Wolf of God
"IN MANY WAYS A DIRTY BOOK ," Anthony Burgess once warned in the columns of the Yorkshire Post. "Those of my readers with tender stomachs are advised to leave it alone." Critic Burgess, as it happened, was reviewing a novel called Inside Mr. Enderby, ostensibly written by one Joseph Kell but actually the work of a prolific British writer named Anthony Burgess.
Readers who ignored Burgess' cheeky advice may remember that the eponymous poet, F.X. Enderby, was a fairly unprepossessing fellow. But due to a surfeit of British cooking and intractable intestines, he frequently emitted noxious sounds from both ends. He lived, moreover, in animal squalor, reclusively scribbling in the bathroom and tossing sections of his poem The Pet Beast into his otherwise unused bathtub.
Original Sin. Enderby's chief drawback was not digestion but want of genius. Burgess can convincingly describe ways in which images might come to a kind of colloidal suspension in the expectant poet's mind. But when he had to cut the cackle and produce the egg, both reader and author were left in the embarrassing presence of Enderby's mediocre verses. Yet Burgess, a man of wit and genius, has been fond enough of this queasy minor poet to devote one, two and now three volumes to him. Why? Because with all his faults, Enderby is a strong booster of original sin, a commodity, Burgess feels, the modern world greatly underrates.
Burgess, in fact, sees the key moral conflict of our age as an extension of the argument that took place between the heretic Pelagius and St. Augustine some 1,600 years ago. Man, preached Pelagius, is untainted by original sin and is thus perfectible through his own efforts. The cynical saint disagreed and ran Pelagius out of Rome. But this humane heretic's views now dominate society, Burgess suggests, through the delusive notion that men are essentially creatures of their environment whose actions must be controlled by benign behaviorists. Disaster, says Burgess. No original sin, no evil. No evil, no moral choice. No moral choice and human freedom becomes meaningless, man becomes a machine.
These views were futuristically dramatized in both Burgess' novel and Stanley Kubrick's version of The Clockwork Orange. In Enderby's End, Burgess pits the poor poet against the whole city of New York, an area where sin, original or otherwise, is surely not in short supply. Enderby reaches the New World in ways faintly congruent with Burgess' recent career. His name appears among the screenplay credits of a shocking film, and thus notorious, he is offered a teaching post at one of Manhattan's melting-pot universities (in 1972 Burgess lectured at the City College of New York). In Enderby's case, the film is no Clockwork Orange but a salacious travesty of Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem The Wreck of the Deutschland.
The poem is both about Hopkins' spiritual odyssey and an elegy for five Franciscan nuns who drowned when a German liner struck a sand bar off the Kentish Knock in November 1875. Enderby's film producers shift the story to pre-World War II Germany, add a (pre-vow) affair between one of the nuns and "Father Tom" Hopkins, and lavishly document the rape of the nuns by a congregation of SS men.
After the film's release, nuns begin to be raped round the world, and Enderby is blamed for it. Settled into a dingy, rented lair near the university on the Upper West Side, Enderby is soon a man much bemused and beleaguered by moralists and behaviorists. In vain he declares that art—even execrable art—is neutral. Loathing the movie more than anyone, he sees it not as a cause but as a symptom of sin. "You ignore art as so much unnecessary garbage," he howls at his tormentors, "or you blame it for your own crimes." Even members of Enderby's creative writing class see him as a "misleading reactionary bastard." He has failed, it appears, to see merit in their "free verse and gutter vocabulary."
Burgess supports his dyspeptic Don Quixote through all sorts of polemical extremities. The reader is lashed with puns and offered poetic tidbits taken from Hopkins. But the book succeeds less as a novel than as intellectual program music.
God's Love. Enderby's position is too cleverly undermined by irony, too mined with paradox, to prevail. In The Wreck of the Deutschland (the poem, not the flick), one of the nuns at the moment of her death "christens her wild worst Best," just as Hopkins himself struggled a lifetime to confirm precisely in private pain and worldly rebuff some clear sign of God's forgiving love. Enderby attempts to perform the same sort of personal miracle. Desperately he tries to see the cruelty, vulgarity and violence not as correctable aberrations but as signs that man is still free, but still in need of God. The attitude makes him something of a sheep in wolfs clothing. Without any assertion that men have souls, it also makes him seem a bit perverse.
Burgess might have risked one more quote from Hopkins. Man, one poem said, "This Jack, joke, poor potsherd/ Patch, matchwood, immortal diamond/ Is immortal diamond." Otherwise, what's so wrong with sun-kissed clockwork oranges?