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I had a blast discussing this with Fr. Guy de Gaynesford, rector, School of the Annunciation, Buckfast Abbey…
Your Worst Nightmares
Might it be that some dark trends in popular culture are the manifestations of the inherent human need to grapple with the Four Last Things? Where the Church squarely faces up to the realities of death, judgment, heaven and hell, post-modern man faces a vacuum of unbelief in the very realities that most demand his attention. The rational, materialist mind – reduced as it is in power to bear the tension this produces – has one escape route left to him.
Art has a kind of power to resolve seemingly impossible tensions – at its best resulting in a newly realized response to encounter with reality, and at its worst coughing up some deformed attempt to avoid it. Perhaps the recurring, disturbing, themes in popular books and movies are the last gasps of creative responsiveness in humanity increasingly untethered to reality.
Take a look at the nightmares expressed in pop culture, from this perspective:
Death is a formidable reality that, surely, is hard for those without faith in God to bear. Perhaps if we could make the undead hideously repulsive, our mortality would be more attractive. A rollicking fight to the death against beings who are unequivocally ‘bad’ is as good as it gets…all guts and no glory of the human person to worry about as you whack ‘em. In zombie warfare we get a chance to vent all the pent up adrenaline caused by the unacknowledged fear of death we’ve been carrying around. We can actually embrace the possibility of death as a sort of counterpoint to the ugly, mindless, boring lives we perceive everyone around us living. ‘They’ are all walking dead, and ‘we’ are the ones ‘really living it up’ with zest and fearlessness.
For you, zombie straw men. For me full personhood as I die to self in Christ.
Death is threatening, but you’d think the prospect of eternal life shouldn’t frighten anyone. Think again. Eternity looms as an abyss for those whose life is already fairly empty, boring, pointless, lonely, painful or depressing. Heaven is a fantasy, and besides that, wouldn’t be very entertaining as it’s merely endless choral music, thumb twiddling and prudery. What shall we do to resolve the fear that we may have immortal souls?
At all costs, if we must live forever, we must stay young, attractive, sexually fulfilled and rich to make it tenable. Enter the vampire: our alter-ego if we identify with his suave erudition and smouldering power; our super-ego if we prefer to be the one he seduces. Whether you’re the vampire, or his ravished lover, all pre-requisites for a bearable eternity are met in this inversion of new life in Christ, whose own blood restores life to and purifies the soul who rests in Him.
For you, the same night life forever. For me, the endless newness of life in the Son’s light.
Memo to unbelievers: demons and evil people exist, and you know it. But nothing in your philosophy helps you deal with those awful realities from the pit of hell. Reject them with a smirk, and still you’ll feel the dread of them oozing up from time to time. Keep pushing your fear down and your subconscious becomes a fertile ground for some vivid imaginations you can’t quite control. What to do?
Make a movie of them. Your compatriots, who want help explaining where their own horrible imaginings originate, will come watch it. That little thrill you get when the psycho-sexual, demonic violence plays on the screen (of your mind, or your theater) helps you believe you’re actually in control. You’re choosing to be a spectator and this is all make-believe. Right? There’s nothing evil threatening you, or influencing you, or drawing you to crave more and more horrific, explicit violence in exchange for the pleasure. More important, there’s nothing in you that corresponds to evil, that resonates with perversion and demonic rage…no bloodlust…no vulnerability to oppression or possession…nothing hellish is real. Right?
For you the thrill of make-believe evil. For me, a Savior to vanquish all-too-real evil.
Magic Gone Awry
Here I include technology as a form of magic – manipulation of the material universe with a view to obtaining amazing power over it. Many plots turn magic, technology, man’s creations and his own karma against him. Thus does he face judgement for his pride and his deeds – in this-worldly terms that carefully balance the scale of retribution for him through his own efforts. Somewhere in the depths of man is the awareness that he’s going to get what he deserves. Since there is no God to make that call, he fends off that possibility by gently judging and forgiving himself.
His own creations – clones, robots, computers, dinosaurs – might turn on him. (He will need to realize he’s created the problem, but will be suitably chastened by the challenge of dealing with it.) Or, he might get a high-tech revenge on someone who deserves it. (Revenge – justified violence – is like a backfire that puts out a wildfire. There’s no worry about being judged while you’re indulging in self-righteous mayhem.) The natural world he has exploited, ignored, accidentally radiated, or destroyed might rise up against him. (Of course, he’ll win the battle to subdue it, and be absolved by the harrowing ordeal.)
Movies like these can be cautionary tales, I suppose, but perhaps numb the soul a bit to the reality of a judgment that can’t be paid off with effort, or pain, or victim status.
For you, only natural consequences and high-tech restoration of your control over reality. For me, personal judgement and supernatural means – the atoning death on the Cross – to provide reconciliation with the Creator.
Well, that’s the end of these reflections on modern art and the work of the imagination…I wonder what you think of it all….
Fr. Giussani tells us that “Freedom is the correspondence to reality, in the totality of its factors.” For some, bondage to a nightmare of unreality. For me, the surpassing reality of knowing Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanks to a friend who lets the Spirit move her, I now own a volume of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry. I’m enjoying lots of lovely morsels from In Praise of Mortality, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Rilke wrote these Sonnets to Orpheus after the First World War left him bereft of words. He was paralyzed by the horror and destruction, but turned a corner in the effort to reconcile it with his vocation. As he saw it, a poet is called to praise, to “grasp and give shape to” his world, to name the world in gratitude for the goodness shining through it.
