A Dialogue on Star Wars

Baring (standing), Over-Bearing (right), Past-Bearing (left)

Over-BearingFew things shows how far the world has sunken since our time more clearly than an American college lecturer reflecting on his students difficulty in reading children’s books [he reads aloud from  John Senior’s The Restoration of Christian Culture]:

In my own direct experience teaching literature at universities, I have found a large plurality of students who find, say, Treasure Island what they call “hard reading,” which means too difficult to enjoy with anything approaching their delight in Star Wars or electronic games.

Has it indeed come to this? That the descendants of the peoples of Christendom— of the peoples who built the great cathedrals, who conquered and instructed worlds— that the descendants of such peoples should have fallen so low that they cannot even enjoy Mr. Stevenson’s simple adventure stories.  No one could accuse me of being overly optimistic about the effects of the death of Christian civilization, but even I did not expect man to fall so far below the beasts that his keenest enjoyment would be found in Star Wars. Star Wars! That dismal mush of pantheism, gnosticism, and sentimentality, so illogical that in our day a child of five years would have laughed it to scorn.

Past-BearingYou are quite wrong to see in the popularity of Star Wars a sign of how far our race has fallen since the end of civilization. On the contrary— Star Wars is proof that how ever far the world has fallen, human nature cannot be entirely corrupted, and that despite the reigning dogma’s of anti-culture, the common man can still tell the difference between good and evil, and delights in stories about the triumph of the one over the other. The miracle of Star Wars is that it shows a world of machines and space-ships in which the most important thing is mystery of the good; the magic of an “ancient religion.” In the figure of Luke Skywalker the inhabitants of the dreary wasteland of a world dis-enchanted by godlessness and capitalism, can see themselves discovering that after all the world is a mighty battle field between super-natural powers. Star Wars is not art, but it is something much more important: it is story about the truth of our magical world. It is to these sad times, what penny dreadfuls were to ours.

Over-Bearing: Nonsense. Star Wars is not a story told by the simple for their own amusement. It is a powerful propaganda weapon made at great expense by Californian plutocrats, members of the world wide conspiracy of anti-Catholics and usurers. It was made to confuse the notions of good and evil, and muddle the minds of the world’s children.

Past-Bearing: My dear Over-Bearing, the truth is quite the opposite of what you say. It is precisely the proud intellectuals of the new anti-culture who decry Star Wars for being “puerile” and lacking “subtlety” in its depiction of good and evil— that is, for not mixing them up enough— for making the good good and the evil evil. Hence children spontaneously love Star Wars. It is the relativists and soft-Nietzscheans, and Picasso lovers who decry it as the end of culture.

Over-Bearing: That man may be an ass, who considers Picasso an artist, but he is quite right that Star Wars is mindless distraction that is passively consumed, destroying rather than nourishing the imagination. You yourself has magnificently shown that real fairy tales are quite reasonable, and make perfect sense. But Star Wars makes no sense at all; it is full of the most illogical stupidity. Not to mention the gnostic dualism.

Past-Bearing: It is true that some of the more tiresome characters talk solemn nonsense of a gnostic sort. But the portrayal of good and evil in action is entirely Christian, and even entirely Catholic. Evil is exaggeratedly great appearance, but weak in substance— a shadowy privation of being. Hence many of the apparent absurdities and impossibilities show themselves to be entirely logical. That the Storm Troopers are so feared, and yet are all such comically bad shots. That the evil empire is so powerful, and yet so easy to destroy. When Luke walks unarmed into the the stronghold of the enemy at the end of Return of the Jedi, he shows us again the greatest story ever told: the story of the weakness of the good proving itself stronger than the strength of evil.

Over-BearingPast-Bearing, you are indeed past all bearing. You cannot be comparing that spoiled, whining whelp, Luke Skywalker, to our Savior?

Past-Bearing: The tone of Skywalker’s voice might not be the most euphonious, but it is necessary in order that American teenagers might see him as being of their kind. As the theologians say: quod non est assumptum non est sanatum.

[Exit Over-Bearing in disgust]

[Baring, who has been listening in interest all the while, while pretending to write a triolet, lays down his pen].

