Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The mirror crack'd from side to side

I continue to be enthralled by Catholic literature. In case you haven't read it, I highly recommend Dame Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Don't trust the film or stage adaptations, which completely butcher the main point of the novel. As Benilde Montgomery puts it, the screenplay "ignores any reference to the religious context in which Spark so carefully sets her novel." Spark herself wrote of the adaptation that she had the "distinct impression that my views, as author of the book, were not really welcome."

The book is absolutely fascinating. It's not really about Miss Brodie or any of her students - it's about Spark herself. The novel, not just in its plot but in its very form and style, reenacts Spark's conversion to Catholicism. She begins writing in a deliberately flawed manner (what she would call a Calvinistic style) and evolves as a narrator and a stylist (towards Catholicism) as the pages go by. That's how I read it, anyway. In any case, a very interesting, very beautiful work.

The central imagery of the novel (well, besides the Bible) comes from Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott," and these lines in particular:

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look'd down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.

We all have the tendency to elevate our egos, to think the universe revolves around us (especially at Harvard!), to see others only as characters in the tapestry we weave. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a welcome reminder that the world exists without us, and that if we are to truly appreciate it we must see it not through the eyes of a chosen prophet, but through those of a humbled penitent. Doing so, we may sacrifice many a tempting and self-aggrandizing fantasy, but we will instead have the chance to imbue our lives with a deeper sense of grace.

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