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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Ralph McInerny and the Wisdom of Fiction

This day, January 29, marks the first anniversary of the death of my father, Ralph McInerny—husband, father, philosopher, novelist, poet. So many still miss him greatly, most of all my brother and sisters and our spouses and children, but his wisdom and wit also still permeate the lives of his siblings, students, colleagues, and friends. Here is a recent tribute published in the Notre Dame Magazine by one of his students, Christopher Kaczor, professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

On January 28, 2010, the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, I entered my father’s hospital room in Mishawaka, Indiana early in the morning, not knowing what now looks so fitting in retrospect, that this would be the last full day before he entered into Eternal Life. A copy of his latest work of philosophy, Dante and the Blessed Virgin, lay on a table, and I held it up and said,

“Dad, your book looks great.”
To which he replied, with a twinkle in his eye,
“You sound surprised.”

In Dante and the Blessed Virgin my father articulates a truth that served as one of the most formative principles of his life as both philosopher and writer of fiction. That truth concerns what he follows Aristotle in calling “poetry,” Aristotle’s name for the genus of storytelling, of fiction. About storytelling, my father says this in Dante and the Blessed Virgin:

We become involved in stories because their characters are in some way ourselves. They are our better or worse selves, but not too much the one way or the other. We follow an imagined version of the choices that make up any human life, choices that matter. We are what we do, and characters in a story reveal who they are by their actions and choices. In real life, bounders succeed and the innocent suffer; they do in fiction, too, but the story makes sense of that in a way real life never does. Any story worth reading again will tell us something about the human condition we recognize as true” (21).

These lines make clear that my father did not compartmentalize the tasks of philosophy and fiction that he so energetically and joyfully took up every day. To be sure, in his mind one of the chief aims of fiction is entertainment, and the fiction he wrote throughout his career, from the short stories he published in Redbook magazine in the 1960s, to his best-selling novel The Priest, published in 1973, to the ecclesiastical thrillers and detective stories that he published from the late 1970s to the end of his life—and beyond—all had entertainment as their aim. And yet, my father understands the goals of poetry to be multiple. Even as it strives to entertain, fiction also serves to manifest the truth about the human quest for happiness.

In other words, fiction’s imitation of human beings seeking happiness is one way of seeking the truth about ourselves. On my father’s view, fiction is the most common, the most popular path to the truth. In a paper I am not sure he ever published, entitled “God and Fiction: Ex Umbris et Imaginibus in Veritatem,” he takes the Latin motto from Blessed Cardinal Newman’s gravestone (“from shadows and images to the truth”) as a starting point for his reflection about how poetic images lead us to the truth. His aim in this essay, he writes, “is to suggest that there is a wisdom conveyed by poetry, by fiction, and because this is so, the most common philosophical path, the path to wisdom, is via the images and shadows of the poet.”

Along this most common philosophical path of the fiction writer and poet—as well as along less trodden ones—my father followed Wisdom all his life. Our sure hope is that he is with that Wisdom now. 

We love him so. May he rest in peace.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Treats for the Feast

Today is the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas (for those who don't know much about St. Thomas, here is a short video intro).

Below are some excerpts from the little book by Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism—a favorite of Flannery O’Connor among many others—in which Maritain develops a philosophy of art based upon principles gleaned from St. Thomas’s thought. These excerpts are taken from Chapter V, “Art and Beauty.” The entire volume, translated by Joseph Evans, is available online at the website of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame.

Saint Thomas, who was as simple as he was wise, defined the beautiful as that which, being seen, pleases: id quod visum placet. These four words say all that is necessary: a vision, that is to say, an intuitive knowledge, and a delight. The beautiful is what gives delight -- not just any delight, but delight in knowing; not the delight peculiar to the act of knowing, but a delight which superabounds and overflows from this act because of the object known. If a thing exalts and delights the soul by the very fact that it is given to the soul's intuition, it is good to apprehend, it is beautiful… 

