A Conversation with Joseph Pearce
In an office just off a busy street in Ypsilanti, Michigan, the Writer-in-Residence at Ave Maria College sits down to his work. This is Joseph Pearce, one of the preeminent writers of Catholic/Christian biography today and co-editor of the bimonthly St. Austin Review. English born, he has lived in the U.S. for two years, writing, lecturing, and editing full time.
Pearce is perhaps best known for his studies of J. R. R. Tolkien and G. K. Chesterton, and for Literary Converts (1999), which examines the faith journeys of Evelyn Waugh, Ronald Knox, and several other converts to Roman Catholicism. What follows are excerpts from a long interview, edited only for space.
James Person: You’ve written a substantial shelf of books already, though to my mind you’re associated primarily with your works on J. R. R. Tolkien. . . . Now, many non-religious folks have read and enjoyed The Lord of the Rings and others of Tolkien’s works. If they’re unaware of the faith-related aspects of Tolkien, what are they missing?
Joseph Pearce: Well, they’re missing the most important parts of it! Tolkien himself made it perfectly clear in one of his letters . . . that The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally Catholic and religious work: consciously in the writing, unconsciously in the revision. So if this is fundamentally Catholic and religious, and if people aren’t getting that dimension, they’re not getting the fundamentals, according to Tolkien’s own criteria. . . .
Person: Certainly myth was important to Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis. To many moderns, the very word “myth” has connotations of clever, pleasant-sounding falsehoods, invented by ignorant people to explain the otherwise inexplicable. Tolkien, Chesterton, and Lewis held to a somewhat different understanding of myth. They saw myth as an expression of truth.
Pearce: What I call Tolkien’s philosophy of myth is the fact that mythology is the only means of expressing adequately metaphysical truth—because truth is metaphysical, facts are physical. Now, let’s go back a step for a moment: G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Not facts first, truth first.” This is the key thing, because we need to differentiate between facts and truth. Facts in the sense that Tolkien and Chesterton were referring to them are physical realities. Truth is the metaphysical realities that inform the facts.
Tolkien believed, as a Christian, that we are made in the image of God. And therefore, what is this “imageness” of God in us? He said that one thing we can be absolutely sure of is that we know that God is creator. Therefore, creativity is the “imageness” of God in us—the fingerprints of God in us, if you like. Therefore creativity is a good thing. Therefore art is a good thing. Therefore stories are good things. Therefore the making of story is a good thing. Therefore mythology is a good thing—which is merely story, the story about cosmic things. . . .
Person: You have a new book published on Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis. Now, as you know, books on Lewis and his works have become something of a cottage industry. What is your specific contribution to our understanding of Lewis’s life and work?
Pearce: My book, C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, is about Lewis and the Church. Now, I think a question that many people are intrigued to know about Lewis is, where did he stand with the Catholic Church? We know that he was born into a Belfast Protestant family in Northern Ireland, and retained some prejudices of Protestantism to the end. Yet he also went to confession regularly, and appeared to have believed in the Real Presence, even if he didn’t seem to fully understand Transubstantiation. He appeared, from the early days and The Great Divorce, right up to the end, with the publication of Letters to Malcolm, to believe in Purgatory. So, exactly where does C. S. Lewis stand in relation to the Catholic Church and Catholic truth?—that was what I endeavored to tackle in my book. . . .
Person: One of your early books was a life of Chesterton, about whom much has been written. How would you assess Chesterton’s role as an influence upon other writers during the twentieth century?
Pearce: Oh, crucial! It seems to me that if we look at the history of the Catholic Literary Revival, (or the Christian Literary Revival, if you prefer the broader term—for there certainly were significant non-Catholics involved in it), we can really say that it begins in a somewhat nebulous way with the Romantics, with Coleridge and Wordsworth. But it really gets stirring with the conversion of Newman in 1845. Then, at the turn of the century, Chesterton and Belloc emerged onto the scene. When I studied this whole period for my book Literary Converts, it became perfectly clear to me that Chesterton was the most important figure in the Christian Literary Revival of the first third of the twentieth century. We can certainly see his influence upon Tolkien and upon Lewis. Both of these men admit to being profoundly influenced by Chesterton. We know of Chesterton’s influence upon the conversion of Ronald Knox and many other writers of the first third of the twentieth century. Chesterton is a giant figure. . . .
Person: For much of his career, Chesterton was associated in the public mind with Hilaire Belloc. (Together, they were known as “the Chesterbelloc,” a fantastic creature concocted by Bernard Shaw and written of in a 1908 issue of A. R. Orage’s periodical, The New Age.) As a proponent of Distributism, centricity, and Catholic orthodoxy, Chesterton was beloved as a wise and witty friend by even those who disagreed with him; while Belloc had a reputation for a take-no-prisoners style of debate and writings which are firmly uncompromising in their stands—and he was heartily disliked by a number of influential figures, perhaps most of all by H. G. Wells. In your book Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc, you take issue with some of the negative perceptions of Belloc. What hope do you perceive for a resurrection of Belloc’s reputation?
