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.
Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.
Inspector Mortimer, in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori
What does our mania for bottled water have to do with memento mori? More than a little, I think. Stay with me, please, while I work this out.
Tomb in Arcadia. Illustration for manuscript by René d’Anjou (1457).
A bottle of one’s own is a token of our times. We are all hydrophiliacs now. It used to be that bottled water was the sensible alternative to tap in tourist meccas with precarious hygiene. Today, no one walks out the door to the library or the corner newsstand without their personal water bottle. Clothing, carry-alls, bikes, and belts come with loops, slings, pockets, or clips for your PBA-free, twenty-ounce promise of eternal life.
Gear junkies can even order a bottle for the terrier. Dogs need their ions charged, too. The trumpet call of perpetual hydration sounds for us all.
Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego (1638). Louvre, Paris.
On the subway not long ago, I sat catti-corner to a woman holding one of those ergonomically contoured, insulated, spill-proof bottles made for runners and jostled commuters. It was a Amphipod Hydraform Handheld Therma Lite, a full-service gizmo equipped with an expandable zipper pouch for an iPod, phone, energy bar, keys, and MetroCard. Essential whatnots.
This one had a lime green nipple. Its owner took a sip every so often. I could not take my eyes off her. Here was a grown woman with a nipple in her mouth. She was nursing her electrolytes, protecting the circuitry from drying out on the local between 86th Street and Grand Central. Analogies to infancy, regression, and enfeeblement rushed to mind. Self-absorption, too, raised its hand to be counted. So did consumerism.
But those commonplaces are ready-made for so many things nowadays that the words are almost as banal as their applications. None were up to the job of capturing just what it was about this particular grotesquerie that set it apart from its cousins. There must be something else.
Egon Schiele, Death and Man (1911). Leopold Museum, Vienna.
And there was. The analogy I was groping for leapfrogged over facile correspondences and headed straight to the heart of what Jean Mouroux termed “the miseries of matter.” It was this: Our obsession with methodical hydration is sign and symbol of a sidling, furtive apprehension that mortality is a peril.
If our toted water bottles can be said to reveal one hidden thing, one disguised tension, it is anxiety over the terrible truth that each of us is a frail cluster of cells poised for dispersion. The sorrow of our condition is felt in the carnal pull of mortality. The new mysticism of hydration keeps open the sphincters of denial.
What better badge, however cloaked, of our wayfaring state than bottled water, a thing we are accustomed to associating with travel. We are all earth-bound, all en route to a Final End that we know we must enter too soon. Always, too soon. And with no foretaste of the accounting required of us. In the instant I grasped that, the woman across from me with her hi-tech bottle transformed. Suddenly, she was no longer absurd, the bottle no longer grotesque. Something lifted. I saw only a fellow sojourner staving off the dark.
Note: Poussin’s painting, above, might be difficult to see in a small jpg. Three shepherds and a shepherdess examine a tombstone with the legend: Et in Arcadia, ego. Death announces itself even here, in the Arcadian paradise (no less than on the Lexington Avenue line). It is the pictorial equivalent, centuries earlier, of the words of Muriel Spark’s anonymous caller: Remember you must die.
Among the many thoughtful letters that came in response to the previous post, one in particular articulated thoughts that you yourselves might have. The one below comes from a man familiar with the founding of an Anglican Mission for Aborigines in North Queensland. Herewith:
Animal Sacrifice. Tomb of Iti-Ibi-Iger (2190-1976 BC), Egypt. Museo Egizo, Turin.
I have often wanted to reply to your articles, but until I read the one on why you do not allow comments at the bottom of your articles on First Things, I had never noticed your email address . . . . When I read your explanation - that you welcomed responses, but that you wanted any response to be to what you said rather than to third party interpretations of what you said - I was impressed!
So, to the topic of this week’s edition of First Things: “Lessons from Haiti”.
. . . I have a reasonable grasp of the historical dilemma faced by the church as it pushed into East Asia, and the war between the Jesuits and the Franciscans over adapting Christianity to Chinese culture. It might be argued that the Franciscan victory in this matter saved the church from “a syncretic, creole Christianity more congenial to animism than Thomism.” On the other hand it might have set the church on a trajectory that could only yield its eventual eclipse in Europe. Unfaithful in Asia to the spirit which enabled it to absorb pagan practices in Europe, it lost its resilience and failed to adapt in its own heartland to the challenge of (what would become known as) modernism from the twelfth century onwards.
I hear the concern expressed in your article. To it I reply, if you believe that the church is guided by the Holy Spirit, can you not trust the outcome of its ongoing metamorphosis? Originating as a form of Judaism, it was transformed through Hellenisation, and diverged into its Eastern and Western manifestations of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, survived Protestantism, and now we are witness to, in Walbert Buhlmann’s words, The Coming of the Third Church. Are the words of Gamaliel relevant here: “If this endeavour is of human origin it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God you will not be able to destroy it. You may even find yourself fighting against God.” Perhaps. But I expect that you might say that we cannot presume that anything in which we are engaged is guaranteed to be from God. Your scathing criticism of the changes within in the church since the Second Vatican Council would suggest that you see that particular trajectory as not merely flawed but something akin to apostasy. As someone who was a novice in a religious order that responded vigorously to the documents of the Second Vatican Council I have dwelt ever since in the experience of what we understood at the time to be a New Pentecost.
