Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Literary Critic and Anthropologist as Theologian

I think it appropriate, especially in light of what has happened in the last twenty-four hours, to note the death earlier this month of René Girard.

A little over two years ago I purchased a copy of his Je vois Satan tomber comme l'éclairMuch as I would have liked to take this occasion to review it, I have to admit that I haven't yet started it.  The volume, largely untouched since March, 2013,  reproaches me from the bookshelf, along with a considerable distinguished company.

I can only note the facts I knew before I purchased it, that Girard, a member of the French Academy and a long-time faculty member at Stanford, began, through the study of literature, to formulate a theory of human desire, that it is mimetic; that is, that human beings learn to desire what other human beings desire, and the result is conflict, violence and then a method of dealing with conflict which we call scapegoating.  Following out those observations, Girard moved from literary criticism to anthropology, and then to a conception of Christian atonement as the "way out" from the cycle of violence.  That Girard is himself a Catholic, and finds the gospels vindicated through this train of thought, naturally makes him suspect to a skeptical world.  But his proposals to have given rise to a wide-ranging re-thinking of the meaning and function of atonement and sacrifice, arguably the most original since St. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo.

These kinds of things, of course, always sound better in French.  The following is from his obituary in Le Monde:

C’est ici qu’intervient une distinction fondamentale aux yeux de Girard : « La divergence insurmontable entre les religions archaïques et le judéo-chrétien. » Pour bien saisir ce qui les différencie, il faut commencer par repérer leur élément commun : à première vue, dans un cas comme dans l’autre, on a affaire au récit d’une crise qui se résout par un lynchage transfiguré en épiphanie. Mais là où les religions archaïques, tout comme les modernes chasses aux sorcières, accablent le bouc émissaire dont le sacrifice permet à la foule de se réconcilier, le christianisme, lui, proclame haut et fort l’innocence de la victime. Contre ceux qui réduisent la Passion du Christ à un mythe parmi d’autres, Girard affirme la singularité irréductible et la vérité scandaleuse de la révélation chrétienne. Non seulement celle-ci rompt la logique infernale de la violence mimétique, mais elle dévoile le sanglant substrat de toute culture humaine : le lynchage qui apaise la foule et ressoude la communauté.

Girard, longtemps sceptique, a donc peu à peu endossé les habits du prédicateur chrétien, avec l’enthousiasme et la pugnacité d’un exégète converti par les textes. De livre en livre, et de La Violence et le sacré (1972) jusqu’à Je vois Satan tomber comme l’éclair (1999), il exalte la force subversive des Evangiles.

Attribution Update:  I should acknowledge that the image above is from a painting done by my wife, Jeanine Allen.  It was sold through a gallery in Santa Fe, and so, thanks to the peculiar customs that prevail in the retail art business, we have no idea who now owns it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Devil came down to Moscow

I think there's a scene in Bergman's Seventh Seal where the knight asks the witch if she can tell him how to summon the devil, and to her question about why he would want to meet the devil, he says it's because he wants to ask him about God.

There has always been a sense in which we're more comfortable with the devil.  In Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus there's an observation that common people, at least, have a comfort level with Old Scratch that they may lack with higher powers:  "[Dem Volk] stand sogar immer die drastische, obszön humoristische Figur des Teufels näher als die obere Majestät...."

Be that as it may, I'm not here today to talk about The Seventh Seal or Doktor Faustus, but Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, which I just finished this last weekend.  It's a novel about a visit by Satan to Moscow sometime in the thirties.  That's also when it was written, but, not too surprisingly, the manuscript wasn't pulled out of hiding and published until the 1960's, in the somewhat-thawed Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev. 

[A Certain Young Person of my Acquaintance, of good Judgment and liberal Education, has complained of my occasional posting of untranslated non-English text, finding this somewhat rude and borderline arrogant.  And I suppose it is, even if I usually try to give the sense of such passages.  I mention this because, perhaps thankfully, I don't know a word of Russian, so there's no danger here of Cyrillic characters making an unwelcome appearance.] 

But, getting back to Bulgakov, when I finished the book it occurred to me that he had indeed taken advantage of that familiarity we feel with a devilish character, even in a subordinate role.  Satan appears in the very first scene as a mysterious foreigner who calls himself "Woland."  He brings with him to Moscow a small but fantastic entourage, most strikingly his black cat Behemoth, who smokes cigars, plays chess and packs a pistol.  Only considerably later do we meet our protagonists, the unhappy writer, called only the "master," and Margarita, who is entirely devoted to him.

