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Past Feeling

A Review of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Queen of the South by S. Randall TomsHaving read The Club Dumas (later made into the movie The Ninth Gate), I was expecting another book written with Perez-Reverte’s ability to make us feel the aura of mystery coupled with meditative prose.  The Queen of the South bears little resemblance to the style of that book.  This novel reads more like an action thriller in the style of a journalistic writer.  If you are into the thriller genre, complete with murders, chase scenes, and drug trafficking, this may be just the book for you.  The Queen of the South is the story of how a poverty-stricken young girl, Teresa Mendoza, from Sinalao, Mexico, becomes one of the world’s most powerful women involved in drug smuggling in the Mediterranean.  After starting out as nothing more than a marro, the girl friend of a drug dealer, Teresa narrowly escapes death, endures a brief stint in prison, then establishes her own drug ring, amassing a great fortune, buying off judges, police, and  political leaders.  She executes those who stand in her way and gets revenge on those who have hurt her in the past.  There are many exciting scenes involving boat chases in the
Mediterranean and escapes from ambushes under heavy gunfire.  After reading the book, one is convinced that the whole world is involved in the drug trade, and that governments and legal institutions are nothing more than fronts for making many people rich through the manufacture and sale of illegal drugs. 
I never felt much sympathy for Teresa Mendoza, though I found myself hoping that she would escape the various ambushes set for her.  I don’t know why I cared other than that she was the “heroine” of the novel.  Frankly, she deserved to be caught and severely punished for what she did.  Perez-Reverte does a great job of explaining the mindset and worldview of those involved in the drug trade.  For many of us, it is difficult to understand how people can be so cold-hearted as to murder without remorse and put their own lives in such danger on a daily basis.  One day, as Teresa Mendoza is looking at the sea, she thinks to herself, “…the sea was as cruel and selfish as human beings, and in its monstrous simplicity had no notion of complexities like pity, wounding, or remorse” (347).  For Teresa, the world is “impassive, cruel, indifferent” (73).  Teresa Mendoza has reached a point in her life where she, too, is beyond pity, wounding, or remorse; she, too, is impassive, cruel, indifferent.  How a human being becomes such an unfeeling person helps us to understand this cruel world of drugs.Some people, such as Teresa Mendoza, have been downtrodden and abused for so long, they are past feeling.   She remembers her mother as one “who had never kissed her—washed dishes in a tub in the yard and slept with drunk neighbors” (307).  Teresa’s father had left them, and her mother often beat her.  As a young girl, Teresa had been gang-raped.  Two of her romances ended with the deaths of her lovers.  For Teresa, the only way to escape these kinds of heartaches and abuses is to become an emotional corpse.  She comes to believe that the best way to live is to have no hopes:  “It might be that ambition, plans, dreams, even bravery, or faith—even faith in God, she decided shivering—didn’t give you strength, but took it away.  Because hope, even the mere desire to survive, made a person vulnerable, bound to possible pain and defeat” (206).  She liked a line from a book about Aeneas, “The only salvation of the conquered is to expect no salvation” (332).People who been brought up in such impoverished cultures, and who have experienced a great deal of abuse, often develop a fatalistic view of life.  In my opinion, the best portions of The Queen of the South are those that describe Teresa’s fatalism.  .  The narrator speaks of her “Sinaloan fatalism” (99).   She likes one of the Russian drug lords she is connected with because he “looked at work, money, life, and death with a dispassionate Slavic fatality that reminded her of certain men from northern
Mexico” (242).  The best Teresa thinks she can do is “float along, allow herself to be part of a huge cosmic joke as she was swept downstream by the current…  To struggle against anything but the concrete moment…was absurd” (99).  Toward the end of the novel, Teresa says, “I don’t like life in general and mine in particular” (365).    This fatalism, the belief that nothing can be changed, least of all ourselves, ultimately gives people an excuse to commit all kinds of atrocities, since we are nothing more than puppets created by the forces of our upbringing, circumstances, and societal constraints.
Of course, one of the primary motivations  to become involved in the drug trade is to find what seems to be a quick and easy way to escape the cycle of poverty.  Though running drugs is a dangerous business, many of the people have the attitude of one of the characters in this book, Guero Davila, “Better, he used to say, five years on your feet than fifty years on your knees”(38).  In other words, a person can spend a life of poverty, selling watermelon from a cart, or one can become rich by selling drugs.  Many of these people have adopted the philosophy of life expressed in these words:  “Say what you will, dirty money spends as green as clean.  Plus, it gives you luxuries, music, wine, and women.  Then you die fast and rest in peace”(40).  That kind of life, though short, is more preferable to some people than a long life of begging.Perez-Reverte introduces us to a culture that glorifies drug dealers.  The Queen of the South points out that in some sections of Hispanic culture, drug runners become folk heroes.  In a strange way, drug traffickers mix their religion and their crimes.  The patron saint of the drug traffickers in
Mexico is St. Malverde, a kind of Robin Hood of Mexico who robbed the rich to give to the poor.  He is not officially a Roman Catholic saint, but nevertheless, the people pray to him as one.  The drug runners prayer of St. Malverde is “God bless my journey and allow my return” (44).    In this culture, drug runners are praised for their ability to outwit the Federales and make a fortune  There is a whole genre of music, narcocorridos, dedicated to tales of these drug traffickers, just as some  of our rap music does:  “As corrdos had been to the Revolution in those bygone days, so the narcocorridos were the new epics, the modern legends of a Mexico that was there and had no intention of going anywhere, or changing—among other reasons because a not inconsiderable part of the national economy depended on the drugs.  It was a marginal, hard world, of weapons, corruption, and drugs, in which the only law not broken was the law of supply and demand” (382).  The musical groups and singers mentioned in this novel  who perform these narcocorridos, such as Los Tigres del Norte, Los Tucanes de Tijuana, and Broncos de Reynosa,  are not fictional.  Some of the lyrics of these narcocorrdos contain lines such as “Vivo de tres animals—mi perico, mi gallo y mi chiva.  I make my living from three animals:  my parakeet, my rooster, and my goat—which in Mexican slang was coke, marijuana, and heroin” (37). 
Though we can understand how the forces of poverty and culture lure people into such criminal activity, we cannot excuse their behavior.  Whether the motive is money, fame, excitement, or revenge, the pain that drug dealers cause others and themselves can never be justified.  We can sympathize with the hopelessness that people often feel in these cultures, but we also know that there are other alternatives besides murder and addiction.  As I read this novel, I kept thinking of the statement by
St. Paul’s description of those “Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (Eph. 4:19). 
St. Paul also spoke of those who consciences have been seared (I Tim. 4:2).  We live in a frightening age in which we are not only producing such people, but also, glorifying them.
Just as an aside, as I was reading this novel, The Queen of the South, I kept thinking of the statement by Jesus, “The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with the men of this generation, and condemn them:  for she came from the utmost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, a greater than Solomon is here.”  The queen of
Sheba was also involved in trade, but hopefully, not the drug trade!  The queen of the south in Scripture was, indeed, a very powerful woman.  Bible scholars debate concerning whether this queen of Sheba was from Arabia or
Ethiopia.  Teresa Mendoza is involved in the drug trade from northern Africa, thus her title, “queen of the south” (south of
Spain).  Jesus said that the queen of the south would arise and condemn the men of his generation.  Teresa Mendoza is a powerful woman who rises to power and rules, condemns, and murders men.  But the one thing this queen of the south doesn’t do is learn the wisdom of Solomon, or the one greater than Solomon.

Also, it helps to have read Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo before reading this book.  This book, in many ways, is a modern retelling of that classic novel.

Works Cited

Perez-Reverte, Arturo.  The Queen of the South.  Trans. Andrew Hurley.
New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004.


