The Miracle of the Bells, by Russell Janney
Wishing Will Make it So
The Miracle of the Bells.
By Russell Janney.
New York, Prentice-Hall, 1946. 497 pp. $3.00.
John Brunini, director of the Catholic Poetry Society, says, “This is a story of God’s grace, originating in the simple goodness and faith of a young girl, spreading in ever widening circles through the lives of many and uniting individuals of all classes in a new sense of brotherhood.” The publisher considers The Miracle of the Bells to be a novel “of joyousness in life that will sweep the reader into a delightful liberating experience. . .” A Protestant minister of New York—it is a Catholic book—went so far as to compare it with The Robe, calling it “one of the finest examples of practical, real Christianity that I have seen in modern fiction.” One hundred twenty-five thousand copies have been printed. It is now number three on most best-seller lists.
Russell Janney, the author of The Miracle of the Bells, has been a press agent and writer of song lyrics; he was producer and co-author of the very successful operetta, The Vagabond King; he even published stories in Mencken’s Smart Set. His extravaganza is filled with anecdoes about well-known figures, and many boastful references to great names.
It tells the story of Bill Dunnigan, the greatest press agent in America, who brings the body of Olga Treskovna, the purest female and best actress of America, to Coaltown, the worst mining town in the country, for burial. The first part of the book is a flashback to the love story of the press agent and the actress, which was ideal, rather uncomplicated, and completely unconsummated. With her death, there begins an exhibition of power by the press agent: this becomes the real substance of the book.
The mind at work here is trying to convince itself—and succeeding—that for the loved object, death is better than life. Olga, still suffering from tuberculosis contracted while working in a mine, kills herself by overwork in the movies. She wants to finish a picture on schedule—to achieve something rather than to live. Dunnigan is partly responsible—he knew she was sick, and yet he did not urge her to abandon the role in the film which he got for her. Now, because its star has died, the picture is not going to be released; Dunnigan has been fired—he is a jinx. In order to get his job back and the film off the shelves, Dunnigan pulls a stunt. Olga wanted the bells of all the churches rung at her funeral. The press agent decides to keep them going for four days.
From this point on, the story becomes one of booming ecstasy, ending at last with a funeral service attended by thousands, including movie stars, governors, Jack Dempsey, and anyone else the average person might like to have at his funeral; all this is broadcast, photographed for the newsreels, etc., etc. And during the four days that the church bells ring, everything and everybody is changed by Dunnigan from badness to goodness, from failure to success, from hate to love, and so on. The movie producer, a Jew, releases not only the film to the world—assured of the greatest box-office success ever—but also a torrent of money to Dunnigan; a poor priest becomes a national hero—and rich; those who happened to be well off “B.D.”—Before Dunnigan—learn the value of other things than money; the union leader, a bully and an atheist, gets a punch in his face and goodness in his soul from Dunnigan—and so on and so on until the reader is ready to jump under the bed. Dunnigan gets his job back with a raise, and repeated visits from Olga’s ghost. Oh, yes: there is also a miracle.
The plot’s intent is reflected in the actual writing technique. In the first part of the book, as the love story is being told, Dunnigan’s mind continually strays from immediate unpleasant situations to recall sentimentally important experiences of his past. Later, when things are going about as well for him as could be imagined (literally), his only real trouble is that Olga is dead. This difficulty is resolved by frequent chats with her ghost. The flow of the plot is nothing but the activity of setting up and knocking down straw men. Bad people appear so Dunnigan can make them good; problems arise so Dunnigan can solve them.
Because of the relation it constructs between illusion and reality, the book reads more like a movie than a movie looks. Reality is introduced only for the sake of illusion and in order to have something to pervert. (The power of the movies is to make unreality very real: given the naturalness of the actual celluloid images, their order of arrangement can depart from reality at will.) What begins as a banal, unregenerated contrast between “the sordid reality of selfish interests” and “the pure world of spirit”—between Bad and Good, in other words—undergoes a strange development. Selfish interest and goodness are no longer contrasted, they are united. The main vehicle of this unity is success; nor does the author bother to distinguish between religion and success. And the quality of sincerity is completely lost in this unifying process. It becomes irrelevant.
What we observe here is the absolute futility of using the simple terms “good” and “bad” as a means of understanding the world. These concepts can function only within a structure of knowledge that would assure us what “good” and “bad” mean in practice— and it is such a structure that we moderns have lost, perhaps irretrievably. In its absence, the use of these naive terms can only be referred to a context of wishes. The world is simplified out of all relation to reality in order to enable Mr. Janney and Hollywood to approve of it as good.” (Good for whom and for what?) Here art loses sight of everything except the wish. Under the influence of Hollywood, and books like The Miracle of the Bells, culture becomes nothing but the interplay of childish wish with the superficial appearance of reality. Art becomes a means of deceiving and drugging us, so that we begin to live, as adults, either non-emotional or childish lives.
Mr. Janney’s fantastic piece of fiction is significant not only in that it shows the effect of the movies on other cultural media, but also for the relations it suggests between religion and Hollywood. Dunnigan is in part a press agent for religion, wanting to “put it over” the same way he sells movies. He is continually saying that religion and the theater both put on “shows”; he calls God the “Great Producer,”
Hollywood’s resources for producing illusion—movies, movie money, and the persons of its actors and actresses—have been employed in recent years, as we know, by political parties and the government. In The Miracle of the Bells, these same resources are used to popularize religion. If we understand that illusion has always been a primary aspect of religion, as well as of politics; and when we realize that the movie machine is far and away the most effective illusion-producing force in our society—has become, in fact, the great secular religion of our time—then it appears obvious that religion, like politics, must exploit the Hollywood mechanism or else decline further in its power. But this will mean that religion trades increasing ineffectuality for increasing vulgarization.
High-brow culture in America, leaning heavily on Europe, has never succeeded in creating a truly profound and satisfying national image; nor have the various American folk cultures been capable in modem times of rising to a national level. But now, at last, it appears that Hollywood and commercial culture may actually be able to manufacture this unified, national image. The political meaning of all this is enormous and obvious. While folk culture is the masses’ own expression, and while high-brow culture at its best always penetrated the reality of the mass in order to stimulate it, this new commercial culture demands a passive attitude. Democracy comes to mean not that the masses will create their own heaven on earth, but that they will enter one already constructed by their exploiters. Men will not pay homage to the gods in themselves as D. H. Lawrence demanded; they will worship in distorted mirrors the reflections of what they have not been.
The Miracle of the Bells is written in baby-talk superlatives, like an advertising blurb: to sell a fake, insane image of our life. Do the living human beings who create these childish wish-pictures actually believe in them themselves? Or is it possible that this book is nothing but a money-making hoax? For our present purposes, it makes little actual difference one way or another: as has already been pointed out, sincerity is irrelevant to the whole book, internally. But it seems quite likely that the paranoiac delusions of grandeur that constitute the character of the press agent actually do belong to the man who signed his name to the book. A ghost writer is at least a craftsman and would have used more restraint than did the author of The Miracle of the Bells. The trouble is that Mr. Janney ghosted his own book.