Nuclear Explosion of Joy

Leicester City has won the Premier League. This is the greatest achievement in the history of kicking balls into goals. This is like Hobbits defeating Sauron.

Yes, of course professional football is an evil capitalist spectacle and all that, blah, blah blah. But… but: sometimes things happen that remind us that it is a good thing for humankind to exist on earth. Et delectabar per singulos dies, ludens coram eo omni tempore, ludens in orbe terrarum; et deliciæ meæ esse cum filiis hominum.

alienorum peccatorum participes efficiantur

“That’s all?” a penitent, whose confession I had just heard, once said when I gave him his penance. I immediately thought of a passage of the Council of Trent’s Decree on Penance:

The priests of the Lord must therefore, so far as reason and prudence suggest, impose salutary and suitable satisfactions, in keeping with the nature of the crimes and the ability of the penitents; otherwise, if they should connive at sins and deal too leniently with penitents, imposing certain very light works for very grave offenses, they might become partakers in the sins of others.

There are a number of difficulties in applying this passage. The most serious is that a severe penance (especially given how rarely such penances are given nowadays) can be discouraging to the penitent. St Alphonsus discusses the problem at length:

The confessor should give a penance that he considers will further the penitent’s chances at salvation, that is, one that is adapted to his particular condition and one that he judges will be carried out. He should take note that even though Trent demands a penance corresponding to the gravity of the sins, still he may, for a just cause, lessen the penance for a number of reasons. For instance […] when the confessor prudently judges that a penance which corresponds to the sins will not be fulfilled. We know that Trent teaches that penance and sins should correspond to each other, but we say that besides this the penance should correspond to the penitent’s capability. In this way, the penance will be a help and not a hindrance to the penitent’ s salvation. When it happens that the penance is neither helpful to his salvation nor fitted to his particular strength or weakness, then the penance is a poison and not a remedy. And yet in this sacrament, amendment of one’s life is the end intended, rather than making all the satisfaction due for sin. The Ritual says this very thing when it tells the confessor to have “the disposition of the penitent” in mind. […] Gerson, Cajetan, and St. Antoninus all teach that the confessor should impose a penance which he prudently thinks the penitent will be able to handle, and which he will readily accept. If the penitent maintains that a penance is too much for him in his weak condition, then, as the saint points out, “No matter how much he has sinned, he should not be refused absolution, lest he despair.” He goes on to say that it is enough in a case like this, to impose the general penance using the words of the Ritual quidquid boni feceris etc.

The words quidquid boni feceris, to which St, Alphonsus alludes, are from a prayer said after absolution:

May the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, and all the good you do and the suffering you endure, gain for you the remission of your sins, increase of grace, and the reward of everlasting life.

This prayer applies a great deal more to the satisfaction of the temporal punishment of sin than the actual penance imposed.

The simplest solution to the difficulty raised by Trent, however, is the one used by St. Leopold Mandić. Fr. Antonio Sicari describes Mandić’s solution as follows:

I recall […] St. Leopold Mandić, closed for years and years in his confessional, overwhelmed by the sins poured upon him by the penitents. Derided by some because he made all innocent, giving absolution with merciful generosity, and then passed long nights in expiation, trembling with fear for God’s judgement. He had, in fact, sent away the most fragile sinners offering himself in their place: “I will make the penitence for you, I will pray…”

In a sense Mandić did become what Trent calls a “partaker in the sins of others,” but in quite a different sense than the one condemned.

Pliny the Elder as a Blogger; Schopenhauer as Jonathan Franzen

Pliny Younger’s description of the reading habits of his uncle, Pliny the elder, makes the later sound a bit like a blogger constantly reading an RSS feed or listening to a podcast:

On his return home he would again give to study any time that he had free. Often in summer after taking a meal, which with him, as in the old days, was always a simple and light one, he would lie in the sun if he had any time to spare, and a book would be read aloud, from which he would take notes and extracts. For he never read without taking extracts, and used to say that there never was a book so bad that it was not good in some passage or another. After his sun bath he usually bathed in cold water, then he took a snack and a brief nap, and subsequently, as though another day had begun, he would study till dinner-time. After dinner a book would be read aloud, and he would take notes in a cursory way. I remember that one of his friends, when the reader pronounced a word wrongly, checked him and made him read it again, and my uncle said to him, “Did you not catch the meaning?” When his friend said “yes,” he remarked, “Why then did you make him turn back? We have lost more than ten lines through your interruption.” So jealous was he of every moment lost.