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Marriage is Prison

A Review of Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage by Stephan R. Toms Margaret Drabble, like her sister A. S. Byatt (author of Possession), deals frequently with the theme of women who are trapped in marriages that prevent them from pursuing their own dreams and goals.  The title of this novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, is taken from a play, The White Devil (1612) by John Webster:  “’Tis just like a summer bird-cage in a garden:  the birds that are without despair to get in, and the birds that are within despair and are in a consumption for fear they shall never get out.”  Though Webster’s quotation is not about marriage, Drabble uses it to describe how women feel about the confining nature of marriage.  In the view of some, many women are anxious to get married, not realizing that it is a cage that will deny them freedom.  Though the cage may seem to offer security and comfort, women do not realize that marriage may become a prison.  Those who are in such marriages are just as anxious to get out of the cage as they were to get inside it. 

This novel’s two main characters are sisters:  Louise, who is a beautiful woman frequently on the cover of gossip magazines, and Sarah, an Oxford graduate trying to decide what she wants to do with the rest of her life.  Suddenly, Louise announces that she is going to marry Stephen Halifax, a well-known novelist.  The marriage shocks most people since Stephen and Louise are such opposites.  Some people know that if Louise has a real love, it is for an actor, John Connell.  One of the questions that runs throughout the book is why Louise married Stephen.  The marriage becomes an allegory of the wrong motivations that lead people to marriage, and why some people might choose a single life.  Everyone has the feeling that Louise’s marriage to Stephen is a farce, and the novel reveals why the marriage is a sham. This novel was published in 1963 when women were beginning to have more career and educational opportunities.  Sarah thinks, “The days are over, thank God, when a woman justifies her existence by marrying.  At least that is true until she has children” (74).  Though women have a little more freedom, Drabble is still writing at a time when it seemed that women had to decide between family and career, an issue that is still problematic forty years after the publication of this novel.    Drabble’s novel was at the forefront of a movement that led to women trying to juggle more than one vocation in life.  Sarah is a progressive young woman of the 60s who intends to have it all, to “have one’s cake and eat it” (60).  Later, however, she comes to the conclusion that this goal is unattainable:  “ …I learned myself how difficult it was to get anything, let alone the everything that is showered on one in garlands and blossoming armfuls until one faces the outside world” (61). 

The symbol of a woman trapped in a cage occurs frequently in this novel.  On the eve of Louise’s marriage, Sarah finds her awake late at night “walking backwards and forwards, like an animal in a small cage trying to take exercise” (22).  Sarah’s roommate, Gill, describes a party as “an utterly sick-making drunken orgy, with foreign girls and models with their hair done up over bird-cages” (77).  Women’s actions, clothing, and even hairstyles point to the strictures society has placed on the roles of women. There may be some autobiographical inspiration in this novel.  The mother of Margaret Drabble and A. S. Byatt appears to have been a woman who was frustrated because of the opportunities that were denied her after her marriage.  She was determined that Margaret and Antonia (A. S.) would go to Cambridge.  A. S. Byatt’s marriage also seemed to be one that, temporarily at least, caused some problems in the pursuit of her career as a novelist.  In A Summer Bird-Cage, Louise and Sarah’s mother is a woman who has given up everything to be a wife and mother.  One evening, after Sarah has been thinking about her parents’ marriage, she says that she “went to bed feeling sick with myself and sick with the whole idea of marriage” (21).  Sarah’s ambivalent feelings about marriage are the theme of the book.  Sarah’s fears of marriage are summed up in her thoughts: 

I looked at myself in fascination, thinking how unfair it was, to be born with so little defence, like a soft snail without a shell.  Men are all right, they are defined and enclosed, but we in order to live must be open and raw to all comers.  What happens otherwise is worse than what happens normally, the embroidery and the children and the sagging mind.  I felt doomed to defeat.  I felt all women were doomed.  Louise thought she wasn’t but she was.  It would beat her in the end….  I can get very bitter about this subject with very little encouragement….” (28-9).

At times, Sarah reaches a state of despair when she tries to imagine a life where people could be free.  She thinks to herself:  “I would like people to be free, and bound together not by need but by love.  But isn’t so, it can’t be so” (31).  The issue of freedom is important to Sarah.  Even a dress she wears becomes a symbol of her desire for freedom:  “It was a wonderful and exhilarating dress to wear because it left me complete freedom of movement:  it had no belt to sever my legs from the movement of my shoulder, it didn’t mould or make me any way, it just met me where I went out to meet it, with a casual friendliness.  It was a perfect garment to feel happy in” (81).  For Sarah, the societal structures, especially marriage, try to mould one to fit a pre-ordained pattern.  In a discussion about liberty, her friend Stephanie tells Sarah that magazines such as Vogue are instruments of capitalist pressure to make her buy things she doesn’t want.  When Sarah replies that she is still free not to buy them, Stephanie retorts that Sarah is “not free not to want them” (86).  It seems that society puts pressure on us to fit the norm.  As Sarah sees it, it is true that we are free not to marry, but because we have been programmed in such a way, it is not possible for us not to want to marry, though marriage may not be the best thing for us.  Sarah believes that the forces of society and nature are too powerful for us to use our will-power to overcome them:  “I am vaguely aware of a hinterland of non-personal action, where the pulls of sex and blood and society seem to drag me into unwilled motion, where the race takes over and the individual either loses himself in joy or left helplessly self-regarding and appalled” (71).  As Sarah thinks about Louise’s marriage and the possibility of her own, she fits into the category of the “appalled.”

The characters in A Summer Bird-Cage represent the attempts of a post-Christian culture to change marriage into something other than a Biblical view.  The older purposes of marriage, such as mutual help, pro-creation, and symbolizing the mystical union between Christ and his church, have been discarded.  Sarah admires a woman who can “force marriage into a mould of one’s own, while still preserving the name of marriage” (180).  For some time, with dubious results, we have been attempting to force marriage into a new mould, while still calling it marriage.  One of the difficulties is that marriage has been divorced from God.  Sarah, speaking of Louise’s husband, Stephen, says:  “Oh well…I suppose you can say this for Anglicanism, that at least it’s rich and respectable.  I can’t see Stephen believing in anything ridiculous like God.  He chooses to believe in something good, solid, and social, like the sacrament of marriage instead” (141).   This statement sums up the modern attitude toward marriage.  When belief in God became “ridiculous,” people didn’t want to give up some of the good things that came along with the Christian faith, such as viewing marriage as sacred.  Trying to hold on to the sanctity of marriage without a belief in God has proved to be difficult, as American and European cultures have discovered.  Finally, the idea of marriage being sacred or a sacrament was discarded as well.  Without the God and the Church, the last trappings of the traditional marriage were gradually abandoned.  There was nothing left to do but find a new mould, but the mould is based on the personal opinions of the individual.  As our society struggles to redefine marriage, we can see that this struggle has its roots in the abandonment of the Christian concept of marriage.  For many, traditional, Christian marriage is a bird-cage for women.  In the American quest for absolute freedom, we have tried to have our cake and eat it too as far as marriage is concerned.   In our pursuit of personal freedom and self-centered goals,  we have thrown away, not only God’s mould, but all moulds.  The instability of the Western family has been the result. 

Copyright © 2004 by Stephan R. Toms



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Burn All the Books!

A Review of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind by S. Randall Toms

