The Saint by V. S. Pritchett, 1966
by V. S. Pritchett, 1966
With comic seriousness "The Saint," the title story of V. S. Pritchett's 1966 collection, recounts an adolescent boy's progress from an illusory disregard for catastrophe to a realization of humanity's mortal fate. In this spiritual journey, however, the hero discovers the rightness of his own orientation to the world. At the age of 33 he tells of his brief membership in and final apostasy from the Church of the Last Purification of Toronto, Canada. The satiric telling is never bitter, and in the finale the narrator displays a generous understanding of his momentary guru, the pseudosaint Mr. Hubert Timberlake.
The story is more about gain than loss, its initial comic utterance notwithstanding: "When I was seventeen years old I lost my religious faith." The faith in question entails two familiar absurdities. First, evil is unreal because an omnipotent God cannot intend the suffering of his creatures, especially their economic suffering. Second, it is "error" to assert that anyone suffers, an idea as conceivable to the devout as is a square circle to a logician. The boy inherits these beliefs in the usual, familial, not unkindly, but mandatory fashion.
The reader finds amusing the provincial enshrinement in Toronto of a metaphysical worldview. That a religion so wedded to money is so grandly titled and has originated in Toronto tickles the reader as would the idea that the Second Coming is destined for Kansas City. We want the boy to see through this blather and are not disappointed. Yet we know that he is delicately poised on the brink of adulthood and will pay for his insight. Pritchett has created in him, as the narrator's tone reveals, a character capable of growth, one inclining inevitably to a healthy but perplexing view of human experience.
His inevitable growth is carefully woven into the story. An uncle is struggling through a depression. When the church greases his palm with a tad of cash, it falls to him to start a congregation, appropriately at the Corn Exchange, a not exactly otherworldly parish. Without option, the boy is included. Yet he experiences evil and begins to break away. Then the fabulous Timberlake, the sage of purification, arrives and compels his allegiance again. Not, of course, because the boy believes that this man has raised the dead. It is because Timberlake gives the uncle a barb about being funny commensurate with the one his uncle had given the boy about thinking. He can abandon the trapped authority who mocks him for one who defends him. Timberlake momentarily shines, no matter that his witticism is part of a plot, which includes the uncle, to rein in a wayward sheep. But an ad hominem ascent is never wise. In fact, Pritchett is all but gratified by the struggle of the young against authorities, who often enforce beliefs at odds with experience and desire. The cynical teacher's hilarious response to the boy's justification of his Pollyanna theology is a judgment we certainly share. Yet the boy's schoolmates also look at him "with admiration," for his dissent, while ludicrous, represents idealistic resolve and independence.
It is these qualities, in conjunction with the boy's experience of the world in its beautiful and calamitous reality, that make his rejection of this religion a happy certainty. The boy loves the river, has "water on the brain," as his uncle likes to jest. Pritchett's joke transcends the uncle's, since the boy is not just happily stupid but instinctively and socially drawn to the most irreducible element of nature, to the instrument of purification, of baptism. Fortunately, he does have water on the brain. When he casually offers his detailed image of the river, and of all that is on, under, and beside it, he conveys a spontaneous, unerring attachment to life. He is alive on the river because he knows that the water and the willows are at once lovely and dangerous and that their capacity to make a person suffer is as real as their friendly allure. On the other hand, Timberlake's uncomprehending and detached confrontation with both the river and the field of buttercups reveals the death at the marrow of his spuriously religious nature. What properly animates the boy is reduced by Timberlake to the commercial grin and the innocuous word "fine," the latter a bit of verbal disease the boy catches, although only in passing.
At the heart of the story are water and passion. Half in and half out of the faith, the boy first sees Timberlake as a reformed merchant captain who, though once contaminated by the sea, has left it for money. This suggests the boy's unconscious wish that his religious leader share an authentic relation to water. Yet the "merchant" element implies that even unconsciously the boy knows that this prophet has long been deeply shallow. He has never been properly "at sea." Timberlake's name is thus amusing, for he could be neither a seaman nor a Hubert Rivers. After all, spiritually serious Christianity tries to confront the problem of evil, of a fallen nature, through baptism, originally by immersion in the Jordan River. Poor Timberlake denies his immersion in the river. He does not sufficiently have "water on the brain." He does not know how to go properly crazy. Thus, he could by "no word … acknowledge the disasters or the beauties of the world." Besuited, soaked, and dipped in buttercups, he reentered the "husk" of his life only as sanctified as the gilded statue of a saint.
Nothing in this story is hostile to any religion that acknowledges suffering and is not founded on the love of money. But its deepest values are strictly human. It sees that each of us carries within the "ape" of evil. Timberlake's denial of the ape proves only that he saw the truth and found it unendurable. Yet to deny evil is to deny its contrary, those "beauties" that come with the "disasters." Acknowledging the ape makes possible a complete and passional life, one of genuine feeling, especially sympathy, not that "glaze" on the faces of the faithful.
—David M. Heaton