Monday, August 29, 2016

You Should Go On a Miles Christi Spiritual Exercises Retreat

This past weekend I attended a silent retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, led by a priest and a brother from the order Miles Christi. It was an extraordinary experience (though, not having been on a retreat for 11 years, I have little to compare it to), and I strongly encourage all of you to go on a retreat like this, if you have the opportunity. You can see when and where the Miles Christi priests are preaching these retreats all over the country here. I'm very grateful to my wife and my cousin who each recommended that I go on this retreat. I hope that it has made a real difference in my life of prayer and seeking virtue. I wanted to share some thoughts after this retreat.

The Spiritual Exercises are a series of meditations based around the life of Our Lord. But their aim, at least as they were preached this last weekend, is to evoke acts and affections of repentance and resolution to reform one's life. Too often I, at least, think about repentance in the sense of trying to do better in the future, rather than having a keen sense of how horrible sin is--that is, how it ought to and properly does evoke the feeling of horror. Horror, repulsion, is the proper response to sin, especially my own sin.

The Spiritual Exercises as preached this last weekend were aimed at leading one to see all things in light of eternity. To be a Catholic is to live one's life under judgment--that is, to be aware that every single moment of every single day, every act and every feeling, is to be judged. To act well or act badly is not just to act in accord with or in violation of the moral law, or to act such that one moves closer to or away from the fulfillment of one's nature. Rather, to act well or badly is to treat Another well or badly, to act in such a way that God's proper intentional stance toward one's act is one of approval or abhorrence. (I do not, of course, mean to imply that God reacts to our acts in such a way that He is causally affected by them, nor do I mean to imply that our good acts are done apart from His prior grace.) To act well or badly is to act in such a way that Our Lord judges the act good or bad--and not just now, but at the end of our lives as well. To be a Catholic is to live one's life not just under judgment now, but to live life in reference to a future judgment, to experience every act as tending towards and having its ultimate meaning in the judgment of Our Lord at the end of our lives.

This is of course the proper source of the much lamented Catholic guilt. Aristotle says that shame is a proper response of the one on the way to virtue to his own wrong-doing, and so it is a said to be a quasi-virtue, "quasi" because a genuinely virtuous person wouldn't need shame, but still it is the right response. Catholic guilt is the corresponding infused quasi-virtue: it is the proper response to the evil one sees in oneself once one sees how one's deeds stack up relative to eternal values, and, more importantly, relative to the conscious, concrete judgment of the One to Whom I owe all my love.

To be a Catholic is to live always in the hour of our death, which is to say in the hour of our judgment. Everything on this retreat was oriented to giving one a keen sense of the truth of these claims, and of their immediate import in one's life. To say that God is my First Cause and Last End is well and good, but it is better to experience it, to feel it. One should come to experience everything that occurs as proceeding from God, whether operatively or permissively, for our Good and for the revelation of His goodness, and as ordered to Him and His judgment for its ultimate meaning.

There is something very attractive (at least to me) about the lofty mysticism of the Carmelites or the deep feelings of nature of the Franciscans. But there is a great deal to be said for the straight-forward and pious devotions given to the laity of the Roman Church. Most of us have not experienced a genuine dark night of the senses. But that is because we flail about with good intentions and never a firm starting point in prayer. The Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, meditation on the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady, veneration of the Cross, the formulae of Eucharistic adoration, books of devotion like The Imitation of Christ or the Introduction to the Devout Life: these, with their pious, deeply affective, relational language are a solid foundation in the life of prayer that is within my reach. It is these that we prayed and listened to on this retreat. Lately, I have been re-reading St. Louis de Montfort's True Devotion to Mary, longing as a I do for a deeper Marian piety. There is something so eminently Catholic about the language of these old prayers and devotionals, so solid, with such intimate feeling for Our Lord and Our Lady and the saints. There is nothing novel or sophisticated about, but just a deep feeling of the faith, captured in deeply felt pious language, the language of the lover to his beloved, the language of one who would clothe the poor content of his heart in rich, even rococo, forms, because his Beloved, his Lover, deserves such language.

I have long desired a recovery of the Tridentine Liturgy, and I have long thought that the scholastic philosophy, theology, and casuistry of the 16th through 18th centuries is some of the most sophisticated and compelling thought I have ever encountered, but I am beginning to see that the devotion of that period (that of St. Francis de Sales, St. Alphonsus Ligouri, St. Ignatius of Loyola) is also a most solid foundation on which I can build my life toward God (and on which one can even move toward that deeper mystical life of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila). It is a much-maligned period, denigrated not only for its highly affective piety, but also for its metaphysical basis, which, it is said, is nominalism or Scotism draped in Thomistic language, itself considered a paltry shadow of the Angelic Doctor's words. That is a gross caricature, and probably just shows that the one who asserts it has not read the doctors of that time. But I also think we have a lot to thank Scotus (and maybe even Ockham, loathe though I am to admit it!) for: for a keener sense of the individual, for a powerful sense of the primacy of Our Lord and Our Lady in the whole cosmos fallen or unfallen, for a deep sense of the omnipotence of God, for a powerful understanding of both the metaphysical difference of God from us (captured in the analogy of being) and of the power of the mind to grasp God through reason (captured in Scotus' highly nuanced sense of the univocity of being, and also in  Thomistic notions of the single analogical concept of being.) We could do much worse than recover the order and splendor of Baroque Catholicism, in all its aspects!

For that too was the period of the great missionaries, of St. Francis Xavier and St. Jean de Brebeuf. I can understand, after even this short version of the Spiritual Exercises, why a life formed by them (by the longer, 30-day version, repeated year after year) would lead one to want to go to such heroic extremes as these great saints did. In the meditation on hell, one gains a keen sense of what awaits one if one continues to live a life of mediocrity (I felt like Stephen Daedelus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but I hope the effect will be more long lasting for me than it was for him!) In the meditation on following the banner of Christ, one gains a knowledge that one's every act leads one to follow Christ or Satan. In the spiritual direction and general confession, one is sweetly compelled to abandon all evasions, all excuses, for not sacrificing all to one's King. All in all, it is an inspiration to heroism, to not just try to follow Christ, but to follow Him! The Exercises lead one to make concrete resolutions as to what one will do for Christ, for the One Who deserves all, for His greater glory. Pray for me, that I may keep the resolutions I made on this retreat, and really make a beginning of pursuing virtue. (I am praying for all of you who read this blog.) And again, I really encourage everyone to make a retreat like this!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Varieties of Conservatism

I've been reading Alice Von Hildebrand's biography of her husband Dietrich. In December 1933, after he had fled from Germany and was living in Vienna, Dietrich Von Hildebrand gave a number of talks in Belgium and France, some of them explicitly in opposition to National Socialism. While in Belgium, he visited Zita, the empress of Austria and Hungary who had been deposed after the fall of the Empire at the end of World War One. Dietrich at the time was working closely with Englebert Dollfuss, the Chancellor of Austria, and one who was trying hard to implement the Catholic social teaching and corporatist political vision of Pope Pius XI on a national scale, as well as oppose Nazism and Communism. The situation is instructive for conservatives today:
[Zita] favored Dollfuss' political vision, but as an archmonarchist and a member of the deposed Habsburg dynasty, she could no share her visitor's enthusiasm for his leadership. It was a strange situation for Dietrich von Hildebrand. On the one hand, he as indeed himself an ardent monarchist and considered the demise of the Habsburgs a terrible blow not only for Catholic Austria but for Europe. On the other hand, he had a deep admiration for Dollfuss, who single-handedly was fighting the Nazi Goliath. The theme of the hour had to be collaboration with him, inasmuch as the Habsburgs had been stripped of all political power. (The Soul of a Lion, p. 265)
Zita, Dollfuss, and Von Hildebrand each could, in some important sense, be called "conservatives." All three were interested in preserving and furthering "things human and divine", those deep things that have been passed down to us, and incarnating a moral and spiritual order in the political and the everyday, and yet also doing only what was possible in the current state of things, rather than seeking a progressive utopia. But in other foundational issues, they differed deeply, as in the question of the application of these principles to actual circumstances.

