Dostoevsky, Peguy, and Bernanos have done far more to elevate the role of the saints in Christianity than theologians and hagiographers. They have insisted that, paradoxically, in the night of modernity and the contempt of Christian piety, it is the saints who constitute a powerfully effective form of eloquence that can persuade of the truth of Christianity.
Saints by the nature of the case are excessive. Their measure is no measure. Thus, their “foolishness.” Francis is a glorious example, perhaps Joan of Arc. Yet examples abound. Saints are given to the Church as shocks to the accepted way in which Christ is followed and to the world, as signs that when it comes to faith, hope, and charity, enough is never enough: one can hold a belief more firmly and trust more deeply; one can hope against all hope; and love beyond all that is possible for a human being. Perhaps with Kierkegaard we need to remind what scripture has told us clearly: what is impossible for a human being is not impossible for God.
Theology depends far more on holiness than holiness on theology. Neither cleverness, nor intellectual brilliance are sufficient to make a theologian. The gifts of knowing are actualized only when the theologian has been opened up to God in conversion. Though there may be a difference in the language used, here the Swiss theologian and Lonergan are of like mind.
A Tale of Winter (1992) is the most direct statement of Rohmer’s faith. Its heroine has lost touch with the father of her child but is confident she will be reunited with him. Sensible friends warn her that this is foolishness. They urge her to make a practical marriage with one of the men around her. From their perspective, she is attached to the same sort of romantic ideal that misleads so many other Rohmer characters. But this time there is a crucial difference. The woman lives and acts by faith—not in her unique self, nor in a revolutionary future, but in God’s providence. Her faith is rewarded in one of the most powerful sequences in all of Rohmer’s films.
Rohmer once observed that understanding Alfred Hitchcock requires setting aside terms like tracking, framing, and lenses—“the atrocious jargon of film”—and instead using terms such as “soul, God, devil, . . . redemption, and sin.” The same is true of Rohmer. Each of his films reflects his ultimately religious vision. In a world filled with chaos, he discovered beauty. Among erotic and moral follies, he found contrasts, rhythms, rhymes, and parallels. His camera discerned an order sustained by a benevolent God. Rohmer was an anti-romantic. He was also a poet of providence.
When my friend the doctor called to discuss Covid-19 symptoms with me, he didn’t have much in the way of information that I didn’t already know. I had Google, after all. I can read medical studies. And so little was known then that mostly it boiled down to: The disease would either continue to get worse, or it wouldn’t. But a good conversation between two old friends is never simply about the exchange of information. There’s a rhythm to it, an arc, an undercurrent of emotion and history that makes each exchange its own kind of story, a small, impermanent work of art. Here for a few puffs of breath, and then gone.
Now that my wife and mother-in-law are recovered, I think of those moments at the end of my day with deep gratitude. The moments while my children cast magic spells born out of hope and fear, and the moments when my friend spoke to me of the science while I stood at my kitchen sink and softly wept, hearing little more complicated than one friend telling another, “I love you, and I care for you, and I am here for you and those you love.” Each night, after the spells were cast and the conversation was done, I felt more human, and more capable of performing the work ahead of me.
Liberal society is based on a principle of freedom: The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs or impede their efforts to obtain it. Or, as Rawls puts it, each person has a claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all. The new America is founded on a different principle. I call it the principle of unreality: Everyone can pursue his or her own happiness so long as they refrain from imposing it on others as something real—as something valid for all.
The anthropologist Margaret Mead was once asked to identify the earliest material sign of human civilization. Obvious candidates would be tool production, agricultural methods, art. Her answer was this: a 15,000-year-old femur that had broken and healed. The healing process for a broken femur takes approximately six weeks, and in that time, the wounded person could not work, hunt or flee from predators. He or she would need to be cared for, carried during that time of helplessness. This kind of support, Dr. Mead pointed out, does not occur in the rest of the animal kingdom, nor was it a feature of pre-human hominids. Our way of coping with weakness, as much as our ingenious technologies and arts, is what sets us apart as a species.
In the aftermath of a stroke, many patients report feelings of anxiety, and are prescribed mood-altering medications. This doubtless provides some partial, temporary relief to many patients and may help with engagement in rehabilitation. But it leaves a key misunderstanding in place, perhaps even papered over. The better healing would be to teach stroke patients, to teach ourselves, that interdependence is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s our birthright, and the source of some of our deepest strength.
