Catholicism, the American Imagination, and the Pluralist Beast
(The Angelus, May-June, 2022.)Catholicism, the American Imagination, and the Pluralist Beast
Some years ago I was travelling with my wife and three children in an isolated region of Germany packed with visitors for a once-in-a-decade festival. After having hunted unsuccessfully for lodging until quite late at night we finally came upon a lovely little village isolated deep in a forest in the mountains. I charged into its one guesthouse, the Hotel Beethoven, with my desperate request for accommodation at whatever cost, to which the immensely fat German innkeeper at the reception desk responded: “I am so drunk from so much beer that I do not have the faintest idea how even to begin to shape an answer to your query”.
I have to confess that, mutatis mutandis, my first reaction to a call from The Angelus to write on Catholics and the national imagination reduced me to a position similar to that of my inebriated German host. I was tempted to reply, incredulously, that my brain had been so pickled by a life spent in the alternate universe created by American pluralist society that I could not imagine how Catholics might relate to its lunatic vision of creativity in any way whatsoever. Like Ezra Pound, asked what he thought about being released from the nuthouse to which the government had temporarily committed him, it seemed to me that “I was, after all, in America; and all of America is a mental institution”. A Catholic dialogue with the American Imagination? Forget about it.
But my corpulent Teutonic innkeeper did in fact find us a room, and further reflection made it clear to me that a brushoff of the Angelus would be a copout both insulting to Catholicism as well as to my fellow citizens. It would make America and Americans as such seem to be the problem and not the evil pluralist monster on whose back they had been forced to ride. It would thereby insinuate that the Faith could not push a “raw” nation and its inhabitants---as natural as any others it had dealt with in the past---off the unnatural beast propelling them to their perdition, so as to effect their redemption, and that of their creativity along with it. Moreover, this copout would have neglected the reality of some very serious proofs of imaginative national genius, such as a literature on a level with that produced by the French, the Russians, and the British.
In other words, there are “Seeds of the Logos” in the United States just as elsewhere, which Catholicism can and must appreciate and nurture for a joint assault against the befuddling poisons ceaselessly fed to both of them through their common and all too deadly, pluralist American environment. What the Seeds of the Logos need to fight pluralist stunting of natural imaginative growth is physical exercise; guidance in how to twirl about in a “dance of life” rather than to fall flat on their face in the danse macabre shaped by those in charge of the pluralist “make believe ballroom”.
Dietrich von Hildebrand was my chief instructor in the choreography of the “dance of life”, teaching me its steps beginning by noting those taken by the man facing the back of Plato’s cave in The Republic. Questioning whether the shadows that he saw could honestly explain themselves on their own terms, that curious soul was awakened to the need for more enlightenment in order to understand their true character and message. This caused him to break free of the chains limiting his ability to “wonder”, leading him ever upward, towards the sunlight at the opening of the cave, where he learned of the flesh and blood beings casting the shadows that he had taken for the substance of reality. In his excitement at his discovery, he returned to awaken his former fellow-prisoners of the darkness, only to be greeted with their unwillingness to hear the truth and their fatal hostility.
Explanation of such a tragedy obviously required knowledge of further steps for someone wishing to dance the dance of life successfully. This, as von Hildebrand argued, meant more “light” that could only be given through a still more sublime awakening to “every best gift, and every perfect gift”, which “is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change, nor shadow of alteration”(James 1: 17). Through God’s Revelation, Old and New, that further light lacking to the Greeks concerning the essential truths regarding a good Creation, the reality of free will, the shock of Original Sin, and the need for Redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and membership in His Mystical Body was made available to them---not just to their intellectual elite, but to the population as a whole.
Through that supreme and final light, the believer’s imagination is stirred to a wondrous acceptance of a natural word external to himself in all of its exciting fullness, a deep sorrow over its tragic Fall, and a heartfelt joy and hope over the possibilities of its correction and transformation through the embrace of the reality of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. He also becomes aware of his enlistment in an army struggling mightily against enemies, demonic and human, external and internal. Awakened to all the steps needed for dancing the dance of life, he realizes that performing them properly will entail a lifelong battle, with his potential pitfalls legion, his successes all the more glorious, his failures all the more terrible. What creative spirit’s imagination would not be electrified due to contact with such awe-inspiring themes?
Sadly, the unnatural pluralist beast providing the energy driving the American Regime works vigorously in the opposite direction. Rather than awakening the individual’s active imagination, it does all that it can to put it to sleep. Rather than encouraging the productive, corrective, transforming dance of life that ought to be the birthright of all free men and women, it forcibly shoves the human person into a debilitating danse macabre; a dull-witted, endless, meaningless, misanthropic marathon draining mind, spirit, and body of everything that he might make of himself.
Let us put this stultifying Regime type of dance instruction in high relief by first returning to the Greco-Catholic ballroom. From its aesthetics-driven outset, the whole purpose of the Greek approach to life was not to engage in a diverting little parlor sport, but actually to get somewhere; in Homeric language, “to seize possession of the Beautiful”. Plato and the other Socratics demonstrated that this could not come about without the aid of a philosophy-driven “seizing” of the True and the Good as well. Then, the Catholic Faith gave the final “light” to the souls climbing upwards, out of the cave, enabling the originally purely aesthetic and philosophic minded hunters to make their claim upon possession of the Beautiful eternally solid though union of their bodies and souls with the loving, Triune God.
In contrast, the Pluralist Regime’s psychosis-inducing instruction in the danse macabre is centered upon an obliteration of the connection of the hunt for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful from any possibility of actually obtaining them. For the Regime tells its subjects that they can, indeed, all hunt internally to their hearts’ content---thinking and believing whatever they want---but that they can never externally do what they may well conclude that they absolutely must do to reach the goal that they have come to embrace. They are expressly prohibited from connecting thoughts, beliefs, and actions in the world around them. Why? Because to do so might offend those with divergent thoughts and beliefs, thereby leading to the single unforgiveable sin against the Spirit of the Pluralist Beast: divisiveness.
Paralyzing fear of divisiveness is bad enough for the mental health of any individual, given that this now does in fact reduce the play of everyone’s imagination to the level of a parlor sport within whatever particular “clubhouse” he might be operating, creating a mindboggling, frustrating, psychological nightmare. His imagination allowed to go nowhere or to produce anything having a social impact is consigned to impotence.
Nevertheless, the damage done by this reductionism to the Greco-Catholic believer in the Mystical Body of Christ that houses him, is correspondingly worse still. His already full individual awakening to the wonder, the tragic sorrow, the hope, the joy, and dramatic struggle of existence is now shut hermetically sealed from the outside world. An enormous stone slab is placed between him and the rest of Creation, preventing his evangelization of those still fixated on the dark shadows of the back wall of the cave, his shaping of the environment in which he lives in a way that he knows will aid him to “seize eternal possession of the Beautiful” if used properly, and his efficacious defense against enemies working to corrupt them to block his hunt for the fulfillment that is his birthright.
In speaking of such enemies, we end up hitting upon the central fraud perpetrated by the already psychotic Pluralist Regime. This fraud, also deadly to the human imagination, ensures the violation of the liberty---however one may define that slippery term---of almost all those riding on the back of the monster.
Forging the pathway to that injustice was, ironically enough, the labor of the naturalist individualism of the Pluralist Beast and its claim that this atomism would guarantee the perfection of everyone’s personal creative potential and freedom. But what that naturalist individualism actually made certain was that the very concept of the hunt for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful was entirely abandoned by those agreeing to its self-destructive modus operandi. A hunt leading upwards and outside of himself was replaced by the individual’s downward and purely internal focus upon satisfying his own limited, unexamined, ultimately irrational, and sinful “needs”. And this entailed an arrogant neglect of all the natural and supernatural, rational and faith-provided, voluntary and authoritative guides to correction and real perfection; the contemptuous dismissal of all of the medicines that might “awaken” him from his dull-witted, sinful, dogmatic slumber.
The almost millennium-long history of the development of the naturalist individualism upon which the Pluralist Beast feeds, involving Manichean, Nominalist, Protestant, Mechanist, Atomist, and ultimately Nihilist forebears, is obviously too long for us to discuss here. But what has it meant for its victims’ “imagination” and “creativity”? By turning them solely inward to work with the material offered purely by sinful souls doomed to wallow in and develop their hopeless imperfections, they shrivel and die a pathetic death.
Louis Veuillot, the nineteenth century French Catholic critic, has much to tell us in this regard, starting from the fact that “the reduction of the truth has diminished intelligence, hearts, and even the instinct of life” (L. Veuillot, Mélanges, Paris, 1933, XI, 337). A world submitting to its self-imposed limitations, transmitted in a “dishonored jargon which would draw forth cries of indignation from the most careless writer of one hundred years ago” (I, 327), he continues, “sets sail on a sea of platitudes…where it will grow immensely bored” (XIII, 448). Men taught to believe that their sensual vices are “the summit of virtue” become “barbarians of civilization” (XII, 401), incapable of even sinning greatly, since “everything is lacking to the poverty of our times, including the brilliance and often even the substance of the vices it would like to have” (IV, 2-3; XII, 426-420).
