Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental; they necessarily are reflected in his theology.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Of all the modern substitutes for religion, it is the aesthetic sense which is the most esteemed.
Edward Norman, Entering the Darkness
That quote above by then-Cardinal Ratzinger leaves me fidgety. I would rather hear about the potential effect on theology of his pilot’s licensehe does have onethan appeals to art, music, nature, the expected perfumes. The guidance system of the papal helicopter, in its ordering of objective elements, bears closer resemblance to religious truth than the emotional promptings of the aesthetic sense.
Marcel Gromaire. The Pilot (1928). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.
And where does love of nature take the theologian except into the eco-mysticism that installs a shrine to Gaia in the cathedral of St. John the Divine? Contemporary nature piety is the springboard for re-sacralizing the natural world, reversing Christianity’s historic de-divinization of it.
Nature is to be respected. But loved? Nature kills. We can love nature only to the degree of our control of it, our protection from it. (Look in your medicine cabinet for simple cues to your fidelity to nature.) Yes, a sunset is beautiful; but only because the sun is far enough away not to incinerate us.
Tacitus stated it for the ages: “Viewed from a distance, everything is beautiful.”
Tornado over Oklahoma City area.
Three centuries into the ongoing displacement of religion by aesthetics, talk of beauty is much in the air these days. It ranks among the finer pastimes of polite climbers. On a more significant level, it has thickened into an arena in which Christians struggle to align beauty with salvation history. We speak of beauty now in tones reserved for salvific virtue. Accent on it leaves me wondering if we have strayed off our own turf. We seem to be playing an away game, no longer on home court.
Does Christianity subvert itself by embracing the revelations of an Enlightenment discipline? Are we adapting ourselves to a secular, and secularizing, frame of mind? Is the imperative of beauty a new bondage, this time to the strategies and structures of the world’s source of transcendent meaning? Is emphasis on beauty a surrenderdisguised by religious languageto forces that distance us from the plenitude of our own wellspring: the Galilean Jew we greet in the Creed?
Georges Barbier. Incantation (1923). Illustration for an Almanach.
We can doxologize beautyits value, its boundless variety of formsuntil the clocks stop. But, in the end, we are still left with that bothersome business of how to recognize it, how to achieve it. When talk is done and the table cleared, are we any further along than Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity? He admitted it was impossible to define but “I know it when I see it.”
Aestheticism as Ariadne Waving Goodbye to Oscar Wilde (1882). Punch.
When it comes to visible beauty, I definitely know it when I see it. No doubt about it. Not sure, though, I see it where you do. Besides, do you really know when you see it? Or do you just think you do? Is there a gene for telling the difference? Might taste be shaped by natural selection? Is bad taste an acquired characteristic or a hereditary predisposition? And while we are at it, why are you wearing that ugly tie?
Anonymous. Beautiful Longhorn, Prize Cow (19th C.). Oxford Agricultural College, UK.
It all gets sticky very fast. No conscientious writer on art can offer absolutes, though the temptation to try is great. Authority attaches to schema; honor accrues to pronunciamentos that nail it all down. Art presents a bewildering array of choices. How to pick the right one, the one that speaks well of us? Freedom of choice is risky. Wary of taking our chances, we want beauty clinched in an unequivocal canon. We look for a fixed set of properties applicable from now to kingdom come. It is the lure of the infallible.
Only it does not work that way. Tastes change with the times. Think of the doyens of eighteenth-century taste who despised the Gothic that we so prize today. Besides, it is not a critic’s job to mimic the labor of philosophers and psychologists of perception. The best a critic can do is offer an eyewhich is to say a sensibility, that j’ne sais quoi of things rooted in a life and a conscience.
Mark Tansey. The Innocent Eye Test (1981).
It is impossible to look at fetal photography without astonishment. One of the most exhilarating things about it is its testimony to the sovereignty of our eyes. They are not separate members that grow on their own. The eye is a very organ of the brain! Emerging out of it, an eye is the brain’s emissary to the light. It comes into the world with its own way of knowing, wordless and immediate.
The eye, like friendship, seeks its own society. It functions according to its own principles, likes, and demands, each molded by temperament and circumstances. And it loses its innocence as we all do.
Paulus Potter. The Young Bull (1647). The Mauritshuis, NL.
Mark Tansey’s wonderfully witty The Innocent Eye Test takes aim at the notion of a critic as one who views art through a clear crystalline lens, unclouded by a priori biases or wayward concepts. But in the real world, no such innocent eye exists exceptjust maybein a cow. Tansey’s earnest research team brings a placid milker to gaze at Paulus Potter’s The Young Bull. Does she recognize her Dutch predecessor as the real thing? Did Potter get it right?
Golden Age livestock leaves no mess. Not so the barnyard participant in this investigation. (Note the man ready with a mop on the left.) Viewed from the detached distance of art, Potter’s idyllic livestock is lovely. Less so, its modern avatar.
Note: Bloggers are their own worst copy editors. I had reversed Justice Stewart’s first and last names. All fixed noe.
Your friends are not religious; they are only pew-renters. They are not moral; they are only conventional.
Don Juan to the Devil in Shaw’s Man and Superman
A sense of the holy brings with it a sense of taboo. We tread cautiously in the tenting place of the ineffable. A Presence abides. We dare not profane.
The Vatican’s recently announced Art for Charity initiative directed toward high profile corporations raises a question: Is the Sistine Chapel still the sacred space it was built to be? Or has it slackened into a world class exhibition hall, a Renaissance monument FOR RENT?
