Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Except for the Korean War and the Cold War and racial segregation and a few other things, 1953 was a pretty good year. Hopefully, 2011 will be pretty good, too.

Eclectic Reading

Here's what I read in 2010:

1. The Church of Our Fathers by Roland Bainton
Completed January 8, 2010

2. The Dead Zone by Stephen King
Completed: January 16, 2010

3. The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton
Completed: January, 2010

4. Marginal Catholics by Ivan Clutterbuck
Completed: February, 2010

5. The Second Coming by Walker Percy
Completed: February, 2010

6. Walker Percy: The Last Catholic Novelist by Kieran Quinlan
Completed: February, 2010

7. Science Fiction The 100 Best Novels: An English Language Selection: 1949 - 1984
by David Pringle
Completed: February 27, 2010

8. Isaac Asimov: A Life of the Grand Master of Science Fiction by Michael White
Competed: February 27, 2010

9. 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939, A Personal Choice
by Anthony Burgess
Completed: March 5, 2010

10. The Gargoyle Code: Lenten Letters Between a Master Tempter and His Diabolical Trainee
by Dwight Longenecker
Completed: March 6, 2010

12. Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption into the Catholic Church
by Michael S. Rose
Completed: March 8, 2010

13. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
Completed: March 19, 2010

14. The Light Invisible by Robert Hugh Benson
Completed: March 20, 2010

15. The Age of Consent: The Rise of Relativism and the Corruption of Popular Culture
by Robert H. Knight
Completed: March 21, 2010

16. I Alone Have Escaped To Tell You: My Life and Pastimes
by Ralph McInerny
Completed: March 27, 2010

17. What Went Wrong With Vatican II: The Catholic Crisis Explained
by Ralph McInerny
Completed: March 29, 2010

18. How Far Can You Go by David Lodge
Completed: April, 2010

19. Judith’s Marriage by Bryan Houghton
Completed: April, 2010

20. The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture
by Philip F. Lawler
Completed: April 16, 2010

21. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
Completed: April 17, 2010

22. Q’s Legacy by Helene Hanff
Completed: April 24, 2010

23. A Short History of the Mass by Alfred McBride
Completed: April 24, 2010

24. Teacha: Stories From a Yeshiva by Gerry Albarelli
Completed: April 24, 2010

25. Voodoo & Hoodoo by Jim Haskins
Completed: May 3, 2010

26. The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson
Completed: May 15, 2010

27. The Executioner Always Chops Twice: Ghastly Blunders On the Scaffold
by Geoffrey Abbott
Completed: May, 2010

28. Questions and Answers About Your Journey To God
by Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R.
Completed: June 1, 2010

29. The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
Completed: June 5, 2010

30. The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor
Completed: June, 2010

31. Tudor England by S.T. Bindoff
Completed: June, 2010

32. The Abbess of Andulusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey
by Lorraine V. Murray
Completed: July, 2010

33. The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism
by Mary Eberstadt
Completed: July, 2010

34. Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity
by S.E. Cupp
Completed: July, 2010

35. A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story
by Diana Butler Bass
Completed: July 20, 2010

36. Sir William Blackstone and the Common Law: Blackstone’s Legacy to America
by Robert D. Stacey
Completed: July 29, 2010

37. Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future by Fr. Seraphim Rose
Completed: August 5, 2010

38. The Last Night of a Damned Soul by Slimane Benaissa
Completed: August 14, 2010

39. Understanding Flannery O’Connor by Margaret Earley Whitt
Completed: August 18, 2010

40. Heathen Valley by Romulus Linney
Completed: August, 2010

41. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Completed: August 26, 2010

42. A Study in Greene: Graham Greene and the Art of the Novel
by Bernard Bergonzi
Completed: August 29, 2010

43. The Celestial Bed by Irving Wallace
Completed: August 31, 2010

44. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Completed: September, 2010

45. The Third Woman: The Secret Passion that inspired Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair
by William Cash, Completed: September, 2010

46. Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces - and How We Can Change Them Back Again by Michael S. Rose
Completed: September 26, 2010

48. Last Rites: The Death of the Church of England by Michael Hampson
Completed: October, 2010

49. The Trouble With Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith
by Irshad Manji
Completed: October 11, 2010

50. A Bitter Trial: Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan on the Liturgical Changes Edited by Scott M.P. Reid
Completed: October 12, 2010

51. Liturgical Time Bombs In Vatican II: The Destruction of Catholic Faith Through Changes in Catholic Worship
by Michael Davies
Completed: October 16, 2010

52. Purity: Sex, Marriage & God by Johann Christoph Arnold
Completed: October, 2010

53. The Red Hat by Ralph McInerny
Completed: October 24, 2010

54. After This Life: What Catholics Believe About What Happens Next
by Father Benedict J. Groeschel
Completed: October 31, 2010

55. The Catholic Church and American Culture: Why the Claims of Dan Brown Strike
a Chord
by Eric Plumer
Completed: November 7, 2010

56. If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem by William Faulkner
Completed: November 12, 2010

57. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Completed: November 20, 2010

58. The Man Within by Graham Greene
Completed: November 22, 2010

59. Labels: A Mediterranean Journey by Evelyn Waugh
Completed: November 27, 2010

60. Striptease by Carl Hiaasen
Completed: December, 2010

61. Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism
by Melinda Selmys
Completed: December 4, 2010

62. Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen
Completed: December, 2010

63. The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference
by David Berger
Completed: December 21, 2010

64. In Search of the New Testament Church: The Baptist Story
by C. Douglas Weaver
Completed: December 27, 2010

65. Patience With God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism)
by Frank Schaeffer
Completed: December 29, 2010

66. Justifiable Homicide: Growing Up a Baptist Christian Fundamentalist
by Dean H. Auginbaugh
Completed: December 31, 2010

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Carl Hiaasen's Tourist Season

First the chairman of the Miami - Dade County Chamber of Commerce is found stuffed into a suitcase covered with sun tan lotion, wearing a flowered Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts, and sunglasses. He was murdered by having a rubber alligator stuffed down his throat. Then tourists and “snow birds” (Yankees who have moved south to Sunny Florida) start disappearing and being murdered all over Miami. A terrorist group calling itself Las Noches de Deciembre takes credit for the killings. Las Noches are headed by a disgruntled columnist for the Miami newspaper who is a rabid environmentalist, a former professional football player and a Seminole Indian who want to wage war against the white man, and a Cuban who was thrown out of a right wing anti-Castro terrorist group because he could never make a bomb which went off properly. Las Noches want to rid Florida of the pollution caused by tourists and out of state transplants and return it to the pristine untouched wilderness which it once was.

The above is loosely the plot of Carl Hiaasen’s wild dark comedy, Tourist Season (1986). Hiaasen, a columnist for the Miami Herald, is passionate about environmental concerns in his native Florida. In this, his first solo novel (Hiaasen had previously co-authored a couple of novels with another writer), Hiaasen writes the Florida environmentalist fantasy: Kill the tourists, run the snowbirds back up north to Yankee land, and blow up the condos and hotels.

While not nearly as funny as Striptease, Tourist Season has its comic high points. Anyone that can’t find anything funny about cold blooded murder should pass on this book. Taken all in jest, however, this is pretty funny stuff. The old widow from New York City whose husband insisted that they retire to Florida and is now stuck in the condo he bought even though she hates it, is murdered by Las Noches by being fed to a crocodile and goes to her death thinking that she hopes her husband is satisfied now. This is about what she expected from Florida. She would rather have stayed in New York where she could walk to the market.

