Yesterday I watched the new BBC television adaption of J.B. Priestley's play, 'An Inspector Calls' with the admirable David Thewlis as the inspector. (The accompanying image is from the film version with the equally admirable Alastair Sim in the title role).
The inspector arrives at the intimate dinner party of a northern industrialist. The dinner is celebrating his daughter's engagement. The inspector announces that a young woman has committed suicide and as the investigation unfolds we come to see that all five of the dinner's participants have played a role in the woman's unhappy downfall to this ultimate misery. A role, that in each case, reflects badly on each of the individuals who are present. We watch as each person wrestles with their conscience and how that conscience is, in each case, more or less obscured. Ultimately, however, it is held in the objective gaze of an 'external' judgement namely that of the inspector, and all stand convicted in their own eyes, at least for now.
The inspector, however, is not what he seems because, as we discover, the woman has not yet committed suicide and, when questioned on the telephone, the chief constable denies the inspector's existence. This allows some of the party to begin to backtrack on their fragile realisation of moral culpability and for others to recognise it makes no difference. The girl has been sorely maltreated even if she has not been driven to the ultimate act and what matters is our internal recognition of this, not the status of its message bearer or its potential for social scandal.
And there is a twist. No sooner has the telephone call been made to the chief constable than a second call comes - a woman has committed suicide and the police would like to ask the family some questions... At which point the play ends.
Like any great work of literature (and this is, I think, Priestley's most enduring), it can be read in multiple ways - one such would be to focus on Priestley's obsession with time.
This time, however, I found myself thinking about 'conscience'. For Priestley, conscience is real and objective and it observes everything. We see the inspector, after leaving the family, observing the woman's suicide to reinforce this point. It is on one level powerless. It does not intervene instrumentally. It is on another level extraordinarily powerful because it is ever present and when you allow yourself to see it transformative. Allowing yourself to see it, however, is a difficult task. The path is strewn with every conceivable strategy for distraction accompanied by self-justification. The play beautifully explores many of these.
I was reminded of an evening, years past, when I gave a talk to a combined meeting of the Institute of Criminology and the Faculty of Theology at Cambridge on work I was doing with people in prison and the spirituality of the early Desert Fathers. I was reproved by my chair, a distinguished sociologist, for suggesting that conscience was a reality, not a 'social construct' and I responded by suggesting that the phenomenology of conscience suggested the former and not the latter. It was something, with struggle, you could unveil and focus your attention on and it universally arose within people who practised the ascesis of attention, intending a loving transformation. I wish I had remembered Priestley's play because it comes from this same stable.
For Priestley was deeply influenced by a tangential tradition to that of the Desert Fathers namely that of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky as mediated by Maurice Nicoll (and I am the inheritor of at least two of Nicoll's books that originally were owned by Priestley). Here the awakening of 'conscience' is a fruit of the development of a rigorous self-awareness and one of the ways of reading 'An Inspector Calls' is as an invite, a touch of grace, to do just that (and a recognition of how difficult a sustained response might be). Or to put in other words as a commentary on the parable of the Sower in the Gospel (as understood by Nicoll in 'The New Man') as an invitation to awareness and of all the ways such awareness can be thwarted.
I suspect the power of the play is in its ability to recall us, however momentarily, to ourselves and to ask ourselves what quality of soil do we have and can it bear the sowing of conscience.