[Warning! Possibly contains tendentious and ill-informed argument!]
I’m giving up on reading Moira, by Julien Green, about 90 pages in. – This is only the second book I’ve given up on this year (the other was After the Banquet, by Yukio Mishima – it was just boring!), which I put down in general to good book selection in the first place. (I am not one of your people who believes they have to persevere to the end of every book).
I am giving up on Moira, it seems to me, for one overriding reason: – that it is about religion; – or perhaps, more to the point, that it is about the conflict between Christian teaching and man’s natural inclinations, as experienced in this case by one adolescent boy. (Last month it’s true I struggled through Furio Monicelli’s The Perfect Jesuit, which is on much the same subject – but somehow that was a little more interesting, at least at first, and taught me a bit besides about the history and beliefs of the Jesuits). – It may be worth mentioning at this point that, during the course of my upbringing, I rarely ever entered a church (if my parents ever dragged me to one, it was merely to admire the architecture and leave); – and, much like Jesus at twelve astounded the elders in the synagogue with his wisdom (or some such story), my parents love to recount tales of my early and virulent atheism and suspicion of all religiously-minded people generally.
So yes – stories about people suffering conflicts between religious teaching and their bodily desires tend to annoy me more than anything, since I can’t really identify with their problems – they seem like non-problems to me, living in this godless modern world; – but it isn’t exactly this that I wanted to discuss in relation to Moira. What I wanted to discuss was the following quote on the back of my edition by one Martin Seymour-Smith:
[Green] is a modernist because his subject is the Nietzschean one of “man without God”; for Green godlessness is epitomized in man’s condition of lustfulness and panic. He has perhaps learned more from Balzac than anyone else…
Now, firstly: this notion of modernism being in part characterised as “man without God” and harking back to Nietzsche seems to me quite a common one; and something I find to be entirely false. Frankly, God appears to have absented himself a long time before Nietzsche came along* – and this is fairly reflected in literature (perhaps, more or less, since the origins of the Western novel, say, some time around the Enlightenment). Very few novels – even in the nineteenth-century have any particular interest in God (you won’t find much of him, for instance, in Dickens – who is the natural epitome of everything that isn’t modernism) – but more than this, you’ll also find it stated quite a lot in pre-Nietzschean novels (particularly in the c19th), that nobody believes in God any more, most often stated as a generally accepted truth among literati. (There was a good example of this in Balzac’s The Wild Ass’ Skin, but I’m reluctant to search through it now to find the reference). – Now, I don’t wish to go back all the time to Zola, but again he seems a particularly good example: – men are, in his view, beasts, and there’s not, in his books, much imposition of social morality preventing them from expressing their bestiality. In fact, his characters don’t seem to have any existential angst about the death of God, since such an idea never occurs to them – just as it’s never occurred to the vast majority of humankind. I’d claim that Zola is in fact the more modern – than Nietzsche, than Green – since the question is not that a Christian morality has to be overcome; it is the positing of a world untroubled by Christian morality, a world that is already beyond it. – The fact that this world beyond it is also the world of “Christian” morality, is just to point up Nietzsche’s basic failure to understand that people never did live by Christian precepts anyway; so they don’t after all have to forge a new morality; and that therefore there is no great Nietzschean change in human psychology which is the very essence of modernism. – A good novel, by the way, to read on this subject is that little-read masterpiece of Herman Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities – written in 1852, i.e. well before Nietzsche – in which Melville basically argues (with marvellous caustic irony) that American society isn’t in the remotest part Christian, and that if anybody actually tried to live by the precepts of Christ, American society would go out of its way to destroy him. (It wasn’t well received).
And secondly – well, I can’t quite remember what was secondly; – possibly I covered it in some of the above.
*To be fair to Nietzsche, he is well aware of this; – less so, his modern interpreters.
I was bored during the University Challenge final: here’s the Balzac quote:
“What can you tell us that we don’t already know? By now you have made a laughing-stock of every authority, and it’s even normal to deny the existence of God! You no longer believe in anything, and this century is like an aged sultan plunged into debauchery! It’s ended with your Lord Byron, bringing poetry to the last pitch of despair, taking criminal passions as his theme.”
“Do you know,” answered Bianchon, completely drunk, “that a pinch of phosphorus more or less makes your man of genius or your scoundrel, your man of wit or your idiot, your virtuous man or your criminal?”