The madcap comedy aside, like all of Hiaasen’s novels, Tourist Season has a very serious point: the destruction of the environment. Although the words are those of the psychotic environmental terrorist Skip Wiley, I am sure that the sentiment is Hiaasen’s:

Today the Florida most of you know - and created, in fact - is a suburban tundra purged of all primeval wonder save for the sacred solar orb. For all you care, this could be Scottsdale, Arizona with beaches.

Let me fill you in on what’s been going on the last few years: the Glades have begun to dry up and die; the fresh water supply is being poisoned with unpotable toxic scum; up near Orlando they actually tried to straighten a bloody river; in Miami the beachfront hotels are pumping raw sewage into the Gulf Stream; statewide there is a murder every seven hours; the panther is nearly extinct; grotesque three-headed nuclear trout are being caught in Biscayne Bay; and Dade County’s gone totally Republican.

Although it’s twenty four years old, Tourist Season is still good for a few laughs and some serious food for thought about the environment.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Carl Hiaasen's Striptease

I thought that my loyal readers, all four of you, might be tired of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh by now. So I read a tawdry comic novel about SEX. I know, this is perfect reading for the penitential season of Advent.

Florida author Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. All of his novels are set in Florida. Hiaasen is an environmentalist who laments the passing of pristine old Florida and the coming of tourists and developments. (In Hiaasen’s first novel, Tourist Season, which I am in the process of reading now, the plot involves “environmental terrorists” who are killing tourists). Striptease (1993) is Hiassen’s commentary on the exploitative practices of big commercial sugar growers.

At the outset, let me say that Striptease is a much better novel than the awful movie with Demi Moore and Burt Reynolds. One of the reasons that this doesn’t work as a movie is that this book really has no stars. It’s an ensemble of madcap characters. The movie would have been much better with a group of unknowns and B-actors rather than a couple of stars. There are entire chapters of the book in which the characters played by Demi Moore and Burt Reynolds do not appear.

Striptease is the story of Erin Grant. Erin’s ex-husband, Darrell, is a petty thief who is a professional wheel chair thief. That’s right, wheelchairs. Darrell goes around stealing wheelchairs from hospitals and nursing homes and then selling them back to other hospitals and nursing homes. Erin works as a secretary at the local FBI office until she is fired for being married to a man with a criminal record.

Darrell, who is an informant for the local police, is able to get his criminal record expunged and fights Erin for custody of their small daughter. Erin, who is desperate to get money to pay her expensive lawyer fees, becomes a stripper because she can make more in a night than she would make in a week at an ordinary job. Everything goes fine until one night when U.S. Congressman David Dilbeck comes in the club and breaks a champagne bottle over another customer’s head. Congressman Dilbeck has a problem: he LOVES NAKED WOMEN but he goes crazy when he's around them.

Dilbeck is chairman of the committee in the House of Representatives which oversees Federal farm subsidies for sugar farmers. The Rojo brothers who own the largest sugar operation in South Florida have Dilbeck in their pocket and want to make sure he gets re-elected and keeps getting them their subsidy. In the educational part of this comic romp, Hiaasen lectures us on how big sugar imports migrant workers from the Caribbean to harvest sugar cane for next to nothing in wages and pollutes the environment by dumping waste water in the Everglades.

A guy in the strip club wants to get a date with Erin. He recognizes Dilbeck and tries to blackmail him to get Dilbeck to contact the judge and “fix” Erin’s child custody case. The plan backfires and the Rojo brothers’ hit man takes care of him. He winds up floating down a river in Montana where Miami homicide detective Al Garcia (one of Hiaasen’s recurring characters) happens to be vacationing. In short order, everybody who knows about Dilbeck being in the strip club fight begins to disappear . . . You get the idea. If anybody who hasn’t read this wants to read it, I don’t want to spoil the fun.

This novel is full of one joke and outrageous situation after another. For instance, the name of the strip club Erin works at, “The Eager Beaver,” has to be changed when the owner is sued for trade mark infringement by the Eager Beaver Chain Saw Company. A local judge, who carries a Bible to the gentleman’s club with him so that he can say that he is just there to witness to sinners, dies while getting a lap dance. Apparently, the judge just had too much excitement and when the young lady removed her bustier his head exploded and the judge died from a cerebral hemorrhage. And on and on and on. Striptease is a very funny book.

Readers might tend to think that all of Hiaasen’s outrageous characters and situations are all made up and couldn’t possibly happen in real life. However, after growing up in the deep South and practicing law in South Georgia for almost twenty years, I personally am aware of personalities and situations which are not too far removed from Hiaasen’s madcap South Florida. For instance, there was the client whose Dale Earnhardt memorabilia collection was worth more than the trailer she lived in . . . I could go on.

Striptease was a lot of fun. I will definitely be reading more Hiaasen.

Carl Hiaasen

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Evelyn Waugh's Labels

In 1929 Evelyn Waugh was a struggling young writer. He was also a newlywed. Waugh’s marriage to Evelyn Gardner, whom Waugh’s friends called “she Evelyn,” was strongly disapproved of by Gardner’s mother, Lady Burghclere. Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, had met with some success and Waugh’s agent had gotten Evelyn and Evelyn free passage on a cruise ship in exchange for a promise to write a travel book. The result was Labels: A Mediterranean Journey.

“I have called this book Labels for the reason that all the places I visited on this trip are already fully labeled. I was no adventurer of the sort who can write books with such names as Off the Beaten Track in Surrey or Plunges into Unknown Herts. I suppose there is no track quite so soundly beaten as the Mediterranean seaboard; no towns so constantly and completely overrun with tourists as those I intend to describe.”

The first thing to note about Labels is that it is partly fiction. Throughout the book, Waugh maintains the pretense that he traveled alone, when, in fact, he was on his honeymoon. The book was even published in the United States as A Bachelor Abroad. Waugh invents a newlywed English couple, Geoffrey and Juliet, whom he is supposed to have befriended during his trip. In fact, Geoffrey and Juliet are Mr. and Mrs. Evelyn Waugh.

During the early stages of the trip, before even boarding the cruise ship, she-Evelyn began running a high fever and eventually developed double pneumonia. She-Evelyn was so critically ill that Waugh did not expect her to survive. Upon arriving in Egypt, she-Evelyn was immediately taken to a hospital. In Labels, Waugh maintains the pretense of helping “Geoffrey” with the care of “Juliet”:

“The only disturbing element in this happy week was Juliet, who was by this time very seriously ill. The doctor pronounced her unfit for travel, and she was accordingly lowered in a stretcher and taken ashore to the British hospital. I accompanied the procession, which consisted of the ship’s doctor, carrying warm brandy and a teaspoon, an officer, Geoffrey, half distracted with anxiety, a dense mob of interested Egyptians, Copts, Arabs, Lascars, and Sudanese, and a squad of ambulance men, two of whom fought the onlookers while the others bundled Juliet - looking distressingly like a corpse - into a motor van.”

Since Decline and Fall had been a comic novel, Waugh was expected to be funny. One of the things that I love about Waugh is that he was an old curmudgeon even when he was only 27 years old. Waugh is wonderfully eccentric. Of course, there is no political correctness in anything written by Evelyn Waugh:

“Living as we are under the impact of the collective inferiority complex of the whole West, and humbled as we are by the many excellencies of Chinese, Indians, and even savages, we can still hold up our heads in the Mohammedan world with the certainty of superiority. It seems to me that there is no single aspect of Mohammedan art, history, scholarship, or social, religious, or political organisation, to which we, as Christians, cannot look with unshaken pride of race.”

