Monday, August 26, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

 “THE ODOUR OF SANCTITY” by Amy Brown (Victoria University Press, $NZ35)

            Why do non-religious or anti-religious imaginative writers choose to write on overtly religious subjects?

There can, of course, be the motive of satire or critique. The non-religious person is setting out to expose or criticise what he/she sees as being wrong about religion in general or about a particular religion or about a particular church. Many are the anti-clerical novels or satirical squibs that have done this.

But I’m going to suggest there is another motive, which is coming increasingly into prominence.

It’s the motive of envy.

Atheism and agnosticism are in and of themselves not very good at creating inspiring images or concepts. Indeed they tend to scorn inspiring imagery. It is therefore somewhat galling to consider the continuing power that religious images still have, even in a very secularised age in which New Atheism rants and romps. You keep telling the populace at large that there is no God and that religion is an illusion or a neurosis and yet – blast it! – images of sainthood and angels and salvation still sit prominently in the collective consciousness as well as deep in the collective unconsciousness.

The envy wells up, so out come anti-religious works that have to resort to the imagery of religion. After all, they have no original and resonant imagery of their own. Remember the rush of films and novels there were at the millennium (i.e. around 2000), which dealt with “angels”, written or produced by people who clearly had not the least notion that an angel was a messenger of God and that the images of beautiful winged creatures (borrowed from the pagan Greek Winged Victory, of course) were strictly secondary to this concept? At least some of these angelic works were in the nature of elaborate sneers, attaching non-religious agendas to traditional angelic images.

A French wit once said that “hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue”. I would say that the use of religious imagery is the compliment that the irreligious pay to religion.

Which brings me to Amy Brown’s 237 page poem The Odour of Sanctity. From the title onwards, the alert reader understands that the intention is to belittle the concept of sanctity. I am fully aware that the phrase “odour of sanctity” was once used in good faith to refer to the sweet smell that was said to come from the preserved corpses of saints. But recently the phrase has more commonly been used with a distinct tone of irony, a smirk implying some sort of hypocrisy or delusion in the whole notion of sanctity. And that is clearly what is intended here.

Let’s begin with a logical question.

What is a saint?

If you are agnostic or atheist, the term has no particular meaning apart from, perhaps, the vague idea of a good person. If you are a Christian, a saint means one whose life and holiness may serve as an example to other Christians in their moral and religious practice. (For convenience and brevity, I here ignore the fact that other major religions also have concepts of sanctity and sainthood). The way is which saints are proclaimed or canonised (i.e. added to the “canon” or list of recognised saints who may be venerated) has changed over the centuries. Once it was simply a matter of popular acclamation after some noted Christian person had died. Then the process became formalised, especially in the Catholic system of having of having a person declared, after death, to be first Venerable, then Blessed, than a Saint as various hurdles of proof (such as miracles performed after prayer to the candidate for sainthood) were cleared. The Eastern Orthodox Church has as lengthy a calendar of saints as the Catholic Church. Most Protestant churches officially ditched the idea of saints at the time of the Reformation – they were seen as distractions from the single-minded worship of Christ, and hence dangerously in the field of papist idolatry. And yet some (such as the Anglican Church) retained the pre-Reformation calendar of saints, added various informal suggestions that some notable people were worthy “venerating”, and continued to use saints’ names in the naming of churches. Look at the back of Westminster Abbey and see images of twentieth century people (such as Oscar Romero) whom some Anglicans think worthy of veneration and in effect regard as saints.

By now you are panting with impatience at the fact that I have not yet started analysing Amy Brown’s book The Odour of Sanctity. But I thought this prologue necessary, as it is quite clear that Amy Brown has little real idea of what sainthood entails. I won’t quibble at the extremely limited list of sources given at the end. This is a poem, after all, and not a work of scholarship. (Although this very fact makes me very sceptical about the whole concept of regarding any imaginative work as a valid doctoral thesis – as this book was written to be. A work of imaginative literature either flies or it doesn’t, and calling something a doctoral thesis when it is NOT a work of scholarship strikes me as a damned impertinence.)

