Max Cosman

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473

To those acquainted with Henry Arthur Jones' Michael and His Lost Angel and Albert Camus' The Fall, Incense to Idols will not be unfamiliar. Like the former, though at greater length, it examines the symbiosis between sinner and saint. Like the latter, but the utterance feminine now, it employs the first-person form of the novel of confession.

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This does not mean, however, that it is a potpourri of predecessors. Inescapably personal in approach, it has a latitude and longitude of its own, and though it is sometimes perfervid, over-symbolic, somewhat Pelagian ("sin achieves a more profound depth in its ugliness than sanctity in its pleasantness"), it is an original creation. (p. 292)

Like Spinster, Miss Ashton-Warner's previous novel, Incense to Idols carries weight on several levels. One surely, considering today's obsession with sex, is that it is never salacious in its many references to free-living. Another, no doubt, is its will to be just to everyone concerned. These are, of course, but introductory virtues. Those of pertinence to the novelist's art must begin with achievement of character. In this respect it is interesting to see how everyone of consequence in the book is individualized. Outstanding strengths and weaknesses are the means. (p. 293)

In [Germaine] it would seem, Miss Ashton-Warner has successfully captured a type characteristic of our period—the woman who is masculine-free yet feminine, seemingly conscienceless yet subject to a sense of sin, agnostic to the point of anti-Christianity yet not unaware of compulsions that lead to saintliness.

On the technical side, Incense to Idols is no less notable. For one, it is a massive interior monologue supple enough to transmit sustained dialogue or comment. It is also compact of such other nuances. A particular favorite is the striking phrase of obiter dictum. One is always being waylaid by expressions like "the fragrance of forgiveness thirty centuries ago" or "the law didn't sentence me but life did."

It is in its reverberations, nevertheless, that Incense to Idols is truly memorable. Whether one thinks of it as a "Le Sacre du Printemps" in which male and female move in pagan ritual, or, going to science for an image, as some system in which the eternal feminine is the light to masculinities in orbit about it, or perhaps in harmony with physical hints given by the author, as some conflict between the earthy and the spiritual, one keeps hearing these known yet freshly struck plangencies: attraction and repulsion are intimately connected; art has morality, morality art; Babylon with its material progress and its atomic fallout does not satisfy our deepest needs; and, how heartening this, Baal may win battles but he does lose the war to God. (pp. 293-94)

Max Cosman, "Toward the Self," in Commonweal (copyright © 1960 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXIII, No. 11, December 9, 1960, pp. 292-94.

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