Reflections on Piers’ Desire

A few days before the Montreal launch of Piers’ Desire, a man who thinks and talks fast asked me what it was about.

“Sex and religion,” I blurted out. “It’s set in Avignon.” He seemed interested.

It’s hard to sum up a story with multiple story lines, where location and history are major players, especially by the writer who, in the final drafts, must focus on structure, consistency and the flow of prose. Now that the book exists, I can stand back and say with some certainty that yes, this novel is about a question that was in my mind when I first imagined the story.

Why does western culture declare sex and religion enemies, when in their highest form, these archetypal impulses address a common need: humankind’s yearning for transcendent experience, a taste of the divine?

Classical Greece, with its multiplicity of gods, recognised the potent link between ecstasy, orgasm and enlightenment. Thanks to St. Paul and St. Augustine, Christianity drew a firm line between sex and religion, banning women from leadership positions in the church, requiring priests to be celibate, and generally promoting sex as necessary for procreation, good for nothing else. The divine powers of sex moved over to birth and motherhood, reflected in the deification of Mary, the Madonna, holy mother of Jesus.

With this novel I wanted to blast apart that division with a story where sex has the transformative, redemptive powers normally ascribed to religious experience.

Piers Le Gris’s dilemma is that he just can’t live by Pauline rules. He is instinctively, intellectually, temperamentally a monk, yet he is continually swept up in the world of women. When we meet him, he has fled fatherhood and love, but has been unable to reconnect with the old Order. He lives in limbo, a “solitary rule” shaped by ritual, devotion to work and tiny pleasures. Typically with members of a religious order, his past and real name are unknown to us. The person closest to him, Nelly, has formed a bond based on strict limits and a vivid imagination. Inside the cold stone walls, passion is dormant, emotions simmer.

Nelly and Piers are the main characters. Nelly’s liberation and future happiness is Piers’ greatest accomplishment as a man of the cloth. An inadvertent saint, he has no idea how much good he does (a theme echoed along the crazy midnight journey he makes from an orgy to the novel’s climax). In his presence, Nelly comes alive as a woman. His irrepressible libidinous interest in Magali sends a crackle of sensuality through the dark rooms and halls of 9 rue des Griffons, setting the whole story in motion.

As she works her way through the stack of books beside her chair, she makes a thorough re-examination of sex, from analyzing what it means to women (Anais Nin), to dismissing pretentious pornography (Sade), finally discovering the great Arabic classic of erotic literature, The Perfumed Garden. Like Christianity, Arab culture has largely made a mess of the natural alliance between carnality and spirituality. The Perfumed Garden speaks to a time when it wasn’t so. It also acts as a powerful aphrodisiac – a neat convergence of two cultures examined by the novel.

Magali and Mouloud are the subplot – youth struggling to make their way in a world offering little by way of instruction or enlightenment. Mouloud’s love is an obsession. Magali is desperate for a reason to believe in love. By the end, she has embarked upon a life devoted to truth and history with a vow to keep Mouloud’s poetry safe. Abelard and Heloise, determined to transcend impossible love.

In case readers get caught up in the personal stores and miss the grand theme, a tattered Archangel Gabriel appears at the end, and weeps at what he sees: mere mortals capable of effecting transcendence without him. Secrets stolen, the messenger rendered superfluous.

Everything about Piers’ Desire partakes of the terrific ritual and metaphor of the Judeo-Christianity tradition. I believe it is time for writers and other artists to reclaim the stories, archetypes, icons and truths of our great heritage and make them live again. Give birth to a secular Catholicism.

There is, you see, no battle at all between Eros and Deus. The spirit is within, always has been.

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