Sunday, June 13, 2004

A twice-told tale-4

Hawthorne (1804-64)

The Scarlet Letter is something of a psychological novel. It presents a moral inversion. One the one hand, Hester’s sin is externalized by the letter A emblazoned on her bodice. Yet she rises above the social stigma and earns her way into the good graces of the community. On the other hand, Dimmsdale and Chillingworth internalize their sin and lead a double life. This eats away at their character, like canker worm. Finally, Pearl seems to be without either a clear conscience or guilty conscience, but rather, a seared conscience.

Many readers love the Scarlet Letter because they hate Puritan ethics, and what they know of Puritan ethics is derived from vicious and malicious second and third-hand caricatures. Indeed, the SL is one of the most influential caricatures. It presents the Puritans as self-righteous, hypocritical prigs, and Hester as a noble, liberated woman and proto-feminist.

Hawthorne has framed the Puritans by setting up a straw man. For the sin of adultery, Hester is made to advertise her sin for the remainder of her years. This naturally comes across as rather cruel. It also makes the Puritans seem pretty hypocritical inasmuch as the public branding of a sinner makes them appear outwardly righteous by comparison because their own vices are less conspicuous. Indeed, Hawthorne exploits the moral tension.

But the fact is that we know how sex crimes were punished in the Bay Colony. According to John Cotton’s Abstract of the Laws of New England, which is essentially a digest of the Mosaic law code, adultery was punishable by death for both parties, while fornication was punishable by flogging, financial restitution, or a shotgun wedding.

Punishment was not a long drawn out affair, or form of psychological torture. The sanction was swift and matter-of-fact.

It should be unnecessary to point out that in a close-knit community like the Bay Colony, a public placard was utterly gratuitous inasmuch as everyone already knew everyone else’s business and monkey-business, so the stigma of sexual scandal would need no mnemonic device.

An insinuation of the SL is that, were it not for Puritan hang-ups, Hester and Dimmsdale could have enjoyed a happy life together. But in order to make the Puritans look bad, Hawthorne must tilt the scales by making Hester a strong, compelling woman and Dimmsdale a weak, pathetic man. Yet that subverts his implied alternative. For supposing that the adulterous couple had been at liberty to pursue their affair, don’t you imagine that a woman as alluring and masterful as Hester would soon tire of a milksop like Dimmsdale and snag a man who could offer her so much more—in imitation of Moll Flanders?

The real hub of hypocrisy lies not with the Puritans, but with Hawthorne and his sympathetic readers. Hawthorne has glamorized adultery. But this sin contains the seeds of its own destruction. On the one hand, adultery is driven by romantic passion. On the other hand, adultery lances romantic passion. When one lover falls out of love by falling in love with another, the new affair severs the old affair. There are many men and women who marry out of love, and the break up when another love interest comes along. Free love is just as destructive to the romantic model of marriage as the Puritan ideal, for this principle is inherently restless and unstable. Left to their own devices, Hester and Dimmsdale would not have spent their lives together. Once the passion flamed out, Hester would have dumped him for another man, another lover, another meal ticket, another rung on the ladder to success—for the latest hat from Paris, France, or perfumes from the orient.

Or suppose they did stick together? Every year or so, Hester would bear another boy or girl to Dimmsdale. She would lose her looks. She would settle down to be a frumpy Hausfrau rather than a fantasy object. And Dimmsdale, as a disgraced and defrocked minister, would scrape by with a subsistence level job as a scrivener. They would all crowd into a cold dirty hovel with a quiverfull of bony bawling toddlers. She would hurl pots and pans at her henpecked husband for failing to put food on the table and clothing on their backs. Such would be the Dickensian sequel to the Hawthornesque prequel.

Like any sexual fantasy, the emotional engine of the SL lies in the sustained state of erotic tension between Hester and Dimmsdale. If that tension were relieved by once again giving in to their mutual attraction, if Dimmsdale did runaway with Hester at the end, then the wind would soon go out of the sails. The story succeeds by failing—by falling short of the ideal it set for itself.

