Category Archives: literature

Kindred Spirits: St. Catherine of Siena and Sigrid Undset

Today is the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena: mystic, stigmatic and Doctor of the Church. The writings of St. Catherine (1347-1380) have inspired many people down the centuries, but among the most interesting examples from comparatively recent times is the Norwegian Nobel Laureate, Sigrid Undset (1882-1949). I will spare the reader any vain and pitiful attempt on my part to analyze the sometimes above-my-head ideas related by St. Catherine. Instead, I draw attention to the work of Undset, whose admiration of this remarkable 14th century saint led to a wonderful, accessible reflection on St. Catherine and her writings.

Sigrid Undset was one of Norway’s most important modern writers. In recognition of her talents, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 – back when one actually had to be able to write, bring about peace, etc. to merit the award. Her trilogy “Kristin Lavransdatter”, set in 12th century Norway, ought to be required reading for all Catholics. Herself a convert to Catholicism, the 20th century Norwegian writer, Undset, found much in common with the 14th century Italian writer, St. Catherine.

Both women were Third-Order Dominicans, and lived in times when the Church appeared to be in danger of disintegrating. Indeed, Undset’s conversion from secular atheist to fervent Catholic was considered a tremendous scandal both among the Low-Church Lutherans and the no-Church intellectuals of her countrymen. Yet like St. Catherine fighting against a tide of materialism in her own day, Undset encouraged the faithful to fight back again the secularization of Western society.

Undset’s magnificent spiritual biography of the saint, “Catherine of Siena”, was published posthumously in 1951. It is a fitting introduction or companion for those interested in learning more about St. Catherine, written in a thoughtful and sensitive style that is typical of the author’s other works. The fact that Undset was so interested in the Middle Ages, not just in her own country but in the idea of Christian Europe, allowed her to build a bridge for us between our own day and a world which may at times seem very foreign to our experience.

Like many of us, Undset recognized the fact that the writings of this great Italian mystic are not always easily accessible for the modern reader. Apart from most likely not having had any mystical experiences, the modern reader most certainly did not have the benefit of growing up in the more deeply spiritual world of Medieval Europe. Yet she saw that, as in St. Catherine’s day, man’s perennial tendency to either ignore God completely or remake Him in our own image leads to evil results.

In “Catherine of Siena” Undset opined that the problems of the modern age grew out of a denial of man’s being made in the image and likeness of God, and all that entails. In order to justify his own bad behavior in violation of the natural law and the teachings of Christ and His Church, man can convince himself that sin is, in effect, virtue. If we have “ceaselessly stained and crippled the image of God in ourselves,” she writes, “we have succumbed to our desire for power and flattery, to our passions, hate and revenge, lust and ambition.”

In Undset’s view this paradoxical mindset leads to impotence, or destruction, or both. She notes that modern men are always planning utopian visions of the future, only to tear them down: man accomplishes something good, and almost immediately sets about destroying it. There is no sense of planning or preservation, all is caprice, shallowness, and pique. “We are afraid of change,” she writes, and yet simultaneously are “afraid of stagnation. We love old things and institutions, and will have something which is new and different.”

St. Catherine’s dogged perseverance, such as in trying to get the Papacy to return to Rome from Avignon, impressed Undsett tremendously: particularly because the saint seemed so often to be fighting a losing battle against the materialism of her times. Undset points out that the efforts made by St. Catherine to persuade others to take the right path were pursued with the full understanding of the saint herself that she might very well never see their fruits. In this, Undset says, St. Catherine drew closer to Christ:

She gave of herself until her physical life was used up; in a fight whose final results she was as sure of, as she was sure that she would not see many victories on the battlefield of this world. But in fact Our Lord has never made any promises regarding the triumph of Christianity on earth – on the contrary. If we expect to see His cause triumph here, His own words should warn us: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith upon the earth?” He did not tell us the answer.

