very dangerous prospect indeed. This is the risk of the literary rite of passage.

It’s the same risk, however, as any other rite of passage. Namely, that the one who undergoes the initiation may not complete it successfully. Our first responsibility, then, is to prepare the candidate in such a way that we minimize that risk to the greatest extent possible.

This preparation has to involve formation of the whole person, obviously. But there must also be a particular preoccupation with the moral imagination, because that is what the literary rite of passage will fundamentally be.

At stake in the literary rite of passage is innocence itself. The child’s innocence must mature into knowledge of things as they truly are, not devolve into a self-conceited naiveté.

Ideally, as that child stands on the cusp of adulthood, she/he will have at least some modicum of spiritual maturity and intellectual virtue. If so, I suggest books (properly) containing wrath, pride, envy, gluttony, and sloth – even for the right person at the right time – adultery, so that a maturing soul might put away childish things and see and live maturely.

More specifically, such a formed soul will possess the ability to recognize the various forms of evil as the deadly beasts they are – beasts that will stand athwart its path and demand tribute. Properly formed, it will completely reject them.

Aware of the darkness, a soul so formed will choose to live in the light – not because darkness has no power, but because it has no power over a well-formed soul.


You may also enjoy:

Mary Eberstadt’s The Next American Awakening Starts Here

+James V. Schall, S.J.’s Another Sort of Learning


John Emmet Clarke is editor-in-chief of Cluny Media, a publishing house devoted to recovering neglected texts in the Catholic and Western traditions. Learn more about Cluny and its catalog here.