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This finely wrought study draws from Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Mauriac, Milton, Herbert, Hopkins, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky, among others, including the anonymous author of the medieval poem Pearl. Such authors, Anthony Esolen believes, teach us that the last laugh is on the world, because that grim old world, taking itself so seriously that even its laughter is a sneer, will finally-despite its proud resistance-be redeemed. That is the ultimate irony of faith.
Before I define what irony is, let us examine what habits of mind are necessary for understanding so subtle a feature of language. Those habits are all the more necessary as the language of Christendom grows more distant and the culture more foreign.
Cleverness is not the answer. I would like to illustrate why by turning to a masterpiece of Christian poetry. Robert Browning wrote his longest and most difficult work, The Ring and the Book, precisely to show human beings failing to interpret correctly the actions and motives of one another. They fail not because they are dim-witted, but because their moral compromises limit their vision. Pride-and its concomitant assumption that everyone must be just like oneself, only not quite so intelligent or strong-willed-is the problem.
Browning derives his plot from the account of a notorious series of trials in late-seventeenth-century Rome. Violante, a childless wife, finds a woman of the streets who has recently given birth to a girl. She pays her for the baby and passes it off to herhusband Pietro as their own. They christen her Pompilia, and together they live well enough for people with no hereditary title. Worried that the secret of the birth will come out, Violante seeks to marry Pompilia away as soon as she can to someone with the title they lack. She finds one Guido, an Aretine and hanger-on at the cardinal's court, no priest but enough of a cleric to claim ecclesiastical privilege. He is a short, middle-aged, cowardly, ugly, embittered, and poverty-stricken aristocrat. The marriage is a hugger-mugger affair, Pietro not even present. Guido expects a large dowry; Pietro imagines the wealth of Guido's ancestral home. When that castle in Arezzo proves dilapidated and cold, and when Guido treats the parents with brute tyranny, they flee to their old home in Rome, leaving Pompilia behind.
There she bides, patient and unhappy, subjected to Guido's tyrannical whims and to the obscenity of his brother, a canon of the church. When the parents suddenly turn about and attack their attacker, testifying that Pompilia was not their daughter (and that therefore Guido was not entitled to her dowry), Guido counters by attempting to tar her as an adulteress. He uses maids and "friends" to try to press Pompilia into compromising herself with a local priest, the dashing Giuseppe Caponsacchi. He goes so far as to compel her to "write" letters at his instruction: he holds her hand and forces the pen along, as she can neither read nor write, nor does she know the content of what he has her compose! Caponsacchi, however, who has never spoken with or met Pompilia but only looked upon her sad, strange beauty once and from afar, sees through the ruse and resists.
Pompilia entreats first the governor of Arezzo, then the archbishop, while weeping like a child, pleading to be rescued from the evil that threatens her, body and soul. But they are worldly men and cronies of her husband. They know better. They wink at the wickedness and tell her to go home. They have no ears to hear.
At that, Pompilia turns to her last hope. She has never spoken to Caponsacchi. By all rights she should know nothing about him. But she does know. She has looked into his eyes once and seen-her knight.
Browning dares the reader to play the archbishop or the governor, to smile and shake his head and say that such "knowledge" is for fairy tales and not for real life (whatever that is). But a true man is what Pompilia sees. She manages to send him a plea to come take her away. After some days of hesitation, for he knows that no one will understand, and that he is about to destroy the churchly career his superiors have chiseled out for him, Caponsacchi submits to the promptings of a holy love. He sweeps her away to Rome. Just before they arrive, they are overtaken by Guido and his henchmen-Pompilia sleeping in a bedroom in a wayside inn, the priest watching over her.
So incriminating are the appearances that Guido might have slain her on the spot and been pardoned. But he is a coward; the priest raises a sword to defend Pompilia, and when the henchmen pinion his arms, the girl herself seizes a sword and raises it against Guido. At this point he retreats and decides to take legal action. The trial of charge and countercharge ends in stalemate: Guido is allowed to keep the dowry, Caponsacchi is removed to a retreat house, and Pompilia is committed to a convent outside Rome. When, a few weeks later, she is found pregnant, the court mercifully remands her to the home of her mother and father, under provision that she not leave. There she gives birth to a son, whom she names Gaetano, after a recently canonized saint, for as she sees it, Guido has no part in this son-only heaven.
