I had the great pleasure of talking to Elias Crim on Solidarity Hall's podcast, Dorothy's Place:
"The subtitle of the latest book from the wonderfully literate Scott Beauchamp is "Reunderstanding My Military Experience as a Critique of Modern Culture." In this conversation, Scott and I talk about boredom, ritual, community, honor, and the symbolism of cigarettes. Other topics are the war poetry of David Jones, the philosophy of Byung-Chul Han, and his new book about dead malls and the sublime."
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.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor