Posts Tagged ‘catholicism’

I have only ever read this book for school assignments, I have refused to purchase it, and reading it for my students this week has not changed my dislike.

Before he was The Old Man, he was Santiago el Campeón, a Cuban sailor who made runs to the coast of Africa. Once in a bar in Casablanca he won an arm-wrestling match that had lasted twenty-four hours and made his fingernails bleed. But generally, he watched the lions on the shore and was happy. Now he’s an old fisherman. He’s lost none of his strength and courage, the determination to win. After all, arm-wrestling is generally won not by the stronger competitor but by the one who wants it more. I was never very good because I never could care very much about competitions of strength.

The old man has been eighty-four days without catching anything. His apprentice has been sent to another boat, so even though Manolin takes care of him on shore, at sea he is alone. So now, Day 85, he catches a tuna and throws it in the bottom of his boat. Then, one of his hooks farther down gets something big. It’s an eighteen-foot marlin, and it tows him out to sea for the next two days. The first night he eats the tuna. The second night he catches a dolphin, which he eats about half of, along with the two flying fish he found inside it. The third afternoon the marlin circles a bit, and he brings it in for the kill. It’s too big for his boat, so he straps it alongside. That afternoon he kills four sharks and seriously wounds two more, as they come for his fish, but after it gets dark he can’t see them any more and by this point he’s too tired and weak to do anything about it. By the time he gets home, all he’s got is a big old marlin skeleton.

It’s utterly depressing. This is a book about someone who has never been defeated in his entire life being destroyed by the thing he loves most. Despite his persistent unreflected-upon Catholicism, he has a real animistic view of nature – all the animals are his friends, the sea is his lover, even the stars are his friends. He has a strong love for life and the world, even though when considered independently of his perspective it doesn’t care about him. Hemingway makes him a Christ figure, the suffering servant who kills the brother he loves in order to feed the community, and I know this is the classic Modernist view of things. I’m more interested in how the old man compares himself to Icarus – he wasn’t defeated, he destroyed himself by letting the marlin pull him out too far.

Which means, consider the third implied comparison: Is Jesus Icarus? Jesus doesn’t take a middle path; he calls others to a higher standard of social and personal morality, starting from his Sermon on the Mount comment “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Like Icarus, Jesus aims high, only instead of looking for personal glory or whatever it was about the sun that entranced Icarus, he aims for the good of the entire community. But his goals are too high. Frankly, the god of the Old Testament always aims too high. Moses brought down a huge list of commandments, the drunk people were fornicating in worship of a golden calf, he breaks the list and goes back up the mountain and comes back with only ten. By the time of Jeremiah, this same god says that if ten is too much, they can follow just one commandment and he’ll save them from Nebuchadnezzar, but that one was too much. Many Christians have this idea that they are expected to follow this list of rules, but it was always aimed a little too high. It’s common to see Jesus as the one who makes everything easier and doable, who stops us from being Icarus because he gives people grace, forgiveness for taking the middle road between godliness and devilishness. But our stories of Jesus, the ones that made it into the New Testament, characterize him as perfect. He aimed for the sun and fell into death and infamy, though both were only temporary. For Icarus, death is the end. There is no recovery from defeat. For Jesus, there is always a victory coming.

Which is true for the old man? Is this the end, or is there a future victory waiting for him? For me, it feels like the end. All his optimism and confidence carry him through the catching of the fish, but when the sharks come, despair enters his heart for the first time. There is nothing he can do. The sea will not allow him to take this victory. It’s like this whole experience was intended to teach him that he has reached the limit of his power. He’s no longer the champion. Instead, he’s like that guy in Casablanca – they had a rematch once, but it ended quickly because he had lost his confidence. Now that the sea has beaten him, he’s going to expect to be beaten and he’s going to die a loser.

In real life, none of us are gods. We have to learn how to lose. The old man hasn’t had to learn to lose gracefully, so I think this defeat will destroy him. Me, on the other hand, I’ve been beaten so many times I can’t count. There are some ways that this has shaped me – for example, I don’t like competition and tend to avoid situations where there is a winner and a loser – but I haven’t adopted this as my identity. I’m not of the Beat generation. I fall, I get back up, I keep going. Sometimes in a new direction, but always forward.

I’ve been thinking of this in terms of my profession, lately. In our culture people think that teachers can never be happy or fulfilled doing anything else, as if we all feel this sacred calling, as if we were nuns or something. I’ve gotten past that. Teaching is a job, and though it’s one I do well, I don’t think it’s the only one I could enjoy. There are lots of ways to help people; teaching them to communicate is only one, and it’s not even the one I spent six years in college for. I went to school to help people understand, and I’ve spent the last ten or eleven years teaching them to speak. Giving people a voice is a powerful thing, but my lack of explicit training in it means that my professional life is dogged by uncertainty. There must be a better way than the one I’ve worked out on my own, but I’m little motivated to go research teaching strategies or get the MA in TESOL or education that would qualify me for the work I’m already doing. As I think about it, I realize that I feel like my life is being controlled by forces that I don’t understand and therefore cannot manipulate, specifically, money. I’d like to study economics or finance or accounting or something so that I stop panicking when I think or talk about money, so that I can use it to make my life better instead of feeling like it’s a dirty stranger that lives in my wallet. I want to make money familiar to me and I want to learn to make better choices with it. I’m sick of being so goddamn poor all the time.

