Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Time Traveler's Wife


This year, I'm making a serious effort to get through my monstrous "TBR pile." Whenever I finish another book from it, I ask a reader from my main blog, a Twitter follower, or a Facebook friend to be an "accountability buddy" of sorts by choosing which book from the pile I should read next. And the latest of them has been Pentimento, who suggested The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

The time traveler of the novel is Henry DeTamble, who is at the mercy of a "chrono-displacement disorder." Stressful situations or stimuli can get him popping out of the present and into the past or the future (but never more than about fifty years in either direction). That is how, in his thirties, he gets to meet his wife Clare back when she was only six years old . . . and why Clare is already in love with him the first time he meets her in his twenties. I found the first few chapters very romantic, sharing Clare's exhilaration at the way they are brought together against the craziest odds. But the magic lasted about one night for her and a few pages for me, before we both had to wake up and smell the present. For the Henry she meets is much younger than the man whom she fell in love with--and is not someone she might have given the time of day, had he been anyone else.

And the rest of the romance unfolds like The Gift of the Magi in reverse. Clare is willing to wait a few years until "her" Henry finally shows up, having slowly stumbled into all of her memories like an amnesiac slowly regaining his own . . . but those years change her, too--and not in ways that she would have imagined in her girlish daydreams. It turns out that Henry grows into the man she loved as a teenager because he felt terrible about being an uncertain husband who was often leaving her alone and because he had to watch her suffer several miscarriages while they tried to have a child. Young Clare got mature Henry on credit, so mature Clare must pay the bill.

Being a woman, I mostly read the love story from Clare's perspective. It was a little difficult for me to see things from Henry's point of view, and I found myself rereading many of the sections that he narrates, to get a better sense of how he sees things. I was most struck by his description of Clare as "a massive winning lottery ticket chunk of [his] future." Clare may have to pay interest on what she had thought was a free gift, but Henry's windfall seems to cost him only the lightest of taxes. Oh, but that's unfair of me to say. His chrono-displacement disorder, a lifelong source of suffering to him, is already a tax that he has been paying since his childhood--to some mysterious tax master whose ways he never gets to understand.

Or do I just assume the existence of this "tax master" because I am a believer? Henry and Clare don't seem to believe in a loving God Who is also a Person (much less Three Persons), and a great deal of this has to do with their having to live with Henry's crazy condition. Why would God create chrono-displaced people? Where is the free will in knowing that the future is as set as the past? Although young Clare is delighted to know that she will have mature Henry in the future, she bristles at the idea that other things about her are already set--like the way she drinks her coffee or the poets that she likes. And slowly she changes from a fervent Catholic girl into a woman who believes that the universe is completely chaotic. It's a change that somewhat mirrors Niffenegger's own departure from the Catholic Church at fifteen.

The Time Traveler's Wife is not a religious novel, but there's something about the blending of time travel and romance that always makes me think of Jesus and Mary. Maybe it's fallout from falling in love with The Terminator, which blends the Annunciation, the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, and the Flight into Egypt into one 80s Tech Noir package. A few years after it became my favourite film, I would get in trouble with Mrs. Darwin for describing Diana Gabaldon's Outlander as "Marian." (LOL!) I don't take my review back, for the same reason I don't take journal entries back (they're an accurate snapshot of a frame of mind); though if I had to rewrite that old post today, for publication elsewhere, it would be unrecognisable. What I do stand by, however, is my thesis that Gabaldon, whom I wasn't surprised to learn was also raised Catholic, could have imagined such a story only because she had thought deeply about how the Incarnation would have changed Mary. But Gabaldon's conclusion seems to be that Mary was taken out of time at the moment of her Fiat--that is, that Mary was perfectly normal until that point in her fourteenth year. I don't think we can quite square that with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, though I'd love to know what the Dominicans of the thirteenth century would say about it. In any case, I think I'm on safer ground pointing out the Easter Salubong imagery at the end of The Time Traveler's Wife.

Incidentally, this Easter was the first time I wondered why the Evangelists, particularly St. Luke and St. John, didn't include the Risen Jesus's reunion with His Mother. On Easter Saturday, I was fortunate enough to be at a votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary and hear that issue addressed in the homily. Father explained that there was no need to put it in the Gospels because it was already presumed. The early Christians would have clamoured to know exactly what the first witnesses saw, but they would have taken for granted that Jesus went out of His way to meet His Mother again. It wasn't very satisfying to me, but never mind. Perhaps it wasn't very satisfying to the young Niffenegger, either, which is why she wrote that final chapter, in which Henry is whole again and Clare is much older. Not that she gives us any more detail than Tradition does: what Henry and Clare say to each other at their reunion is also, for us, a mystery.

