Sunday, June 19, 2005

Mr. Blue Redux

Sometime during my sophomore year at the University of Notre Dame, in 1955-56, my girl friend (now my wife) gave me a copy of Myles Connolly's novella, Mr. Blue.

"You'll like this book," she said, "the main character reminds me of you."

Her appeal to my ego was too much to resist. I read the book and wondered what I had in common with the hero, the eponymous Mr. Blue.

Connolly was a Jesuit-educated 1918 graduate of Boston College and on his way to becoming a successful Hollywood screenwriter when he published Mr. Blue in 1928. The book immediately achieved a cult status, inspiring several generations of young Catholics to find more in their faith than formulaic prayers and rote dogma.

The hero of Connolly's story, known only as J. Blue, is a passionate Christian, living hand-to-mouth in New York City in the service of Lady Poverty and his fellow men. He flies brightly-colored kites and releases gay balloons from the top of a skyscraper, where he lives in a cheerfully-decorated packing crate and entices a brass band to make music under the stars. He celebrates life with outgoing gusto, then prostrates himself in solitude before the crucifix.

Blue is a modern St. Francis, a Manhattan saint. He has no doubts that he was put on Earth for a purpose, and that the purpose is to live his life as a work of Christian art. He has no interest in women, and, curiously, seems oblivious to official liturgies of the Church.

By contrast, when the book came into my hands, I was a rather stolid engineering student from Chattanooga, with little on my mind except making good grades and chasing after young women. I had, of course, heard of St. Francis, but I couldn't have told you within 300 years when he lived. Or why he had been sainted.

But my future wife knew me better than I knew myself, because something about Mr. Blue immediately resonated in my spirit. It was a time of lively reinvention in Catholic higher education, of abounding confidence and intellectual religiosity, all of which made me receptive to Blue's exhortation to live a joyously muscular Catholicism, and to bear Christ's cross gladly if and when it came.

Blue is above all a man of faith. He is skeptical of philosophy, of books even. The enemy of faith is "scientific agnosticism," which Blue accounts the pernicious and spiritually-deadening philosophy of our times. One cannot counter scientific agnosticism with reason and argument, he believes. The only answer to the prevailing spiritual malaise is a life lived with passionate, unquestioning Christian conviction.

If there is one bit of dialogue in the novella that moved me profoundly, it is Blue's answer to the narrator's question, "Isn't the golden mean the secret of something or other?" "Yes," replies Blue. "Mediocrity."

That was the challenge of the book: not to live life meanly, to avoid compromise. I resolved to follow in Blue's footsteps. If I was going to live as a Catholic, I would do so without reservation.

I put pebbles in my shoes, sand in my bed, and did the Stations of the Cross on bare knees on a cinder path. I spent hours in prayer at Notre Dame's replica of the Lourdes grotto. I eschewed philosophy, but read Bernanos, Bloy, Mauriac, Greene. I devoured Thomas Merton's Seven Story Mountain, and briefly flirted with becoming a Trappist. I drove my future wife crazy with my violent swings between hormone-driven sexuality and guilty remorse.

By the time I came back to Notre Dame as a married graduate student in 1960, I was ready to go to San Salvador or Bangladesh in the service of the Church.

And, like Blue, I flew kites. Whatever life would bring, I was determined it would not be mediocre.

That was nearly half-a-century ago.

I re-read Mr. Blue again recently. Again it was my wife who put the book into my hands; she found it in the middle-school library where she works as a volunteer. She wondered, I suppose, what I would make of it, after all these years.

My first impression was surprise that I could ever have been inspired by a book that is so slight, so trite, so without literary merit. Connolly was no Georges Bernanos, no Graham Greene. His book is a compendium of platitudes, and his character Blue now seems somewhat of an insufferable prig who thought most of his fellow human beings had as little capacity for life as cabbages.

However, the book is probably a pretty fair reflection of the place I was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in the throes of my newly-energized Catholicism. My faith was simplistic, and I too was something of a prig. Like Blue, I was utterly confident I possessed the Truth.

In retrospect I can see that it was dogmatic confidence, not charity, that caused me to volunteer for the foreign missions, in spite of the fact that by then I was the married father of a child. The Church wisely resisted this undertaking; to bring our infant daughter to San Salvador or Bangladesh would have been irresponsible. Anyway, my wife's enthusiasm for the venture was never the equal of mine. I settled down to the study of science, went into teaching, and eventually became the scientific agnostic so disparaged by Blue.

Yet a bit of Blue remains with me. I think of myself as a religious person -- in the kite-flying sense. The point of religion, I now believe, is to celebrate the unfathomable mystery of creation. My work as a teacher and writer is to discover glimmers of the Absolute in every particular, and to praise what I find.

I did not end up serving Lady Poverty, but then neither did I worship mammon. I seem to have arrived at retirement age with relative affluence, but not once in my career was I motivated by money. Blue dies young, without a life partner or children; Lady Poverty makes a cold companion in old age.

Most fundamentally, I have given up the certainty that I know the Truth. I no longer believe that Christians are any closer to God than right-living people of any other faith. Faith no longer matters to me so much as experience, attention, celebration, wonder. I suppose I have sought to maintain something of Blue's childlike capacity to be astonished, his wide-eyed conviction that everything is shot through with grandeur. A kite is a kind of prayer. So is a brass band.

As for Lady Poverty. She may be a fine mistress for J. Blue, who can charm a meal or a place to sleep off everyone he meets. But she is a cruel and ravenous villainess for a majority of the world's population. I would gladly see her confined, with her acolytes, to the pages of history.

And the golden mean? Is it the secret of something or other? Oh, yes. It is the secret of life -- my life, at least. There is something to be said for moderation, especially in a world wracked by religious strife, and by the hypocrisy and arrogance of institutional churches. The golden mean is the secret of tolerance, of modesty, of scientific agnosticism, of the virtues of gray. Of knowing that every dogmatic definition of God is a pale intimation of the truth, and, inevitably it seems, an excuse for jihad, pogrom or crusade.

Mr. Blue, for all of the tolerance he wears on his sleeve, is something of a zealot, and I've finally arrived at a place somewhere between passivity and zealotry. I've had my fill of "muscular" Christianity, of creeds, of doctrines of infallibility. If you wish, call the place I am at mediocrity. I am happy to live there without the company of Blue.

Further Reading

This essay was originally published in Spritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, a thoughtful and wonderfully eclectic journal, whose openness to the many ways of saying "yes" to the world is evidenced by their willingness to publish me.

Miles Connolly's Mr. Blue has been recently reissued by Loyola Press. Get's raves on Amazon, I see.

My essay on Mr. Blue shared the pages of Spiritus with two poems of Mary Oliver (among other things), whose work I have previously extolled here. Her most recent book of poems is Why I Wake Early.

Student Activities

  1. Miles Connolly's Mr. Blue is a young person's book and very Catholic, but it would make an excellent choice for a book review, especially for a student in a Catholic school.
  2. J. Blue persued a very private kind of spirituality. The other writers I mentioned in my essay were also solitary spiritual seekers, wrestling alone with their God. Think of the role of spirituality in your own life. Is the experience mostly solitary or collective? Who were the Desert Fathers? What is meant by "the eremitic tradition"? Is the tradition alive in our own time, and if so, where?

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.