Baring: Your defense of Star Wars is all very well, Past-Bearing, but surely it doesn’t apply to The Force Awakens. The original trilogy (despite its vulgarity and sentimentality) had a certain inventiveness, an innocent delight in the revealing of new-worlds. To see the old Star Wars was to walk through an enchanted door and to see again, as though half remembered, the light upon the enchanted world of childhood. But the new film is dull affair made by a committee of capitalists. A tent-pole film so anxious to please the admirers of the original that it repeats almost frame for frame the plot of A New Hope. So anxious not to be boring, that it rushes along at a frantic pace without time for enjoyment. A film so pedantically obsessed with the politically correct opinions that the heroine becomes a sort of feminist Mary Sue, for whom everything is so easy that nothing matters. Force Awakens is the very paragon of  unimaginative and decadent art.

Past-Bearing: Oh, but repetition is the very essence of the age-old story of good and evil. And typology is the genius of The Force AwakensSurely decadent art is obsessed with novelty? Nostalgia is the mark of truly human stories: Virgil is nostalgic, Dante is nostalgic [cf. the conclusion of this post].  And as to Rey: I find no fault with her role in the story. Does she not show us that great, triumphant, and eternally exciting truth: that one good girl is more powerful than a great many bad men in masks? That the goodness of a little girl is fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners?

[enter Duff Cooper, a little drunk]

Duff Cooper: I say, let’s go see The Force Awakens.

Past-Bearing [gets up with alacrity]: Yes, do let’s

Baring: Oh, all right.

Michel Houellebecq on France’s Distributist Future

I recently listened to an audiobook of the German translation of Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel Soumission— which, as most readers will know, is about Muslim party taking power in France. I am working on a review, and have been checking my favorite passages in the French original. I hope to complete the full review soon, but in the mean time here is a  rough translation of some passages in which Houellebecq discusses distributism. The main objective of the new government is to strengthen the family, and for this purpose they turn to distributism:

Apart from this superficial agitation, France was in the midst of rapid development and profound change. It soon became clear that Mohammed Ben Abbes [the new Muslim president of France] had other ideas apart from Islam; in a press conference he declared to general astonishment that he was influenced by distributism. Actually he had already mentioned this multiple times during his campaign, but since journalists are very naturally inclined to ignore information that they cannot understand, these statements were not passed on to the public. This time he was the sitting president of the republic so that it was necessary for them to bring their research up to date. And so the public learned over the next few weeks that distributism was an economic philosophy that had been developed in England at the start of the 20th century by thinkers such as Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. It wanted to take a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism (which it understood as state capitalism). Its basic idea was the overcoming of the division between capital and labor. The normal form of economic life was to be the family business. If certain branches of production required large scale organization, then everything was to be done to ensure that the workers were co-owners of their company, and co-responsible for its management.  […] An essential element of political philosophy introduced by Chesterton and Belloc was the principle of subsidiarity. According to this principle, no association (whether social, economic or political) should have charge of a function that could be assigned to a smaller association. Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, provided a definition of this principle: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

(Au-delà de cette agitation superficielle, la France était en train d’évoluer rapidement, et d’évoluer en profondeur. Il apparut bientôt que Mohammed Ben Abbes, même indépendamment de l’islam, avait des idées ; lors d’une séance de questions à la presse, il se déclara influencé par le distributivisme, ce qui plongea ses auditeurs dans un ébahissement général. Il l’avait à vrai dire déjà déclaré, à plusieurs reprises, au cours de la campagne présidentielle ; mais les journalistes ayant une tendance bien naturelle à ignorer les informations qu’ils ne comprennent pas, la déclaration n’avait été ni relevée, ni reprise. Cette fois, il s’agissait d’un président de la république en exercice, il devenait donc indispensable qu’ils mettent à jour leur documentation. Le grand public apprit ainsi au cours des semaines suivantes que le distributivisme était une philosophie économique apparue en Angleterre au début du xxe siècle sous l’impulsion des penseurs Gilbert Keith Chesterton et Hilaire Belloc. Elle se voulait une « troisième voie », s’écartant aussi bien du capitalisme que du communisme – assimilé à un capitalisme d’État. Son idée de base était la suppression de la séparation entre le capital et le travail. La forme normale de l’économie y était l’entreprise familiale ; lorsqu’il devenait nécessaire, pour certaines productions, de se réunir dans des entités plus vastes, tout devait être fait pour que les travailleurs soient actionnaires de leur entreprise, et coresponsables de sa gestion. […] Un des éléments essentiels de la philosophie politique introduite par Chesterton et Belloc était le principe de subsidiarité. D’après ce principe, aucune entité (sociale, économique ou politique) ne devait prendre en charge une fonction pouvant être confiée à une entité plus petite. Le pape Pie XI, dans son ency- clique Quadragesimo Anno, fournissait une définition de ce principe: «Tout comme il est mauvais de reti- rer à l’individu et de confier à la communauté ce que l’entreprise privée et l’industrie peuvent accomplir, c’est également une grande injustice, un mal sérieux et une perturbation de l’ordre convenable pour une organisation supérieure plus large de s’arroger les fonctions qui peuvent être effectuées efficacement par des entités inférieures plus petites.»  [Soumission, pp. 201-202, 210])

