It is very near the end of Earthly Powers that the narrator, Kenneth Marchal Toomey, now eighty-one years old, sits in a theater in Rome watching an old film version of three of his short stories. The audience is composed mostly of young people who neither understand nor appreciate what they are watching. One of those stories, the last, involves the perpetration of meaningless violence by thugs who know full well the value of the priceless artifacts and manuscripts they are destroying.
Toomey leaves the theater only to be beaten up in an alley by four boys. True, they have a purpose in assaulting him, which is to steal his watch and money, but of far greater importance is the gratuitous viciousness of their attack. It is a sick and demented malignancy, as motiveless in its extremism as anything Iago could contrive.
Together, the two scenes are a commentary on the book’s major theme. One scene occurs inside the theater, the other outside; one is imaginary, the other is gruesomely real; one is the product of Toomey’s youth, the other is an event that befalls him in his advanced years. Thus the novel seems to say that in whatever country Toomey finds himself, whether England or Italy, whatever his artistic status, whether as a young, struggling author or an elderly commercial success, no matter what his circumstances, he cannot escape the inherent viciousness of man, that inexplicable compulsion to cause hurt even where there is nothing to be gained. And, of course, the novel implies, neither can the reader.
The idea will be a familiar one to those Anthony Burgess readers who know A Clockwork Orange (1962). Alex and his droogies are evil in a way that seems to defy explanation. Similarly, the four Italian youths who set upon Toomey have no reason to beat him mercilessly, yet beat him they do. The question Burgess thereby propounds is critical in Earthly Powers: what is the source of this evil in man? Other related questions also emerge. Why is this evil tolerated by a Christian God? What is its relationship to good, and is man by nature a principle of good or evil? If the purpose of creating both good and evil is to permit man a free choice, else he would not be capable of loving God, how does one explain the “evil” of, say, homosexuality, a condition which a person does not “will” upon himself?
The principal characters of the novel are Toomey, a homosexual novelist of mediocre talent, and his brother-in-law, Don Carlo Campanati, a Catholic priest who later becomes Pope Gregory XVII. Narrated in retrospect by Toomey, the novel follows a chronological sequence beginning in the early years of World War I and ending about 1971. It records the major events of Toomey’s life as well as his occasional meetings with Carlo and other members of the Campanati family.
Toomey and Carlo, then, are basically Burgess’ spokesmen—the former a moral voice which is puzzled by the fact of God’s making him as he is and the latter a voice for the Church both as it is and as it should be. Toomey, born a Catholic, falls away from the Church at an early age, largely because he recognizes that his homosexuality has been inflicted upon him by God. Commanded to be sexually pure by the Church, yet cognizant that he cannot be other than he is, Toomey simply rejects the faith. His argument is a forthright one: the God of my glands has made me a homosexual but the God of my Church forbids me to be thus. Unable to find either peace or common sense in this paradox, Toomey pushes away his Catholicism.
Carlo, on the other hand, articulates the ethic of free will. Man is not born in original sin if, by that expression, one means a predisposition to sin. Rather, man is good because God is good. Any evil that man chooses is the result of his willful election, not of some state, such as Toomey’s homosexuality, that has been visited upon him. Thus, where Toomey places the responsibility for his sin upon the God who made him so, Carlo refuses to acknowledge that sin is anything other than man electing the evil which originates in Satan.
Toomey and Carlo plainly constitute a dialectic; and homosexuality is merely an exemplum of life’s numerous moral dilemmas. In the end, neither the neat dismissal of Catholicism by Toomey nor the conventional platitudes of Carlo are wholly satisfying....
(The entire section is 1789 words.)