Monday, October 14, 2013


The philistine is one of the most curious species of our happy hominidal tribe. Sure, Erectus might impress with his haughty posture and Neanderthal may wow as the new man wanders his valley, club in hand, but for all these two brutes have fascinated scientists and pulp directors and authors, they do not fascinate me because they rose to the modest heights of their limits. Even they had wondered enough to paint their caves. No, they have my respect but not my interest. Their and our relative however, the philistine aka homo ignavus, perplexes me with his sensate indifference to his world and ultimately himself.

The most obvious characteristic of the philistine is an ignorance which resembles stupidity but in fact is simply a lacuna in his reference. This lack of tutoring is less about education, though, than about protection and conservation. No one appreciates Bach because of a predilection for counterpoint, Caravaggio because of a love of shadow, or an English garden because of a deep desire for symmetry. Instead one approaches them as an initiate who has grasped some sliver of secret knowledge and taken a step into a larger world. The philistine differs then from his wise brother simply in being asleep. The tutor's task then is less of education in the modern sense as in the ancient of ducens, of bringing up. The role of tutor is less to instruct, i.e. to equip, or to inculcate, i.e. to impress upon, than to protect and cultivate. It is of course a terrible irony that schools accept tuition from parents in exchange for exercises in "beating the SAT" and getting, "college ready."

The barrier to the high forms of expression then, is not so high. The philistine of course asks then: Why do we need to engage with any expression at all besides our own? The response on the one hand is the utilitarian reply that the expressions of others help us cultivate and resolve our own woes. On the other, though, is the need to elevate human life to realm of the beautiful. Human life is fairly ugly even in its most beautiful moments. How ugly are not birth, sex, and death in corporeal terms? Who finds joy in the sight of the old and infirm? In a terrible fight with loved ones?

Yet art presents us the possibility of raising activity to, or perceiving activity in, the world of perfected ideals. Who would not call beautiful the birth of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, the intercourse of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, or the death of Homer's Hector? How much beauty is there in the hands of Rembrandt's woman, and joy in the eucatatrophe of Mozart's Figaro?

These expressions signify as both human and sacred the experiences around which man's life turn, rendering them at once personal and universal. It is something human, or better something of human to partake in them as experiences, and something transcendent to see the activity elevated to the beautiful.

Yet all this talk of elevation and transcending is rather patently offensive to modern sensibilities and actually ripe for perversion, for high expression still implies a hierarchy. You need not think hard or long for an image of the cultural guardian who towers on an imagined Parnassus above his fellow man, or perhaps some misanthropic Hitchcockian villian, or worse. Instead, the role of cultural elite should take that form of that tutor which we discussed, conserving and cultivating high art and apprehension of it. What we have seen in the West today, though, is not the evolution of cultural elite into totalitarian guardians, or even upper crust bullies. We have not seen old ways mutate as the old Roman system of patronage, from traditions of pragmatism and beneficence into rent-seeking and degrading toadyism, but rather the elite taking on the ways of the popular culture. Far from their tailors' tutors, nobles have traded custody for celebrity, with what concern remains focusing on endeavors to improve physical health. We know the fear of disease and exercise our technological and economic powers by "declaring war on" them, but we cannot even contemplate our artistic impotence. We will not understand that creation cannot take place in slumber, and that awakening cannot be funded.

Does religion then point the way today? If instruction has replaced cultivation in education and the arts, what of religion? Should not the jettisoning of the old high forms, in practice if not print, have flung wide the gates? Where are the faithful now that the alleged aesthetic barrier has been lifted? It would seem that excluding the aesthetic has had an unexpected effect: without transcendent form, the beauty of the act relies alone on comprehension instead of apprehension. Robbed of its "poetry, mystery, and dignity" [1] it is now an intellectual enterprise. If you agree, of think you do, then you go to mass and as long as a few choice things take place, all is well. If you disagree, you disregard it as you do any unpalatable bit. The invitation to mystery, which might even persuade the skeptical more than the didactic, has been rescinded. The people are left grappling in intellectual terms with what, as Romano Guardini wrote, "Actually. . . is not difficult but mysterious." [2]  Exeunt.

It's a slick point of argument the moderns make which faithful philistines corroborate in deed: that it matters not what happens around the sacred acts. It's still mass. It still counts. Yes, of course it does. Theodore Dalrymple shares a thought about architecture which we might borrow:
Suppose you are in a restaurant and your meal is delicious. Suddenly the diner at the next table vomits copiously. Do you continue to eat with the same delectation as before, just because the food on your plate remains unchanged? [3]
No, plenty of its details don't render a mass illicit. So we pass over the disposable missalettes which render the words cheap and disposable. We pass over the microphones which distort our voices. We pass over foreign gestures from handshakes to unity candles. We pass over Bach for Marty Haugen. We nod off during ad libbed sermons. And in our arrogance we assume that because we understand the mass and because it "counts," that all is well. We look to our borrowed and reconstituted gestures and pretend that we see and feel what we think. Speaking of art and institutions in general, Roger Scruton writes how,
We're joined together to pretend. . . that we really are feeling the deep and serious things. . . even though underneath, the measure of self interest is taking things over. [4]
It's an easy leap, though. We believe in the faith and we're at mass. What else is there? I feel satisfied. I have the whole thing figured out. (The fault for empty pews and coffers, for listless immiseration amidst historic prosperity lies with the liberals, hippies, atheists, Sandinistas, and all foreign ills.) Instead of being awed, though, by the Cosmic Christianity of Titian, we're dulled by the soft kitsch like that of Thomas Kinkade, the self-described "painter of light" who boasted that, "We have found a way to bring to millions of people, an art that they can understand." [5] What a familiar argument. No mystery needed. Just add understanding, a few gestures, and poof! Mass? Faith? Religion? 

Never mind searching for the proper articulation of ideas, that'll frighten off the contingent of philistines without which the church will crumble. Never mind searching for receding meanings and reconciliations of life and faith, Roger Scruton again explains,
In a world of fakes, the public interest is constantly sacrificed to private fantasy, and the truths on which we depend for our rescue are left unexamined and unknown. [6]
Rod Dreher in his recent Time piece, picked up on the same diversionary vibe of fantasy when he wrote about how, "The 'spirit of Pope Francis' will replace the 'spirit of Vatican II' as the rationalization people will use to ignore the difficult teachings of the faith." [7]

Thus all faith and expression are smeared into a pastiche of smarmy coziness which can be molded into whatever shape we wish. The work of the progressives and conservatives is done: not the "triumph, yea the resurrection, of the Philistines." [8] The poor in spirit are pastured into dolorous ennui. The aesthetes recoil.  Exeunt.

Magnificat: Esurientes implevit bonis

[1] Waugh, Evelyn. Diary Entry, Easter 1965. A Bitter Trial. Saint Austin Press. 1996. p. 79
[2] Guardini, Romano. Meditations Before Mass. 1939.
[4] (2:46)
[5] Leung, Rebecca (December 5, 2007). "60 Minutes interview". CBS News.

No comments:

Post a Comment