Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Hell of Niceness - "The Way of All Flesh"


















I know that I'm jumping around a bit, but tonight I had to post on an impulse. I will get back to my thoughts on aging later.

Tonight I had a glorious time sitting out in the warm sun up on the top food deck at Westfield Mall in Century City. I was hungry of stomach while being full of mind. I spent the entire day sitting in meetings about brain research. I was so consumed with the meetings that I had not eaten anything but an apple all day.

Denise and Ramsey walked over (about 8 miles) to Hollywood and I knew that they would not be back to the hotel until dark.

So I sat there alone, enjoying a wonderful spinach calzone, an iced tea--under the warm California sun--and the last pages of Samuel Butler's book. It is his autobiography--by proxy.

In one regard, I'm a bit surprised to find the book as number eleven on the list of top English novels of all time. The flow of thought seems broken and clumsy at times. The story also develops so slowly that I'm sure that many of readers gave up after first thirty (of eighty-six) chapters. The word craftsmanship doesn't rival Dickens at all, in my humble opinion.

However the book moved me in a very deep way. There is no way I can put it into words. It moved me because it expressed so clearly and deeply what I rant and rave about on this blog so often (speaking of writing clumsily).

The message can not be put into words so clearly. The point could easily be lost with a causal reading. It wasn't subliminal . . . more like supra-liminal . . . beyond what words could ever express.

But it brings up a question about hellish "niceness."

I remember my first exposure to human hell was the movie, The Days of Wine and Roses. I saw it at the theater with my folks. Looking up the date of release tells me that I was only six, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

I really didn't know that life on this earth could be so bad until I saw Joe Clay's complete psychological meltdown, dragging his beloved wife with him down the neck of a bottle. I was more scared then than when dad took me to see The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Through Jack Lemon's brilliance (being beat out from winning an Oscar by Greggory Peck in To Kill a Mocking Bird) I knew that their world was real, somewhere.

But now I know a greater human-created hell. That is the hell of Christian niceness as portrayed in the book. It is a place where the white-washed walls are only painted with the two-dimensional images of emotionally-frigid family. Where smiles eternally don the faces of people who hurt so deeply that they are not even cognizant of the pain. Fortunately Earnest Pontiflex (the main character) found a way out of the hell by going deeper into it, like on the back of Dante, until he met his total demise. He was taken to this deeper hell on the silver tongue of a 1840 equivalent of the modern TV Evangelists/con man.

The narrator constantly refers to Earnest as "my hero." He was such because Earnest was the only one in the Pontiflex clan to escape the insatiable pull of the niceness black hole.

If you have even been disillusioned by modern Christianity, I highly recommend the book. I don't agree with Earnest's final resting place (or at least the resting place that the author wanted for him) and that is a dichotomy of reason and faith, with faith being little more than wishful thinking and reason holding all real hope. That reason, unbeknown by the author at the time of the writing, would be quickly crushed in the gas-filled trenches of Europe, the gas-filled showers of Auschwitz and the nuclear horrors of Hiroshima.

1 comment:

Brenda said...

Your title immediately reminded me of an interview I saw once, with a woman who had been excommunicated (=damned to hell) by the Mormon church. "They were very nice about it!" she said, "After they announced their verdict they all came up and shook my hand! And I realized then that niceness... can be a very nasty thing."

(I'm paraphrasing based on my memory, of course, but I think I remember it right....)

Did you see today's Internet Monk? They have a piece about how unbalanced virtues cease to really be virtues, at all. Perhaps all this "niceness" is what you get when your try to have charity without honesty.

The superficial "niceness" is certainly a major feature of much American Christianity. My theory is that it's part of the "dumbing-down;" i.e. We want lots of people to convert, so let's make Christianity really really simple so that everyone can grasp it. (Four Spiritual Laws, anyone?) I'm sure that was well-intentioned but the result is that even believers often have only a superficial understanding of our own faith! I'm inlcuding myself here; I bet that even a child a few generations ago would have a better knowledge of doctrine than I do.

I'm getting off-topic here, since the point was supposed to be niceness, but if you read old books you'll note that most of the important people weren't nice. We need more reading of old books; that would counteract a lot of American problems.