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BOOK REVIEW : Writers Pen Sinfully Good Essays : DEADLY SINS by Thomas Pynchon, et al. , Morrow $17, 123 pages

October 31, 1994|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sin is in again. William J. Bennett has written a bestseller about the virtues--the opposites and complements of sins--and politicians have found no hotter button to push than the assertion that "lack of personal responsibility"--i.e., sin--is the cause of all our problems.

This is a strange argument, because it implies that politics--and therefore politicians--don't matter. But it comes in handy. There's no need to search for the social origins of crime if criminals alone are to blame. There's no need to haul aboard the poor clinging to the middle class's foundering lifeboats if it's their own fault. Smack 'em with an oar if they won't let go.

Clearly, then, the New York Times Review of Books was riding a trend last year when it published these essays on the seven mortal sins listed by St. Thomas Aquinas (plus an eighth on the "unforgivable" sin of despair). Rather than preaching, though, the aim was to provoke and entertain, so famous writers--those silver-tongued devils--were asked to give us their personal views on:

Sloth. Thomas Pynchon traces the evolution of this sin from medieval acedia , an offense against God, to its current status as an offense against capitalism. Ben Franklin proclaimed the religion of industriousness in "Poor Richard's Almanac"; Melville created its fallen angel in "Bartleby the Scrivener," which Pynchon calls "the first great epic of modern sloth." He deplores the kind of "political sloth" that let Hitler rise to power, but he holds out hope for couch potatoes: Thanks to VCRs and remote controls, watching TV isn't as passive a pursuit as it used to be.

Anger. It's fun, Mary Gordon says. Anger begins as righteous indignation. It intoxicates. "The angry person knows without doubt that he is alive." But like other intoxicants, it becomes addictive. "The habit of punishment is quickly acquired." From suburban homes to the former Yugoslavia, rage can make us unrecognizable as human beings.

Lust. John Updike (who else?) notes: "Sex is a great disorderer of society--the old ascetics were not wrong about that." He finds some sense in the "outrageous and ridiculous" religious prohibitions that liberals have scorned. But Updike also notes that lust "calls into activity our most elegant faculties, of self-display, social intercourse, and internal idealization." He leaves us--as he leaves the rabbity heroes of his novels--in "the confusion of this fallen world, where sins lie intermixed with the seeds of being."

Gluttony. William Trevor's essay is a short story about a 300-pound London accountant named Pinkerton. It begins with a jolliness that veteran readers of Trevor know won't last. Clients schmooze with Pinkerton for years without realizing that "his appetite lay fatally at the heart of his existence, like a cruel tumor."

Pride. A sense of family honor spurred Gore Vidal's Mississippi great-grandfather to fight "for a cause that he despised," the Confederacy. He fell at Shiloh. Vidal's grandfather, a U.S. senator, opposed the nation's entry into World War I. He lost his seat. Vidal himself "ran counter to the majority's loony superstitions about sex" in his 1948 novel "The City and the Pillar." He celebrates pride as Promethean when it "defies those dominations and powers that enslave us."

Avarice. How could Balzac create characters who are monsters of greed without condemning them? In poet Richard Howard's essay in verse, a pioneer French photographer taking the novelist's picture in the 1840s asks this question. Balzac replies: "I see no sin in loving what we own. . . . The one sin is to believe, indeed behave, as if we own what we love. . . . Every parent can conceive the fun of abusing a child."

Envy. Cain's envy of Abel, A.S. Byatt points out, brought "murder into the world." She summons up the classic personifications of envy--Shakespeare's Iago, Balzac's Cousin Bette, Dickens' Uriah Heep--to show how it differs from the warmer, more human emotion of jealousy. "Envy grows in the deprived and in those who consider themselves deprived," Byatt says; the trouble is that in the beginning they are often right.

Despair. If work is one American religion, optimism is another. Despair, Joyce Carol Oates says, is a kind of heresy--"a state of intense inwardness, thus independence." Expressions of despair, such as some of Emily Dickinson's poems, can be "the voice we trust" when society's cheerleading sounds hollow. "For, if despair's temptations can be resisted, surely we become more human and compassionate."

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