Friday, January 4, 2019

Father Michael Sweetman SJ - declining to Baptise the Spirit of the Age





Homily by Michael Sweetman SJ (1983) on 50th anniversary of death of Fr John Sullivan

The above is a talk by Father Michael Sweetman SJ in St Francis Xavier Church in Dublin during a Mass to commemorate his former teacher and then colleague Fr John Sullivan a well-known saintly Jesuit who died on 19 February 1933. The date is February 1983 - the 50th anniversary of the death of Father Sullivan.
 [Michael Joseph Sweetman was born in Dublin on 20 March 1914 and encountered Fr Sullivan when he was a late adolescent studying at Clongowes Wood College in Co. Kildare. He himself joined the Jesuits in 1931 and was ordained a priest in 1945.]

I was a novice in the De La Salle Brothers in Castletown, Co. Laois (diocese of Ossory) in 1966/67. At the end of the year of training in late August 1967, our novice master Br Maurice Kirk invited the well known Jesuit Fr Michael Sweetman to give us an eight-day retreat. I took copious notes of his talks that I wrote up in my diary in the evenings. A few years ago I photocopied the relevant pages and left copies in the National Archives and Jesuit archives. Due to the collapse of all our hopes of that time, I have never been able to reread the notes or the rest of my diary - but hopefully I will get around to it now - or my notes of Fr Sweetman's talks anyway! [ I have written about Fr Sweetman and Br Maurice in the About Me section of my old website IrishSalem.com ]

What follows are (or will be) excerpts from articles by Fr Sweetman from the 1940s to the 1980s - mainly in The Furrow - for which he was film reviewer from  1965 to 67 - and in Studies Quarterly Review, a publication of the Irish Jesuits. It may well have been his articles in The Furrow that helped bring him to the attention of Brother Maurice. I have described Brother Maurice elsewhere as a "liberal Conservative" (with emphasis on the noun!) and Fr Sweetman as something of a "radical priest". However the latter phrase has definitely changed its meaning from Ireland in the 1960s to today. Fr Sweetman's attitude was quite different from that of Fr Gabriel Daly OSA of whom I have written previously.

This essay is definitely a Work-in-Progress and will continue that way for a while. I propose to organise it in themes rather than chronologically. Curiously enough the first film review of Fr Sweetmans's that I came across in the Furrow (November 1965) concerns the issue of false sexual allegations made by a child against adult teachers! 

NOTE: I should stress that the various topic headings in blue are my own invention - not those of Fr Sweetman!


Dublin Youth of 1965, Sex and False Allegations

(The Furrow, November 1965)
In discussing, and judging, what is suitable in films presented for indiscriminate public consumption, the statement is often made that something will shock the young and uneducated. This is a possibility that deserves every consideration. But if by un-educated one means particularly city youngsters who have been unable to obtain more than a primary education, the notion of what is likely to shock them needs imaginative investigation. They are not uneducated in the realities of life; they, of necessity, have become immune to many of its shocks. Certainly the use of obscene and even blasphemous language would be no shock, in the sense of being something new, to them; nor would the sight of raw passion, violent emotion, scurrilous abuse, drunkenness, dishonesty or squalid lust. Those who are likely to be shocked by these things, or entertained as the case may be, are the educated and sheltered minority. But as they are surrounded by counteracting influences antagonistic to this kind of behaviour, they also are partly protected.

 What really does everyone harm are false values attractively displayed; omission of all concern for religious and ultimate standards; cynical or sentimental contempt for people.

 When a film like The Loudest Whisper (Academy) is restricted to those over eighteen, it is not because the subject or treatment is shocking, but rather because it would be puzzling to the very young and might create morbid suspicions among adolescents. 

The subject here might be said to be lesbianism, but the film gets its excitement not from this, but from the power of malicious whispering about it. ......

Here, as in Lord of the Flies, there is an indication of the zest for evil that can possess a child. The bold girl is a clever, malicious, subtle, cruel little viper, but she is not inhuman, she is no caricature. For spite, using phrases she has overheard from a silly adult, she tells her grandmother that there is an unnatural relationship between the two young teachers who run the school. In the orgy of, mainly, feminine emotion which follows on this, the parts of the teachers are sensitively played by Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine; the grandmother is superbly done by Eileen Hopkins; the children are excellent. The poisonous whisper is tipped into the ear of the grandmother in a most effective dialogue in the back of a car. ....

 It is a film worth seeing for all educationalists and that, in some sense, includes nearly all adults. 


Effect of Film Sex Scenes on Irish Girls (1966)

The Furrow June 1966 - [This follows his review of a film version of Hamlet by Grigori Kozintsev]

 From the sublime to [Vittirio] de Sica. Marriage Italian Style (Academy) is bored de Sica, following his own too well tried formula: a golden hearted prostitute, a few orphans, a sly cleric, a glamorous play-boy ready to harvest an unlikely domestic peace once he has sown the very last possible wild oat. . . and so on. Sophia Loren affronts me; I can't take her; and I must say I don't much want to. Though in fairness it should be said that when her characteristics are toned, honed down, as she is supposed to grow older, she becomes far more beautiful and appealing. The comedy is very predictable and seldom warms up. Except for the intellectual effort which might be demanded of parents in explaining to children how Filomena's three children came into the world, there does not seem very much reason to restrict this film to adults. It is certainly not adult fare.......

In almost all of these kind of films there is a scene or so of the glossy magazine type, where female bodies are displayed in an impersonal, provocative, artificial way. These are of the same category as that group of writings which Richard Hoggart well labelled "sensation-without-commitment". If I may at all trust my intuition, these scenes generally break the interest of the audience in the cinema, and are received with more embarrassment than fascination. Certainly they reveal minds behind them whose sense of humour has deserted them, whose good taste never existed, and whose inventiveness and imagination has been choked by desire for easy money. But the very fact that they leave nothing to a more sensitive imagination - one's own - makes them that amount less harmful than the static picture or the suggestive passage in a book. But though they may be less successful they must be stigmatised as of the same intention as the type of picture that is pushed into a drawer when an unexpected knock comes to your office door. Their contented lovelessness, and chinkless in sincerity, are perhaps their most objectionable qualities. 

I have been wondering what effect these scenes have on girls. A very limited research suggests that they mostly view this kind of performance as silly, something no girl, bad or good, would want to put on in any conceivable circumstances. This may be tinged with slight envy of the mere physical talents of the sirens. Some feel that this kind of stuff is clearly what purveyors of "immature emotional satisfactions" (Hoggart) want their frightened clients to believe is the way they would like girls to behave. It all begins, and ends, in solitary fantasy. 

It reminds one again that many authors or artists, even of genius, never knew sexual normality. So many were warped in their own experience or suffered from egoistical inability to control their im pulses. Anyhow, the evidence goes to suggest that there are some very stunted, and not a few sick minds behind the production of mass entertainment. But when all is said and done the misfit sections do not make these films totally objectionable; no more than occasional tactless insult altogether destroys a friendship.


Censorship, "Liberals" and 'Room at the Top'

(The Furrow, January 1966)
 Room at the Top (Corinthian) is one of the best of the films previously banned, and now cut and passed for adult audiences.  They keep before our minds the question of censorship and the  deeper one of the moral influence of art and literature. The days of  banning merely because of the theme, or subject, seem to be over  everywhere; there is more attention given now to the method of presentation and the intent behind it. If this film was originally  banned because of the love scenes, judicious cutting has removed  such ground for objection without in any way clouding the issues  at stake. To contend that one needs a more prolonged and detailed  indication of the sexual relationship of the central character (Lawrence Harvey) with the two women, if one is to follow their story,  seems to me stupid if not dishonest. Just as well complain that you  don't know what happened to Karin in the Virgin Spring, because  the rape is not shown. (This beautiful, elemental film was shown in the Fine Arts theatre; I hope it will appear every now and again forever.) The way, the spirit, in which the double attachment is  dealt with seems to me reasonably adequate, given a completely non  religious environment. One leads to a pre-married pregnancy and  shot-gun wedding with the boss's daughter, the other, with an unhappily married woman, to her too timely death. Granted, by our or almost any standards the immorality of the two liaisons, there is nothing in the way the story is told to make one believe that this is  an attractive or acceptable way to live. The hopelessness of such a  situation is really effectively conveyed by the sensitive acting of  Simone Signoret; and if the great settler of knotty problems, death, is used a bit too glibly, still on the other hand he has always been  a legitimate means of emphasis of any vital point. 

