Victorian Nightmares

J. Sheridan Le Fanu isn’t exactly a household name, but as a writer from the same era (and perhaps same cloth) as Poe, he was known for his gothic imagination.  Since he was Irish his work never really took off in America as some other writers’ did, and he’s certainly not likely to be found on bookstore shelves because there’s not great demand.  I have a fondness for gothic literature and Le Fanu’s name had been on my list for some time.  At a used bookstore I found one of his books, and as I was checking out the clerk said “I was just checking in another of his books,” so I bought that one too.  (When you’re paying just two dollars a pop for books, it feels like virtue.)  The latter turned out to be In a Glass Darkly, which apart from its biblical title, contains five stories loosely linked by a narrative framework.  Poe wrote that short stories should be read in one sitting, but these tale venture into novelette territory, with some requiring considerable time to finish.

That having been said, the experience was enjoyable enough.  Each story is quite different and they range from the vampire classic “Camilla” to a foiled murder mystery and a canonical ghost story or two.  While better known across the Atlantic, several of Le Fanu’s stories have been translated to film, and he was regarded as one of the best ghost story writers of his era.  Perhaps because modern readers have been subjected to much more subtle foreshadowing, some of the tales are predictable to those on the lookout for twist endings.  The Room in the Dragon Volant, for example, suggests that the mysterious lady at the masquerade is indeed the narrator’s adulteress love interest, although the final twist is nicely wrought.

Probably the most well-known of the stories in the collection is “Camilla,” the account of what’s regarded today as a lesbian vampire.  The tale is well-crafted, but the credulity of the narrator is almost unbelievable as the pieces fall together and the puzzle picture still isn’t seen.  Nevertheless, it’s a creepy account that has captured the imagination of filmmakers through the years.  It took me long enough to finish the book that the earlier stories had faded by the time I’d reached the end, but the fault lies with me, not the author.  As a gothic fix each of the narratives serves quite well.  My other Le Fanu purchase was a much larger book, so it will take some time to achieve that goal.  In the meantime, I’ll look forward to discovering more Victorian nightmares as autumn wends its way forward.

Bitten by Religion

The Essex Serpent isn’t what it appears to be.  Sarah Perry’s debut American novel (although it’s her second elsewhere, publishing being the strange beast that it is) was much anticipated.  Like the serpent itself, the novel is difficult to describe.  It comes down to a minister, a widow, and the people with whom they associate.  Instead of going through the complex storyline, I would instead note that once again a novel that explores religion has garnered quite a lot of attention.  It’s difficult to believe the official narrative that we’re constantly fed that religion is well beyond its expiration date when it continues to appear in print media as a prime motivator for people in all kinds of situations.  Novels, however, aren’t popular in the way television, movies, and video games are, so this is worth pondering.

While novels are sometimes disparaged in higher education, their clientele tends to be an educated one.  It takes more commitment to sit down and read a 400-page tome than it does to flip on some device and meander from app to app, channel to channel, or website to website.  Novel reading takes some concentrated effort.  Remembering characters and connections across a span of days or weeks as you wend your way through.  And one thing novelists do, at least in my experience, is explore the way religion makes us who we are.  I don’t choose novels for that reason; I thought The Essex Serpent would be a monster story (remember, I don’t read reviews before reading the book).

My guess is that if you read this blog you’re a potential reader of novels like this, so I won’t offer any spoilers.  The book is suffused with biblical language, as befits a story with a clergyman as a major character.  The protagonist, however, is an irreligious widow on a journey of self-discovery.  Having been dominated by a wealthy husband, she now explores paleontology in a Victorian context.  Although the year is never stated, the novel manages to find that Gothic near-ghost-story feel with the close interplay of death by consumption and fear of the dark.  It’s not a scary book by any means, although there’s plenty of mist in Essex, and a little gruesome detail of what people can do to each other.  The novel caught my attention via reviews I never read and has left me pondering what I’ve just experienced.  And it has reinforced my conviction that, despite what the critics may say, religion is what motivates us, whether we admit it or not.  And serpents may not be what they seem.

