You know how I was boasting about reading an 1100 page fictional defence of Catholicism? I was lying. The book was only 1072 pages. It is entitled The Father’s Tale by Michael D O’Brien. I was shoplifting some excerpts from it the other day that resonated with me, so now you suffer.
The plot goes something like this: Alex Graham is an introverted, conveniently-widowed bookseller who lives in the wastelands of Canada. He is a believer but not exceptionally pious. He rescues some children from drowning in a river. Then he learns that one of his sons (who is studying in Oxford on a scholarship) has gone missing, and may have gotten involved in a mystical cult (no: not Christianity, a different cult). Increasingly worried, Alex decides to travel to England to find his wayward son. He does not have much travel money, so he takes out a loan at a rapacious credit union, putting up his bookshop/house as collateral. Through a series of extraordinary (one might say divine) coincidences, Alex repeatedly gets close to contacting his son, only to find the shadowy cult has moved on. In this way Alex chases the cult from England to Finland to urban Russia to remote Siberia. Then some other things happen, but most of them are not relevant to the excerpts here.
The first set of excerpts happens on pages 283 and 284, when Alex is in Finland. At his hotel, he decides to absorb some culture by visiting a Finnish bath house — oops, sauna. Poor Alex absorbs more culture than he bargained for:
He was about to lie down flat on his back when a door opened and three women sauntered in. They were in their thirties or early forties, heavily made up with crimson fingernails and blond hair of an unnatural hue. They were carrying drinks in their hands, they were talking loudly, and they were stark naked.
Alex decided not to lie down.
The other guests appeared not to notice the new arrivals. The women sat together on the bench opposite Alex and continued their discussion, which he now realized was being conducted in German. They eyed his towel as if it were obscene. The situation was so completely alien to his experience that Alex was for a moment paralyzed with astonishment. In the aftershock of a total inversion of cultural norms, it took him a second or two to regain control of his eyes. He got up and left.
Later, in his hotel room, Alex reflects on the experience:
The scene in the sauna had taken him totally by surprise and was now indelibly imprinted on his mind. Yet the sight of the red-taloned Valkyries had little power to inflame him, for what he had witnessed was absurd and sad, a symptom of a society that had lost its sense of mystery. If it had been merely a three-dimensional pornography, a kind of virtual reality of hot cavorting pagan flesh, he would have been morally offended. But now, in retrospect, he was most disturbed by the banality of the women’s demeanor. The situation appeared to be, for them, completely normal. Strangest of all, it was asexual — or at least the Europeans in the sauna had treated it as such.
Alex’s desires had always been well within the range of the natural. Yet he now felt an inexplicable disgust, for the sudden and unexpected cornucopia of female bodies was not in essence feminine, not womanly in any way that awakened the heart’s deeper longings. Why all this pink flesh? he wondered. Why the desperation to return to the bacchanal in the forest glade? Did these women think their overexposure was attractive? If they had ever known real love, would they have unveiled themselves to strange men? The sensation of attracting male eyes would have been revealed to them for what it was: an adolescent concept of sexuality, bereft of love, and in the end bereft of genuine passion. Then it struck him that perhaps they did not think about it at all.
There is so much richness here. One could write a dissertation on these paragraphs, but if you are lucky I won’t. On the surface this is a familiar, banal, story of North American embarrassment around European cultural norms. But it interesting to me how thoroughly Alex is convinced that it is their cultural norms that are perverted, “a symptom of a society that had lost its sense of mystery.” Meanwhile, the Europeans in question experienced their nudity as “banal” and “asexual”. The interpretation of the red-taloned Valkyries as hypersexualized is Alex’s interpretation, not theirs. But it seems that Alex conflates cultural norms with moral ones.
Then there is the issue of the male gaze. “Did these women think their overexposure was attractive?” Well, maybe, but it is not clear that they entered the sauna to attract the gaze of conveniently-widowed booksellers. It is fascinating to me how Alex interprets this display as being put on for his (or perhaps the other male bathers) benefit. What other possible reason could there be for women to put their bare skin on display? Here we see the seeds of the “Well, if she didn’t want to be assaulted she should not have dressed like that” argument.
The word “overexposure” is telling here. How does one define overexposure? Boobies? Nipples? Belly buttons? Why do we not define ankles and elbows as overexposure? Long-time readers will be familiar with my ongoing struggles against tufts of chest hair. Let us not forget that our friends in the Taliban have different standards of overexposure than we do; but for some reason North American standards are correct and those upheld by the Taliban are not.
It is also interesting that the nudity “had little power to inflame him”. This is surprising to him, if not to me. It can be interesting to learn what boobies and pubic hair and penises look like, but I have heard it said that banal nudity is not arousing the way bulges and curves and occlusions are; clothing and potted plants inflame our lusts by hinting at the goods without revealing them.
It is also worth observing that before the Valkyries entered the stage, Alex shared the sauna with a number of male patrons, all of whom were also stark naked and none of whom inflamed his passions. But then again, “Alex’s desires had always been well within the range of the natural.” He was not some pervert sneaking peeks at the pink flesh of the other men with whom he shared the sauna. These men did not have to worry about whether their overexposure was attractive, and Alex would not have questioned whether they had ever known “real love.” Here we see the necessity for strong sexual and gender segregations. Sauna nudity might be tolerable in heterosexual, same-sex populations, but it is important not to confuse things with homosexuality and gender confusion lest we inflame lustful thoughts. Those Republican legislatures are not oppressing sexual and gender minorities; they are upholding natural standards necessarily to live with virtue in the world.