Pearce: I think there is every hope—and indeed I would go so far as to say there’s every probability—of a revival of interest in Belloc, for the simple reason that he was also a giant figure. Chesterton is now belatedly being seen for the giant figure that he was. One ramification of this increased interest in Chesterton will be an increased interest in Belloc. And I think that when people discover the genius who was Belloc they will fall in love with him as, indeed, I have.
Now it’s appropriate that you mention Belloc’s take-no-prisoners style. And I can’t resist—I take after Chesterton in this, at least—playing on words here. It seems that Belloc-osity and bellicosity are synonyms. Belloc was very Belloc-ose. He loved a fight. He loved to be aggressive in his stance on religious and political matters. And yes, he took no prisoners.
Person: One writer who appeared in the lives of Lewis and Tolkien, at least for a short time, was Roy Campbell—who was also a friend of Russell Kirk, founding editor of this journal. You wrote of him in a work that is currently available in Great Britain but not in the United States, Bloomsbury and Beyond: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell. Wasn’t Campbell, like Belloc, something of a lightning-rod of controversy for his beliefs? And do his works speak to us today?
Pearce: Yes, Campbell was very much like Belloc in his almost having a need for an antagonistic dimension to his arguments with his enemies. Campbell had an even greater ability to make enemies than Belloc. But he also had many friends, again like Belloc. One of the paradoxes of both men is that they provoked the antagonism of many, but also inspired the love of many close friends.
As regards, Campbell’s work: Yes; Campbell is, in my opinion, one of the top three or four poets of the twentieth century. So he’s a poet of considerable merit. This is not just my opinion. It was the opinion held by his peers, T. S. Eliot and Edith Sitwell, who admired Campbell greatly. Even C. S. Lewis, who is notorious for despising virtually everything modern in poetry, (and he said he despised the poetry of T. S. Eliot,) thought that Roy Campbell was the best of the moderns. . . . He has much to say about the politics of the twentieth century. And, of course, like so many of these other writers that we’ve been talking about, he was a convert to Catholicism. He was embroiled in the Civil War in Spain. The parish priest who received him and his wife into the Church was murdered by the Communists; the Carmelite nuns that he and his wife befriended in Toledo were murdered by the Communists. And, indeed, he and his wife and his two daughters only barely escaped with their lives very providentially at the outbreak of that war. A very interesting life, a very interesting man, and a great poet.
Person: I would be remiss not to mention your Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile.
Pearce: I wrote my biography of Solzhenitsyn principally because Solzhenitsyn was to me a hero of the twentieth century, because of his life, and also a prophet, because of what he had to say to the condition of modern man and the modern world—concepts such as self-limitation which are very similar to the things being said by E. F. Schumacher in Small Is Beautiful. They were my key motivations, together with the fact that Solzhenitsyn agreed to be interviewed by me.
Person: Solzhenitsyn is widely regarded as a doom-and-gloom pessimist, a despiser of the nation that was his home in exile for twenty years, and even an advocate of a return to a czarist form of government in Russia. What’s the real story about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?
Pearce: I also expected this Jeremiah-type doom-and-gloom figure—because I suppose that I, like the vast majority of other people, have been influenced by this media image of Solzhenitsyn. However, upon meeting him, one of the first impressions one gets is of someone who has a great joie-de-vivre, a great love for life, and a delightfully mischievous sense of humor. He had this mischievous twinkle in his eye. He was always chuckling. He was always telling jokes. His sons inform me that he’s a wonderful mimic, and had families and friends, during the years they were living in Vermont, in stitches, laughing hysterically at his mimicry—not just of friends and family, but of public figures and politicians. So this picture of Solzhenitsyn as somebody who is full of gloom and despondency, a Jeremiah-killjoy, is just not true.
I think that his stern warnings about modernity are the same as those that were made by the likes of Chesterton—and few would call Chesterton a doom-and-gloom-monger, although he was full of doom and gloom about modernity, because modernity is, indeed, something that is full of doom and gloom! But we can be happy about it and joyful about it, nevertheless, and I think the same joy we see in Chesterton can be seen as clearly in Solzhenitsyn.
Person: Many readers of your biographical and critical works might not be familiar with your works outside those genres. Let’s take a look at Small Is Still Beautiful. Tell us briefly about that work, and about how it relates to E. F. Schumacher’s work.
Pearce: Small Is Still Beautiful is a fresh look at Schumacher’s million-seller, published in 1973. That book had a profound influence upon the way that modern economists and politicians, and indeed modern people, looked upon economic and political and environmental and ecological concerns. In many respects, it can be said of many books and it’s true of very few, that they have had an important influence upon changing the perceptions of the world—and therefore, in some way, changing the world. And I think Small Is Beautiful is a book that achieved profound influence.
