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Contemplative Realism: The Germinal Yearnings of a New Literary Movement

February 23rd, 2022 | 14 min read

By Joshua Hren

“Realists do not fear the results of their study.” —Dostoevsky

Maybe I was a twenty-something romantic haunting the East Side of Milwaukee. A draught stole past the cream city bricks, trespassed the strips of sackcloth patching the window. Once a sewage plant, the River Flushing Station now lent its Romanesque to coffee house souls staving off cabin fever. Outside, a lone man fished on Lake Michigan, a lighthouse of God on the mile-long pier. My friend and I choked down scalding coffee to combat the city’s enduring chill. I was sputtering enthusiasm beyond the caffeine (a confiteor Catholic, I yet shall not spill whether the early morning coffee was Irish or plain), gesturing and pontificating with youth’s abandon. No, this is not a photographically realistic reproduction of what was said, but it gets the gist: “What we need is an aesthetic capable of being both contemplative and realistic at once—something gritty but also soulful and expansive—the kind of prose that makes you look and then look again like a lover who can never see enough of the beloved, awed at the created world after you put the book down and walk the beat street, facing it all, the down-and-out drunks and Christ’s own image.”

She stared back sympathetically and blinked, clinking her cracked cup against my half-empty one. Cheers. I supposed I blinked too, for about fifteen years, trying to rub the dust out of my eyes so I could see the thing right. Josef Pieper is right: “Man’s ability to see is in decline.” And I’m not just talking about my worn-out eyes, squinting from having read too many books, weakened beyond the miraculous powers of prescription glasses. I’m referring to the depth perception of the human soul.

Always in awkward relationship with the arts on account of having been schooled in the pragmatic Midwestern ethic of bleak houses and hard winters, working class culture and economical survival, I’d ditched any kind of conscious aspiration toward an artistic manifesto. Even uttering the words “I’m an artist” has always seemed to me like a felony—the grandiose posture of the “privileged.” (I am not a crook.) I’d forgotten entirely until, forty years old and four children deep into marriage, the idea reappeared in a cataract of intense conversations I was having with my students and my fellow writers, a rich exchange of half-cooked thoughts that led to the weekend when I knew I just had to write it all down: a manifesto for a new literary movement we now call Contemplative Realism.

As a novelist and a teacher in the new Creative Writing MFA at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, and as the founding editor and publisher of Wiseblood Books, I have been wrestling with the question of how literature portrays reality for some time. I don’t even know whether my own novel Infinite Regress lives up to what I’ve outlined in this manifesto on contemplative realism, but maybe the next one will! One of the only real ways to answer the question “Is the novel dead?” is to muster all the courage and concentration you can to write a good one.

Realism has gifted literature with great gains. With its insistence upon exacting explorations of the psychological contours of characters, with its willingness to countenance difficulties and tragedies and move beyond the novel’s nascent sentimentality—its readers’ desperation for what Flannery O’Connor calls “instant Uplift,” realism is amazing. In his essay “The Art of Fiction” her forbear and literary mentor Henry James worried that “good literature” and “happy endings” might become synonymous, so that a novel’s goodness “depends for a ‘happy ending’ on a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs and cheerful remarks.” James’ ironic distance from such cheap dénouements needs no comment. As a major developer of literary realism, James was committed to increasing the “felt life” that exists in the story by telling the truth instead of handing out rosy romances.

Both inside and outside of literature, realism tends either to focus on the materiality of reality and the psyche of reality instead of on the soul and Source of reality, or to take the posture of kind of enlightening everyone to how harsh and brutal reality really is, the working presumption being the more real the work of art it is, the more sanitarily secular and gruesome its going to be. This kind of realism depicts a world in which good is only sustained by evil, or that the predatory forces of nature are more powerful or remarkable than the harmonies of nature. I started to think of writers like Willa Cather and others who were more willing to dramatize a truthful tension, a juxtaposition she represents in Death Comes for the Archbishop: yes there is in nature these kind of “geometrical nightmares,” not all the created world is immediately beautiful some of it is kind of overwhelming and scary, but then its sublimity has a primordial capacity to bring us to silent gratitude and awe—as when Father Latour, lost in the missionary desert, encounters a “cruciform tree” in an hour of need. How few novels and novelists hold these in fruitful relationHow much we need more of that: there is so much room for the novel to move in that direction.

