17 September 2010

My only reflection on Benedict the Umpteenth...

Without question, Frederick Rolfe (or "Baron Corvo" as he styled himself) was a queer character. This is ably demonstrated by his best known literary work Hadrian the Seventh (1904), which is generally interpreted as a rebuke to any question of the "death of the author". The protagonist, George Arthur Rose, is a failed and frustrated would-be Catholic priest and is plucked from his embittered obscurity, ordained and taken to Rome by two Churchmen, intent on breaking the black-smoking deadlock of the ongoing Papal Conclave. Whether by connivance or divine intervention, Rose is suddenly elevated to the office of Supreme Pontiff. Nicholas Breakspear is the only Englishman ever to have been made Pope, as Adrian IV. In an echo of his English predecessor, Rose assumes the name of Hadrian VI and begins the heady work of reforming the Catholic Church according to his lights, foiling his clerical foes in Rome and earnestly conniving his way to papal triumph in early 20th Century Europe. Alas! His electric papacy comes to an untimely end. The novel reads as an elaborate revenge fantasy come wish-fulfilment but for all of its ludicrousness (or rather, in large part because of these Quixotic overtones) I remember it fondly as a unique work of the imagination, sprung from the tortured consciousness of a decidedly odd fantasist. In this mostly popely of seasons, I commend it to you.

Others are elsewhere debating Pope Benedict the Umpteenth's ongoing visit to the United Kingdom. I don't intend to add much to those thoughts, save for a broad, atmospheric observation or two. For a blogger without any belief in any deity and vacillating sympathies and antipathies towards Christianity, I've realised that I quote from the King James Bible quite often. This may reasonably be construed as odd. In its way, this blog has  witnessed my dissonant combination of feelings towards religion and its creatures - in particular organised Christianity and its representatives - and oscillations between attraction and repulsion. Life, I find, is an unfolding revelation, unanticipated, its tutors very often small, overlooked details and half noticed thoughts, thoughtlessly filed away in some idle, neglected shelf of the memory. Godless souls like myself, I think, too often have too low an estimation of mystery. It smells of clerical leechcraft, wilful foggery. Not so, I say. At least not always. Atheists need to cling to uncertainty and modesty scrupulously, unembarrassedly, existentially. I recently discovered that John Keats once entertained a similar idea. He called it “negative capability”, and in a letter to his brother, explained that “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. Of late I've also seen Alan Bennett's History Boys, in which the teacher Hector justifies the memorisation of poetry, in the following lines:

"Read it now, learn it now, and you’ll know it whenever. We’re making our deathbeds here boys."

I sympathise with that approach to understanding, at least in my own case. Certainly I find it a truism of poetry, taken to heart and preserved in memory. What one learns in one year recurs with a new resonance in another, quite unexpectedly, quite unanticipated. I have minimal faith in the possibility of intellectual illumination coming in a single furious flash. Others are more confident. I've realised, however, that what disgusts me about many of the more boisterous manifestations of godlessness (and remember most of these I've incarnated in my bumptious, aggressively anti-theistic younger selves) is how easy it is. Indeed it amuses me, in a wicked sort of way, that so many of the thrusting skeptics one encounters - our would-be scientists and doubters - are so evangelical in the seeking after a succession of certainties. Isn't that a classic case for psychoanalysis? The noisy man crying know thyself precisely has no insight into himself, and like all guilty-minded men, sees everywhere everyone else commissioning his own sins.

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