Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Catholic Stones Fan, or, Morality and Art

Rod Dreher grapples with why he, a conservative Christian very worried about the declining morality of our society, is nonetheless a huge fan of rock-n-roll, and the Rolling Stones in particular:
Why is “Under My Thumb,” as offensive as the lyrics are to many, a great song, and maybe even a work of art? Because, in my view, it expresses with feral seductiveness the mindset of a misogynist. The lyrics themselves are repugnant, but set to that particular music, the ideas take on life. You are able to feel what the narrator expresses. The “truth” of his experience has become incarnated in words, rhythm, and melody, and has been communicated with unusual power because of the rhythm and melody. You may find the moral sentiment hateful, and I wouldn’t disagree with you, but you would be lying to yourself to deny the aesthetic power of that song.

The danger here is that you might also come to sympathize with the sentiment, seduced by aesthetics, and thereby be corrupted. There is no way around this risk, not with real art. It is also possible that genuine art that embodies and communicates the Good could “corrupt” a soul, and lead them toward goodness and light. That’s what the art of the Chartres cathedral did for me. So, when I consider what my “theology” of engaging with rock music might be, or ought to be, I consider that to encounter true art always involves the possibility of conversion, one way or another.
And so it goes on in this vein for 500 words of rationalization.

I would say that he is approaching the question from the wrong direction. For me, the point is not to figure out how far you can go into art for art's sake without sacrificing your morality; the real question is how far you can go into morality without sacrificing your humanity.

I first encountered this way of thinking in George Orwell's essay on Gandhi. Gandhi said that a truly holy man can have no close friendships, because that would distract him from the holy path. That is true, said Orwell, and it marks the point at which the saint's attitude becomes incompatible with that of the humanist. Perhaps it is true that friendship is something saints must avoid, but it is certainly true that sainthood is something human beings must avoid.

To be human means to live in the world, and our planet is an extraordinarily messy place. We are extraordinarily complicated animals. To renounce all of this, it seems to me, is against the whole point of being human. The most important spiritual thought I have ever had is that if our lives have a purpose, that purpose must be to live in this world as human animals. Why would be here, if the only point were to escape or repress our natures or otherwise get away from what we are? Why would we be given a nature only to renounce it? To be human is to search for some kind of path through the thickets of joy, pain, desire, revulsion, fear, courage, success, failure, love, loss, and so on that define our lives. By necessity, that path is a winding one and involves a great deal of error. That is humanity. Perfection is for angels.

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