Beauty is essentially an object of intelligence, for that which knows in the full sense of the word is intelligence, which alone is open to the infinity of being. The natural place of beauty is the intelligible world, it is from there that it descends. But it also, in a way, falls under the grasp of the senses, in so far as in man they serve the intellect and can themselves take delight in knowing: "Among all the senses, it is to the sense of sight and the sense of hearing only that the beautiful relates, because these two senses are maxime cognoscitivi." The part played by the senses in the perception of beauty is even rendered enormous in us, and well-nigh indispensable, by the very fact that our intelligence is not intuitive, as is the intelligence of the angel; it sees, to be sure, but on condition of abstracting and discoursing; only sense knowledge possesses perfectly in man the intuitiveness required for the perception of the beautiful. Thus man can doubtless enjoy purely intelligible beauty, but the beautiful that is connatural to man is the beautiful that delights the intellect through the senses and through their intuition. Such is also the beautiful that is proper to our art, which shapes a sensible matter in order to delight the spirit. It would thus like to believe that paradise is not lost. It has the savor of the terrestrial paradise, because it restores, for a moment, the peace and the simultaneous delight of the intellect and the senses…

[God] is beauty itself, because He gives beauty to all created beings, according to the particular nature of each, and because He is the cause of all consonance and all brightness. Every form indeed, that is to say, every light, is "a certain irradiation proceeding from the first brightness," "a participation in the divine brightness." And every consonance or every harmony, every concord, every friendship and every union whatsoever among beings proceeds from the divine beauty, the primordial and super-eminent type of all consonance, which gathers all things together and which calls them all to itself, meriting well in this "the name chalos, which derives from 'to call.'" Thus "the beauty of anything created is nothing else than a similitude of divine beauty participated in by things," and, on the other hand, as every form is a principle of being and as every consonance or every harmony is preservative of being, it must be said that divine beauty is the cause of the being of all that is. Ex divina pulchritudine esse omnium derivatur

Beauty, therefore, belongs to the transcendental and metaphysical order. This is why it tends of itself to draw the soul beyond the created. Speaking of the instinct for beauty, Baudelaire, the poète maudit to whom modern art owes its renewed awareness of the theological quality and tyrannical spirituality of beauty, writes: ". . . it is this immortal instinct for the beautiful which makes us consider the earth and its various spectacles as a sketch of, as a correspondence with, Heaven. . . . It is at once through poetry and across poetry, through and across music, that the soul glimpses the splendors situated beyond the grave; and when an exquisite poem brings tears to the eyes, these tears are not proof of an excess of joy, they are rather the testimony of an irritated melancholy, a demand of the nerves, of a nature exiled in the imperfect and desiring to take possession immediately, even on this earth, of a revealed paradise.  

The moment one touches a transcendental, one touches being itself, a likeness of God, an absolute, that which ennobles and delights our life; one enters into the domain of the spirit. It is remarkable that men really communicate with one another only by passing through being or one of its properties. Only in this way do they escape from the individuality in which matter encloses them. If they remain in the world of their sense needs and of their sentimental egos, in vain do they tell their stories to one another, they do not understand each other. They observe each other without seeing each other, each one of them infinitely alone, even though work or sense pleasures bind them together. But let one touch the good and Love, like the saints, the true, like an Aristotle, the beautiful, like a Dante or a Bach or a Giotto, then contact is made, souls communicate. Men are really united only by the spirit; light alone brings them together, intellectualia et rationalia omnia congregans, et indestructibilia faciens

Art in general tends to make a work. But certain arts tend to make a beautiful work, and in this they differ essentially from all the others. The work to which all the other arts tend is itself ordered to the service of man, and is therefore a simple means; and it is entirely enclosed in a determined material genus. The work to which the fine arts tend is ordered to beauty; as beautiful, it is an end, an absolute, it suffices of itself; and if, as work-to-be-made, it is material and enclosed in a genus, as beautiful it belongs to the kingdom of the spirit and plunges deep into the transcendence and the infinity of being.

The fine arts thus stand out in the genus art as man stands out in the genus animal. And like man himself they are like a horizon where matter and spirit meet. They have a spiritual soul. Hence they possess many distinctive properties. Their contact with the beautiful modifies in them certain characteristics of art in general, notably, as I shall try to show, with respect to the rules of art; on the other hand, this contact discloses and carries to a sort of excess other generic characteristics of the virtue of art, above all its intellectual character and its resemblance to the speculative virtues.

