Confronting the Burden of Freedom in the Face of Systematic Religion
An Exegesis of “The Saint” by V.S. Pritchett
“My thought is me: that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think… and I can’t stop myself from thinking. At this very moment – it’s frightful – if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre
“How extraordinary it is that one feels most guilt about the sins one is unable to commit.”
“Il n’y a de réalité que dans l’action.”
The great burden and blessing of life is the innate freedom belonging to humanity. We are free to live, free to die, free to walk to the grocery store or drive there. Our very identity is comprised of choices that have been dictated by our own actions or inactions. Perhaps the question is not whether or not we have choices but rather, which one is the better of the two, or the three, or the myriad of other possibilities. The facticities of life may illucidize us into believing we are limited in opportunity– that the only choice is to take that test, to continue living, to wallow in poverty– yet what this truly points to is the reluctance of individuals to accept the responsibilities, burdens, and uncertainties of the other options we are too afraid to unbury. In V.S. Pritchett’s “The Saint,” the burden of freedom surfaces from the depths of systematic religion– that which confines its congregation to routine behaviors that restrict individual consciousness and displaces responsibility.
In the Church of the Last Purification, the image of God is unsullied by imperfection and is revered. Mr. Timberlake and his congregation all seek an entity who will cast his final judgement on the world, determine the outcome of their individual lives, and thereby, remove the responsibility of action. To be a part of the Purification is to become a passive participant of one’s own life. It is to immobilize the fearful limbs of uncertainty. When the narrator describes Mr. Timberlake after he unmasks the pretense of the Purification, he claims, “By no word did he acknowledge the disasters or the beauties of the world,” (Pritchett 620); he was a man unable and unwilling to grasp onto reality long enough to participate in the world around him. The characters in the text illustrate this passivity through their dependence on God to provide the necessities of life. The uncle is described as a man “always in difficulties about money […] convinced that in some way God would help him” (612). The congregation lays in constant wait for the way to be “shown” to them rather than actively pursuing their opportunities (615). In Being and Nothingness, Sartre writes:
I am abandoned in the world, not in the sense that I might remains abandoned and passive in a hostile universe like a board floating on the water but rather in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility in an instant. For I am responsible for my very desire of fleeing responsibilities. To make myself passive in the world, to refuse to act upon things and upon Others is still to choose myself, and suicide is one mode among others of being-in-the-world. (710)
What the characters in the story are doing is allowing their abandonment to take root and control their lives. The facticity of their worlds remains unmastered and prevails through the weak will to substantiate their existence.
The Purification, moreover, is under the misconception that attaining a transcendent state of being will fill the lack, the nothingness, that all humans come from. Yet, this pursuit is a vain endeavor. Humans are incapable of perceiving perfection– a state which, by its very definition and the facts of their very existence, is unattainable. Sartre writes, “Human reality arises as such in the presence of its own totality or self as a lack of that totality. And this totality can not be given by nature, since it combines in itself the incompatible characteristics of the in-itself and the for-itself” (140). Thus, because they cannot perceive or experience perfection, they can never truly attain it. Because humanity possess consciousness, they can never truly become a being-in-itself. They are confined to the for-itself. To immortalize God (a being-in-itself) as they are (a being-for-itself) is to immobilized the progression of humanity– to deny the ability to surpass even the standards by which perfection was first casted.
To expand, in the narrative, Mr. Timberlake serves as a god amongst men and women. He is idealized and glorified. His presence in the narrator’s home is described as an honor. The narrator recalls, “It was unbelievable that a man so eminent would actually sit in our dining-room, use our knives and forks, and eat our food. Every imperfection in our home and our characters would jump out at him” (Pritchett 613). The flaws of their daily living, mundane aspects of their home that another would hardly notice, are starkly contrasted in the presence of this ideal being. His every word is law. Again, the narrator continues, “Whatever Mr. Timberlake believed must be true and as I listened to him at lunch, I thought there could be no finer life than this” (Pritchett 614). Yet, what we will come to find is that Mr. Timberlake is merely a human hiding beneath the pretense of perfection. He is a man who has abandoned the onus of his existence. He was a man “formally acknowledging a world he did not live in. It was too interesting, too eventful a world. His spirit, inert and preoccupied, was elsewhere in an eventless and immaterial habitation” (Pritchett 619). Mr. Timberlake looks at the physical world with “boredom,”(Pritchett 619) not actualizing his physical presence. He is disrobed of the illusion when he falls into the river. The narrator describes the moment: “It was a fatal flaw in a statue, an earthquake crack that made the monumental mortal… he was a declining dogma” (Pritchett 617-18).
