Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Celibate, by Michael Arditti

I read a very enticing review of Mr. Arditti's most recent novel, Jubilate, but I couldn't find a copy of it, so I settled on The Celibate, which was his first. What is it about? Sexuality and Catholicism.  And homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, death, and anti-Semitism, with side orders of Jack the Ripper and the Black Plague. Writing a first novel on any one of these themes is audacious -- tackling all of them is an act of literary heroism. Or madness.

The narrator is in fact telling his story to his psychotherapist, whom his superiors at St. Dunstan's ordered him to see when he attacked a fellow ordinand during Mass. This is a young man who takes his religion very seriously, far more seriously in fact than he takes psychology.
I deplore the far too easy analogy between the traditional role of the priest and the current role of the therapist. It can only be made by people who clearly know very little of your profession and less than nothing of mine. You may assuage a troubled mind, but you offer no solace to the soul. 
He comes from a wealthy family, and his speech betrays his top-shelf education and -- despite his best efforts to the contrary -- reveals hints of his inner pain and desperate loneliness. He rambles on about his mother and her twin brother.
It must be marvellous to be a twin: to have another being so attuned to you that he can understand your innermost feelings better than you can yourself. To have someone you can trust as much as yourself, to be your other self, so that the whole of your life can be as harmonious as the resolution of a Shakespearean comedy.
In his early teens, he tells the psychotherapist, he saw his vocation to become a Catholic priest in a flash. He knew with unshakable certainty that this was to be his path, and he'd never swerved from it. It was the fellow ordinand's irreverent interpretation of one of the Gospels that sent him into his blind rage during Mass. He hints that there may have been a somewhat unusually strong emotional bond between the two young men, but the real issue was the blasphemous sermon. Our narrator would have his therapist know that he is asexual in thought and deed.

As his career as a priest is suspended, if not finished, our narrator goes out to minister to the down-and-out on his own, and the first needy souls he stumbles across are young male hustlers. He is appalled that they mistrust him, believing him to be another hung-up, rich john who is just leading them on a merry chase. When one of them, Rees, finally realises the priest's genuine naivete, he takes advantage of it to rob him of his briefcase, which he knows to contain the priest's psychiatric drugs. Initially repelled by Jack, the tough who pimps these young men, the priest falls into a bondage and domination relationship with him, coming face to face with his own sexuality with the aid of pain and humiliation. Not surprisingly, he interprets this as the ultimate abasement and pact with the devil, and he has a breakdown.

When he returns to therapy after his hospitalisation, he announces that he has met a man named Mark and fallen deeply in love. For the first time, he can synthesise love and sex. Mark's ex-lover, Adrian, begins his decline due to AIDS, and the narrator is pulled into the whirl of those who are infected and afflicted. He has also given up his part-time job leading historic tours of Jack the Ripper's London, and has begun instead guiding a tour of the 'plague cottages' in a rural village which was especially hard-hit during the 14th century. (Each chapter of the book opens with his presentation to those on his tour and then resumes with his therapist.) The pace at which that the narrator (who remains nameless throughout) reveals details of his psyche and his past to the therapist rings very true. Odd and tragicomic childhood memories slip out during moments of uncomfortable silence, such as the collision between the young man's Catholic devotions and his very traditional Jewish aunt.
I set up a makeshift altar in my mother's dressing-room where I performed my solitary office every day, until my aunt chanced to discover me. She'd noticed wisps of smoke and was afraid of another fire; I must have been over-enthusiastic in my swinging of the thurible -- or rather the kitchen scales which were standing in for it -- even then. And she... I'm sorry; I know I shouldn't laugh, but from the look of horror on her face you'd have thought she'd seen a ghost. Although I suppose in a way she had. For in the absence of anything tailor-made I was wearing my mother's wedding-dress as a surplice and her lace shawl as a cope. She was appalled by my appearance and still more so when she discovered its purpose. I think she'd have found even transvestitism preferable to transsubstantiation.
Mr. Arditti's past history as a playwright shines through as characters re-enter the story as if cued, often having undergone significant costume changes. Jack the B&D man returns as Krishnan, having found his new spirituality in India. Rees resurfaces with his friend Jason, the lover and care-taker of the narrator's uncle  (his later mother's twin brother), who is now dying of AIDS. This reunion brings another entirely traumatic childhood memory back to the surface. He reaches the stage of forgiveness with unlikely speed and grace, but that's perhaps another mark of the playwright's pacing.

One last character must return to the stage: Jonathan, the priest whose homily inspired the narrator's mad outburst. Jonathan becomes the guide, the mentor who will make the final efforts to heal the jagged wound between the narrator's sexuality and spirituality.  It was not God who proscribed sexuality, he finally grasps, but Augustine. Chastity is no longer prerequisite for holiness.
In the same way I once heard the Archbishop of Westminster claim that every time he saw a mentally handicapped person he knew that he was in the presence of a saint, and I rebelled, since it seemed the most cloying, conventional and condescending kind of Catholicism -- with the inability to doubt an inevitable adjunct of the inability to reason. But I've come to realise that the essence of sainthood lies in the ability to inspire saintliness in others...
I found this a remarkable novel, but so did the reviewers for the Independent, Capitol Gay, and the Catholic Herald. I imagine these three publications find little common ground on most issues, but they were unanimous in their praise for this book.

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