Another wonderful photo blog from the lovely Elena Levon, this time from the Amazon jungle. Enjoy.
And by that title, I don’t mean Superman the character. No, I’m referring to the 2013 film Man of Steel. For the sake of a friend, I will explain in this post why this film was not only dull but offensively so. To state it bluntly, the story was terribly written, and the film completely reliant upon mindless, video game type violence devoid of any real tension or significance for its entertainment value. Its characters were mostly bland, and uninteresting, spouting boring, on the nose dialogue for much of the film, and Superman himself was almost wholly unsympathetic. Unless you like mindless CGI violence for the sake of CGI violence (of which there was an abundance in this film), it was just really awful around.
If Your Protagonist Doesn’t Give a Damn, Then Neither Do I
It is important in film or any type of story to establish what the character is trying to do, what goal he is trying to accomplish, fairly early on, for this established what the stakes are for a character before the story really gets going. This is something that the makers of Man of Steel did not do, alas. To get a sense why it fails as a story, you could compare it to the Superman films of the late 70s and it will explain a great deal. Those films, directed by Richard Donner and his replacement, were not exactly masterpieces, but they were well told in terms of story structure. And compared to Man of Steel, they set up the character of Clark/Superman much more competently.
Let’s look at an example. Early in the Superman, Clark is faced with the loss of Jonathan Kent, and we learn something very important about him:
Clark learns early on, and so do we, that he cannot fully protect his loved ones from death, despite his great powers. And so this becomes his goal, to save people, from criminals, disasters, etc. This sets up the main lines of conflict throughout the first and second film: in Superman, Clark goes to metropolis and starts saving people, arresting criminals, etc. (he even saves a kitten stuck in a tree!). But then he meets Lois, with whom he falls in love, introducing a potential conflict between his desire to protect humanity, and his desire to be with her. Then Lex Luthor comes along, launching two nuclear missile at both coasts of the U.S. simultaneously, and forces him to choose: save millions of people on one coast where Lois is, or save millions of people on the other. And because he makes a promise to Miss Tessmacher, who saves him from Kryptonite, he goes to the east coast first, and then goes to California. As a result, Lois dies. But Superman can’t accept this, and so defies Jor-El and reverses time in order to save her. This action has serious consequences, as it sets up the main conflict of the next film, in which we see that his decision to save Lois leads inadvertently to Zod being freed from the Phantom Zone, leaving Earth vulnerable when Superman decides to give up his powers to be with Lois. He finally has to let her go at the end of Superman II, in order to be Superman and protect the Earth. Again, notice how each action leads to the next conflict, and every escalation of the basic conflict intensifies the opposition or stakes for Superman in his quest to save the one(s) he loved. That’s good storytelling.
Now compare this with what happens in Man of Steel. He is sent to earth, much for the same reasons as in Superman, but with a twist: Jor-El, in this version, somehow implants the DNA of every single Kryptonian into Kal-El’s body, in order, I suppose, to one day restart Kryptonian civilization. But throughout the movie–over and over again, in what felt like hundreds of lines of repetitive dialogue–we are informed that Superman was sent to Earth for some vague higher purpose, which never really materializes: “You will give the people of earth an ideal to strive for,” Jor-El tell him at one point, and at another Jonathan Kent tells him that he was sent to Earth for a “purpose.” I must confess, I’m not really sure what this purpose is by the end of the film, and what I do understand, I find to be joyless and repulsive. Compare for a moment the death scene of Jonathan Kent in Man of Steel, and see what I mean:
In the beginning of the scene, Lois tells Superman that he won’t be able to stay away because “not helping people is not an option for you.” But what happens in the scene itself completely contradicts this: Jonathan commits suicide and Clark/Superman just lets him die, rather than reveal his secret. Think about that very carefully: Clark, who is practically invulnerable physically speaking, is more afraid that people will not like him than that his father will die. This tells you all need to know about Superman in this film: there are many more important things than saving people’s lives, even the ones he cares about! Given that Superman is supposed to be a superhero, this makes it very hard to like him. His goals–whatever they are–don’t really include doing heroic things like, you know, saving people from death. All that’s left is a really powerful alien who destroys things without much thought to how much damage he is causing.
And this is essentially all there is to the story, as illustrated by the mind numbing violence at the end of the film. Clark, who has now revealed his secret and somehow managed to survive the trauma of people not liking him, now fights with Zod and in the process nearly destroys half of metropolis, with the people still in it (after having wiped out Smallville as well):
Note how the end of the scene tries to make it sound like it is oh so tragic that Zod is going to kill a couple of people, as if the thousands of people who have already died during the fighting didn’t even exist. So now all of sudden Superman gives a damn about people dying? I found this nearly impossible to take seriously, since by this point the action of the film has made clear that for Superman saving people is not terribly important. He could have easily drawn Zod out into space, or into uninhabited areas to fight but does no such thing. Again, note the contrast with what Superman does in Superman II:
There, Superman clearly is trying to fight Zod and protect the people of Metropolis from harm. He eventually draws them away from the city as part of his plan, and the difference couldn’t be more stark: in one film, a superhero who actually acts like it, and in another, one who acts like a professional wrestler and gets thousands if not millions of people killed in the process.
I understand that the filmmakers, prodded no doubt by Christopher Nolan, wanted to take the Superman story in a different direction, make it more edgy, realistic. But there’s only so much wiggle room you have with an iconic figure like Superman. Dark, brooding and sympathetically psychotic worked much better with Bruce Wayne, whose origin story even in the oldest comic books included watching his father be murdered right in front of him. But for Superman, this makes little sense, since it changes the dynamics of his character so much. Superman was supposed to be (as far as I know) a cross between Jesus, Nietzsche’s ubermensch, and the Golem of Jewish folklore, fitted to a sentimental American audience that wanted to believe in heroes. Maybe that is considered passé now, but changing his character so radically makes it impossible to care about him.
