Cool machine

One from the book of lost posts:

Here are some of Graham Greene’s judgments on Frederick Rolfe (‘Baron Corvo’), a writer who seems to have had a definite fascination for him:

The greatest saints have been men with more than a natural capacity for evil, and the most vicious men have sometimes narrowly avoided sanctity. … Rolfe’s vice was spiritual more than it was carnal: it might be said that he was a pander and a swindler, because he cared for nothing but his faith. He would be a priest or nothing, so nothing it had to be

The difficulty always is to distinguish between possession by a devil and possession by a holy spirit. Saints have starved like Rolfe, and no saint had a more firm belief in his spiritual vocation. He loathed the flesh (making an unnecessary oath to remain twenty years unmarried that he might demonstrate to unbelieving ecclesiastics his vocation for the priesthood) and he loved the spirit.

[Reviewing Hubert’s Arthur (“on the whole … a dull book of small literary merit”)]
Reading his description of St Hugh, ‘the sweet and inerrable canorous voice of the dead’, one has to believe in the genuineness of his nostalgia – for the Catholic Church, for innocence. But at the same time one cannot fail to notice the homosexual and the sadistic element in the lushness and tenderness of his epithets … when he describes Arthur,

the proud gait of the stainless pure secure in himself, wholly perfect in himself, severe with himself as with all, strong in disgust of ill, utterly careless save to keep high, clean, cold, armed, intact, apart, gleaming with candid candour both of heart and of aspect, like a flower, like a maid, like a star,

one recognises the potential sanctity of the man

There’s something very odd going on here. He would be a priest or nothing; he loathed the flesh; but one cannot fail to notice the homosexual and the sadistic element in his lush, languorous evocations of purity and discipline. And, it has to be said, the oddness in these passages isn’t confined to Rolfe. When I look at that parade of epithets heaped on the figure of Arthur – high, clean, cold, armed, intact, apart … like a flower, like a maid, like a star – sanctity isn’t the first thing I think of, or the second. This isn’t a positive embrace of the good or holy, or of anything; it’s an anxious denial of anything low, dirty or warm, tipping over into yearning for the impossible fantasy of making that denial real.

I wondered, reading these passages, if ‘homosexual’ is the key term here. I was amused, as Greene probably intended, by that reference to Rolfe’s ‘unnecessary’ vow to avoid marriage. It reminded me of the old sketch about the scoutmaster’s funeral (“Funny he never married…”) – or, closer to home, of the (Anglican) priest in my mother’s old parish, who was a heavy clubber and a member of a monastic order, which he eventually left on the grounds that the vow of celibacy wasn’t fair to his partner. At the same time, Greene clearly believes at some level in the idea of rejecting the flesh, and seems genuinely troubled by the thought that some men who do so are only really rejecting the female flesh. So Rolfe’s homosexuality doesn’t undermine his vocation for sanctity – still less, as we might think, explain it; rather, the two run side by side, fleshly weakness alongside all the high, clean, cold stuff. What’s missing is the idea that, for Rolfe, the impossibility of an overt sex life might have fed into a general hatred of the world – and sex, and himself. And cue Robert Hanks in the Indie a bit back, covering a programme about a male army officer who had had a sex change:

at another point, discussing her earlier service in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jan talked of a misery so intense that she had volunteered for dangerous missions in the hope of finding an end to it all. This is, by the way, nothing new. A brief acquaintance with military memoirs will make it clear that the armed forces have always relied on having at least a few soldiers so bloody unhappy that they don’t care whether they live or die. Homosexuality used to be a good motivator: Siegfried Sassoon, for example, earned his nickname “Mad Jack” and his Military Cross after the death of a boy he had been in love with (though in his fictionalised Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, the relationship was glossed as a strong friendship). But in these more liberal times, being gay may not make soldiers feel sufficiently cast out from society: perhaps would-be transsexuals are the VCs of the future.

