The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 27, 2023 - 12:33:14

Persons present in their works

Katie van Schaijik, Sep 08, 2012

Preparing for his Newman class—it begins Tuesday!—Jules bought a new book: Newman and His Contemporaries.  I picked it up this morning.  The essential personalism of the opening lines of the introduction jumped out at me:

The literary critic and biographer Mona Wilson once began an introduction to a selection of Samuel Johnson's prose and poetry with a memorable disclaimer, "I shall say nothing of Johnson's life.  No one should read even a selection from his writings who is not aleady familiar with the man.  Boswell must come first.  This is not to say that he is greater than his writings, or that they are only interesting because he wrote them, but they are the utterances of the whole man: no one else could have written them."  This is true of Newman as well.  Before reading him, we  need to know something of the man himself because his owrk is the unique expression of a gifure of unusual integrity.

I am reminded of something John Crosby said in the first lecture of the course on Newman we took in Liechtenstein.  In contrast with, say, Thomas Aquinas, Newman is remarkably "present" as a unique personality in his works.  As we absorb his writing, we come to know the man, almost as a friend.

It reminded me, too, of why I am so drawn to the Shakespeare authorship controversy.  The disconnect between the life of the supposed author and the works is so implausibly large, while the links between the works and the life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford never end.  Here is how Joseph Sobran, whose book, Alias Shakespeare, persuaded me that Oxford is the real author, expresses it:

[T]here is no match between the known facts about the man and the works assigned to his authorship. Shakespeare’s life and personality have no discernible relation to the plays and poems bearing his name…Again and again we find a lack of congruence between the apparently humdrum Mr. Shakspere and the exuberantly cultivated author he is supposed to be. We know enough about him to expect that some link would appear between the records of his life and those of the author, if they are the same man; but none ever does.

My point isn't to rehash that debate—though I think it's a really fun and fascinating one—but more to note in passing the way the relation between personal subjectivity and creative output seems to be a theme of modernity, one worth dwelling on.