Religion, Sex and Suffering
Religion, sex and suffering make, perhaps, the most constant trinity of human experiences. They send their tentacles out in all directions, coloring virtually all of life in their particular shades. Religion deals with mystery, with origins, with death, and with our relationships in between. Sex is both god-like and animal; it creates life and brings with it forms of death. Suffering torments, and no person is spared his or her own understanding of the crucifixion.
This trinity – religion, sex and suffering – form the basis of Morris West’s new novel, The World is Made of Glass. West has written some fine novels in the past, but this is his masterpiece and, by any standards, is a masterpiece. West is one of a handful of quality novelists who make no bones about the fact that they are religiously involved. A novelist of distinction, he sees no reason to disguise his religious interests nor indeed to be particularly apologetic about them.
He is a mature thinker – religiously and otherwise. He handles religious questions when they arise just as he handles questions of sex and suffering. When something is urgent, he treats it, without apologies or masks. For him the religious question is always urgent. The World is Made of Glass is both an actual history and a work of fiction. It is based upon a psychoanalytic case history found in the files of Carl Jung which West researched as thoroughly as possible and then used his myth-creating genius to fill in the rest. The story is set in 1913: Carl Jung, the renowned psychologist, is at the height of his brilliant career, but at a crisis point in his own life. He is becoming estranged from his master, Sigmund Freud, is in danger of losing his wife and family, and is struggling through his own psychoanalysis and an affair with his former pupil and life-long lover, Toni Wolff. He is also in the process of attempting a risky and frightening inward journey into the more chaotic and dark regions within his own mind, hoping, at the risk of his own sanity, to travel through the darkest parts of the human psyche and then return with healing herbs for others. But it is all too much for him and he senses he is losing his grip on reality and sliding into madness.
Into the middle of this crisis walks Magda Liliane Kardoss, a brilliant, beautiful and overly-complex woman who is on the edge of madness herself. Her own moral depravity, sexual excess and lack of any sense of guilt has begun to frighten her. Their meeting is a collision of destiny: Jung and Magda are too much for each other. Immediately, and in ways that cannot be understood, they begin to scratch deep dark hidden shadows inside each other, buried archetypes of which they have been previously unaware. They torment and challenge each other and eventually both hover on the verge of collapse, on the verge of madness, on the verge of sexual encounter with each other and on the verge of despair. Paradoxically, through all of this, both are brought to the verge of genuine hope. Their torrid encounter centers precisely on religion, sex and suffering: What brings life and what brings death? Which is the true God – the God of the church or the dark blind god of sex? Which is the true commandment, the “thou shalt not” of the Decalogue or the “thou shalt” of the phallus? Which brings life and which stifles it?
THIS QUESTION, along with the related question of what brings redemption, dominates their encounter, just as it dominates our own religious struggles. Thus, for example, in a poignant exchange Magda defends her sexual excess before Jung: “At least when I’m there, I know I’m alive. I may be half out of my mind with lust, but I’m celebrating life, not death!” Stung to the quick and suddenly unsure of himself, Jung shouts back, pronouncing his own judgment on her sexual excess: “You’re a liar…For you, every love story ends in a chamber of horror. Your own dreams tell you the truth. You’re wedded, not to life, but to death!”
For reasons not fully explicable, even to himself, Jung senses that Magda’s struggle is not to clarify confusion, but to make a confession. He tells her this and advises, almost along religious lines, a penance: amendment, atonement for her sins. She rejects his analysis and this solution and sarcastically asks towards whom this atonement must be made: “To some non-existent god?” Angry, frightened of each other and fatigued to the point of despair, they mutually agree to break off the analysis. They part, convinced that their encounter has been an unfortunate disaster for each of them. Hindsight will render a different verdict: Jung is inexplicably strengthened; Magda, just as inexplicably, begins to make atonement for her sins. She discovers, for the first time in her life, a deep peace and learns one of the most profound of all of life’s and religion’s lessons: When we sin, we must repay a debt. Not to God or even to others, but to ourselves for having cheated ourselves out of so much!
T.S. Eliot once remarked that we can only swallow the truth in small dosages. The World is Made of Glass delivers a dosage of truth too large to swallow whole.