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Sometimes I read something and I think, Why? Why did I just read that? How was that necessary to life?

Eliot’s account of Thomas à Becket’s murder is like that. It’s an abstract expressionist play which first casts Becket as a Christ figure, then explains and absolves his murderers. Weird, as a drama by T. S. Eliot absolutely ought to be.

One of the things I appreciate about it is the reminder that people who aspire to become martyrs have the worst type of pride. Kings only want power and love while they’re alive; saints are revered for the rest of time. As long as the Church lives, so do its saints. Even films that have been approved by the Catholic Church make their saints seem horribly unpleasant people, too beatific to have any empathy for or usefulness in daily life. No one likes the sort of people who make them feel inferior.

Becket started as a young libertine who made friends with the future king. He became chancellor when his friend came to power, and the two of them actually ruled pretty well for a while. But when the king made Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury, the new priest dove into his new role feet first. He submitted to the Pope with Catholic grace, and defended the Church against all encroachers, including his former friend the king. Only one thing to do: kill him.

Sudden religion does not seem to benefit people very much. It certainly doesn’t increase the love among their less religious friends. New adherents often get twisted away from their true natures, and become more adamantly twisted than those who were raised in faith. I guess a slow growth of faith doesn’t hurt people too badly, but snap conversion seems harmful. I mean, look at St Paul. He argued with the disciples who had actually known Jesus and spent the rest of his life traveling, preaching his own version of the faith and screwing things around. Some people blame him for all the excesses of Christianity over the last two thousand years.

Becket’s martyrdom was actually sort of effective, if all he had wanted was fame. Two hundred years later, Chaucer was writing about traveling to Canterbury to get a supposedly authentic vial of his blood to ward off illness. Eight hundred years later, Eliot’s writing a drama about it. There was even a film (not of Eliot’s play, of Anouilh’s, but on the same subject). And here I am, 846 years afterward, trying to find meaning in a twelfth-century murder.

I’m not sure if Eliot comes to any conclusions or not. Perhaps it’s that even good people have to be killed sometimes, though as morals go, that one is rather awful. Maybe that’s the point; murder is inherently immoral, even if it’s initiated and condoned by the state. A person can always justify his actions, but that doesn’t always make them right or understandable.

I’ve been delaying writing about this, and I’m not entirely sure why. These five stories are good, exactly what you’d expect from Byatt. I love her fairy tales, but these are a little grittier than I remember The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye being.

The Thing in the Forest

During the evacuation, two girls see the wyrm in the woods. It reminds me a bit of Bram Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm, but this wyrm doesn’t transform into a woman. It’s more like a sentient pile of raw meatloaf. Gross, but something about contact with the supernatural pulls these girls back after they’ve grown into women.

Body Art

Starving art student decorates hospital for Christmas, meets a handsome doctor who’s obsessed with the fact that he’s Catholic but doesn’t believe it any more. So when she gets pregnant, he forces her to keep the baby.

“I didn’t understand. I didn’t know.”

Possibility of a happy ending, despite the messy relationships.

A Stone Woman

At some point, someone is going to write a scholarly article on Byatt’s great love of Scandinavian men. It probably won’t be me, though.

A woman transforms to stone, gradually and beautifully. She meets an Icelandic sculptor who takes her to a place where stone women can be at peace, Iceland in the winter.

Raw Material

Community writing classes that the teacher is trying desperately to keep from becoming group therapy sessions. And failing. When someone writes something genuinely good, the sort of writing that touches the heart and wrings the emotions, they pounce on it and destroy it. Sad. It’s hard for people to honour talent in others that they wished they had for themselves.

The Pink Ribbon

An elderly man cares for his wife, who is dying of Alzheimer’s. When my grandmother got this, she went to the Alzheimer’s wing of the assisted living community where they lived. My grandfather asked them if he could stay with her if he promised to act crazy. But this man in the story just takes care of her at home, with the aid of a community nurse. But no one wants to linger with Alzheimer’s, so the astral projection of her younger self comes to beg him to let her die as soon as she can.

I suppose these are not happy stories. People’s lives are transformed, and often ended. Maybe I shouldn’t see that as sad, but this week I do. Sometimes there’s a redemptive feel, and the Stone Woman’s ending is more triumphant than death, but this is a sad and strange book, read at a time when I don’t really need sad and strange. I’m looking for something comforting, and this wasn’t it.

Sorry not to offer you more, but thinking about this book is getting me agitated again, and it’s not an emotion that I have time for these days. I’m living in a family again, and it requires an emotional stability that is hard for me to maintain. Stories of people going off the rails don’t help right now.

Sometimes there are books we meet unexpectedly, which we read though we never planned to or even wanted to. This week I’ve been substituting in a class reading this book, and I’d never even opened it. I’ve heard of it for years, of course, but somehow I never felt any internal motivation to go read it. Even at the height of my interest in Toni Morrison, I didn’t read Cisneros. And Morrison is a good comparison.

Cisneros’s book is a little circular, with short little chapters, many of four paragraphs or less. The first chapter is strongly echoed in the last, too. Characters keep coming back and back. She presents us with a community, and it can be easy to lose the threads since people can disappear for fifty pages in a book that’s only about 110 pages long. Angel Vargas is only briefly mentioned twice, poor boy, with no other connection between those two sections of the book. I read the whole thing in a couple of hours, and I dozed for twenty or thirty minutes in the middle.