There's been some fine analysis lately about the current non-existence of the conservative movement. James Heaney, for example, has argued that what was the "Reagan coalition" has splintered into at least three parts, each of which would call itself conservative: the populists, the establishment, and the grassroots. But this is only the latest incarnation of what has perhaps long been the normal state of conservatism. George Nash showed long ago that post-World War Two American conservatism, that resurgent movement that arose at a time when even so fine a thinker as Lionel Trilling could say that there were no conservative ideas in America, was a wildly disparate thing: an amalgamation of libertarianism, anti-communism, traditionalism, Burkeanism, Straussianism, and so on. The addition of the Evangelicals and the social conservatives and the Neo-Conservatives some decades later just added to the mix.

But the disparateness of conservatism goes back further. My wife has been reading Russell Kirk's biography of Edmund Burke lately, so we've discussing that father of (a certain sort of) conservatism a lot lately. Burke himself is the leader of a sort of hodge-podge conservatism, seeking to steer a middle course between a more extreme royalism and traditionalism, and the progressivism and rationalism of not only the Jacobins but the English utilitarians and many of his fellow Whigs as well; he is both a child of the Enlightenment, and one who would return to ancient British custom and prescription. The "movement" he engendered, at least as Kirk describes it, was likewise motley for its long history.

There are so many divisions in conservatism--not only as a movement, but in my own heart as well--that it is difficult to describe them all. A few years ago there was a dust-up in the Catholic blogosphere about something called "illiberal Catholicism", those strands of Catholicism that reject the legacy of the Western liberal tradition, with its attendant notions of human rights, separation of Church and state, capitalist economics, libertarian (in both the political and the metaphysical senses) freedom. But illiberal Catholics, many of whom might call themselves conservatives (or traditionalists), are themselves a divided lot, from those that draw on the nouvelle theologie tradition of De Lubac and Von Baltahsar, to those that draw on an older Catholic tradition of an integral relation between Church and state, each in its proper sphere of jurisdiction, but the good of the state explicitly subordinated to the supernatural good of the Church.

And again, those who by and large oppose the illiberal Catholic are themselves conservatives; it is a conflict within that disparate movement (or at least within one section of it, the Catholic and Thomistic section). But the opponents of illiberal Catholicism are those likely to follow a more American, Lockean, free market, rights-oriented, small government "liberal" conservatism, that of those like John Courtney Murray and Richard John Neuhaus.

Each faction here draws on a substantial philosophical and theological tradition, and each on a substantive picture of the human person and his place in the cosmos. But each is a very different picture of the human person. First, the "liberal" conservative Catholic draws on a theory of the human person that is a synthesis of what we might call an Aristotelian-Thomistic account with a (also thin) Lockean account of the person as individual inasmuch as they have a Lockean picture of human rights. (But this is further complicated in that many such conservatives are also personalists, which is a "thick" picture of the human person--and this is a trait that these thinkers share with the next group, but through which both tend to be in conflict with the third group.) Second, the nouvelle theologie conservative draws on a synthesis of a existentialist Thomistic account (with heavy accents on the neo-Platonic, participatory elements of Thomism) with a focus on historical and dynamic features of the human person drawn (purportedly) from the Church Fathers, but more so from the German Idealists and Romantics. Third, the integralists draw on the long Thomistic tradition, with its thick picture of human nature in relation to many roles, communities, duties, and individual and common goods. (And this is yet further complicated in that while this group rejects the personalism of people like Emmanuel Mounier, other personalists like Von Hildebrand share much of their monarchist or corporatist vision, and it can furthermore be contended that the integralists' focus on the ordering of the person to the common good is an even deeper and "thicker" personalism than that of the personalists themselves. There's a further wrinkle in trying locate personalists Thomists like St. John Paul II in this debate.)    

This is not just all idle theorizing. Where one falls in these issues, the thinkers in whose lineage one wittingly or unwittingly finds oneself, affects one's choices in voting, in educating one's children, in the books one reads, in the form of worship one engages in, in the heroes one admires and emulates. We see this in the rise in interest in the new Catholic democrat party, the American Solidarity Party.

Consider, for example, this party's tax platform, which favors low (or no) income taxes and higher property taxes. This is drawn from the distributist movement, itself beloved of many conservatives, though founded by men who called themselves liberals, and which favors the distribution of land and capital to as many as possible. Contrast this to the position on taxation taken by those conservatives who favor a return to landed aristocracy, to stabilize and perpetuate which they favor high income tax and lower (or no) property tax. Where one falls on this very practical issue, as a conservative, depends on one's lineage.

Or consider the question of a "world government." There was support for a single emperor, even doctrinal statements to that effect, in Pope Gelasius in the 5th century; the call for universal political authority extends even into the magisteria of the current and previous pope. It is called for by many in the integralist movement--but also by some of their otherwise opponents among the "liberal" conservatives, like Jacques Maritain. But it is opposed by many other traditional and Burkean conservatives. (Indeed, Burkeanism doesn't even enter into the above-mentioned debate among Catholic conservatives. But perhaps it should. I think that an injection of thinking about the common law tradition of England into Catholic thought would be good for shaking up the largely top-down model of Catholic legal thinking, itself inherited from the old Roman or civil law. Common law doesn't clearly fit into any of Aquinas' categories for law (eternal, natural, divine, civil) and its treatment of custom and subsidiarity are different from how they are treated in canon and civil law contexts.)

Or consider the use of literary and historical imagery among Catholic conservatives. There is among many such the love of romantic medieval imagery--say, Scott or Tolkien. But what is drawn from such imagery differs greatly based on one's metaphysics of the human person (and of gender) and one's view of what the foundations of ethics are. Some who love Tolkien will not admire the Habsburgs as Von Hildebrand did, while others will. Some will admire the Habsburgs only, while others will long for a return to such a form of government. Some will long for it, and also seek to realize it; others will say politics is the art of the possible, and only the values of that time can now be instantiated, not its outward form; still others will say politics is the art of the possible, and who can say what is possible until one has attempted it. Some, rather than the Habsburgs, will call us to the imagery of our American founders--and yet they were a jumbled bunch themselves, an amalgamation of Lockeans, republicans both in the radical French vein and in the more traditional Roman or Florentine vein, devotees of the common law tradition, and mixtures of these. And of these, some were liberal then that would be conservative now.

A professor of mine, an Orthodox Jew, once said that, in his view, only Orthodox and Reform Judaism had coherent platforms, but Conservative Judaism was trying to walk too much of a middle line and so was incoherent. (One could, perhaps, say something similar about the "conservative" or "reform of the reform" branch of Catholic liturgy vis-a-vis the traditional and the progressive.)

Maybe conservatism is incoherent, and one must opt for one of these factions. Yet I long for the values and outward forms I see incarnated in every single one of the movements I've mentioned here. We're going to see, I think, more conflict among these factions. It's inevitable, because conservatism is a juxtaposition of views with radically different metaphysics of the human person and his place in the cosmos. They can't all be right, though some aspects of all may be synthesizable. Kirk said conservatism is about the variety of life--what I'd call a "thick" conception of human nature, duties, communities. I don't know where to go from here. But I do know that I want to retain the thicknesses, the various dimensions of life, honored by each of these factions.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Strange Case of St. Joan of Arc: Thoughts on Providence for Election Season

My wife and I are embarked on a project to watch all of Shakespeare's plays, in the fine productions put out in the 1980's by the BBC. We just finished the three parts of Henry VI, which I have seen before, but which certainly bear many re-watchings (and re-readings.) I am always struck by the depiction of Joan of Arc in Henry VI Part One: not the visionary and saint of our now-familiar Catholic tradition, but a lascivious, power-hungry woman who calls on demons to come to her aid, who is willing to sacrifice herself to them for her country:

Cannot my body nor blood-sacrifice
Entreat you to your wonted furtherance?
Then take my soul, my body, soul and all,
Before that England give the French the foil. (Act 5, Scene 3)

This is, of course, what one should expect from an English depiction of the saint. The fact that Shakespeare is writing in Protestant England makes no difference here; had Shakespeare been writing in more Catholic times, surely his depiction of Joan would be the same.

