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
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
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
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 thatwar. 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
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
I’ve been at meetings where people have said, “Well,
there’sno 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 thatit 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
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,
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
andan 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).