This is a post from three years ago whose theme keeps coming back to me. I really think I was onto something in this one. So I'm giving it another outing.
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
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
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
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.