The Saint/Introduction

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Introduction

By William Roscoe Thayer
Author of "The Dawn of Italian Independence"

ANTONIO FOGAZZARO AND HIS MASTERPIECE

I

SENATOR FOGAZZARO, in The Saint, has confirmed the impression of his five and twenty years' career as a novelist, and now, through the extraordinary power and pertinence of this crowning work, he has suddenly become an international celebrity. The myopic censors of the Index have assured the widest circulation of his book by condemning it as heretical. In the few months since its publication, it has been read by hundreds of thousands of Italians; it has appeared in French translation in the Revue des Deux Mondes and in German in the Hochland; and it has been the storm centre of religious and literary debate. Now it will be sought by a still wider circle, eager to see what the doctrines are, written by the leading Catholic layman in Italy, at which the Papal advisers have taken fright. Time was when it was the books of the avowed enemies of the Church—of some mocking Voltaire, some learned Renan, some impassioned Michelet—which they thrust on the Index; now they pillory the Catholic layman with the largest following in Italy, one who has never wavered in his devotion to the Church. Whatever the political result of their action may be, they have made the fortune of the book they hoped to suppress; and this is good, for The Saint is a real addition to literature.

Lovers of Italy have regretted that foreigners should judge her contemporary ideals and literary achievements by the brilliant, but obscene and degenerate books of Gabriele d'Anmmzio. Such books, the products of disease no matter what language they may be written in, quickly circulate from country to country. Like epidemics they sweep up and down the world, requiring no passports, respecting no frontiers, while benefits travel slowly from people to people, and often lose much in the passage. D'Annunzio, speaking the universal language—Sin,—has been accepted as the typical Italian by foreigners who know Carducci merely as a name and have perhaps never heard of Fogazzaro. Yet it is in these men that the better genius of modern Italy has recently expressed itself. Carducci 's international reputation as the foremost living poet in Europe and a literary critic of the first class gains slowly, but its future is secure. Thanks to the wider circulating medium of fiction, Fogazzaro's name s a household word in thousands of Italian families, and he combines in his genius so many rare and important strands that the durability of his literary renown cannot be questioned.

II

Antonio Fogazzaro, the most eminent Italian novelist since Manzoni, was born at Vicenza on March 25th, 1842. He was happy in his parents, his father, Mariano Fogazzaro, being a man of refined tastes and sound learning, while his mother, Teresa Barrera, united feminine sweetness with wit and a warm heart. From childhood they influenced all sides of his nature, and when the proper time came they put him in charge of a wise tutor, Professor Zanella, who seems to have divined his pupil's talents and the best way to cultivate them. Young Fogazzaro, having completed his course in the classics went on to the study of the law, which he pursued first in the University of Padua and then at Turin, where his father had taken up a voluntary exile. For Vicenza, during the forties and fifties, lay under Austrian subjection, and any Italian who desired to breathe freely in Italy had to seek the liberal air of Piedmont.

Fogazzaro received his diploma in due season, and began to practise as advocate, but in that casual way common to young men who know that their real leader is not Themis but Apollo. Erelong he abandoned the bar and devoted himself with equal enthusiasm to music and poetry, for both of which he had unusual aptitude. Down to 1881 he printed chiefly volumes of verse which gave him a genuine, if not popular reputation. In that year he brought out his first romance, Malombra, and from time to time during the past quarter of a century he has followed it with Daniele Cortis, Il Mistero del Poeta, Piccolo Mondo Antico, Piccolo Mondo Moderno, and finally, in the autumn of 1905, Il Santo. This list by no means exhausts his productivity, for he has worked in many fields, but it includes the books by which, gradually at first, and with triumphant strides of late, he has come into great fame in Italy and has risen into the small group of living authors who write for a cosmopolitan public.

For many years past Signor Fogazzaro has dwelt in his native Vicenza, the most honoured of her citizens, round whom has grown up a band of eager disciples, who look to him for guidance not merely in matters intellectual or aesthetic, but in the conduct of life. He has conceived of the career of man of letters as a great opportunity, not as a mere trade. Nothing could show better his high seriousness than his waiting until the age of thirty-nine before publishing his first novel, unless it be the restraint which led him, after having embarked on the career of novelist to devote four or five years on the average to his studies in fiction. So his books are ripe, the fruits of a deliberate and rich nature, and not the windfalls of a mere literary trick. And now the publication of The Saint confirms all his previous work, and entitles him, at a little more than threescore years, to rank among the few literary masters of the time.

III

Many elements in The Saint testify to its importance; but these would not make it a work of art. And after all it is as a work of art that it first appeals to readers, who may care little for its religious purport. It is a great novel so great, that, after living with its characters, we cease to regard it as a novel at all. It keeps our suspense on the stretch through nearly five hundred pages. Will the Saint triumph will love victoriously claim its own? We hurry on, at the first reading, for the solution; then we go back and discover in it another world of profound interest. That is the true sign of a masterpiece.

In English we have only John Inglesant and Robert Elsmere to compare it with; but such a comparison, though obviously imperfect, proves at once how easily The Saint surpasses them both, not merely by the greater significance of its central theme, but by its subtler psychology, its wider horizon, its more various contacts with life. Benedetto, the Saint, is a new character in fiction, a mingling of St. Francis and Dr. Dollinger, a man of to-day in intelligence, a medieval in faith. Nothing could be finer than the way in which Signer Fogazzaro depicts hit, zeal, his ecstasies, his visions, his depressions, his doubts; shows the physical and mental reactions; gives us, in a word, a study in religious morbid psychology—for, say what we will, such abnormalities are morbid without rival in fiction. We follow Benedetto's spiritual fortunes with as much eagerness as if they were a love story.

And then there is the love story. Where shall one turn to find another like it? Jeanne seldom appears in the foreground, but we feel from first to last the magnetism of her presence. There is always the possibility that at sight or thought of her Benedetto may be swept back from his ascetic vows to the life of passion. Their first meeting in the monastery chapel is a masterpiece of dramatic climax, and Benedetto's temptation in her carriage, after the feverish interview with the cabinet officer, is a marvel of psychological subtlety. Both scenes illustrate Signor Fogazzaro's power to achieve the highest artistic results without exaggeration. This naturalness is the more remarkable because the character of a saint is unnatural according to our modern point of view. We have a healthy distrust of ascetics, whose anxiety over their soul's condition we properly regard as a form of egotism; and we know how easily the unco' guid become prigs. Fogazzaro's hero is neither an egotist of the ordinary cloister variety, nor a prig. That our sympathy goes out to Jeanne and not to him shows that we instinctively resent the sacrifice of the deepest human cravings to sacerdotal prescriptions. The highest ideal of holiness which medievals could conceive does not satisfy us.

Why did Signer Fogazzaro in choosing his hero revert to that outworn type? He sees very clearly how many of the Catholic practices are what he calls "ossified organisms. "Why did he set up a lay monk as a model for aoth century Christians who long to devote their lives to uplifting their fellow-men? Did he not note the artificiality of asceticism—the waste of energy that comes with fasts and mortification of the flesh and morbidly pious excitement? When asked these questions by his followers he replied that he did not mean to preach asceticism as a rule for all; but that in individual cases like Benedetto's, for instance, it was a psychological necessity. Herein Signor Fogazzaro certainly discloses his profound knowledge of the Italian heart—of that heart from which in its early medieval vigour sprang the Roman religion, with its message of renunciation. Even the Renaissance and the subsequent period of scepticism have not blotted out those tendencies that date back more than a thousand years: so that today, if an Italian is engulfed in a passion of selfsacrifice, he naturally thinks first of asceticism as the method. Among Northern races a similar religious experience does not suggest hair shirts and debilitating pious orgies (except among Puseyites and similar survivals from a different epoch); it suggests active work, like that of General Booth of the Salvation Army.

No one can gainsay, however, the superb artistic effects which Signer Fogazzaro attains through his Saint's varied experiences. He causes to pass before you all classes of society, from the poorest peasant of the Subiaco hills, to duchesses and the Pope himself,—some incredulous, some mocking, some devout, some hesitating, some spell-bound, in the presence of a holy man. The fashionable ladies wish to take him up and make a lion of him; the superstitious kiss the hem of his garment and believe that he can work miracles, or, in a sudden revulsion, they jeer him and drive him away with stones. And what a panorama of ecclesiastical life in Italy! What a collection of priests and monks and prelates, and with what inevitableness one after another turns the cold shoulder on the volunteer who dares to assert that the test of religion is conduct! There is an air of mystery, of intrigue, of secret messages passing to and fro—the atmosphere of craft which has hung round the ecclesiastical institution so many, many centuries. Few scenes in modern romance can match Benedetto's interview with the Pope the pathetic figure who, you feel, is in sad truth a prisoner, not of the Italian Government, but of the crafty, able, remorseless cabal of cardinals who surround him, dog him with eavesdroppers, edit his briefs, check his benign impulses, and effectually prevent the truth from penetrating to his lonely study. Benedetto's appeal to the Pope to heal the four wounds from which the Church is languishing is a model of impassioned argument. The four wounds, be it noted, are the "spirit of falsehood," "the spirit of clerical domination," "the spirit of avarice," and "the spirit of immobility." The Pope replies in a tone of resignation; he does not disguise his powerlessness; he hopes to meet Benedetto again—in heaven!

