Pluralia and the Danse Macabre
(Latin Mass Magazine, Winter, 2002. Revised)
Life is like a dance that plods along, for most people, in rather rigid, unexamined steps. It takes flight and displays its true character only in the movements of those relatively few persons who have understood and enthusiastically embraced its inner spirit. Catholics ought to know that the dance of life, as shaped by the Creator God, is choreographed with such unparalleled splendor that it even exalts someone who only sways to its rhythms mechanically, not to speak of an individual whom it really sets on fire. Still, Catholics, more than anyone else, should also be aware that human beings have the ability so to tamper with the steps of this ballet as to transform it into what I have in previous articles described as a danse macabre.
Unfortunately, modern western civilization has, in fact, choreographed the most complex parody of the dance of life known to human history. Again, those few who understand and embrace the inner spirit of this danse macabre do, indeed, take flight along with it, but into realms where no one ought to soar. The others, the bulk of obedient mankind, leading the unexamined life, are abandoned to a set of maddening gyrations that entangle their steps, impede harmonious movement and throw them into an ever more senseless confusion. In this state, they are susceptible to easy manipulation by those men and women who have grasped what the danse macabre is really all about, and then exploit their knowledge ruthlessly.
Our modern danse macabre, while emerging from one basic pit, has, at times, been twirled to the accompaniment of a variety of differing rhythms. Today, however, it is generally danced to the beat of Pluralism. Long dominant in the United States, Pluralism now also conducts the twisted modern dance of life in the European Union as well. In fact, the entire globe is rapidly becoming one enormous ballroom which, for the sake of my argument, I shall call Pluralia. Here, the essentially bizarre nature of the whole contemporary dance of death is displayed with greater clarity than anywhere else…for anyone with eyes to see. It is, therefore, to the structure of Pluralia and to the character of its irrational and dangerous whirl-a-gig, that this article is dedicated.
Pluralia was built over the course of many centuries. Its construction commenced in the shadows of the High Middle Ages (1000’s-1300’s), and it only began to emerge into public view only during the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment (1300’s-1700’s). Four constituent and yet disjointed elements enter into its blueprint, all of which need to be examined here in some detail. Of these, it is the last which is most crucial to entering into the inner spirit of Pluralia and its supreme version of the danse macabre.
To begin with what was chronologically most important, one must first call attention to the positive, orthodox Catholic part of Pluralia’s blueprint. This involves an affirmation of the value of Creation at the hands of a good God, who restated His love for nature through His commitment to the redemption of its inhabitants by means of the Incarnation. Orthodox Catholicism drilled into the western consciousness out of which Pluralia fished one element of its peculiar structure an awareness of nature as an ordered, meaningful cosmos, destined for the use of human persons, adopted sons of God, who are summoned to perfect their unique individual dignity in free, loving submission to Creation’s various laws and authorities.
A second, later and partially contradictory feature of Pluralia’s blueprint is naturalism: the notion that the ordered, meaningful cosmos, and the perfection of the free individuals who inhabit it must be understood and pursued without reference to the Christian Creator God, on nature’s terms and with nature’s tools alone. One reason why such naturalism could develop was because Christians had so emphasized the glories of nature that they unwittingly encouraged an overestimation of its innate strength and utility. Naturalists of all stripes gained self-confidence when a divided Christendom’s theological polemics and bloody military battlefields discredited its reputation for teaching with certainty and love. Holding high the banner of order, purpose, individual dignity and freedom in one hand, and that of unaided natural wisdom in the other, naturalists claimed to march western man down the path of what would be an inevitable and peacefully united progress towards truth and perfection.
Naturalism, however, brought a certain dilemma in its train. Orthodox Christianity had been able to hold together the two concepts of free, sons of God pursuing their individual perfection and an overarching, objective, ordered, purposeful universe because it recognized that men possessing the liberty to do either good or evil could either accept the divinely willed plan or reject it. Just because individuals might reject order did not mean that the principle of a meaningful universe had to be abandoned. It merely indicated that sinful men had violated its precepts and would pay a price for doing so.
But when Catholicism, with its notion of the possible individually sinful use of freedom in a universe objectivally created for an ordered good, was to a large degree discarded, reconciliation of these two concepts proved not to be such a simple matter. Those who wished to emphasize the order and purpose of nature in a cosmos in which the very possibility of sin was denied began to dismiss the reality of all individual freedom, reducing the person to an automaton, a mere cog in a piece of admirable but relentless machinery, forced to do its mechanical will. On the other hand, anyone who wished to call attention to the unique freedom and dignity of the individual felt a compulsion to erase the objective laws, authority and purpose of a tyrannical cosmos which would otherwise claim to control him. What God had joined together, man did, this time, really pull asunder.
In practice, a naturalist investigation of the order and freedom of Creation quickly began to prove itself to be more threateningly divisive a tool than any offered by divided Christendom. Mechanist scientific studies produced a myriad of diverse ideological “keys” proclaiming the enslavement of the human mind, soul, body and will to their inviolable laws, each ready to battle the other to death in pursuit of an iron order yielding inevitable happiness. Naturalist freedom fighters asserting both the nobility of the autonomous man and the inscrutability of his passions, introduced a sense of uncontrollable anarchy into every discipline and discussion of public and private behavior. Moreover, the domination of the entire globe by westerners, followed, subsequently, by the migration of outsiders into their own homelands, confronted the naturalist with the bewildering reality of a multiplicity of antithetical cultures existing in the same space and time. All this diversity spelled tension and existential Angst.
A third building block of Pluralia emerged out of the recognition of the need to control the bewilderment and potential for violence emerging from the naturalist enterprise. This building block is that set of constitutional political and social tools, which, operating according to a neat and predictable system of checks and balances, is said simultaneously to protect individual freedom and general order with Newtonian precision. Action-reaction, check-and-balance, action-reaction, check-and-balance: there lies Pluralia’s answer to the problem of potentially conflicting diverse elements. All are free to go about their business. Order will be assured because each will cancel out the influence of the others. Those elements which do not want to accept their reduction to impotence must be trained to wish for it through solid, consciousness-raising education.
But the blueprint is not yet complete. We have yet to speak of the fourth, spiritually and intellectually decisive building block of Pluralia, the one whose mastery and application allows a man to understand the inner spirit of the danse macabre and manipulate the mindless gyrations of the mass of the ballroom regulars. This building block came from the work of heretics: medieval gnostic and millenarian sectarians, extreme nominalist philosophers, and, ultimately, the initial Protestant reformers. All of these groups, in one way or another, argued against belief both in the value of nature and natural tools for understanding an ordered, purposeful cosmos, as well as the freedom, dignity and potential perfection of the individuals inhabiting it. Nature, on the cosmic or personal level, was, for them, the realm of chaos and of egotistical struggle, a savage jungle where senseless power ruled supreme; where the hunt for natural laws contributing to the control of conflicting vain passions was itself pointless. In separating nature from God, such forces encouraged the naturalist tendency to remove Christianity from discussions concerning the functioning of cosmos and individual. In denigrating nature entirely, they promoted doubt regarding all means whatsoever of gaining wisdom or acting properly-- a position that scholars were simultaneously demonstrating to have been the general practical attitude of the ancients anyway. Only “faith” kept the heretics linked with a sense of the meaningfulness of eternal life with God. When that faith was lost, as it was almost everywhere lost from the 1700’s onward, nothing stood between them and a totally absurdist interpretation of existence.
Here, then are the four elements entering into the blueprint for the construction of the international ballroom which I am calling Pluralia: acceptance of a meaningful, divinely established order of nature designed for the perfection of free individuals; a belief that order and perfection must be maintained and sought on naturalist grounds, without reference to the Creator God; a realization of the need to control the endless diversity of human intelligence and action and its potential for disruption by mechanical, constitutional tools; and, lurking dangerously behind all of the above, a root and branch denial of any order, meaning and dignity to cosmos and individual. Do these themes harmonize with one another? Absolutely not. Have they nevertheless been intertwined? Yes. And this is why Pluralia, where this impossible juxtaposition has been arranged, has proven to be the most suitable ballroom for the danse macabre. Let us present our tickets to its gatekeepers, enter its precincts and see what happens to those performing this by now international hip hop.
Most of Pluralia’s subjects plod along mechanically to its danse macabre according to the steps dictated by the intermingling of its first three constituent elements. Thus, they really believe the propaganda to which they are exposed from earliet childhood. This tells them that they are indeed dancing in the most splendid, ordered ballroom that the world has ever known, and that they are free to use its floor to perfect their various individual personalities. The average danse macabre drudge accepts the idea that purely naturalist, political and social constitutional tools can guarantee freedom and order in Pluralia’s multicultural realm. This is true even when his consciousness-raising education ceaselessly informs him that this freedom must be self-censored and redirected to activities which will be inclusive, non-divisive, and therefore incapable of disturbing the peace. In fact, his spiritless, drudge-like performance of his part of the dance is perfected through the intellectually disorienting and physically exhausting effort of accommodating the every-increasing number of diverse and conflicting ideas and ways of life which he most welcome with open arms.
Only those who have truly grasped the inner spirit of the dance are able to navigate through this make believe ballroom with ease, and turn it to their advantage. That happens to be the men who work with the fourth of Pluralia’s building blocks: the heretical vision of nature as a savage jungle. Such people are not troubled by the dance’s contradictory steps; they never expected them to make any sense anyway. Moreover, they discover that they can utilize Pluralia’s naturalist exaltation of freedom, order, and the constitutional tools it has devised for controlling the attendant confusion to make the bizarre dance work for them. On the one hand, they praise Pluralia’s glories, joining its authorities in emasculating anyone who might wish to use his freedom to attain noble, serious, but potentially disruptive goals. They help the powers-that-be tempt good men away from pursuits that might rock the global boat, posing as the best representatives of freedom and statesmanlike concern for order tranquility as they do so. On the other hand, as their less perceptive dance partners descend into ever more drudge-like confusion, they, having understood the heretical element in Pluralia’s character, use their totally willful freedom to turn this glorious system into a paradise for the greatest sinners. To paraphrase Chateaubriand, referring to Talleyrand and Fouché, they show us that Pluralia promises the spectacle of Liberty and Order walking arm and arm with Vice and Crime.
Vicious and criminal elements do, of course, engage in terribly disruptive disputes among themselves for control of society and the bureaucratic empire builders, technocrats, multinational companies, drug gangs and mafias who have understood the inner spirit of the danse macabre are no exception. Still, their struggle for turf, at least in Pluralia’s American and European provinces, where the reduction of the bulk of the population to a common, low-level materialist culture, uniform and predictable in its drab desires, both licit and illicit, is hardly a revolutionary one. However brutal their internal fights may be, the outer peace need not be shaken. Louis Veuillot’s comments regarding a boring culture centered round a base understanding of man and nature appear as germane today as when they were written a century and a half ago. “There will no longer be different places or climates, or any curiosity anywhere….Everywhere the same language will be spoken….The old diversity will be a memory of the old liberty….Everything will be done in the image of the main city of the Empire and of the World” (L. Veuillot, Mélanges, Paris, 1933, viii, 369).
Pluralia and the manipulators of its danse macabre defend themselves from any conflict that might emerge from among its baffled, drudge-like subject peoples by resorting to a tactic utilized in Hellenistic empires dealing with mixed Greek and Near Eastern cultures in the years after Alexander the Great’s conquests: self-divinization. Pluralia is itself transformed into an object of worship, its four constituent (though conflicting) elements providing it doctrinal and propaganda statements to allay fears, assuage consciences, and even use against one another. It appeals to those who take its claims to provide freedom and order under the old God seriously to deny its oppressive and naturalist character. It turns to its naturalism to proclaim its scientific rationality and clarity of purpose. It appeals to its concern for diversity to illustrate its ever-increasing love of liberty, and to its policing of divisiveness to emphasize its provision of peace and security. By leaning on one of its elements, it can avoid blame for the evil it may have caused through another. And, finally, it calls up its underlying heretical spirit and its cynicism to ridicule any effort to make sense of its own historical development, absurd structure and endless contradictions. Heresy helps it to spew out a stream of slogans about its glories and the dreadful consequences that would flow from its rejection. Faith is demanded in these slogans. Faith, and faith alone.
No salvation exists outside the devouring Moloch which I have labeled Pluralia, whose appetite grows more insatiable the closer it senses world victory to be. It tears everything solid apart in its jaws. It has boiled all traditional western religious celebrations down to interfaith services on its behalf, wherein prayer, appropriately enough, is merely silence. Now, it has mobilized all of its servants to define “authentic Islam” as a “nice” force, incapable of anything substantively good or evil, and eager to embrace the beatific existence represented by twenty-four hour shopping. Blessed be Pluralia, global fatherland of meaning and meaninglessness, laws and lawlessness, automatons and anarchists, where one is freely allowed to drape the warm blanket of his own traditions around his shoulder--but only on condition that it be patched up with alien materials and exchanged for a mess of pottage in a fast food joint.
Unfortunately, contemporary reactions to the imposition of the worship of Pluralia parallel exactly those of conquered peoples in the past. Just as some representatives of ancient defeated cultures accepted new divinities enthusiastically, there are many Roman Catholics willing to interpret Pluralia and its danse macabre on its own terms and see in it an acceptable development of the Christian seed, insisting, in Hegelian fashion, that the Holy Spirit must be behind a movement that is sweeping everything before it with such seeming ease. Others, like their ancient counterparts, pay homage outwardly to Pluralia, for ambition’s sake or out of a desire to avoid trouble, while seeking as much as possible to escape into their own private little traditional cubbyholes. Others still, in the line of the observant Jews resisting Antioches IV Epiphanes under the Maccabees, fight Pluralia as the Abomination of Desolation that it really is. Alas, the magnificent battle delivered by the Church and the Catholic laity from the mid-nineteenth century well into the twentieth seems mythic in comparison with the petty skirmish fought by both in our own time.
And yet, authentic Catholicism—the real thing, not some emasculated parody of it—is Pluralia’s worst enemy. Its appreciation of the value of nature, nature’s sensible order and the true individual freedom and dignity of its inhabitants are too all-encompassing and too thirsty for the guidance of the supernatural God to accept its rule. Christ’s insistence that the reality of God’s Kingdom be made present in our existence, public and private, today as much as yesterday or the end of time, is a sword aimed at Pluralia’s incoherent, naturalist, heretical constitution. That the proper wielding of this sword is a difficult task indeed is undeniable, but it is in learning how it is to be employed that the true dance of life is performed and rewarded. The peace that it admittedly shatters is only that of a danse macabre that would have us whirl about pointlessly until we drop, dragging down everything true, good and beautiful into a cheap black hole along with us.
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