Friday, May 9, 2014

The Pure Form, or the Drift and the Recoil

It's four minutes past two a.m., I'm not sleepy, and an idea that has been buzzing around my head for a long time has finally come into focus. The phrase I can best use to describe it is 'the pure form'.

This is my theory; that in all human things, there is a pure form, an archetype, an ideal type, from which we constantly find ourselves drifting and to which we inevitably find ourselves returning. The drift from it is often incremental but the return to it is usually instant, like the recoil from a crossbow. I think this principle applies to so many aspects of human life.

Take comedy. There is an eternal attempt to escape the formulaic in comedy. It seems that jokes-- stories with a set-up, with certain recurring motifs such as triads, and with a punch-line-- are always going out of fashion, in favour of observational humour, surreal humour, 'alternative' humour, whimsical humour and anti-humour. Jokes like: "What's the difference between a duck? One of its legs are the same size" become all the rage. People groan at stock comedy characters like mothers-in-law and lovers hiding in closets.

But always there is the recoil. And, more often than not, the recoil is sudden and almost violent. The resistance against the pure form becomes unendurable, often in a single moment. It's like the moment a polite listener finally loses patience with a bore. And the very fact that the pure form might have become taboo in certain circles only makes its return all the more irresistible and defiant.

I think this principle applies to so many things. It applies to narrative-- the moment when the poseur finally puts down Proust and picks up Stephen King, with a mingled sense of shame and relief. It applies to political correctness-- the moment that someone gets tired of pretending that ethnic and other politically incorrect jokes are not funny. It applies to feminism-- the moment when the feminist gives up and admits that there's nothing arbitrary about the fact that women kiss each other and men shake hands, or that girls often prefer to play with dolls and boys to play with trucks. (I'm not saying a person can't go his or her entire life without ever succumbing to this recoil. But I am saying that humanity en masse, or in sufficient numbers, will always be subject to it over time.)

If I make it sound like this recoil is always from the idealistic to the disillusioned, or from the determined to the line of least resistance, that would not be a reflection of the reality. A dyed-in-the-wool cynic is disregarding the pure form as much as a hopeless sentimentalist. A drop-out, experiencing this moment of recoil, will cut his hair and buy a suit and become more disciplined. (Admittedly, this might in a sense be the line of least resistance, even though it requires more effort.)

My examples also suggest that the 'drift" is always in the direction of liberalism or progressivism, and the 'recoil' is always a return to conservatism. This is by no means the case, and my examples only betray my own experience and way of thinking. The 'recoil' tends not to be in a particular direction, but rather centripetal. In my own late twenties and early thirties, I became so ultra-conservative that I came to see the human hankering for novelty and excitement and exoticism as a kind of original sin. People who took package holidays to Tenerife, or were fascinated with gadgets or cars, were (I decided) traitors to the traditions of humankind. This was nonsense, of course. Another example of 'drift' of a conservative type was the Nazi obsession with race and nationality, which took a certain truth about the human race-- the inescapable importance of ethnicity and roots-- and made it into a ridiculous fetish.

But even this is misleading. The 'pure form' is not the golden mean, or moderation in all things. It's something very particular.

I don't believe that the 'pure form' is something that can necessarily be known, other than approximately. To take my first example; I think an old-fashioned joke-teller is closer to the 'pure form' of comedy than an alternative comedian such as Bill Hicks. But I wouldn't claim to be able to say exactly what the 'pure form' of comedy is, or where its boundaries lie. (And, of course, comedy is just an example.) I think the claim to know such things with certainty would be dangerous and potentially totalitarian-- if we accept my theory, of course.

One of the reasons I am a Catholic is because I believe Catholicism is the 'pure form' (in this sense) of Christianity. (I don't think this conflicts with what I just said. Even though some people see Catholicism as a religion ironclad with certainty, this is not the case. The Church doesn't claim to know everything. It doesn't even claim to know everything about spiritual things.)

The 'drift' against certain aspects of Catholicism is perpetual. People will always be coming up with objections, very plausible-sounding obections, against aspects of its teaching-- Papal infallibility, or Purgatory, or prayer to saints, or celibacy, or auricular confession, or sacramentals, or vestments, or venial sin.

But the recoil, the snap back into place, is inevitable.

I saw a documentary recently which mentioned that prayer to saints was coming back into the Church of England. Of course it is, I realized. It's such a natural instinct that it could only ever be kept at bay for a certain amount of time. Ditto with all the other aspects of Catholicism that are rejected at this or that moment of history. The reasons for the rejection are all very convincing and deep and sincere, and the rejection may indeed be made with gusto and a sense of released energy. But sooner or later-- perhaps over centuries-- sustaining the rejection starts to feel like standing on one leg. People start feeling they are missing out on the fullness of the faith. And hence we see moments like the Oxford Movement, or the current minor renaissance of orthodoxy amongst younger Catholics.

The picture is complicated because the drift and the recoil might be happening at the same time, in different ways. For instance, I think there is a drift against the Church's sexual and hierarchical teaching right now, even as their is a recoil towards its sacramental and artistic and contemplative heritage. Celibacy is out, while pilgrimages and the rosary and Eucharistic Adoration and lecto divina are in-- even amongst non-Catholics.

I don't think there is any moment of repose between the drift and the recoil. It is always one or the other-- though the majority might be drifting or recoiling while a minority, or an individual, is doing just the opposite. The drift lasts longer, but the recoil is more decisive.

I can observe drift and recoil in my own mind, in my own experience-- not only in the past, but actually in the present. It seems to be as inevitable as breathing. Something about human nature means we are always sliding away from some 'pure form' or other, or more likely, from many of them. I can relate this drift, in my own experience, to humble things like the cinema. I've gone through phases of 'drifting' away from action movies or superhero movies in favour of 'deep' movies that could be watched over and over again. But then the recoil happened, because action movies and supero movies are at least visually appealing, and usually have solid story-telling and some uplifting message. In fact, I am now 'drifting' in the opposite direction-- to the extreme that I only want to see pure entertainment, romantic comedies and action films and so forth, and I despise 'deep' movies. The 'pure form', I would guess, lies in neither of these directions-- but it's not bang in the middle either.

Very often we take the 'drift' for the 'recoil'. A rather hackneyed example; after the fall of the Soviet Union, the idea went around that the world was returning from the lie of communism to the inevitable truth of free market capitalism. But, while it's certainly true that free market capitalism is much closer to the 'pure form' of economics than communism is, it's not quite there-- or so, at least, I would argue. Humanity doesn't seem capable of reposing in it, anyway.

OK, now I'm tired. I hope this makes sense, but I'm too sleepy to make sure it does. Night night!

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