Now Woland is very much like Mephistopheles, and one might expect then in the master a Faust-figure.  But that's not so.  Rather, in Margarita, we have a character who enters with relish the revelries of a Walpugisnacht (actually, a Satanic ball for the damned), but only so that she can save her beloved master from the despair into which he has fallen.

That's one main thread of the story, and it is embellished with any number of side stories, with Woland playing tricks on the greedy, small-minded inhabitants of Moscow.  There are satirical jabs at the bureaucrats who control access to the status of "writer" in a totalitarian government and at the self-satisfied atheism of officialdom.  But this is not Solzhenitsyn.  The narrative is concerned, not with great crimes, but with petty humiliations.

But that's only one thread.  Interwoven throughout is a second tale, whose protagonist is "the cruel fifth procurator of Judea, the equestrian Pontius Pilate."  The second story is familiar, the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.  It veers rather significantly from the canonical account, but that shouldn't be surprising, since the first "installment" is told by Woland himself as something he witnessed (and surely we are justified in thinking Satan an "unreliable narrator" of these events).  Later, however, it happens that the master has written a novel--a novel whose manuscript he has burnt--about Pontius Pilate.  And without, I hope, giving too much away, by the end of the novel the two strands start to merge.

It's a curious book.  Woland is an orthodox-enough Satan, not an evil counterpart to God, but the negating spirit who despite his mischief brings about reconciliation and peace.   There is witchcraft and devilry, but no Christian religion, no Church.  One would be tempted to say as well, no God, except there is some small part played by Jesus, who is, after all, for Christians (obviously) God. So it's all an odd, satirical, but also touching and strangely reverent book that is rooted in, but also transcends the absurdities and cruelties of Stalin's Soviet Union.  

The illustration above is by Peter Suart, from the Folio Society edition that came out in 2010. The translators are Richard  Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky--I have their translations of Doctor Zhivago and Gogol's tales, and they seem to be running through the canon.  Their style is straightforward, almost journalistic, even when the narrative shifts into fantasy, the breaking of the extraordinary into the humdrum.  I understand that the novel remains wildly popular in Russia, and I'm embarrassed to say that I had never heard of it until Folio offered it.  Though the novel never saw the light of day during the author's lifetime, he apparently wrote a few plays that were not only performed, but which Stalin seems to have approved.  That approval was short-lived, however, and Bulgakov was at some point forbidden to write further.  He actually wrote a letter to Stalin asking if he could leave the Soviet Union, because he was broke and on the verge of starvation; he never got an answer.  We might think him lucky not to have been shot, in the circumstances, and perhaps Stalin, if he took notice of the request, thought the appropriate response to a banned and starving artist simply self-executing.        

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Journalist as Theologian

Just recently there was a bruhaha over a New York Times columnist commenting about the recent Synod on the Family.  A Catholic layman, he had expressed some rather overwrought fears about a plot to change doctrine, and the next thing you know there was one of those rebuttal letters, in this case signed by a few score academics at various Catholic universities and seminaries, expressing outrage.  The letter most notably contained a swipe that the columnist had no "theological credentials."

This then generated a webstorm for a few days--but I really don't want to get much into the merits of the thing.  I think the columnist, like a lot of right-leaning Catholic bloggers, need not have had such a set of the vapours over the synod.  By the same token, the suggestion that a Catholic needs some sort of academic degree to discuss the Faith is a little heavy-handed (I'm sure my papers are hardly in order on that score).

But, what interested me as I thought about it was whether I could in fact think of any journalist who could justifiably be called a genuine theologian.  And then I remembered Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

One might assume that Chesterton was subject to comparable academic criticism from Hilaire Belloc's "Lines to a Don":

     Remote and ineffectual Don
     That dared attack my Chesterton,   
     With that poor weapon, half-impelled,   
     Unlearnt, unsteady, hardly held,   
     Unworthy for a tilt with men—
     Your quavering and corroded pen;   
     Don poor at Bed and worse at Table,
     Don pinched, Don starved, Don miserable;   
     Don stuttering, Don with roving eyes,   
     Don nervous, Don of crudities;   
     Don clerical, Don ordinary,
     Don self-absorbed and solitary;   
     Don here-and-there, Don epileptic;   
     Don puffed and empty, Don dyspeptic;   
     Don middle-class, Don sycophantic,   
     Don dull, Don brutish, Don pedantic;
     Don hypocritical, Don bad,
     Don furtive, Don three-quarters mad;   
     Don (since a man must make an end),   
     Don that shall never be my friend.

(Now in fact Belloc doesn't yet make an end; he takes his imprecations on through the canonical fifty lines.  But I digress.)

I discovered Chesterton in my late twenties and was much taken with him.  He was a journalist who wrote novels still read and poetry still today enjoyed.  His rather eccentric economic theories, which repudiated capitalism, socialism and fascism in equal measure, anticipated the approach of "Small is Beautiful" economist (and fellow Catholic convert) E.F. Schumacher.  The Father Brown detective stories still puzzle,surprise and amuse us.  But Chesterton is best known as a religious writer.

He was baptized as an infant in the Church of England, but only in his late twenties, after some drifting and wandering, did he find in the Christian faith an adequate approach to the moral, social and political ills of his day.  Though Chesterton is often characterized as a Catholic writer, he didn't enter the Catholic Church until his forty sixth year, only fourteen years before his death in 1936.

In a previous post on Gustavo Gutiérrez's Teología de la Liberación I noted his discussion of different types of theology--mystical, philosophical, and the more topical theology addressed to the "signs of the times."  Gutiérrez put his own work in the latter category (along with de civitate Dei), and there also in all likelihood belongs Mr. Chesterton.

No less an academic than Étienne Gilson highly praised St. Thomas Aquinas, and that was in fact my first exposure to Chesterton.  But most still find in Orthodoxy his most original contribution, the work in which his love of paradox most humorously and surprisingly casts a cold eye on the various fads and movements that would make of orthodox Christianity a worn-out historical relic.  At the risk of going on too long I think it worthwhile to quote from some of his thunder:

'Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church. This is no exaggeration; I could fill a book with the instances of it. Mr. Blatchford set out, as an ordinary Bible-smasher, to prove that Adam was guiltless of sin against God; in manoeuvring so as to maintain this he admitted, as a mere side issue, that all the tyrants, from Nero to King Leopold, were guiltless of any sin against humanity. I know a man who has such a passion for proving that he will have no personal existence after death that he falls back on the position that he has no personal existence now. He invokes Buddhism and says that all souls fade into each other; in order to prove that he cannot go to heaven he proves that he cannot go to Hartlepool. I have known people who protested against religious education with arguments against any education, saying that the child's mind must grow freely or that the old must not teach the young. I have known people who showed that there could be no divine judgment by showing that there can be no human judgment, even for practical purposes. They burned their own corn to set fire to the church; they smashed their own tools to smash it; any stick was good enough to beat it with, though it were the last stick of their own dismembered furniture. We do not admire, we hardly excuse, the fanatic who wrecks this world for love of the other. But what are we to say of the fanatic who wrecks this world out of hatred of the other? He sacrifices the very existence of humanity to the non-existence of God. He offers his victims not to the altar, but merely to assert the idleness of the altar and the emptiness of the throne. He is ready to ruin even that primary ethic by which all things live, for his strange and eternal vengeance upon some one who never lived at all.

"And yet the thing hangs in the heavens unhurt. Its opponents only succeed in destroying all that they themselves justly hold dear. They do not destroy orthodoxy; they only destroy political courage and common sense. They do not prove that Adam was not responsible to God; how could they prove it? They only prove (from their premises) that the Czar is not responsible to Russia. They do not prove that Adam should not have been punished by God; they only prove that the nearest sweater should not be punished by men. With their oriental doubts about personality they do not make certain that we shall have no personal life hereafter; they only make certain that we shall not have a very jolly or complete one here. With their paralysing hints of all conclusions coming out wrong they do not tear the book of the Recording Angel; they only make it a little harder to keep the books of Marshall & Snelgrove. Not only is the faith the mother of all worldly energies, but its foes are the fathers of all worldly confusion. The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waste the world."

This, to me, is a prime example of journalism in the theological mode.  It isn't common, but I would say from this that it is obviously possible.

Even, let us say, for cartoonists: