Monday, September 01, 2014

Mater Roma

Eros and Thanatos by Melinda Selmys
Book Review by John Demetry

“You mean fruitless squabbling and vain speculation? Well, I’m in.” Fear not (but be afraid). Melinda Selmys’ bifurcated full-length fiction foray into the genres of the philosophical dialogue (Eros) and Greek Tragedy (Thanatos) proves both fruitful and humbling. Eros and Thanatos fulfills the visionary hope in Selmys’ nonfiction Catholic theology in Sexual Authenticity, its sequel More Reflections, and Slave of Two Masters.

Selmys’ reinvigoration of classical forms in Eros and Thanatos features three modern-day Canadian brothers perversely raised in the manner of Roman paganism. In the style of the Symposium, they debate sexual morality and the morality of vengeance according to their particular philosophical bents. This exchange defines each perspective while illustrating Selmys’ page-turning immediacy:

Germanicus (the stoic): What I’m saying is it’s better to suffer evil than to do it.

Juvenal (the Nietzchean heavy metal rock star): I’m not talking about doing evil. I’m talking about putting things right. I’m talking about justice.

Catullus (the Catholic-curious aesthete): You don’t have authority over life and death Juvenal, and if you seize it you will not find peace.

Selmys’ cliffhanger approach ends each scene leaving reader baited for the next—which then unveils wilder set pieces for each discourse. She creates suspense because the abstract is the personal. Example: when Germanicus’ stoic exterior cracks to reveal his essential—dependent—nature, he baldly states the ramifications of the brothers’ philosophical dialogue on the fate of “my mother.”

Hence, Selmys gets beneath her characters’ stances to vulnerability and desire—innovating the philosophical dialogue mode that usually reduces its characters to superficial placards (instead, on the back cover of the book, Selmys presents the brothers as comely role-playing game avatars—genius!). Through this complex authenticity, Eros and Thanatos reveals the contemporary truth in her dramatic conceit of three brothers suckled at the teet of Roman Paganism.

Post-Christian modernity, rather than progressing toward its more fashionable names of Enlightenment and Humanism, reverts to idolatry. Selmys dramatizes this paradigmatic shift compassionately through Catullus’ identification of Germanicus’ “idol” of “temperance” and Germanicus’ rejoinder that “Eros happens to be the idol that you [Catallus] serve.” Selmys expresses, therefore, in sympathetic—individual—terms the culture’s prevailing Puritanism and Gnosticism.

Since the two brothers pinpoint these false idols of self-mastery, Juvenal (of course) weeds out their common seed: Power.

Juvenal frames Germanicus’ “virtue” in terms of “privilege” and closeted Catullus’ desire for “acceptance” in terms of “control;” through him, Selmys deconstructs post-Christian hegemony. Other participants in the various debates that structure Eros and Thanatos introduce the semiotic basis of power (“propaganda uses truth to tell a lie”), most persuasively when Selmys, as always, returns to the exploited human dimension as one character explains:

Anything else is an act of violence because it takes something which is intimately connected to the personality of the individual and tries to turn it into an object of intellectual appropriation.

Thus, Selmys maps out the philosophical terrain surrounding—without ever explicitly mentioning—the divisive issues of the era: gay marriage and abortion.

Yet, through the dialectical discourses of Eros and Thanatos, Selmys achieves unexpected—and, frankly, shocking—(catholic) synthesis: a profound social vision. She inverts Juvenal’s Nietzchean protest to Christian dogma: “I could never accept the damnation of anyone I love.” Consequently, the cathartic narrative and imagery of Eros and Thanatos aim toward radical reconciliation—visionary representations of self-giving love in disarmingly modern terms—including vernacular Heavy Metal spectacle.

With Eros and Thanatos, Selmys pits the Aeschylus-style Chorus of Vultures’ desire for “Iron-Age torture porn” with another character’s recognition of heavy metal as “man’s final option” given popular form. Unloosing her glistening descriptive arsenal—perfected in horror short stories—Selmys describes Heaven as a “bath tub.”

Well, I’m in.

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