22 January 2011

A Disclaimer (and then some)

As such readers as I've got must surely have gleaned by now, I'm no literary critic. Indeed, I shouldn't be surprised if I turned out to be every modern literary critic's horror. Not to mention every literary historian's. I never could get the hang of all those early-to-mid-20th-century Modernist writers, composers, painters, etc, with their nagging sense - correct me if I'm wrong - of the obsolescence of beauty? Somehow they've always struck me as operating under the conviction that, the universe being a mostly ugly, pointless and misbegotten place, it was the Artist's solemn duty to mimic that same hideous cosmos in all the most human-mocking, human-despising ways a good atheist soul could devise.

(Now that's not quite fair. Certainly T S Eliot, for one, believed in more or less the Judaeo-Christian God. Though I do get the distinctly Eliotic impression, in more than a few places, that his God got us all started for the primary purpose of showing us how Nature - human or otherwise - is not done. If I may paraphrase one of G K Chesterton's more decidedly sinister and conspiratorial characters, Lord Ivywood of The Flying Inn:

"The world was made badly, and we [humans] must make it over again."

Or at least make ourselves all over again. Anyhow, that's the best I can make of Eliot's Theology of Man. Again and again I find, particularly in the "middle Eliot" of the '20s and '30s, this restless sense of the decadence and rottenness, and even horribleness, of created things, and not least our own creaturely selves. The mood is especially palpable in several of his Ariel Poems - e.g., "Animula" and "Marina" - in Sweeney Agonistes, and in the Chorus speeches of Murder in the Cathedral. It's as if we humans were deliberately misbegotten for one main reason: namely that, through diligent application of the right measures of self-abasement and self-loathing, we might transcend our primeval slime, and so give back to our Creator the sort of improved final product able to meet His most exacting demands. Indeed, Eliot almost seems to me to be suggesting that, by despising ourselves enough, we could become our own creators - though we could never, of course, escape the taint and stigma of our original creaturehood. Or is he rather saying it's not by any works of ours but only by Divine grace that we're empowered to hate ourselves rightly? I have no idea. But Christian Eliot-lovers who disagree either way are welcome to enlighten me.)

And now, having got that off my chest, here's what I really want to say:

Thank God for 18th- and 19th-century Romanticism - and particularly the kind inveighed against and ridiculed by Wildean aesthetes and 20th-century Modernists. Thank God for the "conventional" Romantics - Wordsworth, Keats, etc - with their intimations of immortality: their haunted sense that our human aesthetic yearnings (the best of Bloomsbury to the contrary notwithstanding) are not self-referential, autonomous, "art for art's sake" things, but rather symbols, significations, symptoms of what may be our very oldest hunger - the aching for a "lost" wholeness and innocence and peace. Thank God for their recognition - however poorly or feebly defended - that something even as humble as beauty can have not only reality but meaning. And lastly, a special thanks for the English Romantic sense that no loveliness is too small, or ever wasted: that the beauties of even the simplest and lowliest, most neglected and discarded creatures - both God's and (I daresay) even a few of our own - have yet their part to play in the unfolding of the Divine magnificence.

16 January 2011

Mere Grousing

Beauty is unquestionably in the eye of the beholder. But can we be sure it isn't also found elsewhere?

One observer gets misty-eyed at the sight of a grouse, shrouded in mist, lighting on the edge of some nameless pond which, if not exactly desolate, certainly appears to have been abandoned. Or at least by any such god as our hero could honestly imagine ever leading him in vengeful battle. So much the better too, one feels, for everyone concerned: pond, grouse and hero. And yet another's eyes are dry as the dust whence she came.

There is a reason sometimes - and it's a good reason - why our imaginations are alive to precisely those features of another living thing to which a more matter-of-"fact," prosaic, unimaginative eye is blind. We aren't necessarily "just imagining" the grace-fullness, say, of a swallow in flight. Certainly, in any case, we have no right to presume the Grace is not "really there" - either in swallow or in flight. But just as like responds to like, and deep calls unto deep, and spiritual things are no less spiritually discerned, sometimes it takes nothing more than the fancy 0f one order of being - even one as dead-alive, muddled and presumptuous as the human - to discern what is playfully, whimsically, delightingly present in Another's.