Isidore of Seville and Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel Defend the Seminar Method Against the Immoderate Attacks of John Senior

JOHN Senior’s book The Restoration of Christian Culture  is almost pure joy to read. Senior captures so perfectly the ideals of a very good sort of person, a sort that I happen to know well. The sort of Chesterton-and-Belloc reading home-schooling mid-western American Catholic that used to write for C & T.  Only he says things better than most such people. The Restoration of Christian Culture is written in such vigor and emphasis that at times it attains to prose intoxicating enough to have been written by Belloc himself. Still, for TAC graduates the jabs he makes at our alma mater are kind of annoying. After slamming the great-books movement in general for fostering skepticism (he was at Columbia back in the day), he admits that the Catholic version is somewhat better but that it would be good if the “Thomist philosophers among them” would remember that means must be proportioned to ends, and that the medievals didn’t see any use in “class discussion.”

I was reminded of this reading Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel’s Diadema MonachorumSmaragdus was a ninth century French monk, who wrote the oldest surviving commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict. The Diadema is a collection of quotes from the fathers to be read at the collatio, the communal reading before Compline. In a chapter on the collatio itself, Smaragdus quotes the following passage from Isidore of Seville:

Cum sit utilis ad instruendum lectio, adhibita autem conlatione maiorem intellegentiam praebet; melius est enim conferre quam legere. Conlatio docibilitatem facit; nam propositis interrogationibus cunctatio rerum excluditur, et saepe obiectionibus latens ueritas adprobatur. Quod enim obscurum est aut dubium, conferendo cito perspicitur. (Sententiae III.14)

Kees Waaihman translates as follows:

Whereas lectio is good for instruction, collatio furnishes more insight. After all, conducting a conference is better than giving a lecture. A collation makes things comprehensible. Subject matter is set in motion because questions are raised. Frequently hidden truth is proved by objections. For what is obscure and doubtful is soon made transparent by a conference.

In his commentary on chapter 42 of the Holy Rule of St. Benedict Smaragdus explains a little more what is meant by “collatio”:

A ‘conference’ means a ‘bringing, speaking and chatting together’, in which while some bring questions about the divine Scriptures, others bring suitable answers, and in this way things that had long remained hidden become open and manifest to those taking part in the conference. (Smaragdus, In RB 42; translation David Barry)

Hmm, what would John Senior say?

Usury and Growth

I am by no means an admire of leftist politics, but I must admit that the English Labour MP in the above clip is attacking a real evil. The so-called payday loan companies that give short-term loans at a very high rate of interest are a particularly clear and extreme example of the injustice of usury. They exploit the distress of the poor, enticing them into an unjust contract, obligating them to exchange (say) £182 for  £100.

Payday loans are clearly absurd, but they are typical for an economic system in which usury is the default solution to bottle necks both in supply and in demand. Leftist analysis of economic injustice is often as insightful as Leftist solutions are disastrous. Take a look at David Harvey’s application of Marx’s analysis of the internal contradictions of capital accumulation to the current situation:

That’s a remarkably pithy summary of the basic underlying dynamics of the system. The first point at which usury enters into the system is in supply. Supply is supposed to work by a capitalist taking money, buying means of production, hiring labour, and and using an industrial technology to produce enough of a commodity to pay for the means of production + labour + a profit. The first point at which usury enters into the system is simply to accumulate enough capital at the right place and time to get the system going. But this means that enough of the commodity has to be produced to pay for means of production + labour + interest on debt + a profit. Unless of course one delays re-paying the debt, for then one can reinvest part of the profit in an expansion, and pay from the expanded profit. This is the first point at which growth becomes vital: one needs to be able to expand. The imperative to expand is of course also strengthened by competition (not to mention greed).