One of the most popular genres of novels at the present is mysteries about books.  Bibliophiles love books that revolve around scenes in bookstores and libraries. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s prose makes one feel as though one can see caverns of books, smell old paper, and sneeze because of the dust.  By means of a variety of forms of narration, Zafon’s gothic mystery describes
Barcelona before, during, and after the Spanish Civil War.  In 1945, Daniel Sempere’s father takes him to a mysterious place called “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.”  Daniel’s father explains to him that this great labyrinth of a library, hidden away in
Barcelona, is a repository for books that have been abandoned.  Each book has a soul and is waiting to be reclaimed by a new reader.  Daniel must choose one book, promise to always cherish it, and never tell anyone about “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.”  Daniel chooses a book (or does the book choose him?) entitled, The Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax.  Daniel finds the book so enthralling that he finishes it in one sitting.  Daniel yearns to know more about Julian Carax and other books he may have written.  As Daniel begins his investigation, he realizes that he has chosen a very special book.  People begin to offer him large sums of money for the novel.  He learns that Julian Carax died under unusual circumstances, and that someone is trying to find all of Carax’s novels and burn them.  As Daniel continues his research into adulthood, he finds that his quest is putting himself and others in danger.  He also discovers  that the story of his own life bears an uncanny resemblance to that Julian Carax.  Many people will die because of Daniel’s obsession with The Shadow of the Wind.  Despite these dangers, Daniel continues his attempt to unravel the mysteries surrounding the death of Julian Carax, the identity of the person who is trying to destroy his books, and why some people are being murdered because of their connections with Julian Carax.
Zafon’s novel is a throwback to the traditional gothic novel.  He utilizes many of the stock conventions of the gothic novel, including a governess, a disfigured major character, insurmountable obstacles preventing the union of lovers, mist, fog, murder, and secret crypts with coffins.  His descriptions of Barcelona in Franco’s
Spain take the place of the gothic castle.  Though some have criticized Zafon’s descriptive, metaphor-filled prose, what would a gothic novel be without it?  His style and subject manner have been compared to Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arturo Perez-Reverte, and Jorge Luis Borges.  His style may not be as polished, just yet, as those authors, but it is a welcome relief to the choppy prose of most modern potboilers.   Zafon is also a screenwriter, which may explain his unusual powers of giving us the ability to imagine a scene in detail.   Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind spent more than a year on the bestseller lists in
Spain, and this English translation by Lucia Graves achieves a dreamy, languorous style that is a pleasure to read.  One of my favorite passages is a description of Daniel’s thoughts as he roams through The Cemetery of Forgotten Books:
As I walked in the dark through the tunnels and tunnels of books, I could not help being overcome by a sense of sadness.  I couldn’t help thinking that if I, by pure chance, had found a whole universe in a single unknown book, buried in that endless necropolis, tens of thousands more would remain unexplored, forgotten forever.  I felt myself rounded by millions of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner singing in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wiser the more it forgot.  (76)Unfortunately, Zafon is not quite able to sustain the prose style in which he begins his novel, especially in the middle sections.  There is a flash of these narrative powers at the end, but he never achieves the styles which was so promising in the early stage of the book.    While the novel contains interesting plot twists, one is not shocked by the resolution of the mystery.  Surprisingly, Zafon relied on a well-worn gothic plot to describe the major obstacle to the romance of Julian Carax and Penelope Aldaya.  Aside from these minor weaknesses, The Shadow of the Wind is a respectable, modern version, of a Victorian, gothic novel.Part of the success of The Shadow of the Wind lies in Zafon’s portrayal of both major and minor characters.  The characters of Dickens come to mind, especially Fermin Romero de Torres, a wise-cracking, philosophical assistant to Daniel in his search for the truth, who wisely observes, “Television, my dear Daniel, is the Antichrist, and I can assure you that after only three or four generations,…humans will return to living in caves, to medieval savagery, and to the general state of imbecility that slugs overcame in the Pleistocene era.  Our world will not die as a result of the bomb, as the papers say, it will die of laughter, of banality, of making a joke of everything, and a lousy joke at that” (107).   Don Anacleto, Don Frederico,  Bernarda, Merceditas, and Clara Barcelo, make for a well-rounded Dickensian cast.   Inspector Fumero is a villain that makes one long for justice to be meted out to him.  Through letters, interviews, and other means of back story, we are taken to the childhoods of Julian and Daniel to meet the people who shaped their lives.  Zafon’s novel confronts us with terrifying beauty and danger of books.  Many of us can identify with Clara Barcelo’s description of the time when reading really began to grip our hearts:  “Until then, reading was just a duty, a sort of fine one had to pay teachers and tutors without quite knowing why.  I had never known the pleasure of reading, of exploring the recesses of the soul, of letting myself be carried away by imagination, beauty, and the mystery of fiction and language” (27).  Since this novel takes place in the atmosphere of a fascist regime,  the efforts of one of the characters to burn some books calls up images of the book-burnings that occurred under fascist dictatorships.  Throughout this novel, Daniel is amazed at the power books have to change, redeem, and sometimes, destroy lives.  Nevertheless, with all of the inherent dangers that lie within books, their beauty and mystery continue to draw us.  As the ten year old Daniel Sempere thinks as he is led through The Cemetery of Forgotten Books:  “…between the covers of each of those books lay a boundless universe waiting to be discovered, while beyond those walls, in the outside world, people allowed life to pass by in afternoons of football and radio soaps, content to do little more than gaze at their navels” (6).  The danger of books leads many people to attempt various forms of censorship:  prohibiting the publication of certain books, banning some books from schools and libraries, and even destroying books.  As with most things in life, books can be used or abused, but our lives would be missing something very beautiful if we eliminated the potential of such dangers.   The Shadow of the Wind demonstrates how a hatred for words can be transformed into a love for them.There are a few books that one reads in one’s lifetime that have the power to send chills down one’s back.  The last sentence of The Shadow of the Wind caused a cold child to run up and down my back for a good twenty seconds after I had read it. The chills were caused, not by fear, but by profound appreciation for well written prose and a good story.  One of the characters in Zafon’s novel laments that “the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day” (484).  This book is for “great readers” who love books, especially books about books.Works CitedZafon, Carlos Ruiz.  The Shadow of the Wind.  2001. Trans. Lucia Grave. 
New York:  Penguin P, 2004. 

Copyright © Stephan R. Toms, 2004

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A Terrible Secret


A Review of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Seville Communion by S. Randall Toms