In our day, so many say that fiction is passé, film is the future, a judgment to which this citizen must submit. The novel is dead. Long live the novel! To riff on Newman, the form keeps “changing in order to remain the same”; even as good fiction keeps delivering the novelistic signatures of psychological accuracy and swelling interiority, it keeps expanding, reabsorbing new aspects of representational reality,—synthesizing genres and seeking out the literary means to help us wake up and pay attention, to coax us out of a kind of slothful superficiality and into an unflinching gaze that won’t look away from the way things are. “Take things as they are, not as you could wish them,” Newman insisted. But the contemplative realist, granting the shady and the shattered sides of life, is yet humane enough to let the reader rest in what is lovely from time to time. It is impossible to sufficiently do justice to God’s created grandeur.

In a class called “The Art and Metaphysics of Fiction,” our group of MFA writers, most of them but not all of them Catholic, and nearly all of them interested in realistic literature rather than fantasy, were hashing out the implications of J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” where he says it is erroneous to assume that motor cars are more real than dragons, or that an ugly stadium than the legendary dome of Heaven. Fairies he insists are more real because they tap into the soul with these archetypes. Meaning is more real than the accidents of reality, Tolkien was telling us. The visible and the sensible are not all that there is, and they certainly are not the highest peaks of the human spirit or the created world. We began to consider: if Tolkien is right, what do more “realistic” writers leave out as their equivalent of dragons and the dome of Heaven that need to be represented if we are not going to ignore a massive swathe of what’s real.

If like most schools of literary realism these days, we portray human stories as if God doesn’t exist, are we being realists? And yet for believers other questions arise: is it not presumptuous on the part of the artist to try to represent the action of grace? A too-pat answer gives us a very distorted understanding, and presumes to make the mysteries visible. A high-watt light bulb went off when one of my students, Angie Robb, suggested to me “what we are dealing with in fiction is a participation and not a presumption”—co-creation rather than a God-like claim to omniscience.

The painter and best-selling writer Michael O’Brien got in on this conversation. (I should say that his paintings, more than his fiction, cultivate contemplative realism.) “We should not for a moment cease trying to read what God is saying, through the rich matrix of our experience,” he told me. “The important point is that we called to try to apprehend without presumption what he is revealing to us.”

Later we discussed the book by former New Yorker editor James Wood How Fiction Works. It’s an extraordinarily clarifying book in many ways, but as my fellow novelist and contemplative realist Katy Carl told me, “Wood seems to pass over as entirely irrelevant anything that might be called ‘human nature.’” That struck me: a major critic dismisses human nature as a category that people used to believe in but have, so to speak, grown out of. By extension does nature exist at all? Without human nature who are we? How can our stories make sense? Does nature even exist then or is flux the only constant? How can the sensible reality convey meaning if it is not allowed to point beyond itself?

After a particularly vigorous discussion of how a fiction writer can or should represent nature, one of my students, Seth Wieck, wrote to me after class:

“I’m starting to think about this Contemplative Realism as a kind of attitude or disposition of gratitude instead of ingratitude towards the world.” Are we grateful that we exist? That the world exists? Can we cultivate that gratitude in others precisely amidst the downturns and the agonies and the catalogue of losses?

Seth contrasted Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian with Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. McCarthy’s theme is that if there are worlds burning past our own, they are beyond our knowing. In Blood Meridian, nature is not intelligible, does not point us towards God. Instead, nature, the whole world we see and sense, signifies only chaos, that is does not really signify: we superimpose.

Robinson’s Gilead by contrast portrays a bereaved father and son sitting in an abandoned cemetery, surrounded by death. As the Rising moon overtakes the setting sun, the boy kisses the father’s hand as he prays. “I’m grateful to know that there can be beauty in a place like this,” the father says.

The the rhythm of the Psalms reminds us that ugliness, sin, suffering, loss, disappointment and betrayal, these are all real and it is not unholy to give them voice:

O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.[a]
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
18 You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.

It is the duty of novelist to portray reality as it is, not to merely make it as artificially pretty as we might like it to be. All literature is a search for the truth about human life. But these truths, we contemplative realists know, include, amidst the graveyard, the sign of a new moon rising.

For the book now published by the Benedict XVI Institute, Contemplative Realism: A Theological-Aesthetical Manifesto, the first 8,000 words were really written in a weekend. God bless my wife, it all came in a torrent and I had to drop everything I had to do that weekend and just write it out. Famous delusional words: “I’ll be down in a minute. I just have to work something out real quick.” I could just not not do it.

This is not my normal writing mode. This was one of the of the really few times as a writer, it appeared that the yields came as a kind of gift. I sent the early draft to Michael O’Brien and asked if he might give it a quick read. Instead he provided extensive responses to a lot of the points, asking for clarification and development, and then concluding by communicating how resonant the piece was. Others, including those who helped craft the essay, indicated that this aesthetic articulated things they’d thought for years but hadn’t yet put to words. Deo gratias.

The grappling and the torrent that came over me were not merely personal, though of course I brought all of my own idiosyncratic impressions and insights—and errors!—to bear on them: but they are a reflection of the tusslings and experiments, the wrestling-it-out writing of a whole generation of Catholic and other believing artists struggling with the creative suffocation produced by the strictures of so many literary schools—whether species of “realism” or otherwise. My students sent enthusiastic and helpfully critical replies as the drafts kept developing.

Here is a major problem: the Christian literary world sometimes seems to run tiresome circles around catch-phrases like “incarnational imagination” and “To the hard of hearing, shout” and “Truth, goodness, and beauty,” without really specifying what this would look like on the level of particular works of art that can speak to our time. It’s not that Flannery’s aesthetic is outdated; for any who can fathom it her mode is still magnificent. It’s not that we don’t need goodness, truth, and beauty. Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue is absolutely correct when he says that “Modern ideas, with all the flash and sudden attractiveness of novelty, are Chinese lanterns. Truths are like the stars.” At the same time, one of the novel’s distinctive goods is its ability to make things novel in the deepest sense—and for Christians this means seeing how, in this dread latter day of the United States, God is making all things new amidst all we’ve done to muck things up.

In the manifesto I make no claims that a contemplative realist aesthetic is the sole “way forward,” the sole school of literary fish for the future. It is, rather, a soul cry to break through restrictive bonds of the culture we inherited and yet to be in conversation, not conflict, with our fellow artists who are not believers but who have tremendous natural insights into the state of contemporary fiction or the prospects of the novel in an age of diminishing readers.

And then on the other hand you have a kind of cynical malaise that haunts contemporary literature. So many different competing literary schools have for so long claimed to represent reality, have argued that their approaches are more real or more true or more accurate than the last one. For instance: the best art gives us a kind of photographic representation of the way things are, stripped of emotional impressions or tacit theological interpretations; or, reality is fragmented and chaotic so our prose should be too. This has led, in the art world, to a kind of conclusion that there is no such thing as reality. If each literary school has claimed to be the most real and yet such aesthetics are constantly changing and discarded maybe there is no such thing as reality or maybe art doesn’t represent reality. Now, there is no question that nature–human and otherwise–is alternately pressured and stretched, shaped and malformed by various social conventions. The inhabitant of ancient Athens and the denizen of a technocracy, each under the influence of their social situation, will be directed towards various conventional ends which are now closer and now farther from their natural ends.

This is what Peter Maurin meant when he worked “to make that kind of society where it is easier for men to be good.” He was not preaching utopia. The contemplative realist recognizes the ways in which convention and nature are in harmony or at war in the situation of his story: rather than discarding the real as historically relative, he searches out and sings the what Aquinas calls the “adequation of mind to reality,” reality being both that which is ever the same and the flux of existence.