Now an interesting problem arises: it’s simply what G.K. Chesterton identifies as the basic contradiction of capitalism: namely that it wants the mass of men to be both poor (since their wealth comes from wages) and rich (since they are the capitalist’s customers). Another way of stating the paradox is to say: where does the necessary surplus demand come from to keep the growth going? Marx explains the contradiction by means of a simplified model of the economy: if you had an economy entirely divided between capitalists and workers increase in demand can’t come from the workers, since they can’t possibly spend more money than is paid to them in wages. So the capitalists themselves have to supply the surplus effective demand. But how is that possible? Well, the answer is of course by usury. But now it’s lending money to the consumer. Credit cards are a great example here. This is money lent to increase demand in order to drive growth. So now you have a system in which both supply and demand are financed by usury which always depends on future expansion. Hence debt increases with the growth of the economy. The whole thing is an elaborate Ponzi scheme that only works as long as there is a very high rate of growth.

But of course one can answer to this that in fact it has worked pretty well. Every once in a while there’s a depression in which a lot of people go bust and the system starts over again as it where from scratch, but for the most part the economy keeps growing. And while perhaps we have more usurers making unjust gains than in earlier economies, we also have less people starving. Is constant growth such a bad thing? What about “be fruitful and multiply” and all that. This is the line of argument taken up by Edward Hadas in a book that I have just begun reading. In the introduction Hadas remarks that he began the book intending it to be simply a condemnation of the modern economic world. Synthesizing the thinking of the anti-capitalist Jewish left in which Hadas was raised, and the anti-modernist strand of Catholic Social Teaching to which he had been converted. But soon he came to think that a tout-court condemnation was an inadequate response to what he calls the “pro-life” features of modern industrial capitalist economy. This economy, he contends, allows the world to support many more people, and allowed them to live longer, healthier lives, and expand their knowledge of creation. “A life-lover cannot simply dismiss these accomplishments as meaningless.” (p. xvi) So Hadas goes about trying to formulate a constructive critique of the system. Hadas’s point made me think of a chilling scene in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedomwhere the misanthropic Walter attacks economic growth:

Mainstream economic theory, both Marxist and free-market, Walter said, took for granted that economic growth was always a positive thing. A GDP growth rate of one or two percent was considered modest, and a population growth rate of one percent was considered desirable, and yet, he said, if you compounded these rates over a hundred years, the numbers were terrible: a world population of eighteen billion and world energy consumption ten times greater than today’s. And if you went another hundred years, with steady growth, well, the numbers were simply impossible.  […] “I mean, everybody is so obsessed with growth, but when you think about it, for a mature organism, a growth is basically a cancer, right? If you have a growth in your mouth, or a growth in your colon, it’s bad news, right?” (pp. 121-122)

An anti-life vision if ever there was one. In a brilliant undergraduate essay Caleb Cohoe once made a “pro-life” argument for capitalist economy similar to Hadas’s, in which he points out that Aristotle thought that one had to prevent poverty by limiting population including by infanticide and abortion.

But then again, if one looks at the actual effect of the globalization of the capitalist system in our times one sees that it has spread abortion and contraception to the four corners of the globe. So I’m looking forward to seeing how Hadas’s unfolds his project of a pro-life re-thinking of our economic life.

On Jokes and the Difference between Austria and Prussia

I think that the carnival is an irrational institution, and that St Philip Neri was entirely right to try to abolish it. The irrationality is mostly limited to February, but in German-speaking parts it “officially” begins on the 11th of November. This is because of the confusion of the “little” pre-Advent carnival with the “big” pre-Lent carnival to form one giant “carnival Season”. Various rationalizations have been attempted for the carnival. What interests me about them is that they fall into basically two types, which correspond to the two accounts of the nature of jokes that I referred to in my last post as the Prussian and the Austrian view. Continue reading