Sunday, 17 January 2010

What do you read, my Lord? Words, words, words

I've been visited by a phantom book flogger who thought it a great idea to post an advert for his book. He said his were considered Catholic writings and that lots of clever people were saying nice things about him. He was also related to someone famous, which must be an incomparable advantage in convincing the punters to buy your books.

I welcome people's engagement on here, as I would welcome them to my dinner table - if only I could fit you all in - but when they come around doorstepping like a 1950s hoover salesman, it just brings out my inner bouncer. He can write to me if he thinks this is unfair.


In other news, I've been thinking about The Sound of Music all week. Well, I've been going through a stressful time of late, and these things happen. Now, I know what some readers are thinking, and I forbid them to think it. Stop it, right now! His name will not be mentioned here, at the risk of bringing out once again my inner bouncer.

But the reason I've been thinking about it, is that watching it again after all these years has convinced me it is not so sweetie-pie nice after all. I know we all have this image of the so-clean-you-could-operate-in-her-apron nanny Maria, played in the film by Julie Andrews, but as I sat and watched it this time, what I kept on noticing was the portrayal of darkness.

No, not in her! Of course not. Well, I'll come back to that. But the main characters are surrounded by largely compromised, selfish individuals who are all guilty of one betrayal or another. I had not remembered how Max's open jokes about making money were not actually funny at all, but representative of the kind of unveiled cynicism which invades as it disarms. The countess to whom the Captain nearly gets spliced is not only unctuous to the point of needing a Tyrolean dancer's slap in the face; she's a wicked-witch figure who breaks Maria through subterfuge and deception. Hans, the baddy telegram boy, we're all familiar with of course. But he's more than a traitor to Liesl; he's the image of the boyish prig whose desire for recognition - a desire known to all boys, as well as to prigs - has, like a star-struck lover, fatally crossed with the political ascedency of first-class shits.

Oh, but the critics will say, this is simply the old fashioned device of baddies versus goodies. And of course the goodies win, as they stroll over the mountains to Switzerland. But this is to miss some of the most interesting psychological contours of the film. The Captain and Maria are both people who have been lying to themselves; lying perhaps out of a sense of self-defence - the Captain in his widowhood (or does a man have a widowerhood?) and Maria in her vocational idealism - but lying all the same. And, so the conquest of bad in the film is not merely contained in the escape theme; nor even in the obvious love theme; but rather in the discoveries which Captain and the Maria make about themselves:

Somewhere in my wicked, miserable past,
There must have been a moment of truth.

Okay, this is not Shakespeare, but who cares? Shakespeare wouldn't have cared for a start. But I find this an engaging thought, not only because of the light it casts on the relationship of insight and moral decision, but, probably more so, because of its corollaries; it is not the moments of truth in my life that I worry about - I'm grateful for them! - so much as the moments of falsehood. The moments of falsehood start us along paths at whose beginning we catch a delicate thread of ourselves and begin a slow, unravelling process. And then when the winter bites, we find our garments - our integrity, our authenticity - have gone.

In this song, the implication seems to be that finding love is a reward for doing good. But I think that is a moot point. Maria sings, 'Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.' Sound metaphysics, let it be noted. And, I think, classic moral sense. It is the moments of truth that somehow facilitate the subsequent possiblities of insight.

I wonder whether religious people are less likely to see this theme. There is a sound philosophical suspicion which contests the impossibilty of knowing the truth of things - the grand comfort blanket of the modern age - but this is too easy a formulation. Whatever the knowability of Truth, the truth about oneself is often buried in rubble, disguised by the myths we invent in self-defence, or else - to take up my earlier image - has been left back along the road where we snagged our honesty on a thorny convenience.

And that is why the moment of truth in the past - is this the moment of our childhood? Bernanos certainty thought so as he sought to remember 'le petit enfant que je fus' - is so important. You not only need a compass - the Truth - to navigate, you need a fixed point on the horizon. And that moment of truth, le petit enfant que je fus, might be the only fixed point in a world torn by earthquakes and terrors.

So, now, go and listen to the song, and no singing along!


  1. Heartless. Cold-calling is very difficult, and it must be much worse if it's your own book, and not just some hoover.

    I am impressed by your deep and meaningful post. Wish I had the guts.

  2. He idn't cold call. He just posted his advert on my comments column!

    Guts to do what exactly?

  3. More to the point, your 'phantom book flogger' is trying to use Catholic Blogs to push a book which, to judge from the US Reviews and comments I have read, is at best only doubtfully suitable for Catholic reading . . . it seems to be largely about 'unusual' areas of human sexuality and physicality, somewhat graphically described !