“Sredni Vashtar” by Saki
Conradin was ten years old, and the doctor had pronounced his professional opinion that the boy would not live another five years. The doctor was silky and effete, and counted for little, but his opinion was endorsed by Mrs. de Ropp, who counted for nearly everything. Mrs. De Ropp was Conradin’s cousin and guardian, and in his eyes she represented those three-fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real; the other two-fifths, in perpetual antagonism to the foregoing, were summed up in himself and his imagination. One of these days Conradin supposed he would succumb to the mastering pressure of wearisome necessary things—such as illnesses and coddling restrictions and drawn-out dullness. Without his imagination, which was rampant under the spur of loneliness, he would have succumbed long ago.
Mrs. de Ropp would never, in her honestest moments, have confessed to herself that she disliked Conradin, though she might have been dimly aware that thwarting him “for his good” was a duty which she did not find particularly irksome. Conradin hated her with a desperate sincerity which he was perfectly able to mask. Such few pleasures as he could contrive for himself gained an added relish from the likelihood that they would be displeasing to his guardian, and from the realm of his imagination she was locked out–an unclean thing, which should find no entrance.
“…over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes” (Moby-Dick)
Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!
From Chapter 26 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
“The Whale Tooth” by Jack London
It was in the early days in Fiji, when John Starhurst arose in the mission house at Rewa Village and announced his intention of carrying the gospel throughout all Viti Levu. Now Viti Levu means the “Great Land,” it being the largest island in a group composed of many large islands, to say nothing of hundreds of small ones. Here and there on the coasts, living by most precarious tenure, was a sprinkling of missionaries, traders, bêche-de-mer fishers, and whaleship deserters. The smoke of the hot ovens arose under their windows, and the bodies of the slain were dragged by their doors on the way to the feasting.
The Lotu, or the Worship, was progressing slowly, and, often, in crablike fashion. Chiefs, who announced themselves Christians and were welcomed into the body of the chapel, had a distressing habit of backsliding in order to partake of the flesh of some favorite enemy. Eat or be eaten had been the law of the land; and eat or be eaten promised to remain the law of the land for a long time to come. There were chiefs, such as Tanoa, Tuiveikoso, and Tuikilakila, who had literally eaten hundreds of their fellow men. But among these gluttons Ra Undreundre ranked highest. Ra Undreundre lived at Takiraki. He kept a register of his gustatory exploits. A row of stones outside his house marked the bodies he had eaten. This row was two hundred and thirty paces long, and the stones in it numbered eight hundred and seventy-two. Each stone represented a body. The row of stones might have been longer, had not Ra Undreundre unfortunately received a spear in the small of his back in a bush skirmish on Somo Somo and been served up on the table of Naungavuli, whose mediocre string of stones numbered only forty-eight.
The hard-worked, fever-stricken missionaries stuck doggedly to their task, at times despairing, and looking forward for some special manifestation, some outburst of Pentecostal fire that would bring a glorious harvest of souls. But cannibal Fiji had remained obdurate. The frizzle-headed man-eaters were loath to leave their fleshpots so long as the harvest of human carcases was plentiful. Sometimes, when the harvest was too plentiful, they imposed on the missionaries by letting the word slip out that on such a day there would be a killing and a barbecue. Promptly the missionaries would buy the lives of the victims with stick tobacco, fathoms of calico, and quarts of trade beads. Natheless the chiefs drove a handsome trade in thus disposing of their surplus live meat. Also, they could always go out and catch more.
Morality is the adjustment of matter to its environment—the natural arrangement of molecules. More especially it may be considered as dealing with organic molecules. Conventionally it is the science of reconciling the animal Homo (more or less) sapiens to the forces and conditions with which he is surrounded. It is linked with religion only so far as the natural elements it deals with are deified and personified. Morality antedated the Christian religion, and has many times risen superior to coexistent religions. It has powerful support from very non-religious human impulses. Personally, I am intensely moral and intensely irreligious. My morality can be traced to two distinct sources, scientific and aesthetic. My love of truth is outraged by the flagrant disturbance of sociological relations involved in so-called wrong; whilst my aesthetic sense is outraged and disgusted with the violations of taste and harmony thereupon attendant. But to me the question presents no ground for connexion with the grovelling instinct of religion. However—you may exclude me from the argument, if you will. I am unduly secluded though unavoidably so. We will deal only with materials that may presumably lie within my feeble reach. Only one more touch of ego. I am not at all passive or indifferent in my zeal for a high morality. But I cannot consider morality the essence of religion, as you seem to. In discussing religion, the whole fabric must bear examination before the uses or purposes are considered. We must investigate the cause as well as alleged effects if we are to define the relation between the two, and the reality of the former. And more, granting that the phenomenon of faith is indeed the true cause of the observed moral effects; the absolute basis of that phenomenon remains to be examined. The issue between theists and atheists is certainly not, as you seem to think, the mere question of whether religion is useful or detrimental.
