G. K. Chesterton

When You’ve Lost the Culture War

Every day, I walk by the Capitol building in Washington, DC, along with thousands of other busy DC commuters.  On clear days, it stands out sharp and white against the skyline, a thing of beauty. And every day, when I pass it, I hear echoing in my head words from one of my favorite movies, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: “Look, it’s the Capitol Dome!”

(Except you have to say it like Jimmy Stewart, with a slight stutter: “L-look! It’s the C-Capitol Dome!”)

His companions roll their eyes, because it is very easy to lose one’s appreciation for being in the Capitol every day. Rookie Senator Jefferson Smith, played innocently by James Stewart, comes to DC with bright-eyed, eager enthusiasm to serve his country well and do some good in the world. Eager, that is, until he gets kicked in the gut by the gritty reality of politics in Washington. But he chooses to put his idealism into action, even if he loses the battle, rather than abandon it for the ways of the world. What happens to him is not unlike what Chesterton says happened to him in “The Ethics of Elfland.”

They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics.

I’ve realized that “practical politicians” here in DC have long abandoned the causes I believe in. When the odd headline queries what GOP leaders will do about gay marriage, I almost laugh. I have little doubt what they will do. The culture is against them, and, fighting for the favor of the culture, they will probably comply. Recently, for the second year in a row of decisions that can only be expected in the current social climate, the Supreme Court, in the old “silence gives consent” method, tacitly legalized gay marriage in a slew of states, including the one in which I live.

What do you do when you’ve lost a cultural war? I know cultures change (at least in the last two centuries) all too quickly for perfectly accurate predictions to be made about where they’re headed or what is or is not inevitable. But during the week I sit in an office building in DC realizing that for miles and miles around me are people who, even on the slim chance they opposed it, could never raise their voices against gay marriage in any public forum without being utterly ridiculed and shouted down.

No matter how we slice it, the cultural tide, at least for now, has definitively decided that anyone who opposes “gay rights” is essentially ignorant, or hateful, and at the very least hopelessly outdated.

Let’s be perfectly clear about this: to continue to oppose the normalization of gay “marriage” in our culture is to take a stance which requires no little courage and will certainly rub some people (including well-intentioned loved ones) the wrong way. It will mean rejection and mockery. It will mean being branded as a proponent of hate despite the fact that all we want to do is help our culture seek authentic love above misguided acquiescence to gut passions.

I don’t know if there is anything we can compare this to. The rise of contraception? Maybe. But even that one is far more open to public debate in Catholic and secular circles alike. I think that this particular war is a war we have, for the most part, lost at this point in our cultural evolution. How do you battle something operating (falsely, a wolf in sheep’s clothing) under the banner of love? We simply don’t have a ready response.

All the arguers are now tired. They’ve run out of ways of repeating themselves to deaf ears. Like the disillusioned Jefferson Smith, we realize that no one is listening no matter how hard we fight. How do we change this? What will turn the tide?

The lucky thing about tides, I suppose, is that they always change. October 7th was the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, a commemoration of the Battle of Lepanto, which took place at a time when the tides were similarly lined up heavily against the kingdom of Christ. Christendom was splintering interiorly, with the Protestant Revolt, and was battered from without by Muslim forces–a situation not unlike today. But against all odds, despite the predictions of all the pundits of the day, something happened. The Battle of Lepanto was won by the Christians, armed primarily by the power of prayer. And for that era, Christian Europe was saved from utter destruction.

The consolation of living in the kingdom of Christ is that this kingdom is not my kingdom. It’s His. And He is no fool as a ruler. Ultimately, whatever is happening, however dire the situation appears to one who hopes for Heaven, we know that nothing will happen without His Providence directing it to serve a role in His ultimate plan of redemption.

So, what do you do when you’ve lost a cultural war? You keep fighting. In whatever way you can, in whatever means reason and faith dictate—and especially by prayer—you keep fighting. Speak the truth in love, even if you are met with hate. Even when it seems like a lost cause.

Because, after all, “Maybe lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for, Mr. Paine.”

 

Fragments Shored: T.S. Eliot and BASTILLE

In 1922, T.S. Eliot penned his now-famous poem The Waste Land, so cutting-edge in modern poetry that Regis Martin, in fact, recently called Eliot the “high priest of modernist poetry.” But if you have your ear to the ground in the world of pop music, you may be surprised to hear echoes of his sentiments coming from the indie rock band Bastille.

What do the 1920s American-English intellectual and the 2014 hipster band have in common? In a word: ruins. It may seem strange to suggest a rising rock star has an artistic gift comparable to that of a highly honored poet. Yet, there seems to be a certain uncanny similarity between Eliot and Bastille when it comes to their sensitivity to social collapse.

Eliot’s Waste Land is an eerie, confusing conjunction of rich images and obscure references, so bogglingly complex that most editions are heavily annotated with explanations. Shakespeare and Spenser, snippets of German, hints of Hindu literature, images of springtime in Europe, disjointed fractions of Psalms, and ancient Greek references are peppered through the poem alongside vignettes of modern life and details like taxis, horoscopes on demand, and contraception. Some readers complain that Eliot is simply showing off his knowledge of both Western and Eastern art and literature, making it seem almost incomprehensible to any reader less erudite than a studied intellectual like Eliot himself.

But the poem performs a valuable post-mortem on a Western world that has lost sight of its God. The keyword is fragmentation; someone once compared reading The Waste Land to sticking Chartres Cathedral in a blender and trying to make sense of the shattered fragments. The fragmentation of civilization—both in the sense of brokenness and of the dangerous compartmentalization of modern living—bears only the bad fruit of purposelessness, aridity, and an oppressive sense of ennui.

Both The Waste Land and Eliot’s doubly-depressing Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock reveal a deep sense of nigh-hopeless frustration at the emptiness of modern life, and a meticulous focus on ordinary, prosaic details to heighten the sense of lost meaning. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” observes Prufrock glumly. The shots of the daily lives Eliot highlights are acutely depressing: after an evening of joyless sex, a typist’s lover leaves and she turns on music to drown out her thoughts.

Some snippets of The Waste Land demonstrate this fragmented picture of the living hell of the modern world:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images . . . . .

I will show you fear in a handful of dust. . . .

“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.

“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?

“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”. . . .

“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”

. . . .                         The hot water at ten.

And if it rains, a closed car at four.

And we shall play a game of chess . . .

The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights

Her stove, and lays out food in tins. . . .

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,

Hardly aware of her departed lover;

Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:

“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”

When lovely woman stoops to folly and

Paces about her room again, alone,

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,

And puts a record on the gramophone. . . .

I can connect

Nothing with nothing.

The broken fingernails of dirty hands.

My people humble people who expect

Nothing.

At the end of Eliot’s poem comes a hint of a happy ending, a salvation for these dead souls: an image of a king, a fisher king, emblematic of Christ, who brings fruitful rebirth and the chance to rebuild from the ruins: “Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order?” Finally, the closing lines of the poem capture its purpose: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Witnessing the insidious destruction of the Western world in the hands of moral relativism, Eliot simply gathered up the pieces.

His insight was hardly shared by many of his contemporaries, but Eliot saw spiritual death eating away at the hearts of modern men like a rat at a corpse: cut off from the roots of faith and culture, they withered inside and sought all other remedies for their dryness—some cohesive force to hold together the broken fragments of their lives and give them meaning.

Since Eliot’s Waste Land dates from 1922, it is somewhat surprising to hear similar sentiments coming from the hipsters of today. The increasingly-popular British rock band “Bastille” can count a number of hits to their credit, including, “Flaws,” “Pompeii,” and “The Things We Lost In the Fire.” It is certainly a hopeful sign when a modern artist, writing what may be called poetry in its own way, shows enough artistic insight to notice some of the same things Eliot did.

Like Eliot, Bastille demonstrates an acute sensitivity to mundane and ordinary details and their cosmic importance to human life. In “The Things we Lost in the Fire,” which appears to recount the effects of a total and sudden loss of material possessions, the speaker focuses on the more personal, if commonplace, details that reflect a deeper loss:

Things we lost to the flames

Things we’ll never see again

All that we had amassed

Sits before us, shattered into ash. . . .

I sat and made a list of all the things that we had

Down the backs of table tops

Ticket stubs and your diaries.

I read them all one day

When loneliness came and you were away.

Oh, they told me nothing new,

But I loved to hear the words you used.

These are the things,

the things we lost,

the things we lost in the fire, fire, fire. . .

Similar thoughts can be found in Bastille’s “Pompeii.” Like Eliot’s Waste Land, “Pompeii” draws heavily on a foreign, ancient, and almost obscure reference, something that probably would not occur to most people when they sit down to write a pop song: an ancient tragedy, a city and it’s inhabitants suddenly reduced to a smoldering heap of fire and ash from Mt. Vesuvius.

The suggestive power of these images and their affinity to Eliot’s phrasing indicates that Bastille’s songwriter Dan Smith may be tapping into something more than merely hipster angst: a desperate sense of disappearing cultural and civilizational identity and an existential awareness of the brokenness that results from such a loss. A sense of fragmentation permeates their songs: Bastille can sense, as Eliot did, when the world is somehow falling apart, and their songs grope about searching for cohesion.

“Pompeii” exudes a particularly powerful sense of hopeless but ineffectual frustration at continuing communal disintegration, of abandonment and loneliness:

I was left to my own devices.

Many days fell away with nothing to show.

And the walls kept tumbling down

In the city that we loved.

Great clouds rolled over the hills bringing darkness from above. . . .

We were caught up and lost in all of our vices

In your pose as the dust settles around us

And the walls kept tumbling down

In the city that we loved.

In this wasteland, the speaker feels moral responsibility and the need to begin again: “Oh, where do we begin,” he sings, “The rubble, or our sins?” To have a sense of sin is actually a rather radical statement in the modern world. (As G. K. Chesterton once said, modernity’s response to the sin of, say, skinning a cat is to deny the existence of the cat.) After decades of expansive social engineering to justify, normalize, and even legalize sin, Bastille’s sense that we are sinful, that we actually have to take the blame for something and “begin” again afterward shows that no amount of social change can fully expunge a sense of man’s sinfulness from the human heart.

Still, Bastille’s reaction to the dire situation they face in “Pompeii” is almost desperate escapism: “But if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all / and if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?” Even here, the speaker must admit the situation is grim, and doesn’t have an easy answer: “How am I going to be an optimist about this?” he asks, repeatedly.

Whatever Bastille’s inspiration or personal beliefs, their lyrics show hints of an authentic artistic insight which points to the same reality that Eliot outlined in The Waste Land. Like Eliot’s protagonists, they live in a postmodern problem, the Waste Land: a socially post-apocalyptic barrenness of cultural waste, things that have been lost in the fire of turbulent change, things which distance modern man further and further from what gives him meaning, his (Christian) roots.

But one thing, at least, very clearly distinguishes the psyche of the rock band from that of the 1920s intellectual:

Eliot knows the answers. Cultural renewal and rebirth from the Kingdom of Christ alone can heal the infectious wounds and deadened souls of the postmodern Western World.

But Bastille can only ask the questions, and eerily return to a sad and desolate refrain of fruitless search and denial: “How am I going to be an optimist about this? . . . If you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?”

A Thing Worth Doing Badly

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 Stepping into a strange church for Sunday Mass is invariably an adventure that evokes no little amount of trepidation; it is extremely difficult to know what to expect. So, two weeks ago, as a visitor in a strange town, I found myself wondering rather nervously what kind of Mass I had walked into. Would there be a borderline heretical homily? Sketchy changes to the words of the Mass? Liturgical dancers? 
At first it seemed like it would be middle-of-the-road: a quiet Midwestern parish with a school attached. The interior had obviously been built or redone in the 60’s, but there was nothing out of the ordinary, and it looked like the Mass would be conducted fairly well.
Until the music started.
From the opening hymn to the recessional, the entire Mass was accompanied by a lone soprano pounding bravely away on an electric organ, backed up by a heavy-handed snare drum. The hymns were all from the ‘70s and ‘80s: something about peace, and celebrating, and justice, and we are one people, and harmony—all punctuated by loud raps on the drum. “Let us build the city of God (BOOM-chh-BOOM) may our tears be turned into dancing (BOOM BOOM).” I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes, and strained all my attention to focus on the readings, the homily (which was decent), and the holy sacrifice of the Mass—all to no avail. When the final “Thanks be to God” was muttered—full of genuine gratitude, on my part, that it was over—and the congregation crowded quickly out of their pews and into the parking lot, I staggered out into the sunshine feeling as though I’d just been subjected to the very dregs of liturgical artistry.
Now, come to think of it, I have heard some genuinely dreadful liturgical music in my time, both lyrically painful (“Lord of the Dance,” anyone?) and musically inappropriate (saxophone jazz at the Easter Vigil), but this Mass marked a particularly depressing milestone in my experience. It wasn’t just the inane lyrics; it wasn’t just the Disney-esque, vague ‘70s melody; it was the fact that, in addition to already being bad music, it was done so badly.
I wondered why this fact was what had made the music so distracting and frustrating to me, and I remembered that “A thing worth doing,” as G.K. Chesterton once said, “is worth doing badly.” This essentially means that if something is worth doing, then it is still worth doing even if we’re not very good at doing it. Take, for instance, my kitchen garden. It’s not acres of rich, abundantly fruitful lands that yield bucket-loads of harvest; it’s a little square of Southern clay with a few scraggly vegetables vines and a berry bush or two. But growing a garden, planting seeds and reaping the fruit of your own labor, is a thing worth doing, so it’s worth doing even if one is not wildly successful at it.  Learning how to paint is something worth doing—even if the artist isn’t a Rembrandt or Michelangelo. Writing is likewise something worth doing, even if it’s done rather badly—which is my excuse, anyway.
But, on the other hand, I think it would be safe to propose a corollary to Chesterton’s principle: if a thing worth doing is worth doing badly, then a thing not worth doing is not worth doing badly. It’s not worth it to fight a war over a mile of territory; it is doubly idiotic to wage such a war badly. It’s not worth doing to plant a tree in the middle of the desert where it does not belong; it would be even less of a worthy task to badly botch the job of planting the tree.
I would not have minded the mind-numbingly-mediocre music at Mass half so much, I think, had it been goodmusic done badly. If the most a parish could get was a cantor singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” a capella, then very well: singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” is a thing worth doing. If all that the music ministry has to offer, however, is badmusic done badly, then it would be better to have no music at all. Insipid liturgical hymns from the ‘60s onward are not worth doing, nor is a snare drum snapping an electric organ into meter. Why, then, must we have these things at all? Would not a reverent silence be far more conducive to prayer, to raising the mind and heart to God?  
Such, at least, were my thoughts as the last pounding strains of “Here In This Place” faded away and I exited the Mass that Sunday, hoping desperately that somehow the Church will see a renewal of beautiful liturgical music—done well—in my lifetime. It will mean something of a revolution: throwing out the banal hymnals and the drums; putting more time and greater effort into seeking out good musicians, and cultivating the taste of younger generations to appreciate more traditional hymns. Meanwhile, I am resolved to stoke the fires of that revolution, by making it clear that the bad music done poorly has to go: give me good music at Mass (even done badly) or give me death—I mean, silence.
 

YOU KNOW THE FACE: A Hat-Tip to the Character Actors

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          “Do not look at the faces in the illustrated papers. Look at the faces in the street.” 

                                         –G.K. Chesterton 
Just before his death in 2007, 100-year-old Charles Lane had begun work on a documentary called “You Know the Face” about his life and work as a character actor.  Unfortunately, the work was never completed; nevertheless, it would have been aptly named, because from 1931 until 2006, Charles Lane appeared in nearly 400 films and television shows, making him one of the most familiar faces in the backdrop of Hollywood productions for whole generations of film-goers.
Charles Lane, looking his usual surly self
Though seldom appearing for long in any feature, Lane filled roles of vastly-varying professions, from reporters to rent collectors, from psychiatrists to census takers, from secretaries to superintendents, and yet he played—almost exclusively—the same sort of character: a sharp-nosed, practical, antagonistic, business-first fellow in spectacles.  Lane himself recognized the queer continuity of all these roles: “Having had so many small parts,” he once said, “there was a character I played that showed up all the time and people did get to know him, like an old friend.”
Walter Brennan
That notion of an “old friend” beautifully sums up the special, undervalued role character actors play in establishing a film’s quality and atmosphere—the way they help make a piece of Hollywood artwork “great” or “classic.” Of course, when we speak of “Hollywood actors and actresses,” it’s tempting to think exclusively of the stars, like Clark Gable or Audrey Hepburn.  But while the stars may be the center of everyone’s attention, the truth is that they never could have made those fantastic splashes of talent and popularity without the steady acting support of the forgettable but reliable “character actors:” actors who were type-cast or continually filled minor roles that colored in the background. Recurring in dozens of films, often playing the same sort of character, as Lane did, or at least playing different roles with a soon-familiar face, character actors made films more complete. They acted like pieces of the set or colors in the backdrop on a stage: even though they were never the center of attention, by their excellence of serving their purpose they made a movie more vivid, more realistic—in a word, more like life.
Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride
as Ma and Pa Kettle 
The inimitable Edna May Oliver
The reason for this was simply because they played people you meet in “real life”: mere “fellows-on-the-street,” non-glamorous side figures, non-heroes—the sort of person you find in the doctor’s waiting room, behind the cash register, on the train. They were there precisely to flesh out the world surrounding the central characters, and consequently they often packed a punch, so to speak, into the tiny tidbit-of-a-role they had.  Good character actors are the spice and color of a film; they are the sort of people of which the world is full—the “common man” incarnate in a particular way, a personality in a crowd.  After all, let’s face it—perhaps it’s true that everyone wants to be Cary Grant (“Even Cary Grant,” as the man himself once said), but the stereotypical hero of a story can often be less colorful than the life-like characters that surround him: the dying old soldier, the hot-tempered Italian grandmother, the dottering country minister, the local drunk, the obsequious villain’s side-kick, the drawling farm boy, the loony old professor, the brusque British police inspector, the wise-cracking taxi driver. 
Victor McLaglen, a Ford regular
These people aren’t the meat-and-potatoes of a film, but they certainly are the relish; and one director who knew this full-well was the legendary Irish-American John Ford.  Ford had a peculiar talent for gathering around him a group of actors and actresses he would reuse again and again as steady characters that seem to link together all his cinema creations into a cohesive whole.  Take for instance, Ford’s cavalry films—She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, and Rio Grande—each of the movies has an almost identical cast, with a few notable exceptions, and some of the characters even have the same names in the different movies. Ford, a compositional genius, doubtless knew that standardizing his background cast could unify and tighten the impression his films were to make on his audience. When you begin watching his movies, you start to grow accustomed to seeing the same faces in their old place; it’s an evocative sensation, giving the impression that members of a family are gathering around to tell a tale together.  There is a peculiar sort of comfort and delight in seeing those familiar figures again and again, in varying roles but always solidly delivering performances that heighten the atmospheric tint of the whole film.
Peter Lorre
Guy Kibbee
         So, here’s to the character actors, the fellows in the background, the faces in the street. They spice up the stories we love and make them that more believable, because they are tastes of real life–equally full of interesting and unusual people who don’t fit the stereotypes of hero or heroine. They remind us of people we’ve met and known, even in passing, and so they have become to us—as Lane put it—like old friends.   