So I thought, thirty years on, how had what Schumacher had been saying held up? And I think my conclusion, in what I said in Small Is Still Beautiful, is that the central issues that he was discussing about the importance of smallness as opposed to bigness, small government as opposed to big government, small politics as opposed to big politics, small business as opposed to big business, small nations as opposed to big nations—or now, big macro-national polyglots such as the European Union—all these questions seem at least as pressing as, and arguably more pressing than, they were in his own day. . . .
Person: Small-holding and lives lived close to the soil were ways of life held dear by conservative figures. . . . A concern expressed by numerous prominent conservatives is that . . . these constructs [are] good in theory but impractical in everyday life for people living in the twenty-first century.
Pearce: I’ve just been teaching a course on medieval literature. We’ve covered Dante, we’ve covered Chaucer, The Song of Roland, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Dream of the Rood, Beowulf. If you went outside the classroom and asked the average person on the streets of Detroit or indeed any other city in the so-called Western world, how relevant is medieval literature to their lives, their playing of computer games, and watching soap operas, they would say, “Not relevant at all; the soap operas are much more important than this cobweb-ridden literature.”
But of course, we don’t believe that; we actually believe that this is their heritage—and a heritage that is not a museum piece, but life giving. Tradition is something that leads right into the present, and bestows reality and direction upon the future. Chesterton once said that most moderns are people who have contemptuously kicked down the stairs by which they climbed. . . .
I’m not interested in a populist approach where we go and look for the reductionism of the lowest common denominator, because that is the reductionism of madness. We have to aspire towards perfection, even if we never reach it. By aspiring towards perfection, we make society better, we build civilization. By lowering ourselves to the reductionism of the lowest common denominator, we guarantee barbarism. So, I’m not interested in that aspect of the argument.
However, is it relevant? Yes: from Part One of my answer, obviously it is. Now, let’s look at this: We’re not talking going back to three acres and a cow, where we make every family by law have three acres and a cow, and where we direct that they learn to milk the cow, and will not be allowed to have a computer. No one is saying that, except perhaps a Luddite romantic minority—and good luck to them! They’re just not going to change society. However, the issues are the same: Can society continue to consume finite resources forever? And the answer to that is obviously no.
I’ve been at meetings where people have said, “Well, there’s no such thing as finite resources.” And you try to say to them, well, we live on a finite planet. And they say that science will find the answer. To me, this blind faith in science and technology always finding the answer to humanity’s problems is short-sighted. First of all, technology is very new; this techno-age is only a couple of hundred years old, far too new in the wide scheme of things for us to pass judgment on its abilities to solve the problems that it causes. I mean, Schumacher said: “A breakthrough a day keeps the crisis at bay.” In other words, there seems to be a race with the devil now, that problems caused by technology are solved by technology. Now, how long can technology stay ahead of the race itself is another question.
And it’s a question that conservatives should answer because surely a conservative, by definition, should be one who will be prudent in these things. If you’re talking about conserving the planet, conserving the culture, conserving the environment, then we should err on the side of caution, as conservatives. Radicals might say: “To hell with conservation, let’s put our blind faith in technology and go ahead regardless.” Conservatives should say: “No, let’s conserve what is worth conserving—cultural, environmental—and, in order to do that, let’s look prudently at what we need to do.” If small government is better than big government, then you do what you can to keep government as small as possible. It doesn’t mean that you have to have anarchy, and that there’s no government above the paterfamilias—it doesn’t mean that! It means the tendency should be on decentralization of power, not centralization of power. That’s practical—and if one wants to use the word “Distributism,” I’m quite happy to use the word—but that is practical politics, practical economics, practical social philosophy for the modern age, and it’s very much relevant.
Person: What are your plans for future writings, God willing?
Pearce: God willing, indeed. Well, obviously, most of those books, with the exception of the Lewis book, which was written since I moved here, all those other books were written during a five-year period when I was working as a full-time writer. Things are a bit more difficult over here, because I’m over here working as the writer in residence at Ave Maria College, teaching, doing lots of speaking around the country, and editing the St. Austin Review. So I suppose one quick answer to your question is that a lot of my writing now is in the journal.
As regards future books . . . I’d like to do a full-length study on the Christian Literary Revival from 1798 to 2000 (for 200 years, in other words) beginning with the Romantics, and ending with today. And, unlike Literary Converts, which dealt with individuals and their conversions and their influence upon each other, this would deal with the works themselves, and what the works themselves have to say: the poetry, the novels, the essays, etc., searching for the energizing ideas within those literary works. I’d also like to write a life of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and I’d at least like to explore the idea of doing some work on T. S. Eliot. . . . Certainly what I’m hoping is that, between now and when God removes me from this world, I will be able to write another shelf of books. I intend to carry on writing. It’s in my blood.
Person: Joseph, it’s been a pleasure and an honor to speak with you today. Thank you very much.
Pearce: My pleasure. Thank you.
James E. Person Jr. is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Madison Books, 1999).
Posted: March 29, 2007 in Interviews.
On Cocktail Time
James V. Schall, S. J.