Another Week Ends

Click here to listen to the accompanying episode of The Mockingcast, featuring Stephanie Phillips. 1. […]

David Zahl / 2.5.16

Click here to listen to the accompanying episode of The Mockingcast, featuring Stephanie Phillips.


1. Funny how some weeks a single theme comes to dominate this column. This week that theme appears to be beauty and our relationship to it. First up, NY Times film critic A.O. Scott has a tome coming out next week entitled Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, which attempts to make sense of his field in a time when social media appears to have devalued or trivialized it. This past weekend his employers ran a precis of the book, “Everybody’s a Critic. And That’s How It Should Be”, in which Scott pleads with readers to think carefully about matters of taste. As a Scott admirer, I always enjoy his longer columns and found his questioning of the populism-elitism spectrum particularly compelling. He may be at his best, however, when he delves into the objective vs subjective conundrum:

Obsessives and dilettantes, omnivores and geeks, highbrow and low, we are more likely to seek affirmation than challenge. Some people love opera. Others love hip-hop. Quite a few are interested in both. “It’s all good!” you might say. But you don’t believe that, any more than I do. Some of it is terrible. There is, axiomatically, no disputing taste, and also no accounting for it.

And yet our ways of thinking about this fundamental human attribute amount to a heap of contradictions. There is no argument, but then again there is only argument. We grant that our preferences are subjective, but we’re rarely content to leave them in the private realm. It’s not enough to say “I like that” or “It wasn’t really my cup of tea.” We insist on stronger assertions, on objective statements. “That was great! That was terrible!”…

No easy answers here, especially when you’ve discarded such quaint notions as there being a source of all beauty, i.e. God. And yet, even those of us who doff our hat in the divine direction disagree regularly over aesthetics. Scott really gets going toward the end of the essay, delivering something of a call to arms:

CZS6A4fWEAAlLeuIt’s the mission of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means that we are each capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us…

The real culture war (the one that never ends) is between the human intellect and its equally human enemies: sloth, cliché, pretension, cant. Between creativity and conformity, between the comforts of the familiar and the shock of the new. To be a critic is to be a soldier in this fight, a defender of the life of art and a champion of the art of living.

As much as I appreciate and agree with his redefinition of “culture war” there–paging Joss Whedon (and Anton Ego!)–it also strikes me as a bit much. Art can be the occasion for transcendence but it is not transcendence itself. It cannot replace that which it depicts. I wish it could. But beauty makes a lousy substitute for its Author. In fact, ascribing that degree of responsibility to any human project is bound to tarnish it.

Some would say that a lot of what we do here at Mockingbird falls under the category of criticism. Perhaps. I certainly enjoy pointing out beautiful things and theorizing about what makes them beautiful, or convicting, or upsetting. But I hope that we don’t end there. Because Scott is right; criticism is too closely tied to the critic, not just to their feelings and upbringings, but their own self-conception (which tends to operate below the level of consciousness). The vast majority of over-differentiation that happens under the heading of “taste” is a form of self-justification, and as such, a dead-end. Which is another way of saying that while criticism can be a means of exploring one’s connection with beauty more deeply, it can also be a way of keeping that beauty at bay, maybe even keeping other people at bay. Because–and I speak as the chief of sinners here–an inflated sense of taste can lead a person to see others not as who they are, but who we aren’t. It’s simply the insider-outsider thing in a slightly more innocuous form (though equally capable of instilling disdain and/or despair). No wonder Christ made no bones about bypassing the tastemakers for “the least of these.”

2. On a related note, over at The Living Church’s Covenant blog, I was deeply flattered to see a post I wrote on the Benedict Option given such a thoughtful and charitable treatment, as Andrew Petiprin did in his “Beauty Will Save the World”. Andrew weaves in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1970 Nobel Prize speech to make a compelling point about the Church’s obligation to smuggle Beauty-with-a-capital-B out from the inside, rather than settle for smuggling it in piecemeal (e.g. from people like Woody Allen, or Axl Rose). It’s good stuff and worth reading in total, but here are a couple of key paragraphs from the end:

What the Church needs now more than ever are true sub-creators, participants in Beauty, and self-conscious vessels and dispensers of grace. We need to live the Mass in art and culture — to bear fruit of doxological, Eucharistic living. Our forebears made things that have drawn the world into the Kingdom of God. We can too; and we need not just settle for uncovering “Gospel” in unintended sources.

The last Christian poem has not yet been written. The last sublime cathedral has not yet been built. The last breathtaking piece of Christian music has not yet been composed. Let us resist being crowded out by and making do with what is nearly beautiful, good enough, or even ugly.

Man, I certainly hope those kind of sub-creators rise up! I really do. And they might. (Contrary to what people often claim, there is a lot of great specifically Christian art out there–see next item). But let’s just say I won’t be throwing out my Wes Anderson DVDs any time soon. Thankfully, Andrew acknowledges the clear difference in our estimations of the church. I admit that I’m suspicious of the idea that Christians can uniquely participate in beauty, especially self-consciously. They have the Story, yes, but that’s about all (fortunately it’s enough!). The Holy Spirit is another matter, though, and He operates outside church walls from what I can tell–and what I’m banking on. We talk more about this on The Mockingcast this week.

3. Alrighty, let’s leave Beauty itself behind and move on to the Beautiful (and Sublime and Hilarious), in this case Whit Stillman’s new film Love and Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. It debuted at Sundance a week ago, and the initial reviews are phenomenally enthusiastic (100% at Rotten Tomatoes thus far, based on 18 reviews). Not that I needed more reason to be excited, but if I did, Tim Robey’s rave for The Telegraph would have done the job:

love-and-friendship-poster-whit-stillmanLove & Friendship live[s] up to every possible expectation you could set for it, opening out the adulterous games of Austen’s surprisingly risqué text and elaborating on them with impish, often breathlessly funny verve. It’s flat-out hilarious – find me a funnier screen stab at Austen, and I’m tempted to offer your money back personally. Gliding through its compact 92 minutes with alert photography and not a single scene wasted, it’s also Stillman on the form of his life.

At Christianity Today, the always terrific Alissa Wilkinson weighs in–glowingly:

It’s… worth noting that matters of religion, often in the background of Austen’s novels but not frequently brought to the foreground, are a bit more present [in Love & Friendship]. I’m not sure how much of that is in the novel (though Austen is known to have become more religious over the span of her life) and how much is from Stillman… What I hear is that Stillman invested much more of the Bible in the screenplay than appears in the novel. The religious elements come up mainly for comic effect, but then—so does everything, in Love & Friendship.

4. While we’re at it, this past Monday marked the 20th anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s monumental Infinite Jest, and to commemorate, Tom Bissell wrote a wonderful tribute for The NY Times. He also recorded a conversation with DFW’s editor Michael Pietsch. Bissell claims “it is a mistake to view [Wallace] as anything other than a religious writer,” though for Bissell that religion was words. Most interesting was the effect he mentions, something I know I’ve experienced and heard from many others that they have as well:

Most great prose writers make the real world seem realer — it’s why we read great prose writers. But Wallace does something weirder, something more astounding: Even when you’re not reading him, he trains you to study the real world through the lens of his prose. Several writers’ names have become adjectivized — Kafkaesque, Orwellian, Dickensian — but these are designators of mood, of situation, of civic decay. The Wallaceian is not a description of something external; it describes something that happens ecstatically within, a state of apprehension (in both senses) and understanding. He didn’t name a condition, in other words. He created one.

5. Black History Month is upon us, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t point to the powerful video The Atlantic produced back in August profiling the only American museum (exclusively) about slavery, The Whitney Plantation near Wallace, Louisiana. I was struck by what museum founder John Cummings says toward the beginning, paraphrasing, “Don’t ask the question ‘why can’t [i.e. the black population] get over it?’ if you don’t know what the ‘it’ is… We’re trying to define what the ‘it’ is.” You could almost translate the sentiment as, if we don’t fully understand sin, we can’t fully know redemption, ht SC.

6. This past summer, indie heroes The Mountain Goats put out a concept record about professional wrestling, Beat the Champ, the brilliance of which I’m only now coming to grips with. In conjunction with the release, lead goat John Darnielle wrote up his eight favorite wrestling videos for Vulture, definitely the funniest and most entertaining thing I’ve come across this week. As a sidenote, pretty much everything the man writes about metal is worth reading, a perfect mix of funny, affectionate and smart, to wit his poem “Ivories” which addresses a serious problem in the genre. Also, in the clearly-there-is-a-god department, I’m embarrassed to admit that Darnielle’s column was the first time I’d come across the metal world’s 1985 answer to “We Are the World”, the jawdropping “Stars”, which was credited to the super-duper-duper group Hear N’ Aid (get it?!). This is more than a music video, it’s a reason for living:

Also in humor, McSweeney’s “Ayn Rand’s Objectivist House Hunters is hilarious.

7. Next, Catholic theologian and bishop Robert Barron wrote about the canonization of Mother Theresa for Real Clear Religion and concluded with the following paragraph, which more than warrants reprinting here:

Jesus was a person of service to the poor and needy, and Mother certainly embodied this aspect of his life; Jesus was a person who prayed intently and for long periods of time, and Mother participated in this dimension of his existence. But Jesus was also the crucified Lord, who said, at the limit of his suffering, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To allow Christ to live his life in you is, therefore, necessarily to experience, to one degree or another, the absence of God, to undergo the agony of the crucifixion in all of its dimensions. St. John of the Cross, the greatest mystical theologian in the Church’s history said, quite simply, that there is no path to holiness that does not lead through the cross. Though it is a high paradox, the fifty-year darkness that Mother endured is, therefore, one of the surest indicators of her saintliness.

8. Social Science Studies of the Week are: “Study Confirms Fitness Trackers Increase Walking, Misery” and “Warn Dieters How Unhealthy a Particular Food Is and They’ll Just Eat More of It”.

9. Finally, the new Bloc Party record Hymns just came out, and it’s an honest-to-goodness conversion record! Always amusing to watch critics cartwheel over the obvious religious content… I’ve only heard a couple of songs, but they’re terrific–check out especially “The Good News”, which I’ve embedded at the very bottom. Last but not least, I’ll continue my fruitless campaign to champion Suede on these shores. Their new record, Night Thoughts, is nearly as good as the reviewers are saying. Seriously.