Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Death of the World


Probably my biggest reading challenge of the year was starting and not stopping Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World. I almost gave up at many different points, telling myself that it was just not "the right book at the right time" for me, but somehow I powered on . . . After a long while, I got to the last page and learned that several bad beginnings are nothing next to one good, strong ending.

Let this be your spoiler warning. The Lord of the World is a story of many endings and also a meditation on death.

* * * * * 

We first see death in what happens to be my favourite dystopian moment: the unexpected wreck of the volor. I love how quickly Father Franklin rushes to the scene and gives a final blessing to every dying man and woman he can find. The hour of death is the front line in the war for souls, and it gladdens my heart to read of a priest--even a fictional one--braving the battle to reach every last soul who may need him. But it is not this minister of the sacraments who makes this moment, but the "ministers of euthanasia." It is the latter whom, it is implied, the desperate dying are most relieved to see.

What does it say about our world that a significant number of people really would choose a so-called "death with dignity" over the "happy death" or "beautiful death" (We don't really have a proper term for it any longer do we?) that Catholics used to pray to St. Joseph for?

* * * * * 

Then there is the papal court, which I absolutely loved, though I may be in the minority here. I appreciated the reminder that the royal trappings of yore, which modern Catholics can't seem to live down (If racing to rationalise the sedia gestatoria were an Olympic sport . . .), had a value far beyond their appearances. A crown means nothing unless the head which wears it has true authority. But how poignant to see this principle in reverse, in the deposed monarchs who hold their heads high although their crowns have been taken from them.

Benson's description of them as "shepherds without sheep, captains without soldiers . . ." is perfect, and doubles as a description of us. While I think that a political system in which sheep elect their own shepherd can be as legitimate as a hereditary monarchy, I agree with Benson that one great fault of the modern world is taking for granted that we are so much smarter than previous generations--that, in fact, if they had only known what we know today, they would have become republicans hundreds of years ago. And I'm kind of partial to the idea that the death of a royal house is the first stage in the lingering death of a nation.

That body count after the leveling of Rome is sobering for one more than one reason.  
* * * * * 

Then there is the ending of The Lord of the World, which completely blew me away. (Pun intended, of course.) Suddenly, the volors made so much sense! Heck, the whole novel made so much sense--and I found myself thinking that Benson's vision of a second Pentecost, with a wind and fire which are of the world rather than of the Spirit, preceded everything else in the story, which was then constructed around it, though not always seamlessly. It shows.

Yet to criticise anything that comes before the final pages is almost to miss the point. The ending is the point, and this novel about endings ends well--and you don't have to have found Benson's dystopian utopia the least bit believable to appreciate it.

What impresses me the most is not the huge shock of it, but the obviousness of it. We could have seen all of it coming from two thousand years away . . . The destruction of Rome . . . the return to Nazareth . . . the eleven faithful cardinals and one traitor . . . the nine days of prayer capped by a Mass in a locked room . . . These are all "codes" we could have "cracked" just from reading the Scriptures--and goodness knows, everyone from fundamentalist scholars to Hollywood screenwriters have made a go at it. But I think I can say, without reservation and without needing to do a more thorough survey of "End Times literature" (both fiction and non-fiction), that Benson's interpretation is the right benchmark.

When was the last time you reflected that the end of the world is inevitable? That the destruction of all we love and the deaths of all we hold dear are part of a greater plan? I have a friend who is very critical of certain Christian fringe groups which believe in a different vision of the end times: he says they don't mind the Middle East being blown to bits in the long process of literally restoring the Temple in Jerusalem, as long as the believers themselves will get to witness the Second Coming from the comfort of their First World homes. (Or from the comfort of Heaven, to which they would have been "raptured." Because somehow the Rapture makes more sense than the Assumption. But that's just me showing why I never win Miss Congeniality at the Ecumenism Pageant.) Clearly, there's a difference between their vision and Benson's vision: one has much more of that "dying to self" imagery.

There is also an unsettling similarity in the popular support for politicians who don't mind raining death from the skies. Shall Benson turn out as much of a prophet as his contemporaries Orwell and Huxley?

* * * * *

The death of individuals, the death of nations, even the death of the Church . . . It's one horrific catastrophe after another, but if you've read The Lord of the World, you know what I mean when I say that the death of the world was blessed and beautiful.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Ceremony of Innocence

Sorry for the silence; the night I promised to write something, I fell into a drooling sleep, on the sofa, over my knitting.  Then yesterday was New Zealand Saturday, and I was battling the garden and so forth. 

Melanie, the scene with the Papal Court held me as well, and started a train of vague thoughts about ceremony and ritual, and what ritual does in and for the body of Christ.  I remembered how much I enjoy those scenes in ballets and operas where the dancers and singers just process in, accompanied by breathtaking music.  To us lumpy bumpy types in the cheap seats, it’s a vision of prelapsarian humanity in all its dignity and beauty and strength, as all the nations of world (or at least, in the context of classical ballet, Poland, Spain, France and Italy) pay homage to the king who represents right rulership.  (Sometimes, je m’amuse by imagining a haka added to the mix.)

Seeing this, knowing I am disqualified on multiple grounds from ever taking part, I am still cheered and heartened by the sight.  Those dancers, those singers, those wonderfully gifted people, share common humanity with me, and so their dignified acts of homage become mine. 

Such homage can only properly be offered to God, though we persist, in the triumph of hope over experience, in offering it to political figures, who in the course of their tenure are, unless they have the good sense to die in office, bound to be a let-down.  Hence, the Papal Court is the only place where ceremony won’t be empty, or ridiculous, and where the participants won’t end up as Mabel does, disappointed to death. 

The poor spoiled priests in the book who offer their services as masters of ceremony to the new cult thus remind me powerfully of something I read about some disciples of John Shelby Spong, who, entirely unironically, expended much mental energy inventing new and more elaborate church rituals for themselves. 

There’s a fantastically interesting article here, about the hidden social costs of atheism and the place of ritual – do read it –

“And so here’s the thing: the reason we’re increasingly rejecting ritual and seemingly absurd religious beliefs is because we can afford to. The beneficiaries of a massive world economic system, we have the ample time, energy, and resources to spend on negotiating and re-negotiating our relationships, day in and day out. For the most part, we don’t have to spend our time planting, harvesting, herding animals, or doing eight hours of laundry a day. We’re free to redirect our energy into making social relationships explicit – which entails using analytical, logical, “system 2”-style processing to crunch an enormous amount of social data consciously.

Ritual, on the other hand, uses intuitive, holistic, “system 1”-style processing to establish and solidify social roles not by talking about them, but by demonstrating them. A wedding, for example, isn’t a symbol of two people getting married. It isn’t a discursive negotiation of their relationship. A wedding is two people getting married – the act is the same thing as the concept. In the same way, a bull elk that’s lost a ritualized sparring contest doesn’t negotiate his subordinate status with the victor by walking away. He demonstrates it.

To briefly talk semiotics, ritual keeps the signifier and the signified – the thing doing the communicating and the thing that’s being communicated – much, much closer to each other than analytical, verbal communication does. The extra distance between the signifier and signified means that verbal communication is always going to be more costly, in terms of energy input, than ritualized communication. This is even true in the physical brain, where explicit, analytical cognition – which fuels verbal discourse – uses up significantly more energy (in the form of glucose) than the intuitive cognition that powers ritualized interactions.

So is atheism a luxury of the wealthy? Yes. But this isn’t simply because the wealthy don’t need the comforts of a posited afterlife. It’s also because materially comfortable people have more energy to expend on negotiating their social worlds. Ritual and religion use intuition and demonstration; they prioritize efficiency and clarity of signals. Secularism uses logic and abstract reason; it’s comfortable with ambiguous social roles and signals. In part, this is because it can afford to be.”

Hmmm.  This would in part explain why, in a wealthier New Zealand, I seem to go to fewer parades than I used to when I was a child.  There used to be lots – brass and pipe band parades, marching girls, Festival Parades to mark the founding of the province, Blossom Parades to mark the fruit-tree blossoming in Central Otago, Capping and Graduation Parades.  Where they still exist, these public processions are a shadow of their former selves.  Presumably they were needed only to weld and meld society together, a process which is now solely political.  In a more polyglot country, though, the verbally negotiated process is much trickier than it used to be. 

I notice that Connor Wood makes no suggestion as to how language difficulties are to be overcome in a negotiated social world.  Language difficulties already make some social processes difficult  - law courts, medicine, education - how much capital, social and monetary, Canada must have expended on bi-lingualism!  And how much we spend here, on the same project! 

If language fails us, we ought to be able to turn to public ritual to unite us, but, already, we’ve failed before we begin because of the absence of a common culture.  There’s only one parade in which all people can have an equal portion, and that’s the one where “the Blessed Sacrament [goes] through the ill-smelling streets with the sound of bells and the light of lanterns.” (p111, kindle loc 1447)  May I live to see this in my town, and when the Sacrament processes in all dignity and beauty, may I have the grace to kneel as it – He- goes by.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Not Svengali and Trilby


I’ve been much distracted by blackcurrant jam-making and by cute babies on Facebook, so excuse me that this is well after my proposed December hit-and-run job.  Apart from anything else, I realized I missed not one, but two great posts from Pentimento, and while I was reading them and the erudite comments, I was sobered by thoughts like “Who did I think I am, footing it with these women who actually have thoughts their heads, besides jam and babies?”  Not that jam and babies aren’t good things, mark you, but Aristotle never wrote “The Nichomachean Make-and-Do.” 

Anyway, this is just a preamble for “this post won’t be very learned or deep.”

Melanie (I think) made a comment about the conventionality of the social relations in the book.  They are those of the 1900s: man and wife, with the man’s widowed mother living with the couple as a matter of course.  Benson was prescient on the subject of marriage as a civil contract, undertaken without the benefit of clergy and dissoluble, but the couple is, except for the fact that they are childless, otherwise severely conventional in a way that gave me pause to think how things have changed.  Mabel is nineteen, Oliver, much older, a politician well-advanced in his party, who must be at least thirty. 

The age disparity impinges on the narrative not a whit, except that it allows some de haut en bas exposition between the mature man and the very young woman.  We don’t have an Effi Briest or an Anna Karenina here, youth unhappily yoked with age, instead we have – teachability, and it’s a sobering insight that even I, conventional to the nines, find this severely creepy and suspect.  It used to be that parents regarded their daughters as well-settled if they married even a much older man, and not only in the fictional realm of Emma and Mr Knightley.  My own grandmother’s husband-to-be took a photo of her away to WW1 with him.  She was under fourteen at the time, and he, twenty-four, but this was a matter of no remark in the family.  Attitudes have changed, but do we do better to expect equality of temperament and wisdom in couples of approximately the same age?  (There must be a whole branch of social science devoted to investigating this question.)

The thought that I’m coming to is that the shock value for Benson’s first readers over Mabel’s suicide must have lain, not so much in the fact that houses of gentle death exist in the book, but that the government connives with her intention with no regard to her husband’s wishes.  Benson’s laying-out of a couple so attractive and normal, and then for him to show how little traction the married relationship has in the absence of either a public or private faith, must be quite the most subversive thing in the book.

And “She had not even had a child” strikes me as the saddest sentence in the book.