Several of the reviewers remarked on the humor of the book, but I must confess I missed that part. There are jokes that bite, and I feel the teeth but miss the laugh. Having grown up poor, I don’t find jokes about poverty funny. Having a conscience, I don’t find jokes about the trials of women in a patriarchal society funny. I found the book to be absolutely fucking depressing. Women are raped, imprisoned, and married as children. The only protection is to hide in childhood for as long as possible, though that’s no guarantee. Rafaela may be compared to Rapunzel, locked in a tower, but no prince is going to rescue her.

The narrator is a girl named Esperanza, which usually translates to Hope, but also contains the ideas of expectation, waiting, and longing. It’s not a happy name, and she thinks it’s too long and full of consonants. She’s trying to navigate the odd world of preteen girls, where she’s perceived as a child right up until the time she puts on high heels, when she is suddenly treated to the lust-filled stares and catcalls that adult women have to put up with all the time. She and her friends “are tired of being beautiful” and get rid of the shoes. The cultural idea is that if a girl is old enough to be interested in men, she’s old enough to be married to one. So Esperanza hangs onto her girlishness so that she can be single long enough to finish junior high. People tell her to get an education, to get out of their insular community, and she is determined to hold onto her power.

Women do not have power in this book. They are controlled by their fathers until they get married, when they’re controlled by their husbands. Too afraid to leave the apartment, or just locked in. There’s a brief interval when they’re brave enough to defy their fathers’ rule before they marry, and that is the only time that a woman is free to do what she likes.

She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake.

The book did show me how great life is outside of Christian education. We came to a section where Esperanza goes to visit an oddly normal fortune-teller, and I pulled my tarot cards out of my bag (like the poor, they’re with me always), and since the students were interested, we had tarot readings all round. I expected the quiet Afghan boy to refuse, but he went along with it. He seemed a little uncomfortable with how accurate the reading was, and he’s not the first person to feel that my reading was closer to the truth than is strictly necessary. As I tell people, there’s no magic in it, the querent provides the interpretation, but still. Take a concept like Temperance or Balance and tell people it’s important to them, and of course you’ll be right because those concepts are important in every life. Anyway, the students were cool with it, I told the story to the supervisor and she thought it was great – secular academics make me feel good about myself because they don’t criticize me for being gay or interested in alternative spiritualities.

Women are not safe. In one section, Cisneros doesn’t come right out and say it, but I’m pretty sure Esperanza gets raped at a carnival. She goes with a friend, and the friend ditches her, and there’s a white man who starts talking about how pretty she is, and suddenly she’s talking about how people have lied to her about how great The Unnamed It is. In that context, she’s right. Sex can be beautiful and special and fun and wonderful, but it can also be terrifying and invasive and traumatizing. It can be the best or the worst thing that ever happened to someone. Or neither, it’s possible to have completely mediocre sexual experiences. But either way, why would someone teach a book with such an upsetting section to children? The first time I read the Red Clowns part I got so agitated that I felt physically ill. And then I had to teach it; I didn’t realize how emotional I get on the topic of rape. But I made it through, and the students were respectful, so our experience could have been much worse. I don’t know how Esperanza’s could have been. Some women have said that they’d rather have been killed, and some kill themselves to get away from the memory. Rape is an awful, evil thing. No one chooses it, and no one should have to experience it.

I suppose I should say something about the fact that this is a Latina community. But honestly, gender seems significantly more important than ethnicity in determining the lives of the characters. And poverty is poverty, no matter what your skin color is. I don’t belong to a recently immigrated community, but I know that my first name refers to a geographical term, a narrow strip of land between two bodies of water. I’ve even seen some on maps. Names having meaning is not specific to Spanish speakers. Religion as a tool of social control is not specific to Catholicism. Their community is insular, but she doesn’t present the uniquenesses of being Latina. Being a woman who’s poor is description enough, I guess.

As mentioned, I didn’t go looking for this book. I read it as a duty, so that I could do my job to the best of my ability. I found it horridly depressing, but I think it’s going to stay with me. The starkness of the writing lends a magical realism effect when she uses metaphors, but . . .

No wonder everybody gave up. Just stopped looking out when little Efren chipped his buck tooth on a parking meter and didn’t even stop Refugia from getting her head stuck between two slats in the back gate and nobody even looked up not once the day Angel Vargas learned to fly and dropped from the sky like a sugar donut, just like a falling star, and exploded down to earth without even an “Oh.”

When one is a student of literature, one gathers several of this type of anthology (from Oxford University Press). I have Major Works collections for Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, and Wilde, as well as Norton Critical Editions for several others. Most of my eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels are also Oxfords; there’s something about the paper they use that I prefer to Penguin, the other publisher of novels read primarily by academics. Even though I bought this one new, and quite recently, it doesn’t smell like chemicals. Books should smell like the forests from which they came.