There is a curious analogy between the fine arts and wisdom. Like wisdom, they are ordered to an object which transcends man and which is of value in itself, and whose amplitude is limitless, for beauty, like being, is infinite. They are disinterested, desired for themselves, truly noble because their work taken in itself is not made in order that one may use it as a means, but in order that one may enjoy it as an end, being a true fruit, aliquid ultimum et delectabile. Their whole value is spiritual, and their mode of being is contemplative. For if contemplation is not their act, as it is the act of wisdom, nevertheless they aim at producing an intellectual delight, that is to say, a kind of contemplation; and they also presuppose in the artist a kind of contemplation, from which the beauty of the work must overflow. That is why we may apply to them, with due allowance, what Saint Thomas says of wisdom when he compares it to play: "The contemplation of wisdom is rightly compared to play, because of two things that one finds in play. The first is that play is delightful, and the contemplation of wisdom has the greatest delight, according to what Wisdom says of itself in Ecclesiasticus: my spirit is sweet above honey. The second is that the movements of play are not ordered to anything else, but are sought for themselves. And it is the same with the delights of wisdom. . . . That is why divine Wisdom compares its delight to play: I was delighted every day, playing before him in the world.“

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Who Am I Really Meant To Be? Authenticity and the Internet

Surfing the net in the last few days, maybe you skimmed a headline saying something about the pope and social networks. What’s it all about?

The headlines referred to Pope Benedict’s Message for the 45th World Communications Day, a day that this year falls on June 5, although the message is customarily released on the Feast of Saint Francis de Sales, the patron saint of those who work in communications, which this year fell on January 24, this past Monday. The theme of the pope’s message for this year is, “Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age.” If you perused one of the news stories about this message, you probably read that the pope had some positive things to say about social networking, encouraging Catholics to get involved, though to be careful how they do so. This much is true, but there is much more to this brief message than this, and for anyone interested and involved in the new social media it is well worth taking a few minutes to read (it is not even three pages of single-spaced type). The pope writes that the new communications technologies “urgently demand a serious reflection on the significance of communication in the digital age.” Over the next couple of posts I want to engage in such reflection with the help of the pope’s message. I begin here with five thoughts that touch on how the pope understands the deep theological dimension of the new communications technologies, in particular social networks.

1.    The internet in general, and social networking in particular, is one expression of the “human spiritual yearning.” The virtual world, in other words, is one way that the human spirit looks to satisfy its fundamental longings. Longings for what? For transcendence, for truth, for communication with others, for “authentic forms of life, truly worthy of being lived.” Every human being, professed Catholic or not, wants these things, and many of us go looking for them on the internet.
2.    Authenticity is a key theme of the message. One of the things human beings have a spiritual longing for is authenticity. What does authenticity mean? Let’s begin with what it’s not. An authentic life is a life that is the opposite of phoney, disingenuous, hypocritical. So an authentic life is a life lived in the light of truth, a life in which one becomes who one is truly meant to be.
3.    In the most profound sense, authenticity can only be achieved in a friendship with Christ. “In the final analysis, the truth of Christ is the full and authentic response to that human desire for relationship, communion and meaning which is reflected in the immense popularity of social networks.” So that Facebook page, that Twitter account, that blog—all these are attempts (sometimes woefully misguided) of looking for something that can only be fulfilled in Christ. In Christ we make the “connection” that really satisfies. In Christ we discover who we’re really meant to be.  
4.    But the new communications technologies and social networks can also be a legitimate way of living out an authentic life in Christ. “If used wisely, they can contribute to the satisfaction of the desire for meaning, truth and unity which remain the most profound aspirations of each human being.” This is the positive point that the pope wants to make about these new technologies. They can honestly contribute to a life of authenticity. How do they do it?
5.    By being put in the service of (a) “the integral good of the individual”; and (b) “the whole of humanity.” We are made for happiness, a happiness that is realized by living in the truth in communion with others. Not every “connection” in a social network realizes this ideal. Consider risqué photographs shared on a Facebook page. They undercut the truth of human sexuality, and make for only the most superficial of “connections” between “friends.” They do nothing to help fulfill the best potentialities of human relationships. They project a “profile” that works as a mask, obscuring the person and his or her longing for authentic human connection. “In the search for sharing, for “friends,” there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.”     