Lost Imagination

If there is one rule that I have learned from the children in my life, it is this: that if children are not given an occupation, they will demonstrate a special capacity to “occupy themselves.” Or, to put it simply, when children have nothing to do, they will find something to do—even if all they can find to do is mischief.  
However quietly he may be sitting, a child will never quiet his imagination; he looks at the world around him with fresh eyes and sees in it fantastic and fabulous things. Any adult knows this truth merely from remembering the time as a child he spent in waiting rooms, or playing alone in his backyard, or following his mother around as she ran errands.  It is as natural to an adult as to a child to seek to occupy oneself somehow—if only with one’s thoughts. It is merely that a man has learned to hide it better. Waiting in the doctor’s office, a child will ask his mother loudly why the lady on the other side of the room looks like Cruella DeVille. The grown man will not ask this aloud—possibly only because his mother is not there to answer—but he will certainly ask it, and perhaps answer it, in the silence of his mind. 
Yet, in our day, moments of simple waiting are nearly obsolete.  From waiting in line at the coffee shop to waiting for a red light to change, in an age of instant communication and entertainment we feel the need to communicate or be entertained not only instantly but constantly.  With our iPhones and blackberries, we now carry with us everywhere the limitless ability to waste moments of waiting.  And that is a death-warrant to our opportunity to contemplate the world about us, and a fatal blow to our imagination.
It was once much less easy to so fill up one’s “waiting” time.  In G.K. Chesterton’s essay “What I Found In My Pocket,” this genial giant of a writer found himself on a train without any regular form of amusement or occupation, having neither book nor newspaper nor anything to write on—and not even any advertisements to look at. “Now I deny most energetically,” Chesterton declares in this desperate situation, “that anything is, or can be, uninteresting.”  That one rule may be called the grounding principle upon which GKC’s philosophy of natural wonder is based—and, true to form, Chesterton lived it out in this particular situation, simply by exploring the contents of his pockets.  Among other things, he discovered a pocket-knife, chalk, and a box of matches.  In each case, his imagination runs wild, inspired by the object he is contemplating: in the pocket-knife he sees “the mystery of the thing called iron and of the thing called steel”; the chalk calls to his mind “all the art and all the frescoes of the world.”  Free from the distractions of daily duties and usual occupations during his train ride, he saw in what could have been a dull time a richly fertile opportunity for his imagination, for him to contemplate the miraculous and mysterious element in every ordinary thing around him, from wood to tram tickets to coins.
Such a child-like attitude and simplicity which can take an unabashed interest in little things is swiftly disappearing—or at least growing decidedly uncommon. The bored child and the bored man in the waiting room who take an interest in the people and things about them are a dying race.  No one in a waiting room sits unoccupied, merely contemplating their surroundings—except the very old and the very young. Nowadays, your average fellow indeed turns to his pockets; but he does not pull out a pocket knife or a piece of chalk. He pulls out a phone and begins texting. Or tweeting. Or checking Facebook. He is occupied; he is entertained; but his imagination is dead.
As Chesterton’s own musings illustrate, an imagination is like the artist in each soul: it cannot flourish except when given time, space, freedom—in short, a blank canvas. If we perpetually fill every free space in our day with some form of entertainment or communication or “networking,” there is no time left to see the beauty and potential of realities right under our noses; no time to imagine, to contemplate; no time left for our own creation.