Since this type of book is normally used in class, it’s usually used as a resource instead of something you read straight through. We also typically read the poetry first and then the prose, though I’m not sure if it makes sense to do it that way. This time I did read it all through (except the introduction; I hate introductions), and I read the prose at the back first. Printing the prose is ostensibly to give a more complete view of Hopkins’s character, but the editor has chosen primarily the letters and excerpts from sermons that reflect the poetry, so I’m not sure if that’s really what’s going on. I’m not in school right now, so I was reading just to get into the joy of Hopkins, and I felt very much as if he’d been packaged for me as a poet. It would be very easy to teach a class on his poetry from this book, but I don’t think it gives an adequate picture of his entire character.

So, Hopkins was a poet. Yes, great. He put a lot of effort into his poetry, so while it can seem strange and a bit stream-of-conscious, it’s all very carefully constructed. His sprung rhythm feels very natural, but he had a ton of rules about how to compose with it, so I wouldn’t try it unless you really like rules. He also drew pictures in his journal, and wrote music, and had an appreciation of all the arts. He observed nature so carefully that I think he could have had a bright career in science if religion hadn’t attracted him more strongly. Though I suspect that his attraction to religion comes from a masochistic depression.

This morning I made the meditation on the Three Sins, with nothing to enter but a loathing of my life and a barren submission to God’s will. The body cannot rest when it is in pain nor the mind be at peace as long as something bitter distills in it and it aches. This may be at any time and is at many: how then can it be pretended there is for those who feel this anything worth calling happiness in this world? There is a happiness, hope, the anticipation of happiness hereafter: it is better than happiness, but it is not happiness now. It is as if one were dazzled by a spark or star in the dark, seeing it but not seeing by it: we want a light shed on our way and a happiness spread over our life.

And masochism and depression are things that I understand, though when they are taken to this extreme I become a little uncomfortable:

Easter Communion

Pure fasted faces draw unto this feast:
God comes all sweetness to your Lenten lips.
You striped in secret with breath-taking whips,
Those crooked rough-scored chequers may be pieced
To crosses meant for Jesu’s; you whom the East
With draught of thin and pursuant cold so nips
Breathe Easter now; you serged fellowships,
You vigil-keepers with low flames decreased,
God shall o’er-brim the measures you have spent
With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze
And the ever-fretting shirt of punishment
Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease.
Your scarce-sheathed bones are weary of being bent:
Lo, God shall strengthen all the feeble knees.

Punish yourself now; God will comfort you later. It may not be a healthy attitude, but it certainly is a common one. And Hopkins really went after it: he lived during the time of the Kulturkampf, when Catholicism was being rejected and limited throughout Europe, so what does he do? He converts to Catholicism and feels called to become a Jesuit priest, the order of Catholics most often restricted by secular law. I have felt this desire to suffer with those who suffer, to strengthen the weak by joining them in their sorrows, to comfort the martyrs by becoming one. There was even a time when I considered becoming a clergyman myself. There is safety in constructing your life so that existential questions can be answered by an external authority. But it wouldn’t have been honest of me to assume that type of vocation, and I’m glad I didn’t. The hardest part of teaching for me is the part where you’re not teaching, when I have to pretend to care about things that I really don’t, like whether my students are sleeping in chapel or not. If I were any variety of priest, I would have to do that even more. Even in my most devout moments, I don’t think that any one belief system is right for all people. If there were only one path to God, we’d all start at the same place.

This sour severity blinds you to his great genius. Jekyll and Hyde I have read. You speak of ‘the gross absurdity’ of the interchange. Enough that it is impossible and might perhaps have been a little better masked: it must be connived at, and it gives rise to a fine situation. It is not more impossible than fairies, giants, heathen gods, and lots of things that literature teems with – and none more than yours. You are certainly wrong about Hyde being overdrawn: my Hyde is worse. The trampling scene is perhaps a convention: he was thinking of something unsuitable for fiction.

Religious people with depression often believe themselves to be the worst people ever. Having spent two weeks peeking into Hopkins’s mind, I don’t see that he’s such a horrible person. But then, while I feel an affinity with him on many subjects, there are some areas where he and I have different opinions.

But first I may as well say what I should not otherwise have said, that I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman’s mind to be more like my own than any other man’s living. As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession. And this makes me the more desirous to read him and the more determined that I will not.

Walt Whitman a great scoundrel? Perish the thought. I’d crown him a saint if I knew how to make crowns from daisies. But sometimes Hopkins’s writing is very similar, as in this unfinished poem:

