How many joules of consciousness would make you a human instead of a chimpanzee? How many more joules of consciousness would make you a genius?
From the moment they wake from a nap in a spring breeze safely removed from the front line, we never leave the side of lance corporals Tom Blake and Will Schofield. We walk with them into the trenches to receive their mission: deliver an urgent message to a general 15 miles away who is positioning his 1,600 men to charge into a trap. We climb over the embankments into no-man’s land with them as they make their way through barbed wire and dead men and rotting horses into recently-abandoned enemy territory. We run through destroyed French cities and float along corpse-ridden rivers with them as they make their way to save the battalion—and Blake’s brother, who is among the men to lead the attack.
The unique storytelling technique is surely one reason the film has been nominated for a number of Oscars. It is also a clear example of what Catholics will recognize as a sacramental approach to art. If a sacrament is a symbol that effects what it signifies, this film succeeds in incarnating the horror of war for our imaginations. The viewer leaves with a visceral feeling of what the experience was like for those who fought and died.
In fact, the film gets even more explicit with Catholic imagery. In part, this is because the story reflects the worldview of those who fought in the Great War, but I think Mendes is up to something more. The construction of the references points to an effort to deliberately grab hold of this sacramental worldview and use it as a cinematic tool.
A relevant taxonomy from Park MacDougald in Tablet:
They do, however, have a set of shared intellectual touchstones. One frequently cited influence is the historian Christopher Lasch, originally a socialist and fellow-traveler of the New Left who, from the 1970s until his early death in 1994, evolved into a lacerating critic of post-’60s America. Lasch argued that the “meritocracy” that had emerged from the social convulsions of the 1960s was a sham, producing an insular, culturally radical elite alienated from and contemptuous of the supposedly bigoted and backward country that it governed. This critique echoed neoconservative attacks on the liberal “new class” of academics and bureaucrats, but Lasch, ever the old Marxist, sought to tie the cultural obsessions of this elite to an increasingly globalized capitalism that had made it possible for them to break the economic, social, and cultural power of the middle and working classes. As one Republican congressional aide in his mid-20s put it to me, reading Lasch in college was “a radicalizing experience for me. Especially on the right, there’s a poverty of approaching any of this stuff from an economic perspective; of looking at class interest and how people within a certain stratum will work to pull the levers of culture to protect their own interests and status.”
The rising influence of Lasch and other communitarians tracks with a broader shift away from the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” position popular with young right-wingers during the Obama years, and toward a newfound social conservatism tied to a form of class critique. Many of the people I spoke to said they had been libertarians in college—one called libertarianism “a way of announcing that you’re contrarian and a right-winger but that you’re totally cool with the way that sex works in the American upper-middle class”—but have since moved right on social issues. Charles Fain Lehman, a 25-year-old writer and editor for the Washington Free Beacon, described a disillusionment with “freedom as quote-unquote self-actualization.” There is, he said, a “a strong realization” that “it actually makes people quite miserable.”
In which I use the poetics of David Jones to explore war as noumenon:
Of course, war is violent and cruel. Of course, as a political act, it can be necessary or unnecessary. But when you’re trying to understand the experience of being in war, this didacticism blinds you to the vastness of the event. War is always everything you think you know about it and then more.
James Hankins on why contemporary people find de Vinci so accessible:
Leonardo, in other words, resembles the modern type of humanist, free (or bereft) of religion, seeking orientation in the world by human reason and human observation alone. He was never a humanist such as the Renaissance produced from the time of Petrarch, over a hundred years before his birth. This circumstance removes another barrier between the artist and his modern viewers. To be a Renaissance humanist meant learning classical languages, mastering classical texts, and above all accepting the ancients—including ancient Christians—as models for modern lives. An artist influenced by Renaissance humanism (or a humanistically educated artist like Vasari) produced learned art, requiring a classical education to appreciate. Humanist art was also didactic, meant to communicate moral and political lessons. All of that was foreign to Leonardo. He had almost no formal education and could not read Latin, the doorway to all the academic disciplines in his time. As a youth he was given basic training in Florentine business methods (which he despised and flouted) and was apprenticed to the trade of making decorative objects for the wealthy in the workshop of his master Verrocchio. He is an Old Master, but he does not participate deeply in the rich Christian and classical traditions that inform the art of the Old Masters from the Renaissance down to the eighteenth century. Hence little or no knowledge of history, classical literature, or even Christian sources is required to appreciate Leonardo’s works. Your head can be perfectly empty of religion and traditional culture and still marvel at Leonardo’s recreations of nature. For most modern museum-goers, that provides immense relief from what might be called the anxiety of ignorance.
