Monday, February 19, 2018

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“THE RELIC” by Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz (“A RELIQUIA” published 1887; first English language translation by Aubrey F.G.Bell, published in 1925 – reprinted 1954; second English language translation by Margaret Jull Costa 1994)

Of the Portuguese novelist Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz (1845-1900) I have written before on this blog (see the posting on his domestic comedy Cousin Bazilio). The best-known Portuguese novelist of the nineteenth century, and possibly of all time, he is often compared with French nineteenth century realists and satirists such as Balzac, Flaubert and Zola. His social and political views are fairly clear. He was a “Liberal” in the nineteenth century sense of the word which, in Portugal, meant being anti-clerical and in favour of a republic. (The Portuguese monarchy was overthrown in 1910, ten years after Eca de Queiroz’s death, but the republic that replaced it was so chaotic that dictatorship followed.) And yet Eca de Queiroz was too shrewd an observer of life to be a utopian, knowing full-well that secularist views of the world could be corrupted as easily as religious ones.

Eca de Queiroz’s two most overtly anti-clerical novels were written in the earlier part of his career, The Sin of Father Amaro and The Relic. Indeed The Relic was probably written in the early 1870s, when Eca de Queiroz was in his late 20s, but after many revisions by the author, it was not published until 1887. This is a witty, urbane and deeply cynical tale, which attacks fanatical religious belief, the worldly power of the church and false religiosity. And yet, read carefully, it has a curious subtext which acts as a sort of warning to secularists, who might be a little too smug and complacent about their own motives.

The novel’s first-person narrator, Theodorico Raposo, is a sceptic and a rake who pretends to be pious because his one wealthy relative, his aunt Dona Patrocinio das Reves, is passionately religious. He hopes to inherit her wealth when she dies. Theodorico has always found his aunt’s house repellent. In childhood “that great house threw a gloom over me with its red damask and its innumerable saints and its smell of chapel.” [Chapter 1] But he goes through the charade of attending mass daily, speaking of the inspiration that stories of saints give him, repeating phrases he claims to have heard in sermons, venerating the statues of saints in his aunt’s private chapel and generally faking intense religious belief. Thus he hopes to become the sole beneficiary of his childless aunt’s will. Secretly, of course, he carouses, drinks, seduces women when they are available and keeps a mistress, Adelia, whom he discovers to be cheating on him.

One day a priest warns him that he has a rival for his aunt’s inheritance. It is the church itself, to which she is likely to give everything if he cannot show irrefutably how pious he is. To his aunt (thinking of the sexual fun he could have far from Lisbon) Theodorico suggests that he wants to go to Paris to visit the great churches there. Aunt Patrocinio, however, suggests something more challenging to him. He is to make a pilgrimage to the “Holy Land” (Palestine – still part of the Turkish Empire when this novel was written) and bring back for her the holiest and most powerful relics of Christ that he can find.

So the novel sets itself up as a comedy in which the rascally libertine writes pietistic letters to his aunt and seeks out suitable relics; but all the while chasing women in exotic places, making sardonic comments about the church, ridiculing Bible stories and generally being a studied hypocrite who hopes his enacted hypocrisy will bring him wealth.

Even before he sets off on his pilgrimage, he dreams of being sent “well supplied with gold, to those Mussulman lands where every step brings one to a harem, silent and smelling of roses amid the sycamores.” [Chapter 1] Let us say this is an Orientalist view of the Near East.

In Alexandria he has an affair with an Englishwoman whose undergarments he keeps as his own “relic” of sensual pleasure. In Jerusalem he falls in love with another Englishwoman, and in one episode gets punched out for acting the voyeur through her keyhole as she is bathing.  Jerusalem he finds to be a place of squalor rather than inspiration, with squabbles between rival Christian sects around the Church of the Sepulchre. As he says in the novel’s Prologue:  “From the fig-trees of Bethany to the sleeping waters of Galilee I am well acquainted with the places where dwelt [a] divine Mediator, full of tenderness and dreams, whom we call Our Lord Jesus; and I found in them nothing but ugliness, drought, dirt, desolation and rubbish.”

Early in his journey, Theodorico acquires a pedantic travelling companion, Dr Topsius from the University of Bonn in Germany. Through this character, Eca de Queiroz appears to be half-satirising, and half-approving of, the new, often sceptical German Biblical scholarship that was developing in the nineteenth century, whereby the “Q” hypothesis of the relationship of the Gospels was devised, and de-mythologised books such as David Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu were written. While all this might be congenial to an anti-clerical like the narrator (and the author), Topsius’s flaw is his national chauvinism. Says Theodorico: “His pride in his native land was… intolerable. Without ceasing he would lift up his voice to praise Germany, the spiritual mother of all peoples, or threaten me with his irresistible force of the German armies. The omniscience of Germany! The omnipotence of Germany! She reigned in a vast camp entrenched by folios in which Metaphysics paraded armed and issued the commands.” [Chapter 2]

To the alert reader, this is a warning that even if Christianity in its Catholic form can be ridiculed cheerfully, an available alternative view of Christianity is not necessarily an improvement.

The story trundles on with the cynic and the pedant viewing, with jaundiced eyes, places revered by pilgrims. True to the aesthetic paganism that was such a big thing in Eca de Queiroz’s time, Theodorico has a dream in which the Devil introduces him to the general history of religions, and notes how joyful people were under the pagan gods of Greece. Of Jesus, Theodorico therefore remarks: “This carpenter of Galilee had appeared, and all was over. Men’s faces had become perpetually  pale and mortified; a dark cross, crushing the earth, withered the splendour of the roses and robbed kisses of their sweetness ; and the new god delighted in ugliness.” [Chapter 2] It’s the same sentiment that can be found in the poetry of Eca de Queiroz’s contemporary Algernon Swinburne. Christianity is the enemy of liberating sensuality.

With much farce intervening, and much satire on the manufacture of relics, Theodorico finds the one true Crown of Thorns that Jesus wore in his Passion, and is certain that by delivering it to his aunt he will earn her whole inheritance. How his hopes are dashed I will not relate here, knowing how irritating “spoilers” can be. I will say that the farcical circumstance that is Theodorico’s nemesis is a fairly obvious one (I had a fair idea of what was going to happen when the novel was only half done). I will also note that, as in Cousin Bazilio, Eca de Queiroz does not end his narrative where we expect him to. It plays to the irony of disappointed hopes and unexpected outcomes.

More crucial to the novel’s overall effect, however, is the novel’s third chapter which some have interpreted as an annoying interruption to an onward-moving narrative. For myself, I see it as the heart of the novel’s ideas. Taking up one third the length of the novel, Chapter 3 consists of a long vision (or dream?) in which Theodorico, accompanied by Dr Topsius, is whisked back to Jerusalem in the last days of “Rabbi Jeschoua” (i.e. Jesus) and beholds his condemnation, passion, and death. The tone here is very like Anatole France’s famous sceptical story The Procurator of Judea or for that matter George Moore’s sceptical Jesus novel The Brook Kerith. (Sceptical fictions based on scripture were fairly common in the late nineteenth century – see on this blog the posting Biblical andSceptical-Biblical Novels).

As in much pseudo-Biblical fiction, there are in the “vision” many descriptions of marketplaces thronging with ployglot crowds, the splendour of Roman palaces etc. But the focus is on Jesus, who is presented as the reformer of a corrupt religious establishment. Sometimes he is naïve – in cleansing the temple of its money-lenders, he renders destititue many poor people whose only livelihood is selling trinkets. (This depiction of a Christ-figure who is not worldly-wise enough to foresee the consequences of his actions reminded me very much of Luis Bunuel’s film Nazarin.) The message Jesus preaches is one of universal brotherhood and social equality. He is pitted against the malign authoritarian power of Jehovah as preached by the Pharisees. Of course there is no Resurrection – Jesus is drugged by friends when he is on the cross (the sponge with the vinegar…) so that he can be deposited in the tomb in a comatose state and then be revived by natural means. However, after this, he dies of his wounds… but the sentimental Mary Magdalene insists that he is still living among them. If you know your  anti-clerical nineteenth century narratives of Jesus, you will recognise this as a crib from Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jesus, which (doubtless to the ire of many feminist nuns I have known) emphasised that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the Resurrection because only a woman would be emotional and sentimental enough to believe such a tale.

In the novel’s pay-off, after Theodorico’s hopes for an inheritance have been dashed, he is able to interpret Christians such as his aunt as the ultimate betrayers of Jesus’ simple messsage. They are, in effect, the new Pharisees. Addressing Christ, Theodorico considers the crucifixion and says “on that day… Auntie and all those who now prostrate themselves at your feet would have hooted at you as did the sellers of the Temple, the Pharisees and the rabble of Acra…. The proprietors who now lavish on you gold and feasts of the church, would have joined forces, with their arms and codes and purses, to put you to death as a revolutionary, an enemy of order, a danger to property…” [Chapter 5]

So this is a simple anti-clerical fiction delivered as farce…. Except that it isn’t. After all, we know that the man narrating the story is a scoundrel, liar and hypocrite, and after his hopes have been dashed, after he has hurled his anathemas against his aunt and the church, he proceeds to make his way in the world by the very means that he has condemned. Yes, he resolves to speak more forthrightly – but like other men of his class and time, he plays the game of public piety and private libertinism to get ahead in the world.  Eca de Queiroz has the wit to see that Theodorico’s achieved wisdom does not make him morally a better man – only a more cunning one.

The satire of this novel is two-edged.

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