It's definitely the fantasy aspect of The Time Traveler's Wife that hooks everyone at the beginning. If you met your spouse when you were both adults, you'd be quite curious about what your spouse was like as a child. I'm sure we'd all also want to know what our younger selves would look like from outside ourselves and what they'd think of our older selves. But the novel has more going for it than just these fun gimmicks. Niffenegger's writing is simply beautiful. And I think that she expertly captures the sense of love's elusiveness, which I so strongly feel as a spinster. (I guess the happily married readers see it differently?) Despite the future being fixed, there are still a lot of surprises in the plot, as well as a resilient sense of hope . . . and the same moral about free will in the present that I've been trumpeting ever since I realised The Terminator has the same premise. And all these keep the book afloat, despite its lack of a rudder of faith.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Through The Gateway Together

Cruel Beauty
Rosamund Hodge

I really want to skip the review and go straight on to "buy this and give it to a young woman in your life, or to a film director who will swear not to make a mess of it,"  but I did promise myself to make a careful appraisal, for my own benefit, if no-one else's.

It is a beautifully envisioned novel - the colour language is rich but skilfully applied so that the events bloom in the mind.

On the first reading I found it difficult to get the background properly under my belt; to pick up and absorb the clues necessary for unlocking events as they proceeded.  There's much to take in - the symbolism of the names, the Resurgandi, the predicament of Arcadia, the parchment sky, the Hermetic Rules, the intricacies of the relationships of the father, the aunt, the sisters, the swains.  It's all good, great in fact, but this slow reader found it difficult to take in, straight off.  I wondered if Rosamund (sorry, to say "Hodge" sounds discourteous to me) was overtly working for the Greek dramatic unities, and wanted at all costs to avoid taking the novel out of the single stream of Nyx's narrative voice.  I applaud that choice, but it isn't the easiest way to deliver a lot of information, not to someone as mentally slow as me.

I wonder how young readers read, these days.  I don't at present know any female teen readers to question, but if I did, I'd ask - do you stop and google stuff, or are you content to let unexplained details ride for the sake of a good read?  I wonder how much difference it would have made, had I googled "Nyx Triskelion" and found out the real world derivations, instead of making the incorrect leap that "Nyx" was the Latin "nix" and that "triskelion"had to do with "triskaideka" - "Snow Thirteen" carries a somewhat different set of overtones  those intended.   It goes to show that my portion of the cultural patrimony is weird and patchy ("Hine-nui-i-te-po" I would have grasped without a blink), and that an author can't rely on readers not to be lazy.

Rosamund does a great job of depicting Nyx's searing regret for her poisoned family relations and her own part in them.  I can't admire enough how she has created a flawed character with whom one can't help sympathizing, but with whom one is never tempted to identify.  A teenage - or any other - reader stands to benefit by Nyx's sturdily applied self-knowledge.  I know I, long gone fifty, pondered the relations between myself and my sisters in the lens of Nyx and Astraia.   Still, Nyx doesn't set ones' teeth on edge, unlike, say, Becky Sharp.

The story arc is a beautifully envisioned story of reunification and reintegration, one that works so much the better because Nyx herself puts no great stock in her own predicament - so her eventual redemption is all the more satisfying because it never predominated in the story - it's not a book where teenagerish self-absorption will get any purchase.  Nyx knows, and we know, that there are more important matters in play.  

The book's earlier sensual passages, delivered in Nyx's sarcastic, funny, bitter voice,  freight the arranged marriage situation with realistic enraged embarrassment, what with Aunt Telomache's tutoring and "a platter for my husband's delectation."  I'm not sure what effect these passages would work in the mind of a young reader.  They might frighten a young girl temporarily towards shame-faced modesty; they would certainly engender sympathy for women who contract arranged marriages.  Where the book came into its own was its depiction of married intimacy; the  relations emotional and physical are indicated without a trace of coyness or lasciviousness; neither innocence nor experience would find itself insulted by the prose. I'd give it without any hesitation to any girl who has already encountered, say, Shakespeare's comedies. 

