The world’s great religions understand human fallibility and address it in varying ways through the Torah, the Christ, the Koran or through personal enlightenment either in this world or beyond. In the novel All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren’s character Willie Stark frames our human story in his own crude way: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.”
The word “corruption” can be used both morally as a loss of one’s integrity or physically as the corruption of flesh through disease or death. In Penn Warren’s quote above, the word implies both.
A Stone for Bread is a novel about two men who meet in a chaotic time, the young American poet Henry Beam on a study year in Paris in the mid-1950’s and the fiery right-wing politician Renard Marcotte whom Henry encounters there. Henry first experiences Marcotte in an old Paris warehouse where the man is holding a rally. Talked into attending by his bored American expatriate friends for “the fun of it,” Henry finds something quite different:
Perhaps it was the heat in the room or the resonance of the man’s voice, or that he’d had too much to drink, but as Marcotte warmed to his audience, Henry’s face warmed with it. As the sentences flowed faster from Marcotte’s tongue, Henry’s heart accelerated until an odd sensation flooded his chest: a sensation of oneness—with Marcotte and the others in the room. They believed in something. He loved them for believing in something. He wanted to believe in something too.
Here begins Henry’s “awakening” from the up-from-poverty bookish student to a deepening involvement within Marcotte’s right-wing movement. But there is more here than politics. There’s also the woman Henry spies across the room.
She stood out among these shopkeepers and clerks and their frumpy wives—a lovely girl, barely twenty, he guessed, a blossom among the sweaty stalks of Parisian petit bourgeois. Her wavy auburn hair shone in the smoky light, her face round and rosy, an image from Renoir. Henry, aroused by Marcotte and in love with the crowd and his tingling body, let his passion extend to the girl.
But as Henry will learn, our passions, particularly those born of personal deprivation and inner longing do not always lead where we want them to.