But the sexual emotions are not the only or perhaps the most  important ones touched here. The exacerbated resentment of the  clever, ambitious, young man from the provinces and working-class, in the face of his social "superiors" is well set out. Suave manners, name dropping, initiated behaviour are all used as weapons to  humiliate and exclude him.The resultant emotions are well worth dramatic exploitation, for they are among the most explosive in the world.

 To return for a brief moment to the question of banning and  morality; the reason why this film does not seem to me likely to have  bad effects is principally because the women are never here treated in an impersonal, and so most deeply degrading way. The relationships are intensely, painfully personal. In so many other films which  seem to have no trouble gaining entrance, human flesh is paraded for  the amusement or provocation of anonymous Man. These arrogant, beedy-eyed inspectors look the girls up and down with cool appraisal,  intended to glorify an attitude of disenchanted experience coupled  with unflagging lust. This is immoral, and almost as unpleasant as  the slavish praise meted out by mis-named liberals, to any production  that is smutty, blasphemous and debunking.


The Insecure Offenders: Rebellious Youth in the Welfare State (1961 book)

Review of book ( by T. R. Fyvel ) in Studies Quarterly Review, Winter 1962 
THE first of these books might take its place in the worthy company of The Uses of Literacy, The Hidden Persuaders and The Affluent Society. It is, with them, a study of the vital under-currents of modern society; here there is particular stress on the influences which are producing delinquents in such alarming numbers. Statistics are used; but the book is a study of people not numbers. It deals principally with Britain, but has interesting sections also on the problem in U.S.S.R., U.S.A. and Europe. The statistical size of the problem may be indicated by the figures for Britain: in 1938 indictible offences in the 17-21 age group were 10,131, in 1959 they were 30,086; violence against the person rose from 163 to 2,366. Similar trends have appeared almost everywhere. 

An examination of the social soil encouraging such luxuriant growth shows it to be one where the moral law is openly derided, its very notion being denied validity even in learned circles; where the idea of there being a transcendental purpose in human life is presumed away; where the working philosophy of life is explicitly materialist and hedonist. In such a society commercial interests rule, almost absolutely. These interests are in themselves amoral and ruthless; their one purpose-production, of any thing. Desires are created and satisfied with this end alone in view. Now, the teenage spending power has increased to an enormous extent- unmarried young people spent £900 million in Britain in 1959 - so the commercial pressure is turned on it. The desires created in them are, for the most part, not for the essentials of life;

 'The economy is geared to the least urgent set of human wants' (Galbraith: The Affluent Society); stress is on drinks, smokes, entertainment, decorative clothing, body culture (cosmetics, etc.), betting, cars and scooters, sensational reading. This is the area where advertising and high-pressure salesmanship is concentrated. Desire is not only aroused but made rabid. 'In the U.S. it is already harder than almost anywhere else for those who cannot follow the advice of the advertisers . . . to lead any life which is psychologically secure.' 

It might not surprise a contemplative: it may at first seem rather unexpected to most others, that the result of all this, or at least what goes along with it, is a pervasive boredom. Time may be short and all that but one of the great problems is to put it in, how to kill it! The crime peak is reached in England at 4.0 pm on Sundays.This is one way of relieving boredom. Whether the long hours spent in coffee bars is to be taken as a way of relieving it, or of showing it, is an open question. They may possibly be included under the heading 'Doing Nothing' which was the way 23% of youths, in another survey, described their leisure time activities.

 Little enough interest is taken, and comparatively small sums spent in providing housing, sports facilities, education for the submerged tenth and where their fundamental needs are neglected their energies and resentments break out in violence, restlessness and a search for 'kicks'.

The great advertising media plug sex, sensation, crime and other get rich-quick activities. Is it to be wondered at that this 'arouses morbid and synthetic emotions' amounting at times to hysteria. Two popular Sunday papers were condemned by the British Press Council 'as grossly lewd and salacious . . . debased to a level which is a disgrace to British journalism'. They have of course a loud enough voice to set up a heart-rending cry of 'Inquisition' or 'Puritanism' or prudery if there is any attempt to censor them. Some one apparently calculated that United States television showed 6.2 acts of violence per hour; while their 'comic' literature was described by a Senate sub-committee as 'Short courses in murder, mayhem, robbery, rape, cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex, sadism, masochism, and of all crimes, bestiality and horror'. Well, a lot of this may well leave the normal child unaffected, but it can certainly topple the unstable. ......