IV

The Saint may be considered under many aspects—indeed, the critics, in their efforts to classify it, have already fallen out over its real character. Some regard it as a thinly disguised statement of a creed; others, as a novel pure and simple; others, as a campaign document (in the broadest sense); others, as no novel at all, but a dramatic sort of confession. The Jesuits have had it put on the Index; the Christian Democrats have accepted it as their gospel: yet Jesuits and Christian Democrats both profess to be Catholics. Such a divergence of opinion proves conclusively that the book possesses unusual power and that it is many-sided.

Instead of pitching upon one of these views as right and declaring all the rest to be wrong, it is more profitable to try to discover in the book itself what grounds each class of critics finds to justify its particular and exclusive verdict. On the face of it what does the book say?

This is what it says: That Piero Maironi, a man of the world, cultivated far beyond his kind, after having had a vehement love-affair is stricken with remorse, "experiences religion," becomes penitent, is filled with a strange zeal—an ineffable comfort—and devotes himself, body, heart, and soul to the worship of God and the succour of his fellow-men. As Benedetto, the lay brother, he serves the peasant populations among the Sabine hills, or moves on his errands of hope and mercy among the poor of Rome. Everybody recognises him as a holy man—"a saint." Perhaps, if he had restricted himself to taking only soup or simple medicines to the hungry and sick, he would have been unmolested in his philanthropy; but after his conversion, he had devoured the Scriptures and studied the books of the Fathers, until the spirit of the early, simple, untheological Church had poured into him. It brought a message the truth of which so stirred him that he could not rest until he imparted it to his fellows. He preached righteousness,—the supremacy of conduct over ritual,—love as the test and goal of life; but always with full acknowledgment of Mother Church as the way of salvation. Indeed, he seems neither to doubt the impregnability of the foundations of Christianity, nor the validity of the Petrine corner-stone; taking these for granted he aims to live the Christian life in every act, in every thought. The superstructure—the practices of the Catholic Church to-day, the failures and sins of clerical society, the rigid ecclesiasticism—these he must in loyalty to fundamental truth, criticise, and if need be, condemn, where they interfere with the exercise of pure religion. But Benedetto engages very little in controversy; his method is to glorify the good, sure that the good requires only to be revealed in all its beauty and charm in order to draw irresistibly to itself souls that, for lack of vision, have been pursuing the mediocre or the bad.

Yet these utterances, so natural to Benedetto, awaken the suspicions of his superiors, who—we cannot say without cause—scent heresy in them. Good works, righteous conduct—what are these in comparison with blind subscription to orthodox formulas? Benedetto is persecuted not by an obviously brutal or sanguinary persecution,—although it might have come to that except for a catastrophe of another sort,—but by the very finesse of persecution. The sagacious politicians of the Vatican, inheritors of the accumulated craft of a thousand years, know too much to break a butterfly on a wheel, to make a martyr of an inconvenient person whom they can be rid of quietly. Therein lies the tragedy of Benedetto's experience, so far at least as we regard him, or as he thought himself, an instrument for the regeneration of the Church.

On the face of it, therefore, The Saint is the story of a man with a passion for doing good, in the most direct and human way, who found the Church in which he believed, the Church which existed ostensibly to do good according to the direct and human ways of Jesus Christ, thwarting him at every step. Here is a conflict, let us remark in passing, worthy to be the theme of a great tragedy. Does not Antigone rest on a similar conflict between Antigone's simple human way of showing her sisterly affection and the rigid formalism of the orthodoxy of her day?