Undset points out that even in the Middle Ages, when Christianity was in full flower all over Europe, there were still plenty of people who refused to follow Christ. She counseled that those who speak of “the bankruptcy of Christianity in our times” ought to keep this in mind, as well as Jesus’ own aforementioned speculation from St. Luke. God gives us no promises about the safety of the Church – other than that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

Living as do we, in an age of horrors which St. Catherine could not have imagined in her most intense mystical experiences, Undset championed the idea put forward by St. Catherine’s example that the single soul must stand up to be counted. Undset reminds us that, whatever the world may say, “every man is born individually, and must be saved individually.” This last point is an important one, for it gives us cause to not only hope but to continue to act in accordance with God’s Will for us, even if we feel we are all alone or there is seemingly little or no possibility of stemming the tide.

One of St. Catherine of Siena’s most famous counsels is: “Be what you are meant to be, and you will set the entire world alight!” Undset must have taken that counsel very seriously, for she “put herself out there”, as the saying goes. She may have lost the respect of some of her peers by rejecting secular materialism, but she gained the far greater blessing of Christianity in return. Let us hope that God, in His Mercy, has not only gathered her to Himself, but also that she and St. Catherine have become friends in heaven, given what extraordinary women each of them in her way was upon earth.

St. Catherine of Siena by Sano de Pietro (c. 1442)

Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht

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Filed under atheism, Catholic, Church, Dominicans, Italy, literature, materialism, Norway, secularism, Sigrid Undset, spirituality, St. Catherine of Siena

Review of “Le Corbeau”: Why Shock Value Isn’t Enough

A film whose central character is a philandering abortionist would seem to be too hot a commodity for mainstream cinema to attempt, even today. Yet Henri-Georges Clozot did so in his controversial 1943 work “Le Corbeau” (“The Raven”), which I screened over the weekend. While the film shows there really is nothing new under the sun, insofar as shocking audiences is concerned, I must confess that it left me rather underwhelmed: it is all crime and no punishment.

“Le Corbeau” is set in a small town in France, where all of the local residents have closely-guarded secrets. From the start, we are made very much aware that this is not a happy, peaceful town: long-standing hatreds are commonplace, and people are often very much less than kind to one another. The “hero” of the story, if we are to call him that, Dr. Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay) works as a surgeon at the local hospital, and practices illegal abortions on the side. He is carrying on an affair with Laura (Micheline Francey), the wife of one of his colleagues, and in the course of the film succumbs to the amorous advances of his landlady Denise (Ginette Leclerc).

As the story develops, a series of poison-pen letters signed by someone who calls himself “Le Corbeau” begin to circulate, accusing Dr. Germain and others of committing various crimes. The supposed mystery of the writer’s identity, as matters become more heated and turn to acts of violence, is what occupies us as the film gets going. Unfortunately for this reviewer, I realized who the author of the letters was almost immediately, and so the foregone conclusion turned the experience into something of a waiting game.

“Le Corbeau” is a film which is usually on the must-see list for those of us interested in the development of French cinema, and it is not hard to understand why. It is a something like a combination of Edgar Allen Poe and Alfred Hitchcock – in the French taste, natch. Parts of it are superbly well-shot, particularly in using empty space/silence and unexpected camera angles to create a threatening atmosphere. And there are a number of good performances from the cast, though throughout the movie I kept thinking that the character of Denise would have been played more convincingly by the great Jeanne Moreau, a generation later. Most view it today as a kind of veiled criticism of the atmosphere of distrust brought about as a result of the Nazi occupation, when neighbors would turn in their neighbors to the Gestapo.

However the real notoriety of the picture stems from its scandalous public history. It was produced by a German-owned company, and seemed to offend almost everyone across the moral and political spectrum – from the Church to the French Resistance to the Vichy Regime. The film was banned for a time, and Clozot himself was barred from working in French cinema for two years after the war. As we all know, anytime something like a book or a movie is formally banned, it is going to attract an audience keen on examining it for themselves, and this is one reason why “Le Corbeau” continues to be studied today.

This did not have to become the only reason to see the film, however, even though that is now the case, at least in the opinion of this reviewer. The poison-pen letter used as a plot device by Clozot can be a useful tool for ripping open the painted scenery and showing us what lies just behind. He could have allowed the possibilities open to him through the implementation of this device to lead him to create a script and accompanying film which captures our universal desire to see crime being punished. He would not have been the first Frenchman so to be fascinated, or successful, in considering the subject through the use of this plot device.