Infuriated by the perceived insult to his honor, Guido steals to Rome during Christmastide and knocks at the door where the family dwells. When they ask who is there, he utters the magic word, "Caponsacchi." When Violante opens, he slashes her in the face. He and his fellows cut her mother and father to pieces, and give Pompilia what should have been a dozen death-stabs. But Pompilia does not die, not yet. Guido is discovered fleeing back to Arezzo and is brought to Rome to stand trial. Pompilia gives her full testimony from the bed where she will soon die-the testimony of a young woman in love, chaste love, with her champion, the gallant Caponsacchi! The priest and Guido testify; and Browning provides us with the "opinions" of the half of Rome that is for Guido, and of the half of Rome that is for Pompilia, and also of what he calls "Tertium Quid," the sophisticates who see more keenly, so they think, than does either side of the rabble. We are likewise presented with the trial preparations of the prosecutor (the grandly titled Fisc) and the defense attorney-worldly men, not exactly bad and not exactly good, full of themselves, and cutting a partly comic figure in their pretending to know everything.
When Guido is convicted and sentenced to death, he appeals to the pope, Innocent XII, himself old and dying. The pope responds that while, everyone might have expected Guido to long outlive him, as it is, in all his weakness the pope will live another day, while Guido shall not see the sun set again.
What Browning shows us in this tangle of purity and wickedness, and half-virtue and shadowy half-vice, is not only how difficult it is for us to "read." That is what critics of Browning put forth: he is the poet, they say, of multiple points of view, himself coolly distant from judgment. We are granted the irony of seeing that the same events might be viewed in a variety of ways, with all kinds of arguments to justify them.
But the irony Browning relishes is deeper than that. The spokesman for "Tertium Quid," a cool aristocratic skeptic, dismisses Pompilia's claim of innocence as incredible and dismisses Guido as a coward who in part got what he deserved. And he expects the pope to do the "reasonable" thing, to commute the sentence. Tertium might well be a modern trader in literary criticism. He is well-heeled, smiling at outrageous claims either to surpassing virtue or to surpassing wickedness. He pretends to a careful examination of evidence, but actually he works for self-advancement, whispering into the ear of his lordly master just what his lordly master is to believe of all the brouhaha. Yet the irony cuts against him and against all skeptics: for Browning reveals that Pompilia was not only innocent but miraculously pure. We who cannot believe are the ultimate objects of his admonition.
Pompilia is also the most acute "critic" in the poem-she, barely seventeen, who can neither read nor write, and who was married, as she says, "hardly knowing what a husband meant" (7.410). What makes her wise? Browning identifies it unhesitatingly. Pompilia's humility enables her to move outside herself, to imagine what it might be like to be someone else. So she is the only one in the poem, aside from the similarly humble pope, to excuse the whore who sold her away:
Well, since she had to bear this brand-let me! The rather do I understand her now,- From my experience of what hate calls love,- Much love might be in what their love called hate. (874-77)
So too she reads the virtue in Caponsacchi, though he-trained for worldly expectations, and having priested it so far among the gentry-struggles honestly and abashedly to find the same. And, ironically, she knows that others will "know" better:
So we are made, such difference in minds, Such difference too in eyes that see the minds! That man, you misinterpret and misprise- The glory of his nature, I had thought, Shot itself out in white light, blazed the truth Through every atom of his act with me: Yet where I point you, through the crystal shrine, Purity in quintessence, one dew-drop, You all descry a spider in the midst. One says, "The head of it is plain to see," And one, "They are the feet by which I judge," All say, "Those films were spun by nothing else." (7.918-29)
We judge by what we see, and unless we love deeply, we see ourselves. So will a cheat watch the fingers of everyone else at the card table.
What do the Romans make of the evidence? Most often, Browning shows, evidence is a motley thing, patched up with fads, half-heard news, clichés, smug assumptions about how all people must be, self-satisfaction, and, in the case of the professional Fisc and his hilariously slick-talking opponent Lord Hyacinth of the Archangels, the false alleys provided by a little learning and a heap of rhetorical trash. Pompilia, Caponsacchi, and the pope also have to weigh evidence; but humility opens their hearts to insight. Here is Pompilia, trying to express a joy in bearing a child who will never know his mother, but who will probably hear the lies:
Who is it makes the soft gold hair turn black, And sets the tongue, might lie so long at rest, Trying to talk? Let us leave God alone! Why should I doubt He will explain in time What I feel now, but fail to find the words? (7.1756-61)
Her words profess incapacity-and speak to the heart. God, who unties the tongue of the infant, will reveal to Gaetano the truth. An innocent child will hear when all the world is deaf.