This simply tots up to a false, unsettling set of values which makes sheep of the majority but also a nice proportion of wolves to prey upon them. .....

When these mass-produced sheep in wolves' clothing, interspersed with genuine wolves as a by-product, get into the clutches of society's penal system, what happens Some rather peculiar things to start with: one is that many of these apparently untameable beasts have their first experience of an ordered, secure and reasonably healthy life; they thrive on it, and secretly rather regret certain aspects of it when it is over e.g. the companionship, the sense of belonging, the loyalties and solidarity of the group. This is so of the more enlightened juvenile institutions. Lady Wootton is here quoted as saying that 'Penal experiences create a delinquent culture based on these experiences'. This has its disadvantages when they are plunged back into the society which was largely responsible for deforming them and still repudiates them; they begin to hate it. Battle is joined and may be waged through many a raid and 'job' on one side and many a sentence on the other, till a type is developed which can live no other way and is stamped indelibly as criminal.

Sean O'Casey, Prostitution, Anti-Clericalism and the film "Young Cassidy"

(The Furrow, April 1965)
The most interesting show recently, for extrinsic reasons, was Young Cassidy (Adelphi). This is a story based on the life of Sean O'Casey; it scarcely adheres to its base at any point. It is cinema entertainment untrammeled by much reality. Rod Taylor in the lead is unconvincing. He is lusty, burly, blustering, an extrovert, quite unlike what O'Casey was or could have been. Perhaps this is the kind of "boyo" he would like to have been, instead of the scraggy, under-nourished, petulant misfit of genius which he was. There are some exciting, vigorous riots and street fighting to set ......

The encounter with the prostitute, and to a lesser extent with a slum siren, was in poor taste. Here was glamorised immorality at its most obvious and artistically inexcusable. One doesn't need to be as staunchly blind as the good lady who announces as she strides out of the Abbey Theatre: "There is not a prostitute to be found in the length and breadth of Ireland", to object to this scene. (This remark was, by the way, greeted with the derisive jeers it so clearly invited, by the cinema audience.) The prostitutes of Dublin, at least such as a young, impecunious literary agitator could afford, in the city of Buck Mulligan, Bloom and Young Cassidy, were unfortunates whose moral squalor and misery would have been well matched by external grime and stench. Here you have a beautiful, happy girl (Julie Christie) well bathed and laundered, looking as if she had come straight from the caresses of a Mediterranean sun. This is insincere, bogus, false; untrue to life and trebly untrue of Dublin slum life in 1913. 

This, coupled with the speech by Yeats implying that the most contemptible thing that could be said of a man would be to call him "a God-fearing young Irishman" all this lacks integrity. A further false impression is created when Cassidy leaves Ireland with the pompous encouragement of Yeats booming in his ears, whereas O'Casey left with fury in his heart at Yeats's refusal of the Silver Tassie

But when all is said and done it's not to be taken too seriously; the scenery is beautiful; all the women act well. Nora (Maggie Smith) is easy to watch, though indeed the love scenes are oppressively "filmy" with conventional posturings and manoeuvring for position on the canal bank, from amorous clich to clinch. This is a film of parts; the good parts do not redeem the bad but neither do the bad corrupt the whole. There is no whole. 


Sean O'Casey, Matt Talbot and Marxism

Extract from review of two books on Matt Talbot in The Irish Monthly, July 1949
Another book that makes passing mention of Matt Talbot is the autobiography of the emigre Dubliner, Sean O'Casey. He sneers. It seems rather strange that an artist, one of the sensitive high-priests of the true and beautiful, should fail to admire beauty flowering even by a cess-pool; it is somewhat disgusting to find him going out of his way to spit upon it. Is it because Matt Talbot purified himself completely of a ravening vice, cauterising it ruthlessly out of his soul, that he is " Mutt Talbot "? Is it ever contemptible for a man to free his spirit from almost all the claims of mortal flesh in order to seek Truth and Beauty with unshrinking sacrifice, with undiminishing fidelity? Is he a fit object for ridicule because he gave from his scant possessions to a good cause more than he could spare? Perhaps the Marxist in Mr. O'Casey got the better of the artist. 