The elasticity of the line between sacred and profane can last only so long. At some point pliancy gives out, things stiffen, and choice falls at one end or the other. The initiative’s inaugural event, this past October, suggests that the elastic has dried and begun to crack.
Organized by the Vatican Museums, Art for Charity is a fund raising scheme that invites proposals for swank events sponsored by corporate donors. October saw the first of these commercial transactions. Porsche Travel Club arranged a four-day, 5,000-per-head [ArtNet’s figure] tour of Rome, featuring a private concert in the Sistine Chapel. The concert was performed by the venerable Accademia di Santa Cecilia, founded by Sixtus V in 1585. This was followed by a gala dinner “in the midst of the Vatican Museums,” leaving it unclear whether dinner took place in the chapel or elsewhere in the complex. Proceedings included a visit to Castel Gandolfo and a drive to Lake Garda in the latest Porsche models.
Msgr. Paolo Nicolini, managing director of the Vatican Museums, rejected the word rent: “The Sistine Chapel can never be rented because it is not a commercial space.” Making the chapel “visible” is the preferred term. He told the press:
It is an initiative which will support the Pope’s charity projects. It is aimed at big companies which, through the payment of a fee, can contribute to charity activities.
In other words, the Vatican is poised to solicit cash in exchange for permitting private access to the Sistine Chapel for exclusive corporate patrons. The vulgar word rent need never apply. Good manners demand phrasing appropriate to a premier cultural institution. The Vatican could have no better tutor in this than New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its downloadable pdf. on the delicate matter of “unique entertaining opportunities and special access” is an exquisite sample of elevated locution:
Entertaining at the Metropolitan Museum is a privilege reserved for its Corporate Patrons and eligible non-profit organizations. For its Corporate Patrons, membership benefits and entertaining opportunities reflect the level of a company’s gift to the Museum.
Privilege. Eligible. Gift. It is in word dances like this that distinguished brandscultural and commercialcurtsy to each other.
The Vatican is simply adopting fund-raising techniques used by museums around the world for several decades. Its arrangement with Porsche indicates public embrace of the entrepreneurial culture already at play in museums around the world. Museums are desirable, high-status venues for corporate entertaining. Large or small, they compete to attract corporate sponsors, offering sponsorship opportunities contracted for a fee. And that is fine. Less congenial, however, is the inclusion of the Sistine Chapel in such transactions. Did the Sistine, intimately bound to the life of the Church, debase its sacral status while enhancing the identity of Porsche in the marketplace of brands?
Reading between the lines of official comments, it is not difficult to discern anxiety to deflect the question. According to CNNMoney, the Vatican hopes other companies will follow suit with similar events. The single proviso is they be art related.
Vatican Museums director Antonio Paolucci dips into the warm bath of contemporary art pieties. Vatican Radio quotes his explanation of the impetus behind the initiative: “Art, too, is charity and love.”
No, it is not. Art bears no relation to caritas; it is incapable of agape. The only aspect of loveif that is the wordthat might feasibly be associated with art is eros. If we must, there is no shame in admitting that something erotic lives in the drive to make it, the pleasure of looking at it, the ache to linger in its company. But that is hardly the spiritually redemptive love that Vatican Radio intends.
Rendering a pragmatic decision in terms of a mystical or virtue-producing superstructure falsifies the enterprise and art as well. It is also dangerous. Ours is an age in which museums make claims for themselves that mimic religion and art is seen as a signal of transcendence. In contemporary culture art is the preferred Real Presence, free of all obligation and no cross in sight. By clothing art in the mantle of religiona gathering current that predates the present papacythe Vatican sanctifies its own secular replacement.
Leave the last word to Louis Bouyer:
We see many Christians attempting to make an alliance between Christianity’s ways and those of the world; and we see Christians who are even tempted to believe that the salvation offered by this world is the true one, and that Christianity needs only to encourage it, to bless it with a cheerful acknowledgment of its worth.
Note: The image above is some wag’s Photoshop comment. Worth 1,000 words.
Beauty is my business as thoroughly as trouble is Raymond Chandler’s. Still, you will never catch me talking about “the beautiful.” I have no idea what it is or what it might look like. A transcendental is a bit like a virtual “friend”you never get to see it. In the lived life, beauty is sensible. It resides in individual things, in matter, the stuff of the world and of man’s hands.
Making things is the artist’s métier. Reflection on the appearance of particular things, and opinions on them, is within an artist’s bailiwick. But the marshlands of aesthetics are not. Neither are the umbras and penumbras of St. Thomas, where adepts scout out what he did not say but might have if he had been born later. This is sacred ground; artists should stay off the grass. Besides, post-Enlightenment steeplechases are no help in the studio.
Praxiteles. Hermes Holding Infant Dionysus (c. 330 BC). Archeological Museum, Olympia, Greece.
The most enduring part of Clive Bell’s influential 1913 essay Art and Significant Form is its opening lines:
It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that. It is certain, however, that about no subject with which I am acquainted has so little been said that is at all to the purpose.
Several centuries of intellectual hunting and gathering have been pledged to the effort to rationalize and systematize discussion of beauty. It is a mischievous topic, better left to philosophers and theologians. Yet even they can skid on it. Listen to Hans Urs von Balthasar:
[Beauty] is that aspect of reality without which the ancient world refused to understand itself. But ‘beauty’ has now become a mere word; while beauty herself has finally now bid farewell, imperceptibly and yet unmistakably, to our brave new world of commercial interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness.
