Can Conservatism be Beautiful?

I’m not sure, or at least I wasn’t sure until I read the first two volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (yes, that is meant to be provocative, as in Min Kampf; the guy is from Norway and has written six autobiographical tomes that are often maddening with their details of common life but break out into beautiful passages and asides just often enough to make it worth reading). He’s very controversial in the Scandinavialands.

All that aside, I’m wanting to do a book review for a magazine on how he makes skepticism beautiful. Skepticism — the classical kind and not the authoritarian kind pitched by scientologists — is the basis for conservatism, and thus one of conservatism’s challenges is to remain relevant and progressive in the best senses of those two words. But its strengths are that it is based firmly in a sort of earthly reality, taking into account the limits of knowledge and human experience. That description doesn’t sound very beautiful, so here’s at least one passage in Knaus. that I think does a good job.

He’s on vacation to Norway (he’d been living in Sweden), takes a walk outside and notices everything around him: the clear sky, the wet green fields, the trees lining the towering mountains. Enter soliloquy here:

This was beyond our comprehension. We might believe that our world embraced everything, we might do our thing down here on the beach, drive around in our cars, phone each other and chat, visit one another, eat and drink and sit indoors imbibing the faces and opinions and the fates of those appearing on the TV screen in this strange, semi-artificial symbiosis we inhabited and lull ourselves for longer and longer, year upon year, into thinking that was all there was, but if on the odd occasion we were to raise our gaze to this, the only possible thought was one of incomprehension and impotence, for in fact how small and trivial was the world we allowed ourselves to be lulled by? Yes, of course, the dramas we saw were magnificent, the images we internalized sublime and sometimes also apocalyptic, but be honest, slaves, what part did we play in them?

So, slaves, what think ye? Am I too far off base here, or is this doable?


Ethics For Sale: Hugh Nibley is Somewhere Crying

In China it is possible, Michael Sandel writes in his new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, to hire the Tianjin Apologizing Company to apologize on your behalf to that person you can’t bring yourself to even speak to. This sort of thinking–made possible by the crowding out of actual values to market ones–belies a certain attitude that I think is at the very least troubling: namely, that everything is for sale. Because some things clearly aren’t, or at least shouldn’t be.

So, naturally, it was a bit unsettling seeing this sign at the business school–essentially seeing something that should have intrinsic value trying to be given an extrinsic incentive. There is no value, belief, tradition, or whatever that won’t respond to money, or so the economists & the folks at the WSJ think. But in a rare moment of insight, Jonathan Long of the WSJ had this to say about the standard economic view:

“This is a depressingly reductive view of the human experience. Men will die for God or country, kinship or land. No one ever picked up a rifle and got shot for optimal social utility. Economists cannot account for this basic fact of humanity. Yet they have assumed a role in society that for the past 4,000 years has been held by philosophers and theologians. They have made our lives freer and more efficient. And we are the poorer for it.”


On Souls, Prayer, and Film

Precious little is known about director Terrence Malick. He was born in 1943 in the Midwest and studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford. He has directed only five movies in 38 years, but they have received widespread acclaim. He is known for being a recluse, but is apparently amiable and even charming. And with a new film, The Tree of Life, reaching theaters this month, Malick’s ghost has been thrust once more into the spotlight.

His films are unique. Poetry, music, and imagery are seamlessly bound—the pinnacle of the emotional power of the medium of film. Roger Ebert, after endorsing the Tree of Life, wisely says, “Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer.”

After watching Malick’s war epic, The Thin Red Line, I felt indeed as if I had just witnessed a prayer. The poetry will long be with me, as will the look of raw hope in Jim Caviezel’s eyes. This is something that very few books and movies can do, which isn’t to say there aren’t plenty good of both. At random, note Casino Royale; it had everything you could want in a Bond film: wit, action, love, etc. Yet, it was by all accounts, a fleeting glimpse of good entertainment. As for the plot and the dialogue, those will be quickly forgotten.

Sometimes, though, souls need more than just entertainment. We need something to believe in, something to hold on to in times of darkness and Light. Mr. Malick unabashedly offers a prayer for the soul in his films, and for this he deserves praise. It is not an easy thing to do in today’s world, to look cynicism in the eye and tell it that we are creatures of light and Love.