What I loved in the book most of all, apart from the gorgeous descriptions of the environment, was the careful, beautifully crafted heritage of myth, folk-tale and legend constructed for Arcadia.  If you've ever wondered about etymologies of words and derivations of nursery rhymes, if you've ever wondered what ancient truths and silly sooths might lie behind folk-tales and myths, this story will truly delight you, and you'll come back to it more than once. 

On that note, I made a strange confusion for myself on my first reading.  I was reading through a haze of depression, and in desperate need of a new pair of glasses, so I mistook italic "h" for italic "b" on the end of the song lines.  Thus, I read, "We will sing you nine, ob! The night will snuff them out, ob!  Dead in all the darkness, ob!  We will eat them all, ob!"  and so on.  To my addled and language-crazed brain, I could only interpret this as the German conditional "ob" - "if/whether (or not)"  - a sort of Schroedinger's conditional - you don't know until you look.  Given the alternate realities at the end of the book, this silliness made a sort of mad sense, and still does. 

Enough of my confusions and misapprehensions - if this visual malapropism were the worst of my personal comedy of errors, I'd be well-pleased.  Life has dealt me some eye-openers, just lately, and I'm still reeling.

But do go and buy this book, and give it to a girl you know, or a movie director, or a musician who might be inspired to write some songs about it, or a painter, who might be inspired to a graphic novel of it.  It's great. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A recommendation

I think some of you are still reading Lord of the World, but I have a recommendation if anyone is looking for something new to read: anything by Willa Cather.  I've been reading The Professor's House and loving it. Not a page turner, but easy to get lost in. Every time I read Willa Cather's books, I set them down feeling sort of wrung out because they contain so much. Her main characters usually have a great appreciation for beauty and nobility and a longing for higher things, even if it isn't something explicitly Catholic.  Here is a passage quoting one of the aging professor's lectures, in response to a student who extolled the achievements of science:
"[Science] has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. but the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Sciences hasn't given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn't given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins -- not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It's the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. you'll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don't think you help people by making their conduct of no importance -- you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that's what makes men happy, believing in teh mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had."
Not theologically sound, but an interesting argument. Later, the professor is lectured by his wife's dressmaker about how it was Mary who composed the Magnificat, an idea and an encounter which makes him cheerful as he climbs up to his old study.

I'm only about halfway through the book, which I read in my late teens, and I don't remember the ending. But I don't think I'll be disappointed.  I'm not sure what Cather's relationship to the Church was, but Death Comes for the Archbishop is one of the best priest books ever, and My Antonia is a masterpiece. I enjoyed rereading One of Ours last year, and want to reread or discover more of Cather's books - maybe O Pioneers next, a reread, or Shadows on the Rock, which I never read and which is not one of her more popular books, but is supposedly more philosophical. I think it has more Catholic themes.

I was so enamored of reading The Professor's House last night that I went to bed thinking "Willa Jane" is kind of a nice name - if only it didn't sound so much like the naughty little neighbor of Ramona Quimby's, Willa Jean.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Death of the World


Probably my biggest reading challenge of the year was starting and not stopping Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World. I almost gave up at many different points, telling myself that it was just not "the right book at the right time" for me, but somehow I powered on . . . After a long while, I got to the last page and learned that several bad beginnings are nothing next to one good, strong ending.

Let this be your spoiler warning. The Lord of the World is a story of many endings and also a meditation on death.

* * * * * 

We first see death in what happens to be my favourite dystopian moment: the unexpected wreck of the volor. I love how quickly Father Franklin rushes to the scene and gives a final blessing to every dying man and woman he can find. The hour of death is the front line in the war for souls, and it gladdens my heart to read of a priest--even a fictional one--braving the battle to reach every last soul who may need him. But it is not this minister of the sacraments who makes this moment, but the "ministers of euthanasia." It is the latter whom, it is implied, the desperate dying are most relieved to see.

What does it say about our world that a significant number of people really would choose a so-called "death with dignity" over the "happy death" or "beautiful death" (We don't really have a proper term for it any longer do we?) that Catholics used to pray to St. Joseph for?

* * * * * 

Then there is the papal court, which I absolutely loved, though I may be in the minority here. I appreciated the reminder that the royal trappings of yore, which modern Catholics can't seem to live down (If racing to rationalise the sedia gestatoria were an Olympic sport . . .), had a value far beyond their appearances. A crown means nothing unless the head which wears it has true authority. But how poignant to see this principle in reverse, in the deposed monarchs who hold their heads high although their crowns have been taken from them.