13 January 2011

A Sizable Down-Payment on Dictatorship

Tucson, AZ - Yes, I know that in every society, in every age, there have always been folks who are maladjusted, morbidly depressed, violently deranged, psychotic, even psychopathic. What I'm not so sure of is whether the majority of them have always acted upon their torments in quite this modern manner - in these formulaic, imitative, repetitive ways. Though I will tell you what impresses me most about our recent US innovations on the age-old theme of violent madness: It's the degree of planning and organization that goes into it all - days, months, in a few cases perhaps even years. And think of the choreography involved, the flair for showmanship, the penchant for self-dramatization. Clearly these are no ordinary, village-idiot-style lunatics who've been clamoring for society's attention in recent decades. And what's with the Rambo impersonations, the increasingly weird sense of calling and mission, the enacted fantasies of being some sort of avenging (or delivering) angel? Whatever happened to old-fashioned, get-it-out-of-your-system running amok? And then having no clear recollection of the time in between?

And speaking of time, why on earth is all this organized carnage happening now, of all the world's Great Ages? or here, of all great places? It's as if rampage killers had some sort of nasty, grossly unfair prejudice against late-20th- and early 21st-century America. Really, I shouldn't be surprised if it was all part of some jealous, decadent European conspiracy. Why else, in these Two Most Glorious and Enlightened Decades in All of Human History, and in this Most Christian of All Possible Countries, would so many unhappy people choose not just to explode but to arrange a pre-timed detonation? Not just to vent but to militarize their madness, their pain and rage - and all so deliberately, systematically, mass-murderously? And why, with such a growing wealth of clinical experience in these matters to draw on, do our ways of managing mental disorders - all rooted, mind you, in the World's Very Best Health-Care System - seem so unprepared, so makeshift and disjointed, and the cracks and gaps wider than ever?

"You know something? Do yourself a favor. Yourself and everyone else who has to listen to your rot. Deal with it. Crawl out from whatever rock it is you live under and just DEAL WITH IT. Or better yet, go to Sweden, or wherever it is losers like you go to in order to hide from real life. Because in case it's escaped your attention, Robinson Crusoe, this isn't some Scandinavian-style kindergarten economy you're dealing with. This is adult-version REAL LIFE: full of risk and uncertainty and insecurity. And as far as escalating, random, indiscriminate violence is concerned, you'd better get used that too, buddy. Because it's the price we pay - yes, the price genuine Americans are proud to pay - for real freedom, real dynamism, real innovativeness."

Yes, maybe. But cannot even the freest, most innovative societies reach such levels of violence that it ceases to be merely a price paid for present freedoms, and becomes something more like a down-payment on future dictatorship? Are we quite sure history has nothing to teach us on these matters - the history, say, of pre-Napoleonic France, or pre-Hitler Germany? Peer closely into those dynamic times and places. When the ensuing dictators in each case took the reins, didn't there arise an audible sigh of relief from precisely those whom today we regard as freedom's most stalwart defenders: the wealthy and powerful - yes, even the privately rich and powerful?

And that reminds me. What do you suppose is the real point of this (to the best of my knowledge) unprecedented civilianization of military-scale weaponry? Or at least of its celebration, in our media, journalism, and political imaginations? Here we are, immersed in a whole entertainment culture that - what shall we say, romanticizes? - civilian access to some pretty impressive firepower: the sort of arsenals I imagine might still be the envy of a few rebel militias round the globe. So tell me: When Antichrist does come, will that be enough to make us ready with our rebel militia? Will it all be as simple as grabbing our high-powered weapons, jumping into our rugged-terrain vehicles (all the while linked by our real-time, up-to-the-minute-dispatch communication technologies), and heading for the hills? Mind you, from where I stand, we do appear to be on the threshold of a new era: the age of a radically new, defiant-of-history, beholden-to-no-one-and-nothing American civilization. Assuming we're not already a decade or two well into it. But who could have predicted, at the height of the Cold War, that this glorious post-Cold War peace would also prove to be such a, well, militarization? And not just of time and telephones - but of women, and religion, and even retail ("I'm on my way to the PX - er, Costco") . . .

"Since you obviously have difficulty comprehending what you read, I'LL SPELL IT OUT FOR YOU: "When you see the Abomination that makes desolate standing in the holy place, let those who are in Judaea flee to the hills . . . "

Yes, but note that our Lord speaks of Judaea. Can we be equally sure He was also referring to Boise, Idaho? And certainly nothing from the context of these passages suggests a backdrop of paramiltaries or private militias, or even of the beating of humble plowshares into swords. In any case, is all this stockpiling of weapons - whether of the real or the wished-and-hoped-for kind - really going to prevent the emergence of an American police state? Or rather, is our paramilitary hysteria merely working to ensure that, when dictatorship finally does come, it will not only be unprecedentedly brutal and thorough, but seem both inevitable and overwhelmingly justified?