In what I would have imagined was pretty racy stuff for 1929 (but maybe not, after all this was the “Roaring Twenties”), Waugh describes how he checked out the red light district in Port Said and Cairo, Egypt. Of course, Waugh states that he and his companion, an English solicitor who knew where to find all the brothels, merely checked out the girls and drank beer with the madam.

In Waugh’s view, Americans rank somewhere just above unwashed savages. He laughs at a group of American tourists in Egypt who pay to see some cave where sacred bulls were buried:

“Oh, ladies and gentlemen, I longed to declaim, dear ladies and gentlemen, fancy crossing the Atlantic Ocean, fancy coming all this way in the heat, fancy enduring all these extremities of discomfort and exertion; fancy spending all this money, to see a hole in the sand where, three thousand years ago, a foreign race whose motives must forever remain inexplicable interred the carcasses of twenty-four bulls. Surely the laugh, dear ladies and gentlemen, is on us. But I remembered I was a gate-crasher in this party and remained silent.”

Waugh says this of a wealthy American touring the former sultan’s palace in Istanbul, Turkey:

“Immediately in front of me in our tour of inspection there travelled a very stout, rich lady from America, some of whose conversation I was privileged to overhear. Whatever the guide showed her, china, gold, ivory, diamond or amber, silk or carpet, this fortunate lady was able casually to remark that she had one like that at home. “Why,” she would say, “whoever would have thought that was of any value. I’ve got three just like that, that Cousin Sophy left me, bigger, of course, but just the same pattern, put away in one of the store-rooms. I must have them out when I get back. I never looked on them as being anything much.” But she had to admit herself beaten by the right hand and skull of St. John the Baptist.”

Labels is a description of people during the twilight of the old British Empire traveling through a world which was the Englishman’s oyster. It is easy to become nostalgic about a world “where the sun never set on the Union Jack.” Waugh would live to see this world come crashing down in the flames of the Second World War and its aftermath. Labels remains an entertaining and enlightening account of travel through the world of a bygone age.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Graham Greene's The Man Within

The Man Within (1929) is Graham Greene’s first published novel. Greene was so embarrassed in later life by his first published work, a collection of poems called Babbling April, that he bought and destroyed copies wherever he could find them. He thought that his next two novels after The Man Within, The Name of the Action (1930) and Rumour at Nightfall (1931), were so bad that he steadfastly refused to allow them to be reprinted. However, Greene allowed The Man Within to be reissued in 1947 adding this Author’s Note:

“The Man Within was the first novel of mine to find a publisher. I had already written two novels, both of which I am thankful to Heinemann’s for rejecting. I began this novel in 1926 , when I was not quite twenty-two, and it was published with inexplicable success in 1929, so it has now reached the age of its author. The other day I tried to revise it for this edition, but when I had finished my sad and hopeless task , the story remained just as embarrassingly romantic, the style as derivative, and I had eliminated perhaps the only quality it possessed - its youth. So in reprinting it not a comma has been altered intentionally. Why reprint then? I can offer no real excuse, but perhaps an author may be allowed one sentimental gesture towards his own past, the period of ambition and hope.”

The Man Within is very polished and well written for the maiden effort of a young man in his early twenties. Although the book drags in the beginning, by the middle you can start to see the Greene who will be the author of Brighton Rock and The End of the Affair begin to emerge.

The Man Within is set in the late 19th century on the English coast. It is the story of Francis Andrews who is tormented by the memory of his dead father, a smuggler. Andrews hates his father for the abuse of his mother which eventually led to her death. (According to some critics, this may have been a Freudian way for Greene to explore his feelings about his own father, an English school master). While his father was alive, Andrews had been sent off to a boarding school where he learned Latin and Greek. The right hand man of Andrews’ father, Carlyon, has now become captain of the smuggling ship and convinces Andrews to come along. Whereas the other smugglers are ruffians, Carlyon is a man of culture and learning and Andrews looks up to him as a big brother figure.

Andrews eventually tires of being a smuggler and resents the constant comparison of him to his father. The crew looked up to Andrews’ father as a great man, although Andrews knows that with his wife and children he was an uncaring brute. Out of hatred for his dead father, Andrews informs the customs authorities as to where and when a shipment of smuggled goods will be landing. The smugglers get into a shoot out with law enforcement and a customs officer is killed. All but three of the smugglers are arrested and charged with murder.

Andrews flees to a rural cabin occupied by a young woman named Elizabeth. The man who Elizabeth lived with, who had taken care of her since the death of her mother, has just died. In the last years of his life, the man had made sexual advances to Elizabeth which she had rebuffed. Andrews is smitten with Elizabeth and it is a case of love at first sight.

Andrews views himself as a coward and wants to keep running from his pursuers. Elizabeth convinces Andrews to stop fleeing from the other smugglers and testify against them in Court. Andrews does this, but the townspeople are sympathetic to the smugglers and the jury acquits the Defendants. Andrews is warned that the smugglers intend to get revenge against Elizabeth for hiding Andrews out. Andrews then returns to Elizabeth’s cottage where he tries to convince her to run away with him. Elizabeth convinces Andrews to go for help. Andrews returns too late as Elizabeth has been killed by the angry smugglers. When the police arrive, Andrews is alone with Elizabeth’s body and takes the blame for killing her so that he can commit judicial suicide and join Elizabeth in death after his execution. The End.

Andrews is an insufferable emotionally tortured wimp and is not a very likeable character. He pledges undying love for Elizabeth but runs off and jumps in bed with an attractive harlot the first chance he gets and then feels guilty about it. The first half of the novel goes on interminably with Andrews swooning over Elizabeth’s good looks, moral purity and saintliness. In the second half, the book picks up speed and we start to see the Graham Greene that is to come. The portion of the novel dealing with the trial of the smugglers is tightly and skillfully written. It begins to drag again when Andrews returns to Elizabeth’s cottage, and the ending is simply stupid.

However, The Man Within does present, in embryo form, the preoccupations of Greene’s later work. Throughout the novel there is a brooding pre-occupation with death and the existence of God.

“She says there is a God, he thought, and no God could help but guard her. Yet what strange ideas of guardianship gods had, for those who were most their own they often paid with death, as though the failure of life itself was not a branch of guardianship. . . . I would rather trust to a devil to look after his own than a god, he thought, for there seemed to him nothing more final and irrevocable than death. It did not occur to him that Elizabeth’s death might be irrevocable only to him and his desire . . . If love survived the body, as church people believed, why not also jealousy, split like a bitter wine into the unhoused spirit?”

Although The Man Within is not a great novel, like every other Graham Greene novel which I have read so far, The Man Within is well worth reading.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies

Vile Bodies (1930) is Evelyn Waugh’s second published novel. This dark comedy satirizes the “Bright Young Things,” or the young upper class partying set of the nineteen twenties. Like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the theme of Vile Bodies is the spiritual bankruptcy and emptiness of the hedonistic lifestyle of party going and materialism. The title is based upon a verse from Saint Paul’s epistle to the Phillipians which is a part of the burial service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.***

The plot of Vile Bodies involves the struggle of Adam Fenwick Symes, who like Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall, is a hapless victim of circumstances. Adam is engaged to marry Nina Blount. Although Nina is deeply in love with Adam, she refuses to marry him unless he is wealthy enough to maintain a certain standard of living. Adam spends the length of the book trying to make enough money to be able to marry Nina.