The case of St. Joan of Arc seems at first glance to be one of the strangest and most wonderful events in all the long, strange, wonderful history of Christendom. Many of us are accustomed to think of God as concerned perhaps with the long-range history of the world, with the moral and supernatural state of particular persons' souls, perhaps even with our health or personal happiness. But we balk at the idea that God would intervene on behalf of one side in an actual war--especially when both sides are Catholic, and neither side particularly virtuous! The idea of God taking sides in a battle (much less in smaller conflicts like those among political parties in a national election, or a personal disagreement with a colleague, or a baseball game) seems to many of us out-dated, even gauche, or worse, blasphemous.

Yet if the story of St. Joan of Arc is to believed--and it surely is--this is precisely what God did in the Hundred Years War. God intervened, not through some behind-the-scenes providential guiding of France's leaders thoughts to good strategy, but dramatically and supernaturally, through apparitions and miracles, by raising up the lowly and humbling the proud.

The case of Joan looks like an exception to what we might take to be the normal course of God's providence, as we ordinarily think of it. Many are accustomed to think of God's providence as His guiding the affairs of the world in secret, nearly always through the medium of created causes. We glimpse His providence always after the fact, it would seem, when looking back upon our lives we see how events converged to bring about an end we could not have foreseen or planned, but which was more significant that we could have foreseen or planned. Or we experience His providence in a such a way that it always could have been mere chance coincidence.

This is not the picture of providence that we find, for example, in St. Thomas Aquinas, according to whom all events occur through divine providence. Nothing occurs unless God explicitly wills it to occur or wills to permit it. Not only is this a deeply Scriptural view of God's providence, but a fundamental reason we have to think that there is a God is that all contingent things could only exist and change as they do if there were a first cause. But every contingent thing requires a first cause, that from which its existence directly and intentionally comes. The first cause is not (as it is so often misunderstood to be) something long ago, but something that right now causes each thing. A first cause has causal power over all second causes: the first cause gives to the second causes not only their existence but their causal power and activity as well. All things, without exception, come from the first cause.   

This totally universal causality might lend itself to a view of God as hidden, as we find in St. Augustine. God intends some order to history by His universal providence, but that order is so vast and intricate that we cannot hope to divine it. We cannot be sure of the meaning of any historical event, or of God's purposes in bringing about or permitting that event. On this view, the case of Joan of Arc--that we can be sure that God wanted the French to win that war--looks wildly problematic. On this view, the English had good reason to reject Joan as a blasphemous sorceress.

But this view is incomplete. For God is not just a universal first cause, Being itself bringing into being all beings, but He is also personal, expressing His will not just in actions and permissions, but in commands, counsels, prohibitions, and inspirations, including in apparitions and prophecies. The vast design of providence is difficult to read. But the Catholic tradition on providence includes not only the Augustinian affirmation of this difficulty, but the long tradition of apocalyptic and mystical reading of the book of history, in which God's purposes can be seen and known in history.

Affirming that we know God's purposes in some historical moment is fraught with danger. The English soldier who fought to defeat Joan's armies surely did right--at least, he did his duty to his king and country, which was right for him to do--though clearly we can now see that he, Catholic though he was, was fighting against God. There are strange cases in the moral life when we do what is commanded of us, but this very act, it turns out, unbeknownst to us, is contrary to what God has willed in that particular situation.

And yet for all this the apocalyptic and prophetic reading of history is a crucial part of the Catholic tradition. It is well, I think, though many be false prophets, that many claim to be able to see the purpose of God in some event or other; better that there be false prophets along with the true than none at all! To deny that God could dramatically intervene out of fear of false prophets is to fail to recognize Who God is and how He relates to this world, guiding all things. To refuse to pray for the outcome of a war, an election, even a baseball game, out of a sense that these things are not of ultimate concern, is to lose sight of how God actually operates in history. (Consider not only Joan, but the whole pantheon of saints, with their particular concerns and patronages, such as the Fourteen Holy Helpers whose feast we recently celebrated: divine providence is utterly particular, and utterly elective, choosing what and whom it will, and rejecting whom and what it will.)

In an election year, we should not jump from this apocalyptic sense of providence to the claim that God is on one party's side or another. (Surely in this election year it is clear that He is on neither major party's side!) Yet we should not thereby think that God is uninterested or uninvolved in the history of our nation. To say this is not to claim some special status for our country, but it is to say that it is not just God's general providence over all things that guides our nation, but that the special mystery of divine election, which chose France over England, is operative even now. The God Who is the "setter up and plucker down of kings" (Henry VI Part 3, Act 2, Scene 3) is still the source of all political authority.

Part of what I want to get across here is that the mystery of Joan of Arc shows us in a particularly dramatic way that there are ways that God is present that we moderns tend to overlook. In Joan of Arc's life (and in the Henry VI plays at large), war becomes a place where God appears, as does the king. The transcendent God does not just appear in the sacramental glories of nature or married love or the mysteries of the Church or acts of kindness. For He is also the "God of battles," and the king is also a theophany.

We need to remember that too, especially in an election year. The Catholic tradition gives us ample reason to see our political and even military lives as places where God appears. If we were to keep in mind this sacred character to our political enterprise, it might help alleviate the excesses of banality to which we daily subject. This is not, of course, to say that we should come to see politics as on a par with our properly religious lives; politics belongs to the order of nature, not of grace. But God appears in nature too, and grace imbues nature with new meaning. Politics is of course a messy, makeshift business, and we can at best do what is merely possible in a fallen world. Politics cannot be redemptive, though it is a place where the eternal moral order can break into the world. But Joan shows us that even for matters that are not of ultimate concern, God still has a genuine concern; even in what is not of everlasting value, God has still placed real value, and we should recognize that and respond to it accordingly.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

I Finally Finished Infinite Jest, or Why I Read Fiction

I have finally completed David Foster Wallace's magnificent novel Infinite Jest. It took me eight months, but I read many other novels and other books during that time as well. It's a book worth taking slowly. There's a great deal that could be said about it, but for now I'll just say a little.

Much has been written on the themes of the book: addiction in general, America's addiction to entertainment in general, the conflict between the freedom of pure license and obedience to a higher authority, how playing high-level competitive sport both shelters us from the horror of the freedom of pure license and also is a horror and an addiction in itself, the spiritual depth of twelve-step programs, the need to overcome an ironic and cynical stance toward the world in favor of a heartfelt, even naive, sincerity, etc. Much has been written on the form of the novel: its cyclic structure, its encyclopedic accounts of tennis and drugs and Alcoholics Anonymous and films and optics and so much more, the use of endnotes (and endnotes to endnotes) to disrupt the narrative structure, its self-referentiality, its use of humor, etc. I could say a lot about these things too, but there are some other things I want to focus on.

Why do we read fiction? Why is it, for some like me, as necessary to life as eating and sleeping and prayer, sometimes more necessary than these things? 

It is surely in part to escape from the everyday, and there Infinite Jest certainly delivers. In the novel, Infinite Jest is a film (or rather "film cartridge") so engrossing that once one begins to watch one will continue to watch it over and over again until one dies, or the power is shut off, in which case one will be reduced to imbecility. But the book itself has a compelling, addictive quality to it as well, with so many plots and subplots and characters and stray details that turn out to be essential that one could, if one wished, read it again and again trying to tie together the whole net of details. Though full of minute descriptions and quasi-stream-of-consciousness, it's eminently readable. The text moves, without fail. It's certainly an escape.

But one of course reads for far more than to escape. If one read only to escape, one probably wouldn't choose Infinite Jest. One also reads certain novels because, to use Arthur Danto's phrase, they "transfigure the commonplace," [1] that is, after reading them the everyday is not so much escaped from as revealed in its value, its every particularity shown up as a blaze of splendor. And without such transfiguration, everyday life is a vanity and a chase after the wind. One steps away from reality for a moment into a world where this luminosity is deliberately evoked, and then one returns and notices the luminosity that was there in the real world. Or rather, perhaps, one's life in the fictional world overlays the real world and actualizes the luminosity of one's life there. One reads fiction because it transforms one in a way that few other things can. [2]

This, I think, is where Infinite Jest really shines. A character at one point (no spoilers!) describes how he wanted to make films with no background characters, where there would be no extras actors, their reduced to meaningless background babble. Every character would shine forth. The result, of course, is a cacophony—and that is, to a certain extent, what the novel gives us: the cacophony and the splendor of real life, of each person and their thoughts, their childhood, the horrors they have endured, the humor of their lives, both dark and joyous, their hopes and thoughts, their addictions and faith and hope and hate. One comes away from reading this book with a new appreciation for all the peculiarities of other people—and of all of one’s surroundings, the shades of light at different times of day, the feel of different surfaces, the smells and sounds, all of it.

