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Roamin' Catholic Sensibility in Toole, Mccarthy, and Delillo Peter C

Roamin' Catholic Sensibility in Toole, Mccarthy, and Delillo Peter C

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Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations The Graduate School

2008 A Good Catholic Is Hard to Find: Roamin' Catholic Sensibility in Toole, Mccarthy, and Delillo Peter C. Kunze

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A Thesis submitted to the Department of English in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts

Degree Awarded: Summer Semester, 2008

The members of the Committee approve the Thesis of Peter C. Kunze defended on April 21, 2008.

______Andrew Epstein Professor Directing Thesis

______Timothy Parrish Committee Member

______Christopher Shinn Committee Member

______Elaine Treharne Committee Member


______R. M. Berry Chair, Department of English

______Joseph Travis Dean, College of Arts and Sciences

The Office of Graduate Studies has verified and approved the above named committee members.


To my mother, who shows me the beauty of faith in a higher power and to my father, who thinks it is all nonsense.



I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to my thesis director, Dr. Andrew Epstein, for allowing me to explore this topic freely and for his detailed, insightful criticism. His commitment as a teacher and a director was a model for excellence in academia. I cannot imagine a more helpful, dedicated, and professional thesis director.

I thank Dr. Christopher Shinn, Dr. Timothy Parrish, and Dr. Treharne for serving on my committee. Individually, I would also like to gratefully acknowledge Dr. Shinn’s willingness to meet with me to flesh out the argument in its early stages, Dr. Parrish’s feedback on my Cormac McCarthy chapter and his course on , and Dr. Treharne’s encouragement and readiness to meet with me on matters of Catholicism. Their supportive, yet instructive comments in my defense made this experience all the more rewarding.

I am grateful to friends who checked in on me, even as I slipped into seclusion to finish this thesis. I would be remiss if I did not thank two friends in particular, Valerie Wetlaufer and Cameron Williams, for providing me with company while I wrote this thesis, offering a sympathetic ear when I slipped into impassioned rants, and generally keeping me sane. Their friendship has been one of the highlights of my time in Tallahassee.

I also have to thank my students for considerately keeping their and whining to a minimum this semester. They were among the most intelligent, motivated, and conscientious groups I’ve taught in my time here. Working with such bright, pleasant individuals made teaching a pleasant diversion from this project.

I am forever indebted to Dr. Timothy Viator of Rowan University, for his continued mentorship and friendship. He was among the first individuals to open up the world of academia to me and to show that being a professor goes far beyond lecturing and grading papers. He represents all that I want to be in this profession—selfless, knowledgeable, engaging, gracious, modest, dedicated. Without his encouragement, I would not be in graduate school and for that, I (gratefully) him for all of stress and misery.


And finally, my parents, Jack and Suzanne, my fiercest champions, for their undying love, fervent support, and unrelenting confidence in me. The only thing that exceeds your pride in me is my pride in being your son. Everything I do, everything I’ve done is a direct result of your generosity, affection, and support. Thank you does not begin to express my appreciation, but it is all I can offer here.










BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH…………………………………………………………………….87



Studies of Catholic have preferred analyses of authors whose work demonstrates a reverence to the faith they openly acknowledged. However, with the exception of Paul Giles’s American Catholic Arts and Fictions, most studies have ignored the Catholic influence in works of nonpracticing Catholics. This neglect limits the scope and undermines the complexity of Catholic American fiction to works by the religious, about the religious. In this study, I will examine non-practicing Catholic authors whose Catholicism has received little or no attention in order to explore traces of former faith n their work and expand the definition of Catholic American literature. The culture of the 1960s radically changed America forever, and three events in particular altered the Catholic American identity: the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1963), and the pronouncement of Humanae Vitae (1968). Since concerns over the body were at the heart of these three moments in history, I will use that as the means to explore the Catholic sensibility in the selected texts. Furthermore, these events led to a questioning of Catholicism and of faith in general: its capabilities, its right to power, and its effectiveness. In this study, I examine four by three non-practicing “Catholics”—, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo—who were born and raised Catholic prior to these events, but begin writing during or after the moments I have mentioned occur. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces addresses the “Vatican II,” subtly expressing frustration and grief towards the loss of a steady worldview. Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God purposefully rejects a Catholic view of God’s presence in the world, yet forces the reader to not judge Lester Ballard in a manner that is reminiscent of Christ’s teachings. Between Mao II (1991) and Falling Man (2007), Don DeLillo shifts in his view of how religion functions in the postmodern world, from skepticism to a guarded optimism. By exploring the Catholic subtexts in these novels, I challenge notions of secularity in contemporary American literature, including postmodern fiction. I will also show how authors traditionally excluded from scholarship on Catholic American literature have a rightful place next to the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton and . This addition, in turn, will add to the understanding of the complex, yet integral contribution Catholic , practicing and nonpracticing alike, have made to the American literary tradition.



It is a curious thing, do you know, Cranly said dispassionately, how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve. — , A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The problems inherent to a chronological study of literature—more specifically, the idea of “periods” and “movements”—have perhaps been the major motivating force behind the rise of the alternative organizations of literary study. The present day English department offers courses ordered not only by when the literature was produced, but also by whom it was produced. The identity politics explored within texts shifted the emphasis by which literary studies takes place and how a text may be understood. In giving primary consideration to ethnicity, gender, or religion, instructors allow students to examine texts in conversation across the ages. Despite the of such areas of study as Jewish American literature, Catholic American literature has received only limited attention in book-length studies.1 The Catholic presence in American literature is worthy of further investigation not only for the range of acclaimed American authors who were raised in and/or practiced Catholicism (, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Flannery O’Connor, among others), but also for the anti-Catholicism and consequential marginalization found throughout American history, which Catholic priest and author Andrew Greeley refers to as “last remaining unexposed prejudice” (qtd in Labrie 1). Although previous studies have made important strides towards establishing a body of Catholic American literary scholarship, there still exists a certain degree of exclusivity that I feel is problematic in such a fledgling area of inquiry. In his 1997 study The Catholic Imagination in American Literature, Ross Labrie states at the outset that his book “deals with authors who represent high intellectual and artistic achievement, it considers only authors who were practicing Roman Catholics, and it focuses only on literary works that center on Catholic belief and spirituality” (1). This statement of purpose raises two problems for the scholar of Catholic American fiction: the rather subjective valuing of what is “high intellectual and artistic” and the unapologetic elimination of non-practicing (or lapsed) Catholics. Paul Giles’s 1992 study

1 Perhaps the closest survey of Catholic American literature is Paul Giles’ American Catholic Arts and Fictions. Similar studies would be Ross Labrie’s The Catholic Imagination in American Literature and Anita Gandolfo’s Testing the Faith: The New Catholic Fiction in America. The number of these studies are easily dwarfed by those Jewish American literature and (and its subsects).


American Catholic Arts and Fictions did not make such subjective eliminations, but now nearing fifteen years since its publication, needs both amending and addition. In his preface, however, he apologizes for not considering the work of Don DeLillo, a reflection of his toward working with an active author, rather than an oversight on Giles’s part.2 In this study, I plan to address concerns with both Labrie and Giles’s analyses: the earlier’s exclusion of nonpracticing Catholics, the latter’s conscious exclusion of certain authors. While it goes without saying that there is an expansive canon of Jewish American literature, the existence of a Catholic American literature seems not as easily discernible. For one, being a “nonpracticing American Catholic” seems to be a growing trend in latter twentieth century into the twenty-first century (Hungerford 345). Commonweal, a journal for lay Catholics, has published several articles contributing to the debate over what is Catholic imaginative literature, most of which are mere musings, vague and problematic. Peter Quinn remarked in his 2000 essay “The Catholic : Fact or Fiction” that the concept of a Catholic novel “matters only to the who seeks to write in ways that expressly reflect Catholic teachings or moral sensibilities, or to readers who seek to find such themes in what they read” (18). Although he acknowledges the possibility of the novel to serve as a space to confront God (20), his definition is limited in that it privileges practicing Catholics like himself. This delineation is reductive. After all, remains one of the most prominent Jewish American , despite being chastised as self-hating and anti-Semitic.3 Quinn attempts to shield himself from criticism by repeatedly insisting these are just his views; it is my view then that he is short-sighted. Furthermore, he claims that an author’s Catholicism matters only to those people searching for literature that supports Catholic ideals; this assumption, too, is hasty. An author’s religion— Catholic or else—is significant because religion often provides a way of viewing the world, a way of conducting oneself, a way that is unique and unable to be ignored. Nevertheless, Quinn

2 The basis for my judgment is Giles’s rather presumptuous claim that the deaths of Mary McCarthy, Donald Barthelme, and Walker Percy while he was writing the book gave him “wry satisfaction at knowing they would not now be able to produce a later work that might undermine my carefully crafted arguments” (vii). 3 The criticism of Philip Roth’s depiction of Jews dates back to the stories that would make up his -winning collection, Goodbye, Columbus. For scholarly treatment of the subject, consult Alan Cooper’s book, Philip Roth and the Jews. Roth himself explores the difficulty of being an artist and appeasing one’s ethnicity in The Ghost Writer through the fictional guise of Nathan Zuckerman.

4 does provide four criteria helpful in reading Catholicism in a novel: “the communion of saints; sin, suffering, and redemption (which I count as one quality); grace; and the Incarnation” (18). More recently, English professor Bernard Bergonzi has argued in the same publication a more egalitarian approach: “There are, it seems, many ways of being a Catholic novelist, and not all of involve still being a Catholic (even if one does not pursue the distinction between the defiantly apostate and the merely lapsed)” (10). However, he ultimately dismisses the idea of a “Catholic novel” as “empty and misleading” (12). Perhaps the most eloquent of interlocutors in the debate is Flannery O’Connor, whose Catholic sensibility has been the topic of numerous studies.4 O’Connor’s non-fiction pieces, often fashioned from lectures that she gave during college visits, reveal an author seriously contemplating the intersection of Catholicism and fiction writing. Although she too limits the Catholic novel to the creative output of “novelists who are deeply Catholic” (“The Catholic Novelist” 193), she does offer a thought-provoking approach to finding Catholicism in literature: The Catholic novel can’t be categorized by subject matter, but only by what it assumes about human and divine reality. It cannot see man as determined; it cannot see him as totally depraved. It will see him as incomplete in himself, as prone to evil, but as redeemable when his own efforts are assisted by grace. (“The Catholic Novelist” 196-7) The struggle between good and evil, the search for completion, the final redemption—these are essential to the Catholic novel if one accepts it as literature promoting Catholicism. Yet, room must also be made for discussing novels written in reaction to Catholicism, whether it is an act of criticism, rebellion, or refutation. I therefore suggest the concept of the “nonpracticing Catholic novel.” The “nonpracticing Catholic novel” is not a deviation from the “Catholic novel” and therefore presumably inferior. In fact, as I have discussed, the definition of the “Catholic novel” remains a stagnant debate. Rather, I wish to propose that the definition of the “Catholic novel” must encompass at least two subdivisions in order to truly understand the complexity of Catholic American literature: “practicing Catholic novel” and the “nonpracticing Catholic novel.”5 The

4 I recommend Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Own or Ross Labrie’s The Catholic Imagination in American Literature. 5 I do not mean to limit all studies of the Catholic novel to these two categories. In fact, I think a worthy study of Catholic American literature would critically consider the subtle differences in

5 reason for this distinction is that both novels are created in the context of Catholicism: the earlier, with it; the latter, (often) against it.6 However, for my purposes in this essay, I wish to restrict myself to discussing the nuances of a “nonpracticing Catholic novel.” The term “nonpracticing Catholic” is admittedly problematic. What does one have to do to be considered “nonpracticing”? Is it a rejection of the Church? Is it the failure to attend ? Is it conversion to another faith? Because any definition will inevitably be subjective, I feel it necessarily to allow for the most open definition possible. Here it may be useful to separate Catholicism and the Roman . Catholicism is the system of beliefs, while the Church is the institution through which this system is exercised, espoused, and regulated. Thus, I define “nonpracticing Catholicism” as disenchantment or disappointment with the Roman Catholic Church, potentially caused by multiple factors (priests, the Pope, sex scandals, conservatism, treatment of women, attitude towards homosexuals, etc.) and manifesting itself in recurring doubt, feelings of alienation, absence at church services, and, ultimately, rejection of the religion, despondency towards religion in general, or conversion to another. “Nonpracticing Catholics” tend to be those who were raised in the Church, but have distanced themselves out of conflict of interest (F. Scott Fitzgerald) or refutation (Theodore Dreiser). Ultimately, a “nonpracticing Catholic” would have to be one who consciously acknowledges a dissension with the Church, since the definition of a “good Catholic” will always be fluid and wholly subjective. What is important is that a rejection of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church does not correlate to a rejection of a Catholic view of the world. To say that the 1960s was a period of transition is an understatement; it no than changed the cultural landscape of America forever—socially, politically, spiritually. From the Women’s Liberation to the Civil Rights Act to the Stonewall Riot, this decade led the charge towards progress, modernization, and equality. For Catholics, three events during this time forever changed the Catholic identity in America: the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1963), and the issue of Humanae Vitae (1968). While the Second Vatican Council and Humanae Vitae changed what Catholic worship entailed, the Kennedy assassination shattered the innocence of Catholics, ending the term of the first

the work of those raised Catholic such as Flannery O’Connor versus authors like and Walker Percy, who came to Catholicism on their own volition. 6 I mean “against” here to signal a critique or dismissal


Catholic President. The Second Vatican Council was convened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, who died soon after in 1963, whereupon Pope Paul VI was elected. Paul VI continued the Council’s mission, issuing reforms via constitutions, decrees, and declarations. These reforms were both theological and practical; I will focus primarily on how the Council modified the Mass. Perhaps the most obvious reform was introduced in Sacrosanctum Concilium, issued in 1963, stating that “vernacular language may be used in administering the sacraments and sacramentals” (Teachings 38). Traditionally, Mass had been conducted in Latin, a dead language whose relative obscurity—nonpracticing Catholic George Carlin muses that “I like the idea of learning a language no one speaks” (232)—intensified the ritual and tradition of the Mass. Also, in another change, the laypeople became more involved in the Mass, serving as Eucharistic ministers and readers, so as to create community and heed the call of the Lord. In another significant reform, Nostra Aetate, the Church encouraged understanding of the Jews and attempted to calm any tension with Protestant denominations by declaring The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary, following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently implores the Christian faithful to "maintain good fellowship among the nations" (1 Peter 2:12), and, if possible, to live for their part in peace with all men, so that they may truly be sons of the Father who is in heaven. (Teachings 272) Andrew Greeley reports that, despite popular belief, lay Catholics met these reforms with enthusiasm and revived vigor. However, such revision of old traditions altered the way in which religion was handled, and the Second Vatican Council had its share of dissenters. If old ways could be revised to suit the times, what truth value did they honestly hold? I argue that the Second Vatican Council called into question the Church’s right to govern Catholicism. However, it was not until Humanae Vitae in 1968, as Andrew Greeley shows, that the Church saw a drop in Mass attendance, but few Catholics actually left the Church (The Catholic Myth 94). Humanae Vitae was not a part of the Second Vatican Council but was a direct response to the sexual liberation characteristic of the 1960s culture in the and abroad. Through this encyclical, Pope Paul VI refused to condone the use of contraception, leading some to

7 question the Church’s right to intervene in matters of private intimacy. In his 1976 book A History of Christianity, historian Paul Johnson summarizes the effect of the Church’s controversial decision: Humanae Vitae effectively alienated the progressive wing of the Catholic Church from the papacy; and, at about the same time, the introduction of sweeping changes in the liturgy, including the compulsory use of the vernacular at most services, alienated many on the conservative wing. The reign of Paul VI thus signaled the end of populist triumphalism. (513) Andrew Greeley offers a different view on the matter in his 1990 book The Catholic Myth. He agrees the laity disregarded the teaching, and the Church’s “credibility as a teacher of sexual ethics was badly weakened” (The Catholic Myth 96). However, he argues that people began to realize that they could remain Catholic while being opposed to some of the teachings of the Church; Catholicism was merely an aspect of their identity. Their religion could be negotiable, on their own terms. After all, Greeley asserts, most people stayed with the Catholic Church because they liked being Catholic (The Catholic Myth 3). Yet, this conscious decision to challenge the Church’s authority, to re-examine one’s role within the Church, to question the role of the Church in one’s everyday life is the issue with which many authors who lived through the 1960s and the Church’s reforms grapple with in the space of the novel. In this thesis, I will examine three authors born and raised in the Roman Catholic Church prior to the Second Vatican Council, but who begin writing either during or after it: John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969), Cormac McCarthy (1933-), Don DeLillo (1936-). These authors have been selected because they were reared in the Roman Catholic Church, but do not identify themselves as practicing Catholics or Catholic writers. John Kennedy Toole remained a Catholic most his life, although his biographers describe him as a “-and- churchgoer” (Nevils, Hardy 69) and his friend Emilie Griffin suggests in a recent essay that he may have lost his faith in God, although she is not sure (“Style and Zest”). In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, McCarthy seems to distance himself from organized religion, saying, “I don’t think you have to be clear of who or what God is in order to pray. You can even be quite doubtful about the whole business.” DeLillo views his Catholicism as an aspect of his Italian American upbringing, referring to his “Catholic childhood” (Passaro 81; Sauer). Despite their similar religious backgrounds, though, the three authors address religion in different manners.


I intend to show how DeLillo, McCarthy, and Toole offer three opposing responses toward Catholicism or organized religion through their fictions. With the Second Vatican Council, Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces laments the loss of a steady worldview. It is the only work of the four novels that I will discuss that directly confronts the Council. McCarthy’s Child of God not only rejects a Catholicized view of the world as innately good, but violates those entities which are held to be sacred. DeLillo’s Mao II and Falling Man are more optimistic that the other texts. DeLillo does not dismiss the potential for belief, be it in the spiritual or religious. However, between his two novels, his view of religion’s true potential for hope and consolation shifts considerably to reveal a possible return to Catholicism, if not a re-appreciation of what religion offers the faithful. John Kennedy Toole, unlike the Italian-American childhood of DeLillo in New York or McCarthy’s Irish-American upbringing in Tennessee, represents the union of multiple cultures one finds in , both French and Caribbean, monotheistic and polytheistic. Toole’s Ignatius Reilly is a character who demonstrates an undeniable discomfort in his body. His clothes do not fit and his body is grotesque: vomiting, coughing, sneezing, eating, drinking. It is an open form, countering the classical. Comparisons to François Rabelais’s Gargantua are inevitable; early in The Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius Reilly’s posterior is described as “gargantuan” (20). Using Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on Rabelais, I want to connect Toole’s use of the grotesque with his Catholicism. The comedy that is the novel arises from a discomfort with the body—its size, its function, and the desires and drives that govern it. Toole shares DeLillo and McCarthy’s general feelings about Catholicism’s practicality, but his manifestation of the “hollowness” is quite different, fostering a novel that is a lasting contribution to both to American humor and Catholic American literature. Of the authors that I analyze, Catholicism is perhaps most problematic for Cormac McCarthy’s work. , for example, opens with a preacher being chased out of town for pedophilia and bestiality, constructed by the Judge. Religion’s place is uncertain in McCarthy, and in examining Child of God, I intend to show how Catholic reverence for the body’s sanctity is violated, undermined, and discarded. The name of the protagonist of Child of God, Lester Ballard, seems to echo “molester” and “ballad.” Is Child of God a eulogy for a man society shunned? Is the reader left to judge Lester for his actions in a framework that is fundamentally Christian? In the Gospel of John, Christ admonishes, “Let the one among you

9 who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). McCarthy challenges the reader to judge Lester, to not join the masses that alienate him. Should we remove the concept of sin, dismissing it as an idea of pure human construction and therefore inconsequential? Is God a surrogate in place of a missing critical consciousness, replacing the need to justify existence and question reality? God, in McCarthy, comes across as yet another means of social control. Lester violates his female victims’ corpses, subverting the holiness (and wholeness) of the body in Christian teachings. This transgression may be read a violent reaction against Catholic piety— that sentiment is artificial, unnecessary, and repressive. The body is the essence of piety, hence the comparisons to the “temple.” Here, virtue, soul and religiosity converge and are embodied. It is a vehicle for one’s journey through this life in preparation for the afterlife. However, the illogical nature of existence challenges the validity of a benevolent creator, omnipresent and omniscient. Falling Man, Don DeLillo’s fifteen novel, is the author’s contribution to the growing corpus of 9-11 fiction. Inverting Richard Slotkin’s argument that “the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience” (5), I want to posit that the United States was regenerated by violence against it, rather than violence it commits. The violence has a purifying effect, eradicating illusions and idealism, leaving a raw and vulnerable psyche. One is reminded of the flood in Old Testament: a new world is created. However, it is done so not by water, but by fire: the explosion resulting from the attack on the Twin Towers. The result, clouds of ash and dust, was disorienting, leading to an initiation into a new world. The Falling Man, a performance artist, comes to represent a living monument, an uncomfortable and perhaps unwelcome symbol of this travesty, this transgression, this open wound. The image of Christ suffering on the cross, a body mutilated for the ultimate absolution of man’s sins, is a very Catholic conception, and it serves also as a reminder of man’s sins. Healing is analogous, to a degree, with forgetting, which the performance artist does not allow. Christ’s death—His singular death—is a reminder to Catholics of not only God’s love, but of the sins of all, by which and for which He died. In this manner, the street performer represents the sins of America which led to the attacks of 9-11. The ensuing serves to humble, to remind, and, in many ways, to control. The trope of the Falling Man has personified and personalized this horrific atrocity in popular culture. It allows one to contextualize the anarchy, the chaos, of 9-11. Large numbers of lives lost are narrowed into one person. It illustrates man’s capacity for

10 evil and violence towards his fellow man, and how society both provoked and permitted it. With this in mind, I will compare how DeLillo’s attitude toward religion in his 1991 novel Mao II is modified by 9/11, creating the approach to faith’s potential one finds in Falling Man. In order to demonstrate and understand how these responses are articulated, I will base my readings on an issue that separates Catholics from the Protestants: the emphasis on corporeality and the treatment of the body in the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike most other Christian denominations, Catholics worship a crucifix, a cross with the body of Christ, wounded and suffering. William A. Beardslee contends, “the cross of Jesus Christ opens our eyes to the way in which something other than the pragmatic question is of final concern. […] If the resurrection shows us the infinite worth of the other, the crucifixion gives us a glimpse of something that transforms without removing our difficulties” (78). This image—Christ in agony—pervades the Catholic imagination, from the Stations of the Cross to the crucifix; Martin Scorsese, of the same generation as the writers I will discuss, recalls, “When I was in grammar school with the nuns, they would tell stories and I would draw pictures of Christ on the cross. They loved it, and I would go show them to all the different nuns in all the different classes” (qtd in Occhiogrosso 93). This emphasis on the body—both its integrity and its susceptibility to temptation—reverberates throughout the Catholic psyche. in response to the body begins in the Garden of Eden with the fall of man, at the hands of a woman, no less—a fact that triggers the portrayal of passive, weak women or sexualized, seductive women in Catholic fiction. Therefore, how women are depicted and treated will be a secondary concern of mine in the following chapters. I focus my readings on the body because it is the issue of sexuality, such as birth control and fornication that triggers many Catholics’ departure from or negotiation with their Catholicity. Again, Scorsese provides explanation: “My disenchantment with the Church began the first time I got involved sexually with someone. I felt that it was coming out of a love state and not what they insisted was something evil. It couldn’t have been evil. I remember facing the priest who I liked a lot and going to confession and telling him all about it. He said, ‘Yes, but the idea is that it has to be sanctified by God. It’s not evil what you did, but it has to sanctified by God.’ It kind of made sense to me then, around sixty-four or sixty-five. […] But I knew that sex wasn’t intrinsically bad. And how offended could God get if it was something that was done out of a sense of celebration?” (qtd in Occhiogrosso 99-100)


By examining these different reactions to religion in the contemporary world through the lens of corporeality, I will show that not only is spirituality still a major concern in contemporary American literature (including postmodern fiction), but that the novel becomes a space to confront religion. It is not my goal to prove these writers are Catholic; that fact needs no proving, as these writers’ biographies verify they were born and raised in the Church, and in the case of McCarthy and DeLillo, educated there as well. What I aim to show is how these four novels wrestle with issues of religion and one’s participation in such a concept. In doing so, these writers show that the crisis of religion in contemporary American literature is not an issue of the past, but remains a matter of concern for the writer in late 20th and early 21st century. They refute Frederic Jameson, who in Postmodern Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, argues that “spirituality virtually by definition no longer exists: the definition in question of that of postmodernism itself. One of postmodernism’s ultimate achievements is the utter eradication of all the forms of what used to be called idealism” (387). Religion is neither dead nor dying, but it is troubling in a world that is increasingly unknowable. However, this inability to fully comprehend reality creates a place for religions like Catholicism, which celebrate the mysteries of God. Therefore, the novel as a genre allows authors to discuss religion’s viability in the contemporary world and personally to “confess” their own anxieties to a “higher” authority—the text. Despite their shared disillusionment with Catholicism, their reactions manifest themselves in completely divergent ways. By delving into the plurality of responses and showing the nuances of each, I challenge claims of the dormancy (if not total eradication) of spirituality in our times. Furthermore, such analysis reveals the complexity of contemporary American fiction and Catholic American literature alike by showing authors who defy the conventions of the “movements” or “traditions” they belong to—the comic novel for Toole; postmodernism for McCarthy and DeLillo. Finally, I will explore the strained nature of the lay Catholic’s relationship with the Church in a post-Second Vatican Council America, both its causes and how writing becomes an acceptable venue to flesh out such doubts and suspicions. These readings that I offer will undermine totalized accounts (which, ironically, postmodernism already rejects) of the American literary imagination that characterize it as distrusting of metanarratives and are, therefore, “Post-Christian.”



Who’ll be my role model Now that my role model is Gone Gone ⎯ Paul Simon, “You Can Call Me Al”

The story behind the publication of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is such stuff as legends are made of, with a cast of eccentric characters as farcical as the book itself: a struggling writer who desperately wants to publish what he sees as his masterpiece, an overbearing and attention-hungry mother who continues her son’s quest after his tragic death, and a National Book Award-winning novelist who reluctantly reads the smudged manuscript after months of being pursued. In 1980, nearly sixteen years after it was completed and eleven years after the suicide of the author, the State University Press published A Confederacy of Dunces to near unanimous acclaim. Although he had initially avoided Mrs. Toole’s requests for him to read the novel, Walker Percy wrote a laudatory foreword for it, singling out one aspect of the novel as the most praiseworthy: the main character. A protagonist reminiscent of Don Quixote, Gargantua, and Falstaff, the corpulent, vitriolic Ignatius Reilly launches, as Percy calls it, “a one-man war against everybody—Freud, homosexuals, heterosexuals, Protestants, and the assorted excesses of modern times” (8). Although a devout Catholic himself, Percy misses one of the most important attacks in the novel: the assault on the Roman Catholic Church. Writing during the instituting of the Second Vatican Council’s reforms, Toole harshly satirizes the Church that provided him with his own “worldview,” dealing with his own conflicted views toward Catholicism and deriving humor from the anxiety it causes. The novel becomes a safe space for fleshing out these concerns, particularly Catholicism’s compromise with the culture of the 1960s. However, unlike authors like Cormac McCarthy, who seem to unreservedly reject a Catholicized view of creation, Toole’s protagonist mourns the loss of his religion, mirroring Toole’s own perspective. The Catholic Church’s willingness to negotiate its authority does not simply Ignatius (and, perhaps, Toole), but frustrates him. Like Lianne in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, Ignatius wants to find comfort in the

13 traditions of the Church. However, such consolation will not come to Ignatius, and his battles with are often read as comedic, but a subtle feeling of alienation and anxiety is also present. Through an understanding of how Catholicism informs Ignatius’s logic and behavior, one can come to a closer understanding of the larger-than-life, both literally and figuratively, personality at the heart of this contemporary comic classic as not just a buffoon, presented to be mocked, but rather a soul lost among a confederacy of dunces, worthy of empathy and closer examination. One may wonder about the purposes of establishing Ignatius Reilly as a Catholic. In this chapter, I will show that discussing Ignatius as a Catholic helps the reader to view Toole’s bombastic picaro as more than a clown. Toole’s decision to create a Catholic protagonist goes beyond mere characterization to provide a key for recognizing both Ignatius’s motivation and the structure of this deceptively well-structured novel. Religions are not just collections of beliefs; they are a systemic way of approaching, viewing, and behaving in the world. As interviewer Peter Occhiogrosso begins his book Once a Catholic, It has always seemed to me that Catholics carry their religion around with them in ways that others simply do not. […] But an indelible mark does appear to have been imprinted on most Catholics—whether or not they continue to practice the faith—as a result of Catholic school education, religious instruction, home training, and communal piety; like a tenacious dinner guest, it comes early and stays late. (xiii) For the most part, Occhiogrosso’s subsequent conversations with famous Catholics, both active and lapsed, reinforce his prefatory claim: you can leave the Church, but the Church cannot leave you. Despite the almost pervasive effect of Catholicism (or any religion) on the individual’s mind, critics oddly have not considered this aspect in depth while offering readings of Ignatius as a character and a text himself. William Bedford Clark feels Ignatius exhibits “perverse childishness,” linking his behavior to “infantilism” (qtd. in Hardin 59). Richard Patteson and Thomas Sauret feel “sexual fears may be partly responsible for Ignatius’s avoidance of love” (86), but they link this to the untraditional relationship with his mother, demonstrated by the comfort he takes in the “womb” that is his bedroom. Concerned with the heteronormativity championed by earlier readings, Michael Hardin’s recent article proposes that Ignatius is engaged in a “queer performance” (59). However, while Hardin succeeds in challenging his

14 predecessors, he fails to explain the significance of his reading. A queer reading may explain somewhat Reilly’s behavior towards Myrna Minkoff and the homoerotic implications of selling hot dogs for Paradise Vendors, but very little about his general rejection of modernity. After all, Ignatius does find a welcoming gay community, although he rejects them and their behavior. Elizabeth S. Bell discusses the tension between the Ignatius’s “worldviews,” but in her discussion of the medieval versus the contemporary, she manages to completely miss the influence of Catholicism on either of those aforementioned periods. Pat Gardner’s suggestion that the novel is a “Christian comedy” seems promising (87), but she too fails in her reading by suggesting that the novel has a happy ending and the reader laughs with Ignatius (90, 87). The conclusion is nothing if not ambiguous; Ignatius simply sallies forth to continue his escapades with no promise of happiness or satisfaction to come. To suggest the reader laughs with Ignatius is quite problematic, taking into consideration the affective fallacy and the fact that the other characters’ descriptions of Ignatius—“fat turd” (45), “that greencap freak” (66), “that Reilly Blimp” (288), to name just a few—would seem to encourage the reader to laugh at Ignatius, if a claim can even be made. Perhaps the most successful critic at interpreting Catholicism in the text is Michael Gillespie, who argues that Ignatius’s “religious upbringing has shaped and conditioned his behavior” (39). While I agree with this assessment and Gillespie’s further claim that understanding the text’s Catholicism “gives the readers the deepest insights” (39), I find Gillespie’s reading overall to be too vague and too brief to offer any greater appreciation of Ignatius’s complexity. Through a close reading of key passages where one can see not just the presence of Catholicism, but also its role as the impetus behind Ignatius’s behavior, one can begin to appreciate the complexity of the protagonist: not just his amusing behavior, but what compels such actions and how he rationalizes them. It can become all too easy to dismiss the jester as mere entertainment, but the humor that he or she offers is often rooted in pain, fear, and frustration. In Ignatius’s case, the source of the humor is the dissonance between how he approaches the world (governed by the laws of God) and how the society operates (governed by the laws of man). To fully appreciate this religious undercurrent in the text, one must first consider Catholicism’s role in 1960s society and in John Kennedy Toole’s life. Another difficulty in Gillespie’s reading is that he does not explore the nuances of the author’s faith, preferring instead to do a straight comparison with Walker Percy and Flannery


O’Connor. Although Flannery O’Connor was one of Toole’s favorite writers (Nevils, Hardy 42), he was not devout like her and Percy. In their biography of Toole, Rene Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy characterize their subject as a “Christmas-and-Easter churchgoer” around the time he composed the novel (69). When Toole was a child, his mother did not trust the Vatican and its authority, so although the family continued to attend Mass, they remained a detached presence in the church community (Nevils, Hardy 21-2). Despite this guarded relationship with the Church, Toole seems to have remained rather faithful to his beliefs until he moved to to complete graduate work at and, later, teach at . The atmosphere in New York City was alien to Toole; for the first time, his religion made him an outsider. In fact, his friend Emilie Griffin once observed him informing his students that anti- Catholicism was the “anti-Semitism of the intellectual” (qtd in Nevils, Hardy 69). New Orleans—not necessarily the South, which was predominantly Protestant—was rich with Catholic influence, both historically and culturally. However, New York City was not, and he may have been disillusioned with the religious discrimination he found there, particularly at Hunter College. Based on the biographical information available on Toole, it is perhaps most accurate to define him as a “cultural Catholic”—an individual who identifies with the traditions and perspective provided by Catholicism, but does not necessarily participate in the Mass. Emilie Griffin, a close friend and devout Catholic, felt that although she and Toole shared the same faith, he did not have the same passion for it (Nevils, Hardy 79). In a letter to him, she wrote: Ken, I am writing! I am writing! Pray for me that it will last. (Oh, some non- sectarian, non-religious prayer will do very nicely.) (qtd in Nevils, Hardy 79) Griffin’s aside seems to suggest Toole was growing more and more disillusioned with Catholicism, despite her own feelings of loyalty toward the religion and the church. This contrast demonstrates an important, if not obvious, distinction: not everyone responded to the radical changes of the 1960s—including, but not limited to, the Second Vatican Council—in the same manner. Furthermore, the reforms of the Catholic Church were not the only blow to Catholic identity in the early 1960s. On November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated John F. Kennedy in Dallas, traumatizing a nation. In a 1965 letter to , the editor behind Catch-22 who corresponded with Toole in an unsuccessful attempt to revise A Confederacy of Dunces for publication, John


Kennedy Toole discussed how the death of the young, Catholic President Kennedy had affected him, both emotionally and creatively, while writing A Confederacy of Dunces: The book went along until President Kennedy’s assassination. Then I couldn’t write anymore. Nothing seemed funny to me. I went into a funk. (qtd in Nevils, Hardy 138) Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet martyred the young President, a tragic death that startled Americans, especially the Catholic population that had put so much hope in the youthful promise he represented. Such a devastating blow further exacerbated Toole’s growing depression, together with the frustration of his inability to publish his novel and the anti-Catholicism he was facing in New York City. Toole would eventually leave New York City to continue his graduate work at Tulane, where he became fascinated with Theodore Dreiser, whose novel, Sister Carrie, Toole had taught at Hunter College (Nevils, Hardy 160). His instructor, Donald Pizer, said Toole’s particular interest in Dreiser centered on the author’s problematic relationship with his mother and his fervent anti-Catholicism (160). Like Toole, Dreiser’s mother was skeptical about the Church and was also “erratic (and reluctant) in her church attendance” (Giles 145). Dreiser’s anti-Catholicism is best seen in his memoir, Dawn. With A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole seems to be channeling Dreiser, who wrote in Dawn that the Catholic Church was “the intellectual dry- rot of the Middle Ages, the horrible charnel-house of mediaeval ideas” (qtd. in Giles 145). The extent of Dreiser’s influence on Toole is unclear, but Toole’s curiosity toward him is a relevant one due to their shared criticism of the Catholic Church. However, a noticeable difference is that Dreiser was an apostate, totally rejecting Catholicism, while Toole was uncertain and discouraged, at best. Around the same time, Toole was teaching at Dominican College, a Catholic institution in New Orleans that is now defunct. Here, by 1968, the once instructor’s popularity began to wane, as his classes were disrupted by his “vicious and bitter” humor and “harangues against church and state” (Nevils, Hardy 165). This feeling of marginalization may have instigated the alienation and disenchantment at the heart of A Confederacy of Dunces. This combination of disdain and disappointment at the culture of the 1960s, his faith, and the state of his life are mirrored in the work that would be the basis and core of his legacy. Although Toole’s commitment to the Catholic Church is questionable at best, Ignatius vainly clings to an outdated Catholicism, hence his fondness for medieval figures like


Boethius and Hroswitha, reverence towards saints like Martin de Porres (to assist with the coup of Levy Pants), and “contemplating the unfortunate turn that events had taken since the Reformation” (41). Since the end of the Middle Ages, “Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy” (40). Catholicism, for Ignatius, brings order, explanation, and reason. However, he begins to see that the modern world and Catholicism’s rationale do not work hand-in-hand, a fault that falls on the former more than the latter. Catholicism did work and, in his eyes, worked gloriously. However, for Ignatius, the attempts of the Church to modernize through Second Vatican Council were misguided because the Church changed rather than expecting the world to do so. In an illustrative scene, Mrs. Reilly remarks about the “trash” on Ignatius’s floor, to which he responds, “That is my worldview that you see. It still must be incorporated into a whole, so be careful where you step” (59). Like the tablets scattered around his room, the doctrine of the Catholic Church was being reworked, rearranged, revised. Ignatius, satirizing the Church’s plans for innovation, remarks about the need for coherence and unity. The pages that follow mourn the Church’s efforts through nostalgia and regret: “Martyrdom is meaningless in our age” (61); “I have learned to expect little from today’s clergyman” (65). Causes are extinct; thus, sacrificing oneself to show dedication is inconsequential. His anger is a blend of frustration and nostalgia; he is tortured by modern Catholicism’s inability to help him cope with modernity through advances in technological, ideological, and behavioral practices. Seemingly, this fury is rooted as much in disappointment as annoyance. Here, Ignatius differs in his “Catholic qualities” from Lester Ballard of Child of God and Karen in Mao II.7 His reaction is not one of repudiation or abandonment, but rather of mourning. Ignatius’s most damning words against the “new” Catholic Church come in the form of a story he tells his mother about his time as an loiterer/instructor at an unnamed college in Baton Rouge (presumably Louisiana State University), followed by his commentary: Some poor white from told the dean that I was a propagandist for the Pope, which was patently untrue. I do not support the current Pope. He does not at all fit my concept of a good, authoritarian Pope. Actually, I am opposed to the relativism of modern Catholicism quite violently. (64)

7 I understand that neither Lester nor Karen is explicitly Catholic. However, I view their approaches to the world to be response to Catholicism, informed by the religion of their respective creators’ youths. My justification for this feeling will be explored in the subsequent chapters.


