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Posts Tagged ‘Catholicism’

Broken on the Wheel

March 13, 2015 | by

A gruesome legal case turned Voltaire into a crusader for the innocent.

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The death of John Calas, depicted in an English chapbook.

This article was reported and written by Ken Armstrong for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal-justice system.

On the night of October 13, 1761, cries rang from the shop of Jean Calas, a cloth merchant who lived and worked in the commercial heart of Toulouse, in the South of France. The eldest of Calas’s six children, Marc-Antoine, a moody, handsome man who was fond of billiards and gambling, had just been found dead. The family said he had been murdered—perhaps stuck with a sword by someone who slipped into the darkened boutique from the cobblestone street.

A crowd gathered outside the front door as investigators were summoned. A doctor and two surgeons, called to examine the body, found only a “livid mark on the neck.” They signed a report refuting the family’s account of some intruder with a blade, concluding that Marc-Antoine, twenty-nine, had been “hanged whilst alive, by himself or by others.”

Those last five words, “by himself or by others,” began an enduring mystery and a true cause célèbre, one that might have been the “crime of the century” for the 1700s had the cliché been in use back then. Voltaire, the philosopher, dramatist and propagandist—“the greatest amuser of his age” and the greatest polemicist—became obsessed with the case, and for years worked to eradicate what he considered to be a stain on his country, church, and courts.

Finally, a panel of forty judges sat in Paris to hear the case against Calas once again. The verdict they issued, 250 years ago this week, “echoed and re-echoed” in Europe and beyond. Voltaire, by appealing directly to the people, helped established the power of public opinion as a tool to fight injustice. To some legal scholars, the infamous case also marked the first stirrings of the global movement to end capital punishment. Read More »

Divine Ordure

February 5, 2015 | by

A master class in hailing Satan.

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An illustration by Félicien Rops for a bootleg edition of Là-Bas.

“The odor from those incense burners is unbearable … What do they burn that smells like that?”

“Asphalt from the street, leaves of henbane, datura, dried nightshade, and myrrh. These are perfumes delightful to Satan, our master.”

When J. K. Huysmans published Là-Bas (Down There) in 1891, it caused an immediate scandal in France. Huysmans serialized the novel in L’Écho de Paris, a newspaper; readers wrote in early and often to express their revulsion, threatening to cancel their subscriptions if the serialization was not halted posthaste. Not long afterward, when the book itself came out, it was banned from sale at railway kiosks, thus ensuring that it loomed all the larger in the public imagination. Controversy followed the book abroad, too—no one bothered to attempt an English translation for more than thirty years, and even then, the U.S. Society for the Suppression of Vice ruled that it was simply too immoral to see the light of day.

The outrage stemmed from the book’s frank depiction of Satanism—it culminates in a Black Mass, vividly described. Its protagonist, a novelist named Durtal, has pursued his interest in the occult to its logical conclusion, and he’s startled to learn that a thriving underworld persists in contemporary Paris. Huysmans conducted extensive research for the novel, basically embedding himself among a group of Satanists; he was disenchanted with ordinary life, and he wanted literature to present a thrilling alternative to quotidian reality. But he went too far. He grew so distressed by the darkness and evil in Là-Bas—and, perhaps, in his own soul; the novel’s subtitle is “A Journey into the Self”—that he came to regard it as a black book; he wrote a white book, En Route, to cancel its negative energy. (It’s sort of the same way that Prince, a century later, recorded Lovesexy to exorcize the demons of The Black Album.) Later in life, Huysmans converted to Catholicism. Read More »

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Robert Stone, 1937–2015

January 12, 2015 | by

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From our Winter 1985 issue: “A Robert Stone manuscript page, from his most recent novel, Children of Light; an indication of how barren the word processor has made examples of a work-in-progress.”

“I like big novels,” Robert Stone said in his 1985 Art of Fiction interview. “I really admire the grand slam.” Stone died last weekend in Florida, at seventy-seven. He leaves behind more than a few grand slams—broad, despairing, powerful books full of searchers, outsiders, and misfits. His work exudes what Jessica Hagedorn calls “exquisite paranoia and apocalyptic dread.”

Of course, descriptions like that can make his novels sound too potent—and one of the surprising things about Stone, it must be said, is how little he’s read these days. I hope that will change. As M. H. Miller wrote of him in 2013,

He’s a best-selling author whose work has been heaped with critical praise, but because of the long interims between books, he is more heard of than read by a certain generation of readers. Updike had Rabbit, Roth had Zuckerman, Norman Mailer had Gary Gilmore, even Joan Didion, whose novels are the least interesting thing about her, had Maria Wyeth. Among Mr. Stone’s books there is no clear standout, no obvious introduction. His work is best taken in tandem, like one long narrative where you age with the characters.

