>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.

They’ve Been in Scotland Afore Ye

This weekend Dr. B., an old friend of mine who is now a university professor, is flying over from Scotland.  He will be speaking at a literary and film conference next week in Virginia. We have not seen each other in eight years, so there is a great deal of chattering on the agenda. I am lucky in that, whatever we do not finish discussing this weekend, we will be able to finish up weekend when he returns to DC for the weekend, before heading back across the pond.

Dr. B. and I have always discussed the possibility of someday taking the Camino de Santiago together, with the idea of producing a co-authored travel narrative.  We would keep separate journals of our impressions and thoughts along the way, and then exchange these at the conclusion of our trip.  And who knows? Perhaps there will be a publishable book in it.

For those who have never heard of the Camino, it is the ancient pilgrimage route to the tomb of St. James the Apostle in Compostela, in NW Spain. From the early medieval period onward, it has been one of the great pilgrimage destinations of Christendom.  There are several different routes one can take, depending on the starting point, that vary considerably in length.  I am a devout Catholic,  while Dr. B. is not of any particular religious affinity: however, as we are both fluent in Spanish, and love the history and culture of the Iberian Peninsula, it would be an interesting journey to take together, and see how we each react to the same set of circumstances.

Although it is extremely presumptuous to make this comparison, and admittedly Dr. B.’s flight over from Scotland puts me in mind of it, the idea of a pair of opposites taking a journey together and writing about the experience is reminiscent of the trip which James Boswell and Dr. Samuel Johnson took together in 1773. The men visited the Highlands and the islands of the Scottish Hebrides over the course of nearly 3 months, and wrote separately on their sometimes harrowing experiences. One thing which comes shining through in their writing however, and particularly in Boswell’s account of the journey, was that despite the difficulties of travel in the 18th century, they had a great deal of fun together.

Reading their separate accounts of the same event reveals a great deal about them both, in terms of their friendship as well as how they each perceived the world as individuals.  For example, in August 1773, the two were exploring the area around Loch Ness. They stopped by the hut of an elderly peasant woman, so that Dr. Johnson could see how the local people lived. His account of what he saw is straightfoward, and almost anthropological in tone:

When we entered, we found an old woman boiling goats-flesh in a kettle. She spoke little English, but we had interpreters at hand; and she was willing enough to display her whole system of economy. She has five children, of which none are yet gone from her. The eldest, a boy of thirteen, and her husband, who is eighty years old, were at work in the wood. Her two next sons were gone to Inverness to buy meal, by which oatmeal is always meant. Meal she considered as expensive food, and told us, that in Spring, when the goats gave milk, the children could live without it. She is mistress of sixty goats, and I saw many kids in an enclosure at the end of her house. She had also some poultry. By the lake we saw a potato-garden, and a small spot of ground on which stood four shucks, containing each twelve sheaves of barley. She has all this from the labour of their own hands, and for what is necessary to be bought, her kids and her chickens are sent to market.

With the true pastoral hospitality, she asked us to sit down and drink whiskey. She is religious, and though the kirk is four miles off, probably eight English miles, she goes thither every Sunday. We gave her a shilling, and she begged snuff; for snuff is the luxury of a Highland cottage.

Boswell, on the other hand, is not as interested in the life and habits of the Scottish peasantry, so much as he is in the opinions and reactions of his friend. This is very true in his biography of Dr. Johnson, but also the visit to this hut proved no exception. As was often the case during the course of their friendship, Boswell found a way to make Johnson laugh:

Dr Johnson was curious to know where she slept. I asked one of the guides, who questioned her in Erse [i.e., Scottish Gaelic]. She answered with a tone of emotion, saying (as he told us) she was afraid we wanted to go to bed with her. This coquetry, or whatever it may be called, of so wretched a being, was truly ludicrous. Dr Johnson and I afterwards were merry upon it. I said, it was he who alarmed the poor woman’s virtue. ‘No, sir,’ said he, ‘she’ll say, ‘There came a wicked young fellow, a wild dog, who I believe would have ravished me, had there not been with him a grave old gentleman, who repressed him: but when he gets out of the sight of his tutor, I’ll warrant you he’ll spare no woman he meets, young or old.’ ‘No, sir,’ I replied, ‘she’ll say, “There was a terrible ruffian who would have forced me, had it not been for a civil decent young man who, I take it, was an angel sent from heaven to protect me.”‘

Such contrasting accounts of shared experiences pepper these two books, and this example is by no means the end of their shared sense of humor. The two accounts are usually printed together in a single volume, so one can flip back and forth to see what each writer was thinking on the same day. For my readers who are not quite ready to tackle Boswell’s monumental biography of his friend, this travelogue may prove a good appetizer, by which you will be able to determine whether you would enjoy moving on to the main course.