06 January 2011

Epiphany: A Point of Punctuation

Words aren't everything, but they might well be somewhere near 80% of it. Isn't it amazing, the unlikely, unpalatable, patently offensive things we can get away with saying, provided we say them in the right way? A Way shaped by recognition of the fact that our listener is never just a Democrat, or a Republican, but more importantly - at least for Love's purposes - a creature like ourselves? And thus a creature more or less accessible (at least on occasion) to some of the same appeals, entreaties, overtures? So that our conversation may have at last some hope of becoming more than just a tense, transient parleying-ground between Light and Darkness?

And of course the right way most often means choosing the right words, and between them the right pauses, silences, music, etc, etc. It means the sort of musical words that know intimately, not just what makes us political, or awesomely smart, or irredeemably stupid, but what makes us human. Imagine, for instance, how Shakespeare might have written, well, just about anything he wrote - had he been solemnly convinced that those who disagreed with him politically and economically were idiots, or monsters. Or devils. What effect do you suppose his staunch convictions would have had upon his language? Would they have made his words more undulant, more cadenced, more a-dance with imagery that evokes nameless and haunting things - or drier, more stiff, less playful, less pulsing with real life? What about his characters, and his insights into human nature as a whole: would they be fuller, more balanced, more real and convicting and identifiable with ourselves? Or would his fierce, uncompromising stance have made his creatures more stock and wooden, his observations more starched, his insights more stuffed with maxims and platitudes? And supposing those same characters could be made to come alive in front of him, what then? Do you think his stern convictions would make it easier for him to talk to them, reason with them, listen to their stories? Or easier to interrupt them?

And so I characterize the right words as musical words, that seem to know us intimately - almost as if our human nature itself were a kind of music, a sort of composition. Or else they seem to follow the thread, or to enter into the warp and woof, of what makes us human - almost as if they had been there when it happened. Almost as if they'd somehow pierced to the heart of what makes us who and what we are, long before there could be any question of self-seriousness or self-importance, or pride in self-accomplishment. And also, as if they'd dredged the depths of what unmakes us. Or more accurately, who - in both cases. The Lord God in the case of our making; mostly ourselves (with a little judicious input from Old Scratch) in the case of our unmaking. Ah, now there's a real difference of Light and Darkness for you, besides being the one from which all the others derive. But notice how everything ultimately comes down to God and Man, and how to make perfect the Life between them. And as for all the rest (Satan, demons, powers and principalities, etc), why, what else should we expect - other than the outermost darkness and stumbling - when we try to be conformed to some unnatural, hideous image of ourselves, promulgated by one who hates us?

That is why I keep saying that our God-making, even at its dilapidated worst, is always better than our self-unmaking at its most rational, streamlined, state-of-the-art best. Any making always bears some imprint, some stamp - however badly effaced - of the God who made and walked in Eden; whereas the sharpest, most industrial-strength, most indelible imprint of Man only shows how far from Eden we've wandered, and how efficiently the debasing of the coinage has progressed. And at some level of consciousness however primitive, our quietly-discerned, heedfully-chosen words can know and reflect - and celebrate - that difference. Even as (I believe on more than a few occasions) Shakespeare's did.

In the same way, the worst real creatures are better than the best ideas. The problem with ideas and other reconstructive surgery is that they are always limited by what we make of them, whereas real things are as limitless as only God can make them. Including - dare I suggest it? - even the Maker Himself. Think about it. God being God, do you really suppose it was beyond Him, had He wanted to, to "incarnate" Himself among us as an idea, an agenda, even an organization? To be the kind of superarching, overawing achievement, or program, or system, as would make any mere individual human being quake in her military-corporate boots? Why, then, do you think He enters among us as something, if you will, so much tinier, and so much less impressive? As something that organizations and agendas, and occasionally even ideas, have been known to become very impatient and exasperated with - if not to despise outright, and dismiss out-of-hand? Why does our God become, in short, a real creature? Oh, but that's nothing compared to the strangeness of what follows. Because then, instead of inspiring and consoling, challenging and disturbing us with new thoughts, or new motivational points, or new performance levels, He goes on to use this same New Creature to make us, in our turn, into new creatures. Or stranger yet, He makes Himself to be both the seed, and the seedbed, of - but what's this you say now? not a new philosophy or ideology, or set of self-evident constitutional principles, or infallible economic axioms - but a new Creation?