Infernal Religions

infernalDevicesThe first steampunk novel I read, although some would dispute the classification, was Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. To be sure, I’d noticed other Victorian-style science fiction, but the idea of prescient technology settled into my head to nest for a while. I read a few other exemplars of the genre, finding each interesting in its own right. Having just finished K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, however, I get a sense that I’ve neared the fount. Jeter is generally credited with coming up with the neologism “steampunk,” and this novel, while not his first, is fascinating for the heavy religious symbolism that is used throughout. In our secular, post-Christian age, we tend to forget that in the nineteenth century (actual, if not alternate reality) religion still played a tremendous role in people’s lives and outlooks. Infernal Devices uses that outlook quite effectively. The remnants of Cromwell’s puritan cause appear as the Godly Army, set against science and technology in a society still imbued with religious belief. When a flying machine appears overhead, the Scots suppose it is the beast of Revelation harbinger of the world’s end.

Like most steampunk offerings, Jeter offers us plenty of mechanical wonders. The hapless Mr. Dower, our protagonist and narrator, is the son of a mechanical genius, now deceased. The story involves Dower trying to unravel the many strands his father wove in a lifetime of invention and innovation. The one device that stood out to me, however, was the automaton priest and choir of Saint Mary Alderhythe, Bankside. Dower’s father had invented a robotic priest to go through the mechanical motions of an Anglican mass. Having sat through hundreds of such masses, I could see the point he was making. There are variables, but the overall draw of ritual is, well, its ritualism. The sameness that assures an assuaged deity and a safe congregation. The Godly Army, however, is more revisionist in intention.

Jeter, I’m sure, did not intend for the novel to be read for religious truths. It is rollicking and fun, with characters that you can’t believe but you want to. The driving force, however, behind much of the story is the religious bias of elements of London society. Dower, blamed for vices he doesn’t really have, is chased from his home by the Lady’s Union for the Suppression of Carnal Vice. The Godly Army, however, steals the show. Perhaps the most profound observation comes from Scape, who quips “That’s what you get.. when you give people Bibles and guns,” about the Godly Army. “It just messes up their brains.” At this point I began to wonder whether the story were really fiction after all. In this case the truth indeed perhaps lies in steampunk’s alternate history.

Angels of Ages

Angels&Ages February 12, 1809. Both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Some days can be momentous that way. Although I’d known about this coincidental birth for some years, I had supposed it was one of history’s curiosities and nothing more. Adam Gropnik’s Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life changed all that. What’s more, while both Lincoln and Darwin are secular characters, the book has a strong dose of how religion influenced and perhaps even emanated from ideas both of these giants had. Religion actually surfaces throughout much of the book, although Lincoln grew up as a skeptic, and certainly was not a “church goer,” and Darwin was groomed for the clergy but came, through nature, to have serious doubts about God’s existence. Religion may not be Gropnik’s main point, but it has a way of following these two historical figures around.

Using a biographical and intellectual parallelism, Gropnik lays the two men side-by-side in their Victorian lives and shows how death was really a factor that bound them. Both lost a beloved child at about the same age, and both found death’s pervasiveness a problem for believing in any kindly God. Of course, we all know that none of us would be here now if our forebears had not passed on, making room for us. It is the way of nature. Nature is hardly kind or just, however. Ringing throughout this fascinating exploration is the ubiquitous problem of theodicy—in a world of such palpable suffering, where, indeed, has God gone? How do we continue to believe when all the evidence is contrary? Some of our greatest doubters have become our greatest guides.

I appreciated especially how Gropnik ends his little book with some thoughts on religion. He makes the essential point that Darwinism, by definition, cannot be a religion. Even better is the clear-eyed vision that he has that religion and science are both needed by people and they may both be held as true. Even when they’re fighting. The truth is nobody has all the answers. Those who brashly dismiss religion or science are equally wrong. In his eloquent style, Gropnik makes a decidedly sane suggestion that we should learn from our assertions of pluralism. We are accustomed to thinking about much of life and culture as being equally valued, no matter where on the planet we find it. Why can we not do the same with truths? Some will find meaning in science and have little time for faith. Others will find religion to be their ultimate and will not be bothered by science. The vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle. And what brought us to this point was the fact that February 12, 1809 was such an extraordinary day.

The Naked Vicar

In a fit of nostalgia, for lack of a better excuse, I recently re-watched A Room With a View. I suspect I saw it with my wife near the time it first came out since I had trouble recalling having viewed any of it before. Until the skinny-dipping scene. Even then, it was unfamiliar until Mr. Beebe, the vicar, jumped into the pond. Now perhaps in the Victorian era same-sex cavorting was permitted for the young, far from repressed eyes, but it was the implications of seeing a priest in the nude that was particularly jarring. As Lucy Honeychurch comes primly along with her fiancé, she is scandalized to see the boy she truly loves unclothed, but the minister in similar state is a laughing matter, a novelty. In the light of the many church scandals that have become public knowledge since 1985, this particular scene has perhaps accrued additional, unintended freight.

Embodiment is a popular topic for theologies these days. I’m no theologian, but as a member of the human race I do participate in the embodiment question. Everyone from biologists to psychologists seems to be rethinking the implications of the soft machine. Some theorists are already preparing to leave behind their bodies to have their consciousness electronically preserved. Their new bodies may be robotic or simply virtual, but I suspect they will find the experience deeply disappointing. We are closer to the cockroach and the goldfish than we are to the disembodied divine. Our bodies are who we are, and embodiment analysis is the attempt to make sense of it all. At the same time, some neuroscientists are speculating that human brains work perhaps in closer concert than we generally suppose. We human beings are more like cells in a great organism that encompasses all of us. The Portuguese Man O’ War, which resembles a human brain in some respects, is a communal organism and not a single creature. The implications are worth considering.

Our rules for getting along with biological bodies include some pretty straightforward permissible behaviors. We don’t penetrate the body of another person without their express approval. They have to be competent enough to give valid approval. We don’t end the existence of another human being’s life unless they’ve been convicted of being exceptionally naughty and they live in the United States (the only “first world” country where the death penalty is still routinely carried out) or unless we are mentally unstable or emotionally overwrought and have easy access to firearms. Bodies are limited, and so are brains. Although, since I’ve upgraded my operating system I notice that my laptop has now claimed my name as its own identity—(if anything looks weird, please let me know!) In the Victorian era it was assumed that the brains of the clergy were attuned to higher things. The naked vicar accepts the good-natured laugh at his expense because he is no threat to either young ladies or young men. In the technological era we are more savvy and less carefree. And given the choice, the religious would prefer a room without a view, thank you.

Sects Sells

Once again the headlines tell the story of a child molested by a “celibate” priest now suing the church as an adult. That money dropped in the collection plate goes to cover the cost of sin. The disclosures continue to find the light of day not only in the Catholic Church, but across the religious organizational spectrum. It is an extremely unfortunate situation, but I can’t help wonder if religions are naturally susceptible to sexual expression.

Sexuality and religion go back a very long way. I have suggested elsewhere on this blog that some of the earliest evidence for religion, all the way back to the Paleolithic era, is sexual in nature. One of the blatant aspects of our own cultural conditioning is that we can no longer see the connection. We inhabit a post-Victorian world, a world that strenuously repressed sexuality and removed it from the sphere of human discourse. One of my favorite examples of this is when the standard classical Hebrew-English dictionary (Brown-Driver-Briggs, for those of you who need to know!) makes reference to sexual activity in the Bible (and it is abundant), the editors delicately slip from English to Latin, so as not to offend the sensibilities of clerics and other gentleman-scholars reading the entry. This antipathy to the human condition can be traced even further back to the Greeks who felt that the physical body was much more base than the spiritual, or intellectual aspect. Sexuality was a source of embarrassment and perhaps even shame.

I’m not a psychologist, but it is pretty clear what occurs when strong feelings and drives are repressed for a long time. The early Christians who believed Jesus’ second coming to be imminent did not wish to be caught in flagrante delicto. Sexuality was to be avoided since time was short. When this became formalized and priests, probably very decent people overall, were forced to relinquish their sexuality, it was assumed that it would simply evaporate into the ether and harm no one. We have known for decades that this is naively wishful thinking. As the margarine commercial used to say, “it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”

What's Mother Nature hiding?

Ancient sects were not sexually depraved. Stephanie Budin (The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity, Cambridge, 2008) has done a good job showing that the case for sacred prostitution in the ancient world has been grossly overblown. Nevertheless, sexuality had a natural place in ancient religions. Any number of nervously giggling teenagers who’ve just discovered the Song of Songs in the Bible know that! The problem arises when our religious culture refuses to acknowledge the obvious. We bottle it up and try to keep it hidden, but when it finally appears the price tag is very steep indeed.