 Having read Perez-Reverte’s The Queen of the South (2002),  I went back to one of his earlier novels, The Seville Communion (1995), to see if this one resembled my favorite Perez-Reverte’s book, The Club Dumas.  Though The Seville Communion is not as mysterious as The Club Dumas, it does have more suspense than the The Queen of the SouthSome readers may draw comparisons between The Seville Communion and The Da Vinci Code, since both treat some rather disturbing elements of contemporary Roman Catholicism (Opus Dei is even mentioned a couple of times); but Perez-Reverte is a much better writer than Dan Brown, even in an English translation.  With more stylistic and intellectual aplomb than Brown, Perez-Reverte’s characters probe some of the philosophical and practical problems that exist in contemporary Roman Catholicism.  For example, The Seville Communion’s Archbishop Spada describes the
Vatican state as “forty hectares containing the most powerful state on earth, but with the structures of an absolutist medieval monarchy.  A throne now bolstered only by a religion that has become little more than a show…” (21).  With a tired irony, the priests and archbishops in this novel regret the past mistakes of the Church, face the modern impotence of the Church, contemplate its ineffectiveness, and predict its ultimate demise with “mice running around empty pews” (133).   Though this book was written before the sex scandals of Boston were uncovered, Perez-Reverte was almost prophetic in his analysis of how the Roman Catholic Church handles the sexual sins of it priests by simply looking the other way:  “Ultimately, the unofficial permission of superiors was more or less assured—the Church of Peter in its wisdom had thus survived for centuries—as long as there was no scandal and results were achieved” (161-2).  The way things were handled in
Boston resembles another of Perez-Reverte’s observations:  “In the Catholic Church, a problem postponed was a problem solved” (259). 
The Seville Communion illustrates how the Roman Catholic faith no longer satisfies the needs of many of its members.  The main characters are two Roman Catholic priests:   Lorenzo Quart, a “good soldier” of the Catholic Church who investigates sticky matters for the Vatican, usually to try to protect the image of the Church; and, Father Priamo Ferro, the priest at Our Lady of the Tears, an old church in
Seville, Spain.  Our Lady of the Tears is in danger of being demolished through the efforts of a wealthy banker, Pencho Gavira, whose wife, Macarena Gavira nee Bruner, is determined to save the church.  Father Quart is sent to
Seville because two people have been killed recently inside Our Lady of the Tears.  Furthermore, a computer hacker has infiltrated the
Vatican’s main computer, gaining access to the computer of the Pope himself.  The hacker, named “Vespers,” pleads for the
Vatican to save Our Lady of the Tears, and suggests that the church itself is killing people to save itself, since both deaths have been accidental:  one death was caused by a man falling off some scaffolding in the church and the other by a stone falling from the ceiling.  Fr. Quart is sent to investigate these matters before some bad publicity starts to tarnish the image of the Roman Catholic Church:  “In the Church, harmony was often a question of keeping up appearances…” (77).  So, The Seville Communion turns into a Roman Catholic murder mystery and a search for a mysterious and dangerous computer hacker.  The novel is a good mystery thriller, but in this review I would like to discuss the many theological and moral issues raised by this work.
As Fr. Quart investigates, Fr. Ferro meets him with resentment, convinced that Quart is one of the
Vatican’s henchmen.  On the surface, it appears that Ferro and Quart are very different types of priests.  Ferro seems to be an old line Catholic who much preferred the Church before Vatican II, a priest with a rural background who is as comfortable preaching on the fires of hell as a priest from the Counter-Reformation (81).   But Fr. Ferro is a much more complicated character than priests and archbishops realize.     As the novel progresses, these two priests find that they are not so different after all.  Both have lost their faith, and neither is concerned about “spiritual” matters.  The novel gradually uncovers why Fr. Ferro wants to save Our Lady of the Tears and why Fr. Quart stays in the priesthood.
Lorenzo Quart, a debonair priest, “handsome well-dressed, classy…Like Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds but more manly” (230), does not serve the Church for spiritual reasons or to help people.  He has no charity, compassion, or faith.  All he possesses is a strict self-discipline and the ability to follow orders:  traits that make him a valuable asset to the Church (35).  Lorenzo Quart never wanted to be the typical parish priest.   He thinks about the emptiness of the life of his boyhood parish priest who led such a boring existence and ended his life suffering from senile dementia in a nursing home “for the greater glory of God” (89).  Quart loves his job as an emissary of the
Vatican, enjoying the adventure and danger it brings.
Father Ferro has accurately seen through Quart and the modern Church.  For Ferro, the Church is simply a “multinational organization” standing for a pack of lies (211).   Fr. Ferro sees Quart as “one of the TV preachers, pastors of a soulless church, who speak of the faithful the way companies speak of their customers” (212).  He sizes up Quart as a man who has never had strong passions of love or pity.  Quart, however, sees himself as one of the old Knights Templar, often reading for personal encouragement the Eulogy of the Templar Militia by Bernard of Clairvaux (70).  But Quart’s solid, Knights Templar discipline begins to fail him when he meets Macarena.  As he realizes that he is being swept away by her charms, he is reminded of “serpents, forbidden fruit, incarnations of Delilah, and the like” (102). ).   For Quart, women are “abominable creatures,”  “Salome,” “Jezebel,” “the devil’s creation” (243), who threaten, not his faith (he has none), but his discipline:  “In Quart’s case, only willpower, expressed as self-discipline, offers protection from the naked truth that gave rise to weakness or apathy or despair” (174).As Fr. Quart investigates the facts surrounding the killings, he encounters others who are determined to save Our Lady of the Tears:  Macarena and her mother, an aging Duchess; Gris Marsala, a nun/church restorer; and Fr. Oscar Labato, Ferro’s assistant.  Though all of them love the little church and want to continue the ministry of Our Lady of Tears, their motivations are different, and none of them have to do with reasons of personal spirituality or love for Christ.  Gris Marsala, for example, wants to save the church because she is “convinced that every ancient building, picture, or book that’s lost or destroyed leaves us bereft.  Impoverished” (40). Gris Marsala is another bitter person, regretting that she became a nun so early in life, before she knew anything about love, sex, and oppression:  “There are few things in life as tragic as awakening to the truth too late,” she laments (272).   In Our Lady of the Tears, Gris Marsala had found a cause, something to fight for, which has become her “faith” (119).    Macarena wants to fight for the church because of its romantic connection to some of her ancestors. She knows that priests no longer have faith.  She fights for the church because it is “a battle against time and oblivion…I belong to a breed that’s dying out, and I’m fully aware of it” (241).  Macarena is a hopeless romantic who realizes that what she considers to be romantic and beautiful, will soon be unappreciated, then destroyed, then forgotten.  Gris Marsala describes Macarena as someone who has “the awareness of a dying world…the desperation of intelligence.  She inherited a world that no longer exists, that’s all.  She’s another orphan clinging to the wreckage” (266).  While Fr. Ferro appears to be a conservative priest who wants to keep Our Lady of the Tears alive because of his traditional beliefs, he has long since stopped believing in the old dogmas of the Church.  He is living a farce only for the sake of his people.   Part of the reason Fr. Ferro lost his faith was that he ministered among the poor for twenty-five years, begging God to help them, but God never answered (213).  But he knows that many people need something in which to believe.  So, he provides them a refuge from, as he puts it, “all the bullshit” (92).  As Quart observes the congregation of Our Lady of Tears, he surmises that it doesn’t matter whether there is a God or eternal rewards and punishments.  Fr. Ferro offers his congregation the only thing that matters:  solace in a cold, cruel world (173).  Later Fr. Ferro confirms Quart’s opinion of why he maintains his conservative bearing for the sake of the church, when he confesses to Quart that the only reason he continues to serve the church is for the sake of those poor people who know that they will die and be forgotten.  He helps them to hold on to the illusion of eternal life, because if they don’t have that belief to cling to, they will despair, realizing the truth that the “universe is simply a joke in very poor taste; senseless chaos.  So faith becomes a kind of hope, a solace.  Maybe that’s why not even the Holy Father believes in God anymore” (214).  The sad thing about Fr. Ferro is that he knows that the universe is a bad joke in poor taste.  Though the church is no help to him, it is for the simpletons who don’t know any better.  Having studied the Bible and all the great philosophers, Fr. Ferro has seen through everything, realizing that in the end, people remember, they’re afraid, and they die.  Fr. Ferro and many well-educated people believe that all religion is delusional.  It is horrible to have this type of knowledge:  “…only a madman would envy our secret.  We know…the angel who holds the key to the abyss” (215).  Standing before this abyss of knowing that there is no God is a terrible thing for priests, nuns, and lay people to realize.  Perez-Reverte uses three images to describe the horror of the situation.  First, he uses the image of a chess board.  Characters feel as though they are pawns, hidden away on one area of the board, not knowing if their king is still in the game (120).   Many people have fears that God is dead, but they keep charging into battle, because they need a cause, or because they need the comfort of some type of religion to guard them from the horrors of the abyss.  Perez-Reverte draws another symbol from Heinrich Heine’s Travel Pictures, which contains the following thought:  Life and the world are the dream of a drunken god, who steals away from the banquet of the gods and falls asleep on a solitary star, unaware that he creates what he dreams of….And the images of his dreams appear, at times with a motley extravagance, at others harmonious and rational….The Iliad, Plato, the battle of Marathon, the Venus de Medici, the French Revolution, Hegel, steamships, all are thoughts that emerge from his long dream.  But one day the god will wake, rubbing his sleepy eyes, he will smile, and our world will sink into oblivion, as if none of it had ever existed”  (208-9).  Quart entertains the possibility that this fable might be true, but the priest, for the sake of his people, must guard this secret (359).  The third figure is taken from astronomy.  Fr. Ferro is an amateur astronomer, and his observations lead him to perhaps one of the key thoughts in the book.  One evening, as Ferro and Quart are gazing at the heavens, they discuss Polaris.  Fr. Ferro explains that that since Polaris is 470 light years away, we are being guided by light that is over four centuries old–by a star that may have already ceased to exist (299, 301).  For Quart and Ferro, the Church and its Gospel, are like a star that has gone out.  What is happening at Our Lady of the Tears is a microcosm of what has happened in the Roman Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant churches.  The clergy and intellectual elite no longer believe the doctrines that the Church used to believe, or they have redefined them to fit modern sensibilities to the degree that they bear no resemblance to the faith of past generations.  Nevertheless, they keep the Church going for those “innocent” souls who don’t know any better (28-9).   When seminaries, Catholic and Protestant, began to train future priests and ministers by demythologizing the Gospels, they destroyed the faith of the leaders of the Church.   Quart is the product of modern seminaries that, whether Catholic or Protestant, take young men away from the simple faith of their youth and substitute it with a more intellectual, but barren form:  “his theology teachers meticulously took apart and reassembled the mechanisms of faith in the minds of young men destined for the priesthood” (115).  Modern theologians have redefined the Christian faith to the degree that it no longer bears a resemblance to the faith of the New Testament and the early Church fathers.  In The Seville Communion, Fr. Oscar Labato explains to Quart,  “…when I met Don Priamo, I saw what faith is.  Faith doesn’t even need the existence of God.  It’s a blind leap into a pair of welcoming arms.  It’s solace in the face of senseless fear and suffering.  The child’s truth in the hand that leads out of darkness” (134).  Liberal and postmodern theologies have resulted in a type of faith that doesn’t need the reality of God or the historical truths of Scripture.  The result has been that the stories of Scripture have been reduced to abstract ideas.  Though this approach may be interesting to men and women who stay in the ministry because they cannot break the habit of going to church or find another career, the average person, whether educated or not, sees no point in going to a church where the Gospel is being demythologized.  The minister is caught in a web of contradictions.  If he is true to his new beliefs (or lack of them), he is preaching a gospel that almost no one understands or wants to hear.  To make the Gospel relevant by demythologizing it, he has only made it increasingly irrelevant.  Though The
Seville Communion
works as a thriller, it also provides a wonderful commentary on the despair generated by a theology that no longer has any beliefs and a bureaucracy that perpetuates itself for the sake of money, power, and a sop of comfort thrown to those poor souls who need some type of religion.  Contemporary theology offers people abstract ideas and causes, but no God.  For them, the God that people once believed in, no longer exists, and it is only a matter of time before all people realize that its guiding star no longer provides any light.  If liberal and postmodern theologies win the day, everyone will know the terrible secret.  We will be left only with the abyss of a liberal theology that never has provided light–only a black hole that engulfs us in the despair of meaninglessness.
Works CitedPerez-Reverte, Arturo.  The
Seville Communion
. 1995.  Trans. Sonia Soto. 
New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998.