I make these points not to argue against your concern, but to absorb it into my sense of what it means to be church. Though I don’t flinch for a moment at the suggestion of the Archbishop of Johannesburg I hear your question: “where this ritual blood was to come from, where to be drawn.” But I do not let that question suggest that people embedded in that situation cannot answer that question. I am glad the question has been asked. It enlarges my sense of the task of being church in a diverse world.
Antonio de Bellis. Sacrifice of Noah (17th C.). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Your observation about the Church’s history in Asia raises a valuable point in evaluating the wisdom or recklessness in adapting certain African practices to the liturgy of the Mass. Did Franciscan victory set the Church on a trajectory toward eventual eclipse in Europe? Possibly. Still, that is a very big might-have. Several tentative thoughts come to mind.
Straightaway, history offers us no way to know if Jesuit accommodation would have resulted in a regnant or enduring Christianity among Asians. Nor any guidance on whether a stronger presence in Asia would have provided a stay against decline in Europe. Retrospective conjecture remains just that: conjecture. Better to stay with what we can say with some degree of assurance.
Is it fair to say that in China and Japan, the Church faced more developed religious systemsa more sophisticated paganism, so to speakthan that of the Gauls, Franks, Visigoths, Celts, Norsemen, and other cultures than were subsumed under the aegis of Christendom? That shelter was reinforced by Christian powers not extant in Asia. The post-Constantinian Church was militant in Europe; the Counter Reformation Church was supplicant in East Asia.
That the Church lost resilience against the challenges of Modernism in its own heartland is undeniable. Unhappily, any exploration of paralysis is inseparable from dissection of the politics of Vatican I, the personality of Pius IX, the consequences of the declaration of papal infallibility on the papacy itself, and its etherizing effect on Catholic clergy and laity alike. That, Paul, is beyond the scopeif not the sympathiesof an artist’s weblog.
I very much like your quote from Gamaliel. Quotations are wonderful devices. The most usefuland endearingare ones that can support either side of an argument, depending on the situation. In this context, let me offer in exchange Jeremiah 10:2-3 “Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen...For the customs of the people are vain.”
Please know that apostasy-spotting is not a pastime of mine. I simply have a serviceable eye for gall and wormwood. And an ear for cant. Nothing more.
Like you, I am not opposed to incorporating another culture’s sacred gestures into the liturgy. But which ones? So many of our rituals, from Christmas trees to cherished “smells and bells,” had their origins in non-Christian practices. Let African liturgies choreograph an offertory procession in dance if the people “embedded” in that tradition choose. Play drums, rattles, mbiras, and maracas. But an impassable line needs to to fall somewhere. If that border admits creaturely blood into the liturgy, is not the meaning of the Mass up for grabs? On every Catholic altar is sacrificed, for all peoples in all ages, the Lamb slain from the beginning of time. Adding goats and chickens waffles the tidings. The Third Church must not obscure the First.
Anonymous. Christ Crucified (16th C.). Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis, Porto, Portugal.
You are right: I would say that we cannot presume our choices come with a guarantee from the mountain top. Yes, we trust that the Spirit guides. But we are bound to speak and act on behalf of that trust with the deepest humility. The Spirit is not a magician, not a fixer. And we are wondrously inventive in discerning His breath on our own druthers. Every generation detects Him descendingwith, ah, bright wings!on its own fine programs, ambitions, and understandings.
We have been cautioned that the Spirit breathes where He will, even in places we would rather He did not. Transcending our chronologiesguiding all the whilethe eternal Spirit grants us, in our freedom, the time to hang ourselves.
At this point, it seems opportune to recall all the primitive religions, the Animist type of religion, which puts first emphasis on the worship of their ancestors. It seems that those who practice it are particularly close to Christianity. Among them the missionaries of the Church more easily find a common language.
John Paul II, Passing the Threshold of Hope
To serve the loa [spirits], you have to be a Catholic.
The future of the Church in Europe is bleak. By Philip Jenkins’ reckoning, quoted in a 2002 interview for Atlantic: “Christianity is largely a dead issue.” But we can take heart from the explosive growth of the Church in Africa, or what is buoyantly termed the Global South.
Ram decorated for sacrifice (1950s), Senegal.Quai Branly Museum, Paris.
Or can we? When the Church’s center of gravity has completed its transit to the Southern Hemisphere, would any Catholic alive today still recognize it? It is hazardous to predict the full effect of that demographic shift on the historical practices of Christianity. Still, we ought not discount the chance that this tectonic shift could yield a syncretic, creole Christianity more congenial to animism than Thomism.
In 2000, Buti Joseph Tihagale, currently Archbishop of Johannesburg, gave an interview to The Southern Cross, a South African weekly. In it, he suggested incorporating blood libations into liturgies celebrated by African Catholics:
Sacrifice to the ancestors continues to be a very common practice among Africans. The slaughtering of an animalcow or sheeptakes place wherever there is a funeral or a marriage feast, or in times of illness, unemployment, family feuds, or the birth of a child.
