Monday, June 8, 2009

Reading Journal: "Mr. Fortune's Maggot"

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune's Maggot. New York Review Books Classics 2001. Originally published in 1927. $12.95. Also includes the novella The Salutation.

Maggot. 2. A whimsical or perverse fancy; a crotchet.

This is the definition printed at front of Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1927 novel, Mr. Fortune's Maggot. What is Mr. Fortune's "whimsical or perverse fancy," his maggot? Timothy Fortune is a former London bank clerk turned Anglican missionary on the fictional South Sea island of Fanua. He arrives on Fanua with high hopes of converting the islanders to Christianity, but in the end succeeds in attracting only a single convert, a charming and beautiful boy named Lueli. The relationship with Lueli becomes the heart of the novel, as Mr. Fortune becomes increasingly attached to the boy and alienated from his original mission.

Fanua is a kind of edenic alternate reality, simple and bountiful and lush, where Mr. Fortune's theology fails to take root among the profusion of personal gods that the islanders worship. The novel seems, at least at the midpoint, like a fable about loss of faith and the intellectual arrogance of colonialism. But, as the relationship between Mr. Fortune and Lueli develops, it really becomes a meditation on the possibility of unconditional love.

Is it possible to love someone without taking something of himself from him? If God is love, as Christianity tells us, why does theology impose conditions upon God, creating more and more abstract systems of belief that remove us further and further from the simple fact of God's love? The whole missionary project, coming hand in hand with colonialism, is an attempt to take from native peoples what is theirs on the pretext of giving them true religion.

Mr. Fortune's Maggot has been called "a subtle psychological study of repressed homosexual desire in the context of colonialism" [1]. But there can be people in our lives whom we love, to whom we may even feel attracted, but with whom it is impossible for us to have romantic or sexual relationships. Mr. Fortune is a middle-aged man who becomes a friend and mentor to a beautiful and innocent boy. His physical desire for beautiful Lueli is palpable in novel, but he represses that desire into his missionary activities, into his attempts to take possession of Lueli's soul for Christ. As he becomes increasingly conscious of his own motives, Mr. Fortune has to reframe his love for Lueli as unconditional—seeking neither soul nor body; learning to love the uncolonized and unconverted self.

Is unconditional love a "maggot," a whimsical or perverse fancy?

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