 Copyright © by Stephan R. Toms 2004.

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Can Postmodernists Romance?

A Review of A. S. Byatt’s Possession by S. Randall Toms

 I am sorry that I have waited over a decade to discover A. S. Byatt’s Possession.  I was captivated by the story just as a child is entranced by a fairy tale, which is not surprising, since the author interweaves myths and fairy tales throughout this book.  Possession is the story of a couple of English scholars in the 1980s who uncover a secret romance in 1859 between two Victorian poets.  Byatt invents these two poets, Henry Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, but treats them as real characters as though scholars have been criticizing and investigating their lives for over a century.  Byatt not only invents these characters, she also invents their poetry.  Throughout the novel we find large sections of their poetry, written by Byatt, but they do have the ring of such Victorians as Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti.    I kept wishing that Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte had existed.  I wanted to read more of their poetry and pour over a century of criticism about their works.  How I wish there was a fairy epic by LaMotte entitled, The Fairy Melusina!  Now I will have to explore their poetry, wishing that it had been written by these Victorians, rather than a 1991 author.  In Possession, Roland Mitchell is a Randolph Henry Ash scholar, while Maud Bailey is an expert in the life and poetry of Christabel LaMotte.  Roland, while digging through an old book in the Reading Room of the London Library discovers an, until now, unknown letter from Ash to a woman whose name is not mentioned on this piece of correspondence.  After some detective work, he discovers that this letter was written to Christabel LaMotte, a rather minor figure in Victorian poetry, but popular among feminist scholars.  Roland Mitchell contacts Maud Bailey and they begin, through letters, diaries, and revisiting the works of Ash and LaMotte, to uncover the details of this romance.  Until this point in time, people had thought Randolph Henry Ash was a happily married man who never strayed, and that Christabel LaMotte had lived with a companion, Blanche Glover, perhaps in a lesbian relationship.  The discovery of a romance between Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte would cause a major shift in the criticism of the works of these two writers for Ash scholars and feminist fans of Christabel LaMotte.  Having a doctorate in English, I loved the sort of literary detective work that is described in this novel.  Byatt’s work also took me back to my days as a graduate student when I had to work in the confines of the literary theories that bind Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey.  I couldn’t help but laugh at some of Byatt’s fictitious dissertation, book,  and article titles such as, Marginal Beings and Liminal Poetry; Motif and Matrix in the Poems of LaMotte; “Male Ventriloquism:  The Women of Randolph Henry Ash”; and Herself Herself Involve, LaMotte’s Strategies of Evasion.The romance between Ash and LaMotte is a gripping story, one that would have been a great novel in and of itself.  Byatt’s narrative alternates between the latter part of the 19th century and the latter part of the 20th century through diaries, letters, and an omniscient third-person narrator.   The Ash/LaMotte romance is set beside the budding romance, or lack of it, between Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell.  The full title of Byatt’s novel is Possession:  A Romance.  The story of Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte fits nicely into the genre of typical Victorian romance.  But the relationship of Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey is difficult to describe as a romance, since postmodernists such as Maude and Roland do not believe in romance, or at least, the characters have a strong feeling that romance is not possible for the postmodernist person.  Just as we think Roland and Maud may fall in love, we read, “Semiotics nearly spoiled their first day” (305). In 1859, strict codes of morality, reinforced by religious upbringing and laws about marriage and divorce, presented obstacles to some romances, such as that between Ash and LaMotte.  Standing in the way of a possible romance between Roland and Maud are Freud and postmodern literary theory.  After Darwin, Freud, Derrida, and Lacan, can the postmodernist really love, since all the feelings and sentiments we normally associated with love turn out to be nothing more than instinctual desires and tools of domination?  Words, which were so important to Ash and LaMotte, are suspect to Roland and Maud because of the postmodern emphasis that “words” are the weapons of power structures to legitimize oppression.
Darwin, Freud, and postmodernism have cast their shadow over Christianity as well.  So much of the romance between Randolph and Christabel occurs in 1859, the year
Darwin’s Origin of the Species is published. The crumbling of religious faith in the light of scientific discoveries is a theme that runs through the correspondence between these two lovers.  Ash is already advocating a metaphorical rather than historical interpretation of the Christian faith, a technique which has taken hold in most liberal scholarship in contemporary American churches.  In one of his letters to Christabel, Ash writes,
…we live in a tired world—a tired world—a world that has gone on piling up speculation and observations until truths that might been graspable in the bright Dayspring of human morning—by the young Plotinus or the ecstatic John on Patmos—are obscured by palimpsest on palimpsest….  [T]he lovely lines of faith that sprung up in aspiring  towers of the ancient ministers and abbeys are both worn away by time, and grime, softly shrouded by the smutty accretions of our industrial cities, our wealth, our discoveries themselves, our Progress….  [T]he Scribe of Genesis did well to locate the source of all our misery in that greed for knowledge which has also been our greatest spur….  (195)Add Freud and postmodernism to
Darwin, and we begin to wonder if we can ever believe in the Christian faith as our ancestors, just as the postmodern wonders if he can believe in love.  Maud tells Roland: 
In every age, there must be truths people can’t fight—whether or not they want to, whether or not they will go on being truths in the future.  We live in the truth of what Freud discovered.  Whether or not we like it.  However we’ve modified it.  We aren’t really free to suppose—to imagine—he could possibly have been wrong about human nature.  In particulars, surely—but not in the large plan.   (308)Knowing what we know, it is difficult to enter a state of denial and pretend the new knowledge doesn’t exist, for the nagging seed of doubt has been planted.  As Maud puts it, “What could survive our education?” (65).Though separated by over a century, Christabel and Maud share a common resistance to romance:  possession.  The word possession and its verbal form can be used in a variety of ways.  One may possess an object, which implies ownership.  Possession also describes a state of having been taken over by a force so that one is no longer in control.  Literature abounds with stories of demonic or daemonic possession (“daemonic” meaning “inspired,” or “motivated by a powerful force”).  Maud and Christabel fear both forms of possession, as Christabel writes to Ash, “I am threatened in that Autonomy for which I have so struggled” (204).    Christabel and Maud enjoy their independence, and fear romance as something that may jeopardize their freedom.  Male possession is a constant threat.   Fearing being dominated by men, they try to escape feelings they might have toward men.  Maud tells Roland, “You can become a property or an idol.  I don’t want that…  I keep my defences up because I must go on doing my work” (600).  When feelings of “love” or “romance” intrude into their isolation, they put up barriers so that they will not be possessed by these feelings and desires.  Interestingly, Maud and Christabel are possessed by their desires for independence and freedom.  Maud is so possessed by her feminist ideals she wears her long hair tied up, hidden under a scarf, because she had once given a lecture to a group of feminist scholars who hissed at her when she took the podium:  though her hair was its natural color, these feminists believed that she had dyed it and wore it long to make herself attractive to men.  Roland Mitchell is also a postmodern who prefers distance, even in his intimate relationships with others.  Roland and Maud have a common fantasy about an empty bed.  Roland explains, “…what I really want is to have nothing.  An empty clean bed.  I have this image of a clean empty bed in a clean empty room, where nothing is asked or to be asked” (325).  The postmodern attitude is a smirk of ironic detachment, held tenaciously to maintain personal freedom at any cost.  What can Maud and Roland do in the face of feelings that are starting to possess them and still maintain their postmodern ideal of distance?From a Christian perspective, postmodernism’s ironic detachment is at odds with Christian love.  Christian love demands vulnerability and possession.  The postmodernist fears love, even Romantic Love, because, as Maud says, “Oh, love is terrible, it is a wrecker—“ (601).  It is true that God’s love for us and our love for God and one another wrecks our lives by causing us to live for something other than ourselves, something that may be dangerous.  For this reason, possession is a fearful thing.   The Christian is possessed by words, ideas, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ.  The Christian realizes that he is the possession of another:  “What?  Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?  For ye are bought with a price:  therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (I Cor. 6:19-20).  The difference between the Christian and the postmodern is that the Christian delights in the knowledge that he does not belong to himself, but to the one who paid the price to redeem him.  We are not at liberty to do as we please, to live a life of selfish isolation.  Rather, we must love others and live in mutual submission with other Christians.  The Christian is to be possessed by a love for Christ and for one another.  This love is reinforced by Truth—especially the truth that we are more than animals:  we are beings created in the image of God.  In contrasting the Victorians with postmodernists, Maud explains to Roland the progression in Victorian thought that in the end has led to postmodernism:  They [the Victorians] valued themselves.  Once, they knew God valued them.  Then they began to think there was no God, only blind forces.  So they valued themselves, they loved themselves and attended to their natures–….  At some point in history their self-value changed into—what worries you.  A horrible over-simplification….  We never say the word Love, do we—we know it’s a suspect ideological construct—especially Romantic Love—so we have to make a real effort to know how it felt like to be them, here, believing in these things—Love—themselves—that what they did mattered–… (309, 324). Without the objective truth that we are created in the image of God, beings who have a meaningful existence, a capacity for love and real communion with one another, even in the words we speak, there can be no real love,  Postmodernism sacrifices love at the altar of doubt and detachment, preferring isolation to possession.The story of Ash/Mitchell and LaMotte/Bailey shows us that though we fear possession, we are always possessed by something.  The question is not whether we will be possessed, but by what or whom will we be possessed.  We can be possessed by romantic ideals, sex, lust, feminism, postmodernism, or Jesus Christ.  For the postmodern project to succeed, distance must be maintained by a fear of possession.  For the Christian, distance is overcome by a love of possession.

