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Religion in The General's Mistress

A couple of people have commented in various places in surprise that for all that it's a very sexy book about independence and female agency, The General's Mistress is very religious.

I think it's impossible in the modern era to unattach the basic question of human nature from various religious teachings on the subject, because it's so integral a question. This arises explicitly three times in the book. When Elza and Bonaparte are talking and she suddenly "gets" what the political debate is about and reframes it as "am I an abomination or a treasure" that is the heart of an ongoing tension in Christianity since at least the third century. Are human beings God's precious children, or guilty prisoners seeking pardon? What is human nature? Are we children who need to learn to be kind and helpful, or are we beasts held at bay by fear of the fire? That question is so much a part of Christianity, of the debate and interplay between different churches, different denominations, different bishops and thinkers and writers for two thousand years, that Bonaparte has to reply explicitly: "If I believed that, I would be Augustine, not Napoleon."

And that is the heart of Enlightenment thought -- that human beings are basically good, and that men are basically capable of governing themselves altruistically and fairly. We are good dogs, and bad dogs are only created through mistreatment. Like dogs, you can make men bad by abusing them and teaching them to fight, but a puppy is by nature disposed to be friendly and eager to please. There are no bad dogs from birth, and there are no bad humans. This is in direct challenge to the doctrine of Original Sin, but it is by no means anti-religious or even anti-Christian. There are many religious schools of thought that emphasize God's love for humanity rather than Original Sin. That's the school of thought I'm explicitly endorsing when Michael says of Elza's perceptions that she is what she was created to be, and that "there is no error in it." God does not make mistakes. There is no creation that is inherently wrong. (Why the emphasis on Christianity? Because in The General's Mistress the characters are living in a Christian culture, just as Charmian was living in a Hellenistic culture. Each time the characters relate to the Divine within the culture they inhabit.)

But what about Elza herself? Elza is looking for something larger, for something to believe in and serve that is greater than herself. She's grown up in a very cynical society, the world of Dangerous Liaisons, and she's always seen piety and altruism as screens for manipulation. That's why there is the little scene toward the beginning, when her husband trots out Elza and the children as proof of his devotion to education! He's not devoted either to her or the children, but he's making education "his issue" and so showing off an educated wife and little boys is helpful to his political positioning. We come back to that with Victor, when Elza says that she's glad there's a cease fire as children will be glad to have their fathers home and Victor says that she's soft hearted. If she wants to, she can give to charity so that she will feel better. Elza says, "Surely there are things more important than my happiness?" She's trying to find the words for something, for the things that have motivated and fulfilled her in the past -- loyalty, duty, devotion, charity, and service. It is her nature to serve. Her happiness, her fulfillment as a person, is in giving. It is in seeing to the welfare of others, like Gull, like Charmian, like Lydias. "Well," Victor says, "there's mine." But ultimately serving him is a poor substitute for her calling.

And that is the difference with Michel. He also has a calling. Like Neas, he also lives to serve. Michel can articulate that plainly and clearly, and he embraces his calling open-eyed and with his full heart. He tells her so at their first dinner together -- his job is to "take on the responsibility of sin," to kill to protect the freedom of others. His deadly instincts are yoked by his service. Fighting is pleasure to him, but he doesn't fight for fun. He fights to protect his country and the ideals of self-determination, freedom of religion, public education, and others. Ultimately, that's what Elza can place her confidence in. That's why the little scene at dinner in Munich -- Elza is now arguing for the ideal of the Enlightenment and the interpretations of liberal Christianity -- that human beings are basically good and that we are ascending together. That we can be better.

And that's as far as she's gotten by the end of the book, just past her twenty fourth birthday. She has not made oaths herself, has not found her vocation or her purpose. She's looking and she's found someone to travel that road with. But she's not there yet. That's the story of the next book!


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 11th, 2012 03:47 pm (UTC)
I don't see a conflict between sexy books and books with theology and books with characters seeking higher/deeper meaning, myself. :-)
Nov. 12th, 2012 09:29 am (UTC)
I don't either, but it seems that some people do!
Nov. 12th, 2012 06:10 pm (UTC)
You could always do what I do and blame Augustine, most of the Patristic period and the gnostic movement.
Nov. 13th, 2012 01:14 pm (UTC)
As of course Bonaparte does! "If I believed that, I would be Augustine, not Napoleon!" :)
Nov. 12th, 2012 03:22 am (UTC)
Love this. But of course I also come from a place where sex and Christianity are not mutually exclusive, and where grace is held in a higher place in Christianity than original sin. I fluctuate on answering that fundamental question (I tend to think "humans are fundamentally good and fundamentally flawed and prone to error at the same time"), but I actually think that this book is the one that has least culture shock for me. *grin*
Nov. 12th, 2012 09:36 am (UTC)
I also don't find grace and sex mutually exclusive, which is something I suppose I keep saying! :D But I suppose many people think of religion (all religion, not just Christianity) as about denial rather than about fulfillment.
Nov. 14th, 2012 01:58 pm (UTC)
I agree with Selkie and Cadenzamuse. I just finished a paper arguing against culturally-imposed categorical distinctions, particularly as they're usually based on a Newtonian universe, and I would especially accuse the sex / spirit split as being a destructively false dichotomy!!
Nov. 14th, 2012 08:22 pm (UTC)
I think so too, and that's one of the things I'm trying to illustrate in this book -- well, in all the Elza books!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )