Watching an old programme on the alternative community Findhornii we are disorientated by its weirdness: the place existing completely outside our experiences, while its language is one we can hardly understand – do they really mean what they say; are we really supposed to listen to their words literally? Too distant from our life and thoughts we cannot engage with such ideas; which neither attract nor repel us; instead, we are mildly curious at a worldview so different from our own. Only if you are inside a community, or feel threatened by it, can its reality be taken seriously.iii Too odd to compel assent the religion of Findhorn requires a leap of faith too big from us; we do not even make the attempt, remaining utterly indifferent to its attractions. Time can also make such long jumps impossible. If too many years separate the founder and his cult from ourselves his charisma and its influence will be erased, until they become a few harmless footnotes in a half-forgotten century; material only for an academic article, on ecstatic rituals and flour symbolism in the 13th century, given to the 25th congress on sub-Lacanian Readings in Religious Orgiastic Practice, held in the anthropology department of Heidelberg University, seminar room 14C on floor 3 in the Olga Steinwitz Bau. By now these communities have lost all their compelling power.iv
The problem of the mad leader is their normalcy. This seeming normality, coupled with their big presence, that powerful immediacy, can persuade too many people into accepting their odd and disorientating worldview, which although recognised as different is nonetheless regarded as an acceptably rational perspective, offering prospects for a radical transformation of a political landscape ruined and in decline. They usually achieve power in a crisis, when extreme answers seem the only solution; and the electorate is prepared to take a chance on the unknown. Blair seemed like an ordinary politician until 911, after which he became a messianic prophet; the moment he should have been removed from office. However, only a few noticed that he had lost his mind, and so the political class continued to treat him as if he were sane. A disquieting comment on the gullible passivity of the establishment whose members we expect to protect us from the dangerously irrational.v
It is the absurdity of the powerful that we are shown in Muriel Spark’s The Abbess of Crewe. A convent run on original Benedictine lines – even the Counter-Reformation is too modern for this place – and which uses the latest electronic surveillance to monitor its members’ conversations. For those at the top of the convent’s hierarchy this fusion of the ancient and the modern appears little more than common sense; a return to the order’s original purity by enforcing The Rule of St Benedict using the methods of science: medieval values combined with 20th century technology to produce an antique strictness, microphones replacing the ear of god, for those who have lost their compulsive faith. A sly comment on the secularisation of even the oldest and most enclosed of Christian institutions.
Of course, such juxtapositions create great incongruity; a sort of children’s playground where the novelist can enjoy herself playing with the contrasts between the different centuries; although here they are too wide to be completely plausible. For though human nature has remained essentially the same, thus the spiritual yearnings of our contemporaries who long for the ascetic life are little different from St Augustine’s, the religious garb that clothes these longings has changed significantly. To be successful an allegory must get the tone of these “sartorial” differences right.
The Abbess of Crewe is just too crude in its contrasts. The bolting together of such extreme opposites feels too forced and mechanical; too human in its conscious construction to produce a sense of historical reality, which requires a lot of contingency for it to seem like a living organism. Most of the time we react to life not create it; our ideas left behind in the library when we leave the house to work, shop or play. The novel thus lacks a certain integrity, that recognisable link between our actions and our self-conscious intellectual thoughts, a unity where the proportions between them must feel right – the latter little more than an extra in our daily performances. In trying to retrieve an essentially dead ideology and apply it through modern gadgetry this book reads more like fantasy than fable. Muriel Spark is trying to force an idea into our heads… we resist like a bad pupil. For there should be a correspondence between the nature of a community and the spirit of the times where they are historically located, which in the early seventies meant more hippy commune than a Benedictine order with its own control centre.vi Findhorn, for all its new age weirdness, seems more normal than this abbey in, of all places, Crewe. For it reflects a live current of ideas, which existed in the intellectual and social atmosphere when the place was founded in the early 1960s.
The novel is having fun with Watergate; and where the parallels are too close we see its weaknesses too clearly – the novel then looks too thought out and programmatic to be convincing. Nevertheless, at its strongest the silliness of power is captured; the main protagonists two charismatic but absurd people who are competing for the vacant abbess’s throne.