– From H.P. Lovecraft’s 1918 letter to his friend Maurice W. Moe; the letter is collected in The Portable Atheist (ed. Christopher Hitchens).
“What Is Imposed on You from Outside Is of No Value” — Bertrand Russell Explains Why He Isn’t a Christian
INTERVIEWER: You’ve written that the Christian Bible is, on the whole, a disappointment.
BLOOM: The aesthetic achievement is so much less than that of the Old—or original—Testament. The New Testament is a very curious work from a literary point of view. So much of it is written by writers who are thinking in Aramaic and writing in demotic Greek. And that curious blend of Aramatic syntax with a Greek vocabulary is a very dubious medium. It’s particularly egregious in the Revelation of St. John the Divine, the Apocalypse, which is a very bad and hysterical and nasty piece of writing. Even the most powerful parts of the New Testament from a literary point of view—certain epistles of Paul and the Gospel of John—are not works that can sustain a close aesthetic comparison with the stronger parts of the Hebrew Bible. It is striking how the Apocalypse of John has had an influence out of all proportion to its aesthetic, or for that matter, I would think, its spiritual value. It is not only an hysterical piece of work, but a work lacking love or compassion. In fact, it is the archetypal text of resentment, and it is the proper foundation for every school of resentment ever since.
Anne Rice’s newest novel Angel Time continues the one-time Goth queen’s fervent return to Christianity. Angel Time is the story of Toby O’Dare, aka Lucky the Fox, a hit man with a Jesuit education, a dark past, and mad lute-playing skills. At the behest of a wise seraph named Malchiah, O’Dare travels back in time to thirteenth-century England, where, disguised as a monk, he embarks on a mission to save the Jewish population of Norwich. As you might expect with this sort of thing, our killer’s soul is also at stake–redemption, salvation, all that good stuff.
In a longish author’s note, Rice discusses some of the historical basis for her story, noting in particular the story of William of Norwich. From a purely narrative perspective, the plot seems pretty intriguing. We’re suckers for anything medieval, after all. Unfortunately, Angel Time is more Dan Brown than Umberto Eco. While there’s something to be said for the ability to write a real page-turner, Angel Time too-often falls back on leaden exposition and tired phrasing. Rice’s early Lestat novels might have been über-emo drama fests, but they were also wickedly sensual and sometimes alarming in their sexual ambiguity. And Lestat was just all kinds of fun, of course. Toby O’Dare, despite his silly name, is no fun. It’s really Rice’s utter humorlessness about her subject matter which is probably most off-putting of all. Her plot about a time-traveling hit man with an angel on his shoulder is engrossing stuff–so why does it take so long to start? We don’t get to medieval times until over half-way through the book. Perhaps because Angel Time initiates a new series Rice calls Songs of the Seraphim she feels the need to overload the front half with exposition about angels, God, the nature of Heaven, etc. Rice’s didactic tone is at times overbearing here. The metaphysical is best left at least a little mysterious. Similarly, while it’s great to know a hero’s motivations and history, Toby O’Dare’s back-story is so overdetermined as to preclude any real moral dilemma. Sure, he’s sinned, he’s worked as a contract killer–but if a seraph looks into your heart and knows you’re, like, good and stuff, is there any doubt that redemption is not forthcoming?
Perhaps Rice’s next novel in her Seraphim series will leave readers a little more room to breathe–and think. If Rice has left vampires for angels and hell for heaven, is it also necessary that she leave strangeness, wonder, and ambiguity for the stolid certainties of didactic allegory? Maybe we’re being too harsh. There’s undoubtedly an audience out there for Angel Time, and it’s probably fair to say that her work here will challenge audiences more than most books marketed to contemporary Christian audiences. But many of us prefer our literature to pose the challenging questions in ways that make us think. It spoils much of the fun to get all the answers up front.