Sunday, June 19, 2011

LÉON BLOY AND THE VIRTUE OF PURITY

KAFKA AS A LAMB-SIZED CHILD
Of course [the fear of mice] as well as the fear of vermin is associated with with the unexpected, unsolicited, inescapable, essentially mute, and insistent appearance of these animals with their surreptitious objectives, and is coupled with the feeling that they have tunneled through the surrounding walls a hundred times and are lurking there, that they are so remote from us and hence even less vulnerable to us both because the nighttime belongs to them and because they are so tiny. Their small size in particular adds an important dimension to the fear they inspire, for example the idea that there could be an animal that would look exactly like a pig—an amusing idea per se—but it would be as small as a rat and might come out of a hole in the floor making a snuffling sound—that is a horrifying idea.

I couldn't help thinking of the above passage from Kafka the other day at the Silver Lake Farmer's Market. I was walking along minding my own business, clutching my bag of arcane, dollar-a-bunch, Hmong greens; casing the ground for forageable fruit--half-eaten strawberry hulls, bruised apricots--when an appalling sight stopped me short.

Leaning against a lamp-post was a girl in skin-tight black pants, bleach blond hair, one shoulder bared, pelvis thrust out, cell phone to her ear, and a sullen, bored, seen-it-all, I-despise-the-world-and-everyone-in-it-but-if-you-offer-me-enough-I-might-consider-throwing-you-a-bone look. That in itself was nothing: that is the average denizen of a certain strata of my neighborhood. What made it horrifying was that the girl, I swear, was maybe three-and-a-half feet tall. She had the wardrobe, world-weariness, and jaded expression of a high-class call girl a decade past her prime and she couldn't have been more than six years old. 


I mean, seriously, I did a double take. JonBenét Ramsey at least had the eyes  of a child. This poor girl, and she was not poor financially, had been utterly, completely corrupted. Not necessarily by sex, but by consumerism, by advertising, by a world that increasingly sees people as human billboards. The kid had to have been conditioned since birth to have been so ruthlessly stripped, so soon, of all that is child-like. Her hair, her clothes, her jewelry, her phone, her body language all conspired to give her the vacant, insolent look of a  Eurotrash model in a Vanity Fair ad.  She was not a child dressed up and made up like a grownup, but a grownup whose soul had died in the tiny body of a child. A child made up like a grownup is grotesque, but a grownup in the body of a child is horrifying.

I wanted to blame the parents but having opted never to undertake that noble task myself, I had no right. Besides, the real culprit is the culture, of which we are all a part.  Half a mile down Sunset Boulevard is a billboard advertising a movie called "Bad Teacher." A presumably naked woman slouches behind a desk, stiletto-booted feet up, shades covering her eyes, an apple in front of her with a note on it reading "Eat Me." "She doesn't give an 'F'" is the so not-funny punchline. I, a grown woman and ex-barfly, don't want to look at that. And four- and six- and ten- and twelve-year-olds have to look at that, too?

As I've said, however, I like to write about what I am for, not what I'm against. So how can I find something to be for here?

Léon Bloy (1846-1917), the novelist, poet, and fervent Catholic convert, had a notoriously foul temper, categorically refused to get a day job, alienated many of his fellow literati, and burned with love for Christ.

BLOY IN HIS YOUTH
"MONEY IS THE BLOOD OF THE POOR"
In Pilgrim of the Absolute, a collection of diary entries, he wrote:

Every man who begets a free act projects his personality into the infinite. If he gives a poor man a penny grudgingly, that penny pierces the poor man’s hand, falls, pierces the earth, bores holes in suns, crosses the firmament and compromises the universe. If he begets an impure act, he perhaps darkens thousands of hearts whom he does not know, who are mysteriously linked to him, and who need this man to be pure as a traveler dying of thirst needs the Gospel’s draught of water. A charitable act, an impulse of real pity sings for him the divine praises, from the time of Adam to the end of the ages; it cures the sick, consoles those in despair, calms storms, ransoms prisoners, converts the infidel and protects mankind.

