Trojan Tub Entertainment

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Ralph McInerny and the Wisdom of Fiction

This day, January 29, marks the first anniversary of the death of my father, Ralph McInerny—husband, father, philosopher, novelist, poet. So many still miss him greatly, most of all my brother and sisters and our spouses and children, but his wisdom and wit also still permeate the lives of his siblings, students, colleagues, and friends. Here is a recent tribute published in the Notre Dame Magazine by one of his students, Christopher Kaczor, professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

On January 28, 2010, the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, I entered my father’s hospital room in Mishawaka, Indiana early in the morning, not knowing what now looks so fitting in retrospect, that this would be the last full day before he entered into Eternal Life. A copy of his latest work of philosophy, Dante and the Blessed Virgin, lay on a table, and I held it up and said,

“Dad, your book looks great.”
To which he replied, with a twinkle in his eye,
“You sound surprised.”

In Dante and the Blessed Virgin my father articulates a truth that served as one of the most formative principles of his life as both philosopher and writer of fiction. That truth concerns what he follows Aristotle in calling “poetry,” Aristotle’s name for the genus of storytelling, of fiction. About storytelling, my father says this in Dante and the Blessed Virgin:

We become involved in stories because their characters are in some way ourselves. They are our better or worse selves, but not too much the one way or the other. We follow an imagined version of the choices that make up any human life, choices that matter. We are what we do, and characters in a story reveal who they are by their actions and choices. In real life, bounders succeed and the innocent suffer; they do in fiction, too, but the story makes sense of that in a way real life never does. Any story worth reading again will tell us something about the human condition we recognize as true” (21).

These lines make clear that my father did not compartmentalize the tasks of philosophy and fiction that he so energetically and joyfully took up every day. To be sure, in his mind one of the chief aims of fiction is entertainment, and the fiction he wrote throughout his career, from the short stories he published in Redbook magazine in the 1960s, to his best-selling novel The Priest, published in 1973, to the ecclesiastical thrillers and detective stories that he published from the late 1970s to the end of his life—and beyond—all had entertainment as their aim. And yet, my father understands the goals of poetry to be multiple. Even as it strives to entertain, fiction also serves to manifest the truth about the human quest for happiness.

In other words, fiction’s imitation of human beings seeking happiness is one way of seeking the truth about ourselves. On my father’s view, fiction is the most common, the most popular path to the truth. In a paper I am not sure he ever published, entitled “God and Fiction: Ex Umbris et Imaginibus in Veritatem,” he takes the Latin motto from Blessed Cardinal Newman’s gravestone (“from shadows and images to the truth”) as a starting point for his reflection about how poetic images lead us to the truth. His aim in this essay, he writes, “is to suggest that there is a wisdom conveyed by poetry, by fiction, and because this is so, the most common philosophical path, the path to wisdom, is via the images and shadows of the poet.”

Along this most common philosophical path of the fiction writer and poet—as well as along less trodden ones—my father followed Wisdom all his life. Our sure hope is that he is with that Wisdom now. 

We love him so. May he rest in peace.


  1. Brilliant and true to its deepest core, Daniel. If had I been a reader of your fathers, that quote would have been in the first chapter of my book "THE MORAL PREMISE: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office success." I am greatly cheered that one of the most prolific authors in the history of Catholicism was motivated by how truth is best passed on from generation to generation -- through story. It is why so many people go to the movies -- they come to learn how to live a better life. Their subconscious understands that when a movie communicates the natural law consequences or moral decisions, it tells the truth, a truth the audience takes out of the darken theater of the imagination and into the real practice of their lives.

  2. Dan, I love that story ("you sound surprised.") My wife works in a library and there are many patrons who check out stacks at a time of his books. I am always heartened to know how he lives on in the minds of so many.

    The last time I saw your dad was at my dad's funeral. It was so humbling to see all of our fathers and mothers gathering there, but in retrospect, it also reminds us of this communion of saints of which we all are a part, separated only physically, and temporarily.

    When I taught faith formation classes (CCD!) I always liked to talk about St Ignatius and "seeing God in all things." I think that is what your dad was alluding to, as well, in how we ought to view novels.

    This quote from your dad, along with your previous posts brings to mind the Gospel of John. We are taught that Jesus is "the Word." We understand the limits of the human word, but it often strikes me that when art is truly achieved, we are somehow realizing the core of God's creation; that when art speaks to us, we discover some part of our authentic being. We read "the Word."

    It is true that art can be abused, like so many of God's gifts to us. But where there is art, there is truth; where there is truth, there is God.

    But...what is art?