More on what the Holy Father sees as some of the dangers of social networking in my next post…

Monday, January 24, 2011

Stories and the Culture of Life

It is an anniversary, though not one to be celebrated. Thirty-eight years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its abominable decision, Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion. This past week we were afforded a glimpse behind the myth of Roe v. Wade as an instrument of female empowerment (where, by the way, is the national outrage and sympathy over these killings?). The reality of abortion, we saw, is far grislier, and has more to do with extremely vulnerable young people largely orphaned by the culture. Back on January 3rd, the New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat wrote a powerful piece, “The Unborn Paradox,” that is well worth contemplating on this sad anniversary. In the piece, Douthat considers an episode of the MTV reality show, “Teen Mom,” in which a teenage mother named Markai Durham, pregnant for the second time, chooses to have an abortion. Douthat observes:

MTV being MTV, the special’s attitude was resolutely pro-choice. But it was a heartbreaking spectacle, whatever your perspective. Durham and her boyfriend are the kind of young people our culture sets adrift — working-class and undereducated, with weak support networks, few authority figures, and no script for sexual maturity beyond the easily neglected admonition to always use a condom. Their televised agony was a case study in how abortion can simultaneously seem like a moral wrong and the only possible solution — because it promised to keep them out of poverty, and to let them give their first daughter opportunities they never had. 

Lack of substantive education…weak support networks…few authority figures…no script for sexual maturity beyond the easily neglected admonition to always use a condom. This is how the culture has “orphaned” now more than one generation of young people, and made it possible, as Douthat notes, for 22% of all pregnancies to end in abortion.

The young people of our culture, and the children they bring into this world, are in desperate need of our help. We need to extend to them the mercy and aid that will enable them to see that, in fact, they are not caught in the seeming Catch-22 Douthat describes. We need to help them experience the reality of the prophetic sentiments expressed by (soon-to-be-Blessed) Pope John Paul II in his 1995 Encyclical Letter, Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life):

I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does no doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone's right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life (no. 99). 

Examples of the friendly and practical expert help available to young women and the fathers of their children are Project Rachel and the Tepeyac Family Center in Fairfax, Virginia. At the level of education, such friendly and expert help takes the form of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture's Project Guadalupe. But while the Culture of Life that Pope John Paul II exhorted us to build urgently needs all such efforts, the legal foundations cannot be forgotten. A culture is in large part founded upon its laws, and as long as Roe v. Wade continues to serve as the keystone of our legal culture, young women like Markai Durham will not be given all the support they need. 

Yet a culture is also in large part defined, and its young people supported as well as entertained, by the stories it tells. The “unborn paradox” that Douthat talks about in his piece is the paradox that, in our culture, “no life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured [as unborn human life]. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.” This paradox is clearly on display in the movies and television shows offered to us by the entertainment industry. On the one hand, we have a recent spate of films that in certain, often tortured and mistaken, ways affirm the good of having children. I’m thinking of movies such as Bella (2006), Juno (2007), Waitress (2007), Knocked Up (2007), Baby Mama (2008), Away We Go (2009), The Back-Up Plan (2010), The Switch (2010), Life As We Know It (2010), Babies (2010), The Kids Are All Right (2010), and Due Date (2010). Yet on the other hand, we have an equal if not greater number of movies and shows that, if not openly depicting the choice to have an abortion, as in “Teen Mom,” trade in crass promiscuity and even pornography—thus continuing to spread the lie which had led us to the culture of Roe v. Wade, namely, that sex is not about children and family life, sex is just private fun.    

But as Horace said, “You can throw nature out with a pitchfork, but it will always come running back.” Despite MTV’s intentions, the pain of Markai Durham’s abortion left her with an important insight into the true nature of human sexuality. Douthat recounts the scene: “It’s left to Durham herself to cut through the evasion. Sitting with her boyfriend afterward, she begins to cry when he calls the embryo a “thing.” Gesturing to their infant daughter, she says, “A ‘thing’ can turn out like that. That’s what I remember ... ‘Nothing but a bunch of cells’ can be her.”

What a Culture of Life needs, too, are stories that deliberately, artfully, engagingly manifest this same insight.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


I recently re-watched the film Inception (written and directed by Christopher Nolan), and came away feeling not quite so bewildered by the different levels of the dream in which Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page et al. execute their smash-and-grab—er, smash-and-incept. It’s a very clever premise: a master criminal plants an idea deep inside a corporate giant’s subconscious mucus, so that said corporate giant is inspired to break up the energy company that threatens world dominance. Nolan employs the caper genre as a metaphor for the attempt to “break into” buried emotions—the adroitness of the move makes one smile. What follows are my sundry thoughts on Inception (at least I think they’re mine)…

