Turning to "Babe" to avoid the difficult judgments


I DROPPED into a lunchtime Mass last Wednesday - Ash Wednesday. The first reading was a passage from the Book of Joel which sounded terrific, but which I couldn't really grasp. I looked the text up afterwards and at least got the general picture.

"Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart and with lasting and with weeping and with mourning. And rend your heart and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.

"Who knoweth if he will return and repent and leave a blessing behind him; even a meat offering and a drink offering unto the Lord your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly..."

All that day it was wonderful to see how responsive ordinary Irish life still is to such antique exhortations. There was a queue at the fish counter in Superquinn because of fasting. Staff and customers had dramatic black daubs of ash on their foreheads to remind us all of our last end. How diminished this society would be if the passage of time were not shaped and shaded by the Christian year. Or if it were to become self conscious about its easy familiarity with the most astonishing symbolism.

Ireland will never be quite the same as other First World post Enlightenment countries while about nine out of 10 of its people think nothing of saying, about bread and wine, "This is My body. This is My blood."

But things are not as unchanging as they may seem. Underneath the continuities of preaching and practice, what is happening to the ethical core of religion - to our ideas of right and wrong? Is there still a shared view of what is good and what is bad? Or, behind the theatre of the liturgy, are those concepts becoming unstable? Because ethics is what matters to the non religious as well as the religious people in a shared society. We could not proceed - we could not imagine a just all-island Ireland, for instance - if we did not agree on ideals.

And when we consider crime and its appropriate punishment, we have to start from a working consensus as to what constitutes innocence and what wickedness. But do we have one?

That Wednesday was typical of this time in our national life. There was nothing but badness and sadness in the news. The IRA back again, and even the weather a settled grey, as if winter was never going to end. I felt such a yearning for something happy to turn up. Something joyful and uncomplicated.

I had been saving up going to see Babe since before Christmas. By last week I really needed it. And I loved it. The story of an obliging little pig and the eccentric farmer who comes to appreciate him, and their victory in a sheepdog trial was enough to wipe every worry out of my mind for a couple of hours. And it obviously works for a great many other people too, because Babe has been one of the unlikely huge entertainment successes of recent times.

Has this ever happened in western civilisation before? Of course there have been animal fables, and animal myths and animals who work magic. But has the animal world ever before this century been the locus of innocence and goodness - the place to where a battered human might flee? It seems that an imaginary - animal world has become the last frontier.

Innocence was formerly located in a series of other places, but each was abandoned as it became problematical. Now, the only thing everyone can agree to love is not real, smelly, randy, bunny killing animals but animated animal like anthropomorphs. By Disney out of the Muppets.

It used to be women who were the home of all things sweet and true. The man had to go out into the world and learn its cruelties and ambiguities, but she was shielded. The weary warrior could return to bathe his head in her coolness, and so on. Except if she was needed in a factory or to pack munitions or to staff a brothel, of course - it was just an elite of women who were in a position to be unsullied. But a few were enough to carry the myth of feminine innocence.

(Just as it is only pet animals and domesticated animals that carry the myth in Babe. Wolves, for instance, are still wicked.)

Then children went the way of women. The century opened, you might say, with the news that they are sexual beings. But it was crime that did for children's image. A great many cities are overrun by small people made vicious by want. Or by example.

Children present more and more difficulties for adults, even leaving aside that we know now that children murder other children. You can expect more loyalty from a labrador than a child, if you care to measure other beings by how well they fulfil your needs. Perhaps this is why I do not remember a hit film in which the main characters were human children. ET was not human.

THE idea of the uncomplicated goodness of the noble savage has also been overtaken by better information. This people or that hiding shyly in jungle or desert turn out to suffer as much as the explorer who "finds" them.

Maybe they suffer from a different range of things - from fear, say, rather than cynicism. Maybe what they think is bad seems touchingly harmless to us, and what we think of as bad - cruelty to animals, for instance - seems absurd to them. But we don't laugh and weep for such peoples in the cinema the way we do for Babe.

This is more than just a minor cultural matter. This is, part of a general simplification - soundbite-ification - of the moral world. As real people, we are being called at the moment to make difficult distinctions. We have to trust while mistrusting, to understand but still condemn, to blame but accept. Fill in the names of your choice.

Any simple statement about the Anglo Irish problem is too simple. Yet even those of us who are adult crave simplicities. We want peace to come about as a result of a whole lot of people saying "we want peace".

But that, perhaps, is as inadequate a response to the complexities of the real situation as saying that piglets are lovely but wolves are bad is inadequate as a description of the animal kingdom.

And the young have reason to believe that furry things with squeaky voices are the only denizens of the moral world. If you asked anyone under 15, say, "where would you look for guidance about how to live your life - the film Babe or the Book of Joel?" they would answer Babe. It is a repository of soft options.

The Old Testament is more about the long haul. I love the incapacity of animals to be anything but themselves, myself. This seems to us to be truthful and innocent. And of course, it soothes. But being a truthful or innocent human being is quite a different matter. Involving, even conscious self denial, as in Lent.