A Fugitive Catholicism: The Work of Richard Rodriguez, Dave Eggers & Czeslaw Milosz

By Elie, Paul | Commonweal, November 5, 2004 | Go to article overview

A Fugitive Catholicism: The Work of Richard Rodriguez, Dave Eggers & Czeslaw Milosz


Elie, Paul, Commonweal


After Czeslaw Milosz died earlier this year, it was pointed out to me that he was being eulogized variously as a poet, a Nobel laureate, a Lithuanian in long exile, a survivor and anatomist of communism, but not, alas, as a Catholic writer. I was invited to feel indignation over this omission--which was taken to be some fresh sign of an old bias--but I could not. For Milosz, by his own account, was not a Catholic writer so much as a "crypto-Catholic" or "crypto-religious" writer.

He introduced the term in his correspondence with Thomas Merton, who wrote him a fan letter in 1957 after reading his great book The Captive Mind. In reply--aware that his correspondent was a Catholic celebrity--Milosz confessed that he himself was best described as "crypto-religious." In a later letter he explained: "few people suspect my basically religious interests and I have never been ranged among 'Catholic writers.' Which, strategically, is perhaps better. We are obliged to bear witness. But of what? That we pray to have faith? This problem--how much we should say openly--is always in my thoughts."

For Milosz, the term "crypto-religious" had a literal sense: in Soviet-era Warsaw, as in imperial Rome, one risked one's life in confessing one's faith. There is no such danger in contemporary America. And yet it seems to me that much of what we encounter in our religious life may be called "crypto-religious": elusive, inconstant, hard to define, and yet genuine even so.

Here and now, the expression "crypto-Catholic writer" suggests an underground movement of Catholic writers, working out of the glare of publicity and the scrutiny of the hierarchy, making work that will startle us with its truth and originality once it comes to light. I wish I could announce the discovery of such a movement, but I cannot. So I'd like to consider the cryptic or secret life of recent writing that is in plain sight--to examine the Catholic dimension in the work of Milosz and two other contemporary writers: Richard Rodriguez, known for his trilogy of memoirs and his commentaries on PBS's NewsHour, and Dave Eggers, author of a recent bestseller that boasts, only half in jest, of its staggering genius.

They are not generally thought of as Catholic writers, and I am not proposing that they should be. They seem rather to be expressive of three distinct "crypto-Catholic" sensibilities; and it seems to me that these are more expressive, and more revealing, than the usual generalities about "Catholic sensibility." With that in mind, I'd like to set aside the question of whether these three writers are "essentially" or "sufficiently" Catholic--important as it is--and consider their work as three varieties of "crypto-Catholic" experience.

Richard Rodriguez might be called "enigmatically Catholic"--manifestly shaped by his faith and yet cagey about the profession of it. Eggers is "spasmodically Catholic," prone to fits of religiosity welling up from his Catholic up-bringing. Milosz is "dialectically Catholic," always putting forward a Catholic point of view alongside its seeming opposite.

These three men have certain traits in common apart from a crypto-religious outlook. They are essentially autobiographers, each fashioning an ongoing portrait of the artist. Unlike many of their contemporaries, who see their life stories in terms of the church's coming of age with Vatican II, they stand off to the side of the council and its story. And they all write from San Francisco, which appears in their work as at once a city of wooden houses and a frontier town for gay life and the digital society; a pagan place and the city of St. Francis; a place that is still, as Joan Didion put it in 1968, applying Yeats to Haight-Ashbury, "slouching toward Bethlehem."

In my view, these writers tell us more about "crypto-Catholic" experience than a poll or symposium can. They are our experts; in their work, the Catholic dimension of our own lives and times is clarified. …

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