Sunday Night Journal — December 13, 2010
The flight from Christianity has been a prominent feature of Western intellectual life since the 18th century, and it can be said that the anti-culture has existed since then. Mockery has always been an important part of its response to the faith it rejects. Mockery is a good thing as far as it goes; there is much in the world that deserves it, and much in the Church (or churches). Christian artists have always known how to mock those who speak in the name of God without mocking God, but the anti-culture does not know that distinction. Where the Christian tradition is concerned, it operates chiefly with mockery, sarcasm, and irony, with occasional lapses into violent rage (which seem to be growing more frequent).
Mockery is required because one cannot seriously engage Christian thought, and the entire Christian worldview, without realizing that it is a deep and deeply coherent understanding of what mankind is, why we exist, and where we are going. Such an engagement does not necessarily lead to conversion, but it leads almost necessarily to respect and to some degree of sympathy, which is not helpful when waging war. Moreover, it requires thought and effort. It is much easier and more effective (seemingly) to assume all such matters settled long ago, that all of it is myth and superstition now disproved by “science.”
Mockery is the natural expression of this attitude; one does not argue with the absurd. In our time it is less likely to be active wit (as in Mark Twain, who is funny even to those who disagree profoundly with him) than the pose of wit: the sneer, the smirk, the merely snide. An excellent new word has appeared in recent years to denote the verbal equivalent of these: “snark.” I don’t know its origin, but it suggests “snide,” “sneer,” and “bark,” making it an excellent name for the thing itself, which is a bit of quick, casual, and petty meanness, not deeply significant but annoying. One disagrees with a politician’s views; one snarks about his haircut. (Or, in Sarah Palin’s case, the names of her children.)
To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, snarks are not literature. But the snarky tone is widespread in the literature and especially in the criticism of our day. I won’t say it is dominant, because I don’t read enough of it to make that judgment. I will say that it is common enough that I ceased many years ago to find bookstores the alluring places they once had been. Aside from the preponderance of frothy popular titles that I always ignored, far too many of the serious books seemed to come from the anti-culture, or at least to be heavily influenced by it: the snarky tone, the ill-concealed desire to reduce the stature of everything that came before the 1960s, the heavy-handed but light-headed leftist political attitude applied retroactively to the past two thousand years. I find the influential reviews mostly a waste of time (Benjamin Schwartz in The Atlantic is a happy exception, and one of the main reasons I keep my subscription to that magazine). I have fewer friends with literary interests, and those of my friends with whom I still enjoy talking about books are not part of the literary establishment. Libraries have remained as attractive and fascinating as ever: it’s easy to walk past the new-book shelves and lose oneself in the stacks. But the only booksellers that intrigue me are secondhand stores where one may hope to find gems from a generation or two ago.
Having taken up a posture of disdain toward the Christian tradition, the anti-culture finds itself needing to mock not only the Christian faith itself but all those absolutes which are associated philosophically with the tradition. (I should pause here to mention that what I’m referring to as the Christian tradition is not only Christian, but also Jewish and Greco-Roman. And many other things, but especially those. When I speak of the Christian tradition, as distinct from Christian doctrine, or of Western culture, I intend to include those.) And so the anti-culture has difficulty using words like beauty, truth, and goodness without irony. It knows them, of course—you can’t be human without recognizing them and being drawn to them—but it has difficulty in talking or thinking very seriously about them, because one cannot do so without coming up against the question of their objective validity—whether or not they refer to anything other than personal opinion (that semi-sacred thing)—which in turn leads to the question of their source and authority.
But these are the matters toward which all serious thought naturally gravitates. “Gravitate” is the apt word: we are pulled toward them, as lesser cosmic bodies are pulled toward greater, and we can only hold ourselves back from them by effort. More importantly, we gravitate toward the belief that those three things—beauty, truth, and goodness—do in fact exist as standards of judgment independent of our own minds.
In spite of its bourgeois-baiting (now the most tiresome cliché of all) and revolutionary posturing, the anti-culture is fundamentally materialistic. I now return to Eliot as quoted by Epstein:
…[contemporary literature’s] tendency is to encourage its readers to get what they can out of life while it lasts, to miss no ‘experience’ that presents itself, and to sacrifice themselves, if they make any sacrifice at all, only for the sake of tangible benefits to others in this world either now or in the future.
This keeps its literature confined within limits which make it unsuitable as a dwelling for the human soul.
And this is appropriate, because it denies the objective reality of spirit. Even when it uses the language of spirit, it adapts more than it adopts, as in the “spiritual but not religious” self-description favored by many. This spirituality is in general more accurately described as emotionality, because it is primarily concerned with maintaining a balanced and orderly emotional life: a worthy enough effort, but one concerned only with living comfortably in this world. It characteristically borrows religious doctrines meant by those who formulated them as referring to an objectively existing spiritual order, and treats them as meaningful only as aspects of psychology.
(Who hasn’t heard this done with “The kingdom of heaven is within you”? I happened to run across a good example as I was writing this, in an obituary: “[she] seemed increasingly embedded in what might be described as the ‘communion of saints,’ relying on those around her to provide the spiritual support she so badly needed and desired.” Well that, of course, is only a small part at best of what the communion of saints means to a Christian, and it’s clear in the context that the spiritual support referred to is primarily emotional support.)
In its need to escape from the gravitational force of the Christian tradition, the anti-culture attempts to escape from the human. I don’t know a great deal about non-European art, but I venture to say that as a producer of humanistic art—art that is specifically interested in the phenomenon of the human—the Christian culture of the past thousand years has no equal. That humanism appears to be dying. Abstract art, music without recognizable structure, free verse of almost impenetrable obscurity, all have their aesthetic merits (there are works in all these styles that I like a great deal), but they do not point a way forward, but rather represent exhaustion.
Eliot spoke of the Incarnation as having bisected history. It is now impossible to disconnect consideration of the ultimate questions from consideration of Christianity. Christianity is too big, its answers too profound, to be ignored. And so the dismissal of Christianity is often, in a post-Christian culture, the dismissal of any possibility of ultimate meaning. However much it may try, the world cannot will itself into a condition in which Christianity has not been. The word cannot be unsaid, though in principle it could in time be forgotten.
I speak not as a professional with a wide acquaintance of contemporary literary culture, but as an amateur who has concluded that it isn’t worth the trouble to make that acquaintance. It’s not that the literature is so bad; most of the literature of any time is not very good. It’s the particular way in which it fails, by looking in every possible direction except up, inducing a sense of oppression, a sort of modified claustrophobia, such as one might experience in a large open room in which the ceiling is only an inch above one’s head.