Ignatius is almost undoubtedly discussing the Second Vatican Council and its transition towards modernization and revitalization. As Thomas F. Haddox rightly points out, the Pope that Ignatius is referring to is unclear because the Second Vatican Council was led by John XXIII and his successor, Paul VI (173). Ignatius’s disapproval can be seen in his association of “good” with “authoritarian”; he is a man who appreciates order, hierarchies, and power in a cultural moment that celebrates, liberates, and challenges authority. Ignatius’s aggravation at this disparity provides the humor; his estrangement provides the pathos. Second Vatican Council was an attempt to reinvigorate the Church and, perhaps latently, make it more attractive. It wanted to make the Church relevant again and therefore more powerful and more influential in modern society. The reconfiguration of the Church, including such changes as the New Mass, calls into questions the Church’s authority: not just what it is, exactly, but also the Church’s ability to possess it. Considering the divine element critical to the structuring of the Church’s power, it is not surprising that such an overhaul in light of the times could be perceived as evidence of incompetence and impotence, especially by those who saw no flaws in the traditional Church. This lack of confidence in the Church after Second Vatican Council, I argue, parallels the questioning of authority that would characterize the 1960s. Ignatius’s distrust of the modern Church echoes in his treatment of all authority figures in the novel. When reading Ignatius’s Catholicism, his frequent visits to the movie theater prove quite revealing in understanding his conflicted worldview. Channeling his belief in the Wheel of Fortune, the narrator declares, “When spins you downward, go out to a movie and get more out of life. Ignatius was about to say this to himself; then he remembered that he went to the movies almost every night, no matter which way Fortuna was spinning” (67). Like his excessive belching or habitual masturbation, Ignatius’s moviegoing deserves a closer examination in order to determine its purpose both in his worldview and the text. Both Richard Patteson and Sarah Lewis Dunne have written briefly on this topic, but their individual analyses offer little more than an explication of a trope in the work, rather than providing some greater understanding of the text as a whole. Dunne’s piece sees moviegoing as a “deeply necessary and ordering experience” for her subjects—Ignatius, Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye) and Binx Bolling ()—but sees Ignatius’s solitary moviegoing as sign of his love of himself (46). Although Dunne’s use of Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Cinema” to discuss the empowerment Ignatius receives through going to the movies is productive, the

19 implication of in this instance is reductive. Rather, the self-adulation Dunne identifies is actually the alienation and abandonment Ignatius feels in the modern world. He does not go by himself because he loves himself, but because he seeks escape from the overwhelming malaise he feels, which he credits to Fortuna and demonstrates through his chronic masturbation (literally, love of himself) and failure to function in society. Furthermore, Ignatius’s moviegoing becomes a forum for his virulent diatribes about debauchery in New Orleans and society at large. Critics of the text have overlooked the religious satire at work here; from 1934 until well into the 1960s, no interest group had as much influence on filmmaking as the Catholic Church. Exercising their authority through the Legion of Decency, the Catholic Church in Hollywood served as the self-appointed “moral guardian of the American public” (Black 1). In a rather aggressive move, the Legion of Decency would refuse to bless films they found offensive, insist where in the world the film could be released, and instruct Catholics not to patronize offending theaters for up to a year (Black 2). This “censorship”—although Black disagrees, many have said what the Legion of Decency did was “classify” films—demonstrates the Catholic Church’s authority in American culture and how its influence waned in the 1960s after various social reforms. With unnecessarily outrageous criticisms of seemingly harmless entertainment, Ignatius unknowingly serves as a parody of the same Church with which he is simultaneously disappointed. Toole not only uses the theater scenes to illustrate Ignatius’s irritation, but the attempts the Church took to maintain its authority in popular culture, attempts Toole sees as ridiculous and futile. Perhaps the most caustic of his film-inspired rants are those focusing on the conduct of women, especially those film stars who show skin, smile incessantly, and sing “lustily about ultimate success” (67). During his first visit in the novel, the female star sings as she dangles from a trapeze. From her teeth to her legs, she inadvertently presents herself for inspection by Ignatius, who hopes “that the camera would record her fatal plunge to the sawdust far below” (69). His desire for her to be punished for her overt sexuality parallels his consequential proclamation, “What degenerate produced this abortion?” (69). His comparison of offensive visual experience to a procedure condemned by the Catholic Church is worthy of note. He views the film as offensive and, therefore, an artistic failure. However, he describes this dissatisfaction in terms of a bodily transgression such as an abortion, which according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is an unnatural act upon the body, a disruption of order, because Catholics

20 believe God “has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life” (606). Therefore, Ignatius’s response to the films is in line with the performance of his Catholicism. In St. Paul’s letters to the Galatians, he warns against “works of the flesh”—“immorality, impurity”—because those who succumb to those temptations will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19, 21). However, the narrator provides reason later in the novel to believe that Ignatius’s objections are neither aesthetic nor moralist: Ignatius had decided against going to the Prytania. The movie being shown was a widely praised Swedish drama about a man who was losing his soul, and Ignatius was not particularly interested in seeing it. He would have to speak with the manager of the theater about booking such dull fare. (110) Richard Patteson, who successfully determined most of the films Toole was alluding to throughout the novel, cannot offer a definite guess as to what the film was in this case. However, a wise guess would be an film like The Seventh Seal, considering the movie’s nationality, subject, and the time period in which the novel takes place. In the early sixties, when the novel presumably takes place,8 Bergman directed his Silence of God Trilogy— Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962), The Silence (1963), in which the famed director explored religion and doubt. A subtle allusion such as this one works well with the themes of A Confederacy of Dunces. While one cannot ascertain what film it was, one can notice a certain trend in his moviegoing: he doesn’t care much for drama or foreign films. True, Ignatius may be avoiding a film about a man losing his soul because he himself is in the midst of a spiritual crisis; however, such an explanation does not go further than speculation. Ignatius consciously attends movies that incite his volatile personality; he tells Mr. Clyde later how he was suffering from “anxiety and general depression” after seeing something “especially grueling, a teen-age beach musical” (219). Ignatius’s viewing habits seem to suggest some deeper reason behind his moviegoing ventures. Film allows for escapism, but it also allows Ignatius to be a voyeur, to watch a spectacle he knows is base and to indulge in thoughts he knows are immoral according to his faith. Therefore, the isolation in which he experiences the films allows for the same indulgence in sin that masturbation affords him. Ignatius’s response to the female body

8 The novel presumably takes place between 1962 and 1964. The rationale for this conclusion is that it would have to take place after the Second Vatican Council was convened in order for Ignatius to criticize the “relativist pope,” but before 1965, when Toole was shopping the novel around publishers like .

21 and his own, however, is symptomatic of a Catholic worldview, further complicated by an attempt to apply a sensibility rooted in medieval Christianity to the increasingly secularized world of the 1960s. An examination of the body in A Confederacy of Dunces—its treatment, its functioning, and how it is discussed—allows one to detect where Ignatius’s Catholic sensibility manifests itself and, therefore, read beyond his clownish actions to see an agonizing soul. Ignatius has two issues with the body: he is uncomfortable with his inability to control his own and threatened by the openness of the female body. In Catholicism, the soul and the body can be thought of as separate entities that work in tandem. The body is a vessel through this life, a carrier of the soul in its preparation for heaven. However, it is not completely autonomous from the soul, yet is powerful in its own right. The body, in fact, becomes extremely symbolic, representing the relationship of the Church to Christ himself. During the Eucharist, the priest presents each parishioner with the body and blood of Christ. In Catholicism, the bread symbolizing the body of Christ becomes the body of Christ—a belief known as transubstantiation. This sacred exchange is in opposition to the Protestant belief in consubstantiation, in which the Eucharist symbolizes but does not become the body. This act is perhaps magnified by the presence in the Catholic Church of the crucifix, a cross with a suffering Christ. Absent in most Protestant denominations, the crucifix reminds Catholics of Christ’s sacrifice, the pain and torment he suffered, as manifested by the wounds. All of this agony, in the Catholic worldview, was so mankind could be saved; Christ’s death is the promise of new life. This graphic depiction— Christ’s anguished face, the Crown of Thorns, feet and hands nailed, exposed and bleeding body—potentially fosters guilt in Catholics, remembering the sacrifice that was made on their behalf—a sacrifice of the flesh. This image haunts the Catholic consciousness. The essential conflict in Ignatius’s life is the tension between his religious beliefs and the realities of the modern world, represented by the struggle between his carnal desires and his Catholic morality. The most obvious evidence of this problem is evident in his body and his inability to properly harness it. Even though they ideally work together, the body is ultimately independent from the soul, indifferent to propriety and righteousness. In seeming harmony with Mikhail Bakhtin’s definition of the grotesque in conjunction with the body—“ that which protrudes from the body, all that seeks to go out beyond the body’s confines” (316)—theorist Susan Bordo traces the idea of the body as an “enemy” to St. Augustine, one of the church

22 fathers: whether as an impediment to reason or as the home of the ‘slimy desires of the flesh’ (as Augustine calls them), the body is the locus of all that threatens our attempts at control. It overtakes, it overwhelms, it erupts and disrupts. This situation, for the dualist, becomes an incitement to battle the unruly forces of the body, to show it who is boss. (145) Ignatius, perpetually disenfranchised by his mother, his employers, and society in general, seeks to exercise some means of power over something, his own body—and yet still fails. His attempts to navigate this fundamental between mind and body result in his discomfort and the audience’s pleasure through a form of “low humor” reminiscent of French novelist François Rabelais. From his introduction, Ignatius exhibits awkwardness, both socially and physically: A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large easy and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chips crumbs. In the shadow of the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubt upon one’s soul. (13) The narrator reflects Ignatius’s discomfort in various ways, from the ill fit of his clothing to the imposing nature of his body. His head is referred to as a “fleshy balloon” that is “squeezed” into its hat—unbecoming words that highlight his misplacement. His very body is a violation; it challenges the limits of his form. If one can read clothing as social dictated and socially designed—fashion as an indication of social concerns like status, gender, even race—then one can see that Ignatius literally does not fit, neither in his clothes nor his society. His face is contorted, violating the classical form, sending his lips forward and creating “little folds” that

23 display his emotion and considerable appetite. Bakhtin argues that the mouth is the “most important of all human features… dominat[ing] all else” in the grotesque (317). Indeed, the entire novel is ripe with references to what Bakhtin calls “the gaping mouth” (317), as Ignatius eats hot dogs, sonorously belches, argues with his mother, drinks Dr. Nut, sucks jelly from doughnuts, and shouts his latest anti-modern diatribe. Along this line, the novel concludes with Ignatius “press[ing]” Myrna’s pigtails “warmly to his wet moustache” (405), bringing the reader’s attention again back to Ignatius’s mouth. A source of chronic aggravation, Ignatius’s inability to control the behavior of his body magnifies his awkwardness. Not only is it obese, his body is sometimes plagued by his uncontrollable desires, which cause him both guilt and anxiety. A scene illustrative of this unfortunate condition is when the Ignatius, a self-appointed strike leader, tries to address the crowd at Levy Pants: Four of the male factory workers were embracing Ignatius around the Smithfield hams that were his thighs and, with considerable effort, were lifting him onto one of the cutting tables. Above the shoulders of his carriers Ignatius barked directions as if he were supervising the loading of the rarest and most precious of cargoes. […] Ignatius was at last vertically atop the long table, holding the bundled bed sheet over his pelvis to hide from his audience the fact that during the process of being lifted, he had become somewhat stimulated. (147-8) For my purposes, this scene reveals the helplessness Ignatius deals with as he tries to gain control of something that is (supposedly) his own. The erection shows the body’s needs exceeding the socially constructed propriety Ignatius is trying to ascribe to in his everyday life. In attempting to offer a queer reading of the text, Michael Hardin points to this moment as a scene ripe with homoeroticism; the lifting and the erection are not immediately revealed because Toole is trying to downplay the homosexual undertones at work in the text, Hardin argues (70). This reading is too simplistic: men touched Ignatius and he became aroused, therefore he is gay. Hardin polarizes sexuality, suggesting if a man turns a man on, the latter must be gay. First, with the work of Alfred Kinsey in mind, a continuum would be a more accurate way to discuss sexuality. Secondly, the reader knows by this point in the text that Ignatius rarely interacts with anyone on a physical level. In the first chapter, he dismisses his mother’s subtle request to massage her injured elbow by saying, “I hope you don’t want me to do that. You know how I

24 feel about touching other people” (22). To me, this simple response reveals both his maternal issues and his intimacy issues. As someone who is not in control of his own body, he could understandably be reluctant to allow someone else to touch (and, therefore, control) his body, or vice versa. His fear of closeness, strongly connected to his fears of being aroused and therefore equally debased as those he judges, would explain why the men lifting him “around the Smithfield hams that were his thighs”—an erogenous zone—could have triggered unintended arousal. He was not aroused through attraction; he was aroused by the mere interaction. I do not mean to totally dismiss the queer reading of the text, but I think a more productive interpretation would fuse Hardin’s reading with mine to consider the possibility that Ignatius’s repressed homosexuality could be connected to his anxieties with Catholicism, a religion that would have disapproved of his orientation. Although scholars have been unable to prove that Catholics demonstrate any more superego guilt than any other religion (Tangney, Dearing 153), research by Luigi Rulla and Salvatore Maddi has shown that Catholics “practic[e] their religion in part as a defense against internal conflict” (Sheldon 210). With this in mind, critical readings of Ignatius could transcend his buffoonery, libido and puerility to consider his intricate efforts to construct an existence where he can convince himself he is righteous, pious, and heterosexual. Perhaps the most upsetting aspect of sexuality for Ignatius is his inability to control his own sexual desire. His body plagues him with, to borrow from Augustine, “the madness of lust” (qtd. in Bordo 144). However, his masturbatory practices reveal an air of ritual, a sense of procedure, an aura of sacred purging: “Please go away!” Ignatius screamed. “You’re shattering my religious ecstasy.” Bouncing up and down on his side vigorously, Ignatius sensed a belch rising in this throat, but when he expectantly opened his mouth he emitted only a small burp. Still, the bouncing had some physiological effect. Ignatius touched the small erection that was pointing downward into the sheet, held it, and lay still trying to decide what to do. In this position, with the red flannel nightshirt around his chest and his massive stomach sagging into the mattress, he thought somewhat sadly that after eighteen years with his hobby it had become merely a mechanical physical act stripped of the flights of fancy and invention that he had once been able to bring to it. At one time he had almost developed it into an art form, practicing the hobby with the skill and fervor of any artist and philosopher, a scholar and gentleman. There were still hidden in his room several


accessories which he had once used, a rubber glove, a piece of fabric from a silk umbrella, a jar of Noxema. Putting them away again after it was all over had eventually grown too depressing. (43) In his attempts to drive off his mother, he humorously aligns his self-gratification with “religious ecstasy.” Indeed, Ignatius’s masturbatory practices eerily align with religious ritual, by which I refer to the rather theatrical nature of the Roman Catholic Mass. Stained glasses windows, transubstantiation, use of candles and music, priestly garments—all of these contribute to the drama of the Mass, an atmosphere rich in the unknown and tradition. These ornate items create a barrier between the practitioner and the priest as a representative of the Church. Furthermore, in Toole’s youth, the Mass was conducted in Latin, further distancing the parish from the priest, and the Mass from everyday life. Ignatius blending of ritual and sexual practices could be read as a subversion of the earlier. His onanism is characterized by a strict procedure— “a rubber glove, a piece of fabric from a silk umbrella, a jar of Noxema”—which has now become dated and uninteresting. Masturbation, like the Mass, has become unsatisfying and disheartening, plagued by repetition and formality. He likens his masturbation to “a mechanical physical act stripped of the flights of fancy and invention that he had once been able to bring to it” so he can emphasize how predictability and the lack of sustained fulfillment have led to disinterest. This shift, consequently, leaves Ignatius depressed, similar to his feelings towards modern Catholicism. This juxtaposition of masturbation and “religious ecstasy” can lead one back to Bakhtin and his concept of the “carnivalesque.” Carnival, as Bakhtin saw in the writings of Rabelais, was “hostile to all that was immortalized and complete” (10). During carnival, the standard power structures, dating back to the Middle Ages (which Ignatius admires, longs for, and therefore mourns), are temporarily dismissed, creating “a special type of communication impossible in everyday life” (10). This rupture in order allows for celebration without concerns of class, a confrontation of power by discharging it. The city of New Orleans serves as the perfect backdrop for such Rabelaisian excess, not just because of the influence of French culture on the city, but also the atmosphere of famed locales as Bourbon Street, renowned for drinking, debauchery, and revelry. In the “Big Easy,” strippers and policemen, nightclub owners and janitors, pornographers and hot dog vendors, homosexuals and medievalists congregate, power is disrupted, and anarchy ensues. Here, satire is offered an ideal setting as power is not only

26 questioned, it is usurped from figures of authority. The most foolish and frequently punished characters in the novel—Officer Mancuso, Dr. Talc, Lana Lee, and, of course, Ignatius—are those who try to assert some form of superiority through authority, be it as an officer of the law, a professor, a business owner, or an academic. Conversely, the disenfranchised and dispossessed are delivered from their unfortunate states by Ignatius: Burma Jones brings down the fall of Lana Lee after Ignatius’s incident as the Night of Joy; Mr. Levy revitalizes his company and recovers from a lawsuit (which, admittedly, was instigated by Ignatius) through the results of Ignatius’s behavior; Mrs. Reilly finds companionship in the man who was arrested during a hubbub perpetuated by her son. One can connect this to the Sermon on the Mount, in which Christ tells his followers “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Although the novel seems to celebrate the redemption of the individual, it takes issue with the Catholic belief in immanence. Catholicism purports that grace is “the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God” (Catechism 538). Its omnipresence in the world is a sign of God, a reminder of His own presence. Since God created the world, it is essentially good. Yet, A Confederacy of Dunces subverts this notion. Ignatius finds evil, corruption, misguided passion at the heart of the world. He sees immorality and selfishness as inherent to those around him. Vice has tainted everything; the world—like the body, the source and means by which the perversion is executed—is impure. Discussing his day at work, he reveals such sentiments in his journal: Because it was early afternoon, there were few people stirring on the streets. I guessed that the residents of the area were still in bed recovering from whatever indecent acts they had been performing the night before. Many no doubt required medical attention: a stitch or two here and there in a torn orifice or a broken genital. I could only imagine how many haggard and depraved eyes were regarding me hungrily from behind the closed shutters. I tried not to think about it. […] Wild laughter issued from more than one building as I passed. Apparently the deluded occupants therein were indulging in some obscene diversion which amused them. I tried to close my virgin ears to their horrid cackling. (242) For Ignatius, the pleasure of the flesh corrupts the body, leading to “torn orifice or a broken genital.” The extreme nature of the injuries suffered emphasizes both his misunderstanding of and aversion to sex. It reflects his medieval concern over sexuality as echoed in the Penitential

27 of Theodore, a seventh century Archbishop of Canterbury, which punishes qui semen in os miserit—fellatio—as the “worst of evils” (McNeill, Gamer 186), presumably because sex is then for pleasure and not procreation. Ignatius imagines and then hyperbolizes—a common feature of the grotesque, according to Bakhtin (303)—wounds in an attempt to both alienate himself from those who engage in sex and to convince himself he is in the right by doing so. However, by supposing the presumed lovers are “sinning” and injured, it allows Ignatius to entertain his impure thoughts, to envision their transgression, although his very proper, very Catholic superego takes over, chastising them through verbal refutation. He seems himself as pure (“virgin ears”), yet he remains fascinated by that which he defines himself against. Ultimately, it is difficult to gauge Ignatius’s true feelings toward sex. He consistently expresses discontent with the concept of it in his writing and in conversation, yet he habitually watches (one may say, indulges in) television shows and movies that fuel his diatribes. He views society as corrupt not because of inequality or injustice, but because of sexual depravity. However, the reader sees what he preaches and practices are quite different, as he has refined his masturbatory practices to the level of ritual. What is happening, I propose, is verbal battle between his sexual impulses and his moral fiber, informed by Catholicism. The Church tells him it is wrong to watch, so he criticizes the programs and films profusely as a means to distance himself from it without seeming like he is, in fact, enjoying it: “Do I believe the total perversion that I am witnessing?” (53). His protestations are a half-hearted attempt at mediating his scopophilia and his virtue. Such behavior is not a matter of disdain with the overt sexuality he sees in his society (even when it is not there), but perhaps his anger at his inability to participate in this culture he imagines. His criticism of society is not so much an anger at what society is engaging in, as jealousy at the temptation he must face in light of his outdated beliefs. Toole is showing again how Catholic beliefs are idealistic, incapable of leading the individual through contemporary society. However, Toole also seems at odds with the Catholic Church’s decision to reform in face of modernity. This paradox—if the Catholic Church stays the same, it’s ineffectual; if it changes, it draws attention to its fallibility—leaves the Catholic of the 1960s lost, unsure of how to conduct oneself in the world. The importance of the body in Catholicism cannot be underestimated. Images of the body are a fixture of the interior design of the Church and Catholic art, and its portrayal is evocative of the tenets of the religion. The Virgin Mary’s name draws attention not only to her,

28 but her body: an untainted vessel, from which she bore Christ. As opposed to other branches of Christianity, the Catholic Church venerates Mary for her role in both bringing Christ into the world and nurturing Him. In time of need, Catholics may call on Mary through the Hail Mary, a prayer which refers to Mary as “full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women.” Mary’s goodness is characterized not only by her deeds, but also by her virtue, by which I mean her body. She is Jesus’ mother, she is the mother. Her depiction is often one that emphasizes the “closed-ness” of her body: only her hands and face exposed. This image can be read in opposition to Eve, who is often depicted nearly nude. Her body is open, and it can be assumed she had sex—the Bible says Adam “had relations with” Eve (Genesis 4:1), suggesting at the shared intimacy—since she bore Cain, Abel, and later Seth. Eve is also the initiator of shame, particularly shame over one’s body. After Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (Genesis 3:5). When God confronts Adam about covering himself, the manifestation of his inner shame of his body, Adam replies, “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.” (Genesis 3:12). The blame for both the initial shame and initial guilt were instigated by a woman—a woman tempted. Therefore, the virtue of woman becomes a recurring question in a patriarchal society, for their vulnerability makes all humankind vulnerable. And so, in Catholicism, these two images of woman—Eve and Mary—create a veritable dialectic of proper Catholic femininity. For Ignatius, women are seductresses, whores, transgressors of the flesh. He is concerned both with the possibilities of the body and all the openness of it—the grotesque body—in opposition to the clean, closed, classical form. For Bakhtin, the grotesque body violates limits; it is a “body in the art of becoming” (317). To this end, it serves as a reminder of the life cycle, repeated and renewed. Since all life is connected to the orifices due to consumption, copulation, and excretion, the celebratory comedy of the likes of Rabelais and, more recently, Toole reflects an engagement with these acts. Observation of such reminds Ignatius of his own situation. The Catholic Church, in response, promotes abstinence, moderation, and discretion in regards to these acts. Consequently, they cause Ignatius a great deal of anxiety, such as the aforementioned passage where he speculates about the sinfulness of the inhabitants.