Copyright © 2004 by Stephan R. Toms

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Being Truly Alive

A Review of David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback by S. Randall Toms

On the cover of the paperback edition of Mornings on Horseback are the words, “The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt.”  This biography of Theodore Roosevelt covers the first twenty-eight years of his life (1858-1886), so there are no descriptions of the Rough Riders, or Roosevelt’s presidency.  Using a wealth of letters and primary newspaper and magazine sources from the time, as well as some of the best earlier biographies about Roosevelt, McCullough gives us a vivid portrayal of what it would have been like to grow up in the Roosevelt family, and the forces that made Theodore Roosevelt the leader he became.  McCullough points out that the only image many people have of Theodore Roosevelt is of a Rough Rider who always said, “Bully.”  In reality, Theodore Roosevelt’s life is filled with a rich diversity that staggers the imagination.This biography has something for those interested in American Victorian society, those who love stories of hunting and adventures in the Wild West, and for political junkies.  The chapters concerning the Roosevelt family trips to Europe and Egypt, asthma, descriptions of Harvard toward the end of the 19th century,  the Republican national convention of 1884, and Teddy’s adventures in the
Badlands are riveting. 
McCullough shows us that Teddy Roosevelt had the advantages of growing up in an extremely wealthy family with old money.  The Roosevelt’s hobnobbed with the Astors, Vanderbilts, and other members of the elite society in
New York City.  When Theodore was first elected to the New York legislature, one member said, “We almost shouted with laughter…to think that the most veritable representative of the
New York dude had come to the Chamber” (256).  Theodore was quite a snob in these early years.  The
Roosevelt children were tutored at home so that they would not develop friendships with the wrong sort of people.  Theodore, Sr., Teddy’s father, warned his children to “be careful always in chance acquaintances” (38).  When he went to Harvard, he did not live with the other students, but rather had rooms of his own off campus, complete with servants.  He learned to shoot birds when his family took him on a trip on theNile
River.  When he first entered the political arena, the press called him “Jane-Dandy,” “his Lordship,” “weakling,”  “silly,”  “Oscar Wilde,” and “the exquisite Mr. Roosevelt” (256).   Even when he went to the
Badlands, he spent a great amount of money to buy the best clothes, guns, and knives, so that he would look like a cowboy.  As a cowboy, he was still a dandy.  Even his speech betrayed him.  On one cattle drive, he was heard to say, “Hasten forward quickly there!” (329).  On an expedition out West, one of his cowboy guides made the mistake of calling him “Theodore.” 
Roosevelt told him not to let it happen again (333).

Roosevelt had all the advantages of growing up in the elite, upper class of society, he did not have an easy childhood.  He suffered with asthma throughout his life, but especially during childhood.  His health was a source of constant concern for his family.  McCullough describes him at 17 as five feet eight inches and weighing 125 pounds.  “His voice was thin and piping, almost comical” (160).    So, how did this sickly child become a Rough Rider, known as one of the great American sportsmen?  It is here that we draw inspiration from
Roosevelt’s life and example.  Though he was weak physically, by hard work he made himself a strong man.  McCullough writes that for the person who has asthma, “life is quite literally a battle.  And the test is how he responds, in essence whether he seems himself as a helpless victim or decides to fight back” (107).  Teddy chose to fight back.  Thus began an effort through regular exercise, boxing, hiking, and perilous adventures which finally made
Roosevelt into a strong man.   Roosevelt made several trips to the
Dakotas in the 1880s, putting himself in dangerous predicaments in which he had to be hardy just to survive.  He became one of the great advocates of the strenuous life.  What he accomplished in his life is staggering.  He became the father of six, a police commissioner, Governor of New York, Vice-President, and President of the
United States.  He wrote around 150,000 letters and “more than twenty books dealing with history, literature, politics, and natural history” (366).  He was a voracious reader, sometimes reading two books in an evening.  One of my favorite stories in this biography is of Theodore reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and writing a letter about the moral nature of its characters, while he was chasing thieves through the Dakota Badlands. 
Roosevelt is one of the great examples of being a man’s man and an intellectual at the same time.
The inspiration for this transformation came from his father. 
Roosevelt’s father, Theodore, Sr., was an advocate of the active life.  He believed that “physical well-being and mental outlook are directly correlated” (34). McCullough writes, “He hated idleness.  Every hour must be accounted for and one must also enjoy everything one did.  Get action, he said.  Seize the moment.  ‘Man was never intended to become an oyster’” (31).  After worrying about his son for many years,
Roosevelt’s father finally told him that he could no longer help him, but that Teddy must make himself into a strong man.  He told his young son, “Theodore, you have the mind, but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should….  You must make your body….  It is hard drudgery to make one’s body,…but I know you will do it” (112). 
Teddy, like his brother and sisters, idolized his father.  They nicknamed him “Greatheart,” because of his resemblance to the character of that name from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  Teddy once wrote, “My father, Theodore Roosevelt, was the best man I ever knew” (364).  Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. was the sort of wealthy man we always say we would be if we were rich.  While it is true that the
Roosevelt’s were proud of their social standing, never allowing themselves marriages or intimate friendships outside their class, they were very generous with their money.  Some of Theodore Sr.’s friends said that he had a “maniacal benevolence” (28).    McCullough describes Theodore, Sr. as “upright, conservative, the very model of self-control,…the model duty-bound husband and father, a junior partner at Roosevelt and Son…a faithful communicant at the Madison Square Presbyterian Church” who “served on charitable boards, raised money for museums…physically imposing, athletic, with china-blue eyes, chestnut hair and beard, and a good, square Dutch jaw” (22).  Theodore Sr., worked strenuously during the Civil War for the support of the wives and widows of Union soldiers.  He also established an orphanage for boys, and helped to start the New York Orthopedic Dispensary and Hospital for children with spinal diseases.    Through his efforts, a museum of natural history in
New York was built and furnished.  He was also a devoted Presbyterian who led his family in daily devotions despite his incredibly busy schedule.  He insisted that Theodore find a church where he could teach Sunday School while at Harvard.  Theodore began teaching Sunday School at