The pope hears and understands. We meet him in his chambers, pondering the mystery of evil, knowing he is not long for this world, and wondering what fruit of all his shepherding he will have to show in the end. The world regards him as powerful, but the world is wrong. Consider with what humility and love he regards Pompilia:
Everywhere I see in the world the intellect of man, That sword, the energy his subtle spear, The knowledge which defends him like a shield- Everywhere; but they make not up, I think, The marvel of a soul like thine, earth's flower She holds up to the softened gaze of God! It was not given Pompilia to know much, Speak much, to write a book, to move mankind, Be memorized by who records my time. Yet if in purity and patience, if In faith held fast despite the plucking fiend, Safe like the signet-stone with the new name That saints are known by,- if in right returned For wrong, most pardon for worst injury, If there be any virtue, any praise,- Then will this woman-child have proved-who knows?- Just the one prize vouchsafed unworthy me. (10.1019-29)
No one sees what is really going on, says the pope; no one can read the narrative of the world from God's point of view. Yet he sees, humbly enough, that the finest harvest from his priesthood may be just this one poor soul, the illiterate Pompilia, a "woman-child," of whose virtue and sanctity Innocent considers himself unworthy. She never wrote a book, or even her own name. The papal historian will not remember her. But the Recording Angel will. Does that assertion strike the reader as credulous sentiment? Beware. The problem with skeptics and cynics is not only the faith they lose, but the faith they gain. It is what the pope identifies as Guido's telltale mark, "That he believes in just the vile of life" (10.511). On the night before his execution Guido can "see through," with what he thinks is ironical acuity, the façade of the pope's goodness:
The Pope moreover, this old Innocent, Being so meek and mild and merciful, So fond o' the poor and so fatigued of earth, So ... fifty thousand plagues in deepest hell! (11.55-58)
So the spokesman for "Half-Rome" can also "know" what a curly-haired young priest is all about, "Apollos turned Apollo" (2.794)! He'll not "prejudge the case" (680), he insists, yet so far does prejudge it that he pieces events out with his own sly imagination, picturing the contretemps between Pompilia and Caponsacchi, things that never happened at all: "Now he pressed close till his foot touched her gown, / His hand touched hers" (803-4).
If we must be blind, would it not be better to be dazzled by a piercing light? In this way Pompilia is blind, and therefore she sees-and it is actually there-the virtue of a man, Caponsacchi, who is yet to become the man she imagines. If she is blind to the faults of a less-than-chastely spent youth, it is because she is dazzled by the greater light. These are her dying words, spoken as if even now Caponsacchi were her saving knight, and not she his saving damsel:
So, let him wait God's instant men call years; Meantime hold hard by truth and his great soul, Do out the duty! Through such souls alone God stooping shows sufficient of His light For us i' the dark to rise by. And I rise. (7.1841-45)
Criticism and Gossip
The Ring and the Book is a storm of irony, currents and crosscurrents of knowledge and ignorance, surefire plans foiled, certitudes that wither away, and impossibilities come to pass. To understand the irony we must adopt the stance of Socrates, who in humility, perhaps in mock humility, insisted that he was the only man in Athens who did not know anything. For irony, as we shall see, has to do with what people think they know, or what they think they can expect. All criticism that does not begin in the humility of wonder must end up as the one or the other half of Rome: when correct, correct by happenstance; pretending to analyze, yet studying nothing with that patience that invites us to learn from what is beyond us; mired in gossip, and often gossip with a clear incentive in money or prestige.
From gossip we learn nothing new. If Mrs. Jones flirts with the deliveryman, we may find it shameless; but we know nothing more from our self-pleasing gossip than that she has done what we would not (usually, let it be noted, because we happen not to be tempted that way). But of what it might be like to be Mrs. Jones, or the poor workman, nothing. Gossip preempts, then deadens, our half-hearted attempts to enter imaginatively into the life of another. If we could glimpse the world for a moment through something distantly like Mrs. Jones's eyes, our understanding of her action might be very different. We might then be ready to invite her to tea, or to lock her up. There is no logical reason to suppose that our imaginative entry into her world must make us think the better of her; the pope saw into Guido, and found the lizards of our lower nature. Consider how uncomfortable you would feel if your admirers could enter your thoughts for the twinkling of an eye.
But perhaps I have miscast the action. Most of us are not endowed with what Keats called "negative capability," the imaginative power whereby we empty ourselves and assume the minds and souls of others. If we are to work our imaginations, we must love or hate. If we hate, we will, from our position of moral superiority, see our own vices smiling back at us, as Browning's Romans do, the vices we would possess if we were like the people we judge; but, thanks be to almighty God or to a sound education, we are not like them. He whom I imagine is no better than I am. So the Fist, to win his case for Pompilia, will not concede that she had any love affair with the priest, nor that she committed adultery (unless the priest took his importunate way with her while she slept). Fine; but see how his "defense" patronizes her supposed weakness of character and turns her into a common flirt:
And what is beauty's sure concomitant, Nay, intimate essential character, But melting wiles, deliciousest deceits, The whole redoubted armoury of love? (9.229-32)
No beauty that reflects the grandeur of God, this. The Fist's vision is imaginative indeed, drearily so, and many "truths" of the petty and misleading variety can be derived from such a thing. We can happily note the small wickedness of others, and miss the darkness that is our own.
Excerpted from Ironies of Faith by Anthony Esolen Copyright © 2007 by ISI Books. Excerpted by permission.
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