Perhaps the most famous French example is the 18th century novel “Les Liaisons dangereuses” by Choderlos de Laclos, which has been treated by cinema many times on both sides of the pond. Two examples with which my American readers may be familiar are the now-classic Glenn Close/John Malkovich “Dangerous Liaisons” from 1988, and the Reese Whitherspoon/Ryan Philippe reinterpretation “Cruel Intentions” from a decade later. In these films, crime has consequences that not only result in death, but in actual punishment.

The spectacular performance by Glenn Close in the earlier film as her world crumbles around her is made particularly satisfying because her own methods are being turned against her. We enjoy her punishment because it is part of our fallen nature to enjoy revenge, but more importantly because we realize, as she does, that she will go on experiencing a living hell on earth. She has ruined the lives and reputations of others, and now her life and reputation are ruined: the punishment fits the crime.

By contrast, in “Le Corbeau” the writer of the letters is punished, vigilante-style, but we are left unsatisfied by the outcome, thinking, “That’s it?” The doer of the deed comes almost out of nowhere; the story has become so convoluted by this point that we have forgotten about them almost entirely. And despite some last-minute “what ifs?” by Clozot there is never any doubt as to the writer’s identity or fate.

Clozot leaves us with important, unanswered questions. Are the townspeople just going to go back to being mean to one another? Is Dr. Germain still going to be committing infanticide and fooling around? Is Denise still going to be playing Potiphar’s wife to all of her husband’s lodgers? In other words: has anyone actually learned anything? “Le Corbeau” fades out on a beautiful shot, but the story faded long before we got to this point – and this is ultimately its greatest problem.

Making something shocking is one sure-fire way to gain notoriety, or at the very least some attention. Yet the real power of a well-written play or novel that also happens to shock its audience at the time of its initial appearance is its staying power to continue to shock audiences a decade (or a century) or more later. Certainly, there is much to like about “Le Corbeau”, if you are interested in the history of cinema. Yet those interested in really getting into the meat of man’s inhumanity to man, in ways that can be just as shocking to us today as they were at the time their works appeared, would be better served by reading Balzac or Camus.

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>Review: The "Just William" Series by Richmal Crompton

>Having received an early Christmas present from my British goddaughter, in the form of a new Kindle, I have been happily downloading and reading books from the Gutenberg Project website. This is a pleasant supplement to a practice I began some time ago, and about which I have written previously, of downloading audio books from the Librivox site for my iPod. In the case of both ventures, the books are in the public domain, as their copyrights have expired. Thus if you visit either site, you will not find free downloads from contemporary writers high and low – no Orhan Pamuk or Stephen King. However, you will find works from a host of authors in all genres, high-brow literature and philosophy to popular fiction and non-fiction, from Aristotle to Zola.

As those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are settling into the chill of winter, with many afternoons and evenings spent indoors out of the weather, it is a wonderful time to read, and to explore works with which we may not be familiar. While normally I do tend to stay in the company of individuals usually considered serious authors, such as Balzac and Galsworthy, like anyone with a reasonably normal disposition I do need some light humor from time to time. Many times in the search for such material, I stumble across authors whose books, while popular in their day, are not often talked about now. For example, I suspect that most of my readers will not be aware of the works of E.M. Delafield; her “Provincial Lady” series from the 1930′s is an ongoing comedy of middle-class manners that often proves to be laugh-out-loud funny.

Such is the case with another collection of works, often known collectively as the “Just William” series after the title of the first book in the group, by Richmal Crompton. Though probably well-known to my British readers, American audiences of my generation are likely unfamiliar with the character of William Brown and his adventures. This terrible oversight must be remedied, dear reader, as soon as possible.

William is an eleven-year-old middle-class boy who lives with his parents and older brother and sister in a large house with well-tended gardens in an English country village during the 1920′s, and attends the village primary school. Though the setting is essentially rural, it has suburban overtones and we can glean that the location is within commuting distance of London. William’s father holds some sort of business executive or other white-collar position, while his mother stays at home and looks after the household. William’s girl-crazy brother Robert is in college, while his sister Ethel stays at home and is something of a popular socialite. The cook and the parlor maid complete the list of permanent residents at the Brown home, though there are frequently house guests in the form of relatives, as well as friends and neighbors, who round out the picture.

