Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Smidge Too Far?

Evelyn Waugh said (somewhere) that twentieth-century authors had succeeded very well at portraying the depths of human nature, except that, not going far enough, they left out the most important part: the spiritual. I wonder if Susan Howatch doesn’t go too far in remedying that fault. She address and in fact focuses on the spiritual part of her characters, and even includes spiritual forces and gifts: both gifts of the Holy Spirit and demonic possession play a part in the plot of Glamorous Powers. But she also includes psychic abilities, in particular telepathy, telekinesis, and mental manipulation.

I wrote in a recent post that the book’s central character gave me an edgy feeling because of his perpetual quashing of the truth, even with himself. I’m near the end now, and sure enough, his inability to be forthcoming to his ecclesiastical superiors, to his parishioners, to his family, and to himself has created a terrible situation resulting in at least one death, with possibly more tragic consequences to follow. The problem seems to come down to his pride in the abilities he has, both psychic and divinely charismatic. I’m enjoying it immensely. The book slowly plumbs the fascinating psychological depths of his character as events and his first-person narrative bring more revelations, and the plot is anything but formulaic.

But I still wonder why the psychic powers had to be there. Paul’s instruction in the first letter to the Corinthians shows us that irresponsible use of spiritual charisms can cause plenty of trouble; why muddy the psychological and theological water with paranormal mental abilities? Does Howatch expect us to accept the psychic phenomena as part of our world? Is she saying that existence of the Triune God automatically entails the existence of all the other metaphysical ideas that people might believe in?

Perhaps I should take the world of the book as one of fantasy. Had Howatch set the tale in what I take to be the real world (one that includes God but not the possibility of the manipulation of one person’s thoughts by the thoughts and will alone of another person), every instance of supernatural action in the story would have to be attributed to God, as if a human author can or should reduce the real God to a character in a novel and determine his decisions and actions in certain circumstances. Including the other metaphysical powers in her fictional world allows for leaving events such as a miraculous healing open to interpretation. Did that woman’s pain go away because God gave the gift of healing to the vicar, because the vicar used hypnosis, or because the vicar performed a mind meld? As far as the story is concerned, the important thing is that the pain went away, that the news caused trouble, and that the vicar had to deal with the trouble. Sometimes in fiction it’s necessary to go a smidge too far.

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