It takes chutzpah to make a pronouncement like that. Yet the quote is repeated with worshipful nods of assent, signaling the reciter’s break from the undiscerning masses. But is Balthasar’s allegation as consequential as it sounds? It is confident, sonorous, Germanic. But is it believable? Did the ancient pagan worldwith its hot bull’s blood, temple slaves, and envious godshold to beauty in the conduct of life more intimately or adroitly than our own? Or is it simply that Balthasar prefers Praxiteles to Elie Nadelman?
Elie Nadelman. Tango (1920-24). Whitney Museum of Art, NYC.
Balthasar’s imperious assertion begs all evidence. Beauty has certainly not left the world. Like grace, it is everywhere. We have only to keep our eyes open. The philosophical mind is under no such obligation. It greets essences, not things. Its forte is speculative, not practical, not empirical. It owes no generosity to the tackle and trim of the workaday world.
When it does descend to things, speculation is often colored more readily by statusa socioeconomic biasthan by perception. Remember Henri de Lubac’s comment that Balthasar, his acolyte, was “perhaps the most cultivated man of his time.” It is tempting to ask if the flattery might have been less fulsome if Balthasar had whistled and played the harmonica instead of the piano. Even if he performed with the eloquence and delicacy of the great Belgian jazz musician Toots (Jean-Baptiste ) Thielemans, odds are that de Lubac’s tribute would have had a dent in it.
There exists tremendous beauty in man’s ingenuity in creating the ravishing abundance of goods that deliver us from mere subsistence. All the implements and resources that permit us to live longer and more easily deserve honor in discussions of what constitutes beauty. In reality, there is no inherent opposition between beauty and serviceability. Those who presume to hold a measurethe aesthetician’s sword of Merlinby which to determine true beauty and fix it in place pride themselves unnecessarily.
James E. Allen, The Builders (1932). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.
Things created as objets d’art can be quite dreadful; something as ordinary as a salt shaker can be beautiful. It is that very respect for utility that informed the life’s work of Shoji Hamada (d. 1978), the great Japanese ceramicist. Dedicated to the production of everyday wares, he had been drawn initially to painting. He explained his fateful reversal: “Even a bad pot has some use but with a bad painting there is nothing you can do but throw it out.”
Shoji Hamada. Bowl.
When I turn on hot water or come in from the cold, I am reminded of the functional beauty of the network of copper pipes connected to my boiler. And the boiler, in its homely, hard-working boilerhood, is itself a thing of beauty. High intellectual elegance imagined the ignition system that gets it going. A congeries of creative intuitions are hidden in the nerve patterns of vigilant gauges that alert the oil company, several towns away, when my fuel tanks are running low.
We sin against ourselves by believing that beauty has gone out of the world. It has not. Too many of us simply dislike acknowledging how much the ability to create and maintain it on a modern scale is owed to the loveliness of mechanics. To bushings, bearings, cranks, carburetorsevery imaginable category of mechanical designand to commercial enterprises like Weil-McLain and Honeywell who make our boilers and our gauges.
We do live in history, and this age is hard to bear.
Jacques Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment
To be of one’s time means to attend to the nature of the times. It means resisting the siren call of the day’s enthusiasmszeal for environmentalism, sustainability, multiculturalism, global fixes, et aliain order to stay mindful of the root character of those enthusiasms and their ultimate ends. In short, it means becoming a critic of one’s time. Jacques Ellul, devoted to the life of the spirit no less than the life of the mind, was a critic of the highest order.
One of the major interpreters of the twentieth century, his name is less recognized now than it was before his death twenty years ago. It is certainly not as familiar as our own decade needs it to be. By sweet providence, Ellul was born on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1912. It was a fitting birthdate for a man whose insights are as revelatory now as in the years of their creation. A man with the courage of his intuition, he addressed fellow Christians with the passionand dismayof the Latter Prophets:
The Church is the Bride, but she can be an adulteress. The Church is a community founded by the Holy Spirit, but she may become a community in which the Holy Spirit can no longer speak.
Ellul lived an extraordinary life, leaving a rich and masterful legacy. Active in the French Resistance and deputy mayor of Bordeaux in the immediate post-war years, he was a professor of law and social history at the University of Bordeaux and its Institute of Political Studies from 1946 until 1980. A Marxist at 19, he converted to Christianity at 22. He came of age intellectually in the 1930s within the circle surrounding Emmanuel Mounier and his journal L’Espirit. Ellul drew on Mounier’s personalist philosophy of individual engagement. A Protestant, he was initiated into the same tenets of French personalism which took flesh in this country in the Catholic Worker movement under the tutelage of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day.
Ellul became known here in the 1960s for The Technological Society, published first in France ten years earlier. It is an astringent assessment of the threat to man’s personal and spiritual freedom posed by the technological world and the reach of its imperatives. But the range of his criticism and theological insight was far wider, cutting deep into the totalitarian aims and conceits of modern bureaucracy. By la technique, he meant the drive to rationalize and make efficient the myriad workings of human society. He cited politicsla politiqueas another manifestation of the technicians’ illusory quest for political solutions to everything, including moral and cultural problems. Like Karl Barth, he took the fall of man with great seriousness.
As someone who had lived politics from the inside, he did not dismiss politics. Hardly that. His aim was to demythologize it, rein in its totalizing impulses. He wrote The Political Illusion in the spirit of the biblical prophets who called their own times to remember that the true essence of history resides not in political victories or defeats but in God’s judgment on man’s dealings. Rejecting politics as the ultimate guidepost, he cautioned against powers that collectivize man via political channels. Such powers are supported by the Church at great risk to the gospel. By collaborating with the confusion of political or ideological symbols for religious ones, the Church unwittingly subordinates man’s ultimate end to temporal ones. And confounds his freedom.
