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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

The Pope's Visit

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I was going to blog a couple of weeks ago about the fact that the Pope is to hold a state visit to the UK, when it first began to hit the headlines. However, I did not get around to doing it back then - and I am glad that I waited, because in the interim the lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has exposed how absurd it is that the Vatican can trace its "statehood" back to the Lateran Treaty, a 1929 concordat signed with the Fascist dictator, Mussolini. Whilst the Pope has every right to visit the UK, based solely on the suspect and ad-hoc political status of his "state" it ought not to cost the British taxpayer £12 million to host him. Would we be prepared to pay a similar amount for, say, the Prince of Liechtenstein? As happens with football matches, concerts, rallies and protests, the costs of policing and overseeing his visit ought to be borne, in part, by the evangelising Catholic Church.

Another good reason for waiting, which makes it a more appropriate time to blog about the Papal visit now, is that I am currently preparing Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty for teaching next term.

This is his fictional account - sprinkled with some fairly poorly disguised actors standing for actual historical figures - of homosexual life in political society in the years of Thatcherism. It is full of explicit gay sex scenes featuring the protagonist Nick, a recent graduate who is intellectually advanced but sexually adolescent and socially naive. Every man he sees (especially those who happen to turn around to present particularly pert buttocks, be they straight or gay or ambiguous), is focalised as if they are a potential snare for his bedroom. His sexual fantasies and exploits are slightly but not directly camp, are certainly very funny, and sometimes quite touching. The one thing sex is not in the novel is distinctly bad, although the Aids crisis looms towards the end of the novel. The more significant ethical judgements are reserved for Thatcherism and the class conflict caused as insular, upper-class Tory grandees systematically dismantle the state whilst scooping enormous sums of money for themselves, despite being neither bright nor talented. As one civil servant merrily puts it at a party, champagne in hand, "The economy's in ruins, no one's got a job, and we just don't care, it's bliss."

When they come into contact with other classes of people - ethnic minorities, cleaners and taxi drivers, gay lovers - they react with disgust. Against the social issue of the entrenched attitudes of the ruling upper class, the gay lifestyle, though omnipresent in the mind of Nick, is also a historical and ethical irrelevance.

Not so for the Roman Catholic Church, for which sex in general is terrifying, subversive, always potentially immoral and irreligious. No one represents this more dogmatically than the present Pope, referred to as God's Rottweiler as head of canon law. The religious think tank, Theos, recently conducted a survey of British attitudes to the Pope, which asked about the public's support for his social agenda as expressed in his third encyclical letter. A large majority of people agreed with his statements such as that "technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption," that "investment always has moral, as well as economic significance," or that "food and access to water are universal rights of all human beings." I would agree with these statements too. But then, I would agree with them even if Kim Jong-il had made them. However, do such statements really represent the full spectrum of the Pope's social teaching?

Leaving aside - so far as such a mass human crime should be pushed to the margins - the child abuse scandal, would as many people have agreed with some of his following statements:
This last point is particularly pertinent in relation to the view of ethics and sex inscribed in The Line of Beauty. Throughout the novel, there is an ironic counterpoint playing between the personal importance Nick attaches to his developing gay life, and our wider social consciousness that the gathering momentum of Thatcherism is ultimately what will prove the ongoing legacy of the novel's 1980's setting. To put it bluntly - in terms the novel itself might use - whilst Nick goes around filling holes, of more significance is the gaping one in the text, as The Lady remains a notable absence, often whispered about in adulatory terms, but never directly seen. By 2004, when the novel was written, homosexuality is an issue about which most people - including a significant proportion of ordinary Catholics - could not care less, whilst the social legacy of Thatcherism is something we are still struggling with today. 

The Roman Catholic Church takes the opposite perspective. Making grand environmental pronouncements that amount to a positive social agenda is all very well, but it is only ever its bigoted stance on homosexuality, its sexism, or its hypocritical and conspiratorial abuse of children, that people will attend to. 

One might of course argue that as an atheist, I cannot possibly understand the Pope's moral hierarchy that equates homosexuality to the destruction of the rainforest, or that is more concerned with ensuring Africans do not use contraception, than in preventing their unnecessary death from HIV. Were I to subscribe to the timeless standards of the Holy Book that the Pope uses, the Word of God himself, I should see that the Pope has things the right way around. Well, novelists too are graced - a word I use deliberately - with an insight into the interaction between human psychology, sexuality and social forces. Hollinghurst's novel shows the web of relationships that lead human nature to respond to moral values, and in turn to change them for better or worse. In this web, homosexuality, for example, is tenuously at the edges, whereas class conflict is right at the centre, leading society down paths that are sometimes unjust.

This is the line along which the novel is beautifully cut, with the good humour (though growing struggle with Aids) of gay life on the one hand, and the false pretences of inherited and freely acquired wealth on the other. However, by wittily exposing the problems of a hypocritical political class indirectly through the contrast with the self-serving but somewhat ridiculous pursuit of sex by Nick, the novel does not outrightly condemn anyone; it adopts a Jamesian perspective (Nick's thesis is on Henry James), using gentle mockery to allow the reader to see the flaws in the Tory toffs. It is in that sense a humane novel, and a humanist observation on social reality, and the things which actually matter in people's public and private lives. The Pope, by contrast, has his priorities skewed, to the point of his being un-humanitarian.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:47 am


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