Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cultural crisis=cultural turning point

Part of my fascination with existentialist absurdism (everything must have its ism, after all), something I chronicled a bit in early August when I reengaged Beckett, includes a not entirely unhealthy affinity for French cinema, especially what James Quandt dubbed, back in 2004, the "New French Extremity". In an article in The Independent in the same year, Jonathan Romney picks up Quandt's theme. I want to highlight an aspect of this to bring into better relief something I addressed not in my last homily, but the one before it, something that had the effect of either scaring or baffling those who heard it. On-line, it rated no likes on the Facebook link.

Writing about "The New French Extremity" in film making, Romney quotes Quandt to the effect that extreme sex and violence in many films of this genre is "a narcissistic response to the collapse of ideology in a society traditionally defined by political polarity and theoretical certitude." Romney goes on to observe that it is true that "[s]ome of the[se] films… depict a world in which society has fractured into mutually combative, self-mortifying individuals." This isolation, this collapse into solipsism and even narcissism, is what I wanted to highlight in my preaching. One does not need to be a French auteur to experience this phenomenon, whereas one may need to be in order to express it with any adequacy.

I don't want to sound opportunistic, but I do not want to ignore the reality of western culture in this moment of crisis, which I use in its primary meaning: a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, esp. for better or for worse, is determined, a moment in which there appears to be some space for a deep engagement between the church and culture. The very term and identifiable reality we call post-modernism is descriptive of this crisis. Our engagement must not take the form of moralizing, or be reductive in any way. For Christians , it is never enough to merely denounce, we are called to engage in a serious way, which means in a critical way, which means from our experience, good and bad. After all, everything that disturbs us is not bad! We must remain cognizant that Christianity is not an ideology, this means that we must use words that arise from our experience, not the words of the powers that be, which has always spelled failure for Christianity. Let's be honest, most efforts at evangelization do not rise above propagandizing.

Take the film The Anatomy of Hell by Catherine Breillat. The film has a woman engage a homosexual man to learn what specifically about the female body he finds so repulsive. Such an exploration speaks to our contemporary social, cultural, and political confusion about matters of sexuality. We also need to recognize that the cultural extent of this repulsion stretches back to classical antiquity and has not been completely expunged from Christian anthropology. To my mind it brings up a very politically incorrect question: Is male homosexuality rooted in a negative, a rejection of the female?

Our proposal cannot be one of moving backwards, of retreating to a different and long gone, not to mention highly imaginary, moment of social cohesion and moral agreement, but create the conditions, not for a hopeful future, but a hopeful present. We must not retreat especially in the area of gender, explorations into which constitute a particularly deep engagement with our humanity, even an ontological engagement. In order not to retreat and to move forward we must account for all the factors that constitute our present cultural reality, which means dealing with the same themes as film makers like Breillat, Gaspar Noé, et. al. at a similarly deep level, as well as being loyal to the entire content of Christian faith, which is usually the first casualty of such engagements and the reason they normally fail. The willingness to dismiss structural aspects of the faith arises from a lack of authentic experience on the part of those who profess it and who wade into waters too deep for them. As Von Balthasar observed of his own deep engagement with culture, we must resist the understandable tendency to baptize everything, a tendency that lacks a critical dimension. A grand exemplar of this kind of engagement is Joris Karl Huysmans, an incredible writer who died in the early years of the last century. As Breillat said of Lautréamont's "stylistic radicalism and flights of black fantasy": his "extremely black violence ... is really an incandescent idealism. Better to be a prince of evil than a king of conformity".