Alexandra wins the election by using foul means. She is a powerful woman, and like her rival, comes from aristocratic stock. The source of her particular power originates in her willingness to submit to the ascetic tradition, which she mixes with aestheticism – both herself and the rooms in which she lives are places of exquisite beauty. She is highly intelligent, although tellingly that intelligence is limited in scope: to a sort of mystical philosophy and a receptivity for English poetry. Her analytic intelligence is poor, and living within her own numinous cloud she is unable to engage with the mundane activities of the convent, which she leaves to subordinates; who miscalculate badly when pressurised into acting outside their competence – when asked to commit an absurdly trivial crime. Towards the novel’s end, and in some wonderful scenes, Alexandra appears to fall into madness. Power under pressure is the cause. She may have remained sane if she’d been left to her own imagination, but forced to act she applies her too fabulous ideas onto a reality that cannot easily accept them. So returning the order to its original Benedictine spirit may just have been possible. But microphones in a convent! Her insanity increases as the journalists arrive, the Church investigates, and the nuns begin to rebel or leave. In response she creates her own mythological world to live inside; too far out for anyone but herself. Earlier we had seen the warning signs:
‘In these days,’ the Abbess had said to her closest nuns, ‘we must form new monastic combines. The ages of the Father and of the Son are past. We have entered the age of the Holy Ghost. The wind bloweth where it listeth and it listeth most certainly on the Abbey of Crewe. I am a Benedictine with the Benedictines, a Jesuit with the Jesuits. I was elected Abbess and I stay the Abbess and I move as the Spirit moves me.’
With no external pressure such a personality can hold it’s rich variety, with its contradictions between practical organisation and utopian dreaming, in tension, and thus become a useful and powerful figurehead. Under pressure such a character can easily turn to megalomania, as it seeks solace in its own imagination, a gothic tower high above the surrounding plain, locked and double bolted against the commonplace and sceptical, who could, if allowed entry, save the occupant from herself. Alexandra is a tall and attractive and dominant woman who is attuned to the realm of spirits and a lost world of ancient values. Her abilities can seduce particularly the intelligent disciple, such as Mildred and Walburga, who are blind to her absurdities. They are typical intellectuals who are prone to idealise their masters and mistresses. Not so the author, and the reader she guides with her satiric pen.
Felicity is also absurd. She is a promiscuous nun who preaches free love, and who wants to turn the convent into a modern commune… that incongruity again. She is the charismatic rebel, who is not powerful enough to gain office, but can destroy an institution through her energy and the wildness and vigour of her ideas and actions. Felicity creates the hope and the promise of a potential new world that exposes the compromises and shoddiness of the existing one; changes in the wider society refracted through a powerfully charismatic kaleidoscope that turns the convent’s daily round into an oppressive and dull routine. For Alexandra and her cronies Felicity is a danger, and frightened of her impact, like all tyrants they have totalitarian instincts, they cannot submit the election to chance, and so overreact to the threat she poses. Yet they are innocents. Unable to act themselves they call in the Jesuits, who botch it badly (an in-joke we assume); their plans leading to ultimate ruin, and the end of the abbey.
Alexandra is now transformed into a Greek heroine or an angel in a Christian heaven... at least inside her own mind. The rest of us look on in mild amusement as she sails away into ridicule and oblivion…
… She sails indeed on the fine day of her desire into waters exceptionally smooth, and stands on the upper deck, straight as a white ship’s funnel, marvelling how the wide sea billows from shore to shore like that cornfield of sublimity which never should be reaped nor was ever sown, orient and immortal wheat.
[iv] In the interminable debate over what is the difference between a cult and a religion this may be the crucial distinction: a religion can outlive its charismatic founder. Thus Christianity, freed from its reliance on Jesus Christ, can periodically renew itself, and thus keep its spirit alive. Was this one of the reasons why the Catholic Church came to venerate the Virgin Mary? It needed an alterative symbol to break the charismatic hold of its founding man…
Later of course was the Reformation.
The late medieval church was like a pilgrim who at first was able to carry all his possessions on his back, but who by the 15th century needed a long convoy of carts to carry all his worldly goods. It took him months to cover even the shortest distances.
To an intellectual, and the more ascetically minded, his progress looked absurd, so exhausting and obviously futile, especially when they passed him on the way back from Canterbury for the second time. The answer seemed simple (it always is for the intellectuals): he didn’t need most of these possessions, which were worthless anyway, so he should get rid of them. He could then put all he needed onto one horse and almost fly between his pilgrimages. Ah! Intellectuals. Little do they know what will happen to their simple ideas!
[v] And one wonders…if democracy, by giving legitimacy to party leaders, allows them to stay in office beyond the time they are mentally capable - think of Churchill in the Fifties and Reagan in the Eighties. The party establishment preferring a leader who is popular, albeit crazy, to one too dully rational to be interesting and therefore electable.
One could argue that the press at least would prefer a mad prime minister to a sane one, for it gives them better copy, providing they don’t inform the public of the truth. A possible reason for the travails of the all too sane Major and Brown after the mad antics of their predecessors – the press were missing the excitement of a particular kind of lunacy.
Although it could also be argued that with elections turned into advertising campaigns and politicians into products it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between fantasy and insanity. Even the maddest can appear to be only playing the PR game.
[vi] The way to avoid this in-authenticity would have been to have isolated the order from the modern world, and created the contrast through the interaction between them.