1.    The film plays with the question, “Who’s to say what the difference is between dream and reality?” But one thing I liked about the film is that it didn’t settle for a silly answer to this question, trying to persuade us that reality is whatever scenario pleases us most, “real” or “dreamt.” Cobb (DiCaprio’s character) consistently resists attempts, most of all those of his wife, to collapse the difference between dream and waking. The archetypal story pattern, as Robert McKee claims, traces a protagonist’s movement from seems to is, and Inception, for all its fascination with the dream-state, ultimately affirms this archetypal pattern.
2.    A recent article compared Christopher Nolan to Alfred Hitchcock. Another comparison might be to the Orson Welles of Citizen Kane. There are in fact not one, but two “Rosebuds” in Inception. Both Fischer, the corporate giant, and Cobb, the master criminal, possess deep psychological wounds. Fischer has to deal with painful feelings of resentment for his father, Maurice. Indeed, the idea that Cobb and his team incept in Fischer is meant to supercede these feelings of resentment by allowing Fischer to believe that his father really didn’t want Fischer to try and please him, but wanted him to create something of his own. For his part, Cobb has to deal with the guilt he feels for having pushed his wife into dangerous experiments in team-dreaming, experiments that resulted in his wife’s inability to distinguish dream from reality and consequent suicide. Fischer fares no better than Charles Foster Kane in finding real relief from his psychological malady. While it is true that, in the end, he wakes from his dream relieved and encouraged by the fact that his father really wanted him to be his own man, this thought is wholly imaginary, an illusion planted in Fischer’s mind. (With an interesting twist on the sled “Rosebud,” the incepted scenario has Maurice revealing a paper pinwheel made by Fischer as a child and that Maurice has kept all these years.) Cobb does better in really facing the guilt he feels for his wife’s death, and in deciding that he can’t expunge that guilt by deciding to live in psychological “limbo” with the projection of his memory of her. In the end, Cobb is rewarded for his courageous embrace of reality by being reunited with his children. Cobb’s “salvation” is wholly psychological, but on that level, at least, the film depicts an important truth about self-forgiveness.
3.    At a couple of points the film gestures toward the idea of faith. For example, when it comes to deciding between what is really real, the dream or the waking state, Cobb is invited to make a “leap of faith.” I’m not sure what Nolan’s suggestion is—do we need faith to distinguish dream from waking? Does faith give us the surest grasp of reality? Or, is there no rational means of distinguishing dream from waking?
4.    Finally, the caper film is a curious genre (think The Heist, Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels, The Score). It’s the one genre in which we’re invited to root for the villain as hero. After all, Cobb and his team are criminals. But Nolan softens their villainy by trying to persuade us that Fischer’s company has to be broken up, or else it will become a “superpower.” Also, he gives Cobb a backstory and an overall goal (reunion with his children) that makes him somewhat sympathetic. Still, it’s strange that we finish the film pleased that the master criminal has gotten away with playing with the mind of (for all we know) an entirely innocent businessman. We’re fascinated by this genre—why is that?

 P.S. In my last post I took a swipe at a new film called The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins and Colin O’Donoghue, about an exorcist-in-training. A story today from the Catholic News Agency indicates that there might be more to this film than meets the eye. Interestingly, Hopkins is referred to in the piece as a Christian, and O’Donoghue described as a practicing Catholic who serves as a lector in his Dublin parish. Both actors, according to the article, spoke to Father Gary Thomas, the priest on whose experiences the film is loosely based, about the possibility of demonic attacks due to their work on the film.  

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Popular Media as Preparation for the Gospel

Further thoughts inspired by my conversation with Monsignor Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council of Social Communications…

To talk about communication, Monsignor Tighe stressed, is to talk about the culture of communication, not just the means of communication. What is a culture? A culture is a group of people sharing a way of life, sharing an understanding of what it means to be a human being, and the means they use to communicate with one another, be they smoke signals or Tweets, are extensions of this shared understanding. A culture, however, may not possess a very good understanding of what it means to be a human being, and its means of communications will reflect this impoverishment. Listen again to Zadie Smith: When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility.” But the soul-shrinking aspects of Facebook are only an extension of our culture’s attenuated understanding of what it means to be human and to “connect” with one another. 