V

Or, look next at The Saint as a campaign document, the aspect under which it has been most hotly discussed in Italy. It has been accepted as the platform, or even the gospel of the Christian Democrats. Who are they? They are a body of the younger generation of Italians, among them being a considerable number of religious, who yearn to put into practice the concrete exhortations of the Evangelists. They are really carried forward by that ethical wave which has swept over Western Europe and America during the past generation, and has resulted in "slumming," in practical social service, in all kinds of efforts to improve the material and moral condition of the poor, quite irrespective of sectarian or even Christian initiative. This great movement began, indeed, outside of the churches, among men and women who felt grievously the misery of their fellowcreatures and their own obligation to do what they could to relieve it. From them, it has reached the churches, and, last of all, the Catholic Church in Italy. No doubt the spread of Socialism, with its superficial resemblance to some of the features of primitive Christianity, has somewhat modified the character of this ethical movement; so far, in fact, that the Italian Christian Democrats have been confounded, by persons with only a blurred sense of outlines, with the Socialists themselves. Whatever they may become, however, they now profess views in regard to property which separate them by an unbridgeable chasm from the Socialists.

In their zeal for their fellow-men, and especially for the poor and down-trodden classes, they find the old agencies of charity insufficient. To visit the sick, to comfort the dying, to dole out broth at the convent gate, is well, but it offers no remedy for the cause behind poverty and blind remediable suffering. Only through better laws, strictly administered, can effectual help come. So the Christian Democrats deemed it indispensable that they should be free to influence legislation.

At this point, however, the stubborn prohibition of the Vatican confronted them. Since 1870, when the Italians entered Rome and established there the capital of United Italy, the Vatican had forbidden faithful Catholics to take part, either as electors or as candidates, in any of the national elections, the fiction being that, were they to go to the polls or to be elected to the Chamber of Deputies, they would thereby recognise the Royal Government which had destroyed the temporal power of the Pope. Then what would become of that other fiction—the Pope's prisonership in the Vatican—which was to prove for thirty years the best paying asset among the Papal investments? So long as the Curia maintained an irreconcilable attitude towards the Kingdom, it could count on kindling by irritation the sympathy and zeal of Catholics all over the world. In Italy itself many devout Catholics had long protested that, as it was through the acquisition of temporal power that the Church had become worldly and corrupt, so through the loss of temporal power it would regain its spiritual health and efficiency. They urged that the Holy Father could perform his religious functions best if he were not involved in political intrigues and governmental perplexities. No one would assert that Jesus could have better fulfilled his mission if he had been king of Judea; why, then, should the Pope, the Vicar of Jesus, require worldly pomp and power that his Master disdained?

Neither Pius IX nor Leo XIII, however, was open to arguments of this kind. Incidentally, it was clear that if Catholics as such were kept away from the polls, nobody could say precisely just how many they numbered. The Vatican constantly asserted that its adherents were in a majority—a claim which, if true, meant that the Kingdom of Italy rested on a very precarious basis. But other Catholics sincerely deplored the harm which the irreconcilable attitude of the Curia caused to religion. They regretted to see an affair purely political treated as religious; to have the belief in the Pope's temporal power virtually set up as a part of their creed. The Lord's work was waiting to he done; yet they who ought to be foremost in it were handicapped. Other agencies had stepped in ahead of them. The Socialists were making converts by myriads; skeptics and cynics were sowing hatred not of the Church merely but of all religion. It was time to abandon "the prisoner of the Vatican" humbug, time to permit zealous Catholics, whose orthodoxy no one could question, to serve God and their fellow-men according to the needs and methods of the present age.

At last, in the autumn of 1905, the new Pope, Pius X, gave the faithful tacit permission, if he did not officially command them, to take part in the elections. Various motives were assigned for this change of front. Did even the Ultramontanes realise that, since France had repealed the Concordat, they could find their best support in Italy? Or were they driven by the instinct of self-preservation to accept the constitutional government as a bulwark against the incoming tide of Anarchism, Socialism, and the other subversive forces? The Church is the most conservative element in Christendom; in a new upheaval it will surely rally to the side of any other element which promises to save society from chaos. These motives have been cited to explain the recent action of the Holy See, but there were high-minded Catholics who liked to think that the controlling reason was religious that the Pope and his counsellors had at last been persuaded that the old policy of abstention wrought irreparable harm to the religious life of millions of the faithful in Italy.

However this may be, Senator Fogazzaro's book, filled with the Liberal and Christian spirit, has been eagerly caught up as the mouthpiece of the Christian Democrats, and indeed of all intelligent Catholics in Italy, who have always held that religion and patriotism are not incompatible, and that the Church has most injured itself in prolonging the antagonism. In this respect, The Saint, like Uncle Tom's Cabin and similar books which crystallise an entire series of ideals or sum up a crisis, leaped immediately into importance, and seems certain to enjoy, for a long time to come, the prestige that crowns such works. Putting it on the Index can only add to its power.