He recommended that the practice be considered within the approved orbit of Vatican invitation to adapt a culture’s special customs: “Is there a way to integrate this custom with their Christian belief as a step toward meaningful inculturation?” Disavowing any reversion to Old Testament animal sacrifices, the then-bishop begged the question of where this ritual blood was to come from, where to be drawn. Tihagale discreetly left others with the sticky issue of when and by what means fresh blood would be introduced into the liturgy.
Animal sacrifice (c. 1900), Vietnam. Adoc-Photos.
The Archbishop’s nod to animist ritual brings to mind the mix of African rites and Christian observances at the heart of Voodoo (alternately, Vodun or Vodou). A slantwise glimpse into the temper of this Catholicism aborning in the Global South can be had in Alfred Métraux’s Voodoo in Haiti, originally published by Oxford University Press in 1959. More that a half century on, it remains a stellar textmethodical, prudent, free of theoretical axe-grindingon the transplanting of the cult of vodú from West Africa to Haiti.
A grasp of Voodoo’s beliefs, liturgies, social function, and ties with Christianity are a sobering brace against good-willed complacency and incautious optimism:
The peasant who sacrifices to the loa, who is possessed by them, who every Saturday answers the call of the drums, does not believe . . . that he is behaving like a pagan and offending the Church. On the contrary, he likes to think of himself as a good Catholic and contributes to the salary of his curé without hesitation. This “idolater” would be wretched if he were excluded from Communion or if he were forbidden to marry or baptize his children in church.
Medicine bundle wrapped around a monkey skull. Benin. Werner Forman, NY.
Anticipating Archbishop Tihagale, Métraux wrote:
Once when I asked a fervent Catholic whether he had finally finished with Voodoo, he replied that he would always be faithful to the Catholic Church but nothing could make him give up the worship of loa who had always protected his family.
The hunsi [assistant to a Voodoo priest] . . . saw nothing wrong in attending Mass after dancing all night for the loa. It takes a white man’s mentality to be shocked that a hungan or mambo [priest or priestess] can march beside a curé at the head of a procession without a trace of shame.
Numerical growth tells us nothing about the blurring of religious distinctions among African congregations or among clergy themselves. A priest might preach Christianity by day and, under cover of the communion of saints, visit an animist divine at night to consult his forefathers.
S.E. Bottox. Fall of Man (20th C.), Haiti. Collection of Manu Sassoomian, New York.
Animists live in an enchanted world. It is a gyre of spirits, genies, demons, and the ritual magic to appease, bridle, or steer them:
A wood cutter about to chop down a tree will give the trunk a few taps with the reverse of his axe, so as to warn the resident soul and give it time to get out. To be on the safe side, he will even recite a prayer and invoke the Holy Spirit.
Poets, romantics, and Third World fanciers smile on enchantment. Modernity’s flawed, sometimes illusory, attachment to rationality is never enough to conjure away the realities of living and dying in the shadow of the Cross. Now comes the next Christendom, with its bewitchments, charisma, and ecstasies Christ-tinted to soothe the uneasy.
What price for this emergent re-enchantment? Who can say? Or perhaps it has already been said and we have only to remember the words. Commenting on nostalgia for the ideals of pagan nature worshipto which ancestor worship is alignedChesterton wrote:
He washes at dawn in clear water as did the Wise Man of the Stoics, yet, somehow at the dark end of the day, he is bathing in hot bull’s blood, as did Julian the Apostate.
Instead of the sorry and unbecoming spectacle of the priest racing with death to the bedside of the sick, the Church prescribes a devout and dignified procession from church to home, with the minister assisted by clergy and acolytes and accompanied by devout layfolk . . . .
Rubrics of the 1962 Rituale Romanum
Liturgies change for the sake of the living. Protocols adjust to the shifting tenor and tempo of the centuries. But the hour of death is ever the same. It is now, and forever shall be, what it was for the first man. The dying of the light is the one fixed point in man’s revolving kaleidoscope of circumstances. In the face of death, our new-fashioned sacramental minimalism takes on the bearing of a demonic initiative.
Stay a moment with Aimé Perret’s Viaticum in Bourgogne. Popular in its time, this nineteenth century genre scene grows more pointed in the cultural gap that separates us from the homely dignity of its subject.
Aimé Perret. Viaticum in Bourgogne (1879). Musée du Luxembourg, Paris.
We watch a small procession heading out of the ville on its way to a home beyond the picture frame. Someone farther down the road is mortally ill. The priest has been called. He carries a chalice through the slush with ritual tenderness. Two altar boys, each with a lighted torch, lead the little group. A workaday pair of parishioners guard the priest and his sacred burden with a protective canopy. Several women trudge behind. All bend into a chill wind.
This is community, possessed of a common language and repertory of gestures deemed fitting and proper to attend the mounting desolation of death. Depicted here is that old phrase Mother Church incarnate in a handful of villagers pressing on in an act of mercy. The artist and his day have disappeared. Only the painting stays, continuing to testify to the labor of the beatitudes.
Mercy, like justice to which it clings, levies strains. One of them is the embarrassment of ceremony in an unceremonious culture. Today, priests are apt to arrive with the Eucharist in their pocket, like loose change. Our final combat now is solely with pain. Viaticum is humbled by lorazapam and the blessings of morphine.