Hark, hearer, hear what I do; lend a thought now, make believe
We are leaf-whelmed somewhere with the hood
Of some branchy bunchy bushybowered wood,
Southern dean or Lancashire clough or Devon cleave,
That leans along the loins of hills, where a candycoloured, where a gluegold-brown
Marbled river, boisterously beautiful, between
Roots and rocks is danced and dandled, all in froth and waterblowballs, down.
We are there, when we hear a shout
That the hanging honeysuck, the dogeared hazels in the cover
Makes dither, makes hover
And the riot of a rout
Of, it must be, boys from the town
Bathing: it is summer’s sovereign good.
By there comes a listless stranger: beckoned by the noise
He drops toward the river: unseen
Sees the bevy of them, how the boys
With dare and with downdolfinry and bellbright bodies huddling out,
Are earthworld, airworld, waterworld thorough hurled, all by turn and turn about.
This garland of their gambol flashes in his breast
Into such a sudden zest
Of summertime joys
That he hies to a pool neighbouring; sees it is the best
There; sweetest, freshest, shadowiest;
Fairyland; silk-beech, scrolled ash, packed sycamore, wild wychelm, hornbeam fretty overstood
By. Rafts and rafts of flake-leaves light, dealt so, painted on the air,
Hang as still as hawk or hawkmoth, as the stars or as the angels there,
Like the thing that never knew the earth, never off roots
Rose. Here he feasts: lovely all is! No more: off with – down he dings
His bleached both and woolwoven wear:
Careless these in coloured wisp
All lie tumbled-to; then with loop-locks
Forward falling, forehead frowning, lips crisp
Over fingerteasing task, his twiny boots
Fast he opens, last he off wrings
Till walk the world he can with bare his feet
And come where lies a coffer, burly all of blocks
Built of chancequarried, selfquained, hoar-husked rocks
And the water warbles over into, filleted with glassy grassy quicksilvery shives and shoots
And with heavenfallen freshness down from moorland still brims,
Dark or daylight on and on. Here he will then, here he will the fleet
Flinty kindcold element let break across his limbs
Long. Where we leave him, froliclavish, while he looks about him, laughs, swims.

And then suddenly Hopkins remembers he was supposed to be writing a poem for his brother’s wedding, and tries to say that the pool is marital love, and the trees represent the family and friends, but it all seems very twenty-ninth-bather-ish, as if lifted from the Leaves of Grass.

Being gay would explain why Hopkins thinks he’s so evil and needs so much controlling, so many rules, such a strict religious order. People have speculated that some of the poems were inspired by a certain guy, but there’s also convincing evidence that they came from other sources, and this editor avoids the subject. However, there are fragments like this:

Denis,
Whose motionable, alert, most vaulting wit
Caps occasion with an intellectual fit.
Yet Arthur is a Bowman: his three-heeled timber’ll hit
The bald and bold blinking gold when all’s done
Right rooting in the bare butt’s wincing navel in the sight of the sun.

Okay, so butt is an archery term, and the bare butt is an exposed target, but it’s also an exposed target in the world of gay sex. Some double entendres are too delicious to let pass. In this one, he may be describing me:

He mightbe slow and something feckless first,
Not feck at first, and here no harm,
But earnest, always earnest, there the charm

And we often seem to have similar taste in men. He writes a lot about soldiers and sailors, and I’m a big fan of guys who are physically tough and strong, though it should be balanced by some emotional intelligence. If someone is going to live happily with a person as habitually silent as I am, he has to pick up on nonverbal cues.

This is from an earlier draft of “The Loss of the Eurydice”:

They say who saw one sea-corpse cold
How he was of lovely manly mould,
Every inch a tar,
Of the best we boast seamen are.

Look, from forelock down to foot he,
Strung by duty is strained to beauty
And russet-of-morning-skinned
With the sun, salt, and whirling wind.

Oh! his nimble finger, his gnarled grip!
Leagues, leagues of seamanship
Slumber in his forsaken
Bones and will not, will not waken.

The revised version I don’t like as much:

Look, foot to forelock, how all things suit! he
Is strung by duty, is strained to beauty,
And brown-as-dawning-skinned
With brine and shine and whirling wind.

O his nimble finger, his gnarled grip!
Leagues, leagues of seamanship
Slumber in these forsaken
Bones, this sinew, and will not waken.

I don’t think of dawn as brown, and the word russet always makes me think of apples, which I love because they are one of the primary crops in the part of the world I refer to as home.

So, the guilt:

I cannot in conscience spend time on poetry, neither have I the inducements and inspirations that make others compose. Feeling, love in particular, is the great moving power and spring of verse and the only person that I am in love with seldom, especially now, stirs my hearts sensibly and when he does I cannot always ‘make capital’ of it, it would be a sacrilege to do so.

With all his religious writings, I don’t think we can really say that this is Jesus. He does go through phases, where in his youth he feels the great need to suffer and renounce, but then in his thirties he changes his mind. When I was growing up I always heard about the midlife crisis, but we’ve moved the midpoint of our lives further on, and crises are no longer confined to once in our lives. This twenty-first century seems driven by constant crisis. But I think about the lives of my friends, and mine, and it seems that we start to love things in our teenage years, and then when we reach our early twenties we want to deny ourselves the things that we loved because we perceive them as childish, or sinful, or whatever. Then, when we reach this time of life where I am now, we become reconciled. Most adults have the financial means to do what they wanted to do when they were teenagers, so they can act out in immature ways, or we may just reconnect with some activity, like my brother’s painting, or my apparently great love of pop music from the 1980s. So Hopkins gets over the guilt and goes back to writing, and most of what we read in school comes from this later time. He even uses Matthew 5:14-16 to convince himself that it’s okay to become famous.

In this anthology, they lay a lot of stress on Hopkins’s rhythm, as indeed it was important to him. I think that describing rhythm is dull work, and that Hopkins’s emphasis on it is another example of his need to control himself by controlling the world around him. I think that the rhythm in poetry should arise naturally from the way that we pronounce the words; we stress some syllables and not others, our voices rise and fall; when some of our best readers read poetry, it sounds at once so beautiful and so natural that it could not be any other thing, whereas when I read Hopkins talking about the music of his words it’s so mechanical that I turn away in disgust. But he had to defend himself against the popular tastes of the late Victorians; not even his best friends always got it.