The openness and violability of the body, particularly the female body, concerns Ignatius during his interactions with Myrna Minkoff. To begin my analysis, I want address Myrna as a literary creation. Her name may be of interest; biographers noted from interviews with former students that Toole “was fascinated with what characteristics names bring to mind” (Nevils, Hardy 130). For example, Myrna is derived from the Celtic for “beloved,” while the Oxford English Dictionary traces the etymology of “mink” to 1899, when it was used as slang for a “sexually provocative woman.” At this point, it may also be relevant to discuss “Ignatius,” which means, unsurprisingly, “fiery one” or “ardent.” Carolyn Patricia Gardner rightly points out that Ignatius’s name “could hardly be more Catholic—an Irish surname and a saint’s name for a given name” (104), but, in my opinion, she mistakenly links Ignatius to Ignatius of Antioch. A more fruitful reading would be connecting him to Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. Jesuits are renowned today as educators and scholars, like Ignatius, and this allusion seems fitting for a character that sees himself as a voice of moral leadership, be it at Levy Pants or in the French Quarter. Jesuit-run institutions remain among the most respected colleges and universities in the country, including Loyola University, New Orleans—the largest Catholic university in the South and, ironically, where Walker Percy was teaching in 1978 when approached by Thelma Toole with the manuscript for A Confederacy of Dunces. Just as John Kennedy Toole plays with names, he plays with characterization. Myrna seems diametrically opposed to Ignatius—female, not male; Jewish, not Christian; sexual, not abstinent; the body, not the mind; expression, not restraint. In her repudiation of all he holds sacred, Ignatius finds her to be repulsive yet alluring, fascinating yet deplorable. Her provocations please him in that they allow him to launch into diatribes against the moral degradation of society. Minkoff advises him to seek relief in sexual exploration: “a satisfying sexual encounter would purify your mind and body. You need the therapy of sex desperately” (92). Her suggestion of the rejuvenating power of sexuality echoes Bakhtin’s discussion of copulation as an act to which “the beginning and end of life are closely linked and interwoven” (317). One can read Myrna as reminding Ignatius that he is alive. She also espouses Freudian psychology, referring to Ignatius’s paranoia as repressed homosexuality and suggesting the Oedipal implications behind his relationship with his mother by referring to his bedroom as a “womb-room” (91-2). The combination of her progressive beliefs and complete opposition to all Ignatius stands for signifies that she may ultimately be his redemption.


As the book comes to an end, Toole employs a seeming deus ex machina. Fearing he is about to be committed, Ignatius is shocked yet relieved by the unexpected arrival of his friend and antagonizer, Myrna Minkoff. He convinces her to help him escape under the pretenses that he is a new man, manipulating her with compliments and false sentiments: I’ve been immobilized by the neurotic apathy. […] I can only be grateful that you were perceptive enough to analyze my fantasy life as embodied in my letters. Thank goodness they were distress signals written in a code which you could understand. (399) This shrewd machination Ignatius conceives demonstrates his dedication to his albeit scattered worldview. Gardner compares Minkoff to Dante’s Beatrice in that Ignatius must rely on her, despite the fact that she, too, is lost (102). I disagree; Ignatius does not rely on her, but rather uses her to evade his impending institutionalization: “He was not looking at Myrna; he was looking at an escape route. […] Somehow [Fortuna] had summoned and flushed Myrna minx from a subway tube, from some picket line, from the pungent bed of some Eurasian existentialist, from the hands of some epileptic Negro Buddhist, from the verbose midst of a group therapy session” (397). As Elizabeth S. Bell points out, A Confederacy of Dunces continues the tradition of the , and Ignatius is a picaro, a rogue, and a conniver in the truest sense. He sees Myrna as a means of escape, and his cunning game misleads her, although she joyously proclaims, “This is a very meaningful moment. I feel as if I’m saving someone” (402). However, she does not save Ignatius from the crushing alienation he feels from his times; she only offers temporary salvation by preventing his capture—a fact Ignatius is more than satisfied with accepting. This (mis)treatment of Myrna reflects not only his continued distrust of the threat of femininity and the body, but the stubborn, stagnant nature of Ignatius’s persona— egocentric, cunning, bombastic. Here, at the end of the novel after nearly four hundred pages of adventures and misadventures, Ignatius escapes, but remains the same incorrigible character the reader meets on Canal Street on the first page. Despite his unflinching resistance to her worldview, Myrna ultimately saves Ignatius, not from repression, but from oppression presumably. How, then, can someone read this rescue as Catholic, or an example of lapsed Catholic sensibility? I propose that what happens is, in fact, structured like a chiasmus between figures representative of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. Ignatius sees himself as a Christ-like figure: trying to rescue the “weak in spirit” (the workers at Levy Pants), erecting a cross in his office, fighting a Holy Crusade, and, of course, saving the

31 fallen woman. Are the initials “M.M.” not a coincidence: Myrna Minkoff and Mary Magdalene? Of course, the Bible never refers to Mary Magdalene as a prostitute; rather, such presumptions were made later by Church officials, similar to how issues of corporeality can be traced to St. Augustine of Hippo. So Ignatius sees it as his role to save Myrna, whose promiscuity puts her soul in jeopardy. However, in the end, it is she who saves him, thereby reversing the roles, which even surprises Ignatius: “How ironic, Ignatius thought. Taking the pigtail in one of his paws, he pressed it warmly to his wet moustache” (405). Myrna’s role in the Ignatius’s “salvation” from the oncoming assault by societal institutions is an appropriate one. Mary Magdalene is the first to see Christ risen from the dead; he says, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17). One can read this as Toole’s blasphemous joke: Jesus, like Ignatius, does not want to be touched (although the reasons differ). Likewise, Myrna will see the “new” Ignatius (she thinks), but it will be she who saves him, not vice versa. Toole’s inversion of the Resurrection shows his disenchantment with and disrespect for Catholicism, a religion which both fails to provide guidance for modern life or escape from its influence. Yet, through its few moments of grace (the way in which everyone who has been wronged is redeemed and Ignatius’s rescue by Myrna), Toole demonstrates a reverence toward the “Old God” that McCarthy dismisses and DeLillo abandons in search of a new venue for faith. In this negotiated use of the divine, Toole offers a complicated perspective on religion in 1960s America. In the end of the novel, the reader is given no real conclusion. Ignatius does not change; he is left to carry on his existence torn between the temptations of his body and the religion that plagues his mind. This conclusion is a fitting one, but not for the reasons one may think. Some traditional readings, however, may celebrate this as the iconoclast eluding society’s attempts to normalize, control, and confine him. One is left to assume the roguish hero continues to detest society and its woes. However, reflecting on Ignatius’s Catholicism, I read the ending of A Confederacy of Dunces as sad and unresolved, challenging readings of a happy ending made by critics like Pat Gardner (90). Ignatius goes forth into the world in an act of divine intervention, but there is no permanent relief for that which troubles him. Ignatius brings, quite unintentionally, happiness to others, but does not find it for himself; he remains alone, pompous, and awkward. However, this awkwardness fuels the novel’s comic spirit and can be understood

32 through the incongruity and superiority theories of laughter, as articulated by Immanuel Kant and Thomas Hobbes, respectively. Kant notes that laughter arises from the perception of “something absurd (something in which, therefore, the understanding can of itself find no delight)” (161). Ignatius’s lack of control—both of his body and his appearance—defies the social expectations of self-presentation. This fact also leads to Hobbes, who argues that laughter results from “the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves” (43). Considering my earlier discussion of Bakhtin and the grotesque body, “deformed” is a choice word. Hobbes differs from other humor theorists by adroitly noting that laughter is not a good thing, but rather an act of cowardice and malevolence: “it is incident most of them, that are conscious of the fewest abilities in themselves; who are forced to keep themselves in their own favour, by observing the imperfections of other men. And therefore much Laughter at the defects of others, is a signe of Pusillanimity” (43). Throughout the novel, the humor often occurs along these lines, whether it be laughing at Ignatius’s misfortunes, behavior, or appearance. Pat Gardner argues that Christian comedy does not laugh at the characters, but with the characters (87). Such is not the case with A Confederacy of Dunces; the laughter, I argue, is rooted in the reader’s distancing him- or herself from Ignatius, in looking down at him, in laughing at him. Walker Percy wrote in his foreword that A Confederacy of Dunces “is also sad. One never quite knows where the sadness comes from” (9). However, I think it is quite clear: Ignatius’s Catholicism fails; its application to the everyday world is unfulfilling and ineffectual. This disparity is at the heart of the novel’s desolation. Ignatius’s distress, further embellished by the narrator’s often mean-spirited commentary, makes the reader a participant in Ignatius’s ostracism. Reading the Catholic subtext in A Confederacy of Dunce shows the reader that Toole’s ultimate triumph is in presenting a character alienated from society and then implicating his reader in this mistreatment. Laughter merely serves as approval and of Ignatius’s troubled position in the world. For as the epigraph from Jonathan Swift reminds the reader, the evidence of true genius is “that the dunces are all in confederacy against him” (5)— and the reader is not exempt from such company.



The laws of God, the laws of man He may keep that will and can Not I: Let God and man decree Laws for themselves and not for me; —A.E. Housman, “The Laws of God, The Laws of Man”

In June 2007, Cormac McCarthy appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss his novel , the latest selection for the talk show queen’s (in)famous Book Club. The interview with the reclusive McCarthy was a coup for the renowned hostess, since he has avoided media attention for most of his career. After all, in an interview for Vanity Fair two years earlier, Richard B. Woodward wrote (perhaps with hubris) that it would be “impossible to imagine [McCarthy] chatting with Oprah or Charlie Rose” (“Cormac Country”). Unlike the usually chatty authors who are all too ready to discuss their work and accept hyperbolic , the noticeably uncomfortable McCarthy was soft-spoken and fairly indifferent, both in his body language and how he answered Winfrey’s questions. Asked about whether or not he plans out his books, he shakily replied, “You can’t, you can’t plot things out, you just, you just have to trust in what it comes from.” McCarthy’s hesitant answer seems to suggest he does not fully understand the influences at work in his fiction—he later refers to the mysterious workings of the “subconscious”—but this is not completely true. The early novels of Cormac McCarthy, who was raised Roman Catholic but has since lapsed,9 demonstrates a tense relationship with Catholicism, as the texts often handle issues with a Catholic sensibility while rejecting a Catholic view of existence and the world. Using Child of God as a case study, I will analyze how Catholicism is both present and refuted in the text. Initially, Catholicism referred to all Christians, hence Catholic, literally meaning “universal.” Although Christianity split during the Reformation, with Catholicism representing

9 McCarthy was raised in an Irish Catholic family, but has not identified as Catholic in any of the three interviews (two with Richard B. Woodward, one with Oprah Winfrey) he has given. Perhaps worth noting is that his protagonist in , a novel some critics like John Cant have called his most autobiographical, is a lapsed Catholic.

34 only one division, most Christians still view their existence as the opportunity to restore God’s grace to humanity. Man was “disgraced” in the Garden of Eden; Christ offered hope by providing the model to re-obtain it. This justification for being is an example of what Jean- François Lyotard calls a grand récit (translated as “metanarrative”): totalizing explanations, attempting to justify existence or knowledge. In his book The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard posits postmodernism as an “incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv). If one holds this definition to be true, then Lyotard’s perspective (which even he admits was simplistic) provides one lens for determining whether a work is postmodern. As a work of postmodernist fiction, Child of God consciously subverts the metanarrative of Christianity—man is fallen, but can be saved—in order to reveal not only the impracticality but also the futility of this metanarrative in the postmodern world. The relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the United States has been a problematic one, troubled by the Church’s conservative stance in the face of (arguable) progress. In 1962, John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, or Second Vatican Council, to address issues in the Church, encouraging modernization, pluralism, and ideally rejuvenation. Jaroslav Pelikan notes “the question of authority could not be avoided” (328)—both the power the Church had, and how the Church should exercise said power. Major modifications as a result of Second Vatican Council included increased tolerance of other religions and cultures (in line with Horace Kallen’s concept of cultural pluralism), involvement of the laypeople in church services, and authorization of native languages in the Mass. Such fundamental changes, of course, called the Church’s authority into question. In The Order of Discourse, Michel Foucault argues “A somewhat different way of functioning is that of the ‘societies of discourse,’ which function to preserve or produce discourses, but in order to make them circulate in a closed space, distributing them only according to strict rules, and without the holders being dispossessed by this distribution” (1468). Therefore, one could argue that Second Vatican Council, in effect, undermined the Church’s power, created by their control over the word of God and preserved by the use of what became a dead language, Latin. From a Foucaldian perspective, the failure of Second Vatican Council is that in restructuring the power dynamic by opening up the discourse, the Catholic Church became “dispossessed” from its control of the discourse, which had, until then, empowered the Church. This rupture in the Church also instigated a rupture in the confidence of some Catholics, particularly the young, who were already disenchanted with the

35 suffocating influence of institutions, due to the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the culture of liberation and upheaval that arose throughout the 1960s. Taking into consideration the events I just mentioned, I do not mean to suggest that the radical revision of the Church alone leads to the subversive nature of some post-Second Vatican Council literature, like Child of God. However, there is a noticeable dissension from traditional Catholic theology in Child of God, especially the notion of God’s omnipresence. This feeling manifests itself in both form and content: in de-sanctifying creation, McCarthy must also de- romanticize it. This initiative is obtained through his distinctive . In his interview with Oprah, McCarthy described it as “[s]imple declarative sentences. I believe in periods and capitals and the occasional commas—and that’s it.” He claims the basic structuring is to make it easier on the reader, but it seems to hint at the same intention Hemingway expresses in A Moveable Feast: to “[w]rite the truest sentence that you know” (12). The unencumbered sentences suggest McCarthy’s refusal to write convoluted prose, thereby misguiding, confusing, alienating his reader. I read this aesthetic choice as an extension of his lapsed Catholicism. Ritualized and theatrical, the Catholic Mass projects an idealized version of the world, where salvation will be the bounty of those who seeks it. However, McCarthy does not want his use of language—like the Latin Mass—to be part of an attempt to romanticize, idealize, or distance the story and its meaning from the reader (or worshipper, as the analogy would go). This endeavor aligns McCarthy with the postmodern project, or at least an aspect of it: a perceived move toward secularism in culture.10 As I discussed in the introduction, Frederic Jameson has called spirituality non-existent due to postmodernism’s attempts to rid culture of “idealism” (387). While the question of totality has shaken the grounds of idealism, spirituality is in jeopardy, but surely not dead. McCarthy’s Catholicism comes through in Lester’s treatment of the body, particularly the female body. Although McCarthy has distanced himself from being identified as a Catholic writer by not writing literature in support of Catholicism, Child of God still displays a Catholic worldview, even as it rejects Catholicism by denying immanence and religion. Like the modernists, many postmodern writers like Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy seem to respond to religion and its potential for furthering change and offering help, but with different views on

10 I note this move as “perceived” because John A. McClure argues against the notion of postmodern secularity in his work. My chapters on McCarthy and DeLillo both challenge and further his claims.

36 the outcome, as we shall see. This sense of being lost, though, also suggests there is a way back home. Their novels often show a search for a new spirituality, even in a “religion” that is a rejection of religion, and often at the hands of a false prophet or idol, be it a person or institution. However, while DeLillo sees hope in this search in Mao II and Falling Man, McCarthy finds hope based in faith meaningless in Child of God. Unlike noted Catholic writers like Graham Greene or Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy was baptized, raised and educated in the Catholic Church. The third of six children in an Irish Catholic family from Providence, Rhode Island, Charles McCarthy, Jr. was born in 1933. As a child, moved to Knoxville, where his family would live for the next thirty years. Here, he attended Catholic High School. Being a Catholic in Tennessee was presumably not as easy as it was for John Kennedy Toole in New Orleans; Tennessee was, like most of the South, heavily Protestant. His parents were not pleased with McCarthy’s conduct; he later admitted, “I wasn’t what they had in mind” (Woodward, “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction”). He attended University of Tennessee for two years before setting out for the Air Force, but he later returned to college, published two short stories, and won several creative writing awards at the university. His corpus, which some view as a reflection of the tradition as embodied by the work of and Flannery O’Connor (Phillips 434), has challenged and divided critics; Vereen Bell views McCarthy as a nihilist, while Edwin T. Arnold asserts that his work is moralistic (Arnold, “Naming” 45). Such a stark division is evocative of McCarthy’s conflicted views of his religion and, in turn, his world. The complete impact of Catholicism on Cormac McCarthy’s writing is indeterminable, but the presence of a Catholic sensibility is undeniable. The dark, often disturbing portraits of rural life he creates have led critics like Vereen Bell to claim McCarthy’s world is “paradigmless” (8). However, something beyond our understanding is at work in these novels—an unseen, unknowable force. Coincidentally, the Catholic magazine Commonweal gave Child of God a glowing review, as Robert Leiter wrote: The mixture of Southern mystique and Irish trebling has not always been a comfortable one; but with Child of God, his most recent novel, he has made partial peace with some of the old ghosts, and has produced, if not a totally successful work, then one which speaks well of the future. (90) I connect Leiter’s comments regarding the “Irish trebling” with McCarthy’s Catholicism, which

37 manifests itself in Child of God through Lester’s anxieties about sexuality. However, I am reluctant to agree that “partial peace” is made, as Child of God fiercely attacks any notice of religion’s value by showing its hollowness, hypocrisy, and futility. Reading Child of God as an angry response to the Catholic Church sets in motion an evaluation of how his texts’ attitude toward religion and belief have changed, thereby complicating vague generalities of McCarthy’s nihilism or as Dana Phillips asserts, that McCarthy’s violence is “not a sign or symbol of something else” (435). Quite to the contrary, a Catholic reading of Child of God shows that violence is both a dismissal of immanence and a means of expressing frustration at Catholicism’s claims of community, order, and love. In addition, readers can see a struggle between belief and disbelief that earlier critics have neglected. In order to understand how McCarthy reacts against Catholic theology, it is important to understand what the Catholic fiction is and is not. Of course, this question has been a source of considerable debate in the Catholic arts, and the lay Catholic magazine Commonweal has been the grounds for much of it. Novelist Peter Quinn argued the Catholic novel “expressly reflect[s] Catholic teachings or moral sensibilities” although he felt the term “Catholic novel” was inconsequential (18). Scholar Bernard Bergonzi disagreed, arguing that being a Catholic novelist did not require active faith, though he agreed with Quinn in that the term “Catholic novel” is “empty and misleading” (12). This refusal to seriously consider the possibilities of the Catholic novel may stem from a dislike of categorization or definition. However, it is necessary to develop the concept of the Catholic novel so as to explore how religion and literature are interrelated, and how the earlier informs the latter, both in plotting and description. During her brief life, Flannery O’Connor considered the role of Catholicism and literature in various essays, including “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South.” As her title suggests, the debate matters because Catholicism as a religion has the most followers in the United States, but Protestant denominations collectively hold the majority, especially in the South. Within a nation founded primarily by English Protestants, Catholicism has always been ostracized, leading Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. to refer to anti-Catholicism as “the deepest-held bias in the history of the American people”11 (qtd. in Gibson 10). The marginalization of Catholics, therefore, creates a distinctly different view of both America and life in comparison to Protestant

11 I read Schlesinger’s remark (and therefore use it) to suggest that since Protestants split from and define themselves against Catholics, the latter has been the subject of considerable bias. I do

38 views of the same topics. O’Connor observes: The Catholic novel can’t be categorized by subject matter, but only by what it assumes about human and divine reality. It cannot see man as determined; it cannot see him as totally depraved. It will see him as incomplete in himself, as prone to evil, but as redeemable when his own efforts are assisted by grace. (“Catholic Novelist” 196-7) Child of God functions within O’Connor’s outline of Catholic fiction: Lester is neither “totally depraved” nor “assisted by grace.” McCarthy prefers this indeterminacy, the inability to call Lester “totally” anything. Being both a Tennesseean and a Catholic places McCarthy between two literary traditions: the hard-to-define Catholic novel and Southern literature. Therefore, his fiction invariably combines how the first views humanity with how the latter sees the interaction of the individual, society and place. Commenting on the Southern Gothic, Flannery O’Connor quipped, “When I am asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one” (“Some Aspects” 44). Throughout McCarthy’s fiction, characters operate on the fringe of society, some times by choice, often by their very natures. Lester Ballard is no exception, an indelible creation calling into question that which society privileges and condemns, and their right to do so. The third novel in McCarthy’s oeuvre, Child of God was published in 1973. The title of the novel makes an obvious reference to Judeo-Christian beliefs and is echoed in the book when the narrator describes Lester as “A child of God much like yourself perhaps” (4). In his foundational study of McCarthy, Vereen Bell asserts that “child of God” is a Southern colloquialism for a child who is “not right in the head” (68), but I do not think McCarthy is limiting himself to this explanation. The term “child” affirms the paternal relationship between God and man, as well as suggesting that Lester is immature. A biblical context is also possible, considering McCarthy’s fondness for titles with Biblical significance. For example, McCarthy’s second novel was entitled Outer Dark—the Gospel of Matthew tells of how children will be cast into outer darkness—and the term “cities of the plain,” which provides the title for the concluding novel of the Border Trilogy, is where Lot resided and includes Sodom and Gomorrah. The phrase “child of God” does not appear in the Catholic version of the Bible, but “children of God” appears ten times. The most notable appearance is in the Sermon on the

not mean to trivialize the treatment of Native Americans, , and other minority groups.