That is perhaps the best apologia I have ever read for the teachings of the Church on sex. To try to be pure is never to follow a set of arbitrarily rigid, life-despising rules. We try to be pure because someone else needs us to be pure. Someone in pain needs us to refrain from using another, whether in reality or fantasy, to anaesthesize our own pain. Someone needs us at least to try to overcome our fear, our anger, our impatience, our lust. To try to be pure in this area—in any area but in this area especially—is to offer up our little bit of suffering, of loneliness, longing, frustration, and anxiety, so that someone else might not suffer, and then  transmit their suffering so as to harm another. Maybe that person is standing in front of us in line at the grocery store with ADD, three screaming kids and her dingy food stamps scattered all over the check-out counter. Maybe that person is the next bin Laden. Maybe that person is the child who has been touched, maybe by a priest, and is going to grow up wanting to inappropriately touch someone else: someone younger, someone weaker.

“There is abundant hope,” Kafka also observed, “but there is none for us.”  Which is a slightly bleaker, and funnier, way of saying, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." [John 12:24]. To try to be pure is to consent, in a sense, to die. To try to be pure is one way not to despair of that small girl, to welcome her into the world, to hold out hope that at some point she will learn to delight in flowers and books and all the things that are free, that can’t be “consumed.” 

"Verily I say unto you," Christ also said, "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 18:3]  He didn't mean innocence, or sentimentality, or ignorance of the evil and meanness and cruelty of the world. He meant openness of heart. He meant conversion to joy: to the willingness to be a fool, to wear our hearts on our sleeve, to run to love like children run to their parents, before they realize their parents are fallible--and then to run anyway. One way or another, the open of heart do tend to die in this world.

And the truly open of heart get killed.

THE CRUCIFIXION, c. 1310
GIOTTO di BONDONE

10 comments:

  1. Ah, Heather, you saved my bacon again. The Bloy quote and the link to purity pulled together some mush that's been roiling around in my noggin for some time. Everything held back that needs to be shared with liberality and everything thrust out there that should never see the light of day (and yet is promulgated on billboards!), does, indeed, "compromise the universe." Yer blog is dandy.

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  2. Yes and yes. Thank you for this, Heather, especially the pointer to Leon Bloy. Your post reminds me of Teresa of Avila saying, "For a soul that God permits to walk thus in the eyes of the world, may well prepare for itself to be martyred by the world, since if it will not die to the world of its own free will, the world itself will kill it. Indeed there is nothing in the world that seems good to me, except its refusal to tolerate faults in good people...I declare that one needs more courage to follow the way of perfection if one is not perfect than for suddenly becoming a martyr."

    More tomorrow!

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  3. That quote from Bloy is brilliant -- and your point well-stated. Thank you again, Heather.

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  4. The Bloy reminds me of what your friend Rachael Watson wrote about confession: The final meaning of what I have thought, said, done and failed to do, is, in part, determined by other souls. My restoration and forgiveness is embedded in theirs.

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  5. If I might be permitted another comment -- the post and the discussion reminds me of Charles Williams' notion of co-inherence -- http://web.sbu.edu/friedsam/inklings/coinheretance.htm

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  6. Jason, you in particular are "permitted" any number of comments you like! Thanks for the Charles Williams on co-inherence. I haven't thought the notion completely out but one of the other ramifications of being pure not only for ourselves but because someone else needs us to is that it allows even those of us--LIKE ME--who are single to participate in and contribute to and feel connected to the human family even if, for example, we haven't mothered or fathered a family ourselves.

    Bill--good memory re the great Rachael Watson!

    And Elizabeth and Ro, thank you so much as well. Your comments brighten my day, lead me to new insights, and encourage me to keep me writing...

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  7. "We try to be pure because someone else needs us to be pure. Someone in pain needs us to refrain from using another, whether in reality or fantasy, to anaesthesize our own pain. Someone needs us at least to try to overcome our fear, our anger, our impatience, our lust. To try to be pure in this area—in any area but in this area especially—is to offer up our little bit of suffering, of loneliness, longing, frustration, and anxiety, so that someone else might not suffer, and then transmit their suffering so as to harm another."

    I am truly speechless, convicted, struck...and terrified of how little I succeed...

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  8. A small correction: the quote from Bloy is not from that volume of his diaries, but from his novel Le desesperé

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  9. Thank you for sharing your ideas. Do you know "Prayers of Life" by Michel Quoist?

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    1. Thanks, Scott, no, sounds good, though, and I'll try to check it out.

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