Monthly Archives: April 2020

On the “appalling strangeness of the mercy of God”

What follows – drawn from my journal of September 24, 2015 – is, I think, one of the more inspired pieces of literary criticism that have appeared in its voluminous pages. I offer it now as soothing balm for our sorely troubled historical moment, in the truly catholic (universal) spirit of Graham Greene’s novel.

Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene. 1938/1977. New York: Penguin Books paperback. 248 pages.

This is a Catholic book in the same sense that Don Quixote and Greene’s Monsignor Quixote are great Catholic books in the very best way – because of the enlightened, humanistic faith of the authors (Greene a convert, as a quite young man). In the same way, and for the same reasons, this is also a wonderfully Quixotic novel – in the same manner, I say, but of course differently. At first glance one might think its content considerably harsher (Nabokov would argue that the cruelty of the suffering that Cervantes’s hero endured is quite harsh enough!), but from early on it is leavened by a good sprinkling of humor and a great respect for human life and possibility.

The action is set in motion in the first chapter of Part One by the cold pursuit and murder of a man who himself is only incidental to what follows. The killers are a small contingent of petty gangsters, representative of the harsh underbelly of urban life in pre-WWII England, led (after the violent death of the older man who plucked him from obscurity and impoverishment) by a maniacal-diabolical seventeen-year-old referred to narratively as the Boy, but going by the name of Pinkie. He proves to be, in fact, essentially conscienceless and sociopathic, capable of acts that make all his dwindling crew of associates profoundly uneasy. More than that, given that very youth and inexperience, living in the shadow of the bigger gangster / businessman / potential political figure who really rules the roost, given all that, and the resultant insecurity which he expends so much energy denying (who, me? afraid?), he is a figure all the more dangerous because he is wholly out of control. And being, by birth,, a nominal “Roman,” as Roman Catholics were evidently called (and called by themselves) in that place and time, he has absorbed just enough theology or doctrine to be convinced that he has irredeemably chosen the Dark Side: that he is, to all intents and purposes, one of the damned.

Aside from him, the essential characters are a buxom, sensual bar singer / gentlemen’s escort (high-range prostitute) named Ida Arnold, who thinks of herself as a “sticker” (if she starts something, she sticks to it) who knows the difference between Right and Wrong and isn’t afraid to do something about it; and the sixteen-year-old girl Rose, a waitress and product of the same poverty as Pinkie’s and is also a Roman, but good-hearted and easily manipulated, who is swept into that Boy’s paranoid control and what she is willing to believe (and he, not too convincingly, to pretend) is love. In truth, by an unfortunate fact of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, she is in the gravest danger. But blustery, confident, determined Ida Arnold will spare no effort – despite Rose’s refusal to cooperate in her own salvation – to save her. Why? Because at the outset her path has crossed with that cipher of a man who by Pinkie’s order is killed for something he unfortunately knew. And when she figures out that he was the victim of foul play, because she had felt some instinctual sympathy for him, she determines to avenge his death – by her own initiative, if the police won’t help.

Beyond that I will reveal no more significant detail of plot than that poor mixed-up adolescent Rose does survive. While Pinkie, primarily by his own accidental contrivance, does not fare so well. In the final chapter of Part Seven, the final section, we find Rose in a confessional unleashing her convoluted story to a good priest who isn’t shocked by her insistence on being herself of the damned, that she does not want absolution but wishes she had kept her trust with the damaged man-boy who she thinks loved her. In true adolescent fashion, and with all the complications of her troubled upbringing and her basically useless parents, she is sure that she has discovered all to be known about love and that neither Ida (the bothersome busybody) nor the presumably celibate priest know anything about.

Rather than doctrinal lecture or contradicting what she feels with such passion and, there is no reason to doubt, genuine love, the good priest tells an exemplary story. “‘There was a man,’” he said, “‘a Frenchman, you wouldn’t know about him, my child, who had the same idea as you. He was a good man, a holy man, and he lived in sin all through his life, because he couldn’t bear the idea that any soul should suffer damnation.’” (“She listened with astonishment,” the narrator interrupts at this moment.) “‘This man decided that if any soul was going to be damned, he would be damned too. He never took the sacraments, he never married his wife in church. I don’t know, my child, but some people think he was a saint. I think he died in what we are told is mortal sin – I’m not sure: it was in the war: perhaps […] You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the … appalling … strangeness of the mercy of God.’”

He adds this, which must all have been great medicine to her soul: “‘It was a case of greater love hath no man than this that he laid down his soul for his friend.’” And further, among other things, he repeated this refrain: “‘We must hope and pray, hope and pray.’” Then to her question that what if, due to the mortal sin that she had already committed with this Boy, there should be a baby, he uttered this perfectly wonderful and transcendent counsel: “‘With your simplicity and his force … Make him a saint – to pray for his father.’”

