Archive for the ‘Iain Pears’ Tag

Love on Earth   Leave a comment

The historical persecution of the Jews delineated in Iain Pears’s The Dream of Scipio (2002), from forced conversions through to the Holocaust, is depressingly familiar to most readers. While doing research on this novel, however, I came to realize the importance of another, almost forgotten period of religious persecution that took place in the region of southern France where Pears’s novel is set: the Albigensian Crusade, in which the Catholic Church ruthlessly exterminated the “heresy” known as Catharism.

While this period has become, in recent years, a popular setting for historical fiction, it seems to me that the fundamental challenge that the Cathar belief system presented to the Church has often been poorly understood. Ruthless and bloody inquisitions, after all, can be gruesomely entertaining without readers of historical fiction having to understand the deeper nuances of the victims.

I was struck by just how subversive the Cathars were, however, during a recent rereading of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ (1888). In that book, Nietzsche examines what he calls the “type of the redeemer,” a mindset he attributes to Christ and which, he argues, was subsequently distorted and twisted by St Paul (p.167). Christ’s message, says Nietzsche, has thus been profoundly misunderstood. The core of this message was that God has already forgiven humanity for its waywardness, and as such the Kingdom of Heaven is already here, at hand – not, as Christianity would later understand it, as a posthumous reward for faithfulness. Nietzsche writes:

“The ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is a condition of the heart – not something that comes ‘upon the earth’ or ‘after death’. The entire concept of natural death is lacking in the Gospel: death is not a bridge, not a transition, it is lacking because it belongs to quite another world, a merely apparent world useful only for the purpose of symbolism. The ‘hour of death’ is not a Christian concept – the ‘hour’, time, physical life and its crises, simply do not exist for the teacher of the ‘glad tidings’.… The ‘kingdom of God’ is not something one waits for; it has no yesterday or tomorrow, it does not come ‘in a thousand years’ – it is an experience within a heart; it is everywhere, it is nowhere…” (p.159)

Christ posed an obvious threat to the Jewish religious establishment with this message, for its implication was that the priests, together with their Mosaic system of atonement through sacrifice, had fulfilled their purpose and were now obsolete. The Kingdom of Heaven is not to be found in external rituals, but in one’s heart, with life becoming an expression of this divine goodness in a way that abolished the infrastructure of symbolic atonement.

While Catharism borrowed liberally from other strands of religious and philosophical ideas – gnosticism, for instance, as well as the neo-Platonist thread that Pears identifies in The Dream of Scipio – what is particularly noticeable about its debt to this “type of the redeemer” is its joyful announcement that divine mediation is no longer necessary. The Cathars therefore also did away with the role of the priest, believing that its adherents could be “Good Christians” whose lives reflected the goodness and mercy of God. For the Cathars, this aspiration was not tainted and limited by the “fallen” nature of humanity. Forgiveness had been granted here on earth, and as such it was their duty to become a “parfait” (“perfect being”) who practices the divine principles here on earth, not after the purification of death.

The response of the Catholic Church to the rise of Catharism reads like a blueprint for the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Like the Pharisees, like the Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s story, the Church rightly saw Catharism as a threat to its own political power. In the name of Christianity, therefore, they mercilessly hunted down and exterminated a movement that came closest to replicating the original teachings of Christ.

That ideal of a loving community has not been lost – think, for example, of the Abbey of Thélème that appears in Rabelais – but its conception has evolved in crucial ways since the time of Christ. While love is important, it cannot be the sole foundation for a community. “Love,” writes Nietzsche in The Anti-Christ, “is the state in which man sees things most of all as they are not. The illusion-creating force is there at its height, likewise the sweetening and transforming force. One endures more when in love than one otherwise would, one tolerates everything” (p.145). Christ failed because his conception of love, in its refusal to draw boundaries, made him both inherently weak and unwilling to acknowledge the harsh political realities around him.

The contrasting idea of a strong love, one that understands politics and protects itself from its pitfalls, is what drives Pears’s investigations in The Dream of Scipio. Manlius fails because he is too hard, displaying political strength and acumen, but sacrificing his friends and family in the process, while Julien’s fault, by contrast, lies in his recurrent willingness to compromise and negotiate at those moments when he ought to be drawing a line in the sand. Only Olivier understands that love must be forceful and effective, pragmatically cognizant of the political realities that impact on it, without ever losing the ability to be tender.

The source of humanity’s communal misery and inability to love thus arises from a double failure. The primary fault, as the story of the Grand Inquisitor illustrates, lies in our weakness, in our refusal to take responsibility for our own lives and freedom. This failing is then compounded by the way we rationalize our weakness. Our beliefs are built as a complicated excuse for why we cannot take action. This is precisely the deflective function of religious institutions: no institution has done more to put off the realization of Christ’s vision of love on earth than the church.

While I don’t subscribe to the creation of any kind of religious community, I do think there is a valuable lesson to be learned from these earlier examples about the difficulties of putting into practice what we believe. The prevailing philosophies of our time actively discourage the cultivation of a personality that radiates power, and yet this strength is the basis on which true love is constructed. Any other kind, as the example of Christ demonstrates, is weak and ineffective, passively allowing itself to be tortured and even killed. True love must face up to the unjust realities of political power with intelligence and clarity, not moral illusions. There are a thousand excuses for not loving, for not putting into practice the principles that are closest to our hearts, but they inevitably begin from a place of weakness.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Moral Insight   Leave a comment

Mozart wrote some of his most famous music at the age of five. Music has a long history of child prodigies – Mozart, of course, like Handel before him, as well as Beethoven, all fall into this category. There are other fields that have produced stunning early talent, from chess to mathematics to computer science.