In the text, the Purification and the existence of a God functions more as an illusion of security than an genuine pursuit for self-fulfillment. Yet, The inability to recognize the deficiencies of life, puts the members of the church in danger. Pritchett writes:
We regarded it as ‘Error’– our name for Evil– to believe the evidence of our senses, and if we had influenza or consumption, or had lost our money or were unemployed, we denied the reality of these things, saying that since God could not have made them they therefore did not exist. (612)
When Mr. Timberlake accompanies the young narrator punting down the river, a branch bares itself in the way. Governed by rules that deny the existence of a hazardous situation, Mr. Timberlake denies that there is a branch and as a result he falls in the river. Despite reality, in the eyes of the Purification, he did not fall and the branch was not present. In accordance with his faith, he continues on the day acting as if he is not drenched and the event did not happen; God would not bring into being an object that would hurt his creations. Sartre argues, however, that, “[humanity] is responsible for the world and for [themselves] as a way of being… since [humanity] is the one by whom it happens that there is a world; since [humanity] is also the one who makes [themselves] be” (707). The belief of the Purification displaces the responsibility of action to that of a being with no physical existence– who lacks any grounding in reality. Moreover, renouncing the onus of existence is still an act in itself. Sartre continues, “I am ashamed of being born or I am astonished at it or I rejoice over it, or in attempting to get rid of my life I affirm that I live and I assumed this life as bad” (710). There is only the world which we live in and there are only the choices we make. The trees, the air we breathe, the solid ground beneath our feet are tangible proofs of existence. To place blame on anyone other than himself for his own actions, Mr. Timberlake–– and in a larger sense, the Purification–– refuses to accept the burden of responsibility that freedom entails. They seek purification to provide the comfort of a predetermined existence. The narrator comes to realize this for himself when he is disillusioned of Mr. Timberlake’s ideality. He states:
I saw the shoes dip, the water rise above his ankles and up his socks. He tried to move his grip now to a yet higher branch– he did not succeed– and in making this effort his coat and waistcoat rise and parted from his trousers[…] It was at this moment I realized that the final revelation about man and society on earth had come to nobody and that Mr. Timberlake knew nothing at all about the origin of evil. (618)
The narrator realizes that this man, whom all members of the church have glorified, is no better than the rest. Yet, perhaps Mr. Timberlake had been aware of his lack all along when the narrator recalls, “[Mr. Timberlake] had come out with me, I saw, to show me that he was only human,” (620) which illustrates the active choice in remaining ignorant.
Another confining aspect of the Purification that Pritchett brings forth is the threat of a blanketed ideology that denies individual consciousness. An unspoken rule to establish membership in the church is that one’s own thoughts are poisonous to the goal– to the pursuit of transcendence. What follows are guidelines set to deny the negative outcomes that inevitably enter the lives of each character. Once again, when the narrator warns Mr. Timberlake of the branch obstructing his path, the faithful man proclaims that the branch is barely a challenge. The narrator then thinks to himself, “I did not want to offend one of the leaders of our church, so I put the paddle down; but I felt I ought to have taken him further along away from the irritation of the trees” (Pritchett 616). In an earlier passage the narrator is discouraged from exploring his thoughts when his uncle remarks, “This is my nephew. He thinks he thinks, but I tell him he only thinks he does” (Pritchett 614). This mentality discourages individual existence and reduces it to a whole, unified being. The foundation of this perceived unity, however, is laid with fear of repercussions from all members of the Purification. Sartre writes of subjectivity and individual experiences that “for [him], this glass is to the left of the decanter and a little behind it; for Pierre, it is to the right and a little in front. It is not even conceivable that a consciousness survey the world in such a way that the glass should be simultaneously given to it at the right and at the left of the decanter, in front of and behind it” (405). Thus, individual experiences are the only truth there is. A life cannot be dictated by a universal ethic, by which there is none.
Despite recognizing the restrictive nature of religion, one is left to wonder why it still prevails to this day. Churches are filled to the brim every Sunday. Theology is a pertinent subject in many private educations. Priests stand around pews preaching homilies from morning, afternoon, and twilight. Religion is, to many, a necessary part of being. While the primary argument of “The Saint” demonizes the Purification, the system of religion as a whole should not be demonized. For followers of Jesus, Allah, Yahweh, and the countless other gods, a sense of belonging overshadows individuation. The hope for an hereafter designed as paradise or the fear of the afterlife consumed in fires, albeit intangible and unprovable in our reality, can greatly drive one’s actions. Sartre writes: “My abandonment–i.e. My facticity– consists simply in the fact that I am condemned to be wholly responsible for myself (711). Hence, should our endeavors never reach fulfillment or our lives turn dark with dismay, we must assume the burden of the outcomes. This proves a paralyzing concept and some may find comfort in an assigned or predictable routine. What many view as “freedom” or “lack of freedom” is a neutral concept awaiting to be assigned a negative or positive character created by a subjective experience.
In a more positive light, while done to the extreme may prove unhealthy, perhaps denying the negative events that occur can alleviate the stresses of life and provide a sense of comfort. After his incident in the river, Mr. Timberlake tells the narrator, “Let’s go on. We‘re not going to let a little thing like this spoil a beautiful afternoon” (Pritchett 618). As the story progresses, the narrator recounts, “Heart disease, it was plain, was the cause of the death of Mr. Timberlake… It was a miracle, the doctor said, that he had lived as long. Any time during the last twenty years the smallest shock might have killed him” (Pritchett 620). It is at this point of the story where the narrator comes to realize that the Purification and its teachings saved Mr. Timberlake from an untimely end. This only affirms the notion that religion serves multiple purposes. While for the narrator it disillusoned him into discovering his own consciousness and reclaiming his freedom, for Mr. Timberlake, his faith, while a pretense, prevented a heart attack; he had “made for himself a protective, sedentary blandness, an automatic smile, a collection of phrases,” which provided him the comfort and security many seek for in religion.
Thus, to truly understand our purpose in this world, we must first recognize it as the only world. We can only fully understand our reality through our own experiences. Following this, we must reclaim our responsibility and move from a passive existence to an active one, in which our pursuits are predominantly governed by physical, forward motion and effort. What then becomes of our actions after this revelation? We may realize these truths, but to what end? The answer is that we must cast off the illusion, understand our responsibility and then decide if we should continue on our existence as individuals in a collectivist society or if we should partake in the ideals of our congregation and alleviate some burden of responsibility. Regardless of the outcomes that follow thereafter, we must always remember that we are never as alive, never as able, and never as responsible as when we become fully cognizant of a moment in which the progression of our lives depend on our action or inaction.
 There is no reality except in action.
 For the purposes of my paper, I took the liberty of creating my own word. To illucidize is to incite illusion or cause it to be.
 V.S. Pritchett. “The Saint.” The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories, edited by Daniel Halpern, Penguin, 1986, 612-21.
 Jean-Paul Sartre. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Washington Square, 1993, 405+.