 Your Marxist is a determinist. These omniscient planners of a perfect world, these humourless betterers of the human race, think they can plan men, infallibly. How then can they admit that something far better than the best they have planned has grown up strong and tall and fair out of conditions that should breed inevitably depravity, meanness and ugliness? It would never do for a doctrinaire Marxist to admit that the highest form of human activity could grow out of the soil Matt Talbot was rooted in. Above all he could not admit to be a hero an addict of the "opium of the people ". Now if Matt had only remained a drunkard he might have served his purpose as an obscure but useful little figure in their statistics : the hundred and first case of crime inevitably due to liquor, or the fifth, perhaps, of suicide due inevitably to hopeless poverty, or of lunacy predetermined by victorious environment. But he evaded their clutches. He had a will of his own, that forbidden article of private property; he had a strong, free will, and by God's grace he used it. That is the rub; that is the accursed scandal for the Marxist. "The weak things of this world has God chosen to confound the strong." Matt Talbot confounds the Materialists: "Confound him!"

 Is there just a little danger that he might be a stumbling-block to "progressive" Catholics? They might ask: Is he a fit ideal for the social movements in the Church, with their present stress on self-development, education, good housekeeping and in general the raising of the workers' standard of living? Not that you expect a man to be ahead of his time - you don't blame St. Louis for accepting the feudal system - but you do not want him to be notably behind or to seem even opposed to the progressive movements of his time. And Matt Talbot? What did he care about the standard of living? A cup of cold tea and cocoa mixed, and a few bits of bread kept body and soul as close together as served his purpose; there was not much use in dressing too respectably if he was going to slit his trousers at the knees, in order to kneel on the bare ground : a hard bed, too, served better for praying on that a soft mattress. Then what about the Social and National revolution that took place in his time? What was his record; " Where was he in 1916?" Probably kneeling on his plank bed, praying.

 But, as the bus-conductors say : " Hold tight a moment, please." Are we to get so obsessed with procuring good things that we can no longer admire better? There is no need to get huffy because a quiet, independent, courageous little man walks out absent-mindedly far beyond our furthest goal, brushing aside somewhat gruffly the proffered hands of the uplifters, and ignoring all their most cherished maxims. " Matt went on his way, and maybe it was a good way, too." He was not against social improvements, he just got where he was going without them. He might have spent his life, and spent it well, in fighting for improved labour conditions and national freedom, with Pearse and Connolly; he might have joined Big Jim Larkin in his fight against drunkenness among the dockers; but, forced to a judgment, would you not say that he spent it better in fighting the long, glorious, lonesome battle for better spiritual conditions in his own and other souls, all-absorbed in the movements stirred by the incalculable action of the Holy Spirit? He went " a more excellent way ". 


"Of Human Bondage", Somerset Maughan and Meaninglessness

(The Furrow, May 1965)
Of Human Bondage (Adelphi) has the particular interest to us of  having been made at Ardmore. It is well made, and well cut, only  once did I feel a jolt as regards sequence of events. But it is not a  very good story. The character of Philip (Lawrence Harvey) is sympatica. He is club-footed, sensitive, insecure and sentimental.  Admit it or not, many will easily identify with Philip ; Philip mooning romantically over a saucy little waitress, longing for her physically, and longing to be her saviour as she sinks from sauciness into the  soup. It is touching in parts, due to Harvey's sincere, anxious,  portrayal of a man cornered by his own disguised greediness into  altruistic concern for the girl. He speaks clearly, which adds  immensely to the enjoyment of viewing him; Kim Novak doesn't,  and it irritates. 

The story evokes only a minor pity, where there  could have been tragic sorrow. The great issues are not raised. When  the now wasted prostitute asks for a fine funeral as her dying request, one feels that the author is showing not merely how pitifully  mean her values always were, but that he himself believes that there was nothing else at all that Philip or anyone could have done for  her at that time but promise to fulfill her paltry wish. Religion is  thrown in with vague gestures over the remains, the words of prayer  sounding as meaningless as the trimmings on the hearse, the whole  performance something tacked on to life or something that happens  at a distance from reality. This was suggested to me by the great  space between the watching Philip and the burial. 

I wonder am I  wrong in thinking that it was Maugham as much as Philip who  could not think of anything to say that might conceivably console  or give hope to a degraded, desperate, dying girl. One wasn't left  in sorrow that the girl was beggared of all values and failed to  reach the only hand that could have saved her; there never was the  slightest suggestion that such a hand existed. Deep things are treated  shallowly and tragedy reduced to insignificance.