At least that's what I think He told us. But if so - if God did indeed so love the creatures He made - then all the more reason why our best words should want to mold and fashion themselves according to the pattern of real things, and not just our ideas of things. After all, if God thought enough of His own creation to want to make it new, should our words respect it any less? Hence also the reason why the best words never fall into the trap of taking even good ideas too seriously. They understand an idea's weakness - surely at least 60% of any idea - no less than its strength. And of course concepts, agendas, blueprints all have their place. They are a time-honored shorthand method of classifying, deconstructing, utilizing, even measuring just about everything we humans do, and practically everything we are - except, of course, our Selves.

Good words, on the other hand, are really nothing like most of our ideas at all. For one thing, they're extremely loath to pronounce upon things on which they have no really good handle. Or at least, on which they have no better grasp than, say, the conclusions of some highly superior extraterrestrial visitor regarding his latest captured specimen of that mysterious animal, Man. I'll admit the intergalactic alien may have solid-enough grounds for thinking he knows us inside and out. But at the end of all his most painstaking experiments (assuming she survives them), will he know your friend - or what makes her a friend - one-eighth as well as you do? Or perhaps you'd prefer that we consulted our visiting ET for his cutting-edge intergalactic wisdom and insight into - perhaps quite literally into - the human condition, as he ever-so-gently probes us with his latest telepathic instruments. Fine. Call me a sentimental old fool. I shall persist in believing the right words, rhythms, etc, know an even better way - albeit a very different One - both around, and into us.

What do I mean then by words that both intimately know, and speak intimately to, another human soul? I mean words that are never eager to burst out of their kitchen-doors - much less probe and interrogate - but they're always ready when they do. They are ready because they have first prepared and flavored and seasoned themselves, because they have first been steeped and dyed in the presence of that soul, and of its Maker - and because they are still fresh from the strangeness, the poetry of that encounter, before it can stale, or ossify, into familiarity and prose. The right way, then, means the kinds of musical words that understand - even, or especially, when we don't - both the maddeningly simple innocence, and the unfathomable riches and complexity that make up our common human nature (which also goes some distance, I believe, towards explaining our capacity for evil). To say nothing of the wild, magical, unrepeatable ways in which that nature is individualized in each and every human creature. So individualized, and so vital, in fact, that the absence of contribution from any one of us always leaves a tear in the fabric, and a vacant (and sorely mourned) seat at the Table.

In sum, the right words not only know, but know how to enjoy, those things that make each of us at once both commonly human and uncommonly irreplaceable. They would never dream, for instance, of asking how much of Mary is "nature," and how much "nurture." And not merely because they'd consider the question highly intrusive and impertinent, but because they know there was already something in her, and Someone even deeper within and beyond that, long before either of those would-be tyrants had begun to have their say. Yet neither is it just where Mary "came from," or what has "gone into" her, that interests them. In a sense the right words also know her future, where she is going to, and even more to the point, what will nourish and safe-keep her along the way. They know - better than even the wisest, most probing extraterrestrial! - that it isn't power or knowledge or technology, but rather the God who loved her from Adam's loins, and Eve's womb, who is Mary's life, her food, her substance - and who is no less the key to her individuality, and creativity. Perhaps - who knows? - even her productivity. And thus do the right words - which always consist of the right marriage of meaning and sound - speak to Mary, but more importantly listen to her, accordingly. Good words always listen before they speak. Indeed, what better way to say things that are uniquely and individually affecting, to each human soul, than to use words that are literally creative - not in the sense of conjuring magickally or "creating from nothing" - but as if some part of the Creation had rubbed off on them? Almost as if they'd been listening when it happened, because, after all, they'd been there.

Certainly my own prayer is that we may never be satisfied with, or settle for, the familiarity and contemptuousness of mere prosaic words. I mean, haven't we as a species already wandered far enough from Eden - and by that I mean not so much the place as the Presence? My own prayer, then, is that we may never forget how to use living words: words that keep us alive to the strangeness, the freshness, the unexpectedness, of every one of us, and every thing of us - just as surely as if each (man, beast, herb, etc) had emerged newly from the peace of the Garden. And that's why, again, I keep saying we need words that secrete music. Words that not only know their Way inside us, without stumbling or getting lost, but that know also when they've reached their destination - which usually turns out to be some Eden in our souls we may easily enough deny, but can never, ever forget. Best of all, no destination need ever be an impossible one to reach, or one requiring extraordinary feats of poetics or other wordcraft. Sometimes getting there can be as simple as taking a message that burns inside us, longing to come out (God will supply the music) - a word we might have reconstructed into something as weak and stiff as an injunction, a threat, an exhortation - and rephrasing it in the form of a question.