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Lent has started, and my belly is rumbling. Even though the freshness of the Fast has yet to fade and the initial enthusiasm is still riding high, I know that before long the drab meals, the prostrations, and the abstention from electronic entertainment will begin to take its toll on my good nature. My family, unfortunately, will be the first to pay the price. Sooner or later, the Great Fast will bring me face to face with an undeniable fact about myself that I try energetically to deny the rest of the year; that I am a sinner, someone who puts his own comfort and convenience ahead of even the most legitimate of claims others have on me.
By the time the fourth week in Lent rolls around, my bruised and battered self-righteousness may be ready to pray this lovely prayer, and mean it:
“I have outdone the Publican in my transgressions,
yet I do not emulate him in his repentance;
I have not gained the virtue of the Pharisee,
yet I surpass his self-conceit.
O Christ my God, in Thy supreme humility
Thou hast upon the Cross destroyed the devil’s arrogance;
make me a stranger to the past sins of the Publican
and to the great foolishness of the Pharisee;
establish in my soul the good that each of them possessed,
and save me.”
The Orthodox Church is a good place for sinners. There are a lot of us here. As a former Evangelical, it has been quite costly to jettison the concept of the “regenerate Church”. The field of Protestantism is full of formerly “pure churches” where the hands currently on the rudder are steering their barques in a direction that I don’t believe the original pilots would have wanted them to take. It is hard anyway to keep a church in pristine form longer than one or two generations, and it would take a heart of diamantine hardness and abstraction to look down at your newborn child and see only an unregenerate heathen, cordwood for the fires of Hell. I think this may indeed be the genesis of that peculiar informal Protestant doctrine of the “age of accountability” , which if it were true, would make abortion something of a mercy rather than a misfortune.
Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church in the United States is a wonderful place to indulge a spiritual elitism that would be the envy of the most fastidious supralapsarian Neo-Calvinist or the most prophetically endowed Third Wave Pentecostal. Our parishes are for the most part small, the regular attendees at Liturgy are mostly pious and those who attend Vespers and Orthros even more so. Ehrmergerd! All of this and we’re in The One True Church as well? Talk about dropping the bacterium of Phariseeism into a Petri dish full of yummy sugar water…
Thank God as Holy Week approaches, more and more of the marginal members of the parish start showing up; that rough looking guy with the flashy wife and the tattoos on his knuckles, the couple who own the nightclub, the Coptic girl who’s married to a Muslim and wears a hijab, the husbands and wives of parishoners who you see so seldom that it is hard to remember who goes with whom. Its hard to talk with them at coffee hour, but they remind you that the Church is indeed for everyone. James Joyce made the remark about the Catholic Church – “Here comes everyone!” With a change in geography, the same could be said of the Orthodox Church. I wonder if I lived in a traditional Orthodox society whether I’d see these ‘marginal’ types more often. Would I see them as brothers and sisters in Christ, or would I see them as part of the mission field?
JRR Tolkien, in one of his letters to his son, recommended that he embrace the catholicity of the Church as a spiritual discipline :
“Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand – after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.”
PS – Sorry about the super-heroes.
February 15, 2013 is an important date in our household because it is my wife’s sixtieth birthday. I have already blown past sixty and I find sixty-one to be far more amenable than sixty, which for some reason bothered me far worse than fifty, forty, or thirty.
February 15 is also the 100th anniversary of the New York Armory Show, the first exposure Americans were given to the artistic innovations and blasphemies that had been percolating in Europe for some time. Apart from displaying American artists such as James Whistler and Edward Hopper, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors also subjected sensitive American sensibilities to the Cubist visions of Marcel Duchamps, Pablo Picasso, and Jacques Villon, as well as undecipherably non-representational abstractions such as those of Wassily Kandinsky.
Now, I learned about the New York armory show from Francis Schaeffer’s book How Should We Then Live? Now, I know it isn’t cool for the cool Christian intellectuals to acknowledge any sort of debt to Francis Schaeffer and his reactionary cultural analysis, especially after the hatchet job done on him by his son, but I find his evaluation of the 1913 Armory Show spot-on. The world was different after 1913 than it was before. Sometimes time turns a corner and you can’t go back to the way things were. The Armory Show marked the moment when the Marginal became the Mainstream, the Transgressor became the Canon-setter, and Western art embarked on its self-evidently futile quest of finding one yet more convention to violate. That awful harridan Madonna said something similar when she stated that she couldn’t perform properly without visualizing some sexually uptight [like me] person disapproving of her show.
