In Sinu Jesu

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A few weeks ago a friend of mine sent me a book by an anonymous Benedictine monk which had just been published: In Sinu Jesu. I have been reading it slowly in the adoration chapel of the seminary here in Heiligenkreuz, and although I haven’t finished yet, it has already made a deep impression on me. It is the sort of book that one wants to read in chapel; and this makes it difficult to write about. It a book about the intimacies of prayer, and therefore not one that lends itself to “blogesterial” discussion. It is a book that should be read in silence. It is a journal that the author kept at adoration, and consists largely of words “given” to Him by our Lord and our Lady. These words are mostly about prayer, and adoration, and sacrifice, about friendship with Jesus, and about the renewal of the priesthood. Readers who want to get a flavor of it can consult Peter Kwasniewski’s posts at Rorate Caeli and The New Liturgical Movementas well as the excerpts that Dom Mark Kirby has posted at Vultus Christi.

One theme that struck me particularly was the theme of loneliness, and the flight from loneliness into the trap of distraction, and the necessity of withdrawing from distraction in order to feel the pain of loneliness so that that pain can be healed by Communion with God. This is a theme that I have been reflecting on from from a quite different perspective in my dissertation on David Foster Wallace, and so I was struck by the words on it here. Consider the following passage:

I want you to tell priests of the desires of My Heart. I will give you many opportunities to do this. Make known to them these things that I have made known to you. So many of My priests have never really heard and understood the invitation to an exclusive and all-fulfilling friendship with Me. And so, they feel alone in life. They are driven to seek out in other places and in creatures unworthy of the undivided love of their consecrated hearts, the fullness of happiness and hope and peace that only I can give them. So many go forward in bitterness and disappointment. They seek to fill the emptiness within with vain pursuits, with lust, with possessions, with food and drink. They have Me, very often, near to them in the Sacrament of My love, and they leave Me there alone… (p. 27)

The theme is of course a traditional one, because it has to do with the condition of fallen man as such. Exiled from friendship with God through original sin, mankind wanders through the regio dissimilitudinis, and tries to numb the pain through importunitas mentis, inquietudo corporis, instabilitas (vel loci vel propositi), verbositas, and curiositas. 

The problem is a perennial human problem, but it takes on a particular character in the Cartesian universe of modernity, more prone to  anxieties of isolation and insecurity that to those of dependence and finality (to use Fritz Rieman’s jargon). The classic modern expression was given at the very dawn of modernity by Pascal in his analysis of diversion in the Pensées, and it recurs throughout the modern era— not only in Catholic writers such as Walker Percy, but also in non-Catholic ones as diverse as Kierkegaard, Paul de Legarde, Heidegger, and David Foster Wallace. Wallace is particularly interesting because of his insistence on loneliness as the root problem (cf. my discussion of this on The Great Concavity). I need scarcely say that while I think those authors are good at setting up the problem, most of them do not have a clear grasp of the solution…

In Sinu Jesu treats the problem particularly as it presents itself in the priestly life. The author is both a monk and a priest, and he shows how fitting it is for all priests to live at least some elements of monastic life. These elements are aimed at leading the soul into the “desert,” as it were, where it is free of diversions and distractions, and becomes able to feel the pain of the loneliness of sin, in order then to receive the healing consolation of Christ. In the Western Rite, all priests are at least required to live a celibate life, and In Sinu Jesu is in part a wonderful reflection on the beautiful and prophetic witness of celibacy. And yet priests engaged in the cura animarum, especially in a modern world that is so intent on diversion (and so skilled in producing it) can so easily fall into diversion’s trap and in “seek in other places” the consolation that can only really be found in Christ.

One of the most moving things about In Sinu Jesu is the constant repeated message that in this earthly pilgrimage true consolation can be found easily in the Adoration of Christ in the viaticum, the way-bread of our journey, in which we already have a foretaste of the union with God that we hope for in Heaven:

There is no need for you or any priest to remain alone. My Heart is open to all my priest sons, and to those who ask for it, I will not refuse the grace of a special intimacy with me, a participation in the unique grace given Saint Joseph and Saint John in the beginning. (p. 36)

I am He who understands every man’s loneliness, especially the loneliness of My priests. I want to share their loneliness so that they will not be alone with themselves, but alone with Me. There I shall speak to their hearts as I am speaking to you. I am ablaze to be for each one of My priests the Friend whom they seek, the Friend with whom they can share everything, the Friend to whom they can tell everything, the Friend who will weep over their sins without, for a moment, ceasing to love them. (p. 14)

The revival of Eucharistic Adoration among the Catholic movements of our time is one of the more unexpected “signs of the times”. If one looks for signs of life in the Catholic Church in Western Europe, one finds them almost always in movements and groups who put a good deal of emphasis on Eucharistic Adoration. A development that became very visible at World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne. Who would have expected this development? The Liturgical Movement in the 20th century considered Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass to be a dangerous habit, which might lead hearts away from the Sacrifice of the Mass itself, into an “Emmanuel piety” of Divine presence divorced from the Cross (cf. Dom Gommaire Laporta’s extraordinary polemic Eucharistic Piety). But In Sinu Jesu shows how, properly understood, the Adoration of the Eucharistic presence leads into and deepens the participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice:

Many priests do not have a real and practical faith in My Eucharistic presence. Do they not know that the Eucharist encloses within itself all the merits of My Passion? Let them recover the faith of their childhood. Let them come to find Me there where I am waiting for them and I, for My part, shall work miracles of grace and holiness in them. (p. 14)

In adoration, and from it, as from an ever-flowing fountain, you will receive the love that makes suffering precious and makes you like Me in the hour of My Sacrifice on the altar of the Cross. The more you adore Me, the better equipped you will be to accept suffering and to live it in union with My Passion… (p. 146)

In a way, In Sinu Jesu reads like a commentary on Pope Benedict XVI’s sermon at the closing Mass of World Youth Day 2005. Not a speculative commentary, but an experiential illustration. I’m convinced that any reader who is willing to enter into the spirit of this book will be inspired with a new desire for union with God in prayer. I cannot recommend it too highly.

Tilman Riemenschneider, Last Supper - Detail

The Great Concavity

Matt Bucher and Dave Laird invited me to be a guest on the latest episode of their David Foster Wallace podcast, The Great Concavity. We had a thought provoking conversation, and a lot of fun. (I also make some dumb mistakes, eg. at the beginning when I am talking about the Cistercian order and put our founding in the wrong century). I got to discuss the dissertation that I have been writing about Wallace and moral theology, which will hopefully be done soon, and to hear a summary of Dave’s master’s thesis on Christian soteriology in Infinite Jest. 

I have blogged a little about Wallace in the past; here are some of my posts:

Individualism and Totalitarianism in Charles de Koninck and David Foster Wallace

I read a paper on individualism and totalitarianism in the writings of David Foster Wallace and Charles de Koninck (see below) at a conference on “Political Demononolgy” at Worcester College, Oxford on Friday. The talks were about all sorts of things from all sorts of perspectives. And many of them were quite good. Conor Cunningham’s keynote on evil as the refutation of eliminative materialism was hilariously funny (“Some of you might be interested in the political implication of all this. But I don’t do politics; I’m from Belfast.” “I hope you don’t read Bataille— he’s crap.”). Adrian Papst gave a wonderfully clear and convincing paper on the pessimism of liberalism— looking at Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, and making a plea for a politics of the pursuit of common ends. And Henry Mead gave a fascinating paper on the idea of original sin in T.E. Hulme, and his guild-socialist friend A. R. Orage. Sadly I had to leave before the final keynote by Elizabeth Frazer, but I have heard that a recording will be made available soon. I met some people that I only know through the internet— including Andrew Cusack, whose excellent blog I have followed for years.

I have pasted my talk below, and have also made it available in audio and pdf formats.


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

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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

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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

Abstract

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.

David Foster Wallace on Anamnesis

This had been one of Hal’s deepest and most pregnant abstractions […] That we’re all lonely for something we don’t know we’re lonely for. How else to explain the curious feeling that he goes around feeling like he misses somebody he’s never even met? Without the universalizing abstraction, the feeling would make no sense. (Infinite Jest, p. 1053, note 281).

I think this a marvelous description of what I have called nostalgia, the condition for the sense of recollection of amnamnesis when one then meets the somebody one has not yet met.

Post-Novelistic Age

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Olivier Charles’s design for the Stockholm Library

Essays by novelists lamenting the de-throning of the novel as the preeminent narrative art form of our culture have become a familiar genre. Jonathan Franzen is a particularly distinguished practitioner of the form. Recently Will Self published such an essay in the Guardian. Self (what a marvelous name for a novelist!) argues that the novel has been dethroned by the emergence of less challenging media of narration. The decline began, he thinks, a long time ago with the emergence of film, radio, TV and such things. The novel itself began when certain conditions in the technology of print media were developed, it then lasted beyond its time—all the way up till the late 20th century it retained great cultural power—but now it is almost finished becoming a niche-art without influence on the wider culture. Continue reading