A certain kind of heroism is hard to distinguish from self-loathing. A certain kind of martial virtue, anyway. Rolfe was a sinner, happily for him, but you’ve got to wonder what do you end up with if you take clean, cold, armed, intact etc seriously, and give all this repression and denial its head: who is this guy who’s secure in himself, wholly perfect in himself, severe with himself as with all, strong in disgust of ill? And what kind of uniform is he wearing? Here’s Michael Wood in the LRB, discussing Bertolucci’s the Conformist:

The question of normality gets cleared up by a resort to an old Italian movie myth, also dear to Rossellini and Visconti: homosexual guilt. … Isn’t or wasn’t Marcello a Fascist? This is where the myth kicks in. He was just trying to be straight, that’s what ‘normal’ meant. The myth isn’t homosexual guilt itself, of course, but the suggestion that without homosexual guilt Fascism in Italy would never really have got off the ground, or at least wouldn’t have been interesting. The attraction of the myth is that it plays in two modes, gay and macho. The problem can be the guilt or the homosexuality, but either way no one ever gets over it, and the effects are disastrous.

One recognises the potential sanctity of the man, indeed. I’m quite glad to say that I don’t; I can’t see how denial of the flesh can have anything to do with religion, if by religion we mean a culture or body of beliefs which has something to say to the rest of the world. At its best, or least harmful, it’s fraudulent and misogynistic; at its awful, heartfelt worst it’s power-worship, self-abasement and disgust at the world.

Deny the flesh and you can deny just about anything – and enjoy it. Let me have priests about me who are married.

(Although not necessarily to Hindus.)

7 Comments

  1. Posted 16 April 2008 at 21:13 | Permalink | Reply

    I tend to agree with your thesis regarding denial leading to further denial. Interesting thought…

  2. Jussi Jalonen
    Posted 17 April 2008 at 11:09 | Permalink | Reply

    Why, Phil, I had no idea that you were such an old-fashioned value-conservative at heart.

    You believe that priests should be _married_? Leaving aside the question why a single person would not be appropriate for the duty, there’s also a question of discrimination against those people who are living in an informal cohabitation relationship but nonetheless may have both the training and the calling to the clerical vocation.

    The remark on “misogynistic” is also interesting. Given that you decided on this specification, I take it that you also regard the clerical profession as something which is reserved for men only?

    (As one can see, these Anglican issues immediately appear in a different light when read by a person raised in a Lutheran context.)

    There’s an inversion to this conclusion, of course. Lord knows that I’ve encountered my share of feminists preaching how a bachelor’s life is, by definition and without exception, _misogynistic_! Of course, pointing out that the lifestyle of a single, straight man doesn’t necessarily entail continuous promiscuity is no defence… because, as already mentioned, a failure to engage in sexual activities on regular basis is regarded by these same people as an even _more_ misogynistic way of life on this day and age.

    Perhaps some men just like to live on their own, enjoying solitude? Why they cannot be allowed to do so without being labeled as hateful borderline cases is beyond my comprehension.

    My guess is that there’s a totalitarian strand in today’s society, seeking to indoctrinate people that living in a relationship, _any_ relationship, is the only acceptable way of life. The results are visible; in this country, single men have suddenly joined the single women as targets of wage discrimination.

    But I digress. Back to the topic.

    I fail to understand why it’s difficult to see how the “denial of the flesh” has become a part of religion. As it is, in most parts of the world, religion usually has something to do with the concept of spirituality. Given the semantic content of the word “spirit”, it follows naturally that most religious practices are also based on the idea of _transcendenting_ the flesh.

    The practice of actual denial of the flesh (or any other material substance) is obviously a degenerated form of the transcendent practices. But, even in this degenerated form, I think that one should still be able to “recognise the potential sanctity of the man”. It’s the same thin line that exists between martial bravery and murderous sadism. Both flow from the same source; and it depends on pure chance on which side one ends. Potential for one indicates potential for the other.

    This is leaving aside the fact that Greene and Rolfe (and probably I myself, inadvertedly) were basically doing the old Madonna/Whore-dichotomy in a masculine context.

    There’s also a deeper question when it comes to the denial of the flesh. Rejecting the flesh of another female or male individual is really not that much of an effort. Lack of opportunity can do it by default, which is why hermitage and cloistered lifestyle are standard practices in most religions. But even in these surroundings, how many people would be able to reject their _own_ flesh?

    Cheers,

    J. J.

  3. Posted 17 April 2008 at 16:04 | Permalink | Reply

    Eh?

