Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Reporting from the (Lawn) Chair of Leisure As Culture

Here at Unpleasant Accents, we value literature. And also stock images.
The Honorary Chair of Leisure As Culture humbly suggests you, dear reader, consider these summer reading recommendations. First is a bit of modern German fiction, recently translated into English. Following that is a dystopian black comedy set in an England where procreation has been outlawed and cannibalism may be on the verge of breaking out. On a pleasanter note, our next selection is a comedy of manners featuring a happy, well-adjusted, single Englishwoman. Finally, on the nonfiction front, a revisionist history of the good old USA proposes that many of the political problems civic-minded Catholics face can be traced back to the philosophy behind the Founding.

At a talk in New York City this past May, Martin Mosebach declared he thought it infantile to seek to identify with a character in a novel. He sought to write characters because they interested him by their contradictions. Now, having read What Was Before, I can see what he means.

The mostly faceless narrator functions as the proverbial outsider, observing a loosely knit inner circle of aimless sybarites and unhappy petite bourgeoisie. From the neurotic, to the daydreamer, to the womanizer, each major character is the subject of perhaps not inaccurate analysis as the narrator tries to imagine why they do what they do. The story itself is not overly dramatic: Characters' previous conceptions of the lay of the land shatter, and the pieces gradually reassemble, though not in the same way as before.

Mosebach is a practicing Catholic, but he does not dump buckets of holy water on the reader. As befits the moderns he describes, religion is not part of their lives. The reader may gaze critically at these carefree pagans but should not dismiss their problems as something religion must easily cure.

TL;DR - I've wanted to read something good and German for a while now. The imagery Mosebach's words create more than make up for the general absence of a compelling plot. [Some adult situations. Mature teens and up.]

The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess is a remarkably engaging dystopian black comedy. Set in a future some think is not so far away, it proposes a society that has outlawed war, but due to fears of overpopulation has ceased to have children. Our protagonists are Tristram Foxe, schlubby academic, and Beatrice-Joanna, his plucky wife. After their infant son dies, a second pregnancy is the last thing Tristram needs, what with eunuchs and younger preening male colleagues getting promoted before him. Beatrice-Joanna leaves Tristram to have the child (who's technically the offspring of her brother-in-law, a high ranking "homo" in the Ministry of Infertility) out in the country. Before Tristram and Beatrice-Joanna can get together again, of course there must be a societal upheaval with procreative sex, cannibalism, and war becoming quite popular.

TL;DR - Burgess describes life, death, babies, and barbecue with ebullient charm. [Some adult situations. Mature teens and up.]

Excellent Women is a foil to both Mosebach's pagans and Burgess's cannibals, for our protagonist is a devout Anglican, and no one is eaten for supper in Barbara Pym's clever and charming novel of 1950's England. The idea of the "excellent woman" is an unintentionally backhanded compliment to single Englishwomen of average looks and a certain age. Mildred Lathbury is an introspective youngish church lady more than happy to live quietly by herself, always able to help out her friends since she lacks the concerns of managing a family. Religion in the story was handled with both humor and seriousness as the situation demanded.

TL;DR - If you ever come across an Excellent Woman in a bar, be sure to silently buy her a drink and then disappear. [Anyone and everyone must read this book!]

Christopher Ferrara's Liberty, The God That Failed is partly responsible for a radical shift in my understanding of a Catholic's relationship to a modern liberal state such as our own. It began after hearing a lecture by Pater Edmund Waldstein, who declared that modern liberal democracies abandoned the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition of the common good. Ferrara builds on this premise, deftly demonstrating how Enlightenment philosophers Hobbes and Locke influenced the Founders to construct a nation with the stated goal of preventing Catholicism from becoming too influential. (This reader does have sympathy for the Founders, as they were but children of their confused age. If I must blame anyone for the follies of the Founding, it must be the old houses of Christendom, which failed to prevent the tide of radical liberalism from taking root.)

From there, Ferrara examines some of the more sordid details of our past that overly patriotic "conservative" histories may prefer to forget and bitter "progressive" histories may emphasize for the wrong reasons. As July 4th rolls around the corner, one may learn how Sam Adams changed from a ne'er-do-well revolutionary to a despot once he received political power in Boston. Or how Washington crushed tax rebellions by war heroes with the iron might of the army once he was President. Or perhaps Jefferson's general bloodthirstiness, fond as he was of the atheist radical French. Most eye-opening for me was Ferrara demonstrating how an ideal of "limited government" by Constitutional originalists is an absurdity doomed to failure. Once one reads how our Founders threw off the rather small and unobtrusive government of King George III to embrace a state that answered only to the fickle desires of 51 percent of the population, it's impossible to believe in a "conservative" American revolution.

Ferrara has a reputation as an extremely partisan "traditional" Catholic, but his energy is keenly focused here. His history of the nation's early days skirts past the tired arguments of Left versus Right and even calls a pox on both the houses of North and South when he spends a good deal of time covering the Civil War. Ferrara left me convinced Catholics who call themselves "conservatives" must seriously reconsider how effective their political allegiances are to securing autonomy for the Church and the common good. Catholic Leftists ought not rejoice too quickly at that, for Ferrara sees little good coming from the continued operation of this government, regardless which party holds power. Is there hope for America? One might dream that the USCCB would step up their game with stronger catechesis of the faithful, both at the parish level and from their pulpits. Maybe then the Catholic vote could once again mean something. But even that would be hamstrung by a Constitution — while a finely written document organizing our government — that enshrines secularism as the official religion of the land.

TL;DR - If the thought of a 600-page tome is too intimidating, but you're curious about that which has been termed "illiberal" Catholic thought, read this brilliant essay by a dear friend hosted by The Josias.

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