How does the Church communicate in such an environment? What are the means of communication at her disposal? Above all, Scripture and the liturgy, where the Word itself is communicated. But however primary, Scripture and the liturgy are rich fare, an acquired taste. Milk is necessary before meat. So Monsignor Tighe spoke of the need for “entry-level languages” that serve, one might say, as a kind of preparatio evangelii, a preparation for the hearing of the Good News. And popular media can serve as one such entry-level language, and a very powerful and compelling one at that. But in order for the Church to use popular media effectively, Monsignor Tighe urged, she must begin by listening. Popular media forms the filters through which many people take their understanding of what the Church is all about, and so the first job is to come to grips with what this filtered understanding is. How many people only see the Church through the funhouse mirror of films such as Angels and Demons?—the kind of film whose name is Legion (see here and here). We must have a self-awareness of how the Church is being portrayed, and then—and here’s the difficult part—provide a captivating alternative.

How to do this? Here Monsignor Tighe underscored the importance of entertaining stories (for a similar call, see Dr. Stan Williams’ post, “First Entertain,” on today’s Catholic Exchange.) The desire to be edifying alone won’t cut it. We need people with the capacity to tell stories that are humanly engaging. This is more important than whether or not the story’s setting is explicitly Catholic. Nothing that expresses something of the dignity of the human person is alien to the Church, so that we shouldn’t just be thinking of stories from the Bible, or of saints, or of other Christian heroes. The entire human predicament must be of concern to the Christian storyteller, as long as the portrayal of that predicament reveals a yearning for something that transcends, to quote Jacques Maritain, “our sense needs and sentimental egos.” We need stories that at least point toward the true fulfillment of the human person. A special need in our time, noted Monsignor Tighe—a need that has been made brutally clear with the despicable debut of MTV’s new reality series, Skins—are stories that tell the truth about human relationships, about sexuality, marriage and the family. Today’s Christian storytellers must shoulder the enormous responsibility of picturing an engaging alternative to the way in which the popular media tends to tell stories about these topics.

What better way to sum up these thoughts about Christian storytelling than by quoting Pope John Paul II’s most eloquent expression of them in his 1999 “Letter to Artists”:

Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption (no. 10).

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Spiritual Network

On a recent visit to Rome I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Monsignor Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. An affable and thoughtful Irishman, Monsignor Tighe explained to me the mission of the Pontifical Council, as well as shared some of his reflections about the promises and pitfalls of social communications in our time—with an emphasis on new media and cinema. I am very grateful to Monsignor Tighe for his time and expertise, and in the next few posts I want to share with you some of the highlights from our conversation, which is one way of gearing up for the release of the Holy Father’s annual Message for the World Day of Communications (a message customarily dated on the Feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists, which this year falls on Monday next, January 24).

For those unfamiliar with its mission, a word about the nature of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. First, it is not the press office of the pope and the Holy See—although it does play a hand in granting accreditation to photojournalists and film crews, and to helping coordinate the global communications of larger Vatican events.  Rather, the mission of the Council is to promote the importance of the ministry of communication across the life of the Church. The umbrella term “communication” comprises print journalism, cinema, television, radio, and now all the various forms of new media.
One interesting point made by Monsignor Tighe concerns the way in which our networked society reflects the structure of life in the Church. In an important sense the Church’s structure is hierarchical, like a pyramid. But in another sense the structure of the Church is that of a sprawling network of communities, like those made possible by the Internet. Imagine someone, for example, who belongs to the community of his family, his workplace, his parish, his volunteer association, his alma mater, his team. This is a network of communities—all united, for the Catholic, by the spiritual energy of sacramental life in the Church. Our daily lives in the web of electronic media, where we move from a work email to a LinkedIn group to a news page to an online class, evinces an analogous and often complementary structure. I take it that Monsignor Tighe’s point is that, at its best, the networked society, by its analogous form, by its similar variety, range and flexibility, can enhance our lives in the network of communities we live in. The electronic network is in many ways made to serve the spiritual network. All hinges, however, as Monsignor Tighe observed, on whether truly human relationships are at the core of the networked society. By no means do all forms of new media understand what a truly human relationship is. The novelist Zadie Smith’s New York Review of Books piece on Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, linked at the bottom of my last post, is very interesting on this point. Here’s a morsel:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.”

If Smith is right, then there is an enormous amount at stake in carefully distinguishing between “the social network” of a media like Facebook, and a networked society that truly serves the spiritual network. Indeed, our very selves at our stake.      