What I will quibble with is Amy Brown’s choice of “saints”. In different sections, this book looks at six candidates for sainthood. But only two of them (Augustine and Elizabeth of Hungary) are saints in the sense of being accepted as such by the church universal. One – the garrulous medieval mystic and memoirist Margery Kempe – is “venerated” in the Anglican Church, but nobody really regards her as a saint. One is more in the nature of folklore. This is the miraculous early-medieval talking baby Rumwold, who, says the legend, lived only three days but preached sermons and proclaimed his Christian faith.  It may be fun for the poet to point out that there are a few churches named after this fantastic figure, but quite clearly his reputation (whether he actually lived is quite another matter) was a very local affair. As for the last two – the lavender-and-lace Victorian poet Christina Rossetti and the rock musician Jeff Magnum – nope, nobody has ever suggested either was or is a bona fide saint.

The book – all 237 pages of it – is divided into seven sections. First, an investigation of each “saint’s” life as seen by somebody else. Then a “questionnaire” as somebody other than the “saint” works through questions regarding the “saint’s” sanctity. Then “beatification” of each as God speaks His piece about each. Then a “questionnaire” as a doctor or physician answers questions about the possibility of a miracle having been performed by intercession with the “saint”. Then testimony from a person supposedly cured. Then a canonisation ceremony for each. Then a brief envoi.

So what is the poet up to in choosing these six as her exemplars of “the odour of sanctity” and what is her purpose in mimicking at least some of the steps in the Catholic process of canonisation?

Basically mockery, I fear, especially as she mixes recorded beliefs and historical fact with sheer and outrageous fiction of her own devising. (No, no pope ever canonised Christina Rossetti and no pope ever bothered to curse a rock musician he’d never heard of.) Behind it all I hear the tired technique of something like Voltaire’s La Pucelle d’Orleans, in which traditional beliefs about Joan of Arc (who was not yet canonised at the time Voltaire was writing) were mixed with fantasy and obscenity to ridicule and belittle the traditional beliefs and those who held them. The underlying message was “See the nonsense that these credulous Christians believed!”, nudged along by the real nonsense that the author had himself created. Inflatio ad absurdum. Thus in The Odour of Sanctity.

And having no real idea of what sainthood entails, Amy Brown is reduced to the concept of sainthood as freakshow or freaky amusing experience. Take her impressions of Jeff Magnum.

I don’t believe in heaven, / but Jesus is plausible” says the rock musician (p.24), with whatever Jesus was on about quite passing him by. Later, the rock musician’s admirer says:

One with the music, I would no longer / have its company, as if I’d parted from God  / by melding with Him. Like learning to read / silently – there would be no external voice, / no need to listen or pray. I would be inside / the music, or it inside me. Either way, / the song would be lonely as death” (p.36)

This is not mysticism leading to anything greater than oneself, but an objectification of the ego. This is where we get into the territory of those who see mysticism as the equivalent of having a trip on a mind-altering drug – in other words just another sensual experience. At another point and admirer says:

My best teacher in grade school reminded me of Jeff / and of Jesus. He had such long legs. / His eyes were always wet and red-rimmed – in hindsight, / he was almost certainly stoned as we studied history. In his class we read The Diary of Anne Frank.” (p.117)

Good looks and being stoned – these are conditions of sainthood? And later still there is this really profound message:

It was too hard to imagine Jeff dead. / His listeners venerate him by buying his records, / burning them for friends / but telling their friends / they should really pay / for music this good / but mainly they need / to listen to it, even if it means / not paying.” (p.124)

So veneration of a saint is feeding a rock musician’s royalties?