The New Demons (1973) has a penetrating chapter on Christianity’s subservience to the sociopolitical milieu. A key passage:
[Christians} rush to the defense of political religion, and assert that Christianity is meaningful only in terms of political commitment. In truth, it is their religious mentality which plays a trick on them. As Christianity collapses as a religion, they look about them in bewilderment . . . hoping to discover where the religious is to be incarnated in their time. Since they are religious, they are drawn automatically into the political sphere like iron filings to a magnet.
Ellul was unsparing toward the ardent irrationality“purely religious and mythical”exhibited by men of science when they go political. At the same time, he was equally severe on religious men who confuse politics, including the political postures of men of science, with an avenue to the Kingdom of God. He was harsh toward what he deemed an illusory regard for the absolutizing pretensions of modern bureaucracy, secular or ecclesiastic. Ellul was no friend to the reach of the managerial state, to ideological drift toward collectivism, or to the hubris of schemes for world management.
The Meaning of the City (1970) is first among my favorites. For Ellul, the city, from the days of Cain to our own, represents both the pinnacle of man’s handiwork and the prime site of his rebellion. Charged with the poetry of biblical allusions, the book remains a startling theological reflection on modern urbanized culture. Babylon is his synecdoche for the historical sweep of mortal man’s monumental, and monumentally flawed, instincts and achievements. Rome, Berlin, Paris, Venice, New Yorkadd Vatican City, as wellthey are all the same city for there is “only one Babel”:
All the cities of the world are brought together in her, she is the synthesis of them all (Dan. 3 and 4; Rev 14 and 18). She is the head and the standard for the other cities. She is the very home of civilization and when the great city vanishes, there is no more civilization, a world disappears. She is the one struck in war, and she is the first to be struck in the war between the Lord and the powers of the world.
While his The Betrayal of the West (1975) acknowledges the West’s historic sins, Ellul understands them as the common sins of every civilization. What is peculiar to the West, and to it alone, are its virtues. In his words, the West “represents values for which there is no substitute. . . . The end of the West today would mean the end of any possible civilization.”
We are caught up by a kind of doom from which, it seems, nothing can rescue us, for even the disciples of Christ are rushing headlong to destruction. Only the rejection of everything Western, of everything the West has produced, can now satisfy the very men of the West. Throughout Europe and America we are watching a kind of mystery unfold; we are swept along in a vast procession of flagellants who slash at themselves and each other with the most horrendous of whips. . . . We have smeared ourselves with paint and blood to show our contempt for all that created the great civilization from which we spring. We even scourge ourselves hysterically for crimes we did not commit. In short, we show enthusiastic joy only at what denies, destroys, and degrades all the works of the West.
Despite early attachment to Marxism and continuing sympathy with aspects of its critiques, he rejected its solutions and mourned its encroachment on Christian thinking: “Christianity celebrates its marriage with Marxism and proceeds to slay the old, impotent flesh that was once the glory of the world.”
Ellul understood that the powers and principalities St. Paul warned against are changelings. They mutate with the times, costumed in new movements, sporting new slogans. In his later years, Ellul turned his attention to the dangers of a resurgent Islam. Forthright and prescient, he kept his eye on the enemy as it advanced. And he had the courage to name it.
There is a great temptation today to confuse sociological evolution with spiritual progress, and Christians are the first to succumb to that temptation. Nevertheless, the Bible expressly tells us that the history of mankind ends in judgment. It does not give place to the Kingdom.
Jacques Ellul, False Presence of the Kingdom
Conformity to the world is expressed by the passion for politics, by the politicizing of Christian thinking, manners and action.
Jacques Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment
In the cap and bells of Flip Wilson’s Church of What’s Happening Now, Pope Francis is readying an encyclical on climate change. He will address the world’s latest mutation of the grail quest: human ecology. Abandoning nuance for apocalyptic alarmism (“If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.”), Francis has signaled the tenor of his utterance.
It comes as no surprise. Handwriting has been on the wall along the Viale Vaticano from the get-go. At the beginning of his pontificate, Francis revealed himself to be fastidiously attuned to image. He refused to give communion in public ceremonies lest he be photographed giving the sacrament to the wrong kind of sinner. So, when he agreed to pose between two well-known environmental activists and brandish an anti-fracking T-shirt, we believed what we saw.
It was a portentous image. Press toads hopped to their keyboards to correct the evidence of our lying eyes. Francis was neither for nor against fracking, you see. Nothing of the sort. He was simply using a photo-op to assert blameless solidarity with the victims of ecological injustice. (Both a decisive definition of such injustice and its particular victims went unspecified.)
If that restyling were true, then the more fool Francis. But Francis is not a fool. He is an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist. His clumsy intrusion into the Middle East and covert collusion with Obama over Cuba makes that clear. Megalomania sends him galloping into geopoliticaland now meteorologicalthickets, sacralizing politics and bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements.
Later this year, Francis will take his sandwich board to the United Nations General Assembly, that beacon of progress toward the Kingdom. Next will come a summit of world religionsa sort of Green Assisiorganized to lend moral luster to an upcoming confederacy of world improvers in Paris. In the words of Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Francis means “to make all people aware of the state of our climate and the tragedy of social exclusion.”
There is a muddle for you. The bishop asserts a causal relation between two undefined, imprecise phenomena. His phrasing is a sober-sounding rhetorical dodge that eludes argument because the meaning is indeterminable. Ambiguity, like nonsense, is irrefutable. What caliber of scientist speaks this way?
Ronald Gunther. Soap Box Orator (c. 1935). Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma.