Here, the mythological Orpheus, prefiguring Christ in a form of preparatio evangelium, overcomes the darkness with the gift of his own life, and with his song. These sonnets, like the psalms, bear, through the art of poetry the tensions of real life in a dark but hope-filled world. Rilke’s joy in and union with Creation gave me a sense of his return to hope through the naming of the world that is poesis. “Tell me, Orpheus, what offering can I make to you, who taught the creatures how to listen?” Clearly, the appropriate offering for God’s gift of Creation is gratitude.
Speaking of a galloping horse, Rilke tells Orpheus “He embraced the distances as if he could sing them, as if your songs were completed in him.” Of forest animals he says, “…it was not fear or cunning that made them be so quiet, but the desire to listen.” Of an apple he writes, “…this sweetness which first condensed itself so that, in the tasting, it may burst forth and be known in all its meanings…” What a beautiful refusal to let an apple become an empty mental construct, or an impotent label. For Rilke, creation is actively calling to us – a super-Reality, and not an inert stage set for a meaningless play.
It’s impossible to do justice to poetry with excerpted lines, though I have many juicy favorites in this book. Since we are, ourselves, accosted in this day by the darkness that threatened to overwhelm this poet, I’ll give just one of his poems, whole, so you can sense the beauty of the rest.
“Only he who lifts his lyre
in the Underworld as well
may come back
to praising, endlessly.
Only he who has eaten
the food of the dead
will make music so clear
that even the softest tone is heard.
Though the reflection in the pool
often ripples away,
take the image within you.
Only in the double realm
do our voices carry
all they can say.”
(IX in Part One of Sonnets to Orpheus, in In Praise of Mortality.)
I hope that you who weekly eat the food of the dead, the Eucharist of the risen Christ, will take his image with you in the pool that is your interior being. There, His voice will carry, and through you be carried into the world. He is the double realm in whom we may live, move, and have being, and He has overcome death so that we may be free to praise Him endlessly. The heart of Christ, seen through Rilke’s reflections on Orpheus, “is a winepress destined to break, that makes for us an eternal wine.”
There’s so much more to love in this little volume, but go find your own, or make friends with someone who will think of you in dusty bookstores.
In “Stour Valley and Dedham Church” (select link for large image in new window) Constable has painted the Vale of Dedham – a familiar and beloved area of his native England. In the foreground, men shovel compost from a dung heap. The landscape behind them is groomed – tidy and clean, in comparison with the random, blowsy growth on and around the dung. That the manure pile is tucked away from view – actually behind a separating hedge – is emphasized by the artist’s use of light and shadow. The untamed fecundity of the sprawling vine (front, center) that emerges from the manure is a contrast to the expanse of land tamed by man, which fills the middle ground.
Seen in the distance is the church which, though quite small and slightly off-center, is the center of organization for the village, the surrounding fields, and even the workers, whose presence in the center-foreground points directly ‘upward’ in a straight line to it. The skyscape that fills the upper third of the canvas emphasizes the extent of man’s domains even as it seems to flatten and limit them – perhaps a suggestion that, for all his mastery of the things of earth, man is still dwarfed by Creation and its Creator.
The tower of the church just barely ‘touches’ the sky at the center of the far horizon, and draws attention more to itself as a center of human activity than as a meeting place for man with the Divine. This reflects, perhaps, a bit of the English, Protestant ‘humility’ by which the form of ‘church’ was emptied of its sacramental power. Since both the dung area and the cleaner field-and-stream area are painted evenly – similar colors, balance in space and lighting, connected organically – the artist seems to sense the beauty of both areas, and to appreciate the dependence of the more ‘noble,’ or ‘glorious’ landscape on the humility of hummus, and human labor. The workers, though handling the lowest of elements, are dignified by their central, forward position, by the link to the church, whose Sabbath days crown their labors with rest, and by the beauty of the lands to which they make a vital contribution.
The heavens look on the whole scene with a calm detachment that seems to place all that lies beneath into proper subordination and peaceful proportion. Constable has used diminishing size, faded color and decreasing detail to create the perspective of great distance. The size and sharp detail of the wagon in the foreground, if compared to the small, less sharp image of the church in the middle-ground, might suggest, in addition to spatial proportion, the proportion of six days labor to one of Sabbath worship and rest. This is certainly God’s created world, but man deserves credit for working it with the sweat of his brow.
The flat gray of the sky, reflecting the green fields below, seems continuous with the landscape, rather than an overarching and distant, celestial heaven. The artist is clearly proud and fond of this view, and the men whose nobility is represented in it. His frank approval seems to echo God’s own pronouncement that what He sees here is good!
I recommend Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods frequently – and not just to get people to bring their kids out to my house in the country! The fact is, living on our ‘farm wannabe’, I can see for myself the benefits Louv describes. What’s more, I can see the effects of ‘time in nature’ on ‘nature deprived’ kids who come out to play. Last Child is a warning to us all of the dangers of abstracting children from the natural world. [Read more…]
Catherine De Hueck Doherty’s Apostolic Farming is the perfect stocking stuffer for the farmer, or farmer-wannabe, organic gardener, sustainable agriculture buff, or nature-lover in your life. It’s tiny, but so chock full of beauty and wisdom it deserves to be read very slowly. I suggest it as a stocking stuffer so that you’ll have time to read while looking at seed catalogs during the winter. [Read more…]