Monday, March 13, 2006

urban fervor: the flutter of an eyelid

Part Four of the Urban Fervor series:

Richard Hallas's novel
You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up and the marketing strategies of The Ecanaanomic Party owe much of their imagery to Aimee Semple McPherson’s development of the Foursquare Gospel. Knight’s portrait of the kind of civic power a woman-run organization could achieve in Los Angeles is accurate and historically-based. Myron Brinig’s 1933 novel The Flutter of an Eyelid, on the other hand, paints an unreservedly acerbic picture of the evangelist in the form of Sister Angela Flower.

The Flutter of an Eyelid is a thoroughly bizarre tale of an uptight New England writer named Caslon Roanoke who has come to California to “write a novel different from any he had written before, peopled by characters who were motes in the sun, driven this way and that by vagrant breezes from the Pacific, without the austerity and discipline that had marked his books up to this time” (4). The Flutter of an Eyelid is both his story and his creation. As Caslon composes his novel, he discovers that the characters he has met who people his narrative begin to be controlled by the words Caslon himself writes. The line between Caslon the observer and Caslon the author blurs to the point of indistinction.

Caslon’s impression of southern California before he came was “as a huge, cement motion-picture factory surrounded by tabernacles given over to the practice of strange cults and womanish religions” (4). The writer initially encounters Sister Angela Flower at a garden party at which all of the major players first appear. Fellow partygoer Dwight Preston is shocked to discover Caslon has never heard of the Ten Million Dollar Heavenly Temple where Sister Angela preaches the Golden Rule Gospel. (In fact, Carey McWilliams puts the cost of McPherson’s Angelus Temple at $1.5 million.) Caslon is told that the evangelist “was constantly in the biggest, blackest headlines….It was said that she had healed hundreds of the sick and maimed, simply by placing her hand upon them” (17). Sister Angela’s arrival at the party is heralded by many blessings and the shock of her bright pink attire. Just as James L. Cain described McPherson’s “twang,” Caslon recoils from Angela’s voice “that could be described as nothing less than hideous….He could not remember ever having seen such a monstrously blatant woman, her obviousness not only a matter of appearance, but also of mood and gesture” (29-30). Caslon’s love interest, Sylvia Prowse, has a horror of the evangelist and describes her in unflattering terms, also evoking the common characteristics of the parishioners Louis Adamic described as “The Folks”:

She lives, breathes, and shouts sex, without ever quite knowing it. Aside from that aspect of her, she’s an extremely shrewd show-woman, a kind of Sarah Bernhardt of aggressive evangelism. She’s made lots of money out of her Heavenly Temple. People just flock there, and in order to get a seat, you’ve got to wait in line for hours. Her greatest appeal is to the Middle-Westerners who are drifting about in the futile paradoxes of California; sex-starved, rheumatic Iowans, Nebraskans, Kansans. The very sound of her whinnying voice is a psychological orgasm to those people (31-32).

We learn that Angela Flower’s character is suspect, but this is nothing compared to the antics in which she engages for the remainder of the novel. As Caslon seeks to explore “the mystic, the elusive, the profound, the inaccessible,” he joins the garden party crew of “comical characters embalmed in the curious, fantastic fluids of their own personalities” aboard the boat of Chinese tea merchant Yang Kuo-Chung (36, 56). Sister Angela remarks that Jesus is present in sex and her Scotch before beginning a conversation with the tea merchant about how her savior would have been so much more at home among the Chinese because He is “too meek and mild for the Western races” who try to make him into a militant figure (62). After Angela is described as “one of the ugliest women in America” who “for some obscure reason…gave an impression of tremendous physical brilliance,” her attention is absorbed by a seaman scrubbing the deck who she claims to believe is Jesus Christ himself (73). In fact, the man is named Milton, and he unquestioningly assumes the mantle of redeemer:

Milton, the ordinary seaman, had always believed, vaguely, that he was the Supreme Being, and under the fascinating magnetism of Angela’s personality, the wavering idea had become certain and fixed within a few minutes of time….
“No one would believe me when I told them I was Jesus. But I am Jesus, ain’t I? You just said I was….”
“Hallelujah!” repeated Milton. “But before we go, Ma’am, mightn’t I have just another small spot of rum? Not that I need it. I got plenty of confidence. I learned confidence from a correspondence school….” (75-6).

Sister Angela is astir with the publicity possibilities of having found her Lord, and she immediately begins Milton’s makeover into the proper savior. We next see her cavorting naked on the beach while Milton has been left at home to memorize the New Testament. The Lord’s appearance at the Temple causes great consternation among the congregants. Brinig paints the parishioners as sexually promiscuous, uncivilized rabble:

[W]omen gave themselves to men they had never seen before, in a terrible ecstasy of belief, and certain other men and women, carried away by the extraordinary news that Jesus was back at last, butted one another like goats. Still others leapt from their seats in the balcony, catching hold of the chandelier and pillars, and swung back and forth like monkeys (129).

Jesus’ return is said to forecast an economic upturn, and even East Coast writers flock to the scene. Some of the visiting journalists take a familiar disparaging attitude, one even going so far as to spit on Milton, who turns the saliva into a flower. When initial interest in the seaman wanes – “they could not even accept a Savior without the embellishments of the freakish” – Sister Angela comes up with an idea (135). Brinig takes Aimee Semple McPherson’s assumed drowning, before her alleged kidnapping was discovered, as a plot device for the premature demise of Milton. If Jesus walked on water, surely Milton can, especially considering his previous work aboard the tea merchant’s boat. At first, he is successful, traversing the ocean before the large crowd gathered on the beach, but he is done in by a very unholy instinct. When he catches sight of the lovely Sylvia swimming naked in the sea, he sinks beneath the waves, never to be seen again. Just as many would-be rescuers lost their lives in the search for Sister Aimee, hundreds are crushed and drowned in the stampede to save Milton.

Brinig’s appropriation of McPherson’s public persona and media headlines is a caustic revision of the preacher’s life story. However, the majority of the other characters in The Flutter of an Eyelid are also subjected to derisive treatment in this tale of abusive relationships, fatal poisoning, sadomasochistic pleasures, and unrequited love. Caslon is eventually freed from the lure of the West Coast, just in time to escape certain death as the entire state of California is torn asunder and, like Milton, sinks to the bottom of the sea. Sister Angela is last seen as she is swallowed by a whale that proceeds to spit her back out, as she dreams of the money that would fill the Temple once she told her congregants that she had seen Jonah.

Urban Fervor: The Quacks & Charlatans School
Urban Fervor: The Hollywood Novel
Urban Fervor: Ape & Essence

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