I'm going to break protocol and tell you about what I've been watching. But what I've been watching happens to be hyper-hypertextual: Rodney Ascher's Room 237 is a geeked-out documentary about a prestige horror film, reminding us how prestige can precipitate (or arise from? or consist of?) a fever of discourse. Admirers of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining—scholars, journalists, private enthusiasts—spell out for us, at lavish length, what that film is all about. Their close readings verge on the paranoid. Nothing can be incidental: Our explicators have flagged a symbol, allusion, or visual pun in every frame; they have parsed seven levels of meaning in the screenplay; they have worked out Kubrick's numerology; they have screened the film forwards and backwards simultaneously, with images superimposed so that they echo or subvert each other; they have generated a blueprint of the Overlook Hotel, and discovered symbolic inconsistencies in the floorplan. Conclusion(s): The Shining is really all about the genocide of the Native Americans; and/or it's really all about the Holocaust; and/or it's really all about sex; and/or it's really all about the media science of subliminal messages; and/or it's really all about Kubrick's secret work for the U.S. government, faking the Apollo 11 moon-landing footage. (That last one made sense to me while they were explaining it.) This documentary is sleeker than sleek. It is also deliriously conspiratorial. (Tagline: “Many ways in, no way out.”) Our devoted explicators were going frame-by-frame before DVDs made it cool, because they believe that urgent messages—about America, about government, about humanity, about history, about war, about work, about marriage, about children—are embedded in this filmic text. You only need the right decoder ring. Our explicators are uncertain whether all of these messages were intended by the inspired auteur. But they are convinced that The Shining is part of wisdom literature. If we cannot know the Mind of Stanley, still we may read the Book.
In his new book, But What if We’re Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman asks how we will be seen by people living centuries from now. What practices that we casually accept will they regard with horror? What certitudes on which we rely will they hold up for ridicule? Unlike those who love to condemn others for being on the “wrong side” of history, Klosterman knows that the future is no slave to contemporary prejudice.
The boldest chapter lays out “the case against freedom.” Klosterman begins by asking Jay Wexler, a constitutional lawyer at Boston University, whether the constitution might not be so perfect after all. Wexler agrees, conventionally enough (criticizing the Constitution as an old American tradition). And like any good liberal, he thinks the document’s faults are in its narrow provisions, not its sweeping principles. “I think it’s more likely that if we look back with regret at our dedication to the Constitution, it will be with respect to the structural provisions, rather than the liberty and equality ones.”
Klosterman isn’t so sure. After raising in a light way some deep questions about equality, democracy, and free speech, he concludes: “The ultimate failure of the United States will probably not derive from the problems we see or the conflicts we wage. It will more likely derive from our uncompromising belief in the things we consider unimpeachable and idealized and beautiful.”
Realizing that he is about to transgress something holy, Klosterman backs away from the reactionary implications of these musings. In this, he’s typical of our time. Illiberalism is either feared as a taboo or enjoyed as a transgression. Even those who raise its banner revel in its marginality. When and how will that change?
Having been stricken down over the weekend by an early-summer bout of flu, I used my convalescence to start reading Ludwig von Pastor’s history of the pontificate of Pope Leo X. Pastor’s forty-volume History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages has become something of an obsession for me over the past year. After realizing that the series represents the most comprehensive history of the modern papacy in existence, is out of print, and is in the public domain, I’ve been slowly working to republish it through Lulu.com.
Pastor devotes two, five hundred page volumes to the eight years of Leo’s pontificate. While this level of detail is not unusual for Pastor, he writes with great fervor, perhaps because of the pivotal significance of the years 1513 to 1521 for the Church.
Born Giovanni de’ Medici, the son of Lorenzo “the Magnificent”, Leo X was made a Cardinal at age thirteen and elected pope at age thirty-eight. Contrary to legends that hold Leo’s election to be the result of simony, he was chosen as pope largely for his personal virtue, sophistication, and peaceable nature. His pontificate saw the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Pastor’s treatment of Leo’s pontificate is (so far) highly amusing. He opens the volume with a sweeping summary of Leo’s failures as pope, his ineptitude, and his successors’ prolonged inability to meet the needs of the day. “That a man who was not equal to the serious duties of his high office, who, in fact, knew scarcely anything about them, should be raised to the Chair of St. Peter at a moment so fraught with danger, was a severe trial permitted by God to overtake Christendom.”
Leo was warned about the necessity of reform, but saw himself as a “prince of peace,” presiding over an ecclesiastical Golden Age, even though all the signs of the times pointed otherwise. The great humanist Pico della Mirandola urged him in a speech delivered in 1517 before the Fifth Lateran Council,
If Leo leaves crime any longer unpunished, if he refuses to heal the wounds, it is to be feared that God Himself will no longer apply a slow remedy, but will cut off and destroy the diseased members with fire and sword.
Leo did not listen—apparently he was too busy acting as supreme patron of arts and letters, and curating his pontifical image as “peacemaker.” According to a Sienese priest of the day, “It was bad for the Church that her Head should be absorbed in amusements, music, the chase, and buffoonery, instead of being occupied by the thought of the needs of his flock, and in bewailing its misfortunes. The salt of the earth has lost its savor, and nothing remains for it but to be cast out and trodden on by men.”
Ludwig Pastor wrote his History of the Popes in part as a response to skewed (anti-Catholic) treatments of ecclesiastical history by protestant writers. He wrote as a devoted son of the Church, and was commended by several popes for his great History. Where there is good, he finds it and praises it. But it is also refreshing to find a devoutly Catholic perspective on the Popes that remains pious without shrinking from the real faults and failures of the successors of St. Peter.
I’m reading a coffee table book. With its fine, colorful images, and glossy oversized pages, it is a book I would normally appreciate for how it looked in a neat stack of other similarly oversized art books, probably next to a bowl of mixed nuts.
But it's not boring, and I'm glad I cracked it open: it’s a book on Hieronymus Bosch (called Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius), the most important late-medieval artist to have emerged in the Netherlands. The book is the result of a large-scale research programme which involved an investigation of the approximately fifty paintings and drawings attributed to Bosch, spanning twenty-five different collections across ten countries. Bosch is called a “genius” who had the capacity to develop a unique visual language. A keen observer of life, he demonstrates an exceptional realism in his work. He’s also quite the Christian moralist.
Why is he called a “genius”? It seems that it’s because he could develop a visual language that was appreciated by the princes, nobility, and intellectuals of his time. He lived in two worlds: the real one, and his imagination. He was simultaneously a craftsman in the late-medieval tradition and an artist who broke with established conventions of technique, form and imagery.
But the most interesting question for me with an artist like this is: does this kind of work speak to us “moderns” today? Bosch was unabashedly trying to communicate the message of Christian salvation to worshippers as intensely as possible. He alludes over and over to the immense seductiveness of evil. His themes are cosmic: creation, sin, redemption, judgment, etc. And he uses extreme detail and realism, plus bizarre creatures, phantasmagoric monsters, and terrifying nightmares, to get us there:
(For a more comprehensive set of examples, go here.)
I hear so many Christians complaining about the state of contemporary art: it’s nihilistic, too subversive, too provocative, too minimalistic, not beautiful, etc.
But can you imagine people responding to paintings like this today, given our modern sensibilities? Can it capture our imaginations truly, resonate with us, or are these more like fascinating insights into another way of being Christian?
Vanauken's voice is still engaging here, and his insights sharp. Without his wife Davy, however, the story of his life is less vivid (as I'm sure he would be the first to agree!). Nonetheless, there's a fascinating story of the temptation to put earthly loves before God—this time, the love of neighbor rather than romantic love. Vanauken reflects on his life in the 60s, when he, a “with-it” professor, was swept up in campus activism. Initially, he was motivated by his Christian conviction in human brotherhood. But as the movement, and the sixties, went on, he found himself filled more and more with indignation and less and less with faith. The chapter titles give a sense of his progression: “Putting the Neighbour First: The Idealistic Years” and “Putting the Neighbour First: the Angry Years.” To rediscover the correct priorities, he would once again require a “nudge” from God via his friend C. S. Lewis—all the more remarkable this time, since Lewis died before Vanauken's crisis. But there is great hope and comfort to the idea that, through writing (and hopefully intercession!) we can be “channels of grace” even after our earthly life has ended. That idea, perhaps, is the most poignant thing to take away from both A Severe Mercy and Under the Mercy.
Jordan Zajac, OP
In anticipation of her upcoming book event here at the First Things editorial office, I’ve been rereading one of Mary Eberstadt’s recent titles, Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution. In it, Eberstadt offers a sobering analysis of the spoiled fruits of the sexual revolution—those fruits that advocates of the revolution overlook, since they unsettle the dominant narrative of sexual liberation, radical autonomy, and fulfillment through individual “choice.” Eberstadt employs decades of secular, scientific studies that, when drawn together, point to a more accurate counter-narrative—one of exploitation, stunted social and sexual growth, and profound psychological woundedness. In the latter chapters, Eberstadt supplements her empirical research with compelling cultural analysis. She appropriates Nietzsche’s notion of the transvaluation of values, for instance, to demonstrate the ways in which “the morality once associated with sexual behavior has been transferred onto . . . matters of food” (19). That a culture of “mindful eating” has developed, she argues, suggests the need to fill the void opened up when sexual behavior is emptied of moral meaning (96). The moral impulse can be transferred, but it cannot be suppressed completely. Whereas food is the new sex, she contends, porn has become the new tobacco. That is, just as evidence for the deleterious effects of smoking were ignored for decades, so too have the ill effects of pornography been largely overlooked. As Time magazine’s recent cover story concerning the threat of pornography on male virility suggests, the world is only beginning to wake up to the same paradoxes Eberstadt has so presciently outlined in Adam and Eve After the Pill.