First, Adam, who is an aspiring writer, has the manuscript of his book confiscated by British customs as pornography when he returns to England from the continent. Since Adam had already been paid an advance by a publisher for the book, he is now deeply in debt. Then Adam manages to win a thousand pounds from gambling, but gives the money to a drunk retired army Major to bet on a horse. Nina then sends Adam to ask her father, Colonel Blount, to give him enough money to let them be married.

Evelyn Waugh

The character of Colonel Blount foreshadows Waugh’s later creation of Charles Ryder’s eccentric father in Brideshead Revisited. Nina’s father is an eccentric who sponges off of the local Anglican priest and pays a film company to make a movie about the life of John Wesley on his estate. The name of the Blount estate, Doubting Hall, is symbolic of the lack of faith in the post- World War I world. Colonel Blount pretends at first that he thinks that Adam is a vacuum cleaner salesman. Adam is ecstatic when Colonel Blount gives him a check for a thousand pounds. Adam’s euphoria is short lived when he discovers that Colonel Blount has signed the check “Charlie Chaplin.”

In order to make money, Adam takes a job as a gossip columnist, “Mr. Chatterbox,” after the suicide of the former writer. (Which, I must add, has to be one of the funniest suicides in the history of English literature). In order to fill his column, Adam begins making up things about imaginary people and inventing fashion fads. When Adam says that the latest thing is black suede shoes worn with a tuxedo, fashionable men among “the Bright Young Things” all run out and get black suede shoes. Adam is finally fired from his job when he tries to start a fad of bottle green bowler hats.

At the same time as she is breaking her engagement with him, Nina begins sleeping with Adam. Eventually, Nina becomes engaged to Ginger Littlejohn, a wealthy childhood friend. Nina is not in love with Ginger but is marrying him solely for his money, so she continues to sleep with Adam. After being confronted by Ginger, Adam sells Nina to Ginger for the price of his hotel bill which he cannot pay.

In this novel, Waugh predicts the coming of the Second World War. When political tensions in Europe increase, Ginger is called up to his regiment and Nina takes Adam home for Christmas and introduces him as her rich husband, Captain Littlejohn. So pretending to be Ginger, Adam spends the holidays taking Ginger’s place in Nina’s bed. Although the servants and the Rector are suspicious, the Colonel apparently doesn’t know the difference. The novel ends with Adam lost on “the world’s biggest battlefield,” where he finally finds the drunk Major, who is now a General. The Major writes Adam a check for thirty four thousand pounds, which, after inflation, will now buy him “a couple of drinks and a newspaper.” Nina writes Adam that although she is pregnant with Adam’s baby, she is happily married to Ginger who is convinced that the baby is his.

All through the novel, Adam attends one fashionable party after another:

“Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St. John’s Wood, parties in flats and houses and shops and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths . . . all that succession and repetition of mass humanity - Those vile bodies.”

According to Humphrey Carpenter’s book The Brideshead Generation, Waugh was writing Vile Bodies as his first marriage to Evelyn Gardner (“she Evelyn”) was breaking up. According to Carpenter, sexual dysfunction contributed to the break up. After Adam and Nina’s first night together, Nina remarks, “All this fuss about sleeping together. For physical pleasure I’d sooner go to my dentist any day.”

Vile Bodies is filled with eccentric characters. There is Mr. Outrage, the Prime Minister, who is baffled about the conversations at cabinet meetings which he doesn’t understand. The government of his predecessor is brought down when the Prime Minister’s daughter, one of the “Bright Young Things,” brings a group of her friends home and the press reports that wild parties have been going on at Number Ten Downing Street.

There is Mrs. Melrose Ape, the American evangelist ( a thinly veiled Amy Semple McPherson), who has a choir of young women dressed as angels and named after the virtues. Unfortunately, Chastity is the most promiscuous of the bunch and eventually winds up becoming a prostitute. (At the end of the novel, the drunk Major, who is now a General, is making love to Chastity in the back of his staff car in the middle of a battle).

There is the homosexual Miles Malpractice and the lesbian Lady Agatha Runcible who dies in a mental hospital after taking over for a disabled race car driver and wrecking the car (aptly numbered car number 13).

Adam’s hotel is full of eccentric characters including a European king who lost his throne after the World War, an American Federal Court Judge who has a drunk prostitute die in his room when she falls from swinging on the chandelier, and the Major who takes Adam’s money. The hotel owner, Lottie Crump, is based upon Rosa Lewis who owned the Cavendish hotel in London and had, during the Edwardian era, provided discreet accommodations for the male aristocracy and their extra-marital female and homosexual companions.

The character of the Jesuit Priest, Father Rothschild, who opines that the young people are desperately in search of permanent values, exists in the novel as a kind of Greek chorus. (Shortly after the publication of this novel, Waugh converted to Catholicism). Vile Bodies contains one joke and outrageous situation after another. Although the particular scenes and situations are contrived, over blown, and ridiculous, the over arching theme of the spiritual bankruptcy of hedonism and materialism presents serious food for thought for our own age.

The youthful Evelyn Waugh

***“Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.”

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Faulkner at Virginia

As I Lay Blogging

If he, the blogger, who had given himself the grandiose and paradoxical title of “the Bad Catholic,”wished to make a fool and a spectacle of himself, he could think of no better way than a pitiful and poor but yet still arrogant attempt to mimic the style and meter of the great prose stylist, the great novelist of the South whose feats with language and story were so unrivaled that he, the famous author, had had bestowed upon him the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes and who was now universally studied as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century and perhaps of all times, and whose novel the blogger had, through many stops and starts, finally persevered in completing.

The book, which the great Southern author had named If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, was published in1939 under the name The Wild Palms, although that title was only the name of one half of the story, because the publishers had a lack of faith in the vision of the great Southern author, and thinking his (the author’s) biblical title was too artistic for the public and failing to understand the sublime and profound genius of the author’s effluent prose, had demanded that the name of the part be made the name of the whole.

The great Southern author’s technique in this book, counted by the critics to be among his lesser efforts, is to interpose in alternating chapters two different but related tales. The Wild Palms is the story of the illicit lovers Charlotte Rittenmeyer, who is bored in her upper middle class bourgeois marriage, and Harry Wilbourne, a medical student who is finishing his internship in a New Orleans hospital. Charlotte and Harry meet in a party in the French Quarter in New Orleans, and being the victims of love at first sight, resolve to abandon the prison of respectability and to ride the wild uncontrolled flood of their passion. The counter story is called The Old Man, referring to the great and wild body of water which Mr. Lincoln called “the Father of Waters” and whose unchecked power rolls relentlessly from its headwaters unvexed to the sea and which man has operated under the illusion of controlling by means of building levees and dredging channels. The Old Man is the story of the Tall Convict, who came to prison in his late teens for a failed train robbery and now has become so acclimated to the enforced monasticism of Parchman Farm, the infamous state prison of Mississippi, that he wishes nothing else than the security of working at hard labor all day and retreating to the contemplative cloister of the prison barracks at night. The stability and peace of the Tall Convict is breached by the great Mississippi flood of 1927, when the Tall Convict is taken with other inmates to work on shoring up the levee and is sent with another inmate in a small boat to rescue a stranded woman and man on the roof of cotton house. The boat over turns and the Tall Convict is thought to be drowned and the boat lost, but the Tall Convict recovers, finds the boat and finds the pregnant woman who has been stranded by the flood.

