Literature: May 2004 Archives

Gene Wolfe Fans


Be sure to visit Ultan's Library, a very fine Gene Wolfe Study site.

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Many of you may not have read Shusaku Endo's Silence. If you are one of these, abandon this column and run just as fast as you can to the library, seek out a copy, and read it. Be warned, it is hard going. The translation is a little rough in spots and the story itself is wrenching.

I was moved to consider writing this column by a very interesting post on a Catholic Writer's conference by Tom at Disputations. He contends, and I agree, that one of the problems of conducting such a conference is the problem of factionalism within the Catholic Writing community. Go and read his post. But his though inspired my own about Endo's book. Note that from this point on there will be spoilers, so if you have not read the book, please do so before you continue.

Endo's book has been viewed quite differently by different critics. Some Catholic critics criticize the book for the adoption of heterodox theology and understanding of Catholicism. Many other critics find in the story a great examination of the problem of evil and what religious ought to do in the face of it.

All I can say of Silence is that it has haunted me since I first read it. I believe it brings up a central question in faith and explores it unrelentingly. The question concerns apostasy and what the proper course of action to take in dreadful circumstances might be.

The story is set in Japan of the 17th century. A new group of missionaries has arrived, smuggled in aboard a Dutch trading ship. Catholicism and Christianity have been outlawed in Japan as a foreign element that has served to turn the people from traditional ways. This foreign element has introduced a kind of political crisis because of the way medieval Japanese government was set up.

Our two priests journey through this hostile Japan and encounter small enclaves of believers who have preserved the remnants of their beliefs through the persecutions. They witness the hideous deaths of some believers who had taken them in and allowed them to say Mass.

Eventually one of the priests is captured and is forced to witness and listen to the torture of countless of his "parishioners." This people are hung upset down over a pit, slit are cut in their ears and they are allowed to slowly bleed to death. The cell of the priest is at a location where he hears their groans amplified constantly.

The priest is told that he can save the lives of everyone who is to endure this torture and the torture of being gradually drowned by the high-tide if he will only step on the fumie which is an image of Jesus. At the climax of the novel, the Priest hears Jesus speak from the fumie telling him to tread on him, step on him, this is what He came for and this is what He expects. The priest does so, and the novel ends with the priest being forced to marry and settle to a "normal" life with the friendship of another priest who had previously done the same.

Often, because of this ending, Endo is labeled a "bad Catholic." (That isn't the only reason, but people who find him a bad Catholic go back and cite this as evidence. Now, I might have some real problems with some of Endo's statements in his Life of Jesus. I seem problematic theology and a certain confusion therein represented as biography; however, bad theology doesn't necessarily make a "bad Catholic." Even arriving at the wrong conclusion doesn't necessarily make a "bad Catholic." In point of fact, to my mind the term has no meaning. One is either a Catholic or not a Catholic depending on a number of conditions that vary from person to person.

But Endo's book raises serious issues and asks us to look at them through the lenses of a man dedicated to God. As with my view of my pacifistic tendencies, they're perfectly fine, so long as I am the only one who suffers. But as soon as someone else is affected it becomes much more problematic in a moral sense. Do I have the right to ask others to sacrifice their lives for my moral principles? The same question occurred to me here. If I were in the priest's place, would I have the right to ask others to be martyrs because I sat by and did nothing to save them. Even if the something is to step on a image of the Lord, to "apostasize"?

Many say that Endo's conclusion was simply wrong, the priest should have stayed strong and endured the torture of the many and eventually attained martyrdom himself. I say, what does it matter what one does to a symbol, no matter how potent, if it could relieve tremendous suffering here and now? Or let us say, I at least ask the question and I thank God I'm not in a position to have to answer it.

Great novelists ask these questions, sometimes with no certain answers. Someone who toes the line doctrinally cannot ask this question truthfully. That is, the answer is already implicit in whatever doctrine they are following. They cannot allow the story to play out in all ways possible. In a sense they must manipulate the characters to the end they have in mind. This makes for fine pedagogy, but highly questionable art. An artist must have the freedom to arrive at whatever conclusion the story naturally culminates in, without fear of being labeled somehow "less than Catholic" because his vision shows him this questionable end.

The end of a story is not a picture of the faith of the artist. It may or may not represent what the artist himself would do. Some refer to Graham Greene's work as the work of a "bad Catholic" for similar reasons. But not everyone is Flannery O'Connor. Not everyone arrives at the place where Walker Percy is. And we should not. An artist must be an artist and must be true to that impulse even while being a Catholic. If that leads the artist to believe, however incorrectly we might view it, that priests should be married, then the work should reflect that conclusion. Anything less is a betrayal both of the gifts God has granted to the artist and the vision of the artist himself.

This is not to say that "anything goes." But in the opinion of many, a Catholic artist could not produce the equivalent of a book like The Human Stain or even Portnoy's Complaint, to take this author's most famous work. And I ask, why should that be? Why should theology limit what an artist can explore or even the conclusions, however tentative and upsetting they may to some, that he comes to? I can see no reason other than the fact that some people seem to confuse art with apologetics. And while art may have a pedagogical and apologetic face, that is not at the core and that should not drive the artist who is looking at the world through Catholic eyes. If so, we would have no such "problematic" works as Mariette in Ecstasy among other great, recent Catholic works.

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I stumbled across the HYPNEROTOMACHIA POLIPHILI in my studies recently. Who thought to produce an electronic facsimile of one of the more (or perhaps the most) baffling books ever published. For completists and those interested--click above to find it.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Literature category from May 2004.

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