There are plenty of websites devoted to trying to figure out “what goes on in Infinite Jest”, for much of the plot is unwritten, only hinted at in stray lines here and there, and left for the reader to piece together. Indeed, if one tries to read the novel in terms of a conventional plot, most of the most climactic parts of the plot are like this. But this, I think, is the wrong way to read this novel. What is important, what is transfigured, really, are not the climactic moments, but the everyday—cooking for those one lives with, cleaning a homeless shelter, lying intubated in a hospital bed—and one’s memories of past days.

One reads for other reasons too—for the sheer pleasure of experiencing great language, for example. There’s a virtuosic quality to Infinite Jest, scenes where, like Mozart in Amadeus or like many of the scenes in The Rules of the Game, the artist tries to see how many strands he can weave into a scene, how many balls he can juggle at once. Many such scenes—the game of “Eschaton” scene, the fight between the residents of Ennet House and the Canadians—are nothing less than exhilarating. It's a funny book too, with all sorts of humor.
But one reads for more than just pleasure; one reads some books [3] because their value demands, calls for their being experienced and appreciated. The call of the value of this book is not, I think, to everyone. There is a grittiness, a coarseness, to this book, to its depictions of sexual and drug-related violence, and its bleak assessment of most of its characters that will not sit well with some people. But there are those to whom this book calls, and they ought to read it and appreciate it, for beyond (or even in) its rawness, there is a splendor that reminds one why one reads fiction.
[1] I endorse this phrase as a description of what great art does, though I strongly disagree with Danto's claim that the art that does this in a definitive way--so much so that he calls it the "end of art", 'end' being used here is the same sense as in the Hegelian 'end of history'--is Andy Warhol's Brillo Soap Pads Box. I don't think the point of Warhol's art is to "transfigure the commonplace." Rather, it seems to me that it's to reproduce or make a comment on or just give us back the commonplace. This isn't, of course, meant in any way as a criticism of Warhol [a] but rather of Danto.

[a] Whom I might want to criticize another time, certainly, for not transfiguring the commonplace--for this attention to beauty may well be a duty we have as human persons.

[2] I don't mean that fiction ought to be read as a means to this transformation. I don't think fiction should be read in a utilitarian spirit. (I don't think much should be done in a utilitarian spirit.) Rather, I mean that in reading one is thereby transformed. One reads for its own sake, or for the sake of its inherent value, its importance in itself, or what have you. But in the act of reading, one is transformed and one's perception is transformed, when one goes to read the world.

[3] Just as one listens to some music and watches some films and views some art and thinks some thoughts…

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Cycle of the Martyrology and the Cycle of Nature

Over the last few months, I've begun praying from the Divine Office (in the form promulgated in 1911 by St. Pius X), trying to pray a few hours each day. There are many things to recommend this practice, but one little joy is the praying of the Martyrology at the hour of Prime. (I know one can pray the Martyrology in the context of the new Liturgy of the Hours, but it was wonderful to find it directly incorporated into the liturgy in the Office; I appreciate being made to do good things.) After the hymn, psalms, Scripture passage, responsory, and some prayers, one reads the Martyrology for the next day, thereby getting ready for those saints that one will honor on the morrow.

The Martyrology lists all of the saints honored by the Church for a given day--not only those on the universal calendar whose feasts are celebrated at Mass, but all of them, which is quite a few! To pray the Martyrology is to feel oneself surrounded by that "great cloud of witnesses", and to honor with the Church far more saints that one does purely through personal devotion or hearing Mass. Indeed, it is explicitly an open-ended number (open hopefully to our eventual inscription), for the reading always ends with "and elsewhere many other holy martyrs, confessors, and holy virgins." We do not know who all the holy ones have been, but we shall honor them all nonetheless!

It is also to experience Catholicism as a rooted religion--that is, rooted in particular times and places, for these too, inasmuch as they are places or times of the saints' lives, great acts, or deaths, are also mentioned in the Martyrology. Catholicism is not a purely philosophical or universal or cosmic religion, but has grown out of concrete acts by real people in particular places. To pray the Martyrology is to be inscribed into this sacred geography and history; it is to feel the world as mapped out as theologian Paul Griffiths has described it, not as a neutral coordinate grid, but as containing loci of sanctity and profanity, of great nobility and horrific desecration. The prayer of the Martyrology is a reorienting of one's sense of space and time.

This happens too through the reading of the date at the beginning of the Martyrology. Here one reads the year in the familiar anno Domini reckoning, but one reads the day in the Roman style--not "July 26" but "the Seventh of the Kalends of August", where one considers the day always counting down to the next Kalends, Nones, or Ides of a month. This is to reorient one again both to a particular way of counting time, rooted in the tradition of a certain city and its empire, and also a universal way of counting time, inasmuch as that city has been ordained by divine providence, made manifest through the particularities of history, to be the See of Christ's representative on earth. It is a small way of coming to see Catholicism's unique take on universality: what is most universal, most all-encompassing, is not the universality of the concept, nor the universality of the general cause, but the universality of a particular, incarnate history of events whereby the particularities of the Trinity and the divine operations are made manifest and bring about their most proper effects. (The universality of the highest cause is best seen in its particular effects in our lives and in human history, or as the Church prayed on this last Sunday: "O God, Who dost manifest Thine omnipotence maximally in sparing and showing mercy..."

Finally, in giving the date, one also expresses it according to the day within the lunar month. The Church by Her liturgy sanctifies all things, even nature and her cycles. We see this also in the many psalms prayed in the Office that enumerate the ways in which the things of nature praise God. But to sanctify is also to draw into the lives of persons, to elevate nature above the level of mere matter so that it participates in the glorious freedom of the children of God. So we do not speak of nature cast off and considered in its pure physicality--no, we speak of the lunar calendar, that is, the moon as it is seen from a particular point of view, from this planet Earth, where God has chosen to make His abode amid the vast spaces. What we shall pray when we have left this planet and no longer have this calendar inscribed in our heavens, I cannot say; I have at times longed for space travel, but whether this is a good thing ("fill all the [cosmos] and subdue it") or whether (like my sometime trans-humanist desires to live in the body forever, which I now abhor) it is a longing to escape rootedness and particularity, I cannot say. But for now, the cycles of nature, drawn into the liturgy is another way of surrounding ourselves with the great cloud of witnesses, for the saints in their myriads bear witness to the restoration of all things in Christ, and so does nature, especially when liturgically sanctified.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

We Need the Political Virtue of Merriness

On a recent road trip with my family, we listened to The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle. What a delightful, indeed hilarious, set of adventures, of Robin Hood and his Merry Men living their merry life in the greenwood! That is the chief value of the book, and should be enough to convince you to read it (with your children, if you've got some). But the book raised another point for me as well: that to be merry is a virtue, and one that is necessary for a fulfilling political life--you know, the sort that we don't seem able to have nowadays.

In Pyle's telling, Robin Hood and his Merry Men steal only from those who have extorted money from others, such as a "baron or a squire, or a fat abbot or bishop." But when they are going to take from one of these authorities their ill-gotten gain, they first bring him to their home in Sherwood Forest, and give them a mighty feast, and perform various sports for their "guest", jesting all the while. They have a concern for justice and for the needs of the poor, but they have an equal concern for the joy of life, for the sheer pleasure of festivity and skill at arms and practical jokes. Their merriness is born of their consciousness of the equal frailty and fallenness of all men, and the sheer unmerited blessing that is life under the blue sky.

