The British Museum is Falling Down
Date Published: May 2, 2011 (Originally published in 1965)
Number of Pages: 192
Print Price: $8.39
eBook Price: $
“It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”-- G.K. Chesterton
Christianity passes the test, as the wry novels of David Lodge attest. (The riots and righteous fury inspired by a Danish caricature of the prophet Muhammad a few years ago….Well, that’s another story).
The British Museum is Falling Down, composed in 1965, makes a lively companion to Lodge’s later, more famous work How Far Can You Go? (also published as Souls and Bodies). Lodge’s primary subject matter in both books is the Catholic Church’s traditional teaching on sex; namely, the Church’s refusal to condone contraceptives as a morally tenable form of birth control.
To put it simply, Lodge doesn’t like it, but he accepts it. He writes of the “existential contract” between the faithful and the Church in his introduction to the 1981 edition: “In return for the reassurance and stability afforded by the Catholic metaphysical system, one accepted the moral imperatives that went with it, even if they were in practice sometimes inhumanly difficult and demanding.”
Is the Rhythm and Safe method of birth control—the method endorsed by the Church—really inhumanly difficult and demanding? As an unmarried man, I couldn’t say. Lodge, however, is convinced that the method is neither rhythmical nor safe, and that the Church’s stance is outmoded and unfair to the married laity.
To support this thesis, Lodge presents his reader with a case study: Mr. Adam Appleby (the Original Man as Everyman, I suppose). Adam is a twenty-five year old graduate student of English literature burdened by a wife, three kids, little money, a cramped flat, an unreliable scooter, an unwieldy dissertation, and his Catholic faith. As the novel begins, Adam is bracing himself for another day of reading at the British Museum when his wife informs him, ominously, that her period is three days overdue.
Could a fourth child be on the way? The thought terrifies Adam, who is barely making ends meet as it is. Naturally, Adam blames the impracticable Rhythm and Safe method. While making tea in a sardonic mood, Adam mentally composes a Martian encyclopedic entry on Roman Catholicism:
“Roman Catholicism was, according to archaeological evidence, distributed fairly widely over the planet Earth in the twentieth century. As far as the Western Hemisphere is concerned, it appears to have been characterized by a complex system of sexual taboos and rituals. Intercourse between married partners was restricted to certain limited periods determined by the calendar and the body temperature of the female. Martian archaeologists have learned to identify the domiciles of Roman Catholics by the presence of large numbers of complicated graphs, calendars, small booklets full of figures, and quantities of broken thermometers, evidence of the great importance attached to this code. Some scholars have argued that it was merely a method of limiting the number of offspring; but as it has been conclusively proved that the Roman Catholic produced more children on average than any other section of the community, this seems untenable. Other doctrines of the Roman Catholics included a belief in a Divine Redeemer and in a life after death.”
I don’t know about you, but this I got a good chuckle out of that. It’s the equivalent of Lodge’s entertaining summary of Catholic dogma as a game of Snakes and Ladders in his other birth control book, Souls and Bodies. There is as much affection for the Church as exasperation in Lodge’s humor, which should make it palatable even to readers predisposed to disagree with his views. During the course of the book, sharp readers can also play the pleasingly mind-teasing game of “spot the parody,” as Lodge makes subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) allusions to a roll call of great Catholic writers: Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Heminway, and Joyce. Adam imagining himself as Pope is a nice nod to Baron Corvo’s Hadrian VII, for example, as is Lodge’s invention of the Catholic apologist and essayist, Egbert Merrymarsh, a forgotten contemporary of Chesterton and Belloc.
While parodying intellectual powerhouses like Conrad and Joyce comes naturally to Lodge, his attempts at more plebeian styles of comedy fall pretty flat. Adam’s sherry-induced pratfall at a faculty part seems more like an afterthought than a comedic set-piece, and one can only imagine how much funnier the bit with Adam’s scooter meeting its inevitable end would have been in the hands of Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh.
Though the ‘sight gags’ may not inspire belly laughs, Lodge is consistently amusing when he documents Adam’s mental agitation and moral botheration over contraception in the era of the Sexual Revolution. As an upstart British novelist during the swinging 60s, writing at the cusp of the Pill epoch, Lodge is no doubt expressing some of his own amused bafflement at the Church’s seeming refusal to “get with it.” Yet there is affection in Lodge’s comedy, not bitterness, and I think much of the affection stems from his admiration (however begrudging) of the Church’s metaphysical system as complete and uncompromising. It’s the idea that a philosophical system should be a “seamless garment.” For the Church to state that married couples may use artificial means to prevent the possibility of human life would be contradictory, and Lodge, who is nothing if not a keen intellect, acknowledges the fact without quite embracing it.
Lodge clearly feels that couples married in the Church, doing their level best to be faithful Catholics, deserve the same right to sex when and where and how they want (with their spouse, I might rhetorically add) as their secular contemporaries. He has a right to his opinion, and it is to his credit that he vents his frustration in a pair of books that are smart, witty, and (in the case of British Museum) quite charming.
For a masterful treatment on the Church’s teachings about the nature of sexuality, check out the website dedicated to John Paul II’s Theology of the Body:
Publisher: Vintage Books
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 7.7 x 5 x 0.6 inches
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