Death in pearls

George Jonas, along with Catullus and I, had an allergy to prudes. I still have it. As George said, Mrs Grundy disappeared briefly in the 1960s, only to return in the 1970s as Ms Grundy. (I think of George’s brilliant pastiche on Carmen VIII.) It is a Roman and Catholic, anti-Puritan proclivity, to despise prudes, and thus a common property among the truly civilized. Though I must add, in these oecumenical times, that the disease has been entering the Church by stealth.

Of course it would help if people knew what prudery is. It is not defined by its passing targets. It is a mode of pinched disapproval, like political correctness. It can as easily be expressed through a Gay Pride Parade, as by high bonnets and low hemlines. It involves a display of personal virtue. Of all the Presidents of the United States, I think the current one by far the greatest prude: worse even than that whited sepulchre, “Jimmy” E. Carter. (And certainly the most pinched anti-Catholic.)

Prudery finds easy passages in every era, and can invade the moral sense from many sides. Religion becomes bourgeois, and the distinction between sin and virtue is redrawn, corresponding to the distinction between bohemian and respectable. From my reading, all of the Saints were bohemian, and none were prudes. It goes without saying that the Martyrs were, invariably, unrespectable.

Our whole view of “sin” today is essentially prudish. We do not think an act to be wrong on any coherent, catholic (i.e. “universal”) principle. We will abort our own children if they might prove inconvenient to our social standing. But change our view if the process begins to appear “icky.” The prudish mass media — the tabloids especially — home in on something that will turn our soft little tummies. But a sin isn’t a sin because it is icky; rather, a sin is a sin because it is evil.

The first question, from a good Confessor, might well be: “What did it look like?” This may seem a counsel of prudery against scandal, but is actually the opposite. The priest is asking the penitent to stand back from himself, and observe what he did as if he were some other person; to look at the sin “objectively,” thus. Suddenly what seemed small and excusable looks larger and much harder to shrug, and the question of motive may be re-assessed. Why did I do it at all, if I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to see me?

But from the Confessional, the whole world looks quite different. We needn’t accuse others to see that this is so. The principle of Mercy towards others begins to shine, with the light directed upon our own souls.

As Mother Teresa said (one of my favourite of her sayings), “I wouldn’t touch a leper for a million dollars.” She could, after all, imagine the bourgeois position, against ickiness. “I only touch him for the love of Jesus.” She was a lady who engaged all her later life in icky operations, right down to taking money from totally unrespectable donors, and shamelessly applying it to good works, while gratuitously praying for the skunks who parted with it only for show.

The audacity with which she walked away from perhaps the most respectable job a woman could have in old Calcutta — memsaab Principal of a high-class girl’s school — and walked straight into the city’s most stinking slum — showed her indifferent to public honour. And then, picking the dying off the street, and taking them home. She had no idea of social advancement; for the penniless dying are not in a position to help one get ahead.

Compared, if you will, with the women in pearls — the church ladies wearing their rosaries, as it were, around their necks as nooses. And sneering, even fibrillating at the gauche; and being somehow not there, in the moments when their Church really needs defending. It would be invidious to associate them with any specific lay order.

Pope Francis is sometimes scintillating good, in condemning this kind of hypocrisy. And sometimes, according to me, he gets it all backwards. Sometimes I discern a fine orthodox intention, gone badly wrong in an “aeroplane” comment. Often I wish he would think before he talks.

Mother Teresa was the mistress of silence in this respect; speaking, for the most part, only in response to a specific request. And with respect to sin, so utterly unsurprisable. It seems easy enough to say, “all men are sinners,” but it is much harder when one considers what we do. The real shame is not before men, however. It is before God — before our heavenly peer, Jesus Christ — who may terribly condemn, but is not prissy.

To “give scandal” by merely leaving an appearance, may plausibly be sinful in many circumstances; but in others may impute only indifference to the prudish crowd, eager to condemn without trial.

To live for appearances, will not do at all.

Peter Paul Rubens is among my heroes, in this respect. He was always turning eyes, if only from his delight in being over-dressed. I should specify that my celebration has nothing to do with his “fat” ladies, either, except that he does rippling naked flesh so well. And there is life in them, as Mother Teresa would say, of the much thinner “babes” her nuns kept discovering, while rooting through the trash.

The parallel struck me once, in “Kolkata” itself (as it has been re-spelt by the nationalist prudes in Delhi), while rooting instead through the treasures of the (formerly “Royal”) Asiatic Society. It is a few blocks away from Mother Teresa’s nunnery, and where I happened to be on the day after her (unwanted) grand public funeral. It contained several sadly peeling Rubens paintings, and other works of his school, imported in the heyday of what was once “the Second City of the British Empire.”

Rubens’s nudes were drawn and painted almost purposely to scandalize the tight-assed Puritans of his day, and generally to disconcert the masses. But that was only a hobby with him. To fully appreciate his gifts, one must look across the whole majestic range of his art, and too, glance through his biography, noting his accomplishments in European diplomacy, his standing as a classics scholar, his heroic loyalty to the Roman Church, and so forth.

O Kolkata! … In so many strange ways, I have thought, she could once have been a second Rome, thanks to the genius of the Bengalis. A city of incredible, shameless juxtapositions, of wealth and poverty, beauty and ugliness, truth and lies. Catholic in her contradictions, and the inward flame of her peoples, whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or Jain. (God I loved that city, which scandalized every tourist with Puritan attitudes towards hygiene.)