The superficiality of this is fairly stunning, but it is really at one with another consistent failure through this book. As well as having virtually no understanding of what sainthood entails, Amy Brown shows a consistent hostility to anything resembling asceticism. When she describes Margery Kempe, she suggests that her view of God was a neurosis blotting out the sensual pleasures of life:

 “This creature enjoyed walks in fine weather / sharing ale and cake with her husband / until she remembered you, Lord, until / the warmth became a burning guilt, the cake / slid down her throat like sick, the ale / /smelt of rotting meat and the only cure / was you, Lord. It was only ever You. / Then she’d lie in the dark and feel calm, / plan her fast, dwell on her abstinence / list and count and categorise all things / in her life as they relate to You, Lord / As they relate to You.” (pp.54-55)

This tone becomes even more shrill when she is ridiculing of the notion of asceticism in Elizabeth of Hungary  – “I forced my babies to be / pious, giving up their share of my flesh to God. It is wrong / to enjoy bodily pleasures. It is wrong to gain / satisfaction from turmoil. It is wrong / to use distress as a balm for anything….” etc. etc. (pp.65-66).

If you have no real conception of the otherworldly, then you stake everything on this-worldly pleasures. This is the essence of materialism. But if you have no conception of the otherworldly (except for a version of God that is intended as a piss-take) you also disqualify yourself from writing about sainthood in any meaningful way and you will not understand asceticism. Compared with this, other imaginative failures in this book are fairly routine ones – such as the (cliché and oft-used) attempt to “discredit” Augustine through the mouth of his discarded concubine.

Let us assume that some saints genuinely were as frail, flawed, neurotic etc as the author suggests. This misses the major point that all of humanity is ultimately embraced in sainthood (including the sick in body and mind) as saints become a medium between us and the divine. We are all flawed, but we all have the possibility of being saints. To berate some saints for their psychological failings is to set up some sort of eugenics as a criterion for sainthood. Saints become “cases”, inferior to the author, rather than people whose lives are worth knowing and treasuring. In other words, saints cease to be saints.

It occurs to me that in this notice, I have said nothing about the poetic qualities of The Odour of Sanctity. I grant that there are some moments that have a certain resonance. Of Rumwold and saints and criminals Amy Brown says “they are not lost in a green desert / of constant babyhood. Only / their acts are remembered, / their bodies turned into words. / The most precocious speaker, / now ungrounded by / words, is literally eternal.” (p.80) The sentiment comes close to Yeats’ “words alone are certain good”; but the phrase “a green desert of constant babyhood” is strong.

Poetically the book has its moments.


  1. I may have misunderstood this review, but are you suggesting that a discussion of sainthood is off-limits to those who don't believe in God? Or is it simply that in your view poetry doesn't have the capacity to act as critical form?

    1. No Anonymous (of Wellington, I believe), but I am suggesting that if you are going to write about something, even critically, you should know what you are writing about.

  2. It's Mangum, not Magnum. And how can a question be logical?

    Anyway it seems to me that approaching a work of literature from such a defensive posture is a necessarily unproductive enterprise that can only lead to ungenerous and intellectually bereft critiques such as this.

    1. Greeting Jeff. I'm not quite sure what this comment is referring to. Perhaps you could enlighten me? "Defensive"? "Ungenerous"? "Intellectually bereft"? Pot and kettle?

  3. This review is astounding for its ridiculousness. You shouldn't have reviewed the book as it has clearly offended your religious sensibilities and it was never going to have a fair go. What could have been a review about the poetic content and its quality instead is a put down of the author's position on her subject matter and her presumed biases. The question you pose under the guise of logic is very silly. This review, if it qualified for a title, could be "The Odour of Sanctimony". For a redoubtable intellectual this is seriously disappointing output. Your comment on the poetic content is gratuitous at best and in my view you do your blog down with what is really a thinly disguised righteous rant.

    1. Well I appear to have pressed a button here, Anonymous, whoever you may be. The terms "ridiculousness", "sanctimony" and "rant" suggest somewhat deep-seated prejudices of your own. I've never been of the opinion that the subject matter of any literary work is something that one blithely ignores. Anyway, let's put this into perspective by asking - how is a Jew supposed to respond to an anti-semitic work, no matter how well written? Would you accuse such a person of indulging in "rant" if they objected to what it was saying?