Such materialist naivety, ironically enough, is precisely what makes so much of Neel’s initial neo-Marxist analysis of America’s post-industrial cultural wasteland so compelling and accurate, as it strips the more superficial aspects of contemporary “culture” bare to expose the brutal economic logic which frames so much of our “long crisis.” Nevertheless deeper cultural realities exist, even beneath the secondary layer of the economic brute events that Neel believes, incorrectly, are the key to forging a new class consciousness in a post-industrial age.
Neel and others on the left are correct when they diagnose the racial resentments of the far right – resentments that are frequently manipulated by elites to divide cohorts of wage earners who would otherwise be natural allies. These are, to some degree, petty obfuscations of economic reality. But the hard truth is that this economic analysis still ignores the deeper distinctions between groups which inevitably prevent the establishment of genuine “class solidarity.” However, contra the far right, these distinctions are not based upon the superficialities of “blood and soil” – to believe this is fundamentally to affirm something that is just another version of materialism. Rather, the distinctions are based upon the mytho-poetic imagination of particular cultures and civilizations: imaginations which are ultimately derived from peculiar religious traditions and which subconsciously frame the symbolic orders and value systems of particular peoples.
Without shared foundational assumptions of what constitutes “the good,” assumptions which can, when one is being honest with oneself, only be provided by religious revelation, no real and lasting solidarity that transcends the superficial is possible.
“What I want to make plain,” wrote Lionel Trilling in a 1947 letter to a friend, “is my deep distaste for liberal culture.” Coming from a purported liberal and the soon-to-be author of The Liberal Imagination, Trilling recognized such a sentiment was “difficult to explain.” He found himself to be “in accord with most of the liberal ideas of freedom, tolerance, etc.,” and yet
"the tone in which these ideals are uttered depress[es] me endlessly. I find it wholly debased, downright sniveling, usually quite insincere. It sells everything out in human life in order to gain a few things it can understand as good. It isn’t merely that I believe that our liberal culture doesn’t produce great art and lacks imagination—it is that I think it produces horrible art and has a hideous imagination."
One could read this passage as demonstrating Trilling’s openness to the criticisms of liberalism, and therefore as exemplifying what the well-known contemporary liberal critic Adam Gopnik calls, in his latest book A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (2019), liberalism’s “tolerance for difference.” But that would be to miss, from the perspective of much of what we call liberal cultural criticism today, what is most striking about it. Trilling was not just open to critics of liberalism; he was one. He did not merely tolerate the distaste others expressed for liberalism’s “sniveling” imagination; he felt it himself.
On the basis of reputation alone, it would be possible to think of Gopnik as a figure who is laboring in Trilling’s drift. The author of several books on modern art and culture, Gopnik has been a polymathic fixture in the New Yorker since 1986, when he introduced himself with an essay about the similarities between his two passions: fifteenth-century Italian painting and the Montreal Expos. For Gopnik, as for Trilling, if we want to understand liberalism as a political “program” we have first to understand it as “a temperament.” And for Gopnik, as for Trilling, it is best to look for the inner nature of that temperament not in Hobbes or Locke but in Montaigne, whose “undulating and diverse being” Trilling cited as an ideal for the liberal critic. Montaigne, Gopnik writes, “saw, in the late Renaissance, that we are double in ourselves,” that “we condemn the thing we believe and embrace the thing we condemn.”
But while Gopnik voices appreciation for this doubleness, his writing bears little trace of it. In A Thousand Small Sanities, he does not condemn the thing he believes; he embraces it. And that thing is liberalism. On the first page he tells us liberalism has been “proven true by history,” and the remainder of the book is devoted to harassing us into accepting this proof, with fusillades of superlatives when necessary. (Later in the introduction, Gopnik calls liberalism “one of the great moral adventures in human history”; a sentence after that, in what I assume will come as a surprise to people of faith, he calls it “the most singular spiritual episode in all of human history.”) This is not to say Gopnik is insensible to the perceived shortcomings of liberalism. He would not be a good liberal, he acknowledges, unless he tried, as “eloquently” as he could, to grapple with the arguments against liberal ideas. Close to half of Small Sanities is taken up with his competent reproductions of the traditional lines of anti-liberal attack. But while Gopnik’s liberal commitment to openness may enjoin him to give the criticisms of liberalism a fair hearing, what never seems to occur to him is what Trilling felt viscerally: that the criticisms of liberalism could be true.
Ellmann’s method confronts an inherent problem in trying to write about the mind directly: consciousness doesn’t really consist of language – or only of language. Wyndham Lewis criticised Joyce’s method for this reason, saying that Ulysses was a failure because Bloom was ‘abnormally wordy. He thought in words, not images, for our benefit, in a fashion as unreal, from the point of view of the strictest naturalist dogma, as a Hamlet soliloquy.’ But it’s difficult to see how he could have done anything else, and Ellmann endows her narrator with a language entirely appropriate to her personality: polite and self-consciously self-doubting.
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