Culture is not merely whatever fungus happens to grow in the unclean soul of a transgressive artist. But to say so is counter-cultural, and to say so with wit and erudition is invigorating. Joseph Epstein writes with clarity and probity about culture, but more importantly he writes about the conditioning of the mind and soul necessary for encountering the true and the beautiful.
Reviewing a variety of definitions of culture, Epstein favors Mathew Arnold:
There are born a certain number of natures with a curiosity about their best self, with a bent for seeing things as they are, for disentangling themselves from machinery … for the pursuit, in a word, of perfection … and this bent always tends … to take them out of their class, and to make their distinguishing characteristic not their [social origins, wealth, or status], but their humanity.
Culture is the long-won communal accretion of the beautiful and sublime, connecting us to each other but also separating us through ascending levels of engagement with the truth, and elevating us beyond time and space. Though it seeks to apprehend universals, it is not itself universally accessible. Admission to the inner sanctum of culture requires discernment and an unpolluted receptivity. The esotericism of culture is an affront to the spirit of democracy and so some may find what Epstein reveals offensive, but that does not make it less true. His argument is most tellingly revealed in anecdotes about highly cultured people who have refused to admit all sorts of shiny distracting pop-culture baubles into their carefully cultivated intellectual and spiritual gardens. Epstein writes:
I had a friend, Samuel Lipman, a piano prodigy as a child, a student of the conductor and violinist Pierre Monteux, later a teacher at Juilliard, a powerful music critic, and publisher of the New Criterion, a magazine devoted to the arts. In the realm of culture, Sam was an immitigable, irretrievable highbrow. Once, after a meeting of the Council of the National Endowment for the Arts (of which we were both members), I said to Sam that I noted he rarely mentioned movies or television. “Oh, I consider movies and television,” he said, rather casually, “dog ∗∗∗∗.” Dog ∗∗∗∗, I thought at the time, lower in dignity even than the excrement of bulls and horses.
Another friend of mine, Hilton Kramer, kept a comparably high standard. Hilton was an immensely amusing and witty fellow, but not a man you asked whom he liked in the World Series or which he thought the best of the songs of The Doors. When art critic at the New York Times, he was the only writer on the paper whom, in his exile, the great Russian dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would allow to interview him. Solzhenitsyn agreed to do so because—a great tribute here—he respected Hilton’s seriousness.
Epstein goes on to say “Lipman and Kramer were the aesthetic and intellectual equivalent of vegans—extremely cautious about what they consumed.” At an earlier moment in time this might have seemed pretentious and elitist, but today this scrupulosity is immediately comprehensible to anyone who is not a barbarian. Adding to generations of the ersatz, the common and the foolish, more recently we have been force-fed the vile, the gross and the perverted. The necessity of discernment and an almost fastidious filtering of influences are obvious, but also in some ways surprising. Popular culture can become stupefying and dehumanizing. Epstein quotes V.S. Naipaul on a character in his novel Guerillas: “she had a great many opinions, but taken together they did not add up to a point of view.” In the end, our buffet of overstimulation, consumed voraciously and without discernment, has left us culturally stunted, but also spiritually flat.
Bishop Robert Barron says the staggering increase in the number of Americans with no religious affiliation is the biggest crisis facing the Church today. Whereas just 10 years ago barely 14 percent of Americans described their religious affiliation as “none,” the most recent polling shows 25 percent of Americans as “Nones” and a staggering 40 percent of those under 30 are “Nones.” Passing by the usual suspects, Bishop Barron instead considers culture and the formation of the modern soul. Taking the Gospel reading from the Feast of Mary, Mother of God, as the basis for his analysis, he uses three key terms: “haste,” “astonished,” and “treasured” as lenses for making sense of the rapid de-spiritualization of our culture. These words contain great power in the Gospel account because they convey important qualities in the natures of the soul of Mary, the souls of the shepherds, and the souls of those who heard the Good News, but for many today these qualities are incomprehensible.
The shepherds made “haste” because they were motivated by something greater than and beyond themselves. There was an urgency in responding to the call and as characters formed in virtue and inspired by grace, there was an unreserved unity of response. As Bishop Barron describes it: “Goodness invades us, changes us … breaks into your life… But for ‘Nones’ there is the ‘whatever’ culture… There is no objective good, it is like resting on an air mattress on my own lazy lake of my desire.” Overstimulation has cultivated cool, immovable indifference.
They were all “astonished” at what they heard because they were confronted by something from beyond the scope of their experience. “The King James Version says ‘wondered at.’ Mother Teresa on her way to Darjeeling, spoke of hearing the voice of Jesus calling her to give her life to the poor. Dorothy Day, when considering becoming a Catholic, sitting on the porch with her child, felt a gratitude so great, it could not correspond to anything in this world. She was thankful to God… But for ‘Nones’ there is a great impoverishment of spirit, they are safe, comfortable…” and therefore lack energy.
Finally, Mary treasured these things in her heart. Bishop Barron quotes Cardinal Newman who said, “‘Mary becomes the model of all theology.’ We don’t just take in, we treasure. The Church itself is a constant and steady act of treasuring … gothic cathedrals, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, the essays of Chesterton and Newman, the Liturgy itself, the lives of the saints…”
Aristotle said “philosophy begins in wonder” and the same could be said of the appreciation of culture. The sudden and dramatic collapse in faith is the direct result of the paving over of the cultural and spiritual soil upon which the seeds of faith have fallen. Perpetual sensory stimulation has made us hard, bored, boring—and godless. We lack the unity of soul and the singularity of purpose to act out faith in haste. We are transfixed by the ephemeral and cynically closed to truths that lie beyond and so are incapable of astonishment. We are cold and unloving, treasuring nothing in our black hearts. And even the pathway once found by the thoughtful cynic is now littered and overgrown and impassable. Our junkie dependence of the super-stimulation of the senses has smothered the delicate patience necessary to appreciate irony—which is the last lifeline for the cynical.
In The Four Cardinal Virtues Josef Pieper writes: “There is a gratification in seeing that reverses the original meaning of vision and works disorder in man himself.” That is, the pleasantness of sensory perception is the hook in the mouth of the sensualist, pulling us away from the contemplation of the meaning of what is seen. Pieper continues: “The true meaning of seeing is perception of reality. But ‘concupiscence of the eyes’ does not aim to perceive reality, but to enjoy ‘seeing’.”
Aristotle says there is light in the eye of the beholder. Seeing then, is not passive receptivity, but a form of engagement, and engagement is exactly what has been lost. The image of heaven invoked in both the Old and New Testament is the wedding feast. The Church, that is, all of us, are the Bride of Christ, we are meant for union with God, and yet concupiscence of the eyes has reduced us to voyeurs with dull eyes drawn to the hard, the cold and the lifeless. We see, without seeing. But of course, in the end it is worse than passive indifference. Nature abhors a vacuum, and deafness and blindness to the true and the beautiful do not abide in quiet emptiness. Pieper quotes Heidegger: “What this seeing strives for is not to attain knowledge and to become cognizant of the truth, but for possibilities of relinquishing oneself to the world.”
If we will not worship The Lord, we will worship The World.