Sunday, 28 March 2010

A KIND OF RELIGION - by Colin MacInnes.

Colin MacInnes was born on the 20th August 1914, and was known primarily as an English novelist. He was also openly bisexual, yet an outsider, a champion of youth and there many subcultures. A precursor to many pop anthropologists. He was most at ease in the coffee bars and jazz clubs of Soho and Notting Hill, author of the London Novels - Absolute Beginners, City of Spades and Mr Love and Justice from which this following essay is drawn from.
A brilliant chronicler of British life, one of the first to deeply explore its many boundaries. A broad palette he had indeed covering racial tensions, drugs, anarchy and decadence. A man of strong humanistic values and a strong moral committment, in the 1960s he became a press officer for an organisation of Blacks in Notting Hill called Defence, he was the only white person involved and became a kind of propogandist for the notorious Black Power leader-cum hustler Michael X. In 1971 on a British Council tour of Africa his behaviour was so outrageous that officials were forced to put a stop to it. Later that year the "OZ" trial on youth and censorship and the trial of the " Mangrove 9" bought out his better side. He died on April 22, 1976, the following essay I hope displays the depth of his writing, most of his books are still in print and are well worth checking out.

" I published some years ago a novel called "Mr Love & Justice".Superficially, this a realistic portrait of the worlds of the police and prostitution, and as such was kindly acclaimed by not very acute reviewers for its factual actuality. But my true intention was to write a morality, or religious allegory. Frankie Love, the professional ponce "lover", has no understanding of love, which he mistakes for mere sexuality; but he does have a profound sense of justice, and this very virtue brings about his material, if not spiritual, ruin. Edward Justice, the copper and professional upholder of the law, has no sense of justice, which he equates with power; but he does possess a deep instinct for spiritual ( as well as sexual ) love, and this, too, encompasses his material destruction. Each man, in his acts, betrays his supposed conventional virtue, and is in turn betrayed into a fall that brings truth and understanding by the real virtue of which he is unaware.
The final scene of this novel takes place in a hospital, where both men lie wounded, and where each man finally becomes, as the result of his material fall and inner illumination, identical with the other. (Hence the title "Mr Love & Justice, " and not "Mr Love & Mr Justice", which several benelovent critics said it should have been.) I had hoped this hospital scene would be read in two ways, on teo levels: both as what it is, realistically, and also as an allegory of purgatory. If read in the latter sense, the "nurses", "doctors" and invisible "specialists" take on another meaning and dimension. I planted clues all over the place, and particularly in the final paragraph, when the word "God" is used for the first and only time in the whole book.
That everyone ( so far as I know ) entirely missed the point of my endeavour may prove artistic incompetence, or perhaps that the religious instinct I thought I possessed was unconvincing; yet it may also be that the kind of person who happens to like what I write (or what he thinks I do) cannot imagine that a "serious" writer, yet one not overtly adhering to any denominational faith, would ever be compelled by a religious theme at all.
To try to situate the religious element which I concieve exists in myself and in others of my countrymen (but which the orthodox would consider not religious at all or, at best heretical), may I beg indulgence for a further autobiographical fragment.
I was reared by an unbaptized mother, and have myself never been baptized. The only tangential religious instruction I recieved was ata Presbyterian school, where my admiration for the goodness of many of my teachers was matched by the horror I felt at their theology, once I grew to understand it. I passed through the usual phase of adolescent religiosity and then, after much reading - Marx, Freud and about older rival faiths, for instance - and considerable inquiry among believers of various sects, arrived at a total doubt about historical religions which still remains with me; yet something which I take to be religious also remains.
Before trying to define this, may I please make it clear I do not wish to give offence, do not presume to be " right", nor do I of course, wish to suggest I am a good person at all. So: a personal God, an indentifiable devil, miracles ( including an immaculate conception) and any kind of physical after-life are to me not only incredible but paltry concepts. What remains?
On a radio interview not long ago with Norman Mailer (who, in contrast to the popular and partly self-created notion of him as a roaring boy and intellectual hipster, I take in fact to be an almost rabbinical moralist), the conversation turned chiefly on the concept of God. According to Mailer, God is not omnipotent, but dependent on us as we on Him. Satan was not thrown down from heaven - he tore himself out of it by the force of his own evil, and God could not prevent this. The whole universe - as each human life - consists of a creative and a destructive force. The meaning of our lives is to add to the positive, and repel the negative. In so far as we do, we survive eternally in essence. If sufficient of us fail, we help drag the whole cosmos into destruction, and all life, physical and spiritual, comes to its end.
This concept ( which is no doubt an ancient heresy, refuted by many a skilled theoligian - not to mention by atrocious religious wars) has reality for me. It explains a lot of things which in conventional theology ( and despite every twist of sophisticated logic, or the armature of an unquestioning faith), remain otherwise inexplicable. It explains why God is both omnipotent and powerless, why evil and cruelty must exist as well as good and kindness, and it explains , most pertinently of all, the imperative necessity for a constant personal choice. To act well or ill is no longer a mere matter of individual salvation, nor of pleasing God: to act well or ill involves the very existence of God, mankind, the whole firmament.
I think anyone with a feeling of this kind may have agreat awareness, and acceptance, of the laws of life that come directly and observedly from nature, and yet will constantly be conscious of an otherness, of a reality both in and outside all our lives, in function of which he also lives even if, by his deeds, he may deny it. This otherness I can best define as a perpetual sensation that life exists in ways the brain and even imagination cannot apprehend - but of which a powerfully intuitive instinct ( which I expect the orthodox mean by a soul) is constantly aware despite itself, and by no act of concious volition. Accompanying this, will be a compelling sensation that the forces of good and of creation, and evil and destruction - impersonal, eternal, locked in perpetual battle - exist in everyone and thing, and even as potent essences in themselves that cannot entirely be identified nor defined by the evidence of their effects on mankind or nature.
Persons who feel all this will not be religious, like the chuchman, by any hope of areward, but simply by necessity: for the invisible life seems as inescapably real to them as does the kife their five senses know in nature - and no one exppects rewards for recognising natural fact. Nor, for such persons, is this any matter of "belief" at all. To me, this very word is suspect, since it implies blind effort of a desperate will. I would rather say, not that I " believe" thes things, but that after forty-eight years of thinking, reading and then questioning, then to such as I am, the concept is so real as to impose itself, and thus be beyond belief..."

Spectator, February 1963


  1. nice post td... MacInnes got me into reading alot of the post war london novels, with a little nod from iain sinclair too. hope yr well.laters.xx

  2. yeah, as well as can be expected, like above, but I should read more novels, too much biography at moment, City of spades one of my favourites, hope you well too, laters.xx