He does so in The Thin Red Line, which is certainly no conventional war movie. It was released in the same year as Saving Private Ryan, and is often compared to it, which is rather unfortunate. War movies, perhaps unintentionally, often gratify war. There is nothing gratifying about it in the Line, however. Rather, it is the prayer of different characters, most of them soldiers. Narrated poems and prayers make known their doubts and fears.

Sean Penn has this to say to an AWOL soldier:

“What difference do you think you can make…one single man in all this madness? If you die, it is going to be for nothing. There is not some other world out there where everything is gonna be alright if you die. There’s just this one. Just this rock.”

Caviezel’s character is meant to answer this charge. He seeks immortality, another world. In that way, it has something to say to all of us, something for each to ponder.

As does The Tree of Life, the story of a boy in Midwest America. It has so far received mixed reviews. At Cannes, where the film won the Palme d’Or, it was both booed and cheered. Deeply personal, it is nonetheless universal in the way it treats “the loss of innocence as an eternal part of the human condition”. He must choose between the ways of his father and his mother as he learns to navigate his world. He is searching for an Eden in a fallen world. Everyone, without fail, knows of the imperfections of family life. We know what it is to grow up in a world and to lose our innocence to it. We know what it is to lose the spark of wonderment we held when young.

Like the Line, the Tree of Life doesn’t have a well-defined plot, which can be maddening to conventional movie-goers. I have just finished Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God in which McCarthy’s prose grants small glances into a degenerate life, not necessarily in chronological order. The effect is profound, allowing the reader to stop and feel, to reflect and to remember. For perhaps, at the end our lives, although lived chronologically and in our own “boxes of space and time,” we will be best understood as a sum total of the thoughts we had, the love we felt, the emotions that passed through us. And these are often irrelevant to the reason and order we seek to impose upon ourselves in our mediums of art and in our present lives.

All of this to say: go see one of Mr. Malick’s films.

(Links: New York Times article, Roger Ebert Blog)

Christ Crucified

This is a piece by artist J. Kirk Richards. When I visited his house/studio last year in Provo, I saw this work in embryo. (Get a better look here.) At first glance I wasn’t sure what to make of it; it is, after all, a beautiful painting on a rather crude and makeshift piece of plywood. After seeing the finished product online, however, I can’t help but be impressed, for it now strikes me as being terribly suited to the crucifixion.

When Christ descended to Earth it was from beauty to chaos, from security to war, from Grace to Nature. In a way, this descent represents one of the few true acts of sacrifice in history, since he was really the only one who had anything to sacrifice in the first place. Christ in the flesh—Christ the man—became weak and submissive; resignation and pity is etched in his face here. The spirit, though, and I think this is the beautiful part of the picture, remains magnificent even in the depravity of the human world. It is absolute in its solitude and unmatched in its humility.

How oddly cruel, though, that it should be constructed out of cheap plywood and nails. Look closely and you can even see nail holes in the corners of the boards. More conspicuous are the oil stains and imperfections near the bottom. To look at the black oil stains is to be reminded of sins both individual and of those of a collective humanity. The crucifixion, in the end, is to be but another oil spot on this work, one that Christ probably looks down upon with pity.

The word FRAGILE can be made out among the grease stains, which is quite appropriate; for what is more fragile than a human life, both in terms of personal righteousness and the prospect of death and disease? Our history has been absurdly prone to lack of development and direction; with all of our knowledge of the past and our technology, we don’t seem to be any more morally competent than the Israelites in the Old Testament.

Russian great Fyodor Dostoevsky had one of the characters in The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan, lament the Turks’ treatment of their enemies in Bulgaria in the 19th century; before hanging their prisoners, the Turks made them spend the last night of their lives with their ears nailed to a fence. Ivan says, “No animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.” Yet while we are the only species so cruel as to do so, we are also the only species with a well-spring of compassion, capable of deep reflection. And what act merits greater reflection, and indeed greater artistic attention, than that of the Atonement?

[As a side note, the header to my blog is actually also a work of Richards’. In it, Christ stands on the abyss with a very convincing Satan at his back. There is something very captivating in his work.]

Kierkegaard on the Knight of Faith

“He drains the deep sadness of life in infinite resignation, he knows the blessedness of infinity, he has felt the pain of renouncing everything, the most precious thing in the world, and yet the finite tastes just as good to him as one who never knew anything higher.”