The lovers of The Wild Palms wish to abandon all the fetters of respectable society to live life on the edge. Charlotte abandons her husband and her two daughters to run off with her poverty stricken lover who has originally financed their amorous flight by the happenstance finding of a wallet containing a considerable sum of money. The lovers go to Chicago where they eventually settle down to a stable situation. But a stable and respectable situation is exactly what they have fled and viewed as a prison. In order to feed the fire of their irresponsible and irrepressible passion they feel that they must live life on the edge. The lovers, whose fire filled passion is just as wild and uncontrollable as the flooding Mississippi River, go to a dead end job in a bankrupt mine in Utah. After Charlotte becomes pregnant, and fearing the enforced conformity to the bounds of social order which raising a child would entail, she persuades Wilbourne to perform an illegal abortion. Wilbourne botches the abortion which eventually kills Charlotte after the lovers have returned to a fishing cabin on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Charlotte dies, and Wilbourne is arrested and sentenced to prison. So the lovers, who wanted to throw off all restraints and not be bound by any social or moral conventions, ultimately wind up with one lover in the ultimate prison of death and the other in a human prison to pay the price for the death of the object of his passionate love which was the only thing he had to live for.

On the other hand, the Tall Convict just wants to turn the pregnant woman over to a Sheriff and go back to the peace of the Penitentiary. Despite his best efforts, the Convict and the woman are swept uncontrollably down the flooding river. The woman delivers her baby herself and the convict hand makes an oar and wrestles alligators with his bare hands. After many adventures, during which the Convict remains chaste and pure and does not lay his hands upon the woman, but does make advances to a married man’s wife which forces him and the woman to flee, the Convict takes off the civilian clothes that he was wearing and puts back on his prison uniform and returns the woman and the boat to the first Deputy Sheriff he runs across. Embarrassed that they reported the Convict dead when he was just lost, the prison officials charge the Convict with escape and he is sentenced to another ten years which the Convict stoically accepts and happily returns to his life of quiet contemplation on the Mississippi chain gang.

The point of the great Southern author, Mr. William Faulkner of Oxford, Mississippi, appears to be that all of us are bound one way or another in a prison, whether of shotguns and fetters and walls or of society or career or morality, and although we may for a while break the bounds of our prisons, whether through the means of wild nature or of wild and passionate love, we are all, in different ways confined for life by the limits of our human situation. It is possible, that like many of the sublime and powerful works of this paragon of literature, that the great Southern author’s book may be a masterpiece.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall

Decline and Fall is Evelyn Waugh's first novel published in 1928. Before the publication of his great Catholic novel Brideshead Revisited, Waugh was best known as a satirist. Decline and Fall is a comic novel which makes fun of English upper class and middle class society.

The protagonist, Paul Pennyfeather, is "sent down" (expelled) from Oxford University for "indecent behavior" when a group of rowdy students steal his pants. Like Waugh and many other university educated young men in the twenties, the only job Paul can find is teaching at a third rate school.

The school, Llnabba, is located in Wales, and Waugh spares no opportunity to make fun of the Welsh. At Llnabba, Paul encounters a group of eccentrics who have landed there after failing at other jobs. There is Captain Grimes, who was sentenced to be shot for cowardice in World War I, but got re-assigned to Ireland because it was bad form to shoot another public school man. Mr. Prendergast is a former clergyman in the Church of England who left the ministry because he stopped believing in God. However, his bishop didn't think it was a problem because it didn't affect his day to day duties as a parish priest.

Evelyn Waugh at age 26

Eventually, Paul leaves the school and becomes engaged to marry a rich widow, Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde. Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde doesn't like her medieval English country house and hires a German architect who hates art to tear it down and rebuild it as a modern building.

Unfortunately for Paul, Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde makes her money by running an international prostitution ring. On his wedding day, Paul is arrested for "white slavery" and sent to prison. Paul actually likes prison, since it provides the most rest that he's gotten since he was sent down from Oxford. If you want to find out what else happens to Paul and the gang, Gentle Reader, then you're going to have to read the book.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Graham Greene's The End of the Affair

In my effort to read all of Greene's so-called "Catholic novels," I finally got around to The End of the Affair (1951).

This book is about adultery, sin, redemption and the nature of faith. Elements of the book may be loosely based on Greene's notorious real life carryings on with various of his mistresses, especially Lady Catherine Walston.

The End of the Affair doesn't involve a love triangle, it involves a love rectangle. The four lovers being Sarah Miles, her husband Henry, Maurice Bendrix, and God.

The book is primarily the story of the lovers Sarah Miles and Maurice Bendrix. Sarah is in a loveless marriage to a civil servant named Henry Miles. Then just before the outbreak of World War II, Sarah becomes involved in a passionate love affair with the novelist Maurice Bendrix.

The love affair reaches its climax during the London blitz. In 1944, while making love in Bendrix' apartment, a German V-1 rocket lands near by and Bendrix is hit by a falling door. Thinking that he has been killed, Sarah, who is an agnostic, sinks to her knees and promises God that if Bendrix lives she will give him up.

Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore as Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles

Sara ends the affair with Bendrix. After two years, in 1946, Bendrix happens to run into Sarah's husband Henry. Henry confides in Bendrix that he thinks that Sarah is having an affair. Jealous at the thought that Sarah had left him for another lover, Bendrix hires a private detective to follow her.

Sarah is indeed involved with another lover for whom she has left Bendrix: God. A big theme of The End of the Affair is the nature of faith. Sarah is desperately unhappy in her marriage and wishes to leave Henry to be with Bendrix. She rationalizes that if God doesn't really exist then she is free to do as she pleases. In order to try to convince herself of God's non-existence, she begins studying with a notorious atheist intellectual. Unfortunately, atheist arguments against the existence of God only convince Sarah that God is real and that she must keep her promise.

Sarah begins taking instruction from a Catholic priest, and performs random acts of kindness. At one point, she prays that she could take Christ's place on the cross and suffer for the redemption of humanity. Her wish is granted, as shortly thereafter, Sarah dies from pneumonia.

After Sarah's death there are several miraculous healings associated with her intercession in Heaven. (Apparently, the long-term enthusiastic commission of the sin of adultery doesn't cause Sarah to have to spend much time in Purgatory, since she seems to zip straight to the presence of the Beatific Vision!). In other words, it turns out that Sarah Miles was a Saint.

After finding out that his girlfriend left him for God, who then proceeded to take her away permanently, Bendrix, who has been an atheist, hates God. Bendrix realizes that he cannot hate God and remain an atheist since hate is just the other side of love. In order to hate God, Bendrix must first believe in Him.

The End of the Affair is rightly recognized as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Irving Wallace's The Celestial Bed

I picked up a copy of prolific author Irving Wallace's 1987 novel The Celestial Bed at a used bookstore for three dollars. It looked like it would be a mindless fun read, and for three bucks who can go wrong?

The Celestial Bed was great fun. Because this is one of the most pornographic books which I have read in a long time.

It's the story of Dr. Arnold Freeberg a sex therapist who seeks to cure his patients of their sexual disfunctions through the use of live sex surrogates. A sex surrogate is somebody who, under direction from the therapist, has sex with you and helps you to overcome whatever your problem is.

Irving Wallace (1916-1990)

First, Dr. Freeberg and his sex surrogate, Gayle, are run out of Arizona under the threat of prosecution for prostitution. Under assurance by his lawyer that therapy using surrogates is legal in California, Dr. Freeberg sets up shop in a suburb of Los Angeles. He gets a bunch more surrogates together including a male surrogate for the occasional female patient.