Mount, where Christ imparts the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Certainly such an allusion for a novel about a serial- killing necrophiliac would be ironic, but I feel the more apt reference is to “For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26). As much as everyone in may try to distance themselves from or define themselves against Lester Ballard, they are still his equals as creations of God. This leveling of hierarchies and destructions of binary oppositions reverberates throughout McCarthy’s work and can be read as a response to Catholicism. Since God create everything, Catholics believe it possesses grace, evidence of God’s presence in their everyday life. This principle leads to the idealization of things; objects are presented as unique, blessed, graceful. Conversely, he does not glamorize death or what may be called “the tragic.” McCarthy refuses to romanticize existence, but he is not a nihilist, either. The incongruity between what McCarthy is describing and how he is describing it often provides the novel’s comic relief, as in the following scene, where the narrator describes a baby: It didn’t look. A hugeheaded bald and slobbering primate that inhabited the lower reaches of the house, familiar of the war floorboards and the holes tacked up with foodtins hammered flats, a consort of roaches and great hairy spiders in their season, perennially benastied and afflicted with a namesake crud. (77) By dubbing the child a primate, McCarthy reminds the reader of the cruel nature of life and challenges society’s view of their existence, a view that is informed by religion. Humans are not special creatures, but simply primates. McCarthy breaks the opposition of human versus beast by equalizing them, thereby reestablishing humans as beasts. Humans are not enlightened or rational; they are simply another animal in a fiction populated by boars, wolves, and hawks. This statement de-romanticizes life, highlighting its ultimate banality. The baby, totally dependent and grotesque (exaggerated head and drooling), is nothing more than a “slobbering primate.” In later passages, the baby is referred to as “a gross tottertoy” (79) and “the idiot child” (120). Despite the comic implications of this reductive description, the baby’s death is inevitable. Here, McCarthy’s dark humor surfaces, showing how life is nasty and short. Humor and Catholicism are only defense mechanisms against the inevitable; they offer a way of dealing with life by providing comfort and , but no true cure. The death of the baby puts a somber tone on an otherwise amusing scene, as if to say humor, like Catholicism, is fleeting and

40 impotent in handling the task it has been assigned. As brooding as his perspective may seem, it is more complicated than nihilism. In a 1992 interview, he attempted to clarify this position: There's no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous. (Woodward, “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction”) This hardened world had softened fifteen years later when Oprah interviewed him, as was McCarthy himself, now a septuagenarian, the father of an eight-year-old boy, and considerably more secure financially: Life is pretty damn good, even, even when it looks bad. But, eh, we should appreciate it more. We should be grateful. I don’t know who to be grateful to, but you should be thankful for what you have. Cormac McCarthy’s position seems slightly different, as if more optimistic and promising. I feel it reflects the continuing tension between the panacea Catholicism offered as a youth and the harsh reality he faced as an impoverished writer before his 1981 MacArthur Fellowship. As Madison Smartt Bell notes in his review of All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy expresses “a serious concern with the nature of God (if God exists).” This question is perhaps never more pressing than when one is struggling to survive. With this in mind, Child of God serves as a control in tracing the spiritual development McCarthy’s fiction goes through from his early work to some of his more recent fiction. An analysis of Lester Ballard as a character should begin with his name. “Lester Ballard” is simple, yet resonant name with two, two-syllable names, both with accents on the first syllable. Ballard seems fairly easy, a variation on “ballad,” thereby informing the reader that the book is a narrative song. Ballads are common form of literature in folk culture, so the idea of Lester (at least in the first part of the novel) “existing” within the conversations of the community reveals a relationship with his surname. The episodic nature of the novel encourages the reader to piece together the story as well as his or her interpretation of Ballard. Also, McCarthy’s sentences—short, yet dense—read rhythmically in a manner that produces its own music. The first name is more complicated. Considering his necrophilia, Lester is probably a

41 play on “molester.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, before “molest” came to refer to sexual violations in the nineteenth century, it meant “to cause trouble, grief, or vexation to.” Lester does this to the community, who speaks of him anecdotally, a narrative device reminiscent of Faulkner’s “.” The narrator describes him as “small, unclean, unshaven” (4) and it is interesting to note how he is defined in terms of negation: not clean, not shaven. The town defines Lester by what he is not, because that is what they are. He literally is “less” in their eyes. Despite this verbal game, the narrator reminds the reader that Lester, too, is a child of God—“much like yourself perhaps” (4). The use of a conditional word like “perhaps” furthers the idea of Lester as an outsider, an Other. He unsettles the townspeople, as is demonstrated by his appearance in the church: The congregation at Sixmile Church would turn all together like a cast of puppets at the opening of the door behind them any time after services had started. When Ballard came in with his hat in his hand and shut the door and sat alone on the rear bench they turned back more slowly. A windy riffle of whispers went among them. The preacher stopped. (31) This subtle passage continues McCarthy’s indictment against small town politics. The parishioners are portrayed as “a cast of puppets,” emphasizing that they are pawns, incapable of original thought, instead simply mouthing the words others give them. This is particularly illuminating simile in a church, where the word of God is imparted to the masses, the specialized discourse. Although Ballard enters in a respectable manner—“with his hat in his hand”—the congregation does not make him feel welcome, turning slowly and whispering, and the preacher actually stops, as if to acknowledge Lester as a persona non grata. As the earlier passage of Galatians says, though, Lester is welcome in the house of God because he, too, is one of God’s children by virtue of his existence. Although the setting of Sevier County and the presence of the preacher indicate that this is not a Catholic service, the brief scene illustrates McCarthy’s attitude towards God. As the scene continues, McCarthy scathingly satirizes the churchgoers themselves: Brethren, he went on, a biblical babbling to Ballard who read the notices on the board at the back of the church. This week’s offering. Last week’s offering. Six dollars and seventy-four cents. The numbers in attendance. A woodpecker hammered at a drainpipe outside and those strung heads listed and turned to the bird for silence. Ballard had a cold


and snuffled loudly though the service but nobody expected he would stop if God himself looked back askance so no one looked. (31-2) The preacher begins by establishing a solidarity with the congregation before slipping into a “biblical babbling”—choice words, considering the root of “babble” is the Tower of Babel. An alienated Ballard reads the notices, drawing attention to how the Church also serves as a business, concerned with profits and how many “customers” they have. Ballard’s “snuffle” seems a criticism of this capitalist greed, although the congregation turns a blind eye and deaf ear to such practical concerns as their own pretense and insincerity. Scenes in churches figure prominently in McCarthy’s fiction. In Suttree, for example, a priest finds the title character sleeping in a church and kindly advises him that “God’s house is not exactly the place to take a nap”; Suttree responds, “It’s not God’s house” (254). Coincidentally, this scene takes place in the Church of the Immaculate Conception; the very name of the church reminds Catholics and readers alike of the importance of the female body’s integrity in Catholicism. Perhaps the most resonant moment in McCarthy’s fiction appears eleven years later after Child of God, in Blood Meridian. The kid awakens in “the nave of a ruinous church,” and discovers upon walking into the sacristy that it is filled with buzzards and “the remains of several bodies, one a child” (26). An abandoned church serves as a chilling metaphor. The kid is wandering and ends up here in a church, but the church is vacant, empty, dead. McCarthy is seemingly echoing Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead”; the sanctuary one may anticipate finding in the church is non-existent. A place of worship has become a scene of horror, a reminder of man’s mortality and the cruel, sometimes disturbing form death takes. The buzzards, harbingers of death, are ironically the only signs of life in the building now. The inability of the church or the Catholic Church as an institution to provide meaning to an increasingly pointless existence demonstrates the disillusionment of the postmodern writer. Yet is the Church itself completely hopeless? The kid continues to survey the church, preparing to head out: The façade of the building bore an array of saints in their niches and they had been shot up by American troops trying their rifles, the figures shorn of ears and noses and darkly mottled with leadmarks oxidized upon the stone. The huge carved and paneled doors hung awap on their hinges and a carved stone Virgin held in her arms a headless


child. (26-7) What is obvious is the irreverence towards the saints and the Virgin—figured revered only in Catholicism; what is not as apparent is that the manner this irreverence manifests itself is a corporeal . Oddly, the Virgin Mary holds a “headless child” in a church that now houses dead children. One can read this image two ways: an ironic statement on McCarthy’s part (considering the dead children in the sacristry) or a subtle suggestion that the children will be protected by the Virgin in heaven. Their deaths began their eternal life in heaven with the Lord; there, their bodies will be restored. Through a critical examination of the body’s treatment in Child of God, one can see McCarthy’s dissatisfaction toward Catholicism truly come to light, as his character wrestles with anxieties that are exacerbated by the Church’s teachings on sexuality, despite the otherwise consistent rejection of faith in the text. As I argued in the previous chapter, the role of the body in the Catholic Church cannot be taken too lightly. Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches are the only Christians that worship the crucifix, the cross with the suffering Christ. One interpretation of this practice comes from The Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, who wrote, “There are wounds of the spirit which never close, and are intended in God’s mercy to bring us ever nearer to him, and to prevent us from leaving him, by their very perpetuity” (qtd in Beardslee 78). The Crown of Thorns, the bleeding wounds, and the agonized face are an unavoidable presence in the Church and Catholic art. Also, the belief in transubstantiation reinforces the Church’s relationship with salvation and the body of Christ. The passage in Blood Meridian refers to Mary as “the Virgin”; Mary’s value being placed in the virtue of her body demonstrates not only the Catholic Church’s attitude towards the body, but also towards women. Of course, virtue is not always sufficient to maintain the sanctity of the body. St. Augustine, one of the church fathers, is one of the first to articulate the temptation of the carnal desires. In his Confessions, he writes, “I am determined to bring back in memory the revolting things I did, and the way my soul was contaminated by my flesh” (27). Augustine then goes on to relate how the body has led him into temptation. The tension between the virtue of the soul and needs of the body become a recurring theme and, as Susan Bordo points out, Augustine repeatedly alludes to “the body as the enemy” (145). To borrow from Augustine, sexual intercourse is “only for begetting children” (28), and so the Church has condemned all other forms of sexual activity as not only unnatural, but damning for the mortal soul. McCarthy’s


Child of God defies this concern, as the characters consistently transgress proper sexual behavior. This insolence supports Andrew Bartlett’s argument that Ballard exhibits “the remains of a certain spirituality, an inverted voided Christian theodicy” (13). Lester’s violations of the female body are a violation of God’s laws. Yet, he is not alone in his sexually offensive behavior, drawing attention to the fact that he is not as different as those whom he lives among. The dumpkeeper Reubel demonstrates the earliest example of the disregard for the presumed inviolability of the body. His nine daughters are described grotesquely—“gangling progeny with black hair hanging from their armpits” (27). These women are not created in the likeness of the Virgin Mary; rather, McCarthy’s description shows a deliberate subversion of the portrayal of women as pure, chaste, and righteous. Furthermore, the girls’ names come from a medical dictionary: “Urethra, Cerebella, Hernia Sue” (27). This misappropriation of physiological terminology undermines the idealism McCarthy perceives in mainstream society. Girls are not sugar and spice, as the old adage muses; they are sexual, seductive, corrupt, alive. Mikhail Bakhtin argues, “Eating, drinking, defecation and other elimination (sweating, blowing of the nose, sneezing), as well as copulation, pregnancy, dismemberment, swallowing up by another body—all these acts are performed on the confines of the body and the outer world, or on the confines of the old and new body. In all these events the beginning and end of life are closely linked and interwoven” (317). The openness of the body, both its ability to transgress and be transgressed, emphasize not only one’s existence, but also offers a portrait of the body in opposition to the closed, impenetrable form represented by idealized and idolized figures in the Church, such as the Virgin Mary. The violability of the body comes to disturbing realization in the following scene: One day in the woods and kudzu jungles on the far side of the dump he came across two figures humping away. He watched from behind a tree until he recognized one of his girls. He tried to creep up on them but the boy was wary and leaped up and was away through the woods hauling up his breeches as he went. The old man began to beat the girl with the stick he carried. She grabbed it. He overbalanced. They sprawled together in the leaves. Hot fishy reek of her freshed loins. Her peach drawers hung from a bush. The air about him grew electric. Next thing he knew his overalls were about his knees and he was mounting her. Daddy quit, she said. Daddy. Oooh.

Did he dump a load in you?


No. He pulled it out and gripped it and squirted his jissom on her thigh. Goddamn you, he said. He rose and heisted up his overalls and lumbered off toward the dump like a bear. (28) The location—“the far side of the dump”— of the sexual encounter de-mystifies any sense of romance, emphasizing its filthiness. The word “humping” calls attention to the baseness of the sex; this is not lovemaking, but rather animal desires being entertained. The body’s odors—raw and pungent—entice the dumpkeeper, and he precedes to have sex with his daughter. The Catholic Church does not condemn sexuality, but rather supports intercourse’s unitive power. However, this belief is subject to change based on certain situations: “Like all powerful human energies, [erotic desire] can turn demonic, but it is not evil in itself” (Greeley, The Catholic Imagination 61). Greeley expands the tension within the Church by saying, “In theory Catholicism says that sex is good, but in practice the Church has yet to shake the Platonist notion that sex is dirty” (The Catholic Imagination 57). In this instance, the intercourse violates social propriety and various sacred bonds, most obviously father and daughter, but also the marital bond between the dumpkeeper and his wife. In a brief moment, he commits rape, incest and adultery with his daughter. Noticeably though, the narrator does not linger on this scene by offering details that could be construed as moralism. Rather, details are minimal: the dumpkeeper molests his daughter and “squirt[s] his jissom” in a revolting act of domination, but there is no narrative commentary, only a seemingly objective depiction. In regards to the narrative, it is both a relief and curiosity that McCarthy does not exaggerate this scene for dramatic effect, as the father desecrates his daughter’s body, denying her of her integrity and her volition. The matter-of-fact account seems to accept the behavior as a cruel fact of life, neither dramatizing nor ignoring it. Reubel’s despicable treatment of his daughter shows that Lester is not in a category by himself; all of God’s creatures are capable of horrible acts. This “leveling of hierarchies” can perhaps best be understood in light of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the “carnivalesque.” Bakhtin developed his theory out of the work of François Rabelais, the French Renaissance novelist whose Gargantua and Pantagruel challenged social order through banquet scenes, the grotesque, and the carnival. The carnival was a celebration of life, marked by “suspension of all hierarchical precedence” (10). In Rabelais’s work, the Church maintains the order, but

46 everyone—the Church officials and the commoners—were equalized during the carnival. The spirit of the carnival was embodied in the grotesque body—“all that seeks to go beyond the body’s confines” (316). Bakhtin asserted that the limits between the body and the world were “overcome” through orifices, so the grotesque body was eating, drinking, having sex, sweating, defecating, and urinating (317). These transgressions remind the people of “the living sense that each man belongs to the immortal people who create history” (367), and therefore reinforce the vitality and mortality of this life. Child of God presents the carnivalesque in the fair scene, where Lester is able to join society, play games, and even earn some recognition in the form of stuffed animals: Ballard loaded up his bears and the tiger and started off through the crowd. They lord look at what all he’s won, said a woman. Ballard smiled tightly. Young girls’ faces floated past, bland and smooth as cream. Some eyed his toys. The crowd was moving toward the edge of a field and assembling there, Ballard among them, a sea of country people watching into the dark for some midnight contest to begin. (65) During the fair, Ballard’s status as an outcast is discounted, and he is reinstated as a member of the community. His spirit is renewed. He is indirectly complimented for his success at the games, which leads to an uncomfortable smile. However, it shows that Lester enjoys the acceptance. The narrator mentions an assembly with “Ballard among them”—an important distinction, as Ballard becomes one with the crowd, rather than one against the crowd. However, this reverie is short-lived, and may be connected to something else mentioned in the selection: the young girls. Ballard notices their faces, “bland and smooth as cream.” Their refined appearance represents the classical body—closed, pure, graceful, which is in opposition to the grotesque bodies of Reubel’s daughter or the drunken woman, which I will hereafter discuss. Since these women are representative of the women Lester usually interacts with, the novelty of the girls at the fair represents a temptation and fantasy. Here, his desire for female companionship and copulation is intensified by the appearance of potential participants. The openness and sensuality of the female body serves as constant temptation to Lester. The first is Reubel’s daughter, who teases the shy Lester. He wants to see her body, take it in, be taken in by it. He tries to see her underwear, and then down her shirt, but to no avail. She realizes this, and uses it to her advantage: What you lookin at?