Conscientious concern for the environment is not at issue. Man’s stewardship of the earth’s resources is to be taken with great seriousness. But debate as how best to effect that stewardship is intricate and ongoing. There are hazards in unraveling divergent, often contradictory, ideas and undertakings bundled together by the media as a coherent movement.
Francis serves an environmentalist mindset that, unlike the traditional ethos of conservation, views man as a parasite (Western man in Francis’ marxisant variant) and understands wealth in pre-modern terms as a zero-sum game. It discards the West’s great discoveryrealization that wealth can be created. The endgame is transfer of wealth from productive nations to unproductive ones.
Boris Kustodiev. Festivity for Opening of the 11th Comintern Congress (1920). Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg.
Orthodox environmentalism resents human sovereignty over the earth we inhabit. It begrudges ingenuity in the transactions we invent with nature and with each other. Its radical form, which beckons Francis and Vatican academics, is atavistic, even animist. Discount the gospel gloss. What matters is the spectacle of the Church imitating the world by justifying political agendas based on still-contended data and half-baked Gramscian dogma. Jacques Ellul, writing in the post-war decades, cautioned against introducing political morals into the Church as a springboard for unexamined action:
Proof is of no avail in the face of the sociological trends which bring Christians irrevocably to do what everybody else is doing, and to think what everybody else is thinking.
Ferdinand Hodler. The Orator (1912). Nationalgalerie, Berlin.
Man cannot destroy “Creation.” It is not within his power. Nor is “Creation” a willful entity with Doomsday on its mind. Francis sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda. Francis’s loaded abstractionsa planet “exploited by human greed,” a vague “economy of exclusion,” and that old goblin, “the god of money”echo Reverend Wright’s “A world in need is run by white folks’ greed.” Explicit racial component is absent from Francis’ denunciations. Nevertheless, hearers know which worldFirst or Third?prompts papal hostility.
The world is what it has been and will remain. Satan is still the prince of it. And Francis is imprudent.
With liturgical regularity, Christmastide brings the magic of The Nutcracker. This is the perfect season for it. By December, the year’s worth of adult disdain for all things enchanted has reached a crescendo. “No, Virginia, you’ve been had,” galumph uncomprehending gradgrinds who dismiss fantasy as lying. Childhood’s sensitivity to wonder is put to the test this time of year. Children are made to suffer obtuse grown-ups who refuse to believe that toys come alive, that mice have queens, or have forgotten that nightmares, too, have their bewitchments.
E.T.A. Hoffmann’s own illustration for Nussknacker und Mausekònig (1816). University of Oldenburg.
We owe The Nutcracker to Ernest Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, celebrated among the German Romantics of his day. As much a changeling in careers as in name, he was born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann in Königsberg, Prussia, in 1776. Sometime in his thirty-seventh year, he changed his middle name in honor of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Though he continued to use Wilhelm on official documents, he wrote and composed under the name E. T. A. Hoffmann.
Hoffmann had a variegated career as a stage manager, musician, music critic, librettist, artist, and, early on, a law officer in the Prussian army. He wrote and staged a ballet of his own, Arlequin, in 1816, the year in which he wrote what would later become the basis of The Nutcracker. To the extent that we remember him today at all, we are most familiar with his name as the writer of short stories. He was the fictionalized protagonist of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann, based on three Hoffmann fables.
Illustration by Gannady Spirin (1996).
Awake to the singular and inexplicable, Hoffmann disliked that breed of rationalists incapable of recognizing even the demonic. He intended The Nutcracker and the Mouse King as an unsettling novella for adults, not children. His seven-headed Mouse King is easily recognizable as a märchen variant of the Beast of the Apocalypse so famously depicted by Dürer. (The Nutcracker ballet, first performed in St. Petersburg, in 1892, to Tschaikovsky’s music, is based on Alexander Dumas père’s later and lighter adaptation of the tale.)
Hoffman created the story in opposition to what he saw as the Enlightenment’s assault on the imagination. He championed intimations of the extramundane, those veiled realms of the empirically unverifiable. A poet in words, music, and line, he defended the authenticity of realities existing outside the scientific world view. This passage from Hoffmann’s “The Perfect Stage Manager” is a sly guide to his aesthetic objectives:
If perhaps you have not already noticed it yourselves, I will herewith reveal to you that the poets and musicians are in an extremely dangerous league against the audience. For their aim is nothing less than to drive the spectator out of the real world where he is so well off . . . when they have completely separated him from everything that he previously knew and liked, to torment him with all possible emotions and passions extremely prejudicial to his health.
As preface to his astute review of the score of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Hoffmann wrote that music “reveals an unknown kingdom to mankind: a world that has nothing in common with the outward, material world that surrounds it, and in which we leave behind all predetermined conceptual feelings in order to give ourselves up to the inexpressible.” Doing so, we enter the dark.
Illustration by Artus Scheiner (1924). Prague.
Shortly before Christmas this year, The New York Times permitted itself a guest appearance by Eric Kaplan, author of Does Santa Exist? A heavy thinker, Kaplan explains what it would take to induce belief in Santa: “Maybe I could take psilocybin and have a group of my friends chant, ‘Santa exists! Santa exists!’ while I am tripping my brains out.” He arrives at a boilerplate insight exquisitely fit for threadbare times: “Each belief is the beginning of a voyage of self-discovery.”
Poor Kaplan. The dolt has it backwards. Any Sugar Plum Fairy could tell him that self discovery has nothing to do with it. Not with belief, and certainly not with art. Hoffmann understood that true artistry originates in those ineffable modes of self transcendence that accompany genuine struggle to create. To believe.