And part of the way we come to care about a character is through knowing what is at stake for a character. Stakes have to do with things a character cares deeply about and is willing to fight for, but that are also vulnerable at the same time. The problem with Superman as a character is that he is physically almost completely invulnerable (kryptonite can hurt him, yes, but it is a weak, deus ex machina which you don’t want to use too much), so the only real way he can be threatened is through the people–the humans, who are vulnerable–that he cares about. Once you take that away, once you shown him to be indifferent or diffident about that, you’ve removed all that makes Superman sympathetic as a character. And thus all the tedious dialogue about him being great, the self-important shots of him brooding because no one likes him, are all you have left, besides thoughtlessly excessive violence.
The Offensive, Pseudo-Christian Themes of Man of Steel Are Intimately Related to Its World Historical Dullness
You might be tempted to object: so what? Those older films were campy, cheesy, corny and sentimental, suffused with silly, 1950s ideals of American style liberalism that are painfully outdated today, and paired with bad special effects that appear equally outdated and silly. We’re more grown up now, and grown ups need dark, realistic stories. It is true those older films were campy, and corny. I would be the last to deny it. But they had one thing going for them that Man of Steel doesn’t: they were fun. It was fun watching Christopher Reeves take his suit off to reveal the “S” on his chest in a phone booth, fun hearing the rousing theme by John Williams blare out whenever Superman did something heroic. I still get squeals of joy watching Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor wittily insult his bumbling sidekick Otis, and from Terence Stamp’s over the top bellowing of the phrase “Kneel before Zod!” And this all was made possible by the fact that they adhered to a simple but effective story structure, appropriate to the quasi-fairy tale origin story of Superman.
I think part of the reason they were so fun was because these earlier films preserved the basic Judeo-Christian ethos of the story, unlike Man of Steel, and that this helps explain why Superman I & II were dramatic and fun, and why Man of Steel was stilted and boring. The producers of those films seemed to grasp intuitively what G.K. Chesterton wrote about the Christian story, that it is joyous, and fun, and not like the pagan myths which were somber, and dreary, like so many comic movies are today. Several people have pointed out the ridiculous shot of Henry Cavill in profile with a figure of Jesus in a church, and some have taken it as an instance of the film’s cynical ploy to get Christians to watch the film. The same could be said of the priest’s anodyne invocation of faith (faith in what, exactly?) as well. You could say this was cynical pandering on the part of Snyder and Nolan, but I’m not so sure. It think he and his collaborators may genuinely not have understood that the Superman story presupposes a certain moral ethos, and thought they could jettison it without much consequence as a result. (The guys at Red Letter Media, whose take down of the film is hilarious, still didn’t seem to get that Snyder’s equation of his version of Superman with Jesus is not really plausible.) In any case, the film is light years from the admittedly superficial but still genuine nods toward Christian belief in Superman.
But what has the entertainment value of these films to do with Christianity, you might ask? Simple. The Christian God cares about humanity, so much so that he became man himself and died for them in order to save them. Pagan gods, by contrast, see humans as slaves, playthings, and waste their lives without much thought. And by extension, when Superman acts like he doesn’t care–like a pagan god–given his enormous powers, he seems threatening, rather than inspiring. Just look at the last scene of Man of Steel:
So here is Superman, asking a general to “trust” him, while he goes about destroying more of his equipment. This, after he has wiped out Smallville (you know, the place where he grew up) and maybe half of Metropolis. I distinctly recall watching this scene in the theater, and being emotionally confused by it. I knew I was supposed to be on Superman’s side, and I wanted to be, but I kept asking myself, “why is he being such an asshole?” Indeed, the whole message of the film could be summed this way:
But that’s what is likely to happen when you strip superhero characters like Superman of their essentially Christian moral code; they often become thoughtless, violent thugs, almost by dramatic necessity. They have nothing else going for them as characters. It maybe neat to watch a couple of CGI figures bash a city to pieces like Greek gods, but then there was a reason why the Homeric epics were about the humans, and not the gods: there was simply nothing at stake for them, because they could not die, or suffer, and therefore could never generate any sympathy with an audience. Unlike the Triune God, who became man precisely to suffer, and die for humanity, and so became the greatest story ever told–the God who can be dramatic, because he cares about humanity.
Of course, the idea that Superman is a sort of space Jesus is asinine when you think about it, and the older films played with it in a way that was in some respects superficial. But they got the essential moral compass right, and this makes all the difference, since it made their version of Superman a character we can root for. The pagan Man of Steel, by abandoning this Christian ethic, makes Superman seem not terribly different from Zod, who doesn’t care about killing people either. Ironically, by jettisoning this Judeo-Christian element of the Superman story, Man of Steel also violated the one and only commandment the church of Hollywood enjoins on its votaries–“don’t be boring.” And Man of Steel is boring, precisely to the extent which it embraced such a preposterous neo-pagan ethic.
Dullness as a Symptom of Civilizational Decay
There are objective elements to good storytelling, even though obviously we react differently to different stories based on how much interest we have in their subject matter. You didn’t need to have a “Christian” version of Superman to make it likable, necessarily; you could have cut out the stylistic references to Christianity in Superman (I’m thinking of Marlon’s Brando’s speeches to Kal-El, which make explicit the connection) and it still would have worked fine, as long as it had similar sort of moral basis to it. And you may simply like mindless violence; that’s okay too (unless you’re goal is to imitate it, of course). The subjective element is predominant, I grant you. But nonetheless, there are basic components to good storytelling that people don’t seem to understand anymore. The Anglican writer Alan Jacobs has written somewhere that Western society has lost seemingly lost its ability to tell a good story because it has outsourced storytelling to Hollywood. Personally, I fear the situation may be even worse: not only have we seemingly lost the ability to tell a good story, many people don’t seem to be able to understand what a good story is anymore, and enjoy it properly, much less be able to tell one themselves. It’s all just formless, generic entertainment I guess. No more evocation of fear or pity for us (i.e., Aristotle’s catharsis)–just give us more explosions!
Is that overdoing it a bit? Probably. I have spent way too much time thinking about this turd of a movie, and besides, not all movies are this awful. I have heard nothing but good things about the new film Guardians of the Galaxy, and it is doing splendidly at the box office from what I gather. So intelligent films, even Hollywood blockbusters, are not dead yet. But audiences are not particular; if you don’t give them the real thing, they are apt to take whatever entertainment you can shove down their throat, and there isn’t much they can do about it. But we as consumers of story (and as producers of story?) can make things a little better by at least knowing what a story is supposed to do, while we await films that actually try to tell one. At the very least, we will be much better able to understand and enjoy them when they do come our way.
I recently read a book that was given to me by a dear friend of mine, on the occasion of my birthday. It is entitled A Time to Keep Silence, by Patrick Leigh Fermor . It is a travel narrative about the author’s journey to several of the great monastic houses of France, as well as to some of the rock monasteries of Cappadocia. The writer, who was not Catholic, describes his experiences of first encountering the Benedictine abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle in France, and how after the first few days he came to feel differently about the place; no longer did it seem forbidding and somber, but the tranquility and peace of the monastery became habitual to him, so much so that he shed tears on leaving and having to go to Paris.
I mention this writer’s experience in particular, because it mirrors in some ways my own experience of monasticism. The first time I had ever been in a monastery was when, on a pilgrimage to Italy in 2005, our group visited the monastery founded by St. Benedict as Subiaco. But it was a short stay, only an afternoon, and my first real experience of a monastic house for any extended stay took place in March of 2006. It was my university’s spring break, and I took four days to visit the abbey of Our Lady of the Annunciation in Clear Creek, Oklahoma. It is an amazing place; founded by monks associated with the Abbey of Fontgombault in France, the monks of Clear Creek keep to the Extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, and so it has become a place of pilgrimage for Catholics of a liturgically traditionalist bent. The first time I went there, I felt like I was entering another world, and so I was: unlike some other monastic houses, the monks there keep the full seven times of daily prayer, beginning with Matins (at 4:30am!) and ending with Compline, all in a very Francophone sounding rendition of the Latin liturgy. It was like magic. The monastery is in fact still being built; the last I recall hearing, the abbey crypt was still under construction, though the main buildings are now completed. When I was there, the monks were living in temporary quarters, and they put me to work, and I hope I can say I helped them in some small way. It was wonderful to interact with the monks, as they were all wonderfully quirky individuals. It was hardly what you would expect given the communal nature of their life, but that was what struck me most about them, how unique each of them seemed to me; the rigor of their common life must have brought out and refined these elements in them, by constraining them so much. While I was there, I fell quite naturally ionto the rounds of prayer and work , though it was not quite the same as being a monk, I have to confess; I only made it to Matins once while I was there.
The monastic life, with its cyclical rhythms of prayer and work, is like an introduction to eternity, the cares and vicissitudes swallowed up by that rhythm. Being part of that life, even for a brief moment, was such a revelation to me. The fact of a sharing a common life, a common purpose, with set rhythms and patterns of living, surrounded by people who had made the same commitment; and that those who did this because they believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, that the message of the Church and of the whole story of redemption was true, made it all the more amazing to me. I remember feeling that, perhaps the only time since I moved out of my parents’ house, I felt like I had a secure place in the world; I felt loved, cared for, by the monks, even though it was nothing so sentimental as I am making it sound. We were just all there, together, performing our appointed tasks, in common with each other–or rather, in communion with each other, through our communion with God. When I left on the fourth day, there was snow on the ground in the woods outside the monastery. It was the first time I had ever seen the earth covered with snow in my life (I am from a warm climate originally), and it was simply breathtaking to me. I cried on the drive home, for what must have been fifteen, maybe even twenty minutes; leaving the feeling of safety, of belonging behind, was painful, and so my reaction was much the same as the writer who traveled to France when he was forced to return to Paris.
I have been back to that monastery once since, but not for many years now. The last time I was there, the feeling of magic had clearly worn off, though I loved being there; the monastery had about thirty guests staying there when I was there, and so when I have gone on retreat since I have chose other, less popular houses for my stay. But no experience will ever replace that first one at Clear Creek, nor will time erase its importance for me. I still think from time to time, that I might have a vocation to the monastic life, but it is not something I think I can decide overnight. I once thought it must be a complete pipe dream, something so wondrously out of my reach, and I was only fantasizing about something that was probably beyond my strength. But as I have become more deeply entrenched in the Catholic faith, I realize this is mistaken; it is not my strength that counts, and many of the stories from the writings of the Desert Fathers and other early monastic writers stress how long discernment and spiritual discipline can take. So for now, I simply try to live what I learned in the monastery in the world, with all my cares and ambitions, as best as I can.
And what was it I learned? Several years ago now, there was a film made about the Grand Chartreuse called Into Great Silence (Die Stille Grosse), and I recall reading an interview with the director of the film. The interviewer asked him he had learned from the monks, what had impressed him the most; he replied that it had been a privilege to have lived among people lived life completely without fear. He also told how when he asked the monks what they would do if the monastery stopped attracting members, and died out; they simply replied that if that was God’s will, then so be it (or words to that effect). He then reported that the Grand Chartreuse had so many people asking for permission to enter it (around a hundred, if memory serves) that the monks had to turn many of them away. An authentic life, centered on eternal things, on God himself, leads to such fearlessness, and it will always attract those who become weary in the world, or those who thirst for something more than the goods of this passing world can offer. But even for those who are not called to live out a monastic vocation, the example of the monks at places like Clear Creek and the Grand Chartreuse can offer those of us in the world an example of how to live as if time did not matter, such that we too may hope one day to live, as they do, without fear, in anticipation of the sweet silence of eternity.
After two lengthy and exhausting posts on the Ordinariates, suddenly I come across a single short blog post that says about all I needed to say in three hundred words. Oh well–this is a blog about eternity, after all. Not everything can be succinct and to the point, right? In any case, do check this post out, as it is quite good.
A Review of: Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Houghton Mifflin, 1989) by Modris Eksteins
During my first stint in graduate school, I wrote a paper which I delivered at an American Studies conference on Bacon’s Rebellion, and in the course of doing secondary research I came across an article by the eminent historian of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn. The essay explained part of the reason why colonial governors were financially dependent on colonial legislators, while being politically dependent on the crown, something that had always puzzled me. It was a brilliant little piece of scholarship, and though I don’t agree with many of Bailyn’s conclusions as to why the American Revolution was so ideologically unique, it was a small example of how a great historian can explain something you sort of already know in such simple clear terms that is burns into your memory. The best historians, like the best artists, and so the saying goes, like the best books, tell you what you already knew but could not quite articulate.
Something like this description would apply, in my view, to Modris Ekstein’s Rites of Spring, a book about the First World War and the emergence of what one could call “modernity” but what Ekstein calls “our modern consciousness.” (xiii) The idea that the First World War was partially caused by the rise of certain ideas—such as nationalism, or Darwinian theories of human society—is not unknown among academic historians, and has long been a subject of debate amongst historians. It is also well known that, in the late 19th century, there was a push among certain types of intellectuals, to push for war as a sort of regenerative act among thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, William James, and the Futurists, is also well known. (For a good overview of this, see Alan Kramer’s book, Dynamic of Destruction.) Furthermore, many have long since recognized that World War I brought certain ideas—Freud’s but also Nietzsche’s and Weber’s, among others—a receptive audience they lacked prior to the war, and also saw a loss of faith in older ideals that seemed to have been discredited by the war (religion, duty, honor, etc.). What Eksteins does in his book is show how a certain cultural mood and perception, embodied in what he calls “modernism,” was making itself felt before the war, and in some ways set the stage for it.
The basic thesis of Eckstein’s book can be surmised from one passage in the prologue. He begins by describing the death of Sergei Diaghilev in Venice, and his comment upon him and Thomas Mann is the context for the quote: “if there has been a single principle theme in our centuries aesthetics, it is that the life of imagination and the life of action are the one and the same.” (4) this statement may not at first brush seem to have much to do with World War I, but as Eckstein tells it, it is the primary fact in both the cause and effect of the war. For Eckstein’s, the life of action had been governed by a residual Christian belief, and a humanism which separated the moral imaginative spheres of life up till the end of the 19th century. On his account, once more or less happened was that this inheritance collapsed or was rejected by avant-garde artists and intellectuals in the late 19th century. And it was this impulse, present above all in the life of German thought and culture, that guided the political social and cultural elite into those actions which precipitated and sustained the war.
Ekstein’s first two chapters detail the mood of this avant-garde prior to the war in both Paris and Berlin. Though he touches briefly on the search for remedies to cultural malaise in fin de siècle Paris, the avant-garde is basically imported in his chapter on Paris, being mostly Russian, focusing as he does on Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and the performance of Rite of Spring on May 29, 1913. He notes that Diaghilev was a homosexual, and that he sought for a “morality without sanctions and obligations,” and he quotes from the work of a German writer named Max Stirner, whose work gained popularity at the end of the century: “for me nothing is higher than myself,” illustrating the “libertarian and anarchic impulse, which is eminently political, is central to the modern revolt.” (43) But Eksteins depicts this impulse as coming largely from outside of French culture itself, since France had been the cultural arbiter of Europe for so long, and writes that Paris became the natural refuge of currents from other, more peripheral cultures which wished to escape the influence of history, convention, and the like, precisely because they were subordinate to France and other “Great Powers.” But nonetheless, such currents were imbibed readily by French audiences eager to hear something new as they began to doubt their own cultural heritage. (48)
In Berlin, things were much different. Eksteins stresses the novelty and progressive nature of the German Reich created in 1871 out of war; its rapid transformation from a rural, agrarian Confederation of tiny states into an urban, industrialized nation-state in a matter of decades meant that “the German experience lies at the heart of the “modern experience”.” (68) According to Ekstein, despite the heavily militaristic nature of its aristocracy, and the entrenched attachment to discipline and efficiency amongst its bureaucracy that German culture was built upon, the “general impulse in Germany before 1914 was…starkly future oriented.” (73) No nation embraced the techno-cratic/managerial state more readily or quickly than did Germany in the late 19th century, all in a mad dash to catch up with its main rivals, England and France, nor non more successfully, in material terms at least. Eksteins’ discussion of German culture before the war emphasizes its metaphysical and Romantic aspects, especially its philosophical idealism, with its emphasis on inwardness, authenticity, overcoming of contradiction, is fairly standard. (80) What makes his account different is that he links German culture’s aesthetic, metaphysical, and Romantic tendencies with the spirit of cultural revolt embodied in Diaghilev’s ballet. Germany, with it rapid embrace of “modernity,” of form and authenticity, of German “spirit” overcoming the mere materialist limitations of its national life, is the antithesis of British and French civilization, with their long heritages and high concepts of their pasts. As he put it in describing the differing motives for the war, “for the Germans this was a war to change the world; for the British this was a war to preserve a world. The Germans were propelled by a vision, the British by a legacy.” (119)
The second part of the book deals with the war itself, and Eksteins’ has similarly interesting things to say about the soldiers and their experience of war. He notes how the fraternization of the 1914 Christmas truce was never really repeated, and has a fascinating discussion on what the war did to ideals of duty—duty in English, pflict in German, devoir, in French. (175) Eksteins points out that, though there was disillusionment, the soldiers still kept fighting, and aside from disturbances in the Russian and German armies near the end of their respective conflicts, did not desert or revolt much, given the circumstances. (177) Eksteins notes, erroneously, that this was the “first middle class war in history,” conveniently ignoring the American Civil War, but correctly notes the middle class nature of the Great War itself, that it was something like “the civil war of the European middle class above all else.” (177, 183, 185) The emphasis on duty remained even after many soldiers had ceased to care about anything other than their regiment and the friends immediately surrounding them, among combatants of all nations, but Ekstein, in keeping with his theme of Germans being in the vanguard of modernity, notes a “strong subjective element of personal honor and will” in the German idea of pflicht which distinguished it from its French and British counterparts. (195) This is one of the areas where I believe Ekstein went too far, claiming there was a fundamental difference between the “Anglo-French faith had a rational foundation; the German faith, was built on idealism and romanticism.” (199) It is true that Ekstein never goes so far as to say this “modernist” outlook—romantic, inward, essentially irrationalist—was uniquely German, but he overlooks the extent to which modernism as an intellectual and cultural outlook was international in scope by the early 20th century. There were certainly elements in British and French culture that were native to them that contained many of the same features Ekstein found in so much abundance in German civilization; the subjectivism of Proust, Joyce and other writers predated the war, and the great vitalist philosopher of the age was of course a Frenchman, Henri Bergson. Besides this, though he does not want to get into the long term sources for modernity, there were in the origins of the French republic, with its cry of liberté, egalité, fraternité much that was romantic, idealistic, and ahistorical, as there was in the Anglo-Saxon empiricist tradition, with its emphasis on sensation as the basis of knowledge (and in many cases, morality), which is basically at one with his description of the inward and irrationalist impulses of modernity, once these British and French ideas had become emancipated from their historical moorings. Nonetheless, he was probably correct in asserting that the immediate historical circumstances of Germany in the late 19th century made it the more fruitful ground for this modern consciousness to emerge from.
Eksteins notes the effect of the war on the artistic and moral outlooks that prevailed up till its destruction commenced, in a splendid but fairly familiar tale of how the war broke down faith in civilization among some, and spurred a retreat into the subjective realms of thought. Thus, the war with its demolition of conventional morality, its blurring of social boundaries in the trenches, “turned the revolt of small artistic coteries into a mass phenomenon.” (227) Eksteins noted the extent to which the war effort took on religious proportions (“not since the wars of religion in the seventeenth century, or perhaps even the crusades, had men of the cloth encouraged killing for the greater Glory of God with such enthusiasm,” 236), and notes that the war pushed Western nations generally speaking toward “greater social control but also toward new spiritual liberality,” in which the state demanded more and more control but social and moral interactions were given more and more freedom from restraint. This separation of the “social and cultural realms” was the “essence of the modern experience,” in Eksteins’ telling. (237)
All of this should sound familiar, as it is a story that has been told before. In the third part of the book, Ekstein looks at the fallout and reaction to the war, beginning again with another “event,” this time the flight of Charles Lindberg and his landing in Paris. He paints the near hysteria with which Lindberg was greeted nearly everywhere he went as an extension and greater manifestation among the wider public of the phenomenon that began with the first performance of Rite of Spring in 1913. He notes that Lindberg seemed to satisfy two contradictory impulses in contemporaries: the need to affirm traditional values but also to transcend them, the manic obsession with Lindberg’s flight being “an indication of a yearning to escape the banality of an age, an age that had lost its faith.” (265) In the bleak aftermath of the war, freed from all certainty and constraint, freedom became no longer be free to do what was right in an objective sense, but merely to do what one wished. (267) The objective, the historical, the measurable, the external world came to have little purchase on the public. Eksteins has a fascinating discussion of the genesis and publication of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and notes how only novelists and writers seemed to be able to capture the disillusionment of the war. (277ff.) The war had seemingly collapsed the whole of history into one’s own individual experience, and Eksteins notes a French cultural historian in the 1930s declaring confidently that “history does not exist.” (291) The “real world” had been swallowed up by the war into dream, myth, and memory.
His final chapter, “Spring Without End,” deals with the rise of the Nazis, and their continuation of the “Rites of Spring” which for Ekstein are pre-eminently rites which celebrate death. He points out that the idea that the Nazis were atavistic and backward looking is fundamentally mistaken, and notes its continuity with the progressive and futuristic ideals of the avant garde, as they had been transformed by the first war. (303) The Nazis abhorred traditional morality precisely for its constraints, and their total mobilization of society was derived almost directly from Hitler’s (mostly happy) experience of the front lines in World War I. (307) The Nazi effort at the total mobilization of society, aimed at transforming it and humanity itself into something new, was in many ways the perfect marriage of “subjectivism and technicism” that had characterized the modernist project all along, despite the official Nazi disdain for “moderns” in art. (311) Hitler himself was a failed artist, as is well known, and his party and its ideology were long on myth, ritual and propaganda and short on details, because the point was constant movement, energy, conflict, liberation, not the petty minutiae of political life, and the welding of a ruthlessly efficient bureaucracy with policies that were contradictory to the point of being absurd was characterized by the title of a book published in Germany following the war as “authoritarian anarchy.” (317) Hitler was the ultimate symbol of the spirit of revolt which arose in Germany after the first war, and in that vein sounds very much on Eksteins’ reading as a symbol of the modern consciousness par excellence. (324) And finally, since it was so irrationalist, so anarchic, the “movement” of the Nazis could only ever have one ultimate aim and end: death. The last pages of the book detail, among other things, Hitler’s marriage to Eva Braun, and their mutual suicide pact, turning a perennial ritual of life into one of death, and Eksteins ends by describing how there was a party in Hitler’s bunker the night before he killed himself. (330-31) The book ends with the notice of a popular German song in 1945, “Es ist ein Fhrüling ohne Ende!” that is, “it is spring without end.”
Eksteins’ book is beautifully written, and masterfully organized; he makes his argument partly by the selection of wonderfully placed anecdotes, especially at the beginning of the first and third books, where he connects audience reaction to events in order to make his point about the irrationalist subjectivity of the modern consciousness. His book is astonishingly well researched, both in the number but also in the range of sources, moving from novels, letters, diaries, to government documents and newspaper accounts with surprising ease, and his bibliography only includes selected sources, as he says in a note, because they represent a collection of material gathered over a number of years which to put into the book would have been “an impossible task.” (367) I believe it: the book has the flavor of something which a mind has ruminated over for many years, and reworked with great care, both in terms of research and writing. And, though it basically tells a fairly well staked out narrative of the coming of modernity, it does it such a fascination way that one comes away with a much more visceral and immediate understanding of why that narrative is persuasive. Indeed, it is the most persuasive telling of it I have ever read. This book is now about twenty five years old, and I have no hesitation in saying that it is a classic, and should be on the shelf of every reader who wants to learn about either World War I or modernity.
However, the book, as I have indicated above, is not completely without its flaws. The overemphasis on Germany is one, and I have the impression that the second half of his argument regarding the effects of the war is slightly less persuasive than the first two books, for a couple of reasons. First, it seemed to me that the chapters in the third part of the book were more lightly sourced than the first two, at least as regards their arguments. Secondly, his definition of “modernity” gives heavy weight to subjective elements, and one could counter that he doesn’t do justice to the “technicism” of modern consciousness. Finally, at least in his description of Nazism, while I am mostly in agreement with him, he glosses over the extent to which the Nazis could be explained by at least one concrete historical aspect of German culture which long preceded modernism—namely, anti-Semitism. This is surely not that great of an omission, as it has been endlessly covered by others, but I do think Eksteins’ narrative, so powerful in other ways, doesn’t quite do justice to the role of anti-Semitism.
But then one book can’t cover everything, and it is hard to criticize someone for the book they didn’t write. In any case, Rites of Spring is a crowning achievement, and the finest work on the First World War I have ever read. I admit to something I don’t often experience when I read a work of history when I read this book: envy, for this is exactly the type of book I would like to write. It is kind of book that brings together the best of modern, researched based academic history, combined with a style and narrative acumen that has been mostly lost among most historians writing today. It both makes a compelling argument and tells a compelling story about how our Western world changed, and came to be what it is today, and I can think of very few histories that have been written in the past fifty years that can make that claim. There is little more I can say in its favor, snd so I will end this review with the words of St. Augustine: tolle et lege.
The Holiness of Things
I was serving at a food kitchen with another Catholic man, in the town I used to live in, and overheard this gentleman telling a friend that one of the main reasons he was Catholic was that, as far as I can recall his words, was “the…just the holiness of it, the holiness of things in Catholicism,” or words to that effect. He was referring to the way Catholics treated the rosary, to the holiness associated with sacramental objects used in the liturgy. (And mind you, he was talking about the post-Vatican II liturgy, not the Extraordinary form, when he said this.) This is exactly the sense I had when I entered communion with the Catholic Church; that to the Catholic Church, the whole world, and all that was in it, despite all its sinfulness, was holy, and that its blessing of material objects–candles before icons, rosary beads, incense, holy water, making the sign of the cross, and the whole paraphernalia of its devotional life–were a reflection of this.
In my last post, I considered the importance of inessential things in regards to knowledge of the Catholic faith, and compared the situation within the Catholic church today with that of the English Reformation in the 16th century, when the English reformers targeted the devotional life of Catholicism in their attempt to root out more essential beliefs. In this post I want to point to the more positive aspects of inessential things, and how the traditions of Anglicanism might have something worthwhile for Catholics to consider in this regard. I have recently taken on the duty of being an associate member of a group within the Anglican Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. (For those of you who do not know what an Ordinariate is, it is a canonical structure erected by Pope Benedict XVI, to allow groups of Anglicans–those Christians who were members of the Anglican communion–to enter as a body into communion with the Catholic Church.) One of the reasons I have agreed to do this is that, as a British historian, I have a great respect for the traditions of Anglicanism and of the Church of England in particular, and I was very glad when the Pope emeritus decided to do this.
Now is perhaps not the most auspicious time to do this; with the Church of England’s recent decision to ordain women as bishops, most Catholics of my acquaintance (who are all “traditionalist” when it comes to doctrine) I’m sure don’t see what could be learned from such a body. This reaction, by a traditionalist blogger whose opinions I very much respect, is quite understandable, as is this one by a former Anglican for whom I also have a great deal of respect. I have no intention of defending the Church of England or any its sister institutions as institutions, and they have clearly adopted beliefs and practices which are incompatible with the Christian faith. I will not belabor the point, and I hope, should I have any Anglican readers of this blog, they will not be offended by my saying so; that is simply the only judgment I can render on its actions, which would be the same with anyone who holds to the Catholic Church’s teachings (r with the Orthodox Churches, for that matter). But this post is not about institutions. It is about tradition–and note I am not referring to Tradition with a capital “T” as Catholics understand it. I mean merely those quite human habits, customs and by which people appropriate and pass on their beliefs, the types of practices Eamon Duffy wrote of in Stripping of the Altars. What I want to say here is that–despite the embrace of serious errors by many of its institutions–that Catholics could learn a great deal which is of positive value from the experience of the Anglican tradition, if they are willing to listen, and learn.
The Experience of “traditional” Religion in Anglicanism
Perhaps it would be a good idea to go back to Duffy’s book for a moment. Near the end of Stripping of the Altars Duffy remarked that by the 1580s, “traditional” religion had largely begun to pass into the institutional care of the Church of England; the rhythms of bible and Prayer Book were replacing the liturgical inheritance of medieval England, but there were still survivals of a much more direct sort at the level of practice among the English people. Not only did the physical remains of churches, ruined abbeys and other reminders of the old faith remain to take hold in the imagination of antiquarian writers such as John Stowe and others at the end of the sixteenth century, but also in terms of the official liturgy itself, such as the Prayer Book itself, much of which was a translation from older missals by Cranmer. This is to say nothing of more localized customs in various parts of England as well. It was not for nothing that those hyper-Protestant agitators–those artists formerly known as “Puritans”–arose at the same time in the late 16th century to trouble the peace of Protestant England. Those in the Church of England were quite aware of continuity with the older religion in practical terms, even if, from a Catholic view, that body’s teaching in the abstract were certainly a novel contradiction to what had preceded it. Of course, without the Magisterium, they could no longer distinguish between what was truly essential and what was not, but this actually makes the experience of the English Church in particular significant, I think, for the Catholic Church to consider today, because the Church of England held onto many essential elements of Christian Tradition until very recently, despite all of this.
Consider for a moment that the “traditional” religion of the English suffered from another devastating attack during the Civil Wars in the 1640s, when the Church of England was abolished and the Prayer Book banned. The Church of England survived partly because the gentry thought of it as a bulwark against fanaticism, but also because many pious Anglicans, such as John Evelyn, kept the Book of Common Prayer alive as a part of a living tradition during the 1650s when the Church of England was lying in ruins. In some ways, one could say that the civil wars were in some sense about “traditional religion”; Archbishop Laud was anathema amongst Puritans partly because he tried to resurrect some of the “inessential” aspects of pre-Reformation worship, and the second civil war itself was started when Puritan authorities in Westminster tried suppress Christmas day celebrations in Canterbury in 1648, setting off riots which led to large swathes of Kent to rise in favor of the king. After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and the re-establishment of the Church of England in 1662, the Church of England and its rhythms of prayer and devotion remained the “traditional” religion of England, and it was only in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with the rise of first of Wesley and then the Evangelical movement,and later on the Oxford Movement and eventually Anglo-Catholicism, that this ceased to be the case in a meaningful sense. And even then, and even today, as a matter of fact, despite the collapse of belief in Christianity, the Church of England is still in some sense the institution most closely associated with the “traditional religion” of the English people. Even in an American context this was also the case somewhat, as the Episcopal Church had a cachet and influence that belied its numbers within the old unofficial, Protestant establishment in the U.S.
Now, here a conservative Catholic might reasonably object–and many do–so what? What difference does adherence to all of these inessential things make, if the Church of England can embrace contraception, divorce, and women’s ordination? And didn’t the Church of England already throw out essential doctrines concerning the papacy, purgatory and prayers for the dead, the sacrifice of the mass, the nature of holy orders, and a host of other essential doctrines, in the 16th century? What difference does it make if the small “t” traditions of Anglicanism are wholesome, and possibly good in themselves, if the essentials are wrong? If one has the Magisterium–an infallible teaching authority–what does this stuff matter in the end?
Good questions all. My response to them is twofold. First, one might want to turn the question around: if the Church of England was so corrupted from the beginning, how has it lasted so long? Most conservative Catholics point to the Anglican approval of contraception as a proof of what happens without the Magisterium, but this occurred 400 years after Henry VIII’s break with Rome. In fact, after the break with Rome, I’m not aware of any other essential Christian belief the Church of England officially altered (the Trinity, baptism, etc.) until the twentieth century–not even during the civil wars, nor despite the fact there was a major debate over the nature of the Trinity at the end of the 17th century. It might behoove one to ask; if the C of E got the essentials so wrong, how could it have survived for so long? I would say it was precisely because the Church of England was the repository of “traditional” religion, insofar as Englishmen understood it. I think at an unconscious level this is why certain parts of the Anglican tradition have been so very adept at the more aesthetic aspects of worship, for example, or why there seems to have been such a strong tradition of antiquarianism among Anglican clergymen–knowing that they lacked access to big “T” Tradition, it is as if they compensated for it by a greater emphasis on small “t” traditions whatever they may have been. It is precisely this emphasis on “traditions” that I believe the Catholic Church can learn from.
Of Mediating Experiences & Complex Relations–The Burkean Quality of Anglicanism
Why should this be the case? For one, it is important to understand that when the Church of England (and then later the Episcopal Church) began to unravel, it was not merely because it lacked an infallible Magisterium–which is indeed the main cause–but also because, historically speaking, small “t” traditional religion has become increasingly marginalized in the modern world. It is probably not a coincidence that the Church of England began to experience serious doctrinal problems in the 1840s and 50s, in both the controversies of the Jerusalem Bishopric, over the issue of intercommunion with German Protestants, and the Gorham controversy, over the issue of infant baptism. Nor was it likely a coincidence that the Oxford Movement, which was anything but traditional, sprang to life about the same time period. England in the 1830s was going through the upheavals of the first Industrial Revolution, one which transformed and in some cases erased traditional patterns of work, time, and play, that had existed for millennia, and this was bound to have an effect on the popular religious customs of the English. Of course, religious observance did not fall off the face of the earth with the coming of industry, but as elsewhere in Europe, it meant that the Church of England, would become a religion primarily of the middle classes, rather than that of workers bound to the land (it would also see a decline in the religious observance of the working classes, which has never really changed either; insofar as people are religiously observant in Western Europe and North America today, it is an almost completely middle class phenomenon). With that shift, religion in England passed out of the hands of the aristocracy, whose life was based in the land and the natural rhythms of farming, and therefore much more hospitable to the maintenance of the sorts of customs integral to “traditional” religion in England, to that of the bourgeoisie, whose life is one of constant flux, determined by the vagaries of money, the market, and mechanical time–not necessarily antithetical to “traditional” religion, but often so in practice. A similar shift, from a rural, agrarian society to one determined by industry and the global market, is currently taking place in South America, and the results are not totally dissimilar: the Church of England lost ground in the 19th century to Methodists and other Dissenters, just as the Catholic Church is losing ground in terms of membership to Pentecostals in places like Brazil. And yet, despite all of this, it was not until the 1960s that religious observance in the Church of England fell off the face of the earth–as it did in Catholic countries as well. I would suggest that this relative persistence on the part of the Anglican tradition, such as it is, was partly due to this sensibility concerning “inessential” things that I have described above.
Again, one might think that none of this matters. As Catholics, we have the Magisterium, we have the promise that God will not allow the Pope or his Church to fall into serious error; what do we need to bother with older customs, or with the experience of Anglicans, since we have that? The response to this type of thinking can only be this: yes, God will always protect the precious deposit of the faith, we have that guarantee; but many, many people have been led astray, have been lost to the faith, will be lost, because of this lack of common understanding at the level of what I would like to call “mediating” experiences–shared customs, such as not eating meat on Fridays–which mediate to people those more central, permanent beliefs, while binding them together as a community, as the Body of Christ. The reason, I believe, that this was such an issue in Anglicanism was that because they had broken with essential aspects of the Catholic faith–most importantly, of course, its doctrinal authority–they were left with little else besides those “inessential” things to bind them together, which is why when one group or another threaten to change them wholesale–as Puritans did in the 17th century and the Oxford Movement did in the 19th–upheavals tended to follow. Much of Anglicanism’s traditionally vaunted nuanced “via media” is due to its having to be careful about how it treated “inessential” things, lest it upset the delicate balance of factions that it held together. Normally, Catholics tend to despise this, seeing in it a mere consequence of the Church of England’s lack of authority; the Church having a guarantee that its major doctrines won’t change doesn’t have to worry about such things. It can alter “inessential” things at a whim, because it has the authority to do so. And indeed it does, but this does not mean it should necessarily do so, or that it is healthy for it to do so very often.
This is one of the things I think I appreciate about the traditions of Anglicanism, as far as I understand them. There is a sort of intuitive understanding of what Edmund Burke, following John Locke, called “complex relations.” I believe he meant by that phrase the intimate connection of experiences by which we come to understand the world, and it is this idea that lies behind Burke’s famous encomium to the “little platoons” in which we are raised, in which we learn our larger loyalty to country from these smaller, more local communities. Burke was suspicious of the French revolution just because it raised up certain types of goods–liberty, equality, fraternity, but above all liberty–to point of blotting out other virtues he thought were necessary to not only the flourishing but also the perpetuation of a just society, as well as to the effacing of customary boundaries in order to set up a geometrically constructed nation in the place one which had grown up slowly over time. Just so, there seem to me in Anglicanism a sense that once comes to fully embrace the great truths of the Christian faith through such mediating experiences at which Anglicans tend to excel–theological and historical scholarship, liturgy, musical traditions, and ceremonies more generally speaking, to name a few. And yes, I am aware that the institutional bodies of Anglicanism have readily abandoned those truths for which such mediating experiences should be a preparation, but I still think the idea is basically a sound one. The Catholic Church has issued many declarations of its unchanging truths in the past fifty years, and I heartily recommend them, but it should be obvious to anyone reading this post that it had precious little effect on its intended audience (I am thinking of course about Humana Vitae, and other such pronouncements). The reason for this, on a human level, is obvious: the Church’s teachings do mesh easily with the experiences of modern Westerners. This is why I believe better effort and care should be taken to cultivate and support those types of “inessential” things which bind us together, and not only “us” in the sense of the Catholic Church as it is today, but with those of all the times and places it has existed, and with those souls in Purgatory and in Heaven. This in the long run, beside prayer, is the primary action one can take to counterbalance the experiences of modern life which make the Church’s teachings seem unbelievable in one way or another to so many people. I believe there is much in the traditions of Anglicanism that can further this effort, which is why I have chosen to support the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter with my time and treasure.
Conclusion: Prospects for the Ordinariates
I have the feeling that what I have said so far may not be terribly persuasive to one who is not already on board with the idea. I suppose, for those conservative Catholics out there who loved Benedict XVI, I can give no better recommendation to the Ordinariates than that the pope emeritus thought the traditions of Anglicanism worthy of a home within the Catholic Church. But I am of course arguing for more than this. I am arguing for the positive value of the traditions of Anglicanism to the Catholic Church, but more importantly the people and communities that have brought these traditions with them from Anglican bodies into the Catholic Church. I do believe they can be an important, even vital element of the Catholic Church going forward–not in terms of demographic or numerical strength, obviously, as these communities are quite small most of them. But I believe they can be an important leaven in the great breadth of the Church, in a variety of ways. First and foremost, pretty much every former Anglican I have met who has become Catholic and remained one, did so because they believed it to be true–that the Catholic Church it what it has always claimed itself to be, the Body that Christ founded upon earth. Thus the Ordinariate communities are definitely “intentional communities,” made up of people who had to make a hard choice in many cases to leave people and institutions behind that they were deeply attached to, some making great sacrifices, all for the cause of truth. Many have a long arduous experience of fidelity to the main wells of Christian Tradition (yes, bit “T”) despite being marginalized within their own communities, something that is likely going to become a much more normal experience for Catholics of the Western world in the near future. And these former Anglicans did this, I might add, without being in communion with the infallible Magisterium of the Church, and so they can offer what I take to be a very precious thing to the Catholic Church as a whole, but even more so the Latin Rite Church in particular: a felt need for the authority of the Church combined with a shared experience of Christian life that does not seem to depend exclusively upon it. Or to put it another way, they managed, via their love for “inessential” things in their own traditions, to hang onto the great Tradition, enough to find their way to the Church Catholic, and so they can serve as an example and resource for the wider Latin Church, where the relationship between essential and inessential things has become so distorted in recent years.
And what can the Ordinariates do practically and concretely at the present moment? Several possibilities have been mooted by minds more well informed about them than my own, and the examples of particular practices are not hard to think of if you know anything about the Ordinariates, or Anglicanism. Both the previous pontiff and the current both see them as possible vehicles of evangelization, both of non-Catholics but also of fallen away Catholics and perhaps even of non-Christians as well. Especially in this first generation of the Ordinariate, where most members are likely to be converts, this makes sense. The liturgical inheritance of Anglicanism, if you know nothing of it, could be a model for how the liturgy could be observed with a greater sense of solemnity and decorum in the vernacular (this is particularly the case in the United States, where the Episcopal Church’s worship was shaped by the Scottish Rite of the Anglican Communion, its bishops being ordained by them after the American Revolution rather than from England. Thus the liturgy of the Episcopal Church always had a bit more “Congregationalist” feel to it than did that of the Church of England). These are probably the two most likely influences they might have on the Latin Church at the moment. But it may be in the end the mere existence of groups of former Anglicans who have visibly maintained their identity, as it was formed by customs in the Anglican tradition, enshrined in “inessential” things, and who have come into communion with the Catholic Church, that is the most important gift the Ordinariates have to offer.
In the last analysis, I have no idea how or if the Ordinariates will succeed; it may be that they will simply melt into the Catholic Church and become indistinguishable from other Latin rite Catholics in the end. All things are in God’s hands, to be sure. But I think this would be a tremendous loss for the Church if the Ordinariates failed to maintain their traditions from Anglicanism, on several fronts. It would be a loss of the many gifts that the members of the Ordinariate would bring with them to the Church. It would be a lost opportunity to demonstrate charity and understanding toward members another Christian tradition, by making a home for them, especially after the centuries of bitterness and hostility between us. But most of all, it would be a failure to embrace the real treasures of the Ordinariates: the people who seek the fullness of the Christ in the Catholic Church. The men and women who come into communion with the Catholic Church from Anglicanism were made Christians in part by those traditions, and the Church should do all it can to help them flourish on their path to eternal salvation. It will, if I am right, be richly rewarded, in the end. Failing to do so would be a very dolorous prospect indeed, in my estimation. It is the Church’s task to gather up men and women from all nations, to bring them to God’s salvation, from whatever customs may have shaped their journey. For, when all is said and done, what is the Church but the place on earth where the most inessential “things” of all–human beings–find their way to He whom is the only really essential “thing” at all–God himself. It is in the Church, by becoming first attached to those inessential things which attract us toward God, that we gradually become closer and closer to his eternal light. And so, whenever we hear the sonorities of Gregorian Chant, the stately cadences of the Book of Common Prayer; when our noses tickle with the odor of incense, or sing the lovely phrases of “O God Our Help In Ages Past,” we move from glory to glory–from the glory of inessential things, which we create without our own hands, and which will pass away, to that greater Glory which will never fade nor wither.