Another Week Ends

1. A brilliant article by Eve Tushnet at The American Conservative examines narratives of moral progress in American […]

Will McDavid / 11.16.12

1. A brilliant article by Eve Tushnet at The American Conservative examines narratives of moral progress in American culture – “Hedonist, Disciple, or Bourgeois?” She critiques the dichotomy between hedonism/moral license, on the one hand, and discipleship/moral progress, on the other, claiming that it misses a crucial third option: the bourgeois ethos that permeates much of American culture. I’ll let it speak for itself, and it’s well worth a full read (it’s mercifully short):

…of course there’s a third option, the life of bourgeois stability. The life of building up a reasonable income, getting married to somebody your parents approve of, doing well and upholding the standards of your community, burying your dead: all the normalcy Jesus disrupts….

First, we used to know that the hedonist was just the mirror image of the disciple. In fact, hedonists turned into disciples all the time–witness all the Catholic decadents. Hedonists and disciples were both dissatisfied, restless, longing for ecstatic release, for something they had never before encountered. The chastened, exhausted hedonist could find in Christ both beauty and forgiveness, both ecstasy and hope.

This picture of personal transformation caused by guilt and beauty looks starkly different from the path of personal transformation our culture exalts now, the path from hedonism to bourgeois respectability….

For the dual guilt/beauty transformation, we have accounts from Augustine, Catholic mystics, Luther, Donne, and dozens of other famous Christians for whom the exhaustion of hedonism continually erupted into the divine beauty of seeing God from the vantage point of one’s knees, at the end of one’s rope. The “bourgeois” path from youthful hedonism to adult quietness, moderation, and respectability looks quite different. Finally, Tushnet scrutinizes some American “bourgeois” conventions:

We don’t have a marriage crisis in this country because everybody has stopped following the rules. We have a marriage crisis because the rules don’t work. There are all kinds of strict rules: Don’t marry before you’re “economically stable” (an endlessly-retreating horizon), don’t wait until you’re married to have sex, don’t wait until you’re married to live together, don’t move back in with your parents. And, for the upper classes, don’t have kids too early and don’t have too many. I’ve written about these issues before (here and here) but I want to emphasize how the rules rely on completely bourgeois impulses to achieve and preserve. They’re based on fear–primarily fear of divorce, but also fear of loneliness–but also on the intense, poignant desire to do the right thing.

2. At Patheos this week, Mbird Fall Conference speaker Daniel Siedell explores why artists have often behaved with such eccentricity, citing criticisms of Andy Warhol’s unusual lifestyle on the grounds that it was affected, or that Warhol was just doing strange things to create a persona that would heighten his public profile and the buzz around his work. Siedell finds a different reason for artists’ predilection towards eccentricity – namely, the anxiety that comes from the need for self-justification:

A painting is a weak and vulnerable thing because it is just not necessary. Smelly oil paint smeared across a canvas cannot be justified in this conditional, transactional world…That art is ultimately gratuitous, that its existence is a gift to the world, creates anxiety and insecurity in the art world...Art simply cannot be justified.

Art, then, is something whose value isn’t easily measured, which will always prompt systematic criteria for measuring its worth, and both the judges and creators are continually anxious about either their work or their judgment not being as valuable as they think – it’s just “paint smeared across a canvas”, after all. The analogies between art and all the other spheres of human anxiety are legion; I’ll just suffice it to comment on the link between grace and gratuity – gratuitous simply meaning something unexpected, with little logical/rational reason for existing, something which defies the usual calculus of cause and effect. Art’s gratuitous nature – the fact it’s spontaneous, unpredictable, cannot be made formulaic or earned – this very thing is what makes the people trying to make it formulaic  becomes anxiety-ridden. They all know its gratuitous nature subconsciously, which produces dissonance between art’s gratuity and their attempts to capture its value. Again, the analogy with Christian grace here is strong – given a self-justifying posture, it can actually create anxiety by exposing and resisting our attempts to pin it down.

