So, protestors have filled the streets of France , once again. Cars burned, buildings occupied, politicians scuttling for cover. Another day on the Champs Elysées.
This time it was students complaining about a law that would have established a two-year trial period in which employers could try out the novel idea that their new employees were not guaranteed perpetual employment. "Some of the suburban hoodlums have joined in these protests¯after all, a riot is a riot," wrote one commentator. But "in an important sense, these are counter-riots, since the goals of the privileged students conflict with those of the suburban rioters who took to the streets last November. The message of the suburban rioters: Things must change. The message of the students: Things must stay the same."
That description comes from Claire Berlinski¯a CIA employee turned novelist, daughter of the science writer David Berlinski, and a resident of Paris¯ writing in the Washington Post . Her further point about the essential ungovernability of France is interesting¯she claims Paris is still medieval in its pitting of the mob against the king¯but the joining of the poor suburban Muslims with the privileged French students may need another ratchet of analysis.
A riot really is a riot, after all, and deep in the Western psyche these days, there is something that wants a riot, that goes out seeking an excuse. There is something in the air now that hungers for the cleansing fire, and the purity of destruction, and the certainty that is loss of self. In a recent column, one writer quoted Among the Thugs , a report from Bill Buford about the violence of British soccer hooligans: "Violence is one of the most intensely lived experiences and, for those capable of giving themselves over to it, is one of the most intense pleasures . . . What was it like for me? An experience of absolute completeness." The feeling of "being in a crowd in an act of violence" has a strange and perfect rightness to it: "Nothingness is what you find there," Buford explained. "Nothingness in its beauty, its simplicity, its nihilistic purity."
It’s easy to dismiss Buford as far too interested in his own reactions and far too uninterested in the fact that the hooligans he celebrates are engaged in pointless injury and destruction for its own sake.
But we don’t get anywhere unless we also note that there genuinely can be in violence a kind of satisfaction, purity, and loss of self. It wouldn’t be necessary to condemn murderous rampaging¯to struggle against it, to ward it off¯unless there was some way the human psyche could find it attractive. It’s not mysticism, exactly, but a sort of shadow of mysticism: a kind of inversion that engages the same hungers in the soul and aims them at evil instead of good.
It’s tempting to pose this as a general rule: A people who lack any sense of the future will find that the future lacks any sense of them. And surely those committed to the pseudo-mysticism of self-destruction are unlikely to leave much that shapes the things to come.
But they can, of course, ruin the present, and the point is perhaps better put in theological terms: Something will always function as the apocalypse, in one way or another; if a culture has dismissed the eschatological idea that a final judgment really does wait, they will eventually start to build their own eschatology. "Apocalypse Now," as someone in our time put it. Or "Best past all prizing is never to have been," as someone else phrased it, long ago.
In addition to which :
“Theology’s Continental Captivity” is a spirited essay by R.R. Reno in the April issue of F IRST T HINGS . Theologians take to Martin Heidegger and his many philosophical offspring because they ask the “really big questions” about life, death, meaning, being, nothingness, etc. etc. But the Anglo-American analytical tradition in philosophy has the distinct merit of being seriously interested in what is true, in more ordinary (and solid) understandings of truth. That brief summary hardly does justice to the care and complexity of Reno’s thesis, which should stir a lively discussion about the place of theology in intellectual discourse. Isn’t it time for you to become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS ?
Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School says of Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth :
"The author of The Catholic Moment has done it again. From its opening meditation on the death of the Pope that Neuhaus was one of the first to call ‘the Great,’ to the closing notes on the conclave that elected Benedict XVI, this beguiling book brings the reader into conversation on the current state of the Church with one of the great Catholic thinkers of our time. No one is better than Father Neuhaus at reminding us why, even in times of confusion and controversy, it’s a joy to be Catholic!"
The book can be ordered from Amazon here .