There is a distinct common element to all child prodigies. They arise in fields where the emphasis is on technical and mechanical precision. That is not to say, of course, that there is no art involved in chess or mathematics or music – indeed, one might say that it is the introduction of a newly arrived-at artistic insight into these technical fields that often creates the work of genius. But the fundamental groundwork is technical.

It is instructive to contemplate the lack of child prodigies in the field of literature. There are, I acknowledge, many writers who began, early on in their lives, to pen stories and poems. That is not what I am talking about here. Such works count only as juvenilia, for the criterion must surely be whether a work could today be considered for canonical status. The music that Mozart composed at the age of five is still being played. No one, by contrast, is reading the stories that H.P. Lovecraft wrote at that age. So what is it about literature that bars the possibility of a child prodigy?

The answer, I believe, is contained in a single phrase from Honoré de Balzac’s short story “The Atheist’s Mass,” in a passage where the narrator is contemplating the qualities that separate a great man from a merely talented one. “Genius,” observes Balzac, “always presupposes moral insight.” Such an observation not only establishes Balzac, by that same measure, as a great man, but it also gives a clear rationale as to why children cannot be geniuses in the field of literature. Moral insight is something that comes from experience, from loss and failure, from realizing the fallibility of the human condition. Such wisdom is rarely gained early on in life, never in childhood.

Consider the case of Thomas Chatterton, an eighteenth-century English poet who from childhood was fixated on books and literature. He started writing his own pieces at the age of 11, finding success a year later with a series of dialogues and poems in the medieval style he admired. Taking on the pseudonym of “Thomas Rowley,” he successfully fooled – albeit temporarily – Horace Walpole with his Rowley’s History of England. Chatterton’s great gift was as a mimic. He could imitate medieval poetry with as much skill as he could the styles of contemporary writers like Alexander Pope or Tobias Smollett. As a teenager, Chatterton had clearly mastered the technical side of literature, but his writing is not read today because it lacks that crucial ingredient: moral insight. Chatterton could echo others, but he never found his own voice. He never had the chance to, dying from arsenic poisoning at the age of seventeen.

So why do we remember Chatterton still, if he was little more than a talented mimic? Because Chatterton was subsequently venerated by the English romantics, who turned his tragically short life into a symbol of unfulfilled genius. William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Keats – in his “Sonnet to Chatterton” (1815) – all immortalized Chatterton as a “natural” genius cut down by a cruel and unforgiving world. Perhaps the most influential of all these tributes is Henry Wallis’s painting The Death of Chatterton (1856), a work that sentimentalizes the poet’s death, accentuating its tragedy by juxtaposing the beauty and youth of the model (a young George Meredith, who went on to become a famous Victorian writer) with the torn, scattered remnants of the poetry he has destroyed, as though his life and work were inextricably connected.

While the romantic prism remains the dominant perspective through which we look back at Chatterton, there is an emerging counterpoint to that view. It can be found, for instance, in the following rant from Henry MacAlpine, protagonist of Iain Pears’s novel The Portrait (2005):

“D’you remember that appalling painting by Wallis in the Tate, The Death of Chatterton? Pretty young poet lies sprawled in an elegant pose across the bed after taking arsenic. Ha! That’s not what you look like if you swallow arsenic! You’re covered in filth, you stink, you lie crouched on the floor from the agony, your face screwed up, hideously disfigured as the poison eats away your intestines. You don’t look as though you’ve just dropped off for a nap after too many cucumber sandwiches. But he couldn’t paint that. That wouldn’t have made people think sentimental tripe about doomed artists dying before their time. That’s what I wanted to get away from, and not by painting landscapes or the poor enjoying themselves at the music hall. Real death—which is the stuff of life, after all.” (pp.48-49)

While MacAlpine is a notoriously unreliable narrator, I think there is more than a grain of truth in this particular observation. The romantic idealization of childhood as the locus of genius, at least in the field of literature, is simply not borne out by the evidence. Chatterton, it seems to me, was chosen by the romantics for the convenient fact that death imposed silence on him, leaving us to speculate endlessly about what a genius he might have become.

That there will someday be a child prodigy in the field of literature – that is to say, someone capable of possessing the moral insight required to write a great work, as opposed to merely mastering the necessary technical proficiencies – is impossible. Certainly, there have been writers who have gained this moral insight at an exceptionally early age, from Arthur Rimbaud to Lautréamont to John Keats, but never, ever in childhood.

It is William Blake who, in his dissection of the qualitative shift from innocence to experience, illustrates this point best. The division between these two states is not symmetrical: true innocence is not aware even of its own innocence, so that only its loss, the entry into experience, makes it possible to write and think about the meaning of innocence. Experience, in other words, is the entry-point into moral insight, a shift that comes only with the advent of adulthood. Blake makes the quest for moral insight into the centerpiece of his poetry – and that, of course, is why he is a genius.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.