As boys of his age are wont to do, William is something of a mischief-maker, and it is in the combination of his activities as well as Crompton’s uncanny ability to get into the mind and thought process of a boy of William’s age that end up making this series. If William was merely a miscreant, the stories would lose their charm, as I must say I always found to be the case with Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Yet even as he brings about random acts of destruction, William has flashes of genius, charity, and compassion that keep us from rejecting him as simply a badly-behaved little boy.

Last evening I found myself laughing lustily and long over a story in which William and his pals rig up a sideshow in his bedroom and charge admission to the other children in the village. The highlight of this involves William exhibiting his visiting Great Aunt Emily, a woman who is not only self-righteous but morbidly obese and of giant stature. Aunt Emily had come a month earlier, and was supposed to have stayed for a week; to the despair of William’s father, she had now been there a month, and shows every sign of intending to stay for several months more, claiming to be ill when in fact she is as healthy as an ox and is simply mooching off the Browns.

When Aunt Emily is napping, her snores are something so out of this world, that William decides he is going to put her on exhibit as a “Genuine Fat Wild Woman”; she becomes the highlight of the sideshow:

Those who came out simply went to the end again to wait another turn. Many returned home for more money, for Aunt Emily was 1d. extra and each visit after the first, 1/2d. The Sunday School bell pealed forth its summons, but no one left the show. The vicar was depressed that evening. The attendance at Sunday School had been the worst on record.

And still Aunt Emily slept and snored with a rapt, silent crowd around her. But William could never rest content. He possessed ambition that would have put many of his elders to shame. He cleared the room and re-opened it after a few minutes, during which his clients waited in breathless suspense.

When they re-entered there was a fresh exhibit. William’s keen eye had been searching out each detail of the room. On the table by her bed now stood a glass containing teeth, that William had discovered on the washstand, and a switch of hair and a toothless comb, that William had discovered on the dressing-table. These all bore notices:

FAT WILD WOMAN’S TEETH

FAT WILD WOMAN’S HARE

FAT WILD WOMAN’S KOME

Were it not that the slightest noise meant instant expulsion from the show (some of their number had already suffered that bitter fate) there would have been no restraining the audience. As it was, they crept in, silent, expectant, thrilled, to watch and listen for the blissful two minutes. And Aunt Emily never failed them. Still she slept and snored.

They borrowed money recklessly from each other. The poor sold their dearest treasures to the rich, and still they came again and again. And still Aunt Emily slept and snored.

It would be interesting to know how long this would have gone on, had she not, on the top note of a peal that was a pure delight to her audience, awakened with a start and glanced around her. At first she thought that the cluster of small boys around her was a dream, especially as they turned and fled precipitately at once. Then she sat up and her eye fell upon the table by her bed, the notices, and finally upon the petrified horror-stricken showman.

She sprang up and, seizing him by the shoulders, shook him till his teeth chattered, the tinsel crown fell down, encircling ears and nose, and one of his moustaches fell limply at his feet.

“You wicked boy!” she said as she shook him, “you wicked, wicked, wicked boy!”

- Richmal Crompton, “Just William” Chapter V, “The Show”

This is just one example of what to expect in the series, which encompasses numerous books. The first two, “Just William” and “More William” are currently available on the Project Gutenberg site. The Librivox site at present only has a recording of the “More William” collection.

For a briefer introduction to William Brown, I highly recommend downloading the short story available on Librivox entitled “The Christmas Present”, which was my first introduction to the adventures of this unforgettable boy and his family. If you enjoy the book/film version of Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story”, then you will certainly enjoy this tale of William’s Christmas disasters. Even with the mishaps and misunderstandings, it is ultimately a warm and – did I mention? – very funny book about family life, which I am sure all of my readers will be able to relate to.