Besides you would have got more weathered to the style and its features – not really odd. Now they say that vessels sailing from the port of London will take (perhaps it should be / used once to take) Thames water for the voyage: it was foul and stunk at first as the ship worked but by degrees casting its filth was in a few days very pure and sweet and wholesomer and better than any water in the world. However that maybe, it is true to my purpose. When a new thing, such as my ventures in the Deutschland are, is presented us our first criticisms are not our truest, best, most homefelt, or most lasting but what come easiest on the instant. They are barbarous and like what the ignorant and the ruck say. This was so with you. The Deutschland on her first run worked very much and unsettled you, thickening and clouding your mind with vulgar mudbottom and common sewage (I see that I am going it with the image) and just then unhappily you drew off your criticisms all stinking (a necessity now of the image) and bilgy, whereas if you had let your thoughts cast themselves they would have been clearer in themselves and more to my taste too. I did not heed them therefore, perceiving they were a first drawing-off. Same of the Eurydice – which being short and easy please read more than once.

As long as we’re talking about martyrdom and oppressed minorities, it’s probably a good time to mention that I had a bit of a professional kerfuffle this week, which will necessitate my leaving Texas. Placing a gay teacher of uncertain religious beliefs in a Christian school was never a wise choice; I’m a corrupting influence, and it is the duty of all good Christians to look only at the surface and ignore the depths beneath. This is an old story, one we’ve all heard before, so I won’t bore you with the details. Besides, the wound is still too fresh for me to write about it impartially. Instead, here’s a lovely bit from one of Hopkins’s early journals:

Putting my hand up against the sky whilst we lay on the grass I saw more richness and beauty in the blue than I had known of before, not brilliance but glow and colour. It was not transparent and sapphire-like but turquoise-like, swarming and blushing round the edge of the hand and in the pieces clipped in by the fingers, the flesh being sometimes sunlit, sometimes glassy with reflected light, sometimes lightly shadowed in that violet one makes with cobalt and Indian red.

And that’s enough for this morning, though I was going to write a bit about the chivalrous attitude of male Catholics toward their Church and their Blessed Virgin.

So, the morning after I finished the last book, I was rooting through the boxes of books in the living room, looking for whatever would come next, and I thought, “Oh yeah, I’ve been thinking of Melmoth lately,” so I pulled it out. I wasn’t thirty pages into it before I was thinking, “Really, OccMan? Melmoth? Really? With the depressed mood you’ve been in lately, you’re going to read fucking Melmoth?” It ended up not being as depressing as I remember, and I’m actually noticeably happier than I was two weeks ago, so Melmoth was a win.

Melmoth the Wanderer marks a turning point in Gothic literature. There was a strong wave starting with Walpole in 1764 that reached its crest with Ann Radcliffe in the 1790s, waning toward the parody Northanger Abbey and what may be the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein, both of 1818. In 1820, Melmoth is sort of the last of this wave. The writer of the foreword, though, seems to think it could also be a bridge to the next type of Gothic, the sensation novels of the 1850s-70s, with Mrs Gaskell and Mr Collins in the thick of it, and Dickens and Brontë representing the more respectable crowd. It’s harder to connect Maturin to Dickens, in my opinion, because of the time period. People still read novels from nearly every year from 1790 to 1820 (and when I say people I mean I do), but there’s a big gap in British fiction from Melmoth in 1820 to The Pickwick Papers in 1836. I read the first chapter of an LEL novel from I think 1824, but my professor didn’t think the book worth following up on, and if a Romanticist/Victorianist who teaches graduate courses isn’t into it, and it’s nearly impossible to find, I really think it wouldn’t repay the effort. I mean, there are also some Scott novels, but I really think that the best thing to come out of Sir Walter Scott is the Donizetti opera. Aside from the time, I also think Maturin fits better with the conventions of Radcliffe than those of Collins. Most of the novel takes place in Spain, and about half of it in the seventeenth century, and it was Radcliffe’s crew who distanced the Gothic from themselves in time and place. The Victorians bring the horror right up close to themselves.

The premise. Melmoth is a type of the Wandering Jew, condemned to wander the earth for an unnaturally long period of time, serving as a representative of ultimate evil on the earth. He’s kind of like Cain, one of the heroes of the Romantic poets. Like Victor Frankenstein, Melmoth wants to know the secrets of nature, to penetrate beyond the human limits of knowledge. So he makes a deal, whereby he can pass through any wall or door and travel at incredible speeds, in order to learn more than anyone ever has, but with the understanding that when he dies, after one hundred fifty years, he’s going to suffer in hell for eternity. The only loophole is, that if he can find someone who will take his place – someone so desperate to escape that he will risk his soul – he can recover his salvation. But, this condition is unutterable, literally. People who try to denounce him drop dead on the spot. It can only be revealed in the safety of the confessional. He spends a lot of time hanging out in Spain, perhaps because of the intensity of the Inquisition there.