No more men anywhere! The production of man has ceased….There are some men of more or less complete honesty, but lacking talent; some very incomplete men of talent lacking all honesty; no attachment to any truth, but the most senseless attachment to the most mad errors; no more good sense, except in damning uselessly the impotent and evil works one persists in pursuing; no more pride in the face of anything base, yet puerile and dangerous and even cowardly arrogance in face of all that which one must fear…. (XII, 360-361).
Horrified by the fact that the great Chicago Fire seemed to be viewed in the United States as an opportunity for further economic growth rather than a tragedy, Veuillot felt that America offered the Christian West as a whole a warning of what was to come. A full Pluralist Regime, composed of individual sensualists, would be inhabited by “men without history, without cradles and without tombs; adventurers of both sexes who are not even barbarians”. The citizens of its cities would be “gathered together solely to make one another mutually sweat gold”, and produce nothing of imaginative value whatsoever (XI, 333).
This people does not cry for its dead. It only knows how to cry for money. Fire can grip its cities, but it devours in them neither a monument nor an art object, nor a memory, and the money melted is not money lost at all. One draws it from the ruins; it is often even good business. (XI, 34).
One can look at North America and the direction in which it is headed: its rapid progress, owed to the most brutalizing work, has fascinated Europe: but already the true results of this exclusively material progress appear. Barbarism, wicked behavior, bankruptcy, systematic destruction of the natives, imbecilic slavery of the victors, devoted to the most harsh and nauseating life under the yoke of their own machines. America might sink completely into the ocean and the human race would not have lost anything. Not a saint, not an artist, not a thinker—at least if one does not also call thought that aptitude for twisting iron to open pathways to packages (XII, 359-360).
Yes, the reduction of the imagination to cheap, material vulgarity would be the main widespread consequence of naturalist individualism. But the fraud that would be perpetrated by the fully developed Pluralist Beast lies elsewhere. This is to be found in the fact that while, for fear of “divisiveness” the average American, Catholic and non-Catholic, does indeed keep whatever thoughts and beliefs he still retains to himself, the thorough-going immorality engendered by the system as such ensures that the most willful egotists, indifferent to any “divisive” barrier between thought and action, win control over the external social order, happily bending the “liberty” of everyone else to their desires. And they are utterly contemptuous and incapable of “imagining” the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, or the wonder, sorrow, joy, and hope that acceptance of God’s Creation, Redemption, correction of sins, and transformation in Christ provide. To paraphrase Chateaubriand, referring to the union of Talleyrand, the corrupted man of mind and spirit, and Fouché, the outright bandit, the fully developed Pluralist Regime guarantees us the spectacle of Vice and Crime walking arm in arm and building a “culture” that pleases only them.
No, there can be no commerce between the “awakened” Catholic mind and spirit on the one hand, and the “sleeping” American Pluralist vicious-and-criminal “imagination” on the other. But, once again, that must never be said to be true with respect to America and Americans as such. Just as Catholicism corrected and transformed the warlike spirit of the Germans and Vikings, leading to the ideal of the crusading knight and the literature of the chansons de geste, it can and must do the same with the imaginative spirit of Americans like Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, the Southern Agrarians, Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, H.L. Mencken, and many, many, others, all of whom, in different ways, were at least partially “awakened” to aspects not just of natural or supernatural Truth, but also the crippling problems of a society subjected to the will of the Pluralist Beast and its vicious and criminal minions.
How can the necessary correction and transformation be accomplished? It can only progress through the difficult work of evangelization and constant struggle. For the representatives of the truly imaginative and creative American spirit, the national Seeds of the Logos, feel themselves, as T.S. Eliot noted, to be “outsiders”, often thinking that for survival’s sake they need to “go into exile”, either to Europe or to New York City or to the precincts of some university, whether Ivy League or parochial, the latter preferably southern in location. We Catholics, who are perhaps even more “in this environment, but not of it”, must keep their accomplishments alive and expand upon them, joining them together with all of the cultural achievements that our Classical and Catholic past have produced before them.
Albrecht Dürer has an engraving of a Christian knight wending his way through a wild forest. He is a portrait of manliness, dominating a horse that is ennobled by its rider’s control. Demons and threats of all kinds appear in the wilderness to deflect him from his path, all to no avail. The Heavenly City lies in the background, and the Christian warrior intends to use his strength to carve his way to it. The same kind of engraving, mutatis mutandis, could have been made to indicate the active, affirmative strength of the Christian teacher, statesman, king, or poet. These are the kind of men that God wants and the Pluralist Beast seeks to destroy. It is with the single-minded courage of Dürer’s knight that American Catholic patriots must separate out the chaff from the wheat of the national imagination and move forward with the Seeds of the Logos to the transformation of all things American in Christ.
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