Miriam Diller, in her essay “The Dark Side of Fantasy and Science Fiction”, writes:
Famous artists and writers often get a “pass” on unsavory aspects of their lives, for (some say) such details are not relevant to their “genius.” Their personal behavior and beliefs, like any celebrity’s, are often buried by their accomplishments.
Diller argues that, in the case of specific authors that she discusses, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley, such authors should not get a pass on their unsavory personal lives.
Yet this would present us with a problem, for every author is a sinner, and if we don’t give authors a pass on their sinfulness when evaluating their work, we stand in danger of rejecting every author and every novel.
Take, for example, Graham Greene. Greene lived a debauched life. As Ruth Franklin wrote in a 2004 New Yorker article:
Greene lived his life to extremes: he had serious affairs, sometimes simultaneously, with at least three women, amid a host of more casual liaisons; he spied for MI6, smoked opium, visited prostitutes.
The whisky priest in Greene’s The Power and the Glory has lived a similarly debauched life. He is a drunkard. He has fathered a child. He is also the last priest in the Mexican province of Tabasco, fleeing from an anticlerical government. There is little heroic about him. He is, like Greene himself perhaps, hanging on to his faith by the skin of his teeth. The pathos of his attempts to procure enough wine to say Mass, only to have it stolen and drunk before his eyes by a corrupt official, is extraordinarily moving. The whisky priest finds his moment of grace at the end of the novel when, having escaped across the border, he is summoned back into Tobasco to the bedside of a dying man. He knows it is a trap, but he goes anyway, and is captured and executed.
What if he had not gone? What if, instead, he had sent the messenger away, and escaped? We would be deprived of that moment of spiritual uplift that the real ending gives us. But would that invalidate the beauty and pathos of the rest of the novel? Would it be a false ending? I think not. In many ways, it would be more true to life, more probable. It would complete the pathos of this sinner’s agonizing journey. I’m not arguing it would be a better ending. The ending we have is the better one. But the other ending is possible too. It is the ending that most ordinary novelists would probably have given, celebrating the ingenuity of their hero and his seeing through the trap intended to doom him. It is what most editors would have urged as well. Happy endings sell better.
In any novel there is a moment of choice, and in great novels the choice is poignant specifically because both choices are plausible, both choices are, in some sense, satisfying, if only because we recognize the humanity in both of them. A story in which only one choice is possible is a story without tension. Even if one choice is, in the literary sense, more satisfying than the other, it is only because the other choice is so real, so plausible, that the choice the character does make is satisfying at all, rather than merely predictable. This is why even the simplest, cheesiest romance novel requires two suitors, not just one.
We can’t, therefore, anoint The Power and the Glory a great Catholic novel merely because the whisky priest chooses to attend the dying man rather than escape. It would still be a great Catholic novel even if he had made the opposite choice. Both choices, certainly, would be true to how Catholics experience life, how they face the world’s demands that they apostatize. We are asked to deny Christ many times, and many times we do.
Another of Green’s Catholic novels is The End of the Affair, supposedly modeled on his own affair with another man’s wife. Art imitates life in a novel just as Diller argues that it does in the case of Marion Zimmer Bradley. In both cases, it is serious sexual sins that are the subject of the novel and that are present or alleged in the lives of its authors.
In Brighton Rock, Green presents us with yet another Catholic sinner, Pinky, the petty gangster whose gang likes to cut up people with straight razors.
All novels are about sin. All novels are written by sinners. All novels are read by sinners.
Why, then, read such books at all? Are they not all simply an occasion of sin? Should we not say, “lead us not into temptation” and lay them aside? In some cases, maybe we should. But this is a matter of knowing our own limitations and proclivities, not a valid general judgement on the book. But I would suggest that a greater and more subtle temptation lies in the other direction.
One of the interesting features of The Power and the Glory is that the narrative of the whisky priest is interspersed with the telling of the story of Juan, told by another character in hagiographic style. In this parallel tale, all temptation and sin is expunged from Juan’s character. It becomes a straightforward tale of saint vs. sinners, a blithe and willing martyrdom. This, it seems to me, is Greene saying that this simple hagiography is not what martyrdom really looks like.
It is easy to write these kinds of black and white stories, to create characters who are essentially sinless, who show no fear, no doubt, who succumb to no temptation, and to pit them against an antagonist who is simply a tool of Satan just as they are simply a tool of God. It is easy. It will sell well in the church bookstore. But it is a lie.