We moderns have, I think, a difficult time being merry, at feeling and acting out of that peculiar brand of humor and bodily lighthearted fun. We are adept at cynical or satirical humor (though not as some could do it--say, an Aristophanes or a Waugh), but humor or fun that is not explicitly in the service of some cause does not seem to be our forte--unless it be crude or sexual humor or fun, though not with the rich, vital bawdiness of a Shakespeare. To be merry requires that one have other virtues too: for example, that one know how to be solemn as well, and that one know how to celebrate a festival--and these are virtues that it is difficult to find. Ours is not the spirit of Robin Goodfellow or Robin Hood.

In the merry greenwood, there are no ranks, but all are meant to be merry alike. But this is only possible, only makes sense, because elsewhere there are ranks, because elsewhere the bishop and the baron do rank ahead of the commoner and the outlaw, and really do have rights over these others--albeit rights that they often, unjustly, overstep. Roles can be flattened at times by the merry festival only if there are roles. If all are equal at all times, then what is there to be merry about when we are taken out of the everyday world into the world of jest and joy?

The playfulness of merriness is not a childish, awkward playfulness, or a rude, insolent, cynical humor. It is a delight in all things encapsulated in the feast, the holiday, the flowing wine and the tables piled with meats, the mirthful faces in the firelight, the happiness of brotherhood, the dance around the Maypole, the delightful picnic by the waterside or the jolly drink and song at the public house. The merry man has nothing to prove to anyone, even to himself, unless it be his skill in bodily feats or in wit, and these for their own sake, and not for the sake of any gain. Merriness is not for the sake of anything but itself. The fact that Robin Hood and his Merry Men intend to despoil their guests of their ill-gotten gain after the merry-making is over takes nothing away from the fact that this is furthest from their minds while they are making merry; they are not merry so that or because of this despoilment or act of justice. No, to be merry is its own end. It is a step outside of the world of loss and gain, a world of gift-giving and receiving, of generosity beyond measure. Indeed, perhaps the despoilment of the wicked wealthy is itself a lifting of the wicked wealthy out of their world into this generous, jubilant spirit despite themselves--and not a few of those they entertain gain the Merry Men's merriness by emotional infection, and are sad to leave when the sports are over.

Aristotle says that a political community requires that the citizens be in some wise friends--not deep friends, but civic friends, united around their common life, taking joy in living together. Surely this requires some measure of merriness! If the citizens of a nation cannot make merry together, taking joy in their lives in the land together, eating and drinking in common not for the sake of deal-making or cause-furthering or securing sexual partners or anything else that is base, but for the sheer enjoyment of laughing together, then what is such a nation? Why should I wish to live with people who know nothing but the everyday grind of loss and gain? How can I call myself the fellow-citizen of a man that I cannot be jubilant with? To be able to live rich, full, human lives, we must of course know how to work for our living, but we must know when to stop working, when to engage in those activities that are done for their own sake, real leisure, intellectual or aesthetic or religious contemplation, and the merry joy of the public festival.

Goethe somewhere describes a visit to a Catholic festival, complete with booths selling food and drink, games of chance and performances of song and dance, and in the midst of all this gaudy hubbub, the pilgrimage procession to the shrine of the local saint. Merry-making is not a perfectly ordered thing, a neat thing. It is a suspension of the economic (though, wondrous to see, the economic can be taken up into it). I think that it is at Catholic festivals that I too have learned something of what it is to be merry (though I learned it also, if indeed I have learned it at all, from A Midsummer Night's Dream and A Christmas Carol and Manalive and Pastime with Good Company and Jupiter the Bringer of Jollity--the last of which shows just how close merriness is to the deeper and more eminently spiritual virtue of Joy), as Belloc too learned:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine
There's always laughter and good red wine
At least I've always found it so
Benedicamus Domino!

To be merry requires deep roots in the sacred and the solemn--and this too Pyle's book teaches us (as my wife recently argued.) Robin Hood and his Merry Men invoke the saints on all occasions--in prayers and in oaths, the sacred so immersing their lives that it bubbles up into their jests, and their jests reach down into their faith. Merriness is a natural component of the religious life, and one that even, perhaps, can be taken up into the supernatural life. We cannot be merry if we cannot be solemn; if we cannot be solemn we can only be light or silly or cynical or crude or some other lesser brand of humor which is always looking to some goal or advantage. To have lives together worth having, to have a politics worthy of the name, we must be religious men and we must be merry men.

What do I propose? Our political lives are the public face of our lives together. There are, of course, intimate sides to our lives together too, the time spent at table or hearth or bed in the private home, and these are in some sense political. But my concern is not for these, but for the fullness of our political lives. If we would escape the coarseness and the crudity, the lust for the gain and the lust for flesh that are increasingly the public face of our lives together, we must together reach down deep to the solemn and the merry. We must hold festivals. We must suspend work and home life frequently (as the medievals did on any and all saint days, and at all the principal seasons) and come together on common and green and plaza to merrily drink and dance--always remembering that each of these locales stands before a church, in which we offer praise, which is itself tinged with merriness. How can a nation be a nation if it does not together, publicly, take joy in its gods or its saints, and in the life that binds it together?

(Hark at me, writing so seriously and so long about what is so light and joyful! Truly, I have a lesson or two to learn in this department as well!)

Friday, July 22, 2016

When I Die, Will I Be an Angel?

This question gets tackled frequently by various Catholic thinkers, bloggers, and apologists, and generally the answer is an unqualified "no". Indeed, frequently philosophically-inclined Catholics (and other Christians) express anger at those who say things like "now God has another little angel" in the context of a child's funeral. A conversation I had yesterday at a philosophy conference led me to mull this question over a bit, and my answer to this question is a qualified "yes". For this reason too, I don't think that people who say these things about the dead being angels should be corrected.

Part of this issue is the question of what is meant by 'angel'. If by 'angel' one means a person who is necessarily immaterial--that is, a person who cannot have or be a body--then of course it is impossible for a human person to be an angel. You have or are (again, it depends on what you mean by 'have' and 'are' which is the correct verb) a body right now. So it's impossible for you to be unable to have or be a body. So in that sense you can't be an angel. Likewise, if my angel you mean something definitely non-human, then you can't be an angel in that sense (at least on my view: there are some Christian thinkers who think, with good reasons, that we can exist, after death, as non-human persons.)

I think there are other senses of the term 'angel', however. Many in Catholic tradition (e.g. St. Thomas Aquinas) identified the angels with the "intelligences" of Greek philosophy (though this was opposed, even in the middle ages, by some, such as many Franciscan thinkers e.g. Peter John Olivi). Intelligences must be understood in terms of the hierarchy of beings. At the bottom of this hierarchy are purely material things. Next, there are vegetative organisms (e.g. plants) that can grow, but cannot perform cognitive acts and do not have conscious appetites--that is, feelings or conscious desires. Above that are animals, which are capable of sense perception: they can take in information about the particular things in their surroundings, and appetitively respond. Each level in this hierarchy is distinguished by a new, more unified, more powerful, more subject-like kind of form--the immaterial thing in a substance (an individual existing thing that is not an attribute of something) that causes that substance to be the kind of substance that it is. At the top of this hierarchy (under God) are the intelligences: substances capable of intellectual and free activity--which are activities that transcend the material, as a result of which the intelligences are pure forms, that is, purely immaterial beings.

Humans occupy a curious position in this hierarchy. On the one hand, we are animals, material beings capable of sense perception and needing matter for most of our activities (which, as with all substances, we get from our form--which we more usually call our "soul"). But on the other hand, we are capable of intellectual and free activities, which we perform just with our soul (albeit in connection with the body, except in the case of certain mystical experiences). On the one hand, we come into existence with our bodies, and our souls are the individuals that they are through being oriented to forming a particular bit of matter. But on the other hand, our souls can exist without our bodies, and they are that which gives our bodies their peculiar personal and spiritual existence--that is, they are that which makes our bodies not merely material or even only biological things, but rather things that fully share in and express our spiritual and intellectual lives.

