Friday, June 08, 2007

Priests of Our Time

DZP looks next at the way that religions can cut us off from being human in the very attempt to make sense of human life. (see Emptying Heaven)

For Wallace Stevens, once we have emptied heaven of the gods, the sky will seem friendlier, just part of the human story and human science. The God above the sky, if he existed, would be responsible for what happens to mankind and therefore guilty of the most monstrous crime, the unalleviated sufferings of his creatures.

In Denis Potter's 'Follow the Yellow Brick Road' Jack Black comes to the conclusion that we are all in a dirty play, written by an author who has put filthy words into our mouths. The psychiatrist tells him there is no need to walk around burdened with a sense of disgust. With the help of Megabrium 2000 years a go at least one wild man would have stuck to carpentry. Disgust is a purely medical phenomenon. Jack cannot accept this rationalisation and longs for purity. But what kind? The kind we see in the simple immediacy of TV commercials. These commercials blind us to the realities, but then so do religious stories of a happy land, far, far away, a new and improved pie in the sky.
In 'Joe's Ark' the bleak, matter of fact realism of a dying girl is extremely powerful compared with the religious illusions on offer.
In 'Brimstone and Treacle' the yellow brick road of religion turns out to be a road to revulsion. A suffering girl, reduced to the status of a vegetable, is raped by a young man who persuades her mother that the suffering of her daughter is given meaning by the great love it has called forth in him. Some philosophers of religion argue that God allows people to suffer so that others may have the opportunity to develop morally in helping them.
In these three dramas religion is criticised for dividing man off from the realities of life, from common decencies.

Nathaniel West's Miss Lonelyhearts is a male advice column writer. He considers the job a joke until he finds that some of his correspondents are taking him seriously. He comes to believe that Christ is the answer but wants to keep away from 'the Christ business'. In him we see our own struggles to mediate religious sense.
Some critics see Miss Lonelyhearts as an exposure by West of the illusion religion necessarily is; that the love of God and man which Miss L seeks is impossible. But it is the features editor, Shrike, who mocks the religious vulgarities and the alternatives on offer viz a Thoreau-like celebration of the soil, a Gauguin-like retreat to the South Seas, an aesthetic hedonism, for all ignore the realities of human affliction and seek to impose a false order on human life. The desperate character of Shrike's cynicism reveals a longing for something more, something different.
Others see the novel as an unqualified celebration of religion, identifying the Christ complex with genuine faith. But for West Miss L is not a prophet in our age, but a product of our age. Yet others see in Miss L a holy fool in industrial America where success, money and power conspire to cast out love, freeze the heart, and dull sensibility. They confuse religious zeal with psychoneurosis. They miss the point that West's Miss L is a priest of our time who has a religious experience.

Just as Flannery O'Connor said that the South was not Christ-centred but Christ-haunted, so Miss L has not so much a belief in Christ as a Christ complex. His life can be seen as a series of botched sacrifices. The romantic cleft between word and action runs all through his life, and that of other characters, though in Miss L it takes a religious form. The trouble with him, the trouble with all of us, is that we have no outer life, only an inner one. His religious complex is unmediated in the detail of human life. He wants to get to Christ directly, without the patient mediation of salvation in the detail of human life. Instant salvation is still peddled and magical solutions still offered, thus Miss Lonelyhearts remains a portrait of a priest of our our time.

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