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Filed under Britain, Christmas, England, humor, LibriVox, literature, Project Gutenberg

>The Novelist and The Church

>Last evening I enjoyed the speaking-text feature on my new Kindle, and devoured a short story by the great 19th century novelist Honoré de Balzac entitled “Christ in Flanders”. It is something of an unusual, disjointed piece, in that it begins with the recounting of a popular Flemish legend about Jesus appearing to a group of people about to be shipwrecked, and concludes with an allegorical vision experienced by the narrator that is unrelated to the shipwreck legend. While the first half of the story is an interesting, almost Medieval, cautionary tale about the dangers of the Seven Deadly Sins, the latter is something of a mess that reminded me of nothing so much as Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”.

The gist of the vision part of the story is that the narrator sees the Church as being in desperate need of reform. He also appears to vacillate between whether this is still possible, or whether the Church is in its death-throes. Although recognizing the great historical contributions of the Church to art, science, architecture, and so on, the narrator questions whether, by becoming so closely involved in statecraft, the Church had doomed itself to destruction.

Balzac’s narrator – presumably speaking for Balzac himself – throws in a remarkably prescient line for someone who lived through the tumultuous history of France at the turn of the 19th century. As he considers all that he has seen, the narrator comes to an important conclusion about Christianity: “Belief,” I said to myself, “is Life! I have just witnessed the funeral of a monarchy, now we must defend the church.” The narrator/Balzac does not want to give up on the Church, but does see a challenging period ahead for her.

It is no surprise that, in questioning establishment philosohpy, Balzac made a number of enemies. There is no question that Balzac was perhaps one of the greatest novelists of the intersection of social manners and base human motivations. If you want to see how the rich take advantage of the poor, the strong of the weak, and later earn their comeuppance, it is hard to do better. Yet Balzac always seems somewhat out of his depth when he turns to considerations of political philosophy. In this particular case, while he is certainly correct – if controversial – in pointing out certain of the defects of the Church of his day, he is less adept in understanding the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of it.

The cultured man who also happens to be a practicing Catholic needs to be able, in the course of his cultural education, to consider arguments against the Church when presented in a thoughtful fashion. In this case we are not talking about (the usually) hysterical, shrill, self-identified Catholics and others who deliberately take positions or practices explicitly condemned by the Church and are seeking to bait an argument. Nor do I suggest that most of us should waste our time by engaging with those committing acts of blasphemy – though ironically enough, it would be considered blasphemy in many corners of the secular world to suggest that, while Balzac may certainly have made some valid points in this story, he was ultimately wrong about the fate of the Church.

One interesting way to look at this is to consider the Papacy from the standpoint of canonizations of the Bishops of Rome. In Balzac’s day, the most recent Pope to have been canonized a saint was St. Pius V, who died in 1572 and was canonized in 1712. Before that, the most recently canonized pope had been St. Celestine V, who died in 1294 and was canonized in 1313. To put it another way, at the time Balzac wrote his short story in 1831, only two Popes had been canonized as saints and three declared “Blesseds”, in over 500 years and 62 papacies.

Since Balzac died in 1850 however, there have only been 11 papacies over the past 160 years. Of these 11 popes, one is now a canonized saint, two are now “Blesseds”, and several have their causes for canonization open. Indeed, no doubt many of my readers are aware of speculation that Pope John Paul II, the longest occupant of the Chair of St. Peter since St. Peter himself, will be the next to join the ranks of these recent Pontiffs as a “Blessed”.

Of course, the number of saintly popes alone is no proof of anything. The fact that there are more men recognized as being true servants of the Bride of Christ over the last century and a half than there were over much of the preceding millennium is merely a possible, interesting indicator of changes going on within the Church. Any organization run by human beings, no matter how lofty and laudable its goals, is going to have its good and bad aspects, its good and bad leaders, and the Church on earth is no exception.

What Balzac in his day, and other commentators in ours, continually fail to understand is that the Church may have been founded by God, but the day-to-day running of the place has been left to the servants – and as my rather grand grandmother would say, getting properly trained staff who don’t steal from you is a miracle in and of itself. It must emphatically be said that we are an organization comprised entirely of sinners, not saints, latter-day or otherwise. Christ promised us that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, but He did not promise that by nature of either becoming a Christian or working for the Church that one becomes completely free from the possibility of committing sin.