I have to confess that, by the time he got to that phrase “‘the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,’” I was flat-out weeping. And even now, copying the line about making a saint of their hypothetical child, I was tearing up all over again. It is a powerful piece of literary mastery that provokes such a response. Even from an aging agnostic like me, who is so deeply moved by humanity’s spiritual instinct and longing for transcendence, without having to go out now and convert to the Roman (or Mormon) faith [I am myself a lapsed Mormon]. But at this point I could deeply appreciate whatever instinct it was that made the author a Catholic. Blessed are we his readers by the richly tolerant interpretation that he has lent to his faith. For all our benefit who read his words.

If only all our religious leaders (so-called) would counsel as generously and as wisely! We could dispense with the hateful counterfeit religiosity that gleefully assigns to hellfire all Muslims and homosexuals or liberal socialists, while celebrating that they themselves are “forgiven” – even those who, slipping down from their high horse, are caught in mortal sinning of their own. God save us, if I may use that rhetorical device, from the false religionists who haven’t even given a second thought to the souls of their enemies who are consigned to damnation. The true “saints” – saved, despite everything, by the “appalling strangeness of the mercy of God” – are the ones who aren’t out there just for themselves. They are the true representatives of a Judeo-Christian or Islamist or any other genuinely merciful God.

As for my own nation’s “political leaders (so-called)” – taking advantage of the shock of the pandemic to further shower the wealth of the country’s laborers on the corporate masters (the only ones whose fortunes are increasing at the moment) – I guess we should be raising up little saints to pray for their souls. I confess that I am not that saint; I should rather damn them. But instead let me raise this prayer on behalf of all our future little saints: may they inherit a more humane economy (social and political) – and an inhabitable planet on which to love and pray and work. Amen.

A pandemic-related satire, with afterword

If I had ever read the dark “fantasy” called “The Mask of the Red Death,” it might have been in junior high in one of those Scholastic Book anthologies: Tales of Dread and Mystery by the Inimitable Poe,” or something of the sort. Be that as it may, I didn’t really remember the story when I encountered some citations from it in a pandemic-related commentary on the Consortium News website a couple of weeks ago, more or less.

The commentary and the allusion were compelling enough to me that I immediately rushed downstairs, grabbed my copy of The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe, and browsing the Table of Contents swiftly located it. Turns out that, while the story itself has been consigned to the shadows and cobwebs of my cluttered literary memory, the title had once sounded familiar enough to underline.

So: “The ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country,” Poe begins rather promisingly. But, if I may skip over the gory details and speed things along a bit, only when “his dominions were half depopulated” did the “happy and dauntless and sagacious” Prince Prospero finally do something about it.

And so what did he do about it, you ask? Did he, in his great and wise sagacity, send forth all the resources at his command – to tardily succor and assist the suffering masses? Well, no, of course not. No one, in those benighted times would have known what to do about it anyway. So let them die, if they must. Culling the heard, you know. Let them eat cake.

No, instead he “summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.”

A gated community, you might call it, stop-gap on the road (enter Jules Verne, here) to first settlement on Mars, which surely the novel red-death virus could not penetrate.

“The abbey was amply provisioned,” Poe writes. “The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori …”

Stand-up comedians: “Two phantoms walked into a bar …”

“… there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there were cards, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were theirs. Without was the ‘Red Death.’”

Until, of course, it was not. And of all times the phantom might have chosen to make his bloody appearance (“bloody” in every sense of the word, British oath included), it was the great masked ball which was to have been everyone’s delight. And was, until the uninvited presence of another masked figure was noted, and “at length” produced a general reaction “first of disapprobation and surprise – then, finally, of horror, of disgust.

In a gathering of ghastly phantoms such as Poe’s narrator paints (the description of which, with the layout of the great chambers, I hasten to pass over), you might well think that anything would be allowed. And so it would have seemed to everyone present, had this intruder not gone too far.

The figure “was tall and gaunt and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave,” we are told, the face-concealing mask “made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse” that you couldn’t have told the difference had you come right up against it. And yet still, all might have been almost forgiven had he not had the audacity to dress up as the Red Death himself, clothing “dabbled in blood” and face all “bespeckled with the scarlet horror.”

Allow me to pause, dear reader, while I gather my bated breath and give you the space to gather yours. And while doing so, perhaps we can all stop and consider who this masked invader might be.