The structure. This novel is a whole mess of interpolated stories. Most novels with this type of structure lend an air of reality by being terribly interested in verisimilitude, creating a logical reason for the stories to be gathered as they are. Not Maturin. Someone reads a scroll in the underground library of a hundred-year-old Spanish Jew, and we have to accept it as realistic, even though there’s no character who could know all the story relates (Maturin favors third-person omniscient narration). The frame story is about John Melmoth, a young man who was raised in comparative poverty with the expectation of inheriting a fortune from a miserly eccentric uncle. The uncle dies, warning Young Melmoth about his ancestor. Melmoth then finds a half-legible manuscript about someone who met the Wanderer after being wrongfully imprisoned in an insane asylum. The story gets him all worried and excited, and (coincidentally) a few nights later a ship crashes on the coast, with the survivor being another of the Wanderer’s prospects. He tells his story, and with its interpolations, it takes up the rest of the book.

The Tale of the Spaniard. Monçada tells your classic Radcliffean Gothic tale: raised in obscurity, he discovers that he’s an illegitimate son of the nobility. Manipulated by the clergy, he’s forced to join a Madrid monastery and take vows. He tries to escape, but in the end he gets sent to the Inquisition, and no one escapes the Spanish Inquisition. Except him. He takes shelter with a Jew, who sets him to copying manuscripts about Melmoth. The most significant of these manuscripts occupies nearly half the book:

The Tale of the Indian(s). Not really about Indians. Immalee is a white girl shipwrecked on an island off the coast of India in the late seventeenth century. The Indians take her for the goddess of love and leave her offerings. Somehow she survives in almost total isolation until she’s a beautiful teenager, when Melmoth meets her. They discuss life and philosophy and fall in love. Melmoth leaves her, but meets her again three years later after she’s been rescued and returned to her parents in Spain. The child of nature, she doesn’t take well to Catholicism and the society it has produced. She elopes with Melmoth and they marry, but secretly. Her father brings her someone to marry, but she’s so pregnant she’s about to drop Melmoth’s baby any second. The secret comes out and she gets sent to the Inquisition (Seville this time), where eventually she and her child die. The night before her ill-fated marriage, though, Melmoth met with her father and told him a couple of stories about himself, but Aliaga doesn’t profit by the knowledge.

The Tale of Guzman’s Family. Guzman was this really rich guy whose sister ran off to Germany and married a heretic Protestant. He cut her off with a shilling, so to speak, but later in life regrets his decision and invites her to come back to Spain and live under his protection. He pays for an education for the children and all their household expenses, but under the influence of the priests he refuses to see them. When Guzman dies, everything goes to the Church instead of to the Walbergs. They are brought to the very brink of destitution before the correct will is located and they all live happily ever after.

The Tale of the Lovers. Some of the politics of mid-seventeenth century England can be difficult to follow, but the Mortimers were a royalist family even when that loyalty put their lives and livelihoods in danger. Three cousins live together there for a while; if the boy marries one, he gets the entire family fortune. If he marries the other, he gets enough to live comfortably on for his life. Of course he loves the one who would leave him not filthy rich, but he’s tricked into thinking he can’t marry her, so he leaves her at the altar and marries the other one after a suitable period. Then the wife dies and he goes crazy, so the lover gets to take care of him for the rest of their lives after all.

After Monçada finishes The Tale of the Indian, it seems like Maturin suddenly realized how long his book was getting, and he finishes it in ten pages, with one last interpolated story, The Wanderer’s Dream, in which Melmoth dreams of himself in hell.

So much for plot. Like most of the Gothic novels of the 1790s, Melmoth is violently anti-Catholic. All that “trapped in a convent” and “imprisoned in the Inquisition” stuff may have some basis in reality, but the writers of the time let their imaginations run riot because it sells more books. These authors were successful because people hated Catholics so much back then (cf Dickens, Barnaby Rudge). Good Gothic relies on fears and prejudices shared by the audience, and Catholics freaked them out. It’s why so many films with homosexual characters have been Gothic, like Deathtrap (gay murderers, 1980s) or Rebecca (Damn, Mrs Danvers is creepy, and in love with Rebecca, 1940).  It’s also why a film like Grand Piano doesn’t become a big success. Even though it stars John Cusack and Elijah Wood, no one’s heard of it because it’s a thriller that takes place during a concert of classical music. Who beside music students would freak out at the words, “Play one wrong note and you die”? Having been a music student, I get it, but being one no longer, I also get how it’s so absurd that you want to laugh.

Aside from the plot devices, Maturin also goes on explicit tirades about religion and its place in culture and people’s lives. These rants are sometimes voiced by Melmoth – being ancient, learned, and evil, he can relate all the bitterness that comes from devoting your life to God and living it among human beings (I did mention that Maturin is a priest, right?). Immalee, being the child of nature, can also be the author’s mouthpiece, advocating the supposedly natural religion of his version of Protestantism, so when the two of them discuss religion, it’s like the sermon-writer possesses the novelist’s hand for a bit.

‘Then you do not feel your new existence in this Christian land so likely to surfeit you with delight as you once thought? For shame, Immalee – shame on your ingratitude and caprice! Do you remember when from your Indian isle you caught a glimpse of the Christian worship, and were entranced at the sight?’ – ‘I remember all that ever passed in that isle. My life formerly was all anticipation, – now it is all retrospection. The life of the happy is all hopes, – that of the unfortunate all memory. Yes, I remember catching a glimpse of that religion so beautiful and pure; and when they brought me to a Christian land, I thought I should have found them all Christians.’ – ‘And what did you find them, then, Immalee?’ – ‘Only Catholics.’