  4. Posted 17 April 2008 at 16:42 | Permalink | Reply

    ejh – if you’re referring to the last bit, it’s an Archers reference. I’m intending to come back to it, in a post which will probably confirm me as a conservative in Jussi’s eyes.

    Jussi – er… gosh, is that the time. Quite a lot there. I’ll get back to you.

  5. Posted 18 April 2008 at 00:54 | Permalink | Reply

    You believe that priests should be _married_? Leaving aside the question why a single person would not be appropriate for the duty, there’s also a question of discrimination against those people who are living in an informal cohabitation relationship but nonetheless may have both the training and the calling to the clerical vocation.

    If we’re to have priests, and if priests are to conduct marriage ceremonies, then I think it’s reasonable to look askance at cohabiting priests. Admittedly, not having priests might be neater and simpler all round – or not having priests celebrate marriages.

    The remark on “misogynistic” is also interesting. Given that you decided on this specification, I take it that you also regard the clerical profession as something which is reserved for men only?

    My comment should be understood as historical. I’m pretty sure it’s valid in that sense.

    I fail to understand why it’s difficult to see how the “denial of the flesh” has become a part of religion.

    Here, on the other hand, I was being normative rather than analytical. Yes, I can see how it happened – but I don’t think it was inevitable and do think it’s profoundly bad for religion (if we’re going to have religion – and there’s another couple of assumptions lurking here, to the effect that I can’t imagine a world without any kind of religion and, more to the point, don’t think religion is entirely a bad thing).

  6. Jussi Jalonen
    Posted 18 April 2008 at 09:44 | Permalink | Reply

    Phil, I understand your comment on cohabiting priests, and that’s also the standard argument of the Lutheran Church these days – which is exactly what I meant by “value-conservative”.

    There was a time when the Church was a lot less receptive towards the idea of cohabitation, but today the formal doctrine accepts and allows it as a normal part of the present-day lifestyle – _as long as it is a prelude to marriage_.

    Since this lifestyle is now finally accepted – if not necessarily encouraged – for the members of the congregation, why not also for the priests, with that same proviso where cohabitation is equated with the traditional engagement to marriage?

    Also, at least in the Lutheran Church, divorced priests have by no means been an uncommon phenomenon, and as far as I know, there have never been any sanctions against them. And, of course, bachelors – or these days, single women – can also be priests.

    Leaving aside the traditional jokes of “unmarried marriage counselors”, one might argue that a single priest could be preferable to a married one. In a situation where the Church is called to settle a marital dispute, a single priest would obviously be less likely to project his/her personal spousal biases and marital experiences on the case at hand.

    Back to the “denial of flesh”: the evolution (or degeneration) of transcendent practices to denial was certainly not inevitable. Actual transcendence is passive, based on an attempt to ignore the flesh and the material world; denial, in contrast, is active, recognizes the flesh and engages it as an enemy.

    But the potential for that degeneration was there right from the beginning. As I said, those both flow from the same source – just like the benign, persuasive conversion and the violent crusading campaign flow from the same source. Given that were are merely human beings, this parallel negative evolution was by no means an unexpected outcome.

    This is what I meant when I said that it’s actually very easy to “recognise the potential sanctity of the man”. His sanctity was merely _inverted_; he just took that one wrong turn in the beginning, and directed his energy to the more negative practices. But given that he did reach this questionable pinnacle, I think it’s safe to say that in the beginning, he also had the potential for good in him.

    I’m not sure if that’s what Greene meant, but that’s how I see it.

    Cheers,

    J. J.

  7. Jussi Jalonen
    Posted 19 April 2008 at 09:12 | Permalink | Reply

    Hold on, actually Greene _did_ mean exactly the same that I do. It’s right there in the beginning of the quote:

    “The greatest saints have been men with more than a natural capacity for evil, and the most vicious men have sometimes narrowly avoided sanctity.”

    As I said, that’s what he meant with “potential sanctity”. Any individual has limitless opportunities; and there’s no way of telling which way one might swing in the course of his/her life.

    Of course, assuming that one is a firm advocate of, say, historical materialism in its original form, this explanation might not be all that attractive.

    Cheers,

    J. J.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: