The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
14.2 (Spring 2014)
faith and cultural meltdown
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Beauty: That in Which Both Market and Church Are Poor
John R. Harris
It is several months now since Pope Francis shocked (and, in many instances, delighted) the world by declaring that capitalism incites discontentment with life, and hence is to be accounted a morally pernicious influence. In the meantime, commentators have gone back and forth about whether or not the chief pontiff was misquoted, cited out of context, or mistranslated. I have no light to shed on any such speculation. I am certainly not incredulous, I must confess, at the proposition that any representative of organized Christianity would in this day endorse some version of the paternalistic “nanny state”. I am surprised, rather, when the occasionally frocked spokesperson does not so endorse the Centralized Savior.
The piece that George Shirley published in this space last quarter responded eloquently to such politicization of the cloth while referencing the Pope’s utterances only elliptically. I applaud the philosophy of that response. A man who is kept in a perambulator by his “loving” government of experts and technicians might as well be in chains. Personally, I would rather own a plot of land to grow my food and thereby risk yearly starvation due to natural disaster than be kept, from cradle to grave, in a warm nursing home full of posted schedules, locked doors, and forbidden corridors.
Yet in my decade and a half of directing The Center, I have always been painfully aware of our inability to make much money (never comfortably more than bare operating expenses). Our enterprise is abjectly dependent upon a slow trickle of charity: a few hundred dollars per annum, frankly. What, after all, do we do that would elicit a spate of cash from anyone? Reflect upon great literature and the arts from the humane perspective of the Western tradition? What a bore! Our nation’s universities were supposed to accomplish that mission (opines the typical private-sector businessman)—and look at what addle-pated radicals come staggering out of the Ivory Tower into the daylight after four years of programming! The real world, the new world of Internet and nanobot, has no use for “literature” (as opposed to useful information). Why would anyone buy any complete book at any time in the twenty-first century? For diversion? Not likely; but in that unlikely event, the choice is a racy thriller downloaded to a Kindle or a Nook (though why the amusement-seeker wouldn’t await the film version on Netflix would require the resources of Delphi to fathom). Certainly no red-blooded, sane human being actually reads Milton today, or even Chekhov, except to escape from a college survey course with a Pass. Rarely, a fire-breathing patriot might obtain a copy of the U.S. Constitution, or maybe some denunciation of that worthy document’s enemies penned by a talk-show host or hot off a libertarian think tank’s press.
But a play by Sheridan? A novel by Fogazzaro? And how is it, again, that you expect to pay any bills by promoting such things? Are we talking about Planet Earth?
Friends of capitalism, especially, consider serious literature an inscrutable waste of time; for where there is no money to be made, there is no possibility of time well spent. Indeed, now that the alliance between college English departments and the left-wing agenda has come fully out of the closet, a hard-working wage-earner who shelled out to purchase the collected works of Jane Austen might fairly be accused of financing the enemy, as Americans who buy dope are often funneling money to Al Qaeda.
The utilitarian approach to life that fixes a dollar value upon everything—and confers virtual nullity upon anything that resists such pricing—has been identified with entrepreneurial America by European observers at least since the time of Toqueville. It is part of our cultural DNA, a significant cause of our age-old reputation for blunt crudity. (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, for example, billeted with an Allied P-38 squadron in the final months of his life, lamented that his young American pilot-pals had no inkling of any music other than loud jazz bands.) We have conventionally worn the Philistine’s badge with pride, as if to say to the world, “Go ahead—sneer at us! But you always come running to us when you need something done!” We “got things done”. Rush Limbaugh’s reiterated response to the Pope by radio wave is indeed but a slightly altered version of this refrain. People naturally like to better themselves materially (lectures Rush). Why should they—why should we—wallow in helpless squalor and misery when a little Yankee ingenuity both provides high-paying jobs for our citizens and gives those same citizens a chance to make their homes more comfortable or travel somewhere faster? What is the virtue of remaining a caveman?
There are two points I should like to stress in reply here. I would observe, first of all, that a craving for newer and ever newer things of an ever more frivolous nature (from a fireplace to a water heater to a toaster to a shoe-warmer) does not represent progress of the mind or spirit in any comprehensible way. On the contrary, it characterizes barbarism. The barbarian stumbles upon nothing in the emperor’s plundered palace that does not delight him. He has to have all that he can reach: everything that glitters is worth fighting his comrade over. It is the civilized man who holds aloof from such debauches of possession—who can control himself. He disdains to have processed food instantly appear before him when he might slice a real apple or season a real stew by hand; he prefers the meditative opportunity of a shaded sidewalk to the plowed-up wasteland that creates space for more lanes of traffic. The civilized man makes his day with his choices at every turn. He is the clear superior to what we have now: a creature less in control of his micro-environment and more dependent on automation to accomplish the simplest goals living—a creature less free, and hence less strong, and hence less of an individual, and hence less of a moral agent, and hence less good. Why should this creature, contemporary man, be viewed as advancing because he is more overweight, more readily fussy and uncomfortable, more ignorant of how to service his basic needs directly, and more worried by the possible breakdown of systems whose mysterious interrelation has long since exceeded his understanding?
His Holiness Pope Francis and El Rushbo
For that matter, how does Limbaugh Man even know if he has employment for another month? He grows nothing to eat and knows how to grow nothing, has never built a fire and wouldn’t know where to begin if he needed one. His lavish prosperity stands atop a house of cards. If people should suddenly decide that they do not require cell phones or satellite dishes or drive-through pizza parlors—or if they should suddenly be unable to afford them, or if solar flares or an earthquake should place a crushing heel upon the whole arrangement—then this flesh-and-blood monument to sophistication dies. He needs his government to “create jobs” because none of his career options is fully natural and fully under his control. On the contrary, he dwells within an incredibly complex hive of delicate artifice. What sort of ladder is this he has scaled, whose rungs are all temporary and subject to instant relocation? How can we deem this being the most advanced representative of his species when he gives others work by indulging the passions of a spoiled brat or a wild ape, and owes his own handsome income to the same unstable whimsy of other novelty-craving zombies no less restless than he?
The supreme irony (and this is the second observation of my rebuttal) is that the self-styled conservative defense of capitalism constantly advances “progress” as its justification. To the extent that conservatism opposes progressivism—and that extent is considerable, embedded as it is in essential definitions—the capitalist who congratulates the market on creating interminable novelty (or an interminable taste for novelty) is an obvious progressive. He has bound himself to the proposition that the push-button shoe-warmer or the self-opening can or the tub of warm water that starts to fill as its master wearily heads home from a day’s work indeed makes life better. We are all moving ahead because of such trivialities and frivolities. It isn’t just that they must be assembled in factories that provide jobs (though we see now that those factories tend neither to provide American jobs nor to offer a decent wage in the Third World): we are asked to believe that a plethora of gadgets truly makes life better. It increases our living standard by… by giving us more time to… to spend doing other activities of higher value than opening cans or drawing water. Such as playing Grand Theft Auto.
The left-wing progressive believes that life is made better when a highly trained and nobly motivated elite takes control of the mass’s existence, substituting enlightened choices for vulgar ones. Such substitutions have included, most spectacularly in our time, the deferral or removal of child-bearing. The masses tend to have far too many children. They will actually be happier if expert technicians deny them the ability to ruin their own lives and those of their offspring by inflicting birth upon the latter. The right-wing progressive deplores such hideous hubris, as well he should; but his alternate version of progress calls for an indefinite indulgence of the mass’s tastes, impulses, and lusts. I repeat that this model, in its most honest form, demands for us to accept not only that the prostitute can now become rich as she is left to ply her trade, but also that humanity is liberated and elevated by legalized prostitution. Giving free rein to our worst side is to be seen as morally good, since (one assumes) we are now at least being honest and can address any brutal consequence of our cravings out in the open. Ayn Rand’s mercilessly doctrinaire laudations of selfishness leap to mind.
I like to think that the Pope intended to lament this “anything goes” aspect of the free market, although I cannot escape the conclusion that he actually declared a fondness for redistribution of income. Giving the would-be prostitute a cut of the car salesman’s take may keep her off the streets, but it does nothing to address either her own inclination to raise cash in a self-mutilating manner nor the mass’s inclination to seek her services. It suppresses symptoms without treating the disease; and indeed, it cannot suppress symptoms for very long, because the car salesman will eventually cut his work-week in half rather than keep hustling to finance the indigence of freeloaders.
So, no, the socialist state is not a realistic alternative to capitalist progress, just as the capitalist definition of progress cannot adequately explain why we should not celebrate an economy of figurative prostitution. The point to be stressed for the moment, though, is that capitalism is indeed a species of progressivism. It is not by nature conservative. Popular culture has managed to foul these lines of ideological distinction hopelessly, with the amiable Mr. Limbaugh being only the most vocal example. We Americans no longer understand progress, if we ever did. To be sure, everybody wants—or should want—to become better in some sense: progress should not be viewed as having a “default value” of “disaster” by those who wish to conserve the past’s cultural treasures. The greatest of these treasures, however, is precisely a surrounding sense of general sameness in things—a maternal reassurance and predictability about day-to-day events against which difference may be explored thoughtfully. Capitalism disrupts and eventually destroys culture. It regards sameness as the passé with which the consumer must be made dissatisfied. No new snacks can be sold where eating habits are entrenched; no new clothes can be sold where dressing habits from generations ago are yet honored; no new vehicles can be sold where the same old roads bend sleepily around the same old sidewalk cafés.
Of course, through this final example peeks the power-hungry eye of Big Brother. If the capitalist is eager to produce and market a new roadster, tearing up old roads and building new ones will require public-sector intrusions. Left-wing advocates of the managerial state are only too happy to collaborate with private-sector visionaries in such overhauls. The changes sell cars, enriching industrialists and generating the all-important “new jobs”… but they also put tax money into the public sector, which translates into more departments, more licenses, more arms of enforcement: in a word, more power. Again, the populace—Rush’s “low-information voters”—remains erroneously convinced to this day that big business and big government are mortal adversaries, whereas in fact they are the most devoted (if the most secretive) of bedfellows.
Now, there is nothing fundamentally oppressive, from an economic vantage, about a carefully conserved culture: quite the contrary. Old buildings need maintaining, and occasionally (for safety reasons) modernizing. Old clothes grow threadbare, and need replacing by new clothes made in the old vein. Old music needs performing by a new generation of instrumentalists, and the latest “great men” want their portrait painted in the old style. The worship of novelty energetically sweeps away all these opportunities, substituting for them shallow alternatives whose main or sole virtue (if virtue it be) is to shock, to declare novelty. Consider contemporary “music” (as Saint-Exupéry woefully did). Artisans who once created exquisite instruments have surrendered their niche. Voice-instructors are fortunate to make a little part-time change. Teachers who were once paid to introduce children to their musical heritage have vanished into the parched earth like a brief desert storm. Today’s “artists” raise the volume until it splits the eardrums, or they compose obscene couplets droned in street dialect over a hypnotically repeated theme. Some of them grow fabulously rich over night because they have done no more than expose their pudenda in a video-taped “performance”. Their faithful eagerly part with ticket- or download-money in order to pledge allegiance to a certain clique without whose tribal feathers they will be adrift and alone in a vast cultural nullity.
These are scenes that capitalism has wrought—and they are not, by any possible extension of the term, culturally conservative.
Prosperity is all too easy to find as morality decays, for anyone grows willing to do anything for a price. The market rules. People of good intentions (like the Pope and Rush Limbaugh) are painfully aware that goodness—common decency, even—is missing from the calculations of the throngs whom they would direct, yet they struggle to raise a call that might bring so many wayward children to a saving path. Charity and brotherhood, of course, thrust themselves into the message; but here the fatal divide between how best to help a suffering brother—with a handout or a job—soon yawns before us. And, as we have seen, neither alternative suggests that the answer to suffering is anything other than money.
In the Christian tradition, which I believe to be that most deeply endowed with spiritual truth, all progress is personal. People are not saved; persons are saved. Societies do not change for the better, or not enduringly and decisively: individual souls change for the better. A benign culture is one which provides the necessary stability I wrote of earlier for seekers to perceive those changes they personally require. A man who runs out on his wife and children is less likely to be stricken by regret if he sees only homeless waifs and mate-shifting concubines around him than if he sees coherent families. A teenager escaping routinely into drugs is less likely to reconsider his or her strategy if such an escape is routine than if examples of strong character are visible. A boy with a gun is more likely to fire from a speeding car with radio-racket blaring in his ears than from a quiet village sidewalk.
A Christian culture would, in pragmatic terms, have to be one where things move with little enough shock to one’s existential background that one is free to reflect and to choose. Its construction should also represent, both physically and symbolically, the limitations of life to which rabid consumerism often blinds us. Graveyards should be common sights, as well as toddlers at safe play. Festivals should mark the succeeding seasons of the year. Trees should be spared the developer’s scythe so that they may green in spring and drop their leaves in autumn.
I realize that this Arcadian vision cannot always be made a reality, simple though it is (and universal though it was before the Industrial Revolution). Yet I am in fact doing no more than remarking the vital importance of beauty in life. All beauty involves a framework of predictability, of finitude, against which movement or energy may create surprise. The framework forces purpose upon activity: it requires that unrest or instability somehow be reconciled or brought under control by the experience’s end. A musical composition—even a mere tune—has only a certain time within which to brave the edge of disorder and then flee back into unity. A painting has its canvas, and usually a literal frame. A story must end in some fashion which emerges organically from its complex mid-space. Encounters like these—artistic encounters—make us aware that we have life on earth for just so long, and that ultimate coherence or incoherence rests within our own power; and, most importantly of all, that coherence is infinitely the more satisfying option; for failure to close any of life’s circles amounts to success at creating chaos.
Capitalism divorced from culture creates chaos, as does any form of progressivism. The collectivist definition of “progress”, regardless of what nuances it may be given, disparages the past to the point of irrelevance. We become like restless pioneers in Conestoga wagons forever moving West. Enough is never enough. Beyond the Rockies waits California. Beyond California waits the Orient. Beyond the Orient sits the beckoning Moon. The landscape has no frame; the story has no last page. Postmodern artists and theorists, indeed (thinking themselves saboteurs of the bourgeois, not recognizing in themselves the children of the marketplace), have promoted the senseless, ever unfinished story as the only true narrative of our time. Alas, they are all too correct. Unless we recover our sense of limitation and of purposive endeavor within that limitation, we must continue to consume the burlesque adventures of “superheroes” as we do potato chips and soft-drinks—enriching vendors as we go, creating jobs, passing mirrors too fast for a look, and sprinkling money over the poor like a toll on a freeway.
Markets are dynamic and even, sometimes, inspiring—but they must be held accountable to certain rules, and those rules are perhaps more aesthetic than moral; or perhaps, I should say, they can only be legislated morally by attending to aesthetics. The good way, after all, must at last be determined by every man and woman personally: the unique value of Western society is that it has elevated that principle, arduously but steadily, to a height of utmost importance. The conditions of finding the good way, however, can be somewhat more objectified, for a human being is more apt to rest and reflect in a garden than in a bomb crater. We may call any formal and established favoring of the garden “culture”, for all gardens must be cultivated, by definition; and we may recognize a culture by nothing so much as its productive orderliness—its beauty.
On this rock we must found our church.
John Harris holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin, and is the founder and serving president of The Center for Literate Values. His book. A Body Without Breath: How Left and Right Have Both Stifled Moral Reason Within the Christian Faith, is available upon request through this website.