Wednesday, June 20, 2007

oh, dead white men, how i've missed you so

Well, I've committed a fatal error as I work through the novels of the modernist period in Canadian Literature -- I read the only two women writers first, which means that I have to muddle through the rest of these mostly-dead and not-quite-dead old white dudes for the next ten days. It's not that I mind that they're white guys -- that's kind of my area of expertise, as it happens -- but that the lack of diversity in CanLit well into the 1950s and 1960s is, frankly, a huge embarrassment for us as a society. We really cleaned up our acts into the 1970s and beyond, and I'm excited to check out the diverse range of writers on my contemporary list, but we really can't pat ourselves on the backs too terribly much when we have so many years with so little progress. It's funny how women and immigrants dominated the colonial period, and then things basically went downhill from there. Oh, Canada. At least good old Morley Callaghan is near to throw me a prostitute or two to really keep things lively.

Such Is My Beloved
by Morley Callaghan

"Of course, I know they often deceived me. I tried not to be foolish about the matter. They continually deceived me. I see that now. They often hurt me. But it doesn't matter if they wounded my self-respect or my pride a thousand times, does it? They were streetwalkers, Charlie, but they made me think about prostitution."

"If you don't mind me saying it, Father, I disagree with you to a certain extent about these girls," Charlie said. "In the perfectly organized state there would be no streetwalkers. If the state had proper control of the means of production and the means of livelihood, it's never necessary for a woman to go on the streets. No healthy woman of her own accord would ever do such work. It's too damned degrading. But if in the ideal state there were still women who were streetwalkers out of laziness or a refusal to work steadily then they would be kicked out or interned somewhere for laziness, or as non-producers. Then they'd have to work or starve. Your mistake is seeing this as a religious problem. It's really an economic problem. Do you see, Father?" Charlie said, like a lecturer.

"I know, and in a way you're right, but not entirely. I knew a woman who thought all these women were feeble-minded. All you would have to do would be to sterilize the feeble-minded, and in a couple of generations everything would be rosy for the strong-minded ones, who would all be highly moral. It's a point of view."

"It's not my point of view."

"No. I've been trying to see it in this way. I wouldn't say it to everybody, Charlie, but I know many respectable women in the parish enjoying marriages of convenience and I know they're just as low on the scale as these girls. I mean when you think of the girls hunting around the streets here and the young men and the married men going to them because of their secret passion and their lust, it looks almost as if the girls, even here in my own parish, were in some way doing good -- in a way, had a spiritual value. These girls were taking on themselves all these mean secret passions, and in the daytime those people who had gone to them at night seemed to be leading respectable and good lives. Those girls never suspected the sacrifice of their souls that they offer every day."

In Such Is My Beloved, Morley Callaghan tells the story of Father Stephen Dowling, a young Catholic priest whose parish is in a bustling protestant city. Stephen is a good priest, but finds himself occasionally too interested in preaching about social ills and problems for the tight-laced members of his established parish. He is somewhat of a renegade in his sermon topics about the "inevitable separation between Christianity and the bourgeois world" when people really want to gather on Sundays to hear about love, hope, and charity. For Stephen, though, the world is his congregation, and all the ills of society are his to mend. Open, idealistic, and innocent, Stephen approaches his work whole-heartedly and without any sense of cynicism or skepticism.

All of this means, of course, that when Stephen is doing his rounds one day and comes upon two young prostitutes, he is helpless to control his desire to change their lives. Midge and Ronnie, victims of family circumstances that pushed them out from parental restraint early, and victims of the Great Depression's lack of job prospects for the unskilled, find themselves without any opportunities beyond what they can gain from selling themselves. They cling to Stephen, then, not as a way out of their situation necessarily (since it is the only imaginable life for them), but they see him instead as a protection from sin, and his money is something that will make the world a little easier for them. Stephen's naivety and desire to help all of God's creatures places him, however, in a situation that could be perceived as impropriety by the outside world, as he visits the girls in a hotel room almost every night to bring them gifts. In the end, the all-seeing eye of the Church is brought to bear on Stephen and the girls are arrested and sent out of town. Stephen is obsessed by the idea that he has let the girls down by not being able to save them or help them, or even keep them in the city where he could watch out for them. As a result, Stephen loses his mind to grief and confusion, and finds himself in a mental hospital. In the end, he makes a deal with God, and concludes that he has sacrificed his own sanity for a promise from God that he would look out for Ronnie and Midge, and any young girls like them who need His assistance in the world.

The novel comments on the problem of celibacy in the Catholic Church. A man without sexual desire would not be accepted for the priesthood, it is said, because that indicates that no sacrifice is made on the part of the man seeking to give his life to God. If he isn't interested in sexuality, then the denial of it is not a gift freely given to God. However, when young men are plagued by temptation, there is no outlet for them to even discuss, let alone act on, their desires. Callaghan seems unsure of the sustainability of such a system -- one can't help but wonder if, had this novel been written a few decades later, if this would not have opened the door for a discussion of homosexual practices in seminary or dangerously deviant and criminal sexual acts among the priesthood. Callaghan seems desperate to make a point about something as he raises the issue of celibacy and temptation over and over again, but perhaps as a symptom of the novel's age and time, whatever he wants to say here never fully emerges.

Fundamentally, this is a novel about sacrifice and obedience, and when to follow which calling. Stephen sees Ronnie and Midge as two women who sacrifice their own souls in order to absorb the sin and degradation of the otherwise respectable men who use their services. But, Stephen is aware, if the two women had obeyed the laws of man and God, they would not be selling their bodies and would not be in a position to sacrifice their souls at all. Likewise, Stephen sacrifices his sanity for the protection of the women (or at least, so he believes), but if he had obeyed the order to stay away from the women he would never have lost his sanity in the first place. The question of what is harder, to obey or to sacrifice, rises many times in the novel. The consensus across all individual events in the story is that it is much easier for someone to sacrifice for a cause they believe in than to obey an order that they don't -- this ties in with the overall thrust towards social change in the novel. There's a very left-wing sensibility in the novel, and a merging of communist ideas with Catholic ones to complete a sense that society should be more interested in helping the common man. This is especially interesting given the fact that the novel was written and set during the depression. For Callaghan, it would be easier for everyone to sacrifice their own comfort to help their fellow men than it ought to be for people to obey a social order that they don't believe in or agree with. It seems to Callaghan to be unthinkable for people to accept the need as it stands.

One interesting thing about this novel (and, I gather from the criticism I have read, this is true of much of Callaghan's work) is the fact that it is specifically non-Canadian in its setting. Callaghan, of course, had an extremely cosmopolitan outlook on life and literature, having been a colleague of Hemingway and a travelling companion of Joyce. For Callaghan, as for many of the writers of this period, the literary realm lay outside -- far outside -- the borders of the 49th parallel and three vast oceans. As a result, the city in question in this novel feels like Toronto to me, but it is very overtly and intentionally an any-city. Callaghan locates the city only in the Eastern portion of North America, and by the weather we can ascertain that it is North, but the novel neither declares itself Canadian nor does it attempt to appropriate an American voice. Unlike Watson and Laurence, Callaghan seems to shy away from nationalizing his literature, and instead turns his stories outward. Where Watson and Laurence had very Canadian stories to tell, the universality yet obvious denial of Toronto-ness of the setting of this novel make it seem as though Callaghan is denying that there are any Canadian tales to tell. Even the history of the two prostitutes -- Midge from Montreal and Ronnie from Detroit -- denies any opportunity to localize the story.

In the end, on a purely reader-response level, I think this is a really fantastic novel of the human experience, and certainly is worth a read. The views of women seem problematic (the sin of sexuality absorbs his into invisibility for him and criminal prosecution for her, somehow), but they are of their period and it's not something we can apologize away. Read Morley Callaghan, revel in the leftist rhetoric, and reject the views of women. It's the easiest way to read him for pleasure.

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