On Aquinas' view, for example, this means that our bodies do pre-exist our bodies in a certain, qualified sense: not that they exist at earlier moment of time than the moment of our conception, but that, in the order of explanation, existence is first given to our souls, and then our souls give that existence to our bodies. In the fact that our souls first and foremost are what exist in us, and our bodies only exist by sharing in our soul's existence, we are utterly unlike the other animals. It is for these reasons that some 20th century Thomists (such as Anton Pegis and Karol Wojtyla--better known as St. John Paul II) called human persons "incarnated intelligences" or "spiritualized bodies".

Aquinas goes so far as to say that our souls are the same kind (or, more precisely, the same genus) of thing as the angels--both our souls and the angels are intellectual substances. But in one of my academic writings (see there also for references for the above material from Aquinas) I've argued that we have good reason to go further. The issue I was discussing there was whether we can say that the souls of dead human persons are still persons, which is a big debate in current Christian philosophy. When my Uncle Don recently died, his soul went onto heaven, hell, or purgatory. Can we say of that soul that it is a person? Can we say that it is Uncle Don--that is, can we say that Uncle Don is right now in heaven, hell, and purgatory?

As I read him, Aquinas answers these questions "no" (a position called "corruptionism": the human person entirely "corrupts" or goes out of existence at death): to be a human person is to be a rational animal, and that's to have a body. No body, no person. We might pray to some of the not-yet-resurrected dead by name (like when we say "St. Peter, pray for us"). But Aquinas thinks we're really just praying to St. Peter's soul, which is not literally St. Peter, though it still has St. Peter's thoughts and virtues, and is enjoying God in the beatific vision. St. Peter won't exist again until the Resurrection.

This is a respectable position. It's one thing that motivates the ire of those who say that we should not call the dead "angels". It's motivated by a desire to maintain that we are animals, and to emphasize the importance of the Resurrection of the body. You won't be there without your body. This position was held, I think, by nearly every Western Christian thinker at least from the 11th to the 19th centuries, and maybe earlier than that.

But I think it's wrong. It runs contrary to the plain sense of our prayers to the saints, and to what I take to be the normal sense of the faithful. It requires us to believe that something that is not a person and not me could have my thoughts and desires, and could receive the reward or punishment that I deserve.

So I hold a different view, "survivalism", the view that I will survive my death as my soul. But for that view to be true, I've argued in the paper I linked above, human persons only need their souls to exist. On this view, then, my soul is naturally meant to inform and express itself in a body. But it doesn't strictly speaking need the body to exist and to be a person. My soul needs the body to implement most of its powers--powers like breathing and digestion and sensation and so forth--but it doesn't need the body to be a human person. My soul (which is me) is meant to inform matter, so it forms one substance, one thing, with matter--this isn't a version of substance dualism, the view that I am made of two complete things, soul and body. For this reason, I can say that I am my body. I'll be radically incomplete without the body, so the Resurrection is still deeply important. But I'll still be me without the body. For this reason, I can say that I have my body.

On this view, then, what I am is rightly called an angel--that is, a being that is a purely immaterial substance, an intelligence--albeit one that is naturally capable of having a body, unlike all the higher angels. But if I'm an angel now (albeit an embodied one and one that is also an animal--that is, a sensing, naturally material thing), then there's no problem with calling me an angel when I'm dead.

Some of you might worry that this does sound too much like dualism--a view that, in the form given by the 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes, has been blamed for many modern woes. Some Catholics say that when Descartes argued that the soul is an entirely distinct thing from the body, it led to the view that the body is a thing that we can entirely manipulate and use however we like, with no natural law inherent in it, and with no meaning other than what we imbue it with. (I don't think laying the blame for this widespread modern error at Descartes' feet is at all fair, but that's an issue for another day.) But the problem here is not the view that I am my soul--rather, it's a particular problem with how matter is conceived (as valueless and as entirely describable in purely mathematical terms and as raw stuff not ordered to any particular ends or purposes aside from the purposes we decide on), and with how the connection between soul and body is conceived (with the soul manipulating the body as something entirely exterior to itself, rather than forming for itself a body such that that body has natural ends that must be followed). My view explicitly denies these claims, so it doesn't leave us open to any of these modern errors.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Problem of Evil and the Privilege of Listening to Haydn

I'm never quite sure if the problem of evil is really a problem at all. The problem, of course, is that there is evil (or, for a more precisely posed problem, meaningless or unredeemed or pointless evil), but if there were a God as He has been classically understood (as all good, all powerful, all knowing, perfectly loving) then He would want to and be able to prevent evil, and so there should be no evil. Since there is evil, then by that fact we can know that there is no God. Evil is variously understood by different proponents of the problem--most often as suffering (or, better, meaningless suffering) or as any privation (any lack of something that ought to exist).

There are certainly more sophisticated versions of the problem, such as the one posed by Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. (Yes, that link leads to the Pevear and Volokhosky translation, and I defy anyone who asserts falsely that the Garnett translation is better.) On these more sophisticated versions, the presence of evil in the world does not entail that God exists, but that a God Who would allow evil is not worthy of worship or obedience or love or belief.

At times, the problem of evil is deeply compelling to me, and all the responses--that a perfect God would allow evil because this is necessary for there to be free will, or that evil adds to the perfection of the universe, or that evil is necessary that greater goods might come, or that we cannot know why God would allow evil but that we have other reasons to trust Him--sound hollow. But most of the time this is not the case. These are pretty good responses to the problem of evil. I think they each work. If they are cold comfort to some, or appear insensitive, this is probably not the fault of the arguments themselves. (Indeed, they are deeply comforting to many. Comfort in this case may not be a sign of truth or falsehood.) And really, the problem of evil normally sounds compelling to me not in fact, but only inasmuch as I want to make it seem compelling to those whose faith seems to come too cheaply, such as some of the seminarians that are my students.

But as I say, I'm not sure it's a problem at all. It's a problem that arises only when one looks at evils with a certain frame of mind, and when one understands love with a certain frame of mind, one that considers love from the point of view of sentimentality or utilitarianism or welfarism or egalitarianism. The problem of evil shows that there is no God Who wants to maximize pleasure or love us with sentimental tenderness or with maudlin neediness or Who wants to bring about a political paradise or Whose love is incompatible with inflicting pain and punishment or Who must produce a world that is richly meaningful at all times. Thank God there is no such God! Thank God that this pathetic modern or post-modern God is a pale fiction! What a horrific world it would be if there were such a God, or if that sort of love were what love really was! (This is not to say, of course, that we should not work for justice, or care for people, or that we should be callous to others' sufferings. We should work for justice and we should not be callous, and God wants us to act in these ways. But we should act so with charity or with the virtue of justice, not out of a sense of maximizing utility, or out of an unfulfillable desire to utterly eliminate evils, which shall not happen until the Second Coming--and even then evils will remain in hell.)

And yet. And yet. What is one to do with the moments of meaninglessness? What am I to do when "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread"? What is the depressed person (whose constant and interior darkness of feeling is so richly and horrifically described by David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest) for whom the world is not just meaningless but a constant torment to do? What are the oppressed, the raped, the constantly abused children, the murdered, the hated to do? A fortiori, what are the perpetrators of these crimes, whose suffering exceeds even those on whom they inflict suffering (if the Divine Plato is to be believed, and he is), to do? How shall we hold that there is a God worthy of all love and worship Who allows--nay, Who in some sense wills, whether causally or permissively--all these things?

As I say, sometimes (maybe even most when the world really does appear darkest to me, as often it does, for the problem really only appears compelling to me when I consider evil from without, as a theoretical problem) the problem seems like no problem at all. For there are other counterveiling experiences. Those who work on this problem sometimes speak of experiences that can in some sense make up for evil. There are compensating experiences--those that make up for or result from evil, that in some sense justify God in allowing the evil. (Ivan Karamazov considers but rejects these.) There are defeating experiences--those that do not just make up for the evil, but that imbue that evil with meaning, and overcome it from within. The experience of the Beatific Vision may be, hopefully will be, like this.

But the experience of providence is also such an experience. In the midst of evil, one finds oneself guided, one finds that the world is entirely guided by a strong and sure hand--not one that fills one with feelings of delight, or with a sense of the meaningfulness of things--but a guiding hand nonetheless. One need not believe in God to have this sense--Nietzsche's feeling of the eternal return and his unbounded Yes and Amen to all things is a secular version of this experience of providence. I just cannot understand those who reject the idea that God means for there to be suffering, and all the less can I understand those who think that God does not even permit suffering. For me it is not just a belief, but something given in experience that my suffering is all willed, that it flows forth from the Fountain Fullness at the heart of all things.