A priest in Fall River, Massachusetts, responded to the previous post with this:
Both priests and faithful in large numbers have lost faith in the power, meaning and purpose of the Sacrament [Extreme Unction]. . . . I think the problem is part of the larger eschatological confusion: if everyone goes to heaven, the sacrament can’t be that important, can it?
Eschatological confusion . Every age selects its symbols, preferring some over others, to give expression to those unspoken inclinations of the collective soul. The signs and rituals that betoken traditional eschatologyLast Rites among themare losing their resonance. We have given a quietus to the death knell, silenced the treble of the Sanctus bell. Altar rails, sturdy emblems of distinction between the sacred and profane, surrendered dominion to modernity’s self-confidence. The sovereignty of modern man spurns genuflection. Our clergy grow uneasy in clerical dress.
And those direful old frescoes of the damned? Their claim on art increases as their hold on lives diminishes. The damned exist for us now only in horror movies. We have lost sight of them among ourselves. Allegories of the weighing of souls ended with those generations who trembled to speak of God as a consuming fire. Now we speak only of love. Nothing hangs in the balance for us good folk. St. Michael has put down his scales and taken up guitar.
Anonymous. Hell (15th C.). Church of St. Petronius, Bologna.
Addendum: Before you leave, let me talk a little about the painting as a thing crafted.
The incident depicted in Viaticum is not fictional, however much staging in the warmth of Perret’s studio might have been necessary afterward to complete the painting. The dramatis personae were all actual villagers from Bois le Roi in southern France. The priest, Abbé Dusarger, was no stranger to calls to the bedside of a dying farmer. Perret lived and worked in Bois le Roi as well as in Paris; he knew the local priest.
I cannot resist wondering if Perret worked up the painting from an initial photograph. Note the turn of one altar boy’s head toward the viewer, as if toward a camera. Hardly conclusive in itself but suggestive in light of photography having been well established by the time Perret set to work. The British Journal of Photography had begun reviewing photography exhibitions in 1854. A quarter century later, the camera was as much a tool for working painters as an independent medium. It is particularly useful for capturing motion.
Delacroix (d. 1863) famously insisted that any artist worth his salt should be able to sketch a figure falling from a building in the time it takes to hit the ground. True. But it took artists no time at all to know that a camera is quicker. The year Viaticum was painted, the gelatin dry plate was nearly a decade old. Its invention made possible a wide range of camera designs from relatively small hand-held ones to bulky field cameras.
Admired by Van Gogh for his draftsmanship, Perret was fond of processional scenes. His best known are set theatrically in the eighteenth century. Like any parade, they are lively excuses for costumes. Audiences for the 1876 Salon were as taken with historic fashions as we are. (Think of the popularity of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute.) Salon success brought Perret a place in the sun and subsequent honors. The French government purchased Viaticum for the Luxembourg Palace where it hangs in dogged witness to France’s jilted heritage as eldest daughter of the Church.
Note: A reader with a better grasp of French geography than mine, writes to correct me on the whereabouts of Bois le Roi. It is “not in the South of France; it lays to the South East of Paris, between the Île de France (the Paris region) in the north and Rhône-Alpes (the Lyon region) in the South.”
Whatever happened to Extreme Unction? Who are the baleful liturgists who drove a stake through the sacrament and nailed it to the ground?
No need to answer that. I know who they are. They are the same ruinous bien pensants who confused the Zeitgeist of the 1960s and ‘70s with the cooing of the Holy Spirit. Let God forgive them; I cannot.
Death of Daniel O’Connell. Currier Lithograph (1847). Museum of the City of New York.
Unction for those in extremis was stripped of its exclusive purpose and ritual dignity in the wake of Vatican II. All astringent solemnity is gone. The reductiona theftis implicit in the name change: sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. If the theology has not changed, the practice surely has. Last Rites are obsolete, outmoded by cultural resistance to the awful significance of a ceremony so named.
We are all sick in some way, are we not? Sick of sorrow, sick of coping, worn down by the stresses of the lived life. We want to be healed of caring too much, or cured of paralysis in caring at all. Old injuries act up, a knee is out, iron is too low, the PSA too high. Then comes that hint of cataracts, the heart murmur, or the family history of diabetes. Count in the growing list of pathogens that make the nightly news. Lastly, and for lack of greater specificity, there is what our forefathers knew as the ague. We are only made of clay; and clay breaks down.
So my parish offers what it calls a Healing Mass. One Sunday of every year, parishioners are invited to file altarward with their vulnerabilities and complaints to receive the Anointing of the Sick. The not-so-sick, the anxious, and the out-of-sorts queue, palms up, for bodily and spiritual healing. It is this same quick, casual anointing that substitutes now for the Last Rites.
The old rubrics were strict:
The sacrament may not be given more than once during the same illness, unless after receiving the sacrament, the sick person has recovered from the danger and then has a critical relapse.
That was then. In these indulgent times, so obsessed with “wellness,” the holy anointing is closer to a spa treatment than a rite of initiation into the dreaded mysteries of death. A woman I know in California wrote to tell me that she stood for anointing monthly while her husband lay terminally ill. The sacrament was prophylactic against the impending loneliness of widowhood. All to the good, the comfort of it. But heartbreak is not a mortal disease.
