Tuesday, April 19, 2016

9th Canadian Challenge - 16th Review - Such is My Beloved

Morley Callaghan's Such is My Beloved is a quick read, as least in my case, though it does ask some profound questions, at least for those of a religious bent.  I was reading it from an outsider's perspective and was probably less troubled by the book's overall implications.  The basic plot is that there is a very gung-ho priest in town.  (Interestingly, as far as I can tell, the city is not named, though it is presumably between Montreal and Detroit, since that is where the two streetwalkers originate from.  The Catholic church is somewhat in decline, and it certainly doesn't seem to be a bustling metropolis.  I'm tentatively identifying it as Kingston, though that is hardly important to the story.)

Father Dowling is solicited by the two young prostitutes and, while he is initially horrified, he eventually comes to their lodging house to try to reform them.  They initially rebuff him but gradually come to like having him around.  The book shows how Father Dowling gets pulled into their lives.  He doesn't neglect his work in the parish, though there is a considerably financial burden on him as he tries to alleviate their misery (and to convince them to stop streetwalking).  He feels guilty (and rightfully so) when he stops sending money back to his mother.

Father Dowling does not have much success in finding legitimate work for the girls, which is hardly a surprise, since the book is set in the early 1930s when Canada was gripped by the Depression (arguably by some economic measures Canada suffered even more than the U.S.).

Father Dowling finally decides to take very decisive action and forces the richest man in the congregation to take an interest in the girls.  This is where things start to completely unravel for the priest.  I assume that Callaghan was familiar with and was drawing upon Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which is essentially about how difficult it is to truly fulfill all of Christ's edicts about loving and caring for others, in particular fallen women, in modern society.  And how that way madness lies...

To discuss the key issues much further, there will be some SPOILERS, though they are fairly predictable.

Again, SPOILERS...

Where Father Dowling goes wrong is in expecting far too much out of very conventional people.  He almost certainly could have gotten money from the businessman, but then the priest insisted on bringing the prostitutes over to the businessman's house and having them meet the family (apparently so that their good influence would rub off on the prostitutes).  Basically, everyone is furious at him for this totally bungled move, which shows that the priest really has no common sense.  The prostitutes are snubbed, and the businessman's wife insists that her husband take this matter up with the Bishop (with fairly predictable results).  The truly wise religious leader does not burden his flock with more than they can bear, and Father Dowling seems to have overlooked this message.

I can't quite tell what message Callaghan really wants to convey -- is it that most Christians are hypocrites that reject the teachings of Christ when they are right under their noses or that the priest is foolish for insisting upon a level of selflessness that is too extreme.  He may well have meant both at the same time.  When the priest is confronted by the Bishop, he says something to the effect that he thought just by being in the same room with the prostitutes, his presence would help "save" them, which actually seems so unbelievably arrogant.  There's a line by the poet John Sinclair about how it is ok to act crazy but not "to fall in love / with the act" (from "In Walked Bud").  In short, it is fine to aspire to act like Jesus and to offer salvation to fallen women, but it is too much to think that you are the embodiment of Jesus and can personally redeem them, which is where I think Father Dowling has landed.

There were a few places that Callaghan surprised me.  Lou (a pimp who is running one but not both of the girls) actually backs off from making a scene with the priest, though he doesn't like or trust the priest.  Second, the Bishop actually manages to have the girls run out of town before the situation develops into a full-blown scandal.  That was also a bit of a surprise.  Perhaps the biggest twist is that the priest goes into a full-blown depression and is sent to a retreat to recover.  It is implied that he accepts he is mad (perhaps subconsciously realizing he was thinking of himself as Christ-like) and that he will never recover.  Again, this seemed to be drawing heavily on The Idiot.  But I found it quite an unsatisfying ending.  The priest is young and impressionable, so I would imagine that after some time he would (or certainly should) build up that scar tissue on his "soul" that would allow him to function a bit better in society.  That's what I would expect from a priest with genuine religious feeling.  While he didn't neglect the other parishioners during the events of the novel, he does at the end where he is really wallowing in self-pity in an extremely self-indulgent way just because he couldn't save two prostitutes who didn't really want to be saved.  It's a very strange ending to the book, and I certainly wasn't satisfied by it.  I much prefer the priest from Morte d'Urban who finds a way to navigate the needs of his new flock and balance that against his own spiritual re-awakening.  Still, there is no doubt that this was a book that made me take the question (or really slogan) "WWJD" as a serious one.

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