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.”

I have a couple of major objections to such a formula. One is that I don’t think it has the slightest clue as to what Catholicism and its culture actually are in any real historic sense. Perhaps here I am thinking most of the “peasant Catholicism” that I saw in my family growing up, or even the cultural Catholicism you saw in Italy. I don’t think such cultures can carry the ideological burden that they seem to place on it. Real life is a far cry from romanticist fantasy. The other objection, somewhat based in the former, is a variation of “plus ça change plus c’est la même chose”. Many of the expectations of modern man are not radically different from those of the peasant or medieval friar. I think they were much more functionalist about their belief that we give them credit. They believed in certain things because they thought those things “worked”, or worked best for the circumstance in which they found themselves. The rich, gooey center of modern ideology, that stuff that makes us feel good about our own self-selected beliefs, played a much lesser role in my opinion. If anything, modern man with all of his gadgets, bureacracy, and constant stream of information is far more credulous and “superstitious” on one level than his predecessors could ever be. We live in an age overloaded with signifiers.

I would also add the following:

There is an element of cultural and religious slumming involved, one that has its origins in petit-bourgeois malaise concerning the monotony of modern life. We have tricked ourselves into thinking that our daily life is so boring, so full of tedium, that something needs to step in to provide us with a means to escape it. Most people alleviate this by spending or buying something. Look only to the structure of television commercials: you can eat/drink/acquire this and you will be both satiated and healthy, indulging and responsible, etc. Those of more exotic tastes (the market is always pleased to indulge any taste as long as you have the money) will delve into other opportunities for personal fulfillment. These include exercises in medieval piety, Eastern monasticism, meditation, Gregorian chant, monarchist politics and other less popular boutique items. Instead of going to the pound and finding a dog or a cat for a pet, some people go to the zoo or a llama farm. Some people want a chinchilla; some want a goat. The mechanism is the same: find yourself in something that you can acquire outside of yourself in order to continue to blissfully ignore the social relations that actually govern your life. These are not exercises in wisdom but rather in self-deception through self-absorption.


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3 responses

29 11 2010
The Singular Observer

Arturo, I myself have not dwelt so much on Chesterton’s overt religious writings, but have preferred his fiction, and his political writing. The vision, if you want, arising from the former, does not seem to be confined to this “schtick” – though there is certainly elements of that.

Though if you were to read the American neo-Catholics, you’ll certainly miss that. You’ll certainly miss his left-of-centre politics, too.

29 11 2010
Ariston

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.”

This is an excellent expression of what I find so lacking in GKC, but never could express succinctly.

29 11 2010
The Singular Observer

The question is less what, more how and why.

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