Friday, June 28, 2013

WHY BELLOC STILL BOTHERS THEM


The hunting season on Hilaire Belloc has never really ended.

It began in his lifetime and finding fault with this incomparable writer has remained the favorite sport of many minds since, some of those minds quite shallow and some quite brilliant.  His biographers have followed suit, finding his prose delightful but his insights - to use their well-worn word - "troubling".  Even the biographers most sympathetic to him have, strangely, not understood him.  It is hard to understand a man who is Catholic to the very core of his being.  Such men are few in history.

But the pot-shots aimed in his direction keep-a-coming and nearly all of them come from those who either have never read him, or read him only very superficially.  Many Catholics, both of the Modernist variety and those of the Catholic variety, find it necessary to dust off the old subject and come gunning for the man whose very name is a synonym for an intensely strong and virile Faith.  We came across this somewhat recent example from Britain's Catholic Herald: 

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2011/12/05/is-belloc-best-forgotten/

The author is a Catholic priest, Father Lucie-Smith.  We might say he is evidently a Catholic priest who is not too much in tune with his Church's glorious past.  We might say with some justification that he has not as yet been gifted with a "sensus Catholicus", that manner of thinking which sees everything with the eyes of that Faith which is completely true and which was presented to the world by the Son of God Himself and therefore from God Himself.  A Catholic man without a sensus Catholicus is a man who is easily buffeted by winds coming from all directions for he has not anchored himself to those truths which came from his Creator.  Nor is this a particularly harsh judgment of the man.  For all I know he may be a prayerful, orthodox priest who says a reverent Mass and lives the pure and challenging life of a man in Holy Orders.  But being such a man and such a priest does not necessarily give him greater insights into historical or even religious matters.  He is, after all, a man, like all of us fallible and human.

What he could and should be, is well-read.  Reading the article it is evident that he is surprisingly uncurious about a whole body of literature that came to be known in the early years of the 20th century in England as the Catholic Literary Revival.  He criticizes Belloc for the very same views held by other notable Catholics of the day, Cardinal Manning, J.B. Morton, Chesterton, Wyndham-Lewis and Hollis among others.  If he is going to castigate Belloc for these "troubling" views he is going to have to apply the same dislike to a number of other eminent men whose thinking matches the thinking of Hilaire Belloc.  But Belloc is, in my view, still a  favorite target because he is so thoroughly Catholic.  Modern Catholics cannot understand a Catholic like this.  Such men are looked upon as sadly prehistoric.  They will tolerate, even admire, Chesterton mainly because he is perhaps a bit more gentle in his prose, but for the forthright Mr Belloc they shudder and turn away.  He is much too direct for the modern taste.

Consider the sentence which closes the first paragraph of Father Lucie-Smith's article:

       "I have never read anything substantial by Belloc."

What is one to make of such a sentence?  Really, such a remark is unworthy of comment, as it can only bring embarrassment to its author.  Yet undaunted he continues on in much the same vein throughout the rest of the piece.

To say that Hilaire Belloc never wrote anything substantial is pretty much an admission that you have never opened the pages of one of his books.  That would be the most charitable explanation.  The less charitable explanation is that he has completely severed any connection with Catholicism's past and, therefore cannot understand what the Church has handed down over its 2,000 year history.

Reading Belloc is like living through the times he is writing about.  He had that uncanny ability to bring the reader a perfect understanding of the time, people and place.  His judgments were nearly always sound, and though I would be a poor admirer of the man if I did not point out that he did seem to misjudge certain historical events, most notably (and oddly), the French Revolution, I would be poorer still if I did not see the perfect rightness of his overall views as to how the Catholic Church built civilization, and the minute details of, say, the English Reformation.  No other historian has more clearly explained what exactly happened in England when after a thousand years it decided to cast off its Faith.

Father Lucie-Smith again:

     "His history books are very thin on fact and solid research, and long on argument, and the arguments, one gets the impression, are repeated again and again."

When I was a boy in school my teachers, bless their hearts, had to hammer into my mind again and again certain points which my dreamer's mind failed to grasp.  Spaced repetition is sound learning technique.  It is the technique Belloc used to get his points across, apparently to the dismay of critics like Father Lucie-Smith.  If the good Father understands Belloc's point after reading it once, well and good.  He is far more gifted than more obtuse souls like the present writer.  But we can always use a reminder and Belloc was there to give us those reminders.  And with the gift for prose writing that he had every word was music.  As to Lucie-Smith's remark that Belloc's books are "thin on fact and solid research" all I can say is that we readers would have been edified if he had produced several examples to support such a statement.  However, we look in vain for those examples for he doesn't offer any.

He finds Belloc's delightful The Path to Rome "unreadable".  That would surely qualify him for the honor of being in the one-of-a-kind category.  Even Belloc's most furious detractors are charmed by that book, which makes one wonder if Father Lucie-Smith is here possibly engaging in mere cheap shots.  Unreadable?  Father embarrasses himself with such comments.  Can anyone be so dead as to not enjoy that wonderful book?  If Father Lucie-Smith had merely written that the work of Belloc does not appeal to him that would have been simple enough to say.  We would have understood and let it go at that.  But for Father to say that so towering a figure in English letters writes essentially rubbish, except for a few charming children's books, is to suggest that we are in the presence of someone who has only a very superficial knowledge of literature, more importantly historical literature.

Here is a bit of Belloc, writing in "The Great Heresies" about the coming modern attack upon the Church (the book was written in 1938):

"I say again, the Modern Attack on the Faith will have in the moral field a thousand evil fruits, and of these many are apparent today, but the characteristic one, the one presumably the most permanent, is the institution everywhere of cruelty accompanied by a contempt for justice."