A sex crazed fundamentalist preacher gets his buddy, the politically ambitious District Attorney, to agree to arrest and prosecute Dr. Freeberg and Gayle. But first they send in Chet, a reporter suffering from pre-mature ejaculation, undercover to gather evidence. You get the idea, this a bad soap opera. It's so bad it's positively wonderful.

The Celestial Bed has just enough real information about the history and practice of sex therapy to make the reader feel like he has learned something and not feel guilty about all the titillating graphic sex. The characters are basically cartoonish caricatures. Like Tony, the owner of a chain of Italian restaurants, who launders money for the mob, and likes sex one way: fast, with none of that wimpy lovie dovie stuff. Tony's girlfriend, Nan, is frigid and seeks help from Dr. Freeberg. When Tony finds out that some other guy is banging his girl, somebody's got to die.

The Celestial Bed is definitely not great literature. For a bit of harmless raunchy amusement, however, it's good for a few laughs. It fascinated me thinking about how much the world has changed since the late '80s when this book is set. There were no cell phones, the characters have to stop at the gas station and use a pay phone, there was no fax and no internet (they have to go to the copy shop to xerox reports and then have the copies sent over by courier, how quaint!), and there was no Viagra or Cialis (they have to try to cure impotence the old fashioned way without drugs).

It reminded me how old and dated I am. I was a college undergraduate when this book came out. I wish that we could roll the world back to those times. I guess it's just natural to be nostalgic for the era in which you grew up. This old pot-boiler reminds me of those good times.

Friday, August 27, 2010


In trying to catch up on my reading, I just finished Graham Greene’s classic Brighton Rock first published in 1938. The Heart of the Matter left me unsettled, but I really don’t know what I think about this book.

The title refers to hard candy sold at the beach in the town of Brighton in England. Brighton Rock is the story of a teenage gangster named Pinkie Brown, his hapless girlfriend Rose, and a busybody named Ida Arnold. Sound like a bizarre plot? Well, Brighton Rock is a bizarre book.

The plot of Brighton Rock is readily available elsewhere on the internet so I won’t bother everyone with it here. What I want to focus on are the much heralded theological aspects of the novel. Brighton Rock is considered to be one of Greene’s “Catholic Novels,” the others of which are The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, and The Power and the Glory. Although Greene habitually throws in some reference to the Church or Catholicism in his thrillers and “entertainments,” like the daughter who goes to Catholic school and says her rosary in Our Man in Havana.

Greene has said that when he started writing Brighton Rock he intended it to be a conventional thriller or detective story, hence the exciting opening chapter which describes a chase and a murder. The novel’s famous opening line sets the stage for what follows:

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”

Hale is indeed murdered. At Hale’s sparsely attended funeral, the Anglican priest mouths the platitudes of modern religion of the “I’m OK, You’re OK, God’s OK” type:

‘Our belief in heaven,’ the clergyman went on, ‘is not qualified by our disbelief in the old medieval hell. We believe,’ he said, glancing swiftly along the smooth polished slipway towards the New Art doors through which the coffin would be launched into the flames, ‘we believe that this our brother is already at one with the One.’ He stamped his words like little pats of butter with his personal mark. ‘He has attained unity. We do not know what that One is with whom (or with which) he is now at one. We do not retain the old medieval beliefs in glassy seas and golden crowns. Truth is beauty and there is more beauty for us, a truth-loving generation, in the certainty that our brother is at this moment re-absorbed in the universal spirit.’

It astounds me that Greene was already able to poke fun at New Age babble like this in the late 1930's. This kind of stuff sounds good but has no real content. This is not a religion that a person will give his life for.

Ida Arnold, who was a woman that Hale picked up in an attempt to avoid being killed, becomes obsessed with finding Hale’s killer and bringing him to justice. Ida represents the modern person. She has no religious beliefs to speak of, she just believes in “right and wrong.” However, Ida finds no fault in anything which brings her pleasure. Ida sees nothing wrong with casual sex, for instance. “It’s natural” she says, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

“She wasn’t religious. She didn’t believe in heaven or hell, only in ghosts, ouija boards, tables which rapped and little inept voices speaking plaintively of flowers.”

So while “the good guys” in this novel are not religious, “the bad guys” are very religious. Hale’s killer Pinkie was reared as a Roman Catholic, sings parts of the Mass to himself, and believes in all of the doctrines of the Church. Outside of the fact that Pinkie is also an evil psychopathic killer, he’s not a bad bloke.

Pinkie believes in Hell and knows that when he dies in a state of mortal sin that he will certainly go to it. In the back of his mind, Pinkie hopes that he’ll be able to make a confession and be granted absolution before his death. If Pinkie dies and goes to Hell in the meantime, well, as they said in The Godfather, it ain’t personal, it’s just business.

Pinkie kills Hale for being involved with the murder of the gang leader Kite. Then he kills a member of the gang named Spicer so that Spicer can’t talk. Pinkie seduces the hapless Rose, a 16 year old waitress in a greasy spoon who can give incriminating testimony against him, and convinces her to marry him.

Rose is also a Roman Catholic. Before their civil marriage ceremony, Rose goes off to confession but then realizes that marrying Pinkie in a civil ceremony outside the Church is a mortal sin so it doesn’t make any difference anyway. Rose and Pinkie are very moral in a bizarre kind of way. Rose knows that Pinkie is a murderer, but makes a conscious decision to go to Hell with him.

Although neither Pinkie or Rose believe that their civil marriage is valid in the eyes of God, they refrain from sex until they are married. In fact, Pinkie has a revulsion of the entire idea of sexual intimacy from listening to his parents make love through the thin walls of a poor tenement apartment. Pinkie says that listening to his parents in their bedroom disgusted him so much that he swore he would become a priest. However, when the time comes on the wedding night, Pinkie overcomes his disgust and does his duty.

Since Rose is convinced that she is going to Hell by living in sin with Pinkie anyway, she is ready to commit the ultimate mortal sin by taking her own life when Pinkie asks her to. Rose winds up throwing the gun she is supposed to kill herself with away and Pinkie accidentally splatters acid all over his face (in grim preview of where his soul is headed) before he plunges over a cliff and dies to avoid capture by the police.

If any of the above makes sense to you, then you may be either (1) a deranged lunatic, (2) a Graham Greene fan, (3) a Catholic, or (4) all of the above.

Greene seemed to be obsessed with mortal sin and damnation. This led George Orwell to famously opine that Greene apparently viewed Hell as an exclusive high class nightclub open only to Catholics.

I can’t really say that I enjoyed reading Brighton Rock, but it certainly provided much food for thought. Graham Greene was a one of a kind author. It may just be that Brighton Rock is a great work of literature.

Pinkie & Rose in a film version of Brighton Rock

Graham Greene

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Heathen Valley

Heathen Valley, first published in 1962 by the noted playwrite Romulus Linney, is a beautiful book which deserves a far wider readership than it has enjoyed.

The novel is the story of Episcopal Church Deacon William Starns who is sent by the Anglican-Catholic Bishop of North Carolina to establish a mission in the far reaches of the Appalachian Mountains.

