Friday, October 23, 2015

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord" even amidst ruins

Yesterday I bought a copy of the English translation of Michel Houellebecq's latest novel Submission. Because I have been waiting eagerly to read it, I started right away. One reason I couldn't wait to read Houellebecq's latest is because I am well-acquainted with and very appreciative of the writings of Joris-Karl Huysmans. In Submission the main character, François, is a professor of French literature whose main interest is Huysmans. His interest in his subject goes beyond being merely academic.

One of the blurbs for the book is by Steven Poole, who apparently reviewed Submission the Guardian newspaper: "The real target of Houellebecq's satire - as in his previous novels- is the predictably manipulable venality and lustfulness of the modern metropolitan man." It seems to me that in his novel Houellebecq unfolds the consequences of manipulability of the Catholic Church in recent times, which manipulation has reduced her neraly to the point of utter irrelevance, at least in the West. The only enthusiasm the Church seems able to generate these days in Europe and throughout the Americas is by toying with letting herself be more and more shaped and formed by this decaying culture. It should go without noting that this is not the path to vitality.

Don't get me wrong, I am not arguing for an attempt to re-establish "Christendom" as such, just for the Church to be herself come what may. Early in the book an interesting discussion on patriarchy that takes place between François and one of his student lovers, Myriam. Their dialogue cuts to the chase of what I am talking about- it gets to the fundamental matter of our humanity and is about man and woman, husband and wife, having and raising children- just the kind of thing that Woody Allen usually winds up concluding in his movies.

I'll take this opportunity to remark that I detect faint echoes of Huysmans in some of the films of Catherine Breillat. In her film Anatomie de l’enfer, in addition to these faint echoes, her voice is very much in concert with that of Houellebecq. Of course, neither Breillat nor Houellebecq are well-received in France. Huysmans, who is usually and, in my view, mistakenly, categorized as a "Decadent," shows us that serious faith, far from being a deus ex machina, arises from one's experience of the world and not as a rejection, but a growing realization. I hope this is something the Church does not forget. But lest I grow too weary, I offer this from Artur Rosman: "Why Did Hans Urs von Balthasar Remain Catholic?"

The ambo of St Sulpice Church, Paris

Houellebecq uses a passage from Huysmans' novel En route as something of an epigram to Submission:
A noise recalled him to Saint-Sulpice; the choir was leaving; the church was about to close. "I should have tried to pray," he thought. "It would have been better than sitting here in the empty church, dreaming in my chair - but pray? I have no desire to pray. I am haunted by Catholicism, intoxicated by its atmosphere of incense and candle wax. I hover on its outskirts, moved to tears by its prayers, touched to the very marrow by its psalms and chants. I am revolted with my life, I am sick of myself, but so far from changing my ways! And yet . . . and yet . . . however troubled I am in these chapels, as soon as I leave them I become unmoved and dry. In the end," he told himself, as he rose and followed the last ones out, shepherded by the Swiss Guard, "in the end, my heart is hardened and smoked dry by dissipation. I am good for nothing"
It strikes me that the salient part of this passage is when Huysmans' semi-autobiographical main character, Durtal, confesses, "I am revolted with my life, I am sick of myself, but so far from changing my ways."

Anyone who has read Huysmans' trilogy, consisting of Là-Bas, En route, and La cathédrale, knows Durtal changes his ways, as did Huysmans. The Church with which he was so "intoxicated" in this sad passage, was there, not to facilitate (meaning to make easier), but to entice and then demand he change. Change he must, he did not need the Church to tell him this. He needed the Church in order to begin making the changes. In other words, the Church was there in her unbending and truly maternal way.

The culmination of En route is Durtal going to confession. The final words of his confessor:
"have confidence, do not attempt to present yourself before God all neat and trim; go to Him simply, naturally, in undress even, just as you are; do not forget that if you are a servant you are also a son; have good courage, our Lord will dispel all these nightmares."

And when he had received absolution, Durtal went down to the church to await the hour of mass
Since our traditio comes in the evening, it is the Blessed Virgin's Magnificat, chanted, sung, or recited in Evening Prayer, known traditionally as Vespers:

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