Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Visions of Violence: Christianity and Anti-Humanism in Patricia Highsmith's Ripliad

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Visions of Violence: Christianity and Anti-Humanism in Patricia Highsmith's Ripliad

Article excerpt

Abstract: Though it may seem godlessly immoral, the celebration of violence in Patricia Highsmith's Ripliad is rooted in a Calvinistic sense of sin and the vision of human freedom Highsmith discovered in Christian writers. Throughout the five novels composing her Ripliad, Tom Ripley ironically embodies the talents of Christ's primary antagonist--the Father of Lies--as Highsmith's embittered censure against the disappearance of evil as a meaningful psychological category in postwar culture.

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On June 29, 1950, having finished the novel Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith privately recorded her gratitude to God for having completed it: "Glory be to God, I have finished another book today. In God is all my strength and my inspiration. In God and Jesus's name is all my courage and fortitude" (Schenkar 272). The happy piety of the statement is surprising for one whose novels, according to one critic, "generally conclude that life is little more than an absurdity and a cheat." (1) Tom Ripley, her most celebrated creation as well as her favorite character, is a guiltless murderer--infamous for his inhuman lack of empathy, and void of anything like religious affections. Yet Highsmith's religious devotion, ardent as a college student and eventually attenuated in later years, thrived in the late forties and early fifties as she worked on Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. As both her notes and journals attest, these formative years included fervent Bible reading and theological reflection. Were such convictions simply eviscerated from the world she imagines in her fiction?

More than Christian piety, Highsmith's Ripley novels celebrate the drive toward deception and creative destruction hallowed by the midcentury anti-humanism of Tom Ripleys adopted home--France. As crime novels that eschew the generic expectations of convicting proof or the psychology of guilt, they embody the deep suspicion of objective truth and morality that characterize anti-humanist philosophies. (2) A similar suspicion, however, animates Highsmith's conviction that all existence, including Christian belief, is absurd and requires a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. However amoral or godless its imaginary world may be, the Ripliad's vision of violence first took root in formative emotional and intellectual experiences of Christianity. Highsmith first encountered the Calvinistic view of sin and human freedom so dismally rendered in her fiction from the grandmother she idealized and the Christian existentialist writers she read, such as Kierkegaard. (3) These formative experiences stayed with her, though the critical literature has yet to trace their influence. Late twentieth-century American fiction has been characterized by its attention to religious belief and practices in recent work by John McClure and Amy Hungerford, but Highsmith's curious place in these emerging trends has yet to receive critical attention. (4) This is, no doubt, because of the extent to which her famous Ripley novels so thoroughly renounce any conception of transcendence. Yet the philosopher Charles Taylor is right to assert the importance of understanding the cultural alliances between anti-humanism and Christianity in order to fully grapple with the place of religion in contemporary culture. For Taylor, the surprising amalgamation of passionate Christian conviction and anti-humanist nihilism exhibited by a writer like Highsmith suggests an as-yet untheorized affinity between two otherwise opposed cultural systems. (5)

The surprising confluence of Christianity and anti-humanism in Highsmith's work is strongest in her representation of evil. Tom Ripley represents the evil Highsmith believed all too actual but vanishing from the moral imagination of modern secular societies. The growing prominence of social and biological explanations of what the theologians and philosophers called evil--as evinced in the postwar popularity of sociology and psychoanalysis--lacked persuasive power for her. …

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