April 16, 2009
— Thomas Zebrowski
In her recently-released spiritual memoir, Anne Rice, the bestselling author of Interview with the Vampire, writes that the mass appeal of her fantasy books may be due partially to the way she has draped their otherworldly trappings over a conventional three-act frame. Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession is itself no exception. Yet the personal story she fits into this familiar dramatic pattern is not so much the prodigal daughter's, as the one C.S. Lewis called "the pilgrim's regress." The accent is less on sin and redemption than the loss and recovery of childhood faith.
The importance of origins to the tale Rice has to tell is demonstrated by the convincing detail with which she recreates and defends the pervasively Catholic culture of 1940s New Orleans, underlined by the manifest stability in her lifelong conception of God and his Church. According to Rice, her preliterate openness to a world of sense experience in which "there was a profound connection between narrative, art, music and faith" is at the root of her abiding religious "interests and tendencies," not to mention her knack for writing popular fiction about supernaturally haunted lives. At the center of this incipient world was the icon of Jesus Christ who, present in the Holy Sacrament and in his Church, was able to call her back to Catholic faith after decades of hopeless wandering in a professed atheism one feels she never fully inhabited. And as anyone knows who is familiar with the first two volumes of the novelized autobiography of Jesus upon which Rice has audaciously embarked, Christ remains for her the person proclaimed in the Church's creeds and the canonical New Testament, presented with literary embellishments yet without significant concession to the skeptical conclusions of modern biblical scholarship.
It thus comes as an amusing surprise to discover that this deeply traditional and even nostalgic Catholic makes no apologies for some of the most colorful sins of her waywardness - neither the pseudonymously authored pornographic novels, still less the more pedestrian eroticism and gender play in which she has drenched her mainstream fare. Just to make the point that she is not simply the anti-modern Christian her old-fashioned catechesis set her up to be, in fact, Rice quietly reminds the reader about her "transgressive" sexuality. Though her tone, to be sure, is one of openness to correction rather than outright dissent, she devotes a portion of the book's closing chapter to discussing the reasons why she remains unpersuaded by the Catholic Church's teachings on women's ordination and sexual morality.
The long shadow cast by Rice's early impressions might help us to make sense of these apparent incongruities as well. There is more than a hint here that the relaxed sexual attitude Rice adopted contemporaneously with her college departure from Catholicism came quite naturally to the same person whose "oversensuous mind" had made her so open to the rich physicality of pre-conciliar Catholic piety. And haven't the more puritan strains of Christianity always suspected a certain connection between carnal permissiveness and lavish sensuality in worship? Of course, these tendencies were kept apart and an elevated aesthetic maintained by an overarching awareness of original sin, and a concomitant mistrust of the untutored passions, in the ordered world in which Rice grew up. But there is some evidence that Rice herself may have developed a weaker view of human corruption - an Augustine or a Pascal could have some fun with her innocent-sounding notion that because her fall from faith was "sincere" it must have been morally blameless.
Rice's personal misgivings about some traditional Christian mores are far from being the focus of her lovely memoir, even less central to it than a related belief about herself as a "genderless" person, which she also traces to childhood. Yet they fit in with our picture of her as a bracingly straightforward and unironic person who has learned from experience to trust her intuitions. Indeed, the "tragedy of mind and heart" she memorializes in Called Out of Darkness is partly about the consequences of her mistake to abandon Catholicism, the first love and only meaning of her life, just because she wasn't intellectually prepared to reconcile her deep religious convictions with what appealed to her in the secular world in which she came of age. Here, the prescient words of a youthful Paulist priest who tried (counterproductively) to counsel her as her teenage faith wavered go straight to the point: "For a Catholic like you," he melodramatically cautioned, "there is no life outside the Catholic Church." From the Gothic tales that brought her fame to the devotional literature she's now turning out, Anne Rice's body of work bears consistent witness to this fact.
Anne Rice, Called Out of Darkness (Knopf, 2008).
For an excellent appreciation of Rice's writings on Jesus see, "In Defense of Anne Rice" by Patricia Snow, which appeared in First Things: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=1297.
Thomas Zebrowski is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and a former junior fellow in the Martin Marty Center.