His main theme, however, is himself. He is a theatrical writer, and his goal as often as not is to get you to watch him perform. No one is going to suppose that, even at his finest, his individual performances, considered as contributions to American literature, reached the level of his literary heroes. Still, his ambition matched theirs. He considered himself one of the greats, even if he wasn’t, except in flashes. But he was a serious man, and there was always something thrilling in watching him make the effort. The reliable solidity of his instinct was part of it—his instinctively heroic concept of the African American story and its place in American democracy, and his concept of jazz at the center of the story. But at the deepest level his ambition was a matter of verbal tone.
He explains in Kansas City Lightning that, in the 1930s, the jazz musicians considered themselves an elite, which obviously they were. They were a group of musicians who had conceived of music in a new and brilliant and difficult way that other musicians did not understand and could not play. But they were an elite who also measured their superiority in a fiercely individualist manner. Each musician within the elite wanted to demonstrate that not only could he meet the technical demands of the most challenging jazz, which few musicians could do, but he could produce a sound on his own instrument that resembled no one else’s—a golden sound, or a smoky one, or gritty, or overintense, or laid-back, or something, which, because it was true to the individual musician, nobody else would be able to duplicate. An elite of technically superior hyper-individualists: That was the idea. That was Stanley Crouch’s idea, as well. He wanted his voice on the page to sound like no one else’s among the American writers—and, sure enough, his voice, confident and melodious, sounded like no one else’s.
Visible through the Rogan Aleph is the obvious untapped majority in the American electorate that favors a political arrangement combining a moderate redistributionist welfare state with moderate social conservatism. This coalition has promised an electoral victory for the past decade and yet neither party has really captured it.
Most Americans want secure work, safe streets, healthcare, dignity, freedom, and a governing class that prioritizes them above itself. People want plenty else besides, of course, that politics cannot provide, like love and meaning—but even a movement organized around the minimum would threaten entrenched interests in both parties. It would undermine the Democrat’s dependency on Silicon Valley’s surveillance economy, elite-driven offshoring, and embrace of corporate consumerism in liberation drag. And it would finish off the well-funded Republican party of fiscal responsibility and austerity politics underwritten by foreign policy and financial globalism.
To discredit the possibilities of new political coalitions, old coalitions go on the attack. Liberals denounce Sen. Josh Hawley for the supposedly anti-Semitic implications of his references to cosmopolitanism while ignoring or impugning his antitrust legislation and fight against corporate monopolies. Meanwhile, the new realities of power in America, revolve around a tech-media-Democratic party complex. The Democrats now take for granted the support of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the overwhelming majority of the wealthiest districts in America. The Republicans have drawn in more working-class men of all races despite the president's lapses into nativist rhetoric and the party's continued staffing by pro-business class cadres who stifle critical stimulus payments in a moment of national need.
Hostility to the Rogan coalition has less to do with its members’ ideological eccentricities than with the fact that it speaks to large numbers of Americans who want to see their government pursue policies that might terminate the sinecures of countless pundits, D.C. functionaries, campus administrators, defense contractors, and corporate consultants. Conservatives like David Frum and his allies on the left understand that while they can fend off the occasional anti-establishment coups and insurgencies, the gravest threat to their continued power comes from the possibility of a broad new political consensus, triggered by the kind of fundamental technological and economic transformation we are currently living through.
Why did Dionysus so capture the imagination of Nietzsche and Deleuze after him? Dionysus, the god of wine, has blood that intoxicates, a reverse Eucharist suitable for the Anti-Christ (“Dionysian intoxication opposed to Christian intoxication”). Too much art, Deleuze complained, has looked to the Mass as a model “for the dreamed-of theater—the Mass, not the mystery of Dionysus” (N&P 33), who is the god of the theater. Indeed, his name marked the Athenian theater on the slopes of the Acropolis where tragedies (such as Euripides’s Bacchae) were performed during the City Dionysia theater festival.
Further, Dionysus was unique in the Greek pantheon, in that he was the only god whose cult was perpetually rejected by humans. In the opening of Bacchae, Dionysus relates the action that has lead up to that moment: he undertook his journey east through “all of Asia” (15) for the purpose of spreading his cult—what other god had to do that?—and gathering a band of mostly female followers (the Bacchae or maenads). He has returned to Thebes, the site of his conception, which resulted from the affair between Zeus and the human woman Semelê. Yet Dionysus finds in Thebes that his deceased mother is slandered as a liar concerning her relations with Zeus, her sisters disdain her, and her nephew Pentheus, the king of Thebes, refuses to have anything to do with the “contrived” Bacchic cult (215).
Thus, Dionysus is “the persecuted god, the suffering and dying god, and all whom he loved, all who attended him, had to share his tragic fate.” The similarity of this suffering and dying god to Christ was not lost on Christian readers. In fact, in medieval Byzantium, an anonymous author composed Christus Patiens, a meditation that incorporated into its description of Christ many verses from Bacchae concerning Dionysus.
What is unlike Christ is the propensity of Dionysius to work bloody revenge on all those who oppose them, and even on those who follow him. Pentheus is drawn into Dionysian mania, dresses himself as a woman, and goes off to spy on the Bacchae. Yet, he is betrayed by Dionysus and torn to pieces by his mother, Agave, and her sisters, who think he is a lion while they are under the Dionysian spell.
The misrecognition of Pentheus is of a piece with the Dionysian dramatic talent for masking and metamorphosis. “Behind the masks, therefore, are further masks, and even the most hidden is still a hiding place, and so on to infinity” (D&R 106). Is Pentheus the king? Or is he really his role, a woman participating in the mania of the Bacchic women? Or, is he the lion? There is no ultimate answer to this question for Deleuze. “The modern world is one of simulacra . . . All identities are only simulated, produced as an optical ‘effect’ by the more profound game” of being (D&R xix). There are only masks under masks, roles without actors.
We can recalibrate our senses to the mysteries of the small through meditation on that paradox of paradoxes, the Incarnation, with the help of this little wood block by David Jones. Throughout Jones’s work there is a marked affection for “things familiar and small.” It is inseparable from a spiritual practice of attention—tuning our senses to that which is easily overlooked or undervalued. Wrapped up in this sensitivity to the small is a care for the fragile, the vulnerable, and a discovery of the surprising resilience of the delicate. It is guided above all by the conviction that it is through refinement of our attention that the wonder and mystery of the created world, particularly in its relation to the divine, reveals itself most fully to us. Focusing on what is small and seemingly commonplace becomes a portal for seeing all things in light of the love of God and thus yields, paradoxically, the most generous and capacious of vantage points.
When a work becomes a “monument” in this sense, the meaning of “restoration” changes. In a landmark essay, “The Modern Cult of Monuments” (1903), the Viennese art historian Alois Riegl (1858–1905) defined terms that remain relevant today. A “monument,” for Riegl, is any artifact that comes to us from the past and speaks to us of the past. But he distinguishes between “intentional” and “unintentional” monuments. Intentional monuments are works whose original purpose and significance was commemorative. Memorial statuary and portraiture are intentional monuments, but so may be all manner of other works meant to commend certain persons, deeds, or events to future generations. By contrast, unintentional monuments are relics judged to be informative or illustrative concerning the time of their creation, though the intentions of their makers may have been merely practical (think of the tools and other humble objects that fill our museums). Riegl writes, “It is not their original purpose and significance that turn these works into monuments, but rather our modern perception of them.” Unintentional monuments bear unwitting witness to the age in which they were made. Intentional monuments bear witness on purpose—though, it must be added, in ways that may be problematic, as when they celebrate what a later age condemns.
Riegl then turns to the question of restoration: “Both intentional and unintentional monuments are characterized by commemorative value, and in both instances we are interested in their original, uncorrupted appearance as they emerged from the hands of their maker and to which we seek by whatever means to restore them.” We wish to keep intentional monuments pristine, not least since evidence of decay would suggest that their meaning is no longer revered. In the case of unintentional monuments, we fight the aging process because the artifact’s original condition is the most informative concerning the time of its creation.
To intentional and unintentional monuments, Riegl adds a third category, that of objects prized for their “age-value.” Restoring such works to their original condition would be ruinous. In the case of the Murillo, the restoration was botched not simply because the restorers were unskilled; it was misconceived from the very first. Had the restorers made the painting look good as new—just like the original Murillo, which itself has accrued age-value over the years—their work would have been deemed no better than that of the hapless restorer who gaudied up St. George. Never mind that the work on which they lavished their care was a copy; their sin is to have erased the painting’s patina and the passage of time. In this tension lies the paradox of the “original”: It can only be valued if it bears traces that testify to its authenticity, including its origin in a valorized past. Its power lies in its imperfection.
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