Why, he’s lookin at them there nice titties for one thing, said the man on the drum. You want to see em. Sure, said Ballard. Gimme a quarter. I ain’t got one. She laughed. He stood there grinning. How much you got? I got a dime. Well go borry two and a half cents and you can see one of em. Just let me owe ye, said Ballard. Say you want to blow me? the girl said. I said owe, said Ballard, flushing. (29) The daughter uses her body to not only gain Lester’s attention, but to entice him. She has assumed the power in their interaction. Laughing at him, she emasculates Lester, first because he has no money and then because she pretends to catch him in a Freudian slip. His inability to react in a confident, unabashed, and masculine manner both emasculates and embarrasses him. His next encounter is with a woman he finds lying under the trees in a white gown, a garment whose color has obvious ironic implications. Approaching her, Lester takes in the openness of her body: He could see her heavy breasts sprawled under the thin stuff of her nightdress and he could see the dark thatch of hair under her belly. He knelt and touched her. Her slack mouth twisted. Her eyes opened. They seemed to open downward by the underlids like a bird’s and her eyeballs were gorged with blood. She sat up suddenly, a sweet ferment of whiskey and rot coming off her. (42) This woman is the first he can gaze upon freely, and he seizes the opportunity to be the voyeur. The grotesque is characterized by , so the large breasts and dark pubic hair, being both visible and prominent, defy the limits of her body and impose on the world. Her eyes, engorged with blood, and her breath emphasize this quality, this mutual violation: her body and his gaze. He attempts to assert authority by ripping off her dress, removing her fractured innocence. His decision leads to his arrest; he dismisses the charges as the mad claims of a


“goddamned old whore” (52). Pejoratives are significant in understanding Ballard: her unwillingness to satiate his desires leads to her dismissal as corrupt, impure, a whore. Similarly, while in jail, his cellmate delivers a crude, yet prophetic observation: “White pussy is nothin but trouble” (53). Being nude and the shame that arises from the body are deeply connected in the Bible, as Adam and Eve do not realize they are naked until they eat of the tree. As it was Eve who gave Adam the apple to bite, so too it could be presumed that women lead men into temptation. The misogyny of this situation is overt, but those concerns are trivial in McCarthy’s text because such antipathy is necessary to illustrate the harsh reality Lester lives in. Matters of “right” and “wrong” are not relevant because, like the Church, they are artificial ways to inhibit the individual. Lester’s desire to “taste” of the flesh, to indulge in carnal pleasures, is a pleasure that men in this text and this world must grapple with, and the frustration it causes is unfairly directed towards women. Lester’s encounters with the women repeatedly end up poorly, from his mother’s rejection of him before the novel begins to Reubel’s daughter’s flight from her father. Lester continues his search for normality, for affection, for contact. However, his search is complicated not only by his social position as a pariah, but by his high standards. At the fair, he stares at a girl he thinks may be pure: “a young girl with candy apple on her lips and her eyes wide. Her pale hair smelled of soap” (65). Her virtue is reflected by her wide eyes and her hair, which is literally clean. This smell contrasts with the offensive odor on the woman under the tree. What leads Lester to necrophilia is ultimately unclear, although presumably it is the accessibility of sexual intercourse and simulated love. Gary Ciuba speculates that Lester does so in order to “leave behind the numbingly ordinary world of Sevier County and live in the forbidden zone of the violence that is called sacred” (Desire 173). Yet, how can Lester be jaded if he is not even part of the “numbingly ordinary world” in which he lives? I see Lester’s necrophilia as an attempt to participate in society, not to escape it. He is trying to “go through the motions,” to experience not just love, but a relationship. Why else would he buy the corpses clothing? Lester cannot function within society, an effect caused by the circular problem of his awkwardness and the shunning by the townspeople. The corpses do not judge, discriminate, or refuse. He is able to operate without social restriction in a practice that violates the sanctity of the body, as the Church says to the faithful, who accept this notion. For example, he comes upon his first victim dead in a car, exposed:


A crazed gymnast laboring over a cold corpse. He poured into that waxen ear everything he’d ever thought of saying to a woman. Who could say she did not hear him? When he finished he raised up and looked out again. The windows were fogged. He took the hem of the girl’s skirt with which to wipe himself. He was standing on the dead man’s leg. The dead man’s member was still erect. Ballard pulled up his trousers and climbed over the seat and opened the door and stepped out into the road. He tucked in his shirt and buckled his breeches up. Then he picked up his rifle and started down the road. He hadn’t gone far before he stopped and came back. (88-9) His “laboring” is his attempt to make it work, to make his interaction with her seem normal. Although she is dead, he feels a need to talk to her, whisper tender words into her indifferent ear. His desperate attempt to acclimate is undermined by the perceived perversion of his behavior. McCarthy calls this into question: Who is to blame? What right do they have to judge? Is Lester any worse than the dumpkeeper who rapes his daughter? Or the White Caps? McCarthy offers all of these portraits, but offers no judgment. His narrator echoes Christ’s admonition: “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). Despite the text’s opposition to Catholicism in its content, Child of God demonstrates a Catholic approach in its form. Lester is a child of God, and McCarthy shows how to approach Lester as such, countering the poor example set by the “supposed” Christians who populate the town in Child of God. McCarthy is also concerned with what John Lang calls the “potential for violence inherent in all human beings” (94). Lester’s rifle becomes a phallic representation of his masculinity; he asserts his power, both sexual and physical, through it. Gary Ciuba states, “Just as Ballard’s murders make him lord of the living, his sexual violations make him master of the dead” (“McCarthy’s Enfant Terrible” 80). Indeed, he is trying to carve a space for himself within the world that consistently judges him, alienates him, and ultimately, kills him—not literally, but by isolating him, allowing him to rot away. From his literal dispossession by local authorities in the opening scene to the experimentation on his corpse at the end, Lester is a victim of institutions in their varied forms. These institutions, like Catholicism, presuppose an authority and use it for their own advantages, even against the better interests of the people. Child of God is not only a Catholic novel because of how its narrator and protagonist view the world, but in how they respond to the world. Lester Ballard is not an outsider, but

50 rather a captured animal in the zoo that is society. Even when he escapes the mob that is prepared to torture him—ironically, for Lester’s mistreatment of people—into the maternal space of the cave, he is unable to stay for long. His mother failed him, and as the basic unit of society, the lack of a family in turn led to a lack of proper socialization. Lester ends up with nowhere to go, leading to his return to the hospital. “I’m supposed to be here” (192), he states indifferently, surrendering to one of the multiple institutions that has oppressed him. Lester Ballard may not have been a “good” person, but he was a person, although his treatment would not demonstrate that. McCarthy’s novel is an experiment in taste—what is distasteful, inappropriate, wrong. He calls into question the rules that govern the reader’s world, just as the Second Vatican Council indirectly led to a reassessment of many Catholics’ belief systems. The Council’s changes challenged the edifice the Church has built, an edifice many adherents had not questioned because the Church had made efforts to avoid such insubordination: the Latin Mass and no lay participation in the Mass. However, Second Vatican Council changed such actions, altering the discourse that had maintained the Church’s authority over the faithful. This re-evaluation of one’s values that Second Vatican Council indirectly and Child of God directly calls for creates a similarity between the two entities. In an article on McCarthy’s The Crossing, Jason Ambrosiano coined the term Catholic Postmodernism, but this is not an accurate description of what McCarthy does. He does not bring Catholicism to postmodernism, he brings postmodernism to Catholicism. The issues of postmodernity—authority and authorship, totalization, metanarratives—trouble how religion is dealt with in Child of God. McCarthy is a postmodern Catholic, questioning Catholicism’s ability to function in the real world, to provide answers and promise, rather than perpetuating half-truths and mystifying the masses through the Mass. However, his work also demonstrates the influence of Catholicism on his view of the world. Don DeLillo says a Catholic worldview allows for a writer to address “important subjects, eternal subjects” (Passaro 81), which McCarthy does without hesitation. Doris Grumbach notices something to this effect in her review of Child of God: “[McCarthy] is a novelist of religious feeling who appears to subscribe to no creed but who cannot stop wondering in the most passionate and honest way what gives life meaning” (90). Furthermore, Lester Ballard’s story is based on a true story of a serial killer in Sevier County (Woodward, “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction”), and in his appropriation of the

51 story, McCarthy emphasizes how the news reports and the novel are both alternatives of the unattainable “truth.” History in the postmodern sense, as Linda Hutcheon argues, is reconsidered as a “human construct” and therefore just another text (16). Furthermore, the novel is told as a collection of episodes recounted by a narrator who is obviously telling them to (and has at one point received them from) fellow townspeople. This filtration of the truth, this acknowledgement of manipulation and intervention, is characteristic of postmodernism. The admitted contrivance and revisionist approach to an actual news story classifies the novel as what Hutcheon calls “historiographic metafiction,” which she defines as “well-known and popular novels which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages” (5). Catholicism simply serves as a lens through which to view history, but the validity of the Roman Catholic Church is always in question. In McCarthy, though, the Church is obsolete—a fact that separates him from fellow postmodernist Don DeLillo, as I will show in the next chapter. Yet, as much as his novels may seem to work against it in their brutal depictions of the world, he continues to operate in the context of Catholicism. After all, like his troubled protagonist, McCarthy is still a child of God.



I did not believe the information Just had to trust imagination My heart going boom boom boom “Son,” he said, “Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home.” —Peter Gabriel, “Solsbury Hill”

On February 10, 2005, Don DeLillo gave a reading at the University of Texas at Austin, the university that soon after became home to the archive of his letters, manuscripts, and research. During the brief question-and-answer period that followed, an attendant asked the National Book Award-winning author to discuss the influence of his Italian Catholic upbringing, to which DeLillo responded, “There’s something about a Catholic childhood. […] The ritual becomes a part of one’s consciousness, and I wonder if somehow that affected the way I write” (qtd in Sauer). This statement differs from DeLillo’s early claim, during a 1993 interview with , in which he said his Italian American childhood—including participation in the Catholic Church, one can imagine—mattered “only in the sense that it gave me a perspective from which to see the larger environment” (“Don DeLillo” 88). This shift in his acknowledgement of Catholicism’s possible influence parallels the shift in how religion is treated in his novels Mao II (1991) and Falling Man (2007). Both works deal with art and atrocity, but another key concern is religion, belief, and their interconnectedness. However, while Mao II seems reticent to discuss organized religion’s full potential, Falling Man explores the possibility of faith providing guiding light in an increasingly terrifying world. It is my intention to expand on the work by critics like John Paul Russo and Amy Hungerford that examines DeLillo’s work through Catholicism to demonstrate not only that religion has “somehow […] affected” his writing, but that the religious views of his youth manifest themselves in his novels, providing his with imagery and perspective on both living and life. To accomplish this goal, I will compare how Mao II and Falling Man—two works that deal with 9/11: the first, in a prophetic sense, the second as a response—attempt to make sense of

53 the world in light of a religion that DeLillo was raised with, yet has since lapsed in practicing.12 My focus will be how DeLillo addresses religion’s viability, and furthermore, how Catholicism manifests itself through the texts’ use of the body. This angle has yet to be explored in discussing Catholicism in DeLillo’s novels, but in doing so, one can see how the treatment and of the body reflects Catholic theology and worship. I will integrate this examination with the already popular discussion of belief in DeLillo’s work to show the transition in treatment before and after 9/11. By framing my discussion of a new DeLillo text and an existing dialogue in DeLillo criticism with a different aspect of Catholicism, my hope is to contribute to three relatively recent conversations in the criticism of contemporary literature.13 The first is that religion and spirituality, although sometimes flawed or troubled, are not absent in postmodern literature.14 The second is Don DeLillo’s evolving attitude towards the world he dissects in his novels. And finally, that in addition to postmodern literature, Don DeLillo is a key contributor to recent Catholic American literature through his exploration of Catholic American lives and his concern with God’s presence and purpose in the world. Unlike Toole and McCarthy, DeLillo writes novels that are apprehensive, yet optimistic about religion’s possibility in the post-Vatican II period of modern Catholicism. By exploring his unique reaction to religion, I want to explore how he differs from Toole and McCarthy to offer a third response to Catholicism in contemporary America. Perhaps no other contemporary writer represents the difficulties endemic to categorizing authors like Don DeLillo. Although Don DeLillo is often seen as an essential postmodern writer—Peter Boxall calls DeLillo “an enthusiastic postmodernist” (14)—he seems to resist such

12 DeLillo does not identify as a practicing Catholic in any of the interviews I consulted while preparing this chapter. He generally treats it as an aspect of his past, such as when he refers to his youth as “a Catholic childhood” (Passaro 81). Amy Hungerford calls him a “nonpracticing American Catholic” (345). 13 Examining DeLillo from a postsecular perspective begins with John A. McClure’s article in 1995. Considerable interest in DeLillo and Catholicism came after the 1997 publication of Underworld (Hungerford 344). 14 I say “relatively recent” because postmodernism as an area for scholarly and critical investigation arguably dates back to the 1960s: “By the mid-1960s, critics like Susan Sontag and Ihab Hassan had begun to point out some of the characteristics, in Europe and in the United States, of what we now call postmodernism” (Butler 5). However, John McClure’s 1995 article on postsecularity responds to critics like Frederic Jameson, who claim postmodernity has brought about a secularization of contemporary society. McClure’s argument reached fruition recently with the publication of Partial Faiths (University of Georgia Press, 2007).

54 nomenclature. Mark Osteen notes that DeLillo scholarship has seen the author “both as denouncer and as a defender of postmodern culture” (3). DeLillo’s novel Libra, an revisionist “history” of the Kennedy assassination, is an example of what Linda Hutcheon calls “historiographic metafiction”—works that are postmodern because their “theoretical self- awareness of history and fiction as human constructs” (12). Cowart asserts “[g]ood DeLillo criticism” has to consider the author in terms of postmodernism (1). The subjects he chooses—conspiracies, terrorism, media—may be pertinent to the postmodern consciousness, but the narrative structure by which he addresses them often is not. However, DeLillo is not the indispensable postmodernist in both form and content; John A. McClure discusses this quality by noting that the White Noise author is “less formally and ontologically playful” than the likes of , although DeLillo “insistently interrogates secular conceptions of the real” (“Postmodern/Post-Secular” 141). Postmodernism itself, in its rejection of totalizing restrictions and limits, becomes difficult to define. If one accepts him as a postmodernist, DeLillo still challenges the idea of postmodernism as Godless or secular as McClure proposes (“Postmodern/Post-secular” 152), thereby operating in a growing trend in postmodern thought: post-secularism. As I have already discussed in relation to Cormac McCarthy, Frederic Jameson asserts that “spirituality virtually by definition no longer exists” (387). However, social scientists seem to disagree with Jameson’s assessment, as do literary critics like John A. McClure. In 1995, he noted that sociologists of religion feel that since the 1960s, the United States has been in a Third Great Awakening, when “spiritual preoccupations intensify and new spiritualities flourish” (142). Economist Robert Fogel would also disagree with Jameson, but he discusses the current religious climate as a part of America’s Fourth Great Awakening, characterized by the decline of the “mainline Protestant denominations” and the impressive increase in “enthusiastic religions,” such as Pentecostalism and Adventism (25). If the postmodern aims to, as Jameson proposes, “think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place” (ix), then one surely must consider religion’s influence, or at least legacy, in a nation that is so rooted in Protestantism. From this question comes postsecularism15, the return of spiritual

15 In his article, John McClure uses “post-secular”; in his book, “postsecular.” I use the latter, except when quoting the article.

55 and religious authority in American culture—that is, supposing it ever truly left in the wake of the turn toward postmodernity. In Partial Faiths, John A. McClure expands upon his 1995 article, defining “postsecular fiction” and studying authors such as and Thomas Pynchon. One of the benchmarks of postsecular fiction is the “partial conversion.” Unlike typical narratives of conversion, the protagonist is left in limbo between “worldliness” and “well-ordered systems of religious beliefs” (4). However, such abandonment does not trouble the protagonist; he or she is comfortable in this negotiated form of religiosity. McClure argues, “In the end, then, postsecular narratives affirm the urgent need for a turn toward the religious even as they reject (in most nstances) the familiar dream of full return to an authoritative faith” (6). Using this model, I will discuss religion in both Mao II and Falling Man, illustrating how the two novels differ, both in their approach to religion and in how McClure’s articulation of literary postsecularism can be applied to better understand them. The most convincing discussion of DeLillo’s Catholicism so far has been Amy Hungerford’s article, “Don DeLillo’s Latin Mass,” a piece that is a germ of a larger project entitled Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960. In the essay, Hungerford proposes that Don DeLillo “ultimately transfers a version of mysticism from the Catholic context into the literary one, and that he does so through the model of the Latin mass” (343). The Latin Mass was vital to the Catholic worship as a “linguistic and spiritual practice” (347), and although it disappeared for the most part following Sacrosanctum Concilium, the “mystical” nature of the service persisted in the Catholic American imagination. Therefore, Hungerford contends, the novels of Don DeLillo “suggest one way that American culture imagines the coexistence of strong religious feeling and half-hearted commitment to specific doctrine, a tension quite dramatically evident in late-century American Catholicism” (348). Hungerford’s argument is provocative and illuminating because it furthers discussions of DeLillo’s use of language by critics like David Cowart and it draws attention to the limited criticism of DeLillo’s Catholicism, which in turn furthers the study of nonpracticing Catholics’ use of their (supposedly) discharged faith in their writing. Since Hungerford’s article precedes the publication of Falling Man, my discussion of DeLillo’s Catholicism will consider the role of this novel in DeLillo’s oeuvre. Furthermore, my reading of the shifting attitude toward religion in Falling Man compared to the earlier Mao II will show that DeLillo continues to infuse his

56 religion into his corpus and evolving in his estimation of the postmodern world. My alternative approach intends to promote the discussion of DeLillo’s Catholic sensibility, rather than simply expanding upon Hungerford’s persuasive argument. The son of Italian-American immigrants, Don DeLillo was raised Roman Catholic in New York City. He graduated from Cardinal Hayes High School, a Catholic school in the South Bronx, before attending Fordham University, a Jesuit institution, for a degree in communication arts. DeLillo himself admitted, I think there is a sense of last things in my work that probably comes from a Catholic childhood. For a Catholic, nothing is too important to discuss or think about, because he’s raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn’t live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain. This removes a hesitation that a writer might otherwise feel when he’s approaching important subjects, eternal subjects. I think for a Catholic these things are part of ordinary life. (Passaro 81) While the amount of Catholic education DeLillo received is considerable, its effect on the author is left to be found in his works. Joseph Dewey claims that DeLillo’s Catholicism endows his vision with a gravitas, a sense of a complexity to existence, of expectation/apprehension that lends value to doubt, confers on the struggle with confusion the dignity of self-definition—the individual coming to grasp the implications of itself as an intended rather than accidental entity—and grants dignity and grand drama to morality. (11) Although Dewey does not explain how this happens, his summation emphasizes one characteristic to DeLillo’s Catholic sensibility in his novels: the role of the sacramental. The Catechism defines sacraments as “efficacious signs of grace perceptible to the senses. Through them divine life is bestowed upon [the faithful]” (244). The theatricality of Catholicism is never missing in DeLillo, whose scenes are powerful both in their emotion and their action. His language suggests a fascination with the extraordinary, perhaps due to the presence of God, and how one is to make sense of it. The opening scenes of Mao II and Falling Man—Karen’s participation in a mass wedding at Yankee Stadium and Keith’s walking away from the burning towers, respectively—demonstrate this concern with the new, the unexpected, the awe-inspiring. Awe at God’s creation—what it is, what it can become—suggests a connection between


DeLillo’s work and his Catholicism. One might also consider Don DeLillo’s admiration for perhaps the greatest lapsed Catholic writer of all, James Joyce. In his major interview, in 1982, Don DeLillo was asked why so little biographical information was available on him, to which he replied, “Silence, exile, cunning, and so on” (“An Interview” 4). DeLillo’s enigmatic response is an allusion to remarks made by Stephen Dedalus, protagonist of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ironically, the character to whom Dedalus makes the comments later chastises him with a rather apropos critique: “It is a curious thing, do you know, Cranly said dispassionately, how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” When Gerald Howard inquired about DeLillo’s “lifelong allegiance to Father Joyce,” the author responded, “Mailer calls him Doctor Joyce. You and I know that he’s a priest” (“The American Strangeness” 128). DeLillo’s indebtedness to Joyce may extend writing to their attitudes towards Catholicism and the (post)modern world. Although the extent of Joyce’s influence is indeterminable, DeLillo’s Catholic identity is one that is troubled by the world he lives in, a world quite different from that of Dublin in the early twentieth century. If one incident seems to represent a traumatic experience for DeLillo as an American, a Catholic, and a writer, it is the Kennedy assassination. John F. Kennedy represented an important transition for Catholics in America. Not only did he offer the promise of youth after the Eisenhower administration, he was the first non-Protestant President in a nation where Protestant denominations dominated. Kennedy was initially feared to be an agent of the Pope, a concern he quickly dismissed in his famous address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960: I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters—and the Church does not speak for me. A Catholic President—youthful, handsome, and personable—could ease, perhaps even end, underlying anti-Catholicism in American society. Kennedy’s victory in the election was a victory for American Catholics as well, and offered the promise of greater understanding. This hope—of the youth, of Catholics, of a nation—was shattered in Dallas on November 22, 1963. As DeLillo explains, Our culture changed in important ways. And these changes are among the things that go


into my work. There’s the shattering randomness of the event, the missing motive, the violence that people not only commit but seem to watch simultaneously from a disinterested distance. Then the uncertainty we feel about the basic facts that surround the case—number of gunmen, number of shots and so on. Our grip on reality has felt a little threatened. Every revelation about the event seems to produce new levels of secrecy, unexpected links, and I guess this has been part of my work, the clandestine mentality—how ordinary people spy on themselves, how the power centers operate and manipulate. (“Don DeLillo” 103) The resulting devastation on the American psyche echoes throughout DeLillo’s work, and creates a sense of paranoia, conspiracy, and distrust. DeLillo seems to be suggesting that a national innocence was lost, one that might not necessarily be recoverable (or never even existed in the first place). However, this skepticism towards the world, particularly society, contrasts with the Catholic idea of immanence—that God is present in everything, that goodness is omnipresent. In addition to immanence, the post-secularism found in his novels separates Don DeLillo from John Kennedy Toole and Cormac McCarthy. DeLillo’s work shows an attitude toward religion that is genuinely conflicted, but not dismissive. While Mao II and Falling Man do not necessarily mourn the loss of a religion as A Confederacy of Dunces does, they also do not reject the idea of spirituality or, as we see in Falling Man, religion as the way Child of God seems to do. Rather, what I wish to discuss is how DeLillo’s work shows a search for something to believe in, a quest that is perhaps never fully satisfied, but yet one that demonstrates the will and desire for spiritual fulfillment. Karen in Mao II and Lianne in Falling Man find themselves displaced from their religions, but ultimately they remain confident in the idea that faith—in a person or a religion—can provide some comfort in an increasingly unstable world. Whether or not faith brings about true solace is debatable and indiscernible, but the potential for faith to accomplish such a mission remains a persistent presence. In this way, DeLillo offers the third way Catholic writers responded to spirituality and religion in contemporary fiction: the search for a new faith. In Mao II, Karen Janney experiences different forms of spiritual experience, from the mass wedding at the beginning of the novel to the public mourning for the Ayatollah Khomeini. Rather than settling into one faith, she wanders, awaiting the allure of a new spirituality.