Hughes (1822-96)

Tom Brown’s School Days is a hagiographic eulogy to the mediating theology of Thomas and Matthew Arnold. It reduces the Gospel to a Boy Scout code of honor. Athleticism takes the place of dogmatism, while grace is replaced by morality tinged with emotion. For those of us who read this Victorian novel through the lens of the 20C, with its cold wars and world wars, death camps and killing fields, purges and pogroms, jihads and gulags, genocides and infanticides, suicide bombers and abortuaries, organ farms and rape rooms, glue-sniffers and kiddy pornographers, euthanasia, pedophilia, sodomy, bestiality, nihilism, spiritism, vampirism, diabolism and sadomasochism , this chipper little romp, which isn’t quite Christian and isn't quite profane, is jejune to the point of moral abdication.

Melville (1819-91)

Moby-Dick is in dialogue with Melville’s Dutch Reformed rearing. In naming the two major characters, Melville plays on Bible typology. The Biblical Ishmael was a son of Abraham, but a son after the flesh, as over against Isaac. Not being heir to the promise, he was spiritually rootless.

The Melvillean Ishmael picks up on this theme. "Born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church" (MD 10), he went a-whoring after the idols of the heathen. Being a man of no party in particular, Ishmael can serve as the detached observer and narrator, equally sympathetic, by turns, with the heathen Queequeg and the mad Ahab.

The Biblical Ahab was another paradigm reprobate. In particular, he was a marked man, foredoomed to destruction (1 Kg 22). The Melvillean Ahab takes this aspect as its point of departure.

The Biblical Bildad was one of Job’s comforters. He doesn’t come off as a very sympathetic figure in Job, but he stands for conventional piety, and in that role is taken over by his Melvillean counterpart.

Queequeg is yet another paradigm reprobate. He is both a symbol of heathenism and a parody of Calvinism inasmuch as his pagan creed is just as narrow and intolerant as Reformed theology. In the character of Queequeg, Melville takes another slap at foreign missionaries—whom he first skewered in Typee. Yet Queequeg doesn’t deign to reciprocate Ishmael’s ecumenical overtures and democratic sympathies, so the narrative viewpoint is ambivalent.

Fr. Mapple represents the Reformed viewpoint. His sermon on Jonah and the whale forms a counterpart and counterpoint to Ahab, the white whale, and the fortunes of the Pequod. Ahab is an anti-Jonah, not merely as an antitype of Jonah, but as the antithesis of Jonah.

The white whale is both a personification of the devil incarnate (MD 41) and a type of Leviathan (Job 41)—or "Job’s whale" (MD 41)—which is, in turn, a scourge of God upon the reprobate. How can the same object bear both a divine and diabolical aspect? Just as God can work his will through lying spirits (1 Kg 22), he plays the devil like pawn on a chessboard. For God punishes sin with sin.

Through the nonjudgmental lens of Ishmael, many viewpoints are in play. But is there an overriding point of view?

Despite the dalliance with Queequeg and the noncommittal attitude of the narrator, the narrative itself would seem to vindicate Fr. Mapple’s view. For Ahab appears to be a man who defied the cautionary tale. Instead of submitting to the will of God, he struck an adversarial stance, and in so doing, took the bait and sealed his own fate, the fate of his ship and his crew. He was right to see in Moby-Dick a mask concealing the hidden hand of providence—just as "God came upon Jonah in the whale" (MD 9), but fool-hardy to pick a fight with God and God’s agent of wrath. For Melville describes the white whale as a divine avenger—what with his "predestinating head" and retribution, swift vengeance and eternal malice in his whole aspect (MD 135).

Newman (1801-90)

Loss and Gain is a semi-autobiographical novel of the Oxford Movement. Charles Redding is caught up in the campus fervor of the Tractarians, and against his own will, as well as the stern admonitions and remonstrances of his elders and betters, is drawn into the bosom of Rome.

Even as a historical novel, this is rather anachronistic, for what the Tractarians stood for at that time was not Roman Catholicism, but Anglo-Catholicism. This is too much the thesis novel, in which Newman’s characters are mere mannequins on which to drape the fluttering folds of their author’s doctrinal peregrinations. Didacticism is fine if you can breathe life into your typical spokesmen, but Newman is no Dante or Bunyan.