Benson's description of them as "shepherds without sheep, captains without soldiers . . ." is perfect, and doubles as a description of us. While I think that a political system in which sheep elect their own shepherd can be as legitimate as a hereditary monarchy, I agree with Benson that one great fault of the modern world is taking for granted that we are so much smarter than previous generations--that, in fact, if they had only known what we know today, they would have become republicans hundreds of years ago. And I'm kind of partial to the idea that the death of a royal house is the first stage in the lingering death of a nation.

That body count after the leveling of Rome is sobering for one more than one reason.  
* * * * * 

Then there is the ending of The Lord of the World, which completely blew me away. (Pun intended, of course.) Suddenly, the volors made so much sense! Heck, the whole novel made so much sense--and I found myself thinking that Benson's vision of a second Pentecost, with a wind and fire which are of the world rather than of the Spirit, preceded everything else in the story, which was then constructed around it, though not always seamlessly. It shows.

Yet to criticise anything that comes before the final pages is almost to miss the point. The ending is the point, and this novel about endings ends well--and you don't have to have found Benson's dystopian utopia the least bit believable to appreciate it.

What impresses me the most is not the huge shock of it, but the obviousness of it. We could have seen all of it coming from two thousand years away . . . The destruction of Rome . . . the return to Nazareth . . . the eleven faithful cardinals and one traitor . . . the nine days of prayer capped by a Mass in a locked room . . . These are all "codes" we could have "cracked" just from reading the Scriptures--and goodness knows, everyone from fundamentalist scholars to Hollywood screenwriters have made a go at it. But I think I can say, without reservation and without needing to do a more thorough survey of "End Times literature" (both fiction and non-fiction), that Benson's interpretation is the right benchmark.

When was the last time you reflected that the end of the world is inevitable? That the destruction of all we love and the deaths of all we hold dear are part of a greater plan? I have a friend who is very critical of certain Christian fringe groups which believe in a different vision of the end times: he says they don't mind the Middle East being blown to bits in the long process of literally restoring the Temple in Jerusalem, as long as the believers themselves will get to witness the Second Coming from the comfort of their First World homes. (Or from the comfort of Heaven, to which they would have been "raptured." Because somehow the Rapture makes more sense than the Assumption. But that's just me showing why I never win Miss Congeniality at the Ecumenism Pageant.) Clearly, there's a difference between their vision and Benson's vision: one has much more of that "dying to self" imagery.

There is also an unsettling similarity in the popular support for politicians who don't mind raining death from the skies. Shall Benson turn out as much of a prophet as his contemporaries Orwell and Huxley?

* * * * *

The death of individuals, the death of nations, even the death of the Church . . . It's one horrific catastrophe after another, but if you've read The Lord of the World, you know what I mean when I say that the death of the world was blessed and beautiful.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Ceremony of Innocence

Sorry for the silence; the night I promised to write something, I fell into a drooling sleep, on the sofa, over my knitting.  Then yesterday was New Zealand Saturday, and I was battling the garden and so forth. 

Melanie, the scene with the Papal Court held me as well, and started a train of vague thoughts about ceremony and ritual, and what ritual does in and for the body of Christ.  I remembered how much I enjoy those scenes in ballets and operas where the dancers and singers just process in, accompanied by breathtaking music.  To us lumpy bumpy types in the cheap seats, it’s a vision of prelapsarian humanity in all its dignity and beauty and strength, as all the nations of world (or at least, in the context of classical ballet, Poland, Spain, France and Italy) pay homage to the king who represents right rulership.  (Sometimes, je m’amuse by imagining a haka added to the mix.)

Seeing this, knowing I am disqualified on multiple grounds from ever taking part, I am still cheered and heartened by the sight.  Those dancers, those singers, those wonderfully gifted people, share common humanity with me, and so their dignified acts of homage become mine. 

Such homage can only properly be offered to God, though we persist, in the triumph of hope over experience, in offering it to political figures, who in the course of their tenure are, unless they have the good sense to die in office, bound to be a let-down.  Hence, the Papal Court is the only place where ceremony won’t be empty, or ridiculous, and where the participants won’t end up as Mabel does, disappointed to death. 

