March 30, 2003

The Comfort and the Terror

What is it that makes History? Well, bodies.
And Art? -- a body that has lost its head.

...And secondly, dear Mary, let me stress:
there's nothing, barring Art, sublunar creatures
can use to comprehend your gorgeous features.
Leave History to Good Queen Bess.

-- Joseph Brodsky, Twenty Sonnets to Mary Queen of Scots

As a child, I was deeply attracted to the old-style Catholicism, bits and pieces of which I picked up from old catechisms found in the basement, from elderly female relatives with their mass cards and their rosaries (the beads made of wood, hand-carved and polished into a dull sheen by years of devotion), and from who knows how many other vestiges that I could faintly trace out from my cosy little enclave in a dreary little lower middle class Canadian suburb.

I grew up in a Catholic household, with a mother whose recommended response to any type of "suffering" (a scraped knee, the daily dose of cod liver oil) was to "offer it up to the souls in Purgatory." My parents had a crucifix over their bedroom door, which suggested (and this of course was the point) that the marriage bed was, among other things, a sacred space: if sex was a damp, dark secret, it was also a mystery. Blood, sweat, tears, my father's dirty socks, my mother's silver-plated hairbrush, the crown of thorns: an intimation of something vast and terrifying, but also intimate and comforting: the sacralization of everyday life.

Then, too, we had Mary our Mother, who would plead our cause in any case whatsover, and a whole host of saints various and sundry who could be relied upon to intercede for more specialized purposes: St Jude for desperate causes, St Anthony for misplaced belongings ("Something is lost and cannot be found/Please, St Anthony, help look around"). The saints were distant figures and not quite real, and yet they were ever-present at some other layer just above or beyond our everday reality. We spoke of them with familiarity, shortening their names to affectionate diminutives ("Does she go to St. Mike's?" "No, she's a student at St. Pat's"). I attended Catholic school from the tender age of four (St John the Apostle, or, as we called it, and no disrespect intended, St. J. the A.), where we learned that unbaptized babies must go to limbo and where our first-grade teacher warned us that we must always think of the Holy Family: Mary and the baby Jesus, oh and Joseph, too (poor man, always a bit of an afterthought, and cuckolded by the Holy Spirit! he earned his sainthood, surely). I recall distress upon the sudden realization shortly afterwards (an hour? a day? a week?) that I had not been thinking of the Holy Family, they had slipped my mind altogether. "But I can't always be thinking of them," I silently argued: the germ of scepticism?

So I suppose I got the full treatment, such as it was in the post-Vatican II age in which I was born and raised. Ah! but there's the rub. Even as a child I was dimly aware that the Church was not what it had once been, and somehow realized that the full treatment was only a treatment by halves.

Anyway, at the same time (and in conflict with the romance of pre-Vatican II Catholicism), I was a budding feminist. I sang "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar" at the top of my lungs in the schoolyard. "Oh, you're not going to grow up to be one of those women's libbers, are you?" my mother worried. I gave her a hard time if, for example, she automatically referred to an unknown doctor as a "he" ("women can be doctors, too, you know, Mum!"). And then there was the Brady Bunch, and denim jackets, and K-tel record albums, and, in short, everything else that made up life as I knew it. Juvenilia: when I was maybe 14, maybe 15 years old, I wrote an essay on "the Protestantization of the Roman Catholic Church," by which I meant, I suppose, the accomodation of the Church to the modern, liberal, secular world to which I clearly belonged. Oh, I was passionate, bristling with purpose, an angry adolescent with a devotion to Mary (but also a subscription to Seventeen magazine). Even *I* knew it was a bit of a put-on. It was a last-ditch effort to salvage my faith from something I had suspected and feared for years: namely, that Catholicism just didn't fit into the main contours of my reality.

Two cheers for Enlightenment.

Last weekend I read Paul Berman's report from the ideological trenches, "The Philosopher of Islamic Terror," on the writings of Sayyid Qutb. I have been thinking of it ever since. Berman wants us to take Qutb seriously as a thinker who is "not shallow" but "deep," and whose "'In the Shade of the Qur'an' is, in its fashion, a masterwork." I think Berman is onto something.

In his "In the Shade of the Qur'an," Berman reports, Qutb wrote that

"all over the world, humans had reached a moment of unbearable crisis. The human race had lost touch with human nature. Man's inspiration, intelligence and morality were degenerating. Sexual relations were deteriorating 'to a level lower than the beasts.' Man was miserable, anxious and skeptical, sinking into idiocy, insanity and crime. People were turning, in their unhappiness, to drugs, alcohol and existentialism. Qutb admired economic productivity and scientific knowledge. But he did not think that wealth and science were rescuing the human race. He figured that, on the contrary, the richest countries were the unhappiest of all. And what was the cause of this unhappiness -- this wretched split between man's truest nature and modern life?"

As Berman reminds us, "a great many cultural critics in Europe and America asked this question in the middle years of the 20th century." And -- if we can let Heidegger stand in for "a great many cultural critics" -- they came up with an explanation not so different from that of the philosopher of Islamic terror: "a great many of them, following Nietzsche and other philosophers, pointed to the origins of Western civilization in ancient Greece, where man was said to have made his fatal error. This error was philosophical. It consisted of placing an arrogant and deluded faith in the power of human reason -- an arrogant faith that, after many centuries, had created in modern times a tyranny of technology over life."

Qutb offered a way out, and a solution: the "renovation of Islam and of civilization all over the world," the founding of "a new state, based on the Koran" and according to a reinstatement of "shariah, the Muslim code, as the legal code for all of society." As relayed by Berman, Qutb's ideas are deeply creepy and they are chilling. They would seem to involve a complete erasure of the boundaries between public and private, and between religious and secular. The sacralization of everyday life, with both its comforts and its terrors.

We should be frightened, Berman insists. But rather than dismiss these ideas, we should take them on, answer them, and refute them:

"But who will speak of the sacred and the secular, of the physical world and the spiritual world? Who will defend liberal ideas against the enemies of liberal ideas? Who will defend liberal principles in spite of liberal society's every failure?...
...Armies are in motion, but are the philosophers and religious leaders, the liberal thinkers, likewise in motion? There is something to worry about here, an aspect of the war that liberal society seems to have trouble understanding -- one more worry, on top of all the others, and possibly the greatest worry of all."

While I don't claim to have an understanding, I think I might have an inkling.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 30, 2003 10:50 PM

I am frightened now. Funny how Qutb has no sense of ontological alienation from the Quran-as-oracle. Seems like we need to sow some seeds of doubt about the infallibility of the Quran, and therefore the Sharia.

Posted by: chuntney at March 31, 2003 01:33 PM

But as Qutb knew, those seeds of doubt had already been sown. His reponse to the doubt, ie, to the challenges of the modern world, was to violently eliminate the sources of that doubt. In other words, fundamentalism is a (post?) modern invention.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 1, 2003 12:27 AM

why is doubt more scary to some than death?

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at April 1, 2003 10:54 AM