Book reviews

Clemens Cavallin’s Art and Sacrificial Love: A Conversation with Michael D. O’Brien. (Ottawa: Justin Press, 2018)

Clemens Cavallin’s brief book lives up to its implied purpose.  Early on, Cavallin states that “I hope to show [Michael D. O’Brien’s] understanding and ideas more effectively than disjointed fragments would do, or which the analytical distance of a systematic work could achieve” (21).  Thus, the scholarly reader who wants a detailed analysis of O’Brien’s works and writing style should enter appropriate search terms in a database like Academic Search Premier for the relatively few scholarly articles discussing his oeuvre.

The merit of Cavallin’s work, however, rests in the conversational tone which clarifies his explicit purpose.  “In this volume, I would like to give particular attention to [O’Brien’s] art, and try to convey something of the same inspiration and healing that I myself experienced from it” (20).  Lest this stated purpose be reduced to the genres of autobiography and biography (the latter bordering on the hagiographic), Cavallin is aware of his audience, and thus the explicit purpose of the work should be expanded to include its persuasive function.  “While writing this book, I had in mind especially those of you who are now in their late teens or early twenties and feel drawn to art as an expression of a strong Christian vocation” (21).  St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists (1999) may provide a better systematic philosophy justifying the Christian’s role in contemporary art, but Cavallin’s work illustrates the anxieties, frustrations, and joys of two artists (in both the visual and literary arts) who attempt to implement the saint’s ideas in their respective creative professions.

Although the book is ostensibly organized around a weekend that Cavallin spent with O’Brien at his home in Canada (the chapters are titled simply “Prologue”, “Friday”, “Saturday”, “Sunday”, and “Epilogue”), the two philosophical divisions of the book are suggested in the title.  The first two-thirds of the book dominantly discuss O’Brien’s pertinent biographical details and his philosophy of art.  It is only in the remaining thirty pages that the reader may become aware that Cavallin has shifted the conversation to the second division suggested by the title: the importance of sacrifice for the purification of artists so that they can create works in cooperation with their divine calling.  Scattered throughout these two main divisions are didactic statements which encapsulate O’Brien’s artistic philosophy, inseparable from his Catholic faith.

Autobiographic and biographic details about Cavallin and O’Brien are indeed interesting and would not necessarily be found in scholarly analyses of the latter’s work.  Cavallin’s inclusion of two specific details, therefore, serves an important function in the study of O’Brien’s novels.  First, O’Brien’s poverty throughout his career is mentioned numerous times.  O’Brien quit his secure job in 1976 to pursue his art, and he claims that since then “my wife and I, and our children, have lived on the bottom of the economic structure of Canada” and that the “sacrifice was a constant testing” (59).  Cavallin elaborates how severe that poverty was and cautions that “one should not romanticize the lack of resources” (15).

The second important biographical detail from O’Brien’s life has had such a major influence on him that it is necessary to mention the circumstances in some detail, as Cavallin does over the span of three pages (which, in a volume of only 93 pages, is a significant quantity of attention).  When he was twenty-one, O’Brien

sensed the presence of radical evil.  I was confronted by a spirit which was powerful, extremely malevolent, and wished to devour my soul.  It was a being that suddenly appeared to me.  I was not hallucinating: I was sane.  But I—I who had completely rejected any notion of the transcendent or the spiritual—was suddenly confronted by a spiritual being who wanted to destroy me—or at least to devour me.  (29)

If it were not for “something deep in my soul [crying] out: ‘God save me!’”, he would have succumbed.  This crucial event in O’Brien’s life led to his spiritual transformation, encapsulated in the statement that “I realized in that instant that there was a great war in the heavens” (30).  The event is perhaps the moment in which O’Brien understood further that “the darkness that afflicts the modern era is dismantling Western Civilization, Christian civilization, into something far more sinister than the pagan age—into an apostate age” (30-1).

Cavallin offers his own autobiographical detail throughout his conversation with O’Brien, suggesting that the two men have many things in common: “My own story was so different, but at the same time so similar” (17).  While it is obvious that O’Brien enjoyed his interaction with the younger Swedish scholar, Cavallin (who is a faithful Catholic in a Sweden which lost not only its Catholic, but also its Protestant Christian roots on the altar of secularism) discloses much more the therapeutic effect of his collaboration with O’Brien in the composition of this book and in their communications throughout the years.  “Being in Canada and listening to Michael O’Brien was, then, part of a healing process: a quest for personal and professional wholeness” (19).

Sometimes, Cavallin’s descriptions of his interactions with O’Brien border on the awkwardly poetic and hagiographic as when he writes, “I sensed a cloud of grace surrounding Michael, something of which, I think, he was quite unaware” (13) or when he recalls “that first day of our meeting in 2011, when after lighting the candle, he walked by the portraits of Jesus and Mary.  It was as if he had sunk into water, was submerged for a moment, and then came back to normal life, with something of that luminous water still clinging to him” (16).

Despite these flaws in language, Cavallin’s work includes numerous statements summarizing O’Brien’s ideas about art which can assist the researcher and avid literary fan in trying to appreciate his ideas, if not understand why most of his fictional works are massive and often, as some critics have pointed out, verbose tomes.  For example, an image of a sapling growing out of rocks manifests for O’Brien not only his love of nature, but also God “speaking through nature” (33).  O’Brien’s analysis of the major fault of contemporary philosophy and art aesthetics—deconstruction, whereby art is viewed as a social construction and that “True Art” is “not God-given but made by us; and therefore unstable”—leads to his ineluctable conclusion that “As their creations could not partake of what they signified, they became signs of the only thing their creators were sure of, that is, themselves.  The anxiety that then naturally crept up on the wannabe artists, like a malicious black shadow hiding in a remote corner of the studio, biding its time, was precisely this impossibility to stretch out and establish a link with the real, with the pulsating nature of life” (35, 37).  The “black shadow”, of course, refers to the signal episode of the “spirit which was powerful, extremely malevolent, and wished to devour my soul”; thus, including this vocabulary (the simile could have easily been edited out) reinforces that crucial spiritual event which frames O’Brien’s world.

Besides recording O’Brien’s negative comments on modern art, Cavallin’s work is notable for containing the positive tenets of O’Brien’s philosophy of art, whether visual or literary, and the affirming statements span the range of assertion to grander hope.  For example, although the secular world wishes to obliterate its Christian roots and silence faithful persons, O’Brien recognizes in a simple assertion that “We are marginalized, and not allowed to enter the mainstream of culture—to speak the word.  But we are speaking.  We are speaking” (52, italics in original).  In contrast, O’Brien expresses a grander hope when he argues that, in order to accomplish the desire “to make true, beautiful, and good work, we must be willing to sacrifice.  We must risk losing everything” (63).

O’Brien’s novels are reportedly popular; ranging from 500 to 1,000 pages per volume, they are lugubrious works as well.  Evaluating the literary merit of O’Brien’s work, as Cavallin himself noted, is not the intention of his brief book and thus must be relegated to someone who has the interest and time to plow through O’Brien’s thick novels.  However, the busy person of faith may want to postpone reading O’Brien’s novels and read Cavallin’s much briefer (by 400 pages) summary of key tenets of the novelist’s beliefs.  Doing so may intrigue the reader to investigate at least one of O’Brien’s novels to determine whether the philosophical statements offered in Cavallin’s weekend conversation matches the literary artifact.

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