Some illegal pilgrim, perhaps, foul cockroach from one of those pestiferous regions outside the Insurmountable Walls built up along our borders – who somehow found the means of over-leaping or under-tunneling them?

And how, pray tell, will the ever “happy and dauntless and sagacious” host respond when he beholds the sight?

“‘Who dares?’ he demanded hoarsely – ‘who dares to make mockery of our woes? –’”

Wait, whose woes? Aren’t all the woeful ones outside in that “external world,” somehow fending for themselves?

“‘ – Uncase the varlet – that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements. Will no one stir at my bidding – stop and strip him, I say, of those reddened vestures of sacrilege!’”

But no one dare touch him. Until the prince, embarrassed by “his own momentary cowardice,” rushes at him with drawn dagger. But confronted with the reality that, only appearing to flee, suddenly turns to face him, our Naked Emperor – (oh, pardon! I’m dipping into someone else’s fantasy, mixing metaphors) – I mean, our not-so-dauntless prince screams, drops the drawn dagger, and falls prostrate in bloody death.

“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death,” our undaunted narrator concludes. “He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall…. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

*

Thus endeth our dreadful tale. But without beating the horse dead, if you will, a brief afterword:

Am I hallucinating, or did the U.S. government just hand an almost bottomless slush fund to the same financial institutions who tanked the economy a dozen or so years past? With the Foreclosure King himself, Wall Street criminal extraordinaire, in charge of the Treasure? With toothless oversight by a token watchdog assigned from the Naked Emperor’s own court?

So, a dozen years ago we bail out the Top Dogs, the same ones whose greed and predation crashed the economy in the first place – and that worked out so well that we’re doing it again, only on steroids?

And how much of that ill-gained lucre trickled down to you? How much of it’s in your wallet?

Wait. Isn’t that the Naked Emperor, Himself, cozied up to the Socialist Trough? He and his emperors- and empress-in-training, looking after the bottom line of their Imperial Emoluments Foundation? (And why didn’t the opposition party’s leadership impeach a year or two earlier on the utterly obvious violations of that Constitutional clause?)

But we can’t direct the nation’s factories to mass-produce some protective gear and other important stuff for our nurses and doctors because that’s – what’s the word – Socialist? And we can’t have healthcare for all (whether we want it or not) because that’s Socialist, too?

Isn’t it funny how the ones who get shaken down and accused of theivery are always the ones on the bottom – the underdogs; los de abajo, as they say south of that Beautiful, “Bloody,” Border Wall –while those at the top make out like bandidos?

And how the ones leading the way and helping their neighbor- and even distant-countries in these times of pandemic are poor and/or Socialist ones like Cuba and Venezuela, or Iran and China? While the United States of America remain in various states of confusion, denial, and unpreparedness?

How is it, again, that my “Honorary Uncle” Bernie can’t be President because he refuses to say how he’ll pay for his Socialist programs? Even though he’s had a list of options up on his website for, like, ever?

And why can’t we let some lowly American workers get away with being paid a few dollars more on pandemic-related unemployment than they earned on the job? Or why can’t we spare a couple thousand per person per month until all the dust on this crisis has clearly settled?

Forfend that we even speak of canceling mortgage or rent payments and student loan debt and anything else that might make the average Jane’s and Joe’s lives easier!

Yet no one asks how we’ll pay to continue bombing foreign countries into submission for decades and decades on end? Or how we’ll pay for that Great Tax Cut for the Plutocrats? Oh, and that other one? And the one coming up? And …

Maybe it’s just a matter of “survival of the fittest,” of “culling the herd,” as leaders from our own Naked Emperor to his friend across the Pond have been heard whispering? And even some of our European partners on the Continent – inevitable deaths and all, but what’s to be done about it?

And how is it that we tell when a Socialist experiment has failed – like Venezuela’s, say; or Chile’s – when we kill it in the cradle and fight it in the jungles and choke it off with our brutal economic sanctions and blockades (which, pandemic or not, we only ever hunker down on!) and raise obscure opposition leaders to the throne – sorry, I mean seat of government?– well, you get the drift.

Is that how we build democratic nations, too? Is that what our planes or our drones are doing when they drop missiles on weddings in Afghanistan or finance the bombing by Saudi murderers of schools and hospitals and orphanages in Yemen?

Oh, and from the vantage point of that kid whose whole family perished in that drone attack in Afghanistan, who would you say are the terrorists and who the freedom fighters?

Have I left anything out?

Anyway, just asking. Because in the era of fact-free governance and timid, corporatist journalism, it may seem that we have no answers.But it’s the questions, then, that really matter, right?

Asking the right ones, I mean – “rude” as they might sometimes seem to Naked and/or Oblivious Power.