Even better than this experience of providence is the experience of privilege. From time to time, I have the experience while reading or listening to something that it is an immense privilege to have this experience, that whatever has happened to me or whatever will happen to me hereafter, existing was worth it for this experience. I had this experience when I read the Nicomachean Ethics in college and was first really awakened to the philosophical life, and I had it again when I read Scheler's Formalism in Ethics. But most recently, I had this experience when listening to the second movement of Haydn's Emperor Quartet (Op. 76, no.3, the Poco adagio, cantabile movement). To hear those longing, lyric, swelling passages: the world is justified. There is a depth that cannot be denied, so long as the music lasts. Listen to the movement. It is not the experience that the evil is justified because it led to this music, or because without it the music could not have existed, or even because it compensates for or defeats the music. No, it is the experience that I am simply grateful for having had the privilege of hearing this movement. That there should be such sublimity in the world, and that I should have the chance to hear it--it is enough. Though I must bow and take my exit and be seen no more upon this world-stage--it is enough that I have heard Haydn's notes. That is the experience. What can any evil say to that?

You will say that not everyone has had this experience. That is probably true. You will say that there is still the feeling of meaninglessness that can return afterwards, or that can remain even in the midst of that experience. But I have also had this experience of privilege when things seems stripped of meaning. People often ask me why I like Camus or Cormac McCarthy or other bleak and meaningless things. But it is a privilege to have the false and phony sentimental exterior of the world stripped away--whether by the depths of sublimity as with Haydn, or by the dismantling experience of reading The Road.

To stare reality in the face: this is the answer to the problem of evil, to embrace all that there is, as it is. The problem of evil is just another form of reductionism, a hyper-focus on one experience, badly interpreted, to the exclusion of all others. To be real something need not be able to be experienced by everyone. To hear Haydn is to know this, to awaken from my egoism and see that there is value, that there are things important in themselves, whether I care for them or not, whether I know them or not--and I might have the unmerited privilege of hearing them or seeing them. It is to realize that existing itself is a privilege. The world is full of depths of givenness, coming down from the Giver of all gifts. "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things." Or as Robinson Jeffers tells us, in a passage I return to whenever the Enlightenment idol-god seeks to seduce me, and which is itself a privilege to read:

"The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him."

The God Who does all these things is no suburban lover, no bureaucratic welfare officer. He is One Who is utter Beauty, Whose beauty embraces both meaning and lack of meaning, Who is revealed in all things. The world is no mere novel of His, no mere play that He directs and once upon a time acted in. The world is as it really appears, the utterly rich, glorious, horrifying, dangerous, valuable fountain of His revelation, He Who is the burning heart of genuine love at the heart of all things, the destroying and passionate Fire, the one Who merits all my worship, all my love.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Blood Truly Remembers: Thoughts for the Feast of the Precious Blood

Today the Roman Church celebrates the Feast of the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ (as well as the Octave Day of St. John the Baptist). In praying Matins this morning, I was struck by two lines in the hymn (Salvete Christi vulnera):

Suique Jesus immemor,
Sibi nil reservat sanguinis.

And Jesus, not remembering Himself, holds back none of His blood. What a mysterious power is the human memory! To remember is to intend, to re-live something that now no longer exists, to make it intentionally present once again--yet not as it originally was, but strained through the (often distorting) filter of one's life, one's prejudices good and bad, one's temperament, one's fullness or lack of attention, one's imagination But also to remember is to unify one's life, the many disparate strands of one's consciousness, in a single recollected life, centered around some good. But again to remember is to attend to something--perhaps wrongly, to hold back what should be spent or given, as Jesus did not do in shedding His blood--or perhaps rightly, as when God (in that wonderful word) remembered Noah in the ark. I should remember myself and not dissipate myself--that is, I should know myself, recollect myself from the many distractions and temptations that threaten to pull me away from myself and fragment myself, be centered in all that I do around what is good. I should not remember myself and I should dissipate myself--that is, I should not think primarily of my own well-being but only center myself around what is more inward than my inmost self and higher than my highest self, the Good itself, and I should utterly spend myself, prodigally, profligately, in the service of that Good. This is the opposite of that will to destruction of meaning that I wrote about last night. There one remembers meaning and wills to destroy it; here one remembers meaning and wills that one should be utterly spent and lose one's life for its sake.

But this perhaps Augustinian analysis might not go far enough. For Augustine, memory is a mental power. That is true. But here, in the liturgy, memory goes further. To remember is to carve what is remembered on the palms of one's hand. Blood remembers better than ever mind alone could. There is no covenant without consummation. One must cease to remember oneself so as to be able to give oneself utterly: the blood of martyrdom or childbirth. Blood, like human seed, is not just a bodily fluid, but the very working of memory, a speech that can be, in its very physicality, spiritualized beyond mere conceptual thought, eloquent beyond this airy speech. In the consummation of marriage, the memory of the species and of the Church is perpetuated in the very flowing-forth of the seed. In the shedding of blood, the memory of self-gift, the unification of one's life around the Good which is this utter, prodigal self-pouring-forth, is effected.
To truly remember is to die for what one remembers, to be consumed by it, unifying one's life only in giving it away. 

Jesus, not thinking of Himself, not remembering Himself, gives Himself to the full, remembering the Good in shedding His blood and thereby giving birth to the Church. I cannot remember God or my true happiness or even myself unless I pour myself forth. We do not just remember internally. That is why our truest, most perfect memory, the Holy Mass, is not within us only, but is a sacrifice on the altar. I remember only if there is blood. Like Nietzsche says, to remember history is to take all that has gone before and transmute it into blood, into one's very life. His blood, pulsing in my veins, so that once more it may be shed and once more it may give birth unto eternal life. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Cheerful Nihilism

Two films that my wife and I have recently watched have led me to reflect on the notion of Nihilism (you know, "these men are nihilists, there's nothing to be afraid of.") A few weeks ago, we watched Francois Truffaut's four Antoine Doinel films (The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, and Love on the Run), and last night we watched Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo. (If you know Whit Stilman's work, Stolen Kisses is the film that the Cathar character--another nihilist--makes his girlfriend watch in Damsels in Distress. I think it's well worth watching, but I'm not going to talk about that film here.)

As one does, I mull over the much-vaunted eclipse of meaning in the modern world now and again. At times, I am overwhelmed with the apparent meaninglessness and valuelessness of the world; at times, I am struck by the deep and abiding significance and value of things. I've learned to take both experiences seriously. Both of them say to me, like they said to Walker Percy, "something is up!" But one must learn to take them seriously in different ways. It would not do to build a whole philosophy, an entire worldview equally on both. One must learn to prefer the latter sort of experience, and understand the former in terms of the latter.

Love on the Run opens with the anti-hero Antoine Doinel, sometime juvenile delinquent, debauchee,  petty thief, and pathological liar, in the midst of an affair while obtaining a divorce from his wife, by mutual agreement. In Bed and Board, they had come through many trials, mostly of his own making stemming from a pointless affair, and seemed to have reached a stability in their marriage, a stability marked by a constant battle of the sexes--but that is part of the joy of the love of man and woman, is it not? (Indeed, surely that is just part of what it is to be a man and a woman, as such!) But now, as Love on the Run opens, all of that is seen to be for nothing. Much of the film is taken up with flashbacks to the other films. There is a sort of regret, but it comes to little. Antoine claims to be in love with his new mistress, Sabine, but it is hard to tell which of his claims about himself are true--even for him, it seems. Despite claiming that he needs certainty in a relationship, he and Sabine decide to imagine that they are certain that their relationship with last forever (knowing full well, it would seem, that it will not), and in that state of cheerfully willed self-deception, the film ends.