3. Speaking of art and creativity, this essay/confession by an ex-advertising creative guy has been making some waves lately. He talks not only about the psychological dimensions of creativity, but also its commercialization. The gist of it is almost an economic insight – if you want to make money, it’s good to have a keen managerial understanding of the Law, and the way creative pressures play out in everyday life, ht PH:

The creative industry operates largely by holding ‘creative’ people ransom to their own self-image, precarious sense of self-worth, and fragile – if occasionally out of control ego. We tend to set ourselves impossibly high standards, and are invariably our own toughest critics. Satisfying our own lofty demands is usually a lot harder than appeasing any client, who in my experience tend to have disappointingly low expectations. Most artists and designers I know would rather work all night than turn in a sub-standard job. It is a universal truth that all artists think they a frauds and charlatans, and live in constant fear of being exposed. We believe by working harder than anyone else we can evaded detection. The bean-counters rumbled this centuries ago and have been profitably exploiting this weakness ever since. You don’t have to drive creative folk like most workers. They drive themselves.

…What I have witnessed happening in the last twenty years is the aesthetic equivalent of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The wholesale industrialization and mechanistation of the creative process. Our ad agencies, design groups, film and music studios have gone from being cottage industries and guilds of craftsmen and women, essentially unchanged from the middle-ages, to dark satanic mills of mass production. Ideas themselves have become just another disposable commodity to be supplied to order by the lowest bidder.

4. Over at The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz points out an art/culture class he terms the “upper middle brow”, something which seems edgy and sophisticated but really just confirms what its consumers already believe:

The upper middle brow possesses excellence, intelligence, and integrity. It is genuinely good work (as well as being most of what I read or look at myself). The problem is it always lets us off the hook… it is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices. It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb—the definition of a true avant-garde—our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world. (Think, by contrast, of some truly disruptive works: The WireBlood Meridian, almost anything by J. M. Coetzee.)

The piece hits uncomfortably close to home, but on a (much) lighter note, Jonathan Fitzgerald for Patrol responded defiantly, telling us that “I Won’t Apologize for Watching Wes Anderson (and neither should you)“:

This is precisely what many Indie-folk bands, “quirky” film makers, NPR programs, and political satirists aim to do. They raise sincerity and authenticity to the level of virtue, and then they praise and affirm those virtues. I just watched Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom again and was struck by just how sweet and sincere it is. And it’s a great movie. It didn’t disturb me or force me to reconsider my life’s priorities; on the contrary, it affirmed them. And I don’t feel the least bit guilty about that.

Artists like Anderson make beautiful work that elevates goodness and virtue. It hasn’t always been this way and who knows how long it will be before this New Sincerity recedes and gives way to cynicism and ironic posturing, or worse? But, in the meantime, can’t we all just enjoy it without being made to feel guilty?

At last: some much-needed grace for the Wes Anderson fan! Fitzgerald certainly left this blogger off the hook there, and his pushback against demanding that “good” art should be disturbing or avant-garde is welcome.

5. Speaking of NPR programs, the station had an interview this week with Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Given the title, I’m not sure how much trust I would put in a work that looks, for all intents and purposes, like self-hating self-help (or a theology of the glory of the cross, as it were). Nonetheless, the author’s insights during the interview are profound, and they track pretty well with our take on anthropology and the human relationship to the Law:

…there’s a lot of research now to suggest that many of these [self-help] techniques are counterproductive, that saying positive affirmations to yourself in the mirror can make you feel worse and that visualizing the future can make you less likely to achieve it. And so what I wanted to do in this book was to explore what I ended up calling ‘the negative path to happiness,’ which involves instead turning toward uncertainty and insecurity, even pessimism, to try to find a different way that might be more durable and successful….

I think that what is counterproductive about all these efforts that involve struggling very, very hard to achieve a specific emotional state is that by doing that, you often achieve the opposite. It’s a version of the old sort of parlor game that if you try really hard not to think about a polar bear, that the only thing that you can think about in that context is polar bears.

…the problems and the obstacles and the irritations can be dealt with more swiftly when you are not locked into this idea that you have to stamp them out; that you have to make yourself feel motivated, for example, before you can get on with things that need doing; that there’s something terribly, terribly wrong with not feeling incredibly excited and cheerful every moment of the day.

Amen to that!

6. At his blog From exile, Grow man, Blake Collier posted a thoughtful and flattering review of John Z.’s new publication, Grace in Addiction: The Good News of Alcoholics Anonymous for Everybody. A brief excerpt:

Prayer, honesty, humility and love are central aspects of the AA twelve steps. They are meant to help us learn to be dependent on the very God who brought us into this world, gave us our breath and our names and our personalities and everything we have and sustains us every moment.  And the question comes, “In the midst of this understand of who God is, why do we think we can control our way out of our sins?”  The Law ultimately revealed the sinful nature of man and multiplied their sins.  But we live in the excesses of God’s grace, where we look to what Christ accomplished instead of what we did.  Saving ourselves is, not only impossible, but is ultimately putting ourselves under the very thing that condemned us in the first place.  And the result?  In the case, of the alcoholic, drunkenness and relapse.  In the case of all sinners, sinfulness and relapse.

7. As the NBA starts to take off this year, the writers at Yahoo! Sports have touched on a powerful parable of Law and grace in the case of Jeremy Lin, the 2011-2012 first-time starter who made headlines around the country in a winning streak for the Knicks. After a coaching change and a knee surgery he was pushed out of their program amidst uncertainty he could keep playing the lights-out games that had made him famous, and he ended up signing a huge 25 million-dollar deal with the Houston Rockets. After his exaltation, fall, and fresh start, he’s finding a kind of freedom, one which should make Law-Gospel savvy sports bettors and fantasy players take notice, ht ZW:

Somehow, the $25 million free-agent commitment hadn’t eased an impending suspicion of betrayal, a gnawing uncertainty that sides would soon be chosen against him, that welcoming faces could soon turn without warning.

Fame had come so fast, so without warning, it hasn’t been until training camp and starting the season with Houston that Lin has finally breathed out, finally understood he had found a franchise that will let him grow, let him make his mistakes, let him be.

James Harden has come to the Rockets and unburdened Lin of the impossibility of him successfully playing the part of the franchise player. If people wanted to make Lin that in Houston, the organization and player never did. Together, they understood, but the cultural and global phenomenon surrounding Lin’s magnificent run with the Knicks skewed expectations.

Finally, far from New York, far from where he needed the answers yesterday, Jeremy Lin says with a laugh that’s part knowing, part relief: “The great thing about it is that I don’t have to figure it out all at once.”

8. Finally, our own Nick Lannon has written an excellent review of Flight, the new Denzel Washington movie directed by Robert Zemeckis, parsing through the movie’s issues of identity, control, defeat, and freedom. He approaches the movie with appreciation and deep sensitivity toward Denzel’s character’s interior conflicts:

For every scene in which Washington promises sobriety (even when it is in his obvious legal interest to do so) there is a companion scene, showing us his continued spiral toward bottom. In the end, it is the bottoming out that leads to freedom. “I might be a chump,” he says in a final scene, “but I couldn’t tell any more lies.” The most common lie we tell is one to ourselves, that we have it all together, that we know what we’re doing, and that we’re in control.  It takes a bottoming out, (one that is surprisingly moving, due to its predictability, in Flight) to lead us to the promised land. “My grace is sufficient for you,” the tagline might as well read, “for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

Spoiler alert! On the subject of movies, the new James Bond film Skyfall had tons to offer as an entertaining action movie, but die-hard 007 fans could be turned off by its break with the classic Bond conventions. Movie-long romancing is replaced with a brief fling with beautiful but ephemeral and transient girl; classic Bond puns are said almost tongue-in-cheek, as a concession and, as people have been pointing out, they had trouble making a postmodern hero that didn’t end up being pretty similar to Nolan’s Batman. All that to say – the changes in Bond conventions appear to have been made to keep him relevant to the contemporary movie climate, ostensibly for commercial reasons. The most interesting part of Skyfall to me was parsing through the intangibility of true satisfaction, the impossibility of sincerity, and the undispellable anxiety just underneath Bond’s surface at all times. For once, furthermore, Bond isn’t stopping a scheme for global domination, a mass biochemical genocide, or some scheme to throw world markets into turmoil – no, he’s merely defending M from an avenger upon her sins. Dark, gritty, questioning – especially in contrast to its predecessors, the new Bond movie is a fascinating case study in what thematic material, what type of hero, appeals to the contemporary viewer.


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