That being said, I would go so far as to say that the Church, which Balzac feared would not recover its raison d’être, disproved the author’s prediction: the Church did not die anywhere but in the Leftist, secular Europe which Balzac himself, among others, helped to create, and in fact it continues to grow at a remarkable rate, even as it changes. Of course, what Balzac would make of the dynamism of the Church today would be nothing more than speculation on my part. Yet I would suggest to my Catholic readers who are well-grounded in the Faith and are able to take a bit of criticism, this little work of Balzac’s is worth your consideration. The truth always hurts, and there is certainly some truth in Balzac’s observations of the Church of his day in this story. Fortunately however, what he foresaw did not come to pass.

Detail of “The Triumph of the Church of Christ” by
an Unknown Flemish Master (c. 1450)
Museo del Prado, Madrid

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Art and the American Individualist

Over at The Economist’s cultural blog More Intelligent Life, my friend Blake Ewing has what can only be described as a truly remarkable interview with Maine artist Ray Murphy. Mr. Murphy is not, if you please, a woodcarver, nor is he merely a chainsaw artist: he is a self-described “sawyer”. Should you be interested in acquiring one of his pieces, it would seem prudent to make certain that you get that right.

Mr. Murphy is an exemplar of a certain type of American artist, whose work is not only accepted, but encouraged and embraced as a result of certain characteristics of this country. The notion of going it alone, or of rugged individualism, self-reliance, and so on, is something which is often considered characteristic to the American psyche. When the arts are truly a reflection of an aspect of society, they produce something that is authentic to the experience of that society. Mr. Murphy can, to some degree, be connected to other figures in the American cultural landscape, such as Henry David Thoreau, who have managed to, if you will forgive the expression, carve out a space for themselves in the national dialogue by expressing themselves in an unique way that is also uniquely attractive.

Certainly the British have frequently produced unusual writers, thinkers, and so on who were considered eccentric – and indeed British literature is filled with examples of eccentric character “types”. One need look no further than the pages of Dickens to realize that this is the case. Yet this country went beyond mere eccentricity, and took that heritage of appreciating the eccentric and put it on steroids: quite literally, as I will explain momentarily.

This is not a genetic predisposition we are considering, but rather a cultural aspect of this country. There is no quality of being American that means that we are born knowing how to change a tire or fix a leaky toilet. Though recently, a European friend observed to me how differently Europeans and Americans tend to address such problems: the bourgeois European finds that his toilet leaks, and calls the plumber. The bourgeois American finds his toilet leaks, and goes to the hardware store to learn how to do it himself. Admittedly this is an over-generalization, but there does seem to be a fascination among my European relatives whenever my father shows them how to easily fix or repair a home appliance without having to call in some sort of specialist.

For immigrants to the United States, too, who in their native lands might have been rejected for their idiosyncrasies, America turned out to be a haven for their forms of self-expression. Simon Rodia for example, the builder of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, would likely have had less chance of becoming the intense object of academic study had he remained in his native Naples. We may not always be daring in our groupthink architectural preferences, but we also recognize that the individual can often be left to his own devices without the need of our interference.

To some degree, this is also why the comic book superhero, even if he owes something to the ideas of Europeans such as Nietzsche or Edgar Rice Burroughs, is so fundamentally an American creation. The superhero is a figure who is often rejected by conventional society, and yet paradoxically works to preserve it. Perhaps this is because he realizes that the freedom to have his Fortress of Solitude or Batcave, work and live undisturbed, and maintain a level of protection from prying eyes into his personal life, is simultaneously dependent on an ordered society that does not persecute individual thought and expression.

As a pointed aside, worth your consideration, the reader may not be aware that in fact, a number of the original writers and artists who created the superhero characters we are familiar with today were, in fact, the children of Jewish immigrants to this country. Certainly the experience of European Jews throughout history is one fraught with being singled out for being “different”, and while anti-semitism certainly was and is present in this country, fortunately we do not engage in pogroms. That no doubt had an impact in the development of these superhero characters.

Of course Mr. Murphy is not, so far as I am aware, a caped and cowled crime fighter. However, like James Bowie, Captain America, J.D. Salinger, and others, he is an American type whose work and existence bring a great richness to American life. Long may he saw.

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