One of the criticisms levelled at John Boyne’s novel A History of Loneliness was that Odran Yates, the priest who was the central character of the story, had no “inner life.”
It is some eight years since the novel was published and in that time the comment has never ceased to perturb. What was meant by an “inner life?”
Yates is a figure of humanity and frailty who finally musters the courage to take a stand against the institutional bullying of the Catholic Church. He sees the concealment of abuse and the church’s self-serving ways and realizes that the most he can do is to retain his own personal integrity in the face of ecclesiastical corruption.
If a sense of empathy with those who have suffered and the courage to stand up to episcopal commands are not part of an “inner life” then what is?
Perhaps the critic felt that there was a lack of a sense of transcendence in the thoughts of the priest, but who determines what is a sense of the transcendent? How could a feeling of being in the presence of a transcendent reality be described? Wouldn’t such speculative and subjective reflection have ill-fitted the story? Wouldn’t it have trivialized the very Earthly experiences with which the book deals?
Perhaps my incomprehension comes from being an English rationalist, perhaps at heart I stand in the tradition of Ludwig Wittgenstein and I am a logical positivist, only believing in those things that I can see and touch. Perhaps my concern with empirical evidence, my desire for scientific proof, my insistence on only believing those things that have been peer-reviewed and experimentally-tested means there is a whole sphere of human experience with which I am unfamiliar.
Perhaps the “inner life” only arises from a faith in the hope of things unseen and the lack of an inner life is merely a reflection of a lack of faith.
On the other hand, perhaps reference to the “inner life” is an attempted evasion of the realities of the outer life. It is much more comfortable to suggest a character lacks something that cannot be verified than it is to admit that a corrupt and abusive institution is not fit for purpose.
Pondering what made me recall Odran Yates today, I realized that it was walking through Dublin’s north inner city. On Sean McDermott Street stands the building that was the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the last Magdalene laundry. It only closed on 25th October 1996, just twenty-five years ago.
A church that condoned such treatment of women and children has even less of an inner life than I have.