Arthur Schopenhauer’s thoughts on the said description sound a bit like Jonathan Franzen ranting about the superficiality of twitter:

Even when it is reported of the elder Pliny that he was always reading or being read to, at table, when travelling, or in his bath, the question suggests itself to me whether the man was so lacking in ideas of his own that those of others had to be incessantly imparted to him, just as a consommé is given to a man suffering from consumption in order to keep him alive. Neither his undiscerning gullibility, nor his inexpressibly repulsive, almost unintelligible, paper-saving, notebook style is calculated to give me a high opinion of his ability to think for himself.

A Commanding Rhythm

In an excerpt from an introduction to a forthcoming collection of David Foster Wallace’s writings on tennis, John Jeremiah Sullivan, points out an analogy between Wallace’s own achievements as a writer and the achievements of Roger Federer as a tennis-player that Wallace described in his most famous tennis article, “Federer Both Flesh and Not” (originally published with the title “Federer as Religious Experience”). Just as Federer had the genius to overcome the apparently “final” form of tennis in the “power baseline” style, and recover “an all-court style” and “art,” so Wallace “working in a form that is also (perpetually?) said to be at the end of its evolution […] when at his best, showed new ways forward.”

I think that Sullivan is right about that analogy, but I think he misses another, seemingly more obvious analogy between Wallace’s art and tennis. In discussing Wallace’s argument “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” that the inability of great athletes to describe what it feels like to have such greatness follows immediately from the essence of their greatness, which is a lack of self-consciousness allowing them to be entirely present in the moment, Sullivan writes “The writer, existing only in reflection, is of all beings most excluded from the highest realms.” This seems to me wrong. The writer’s gift is much more analogous to the athlete’s than Sullivan lets on. Wallace describes Tracy Austin’s “technē” as, “that state in which Austin’s mastery of craft facilitated a communion with the gods themselves.” But this could just as well serve as a description of the achievement of a great writer such as Wallace himself. At first glance it seems true that Wallace’s technē does not have the same element of lack of self-consciousness that is essential to Austin’s, but even Wallace often remarked that when the writing was going well he could not feel is rear end in his chair.

Of Austin Wallace writes that on the court she shares “the particular divinity she’s given her life for” and allows her spectators a kind of transcendence, a view of “transient instantiations of a grace that for most of us remains abstract and immanent.” But Wallace is to my mind doing the very same thing— even in the Austin piece itself.

Sullivan is probably right to call the Federer essay is “possibly Wallace’s finest tennis piece,” but“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” is my favorite. It is an astonishingly great piece of prose. While it lacks some of the maximalist descriptions of the other pieces, the Austin piece has a crystal clarity and a sort of concentrated overall unity: it is a single, relentless movement from the first to the last syllable. To be fully appreciated one ought to read it aloud, or listen to Wallace’s own (highly impressive) reading:

Listening to Wallace read that piece reminds me of something Maurice Baring says about Sarah Bernhardt’s performance of Racine’s Phédre: “her movements and her gestures, her explosions of fury and her outbursts of passion, were subservient to a commanding rhythm.” The beauty of Wallace’s prose rhythm, like all great artistic beauty, is full of sadness, and it is the very sadness that he finds in Tracy Austin’s achievements: the sadness of the transient, mortal character of an aesthetic transcendence that seems to demand eternity and immortality. I am reminded of a passage of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord:

In the experience of worldly beauty the moment is eternity. The form, containing eternity, of the beautiful object communicates something of its supratemporality to the condition of the person who experiences it in contemplation. Nevertheless, the ‘sorrow of the gods’ (Göttertrauer) wafts about the beautiful form, for it must die, and the state of being blissfully enraptured always includes a knowledge of its tragic contradiction: both the act and the object contain within themselves the death that contradicts their very content.

If Balthasar’s words can be applied to Wallace’s non-fiction, they apply even more to his fiction— especially in the darkest parts. Even the darkest and superficially ugliest parts of Oblivion or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men are beautiful, and it is a beauty that intentionally heightens the contradiction to which Balthasar alludes. To quote Balthasar again:

even worldly aesthetics cannot exclude the element of the ugly, of the tragically fragmented, of the demonic, but must come to terms with these. Every aesthetic which simply seeks to ignore these nocturnal sides of existence can itself from the outset be ignored as a sort of aestheticism. It is not only the limitation and precariousness of all beautiful form which intimately belongs to the phenomenon of beauty, but also fragmentation itself, because it is only through being fragmented that the beautiful really reveals the meaning of the eschatological promise it contains.

