It is no secret that in contemporary America there are many people who hardly read at all, and then another sizable group who, though they keep up with news, sports and the latest fads in self-care or technology, have little interest in serious fiction, poetry or literary commentary. It would be wrong to say such people hate literature, for one has to care about something to truly hate it. What my classmate in the survey course had precociously recognized was that we were being introduced to a phenomenon both subtler and more sinister than the neglect or ignorance of literature. Our professors had a great deal invested in novels and poems; and it was probably even the case that, at some point, they had loved them. But they had convinced themselves that to justify the “study” of literature it was necessary to immunize themselves against this love, and within the profession the highest status went to those for whom admiration and attachment had most fully morphed into their opposites. Their hatred of literature manifested itself in their embrace of theories and methods that downgraded and instrumentalized literary experience, in their moralistic condemnation of the literary works they judged ideologically unsound, and in their attempt to pass on to their students their suspicion of literature’s most powerful imaginative effects.
Charmed by a digital caricature of ourselves, we’re also distracted from the fact that we’re not doing anything to make the world a better place for humans to flourish. Things like Replika, as well-intentioned as they might be, essentially function as a way to acclimate individuals to our brave new world of social isolation rather than changing the structure which creates the problem in the first place. C. Wright Mills wrote in “The Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists” that there’s a certain class (we might call them the professional managerial class) that defines social change in the most attenuated terms, mostly in terms of adapting individuals to the society that they’ve created for them. Instead of changing society to meet the needs of human nature, they create ad hoc ways (typically products, either technological or psychological) of forcing us to conform to their inhumane culture. Things like Replika are attempts to fine-tune the human personality to passing progressive social fashions of the day.
“Novels want, counterintuitively, to return to us the full weight of the world. They are just the mental prosthesis we use to remind ourselves that reality is always a bit more vast than either our common sense or ideologies would have us believe."
Thomas Aquinas is a most profound ally to the localist cause because Thomas understood the essentiality of a life of attachment and wonder. To marvel in the world we inhabit, to root our ability to marvel in the very soil that nourishes the plant and animal and rational souls, ensures the true deep ecology that gives life to the human person. Once this awe, this marvel, this wonder, is destroyed—which comes with the severing of life from that ladder of mystical being—we fall into the world of lust, objectification, and, ultimately, death. No wonder that the expulsion from Eden ends not in death but in the restoration, the replanting, into a New Eden resulting in life. As Dante said of this New Eden, while paying homage to Thomas, “From those holiest waters I returned / to her reborn, a tree renewed, in bloom / with newborn foliage, immaculate, / eager to rise, now ready for the stars.”
I don't agree with McLaverty-Robinson's conclusions here, but his articulation of Agamben's argument is spot on and important to understand. We have a responsibility to know how our foremost intellectuals, even (especially?) those we disagree with, respond to public crises. And Agamben is always rewarding to think both with/against:
In Medicine as Religion, Agamben argues that science, Christianity and capitalism have long coexisted as major worldviews. This coexistence has been broken by science. Science, or rather the part of it which takes the form of a religion, is now trying to reshape existence in an unheard-of way. The church and capitalism, and people who accept the lockdown, have ceded their own political and religious convictions along with their movement, friendships and loves. Medicine is in the forefront. It is part of the pragmatic rather than dogmatic wing of science. Agamben argues that medicine as a doctrine is “Gnostic-Manichean”. It relies on exaggerated dualisms. It takes on the eschatological task of Christianity, i.e. the salvation of the soul and the existential relationship to death. The resultant practices were formerly episodic. They have now taken over all of social life, and been made compulsory for everyone. Life becomes an “uninterrupted cultic celebration” of the medical faith, i.e. the struggle against the virus. The current crisis is like an indefinitely prolonged day of judgement. This is similar to earlier totalitarian tendencies in Christianity. However, like capitalism, science does not offer redemption. It only prolongs struggle. The current crisis is the culmination of the global civil war which has replaced world wars. It is clear to Agamben that this is cultic because other, greater causes of death are not treated similarly. For example, nobody has tried to legally impose healthy eating to reduce heart disease.
....whereas the resurrection of Christ in a sense breaks the bonds of the social order that crucifies, so as to inaugurate a new history, a new city, whose story is told along the infinite axis of divine peace, the religious dynamism of Attic tragedy has the form of a closed circle; it reinforces the civic order it puts into question, by placing that order within a context of cosmic violence that demonstrates not only the limits but the necessity ofthe city's regime.
These irresoluble contradictions within moral order belong often to a civic order of injustice, which tragedy dissimulates by displacing the responsibility for civic violence to a metaphysical horizon of cosmic violence; the sacrificial structure of the polis is presented as the sacrificial order of the world.
Perhaps, however, it is just this mythos - this pagan metanarrative of ontological violence - that the Christian narrative has from its beginning rejected, and against which it must pose itself as an alternative wisdom. Greek tragedy, as a gnosis, a vision of truth, is a particularly alluring feature of a particular linguistic economy, a narrative of being according to which the cosmos is primordially a conflict of irreconcilable forces, embraced within the overarching violence of fate; and the wisdom it imparts is one of accommodation, resignation before the unsynthesizable abyss of being, a willingness on the part of the spectator to turn back toward the polis as a refuge from the turmoils of a hostile universe, reconciled to its regime and its prudential violences, its martial logic.
From my Washington Examiner magazine review of Roberto Calasso's latest book, The Celestial Hunter:
In The Celestial Hunter, Calasso has blended philosophy, myth, theology, and literary analysis to create a masterpiece of what Friedrich Nietzsche called "impure thought," described by Calasso in an interview as "a kind of thought where abstractions are so mixed with the facts of life that you can’t disentangle them." The eighth installment of Calasso's decadeslong project to map the origins of human consciousness, The Celestial Hunter is essentially about the role that hunting played in man’s understanding of his self and his place in the world. It was the act of killing from a distance, Calasso maintains, that led not only to “thought that for the first time felt no need to be presented as a story,” but to an overpowering blend of guilt and reverence for the killed animal, which culminated in the complexity of culture itself.
You’re both talking about a vision of human flourishing and of the common good that grows out of Christianity. But in a pluralistic society, can this Christian vision be translated into politics?
West: The Christian way of life allows us to look unflinchingly at the wretchedness in the human condition, and still emerge with joy, with a commitment to perseverance. Happiness in the modern sense is not really part of Christian discourse. The Declaration of Independence tells us that we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But that’s a secular influence. When it comes to spiritual food, I don’t really go to brothers like Thomas Jefferson. When you’re committed to trying to love people, really trying to be a neighbor, then you run into W. H. Auden’s wonderful question: How do you learn to love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart? That’s the call, that’s what’s demanded, that’s the wretchedness that we must look at unflinchingly. But it doesn’t turn you into a nihilist, or to revenge or hatred. What’s on the other side is following Jesus: “Pick up your cross and follow me.”
George: Human flourishing has got to be something more substantial than just “happiness” considered as a pleasant psychological state that might be induced by serotonin-stimulating drugs, or hedonistic living, or by wielding power over others. We are embodied creatures who are also rational souls. And we can make choices that advance our flourishing in our physical and intellectual lives. We can eat well; we can think carefully; we can nurture our relationships with family members and friends; we can appreciate excellence in literature, music, art and architecture, sports, and other domains; we can delight in the beauty of nature; we can love and honor God. We can make choices that define our character.
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