Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Thoughts of Dr. Gray

I'm reading The Blindness of Dr. Gray by Canon Sheehan, which was published in 1909. Canon Sheehan was an Irish priest-novelist, who died in 1913. His works were very successful in Ireland during his lifetime, and indeed afterwards. I remember my Catholic school's library had a whole series of his novels in gilt-edged, leather bound editions. Of course, I had no interest in him at that time. I simply noticed the name.

I've started several of his books but only finished one, which is The Triumph of Failure. He writes rather in the style of Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott or Anthony Trollope, and he has all the faults of this kind of author; occasional mawkishness, excessively broad humour, melodrama, redundant sub-plots, fixation on female chastity, etc. He's at his best when he writes about religion, but he seems determined to cram in a lot of other stuff, to prove how Homeric he is.

There is a sub-plot about gypsies and vagabonds in The Blindness of Dr. Gray which is incredibly dull; but whenever the story turns to Dr. Gray himself, a severe but dedicated parish priest, and his more broad-minded (but equally devout) curate, it holds my attention. The conversations between the two priests are absorbing, as are their private reflections.

In one particular scene, Dr. Gray takes his curate to task for his worldly occupations: playing the piano, and reading literature (Goethe and Jean Paul Richter) who Dr. Gray considers profane and useless. I was very moved by the subsequent description of Dr. Gray's views. I can even identify with them, even though I doubt this is what Canon Sheehan attended. I'm torn between an abiding attraction towards "culture" for its own sake and an intermittent conviction that human culture is trash, that only sacred studies are worth anything. Much as I love poetry, I'm dogged by the idea that all "literature" is decadent by its very nature. The excerpt is lengthy, but I'm going to transcribe it all:

When Dr. William Gray reached his home that afternoon, he was in one of those moods of agitated thoughts that were so frequent with him, and in which he had to walk up and down the room to regain composure. He was one of those serious and lofty thinkers that looked down upon literature and art as only fit for children dancing around the Maypole. He could not conceive how any priest could find an interest in such things, which he regarded as belonging so exclusively to a godless world that he regarded it as high treason for any of the captains of the Great Army to be attracted or drawn to them. He felt exactly towards the  literary or accomplished priest, as a grim and wrinkled old field marshal would feel if he had heard that a young subaltern had stolen out of camp at midnight and gone over to the enemy's lines to listen to the strains of some Waldteufel waltz. He would accept no hint or suggestion of compromise with that mysterious "world", which, with all its wiles and magic, has been to the imagination of such ruthless logicians something like the vampire witches of medieval romance, from whose diabolic charms there was no escape but in instant flight. The meditation of the "Two Standards", and its terrific significance, was always before his eyes. Here was the Church, stretching back in apparently limitless cycles and illimitable, if variable power, to the very dawn of civilization. Here was the mighty fabric of theology, unshakable and unassailable, and founded on the metaphysic of the subtlest mind that had ever pondered over the vast abysses of human thought. Here were its churches, built not to music, but to the sound of prayer-- great poems and orisons that had welled out of the heart of Faith, and grown congealed in eternal forms. Here was its music, solemn, grave, majestic, as it fell from the viols of seraphs into the hearts of saints. Here was its mighty hierarchy of doctors and confessors-- pale, slight figures in dark robes, but more powerful and more aggressive than if they carried the knightly sword, or moved in the ranks of armoured conquerors. Here was its Art breathing of Heaven and the celestial forms that peopled the dreams of saints. Its literature was one poem and only one; but it lighted up Heaven, Earth and Hell.

And there in the opposite camp was the "world"-- that strange, mysterious, undefinable enemy, taking its Protean forms from climate, race and language. There were its theatres, coliseums, forums, opera-houses with all their pinchbeck and meretricious splendour, where all the vicious propensities of the human heart towards lust and cruelty were fanned and fostered by suggestive pictures or erotic verses or voluptuous music. There, too, were its philosophic systems, vaporous, fantastic, unreal as the smoke that wreathes itself above a witch's cauldron, or the ashes that lie entombed in the urns of dead gods. There again is its Art, fascinating, beautiful, but picturing only the dead commonplaces of a sordid existence, or the fatal and fated loveliness of a Lais or a Phryne. And there is its main prop and support-- this literature, aping a wisdom which it does not understand, or dealing with subjects that reveal the deformities and baseness, instead of the sacredness and nobility, of the race.


  1. It's a discussion that could go on in the Church and even secular society forever without any real answer. St Mary MacKillop originally forbade her sisters to own or teach a piano, largely because they existed to teach children who would never own one and perhaps never see one. Obviously this would have changed with the generations. It's comical looking back at the original vision of St Bernard of Clairvaux. He seems to have wanted only a single blank wooden Cross in the monastic chapels of daughter-houses.
    "what is the meaning in your cloisters, where monks do their reading, of these ridiculous monsters... What is the point in these places of these obscene monkeys, ferocious lions,chimeras,centaurs, monsters half-man, half-animal, these striped tigers, battling soldiers and huntsmen with horns?" It's comical because, even in the earliest years of the Cistercian era, there were very few totally pure monasteries without some capital or corbel depicting something. Early Irish houses had little pieces of owls or something here and there and often had a bell tower which was officially a no-no also. Perhaps the craftsmen were often hired laymen; it's believed that monks alone couldn't have possibly done all the labour required, which would another considering factor. In later centuries, as a counter to Protestantism, Cistercians, especially from Germany eastwards, threw themselves into the baroque era with gusto.

    In the end there's probably no definitive yes or no, except when the arts themselves cross the line of "being art" as they so often do today.

    1. Excellent comment, and I agree. However, I'll say this...I feel the balance has tilted too strongly towards worldliness, to the extent that the other side of the argument hardly gets a word in. I'm so tired of hearing that St. Iraneus line, "The glory of God is a human fully alive", repeated ad nauseum. I never hear quoted St. Paul's words, that he regards everything else as so much rubbish if he can only have Christ.

    2. I forgot to mention a bit of irony-Eileen Joyce, one of the most successful Australian musicians of all time was originally taught piano by a sister at St Joseph's convent school in Boulder -this was Mackillop 's congregation.
      She would have been a year old when the saint died, but perhaps it was already deemed un-harmful to teach instruments at that stage

  2. Another factor for me is that most art produced today tries to have it both ways: it insists on life's meaninglessness and yet at the same time celebrates life and humans. You can't have it both ways, or if you are trying to you really haven't thought about it deeply enough and are still stuck in the teenage rebellion stage. But sadly that's where most contemporary culture appears stuck

    1. Well, exactly. Once you've said life is meaningless, what else is there to say?