Insubstantial?  That might have been written today. 

A recent blog post on Linen on the Hedgerow highlights a statistical study of conversions to the Catholic faith in England over a century and more.  In the graph which is shown it is interesting to note that conversions spiked precisely during those years (1920 - 1940) when strong Catholic authors like Hilaire Belloc were writing their insubstantial books.  It is needless to note when the decline in conversions took place but suffice it to say that it coincided with a certain calamitous event in the early 1960s and it also coincided with the loss of vibrant Catholic writing.  Illness put an end to Belloc's writing in 1942.  The Second World War began the slow Catholic decline and even though there were a few spikes here and there in the 1950s the bottom fell out in the swinging 60s.  Yet the fact that Englishmen were becoming Catholics while great Catholic writers were writing is the most eloquent testimony to the importance of the Bellocs, the Waughs, the Knoxes, Feeneys, Chestertons, Barings and many others like them.

Father Lucie-Smith tells us at the outset of his article that in his view Hilaire Belloc is best forgotten.  I would say to him that he can rest well in the assurance that that will not happen.  True, probably not one in a thousand Catholics today, clergy or layman, has ever heard of Belloc but that will change when the Church comes back to Her senses.  It is not Belloc who will be forgotten but those who refuse to be taught by him.

In all fairness to Father Lucie-Smith he does end his article on a reasonably kindly note toward the man.  Perhaps he at last saw something in this noble Catholic apologist that gave him pause.  It is our hope that the good Father will find a quiet time to open up not a biography of Hilaire Belloc but a work written by him.  Any book by him.  May he, like us, enjoy the bird song that is the lovely prose of one of the finest authors who ever put pen to paper.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Aged parent, Please go back to the
Political Refugee comments for the
Post, So Spencer and Geller Have Been Banned From Entering the U.K. . He is asking you a question and asking again.

Anonymous said...

With some embarrassment I have to admit to being a novice reader of Mr. Belloc. I know I will be happy for my journey.
I used to read the Herald almost daily. I did't consciously decide to stop doing so but did just drift away. Now I have to remind myself to visit it. It is interesting to me that as I read this Post I recalled that Fr. Lucie-Smith was one reason that I drifted away. I don't feel any dislike
toward him but I began to feel that he is so very Vatican II.
Perhaps that is why he has limited
interest in some past Catholic things, thought. He must have a pretty good knowledge of the historical Church because he is a Doctor of Moral Theology. But alas
what has been taught in the seminaries and universities for the past forty and fifty years?
Several months or more, one of his
Posts was about a revived stage
production of Jesus Christ Superstar. I really don't recall if he had seen this or a former
production. His Post though was very supportive of the production.
His thought being something like
whatever brings thought about Jesus
into the secular culture. I am aware that when the original came out in the 1970's that a number of the performers disrobed at some point on stage. If that was done in the 1970's what would be done in
2011? He also has posts about popular t.v. shows that he watches regularly. I don't recall what.
To me he seems modern and somewhat
liberal. I do not mean that he should not enjoy some t.v. It was just the particular show that I didn't quite understand what appealed.
I enjoyed this Post. Thank you.
I don't even know what the Play is
about but I assume it's not good.

Anonymous said...

Aged parent, Awhile back a blogger
posted along with others, this quote. (not verbatim). The only intensely religious feeling the English ever have is hatred of Catholicism. The blogger is an English Catholic. He couldn't recall the author of the quote.
Might you know?

Aged parent said...

Dear Anon @12:02: My apologies. I'm not sure which post you are referring to. Sorry to be so obtuse!

Anon@2:31: When you begin to read Belloc you will discover a man who was Catholic to the very core of his being. Reading him is like a draught of cold mountain water after a sojourn in the desert. There ares so many titles I could recommend but you might try his "Survivals and New Arrivals" for starters. I envy you your journey of discovery.

Anon @3:05: Funnily enough I just read that quote within the last week but being truly "aged" I'll be hanged if I can remember where I read it!! (Perhaps I saw it on the same blog you did?) It certainly sounds like something Belloc might have said but I wouldn't swear to it.

Aged parent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Aged parent, I read it at A Political Refugee from the Global
Village. web address: pvewood.blogspot.com . He posted the quote and asked if anyone knew
who said it. He had posted it some months earlier so I thought it was
sort of a little quiz. I said my first guess would be Belloc, my second Evelyn Waugh. He said he couldn't recall but he thought he didn't think it sounded like something they(either) would say.
I thought he might be wrong about that. He said he couldn't re-find it alas nor can I.

Anonymous said...

Aged parent, I only wish my memory
was nearly as good as yours seems to be.

Anonymous said...

Aged parent, the Post/comments I
referred to was pvewood.blogspot.
26 June Post, "So they banned Robert Spencer from entering the UK". And I meant to say, please revisit the comments if you like.

Aged parent said...

Goodness...do I feel stupid. Thanks for the reminder about which blog it was. I did reply to the blog editor.

(I knew my memory was bad but I didn't think it was THAT bad!)

anonymous annely said...

Aged parent I am glad you revisited
the Post/comments referred to. I knew he was genuinely interested.
I enjoyed your comment there re.
Spencer. I believe you do good in making some people to take a second look at some things in that they are victims of accepted propagandas. I try to do the same when I see need. Thank you for all you do in the good fight.
annely
good fight.

Aged parent said...

Thank you, annely.

Anonymous said...

Aged parent, thank you for your
Hilaire Belloc recommendation. Survivals and New Arrivals. I'm on
my way. Blesses.

sarah lee said...
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Leslie Lim said...
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