The book traces Starns life from his early childhood until his death. Starns was born in poverty in the Mountains, becomes a drifter, kills a man, goes to prison and escapes, and finally is hired by the kindly Bishop as a janitor in the Cathedral Church in Raleigh. After being rescued from alcoholism by the Bishop, Starns undergoes a profound conversion experience. After an experienced Episcopal minister and his wife fail in establishing a Mission Station in the mountains, Starns is ordained as a Missionary Deacon to the mountain people. Eventually the Bishop attempts to found an Anglican Religious Order at the Mission Station.

There is much human drama in this novel which is well written and beautifully told. There are also many horrific episodes and some graphic depictions of sexuality. The descriptions of the Mountain culture and the natural beauty of the Appalachia are wonderful.

For Anglican groupies, the novel also deals with the Evangelical verses Anglican Catholic divide in the Episcopal Church. The novel is very loosely based upon the real story of North Carolina Episcopal Bishop Levi Stillman Ives who eventually left the Episcopal Church and converted to Catholicism. The character of Starns is based upon Deacon William West Skiles who established the Valle Crucis Mission Station in Western North Carolina in the 1850s.

Heathen Valley is a great work of literature which deserves to be read.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Blackstone's Legacy To America

Sir William Blackstone and the Common Law: Blackstone's Legacy to America, published by the Alliance Defense Fund in 2003, is little more than a pamphlet. The book was written by Professor Robert D. Stacey, Chairman of the Department of Government at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia.

Although the book gives a short biographical sketch of Sir William Blackstone, the book primarily concerns the legacy and the impact of Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, which was a seminal text used by American lawyers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Blackstone believed that the foundation of all law was the law of God revealed in the Bible. Dr. Stacey compares the philosophy of Blackstone, that not even the King was above the dictates of the Common Law, with the judicial tyranny which we are ruled under today.

" . . . for all practical purposes America has been transformed from a rule of law state to a rule of man state. Devoted Christians and lovers of liberty in America face a determined enemy already emboldened by the conquest of much precious territory, and the enemy seeks still more. At such a time, Blackstone is more than an inspiring figure from the past. He is a brilliant scholar and practitioner who in a different age faced circumstances remarkably similar to our own. Blackstone effectively advocated a God-centered legal system at a time when many leading culture-shapers sought to impose a man-centered system. He directs our attention away from positive law and a 'living Constitution' and toward a higher law that secures our liberties. As we seek to repair the damage done in the last hundred years to our culture generally and our legal system specifically, we may look to Blackstone's Commentaries to see what a Judeo-Christian, higher-law-based legal system looks like.

. . . Where have new philosophies like pragmatism, positivism, and relativism gotten us? Government has grown stronger under their stewardship, to be sure - witness the "End of Democracy?" - but what has become of us? . . . Post-modernism claims to empower the individual by severing his ties to faith, divinity, and anything transcendent, but in doing so, post-modernism leaves the now atomistic individual in a state of despair and hopelessness. At the same time, post-modernism empowers government, which tends to fill the void left by the absence of true faith. In the end, the falsely empowered individual is powerless to resist the genuinely empowered government.

The further we get from the rule of law, the more fragile our liberties become. . . One step toward remembering would be to begin educating a new generation of 'Blackstone lawyers.' But, one might ask, what would it mean to be a Blackstone lawyer today? First and perhaps most obviously, it would mean that young law school students would read the Commentaries. . . Beyond this obvious starting point, a modern Blackstone lawyer would be one who regarded the science of the law as the Judeo-Christian world has always thought of science until recently - as the opportunity to discover more of God's glory and magnificence through the study of his creation."

About 18 years ago, I bought a set of paperback copies of Blackstone's Commentaries. I have never even taken volumes 1 through 3 out of the plastic. I dipped into volume 4 since it concerns the criminal law and I was serving as a prosecutor at the time. That unwrapped book has turned yellow while the other three volumes wrapped in shrink wrap are pristine white. It's probably high time that I actually undertake to read them.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Tudor England

It has been awhile since I just sat down and read a straight history book. It has been long overdue. I had forgotten how much fun it is.

I recently finished a tattered old paperback called Tudor England by S.T. Bindoff. This book, originally published in 1950, was volume number five in the Pelican History of England.

A lot went on during the Tudor Dynasty in England. Everybody knows about King Henry VIII's female problems. Henry's "Great Matter," trying to secure a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, eventually led to the English Reformation. In 309 concise pages it's all here, from Henry Tudor picking up King Richard III's crown off the ground at the Battle of Bosworth to the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603.

All Tudor fans know the gory details about sex and beheadings, but did you know that Henry VIII debased the value of coins in order to finance his wars? Or that Edward VI's regent Somerset debased the coinage even more? Bindoff goes into great detail about the economy and finances. It's obvious to me that those old Tudor monarchs and their advisers knew a lot more about economics that the current rulers of the United States of America.

In his discussion of the English Reformation, Bindoff says this about the so-called Elizabethan Settlement of the religious issues in England, which I found to be fascinating:

The Elizabethan Church was designed to appeal to the lukewarm multitude, and it enlisted lukewarm support. To most Members of Parliament, as to most Englishmen, its chief merits were negative. It had no Pope, it had no Mass, it made no windows into men's souls, it lit no fires to consume men's bodies. The fact that it also kindled no flame in men's hearts, if hardly a merit, was less of defect in that most men's hearts were not inflammable. But the new Church had by no means rid itself of all the features which had excited the ordinary man's hatred in the old. It had banished the Pope, but it still kept two dozen 'petty popes' in its bishops; it had abolished the Mass, but not ignorance and inefficiency among its ministers; it made no windows into men's souls, but it still made holes in pockets. It abounded with pluralities, sinecures, licences, dispensations, officials, fees.

Bindoff goes on to say that Puritans, those who thought that the new Church of England was not Protestant enough, were just as persona non grata in the Anglican Church as Catholics. In other words, the Protestant Anglican Church was from the beginning a mediocre faith for mediocre believers. As a former Anglican himself, The Bad Catholic humbly submits that that is what the Via Media really means.

Bindoff's chapter called The Sea and All That Therein Is covers Sir Francis Drake and the "Sea Dogs" and the attack of the Spanish Armada. It is some of the best narrative history which I have read in a long time.

Just because books are old, doesn't mean that they aren't good. As a matter of fact, most old books are a lot better than new ones. Bindoff's history of Tudor England is a winner.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away

As I mentioned, the Bad Catholic has been catching up on reading Catholic authors. I have previously read Wise Blood, the short story collection A Good Man is Hard To Find and dipped into the letter collection The Habit of Being. I have also read most of the lectures and non-fiction contained in the Library of America's Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works.

After visiting Graham Greene's West Africa, I decided to pay a visit to Miss Mary Flannery's South. I am aiming to stay for a while.

O'Connor's best writing is in her short stories and in her letters. She wrote two novels Wise Blood and the one under consideration, The Violent Bear It Away. Of the two, I think that the latter is by far the better book. Toward the end, Wise Blood became confusing and hard to follow, whereas, The Violent Bear It Away moves inexorably towards its inevitable, horrifying ending.

Following Jesus is never easy and you are liable to get maimed in the process. Jesus went to suffering and death, and if we are going to follow him then we must be prepared to go to Crucifixion and death along with Him.

The Violent Bear It Away refers to a quote from the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible: "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away." Matthew 11:12.

The novel is the story of a young teenager, Francis Marion Tarwater. Tarwater has been raised by his great uncle, Mason Tarwater, who kidnapped the orphan child away from Rayber, Mason's nephew and Tarwater's uncle, in order to raise Tarwater to do the Lord's work.

Mason considers himself to be an Old Testament prophet. Rayber, referred to throughout the novel as "the schoolteacher," marries a social worker known as "the welfare woman." Mason tells young Tarwater that the welfare woman was older than Rayber and only able to give him one child, and the Lord spared the child from their evil ways the only way He could by making him dim-witted. Mason believes that he has been chosen by the Lord to baptize Rayber's retarded child, Bishop.

Anyone wanting the rest of the plot summary can read the entire thing here. Otherwise, I'm going to assume that everybody knows the basic story outline.

The Bad Catholic is also probably a bad literature critic, because, if I'm honest, just like I didn't know what I thought of Greene's The Heart of the Matter, I don't really know what I think of The Violent Bear It Away either. However, I'm a real fan of the Southern Gothic style. Greene is good but he ain't no William Faulkner, or Flannery O'Connor for that matter.

It's pretty obvious that Mason Tarwarter represents the religious outlook on life and that Raber, "the schoolteacher", represents the modern secular world view. Tarwater must either choose the Lord or choose modern agnosticism. In O'Connor's hands there is a certain fanaticism on both sides. Old Mason had been committed to the mental hospital, but in their way, both Rayber and his absent wife are just as crazy. There is a lot to think about here. Why would a good God let there be retarded children like Bishop? If there is no God, is everyone better off if Bishop was dead?

This being an O'Connor novel, even without knowing the ending, when I read that Rayber had once tried to drown his son in the ocean but couldn't go through with it, I knew that Tarwater would drown Bishop while baptizing him. Thus the paradox. If Rayber had drowned Bishop, in Rayber's secular world view, Bishop would just be dead. When Tarwater drowns Bishop and baptizes him at the same time, Bishop becomes the Lord's and is born to new life.

O'Connor's sacramental theology runs throughout the book. As in the teachings of the Catholic Church, baptism operates as a channel of grace which affects the individual whether the person wants it to or not. You can reject the grace, like Rayber has, but you can't ignore it. It exists whether you like it or not.

I also don't know what I think about Tarwater's voice that he hears througout the novel challenging him to go against his destiny. Is it the devil? The evil side of himself? The rational side? Because we know that following the Lord isn't rational. You got to be a fool for God like all them prophets in the Old Testament was, and like Saint Francis was. After all, Jesus himself went and got his self kilt when all he would have had to done to avoid it was to keep his mouth shut and not be a raisin' the dead and healing the lame and a makin' the blind see.

I have to say that the homosexual child molester that gets Tarwater near the end of the book surprised me as much as the murder of the family by the Misfit in A Good Man is Hard to Find surprised me when I first read it.

Tarwater is destined to be a prophet of the Lord. No matter what he does he can't shake off the destiny that the Lord has for him. He can try to reject it, but he can't get away from it.

Well, the Bad Catholic has a got to get up from this here computer and quit bloggin' and git on with his bidnis of lawyerin' and makin' a livin' and fallin down and worshipin' the Great God Mammon and all like that.

The Violent Bear It Away is grotesque, silly, and profound all at the same time. I think that's a good definition of a masterpiece. Don't you?

Miss Flannery rocking on the porch.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Heart of the Matter

I've been catching up on my reading of "Catholic novels" lately. This afternoon I finished Graham Greene's famous 1948 novel The Heart of the Matter. Honestly, I don't know what I think of it. Like everything I have ever read by Greene so far, the book is well written and engaging. The characters are well drawn and the reader comes to care about what happens to them.

However, The Heart of the Matter is a strange novel. I can't do any better than George Orwell's review for the July 17, 1948 edition of The New Yorker magazine. Orwell's review is literature in in its own right:

Here is the outline of the story: A certain Major Scobie, Deputy Commissioner of Police and a Catholic convert, finds a letter bearing a German address hidden in the cabin of the captain of a Portuguese ship. The letter turns out to be a private one and completely harmless, but it is, of course, Scobie's duty to hand it over to higher authority. However, the pity he feels for the Portuguese captain is too much for him, and he destroys the letter and says nothing about it. Scobie, it is explained to us, is a man of almost excessive conscientiousness. He does not drink, take bribes, keep Negro mistresses, or indulge in bureaucratic intrigue, and he is, in fact, disliked on all sides because of his uprightness, like Aristides the Just. His leniency toward the Portuguese captain is his first lapse. After it, his life becomes a sort of fable on the theme of 'Oh, what a tangled web we weave', and in every single instance it is the goodness of his heart that leads him astray. Actuated at the start by pity, he has a love affair with a girl who has been rescued from a torpedoed ship. He continues with the affair largely out of a sense of duty, since the girl will go to pieces morally if abandoned; he also lies about her to his wife, so as to spare her the pangs of jealousy. Since he intends to persist in adultery, he does not go to confession, and in order to lull his wife's suspicions he tells her that he has gone. This involves him in the truly fearful act of taking the Sacrament while in a state of mortal sin. By this time, there are other complications, all caused in the same manner, and Scobie finally decides that the only way out is through the unforgivable sin of suicide. Nobody else must be allowed to suffer through his death; it will be arranged as to look like an accident. As it happens, he bungles one detail, and the fact he has committed suicide becomes known. The book ends with a Catholic priest hinting, with doubtful orthodoxy, that Scobie is perhaps not damned. Scobie, however, had not entertained any such hope. White all through, with a stiff upper lip, he had gone to what he believed to be certain damnation out of pure gentlemanliness.

I have not parodied the plot of the book. Even when dressed up in realistic details, it is just as ridiculous as I have indicated. . . .

The Bad Catholic has to agree with Orwell. The book is well written, engaging, interesting, but . . . Orwell is right, the plot is ridiculous. Orwell is absolutely spot on, in my opinion, when he says that "If he (Scobie) were capable of getting into the kind of mess that is described, he would have got into it years earlier. If he really felt that adultery is mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken. If he believed in Hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women."

At one point in the novel, when Scobie is taking communion in a state of mortal sin, and has decided to kill himself to spare the feelings of his wife and his mistress, he prays that God accept his damnation on their behalf. Greene is here almost parodying the Catholic theology of offering up one's suffering on behalf of others as a form of prayer. We can offer up suffering because Christ suffered. How can one offer up a sin as prayer? It is certainly interesting fiction but it's very, very bad theology.

Orwell's classic review of The Heart of the Matter has some other great quotes:

"In addition, it is impossible not to feel a sort of snobbishness in Mr. Greene's attitude, both here and in his other books written from an explicitly Catholic standpoint. He appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingue in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class night club, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only, since the others, the non-Catholics, are too ignorant to be held guilty, like the beasts that perish."

Or this quote, which I absolutely love:

"Every novelist has his own conventions, and, just as in an E.M. Forster novel there is a strong tendency for the characters to die suddenly without sufficient cause, so in a Graham Greene novel there is a tendency for people to go to bed together almost at sight and with no apparent pleasure to either party."

The Heart of the Matter is acknowledged to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. It's fun to think about the issues raised in the book and its fun to sit around and feel sorry for poor Scobie, but its terrible theology. And in fact, the ending of the novel shows that Scobie accomplished nothing by his suicide. His wife Louise knew he was having an affair all along and figures out that he committed suicide. Scobie's girlfriend, Helen, can't live with Scobie's death and sinks into moral depravity by being willing to sleep with any man who wants her. When asked what he thought happened to Scobie, Evelyn Waugh famously said "Scobie is in Hell." The Bad Catholic has to agree.

Graham Greene