The poor spoiled priests in the book who offer their services as masters of ceremony to the new cult thus remind me powerfully of something I read about some disciples of John Shelby Spong, who, entirely unironically, expended much mental energy inventing new and more elaborate church rituals for themselves. 

There’s a fantastically interesting article here, about the hidden social costs of atheism and the place of ritual – do read it –

“And so here’s the thing: the reason we’re increasingly rejecting ritual and seemingly absurd religious beliefs is because we can afford to. The beneficiaries of a massive world economic system, we have the ample time, energy, and resources to spend on negotiating and re-negotiating our relationships, day in and day out. For the most part, we don’t have to spend our time planting, harvesting, herding animals, or doing eight hours of laundry a day. We’re free to redirect our energy into making social relationships explicit – which entails using analytical, logical, “system 2”-style processing to crunch an enormous amount of social data consciously.

Ritual, on the other hand, uses intuitive, holistic, “system 1”-style processing to establish and solidify social roles not by talking about them, but by demonstrating them. A wedding, for example, isn’t a symbol of two people getting married. It isn’t a discursive negotiation of their relationship. A wedding is two people getting married – the act is the same thing as the concept. In the same way, a bull elk that’s lost a ritualized sparring contest doesn’t negotiate his subordinate status with the victor by walking away. He demonstrates it.

To briefly talk semiotics, ritual keeps the signifier and the signified – the thing doing the communicating and the thing that’s being communicated – much, much closer to each other than analytical, verbal communication does. The extra distance between the signifier and signified means that verbal communication is always going to be more costly, in terms of energy input, than ritualized communication. This is even true in the physical brain, where explicit, analytical cognition – which fuels verbal discourse – uses up significantly more energy (in the form of glucose) than the intuitive cognition that powers ritualized interactions.

So is atheism a luxury of the wealthy? Yes. But this isn’t simply because the wealthy don’t need the comforts of a posited afterlife. It’s also because materially comfortable people have more energy to expend on negotiating their social worlds. Ritual and religion use intuition and demonstration; they prioritize efficiency and clarity of signals. Secularism uses logic and abstract reason; it’s comfortable with ambiguous social roles and signals. In part, this is because it can afford to be.”

Hmmm.  This would in part explain why, in a wealthier New Zealand, I seem to go to fewer parades than I used to when I was a child.  There used to be lots – brass and pipe band parades, marching girls, Festival Parades to mark the founding of the province, Blossom Parades to mark the fruit-tree blossoming in Central Otago, Capping and Graduation Parades.  Where they still exist, these public processions are a shadow of their former selves.  Presumably they were needed only to weld and meld society together, a process which is now solely political.  In a more polyglot country, though, the verbally negotiated process is much trickier than it used to be. 

I notice that Connor Wood makes no suggestion as to how language difficulties are to be overcome in a negotiated social world.  Language difficulties already make some social processes difficult  - law courts, medicine, education - how much capital, social and monetary, Canada must have expended on bi-lingualism!  And how much we spend here, on the same project! 

If language fails us, we ought to be able to turn to public ritual to unite us, but, already, we’ve failed before we begin because of the absence of a common culture.  There’s only one parade in which all people can have an equal portion, and that’s the one where “the Blessed Sacrament [goes] through the ill-smelling streets with the sound of bells and the light of lanterns.” (p111, kindle loc 1447)  May I live to see this in my town, and when the Sacrament processes in all dignity and beauty, may I have the grace to kneel as it – He- goes by.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Not Svengali and Trilby


I’ve been much distracted by blackcurrant jam-making and by cute babies on Facebook, so excuse me that this is well after my proposed December hit-and-run job.  Apart from anything else, I realized I missed not one, but two great posts from Pentimento, and while I was reading them and the erudite comments, I was sobered by thoughts like “Who did I think I am, footing it with these women who actually have thoughts their heads, besides jam and babies?”  Not that jam and babies aren’t good things, mark you, but Aristotle never wrote “The Nichomachean Make-and-Do.” 

Anyway, this is just a preamble for “this post won’t be very learned or deep.”

Melanie (I think) made a comment about the conventionality of the social relations in the book.  They are those of the 1900s: man and wife, with the man’s widowed mother living with the couple as a matter of course.  Benson was prescient on the subject of marriage as a civil contract, undertaken without the benefit of clergy and dissoluble, but the couple is, except for the fact that they are childless, otherwise severely conventional in a way that gave me pause to think how things have changed.  Mabel is nineteen, Oliver, much older, a politician well-advanced in his party, who must be at least thirty. 

