The following are small excerpts from a provocative essay called, “Sources of Life”, by a writer named Greg Jackson, which appeared in the August, 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine. It originally appeared in the Spring, 2021 issue of another magazine called, The Point.
(Note: for some reason, wordpress working annoyingly in ways I can’t yet figure out, I’ve so far been unable to correct some typos and mistaken elision of words in this copied text. Sorry.)
A false theory of culture is worse than a false theory of the heavens. The planets stick to their orbits no matter what we think, but culture becomes what we believe it to be….It is extremely difficult to make conscious choices amid systems and technologies that tax our forbearance and reward our worst impulses….half an hour on Twitter or YouTube may…reduce us to an exposed nerve, pulsing with rage born of fear, a sense of vagrant and ubiquitous threats….
Today, media and social media organize our conformity. Calculated self-preservation dominates.
(Here, Jackson makes the case for art.)
By awakening people to the legitimacy of their feelings, art gives them confidence that their experience is not an anomalous, lonely event, but something others share in, and that it may be reasonable, therefore, to question the tyranny of public opinion.
Politics’ colonization of culture in contemporary America has greatly damaged this public lifeline to the private psyche….(W)e may each measure for ourselves the toleration of our beliefs by judging how often we wonder in our hearts whether stating them in public is perilous. Where, when public opinion rules, does private truth find an outlet?
The vacant secular despair that sends us searching for a religious politics (emphasis added)…is precisely what culture of this category is meant to address….our emptiness is an emptiness that comes from continuing to consume something that resembles nourishment but consists of nothing but fat-burning calories.
Unless we claw back some sphere of cultural and civic activity from the totalizing force of religious politics (again, emphasis added), we are unlikely to find venues where we can get outside the rigid struggle of political combat to explore and expand who we are, what we want, and how we relate to one another.
END OF EXCERPTS.
BEGINNING OF A BRIEF ANALYSIS:
I don’t know this writer, nor do I know much about the magazine from which his essay was re-published by Harpers. But I regard much or most of his diagnosis of contemporary culture hearteningly accurate.
I emphasized his phrase “religious politics” and must note that he never defines it. One could say that it’s obvious, self-explanatory. But, is it?
I would suggest that the seeming obsession of seemingly millions with modern politics suggests that politics has rushed into the vacuum created by the decline of supernatural religious belief.
I know many will reject this notion.
But it is telling, at least to me, that the last sentence copied above, asserting the need for all of us to move away from this disordered “sphere” created by politics-as-religion is followed by the sentence: “In midieval Europe, there was no such thing as nonreligious art or nonreligious politics. We are backsliding.”
I happen to adhere to the religious faith that dominated medieval Europe, i.e., Catholicism. What the Church taught then, it teaches now. The spirit and letter of that core faith was not obliterated by the Renaissance, but, rather, slipped into it at the tip of Michelangelo’s brush and chisel and grew and developed, as did Catholic religious dogma along with political and economic principles such as “subsidiarity” which calls for solutions to be generated upward from the smallest, most local governmental or political bodies that are also closest to the people they affect. Many of these principles and certainly much of the dogma was destined, in our time, to be largely discarded, ignored or, to the extent that it has survived, vilified — or, in the case of purported Catholics such as power-brokers Joe Biden and Nancy Pilosi, donned as a cultural shroud over their rabidly secular ideology. (It has been said that a person either adjusts their life choices to their principles and inherited dogmatic beliefs, or else adjusts (i.e., bends) their principles and dogma to fit their life choices. The more powerful the person, the more distorted the social outcomes for the rest of their co-religionists.)
True, culture did over time secularized and we should not wish for the return of a theocratic domination of society and culture. But I, for one, believe the product of the medieval scribes and artists were informed by a culturally and spiritually redemptive force superior to the “totalizing” force of contemporary politics –which, again, has become our religion, propagated and zealously imposed by secular media, social and mainstream.
Author Jackson probably has another idea — that art for art sake is where true and self-knowledge lies. I can live with that, if only as an anodyne balm for the “totalizing” effects on our inner lives of modern politics.
I guess we’re talking about for art’s sake, or, more accurately, art as “religion”. If I’m not mistaken, that’s the path James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus is last seen embarking upon at the close of Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, as he flees the intense religiosity of his native Ireland. (He needn’t have worried about contemporary Ireland, which, with the rest of the western nations, has radically secularized. Is this what Stephen meant when he said he was off to forge “in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”?
Take a look at where that’s gotten the Irish –and human — race.
O what a paradise it (only at times) seems.
But the radical politics Jackson identifies in the essay is more of the rightist variety, e.g., extreme nationalism and conspiracy theories as generated by the poisonous likes of QAnon. So be it. It is toxic, I acknowledge, though, I also submit, no less toxic than the “religious politics” of the left, which I also submit, is far more ascendant and dominant in our culture. Either way, Jackson posits this as the basis for his argument that, as a consequence of all this, we find ourselves escaping into the endless diversion of entertainment, narcotics, video games and social media…all that “false nourishment.”
So, Greg Jackson, obviously a thoughtful man but obviously skeptical about the influence of formal religion says, further down in this essay, “Art, unlike religion, does not ask us to be better than we are; it asks instead only that we understand ourselves, and then, from the evidence of this understanding, it points us “toward sources of light” — hence, the title of his essay, and he attributes this phrase –“sources of light” – to Saul Bellow, another very thoughtful fellow.
I guess Jackson does not see religion as a “source of light”. Much religion in our time has given his good cause to feel that way.
But, with Saul Bellow, writing in his novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, I might say, “The earth is literally a mirror of thoughts. Objects themselves are embodied thoughts. Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.”
Does not thoughts of our ultimate end (i.e. death) often bring us to — religion? It sure as hell shouldn’t bring us to reliance on the transitory banalities of politics.
And, with Saint Augustine – an undeniably religious figure who once heartily attempted to embrace all the lusty emoluments of the world — I would call for self-knowledge amid the storm of contemporary diversions and politics. Bellow’s Mr. Sammler would add that it might bring us to “(t)he terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it — that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”
Do we? I hope so. I pray so.