From the Codex Trujillo del Peru (18th C.). Real Biblioteca del Palacio Real, Madrid.
precious friend died not long ago. Some weeks before the end, while he was still able to speak and take the Eucharist, the local pastor came to anoint him. In requesting the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the family anticipated Extreme Unction as they had always known it. They were wrong.
The priest commissioned to carry out this liturgy in the name of Christ arrived in dungarees, a plaid flannel shirt, and red suspenders. He had troubled to put on cologne but not his Roman collar. Was dishabille a democratic gesture toward the demotic tastes of the times? By the look of him, he had come to help with yard work. Left behind with his clerics was any visible sign of the divine Agape that was the reason for his being there.
He offered no personal words of consolation, no talk of Jesus, nothing of what it means to pass through death to life as a child of God in Christ. After a bit of light chat about his sciatica and the hazards of an icy road, he announced his intention to get on with administering the Sacrament of the Sick.
The dying man quipped, “Well, I certainly qualify.”
It was the remark of a man fully conscious, poised for accompaniment through the concluding step of the dialogue between himself and his God. But the move never came. The family was not asked to leave the room while the priest heard the man’s last confession. There was none. After a brief spasm of blessings, the priest was gone. Bewildered by grief, and constrained by deference toward a priest in their home, the family saw him politely to the door. But the deficiency stayed behind, dangling like an unpaid debt.
Some weeks later the wife asked why the traditional sacrament of Penance had been omitted. The answer: “Unless someone requests confession, we don’t offer it any more. That would be an intrusion.”
The pity of it.
Nikolai Ge. Crucifixion (1893). Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
We call it Anointing of the Sick. But the dying are not sick. Not any longer. They and sickness are finished with each other. Sickness is a tool of mortality, a loyal servant to the germ of death we were born with. In the moribund, sickness has done its work. It has accomplished what it was ordained to do. No matter now the affliction or assault that opens the grave. Every deathbed is a slaying stone.
The dying lie at the edge of the world, at the very verge of their allotted time. In their extremity, they suffer on the margin of time itself. All flesh is grass, Isaiah tells us. It shrivels at the root; dust in the wind. Where is grass on Golgotha? The place of the skull is rock. The shadow of the Cross is sharpest there. And in that shadow mercy learns its own name.
A fatal chasm exists between the hour of death and the deluge of unwelcome conditions that overtake us. Sickness yearns for treatment; death thirsts solely for redemption. And for the last rite that escorts the dying into the fellowship of those for whom time no longer exists.
Extreme Unction has been relativized, made friendly for a generation that does not want to hear the death knell in the words Last Rites. All the while, death grins in our faces.
Straightaway, a housekeeping item. Several readers have emailed to ask why there is no place to comment at the end of this blog. One reader complained, “It is a nuisance having to look up responses on Facebook.” Maybe I should explain.
World War I spoof postcard published by Cynicus Company, 1915.
The comment box is disabled for a jumble of reasons. Chief among them is the snowball effect of comments on individual readers. Positive comments roll one way; negative ones, intimidating, roll another. It matters to me that readers respond to the content of a posting on their own, without being distracted bolstered, diluted, or bedeviledby other respondents.
Considered remarks that amplify and extend a posting are valuable. But they are also less common than other kinds. Comment threads tend to evolve into readers signaling to each other. Sometimes it is contention for the sake of it, a kind of antler display. Too often, comment boxes offer a pretext for plugging a reader’s own website, latest book, or line of sportswear. Previously, when my comment box had been on, I sometimes thought I was hosting a dating service. “Great comment, Joe! Where can I see the rest of your stuff?” That sort of thing.
Pablo Picasso. Card for Guillame Apollinaire, 1916. Musee Picasso, Paris.
One popular argument in favor of a comment section runs along the lines of community-building. The comment box is thought to serve as a sort of drop-in center where locals can chat and get to know each other. That is the same rationale the CEO of Starbucks once offered for the existence of the chain. I did not believe it then, and I do not believe it now.
An online community is a mirage; an e-community is no community at all. It is a faceless, soundless collection of pixels in drag as a community of persons. Hashtag Nation.
This goes against the grain, I know. And to some extent, it is an aesthetic judgment. But it is mine. I simply do not share the prevailing assumption that blogs exist as open forums for reader exchanges. That expectation is little more than the sense of entitlement peculiar to online media. James Kalb, experienced in writer/reader protocols, is dry about it: “There is something about joining an internet discussion that’s a little like putting on a clown suit.”
Vittore Carpaccio. Legend of St. Ursula (detail, 1495). Accademia, Venice.
I have no clue to the nature or tone of what gets passed along on social media. Something about Twitter and Facebookespecially Twitterreminds me of stalking. I have no personal account on either; am innocent of both. Is that a fault? Not sure. I just know that I care about the words of readers who take time to write off stage and under their own name. These matter to me very much. That is why an email address appears at the bottom of every post.
If clarification or correction is in order, tell me and I will make it. Thoughtful yeas and nays are forever welcome. And helpful.
Note: One reader emailed to ask what was the point of the earlier posting on Roy Strong. Forgive me. I had thought it was clear: Strong made a choice.
He preferred marriageto a woman he did loveto living under the strictures against homosexuality of the era in which he came of age. In other words, social disapproval contained his impulses toward homosexuality.