However, she is undaunted in her search. Karen’s encounters with new religions can be viewed a sign of fickleness and insecurity, but I think DeLillo admires her search for grounding in a world where the center cannot hold. The name “Karen” comes from Greek for “pure,” and there is an innocence and hope in Karen that is absent in the other characters. For this, she is sometimes patronized—particularly by her boyfriend, Scott, who mocks her in saying, “Karen thinks her God is here. Like walkin’ and talkin’” (69)—but there seems to be narrative sympathy with the character. Perhaps her enthusiasm is why DeLillo said he “felt enormous sympathy toward Karen Janney, sympathy, understanding, kinship. I was able to enter her consciousness quickly and easily” (“Don DeLillo” 99). DeLillo’s connection with his fictional creation may hint at an expression of his own complicated beliefs, especially considering the compassion and general interest he displays towards all religions, from the Unification Church in Mao II to the Muslims in both Mao II and Falling Man. The ability for the individual to continue to believe while living in a society and culture that discourages religion as a Svengali not only gains the attention of DeLillo, but earns his admiration. As the novel opens at Yankee Stadium, Karen is participating in a mass wedding conducted by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Her parents, confused and concerned, watch from a distance, especially her father: “They’re one body now, an undifferentiated mass, and this makes him uneasy” (3). In line with the Romantics, DeLillo shows a concern for the loss of the individual—in this case, Karen—to the society (or a large group where one consequently surrenders his or her individuality). Yet, reading DeLillo as a Catholic leads one to two observations. The idea of a group united by religion into “one body” is very Catholic: “so we, though many, are one body in Christ” (Romans 12:5). Second, “mass” can refer to a crowd, but also one may think about “mass” as a religious service. After all, this is not just a group of people, this is a wedding, despite its untraditional execution: “They take a time-honored event and repeat it, repeat it, repeat it until something new enters the world” (4). The wedding, an occasion for the celebration, is reproduced so much that it loses it singularity. The repetition emphasizes its reproducibility and ritualism as a quotidian event becomes an eerie, alien phenomena, robbed of its original aura. This disunity makes Karen’s father uncomfortable because it makes the familiar unfamiliar and signals a change in his daughter. Karen, on the other hand, views this moment as one that represents new potential: We really believe. They bring us up to believe but when we show them true belief they


call psychiatrists and police. We know who God is. This makes us crazy in the world. (8) Karen’s fascination may be rooted in both hope and the novelty of the situation. The same “newness” that terrifies her father, excites her. Her criticism, though, is well-founded in that she draws attention to how people like her parents dismiss the thinking of the institution she believes in—the Unification Church—by relying on the institutions they believe in: psychiatry and law enforcement. This loyalty to social institutions causes division, but also can also cause groupthink and mass hysteria. The latter effects are what concern DeLillo, as the narrator paraphrases in the prophesy, “The future belongs to crowds” (16). This reluctance towards crowds is an area where DeLillo dissents from the Church’s teachings. After all, Psalms 23 reminds the faithful, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” This line compares the faithful to sheep, members of flock, being led by an unseen, but omniscient being. Believing in the Lord, the psalm promises, frees one from wanting. The narrator seems to encourage cautious worship rather than complete surrender to a religion. However, despite the problems more conservative people may find with Karen’s “less time-honored” faith, DeLillo uses her as a vehicle for the narrator’s question: “When the Old God leaves the world, what happens to all the unexpended faith?” (7). Despite the comfort one is to believe she finds through the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, Karen begins to feel doubt: “She believed deeply in Master and still thought of herself as a seeker, ready to receive what was vast and true. […] She began to think she was inadequate to the strict plain shapes of churchly faith” (78). This concern precedes her kidnapping, where she notices the ironic similarity of how her mirrors what her parents (and later, the deprogrammers) accused the Unification Church of doing to her. This tension between the institutions espoused by her parents and “new” institutions parallels what DeLillo seems to see as the state of contemporary religion: attempting to leave the religion one knows in search of another option, a viable alternative, a new solution to deal with new problems. However, Karen transitions to the “religion” of her deprogrammer, leaving the Unification Church for the hero worship of the novelist Bill Gray. Moon was a man of action—he had had a vision, which inspired him to “lead them to the end of human history” (6)—but Bill is a man of ideas. Bill’s novels create a discourse, a vision, and a public image of him. Through Bill’s assistant Scott, Karen finds not only a boyfriend, but a new faith. This combined discovery becomes relevant in

61 her interactions with Bill. Bill becomes a God of sorts. David Cowart draws attention to the fact that Bill mentions at dinner that the name of God is sometimes four letters long in other cultures; Cowart then notes that the name “Bill Gray” itself is an example of the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters of God’s name (126). The mundane nature of his name, including the surname that refers to a color between black and white, hint at the mystery behind Bill and his presence. In his initial meeting with Brita, Bill says, “I think I need these pictures more than you do. To break down the monolith I’ve built” (44). Bill’s remarks suggest he is a God-like figure, looking to subvert his image by showing himself. Scott opposes this revision; Bill has completed a novel that Scott refuses to publish: Bill is at the height of his fame. Ask me why. Because he hasn’t published in years and years and years. […] Bill gained celebrity by doing nothing. The world caught up. Reprint after reprint. […] We could make a king’s whatever, multimillions, with the new book. But it would be the end of Bill as a myth, a force. (52) Scott’s rationale seems to portray him as someone trying to maintain control over an institution. He is afraid to change how Bill appears to the public because he is afraid to challenge the reputation of the author. I align this conscientious management of Bill’s celebrity with the Second Vatican Council, the Church’s efforts to modernize and revive the Church. The Second Vatican Council introduced the vernacular into the Mass, increased the role of the layman, and encouraged conciliation with non-Catholic branches of Christianity. Such radical updating was met with harsh criticism by conservative Catholics, who were concerned with how the altering of tradition affected the validity of their values and their authority within the Church. In The Catholic Tradition, Thomas Langan writes, The Church’s new emphasis on ‘freedom of individual ’ has troubled conservatives, even though the fathers accompanied it by a stern reminder of the responsibility to form one’s conscience rightly. Seeing the liberties with the liturgy taken by some priests, the extremes of the more Marxist-influenced liberation theology, and disobedience of certain Church moral teaching, many conservatives have reacted by redoubling efforts to get the law enforced. (312) The revision of the Catholic Church calls the faithful’s attention to the fact that the Catholic Church is a social institution, constructed and maintained by the clergy, and subject to change.


Understandably, some may have found the malleability of their religion to be troubling, especially considering the political and social climate of the 1960s. Similarly, Scott knows if Bill’s public image is altered, so too will the cult of personality surrounding Bill. This change will have consequences for Scott as well, disempowering him and upsetting the situation he has built for himself as Bill’s assistant. Karen is Bill’s most loyal follower because she does not have the control that Scott has, but does have the devotion and the closeness. As Bill lies in bed, Karen enters and straddles Bill. He asks if Scott knows she visits; she replies, “Is there anything in this house Scott doesn’t know?” (86). She then suggests that she has been brought there for him, as if she is a nun in the cult of personality surrounding Bill Gray, a sexual slave. Her body is not hers, but rather his, to satisfy his carnal needs. The sex scene between Bill and Karen is odd because it is not a matter of love or even pleasure, but rather routine. There is no affection between the two; the conversation is mundane and out of place considering the sexual tension and arousal one might expect. Sex does not come about naturally, but rather is requested, in a veritable call and response: “I think we ought to have our intercourse now.” “Yes, dear,” said Bill. (86) This dispassionate exchange sets the tone for this interaction: methodical and customary. So how does one read this as Catholic? From the viewpoint of Catholic morality, both parties are engaging in sin—fornication and adultery (Karen, after all, is still married). However, Catholic doctrine might offer an interesting perspective on how this scene can be read: a representation of sacred union. In The Catholic Imagination, Andrew Greeley states “The Church has always believed in some fashion that the sexual union is sacramental, an image of the union of Jesus and the Church, yet it has never quite been able to overcome the impulse to feel that sex is something shameful” (17). Mao II alters this concept, as the union is between the “God” and the faithful: “He saw how absorbed she was in the task, dainty-fingered and determined to be expert, like a solemn child dressing a doll” (86). Karen’s ritualistic, careful approach to sex with Bill suggests she experiences religious ecstasy through sexual ecstasy, a blurring that again seems to reflective of a variation on Catholic mysticism. Paul speaks of a man who “was caught up into Paradise and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter” (II Corinthians 12:4). St. Teresa of Avila develops this idea when she discusses having “ecstasies,” in which she had “visions about God,

63 some imaginative with actual images, and others simply intellectual”—all of these demonstrating to her the “grandeur of God” (Welch 148). However, this corporeal experience of faith Karen seeks is found in sexuality. The use of birth control between Bill and Karen is also worth noting, especially considering that DeLillo lived through the controversy of Humanae Vitae. As Karen removes the condom from the drawer, Bill asks, “Who are you protecting, you or me?” Karen replies, “It’s just the norm today” (86). This scene again reveals the routine nature of sexual intercourse in present-day America. Also, the use of condoms is also a violation of the Church’s teachings on sexuality. As I discussed in the introduction, Paul VI condemned the use of contraceptives in the aforementioned encyclical. Many Catholics disagreed with the decision and found it difficult to reconcile their personal beliefs with those of the Church. Andrew Greeley contends that many Catholics remained in the church because they were able to compromise their Catholicism, viewing it as an aspect of their identity rather than a religion (Hungerford 348). This lackadaisical reaction to contemporary sexual mores can be seen as a reflection of McClure’s notion of “partial conversions”—characters do not need to be whole-hearted members of their religions, but be able to find what they are looking for in them. Although Karen is not Catholic, this brief exchange seems to speak to a larger trend—intercourse as pleasurable and diverting and not necessarily a sign of mutual affection or for purposes of procreation—in intimate relationships in contemporary America. Watching the mourning for the Ayatollah on television, Karen’s search for faith intensifies. She empathizes with the grief-stricken and as a believer—of Moon, of Bill, of the act of believing—she wants to be part of them. She becomes enamored with their love for the Ayatollah, their passionate tears. Corporeality again plays an important role, as she sees that the mourners’ bodies do not matter to them: But it was the story of a body now. It was beginning to be the story of a body that the living will not yield to the earth. They were passing out from heat and grief. There were people diving into the grave. Their bodies did not matter anymore and were limp and bent with grief. They wanted to occupy the grave to keep the imam out. (190) What really matters to the mourners is religion: what they stand for, what they believe in, why they live and what they live for. Karen understands this, for this logic is what she too believes. She feels solidarity with them, not for a shared god, but for a shared passion for their

64 respective gods. Karen watches intensely, as if this broadcast were for her only, unable to “imagine who else was watching this. It could not be real if others watched” (191). Seemingly, she has found the answer she had been searching for, through Moon and Bill and, now, the Ayatollah. Inspired, she goes to the park to spread the message she has seen, telling each of the homeless individually that “the total vision is being seen” (193). Yet, when the reader sees Karen again, she is back at Bill’s, returning to the faith she seemed to be moving away from in the earlier passage. She attempts to make amends with Scott, and the two discuss the possibility of Bill not returning. Karen seems to have reacclimated to her world and her position within Bill’s house. Concerned about what happens if Bill should not return and lawyers “approach,” her final words in Mao II are “they should let us live here. And we keep the manuscript and we keep the pictures” (223). Whereas the images of the Ayatollah’s funeral were broadcast to her, she seems to prefer being the one controlling the images, the discourse, the religion. Her participation in the Unification Church required her to surrender to the Reverend Moon’s directions, but in the “Church of Bill Gray,” she holds some power, as both Scott’s girlfriend/partner and Bill’s lover and friend. The sense of autonomy it provides, one may argue, is what allows her to come to some sort of stasis. Her search for belief is satiated for the moment by the influence she wields in Bill’s home and “Church.” It is not blind, but rather a controlled faith. However, seeing Karen move from faith to faith, leader to leader, one is wondering if she will ever find the comfort she seeks. As Amy Hungerford concludes, “What exactly Karen believes is never quite clear; what matters is her capacity to believe” (362). Karen’s happiness does not come in faith, but in her search for faith and the spiritual effect it has on her—the novelty, the excitement, the renewal. Through Karen, DeLillo shows that faith is not necessarily the answer, but the search for spiritual fulfillment can be redeeming in its ability to offer comfort and self-empowerment. However, the ephemeral nature of these benefits requires one to constantly move from faith to faith. This continuous pursuit, though, offers promise in the both the freshness and unknown potential each new faith possesses. Like Mao II, Falling Man features a woman in search for spiritual fulfillment. However, while Karen Janney experiments with multiple religions, Lianne Neudecker’s search finds her returning to the religion of her father, Jack. Falling Man begins on the morning of September 11, 2001, after the attacks, where the street has become “time and space of falling ash and near night” (3). A new world, alien and unpredictable, is created. Out of this chaos, Lianne’s

65 husband Keith emerges, only to re-enter her life after a separation as both try to deal with the attack, their fractured marriage, and their own crises. Through religion—in this case, Roman Catholicism—Lianne is able to cope with the stress brought on by both her father’s suicide and September 11. For Lianne, September 11 represented a turning point in her life by bringing her husband back, but also by sending the life she had without him into disarray. After escaping the burning towers, Keith ends up on her doorstep. Lianne forgets the circumstances that tore them apart, and instead begins to clean him, removing the dust, ash, and blood. This nurturing she displays mirrors a similar scene in the Bible: Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary of Bethany going to anoint Christ after the Crucifixion, only to be told He has risen (Mark 16:1-8). The washing transcends the mundane to become a loving reunion, as the wife tending to her husband, displaying care and affection. Later, while talking with her mother Nina, Lianne reflecting, expressing her shock and bewilderment: “But when the towers fell.” “I know.” “When this happened.” “I know.” “I thought he was dead.” “So did I,” Nina said. “So many watching.” “Thinking he’s dead, she’s dead.” “I know.” “Watching those buildings fall.” “First one, then the other. I know,” her mother said. (10-1) Not only did the towers fall, so did Lianne’s sense of stability. The trauma of seeing her city, her home changed by terrorism and the thought of losing her estranged husband is devastating. Her mother assures her, but it can difficult to understand whether these words represent sincere sympathy or an attempt to simply console. Although she claims to identify with her concerns, her mother is part of Lianne’s problem, a problem of faith. Lianne searches for a way to recover, to make sense of what has happened, to explain the unexplainable. She needs a new set of guidelines to live by to help her navigate the new world created by the attack. Such questions are usually answered by religion, which provides perspective and promise. But for Lianne, these

66 answers are out of reach: Lianne struggled with the idea of God. She was taught to believe that religion makes people compliant. This is the purpose of religion, to return people to a childlike state. Awe and submission, her mother said. This is why religion speaks so powerfully in laws, rituals and punishments. And it speaks beautifully as well, inspiring music and art, elevating consciousness in some, reducing it in others. People fall into trances, people literally go to the ground, people crawl great distances or in crowds stabbing themselves and whipping themselves. And other people, the rest of us, maybe we’re rocked more gently, joined to something deep in the soul. Powerful and beautiful, her mother said. We want to transcend, we want to pass beyond the limits of safe understanding, and what better way to do it than through make-believe. (63) A retired academic, Nina’s opinions on religion fail to provide Lianne with a framework for comprehending what has happened and for moving on with her life. Religion, in Nina’s eyes, is a game of “make-believe,” forged to create the idea that everything’s alright if one can create a reason to convince oneself it is. This abandonment of religion is based on the behavior it compels one toward, eccentric, “abnormal” behavior—trances, crawling, marching, stabbing, whipping. It can also be traced to a concern over the effect of mob mentality and the authority that is supposed by these large groups. This fear is again Romantic because it represents a threat to the individual, and the individual’s ability to express oneself without the constraints of social institutions. Ironically, this lack of religious framework causes Lianne to be lost, searching for security. Shortly thereafter, the narrator relates Lianne’s desire to be a disbeliever, because she cannot find a common ground between the lapsed Catholicism of her father—“devoted to the Latin mass as long as he didn’t have to sit through it” (68)—and the atheism of her mother. If she did not believe at all, she would not have to consider the mysteries of God and (hopefully) could find contentment in knowing that something she cannot see or hear does not exist. However, the resignation intrinsic to disbelief would not be fulfilling because she would still have to deal with a world divided between the firm affirmation that God exists and the passionate dissent that He does not. The culture arising from this tension unsettles her: There were the scholars and philosophers she’d studied in school, books she’d read as thrilling dispatches, personal, making her shake at times, and there was the sacred art


she’d always loved. Doubters created this work, and ardent believers, and those who’d doubted and then believed, and she was free to think and doubt and believe simultaneously. But she didn’t want to. God would crowd her, make her weaker. God would be a presence that remained unimaginable. She wanted this only, to snuff out the pulse of the shaky faith she’d held for much of her life. (65) The omnipresence of God—not just in the Catholic sense of His presence in everything, but also discussion and reference of him in culture—would overwhelm. Again, DeLillo uses crowd in a negative context, but here as a verb for the suffocation Lianne feels in society. This “suffocation” is exacerbated by the conversations between her mother and her mother’s lover, Martin. As an art dealer from Europe, he does not feel the sense of personal assault the American characters feel after the attack on the World Trade Center. His indifference angers his lover, who wages several verbal battles with him over American exceptionalism, God, and terrorism. She expresses her frustration and anger, which counter his feelings that the attacks were poetic justice, deserved and to be expected: “It’s sheer panic. They attack out of panic.” “This much, yes, it may be true. Because they think the world is a disease. This world, this society, ours. A disease that’s spreading,” he said. “There are no goals they can hope to achieve. They’re not liberating a people or casting out a dictator. Kill the innocent, only that.” “The strike a blow to this country’s dominance. They achieve this, to show how a great power can be vulnerable. A power that interferes, that occupies.” (46) In this exchange, one can see the tension that Lianne must deal with, as Nina and Martin serve as proxies for two interpretations of 9/11. Nina’s argument that 9/11 was committed in vain echoes President George W. Bush’s statement that the attacks were an attempt to damage “the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” Martin is in line with Susan Sontag, who posed the question two weeks after the attack, in , “Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?” (32). Martin, like Susan Sontag, requires the American reader to think about what the United States did to instigate the attacks of 9/11 and the terrorist attacks perpetuated by the United


