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Christ, Apollo and the Penetration of Reality

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 21, 2007

In 1960, William Lynch (1908 – 1987) wrote a landmark work of literary criticism which was to become a legend among those who grasp the sacramental approach to reality. Lynch entitled his work Christ and Apollo, with Apollo symbolizing the leap away from the real in the name of enlightenment, and Christ symbolizing the deeper penetration of the real which alone leads to insight.

Surveying tragedy, comedy, various types of imagination, and the nature of time as the ultimate finitude, Lynch demonstrated that the best works of the classical and Christian traditions were based on the paradoxical understanding that illumination and transcendence emerge only by living the mystery of the limited—the basic, nitty gritty, thisness of real life. Attempts to deny the real, or rob it of its importance, or reject it as a sort of plebeian restriction may at times excite, but they ultimately fail to provide meaning.

Lynch found the modern literary imagination—and the modern approach to life in general—to be divided into two forms, the univocal and the equivocal. The univocal man fastens with extraordinary energy on an abstract idea which he uses to arrange and categorize everything else, flattening all differences in favor of a conceptual unity which ends by ignoring the real. The univocal man is ultimately totalitarian. The equivocal man, in contrast, believes only in the differences. The differences among men are all there is; no unity is possible. Each man stand utterly, darkly, and either miserably or heroically alone—the superman.

In contrast, Lynch proposes that the right way—and the most fruitful way—to look at things is through an analogical imagination, an imagination which penetrates the wild, topsy-turvy variety of human life and, as it does so, gains insights about the human which unite all men in the midst of difference. This analogical mode was, for example, the mainspring of medieval exegesis, in which the realities of the literal sense point always to deeper realities beyond themselves. Whether surveying Greek or Shakespearian drama, tragedy or comedy, or other later literary works, Lynch shows again and again how the best, deepest and most effective literature—including all the most widely acknowledged triumphs of the classics—come from authors who were willing to accept, prize, explore and penetrate the real.

Lynch was concerned, as his subtitle indicates, with “The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination”. In so small a space I cannot provide literary examples to illustrate his thesis, but his book is full of them. As a professor of literature at Georgetown with a doctorate from Fordham, this was his stock in trade. But Lynch was also a Thomistic philosopher, a Catholic priest, and a Jesuit, important elements of his identity which shine through at all times. Much of his argument proceeds along metaphysical lines, and all of it refers indirectly not just to literature but to life.

The book ends with sections on what Fr. Lynch calls the theological and the Christian imaginations, where the principle of the Incarnation leads us not only to insight about man but ultimately to God. Christ took on real and fragile flesh to become one with us precisely through differentiation. Only by penetrating finite and differentiated reality do we find God.

The occasion of this blog entry is simply that, after years of hearing occasional vague references to Christ and Apollo in Catholic circles, I finally read it for myself. It is available in a 2004 edition from ISI with a fine new introduction by Glenn Arbery, and can be found in paperback on Amazon for less than twelve dollars. It is not what I’d call easy reading, but for both serious students of literature and philosophers of the real, it is essential.

[William F. Lynch, SJ, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2004. Introduction by Glenn C. Arbery. 371 pp. Paperback. $15.00]

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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