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Social Network, Or How to Make the Most of Your College Experience

I believe it was Allan Bloom, in an essay on Plato’s Republic, who observed that one of the reasons why Plato has his Socrates construct an ideal “city in speech” along with his young interlocutors in the Republic, Glaucon and Adeimantus, is to give these two young men something worthy at which to aim their desires for glory. For without a truly just and noble ideal to summon their ambitions for greatness, Glaucon and Adeimantus would be prone to seek glory in the more conventional ways of young Athenian men from good families—through prowess on the battlefield and success in politics, venues where justice and nobility were often compromised.

Bloom’s observation came to mind when I finally got the chance to see the remarkable film, The Social Network (directed by David Fincher, screenplay by Aaron Sorkin). Consider the very first scene in the film, an argument between Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook (played by Jesse Eisenberg), and his girlfriend Erica (played by Rooney Mara). It’s a compelling opening scene, written by Sorkin in the staccato rhythms familiar from his work on The West Wing. Sorkin shows Zuckerberg’s kinetic mind bouncing between several topics, like a chess grand master playing three matches at once. The first line of the film, spoken by Zuckerberg during the fade in, begins to reveal the central theme of the story:

Do you know there are more people with genius IQ’s living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?

What’s on Zuckerberg’s mind? Glory. Being a genius. His obsession is made explicit when he articulates to Erica his life’s dilemma:

How do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got 1600 on their SAT’s?

The population Zuckerberg refers to is, of course, the institution at which he is an undergraduate: Harvard. Zuckerberg himself got a 1600 on the SAT, but at Harvard this is no more distinctive than a genius IQ in China. What to do? At first, Zuckerberg attempts to resolve his dilemma by getting into one of Harvard’s exclusive Final Clubs. But when that path to glory shows itself to be unavailable to him, he turns his rather ruthless energies to the creation of Facebook.

At one level, in The Social Network Fincher and Sorkin offer a fairly straightforward morality tale of megalomaniacal ambition leading to betrayal and isolation. As the logline on the poster has it, “You Don’t Get To 500 Million Friends Without Making A Few Enemies.” The film closes with a look at Zuckerberg sitting alone at a table in the law office where he is being deposed for one of the two lawsuits being brought against him by former friends. But Zuckerberg shows little concern for his legal troubles. He’s preoccupied with “friending” Erica, whose attention and approval he still desperately wants. As the film fades out, we see him staring blankly at his laptop screen and every few seconds refreshing her Facebook page as he awaits the reply to his request—a picture of isolation and self-absorption.

But what makes the movie feel so fresh is the way it so vividly situates the conventions of this kind of story within the lives of young people in our culture, especially the lives of undergraduate men (I take Zuckerberg and the other characters in the film as characters, leaving aside the question of the relationship between them and their real counterparts. For one take on that question, see this.). I find part of myself admiring the drive, the creativity, the entrepreneurial gusto of Zuckerberg and his friends. But it’s no mark against the true entrepreneurial spirit to notice that the ambitions of these young men are, simply speaking, deranged. They want glory, they want money, they want sex, and they are willing to place their prodigious gifts at the service of these idols with nary a thought about their value or the consequences. The real villain of the piece, however, is not Zuckerberg. The real villain is the absentee landlord of his formation at this point in his life: Harvard. The film depicts Zuckerberg in a collegiate environment that not only puts few strictures on his destructive ambition, but in significant ways encourages it. I cannot speak to the accuracy of the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in this film, but I can speak to the accuracy of its portrayal of the large-scale, contemporary university, an institution that too often exhibits deranged ambitions of its own. In the pursuit of these, the contemporary university habitually fails to shape the legitimate desires for greatness of our young people by offering them an enduring ideal of how one ought to live as a human being.  

In his book, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, the philosopher Roger Scruton identifies one of the chief duties of traditional cultures that of helping young people navigate the often treacherous road from adolescence to adulthood. By religious practices and courtship practices, for example, the young in traditional societies were guided in the formation of their desires, so that they avoided self-destructive behaviors and entered the adult community prepared to make a truly great contribution to it. Our culture in so many ways abdicates this responsibility to the young. And the contemporary university, the place where so many of the young people in our culture are housed while they attempt to make this difficult passage to adulthood, must accept a good part of the blame for contributing to a massive cultural dysfunction. Like so many undergraduates, Zuckerberg romps through Harvard like Pinocchio in Pleasureland, leveraging its reputation and resources in order to build an even better Pleasureland of his own. It’s a project that apparently requires much less than four years. A recent magazine feature on Evan Williams, the cofounder of Twitter, begins: “If Evan Williams, who is credited with inventing blogging, and who cofounded Twitter, were to tweet about what he thought of college, he’d write something like this: “@ev Left college after 18 mos. Didn’t really see the point.”

Socrates wanted to draw Glaucon and Adeimantus away from the idols of wealth, power, and a cheap glory. He did so by trying to show these bright young men the point that Evan Williams’ education failed to show him. He tried to offer them a prize very different than the one their culture offered them—the prize of truth. The motto of Harvard is Veritas. The stated aspiration of so many of our institutions of higher learning is knowledge. We are in debt to The Social Network for showing us that these stated goals are to a disturbing extent only a virtual reality.

P.S. Another key theme in The Social Network is the nature of the social networking phenomenon itself. Due in part to the film, at the end of last year and now at the very beginning of this one there has been much public reflection upon the value of this phenomenon. Here are some thoughtful examples:

Zadie Smith, “Generation Why,” The New York Review of Books, November 25, 2010

Karina Longworth, “The Social Network, Or Why I Quit Facebook,” LA Weekly, December 23, 2010

And two very recent blog posts, one by Matthew Warner at the National Catholic Register, and the other by Marilyn Wilkinson at Catholic Exchange.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Feast of Artists

I am a little late for Epiphany, but I was struck the other day, in reading one of the letters of Evelyn Waugh, by his reflections on Epiphany. The letter is one written to his wife Laura on 9 January 1945, just after the publication of Brideshead Revisisted when Waugh was in (then) Yugoslavia:

Have you ever considered how the Epiphany is the feast of artists. I thought so very strongly this year. After St. Joseph and the angels and the shepherds and even the ox and the ass have had their share of the crib, twelve days later appears an exotic caravan with negro pages and ostrich plumes. They have come an enormous journey across a desert and the splendid gifts look much less splendid than they did when they were being packed in Babylon. The wise men committed every sort of bêtise—even asking the way of Herod & provoking the massacre of the innocents—but they got there in the end and their gifts were accepted (The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Mark Armory, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1980, p. 197).

It’s a wonder just what Waugh means in associating the Magi with the artist. It seems to have something to do with their late arrival to the scene of Our Lord’s birth…one of Waugh’s biographers takes the exotic caravan, the pages and plumes, as metaphors for the lush style that Waugh displays in Brideshead… the gifts the Magi bring would seem to be the works that the artist offers to God....I had to look up bêtise—it’s a work of folly, a mistake made from bad judgment, ignorance or inattention. The artist’s foibles and sins….

The adoration of the Magi signifies the pagan world’s attraction to Christ. Perhaps Waugh sees the artist, even the Christian artist, as largely immersed in the secular world (a world in which the artist-celebrity is ever increasingly “king”), yet still called by the beautiful “star” of the faith. It also may be the case that Waugh, a convert, felt a special affinity with these first Gentiles who responded to Christ’s call, however late they may have arrived at the scene. The artist’s gifts, meanwhile, like the gifts of the Magi, while splendid in one sense—gold, frankincense and myrrh were gifts most valued in the East—are as nothing compared to the splendor of the Babe in the crib. Still, on account of the Magi’s faith, their gifts are accepted and they are given space to adore the Christ. The artist’s call, by the beautiful light of the star, is toward this adoration of the Beauty of Christ. It is interesting to recall that the word beauty, in its Greek etymology, literally means a “call.”  

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Our Lady and the Way of Beauty

On this Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, I offer you a couple of items having to do with faith, art and culture. The first is a recent reflection from Pope Benedict on Our Lady and the "Way of Beauty." Here's a preview:

"Theological and spiritual reflection, liturgy, Marian devotion, and artistic representation truly form a whole, a complete and effective message, capable of arousing the wonder of eyes, of touching the heart and of enticing the intelligence to a more profound understanding of the mystery of Mary in which we see our destiny reflected clearly and our hope proclaimed."

The second is a link to the video of my talk, "Sucking the Life from Our Children: Hollywood and the Romance of the Living Dead," presented at the annual Fall conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture back in November.

I am taking a brief hiatus from High Concepts, but will be back the week of January 11.