The price of cultural nostalgia

29 11 2010

A friend of mine recently encouraged me to read the novel Tinker’s Leave by Maurice Baring. My own thoughts to him about this novel and convert English Catholicism of the early 20th century in general go something along these lines:

I finally read that Tinker’s Leave novel you wanted me to read, and I am still a bit perplexed as to why you were so adamant to have me read it. I don’t think my life resembles that of the main character at all, as I am neither a well-to-do Englishman nor have I ever had the means to go off on some great adventure to learn from another culture. I think my biographical wayfaring was of another kind…

One common thread that I find in these English Catholic converts such as Baring, Chesterton, and to a much lesser extent, Waugh, is that they have some sort of nostalgia for something that they know nothing about. Or they are at the very least nostalgic for something that they feel is missing in their post-Victorian, rationalistic, dry lives. Newman probably is the one who started that mess, with his desire to find the pristine Apostolic church, only to suffer from afar the cronyism and realpolitik of the court of Pio Nono. The protagonist in the Barring novel “finds his humanity” in the tumultuous melting pot of 19th century Russia, with all of its politicial and cultural anachronisms slamming full speed into the modern age. Chesterton’s schtick always seems to boil down to pointing out how “medieval superstition” is so much more rational than skeptical modernity. In other words, their message always seems to be a variation of: “Want to be a better modern? Try Catholicism.”
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