Indeed, it may be a damnable lie. It is one of the most fundamental Catholic principles that we are all sinners, and that it is a sin to imagine we are sinless. This is something that the Jesus prayer reminds us of constantly: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
I have a hearty dislike of the kind of book that simple-mindedly pits the forces of good against the forces of evil. The Lord of the Rings sometimes skirts dangerously close to this, and gets particularly uncomfortable when the armies of dark-skinned Haradrim are summoned to the defense of Mordor, pitting the light of the north against the darkness of the south (as Lewis does too, with Narnia and Calormen). But The Lord of the Rings is, at its heart, a meditation on temptation. Tom Bombadil, dismissed by many as a distraction, is, to my mind, essential to the piece because he represents a prelapsarian being immune to the temptation of the ring. His indifference to it sets a boundary marker. No one else is immune to the ring’s influence. Gandalf and Galadriel both refuse to accept it, knowing it would master them. Only Sam, essentially simple in his love of his master, ever voluntarily returns it. Frodo, in the end, is mastered by it. The ring is not destroyed by the virtues of the hero, but in a biting clawing fight for its possession between two creatures it has corrupted. It is not triumphant virtue but the contradictions of its own nature that doom the ring.
In this respect, The Lord of the Rings differs markedly from Harry Potter and most other modern fantasies, where the virtuous hero masters power. That notion, that through virtue we can tame power and use it for good is, I suggest, a greater peril to souls than the depictions of sinners succumbing to temptation that we find in Greene or Tolkien. It is an invitation to spiritual pride and to reckless adventure. It is the temptation to say to oneself, “I am on the side of the angels and therefore all I do must be angelic.” And that, I think, is a very deadly sin.
A great novel about sin can remind us of our own sinfulness and make us wise to the ways of temptation. Such novels do not have to come from Catholic authors. They do not have to be doctrinally pure. (It is not the business of a novel to teach doctrine, but to create experiences.) They have only to be truthful about the human condition – truthful about its vices as much as about its virtues. And I would suggest that reading such novels is not just morally licit, but something close to morally imperative, at least for those who read novels at all. Again, imagining ourselves to be always acting on the side of the angels is one of the gravest and most subtle temptations that we will experience. As Horrocks the gardener says in my fantasy novel, Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight:
“The Devil always begins by giving thee work that is just. Then he tells thee, thou dost just work, therefore thou art just. And then he tells thee, thou art just, and therefore any work thou dost is just.”
I make no excuses for the authors, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley, that Diller mentions in her article. But I think that the touchstone by which their books should be judged is not the moral lives of their authors, but whether they tell the truth about the human condition. Even great sinners can do that. Grahame Greene stands out as an example. So does St. Augustine.
Good novels tell the truth about sinful characters, about temptation, and about succumbing to temptation — not to condemn, but to reveal. This is the kind of truth novels should deal in, not the propositional truth of doctrine or moral teaching, but the experiential truth of what it is like to be a human being, to sin and to be sinned against, to strive and to fail, to love and to be accepted or rejected.
All novels are about sin. All novels are written by sinners. All novels are read by sinners.
Can a sinful author write truthful books? We must hope so, because all authors are sinful. So the question we should be asking about any book, even a book written by a manifest sinner, is, is the book truthful?
Later in her essay, Diller says:
Bradley, and my middle teacher, showed their true colors long before the public knew about what they had done. They showed it when they promoted literature that glorified such evil. We cannot separate an artist and their works. We cannot excuse books for celebrating alternate moralities. To publish such ideas is to take them out of the darkness, to promote these ideas and spread them.
There is a reasonable principle here. Novelists should not promote evil. But since every novel is about sin and must show sinners sinning, how are we to distinguish between the portrayal of sin and its promotion? Of course, if the author inserts an editorial passage advocating for the sin they are portraying, then we catch them in the act and there is no doubt. But this is not what good novelists (by which I mean technically competent novelists) do. They portray the experience, not argue the case.
We could try to argue that if they themselves commit the same sins that they are writing about then their intent must be to promote the sin. But that net will catch Graham Greene as well as Marion Zimmer Bradley. In fact, it is likely to catch a great many authors, for what is a more likely subject for a novelist to tackle than the sin to which they are themselves tempted?
So I would suggest that the real test here is, again, truth. Those who describe sin should tell the truth about it. This is not just a moral imperative. It is a literary imperative. The novelist’s job is to tell the truth—the experiential truth—as best they can see it. You don’t even have to personally regard a sinful action as a sin to write truthfully about it and its consequences. Attempting to write truthfully about it may actually convince you of its sinfulness.
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