Over the last three decades, Anne Rice’s artistry has given birth to an array of phenomenally successful novels (over 75 million sold). This icon of Goth culture describes her fictional world as a “savage garden” lush in delectable horrors, erotic artistry and earthly mysticism. Her “savage garden” has mothered a dynasty of seductive vampires, incestuous covens of witches and gothic fantasies of sadomasochistic self-giving. Rice hasn’t repudiated or retracted her earlier work, but gently places it to one side as she now “consecrates” her writing to the supernatural presence that has broken into her dark world. Called Out of Darkness is a confession of her personal surrender to God.
The first half of the book is an extended meditation on Rice’s childhood in the high-spirited and richly symbolic world of New Orleans Catholicism during the 1940s and ’50s. She describes a world that now seems as remote as the ancient worlds of Egypt or Rome that Rice so loves. The story of these early years reveals the peculiar roots of Rice’s intense experience of reality. It is a world in which spirituality is deeply enmeshed in the physical. Church, symbols and sacraments are seamlessly connected to the immense pulsating movement of life. This intermingling of the religious and the aesthetic allows Rice to experience the world as “entirely iconic,” “so incredibly beautiful that it hurt.” A baroque sense of the deep interconnectedness of reality has shaped all her fiction, both sacred and profane.
Her confession explores her 38 years in the wilderness of atheism. During those years, Rice’s dark fiction plunged into the “Titanic glooms of chasmed fears” and dared to be a morally unrelenting “magnet for the damned.” But Rice now sees that the deformed face of Christ “was breaking forth out of the shadows of every matrix of ideas or images that I examined.” Her gothic madness, her defiant eroticism, her sacrilegious artistry, was “Christ haunted.” This ghostly presence was pursuing her through “every plot, every character, every action, every syllable, and every jot of ink.” On Dec. 6, 1998, Anne Rice finally turns upon her pursuer and abandons herself to this “deeply felt” attraction, this unknown presence, with the same determined and reckless surrender that marks so much of her life and her fiction.
There is a strange dialectic between the two major moments in this confession—the writer’s childhood faith and her conversion. Despite the book’s focus on the deeply religious texture of her childhood experiences, Rice confesses that she was “a failure as a child.” From her earliest age, she utterly detested the weakness, the powerlessness and the vulnerability that constituted the “the purgatory of childhood.” Not surprisingly, children rarely make an appearance in Rice’s fiction; when they do, they are mere masks for a defiant adult spirit. Curiously, Rice’s conversion is an encounter with childhood. She finds herself irresistibly drawn to the vulnerability, fragility and dependence of the child Jesus. This “powerful inversion of God,” God become child, enthralls her. For Rice, the redemptive outreaching of God dwells in two moments of utter vulnerability: God surrendering into the arms of humanity as a child and God surrendering to humanity as the crucified one.
Rice concludes her spiritual memoir by addressing a set of challenging issues that have been at the heart of her fiction and at the center of cultural and religious debates, namely conflicts over gender and sexuality. She notes, “the world-transforming significance of the emancipation of women, and the liberation of gays,” the profound sea changes in the domain of sexuality and the resulting culture wars that these changes have provoked. Rice attempts to ease through these conflicts by making a closing pitch for the need to liberalize and relativize the significance of sexual issues in the name of Christian love.
In sharp contrast, contemporary Catholic teaching has responded to these upheavals by intensifying its emphasis on the sacred significance of sexuality. Pope John Paul II’s work on the “theology of the body” attempts to break through the current impasse by advancing a high vision of sexuality that he discovers hidden deep within sacred Scripture. Some respond with enthusiasm to this new theological vision, others find the elevated sweep of John Paul’s sexual theology far removed from the fears and fantasies of ordinary sexual life. Rice pursues a very different path. She searches for illumination by delving into the dark lusts, the betrayals and the fragile ecstasies that constitute the swirling erotic universe in which we exist. She discloses that had she been aware of the lofty bench mark set by John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” it might have presented a serious obstacle to her journey to the Catholic faith.
The French feminist Luce Irigaray once stated that each epoch has one issue to think through, and only one. The issue of our age, she maintains, revolves around the significance of sexuality and sexual difference for human identity. Conflicts over these issues now penetrate every domain of life: personal, political, familial, religious and artistic. Working through these deep conflicts, Irigaray claims, may be “our salvation.”
It would be difficult to imagine more contrasting approaches to the quandaries of postmodern sexuality than those advanced by John Paul II and Anne Rice. John Paul II mines the ancient sacred sources of the Christian tradition to unearth new wisdom. Anne Rice delves into the shameless dark turbulence of contemporary eroticism to uncover elusive rays of hope and love. Perhaps the way forward involves a precarious dance between these seemingly irreconcilable adventures.
A few months ago I purchased a copy of Rice’s first “consecrated” work of fiction, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. I had no idea who Anne Rice was—a testimony to my ignorance of popular culture. Over the last few months I worked through a considerable slice of her dark fiction. Rice’s most successful works have always been confessional: the confessions of men and women struggling for elusive love, hope and meaning in bleak, but beautiful, worlds devoid of faith. Her consummate vampire, the rebellious Lestat, once described our postmodern plight as fearlessly sailing our little rafts over the surface of deep dark seas “towards a sun which will never rise.” Called Out of Darkness signals that the light of faith has broken into the bleak turbulence of Rice’s vampiric world, and she lives to tell her tale.