I Like Matthew “The Monk” G. Lewis A Lot

Posted by @ 6:21 pm on December 8th, 2008



At the age of 33, the same age that Jesus was when he died, I had a physical and mental breakdown and became obsessed with Catholic literature. I read Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, (not Walker Percy…hmmm), Muriel Spark, St. Augustine and some others. I also went to Mass a few times at St. Vincent de Paul Church on 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenue at 12pm, but I never went to confession, so I couldn’t receive the Eucharist. I watched others taking it and cried in the back pew. I loved Mass and my favorite part was how all five or ten of us, straggled throughout that huge, dark Church in the middle of the bright bright day would turn to each other and bless each other. Strangers smiling and blessing each other? I shook and cried. That is what I did.


Over my thanksgiving break, I reread The Monk by Matthew G. Lewis. I read it first in grad school and remembered thinking it was one of the craziest, most entertaining books I’d ever read. Murder, torture, ghosts, thieves, tons of lust, dead bodies, a dead baby with worms in it being held by his mom, weird poems about dead people dancing and pretty much every depravity one can think of shows up in this novel, written by Lewis at the age of—NINETEEN! Holy crap. Also, The Monk is considered to be a “one hit wonder” which breaks my heart and makes me love Lewis all the more.  I’d take being a one hit wonder if that meant people two hundred years after I die were still loving my book. Also again!– The Monk caused tons of scandal when it was published in the late 18th century and I sort of like scandalous books. I have two copies of the book and the one I read over thanksgiving fell apart while reading it, which for some reason, heightened the great pleasure of rereading this masterpiece of Gothic literature. (Many would argue that The Monk is no masterpiece, many see it as “camp” and there are great things online discussing it as such as well as discussions of it as gay literature, which I find interesting and true but more on how I chose to read it below.)


Lewis was English and Protestant and The Monk takes place in Catholic Spain and it should be read as a book that mocks the superstitions of the Catholic Church, but I willfully did not read it as it should be read. This willful misunderstanding of the book is not something I recommend doing on any regular basis, but I did it a few weeks ago with The Monk. You see, I love Spain- I lived there for a year—and there is so much I love about Catholicism. For instance, we are all sinners: I like that. Here is a fantastic description of The Devil, when the Monk first meets him:


At the same time the cloud disappeared, and he beheld a figure more beautiful than fancy’s peril ever drew. It was a youth seemingly scarce eighteen, the perfection of whose form and face was unrivalled. He was perfectly naked: a bright star sparkled upon his forehead, two crimson wings extended themselves from his shoulders, and his silken locks were confined by a band of many-coloured fires, which played round his head, formed themselves into a variety of figures, and shone with a brilliance far surpassing that of precious stones.


I love how gorgeous the Devil is when first appearing in the Monk’s life. It rings true to me. In John Berryman’s excellent introduction, he sees the earlier part of the novel and its many digressions as a weakness, but I don’t. In fact, the whole first half of the book is filled with so many digressions that end up plopping the reader more or less in some random feeling place—and I think it’s just brilliant. The threads! The endless labyrinth of it!  But what Berryman says that I totally agree with is this:


:the point is to conduct a remarkable man utterly to damnation. It is surprising, after all, how long it takes—how difficult it is –to be certain of damnation. This was Lewis’s main insight, fully embodied in his narrative, and I confess that such work as Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus seems to me frivolous by comparison.


So, even though the English Lewis perhaps mocks the superstitions of the Catholic Church, I choose to read it for the fact so well stated by Berryman: we all have so many chances to do the right thing and yet, we  fail to do the right thing, over and over again. We are, in other words, human, weak, and really at the mercy of our own folly. But to end on a lighter note, here’s a funny digression about being an author:


An author, whether good or bad, or between both, is an animal whom every body is privileged to attack: for though all are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them. A bad composition carries with it its own punishment—contempt and ridicule. A good one excites envy, and entails upon its author a thousand mortifications: he finds himself assailed by partial and ill-humoured criticism: one man finds fault with the plan, another with the style, a third with the precept which it strives to inculcate; and they  who cannot succeed with finding fault with the book, employ themselves with stigmatizing the author.





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