Romney makes a curious and fascinating statement in his Independent article: "A no less influential 20th-century figure is Georges Bataille, philosopher and writer of a deliriously sordid brand of literary pornography - whose most famous work The Story of the Eye (1928) stages fantasies of death, mutilation and rampant sex. For Bataille, transgression is all, a quasi-religious yearning towards transcendence, in which abjection and exaltation go hand in hand. Perhaps it takes a lapsed Catholic to get the most out of Bataille." This is indicative of the desire that is at the core of our humanity, our longing for transcendence, which constitutes the ground for the kind of engagement I am proposing, which calls for nothing less than the new humanity brought about by women and men who have encountered the risen One, who is the way to overcoming artificial and exaggerated polarities, as well as achieving transcendence, not despite our humanity, as Pope Benedict said a few years ago in his Christmas Urbi et Orbi address, but through it, an aspect of which is nothing less than a walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

At the beginning of this same address to the city and to the world, the Holy Father said, "This humanity of the twenty-first century appears as a sure and self-sufficient master of its own destiny, the avid proponent of uncontested triumphs." These film makers, with us, challenge such theoretical certitude and the ideology that exalts it. Further, they are unsure about and wonder if there is sufficiency for existence, let alone self-sufficiency, as robust existentialist thought would have us believe. As Giussani observed, to say I am is to already recognize that I am made, that I did not create myself. Many of these film makers and others contest these alleged triumphs by exploring the negation of our humanity brought about by the reduction of knowledge to scientific achievement, which is silent on the critical human issue of meaning. In other words, there is agreement with what Benedict pointed out in the address he was unable to give at Rome's ironically named La Sapienza University: "truth is never purely theoretical. In drawing a parallel between the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount and the gifts of the Spirit listed in Isaiah 11, Saint Augustine argued that there is a reciprocity between scientia and tristitia: knowledge on its own, he said, causes sadness. And it is true to say that those who merely see and apprehend all that happens in the world end up being saddened." Most of these films are explorations of meaning, even if they approach meaning from existentialist premises, while rejecting the idea that we can simply create meaning. Even when the possibility of truth is forfeited, there is a recognition that very idea of truth is compromised when reduced to theoretical certitude. Reducing faith to morality is an attempt to reduce faith to a kind of theoretical certitude.

One of our local Catholic high schools is performing the school version of Rent. It goes without saying that this is a controversy. The fact that Rent is not a great work of art is not of secondary importance, it is primary. It is a robust example of the unapologetic reduction of culture to politics, trading on the fallacy of an undisguised appeal to emotion. I have to say that the way it is being done can be described by what I wrote with regard to the willingness to dismiss structural aspects of the faith, a willingness that arises from a lack of authentic experience. In other words, it is not truly educational, but anti-educational in that it fosters confusion and perpetuates polarities, not accounting for the needs of the human heart, least of all those of the students. To be fair, the way it is being opposed by some contributes to this, too, because they seek to reduce faith to morals and give the predictable response, in imitation of the physical law, by being the equal and opposite reaction. All this contributes to the students' exhilaration at merely being transgressive in what they see as a service to justice in the name of a freedom divorced from truth, tilting at the windmill of the parody of faith shown by those on both sides and not a serious engagement with reality, with their own humanity and that of others, which is a matter of love. In the end, it becomes a pointless battle of reductions: sentiment vs. morality. I am indifferent to the outcome of such a struggle.

Between subjectivity (i.e., sentiment) and objectivity (i.e., moralism) lies the “I”-a direct relationship with the Mystery, which resists our many attempts at reduction.

Veni Sancti Spiritus, veni per Mariam.


  1. Very interesting ... the closest I've dealt with is Baudelaire's *Flowers of Evil*. I understand the indifference to the result when the terms of the fight are so wrong. That piece from Chesterton I posted a few days ago has stuck with me so much, about how as soon as the ontologically obvious is denied (eg beauty, rather than our defunct cultural constructs), ideology sets in on both sides.

  2. Yes, I agree with what you say about when the ontologically obvious disappears. The only way reality can be denied is by turning to ideology. Breillat was denounced as a homophobe after this film was released. It not the kind of thing I would recommend, but I do think what she is trying to do is necessary and that her method of extremity is appropriate to the task. If we are to recover the truth about humanity, it will be done through art.