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