Martin Mosebach

Martin Mosebach with a confrère of mine

Martin Mosebach with a confrère of mine

Martin Mosebach is well known in the German speaking world for his brilliant, cutting edge novels for which he received the prestigious Büchner Prize in 2007. But he has also written a collection of polemical essays on the Roman Liturgy from a traditionalist point of view–so far the only one of his works translated into English. This makes him a bit of a puzzle to German churchmen.  He does not fit the cliché description of a “traditionalist,” “Latin Mass” Catholic.  He seems like a throw back to certain writers of the first half of the 20th century who were both top notch writers and traditionalist Christians. The English speaking world had plenty of these both Catholic (Evelyn Waugh) and Anglican (T.S. Eliot). The likes of Eliot and Waugh provided devastating descriptions of a modern society (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”) which they considered to have gone astray, and the also proposed the a cure in the form of a return to traditional Christianity. Mosebach might be read this way as well, but there seems to me to be a difference. Comparing the two Mosebach novels that I have read, Der Mond und das Mädchen (2007) and Was davor geschah (2010), to Waugh’s satirical novels there seems to me to be something subtly different going on. To be sure Mosebach is concerned with showing the emptiness of a culture drained of Christian faith and morality just as much as Waugh is, but the difference is that Waugh thinks there is still something to be done about it. Mosebach, it seems to me, doesn’t; he doesn’t think that the culture as a whole has any chance of returning to Christianity.

The result is that Mosebach gives a much more detached narration of his stories than Waugh. The narrator of Was davor geschah tells us that one of the characters is not motivated by “predilection for the aesthetics delights of decline and ruin” (Vorliebe für die ästhetischen Wonnen des Niedergangs). But Mosebach does seem to show a keen enjoyment of such delights. Mosebach’s novels are very similar to Waugh’s A Handful of Dust in describing the ruin that people run into by flippant disregard for the moral order, but while Waugh’s book is written with bitter wit, Mosebach’s is written with a kind of aestheticising elegant distance–like a 19th century novelist describing a landscape. Mosebach himself makes something like this point in an interview. There he states that he cultivates an abstract relation to his material, trying to treat his characters like musical themes which he then develops into a kind of symphonic composition.

It is interesting to compare Mosebach’s detached view of the contemporary culture that he despises and considers himself to have transcended with morally serious contemporary writers who see themselves as part of the culture, and struggling with its moral contradictions. In an earlier post I compared two such writers, Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace with respect to the problem of necessity. I argued that Franzen sees part of the problem with contemporary life in an excess of freedom of choice without the kind of moral necessity that gives life direction and urgency. Wallace, I suggested, shows how the version of necessity that Franzen sees as the saving possibility is insufficient to the extent that it cannot finally ground the good which necessitates. Mosebach too is concerned with the problem of a false necessity that people embrace for the sake of giving their lives direction. In Was davor geschah everyone’s life is destroyed by some of the characters trying to escape the emptiness of their lives by giving themselves over to passion. Mosebach describes this without bitterness or sarcasm, but there is one wonderful passage where he hints that it is all an illusion. It is a chapter called “time holds breath;” a breathtakingly beautiful description of a moonlight sledding party. This is the last paragraph:

We had passed through a no man’s land in the sleds, but no man’s land has no man’s time. We had moved in a great white bag, as though we were still in the world of the unborn. The wintery forrest in the darkness of the night had made everything appear as though it were not yet inevitable, as though there were many combinations possible,  each one about to dissolve again. In the light [of the house] we were back on the tracks on which we had long since been moving. Must I even mention that  despite all the good drink that night Phoebe no longer looked at me?

(Ein Niemandsland hatten wir mit den Rodelschlitten durchfahren, aber im Niemandsland herrscht auch eine Niemandszeit. In einem großen weißen Sack hatten wir uns bewegt, als seien wir noch im Reich der Ungeborenen. Der nächtliche Winterwald hatte alles erscheinen lassen, als sei es noch nicht zwangsläufig, als seien viele Kombinationen möglich, und jede davon bestimmt, alsbald wieder zu verfallen. Im Licht gerieten wir wieder in die Gleise, in denen wir uns längst bewegten. Muß ich hinzufügen, daß Phoebe in dieser hochalkoholisierten Nacht keinen Blick mehr für mich übrig hatte?)

Freedom is Overrated: Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace

The characters in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom have lots of freedom, but their experience seems to teach them that freedom is overrated. Take Patty Berglund reflecting on her own misery:

By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. (p. 181)

In discussing this passage Ross Douthat argues that this sort of problem makes Franzen’s characters so contemptably bourgeois that they are not really worth writing about: Continue reading

David Foster Wallace, Dante, and the Stars

At one point in his Kenyon College Commencement Speech (embedded above; transcript here) David Foster Wallace describes in brilliantly vivid detail the frustrations of standing in line in a supermarket. Our default setting, he says is to burn with impotent rage against the dreariness, misery, and stupidity of the situation. But this is not the only option: Continue reading