Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On "The Miracles of Antichrist" by Selma Lagerlof *****

Something I enjoy about many pre-1945 novels is the kind of explicitly philosophical bent that they take. Of course, contemporary novels don't necessarily eschew philosophical ideas. Rather, those ideas don't seem to me to be as on the surface either because I, as a contemporary, am too close to the material to see what the author is doing within a historical perspective or because contemporary novels, bound within the morass that is postmodernism, are a-philosophical (there is no discussion of belief, morality, etc., because such things do not exist--there is only, ultimately, the personal).

Lagerlof is of an earlier era. In Miracles she explores the contours of belief and how belief in and of itself shapes our world. The world, for Lagerlof, is still split between two camps, the Christian and the anti-Christian, the spiritually focused and the earthly focused. And what we believe--which one we believe in--ultimately colors our perception of that world. Is a miracle a miracle or merely happenstance that we correlate as miracle? And even if it is a miracle, what does that miracle mean?

To bring this story to bear, Lagerlof uses what really to me felt like a narrative from the fantastic realist school of writing, yet which predates those Latin American geniuses by half a decade or more. The tale is that of a statue--a Christchild statue that sits in a cathedral and does miracles for those who pray to it. One English woman, so swept up by the beauty of the statue, steals it and replaces it with a cheap replica, the crown of which reads, "My kingdom is only of this world." (The statue itself miraculously returns to the cathedral on its own and deposes the fake, but the fake lingers on in the possession of various collectors. Much, in the book, counterposes the mythic era of the distant past with our own tawdry one, as if miracles are best explained in the distant past.)

Step in many decades later, and that fake statue has now somehow made its way into yet another cathedral. It arrives with the tolling of bells that no one has pulled. Are the bells a miracle, a sign for Donna Micaela as she believes even though everyone else can hear them? Or are they in fact a warning about what is to unfold?

The story is set around the actions of Gaetano, a young man who eventually converts to socialism--to working for the good of the poor people of the world--and of Micaela, a believer who falls in love with Gaetano but who sees Gaetano's lack of faith as a great evil. One night, after Gaetano is sent to prison for his socialist activity, Micaela receives a vision that she believes is key to gaining Geatano's release, as well as restoring his faith in God. She must build a railroad to the town. The railroad will bring riches to the town's poor people. Each time something in her plan fails, she returns to the statue, prays, and seemingly miraculously the trouble is lifted and the next stage in building the rail is able to go forward. Soon the townspeople themselves begin to believe, and the Christchild garners a huge following.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this focus on belief comes in the character of the man with the evil eye. He is a man around which bad luck seems to congregate. People come to believe he has an evil eye, and eventually, despite his own best thinking, he comes to believe such also and becomes a hermit. Micaela, knowing the man's railroad skills, seeks him out, and though evil seems to come with his appearance, when the two step before the Christchild, all evil is lifted. Or is it merely all perception of evil, for the evil-eyed man himself claims that his evil eye is merely superstition. In the end, it doesn't matter. Either way, belief is what makes the man evil, and belief in the Christchild's healing power is what makes the man good.

But what is the antichrist, if this Christchild can change so much in the world? In fact, we learn, after the railway is built, that not much really does change. It is the world outside that causes things to continue on as before, those who don't believe in the Christchild, those of the town come to believe. But when the real identity of the Christchild is exposed as being that of the fake, all faith is spurned. If these were not miracles performed by the Christchild, what were they?

Antichrist looks like the Christ, Lagerlof notes. They both perform miracles. But antichrist, like the socialists, concerns himself with the things of this world, while Christ focuses on the things of the next world. Antichrist is a replica of Christ--one concerned only with physical well-being. Is the Church better off pointing people to the true Christ and spurning movements like that of socialism, or is it better to embrace the concern for the physical well-being of people and use that to point toward the greater spiritual well-being that even antichrist must bow to?

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