In Wallace the “eschatological promise” is only ever faintly and hesitatingly suggested, never unequivocally affirmed, but it is always there.

Political Evil


There will be a one-day conference on “the genesis, location, logic, categorisation, or implementation of political evil,” especially as approached in literature and theology, in Oxford on May 20th. I am going to be reading a paper on David Foster Wallace, Michel Houellebecq, and Charles de Koninck. I was pleased to see that they have put portraits of  two of my authors on the conference poster. An Abstract of my paper follows.

The Dialectics of Individualism and Totalitarianism in Charles de Koninck, David Foster Wallace, and Michel Houellebecq


The Laval School Thomist Charles de Koninck (1906-1965) argued that individualism and totalitarianism are both founded on the same misunderstanding of the common good. In both ideologies the common good is seen as a bonum alienum, a good that is not really the good of the members of society, but rather external good that is in some way opposed to the individual good. In individualism the common good (thus misunderstood) is then subordinated to the private goods of individuals, becoming an instrument of individual desires, and debasing politics into an art of balancing private interests. In totalitarianism, on the other hand, the individual is subordinated to the good of the collective, thus debasing the human person to the status of a means to an extrinsic end. Totalitarian subordination can be proposed in at least two ways. In Fascism the subordination of the individual is proclaimed in open and naïve terms. In Marxism-Leninism, on the other hand, it is affirmed in a dialectical fashion, which always holds out the promise of a future transcendence between the opposition of individual and society, the future transcendence, however, cannot mitigate the present opposition.

De Koninck argues that the excesses of each of these paths lead to a desire for the other. The crushing of individual freedom in totalitarian systems makes individualism seem attractive. And conversely the pusillanimity and meaninglessness of individualist societies gives rise to totalitarian temptations of various kinds. I will examine the descriptions of such totalitarian temptations in the fiction of David Foster Wallace and Michel Houellebecq. Showing that both give plausible descriptions of what it feels like in current individualist societies to be subject to the sort of pressures that de Koninck elucidates.

Easter and Sacrifice

Christ, our paschal lamb, was sacrificed. The verse for the Alleluia of Mass during the day on Easter Sunday gives the sacrifice of Christ as the cause of our joy. It is by sacrifice that Christ won His victory over sin and death. What is sacrifice? It is an outward, sensible sign of interior self-giving love. Sin is refusal of love and gift. God wanted to give everything to us; He wanted to give Himself to us. But this gift cannot be received and possessed as a private good; it can only be had as a common good. And a common good is possessed when one gives oneself to it. To receive the gift of God is to give oneself to God. And to give oneself to God is to receive oneself from Him. Hence, as Gaudium et Spes puts it,  “man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

Sin is the refusal to give oneself to the common good, and hence to receive it. Sin is to prefer the private good, that one can have of oneself, to the common good that requires transcendence of the self and communion with others. John of St Thomas (in a text cited by Charles de Koninck in On the Primacy of the Common Good), argues that the fallen angels fell because they did not want to possess beatitude as a common good; they preferred an inferior good which was private and not shared with others, and which therefore did not require self-transcendence:

The parable in Luke 14 bears on this point, the parable about the man who prepared a great dinner and called many and when he called the invited began to excuse themselves. Perhaps they excused themselves from coming to that dinner because it was great and for many, feeling contempt for sharing it with so great a number, and rather chose their own advantages even though they were by far inferior, namely, of the natural order, one because he bought a house, another a yoke of oxen, another because he was marrying, each of them bringing forward his own excuse and private good because it was his own, rejecting the dinner because it was great and common to many. This is most proper to the spirit of pride.

Sacrifice is the antidote to such pride. In sacrifice one gives up a private good to God (eg. by pouring out wine, burning grain, killing cattle) in order to signify that one wants to give oneself God, that one loves Him as the common good, and is willing to give up one’s private good for His sake.

Christ’s sacrifice begins when He takes on our condition as creatures. This is the opposite of sin; the sinner wants to be his own chief good, the final end of his own life, but Christ, does precisely the opposite: “though He was in the form of God,  He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:6-7). But His sacrifice is completed when He gives away His life on the Cross: “and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). This sacrifice is the most perfect imaginable expression of self-donation to God as the common good— He does not give up some private possession, but His very life.

But then God shows that to give to Him is to receive from Him: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name” (Phil 2:9). To give one’s life to God is to receive God’s life as one’s own life— not as a private possession, but as a common good that is shared. Christ receives in His exaltation not only His own life, but also our life— the eternal, blessed life that we receive as members of His body.