Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Merry Christmas from Millom

I bought my first car, a Citroen 2CV, from Millom, a post-industrial town on the Cumbrian coast. A car like no other bought in a place like no other: I was very fond of them both. 

Millom has two claims to literary fame: the second was Montagu Slater, who wrote the libretto for Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, but the first was Norman Nicholson, a great Anglican poet who wrote this lovely carol (which has been set to music here and here).

His biography has just been published in anticipation of his centenary next year, so the carol seems a fitting way to offer Christmas greetings to you all.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Toni Morrison - Catholic novelist?

Discussions of Catholic literature don't usually start (or end) with Toni Morrison but, according to John N. Duvall in The Identifying Fictions of Toni Morrison, there is at the very least a question to be considered. (John McClure, in quite a different way, also considers the question in Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison.) Let's have a look at the evidence.

Duvall points out that Morrison opened a can of Catholic worms in 2003 by revealing that Toni was in fact derived from St Anthony, the baptismal name she took when converting to Catholicism aged 12. In 2005, Morrison was more explicit, telling an interviewer that, "I am a Catholic ... And [referring to Paradise] what saved me was, I think - what helped me at any rate - was knowing that I was going to take religion seriously, I mean belief."

So where do we look for the Catholic Toni Morrison? Her 2003 novel Love sounds as though it might be as good a place as any, though, on first glance, the love in this novel is about as far from John Paul II's Theology of the Body as you could possibly get. 

This is a novel about incestuous desires, murder, gang rape and pretty much every other form of hatred you could imagine. In fact, Hate could just as easily have been the title. As one of the narrators tell us early in the book, "Hate does that. Burns off everything but itself, so whatever your grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy's." Which seems to me true, even if it doesn't much help us figure out what love is or get us any closer to the nature of Morrison's Catholicism.

We assume at first that the love of the novel's title is the love of a number of different women for the same man but, as the novel progresses, the absence of the word as well as the thing itself starts to suggest that maybe something else is going on. It is only towards the very end of the novel that "love" the word and "love" the action begin to appear, and only at the very end of the novel that we discover what L's name means and what its Biblical inspiration is. In true Morrison style, all our expectations are subverted with the act of love which eventually speaks its name revealed as an act of murder. Toni Morrison: Catholic novelist? Not perhaps on the basis of this novel.

So what about Morrison's 2008 novel, A Mercy? Again the significance of the title only becomes clear in the final chapter, where we discover that what appeared to be the most callous of acts - a mother giving up her daughter - was actually a mercy.

It is an act of mercy that Morrison has prepared us for. Earlier in the novel the character who takes the girl mulls over what John Boswell called the kindness of strangers: "From his own childhood he knew there was no good place in the world for waifs and whelps other than the generosity of strangers. Even if bartered, given away, apprenticed, sold, swapped, seduced, tricked for food, labored for shelter or stolen, they were less doomed under adult control. Even if they mattered less than a milch cow to a parent or master, without an adult they were more likely to freeze to death on stone steps, float facedown in canals, or wash up on banks and shoals. He refused to be sentimental about his own orphan status, the years spent with children of all shades, stealing food and cadging gratuities for errands." (30) This might not be what we were expecting but it's powerful stuff.

Morrison's novels are often explorations of community (see Duvall, 158-9) with one of the tragedies of A Mercy being that "Sir and Mistress believed they could have honest free-thinking lives, yet without heirs, all their work meant less than a swallow's nest. Their drift away from others produced a selfish privacy and they had lost the refuge and the consolation of a clan." (56) So what alternatives are there to this familial selfishness? As John Duvall points out: "What makes A Mercy different from Morrison's earlier work is that it does not explore the possibilities of black community. Rather, Morrison looks to a pre-US past when the laws that would come to constitute the material privileges of whiteness were only beginning to be written. The setting, in other words, is a multicultural America, prior to the invention of whiteness." (160)

However, we could take Duvall's argument a step further since another community that is fatally compromised in the novel (in this case by sin, slavery and sexual exploitation) is the community of the Church. When salvation, of a sort, comes it is salvation from a Catholic family by means of human intervention: "It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human." (164-5)

So where does this leave us as we consider the question we raised at the start? It may be that Morrison is stretching out towards a distinctively Catholic position in her most recent novels, but it would surely be pushing it too far to see her as a distinctively Catholic novelist. In fact, I suspect that we need to probe that 2003 interview a little further before we can reach any definitive conclusions. It's something I'll try to do in the new year.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Othello as Protestant Propaganda

You can tell things are going well when your students start teaching you. One of my students recently introduced me to this essay on 'Othello as Protestant Propaganda'.

If Iago is a reminder of Sant Iago, a duplicitous, Jesuitical character who also just happens to be a "Moor-slayer", then we have a rather different view of the play from the one we may be used to. Othello's "sword of Spain" from Act 5, Scene 2 gains a wider signification for a start.

If nothing else, such a reading provides a useful counterbalance to the glut of "Catholic" readings of Shakespeare that we have seen in recent years. Clearly Shakespeare was emerging from a Catholic world (and a Catholic family) but he emerged into one that was strongly Protestant.