He’s right: among readers my age, Stone’s work has had that enviable air of mystery to it. He was always that major writer lurking in the distance. His books didn’t seem approachable, not because they were long or “difficult” but because, as the New York Times put it, they “resonate with philosophical concerns, the thin divides between life and death, good and evil, God and godlessness.” These were tomes about war and God and postwar tumult, and, uh, we definitely wanted to get to them, yes, but—maybe later? Read More »

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Lost in Translation

November 21, 2014 | by

Why has Italian cinema lost its appeal abroad?

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A still from La grande bellezza, 2013.

It must be the Ponentino—the wind from the sea—blowing through the baroque gardens, or the scent of the Roman pines rising from ruins, but each time I return to Italy, I realize how much I miss its decadence. Yes, it’s this breeze, fresh yet melancholic, that makes me think of the persistent sense of fallacy in the eternal city. And while I can’t escape being mesmerized by Rome’s beauty, I question why contemporary Italian culture doesn’t travel or translate. It is as if Italy is appreciated only for what it was and not for what it has become.

While I appreciate the current popularity of Scandinavian literature, or the enthusiasm, periodically revived, for Latin American writers, I have to wonder why, or, indeed, if, Italian authors are less interesting to the Anglo-Saxon public than those spare, gritty Northerners and quixotic Latinos. Italy has produced a few celebrated authors, but there has never been a real fascination for our literature.

Cinema is a different story, perhaps because of its more immediate seductive power of images. La Dolce Vita was unique in making Romans feel that we lived, at least vicariously, in the caput mundi—the capital of the world. The film is the portrait of an Inferno costumed as a Paradise. Its glamorous description of Roman decadence generated a fashion, and people all over the world dreamed of enjoying those orgies, dressing in those stylish suits, driving those convertibles, listening to that music, and bathing in the Fountain of Trevi. As one character says, “to live within the harmony of perfect beauty.” Who wouldn’t subscribe to that fantasy? I would be the first, if I could ignore the fact that the intellectual who delivers the line commits suicide after killing his own children.

Federico Fellini has captured the city’s paradoxes—its wisdom and disenchantment, provinciality and universalism, morbid religiosity and virulent secularism—better than any artist before or since. And he did it again with Roma, Toby Dammit, and Satyricon, a science-fiction film set in a desperate, godless past. Since the heyday of neorealism, some of our best films have dealt with the same phenomena of glorious corruption and placid surrender to dissolution. It happened last year with La grande bellezza, directed by Paolo Sorrentino, a homage to Fellini, and la grande eccezione—the great exception in an otherwise fairly desolate artistic landscape. Read More »

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God, Satan, Waugh

October 28, 2014 | by

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A portrait of Waugh by Carl Van Vechten.

Evelyn Waugh was born today in 1903. You can read his Art of Fiction interview here, but there’s also, courtesy of the Spectator’s seemingly endless archives, this unverified bit of trivia from a letter to the paper sent in 1971:

Sir: Colin Wilson, your reviewer of Graham Greene’s autobiography A Sort of Life quotes from a supposed remark that Evelyn Waugh made to Greene—‘You know, Graham, you’ve made more money out of God than Wodehouse made out of Jeeves.’

I believe there are other versions of this story, although I cannot now remember who told me mine.

A few years ago, while in New York, I was but a stone’s throw from the Algonquin Hotel, Mr. Waugh and Mr. Greene were staying in the hotel. Late in the night Mr. Waugh popped into Mr. Greene’s room where a publisher’s party was still going strong to celebrate another Greene book. At some point during this party Evelyn Waugh announced: ‘You know, Graham, you’ve made more money out of the Devil than I’ve made out of God.’

Apocryphal or otherwise, the story does contain a more typical Waugh bite than the Jeeves analogy.

Michael Hastings

Read More »

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Conscience for Boys and Girls

September 9, 2014 | by

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William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853

Scrolling through Retronaut, you might run across a 1927 pamphlet called “Examination of Conscience for Boys and Girls,” which the site resurfaced last year. It’s a Catholic publication by a Jesuit brother named A.J. Wilwerding, distributed by something called “The Queen’s Work” in Saint Louis. The first few pages are pretty straightforward—the author defines different kinds of sins and helpfully distinguishes them by typeface: venial, venial (at risk of becoming Mortal), and MORTAL. Did the child DENY he was a Catholic? Did he curse? Did he misbehave in church? And then you reach the fourth page:

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And maybe you cry, and you think that these are not bad rules to live by. Not just for kids. Certainly not just for Catholics. And that it’s not easy; as Morrissey said, it takes guts.

Of course, then you keep reading: Read More »