Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem : Wilfrid Ward and the art of Newman.
This dissertation investigates John Henry Newman's understanding of the imagination and its role in religious and aesthetic experience. Newman’s fictional and poetic works fell into the background in scholarly discussions of his life and works shortly after his death. This, I suggest, was in part because the relationship between art and orthodox religion became strained during the crisis precipitated by Catholic Modernism. The Church’s response to Modernism was an affirmation of the authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and a crackdown on intellectual activity outside of its supervision and control. Wilfrid Ward’s 1912 Life of Cardinal Newman, written under close scrutiny by the Catholic hierarchy during the Modernist controversy, established a precedent for the relative neglect of Newman’s fictional and poetic works. However, an examination of Newman’s treatment of the imagination and his exercise of it in his own poetry and fiction reveals the vital importance of this term to his mature understanding of religious experience. Though he begins with an attitude of suspicion toward the power of the imagination and advocates—even in his poetry—an attitude of contemptus mundi to counter the world’s siren song, he eventually comes to describe the imagination as the primary means by which the human mind encounters reality. Whereas in his early works he attempts to make great works of the imagination “safe” by requiring that they also express a standard of moral excellence, he gradually abandons this criterion to argue instead that the imagination is that which recognizes and submits to what exceeds it, whether that be divine and morally perfect or human and wildly unsafe. In either case, the act of submission has value in itself, by drawing the imaginer into relationship with something greater than him or herself and prompting a response of devotion and love. Therefore, Newman’s mature understanding of the imagination, emphasizing openness and the willingness to engage with what exceeds one’s control, goes directly to the heart of the deep anxieties of the late nineteenth-century Catholic Church.