It is easy to fall in with Dr. Schaeffer’s analysis of the Armory Show and its exhibitors until you look at some of the actual art exhibited there. It is breathtakingly beautiful. This beauty makes it hard for me to dismiss modern art in the way a conservative Calvinist friend did after viewing an exhibition of 20th Century art: “It’s all autonomous man all in your face like THIS!! [sticking his hairy presuppositionalist face with its luxuriant Warfieldian beard within inches of mine]” Well, duh. You say that like that’s a bad thing.
A little later in the year [May 29] will arrive the Centenary of the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring. This had an impact on its viewers even more marked than that of the Armory Show on its patrons. They rioted and tore up the theatre. Can you imagine people these days rioting about art? Well, I can easily see why.
On YouTube I found and watched the Joffrey Ballet’s performance of the ballet, with the restored choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky and the disturbing costumes designed by Nicholas Roerich. It made me wish I were 30 years younger and could rut like a reindeer. 100 years later and this is still as sexually charged a work of art as I have ever seen.
Another centenary last year passed me by. April 15, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Despite what you think of James Cameron’s blockbuster romance based on this disaster, one scene in it struck me as particularly iconic. It is, of course, the shot of Rose and Jack at the prow of the ship, with Rose’s arms extended cruciform and Jack embracing her waist, flying into the setting sun with the wind in their hair. ‘Yeah, there’s 20th century man for you, I thought, ‘Beautiful as an angel, dumb as a stump, trusting blindly in your machines and heading straight for an iceberg.’
The rooster always crows three times. The survivors of the Titanic, the viewers of the Armory Show, and the rioters at the Ballet Russe had one final outrage awaiting for them the next year, a Centenary which is bearing down on us and demanding our contemplation; the Cotillion of Mars, the self-mastication of Europe, the outbreak of the Great War.
It cost the Great War to begin the breakdown of the epistemological hubris of Europe, which price we are still paying, with interest.
On Palm Sunday, the HBO network will broadcast the first episode of their much-anticipated adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Game Of Thrones, which is the first volume of his fantasy epic A Song Of Fire And Ice. Since I didn’t want the television series to be my first introduction to the work of a writer that many have called “the American Tolkien”, I decided to burrow my way into this massive narrative. Currently, I find myself in the middle of the third volume, A Storm Of Swords. The whole opus so far consists of four books, A Game Of Thrones, A Clash Of Kings, A Storm Of Swords, and A Feast For Crows. A fifth volume, A Dance With Dragons, is supposed to be published this summer. It has been since 2005 that the last volume had been published, and Martin’s fans have been remarkably patient.
So, how does A Song Of Fire And Ice compare to its great predecessor? Like The Lord Of The Rings, Fire and Ice starts in media res. The narrative opens to the north of the Great Wall that protects the kingdom of Westeros from an unnamed and undescribed threat. A petulant lordling leads a group of reluctantly celibate lay brothers from an order known as the Night’s Watch deep into the northern forests in search of “wildling” raiders. They find a zombie-like threat none of them are ready to face. Immediately, Martin jumps a thousand leagues to the south, to Winterfell, the seat of House Stark. The Starks are the northernmost of the great baronal families that govern Westeros under the Iron Throne, whose current occupant, King Robert Baratheon, arrives at Winterfell to celebrate with his good friend Lord Eddard Stark.
Like Tolkien, Martin draws on an enormous canvas, and you learn about the complex history, geography, and anthropology of Westeros bit by bit, in much the same way as Tolkien introduced his backstory into Middle Earth. Martin is a masterful writer. He braids his tale from separate strands, yet never drops the thread. The pace is leisurely, and there is a lot going on at any particular time.