Illustration by Dagmar Berkova (1964). Prague.
Before the season ends, try to spend some time with E.T.A. Hoffmann and The Nutcracker. Althea Bell’s translation is lovely, still available as a used book. Any edition with illustrations by Gannady Spirin, Dagmar Berkova, ormy very favoriteArtus Scheiner will get you through the humbug of the coming year. The edition with Maurice Sendak’s lively illustrations is everywhere but not nearly as captivating as others for lovers of book arts.
Jacket illustration for Althea Bell’s translation.
Little Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books.
Full title of H.G. Wells’ 1913 rule book for playing with tin soldiers
Old toy soldiers were a fixture in the local bookshop window when I was growing up. The store owner was Frank Womrath, a veteran of World War II. His affection for the military history represented by those hollow-cast lead figures had been well and truly earned.
I ached for a set. It did not matter which one. Highlanders in Black Watch kilts, Royal Marines, Buffalo Soldiers, or rag-tag Green Mountain Boysall were beautiful. Hints were dropped; none were taken. What would a ten-year-old girl do with toy soldiers? My designs on them would have disappointed Wells: I’d have played house with them. I loved them for the same reasons I loved doll housesfor the Lilliputian charm of them.
But there are better reasons to reclaim toy soldiers from adult collectors and return them to the children they were created for. T.S. Allen, a West Point graduate and second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, discussed those reasons in “Tis the Season for Toy Soldiers,” a recent guest editorial in The New York Sun.
The toy soldier is unique among toys in that he has an opponent and invites opposition. Once a child has grown old enough to begin aping the real world, she or he sets up an objective for the toys, and hopefully their friends bless them with competition. Rules (or, more often, norms of argumentation) are established to determine the feasability of achieving those objectives. A simple Kriegspiel develops.
In this way, the toy soldier models the real world better than any other toy. The world is and always will be a place of endless tension between competing forces. A child’s blocks and drawing-books may teach them reasoning, but cannot teach them the limits of reason. From toy battles the child learns two things. First, opposition is inevitable, and will come not just from the “enemy.” Little armies are afflicted by what military men call “friction of war” they are hard to maneuver and fall over at the most inconvenient times. Second, the best way to overcome opposition is with aggressive initiative forcing them to respond to you, rather than responding to them.
The school of the toy soldier educated many of the great leaders of the past. Winston Churchill, in tin wars against his brotherJack, learned from toy soldiers the craftiness about battle that he used to such effect against the host of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It is not just military men who have learned from their toys. Understanding of friction and instinctive intiative are military virtues, but they have equal value in the civilian world.
Anti-war dogma encourages magical thinking about a dangerous world and the abiding reality of enemies who do not smile on us. Toy soldiers are anathema in a cultural climate that entrusts its survival to certificates in conflict resolution and Orwellian word changes. Adult manners sweep the playroom clean of toy cannons and wind-up tanks. Today’s polite rumpus room is a hand-held video arcade with shooting games that test nothing more than manual reflexes:
Children will always find ways to play war. Video games, the new war toys, are an awful substitute. They teach children (falsely) that violence is enjoyable, easy to use, and sanitary. Toy soldiers do the opposite indeed, in their heydey, they were seen as an antidote to rampant militarism. H.G. Wells, who revolutionized tin war with his 1913 book Little Wars, insisted that “I have never yet met in little battle any military gentleman, any captain, major, colonel, general, or eminent commander, who did not presently get into difficulties and confusions among even the elementary rules of the Battle. You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realize just what a blundering thing Great War must be.”
Photo by Mike Peters.
This Christmas, while we intone that lovely phrase “Peace on earth,” events remind us that the peace we are promisedthe peace that passeth all understandingis eschatological. Good will is not a virtue of history. Consider granting toy soldiers some space around the manger.
The conjugal act. I wince when I hear that phrase or see it in print. It is a wooden expression that trumpets discomfort with sexual expression, even distaste. A standard textbook phrase, it reduces marital sexuality to genital activity and an exchange of body fluids. The shrinkage is subtle but real.
Last month, Chiesa broadcast an encomium to Neocatechumenal families. It regretted their omission from vocal participation in the Synod because “they are the most engaged in putting the model of Catholic marriage into practice.” It printed an ostensibly confidential extract of a catechesis developed for internal use by Fr. Mario Pezzi, the Neocatechumenal Way’s high priest.
His attention to the centrality of the family is welcome. Less welcome is the language Fr. Pezzi uses in support of that centrality.
Aristide Maillol. Desire (1906-08). ©Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
Fr. Perri quotes José Noriega, of the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Study on Marriage and the Family, on the superiority of The Way. Noriega praises The Way for its “rediscovery of the holiness of the conjugal act.”
This is buttressed by co-founder Kiko Argüello’s assertion: “Responsible parenthood means accepting not to limit the number of children, it means accepting the plan of God.” In other words, Argüello rejects the contraceptive intention of what the Church refers to as natural family planning.
Set aside the unscriptural assumption that marriage is ordained to produce as many children as a woman can bear. The magisterium has never determined the number of children a couple should have. Neither has it invoked any commandment that couples have as many as physically possible.
Stay, for now, with rediscovery of the holiness of the conjugal act. The phrase repels in its priggishness and its implications. The rediscovery celebrated here skirts the premises of ancient fertility cults which sacralized sex and promoted fecundity. Seeking sanctity through sex takes us out of the gospels and drops usat an acceptably Christianized angleinto The Golden Bough.