Church, an Episcopal church.  When the Rector told Theodore that he could no longer teach the Sunday School class unless he became an Episcopalian, Theodore told the Rector that he thought he was narrow minded.  Theodore left
Church and began teaching another Sunday School class in the poorest section of
Cambridge “(212).  Though Theodore, Sr. was a devoted Christian, filled with good works, he also knew how to live well and lavishly.  He loved the finest of clothes, big houses, parties and dancing.  On their trip to
Egypt, Theodore. Sr. spent five times the yearly salary of the average American (127). 
Through the inspiration of his father, Teddy Roosevelt became one of the most hard-working men in politics.  One of the
New York legislators described him this way:  “Such a super-abundance of animal life was hardly ever condensed in a human being” (266).   From being a weakling, he was transformed to a man who loved a fight.  One journalist said that “
Roosevelt did not regard politics as a gentleman’s sport….
Roosevelt had a trait of ruthless righteousness” (276).    It was from his father that Teddy learned the art of perseverance and determination, no matter the hardships.  Though he was brought up in privileged circumstances, he knew the power of tragedy in one’s life.  His father died in 1878 when Teddy was only 19.  In 1884, Teddy’s  mother and wife died within 11 hours of one another, his wife just having given birth to his first child.  Yet, these tragedies did not slow him down, but seemed to compel him to more strenuous activity. 
Mornings on Horseback is a wonderful biography for fathers and children to read.  Fathers can draw inspiration from Roosevelt, Sr., while children can be encouraged by the example of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. who overcame great obstacles to become not only President of the
U.S., but also, practically everything else.  The great American writer, Edith Wharton, who had been his friend since childhood once wrote, “…he was so alive at all points, and so gifted with the rare faculty of living intensely and entirely in every moment as it passed…” (368).  What a worthy ambition for all of us to pursue!
McCullough, David.  Mornings on Horseback. 1981
New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2001.


