Saturday, April 22, 2017

Uphill and Against the Tide

(Note: Since writing this blog post, I have changed my opinion on the concept of dialogue. Vatican II, John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI all enjoin us to seek points of contact with modern culture, and I am happy to submit to their authority. July 2019)

I foresee the growth of a new race of readers and critics to whom, from the very outset, good literature will be an accomplishment rather than a delight, and who will always feel, beneath the acquired taste, the backward tug of something else which they feel merit in resisting.

Such people will not be content to say that some books are bad or not very good; they will make a special class of “lowbrow” art which is to be vilified, mocked, quarantined, and sometimes (when they are sick or tired) enjoyed. They will be sure that what is popular must always be bad, thus assuming that human taste is naturally wrong, that it needs not only improvement and development but veritable conversion.

For them a good critic will be, as the theologians say, essentially a “twice-born” critic, one who is regenerate and washed from his Original Taste. They will have no conception, because they have had no experience, of spontaneous delight in excellence.

C.S. Lewis, "High and Low Brows"

That is a quotation from one of my favourite C.S. Lewis essays, and I could happily write a blog post on the subject he's discussing here. It is, however, tangential to the subject of the blog post I'm writing now. Right now, I'm not discussing literary taste per se, but the whole idea of being "twice-born"; of pushing against "the backward tug of something else which we feel merit in resisting"; of going uphill and swimming against the tide.

This is a big subject with me, and I've previously written a series of blog posts on the related phenomenon of contrarianism. You can read them here, here and here. I also wrote a series on the idea of "keeping things interesting", which to me is one of the motives for contrarianism; if you're so inclined, you can read them here, here, and here.

The more you think about contrarianism (to repeat a point I've made previously), the more central it seems to human life. You could argue that all human life is a kind of contrarianism-- indeed, you could argue that all life, human or otherwise, is a kind of contrarianism. The ordinary thing is to be dead, to be inanimate. Every living thing is constantly pushing against inertia, pushing against entropy.

Effort and struggle seems to be an inevitable feature of human life, and much of that effort and struggle is against ourselves in some way. Plato famously pictured the soul as a chariot pulled by two horses, which represent our conflicting passions; the charioteer must direct them in the right direction. Most people have heard St. Paul's dictum from Romans: "The good that I would I do not, but the evil that I would not, that I do." Freud pictured our minds as a kind of tug-of-war between the ego, the id and the superego. It seems inarguable that there are drives in the human psyche which are in conflict with each other.

Tennyson very lyrically expressed the constant striving that characterises human life, as lamented by the lotus-eaters who tempt Odysseus to remain with them:

Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o'er the dark-blue sea.
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labour be?
Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful Past.
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence; ripen, fall and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.

The power of this poem lies in the fact that every one of us (sometimes, at least) ache for the peace of the lotus-eaters, but none of us would really choose to remain on their island.

Indeed, I think it's true to say that both extremes capture our imagination; images of the utmost endeavour, and images of the utmost repose. For instance, the famous "Discobolus" portrays pure endeavour:

The equally famous "Laocoön and his Sons" is even more vivid:

In terms of repose (or sloth!), we have the legend of the Land of Cockayne, as pictured by Brueghel the Elder:

Or, indeed, the story of the Lotus Eaters from the Odyssey.

Even the Christian story has (in a sense) these two poles; at Christmas we have the peace of the baby Jesus asleep in the manger, while on Good Friday we have the agony of the Crucifixion.

We probably all have images of repose and strain which excite our own imaginations. I've mentioned before, on this blog, the time a friend of mine had broken up with a boyfriend she'd expected to eventually marry. She told me she ignored Christmas that year (which both shocked and fascinated me) and spent it...well, I don't want to say, just in case she ever reads this. But in a very low-intensity activity indeed. She spent it on her own, hiding from the world. The image stuck in my imagination. It's strangely appealing.

I remember being entranced, in choir practice in school, by these lines from Paul McCarthy's "Yesterday"...

Love was such an easy game to play
Now I need a place to hide away...

A quotation from Patrick Pearse, which I've quoted before, appeals to me because it represents both poles:

Two things have constantly pulled at cross-purposes in me: one a deep homing instinct, a desire beyond all words to be at home always, with the same beloved faces, the same familiar shapes and sounds about me; the other an impulse to seek hard things to do, to go on quests and fight lost causes. And neither thing, neither the quiet home life nor the perilous adventure, has ever brought me any content.

Indeed, I posted Pearse's "The Fool" in anticipation of this post. These lines have always stirred my depths:

I have squandered the splendid years that the Lord God gave to my youth
In attempting impossible things, deeming them alone worth the toil....

So where am I going with this? Well, what seems interesting to me is that every philosophy of life, other than sheer hedonism, accepts the need to struggle against the world in some way, and to struggle against ourselves in some way. But they differ very starkly in which elements of our nature they urge us to fight against, and which aspects of our nature they urge us to set free.

Obviously, for Christians, the fundamental struggle is the struggle against original sin, especially the sin of pride. As St. John so memorably put it: "The lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life."

But every philosophy seems to have its own version of original sin.

Liberalism (or progressivism) has plenty of manifestations of original sin. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia; these are only a few. To be a fully-fledged progressive (or so it seems to conservatives) is to wage a constant war against one's own humanity, against one's own natural inclinations-- the inclination to treat men and women differently, the attraction towards one's own tribe (however that is understood), even the tendency to admire other cultures as exotic. (This is "othering" them, you see.)

Progressives, however, might argue that it's conservatives who are at constant war with their own nature. The ideal of chastity, for instance, is one that is frequently seen as absurd.

The claim to be going "against the tide" is one that's often made-- frequently it's made by people who are going in opposite directions to each other.

For instance, the Irish left-wing politican Noel Browne wrote an autobiography entitled Against the Tide. This might seem reasonable enough, since he was a left-wing politician who defied the Catholic Church at a time when its influence in Ireland was at its height (the middle of last century).

But was he really going against the tide? Internationally, the kind of left-wing ideas Noel Browne was pushing were certainly in the ascendant. The Catholic Church in Ireland, indeed the Ireland of the time, was very much going "against the tide" in its quest to preserve a Catholic Ireland in the modern world-- and saw itself in this role.

Everybody seems to want to claim underdog status. For instance, it's obvious that the mainstream media, academia, and the entertainment industry are overwhelmingly political correct. Political correctness, in this sense, is the dominant power. But PC claims to be fighting on behalf of ethnic and other minorities, so in this way they can claim to be at least representing the underdog.

The same clash of perspectives applies whenever the Catholic Church disciplines a dissident priest. The media can always paint the dissident priest as a brave and lonely figure confronting the might of the hierarchy. On the other hand, he is nearly always being lionised by the entire media and the bulk of the wider public. 

What prompted all these ruminations? Well, I've been thinking of my own attraction towards that which, in my own mind, is "uphill and against the tide."

For instance, I've found myself trying to improve my Irish in recent months-- for the best part of a year, at this stage-- because this seems to me to be the best way I can push back against globalisation and cultural homogenisation, the best way I can defend Irish culture. It's the best way, and also the hardest way.

For many years, I resisted this conclusion-- because it is so difficult, and because I was aware that I'm not linguistically gifted. But I've finally come to realise that any kind of patriotism or Irish national feeling that doesn't seriously concern itself with the Irish language is a waste of time-- mere sentimentality. What's the point of cheering Irish sports teams, or of similar displays of patriotic feeling, if we don't make a sustained effort to revive the central and most important part of Irish tradition, Irish distinctiveness? (Although I say again, on its own the Irish language means nothing to me-- it needs to be the cornerstone of a broader national revival.)

On the other hand, there is also a lure to the most difficult thing-- to quote the title of a Yeats poem, the fascination of what's difficult. And there's even a strange relief to it-- you're not hiding from it anymore. Challenges often pester us until we take them up.

This desire to do the hardest thing is why I have a certain (and very qualified) admiration for the Alt Right. Anyone who looks at the history of Western conservatism over the last thirty years or so must be struck by one simple fact-- it's one long series of defeats and compromises. Conservatism (by which I mean social and cultural conservatism) seems to have settled into a pattern of resist, retreat, and regroup. Of course, the best that this could ever lead to is that conservatives would resemble the American Indians-- not quite wiped out, and allowed some enclaves in which they are allowed to continue their traditional way of life, or something like it. The term "cuckservative" has an ugly origin, but it describes a reality. I completely understand the impulse which brings recruits to the Alt Right-- not only to resist, but to push back-- to go on the offensive. It's sad that the movement is tainted by race hatred, anti-semitism, Nazism, and other unpleasant things.

I really think we need a Catholic Alt Right. Mainstream Catholicism has thrown in the towel, has opted for "managed decline". We need a Catholicism that is willing to be full-bodied, supernatural, evangelistic, politically incorrect, confrontational. "Dialogue" is a dead end-- at least, in our time. You don't dialogue with your back to the wall.

One way in which I think Catholics need to "do the hard thing" more-- in which we need to go "against the tide and uphill" more-- is reading the Bible. This has been a constant struggle in my own short career as a practising Catholic. I know the New Testament pretty well, but why I am so reluctant to throw myself into the Old Testament? It's a real effort, but it's one I do intend to make. We should not only read the Bible but be steeped in the Bible.

I think this desire to do the hard thing, to go against the tide and uphill, is also part of my love of poetry-- my belief in the cause of poetry. It's a funny thing, but it's easier to read a five-hundred page novel than a slim volume of poetry. No matter how much you enjoy poetry, reading it involves mental strain to a far greater extent than prose. Certainly, it's easier to sell a five-hundred page novel! There's something "against the tide and uphill" in the very act of reading poetry, and writing poetry, and even talking and writing about poetry. It's why I'm so proud of my articles about poetry in Annals Australasia magazine.

And yet, while we seek to do the hard thing, we always have to be cautious, and not become like Lewis's "twice born" reader-- we have to remember that some strain is simply unnatural and unhealthy, and that there is such a thing as a healthy spontaneity and a healthy aversion. An example; before I returned to my faith, I'd become such a super-reactionary that I saw the human love of novelty as the root of all evil. But that's just silly. A love of novelty is a healthy and universal human impulse.

I'm not sure if there is any principle by which we can distinguish a healthy straining from an unhealthy straining. But I'm open to suggestions.


  1. Séamus(Australia)April 23, 2017 at 4:48 AM

    Well,I suppose it becomes unhealthy when we get psychopathic tendencies or view everything politically. Not in the sense that left-wing campaigners see us,who will think all serious minded Catholics are pschyo. I noticed in the Sydney diocesan paper that a Mass for Life was being said in their cathedral for the Annunciation, but proAbortion activists held a rally outside; the photo shown had a young lady with a placard DOWN WITH POPES & PIGS. The people inside were, after all, only we can see who had the psychotic tendencies there.
    No one is saying that protesting is unhealthy straining, not by a long shot.
    A Catholic balance is probably summed up in the words of a well-known mission priest here (who was Irish-born actually ) who in a booklet produced for the coming of St Thérèse's relics over fifteen years ago said that ' saints are never fanatics, they are people of exquisite spiritual finesse '
    This same priest used to like the saying 'any dread fish can floaty with the tide, only a live one can swim against the current '
    The two sayings need not be contradictory either for religion or nationalism.

    1. Well, the priest has a point, but it does make me wonder how saints are NOT fanatics. They certainly seem like fanatics from the outside!

      Yesterday there was a protest for the right to protest in Dublin city centre, held to support some lefties who were quite rightly punished for trapping a government minister in her car for three hours. I thought it would be funny to have a counter-protest protesting against the right to protest. I didn't do this for two reasons: 1) I was working. 2) I wouldn't have had the courage. But it would have been funny. I hope even the protestors would see the joke.

    2. I think Fr Liam Creede, for that we his name, was taking largely about personality. I'm sure we all knew plenty of devout Catholics or proFamily, proLife pro-our anti-anything activists who have serious personality problems,I certainly do-perhaps it's just Perth.
      The Saints book that influenced St Ignatius Loyola's life apparently included the life of an early hermit(I think from memory his name is St Humphrey in English but he's usually called by his Latin name) who scared the few passers-by he had by his appearance -he wore only long hair and leaves, his nails were uncut and, as he had to crawl on all fours to get out of his cave he would have seemed like a beast... But his voice was so gentle and so cultivated that those who managed to hear him invite them back lost their fear rather quickly. Apparently he was one that stuck in Ignatius' mind for some reason. One Jesuit scholar mentioned that that particular saint had been excluded from what was the last printing of the volume at that time, so Loyola had actually been given an ' earlier edition'

    3. I don't know anyone who doesn't have serious personality problems! Actually, I do, but they are very dull...

      This whole question of fanaticism is one that interests me. Sometimes I think the test is whether a person has any kind of sense of humour.

  2. I think including a piece on St George excludes any Irishman from accusations of fanaticism.
    I remember reading a short book on bl Mary Theresa Ledóchowska, who always looks so contrary in photos. Actually the episode I found funny-and it's mostly just the way it was written,I think-could nearly have been included as a lead on missionary stories, except that she never left Europe, her religious society is mostly to produce media for the missions and fundraise. But Cardinal Lavigerie was quite a hero in her eyes and , due to dine misunderstandings of times and logistics, she ended up charging up hills by foot to meet him before he left a conference in Switzerland- the way it was described,a well-brought-up lady-in-waiting loosing her etiquette,I just started laughing and my mother looked at the cover and looked at me and looked back at the cover and back at me..."is she funny?... She actually looks quite serious!"

    1. As Oscar Wilde once said, nothing would be funny if nothing was serious. (Well I saw the quote attributed to him once, but never since.)

    2. I'm here working on my book. I was pretty sure I'd included the story of St. Maria Mazzarello and the ship. Believe it or not, it's in my chapter on humour!

  3. I think it was actually Mother Theodore I was talking about that time, as I thought it was strictly missionaries you wanted.