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

Per Evangelica Dicta

How are we to understand the silent prayer after the Gospel at Mass: “Per evangelica dicta, deleantur nostra delicta: By the words of the Gospel may our sins be blotted out”? How does the reading of the Gospel blot out our sins? The brilliant German novelist Martin Mosebach in one of the essays in his rather idiosyncratic book on the Liturgy uses this prayer as an argument for having the Gospel read in Latin: the reading of the Gospel is much more than proclamation; in it Christ becomes present, and it thus as the character of a sacramental an efficacious, sin-forgiving blessing. (Häresie der Formlosigkeit, 2nd. ed. 135) I have no problem with reading the Gospel in Latin, but I think that Mosebach’s argument tends to muddle the distinction between sacramental and sacrament a bit. We say a sacrament is efficacious “ex opere operato,” from the work done, but a sacramental “ex opere operantis,” from the work of the doer. Mosebach seems to be wanting the sacramental to work like a sacrament: as if it were irrelevant whether one understood the words of the Gospel for them to have their effect. In the case of a sacrament this is clear; Ronald Knox famously remarked, on being asked to use the vernacular for a Baptism, “the baby doesn’t understand English and the Devil knows Latin.” But in the case of a sacramental this is not at all clear.

Although the subtitle of Mosebach’s book is “On the Roman Liturgy and its Enemy” its spirit is rather Byzantine than Roman. I think this is manifest in many parts of the book, but perhaps nowhere so clearly as in the place just cited. For Byzantine theology does not distinguish between sacraments and sacramentals. There is an old Russian story which gives gives a kind of exaggerated version of what Mosebach seems to be thinking: A monk gives a drunkard a copy of the Gospel in Church Slavonic, and advises him to read it whenever he wants a drink, but the man assures the monk that he does not understand Church Slavonic and the book can be of no use to him.

But the monk went on to assure me that in the very words of the Gospel there lay a gracious power, for in them was written what God himself has spoken. ‘It does not matter very much if at first you do not understand. […] If you do not understand the Word of God, the devils understand what you are reading and tremble […] St. John Chrysostom writes that even a room in which a copy of the Gospels is kept holds the spirits of darkness at bay and becomes an unpromising field for their wiles.’

Now, I don’t want to deny that there might be something to all this, Chrysostom  is a strong authority, but it is hardly likely that this typically Byzantine enthusiasm is what the Roman Liturgy is referring to with “per evangelica dicta…” The Roman tradition places great emphasis on attention to the liturgically proclaimed word, “ut mens nostra concordet voci nostrae” (Regula Benedicti XIX,7). Even one of the most Byzantine-spirited Latin theologians, the “Origen of the 20th century,” H. U. von Balthasar, is very Roman when it comes to this question. Like Origen himself Balthasar occasionally makes a really good point:

It is essential to listen [to the word] obediently and with full attention, not least as a means of purification and preparation for holy communion (“You are made clean by the word which I have spoken to you” [Jn 15:3]; “Per evangelica dicta deleantur nostra delicta”). This attention is therefore necessary as a liturgical act, i.e., an act pertaining to the worship of the whole Church. Consequently it is wrong to isolate this act, which can only be a personal act, and as such makes ready for the sacramental act of holy communion, and to sacramentalize it, ascribing to it a kind of ex opere operato effect which is totally foreign.

The contact which we have with the Word in the Gospel is a preparation for the union which we will have with Him in through the Sacrament, which is itself a foretaste of the union which we will have with Him in the Beatific Vision.

The contact with him in the Gospel is the contact of faith. Blessed Columba Marmion’s Christ the Life of the Soul is largely concerned with how the contact that we have with Christ through faith is the foundation of the spiritual life and our adoption as sons. Thus when the Gospel is proclaimed in we come into real contact with the Light of the world, who reveals to us our sin and blots it out on condition that we believe:

For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting. For God sent not his Son into the world, to judge the world, but that the world may be saved by him. He that believeth in him is not judged. But he that doth not believe, is already judged: because he believeth not in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment: because the light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light: for their works were evil. For every one that doth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, that his works may not be reproved. But he that doth truth, cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, because they are done in God. (Jn 3:16-21)