States itself. Such a question is dangerous because of 9/11’s freshness in the American consciousness, the anti-Americanism some may see in the question after such a catastrophic event, and the inevitable problem that it the victim as a means of explanation. However, this predicament is one the American novelist confronting 9/11 faces; in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer indirectly addresses the issue by creating fictionalized firsthand accounts of Hiroshima and Dresden, but he does not offer any further comparison or commentary. DeLillo does so through Martin, but this character’s controversial views could be dismissed since he is both a foreigner of unnamed origin and a criminal. Martin’s approach tries to be objective through critical distancing and, therefore, lacks the expected nationalistic bias of an American citizen who lived through 9/11. His interpretation may be the preferred in the long run, as Americans are too close to the attacks to approach them critically. This lengthy discussion of Nina and Martin helps to paint the political turmoil Lianne is in, as a lost soul and the wife of a survivor. Through religion, I argue, Lianne is able to ground herself. Religion’s success in this arena is considerably different than Karen’s attempts in Mao II. This shift, I believe, can be attributed to a post-traumatic return to tradition, to the “Old God,” in the face of inexplicable change. Although one can never be certain of DeLillo’s attitudes towards religion and if they change, the way in which these concerns are dealt with in Mao II and Falling Man does change, and are therefore worthy of closer examination. Lianne’s problematic relationship with God and religion is accentuated by the conversations she has with an elderly writing group she leads. Before she meets with them for the first time since 9/11, her supervisor Dr. Apter reminds her, “This is for them. […] Don’t make it yours” (60). Their understanding of the event is formed in relation to God. An anonymous voice poses the questions, “How could God let this happen? Where was God when this happens?” (60). All of the responses echo this sentiment, mixing anger, confusion, fear and uncertainty, except for one person—Rosellen. Through the horrors of 9/11, Rosellen has renewed and strengthened her relationship with God. She expresses this rejuvenation with the group: “I am closer to God than ever, am closer, will be closer, shall be closer” (61). One can read her name symbolically, a blending of “Rose”—a beautiful, but defensive flower—and “Ellen”—a derivation of “Helen,” literally meaning “ray of light.” She remains confident in God’s plan, and her singular, optimistic voice remains a beacon of hope in the group plagued by aggravation and mystification. Soon after, Lianne goes to St. Paul’s because she “wanted to be

69 with people, down there in particular” (89). She can mourn in a community and think about both what she lost and what she almost lost. Not only does she go to see the memorials, but to be with those who might understand her mental state. DeLillo abandons his skepticism of crowds in Mao II; at this moment, in an American after 9/11, community provides consolation. An incident Rosellen experiences becomes the catalyst for Lianne’s conversion. Walking in the city one day, Rosellen forgets where she lives: The world was receding, the simplest recognitions. She began to lose her sense of clarity, of distinctness. She was not lost so much as falling, growing fainter. […] She followed the sound of voices and came to a room where a dozen people sat reading books, or one book, the Bible. (94) The moment is overtly symbolic, as a lost individual is “found” by the church, who provides her with a community who helps her get home. The altruism they display touches Lianne in a way she does not quite understand at first. After all, Lianne, too, is lost in the world and it is here in the text where one sees a rather blatant indication that church may not offer a way home, but is the way home. Hearing Rosellen’s story—being lost, being found—resonates with Lianne because she, too, knows what it is like to have the everyday be uprooted. September 11 represents a rupture in her consciousness, disrupting her imperfect yet predictable, manageable existence. Walking west on 116th Street, Lianne stumbles across the Greater Highway Deliverance Temple, “a hallelujah shout, where [Rosellen had] found refuge and assistance” (156). The identification of the church as Rosellen’s haven comforts her and perhaps prepares her for what she is about to see: the Falling Man. Catholicism has re-entered Lianne’s consciousness because of her recollections of her father and the stories she hears of Rosellen’s interactions with the church, but it is not until she encounters the Falling Man that her faith is revived. Again, walking around the city brings her to a spiritual encounter. At first, her reaction is one of disapproval, equating the Falling Man’s performance to “some kind of antic street theater, an absurdist drama” (163). However, this corporeal representation is far more than an unusual, unpleasant amusement; he can be read in three ways I shall argue: an artist, a terrorist, and a Christ figure. The Falling Man “appears” three times in the novel—twice in the midst of a performance and once as the subject of an obituary—but always to Lianne. Their first encounter comes near


42nd Street. The issue of God and his presence is already on her mind; while walking through Washington Square Park, she notices students, chess players, participants in a fashion shoot: “They said hopefully. They said oh my god, in delight and small awe” (32). In relation to DeLillo’s earlier work, John A. McClure comments that the author’s narrators “speak a creolized idiolect that promiscuously blends secular and sacred terms” (“Postsecular/Postmodern” 152); this “blending” can be seen here as DeLillo parallels “hope” and “god,” how spirituality can manifest itself in everyday vocabulary, in the most mundane ways. This immanence in language makes Lianne think about her present state, remembering a fragment of a haiku by Bashō: “Even in Kyoto—I long for Kyoto” (32). She is nostalgic for the old New York, the New York she (thought she) understood, the New York that has been lost to her through terrorism and perhaps her lapse in faith. This mindset prepares her to see the Falling Man, who she refers to as “a performance artist” (33). However, the Falling Man is more than that: he is a contemporary representation of Christ. The narrator describes him vaguely, using personal pronouns and general terms: A man was dangling there, above the street, upside down. He wore a business suit, one leg bent up, arms at his sides. (33) Three differences between representations of Christ and the Falling Man are obvious: the Falling Man is upside down, in a business suit, and his arms are at his sides. One can read this Christ figure as a satire on contemporary religion, but I feel what is important is the effect the character has, not who the character is. However, I am not saying the Falling Man is Christ, but the art he creates is reminiscient of representations of Christ. The Falling Man is re-enacting Richard Drew’s controversial photograph, “Falling Man.” However, in doing so, the created effect is analogous to the role of the crucifix in the Church: it is a reminder of an atrocity, but also a sacrifice. Crucifixes, like the one Michelangelo created, show Christ with his right leg bent up at the knee. Christ does “dangle” from the cross; “dangle” seems to suggest He is in a precarious position and undermines the severity of the situation. The use of “dangle” for the Falling Man represents his vulnerability; his safety harness is “barely visible” (33). However, both Christ and the Falling Man are hanging, suspended above the people. In fostering the illusion of danger and re-creating the infamous photograph, the Falling Man becomes a symbol of both healing and suffering. For Catholics, the crucifix is the reminder of the sacrifices made by Christ for the benefit of all mankind: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but

71 that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17). Christ comes in the flesh so that His wounds can be understood by every man or woman. How this sacrifice is remembered in Catholicism and Protestantism represents a crucial deviation in the religions and, arguably, their respective religious imaginations. The Catholic imagination stresses God’s presence in the world; the Protestant does not, highlighting instead His absence (Greeley, The Catholic Imagination 5). Catholicism differs from Protestantism not only in what it worships, but in how it does so. For example, the Catholic Church venerates the Virgin Mary while Protestants do not. As suggests, “Compare the Roman Catholic crucifix with the cross of all the Baptist churches, as well as of most other American Protestant denominations. The Catholics worship the Christ crucified, but the Baptists salute the empty cross, form which Jesus already has risen” (40). Bloom states the “empty cross” puts the emphasis on Christ’s Resurrection; Catholics feel Christ remains on the cross because it “signifies and announces his lifting up by his Ascension into heaven” (Catechism 662). As I have already suggested, the effect of the recurring image of the suffering Christ on the Catholic imagination cannot be underestimated. The body of Christ on the cross is grotesque, open and bleeding; it violates the limits of the body. These transgressions are a stark contrast to the classical body common in Catholic iconography, such as his mother, the Virgin, and therefore creates a jarring visual for Catholics. From his position upon the cross, Christ serves as “principal actor of the liturgy that honors the Father in heaven” (Catechism 662). Similarly, the Falling Man is a living representation of an atrocity and although he reminds people of their discomforting history, he also brings promise. Elevated above the “congregation,” the depiction of Christ reminds Catholics that He is the “high priest of the good things to come,” a phrase that appears in the Book of Hebrews to describe the crucified Christ. Coincidentally, this phrase is chapter 9, verse 11. The Falling Man signifies the mourning of a nation, forcing onlookers to confront a recent painful memory that is not quite a memory yet. However, he can also be read as a harbinger of healing and moving forward. As a reminder of 9/11, he encourages people to deal with their feelings and fears, rather than denying and repressing those energies. Just as walking aimlessly brought her to Rosellen’s church, so too it brings Lianne to the Falling Man. I connect this “stumbling upon religion” to the Catholic concept of immanence again. Lianne “sees” God through the Church and the Falling Man because of his

72 omnipresence. Lianne is curious as to why he is where she is, because the location is not one prone to the quick crowds an attention-seeking performance artist would want. The coincidence of this encounter suggests a greater purpose; although being there for her may not be his intention, the appearance of the Falling Man has special meaning for Lianne. It forces her to confront a past she is still grappling with, a past that is still present. If a terrorist now controls America’s consciousness, the Falling Man is a quasi-terrorist; he brings “it back, of course, those stark moments in the burning towers when people fell or were forced to jump” (33). As he falls, she goes limp; the trauma of seeing him plunge literally has a visceral effect on her. However, then there is a rebound as the harness catches him. This “jolt” opposes what really happens; there is recovery for the Falling Man, whereas there was not for the man whose pose he re- creates. In this difference, a moment of shock and loss becomes a moment of hope. Ironically, this moment—where a Christ figure plunges—inverts the Resurrection, in which Christ rose to guarantee life after death for the faithful. Although the Falling Man is not literally the savior of humanity, he does stand for the promise of a new life, a renewed existence, and a reminder of God’s presence in the world, even in times of trouble. After this moment, Lianne comes to an important realization about what is causing the disconnected between Keith and her: “She wanted to be safe in the world and he did not” (216). While Keith descends into a world of high stakes poker, risking his money for the exhilaration, Lianne returns to the Church—the faith of her childhood, the faith of her father. The third and final “appearance” of the Falling Man in the novel isn’t it an appearance at all; rather, Lianne reads his obituary in the newspaper. A panel at the New School debates whether he was “Heartless Exhibitionist or Brave New Chronicler of the Age of Terror” (220). Lianne recalls the photograph that was the basis for the Falling Man’s pose, and in another moment of immanence, describes the man in the photograph as a “falling angel and his beauty was horrific” (222). Even in a moment of unrestrained terror, she finds understanding and comfort using the Catholic faith. She also learns that the Falling Man’s falls were “said to be painful and highly dangerous due to the rudimentary equipment he used” (222). “Rudimentary” is an interesting, if not unintentional word choice, as the homophonous “rood” is a crucifix. Like Christ, the Falling Man suffers for his cause, for what he believes in. Yet, Lianne is still unable to understand David Janiak; something stands between him and her, and now that space is permanently created. She falls asleep on Keith’s side of the bed, which represents how her

73 confusion over Janiak echoes her issues with Keith. By sleeping in Keith’s place, Lianne accepts that she cannot grasp what her husband has been through, what he is thinking and feeling, what he needs from her. The Falling Man, unknowingly, facilitates her healing not only by surprising her, but also by opening her eyes. She once was lost, but now is found. Lianne decides to go to church; she is “struck with her doubts but liked sitting in church” (233). She “breath[es] the dead in candlewax and incense” (234), absorbing the theatrical ceremony that the Mass represents, engaging in a seemingly timeless ritual. Through her reflection, she expresses a sentiment similar to the Catholic notion of immanence: “But isn’t it the world itself that brings you to God? Beauty, grief, terror, the empty desert, the Bach cantatas” (234). Here, DeLillo compares the glory and horrors of existence, and finds God in all of them. God’s omnipresence is unavoidable, much like Lianne’s attraction to faith. She feels like she should continue to reject Catholicism, reject belief, reject her father’s influence. These wants are complicated though by a need to belong, to be understood, to be a part of something greater than herself. So she stays, and reconsiders God: what God is, what God means and what God can do for her: God would consume her. God would de-create her and she was too small and tame to resist. That’s why she was resisting now. Because think about it. Because once you believe such a thing. God is, then how can you escape, how survive the power of it, is and was and ever shall be. (235) Her thoughts echo the language of the Doxology, a Catholic prayer commonly recited during the Mass: “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be world without end. Amen.” Lianne seems to be yielding to the Church, asking it to take her, although part of her resists, perhaps the part influenced by her mother’s atheism. The incompleteness she feels—“Others bring us closer. Church brings us closer” (233)—can be satisfied by the Church, which provides community, compassion, and companionship. Although Keith survives 9/11, Lianne loses her husband forever. Through faith, she hopes to restart her life by returning to the faith it started with, the faith of the first man in her life. Being born again in the Catholic Church renews her relationship with her father and with the Heavenly Father. When she gets back home, she realizes, “She was ready to be alone” (236); however, this aloneness takes place within the Church, who will provide her with a new support system. Lianne’s return to Catholicism challenges McClure’s idea of “partial

74 conversion.” She seems to be prepared to submit fully to the Catholic Church, despite some initial reluctance. Lianne does not find what McClure calls “a preferable way—weakened and post-secular” (Partial Faiths 65), but rather finds ultimate redemption in her committed reaffirmation of Catholic faith. Through it, she is empowered and able to move on with her life, with or without Keith. In December 2001, Don DeLillo published “In the Ruins of the Future,” attempting to describe how the writer can grapple with the events of 9/11. He wrote: In its desertion of every basis for comparison, the event asserts its singularity. There is something empty in the sky. The writer tries to give memory, tenderness, and meaning to all that howling space. (“In the Ruins” 39) With Falling Man, DeLillo augments the hesitation and doubt towards religion seen in Mao II. Also, in exploring the redemptive powers of religion, he seems to call for understanding of Islamic fundamentalism. Falling Man does not lament a world totally devoid of meaning, but rather optimistically heralds the possibility for religion to again assert authority, to offer compassion and guidance in the face of previously unseen horrors. Mao II is skeptical, both in its treatment of the roles writers play in society and religion’s ability to assist the faithful’s quest for self-actualization. However, DeLillo seems to heed his own advice, offering the post-9/11 reader a narrative full of “memory, tenderness, and meaning.” Religion is not the panacea— Keith is lost to a world of gambling and isolation—but for Lianne, there is hope and the promise of renewal to be found in religion. With Falling Man, DeLillo, too, re-examines the faith he abandoned so long ago. In doing so, he further complicates the postmodern concept of reality as secular, showing that any attempt to define and confine contemporary literature to movements and categories is futile, unproductive, and limiting unless it fully considers the inherent complexity of the category it is trying to create. DeLillo transcends the categories he is put in; his novels demonstrate a desire to modify our perception. For in the end, Joseph Dewey was right in suggesting that Don DeLillo is “another twentieth-century Catholic mystic as it turns out” (151).


EPILOGUE This thesis, like the texts I analyze, challenges the very authority that helps it posit its argument. It challenges Frederic Jameson’s remarks on spirituality and postmodernity, which I addressed in Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo. Even though the postmodern is “incredulous” towards metanarratives like Christianity, spirituality is still alive, but its role in society is unstable or, more accurately, relative. McCarthy, DeLillo and even Toole (who I feel is not a postmodernist) demonstrate a spiritual void, a desire for fulfillment, a need for a greater purpose. Although their articulations of this emptiness differ significantly from grief to , it unites these contemporary writers along with their shared upbringing in the Church. It challenges Harold Bloom’s discussion of fiction and faith by showing how they can cooperate for the benefit of both “enterprises.” In The American Religion, the famed literary critic offers the following observation: “Literature and religion are not allied enterprises, except insofar as both are conceptual orphans, stumbling about in our cosmological emptiness that stretches between the unattainable of meaning and of truth” (21). Reflecting on the arguments I have made in this thesis, I feel Bloom is mistaken. At times, religion and literature are indeed “allied,” as has been proven in studies like Andrew Greeley’s The Catholic Imagination or Paul Giles’s American Catholic Arts. Religion provides a manner of interpretation, an ordered structure of values and virtues, and this controlled system of beliefs can be useful in both creating and critiquing fiction. For example, I contend that the writer can use religion to assist in plotting a narrative: in the film Little Children, Ronnie returns to the playground after his self-mutilation where he reveals, or publicly “confesses,” what he has done to himself. His castration is his attempt to abandon his pedophilic desire—his struggle between his mind and body—and oblige his mother’s dying wish that he would be a “good boy.” Here, author Tom Perotta (a lapsed Catholic himself, born during the Second Vatican Council) uses a sacramental moment to signify a change in a troubled character in the filmed version of his novelist. Similarly, the religious individual can use literature as a place to espouse or criticize his or her religion. Such is the case with John Kennedy Toole, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo, all of whom respond to their Catholicism through their Catholicism. Their differing perspectives are united by the Catholic ways—corporeality, grace, sexuality, faith—in which they address their anxieties toward their faith.


It even challenges John A. McClure, whose 1995 article on post-secular fiction begins the initial critique of Jameson’s discussion of spirituality and 2007 book-length study provides the framework for my reading of Don DeLillo’s Mao II. While McClure’s concept of “partial conversions” is valuable in understanding contemporary fiction (4), it does not explain what one sees in A Confederacy of Dunces, Child of God, or Falling Man. McClure writes, The partial conversions of postsecular fiction do not deliver those whose experience them from worldliness into well-ordered systems of religious belief. Instead, they tend to strand those who experience them in the ideologically mixed and confusing middle zones of the conventional conversion narrative, zones thorough which the conventional protagonist passes with all possible haste, on his way to a domain of secure religious dwelling. And yet the postsecular characters deposited in these zones do not seem particularly uncomfortable there nor particularly impatient to move on to some more fully elaborated form of belief and practice. (Partial Faiths 4) Ignatius, Lester and Lianne, respectively, are initially angst-ridden about their relationship with religion and the world. Yet, none of them fits comfortably into McClure’s articulation of the “partial conversions.” Ignatius is bothered by the earthly limbo he finds himself in, although he seems to deny it through his incessant tirades. Lester is unwelcome in the Church, denied of any conversion, partial or full. However, this cold reception does not mean that Jameson is right, because there is an underlying spirituality in the rituals and intimacy Lester perversely experiences with the corpses. Lianne totally debunks McClure in that she does find deliverance through what McClure calls “the familiar dream of full return into an authoritative faith” (6)—a dream he says is unfulfilled in post-secular fiction. This thesis was an exercise in interdisciplinary studies because I feel such work is invaluable to both my development as a critic and the future of literary studies. At the heart of my research is the intention of showing that authors who may not identify as Catholics still demonstrate a Catholic sensibility in their work. Their fractured relationship with the Church makes for a distinctive contribution that assists in revealing the true complexity of Catholic American literature. Furthermore, I sought to show the interrelatedness of religion and literature, how the beliefs and conventions of one manifest themselves in the other. I wanted to discuss how these fields can inform each other, and how one can learn more about the other through joint examination. The idea of disciplines standing apart—an idea I feel Bloom perpetuates in the

77 above quotation from The American Religion—narrows one’s knowledge and his or her ability to appreciate the complexity of human creation, be it a work of art or a religion. Both of these “enterprises” allow the individual to navigate the world he or she lives in, to make sense of it, and to bring sense to it. We do not live in a secular age, but we do not live in one characterized by blind faith, either. Catholicism is an excellent sample for such a study, for many of the same reasons Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo argues that advocating for Christianity is challenging: “I think it is because of the Church, but not simply because of the richness of the pope or the corruption of the pedophile priests in the American churches, but because it is too strong a structure” (68). In a post-1960s America, one can be uneasy of any authority, especially one that was as unquestioned and as enduring as the Catholic Church. Yet, through the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the same Church that had claimed papal infallibility showed that it could adjust itself, both in theory and practice. Is it therefore unsurprising when the worshipper who before such actions saw the Church with reverence, now finds him- or herself questioning his faith? In discussing the nuances of contemporary faith, from devotion to impiety, one can gain a greater appreciation of the individual’s struggle to exist in the world. In understanding another’s faith, one ultimately comes closer to understanding not only how that person views the world, but that person as an individual. This insight also allows one to examine his or her own faith: why one is here, how one rationalizes existence, and how one conducts oneself. In this struggle for answers and understanding, we—the pious, the agnostic, the godless—are all made equal and united.



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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Peter C. Kunze was born in Philadelphia and grew up there and in New Jersey. In 2006, he completed Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and Communications: Radio, Television and Film Critical Studies at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. He completed his Master of Arts degree at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida two years later. His research interests include contemporary fiction, film (especially comedy), American humor, and masculinity studies. He has presented papers at conferences in Boston, Baton Rouge and San Francisco, and has an entry in the forthcoming The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Fiction. In Fall 2008, he will continue his studies at Florida State University as he begins the doctoral program in literature.