Lapsing

Terry Eagleton

  • No Other Life by Brian Moore
    Bloomsbury, 216 pp, £14.99, February 1993, ISBN 0 7475 1474 7

There are no ex-Catholics, only lapsed ones. A lapse, as the light little monosyllable suggests, is a mere temporary aberration, an ephemeral error which can always be retrieved; and even the more ominous sounding ‘excommunication’ can always be undone by a quick bout of repentance. Leaving the Catholic church is as difficult as resigning from the Mafia; for the Church in its wisdom has artfully anticipated such renegacy and created within its ranks the special category of ‘lapsed’, wedged somewhere between saints and clergy. Like every authoritarian institution, the church incorporates its own outside into itself, so that to lapse is to enjoy a privileged relationship with it, to be counted among an honourable company of ruined Jesuits, inverted metaphysicians, loose-living Dubliners and Latino leftists. Indeed if religious devotion survives anywhere in these secular times, it is in the negative theology of these Oedipal offspring of Mother Church, who hammer their fists on her bosom with all the passionate intensity of the true believer.

In any case, being a Catholic is as much a cultural as a religious affair: to abandon the church altogether would be like changing your accent or taste for curried eggs. The Catholic faith is not something to be brooded over in some access of Kierkegaardian angst; it is just something you are born into, like the Isle of Man or the aristocracy. A former Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, who happened to our mutual embarrassment to be a relative of mine, once announced on television that he had never had a moment’s doubt about his faith; but while some found this odiously complacent, we cognoscenti understood that his faith was just not the kind of thing you could have doubts about – that his style of believing no more accommodated the notion of doubt than his style of walking.

Leaving Ireland is as difficult as deserting the church. For two groups of the Irish population – artists and the poor – the central question about Ireland was always how to get out of it. Exile and emigration are as much Irish pursuits as hurling and poteen-brewing, and living abroad as much a modality of Irishness as living on Aran. In the 19th century, more Irish lived outside the country than in it; leaving Ireland became part of what it meant to live there. If it hadn’t been for the contributions of the New York police force or the Chicago building industry, whole villages in Kerry and Donegal would have sunk without trace. The Irish population was haemorrhaging like an open wound, forced out by the threat of starvation and the dreariness of colonial life; so that if the Irish are an international race, they have the British to thank for it. As for the writers, it was more spiritual than material poverty which drove them to Trieste or Toronto, in flight from clerical oppression, sectarian wrangling and a dearth of usable cultural traditions. There is a wry irony in the recruitment of the Wildes, Joyces and Becketts to the English literary canon: having helped to reduce their country to a stagnant colonial enclave, the English then coolly appropriated those Irish artists who took to their heels to escape this dire condition.

Brian Moore took off from Northern Ireland to North America many years ago, but this, as with Joyce, was just a way of putting some daylight between himself and the place in order the more effectively to engage with it. All writing distances what it draws closer, displaces the object it re-creates. Writing is a way of possessing the world at long distance, but thus of fleshing it to more vivid presence; so it is a suitable sort of trade for the exile, who is able from this long perspective to grasp his or her homeland as a distinctive entity in a way more difficult for the natives. From his vantage-point in Canada or California, Moore has re-invented Ireland over and over again, and it is hard not to see his fiction as among other things a set of elaborate strategies for rationalising his reluctance to live there. The Mangan Inheritance takes the old cliché of the Irish-American sentimentally in search of his roots and submits it to savage parody: its hero returns to the land of his fathers only to discover a kind of Cork version of Cold Comfort Farm, a gruesome landscape of incest, failed poets and dipsomaniac dwarfs, a place where you are more likely to have your cock cut off than be gathered to the bosom of your long-lost cousins. The Catholicism of Black Robe is a creed thrust upon vital native Americans by fanatical Jesuit missionaries; this allows Moore to fantasise an Edenic time when religion never was, and to view the whole business as an alien imposition from above. But this can never be true in Belfast, where theology is at the root of what you are, and where the old joke that when religion starts interfering with your daily life it’s time to give it up is likely to fall peculiarly flat. Lies of Silence is Moore’s novel of the Northern Irish Troubles, and the remote perspective of the exile shows up in its artistic thinness, and its failure to dislodge a single stereotype. The IRA have acne and shout a lot, and the only way out of this tribal warfare is a one-way air ticket.

There is more to Moore, however, than the bemused middle-class liberal. He springs, after all, from a notoriously ill-used community, if from a fairly well-heeled bit of it, and his Greene-like affinity with the dispossessed has a Catholic, communitarian feel to it. (As far as his personal standing with the Almighty goes, he escapes the honorific category of ‘lapsed’ since he claims never to have believed in the first place, an astonishing spiritual achievement for the child of a Belfast Catholic family and something of a theological phenomenon all in itself.) Moore has the sympathy of a small, inconsiderable nation for small, inconsiderable people, for the poignant Judith Hearnes and cruelly exploited Eileen Hugheses of this world; and in No Other Life the downtrodden, superstitious, politically wracked country of his childhood is magnified a hundredfold and imaginatively recreated as the desolate Caribbean island of Ganae. The narrator, the missionary priest Paul Michel, tells the tale of Jean-Paul Cantave, an outcast black urchin who enters holy orders, gains a PhD in Paris and returns to lead his destitute people against American capital, the spectacularly corrupt local elite and the alarmed reactionaries of the Vatican. Cantave is a charismatic if peculiarly inept revolutionary; his uncompromising political rhetoric (somewhat portentously rendered in blank verse) drives his followers to their deaths; but by the end of the novel he has disappeared Zapata-like into heroic legend, and displays rather more political promise as a corpse than he ever did alive.

Just as Lies of Silence failed to transform the outsider’s stereotyped perceptions of Northern Ireland, so this novel is as depressingly schematic as the Third World political logic (dictator – liberator – liberator-turned-dictator) it seeks to chart. It is a remorselessly two-dimensional work, grippingly dramatic in its action but strikingly impoverished in its inner life. The blurb presents Cantave as some tantalising enigma, but that is the last thing he is: he is just a stock type of the priest turned guerrilla fighter, who adds little imaginative enrichment to that now familiar figure. The narrator is one of a long line of agonised Moore liberals, as attracted to Cantave as he is alarmed by him; and though some psychologically complex subtext is struggling to break out of this ambivalent cleric, it comes to as little as the casual loss of faith which has taken place at some elusive point in the narrative. Greene would have handled him incomparably better, just as Naipaul has in his time churned out a more impressive species of Cantave.

There is an excellent Moore novel in the tension between Michel and Cantave; but No Other Life is regrettably not it. For Michel represents the Californian liberal pragmatist in his author, just as Cantave stands for the Catholic absolutist; and if Moore writes as finely as he does, it is partly because this tension is one he is productively unable to resolve. Like Michel, he is wary of political violence; but because he shares something of Cantave’s solidarity with the poor, he knows that oppression runs deeper than the reformist can handle. Moore detests the IRA; but as a Northern Irish Catholic he has a feel for the history of injustice which gave birth to it, as many English liberals do not. It is just that, in this latest novel, this tragic impasse shrinks to the stalemate signalled by its fatalistic title. The title means both ‘no life after death’ and ‘no possibility of change on earth’; but even Moore must agree that the latter proposition is a good deal more implausible than the former, and that it belongs to the religious false consciousness he opposes to believe that the second statement follows logically from the first.