Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Romance of the Faith (I)

I have been keeping an online diary for over a year now (on the excellent website Penzu-- I really do recommend it). As well as serving the usual purpose of a diary-- chronicling my life, including things we are usually inclined to forget such as dreams and conversations-- it has been a good place to marshall my thoughts, to let them grow and develop.

I went to see the movie Warcraft: The Beginning a few weeks ago. It's a fantasy movie taken from a popular computer game franchise (I've never played the game). I've seen three movies in the cinema during the time chronicled in my diary; this is a very sharp decrease on the amount of films I'd seen in the previous years. I've always loved the cinema environment, so my lack of exposure to it may have given me an artifically heightened appreciation of the movie.

This is what I posted on Facebook (and recorded in my diary):
I went to see Warcraft. I had a strong intuition from the KIND of bad reviews it was getting that it was going to be good. One critic quoted on Wikipedia wrote: "There are too many mysterious proper nouns being thrown into conversation and at least 12 major characters competing for space". This is the opposite of the kind of criticism you expect of a film taken from a computer game. You expect them to be action-heavy and plot-light (like Doom, one of the worst films I've ever seen). Also, Mark Kermode gave it a contrarian good review, and I respect him.

But I was still surprised. Bearing in mind it's a computer game adaptation (and I've never played the game, as I don't play computer games), it's extraordinary how talky, complex and dramatic it is. And it looked amazing, which is what I did expect. A real cinematic feast!

To me, movies are about creating a world. That world doesn't have to be a fantasy world-- it can be the real world. It can be a street, or a house, or a room in the real world. But fantasy is certainly an opportunity to create a world (or worlds) in the most literal sense. It seems a shame to me that critics are so down on such an inherently cinematic genre, even after Lord of the Rings.

In my diary, however, I continued:

But it was more than that. I was completely galvanized by the high romance of the thing-- the banners, the horses, the hierarchy, the sorcery, the whole trimmings.

Recently-- in the last few days-- the romance of my own faith has been vivid to me again. A confluence of the relative popularity of my 'Catholicism without Apologies' blog posts on my blog, reading Ciall agus Creideamh [an Irish language religion text book], and watching the Robert Southwell documentary. My faith is a way of life steeped in tradition, ritual, continuity, sacrifice, idealism, and everything else that belongs to high romance. It is lapped by the ancestral waves of devotions and liturgy.

Romance. It's really all about romance. My view of the world is inherently romantic, and it always has been.

Isn't everybody romantic? That's a difficult one. I've noticed that nearly every view of the world tends to be soaked in romance, unless it's quite deliberately anti-romantic. Only yesterday I was listening to a lecture by Noam Chomsky, in which he was nostalgically recalling the radical tradition of his youth; anarchist book-sellers, veterans of the Spanish Civil War, and so forth. Marxists have their red flag, their anthems, their socialist saints like Joe Hill, and so on. 'Progressives' have Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, the Stonewall riots, the 1968 riots, and so on.

Noam Chomsky. You knew that.

My problem with progressive and Marxist and left-wing romanticism is that it seems like the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. The philosophies themselves are not romantic; they are utterly anti-romantic. The materialistic dialectic that lies at the heart of Marxism-- where all ideals are illusions, and it's the clash of material interests that propels history-- is the most chillingly anti-romantic (and anti-humanistic) philosophy imaginable. To be fair, 'softer' forms of leftism and progressivism are not quite so hard-headed, but they still guide us towards a world where technocrats and social engineers are more and more important, while the ordinary instincts of humanity are brought under control, labelled 'populism', 'nationalism', 'sexism', 'racism', 'anti-intellectualism', 'nostalgia', and so forth.

But what are the ordinary instincts of humanity? Well, that's the nub of the question, isn't it? 

Is nationalism, for instance, an unnatural perversion of the ordinary human disregard for borders? Is it something we learn-- something in which we are indoctrinated, perhaps, to distract us from our real interests?

Is the acquistiive and competitive instinct that fuels capitalism natural, or are mankind naturally cooperative?

Are sexual shame, monogamy and the desire to build a family natural? Or is the desire to have sex with as many partners as possible, and in as many ways as possible, natural?

Is regard for authority and tradition natural? Or is rebellion and transgression natural? The idea has grown up in our society that teenagers and young people 'naturally' seek to rebel. Do they really? It seems to me that teenagers and young people are not naturally rebellious, but naturally idealistic and high-spirited. Eagerness to sacrifice one's life in war seems as typical of youth as burning draft cards and going on protest marches. (I'm not saying it's better, necessarily. Standing by the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington was one of the most wrenching experiences of my life.)

I have often thought that a a political or social position stems as much from a particular anthropology, as it does from a particular set of moral principles. What, at bottom, do we believe that mankind wants? What do men want? What do women want? What do children want?

It seems to me that there are several positions one can take:

1) Your view of the good society might well be in tension with your view of human nature. You can admit that people are nationalistic, acquisitive, prejudiced, aggressive, etc, but that we have to do our best to overcome these tendencies.

2) You can deny that there is such a thing as 'human nature'. Gender roles and ethnicity and national feeling and hierarchy and the nuclear family are all 'learned behaviour', and we can jolly well unlearn them. You don't really have to go as far as to deny the existence of human nature altogether-- you can acknowledge it exists, but that it is much more plastic than it is usually taken to be.

How plastic is human nature?

3) You can accept that there is such a thing as human nature but that it has been bent out of shape by patriarchal, oppressive, prejudiced institutions-- the doctrine of the noble savage in another form.

4) You can accept that there is such a thing as human nature and that social institutions which have evolved over generations tend to fit it pretty well. Of course, you are instantly confronted by the problem of evil institutions: "What about slavery?" "What about prostitution?".

My view is the fourth view; and I would add that institutions such as slavery and prostitution are the legacy of original sin. As to what traditions have been brought about by healthy human instincts, and what traditions are the result of original sin-- that is a case-by-case discussion, one which cannot be answered by a formula.

I think it's a fairly obvious point that instincts can be perverted, for whatever reason. The obesity crisis in Western society is a case in point. It is perfectly natural for us to want to eat, and to eat for pleasure. It is also perfectly natural for us to want to physically exert ourselves. But for some reason, in our society, the first desire has got out of hand and the second desire seems to have become dormant, in many people. (Of course, there are other factors at play, like the nutrition value of our food.)

Obligatory G.K. Chesterton picture
As a lover of Chesterton, I have to admit that his trust in 'the common man' is another victim of this process. G.K. Chesterton was not the only writer who assumed that the working-classes were the great bastion of traditional values which the 'liberal elites' had abandoned. This no longer seems to be the case; at least when it comes to ideals of family, respectability, politeness, childhood innocence, veneration of the elderly, and decency. It may still be true when it comes to patriotism, as the Brexit referendum indicates.

Of course, there is nothing new in any of this. Few of us, no matter how bad we are, would wish to attend the Circus Maximus or a public execution, or (we hope) would be whipped into a murderous frenzy of anti-semitic hatred, as happened in Nazi Germany. And there are plenty of other examples of perverted human nature throughout history.

What has any of that to do with romance? Well, I'll get back to that in the next post.

No comments:

Post a Comment