3 March 2010

Julien Green: Moïra (1951)

Julien Green's parents were American – his mother Anne being from Savannah, Georgia, and his father Edward from Virginia – although he was born in Paris and his published works are almost exclusively in French. (1)

His mother was an Episcopalian in horror of the body, and on one occasion, when Julian – as his name was originally spelt – was discovered masturbating in bed at the age of about five by his sister Mary, his mother brandished a bread knife in front of his penis and threatened to cut it off.

Understandably, this episode had a lasting effect on Green, shaping 'A terrifying idea of purity [...] in me.' His mother also forced him to undress in the dark so he would not see his naked body. When he joined the American Field Service in 1917, his workmates mocked him for not joining in their extracurricular drinking and womanizing activities. And at that time, Green would not even sit down on a recently vacated seat, such was his horror of coming into contact with the warmth of a person's body. Green – who had converted to Catholicism a few years before this – later discovered that he was homosexual, which generated more inner conflict which would be referred to in many of his works.

In Julien Green: Religion and Sensuality (2), Anthony H. Newbury notes that on 21 May 1949, Green recorded in his Journal that as he read Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling he felt as if he had been struck by a thunderbolt: Kierkegaard says faith is 'the highest passion' in a man, and for Green faith is so deep that it colors everything, both good and evil. A few months later Green read W. N. P. Barbellion's The Journal of a Disappointed Man (3), and identified with what Barbellion calls 'this savage beast that dwells in us and eats us from the inside'. Green notes that he put some of Barbellion's words in the mouth of Joseph Day, his troubled protagonist in Moïra, who sees two conflicting forces – the spiritual and the sexual, each trying to cut the other's throat – at the heart of the human condition.

Green says of Moïra: 'How could I fail to see that it's a transposition of my own story? The eternal stuggle against oneself.' Joseph is a very pious university student who is mocked by his fellow students because he doesn't drink or frequent brothels. We learn nothing of the Moïra of the title, apart from the fact that she smokes, until the second part of the book, almost halfway into it. Moïra is the adopted daughter of his landlady, and during the vacations she sleeps in the bed he has been sleeping in. Joseph is troubled by this news, and no longer wants to sleep in the bed. Even when he changes lodgings he is disturbed by sexual longing, and sleeps on the floor to cause himself discomfort.

It is not difficult to see Joseph as a classic case of Sartrian self-deception (equals mauvaise foi), or, perhaps more accurately, Freudian: a fascist internal police force fighting the perceived crimes of a rampant id.

(1) His paternal grandfather, Charles Green, from Halsowen, England, was a cotton magnate who owned Green-Meldrim House, 14 West Macon Street, Savannah, which was built in 1861 and is a now National Historic Landmark.

(2) Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1986.

(3) London: Chatto & Windus, 1923.


Snatch51 said...

This is a very complicated story, but if Green found himself a homosexual, after having the very kind of upbringing which would turn a lot of us very odd indeed, what does this tell us about determination?

Is someone going to be gay just because his mum brandishes a breadknife over his dick?

Last night I saw a documentary about the actor Stephen Fry; (OK, there was nothing else on), and heard how his homosexuality was something which just appeared at the age of fourteen, and had nothing to do with the fact that another boy had inflicted a violation by force some while previously.

Do experiences in adolescence have any influence on the formation of sexuality? Matthew Parris was interesting on this topic in an article some months ago; he suggested that while the vast majority of us are one thing or the other, there is some tiny minority who can be influenced. This is why the traditional parent had a horror of 'homos' when they packed their sons off to boarding school, and why there was eventually a Section 28; which was, again, by popular demand a defence against the homosexual influence on vulnerable children.

For the time being, our lives have become broader and more understanding, but don't count on it when the going becomes rougher!

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Para 1: You mean Green's determination, or determination in general?

Para 2: I don't think I was making a direct correlation between homosexuality and early cock excision threats. :-)

Para 3 (parenthesis): That's a bum excuse!

Para 4: I think that's an open question.