VI

But readers who imagine that this aspect measures the significance of The Saint have read the surface only. The probability of restoring friendly relations between Church and State is a matter of concern to everybody in Italy; but of even greater concern are the implications which issue from Signer Fogazzaro's thought. He is an evolutionist; he respects the higher criticism; he knows that religions, like states and secular institutions, have their birth and growth and inevitable decay. So Catholicism must take its course in the human circuit, and expect sooner or later to pass away. This would be the natural deduction to draw from the premise of evolution. Signor Fogazzaro, however, does not draw it. He conceives that Catholicism contains a final deposit of truth which can neither be superseded, wasted, nor destroyed.

"My friends," says Benedetto, "you say, 'We have reposed in the shade of this tree but now its bark cracks and dries; the tree will die; let us go in search of other shade.' The tree will not die. If you had ears, you would hear the movement of the new bark forming, which will have its period of life, will crack, will dry in its turn, because another bark shall replace it. The tree does not die, the tree grows."

Through this parable, Signor Fogazzaro reveals his attitude, which it appears, does not differ from that proposed by many Anglicans and other Protestants towards their respective churches. Herein his Saint takes on the largest significance. He is a religious man who constantly praises Reason, and urges his hearers to trust Reason; but who, at a given moment, falls back on Faith, cleaves to Faith, insists that Faith alone brings its own warrant. Hence arise paradoxes, hence contradictions which elude a reasonable solution. For instance, in one discourse Benedetto says: "The Catholic Church, which proclaims itself the fountain of truth, opposes to-day the search for Truth when it is carried on on its own foundations, on the holy books, on the dogmas, on its asserted infallibility. For us this means that it has no longer faith in itself. The Catholic Church which proclaims itself the minister of Life, to-day shackles and stifles whatever lives youthfully within it, and to-day it props itself on all its decadent and antiquated usages." Yet a little farther on he exclaims: "But what sort of faith is yours, if you talk of leaving the Church because certain antiquated doctrines of its heads, certain decrees of the Roman congregations, certain ways in a pontiff's government offend you? What sort of sons are you who talk of renouncing your mother because she wears a garment which does not please you? Is the mother's heart changed by a garment? When, bowed over her, weeping, you tell your infirmities to Christ and Christ heals you, do you think about the authenticity of a passage in St. John, about the real author of the Fourth Gospel or about the two Isaiahs? When you commune with Christ in the sacrament do the decrees of the Index or the Holy Office disturb you? When, giving yourself up to Mother Church, you enter the shadows of death, is the peace she breathes in you less sweet because a Pope is opposed to Christian Democracy?"

So far, therefore, as Fogazzaro is the spokesman of loyal yet intelligent Catholics, he shows that among them also the process of theological solution has been going on. Like Protestants who still profess creeds which they do not believe, these intelligent Catholics have to resort to strange devices—to devices which to a looker-on appear uncandid if not insincere,—in order to patch up a truce between their reason and their faith. This insincerity is the blight of the present age. It is far more serious than indifferentism, or than the open mockery of the 18th century philosophers. So long as it lasts, no deep, general religious regeneration will be possible. Be it remarked, however, that Signer Fogazzaro himself is unaware of his ambiguous position; being still many removes from Jowett, the typical Mr. Facing-both-Ways of the epoch.

VII

In conclusion, we go back to the book as a work of art, meaning by art not mere artifice, but that power which takes the fleeting facts of life and endues them with permanence, with deeper purports, with order and beauty. In this sense, Signer Fogazzaro is a great artist. He has the gift of the masters which enables him to rise without effort to the level of the tragic crises. He has also a vein of humour, without which such a theme as his could hardly be successfully handled. And although there is, by measure, much serious talk, yet so skilfully does he bring in minor characters, with their transient sidelights, that the total impression is that of a book in which much happens. No realist could exceed the fidelity with which Signer Fogazzaro outlines a landscape, or fixes a passing scene; yet being an idealist through and through, he has produced a masterpiece in which the imagination is sovereign.

Such a book, sprung from "no vain or shallow thought, "holding in solution the hopes of many earnest souls, spreading before us the mighty spiritual conflict between Medievalism still triumphant and the young undaunted Powers of Light, showing us with wonderful lifelikeness the tragedy of man's baffled endeavour to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, and of woman's unquenchable love, is a great fact in the world-literature of our time.

Cambridge, Massachusetts,
April 35. 1906.