The mutuality of marriage occurs in countless ways: across a dinner table, in the kitchen, on the phone. It encircles everything from holding a job to holding one’s tongue. Conjugal self-giving embraces a universe of kindnesses, cautions, strains, and accommodations that make up a shared life. True conjugal acts are too many and various to list. Marital grace dwells in the totality of a life lived in tandem. For some, it abides in simply holding things together.
Cagnaccio di San Pietro. Onion Tears (1928). Camera di Lavoro, Trieste, Italy.
Holiness inhabits the individual, the person who acts. The schoolbook “conjugal act” is one of others that we, the embodied, perform. It is neither more nor less holy than the act of cognition, digestion, or any other bodily activity. Nor is it the only drive subject to the will. The vital processes of alimentation and elimination are each conducted within a framework of learned control.
Noriega’s wording, too easily mistaken as pious, is essentially pornographic. Like pornography, it falsifies sex. It strains to make sex ethereal, an attribute visible mainly from the planetary distance of the Vatican. Angelized sex is pornography’s mirror image.
Every animal species engages in coitus. Only human beings engage in lovemaking. We are the only ones who can bring to sex tenderness, intelligence, consideration, delicacy, playfulness, even humor. (“Happy combat” Michael Novak once called it.) Lovemaking is an activity of the whole person. But Fr. Pezzi will have none of that:
There is no love without the cross. So “making love,” as young people say, is pure falsehood. This is not a matter of love but of concupiscence, of attraction, etc.
These are the words of an executioner, accusatory and miserly. They are also askance of the mark. There is no life without the Cross.
Married or single, loved or unloved, we all live in the shadow of the Cross. The solitude of it is acute, inescapable. Aversion to the solace of sexual attraction denies the generosity of divine intent. Derision for the deep longing inherent in that phrase making love adds nothing to the Church’s credibility in sexual matters.
Jules Adler. Rough Weather on Open Seas: Sailors of Etaples (1913). ©RMN-Grand Palais, Paris.
With non-conjugal sex fast becoming the norm, the vocabulary of moral theologians and homilists could benefit from a taffy-pull. Evangelization originates in compassion for the world, not disdain for it. Language that suggests sexual desire is an obstacle to self-giving love convinces only stranglers who equate spousal sanctity with the reductionist duality of abstention or pregnancy.
The sexual revolution succeeded. Young people are unmoored and adrift in a permissive wilderness. If the Church is to lead them toward a humane understanding of the gift of sex, her spokesmen must first respect it for its intrinsic goodness, not solely for a procreative function shared with every species on the planet. Their counsel has to acknowledge sexual desire for the sweetness that it isa fructifying promisebefore it can plausibly direct it toward covenanted love.
I sorrow for any couple condemned to performing conjugal acts.
The life and witness of Alfred Delp are less familiar among First Things readers than I had thought. Several wrote to say they had not heard of him at all. Others asked why he should have been executed for refusing to resign from the Jesuits. Father Delp’s own letter, written from his cell to fellow Jesuits after sentence had been passed, answers that question. The letter contains the marrow of the man, the grandeur of his steadfastness and greatness of heart. The words themselves are grace-bestowing:
Here I am at the parting of the ways and I must take the other road after all. The sentence has been passed and the atmosphere is so charged with enmity and hatred that no appeal has any hope of succeeding.
I thank the Order and my brethren for all their goodness and loyalty and help, especially during these last weeks. I ask pardon for much that was untrue and unjust; and I beg that a little help and care may be given to my aged, sick parents.
The actual reason for my condemnation was that I happened to be, and chose to remain, a Jesuit. There was nothing to show that I had any connection with the attempt on Hitler’s life so I was acquitted on that count. The rest of the accusations were far less serious and more factual. There was one underlying themea Jesuit is a priori an enemy and betrayer of the Reich. So the whole proceedings turned into a sort of comedy developing a theme. It was not justiceit was simply the carrying out of the determination to destroy.
May God shield you all. I ask for your prayers. And I will do my best to catch up, on the other side, with all that I have left undone here on earth.
Towards noon I will celebrate Mass once more and then in God’s name take the road under his providence and guidance.
In God’s blessing and protection,
Alfred Delp, S.J.
It is left unspecified what Delp meant by his reference to “much that was untrue and unjust.” But the comment is of a piece with earlier, generalized confessions of unworthiness for his own lapses. Humility sharpens toward the end. And the harrowing end in which he found himself to which he surrendered himselfleft no room for pietistic evasion:
The devil. Yes there is not only evil in this world, there is also the evil one; not only a principle of negation but also a tough and formidable anti-Christ. Man must give thought to the fact that he must distinguish between the spirits. And to the fact that wherever self is stressedas in strength that glories in its own might, power that idolizes itself, life that aims at “fulfilling itselfin its own way and by its own resources, in all these, not the truth, but the negation of truth may be suspected.
And there is only one thing a man can really do about itfall down on his knees and pray. Only after ten long yearsten years too latedo I fully realize this.
You and I are awash these days in devotional writing. Mass market piety drips like sugared water down the page. The pamphlet press smiles and strokes. But Delp’s writing is of another order entirely. His words were formed at the edge of the precipice, death grinning in his face. There is a fragrance to these prison meditations. The odor of his own dying was in his nostrils as he wrote. Yet he did so with a sublime conviction“Trust life. . . . God lives it with us.”for which I have no gloss. I can only genuflect.
Before bishops take possession of their dioceses they are to take an oath of fealty either to the Reich Representative of the State concerned, or to the President of the Reich, according to the following formula: “Before God and on the Holy Gospels I swear and promise as becomes a bishop, loyalty to the German Reich . . . . In the performance of my spiritual office and in my solicitude for the welfare and the interests of the German Reich, I will endeavor to avoid all detrimental acts which might endanger it.”