Copyright © by Stephan R. Toms, 2004

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This Body of Death

A Review of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter

 Graham Greene (1904-1991) converted to Roman Catholicism in 1926.  Books such as Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), and The Heart of the Matter (1948) are often referred to as his Roman Catholic novels because they deal with people who are Roman Catholics, often grappling with political and spiritual issues that have Roman Catholic themes.  While Greene’s characters deal with aspects of faith from a Roman Catholic perspective, many of the themes would be common to Christians of other denominations as well.  In The Heart of the Matter, the main character, Scobie, has to deal with the guilt he experiences while having an adulterous affair and trying to be a good Catholic at the same time.  A man in his fifties, Scobie feels trapped in a job and in a marriage.  He is a policeman in
West Africa during World War II.  One of his main duties is searching ships, trying to find diamonds that are being smuggled.  After many years of faithful service, he is passed over for the job of police commissioner.  At his age, he realizes that he is probably stuck in his present position for the rest of his life, with no possibility for advancement.  His wife, Louise, a very proud woman who wanted him to be promoted to commissioner so that she could feel that she was on the same social level as some the other English women in
West Africa, wants to get away.   Scobie wants to grant her request, but doesn’t have the money to do so.  Finally, putting his reputation as a police officer at risk, he gets a loan from a Syrian who is suspected of many illegal activities.  Thus, for the sake of making his wife happy, he opens himself to blackmail and the loss of his job.  After receiving the loan, Scobie’s wife leaves for
South Africa.
While Louise is away, Scobie falls in love with a nineteen year old girl, Helen, who was brought to this west African settlement for medical treatment after surviving a shipwreck.  Her husband had been killed in this disaster.  After she recovers from her ordeal, she and Scobie begin an affair which he tries, unsuccessfully, to hide from the community in which he lives.  Eventually, Scobie’s wife, realizes the error of her ways and returns.  Most of the book concerns how Scobie deals with his love for Helen, his pity for his wife, and his desire to be a good Catholic.Scobie’s thoughts mirror those of some Christians who are living in some kind of sin.   Most Christians would be able to identify with Scobie’s guilt, his rationalizations, his desire for something forbidden, and his desire to be a good Christian at the same time.  Scobie has no feelings for his wife other than pity.  Any kind of intimacy with Louise is a painful experience for Scobe: “He lay coiled like a watch-spring on the outside of the bed, trying to keep his body away from Louise’s; wherever they touched—if it were only a finger lying against a finger—sweat started” (42).  Though he feels that he is in a loveless marriage, he does not walk out on Louise because he has a sense of responsibility:  “The less he needed Louise the more conscious he became of his responsibility for her happiness” (21).  Scobie feels this sense of responsibility, not only toward his wife, but for many others as well, always feeling that he was responsible to make other people happy.  Scobie is a man who is willing to honor his responsibilities at the price of his own happiness.  Scobie experiences a great deal of guilt when he realizes that he has not made Louise happy, but has contributed to making her unattractive both physically and socially  Scobie has reached a point in his life where he finds that his wife is no longer attractive to him as she was in the days of their youth, but he also understands that he had a hand in making her unattractive.  When he realizes that other people are making fun of his wife, he is enraged:  “What right have you, he longed to exclaim, to criticize her?  This is my doing.  This is what I’ve made of her.  She wasn’t always like this”(32).    During his affair with Helen, though she is only nineteen, he recognizes that he is making an old woman of her.  Scobie thinks of these women who have been to his “school,” a school where they “learn bitterness and frustration and how to grow old”(179).  It is a sobering thought to realize that others are in “our school.”  We are teaching them.  We are molding them into something that they would not have become if they had not come into our sphere of influence.  We make them what they are, and then we are disgusted with what we have made, and sometimes abandon the thing we have created.Scobie’s sense of guilt and responsibility leads to depression.  Added to his lack of love for his wife, Scobie finds that he is no match for the trials and temptations of life.   The trials and testings have made his life seem too long:  “It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long.  Couldn’t the test of man have been carried out in fewer years?  Couldn’t we have committed our first major sin at seven, have ruined ourselves for love or hate at ten, have clutched at redemption on a fifteen-year-old death bed” (52).  The Heart of the Matter is an example of how difficult it is to be a Christian.  We know how the Scriptures command us to live, but the goals are so lofty, that we are often tempted to despair:  “Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim” (60).  Christians can relate to the despair one feels when trying to obey Christ.  In this sense, the amoral person seems to be more at peace than the Christian.  The amoral person does not have to wrestle with the guilt of failure, or the feeling of helplessness that comes when we realize that we will never be able to live as purely as we desire.   Because of our failures, we often find it quite difficult to experience inner peace.  Scobie thinks, “Peace seemed to him the most beautiful word in the language:  My peace I give you, my peace I leave with you:  O Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.  In the Mass he pressed his fingers against his eyes to keep the tears of longing in” (60).The Heart of the Matter deals with the sense of hypocrisy we experience when we fail to live up to our ideals.  Helen, who is an atheist and has no sense of guilt about their affair, makes Scobie face his own hypocrisy in his relationship with her:  “’It’s a wonderful excuse being a Catholic,’” she said.  ‘It doesn’t stop you sleeping with me—it only stops you marrying me’” (179).  Later she asks him, “If you believe in hell, why are you with me now?” (210).  Nevetheless, Scobie tries to convince her that he really does believe in God and hell.  Of course, one wonders if he really does.  Christians often try to convince themselves that they really believe in eternal damnation, but we have either taken the hell out of hell or, deep down inside, we do not believe.  Surely if we did, our actions would be different.  Though Scobie is wrong in his final solution to his hypocrisy, at least he realizes how awful it is to be a hypocrite.  He understands how terrible it is to live as we do, and at the same time, say that we believe in the death of Christ for our sins:  “Through two thousand years, he thought, we have discussed Christ’s agony in just this disinterested way” (193).  Christians say that they believe Christ died to deliver them from their sins, yet the way Christians live reveals that the death of Christ is nothing more than a cold, academic subject, with no more effect on their lives than the death of any ancient king.The sad thing about Scobie is that his religion brings him no comfort.   During Confession, he tells his priest, Father Rank, that he tries to love God, but he feels  tired of his religion and empty inside (153).   Scobie’s kind of religion is powerful enough to make him feel guilty, but not powerful enough to bring him strength and consolation.  Scobie knows that his sins have consequences.  He knows that his affair is going to hurt all the people involved—Louise, Helen, and himself.  Furthermore, it seems to him that his life has become nothing more than hurting people, and that there are others he is going to hurt in the future (162).  The longer Scobie lives, the more he sins and causes others pain, yet he sees no way out of the sinning and the constant hurting of others.  Eventually, Scobie’s actions lead to the murder of his servant.  Though he did not commit the murder, he knows that he is responsible.  Scobie becomes so distraught at the idea of how much pain he is causing others, he begins to think that his own death is the only way that others can be spared the consequences of his future sins:  “They wouldn’t need me if I were dead.  No one needs the dead.  The dead can be forgotten.  O God, give me death before I give them unhappiness” (189).  Finally, Scobie convinces himself that the only solution to his problem is suicide, which he believes to be the unpardonable sin.  During the Mass he meditates on the idea that he has made others “ill.” (259).  Though Scobie is wrong in his idea that suicide is the only solution, he is correct in realizing that we have the capacity to make others “ill” in a moral and spiritual sense. Our actions, the ways we involve them in our sins and hurt them because of our sins, act as deadly viruses which corrupt and wound those we sin against.Despite all of the mistakes Scobie has made, he wants to repent and start over.  Many Christians can identify with him as he thinks, “I’ll go back and go to bed, in the morning I’ll write to Louise and in the evening go to Confession:  the day after that God will return to me in a priest’s hands:  life will be simple again.  Virtue, the good life, tempted him in the dark like a sin”(186).  Whenever we turn our backs on God and try to live apart from him, we find that the desire for holiness often returns to us.  We experience such contradictions in our hearts and minds.  When we are trying to live virtuously, sin tempts us.  When we are living in sin, virtue tempts us.  Everything that Scobie does and believes, compounds his feeling of guilt.  A wonderful insight in The Heart of the Matter is the feeling the Christian has when he realizes that God has made himself vulnerable to our sins.  As Scobie is at Mass, he thinks:It seemed to him cruelly unfair of God to have exposed himself in this way, a man, a wafer of bread, first in the Palestinian villages, and now here in the hot port, there, everywhere, allowing man to have his will of Him.  Christ had told the rich young man to sell all and follow Him, but that was an easy rational step compared with this that God had taken, to put Himself at the mercy of men who hardly knew the meaning of the word.  How desperately God must love, he thought with shame. (213)When we think of what Chris has done for us, and we understand what we have done to him, we are ashamed.  Christ loved us so much that he allowed himself to be shamefully treated.  Sadly, he still allows this shameful treatment.  When we come to Holy Communion, he allows sinful men to take his body in their hands and drink his blood, acting as though it means something to them, while living in the way that made it necessary for him to die in that manner.  We crucify him afresh.    At another Mass, Scobie thinks, “I am the cross…. He will never speak the word to save Himself from the cross, but if only wood were made so that it didn’t feel, if only the nails were senseless as people believed”(225).  I have often said that we put Christ on the cross, but I like Greene’s further amplification that we are the cross.  I am the cross on which Jesus died.  Scobie is right.  Christ will never speak a word to save himself from the cross.  He will never speak a word to save himself from me and what I deserve.  Scobie is wise enough to know that he cannot be forgiven unless he forsakes the relationship with Helen.  When he realizes that he is not willing to forsake her, he comes to the conclusion that he is beyond hope.  He decides to commit suicide and condemn himself for all eternity in order to stop hurting others.  After making the decision to commit suicide, he decides to take Communion, which he knows is “eating and drinking damnation to himself” (I Corinthians 11:29):  “…he made one last attempt at prayer, ‘O God, I offer up my damnation to you.  Take it.  Use it for them,” and was aware of the pale papery taste of an eternal sentence on the tongue”(225).Scobie also comes to understand how much sin has hardened him.  As he prepares to take communion, he no longer cares that he is eating and drinking damnation to himself.   Many people like Scobie, make the mistake of thinking that they can sin and still retain their faith.  But as Scobie says, “One can strike God once too often”(244).  Sin has a hardening effect.  Many people think that they may postpone repentance until a later time, perhaps until they are dying.  What they fail to realize is that sin hardens us to the point that we no longer have any desire for repentance.  Toward the end of the novel, Father Rank tells Louise that he feels sorry for Helen.  Louise doesn’t understand why he should feel sorry for the other woman.  Father Rank says, “I’m sorry for anyone happy and ignorant who gets mixed up in that way with one of us” (271).  The sincere Christian can never sin without severe feelings of guilt.  Those who do not share our beliefs, are puzzled by our dilemma.  They can’t understand why we have the difficulty in committing the sin and then feeling guilty afterwards.  We’re not good at sinning.  We can take no pleasure in it ourselves, and we rob others of the pleasure of their sin by feeling so guilty about it.Scobie finally gives up in deep despair.  There are many traits in Scobie which are admirable.  He feels a sense of responsibility toward others.  He feels guilt when he sins, but he doesn’t know what to do with his guilt.  His religion gives him no power to stop what he knows to be wrong.  For all his feelings of guilt, he goes from one sin to the next, each sin increasing in heinousness.  Several times, Greene mentions how Scobie believes that he is carrying around a corrupt body.  Furthermore, vultures figure prominently in this book, as though they are circling Scobie, waiting for the man to finally drop dead.  Perhaps Greene has in mind Romans 7:24, “O wretched man that I am!  Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”    Throughout the novel, Scobie sounds like the Apostle Paul:  For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing:  for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.  For the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.  Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.  I find then a law,  that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.  For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:  But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.  (Romans 7:18-23)Scobie wants to do good, but he finds that he can’t.  He finds himself doing the things he does not want to do.  He is brought into captivity by his own selfish desires.  For all his talk about his love and pity for others, Scobie is still a self-centered man.  Suicide is not an act of mercy to save others, but the ultimate form of self-love and self-absorption.  By giving up, he takes the easy way out.  The Heart of the Matter points out that human beings will do anything rather than repent, even commit suicide.  Scobie rationalizes that he is committing suicide to free others from the pain that he is causing them.  Actually, he is freeing himself from the pain that he experiences when he realizes that he is causing pain to others.  He obviously doesn’t believe I Corinthians 10:13, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man:  but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”  Scobie has convinced himself that there is no possible way for him to overcome his temptations.    While it is true that the Christian may often cry out, “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”, the story shouldn’t end with that feeling of hopelessness.  The answer to Paul’s cry is, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).  The gospel does not lead us to despair of finding repentance.  The gospel does not teach us that we are doomed to go on causing pain to others.  The gospel promises us that we can find the grace to repent.  Scobie’s guilt is one that leads to despair, whereas a good guilt leads a person to find repentance, faith, and help, in Jesus Christ.Works CitedGreene, Graham.  The Heart of the Matter. 1948. 
New York:  Penguin Books, 1978.

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