The advantage of a novelistic treatment is that you are able to make your opponents consistently come out on the losing end of the argument. Although generally well-meaning and reasonably intelligent, the Anglican party is always a little bit dimmer than the Catholic interlocutor, and slips by succeeding degrees behind the competition until it at last falls altogether out of sight. The best way of winning an argument is to take both sides.

The suspense lies not in the outcome, but in how the author reaches his forgone conclusion. It is somewhat amusing to see how Newman stages the chess pieces, but, by the same token, such a contrived denouement carries no conviction for the reader; knowing himself to be manipulated from first to last, he is never allowed to suspend belief and let himself be maneuvered into checkmate.

Moreover, the current only flows in this foreordained direction for readers who had already bought into the high church assumptions of the rival parties; the logic of apostolic succession is only as good as the operating premise.

Furthermore, and perhaps the most crippling of all, the whole chain-of-reasoning is so high and dry that it comes across, not as an outward expression of inner conviction, but an effort to convince oneself of something one wants to believe in, but can’t quite bring oneself to believe in. Although written to persuade us of his pilgrimage, it reads as if Newman were still talking to himself: "Remind me, again, of what my reasons were supposed to be?" But if he cannot credit his own creed, why should anyone else? There is some good material here, but material for an essay or sermon, and not a novel. If a character is merely a mouthpiece, why not drop the artifice?

Scott (1771-1832)

Although Sir. Walter Scott does not write from an expressly Christian viewpoint, he often wrote about Scottish church history.

In Old Mortality, Scott paints a quite unflattering picture of the Covenanters. In my opinion, his treatment is unduly harsh. He opens the novel with his quasi-historical encounter with Old Mortality, who travels the countryside to maintain the fading tombstones of the many Cameronian martyrs during the "killing times." In terms of the narrative viewpoint, Scott presents this as a lost cause for an unworthy cause.

And yet, what often makes the leader or follower of a lost cause a sympathetic figure, whatever we may think of the cause, are the heroic virtues which drew forth that cause, and in relation to which our snickering and sneering and yielding ways make us all the smaller by invidious comparison. For with the loss of the cause there often comes the loss of those heroic virtues.

In his masterpiece, The Heart of Midlothian, Scott deals with moral dilemmas. Effie has been falsely accused of infanticide. Jeanie could lie to save her sister’s life, but refuses to tell a falsehood. For her part, Effie refuses to name the father. Jeanie discovers the identity of the father (George Staunton), but refuses to betray his confidence. Years later, Jeanie finds out, from reading the confession of Meg Murdockson, that Effie’s newborn was kidnapped (without his mother’s knowledge). Having relayed this information to George, he goes in search of his son. His son had grown up to be an outlaw, and, Oedipus-like, unwittingly murders his father. In order to spare her further heartache, Jeanie keeps the true identity of the assailant from Effie.

As the reader can see, the leading theme of the novel is secrecy. Although the plot devices are improbable, it raises important questions about when it is right to reveal and conceal what one knows.

These Waverley novels also mark a signal advance in their presentation of Christian heroines like Jeanie and old Mause. They are role-models of a faith which is at once firm and feminine.


Bassani (1916-2000)

Bassani was the grandson of a Jewish grandfather and Catholic grandmother. Although he wrote a number of novels and short stories, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, later made into the classic De Sica film, was his most popular.

Much of the appeal of the GFC lies in the evocative power of its Biblical motifs and their carryover to the doomed Jews of Fascist Ferrara. The garden is a walled landscape garden on the sprawling estate of the Finzi-Continis. It supplies a unifying theme—where the main characters congregate in place and time.

Just as Moses was the founder of the Jewish nation, the garden was planted by Moisè Finzi-Continis. When Giorgio is banished by Micòl, he compares his exile to the primeval expulsion from paradise. The garden is bounded by the Po di Volano, a tributary which recalls the rivers of Eden. Micòl, Giorgio’s imperious love-interest, is named after David’s proud spouse Michal.

The walled garden naturally creates an inner and outer circle. Outside the garden is metropolitan Ferrara, which was the scene of De Chirico’s unnerving cityscape of urban alienation. And it also represents the death-dealing wilderness of Fascism, as it gradually constricts the Jewish community in its inexorable coils.