With the help of the Benedict XVI Institute, we crafted a shorter 1500 word version of my new book, one that artists, lovers of books, scholars, and other creatives can sign on to, promote and join. This is a spur and a call to new heights of creativity and a new relationship with the literary world.

What I really would love to see from Contemplative Realism as a movement is this kind of conscious and intentional attempt to have novels be not just about human protagonists with the natural or architectural world be an aside or thin setting (very secondary) but instead would strive to dramatize the Great Chain of Being, the whole rest of Creation, from insects to the celestial spheres—all the effects of the Lord who causes it all. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not rallying for a radical ecological-apocalyptical literature that gleefully dwarfs man the parasite amidst the glories of non-human beings. Waxing lyrical and hyperbolical as ever, Mr. Blue gives beautiful voice to what’s remarkable, what’s worth preserving in Christian vision of man in creation:

Without Christ we would be little more than bacteria breeding on a pebble in space or glints of ideas in a whirling void of abstractions. Because of him, I can stand here out under this cold immensity and know that my infinitesimal pulse-beats and acts and thoughts are of more importance than this whole show of a universe.

Even if mankind at the pinnacle of creation, even if the interior souls of characters are far more unfathomable and potent than the peak of a mountain, that mountain is still worth drawing out, as is, for instance, the way the various non-convivial tools of the technocracy we live in can remake man into something close to a mere moving picture consuming shadows. I think of Underworld and White Noise by the raised-Catholic novelist Don De Lillo, whose questers seek—in an “Airborne Toxic Event” that may not be entirely unfamiliar to us—“to find a kind of radiance in dailiness. Sometimes this radiance can be almost frightening. Other times it can be almost holy or sacred.”

Much of what I’m going door-to-door for has already been done, piecemeal, in any number of books. Willa Cather and Cormac McCarthy, for instance, contain contemplative realism operating at a high level. And yet for all the robust gains these novelists give us their distance from the fullness of Divine Revelation leads to an incomplete or distorted vision—focusing for instance in McCarthy’s case on the underbelly and as if trying to ask “How can you not be scandalized by this chaotic world God supposedly made?”

What of what man has made? The contemplative realist would do well to plumb the interpenetration of nature and man in such manmade things as music and architecture, both of which emerge as presences whose meanings and moods alter the actions of human beings. Take The Strudlhof Steps by the Catholic convert Heimito von Doderer, wherein the famous Viennese staircase becomes an indispensable force—a thing shaped by the human heart and mind which, in turn, affects the hearts and minds of those who ascend and descend, against its “lighted gateway like a gold background—the steps, the Strudlhof Steps, the stage of life ready for a dramatic performance.” In Doderer’s hands, the stairs become more than a mere stage; at times they influence action. The raw, unmediated being of creation, then, comprises only part of the drama. As Dietrich von Hildebrand argues in his Aesthetics, architecture is unique in its combination of outer and inner realities. In Doderer’s novel, one character revisits his favorite haunt in search of a “spatial homing place[], a geometrical space in which inner and outer topography coincided, one could say, each gaining thereby in concreteness and luminosity.”

Jacques Maritain provokes this point in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry:

The bay of Rio de Janeiro, immense, luminous, exquisitely delineated, is one of the most rightly admired natural sites. But how much more beautiful, how much more moving—I mean moving the very sense of beauty—is the entrance, at nightfall, into the port of Marseilles, as it opens its man-managed secretive basins one after another, in a forest of masts, cranes, lights, and memories!

Correcting undue accent on the exquisite and the elegant, the realist in us insists on representing the other (rubbed-off, faceless) side of the coin: the way the inharmonious shapes of squalor and ugly tenements, hideous high-rises and gaudy kitsch, warp or war with the human soul.

Yes, contemplative realism exists in a scattered way in so many extant novels and also in the potencies of living artists. We wish to gather and galvanize those souls. To be a Contemplative Realist, we must first adopt the initial word of the Rule of St. Benedict: Listen. Join us as we learn from each other what it means to create and refract beauty amidst brokenness—to deliver hard truths and give the soul rest, to tell it like it is—both awful and hopeful—in a fallen world that groans for redemption.