Most interesting at all is the final line: “Then it struck him that perhaps they did not think about it at all.” Is this a sly joke at Alex’s expense? Maybe the author is observing that Alex was the only one taking offence at the Valkyries, and that it was neither a cultural nor a moral offence to others. I go back and forth on this, but my tentative conclusion is that the author, as well as Alex, are judging the Valkyries harshly. After all, Alex describes the situation as “absurd and sad, a symptom of a society that had lost its sense of mystery”, as opposed to a symptom of a society that had lost its sense of mystery because mixed-sex sauna nudity was neither absurd nor sad. But I could be wrong about this.
That ought to be plenty of excerpts and dry textual analysis for one blog entry, but there was another (rather long) excerpt that caught my eye. This takes place 231 pages later, on pages 514-515. By this point Alex is in Siberia. His train has been attacked by ecological terrorists, and he is currently staying in a poorly-heated cabin inhabited by two priests — one Orthodox, one Catholic. He is trying to get some rest, when his thoughts start to drift:
Images began to course through his imagination again, fragmentary and unobtrusive at first, then growing in power. Words of love, memories of love. Followed by a wave of loneliness. Followed by images of Carol’s grave under a blanket of hard snow. Jamie and Hannah Colley swept over the lip of a dam. A bullet fired through a man’s skull. A stab of fear. Then, surprisingly, a jolt of lust. The red-taloned Valkyries of the Helsinki sauna opened the cabin door and walked into the room, talking loudly, stark naked.
Alex’s heart suddenly pounded, his head snapped back, and he struggled to push the thoughts away. “Stop!” he murmured blearily, trying to bring himself fully awake. But the hot drone of carnal desire would not go away. So vivid were the images now cavorting in his mind’s eye, and so different were they from the sacramental love he had known, that he felt sickened. He wondered where the thoughts had come from and why they had appeared at this moment. Like all men, he was no stranger to this particular battle. In the past he had always been able to defeat the temptation by a stern effort of the will, by increased prayer, and by marathon walks along the heights of the cold and utterly sobering Clementine hills. He rarely drank coffee, and then only in the morning, sparing himself the insomniac struggle at night, when such images were most likely to appear. He usually slipped into sleep either praying or reading dry tomes, the most notable quality of which was their soporific effect. No such books were now at hand.
He found his rosary and prayed it. This helped, but within moments of completing it the Valkyries returned. Ignoring them as much as he could, he thought he should read Scripture but realized there was no light. He got up, paced back and forth in the dark, repeated his wife’s name lovingly, prayed for her soul, remembered, remembered… but the remembering ignited residual passion-memories that shifted his imagination back to the more immediate passions now leaping about the room.
It was ridiculous! At his age! Why were the images so powerful, and why was he having such difficulty ignoring them? It was all in his mind, of course, fueled by his imagination. Fueled also, he supposed, by the increased loneliness of his journey through this strange land and by his long distance from his home, where passion was never permitted to enter except in the refined and licit form of poetry or symphonies. He told himself that whatever the cause, its power over him was augmented by his fatigue. Long past was the virility of youth; safely constrained were the surges of hormones that once had threatened to reduce him to the level of a beast. Grace, sublimation, physical exercise and the equally determined exercise of the mind’s authority — these had always succeeded at keeping lust at bay. Where had all that moral strength gone? Was it gone?
No, it was not gone, he told himself. Tearing the socks from his feet, he strode to the door, threw it open, and stepped outside. Coatless, barefoot, he took three paces forward into a snowdrift, inhaling the frigid air in great angry gusts. With gratifying speed, lust and its maidservants disappeared. Shivering with chill, he shook his head and grimaced. “You’re not an old man yet, Alex.”
Whoops! It appears the red-taloned Valkyries had some power to inflame him after all. Fortunately, “he was no stranger to this particular battle”, and overcomes his lustful impulses by running out into the Siberian winter barefoot. I have never experienced a Siberian winter, but I imagine this is… not conducive to foot health. Nonetheless, this seems to be a simple application of the advice in that old faithful passage Matthew 5:27-29; better to lose one’s toes to frostbite than to think lustfully upon a Valkyrie and have one’s whole body cast into Hell.
In my last entry I expressed skepticism at how tall blonde Brody Green and dark brooding Seth Waters kept themselves pure while waiting for plucky heroine Jenna Jones to make her decision. Fortunately, men with self-control have tools to deal with this, and the rest of us would be wise to learn them.
As a sinner, the implications of this passage boggle my mind. Poor Alex has been widowed for years, and out of fidelity to his wife and chastity for the Church he has not masturbated since? I remember similar struggles against lustful thoughts back when I was fourteen, but I have long since given up hope for salvation. Longstanding readers will recall my premature relief at age curing my lustful nature, but sadly it was short-lived. I also find myself shaking my head and saying “How ridiculous! At my age!” Incidentally, conveniently-widowed Alex Graham is in his late forties during the events of this novel, which is more than enough time for his hormones to have settled down.
I have always been suspicious of poetry and symphonies, and this passage helped me understand why. Perhaps as a harm-reduction strategy those who are weak in spirit might turn to them, but they are clearly capable of inflaming passions too.
What impresses me most about this is the mental fortitude Alex Graham must have developed over his life as a believer. Having attempted to resist lustful thoughts I can assert it is not easy; how much stronger must he be to resist? Mind you, he has good motivations to resist: as a Catholic he goes to confession, and I imagine enumerating every time one masturbates gets real embarrassing real fast. Without such incentives, is it any surprise that namby-pamby universalist belief systems lose out to the strong and disciplined souls Christianity churns out?