What lends the novel its haunting power is the author’s autobiographical reach. For Bassani writes from the viewpoint of a survivor and eyewitness to the Holocaust. Micòl may be unreal, and the great garden, but the personal tragedy is all too real, of a lost world and a lost generation, of lost lovers and mothers and brothers, classmates and agemates and playmates, lost to the death camps. The death camps are real, and the Jews of Ferrara are all the more real for their being rendered unreal, rubbed out of existence, to exist only in the haunted recollection of a few astonished survivors. For the line between fact and fiction is gossamer thin.

Another factor is the calm fatality of action. The reader, narrator, and other characters can sense the destroyer closing in, and yet they generally make no effort to escape. The reader feels like a passenger behind glass who sees a lion stalking a man, but cannot make himself heard to warn the man of mortal danger.

It may appear presumptuous to say that I identify with the characters and their plight, but what, after all, is the difference between the death-camps and death by "natural causes" except the tempo of the former and normality of the latter? Isn’t the grave the universal holocaust?

But although I can identity with the characters, I do not find them sympathetic. For the characters are like little beetles creeping along a wall until a corner forces them to turn, and turn again. They see all of life at the eye-level and edgewise. For them there is no up and down, but only backwards and forwards and sideways. For the secular man is a flatlander, whereas the spiritual man sees in three dimensions.

This is their ultimate tragedy—not death, or death-camps, but the tragedy of secular man. The Jews of Ferrara were lost souls even as they lived, and merely died all at once, as the prematurely damned.

Bernanos (1888-1948)

If Unset wrote Catholic novels in a nominally Lutheran culture, Bernanos wrote Catholic novels in a nominally Catholic culture. Bernanos trades on the creative tension of a culture that is everywhere reminiscent of its residual Catholicism, yet deeply profane and decadent. Unlike Norway, France was, of course, devastated by WWI—with a lost and disillusioned younger generation. And the easy capitulation of the Vichy regime would be a further indictment and national humiliation.

Unlike Lewis or Tolkien, Bernanos had a normal family life as a child. In consequence, he writes as a grownup, about other grownups, and for other grownups. His novels explore such themes as possession and clairvoyance (Under Satan’s Sun), sodomy and homicide (M. Ouine), loss of faith (The Imposter), alienation and impenitence (Diary of a Country Priest).

The basic theme of his novels is spiritual warfare. He is a writer who takes seriously the specter of diabolical trial and temptation. And his conception of spiritual warfare is hinged on two distinctives of Catholic piety and theology: freewill and merit. Until the moment of death, my state of grace is uncertain and imperiled.

In theology, there are two basic models of salvation: (i) because salvation entails an element of freewill, it is ours to either merit or lose; (ii) because salvation is solely owing to the grace of God, it is not ours to either merit or lose.

Related to this is another characteristic of Bernanos, which is characteristic of Catholicism in general, in his equation of faith with doubt. This is a fixture of Catholic theology, for unless faith were a struggle against doubt, it would not be meritorious. So it must be possible to either overcome or succumb to doubt. And this lends an element of dramatic tension to the writing.

It also makes his writing more palatable for the unbeliever. The unbeliever will tolerate faith as long as it is an agonizing, apologetic affair—full of hand-wringing and convulsed with despair. But a firm, untroubled, unquestioning faith is an affront to the modern mind. For it stands in judgment of unbelief.

From all this it follows of necessity that the Bernanosean saint—Fr. Cénabre, Fr. Donissan, the country priest—is a loner, sworn to celibacy. His status as a social outcast and misfit ironically fits him for and casts him in the role of the detached observer and disinterested confidant. And it especially equips him to sympathize with others on the margins of society. The figure of the loner exerts a strange appeal in literature—strange because most readers are not loners, and yet they somehow relate to the loner.

Another Bernanosean theme is the paradox of the saint (Donissan, the country priest) who is more intuitive of evil by being innocent of evil; for the sinner is self-deceived, whereas the saint, as a knight of spiritual warfare, knows the enemy and can see through all false fronts.