The age disparity impinges on the narrative not a whit, except that it allows some de haut en bas exposition between the mature man and the very young woman.  We don’t have an Effi Briest or an Anna Karenina here, youth unhappily yoked with age, instead we have – teachability, and it’s a sobering insight that even I, conventional to the nines, find this severely creepy and suspect.  It used to be that parents regarded their daughters as well-settled if they married even a much older man, and not only in the fictional realm of Emma and Mr Knightley.  My own grandmother’s husband-to-be took a photo of her away to WW1 with him.  She was under fourteen at the time, and he, twenty-four, but this was a matter of no remark in the family.  Attitudes have changed, but do we do better to expect equality of temperament and wisdom in couples of approximately the same age?  (There must be a whole branch of social science devoted to investigating this question.)

The thought that I’m coming to is that the shock value for Benson’s first readers over Mabel’s suicide must have lain, not so much in the fact that houses of gentle death exist in the book, but that the government connives with her intention with no regard to her husband’s wishes.  Benson’s laying-out of a couple so attractive and normal, and then for him to show how little traction the married relationship has in the absence of either a public or private faith, must be quite the most subversive thing in the book.

And “She had not even had a child” strikes me as the saddest sentence in the book. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

On the Square

On the Square

Christmas greetings, everyone.  I had gone most of the way towards a post, and then lost it in a program crash caused by an increasingly decrepit and unstable system. 

I confess my historical knowledge comes from magazine articles and thumbnail sketches.  However, I was intrigued by Benson’s unfolding, via the mouths of the priests and their elderly friend, of the century 1907-2007.  I wonder what Benson would think of the real version.  A secular author would probably never dare to put forth as putative events, such towering depravities as those of the 20th century, but maybe a priest has a firmer and more realistic grasp of human nature, and Benson would only nod grimly at the spectacle of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the rest.

Benson’s alternative century maps to our own in some astonishing ways – the increasing irrelevance of conservatism at the hands of the welfare state, for example, and the sidelining of the Anglican church after evisceration by liberals.  He misses the Black Swans of the spread of contraception and other forms of willed infertility, and the commodification of universities, which as a countervailing social force, have been neutered by the application of the profit motive, rather than by becoming increasingly poverty-stricken, as Benson proposes.  He gets right the nationalisation of essential industries.  He absolutely nails the psychological explanations of the religious sense.  Electric fires, multi-lane highways, the formation of power blocs, the rise of Asia, all seem curiously familiar.

Were you surprised, though, at Benson’s unhesitating call of a world-wide conspiracy driving these events?  Did you blink at the idea of Freemasonry – old buffers in starched shirts – being the explicit driving force behind it all?  What do you think of Masonry, or has it hardly ever crossed your mind? 

I have a habit of pruning my possessions, papers, books, trinkets, in search of greater simplicity, which, mistakenly, I identify with owning fewer things.  (To my life-long dismay and chagrin, I find that not actually having said possessions in my direct purlieu doesn’t mean that they lose their grip on my imagination, or that I’m any closer to being free of envy, greed, jealousy and covetousness. Were it only that easy.) 

Be that as it may, one of the many books I’ve owned temporarily and flicked on, was a curious little autobiography by a Welshman, who converted, hard, to a Protestant expression of Christianity, following an involvement in Freemasonry.  Though deeply penitent, he felt he was making little progress in the Christian life until he underwent a sort of self-directed exorcism prayer service, during which he made a bonfire of his both his Masonic regalia and his Masonic books.  About the latter, he was especially regretful, since they had cost him dear, and he could have recouped by selling them to a new Mason, but, no, he set his face against it.  He would, he decided, have no part in causing some-one else to stumble.  (This much had a lasting effect on me – since then I’ve had no compunction about burning books, at least, those that I thought weren’t good enough to live: sex ‘n shopping novels, spy novels that try to kid you you’re actually in the know, and those later Heinleins where he went doollally for incest.  Broo-arrgh.  I’m not ashamed I burned them; I’m ashamed they were ever in the house.)  Blessings on the Ex-mason: he felt much relief from his action, though at that time, my condescending response was that demonic influences could not possibly reside in a few odd items of clothing and books, or if they did, that they could not harm a Christian.

