April 22, 2010

Fabiola, or, The Church of the Catacombs

1854 novel
written by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman

(my review of the 1949 film adaptation)

Propaganda novels are always tricky to review. Written to boost up the morale of an already faithful legion, they have a hard time clicking with those outside the chosen flock, sometimes even becoming loathed objects of scorn that end up doing their cause much more damage than intended. Take this book for example. In the London of the mid 1800's, Catholicism was still looked upon with much scorn and ridicule by the Protestant majority, having only become a fully legalized religious practice within decades of this novel's publication. Cardinal Wiseman thus felt the best way to boost up his minority flock, to give them hope and redemption in their suffering, was too pen a book which equated their experience with that of the early Christians in Rome. This is for them. This is their book.

I'm an atheist. This book is not meant for me.

That's not to say that this piece of literature wouldn't be perfectly at home on the shelves of a True Believer. I, not being one, kept butting heads with its philosophies. But this isn't really meant to be an attack on Wiseman's beliefs, so I'll try not to go there.

So lets look at it as a propaganda piece. At its heart, there's an intriguing tale about a young religion being brutally hunted by the broader populace, practicing secret masses in catacombs filled with their fallen comrades and swelling with pride before roaring beasts or an executioner's blade in the arena. There is a good story there, a good thriller about persecution and fighting for what you believe in. But there's no fight. Every time someone announces their religion, they just calmly let themselves be led off to death. Why? Martyrdom. Instead of organizing and arming and fighting for themselves, their families, and their beliefs, they are not only happy, they're fucking thrilled at the prospect of being caught just so they can suffer and die and be one with Jesus. To some, this is admirable. To me, it's a representation of the problems inherent in a belief that the afterlife is better than the one we have here: it makes people eager to die. Suicide is, of course, fully frowned up, but the way these people willingly let their secrets slip out of the closet is largely tantamount to the same thing.

But this isn't meant to be an attack on Wiseman's beliefs, so I won't go there.

Let's look at the characters. As with any propaganda piece, we have the "thems" - all the vile, shifty-eyed, pagan worshippers who kill off the Christians because they feel impotent and jealous in the face of abject faith - and then there's the "usses" - the True Believers, who are all clean and beautiful and work in a blessed union to further conversions to the faith (conversions likely necessary to sustain the church because everyone aspires to die a virgin). We know from historical record that this was a turbulent time where Christians most certainly did not all agree on how best to follow and spread the message, so them being painted as a perfectly harmonious group, free of any doubt or animosity, is complete bullshit. No, it's the typical old "we're good, they're bad" philosophy. And even when Wiseman sets up an interesting character, he tends to bungle it in the execution.

Take Sebastian, the classic hero type. He's a soldier, a high-ranking officer and trusted advisor of Co-Emperor Maximian, and secretly supports and organizes the functions of his hidden faith. Now, here, there could have been a fascinating study of a man hiding himself in plain sight, but they never make it hard, they never show him struggling to keep things hidden or even, really, show him saving the flock in any way except when he converts some prisoners through a completely random healing through the laying on of hands. Why? Because he wants to be martyred. Of course.

Much more successful is Torquatus. Though his bumbling is written off as him being new to the flock and not fully educated, here is the one man experiencing a crisis of faith. He has his beliefs, he feels saved, but then he gets drunk and gambles and finds himself indebted to people who want to use his information to wipe out a branch of the church. This is a memorable character, someone for whom it's not so much God that plays on his conscience, but the consequences of his own actions. It culminates in a truly gripping sequence where, getting separated from everyone during a raid he helped instigate, he finds himself lost in the catacombs, with neither food nor water and a rapidly dwindling source of light. Now, does Wiseman let this be the typical death one suffers to pay for their mistakes, as is so often the case in fiction? No, he gives us the one scene I'd accept would lead to his renewed conversion. Torquatus comes across a small funeral party laying to rest a woman killed in the raid. That right there, making him see the blood on his hands, brings about a change in the man and shows that the Cardinal was capable of penning a good morality tale.