Article 16, Reich Concordat, 1933
Two books hold pride of place on my shelves. They stand next to each other, never separated in my possession or my thoughts. One is Gordon Zahn’s In Solitary Witness: the Life and Death of Franz Jäggersttäter. Its twin is The Prison Meditations of Father Delp, with an introduction by Thomas Merton.
Fr. Delp, on trial at Gestapo headquarters.
Jägerstätter, a farmer and married father of four, resisted the advice of his own bishop in defying the Third Reich. Delp, a Jesuit and editor of Stimmen der Zeit, was associated with the Kreisau Circle dedicated to re-Christianizing society upon the collapse of Hitler’s regime. For challenging the collective delusion of their era, Jägerstätter was beheaded in Brandenburg prison in 1943; Delp was hanged two years later at Plötzensee.
Both were cremated by official order, their ashes broadcast on the wind. The Reich took care to leave no martyr’s relic to venerate, no burial place to mark. Jägerstätter was beatified in Linz in 2007; Delp, not so. (John Paul II passed over him for the more prominent Rupert Mayer, S.J., when he beatified Edith Stein in 1997.)
For the moment, stay with Fr. Delp. We are in Advent now. And no one has written about the liturgical season as powerfully as he, a man who came to see life itself as a continuous Advent. Manacled in his cell, he could write only when his fetters were secretly unlocked or loosely fastened. Awaiting death, he had time only for the essentials: the question of man and the renunciations that awaken him to his true purpose. In God alone does man become fully man and find his End:
Advent is the time for rousing. Man is shaken to the very depths, so that he may wake to the truth of himself. . . . The kind of awakening that literally shocks man’s whole being is part and parcel of the Advent idea. . . . Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken.
The gallows at Plötzensee. Photographed in 2011, this is where Fr. Delp was hanged.
Delp reflects on three symbols bearing the Advent message: the voice crying in the wilderness, the herald angel, and Mary. Here, the herald angel:
Never have I entered on Advent so vitally and intensely alert as I am now. When I pace my cell, up an down, three paces one way and three the other, my hands manacled, an unknown fate in front of me, then the tidings of our Lord’s coming to redeem the world and deliver it have quite a different and much more vivid meaning. And my mind keeps going back to the angel someone gave me during Advent two or three years ago. It bore the inscription: “Be of good cheer. The Lord is near.” A bomb destroyed it. The same bomb killed the donor . . . It would be impossible to endure the horror of these timeslike the horror of life itself, could we only see it clearly enoughif there were not this other knowledge which constantly buoys us up and gives us strength: the knowledge of the promises that have been given and fulfilled. . . .
The angels of Advent are not the bright jubilant beings who trumpet the tidings of fulfillment to a waiting world. Quiet and unseen they enter our shabby rooms and our hearts as they did of old. In the silence of the night they pose God’s questions and proclaim the wonders of him with whom all things are possible.
In the mounting loneliness of his cell, Delp addresses himself to you and me (“if ever these pages find you”):
Let us kneel and pray for clear vision, that we may recognize God’s messenger when he comes, and willing hearts to understand the words of warning. The world is greater than the burden it bears, and life is more than the sum-total of its grey days. . . . We must be our own comforters. The man who promises hope is himself a man of promise, of whom much may be expected.
Offered a reprieve if he resigned from the Jesuits, Delp refused. Instead, he held hopeeven into his last hoursthan the Russians would advance on Berlin in time to release him. “Can’t history come a little faster?” he asked the prison chaplain. On his way to the scaffold, Delp told him: “In half an hour, I’ll know more than you.”
In the shadow of execution, Delp kept a steady eye on the way spiritual questions masquerade as cultural or political ones. And he spoke down the decades to what lies concealed in our own Advent, caught in history’s labyrinth of cause and effect:
Among all the protagonists in the tragic drama of the modern world there is not one who fundamentally cares in the least what the Church says or does. We over-rated the Church’s political machine and let it run on long after its essential driving power had ceased to function. It makes absolutely no difference, so far the beneficial influence of the Church is concerned, whether a state maintains diplomatic relation with the Vatican or not. The only thing that really matters is the inherent power of the Church as a religious force in the countries concerned.
The guillotine was a fixture in Reich prisons. This, in Plötzensee, was identical to Brandenburg’s.
As Merton reminded, Delp died for his Church, obedient unto death. For that reason, we approach his words with heightened attention and deep respect. And the words are sober, unsentimental. These are among the hardest:
A Church that makes demands in the name of a peremptory God no longer carries weight in a world of changing values. The new generation is separated from the clear conclusions of traditional theology by a great mountain of boredom and disillusion thrown up by past experience. We have destroyed man’s confidence in us by the way we live. We cannot expect two thousand years of history to be an unmixed blessing and recommendation. History can be a handicap too. . . . At some future date the honest historian will have some bitter things to say about the contribution of the Churches to the creation of the mass mind, of collectivism, dictatorships and so on.
Six months of beatings, hunger, and solitary confinement stripped him of patience with facile pieties and the shelter of easy gestures. He read a little Eckhart every day, advancing alone into what Johannes Metz termed a mysticism of open eyes.
Seven decades separate Delp’s Advent from ours. His era is over. Yet its desolations, presumptions, and perils survive in other guises. His legacy is a living thing that cries to be heeded. On Christmas Eve, 1944, he scratched into the wall with shackled hands: Trust life. We do not live it alone. God lives it with us.