Have you heard about this controversial writer? A political exile and vocal critic of several recent popes, she is renowned in literary circles for her poetic innovation in the genre of erotic verse. She rose to prominence as a poet early on, with a series of poetic-philosophical reflections justifying the spirituality of her passion for a married man, as well as her radical new ideas about both language and church politics. Her political activism in opposing church corruption has on several occasions exposed her to actual physical violence. She now lives as a kind of nomad, moving from home to home, so adamant in her refusal to make peace with her political opponents that she has even abandoned her husband and children rather than compromise. Since all her love poetry is about her beloved (now dead), anyway, and not about her husband, maybe she prefers it this way? She doesn’t seem to be much of a family woman. Her poetry is glorious, though – mixing austere and controversial theological reflections with the violent and the scatological, but also with the ecstatic and the sublime. Rumor has it that she’s joined a religious community known for its dedication to radical poverty.
Do you think there would be complaints if I assigned her work?
Just kidding: I was just describing the career of Dante Alighieri, with a sex change and in the modern world. Dante is essential to the western canon, and rightly so, but we easily forget just how controversial a writer he is, still, today. And this makes for bad reading. If we neglect the radical challenges of the works of canonical writers, if we assume that the tradition is made up of a unison of agreeing voices, we do them an injustice. They were not writing to make their readers feel comfortable. And so, writers who discomfit us are the ones to whom we should especially attend today.
Sometimes, when discussing a controversial text, I hear the response: “I’m glad I went to an orthodox Catholic school, so I didn’t have to read that!”
My response to this is, as usual, that of C.S. Lewis’ Professor: “Bless me, what do they teach them in these schools?”
Now, if you go to a Catholic school, that doesn’t mean you should expect to read Butler’s Gender Trouble, or Walker’s The Color Purple. We have not world enough nor time to read all the books worth talking about. But if you go to a Catholic school you shouldn’t expect not to have to read these works.
There are good reasons to have caution around some texts. Prudence is required in determining when to expose a student to a work with troubling subject matter. Then there are works which present stupid ideologies: it’s worth reading Ayn Rand in order to join the conversation, but her philosophy is just simplistic enough to capture a sort of juvenile intelligence that would be better fed with Aristotle (see Florence King’s hilarious description of being infected by Objectivism in her teens. It happened to me, too).
Then there’s the question of triggering – when an experience prompts a negative emotional response based on prior trauma. Triggering is real, and “trigger warnings” serve as a valuable protection both of the psychological well-being of the student, and the free speech of the class. Trigger warnings are not a form of censorship. Sometimes they simply prepare a reader to encounter difficult subject matter, and discussion of triggering material can be a healing experience for some. And even when a student is exempted from reading triggering material, being permitted not to read something is obviously quite different from being forbidden to read it.
My caveat on triggering, though, is that it should not be used as an excuse for students simply to avoid something that makes them feel uncomfortable by exposing them to realities they didn’t want to consider, or ideas with which they disagree. It’s understandable that a survivor of sexual abuse might find it traumatic to read Lolita – but the reader who simply is squeamish about sexual content doesn’t get to make that same excuse.
Every academic bubble likes to pretend not to be a bubble. And so every academic bubble has its own form of political correctness, which pretends not to be political correctness, but “the truth” or “academic consensus” or “the judgment of history.” Every political correctness protects its own special bubble from bursting by silencing any criticism to which it has no adequate reply. Ask yourself: what, in my academic bubble, is forbidden to be spoken? There the ideological weakness lies
This attitude should be inimical to the Catholic scholar, for obvious reasons: “catholic” means universal, after all, so we should strive as much as possible to eliminate the bubble mentality and look towards the created universe, not to our own artifices. And if we believe that our faith is a gift that will continue to be given, and if we are serious about our scholarship, why be threatened by ideas that challenge out preconceptions? Nor am I on board with the simplistic suggestion that we read certain heterodox texts simply to learn to refute them. Often there is much to be learned from controversial authors. My own understanding of Christianity was deeply enhanced by my study of Nietzsche as an undergraduate and graduate philosophy student – and, years later, my anemic faith received a much-needed infusion from the works of those rebel feminist theologians I’d been warned to avoid.
As Pope Emeritus Benedict said, in his address to young university professors: “…we need to recognize that truth itself will always lie beyond our grasp. We can seek it and draw near to it, but we cannot completely possess it; or put better, truth possesses us and inspires us.” We study in order better to approach the truth. To quote Stanley Hauerwas: “Never think that you need to protect God. Because anytime you think you need to protect God, you can be sure that you are worshipping an idol.” Let our academic vocation not be a form of idol-worship.
What about works that present scenes of graphic sex or violence?
I could probably write a whole book on this (as many others have) but for now, how about if we stop putting sex and violence together as though both were similarly bad (or similarly fun). Sex is, on a fundamental level, a natural good, though in many cases it is distorted, abused, and corrupted. Sex can become the abode of violence. Violence itself is by its nature bad, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who engages in it should be vilified. And how do we understand these subtleties? By having a lot of sex, and engaging in a lot of violence? No – we don’t have to (or get to) do that, because we have books.
But what if books present immorality as though it were moral?
If you think we read in order to get a window to absolute truth, that’s very idealistic, but even the Bible presents immorality as though it were moral (have you read the books of Samuel and Kings?). We read to find the different ways humans have tried to make sense of, and give form to, the infinite varieties of experience. Even the most brilliant and devout writer is not giving us THE TRUTH but rather, his or her best attempt at presenting the conflicts of the human heart within a living world that reflects kaleidescopically the terms and conditions of our own. Stories help us to interpret and process what it means to be human. We don’t go to them for logical propositions on which to base syllogisms. If Walker Percy insists on presenting male characters who find metaphysical grounding in sex with women to whom they’re not married, that is not a mandate to readers: “go thou and do likewise.” It does make you think a bit about what sex means.
But what if you start having impure thoughts?
Part of the bonus of reading about sex in books is that it makes one less likely to have impure thoughts, and this makes one better able to relate to persons as persons instead of objects. The man who has never seen a woman’s ankle may swoon at the sight. Such a man would be a very poor doctor – or missionary – or priest – or, for that matter, husband.
What about if you start having the yearning to do violence?
This I take a bit more seriously, because there is a trend in the epic tradition to promote images of warlike masculinity as unquestionably good. Civilized contemporary readers are wise enough to realize that Agamemnon stabbing his enemy right in the face is not cool – but we accept with delight Odysseos’ slaying of every single young man in his home. And this is one thing a good teacher has to do: teach students to read well, so that they can learn to denaturalize certain constant human constructs such as false gender ideologies or artificial moralities. And at the same time, to recognize that the individuals who lived under these artifices were often in a position to know no better: thus, we become more empathetic towards humans as we become more critical of structures.
The college experience should not coddle students as though they were children, but prepare them to face the world as mature adults, equipped with the courage to face difficult realities. So read a banned book this semester.