Q&A with James Matthew Wilson

We are delighted to have James Matthew Wilson on our blog to discuss his book Catholic Modernism and the Irish “Avant-Garde.” James Matthew Wilson is Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature and the Founding Director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston and the author of The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition.

Q: Can you talk a bit about what “Catholic Modernism” means in the book?

A: When a philosopher or theologian hears the term “Catholic modernism,” he will immediately think of George Tyrrell and other turn-of-the-century figures within the Church who sought to think of religion on “immanentist” terms, whether those of Kant and the romantics or in terms of historical and critical evidence. When the reader of literature hears the term, he is likely to think of those rebellious moments in the history of the arts where traditional practices and theories were overturned in favor of any number of “experimental” or “exploratory” forms, from free verse to abstraction and beyond. Such developments were often themselves “immanentist,” insofar as they reduced the arts to expression or to pure form independent of any represented material subject.

My title takes into account both these things but means something very different. Artistic modernism broke radically with the conventions of nineteenth-century art and literature. My three subjects, Thomas MacGreevy, Brian Coffey, and Denis Devlin were among the many Catholic writers and artists during the period who saw this development as an opening for the Catholic sacramental vision to break forth and find aesthetic expression. To be very brief, they saw modernism as Eucharistic: on the one hand, its surfaces were often rough and crude, no more attractive than plain bread and wine; but those surface forms were capable of expressing the depths, the “ontological secret” of form, and so to remind modern audiences of such work that there is more to the world than surface, more to the world than what can be measured by scientific experiment. All three writers, in brief, saw the modern movement in the arts as an opportunity not to express novel theological notions but rather to give a fullness of expression to the ancient truths of the Church. Their surfaces were often radical but in service of the eternal. In this they were far from alone. Jacques Maritain, T.S. Eliot, T.E. Hulme, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats and many others saw just the same potential in the modern arts, but these three writers saw it with a particular acumen that was due, at least in part, to their deeply held and intellectual vibrant Catholic faith.

Q: What is it that drew you to the work of Thomas MacGreevy, Brian Coffey, and Denis Devlin, and what did they jointly symbolize that inspired you to make them the subjects of this book?

A: All three of these writers have received significant critical attention, but they have mostly been celebrated for their “international” and “avant-garde” qualities, which were unusual in modern Ireland, where most figures, besides, Joyce, Yeats, and Samuel Beckett, clung to late-nineteenth-century modes of realism to express either a nationalist spirit or disillusion with the nationalist spirit. MacGreevy, Coffey, and Devlin were nationalists themselves, and Devlin spent his career as a diplomat for the young Irish state. But their embrace of continental modernist practices is, in itself, derivative. What made them unusual figures in the age was their synthesis of modernism and Catholicism, which was brilliantly done and yet has been hard for later generations to comprehend, mostly because of widespread present ignorance among literary critics of the long Christian Platonist tradition in philosophy and theology. You might say that these three writers, insofar as they were “international modernists” were merely “derivative.” I argue as much in the book. But insofar as they drew on Augustine, Aquinas, and Pascal to give their work form and substance they are unlike practically any other modern writer. Eliot, David Jones, and in a different way, Joyce, attempted something along the same lines, but the difference here is that MacGreevy, Coffey, and Devlin wholly knew, in fact they embodied, the Catholic tradition. They were not converts like Eliot and Jones; they were not apostates like Joyce.

All three were at the center of the modernist drama. They were friends and apprentices of Joyce, Yeats, Eliot, Beckett, and others. They were minor characters right in the middle of literary history. But they were also doing something striking, strange, and brilliant. Alas, no one has bothered to tell their whole story and to tell it on their terms. They are often held up as examples of the “international” modernism that Ireland might have had. I take their measure in terms of the achievement they actually realized, and that must be understood as a compelling synthesis of Catholic thought and modernist aesthetic form. I wrote the book to be at once critical and biographical, literary and theological, because I wanted people to see what a complex mystery these three writers were, despite their having alternately been obscured by history or harnessed to drive an agenda that is not foreign to their spirit but is also not wholly comprehensive of it.

Q: What would be the one key insight you’d love to see a reader of your book take away from this work?

A: The greatest mystery for us is how beauty works. How is it that appearances speak of the invisible and intellectual depths of the spirit, and vice versa? That communication is neither simple nor one-way. For these three writers, they took it as a challenge to give expression to the inner riches of reality by way of the appearance or the sensuous experience of words. MacGreevy’s poetry and criticism redescribes the modern world in terms of Augustine’s theory of the Two Cities. Coffey, who studied with Maritain and at one point taught Aquinas at Saint Louis University, saw the neo-Thomist revival as a way to save modern persons from the suicide of Kantian idealism; Aquinas’s understanding of being as gift, as intelligible and so capable of giving itself, by way of form, to be known by intellects saves us from solipsism, skepticism, and madness. For MacGreevy and Coffey, Samuel Beckett represented that fateful solipsism if Aquinas’s insights were ignored. Go figure. They were very close friends. Coffey and Beckett were even golf partners. It would be hard to understand the meaning of Beckett’s work without seeing how it engaged, and was fruitfully engaged by, Coffey’s Thomistic philosophy. For Devlin, Michel de Montaigne and Blaise Pascal understood the modern age as few others could. They saw the chaos of historical experience and realized that mankind could not be saved by any external development, including political justice. But where could one look to be saved? To the self, said Montaigne. Indeed, replied Pascal, to the abyss within the self that is infinite and must be filled—can be filled—only by the infinite grace of God. Devlin was “Ireland’s Eliot,” as one reviewer put it; he understood man’s need for the supernatural, hard to believe though it may be.

Q: Was there anything really unique or interesting that you discovered in your research that surprised you? 

A: What a world these three fellows moved through. Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, they seem to be on stage at every important moment, but in the crowd looking on. MacGreevy was escorting Yeats’s wife home from the theatre as shots were flying during the Anglo-Irish War. Devlin accompanied DeValera to the League of Nations. Coffey did his doctorate with Maritain and then helped edit one of the leading American journals of the Thomistic Revival, The Modern Schoolman. MacGreevy wrote the first-ever-published book on T.S. Eliot. Coffey wrote one of the first philosophical critiques of the Kinsey report (if it had been attended to, American history might have been less sordid and despairing. It’s brilliant). Devlin was the only poet to follow Eliot’s “Four Quartets” with an ambitious poetry modeled on Dante and Pascal. He was one of very few great religious poets of the first half of the last century. In becoming such a figure, he helped shape American poetry during its greatest period, which is that of the 1940s and ’50s, as American poets Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren were anxious to demonstrate. I’m so glad that their story can at last be told in full.

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