I wish, however, I had that ex-Mason’s biography in my hand now: he cited some details of masonic ritual and ideals that would make interesting companion reading to the prologue of Benson’s Lord of the World.  The ex-Mason believed there was deep objective evil in Freemasonry, and in that, he agrees with the Catholic Church.  If the Church’s teachings on this are less well-known today, it’s because Masonry is less strong than it was in 1907. 

It was extraordinarily strong.  Here’s a little list I found of Freemason lodges in the province of Otago alone:

District Grand Lodge, New Zealand South,
District Grand Lodge, Otago & Southland,
Hiram Lodge, No. 46 NZC.
Lodge Celtic, No. 477 SC.
Lodge Ionic, No. 191 NZC.
Lodge Karitane, No. 221 NZC, Waikouaiti.
Lodge Maori, No. 105 NZC, Ravensbourne.
Lodge Morning Star, No. 192.
Lodge Morning Star, No. 192, Lodge of Instruction.
Lodge Oceanic, No. 154 NZC.
Lodge Otago Kilwinning, No. 143 NZC.
Lodge Otago Kilwinning, No. 417 SC.
Lodge Outram, No. 375 NZC, Outram.
Lodge Peninsula Kilwinning, No. 696 SC, Portobello.
Lodge Roslyn, No. 250 NZC.
Lodge Roslyn Morning Star, No. 192 NZC.
Lodge St. Andrew, No. 432 SC.
Lodge St. Clair, No. 246 NZC.
Lodge St. George, No. 1128 EC, Lawrence.
Lodge St. John, No. 84 NZC, Mosgiel.
Lodge St. John Kilwinning, No. 662 SC, North East Valley.
Lodge St. Patrick, No. 468 IC.
Lodge Strath Taieri, No. 199 NZC, Middlemarch.
Lodge Taharangi, No. 235 NZC.
Lodge Taieri, No. 620 SC, Outram. Later moved to Dunedin
and became Lodge Roslyn, No. 250 NZC.
Lodge Waikouaiti, No. 2115 EC then No. 57 NZC.
Port Chalmers Marine Lodge, No. 942 EC.
Research Lodge of Otago, No. 161 NZC.
Service Lodge, No. 237 NZC.
The Dunedin Lodge, No. 931.
The United Lodge of Otago, No. 448 NZC.

At a guess, Otago had not more than 80 000 in population in 1907.  30 lodges, maybe, though some are probably subsets of other lodges.  One lodge for every 1300 Otago men.  One in nearly every small town.  If you plotted them on a map, you would have something very close to a parish system. 

Looked at it this way, the question is not, what did the Church see?  It’s, what were the rest of us missing?

Now I must confess to a personal interest: in 1907, my great-grandfather, my grandfather and my great-uncle were all Freemasons, and around this year my great-grandfather had a terrible industrial accident, fell into his own machinery, and died.  He had a huge Masonic funeral, such a source of pride to the family, that newspaper clippings were preserved carefully, right into the twenty-first century.

Masonry had the hearts and minds of the men in my family.  It was a serious financial and emotional commitment.  We still have  - I still have – souvenirs.  A Masonic order decoration, a couple of Masonic song books, family photographs of the men in their regalia.  There were, I’m told, white kid gloves, which were presented by masons to their wives.  Family members were co-opted to help the men-folk move through the degrees.  There was a grandmastership, in the end. 

There was also damage.  My great-grandfather was cut out of his father’s will.  My grandfather became alienated from his Presbyterian roots.  He took to drinking, and never regained a Christian faith.  After Gallipoli, after the trenches, the Brotherhood of Man didn’t look so good. Masonry bears huge responsibility for giving a whole generation of men an inadequate theology of suffering, and allowing them to take it into the trenches.

The First World War frost-burnt Freemasonry in New Zealand.  The lodges were never the same, afterwards, and now there are fewer than 8 000 masons in the whole of New Zealand.

I don’t have any doubt that the programme of Masonry was and is inimical to that of grace.  However, it’s hard to know whether an explicit political programme could ever have been executed by the “mafia of the mediocre,” as Freemasonry has been called.  But the observable numbers and the structure are such as to make you wonder what the Church knew about her humanistic antitype. Whatever it was, I'm happy to take her wisdom seriously, and give Masonry a wide berth.