When one thinks of nihilism, one might be tempted to think of the bleak and forlorn nihilists in The Idiot, or of a group of angry convention-defying anarchists or futurists (or the pathetic, violent, self-pitying nihilists of The Big Lebowski). (If you're an analytic philosopher, you might have thought of the view that there are only fundamental particles or simples; more on that anon.) But that's not the sort of nihilism depicted at the end of Love on the Run. This sort of nihilist is on the search for meaning, or at least believes himself on the search for meaning, but has both been lying so long that he lies even to himself. He no longer knows what is meaningful or not. He is willing to pretend, to deceive himself, for the chance at the feeling of meaning, even if he knows the whole time that this is not genuine meaning. To think oneself in love is better than genuine nothingness, which is unbearable. This is, indeed, a cheerful nihilism. It is not a love of nothingness. It is not really even an expression of the will to power, that will to dominate and create values that would clothe the nothingness of reality with significance of one's own making. At least, it is not a conscious will to power. It is a will to be deceived by the other, while willing to deceive oneself and the other, and while knowing that the other is deceiving herself (and knows she is doing so). It is a pleasant game. And since the deception of self and other is shared, it hardly amounts to a deception at all. It is, indeed, I would think, the possible basis of a genuine love, a gift of self to the other, made and received almost despite oneself, yet willingly for all that, and all the while quite happily.

The Purple Rose of Cairo depicts a young wife of an abusive husband during the Great Depression, whose only solace is in the movies. She spends an entire day watching showing after showing of a film, The Purple Rose of Cario, when in the midst of the fifth showing, one of the characters on screen comes off the screen and declares his love for her. He acts in a way entirely consonant with his character: earnest and sincere, truly loving, naive about life off the screen, with a genuine and charming innocence, able to make her fall in love with him. When the actor who plays this character arrives in town to try to make the character return to the film where he belongs, the actor succeeds in making the woman fall in love with her. When forced to choose between the fictional lover and the real one, she chooses reality. Yet the love of the fictional lover is real love, while the love of the real lover is an act, a manipulation. The real actor abandons her, and the film closes with her again taking solace in the fictional depiction of love on screen, real love lost to her forever.

Woody Allen's films nearly all exude a cheerful nihilism, but it is not the same as Truffaut's nihilism. Allen's films depict the world as genuinely meaningless; Truffaut's characters are at least on the search for meaning. Yet in both love is a sort of solace--though no love truly seems to last. Neither, however, teaches us to impose our own meaning on the world. And both teach us something that is, I think, really true. It is lesson that is taught to us, for example, by Roger Scruton in The Meaning of Conservatism: that genuine human meaning is "on the surface" of life. What is truly meaningful are values like the value of falling in love, of family, of one's nation, of one's home. These things cannot be explained away in terms of something "deeper", as, for example, Freudian or evolutionary psychology, or Marxism, or Foucaultian genealogy, or the ethics of suspicion, try to do. The reality of these things is in their appearance, at least as they appear to the one who is genuinely and artlessly open to them--yet they are also fragile, threatened by those "deeper" forces, needing to be defended. Meaning is given, but it is not cheap. The mistake of Allen and Truffaut's nihilism is thinking that everyday life must be explained away, that what appears cannot be real, and so must be suspected, albeit cheerfully. Allen holds that there is no God or immortality, yet he feels deeply (more deeply than any director I have seen) the value of place, and he also knows (however twistedly) the joy of love. Truffaut is suspicious of lasting love, yet he also longs for it, and is on the search for it--for that reason, despite his nihilist self-deception, it is perhaps not fair to call him a nihilist at all.

A Christian may love these cheerful nihilisms, and must even find a way to include the threat of meaninglessness (without embracing it fully) that they express so well into his religion. There is something truly human about them, a real longing for something worthwhile, however strained.

These cheerful nihilisms are greatly to be preferred to other sorts that leer at me invitingly from time to time. These forms know what they are about; they are not self-deceived; they are not on the search for given meanings.

First, there is the nihilism that thinks the world is meaningless, but seeks to impose meaning on it by the will to power (for despite all his protestations, Nietzsche too is probably a nihilist, as is anyone without God). But this nihilism at least recognizes the value of meaning and power, and so perhaps finds itself in the grips of some given value--the very value inherent in the will to power. For that is the escape from nihilism, as perhaps Dietrich Von Hildebrand saw better than anyone else: to allow oneself to be moved by a value given from without, to allow oneself to have given to one the beauty or the holiness or the purity (or the ugliness or the profanity, so long as it is objective and given) of things in the world. Realism is not enough; realism about values is needed, where one is moved by what is given, by these surface realities, and where what is given lifts one up to ever-more-transcendent heights. Theism is not enough, for there is a theism (that, for example, of John Milbank or of the occasionalists) that drains the world of meaning, and reduces all meaning to God. The only solution to nihilism is to see the world in a blaze of meaning and value (though not without losing the awareness of our fallen temptation to meaninglessness, and not without falling into a facile ascription of meaning to things).

In this same vein, there are those like Jean-Paul Sartre who are horrified, nay nauseated, at the meaninglessness of the world. But this is not, as Emmanuel Levinas recognized, not really nihilism either, but a spur to receive meaning from what comes from outside the meaningless world of physical processes and self-imposed meanings--that is, from the transcendent, from other persons and from God. There is still the opening to cheer here.

Second, there is the nihilism that says that there is nothing but physical processes or, as the analytic metaphysicans say, simples, that is, fundamental particles. This is a more horrific nihilism, but those who hold are not normally nihilists in the sense of experiencing the meaninglessness of their world. We should be glad for this, that the nihilists do not realize their own nihilism, but instead clothe the particles with meanings generated by "society" or "reason" or I know not what. Those who think that there really are only fundamental particles, by and large still act as though they also believed (or recognized the need to pretend that they believe, for their own safety if nothing else) that there are rights, or autonomy, or something like that. But this is really a deception. If nihilism in this sense is true, then there are no such things, and only our fragile social contract (which also does not exist) keeps up the pretense. If one really holds this form of nihilism, then there are really only two options: the option of suicide, or the option of the Marquis de Sade, who is the philosopher of the modern world, for whom only sensation matters--or, indeed, for whom  there is only sensation ("mattering" being not a thing this philosophy can speak of). If this nihilism is true, then there is no reason not to procure sensation by any means: no violence or cruelty or sexual perversion is to be set aside, for all are equally sensations. Consent is of no moment, autonomy an illusion, rights a boring fiction. This nihilism entails sadism (not our pathetic contemporary sanitized 50 Shades of Gray sadism, but the real deal.) There is no cheer in this nihilism. It is not the un-self-aware will to pleasure of the man of the flesh, nor yet the nihilism of the aesthete. It is a nihilism that has drained all the glory from the world, that leaves nothing but sensation, in ever increasingly terrible forms. I know of no depiction of it that I can morally recommend better than Edgar Degas' painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages. I know how to get out of the first nihilism. I do not know how to get out of this one. It is hell itself, though not yet the lower circles.

But this is not the worst nihilism, not the nihilism against which we must strive with all our might, which is the will to meaninglessness. This is the nihilism that sees the meaning and value in the world in all its splendor and hates it, that would blot it all out. This is not the pride that seeks to subordinate all things to oneself--that is not nihilism at all, or at worst it is the first sort, for it sees and loves the value of oneself (or at least the value one gives to oneself by one's will to power). This is the hatred of even one's own value. This is the longing only to destroy, that there may be literally nothing. As a good Aristotelian, believing that all things are done for the sake of some good, I hardly know if I can speak of such things. But as a good phenomenologist, I must speak of such things, for they do appear, or at least the temptation to them appears. This is the deepest of horrors, the bottom-most circle of hell, the infinite depths of the abyss.

This is, I say, nothing like the cheerful nihilism of Allen and Truffaut's charming films. But I also say that this is one place that charming nihilism can lead. I have not read Cardinal Sarah's recent book God or Nothing. But that does seem the choice posed to us. To affirm God (in a non-nihilistic way) is also to affirm the value of each being in itself (and not merely or maybe not at all, as Heidegger thought, the value of "Being"), the beauty and meaning that calls us higher, to render the world good and pure and great-souled. To shy away from this is to be on the road to sucking all the meaning out of things, to be left only with hatred for the fact that one must be, without being able to ever cease to be.