Defense of the Arts

Although the humanities have generally been a favorite of your average white person, (if you don’t know what I am talking about note post #47 “Art Degrees” in the popular blog Stuff White People Like), they have been on the decline. And that decline has been aided recently by a failing economy that is unable to guarantee jobs, even for  talented graduates.

Columnist David Brooks says, “So it is almost inevitable that over the next few years, as labor markets struggle, the humanities will continue their long slide. There already has been a nearly 50 percent drop in the portion of liberal arts majors over the past generation, and that trend is bound to accelerate. Once the stars of university life, humanities now play bit roles when prospective students take their college tours. The labs are more glamorous than the libraries.”

But, as a liberal art major myself, I feel like I have to throw in my 2 cents of defense. They are useful, in more ways than one. Recently Yann Martel attended a celebration of Canadian artists, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper was there. Harper never even looked up during the whole ceremony, so Martel decided to introduce him to art by sending him a book and a letter every two weeks. Martel justifies his action thus:

“As long as someone has no power over me, I don’t care what they read at all. It’s not for me to judge how people should live their lives. But once someone has power over me, then, yes, their reading does matter to me, because in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do. What is [Harper’s] mind made of? How did he get his insights into the human condition? What materials went into the building of his sensibility? What is the colour, the pattern, the rhyme and reason of his imagination? These are not questions one is usually entitled to ask….but once someone has power over me, I have the right to probe the nature and quality of their imagination, because their dreams may become my nightmares.”

Art majors learn how to write, how to defend, how to think. They delve into the incredibly complicated world of humans and their inner workings. Granted, in this area there is a lot of work to do. Political science, for example, is hardly a predictive science. But we need to understand humans and their relationships just as we need mathematical formulas.

Martel continues about art: “Art is water, and just as humans are always close to water, (to drink to wash to flush away, to grow) as well as for reasons of pleasure (to play in, to swim in, to relax in front of, to sail upon, to suck on frozen, coloured and sweetened), so humans must always be close to art in all its incarnations, from the frivolous to the essential. Otherwise we dry up.”

The Innocence of Children

There is a famous scene in The Brothers Karamazov that grabs at my emotions every time I read it. One character is speaking to his brother, and asks him this question:

“Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me:  imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, [one child], and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?. . . And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?”

I don’t know why this passage holds such intrigue for me. Perhaps it is because children themselves are intriguing to me. They play such a unique role in the Bible, and seemed to hold such a unique place in the heart of Christ.

Yet we don’t really seem to understand children. We have sent men to outer space, to answer questions that we never believed it was possible to answer. We have poured billions upon billions of dollars and resources into understanding things like bacteria, cancer, and parasites, and have come far in our understanding. We have used the elements to create ingenious and stunning new technologies. But regarding questions that hit a little closer to the heart, questions that affect every human being, most of us don’t know the story of our own children. We cannot answer where they came from, why they are here, or why they appear so innocent and precious to us. It is still a mystery. And I don’t believe that we have been able to answer the most troubling of all questions posed above:

Why do children suffer?

Earlier, Ivan, the character who posed the question, says, “The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God.’ I’m not talking about the suffering of grown-ups, they ate the apple and to hell with them, let the devil take them all, but these little ones!”

And Ivan is right. A common answer to the problem of suffering is that God has given us our agency…it is done. He placed the power to choose within our grasp and sat back and let the consequences play out. But what of children? They have not “eaten the apple,” so to speak, do not yet have a fuller understanding of good and evil.

Well, in any case, I don’t know. But I trust that someday I will.

Why am i going to college again?

David Brooks sometimes makes me wish I was more conservative. And that doesn’t happen very often.

In a recent article, he wrote about happiness and how it is so hard to find alone in money and personal achievement, but rather comes in lasting and fulfilling relationships.

“It is true that poor nations become happier as they become middle-class nations. But once the basic necessities have been achieved, future income is lightly connected to well-being.”

So that explains why someone who wins the lottery isn’t any happier than someone who doesn’t. Money is especially meaningless to happiness if you don’t have to work for it.

“Most of us pay attention to the wrong things. Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives. Most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions. Most governments release a ton of data on economic trends but not enough on trust and other social conditions. In short, modern societies have developed vast institutions oriented around the things that are easy to count, not around the things that matter most. They have an affinity for material concerns and a primordial fear of moral and social ones.”

Brooks’ answer? Social capital. In his words, “More communitarian and less libertarian.” Now that is a brand of intelligent conservatism that I can live with.