As the third-person narrator of the frame story, Maturin also preaches in his own voice:

Vice is always nearly on an average: The only difference in life worth tracing, is that of manners, and there we have manifestly the advantage of our ancestors. Hypocrisy is said to be the homage that vice pays to virtue, – decorum is the outward expression of that homage; and if this be so, we must acknowledge that vice has latterly grown very humble indeed.

The thing is, that when I see someone so manifestly ethnocentric that he portrays everyone other than himself as evil, I want him to be wrong all the time. There are a number of really good Catholic people, and as a body the Catholics do a lot to relieve suffering. But when Maturin talks about ideas of religion instead of groups, he almost always gets it spot on:

Don Francisco crossed himself repeatedly, and devoutly disavowed his ever having been an agent of the enemy of man. ‘Will you dare to say so?’ said his singular visitor, not raising his voice as the insolence of the question seemed to require, but depressing it to the lowest whisper as he drew his seat nearer his astonished companion – ‘Will you dare to say so? – Have you never erred? – Have you never felt one impure sensation? – Have you never indulged a transient feeling of hatred, or malice, or revenge? – Have you never forgot to do the good you ought to do, – or remembered to do the evil you ought not to have done? – Have you never in trade overreached a dealer, or banquetted on the spoils of your starving debtor? – Have you never, as you went to your daily devotions, cursed from your heart the wanderings of your heretical brethren, – and while you dipped your fingers in the holy water, hoped that every drop that touched your pores, would be visited on them in drops of brimstone and sulphur? – Have you never, as you beheld the famished, illiterate, degraded populace of your country, exulted in the wretched and temporary superiority your wealth has given you, – and felt that the wheels of your carriage would not roll less smoothly if the way was paved with the heads of your countrymen? Orthodox Catholic – old Christian – as you boast yourself to be, – is not this true? – and dare you say you have not been an agent of Satan? I tell you, whenever you indulge one brutal passion, one sordid desire, one impure imagination – whenever you uttered one word that wrung the heart, or embittered the spirit of your fellow-creature – whenever you made that hour pass in pain to whose flight you might have lent wings of down – whenever you have seen the tear, which your hand might have wiped away, fall uncaught, or forced it from an eye which would have smiled on you in light had you permitted it – whenever you have done this, you have been ten times more an agent of the enemy of man than all the wretches whom terror, enfeebled nerves, or visionary credulity, has forced into the confession of an incredible compact with the author of evil, and whose confession has consigned them to flames much more substantial than those the imagination of their persecutors pictured them doomed to for an eternity of suffering! Enemy of mankind!’ the speaker continued, – ‘Alas! how absurdly is that title bestowed on the great angelic chief, – the morning star fallen from its sphere! What enemy has man so deadly as himself? If he would ask on whom he should bestow that title aright, let him smite his bosom, and his heart will answer, – Bestow it here!’

I had a difficult experience this Sunday. It was All Saints’ Day, and during part of the service they showed a slide show of pictures of all the people in the congregation who have died in the past year. It’s a bit overwhelming to me, how many of the gay community die young. Then in the sermon the pastor described being a young and hot-headed priest during the AIDS crisis, ministering in hospitals to people who couldn’t get medical staff to enter their rooms. I cried and cried and cried, or at least, I did the silent sobbing that serves the function of crying when you can’t bring out a tear in public. Leaving the service, I got in line to see the priest and hugged him long enough to make us both uncomfortable. Describing this to a friend, he said that it’s really strange how strongly this affected me since I didn’t know anyone involved back then (During the 1980s, I was a kid in middle-of-nowhere North Carolina; gay people lived in New York and San Francisco and decent people didn’t go to those cities). I wonder if my faith in God is coming back. That thought troubles me, because with my family history of mental illness, I just don’t trust myself. I used to seek mystical experiences, but now I think they might have been “the very coinage of your brain: This bodily creation ecstasy is very cunning in” (Yes, I’m still quoting Hamlet all the time. Sorry if that’s a problem.) I’m not sure what’s a vision and what’s a hallucination, what is inspiration and what is insanity. I mean, I write a blog that blends book reviews with autobiography; I’ve never been good at distinguishing between fiction and reality. I like having the community that faith provides, and I generally like people who have faith, but I don’t want to become unstable again. Not that I’m exactly a paragon of mental health, but I’ve been a lot worse than I am now.

I miss having confidence in my own perceptions. I miss the certainty of faith. I had to cut my mind in half back then, like Solomon’s baby, because my faith couldn’t stand up to the scrutiny of my critical thinking, but that life did have its good points. I want to find something I can believe in wholly, as a complete person. I don’t want to live at war with myself, cleaving good from bad and setting them against each other. I want to live in peace with myself, with others, with the world around me, and if that includes a God, I want peace with him too. Despite his hatred of Catholicism, Islam, and paganism, Maturin seems to favor the peaceful lifestyle as well. The problems he has with other faiths is that he sees them as manipulating and torturing their practitioners; Protestantism is good at that too, he just doesn’t use that as his sole definition of his own community.

Despite my initial doubts, Melmoth has been a good experience. I can take quite a bit of religion when it’s sheltered inside a good story, and while this novel isn’t perfect, it is quite good. It’s not very commonly available, though, so if you can find it, take advantage of it.