Yet another theme, which is characteristic of Catholic piety, is the notion that what makes a saint a saint are not his virtues, but his vices. Like a blind man who compensates by becoming a more acute listener, heroic piety compensates for the besetting sins of the saint.

Of course, not all of his characters are engaged in spiritual warfare. Many have surrendered or gone over to the other side.

Some of these themes are not without an element of genuine insight. But it also draws attention to the unnatural and twisted counters of Catholic piety. By denying himself natural goods and innocent pleasures, the Bernanosian saint invites gratuitous temptations and ordeals. This, no doubt, affords an opportunity to flex his spiritual muscles, but the exercise is a form of therapy for a self-induced malady. Surely we all have enough temptations and besetting sins without the need to stage even more occasions for sin.

And this, in turn, pans into a sadomasochistic streak in Catholic piety, what with its hairshirts and self-flagellation, sexual repression (celibacy) and sublimated lust (e.g., Mariolatry). One cannot help but notice the parallel between monastic sanctity and masochistic sodomy. The pain freak achieves moments of ecstasy, be it erotic or "mystical," through a cycle of suffering and release. Besides the commonality of methods, the incidence of sodomy is much higher among the Catholic priesthood than the general population. (Cf. M. Rose, Goodbye, Good Men [Regnery, 2002].)

The devout Catholic is just as bad as the nominal Catholic, for devotion to error is idolatry and perversion. His hypocrisy is not a character flaw, but a consequence of his belief-system.

Blish (1921-75)

Unfortunately for his posthumous literary reputation, Blish is best remembered for his Star Trek potboilers. These were really ghostwritten by his wife and mother-in-law. At that point his in career, Blish was a bed-ridden boozer. But in his early prime he was fairly impressive.

A Case of Conscience explores some ethical and theological conundra. Three men of science have been sent to explore the planet Lithia. Lithia has natural resources and intelligent life. The ethical question is whether harnessing and harvesting the planetary riches will ruin the alien culture.

And this, in turn, pans into a theological question or conundrum. To begin with, the Lithians, although highly intelligent, are childlike naïfs—which makes them especially vulnerable to exploitation. But what is more disturbing to one of the investigators (Fr. Sanchez), who is both a man of science and man of the cloth, is that their natural law is unattached to natural theology, much less revealed theology. They exhibit the Edenic innocence of unfallen Adam, but without any faith in God. This leads Fr. Sanchez to suspect that the Old Serpent must be loose in the garden, but well hidden in the grass. He reports his suspicions to the Vatican, which concludes that Lithia is a satanic simulacrum that Fr. Sanchez must exorcise.

Before they leave the planet, Chtexa, their alien liaison, presents Fr. Sanchez with a gift—an incubation chamber of a living Lithian embryo. This infernal Trojan horse will hatch into Egtverchi, a precocious Antichrist figure. With his otherworldly, iconoclastic ways, he is feted at soirees of the kind satirized by Tom Wolfe, and becomes a media sensation with a cult following. Fr. Sanchez is torn between preserving the earth and preserving Lithia—that diabolical, but beautiful mirage. In the end, Lithia is destroyed, although Blish leaves it ambiguous whether this is owing to natural or supernatural causes.

A Case of Conscience operates on a much higher plane than the average SF fare, or, for that matter, the pulp fiction of a Tim Lahaye or Frank Peretti. Still, the scenario, while studded with striking ideas and told with flair, is so far removed from the realm of possibility that is commands little emotional resonance.

Unlike many SF writers, Blish had a background in the hard sciences. But the distinction between hard and soft SF underscores a regular and unrelieved tension in the SF genre, which is the fraternization of opposing worldviews; for many of the distinctive conventions of the genre have no firm footing in hard science, viz., telepathy, time travel, superluminal space travel, exobiology, alternative dimensions, &c. So much of SF could be entitled The Epic of Gilgamesh in Outer Space. If, after four-thousand or more years of storytelling, we are still telling and retelling the same old story, then this raises a serious question about what our worldview really is or ought to be.

(Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4) (Part 5) (Part 6) (Part 7)

1 comment:

  1. Harriet Beecher Stowe
    "Uncle Tom's Cabin"
    The greatest American novel that demonstrates the redemptive work of Christ in the darkest evil and suffering of history.