Moral of the anecdote: When culture puts out a welcome mat, Dionysus leaps in to the parlor.
Is he a youth? Is she a woman?
Is she a goddess or a god?
Love, fearing to be ignoble,
Hesitates and suspends its confession.
To make this beauty maudit
Each gender brought its gift.
Théophile Gautier, Enamels and Cameos (1852)
James Slattery aka Candy Darling, transwoman, Warholian superstar and drag queen.
Gautier, writing in French a century and a half ago, used the noun sexe. It is doubtful he would have recognized the word gender except in relation to other nouns. Gender is a linguistic signifier, not a biological one. But a modern translator, speaking to his own cultural moment, observes the protocols of his time.
In our cultural climate, almost all writers, even conservative ones, surrender to the word gender, reserving sex for mere genital mechanics. Gender is a term taken from linguistics, not biology. The gender designation is arbitrary. La tavola or il tavolo, take your pick.
In the best thinking of our savants, society assigns a gender to each child born just as it does to words. But unlike words, which have to obey their assignment, we can reject the mandated designation and pick our own. Gone is any fixed relation to biology of the masculine or feminine.
This impetus toward androgyny is not as novel a peculiarity as it seems. It is the encroachment on life and law of tendencies in nineteenth century aesthetic movements. Fervent belief in the transformational powers of art and artifice, hallmark of the Decadent sensibility, has slouched its way toward us as a social phenomenon.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Mnemosyne (detail; 1881). Delaware Art Museum,Wilmington
I was reminded of this by Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith. How ambiguous are the faces of his female portraits. Is she a goddess or a god? They could easily be the faces of drag queens, physiognomy blurred by hair and cosmetics, their beautyif that is the wordartificial. Among the Decadents, nature had had its day. The rest is style. Or, in the words of Stéphane Mallarmé, “To suggest, that is the dream.”
Jade Starling, a pop singer and celebrated host of drag shows, phrased it less elegantly. But she meant the same thing when she said in a recent interview: “Drag queens are amazing. Their artistry, their makeup, their hair. They are always stunning.”
She would get no argument from Mallarmé. And likely none from the nineteenth century English aesthetes or their French imitators. Among the Decadents, the more artificial, the more removed from nature by the labor of the artist, the more beautiful something becomes. Androgyny, with its ideals of seductive ambiguity and sensuality, emblematizes the victory of the cult of beauty over the banality of nature.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Lady Lillith. Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington
If I had been born ten years later, I might’ve lived my life as a gay man.
Is homosexuality innate? Is there a gene for it? If not a complete molecular unit, then perhaps some partial genetic link? And if a link, would this sectional fragment prove a determinant to sexual preference? Or would it hover in our DNA with all the other unfinished suggestions that move each of us past the many roads not taken?
Roy Strong, dressed for a 2010 photo shoot. Courtesy of The Daily Mail, UK.
The findings of Dean Hamer, the American geneticist who claimed to have discovered a “gay gene” in the Nineties, has never been replicated. Hamer himself was homosexual and, with his partner, founded the film company Qwaves to promote sympathy for “the voices of those on the outside.”
Now the outside is In, very In. The myth of a gay gene persists together with other teasers from the corridors of higher superstition. It is not my place to argue whether there is a natural standard for human happiness or ground in nature for definitive statements about homosexuality and genetics. Others are better equipped for that debate than I am. But let me offer the testimony of Roy Strong, eminent art historian, landscape designer, and flamboyant director emeritus of London’s National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
In March, 2013, London’s The Daily Mail included an excerpt from Strong’s autobiography Self Portrait as a Young Man:
Roy Strong and wife Julia in the 1970s. Photo by Paul Lewis
I was not only cripplingly shy but aware that sexually I was ambiguous. Prosecution of homosexuals as criminals reached a peak with the famous cases of Sir John Gielgud in 1953 and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu the following year.
It is difficult to communicate to a generation where everything can be and is said and done what it was like to come to sexual maturity in the middle of the Fifties. If I had been born in 1945 and not in 1935, I should probably have lived the life of a gay man in a society which by 1980 accepted such orientation.
An old friend of mine, Brian Sewell, took a very different path in life from the one I chose. For that I respect him, for he too could, he admits, have married. In the Fifties, any mention of such a tendency was then unthinkable and even if I had faced up to it, I would not have known what to do about it. At 20 I was bottled up and inhibited.
There was a homosexual side to me, that much I knew; but whenever, later, I had glimpses into that world I knew that I did not wish to enter it.
There was another side to me: emotionally and intellectually I was also hugely attracted to women and I knew that, if I found the right person, I would like the stability of an old-fashioned Christian marriage. I was 24 when I entered the National Portrait Gallery, an age by which many men are not only married, but fathers.
Twice I seriously considered asking two very different women to marry me, but I fell back on contemplating the social gulf between their families and my own. But in the long run I was to be a very lucky man when, in 1971, I eloped with the designer Julia Trevelyan Oman an elopement arranged by my friend and confessor, Father Gerard Irvine. Our marriage that same year precipitated the break with my mother who, rejecting Julia, created a slow death in our relationship. . . .
The attraction between us was instant but totally divorced from what one thinks of as London of that time, the world of David Bailey and Blow-Up. Both of us, beneath it all, were shy people born out of context and there followed a gentle, old-fashioned courtship until, at last, I plucked up courage and proposed to her in St James’s Park.
She died, to my anguish, in 2003.
Roy Strong and his “precious and private friend” designer Gianni Versace.
The maudlin 1970 movie made from Erich Segal’s chart-busting novel Love Story passed into blessed memory. All that remains is Ali MacGraw’s line to Ryan O’Neal: “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” On the list of the American Film Institute’s top movie quotes of all time, it is up there with Casablanca’s “We’ll always have Paris” and “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Love Story’s one-liner became one of the most referenced chestnuts in post-Woodstock popular culture. Winding its way into song lyrics and subsequent movie dialogue, it was also one of most parodied. Even John Lennon took a swing at it: “Love means having to say you’re sorry every five minutes.” Sodden with bathos, it remains the pitch-perfect epigram for a popular culture that dictates sentimentality as a you-gotta-have-it fashion accessory.
Unhappily, popular culture is inhaled by more than the daytime audience for Real Housewives and reruns of Downton Abbey. Fumes seep under chancery doors, even into papal apartments, including Pope Francis’ business-class one.
What brings this to mind is the spiraling catastrophe in the Middle East. Things have worsened in the wake of Francis’ imprudent kiss of the graffitied security fence and follow-up theatrics in the Vatican garden. The magic olive tree planted for the cameras by Mahmoud Abbas, Shimon Peres and the pope did not work. All that thaumaturgical shoveling could not break the spell of Palestinian hatred for Israel and for Jews.
The life-sized M-75 rocket monument erected three months earlier in Gaza City to showcase Palestinian intentions toward “the Zionist entity” still stands. Within a week of Francis’ ceremony under the boxwoods, Hamas kidnapped and murdered three teenage boys in the West Bank. While Israelis mourned their sons, Palestinians gloated over their deaths. Fatah’s own Facebook page posted this:
Also this three-fingered version of the victory sign. Its meaning unmistakable, Fatah coyly offered it as open to interpretation:
Repercussions have been harrowing. The rogue retaliatory killing of an innocent Palestinian teen has been seized as justification for a renewed intifada. In brief, since the prayer fest, the rot has deepened and spread. You would think Francis might be embarrassed.
But no. Love means never having to say you are sorry. Especially if you never intended to have a measurable effect. It is apparently enough that the chimera of peace-and-love, like Shelley’s skylark (“bird thou never wert”), be hailed while it sings and soars above concrete realities on the ground.
On June 14, two days after the kidnapping, Fox News Latino published a curious article stating that the prayer summit was not aimed at restoring talks. It was “merely to serve as a symbol of mutual coexistence and respect.” The article quotes from Francis’ interview with Barcelona’s La Vanguardia in which he acknowledged that his idea was “completely novel” and that he had but one aim: “to open a window to the world.”
In other words, an impulse for novelty, that prized media commodity, eclipsed concern for efficacy. Put plainly, the unspoken object of so much ostentatious piety was to showcase Francis’ personality. Not for nothing is the term “a personality” our synonym for “a celebrity.” Idiosyncrasynoveltyis the lifeblood of celebrity. It distinguishes.
The only casement opened that sunny day in the garden was one that gave a view onto the papal ego. Francis admitted that “ninety-nine percent of the Vatican said we shouldn’t do it.” Faced with a reluctant Vatican, the pope pulled rank. What he achieved was a window of opportunity for an emboldened Hamas.
What we need to ask is this: What has Francis to sayclearly and in publicnow that the staging has gone, the blue shovels put away, and the runic tree, a sustainable prop, is back in the hands of Vatican gardeners who dropped it in the ground to begin with?
Francis is fond of symbolic gestures. But symbols have their consequences. Why else employ them? In this instance, they are all the more mischievous for exempting the symbol-shaper from responsibility for the way his signs are interpreted and used. To borrow a maxim from Flannery O’Connor, if it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.
To what extent might Francis share, at some level, prevailing European hostility toward the Israeli state? It is feasible to wonder. For all the hype about him being the first Latino pope, he really is not. We still have an Italian pope, one raised in a white collar home in the most affluent and Europeanized city in South America. His father was an accountant, not a laborer. During Bergolio’s youth, Argentina was closer to Rome and Madrid than to any third-world Latin American country.
An in-law of mine was born and raised in Buenos Aires. Now an American citizen, he has familyall ethnic Russians and Germansstill in Argentina. He writes me this:
“I don’t like the label “Latino”, it’s an American catch-all. Francis is just another first-generation European refugee in South America, a full-blooded Italian who grew up speaking Spanish. Just like other middle-class professionals in my parents’ generation he was born in an essentially prosperous country, with great public health and education, that was starkly different than its neighbors from Mexico on down. Alas, that is very much not the case now. Maybe the current generation in Argentina is better described as “Latino,” but not Francis, my parents, even me, or anyone else in the educated urban middle classes who is older than about 40.”
Media-induced romance, whether about the first Latino pope or the first black president, is a synthetic obscurant. It hides more than it reveals. And there are pitfalls in the dark.
I am fond of vintage American history textbooks. Rifling through dumpsters, library discards, and second-hand bookstores, I cannot resist bringing them home when I find them. I am drawn to the temper of older histories, particularly ones written for students. Prior to the revisionist animus of the Sixties, school texts shared a sympathy for the American experiment, the fragility and genius of it. Sins were acknowledged but without the rancor that scours the past for new sources of accusation, new means of destruction.
Poster. Art Project of the WPA (c.1936
A civilized sense of national identityto be distinguished from the ideology of nationalismis hard to find in contemporary texts. Howard Zinn’s anti-American harangue, A People’s History of the United States, is one of the most widely used and influential texts. It has incapacitated a generation of readers for living gracefully with our singular past. In the selection process necessary to the historian, Zinn and his disciples shrank the historical enterprise to a story of grievances and outrages.
I am spending this Independence Day with a yellowed, water-stained copy of the second volume of E. Benjamin Andrews’ History of the United States). It is a 1928 edition, the sixth reprinting after its publication in 1894. The succession of reprints signals its popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century. Historian and once chancellor of the University of Nebraska, Andrews wrote about the American Revolution with an affection no longer fashionable. He approached the Revolution through the lens of the French and Indian War (1754-63), emphasizing its role in framing colonial preparedness to secede from England:
“The results of the French and Indian War were out of all proportion to the scale of its military operations. Contrasted with the campaigns which were then shaking all Europe [the Seven Years’ War], it sank into insignificance; and the world, its eyes strained to see the magnitude . . . of those European wars, little surmised that they would dictate the course of history far less than yonder desultory campaigning in America.”
It seemed a minor theatre in the global conflict between the great colonial powers. Yet it had momentous consequences. Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, French envoy to the Ottoman Empire, prophesied from his post in Constantinople: “England will erelong repent of having removed the only check that could keep her colonies in awe. They no longer stand in need of her protection.”
Philip Dawe. Tarring and Feathering the Excise Man (1774). Lithograph published in London.
The French and Indian War gave rag-tag colonists battle field training side by side with the British, a daunting fighting force. It provided experience in establishing camps and enduring a march. It set a standard, however difficult to maintain, for organization and discipline. The value of that tutelage was inestimable.
“If the outbreak of the Revolution had found the Americans a generation of civilians, if the colonial cause had lacked the privates who had seen hard service at Lake George and Louisburg, or the officers . . . who had learned to fight successfully against British regulars by fighting with them, it is a question whether the uprising would not have been stamped out . . . almost at its inception.”
What is interesting about the following passage is the knowledge Andrews takes for granted in the reader. Nowhere does Andrews identify Fort Necessity as the battleground on which Washington suffered his firstand onlysurrender. Neither is Braddock identified as the British general under whom colonists, young Washington among them, fought with the British against the French. Braddock died at the outset of battle; the campaign proved a disaster for the British. Andrews could trust his readers’ ability to fill in the backstory by themselves. To audiences unaided by Google, the historian need state only this:
“Without the Washington of Fort Necessity and of Braddock’s Defeat, we could in all likelihood never have had the Washington of Trenton and Yorktown. Besides Washington, to say nothing of Gates, Gage, and Mercer, and also there Dan Morgan of Virginia, began to learn war in the Braddock campaign. Again, the war prepared the colonists for the Revolution by revealing to them their own rare fighting quality, and by showing that the dreaded British regulars were not invincible.”
German Battalion Fighting for the British in the American War of Independence (19th C.).
Pennsylvania Historical Society, Philadelphia.
But another necessity loomed, one even more crucial than skill at arms. That was a sense of union, a “community of sentiment” that fueled the cooperation needed to carry the fledgling nation through the bloody trials and deprivations of secession. The only hope of successful resistance lay in concerted action derived from grasp of a mutual cause, a perception which Andrews reminds us was “still none too intense” in the colonies:
“It is important to remember not only that the war built up this conviction of a common interest, but that nothing except the [French and Indian] war could have done it. The great forces of nineteenth-century civilizationthe locomotive, the telegraph, the modern daily newspaperwhich now bind sixty millions of people, spread over half a continent, into one nation, were then unknown. The means of communication and transportation between the colonies were very primitive. Roads were rough, full of steeps and cuts, and in many places . . . almost impassable with mire. It took seven days to go by stage from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, four days from Boston to New York. The mail service was correspondingly inadequate and slow. At times in winter a letter would be five weeks in going from Philadelphia to Virginia.
“Newspapers were few, contained little news and the circulation necessarily confined to a very limited area. It has been estimated that the reading matter in all the forty-three papers which existed at the close of the Revolution would not fill ten pages of the New York Herald now. In connection with this state of things consider the fact that the idea of colonial solidarity . . . had to be created outright. Local pride and jealousy were still strong. Each colony thought of itself as a complete and isolated political body . . . . Plainly a lifetime of peace would not have begotten the same degree of consolidation among the colonies which the war, with its common danger and common purpose, called into being in a half-dozen years.”
Common purpose. How we represent ourselves to ourselves, to our young, makes the difference between our survival as one people or suicide by balkanization. So I gather around me old texts like Andrews’ as talismans against the grinning executioners waiting to garrote defense of our shared history. They are frail things, these books. But while they remain intact, they defy the frenzied schoolmen determined to suffocate gratitude for the shared human project that is our legacy.