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James Matthew Wilson and Joshua Hren present at De Nicola’s fall conference at Notre Dame

James Matthew Wilson University of St. Thomas-Houston's founding directors of the M.F.A. in Creative WritingJames Matthew Wilson and Joshua Hren, headed to the University of Notre Dame this week to present at the De Nicola Center for Ethics & Culture's 23rd annual conference, "Dust of the Earth: On Persons." 

The conference featured more than 140 presentations exploring the ethical, legal, and social concept of personhood: persons with disabilities, artificial intelligence, divine persons and the Trinity, the role of personalism in the thought of John Paul II, philosophy, theology, political theory, law, history, economics, and the social sciences, as well as the natural sciences, literature, and the arts.

Wilson and Hren co-present on Literature and the Irreducibility of the Human Person’ 

Joshua Hren Hren founded Wiseblood Books and is an associate professor in UST’s M.F.A. Program. Joined by Wilson, Jane Scharl (Intercollegiate Studies Institute) and Paul Pastor (HarperCollins), Hren will give an invited talk on the religious explorations of South African novelist J. M. Coetzee. Scharl, an American poet, playwright, and critic, publishes with Wiseblood Books and will be a future speaker for the M.F.A. program’s Summer Literary Series, in Houston. Pastor is a distinguished poet and editor who is also a candidate in the M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program.

Wilson is a full professor in the M.F.A. Program, a poet, critic, and scholar of philosophical theology. He will chair the session and offer remarks along with Hren, Scharl, and Pastor. Wilson’s remarks will consider the curious case of Thomas Hobbes, an early advocate of philosophical materialism, who nonetheless carved out a place in the arts for a use of the mind he otherwise thought inane. Wilson will show that the very use of the mind Hobbes reserved for the arts are in fact essential to our knowledge of the world and the human person. What Hobbes called somewhat dismissively "fancy” and “wit” are in factchief virtue or means by which we know the world and discover that its riches transcend the merely material forces of nature. Wilson's comments indirectly relate to his book, "The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness and Beauty in the Western Tradition."

Hren's talk derives from an essay he recently published in Notre Dame's Church Life Journal. He focuses on one of the main characters in J.M. Coetzee's "The Pole," a novel published in September of 2023. The character Beatriz begins by offering what she calls "her mature, adult belief."

"She does not believe in life after death, except in the most metaphorical senses,” Hren wrote. “When she is dead, her children will remember her and reminisce about her, fondly or not so fondly. They might also pick her to pieces with their psychoanalysts . . . as long as they go on doing so, she will enjoy a flickering kind of life. But with the passing of their generation, she will be tossed into a dusty archive, there to be shut out from the light of day forever and ever.

Her metaphor for a this-worldly afterlife is as demystified as they get: a faded, bureaucratized manila folder in an anathematized archive. But when her lover dies, she has a hard time reducing his personhood to this world, and from beyond the grave, he explodes her tidy notions of what it means to live forever."

Invited Session: M.F.A. in Creative Writing 

The M.F.A. in Creative Writing will be front-and-center at the conference. For the third year running, the De Nicola Center has awarded the program an invited session, where Wilson and Hren can reflect on, and spread the good news about, the work UST's program is doing to revive the arts in the Catholic tradition in our day. 

"Central to that endeavor is recovering a sense of the arts as a way of knowing reality, and to that end, our session at this year's conference, ‘A Haunting of Dust,’ will reflect on the ways that art stands athwart contemporary tendencies to reduce human nature, and nature more generally, to a merely material or mechanical process," Wilson said. "Works of art resist this reduction, but they do more; they suggest to us why the reduction distorts reality more generally; it is not possible to think adequately about the nature of things without the concepts of soul, character, and purpose that the arts contemplate and represent and with which — despite some rather loud claims to the contrary — the world is saturated."