But then there's Fulvius. Again, there's an interesting setup. On the surface, he's a comfortable, easy-going if pompous member of the higher society, but he secretly earns his fortune by hunting down Christians, turning them over to authorities and being rewarded with a chunk of their estate. Over the course of things, he falls in love with a young woman, the beautiful Agnes (she's twelve!), only to discover that she's deeply involved in the Christian movement. She's part of something he hates, and repeatedly rejects him in favor of that very something he hates, which makes for great motivation as our embittered antagonist triggers some massive destruction. Hell, there's a scene where he confronts the title character (we'll get to Fabiola in a minute), that is genuinely tense as his anger builds and builds to a point where we know somebody is about to wind up dead ... but then Wiseman pulls a hidden family connection completely out of left field, leading to convolutions upon convolutions, and it all unravels. But more on that is coming.

So. Fabiola. She's the title character (duh) and, if you strip all of the social aspects away, this is largely the story of her conversion. It's not this arc I have a problem with (does make for a good story), it's some of the philosophies behind it. As the story starts, she is described as a philosopher, somebody who reads and experiences a broad range of thought and learning. This is something I find admirable, but not Wiseman. No, all philosophers of that time are written off as heathens and such concepts like looking at something before passing judgment on it are seen as the very trouble that caused the pagans to become such brutes. They're over-exposed and skeptical, they require more than just "honestly spoken" words and some faith before they believe in something, and this makes them bad, bad people. And how does Wiseman counter this philosophy, through the mouth of the True Believing slave Miriam? By pointing out to Fabiola that there are gaps in knowledge, questions that can't be answered. Surely these must be proof of the existence of the divine. And, of course, Fabiola just buys it. Bullshit.

But this isn't meant to be an attack on Wiseman's beliefs, so I won't go there.

But why Fabiola? In the beginning, she's shown in a fury, slashing her servants with a razor. She is every bit the pompous Roman that Wiseman paints as pagan persecutors. And, yet, she has a nagging doubt in the back of her mind, something nobody else among her status experiences. It's this nagging voice that makes her special and leads her down the road to conversion. And where does this voice come from? Her late Christian mother, of course. You see, while they were primarily raised by pagan father figures, and do often share in such "heathenous frivolity", both Fabiola and Fulvius had Christian mothers whom they lost early in life. Why is this important? Well, because in Wiseman's world, nobody can have any regret or compassion or goodness of character unless they already have a little Christian in them to begin with. Because we all know that to be Christian is to be above sins like genocide or torture or raping little boys. Only they can be good, and everyone else is the enemy.

But this isn't meant to be an attack on Wiseman's beliefs, so I won't go there.

I will give Wiseman this, he's not a bad writer. In fact, his flowing, whispering text is quite accessible and does a wonderful job of painting the image of daily Roman life. Hell, I almost wish this were approached as a work of non-fiction as opposed to a novel, because he goes off on these wonderful little tangents describing the architecture, the make of the city, the customs of rituals, generic terminology and slang of the time, all while citing what were then cutting-edge archaeological discoveries. It really is some fascinating stuff, but, as with many a History Channel documentary, in comes the dramatized reenactment, and it's full of lousy stagings of unbelievable characterizations that spout off nonsensically with flowery dialogue that would make a supermarket romance novel roll its eyes.

And, once again, that reliance upon history is highly selective. It ignores the divide between Christian sects at the time. It ignores the atrocities Christianity wishes it didn't represent. It ignores the fact that Constantine wasn't a great divine ruler. It ignores that Mary Magdalen wasn't a whore. It compares Africans to the animals of their country as they concoct nefarious voodoo potions. It flat out states that Jews are the enemies of Christ.

But this isn't meant to be an attack on Wiseman's beliefs, so I won't ...

... Oh, wait, I did.


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