Martin accomplishes his remarkable feat by weaving third person viewpoints from nine or ten separate characters. Martin’s characters are where his genius really shines forth; the plot is fairly pedestrian, albeit ambitious, and the setting of Westeros is just medieval Britain written continent-size. There is a civil war between several baronial families, highlighted by the conflict between the conservative and honor-bound Starks of the North, and the arrogant and wealthy Lannisters of the West. It is the characters, especially Martin’s wonderful female characters; dreamy Sansa, masculine Brienne, resourceful Arya, compassionate Catelyn, troubled Lyssa, that hook you and drag you into the story.
In many places, I was reminded of Tolstoy’s War And Peace . Martin’s characters are that internally consistent. He excels at getting you to sympathize with morally shaky characters such as Jaime Lannister the Kingslayer, or rigid Stannis Baratheon. Without any doubt, however, his masterpieces are the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, and the last of the deposed Targaryens, Daenerys, the Mother of Dragons. The books crackle with excitement when they take up the story. I especially look forward to seeing Peter Dinklage portray Tyrion the Imp, which has to be a dream role for this talented actor.
If I had any complaints about this series, there would be three. First, Martin doesn’t seem to have any problem killing or maiming a character even though it doesn’t further the narrative. Bran Stark’s paralysis, Lyssa’s madness, the loss of Jaime’s hand, the deaths of Ned Stark, Daenerys’ husband Drogo, or Renly Baratheon leave the reader with a sense of uneasiness. It kept me from getting too attached to any of the characters lest I should find them ripped away from me without a moment’s notice.
Secondly, Martin creates a baker’s half-dozen intriguing faiths, but no one ever seems to believe in any of them. The gods (and there are a lot of gods) never intervene in the narrative, never work any miracles, never answer prayers. The best they do is to offer psychological support for the handful of devout characters that stand out from the general agnosticism. Of course, clerics are usually portrayed as venial and self-serving, so in that Martin is crafting a very up-to-date fantasy indeed. I know it isn’t fair to fault an author for not being interested in what interests the reader, but a glimpse behind the scenes of the fate of Westeros would have added a lot to the story. Competing gods would have made it a lot like The Iliad.
There is sex. Overall, I think this is a good thing. There are some R-rated scenes concerning whores, bawds and bastards. This is fantasy for the whole man, including below the navel. However, I didn’t find myself objecting to that so much as to the overall tone of the series. If you are going to write heroic fantasy, there should be some heroic figures in it. I do not foresee a eucatastophe for poor, sad, war-torn and zombie-plagued Westeros. There will be no Fall Of Barad-Dûr, no crowning of the True King, which is a shame, because Westeros could truly use one. Martin, though, appears too wedded to his post-modern viewpoint. I hope he proves me wrong. I really do believe he has it in him, but I also wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that “valar morghulis” turned out to be Old Valyrian for “shit happens”.
some notes for Steve Hayes’ call for papers:
I. The Tectonic Plate Shift in The 1960s
I think there are shifts in consciousness. The much-maligned ‘generation gap’ of the late ’60s and early ’70s was shorthand for just such a shift in consciousness. It isn’t easy to describe, but you can hear the shift in the music of the era as experimentation with psychoactive drugs became more widespread and a certain ‘interiorness’ became mandatory for music, especially popular music, to be taken seriously. There were a lot of disasters, and a lot of the most promising artists of the 60s and 70s either died as a result of their drug use or had their voices prematurely stolen from them.
The experimentation by the generation of the ’60s with the sexual contract was simultaneous with, and even more earth shaking than the use of psychoactive drugs. As the baby-boomers reach retirement in the advanced industial democracies, it is hard to imagine that lifelong monogamy was once not just the ideal, but the reality. The organization of human energies within the family, and concentrically outward, the commercial sphere, the state, and the church.
There was a book published in 1970. I’m surprised I even remember it. It was called The Greening Of America and it was written by a Yale Law School professor, Charles A. Reich. It was a very popular and controversial book in 1970, celebrating ‘rock music’ and recreational drug use. It was a rah-rah book for the 60s ‘counterculture’, and nobody takes it seriously today. It appeared just at that moment of history when the 60s counterculture began to self-destruct, from its own contradictions and its own success.
Charles Reich was asked recently (2008) if his book had any continuing relevance. He said something that struck me as being very insightful. Paraphrasing him, has that young people today are concerned about the material emptiness of their lives; I can’t find a job, I can’t support a family. The complaints fielded in the 1960s were more spiritual; I don’t feel like a real human being, I feel like a machine.
Reich said, insightfully, that it is the same system that creates the different forms of emptiness. I will go Reich further and say that something truly awful has settled in the center of the web of exchange that we have been busy building and maintaining since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which is sucking all the energies out of the Grid, pulling it closer and closer to the Core, and leaving the outlying circuits to die for lack of nourishment.
Since I am not an economist, nor a professional philosopher, nor a social critic, and am proceeding from intuition rather than from direct observation, I can only speak from that intuition. That which inhabits the center of our web is an Algorithm, composed of a mixture of usury and analysis. In order to come close to the levers of power, the human agents of the Algorithm internalize it. The cultural revolution of the 1960s was the last internal challenge to the Algorithm on it home ground, and it failed. Now it appears that we will find out what will happen to the Algorithm when the infecting vector kills off its host.
II. The Emergence Of Fantasy Literature in the 1960s
The embrace by the counterculture of The Lord Of The Rings took a lot of people by surprise in the mid-60s. It was counter-intuitive that a convoluted yarn about small people with hairy feet written by a deeply traditional Oxford professor would become a hit with young people who were thought at the time to be quite ‘radical’ and ‘experimental’.
Very shortly after the initial success of the triology, imitators began to appear. Very prominently, most of these works take place in a sort of pseudo-Middle Ages where machinery was less prominent and technology less intrusive.
This was Professor Tolkien’s legacy. His great achievement was to produce a medieval work in a modern milieu, and he was well -equipped for the task. His colleagues were frustrated in his almost total lack of interest in any literature later than Malory. He seldom rode in automobiles, preferring a bicycle. It was said that he had a name for every tree within 20 miles of his Oxford home, and was not often invited on CS Lewis’ walking tours because of his frustrating habit of pausing frequently to inspect the local flora.
Professor Tolkien had something closer to the consciousness of a well-read man of Chaucer’s time than existed anywhere else in the world in his lifetime, and we are fortunate indeed that his Lengendarium proceeded from that consciousness. If nothing else, it made us homesick for what we had lost through the triumph of the Algorithm.
The Lord Of The Rings as a medieval work stands firmly against the central assumption of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that followed hard upon it, that reason rather than custom is a superior method of organizing human energies. This was the great conceit of the Renaissance, that the preceding age had been kind of a Dreamtime in which the race slumbered unaware of its potential.
Tolkien’s work here echos the work of his predecessors, the Romantics and the pre-Raphaelites who saw in medieval culture a unity and spritual cohesiveness lacking afterwards. In this way, The Lord Of The Rings is only the latest and most successful Romantic challenge to the hegemony of the Algorithm in a chain linking back to Blake and his lament against the “dark Satanic mills” and the triumph of Urizen the measurer.
In the early 20th century, it was popular to say that the Russian Empire was a “medieval” state, an offensive survival from a ruder, earlier age, like the winged mounts of the Ringwraiths being the last brood hatched in a cold eyrie in mountains under the Moon.
In the same way, the Chinese or the Indians would be hard-pressed to find a “Middle Ages” in their historiography. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a Russian, a Chinese, or an Indian The Lord Of The Rings. The necessary sense of medievality is not there, if medievality is a conspicuous re-adoption of a previously discarded consciousness which the discarder believes himself to have transcended.
This despite that Russia, China, and India had very bloody and very wrenching entrances into the world of European post-medievality. The experience of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment came for the world and the cultures outside of Europe as an experience of conquest, colonialism, and revolution. The Spanish conquest of the New World goes even farther back. The Spanish Baroque conquistadores destroyed the last remaining vestiges of the ancient pre-Classical age and incorporated it uneasily into the emerging European web. Perhaps the literary phenomenon of “magic realism” in Latin American letters is a corresponding medievality.
One culture I can see having a full-blown indigenous sense of medievality would be the Japanese culture. The opening of Japan’s hermetically sealed Tokugawa Shogunate by the European powers in the 19th century led to the supplanting of a traditional, highly stratified, and hierarchical society by a more open and technocratic one. From what little exposure I have had to Japanese cultural product, mostly through manga and anime, it appears that there may be a rough correspondence between the Western sence of medievality and the Japanese.
And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.
“We do not content ourselves with a pluralist marketplace of gods. Polyarchy and utter, brawling anarchy are one and the same. Division is strife, and hastens to dissolution…One is the might of my Trinity, One the knowledge, One the glory, One the power. so again, the Unity cannot dissolve, being greatly honored in the one harmony of Divinity.”
St. Gregory of Nazianzus
The organic body sang together; dialects of the world sprang in Byzantium; back they rang to sing in Byzantium; the streets repeat the sound of the Throne
I’m sorry that this post has languished for as long as it has. At one point I wanted to make the ever-so-obvious point that the problem of the One and the Many has its reflection in the political sphere, and that an over-emphasis on the One leads to Tyranny, such as that which would obtain were the Islamic Universal Caliphate ever to be instantiated, and that an over-emphasis on the Many leads inevitably to Anarchy.
Over against this I wanted to deposit the idea of the Chalcedonian Commonwealth, of which the most consistent example were the Christian Empires of New Rome and Moscow, with their deeply ingrained idea of synergy, the working together of the Church and the State according to the Chalcedonian formula, although that synergy was honored far more in the breach than in the ideal in Byzantine and Russian societies. Nevertheless, I believe that something akin to a Christendom, a commonwealth of Orthodox Christian nations, would most closely incarnate the life of the Trinity in the political sphere.
It appears from a reading of history that this state of affairs was beginning to coalesce in the West at the beginning of the fated eleventh century. The Western Empire, as it was thought of at that time, had moved from Carolingian hands into the Saxon Ottonian dynasty, who with the help of a series of sympathetic popes culimnating in Sylvester II, was moving towards just this sort of Byzantine model of symphony. The untimely death of the half-Greek Otto III lead to the severing of the two powers, and the development of the monarchial Papacy and the reaction of the development of the secular power as autonomous, and operating in an autonomous sphere.
Orthodoxy requires a fall-of-the-West story. At one time I considered this a defect in the Orthodox narrative. Papal Catholicism, after all, does not appear to require a fall-of-the-East story to complete its narrative, but its narrative does not have, to me, the compelling nature of the Orthodox narrative. The post-schism history of the Christian West makes better sense in the context of a gradual Dying-Of The-Light, a thousand-year summer twilight in which the memory of the Kingdom of God is replaced by the Kingdom of Man, first in its ecclesiastical, then it its secular, and finally in its radical form.
Empire is the exterior of Church. Church is the interior of Empire.
My son had a history assignment to take photos of a historical site. Most of his colleagues had chosen something closer by, but I decided to hijack him and take him to the site of the Andersonville prison, where 43,000 Union soldiers, among them my maternal grandmother’s maternal grandfather, were held captive during the American Civil War. 17,000 of these soldiers died while incarcerated under conditions so severe that they rivaled those of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen or the Soviet Gulag
The site was about 26 acres in size, and completely devoid of any sign of the prison that had once held tens of thousands of prisoners of war on this tiny plot of Georgia soil. There were a few small reconstruction at the extreme north end of the field, and near the spot where the gate was located, but everything else was gone, just the open field with the sluggish gate stream still flowing through it, at one time the only source of water for all those sick, starving men.
Viewing the prison site from the vantage point of the Confederate commander’s post, I was meditating on the vast amount of human suffering that had transpired on this poor piece of ground, that of my ancestor mixed in amongst it. I felt moved, made the sign of the Cross over that empty field, and offered a brief prayer, asking the Lord to have mercy upon any souls who after 145 years, may have been bound to that area still by resentment and desire for revenge.
As soon as I finished, my son tugged at my sleeve. “Look up there, Dad!” He pointed to the sky. Above the field of the prison, an immature bald eagle was flying. We watched as he circled the field, then flew into the sun.
I remarked about this to one of the park workers. He confirmed to me that there was a family of bald eagles in the woods surrounding the park site. “They don’t come out very often, but they’re in there,” he said.