The Ice, the Ax, the Sea

by Sam Buntz 

Beauty seems like a throwaway in our world. It shines out unexpectedly from the bottom of the wastebasket. Think about all the shells that wash-up on the seashore: intricate forms, expressing dazzling geometrical patterns. An extravaganza of scattered, shattered beauty. But if no human eye alights on them, their beauty remains hidden… 

Shakespeare, writing about 420 years ago in As You Like It, was able to find “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” All of Nature was a text waiting to be deciphered. A thousand years before Shakespeare, the Qur’an saw in Nature the ayat, or “signs,” of the creator. The Qur’an uses the same term to refer to its own verses. This indicates that Nature is a series of symbols, like its divinely revealed words, which refer to something transcending themselves. All of reality is comprised of signs, and these signs all refer back to their Creator. 

In other words, beauty is only a throwaway if we let it function as a throwaway. Its proper role is to strike us. To turn our minds – and hearts – back to their source, back to the Hand from which they issued at the beginning of Time. 

This perspective on beauty is Traditional, using the term “Traditional” in the same sense employed by scholars of Islamic mysticism such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr and William Chittick. The Traditional approach to beauty has been dominant in all the world’s major religious traditions up to the present time, when narrow dogmatic scientific-materialism hollowed Nature of any underlying meaning. (Or, more accurately, when it thought it had hollowed Nature of any meaning). There are no longer “sermons in stones,” no greater reality underlying the natural appearance. The appearance is all. It appears to testify to itself alone, droning to a vacant auditorium.   

We moderns have no idea how unusual this scientific-materialistic perspective is in historical terms. As for the Traditional perspective on beauty, we can consult any religious tradition and come up with parallel insights. Thomas Aquinas thought all the objects in Nature constituted unities that pointed back to their source in an ultimate, infinite Unity. The Protestant mystic, Jakob Boehme, sought to read “the signatures of all things,” the divine Names of God underlying His creation. Islamic mysticism, as already stated, is especially deep in this area, offering a highly sophisticated understanding of how divine meanings, the Names of God, move under the surfaces of all things, giving rise to existence. Jewish mysticism too, sees the various Names of God as constituting the underlying nature of reality, creating, sustaining, and destroying the forms of Nature. These names signify attributes such as “Mercy,” “Beauty,” “Majesty,” and “Judgment,” which structure the world we perceive. 

Likewise, Hinduism sees divine meaning as underlying all things as well – the world of mind and matter is ultimately an illusion that points towards an underlying reality, Brahman. The Rig Veda states, “In the beginning was the Vak [Word], and the Vak was verily the Supreme Brahman.” The natural world is like a gown, a veil, that both reveals and conceals the Godhead lying beneath. The Buddhist notion that all things possess “buddha nature” is similarly consonant with these insights. Even a decadent French poet like Charles Baudelaire, self-recriminating patron of seedy bars and brothels, could find in Nature –

“a temple in which living pillars 

Sometimes give voice to confused words; 

Man passes there through forests of symbols 

Which look at him with understanding eyes.”

And, indeed, there are still great poets and writers among us, who point towards such a revelation. Cormac McCarthy and Mark Helprin come to mind as two particularly powerful exemplars. 

Yet, for the most part, the modern world does not know what to make of the Beautiful Names, self-evident in all things – like a sudden breath swelling the curtain. Of course, we all see beauty or at least bump awkwardly into it. Even a monstrous personality is susceptible to its influence. There are murderers who love Mozart. But rather than allowing beauty to reach into us and work on us – humanizing us in a like manner to the beast in The Beauty and the Beast –  we tend to relegate it to the realm of distraction. We insulate ourselves from its effects. When Notre Dame Cathedral nearly burned down, many were quick to lament the great artistic and aesthetic loss. Only the religious lamented that the Cathedral’s ruined artistry could no longer signify a greater, Divine Reality. Without acknowledging this Divine Reality, the purely artistic dimension of the Cathedral tends to lose its capacity to speak to us. 

When we live in a world that is only appearance, where beauty is at best a distraction, we tend to lose our grip. Instead of submitting to beauty and letting it guide our thoughts and feelings towards the transcendent, we seek to possess it and exploit it. We use it to sell iPods and 24 packs of Miller High Life. (We used to use it to sell cigarettes – you can still occasionally witness the Marlboro Man riding off into a particularly vivid sunset.) But beauty tends to break through the cages with which we imprison it. It flames out, floods us, rumbles over us, batters us with whirlwinds and typhoons.  

There was once a man who attempted to build an endless roof so that he could own the sky… 

He failed. 

We live and move in a vast ocean of beauty. Beauty hides even in the crevices of sidewalks, in the fiercely formed and exquisitely flexible bodies of insects, in the softness of moss and the green veins of weeds. Even the centipedes that haunt my apartment at this time of year have their own kind of awful, nightmarish beauty. Its dwelling place is with the low and the high. When we fall into the gutter, its reflection waits for us even there, waiting to pick us up. 

While political movements and social movements are beneficial in their sphere, the quest to restore the Traditional approach to beauty is, I think, of central importance for our time. We need artistic vandals who can break through the hardness of our hearts, chisel down to the depths and let the light in – and let it out. In an insight that is equally true for a piece of music or a painting, Kafka said “a book should be an ax to break the frozen sea within us.” 

The sharper the blade, the deeper the cut, the greater the beauty. 

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“Vampire Weekend’s ‘Father of the Bride’: Isolation and Interconnection”

By Sam Buntz

Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride is the only album you will listen to this year featuring lyrics like, “You broke my heart at midnight mass / Now I’m the ghost of Christmas past” and “What’s the point of human beings? / A Sharpie face on tangerines.” Not to forget, “We go together like Keats and Yeats.”

Vampire Weekend’s sensibility is utterly authentic. You can tease threads out from the album, and say, “That lyric vaguely echoes Springsteen,” or “Those solos are clearly in homage to the Grateful Dead.” But, still, Vampire Weekend doesn’t really sound like anybody else. They’re American originals, to trot out a worn but applicable phrase.

I lived inside their previous album, Modern Vampires of the City, when it came out in 2013. Its agnostic quest, its mingled skepticisms and near-affirmations, spoke directly to where I was in my own life. It’s one of those masterworks that have such depth and immediate, personal resonance that they seem to be speaking for you and to you. It embodies a vibe that is uniquely personal to the songwriter, while also capturing something in the air, a frequency to which other internal antennas are tuned. (I detailed my thoughts on that album here).

Father of the Bride is having a like effect on me. It deals with many of the same themes as Modern Vampires of the City, propelling its internal anxieties and conflicts onward – dragging them from winter into spring, into a different sonic and emotional atmosphere, giving them space, letting them grow and progress. (There’s a cyclic seasonal rhythm to all four Vampire Weekend albums). The album’s narrative encompasses the personal, the social, and, indeed, the universal, offering moments that are both deeply intimate and panoramic in scope. Like Springsteen and Simon, Mitchell and Cohen, chief lyricist and songwriter Ezra Koenig makes these songs as personal for the listener as they are for him. The album’s fusion of this individual narrative with a broader societal narrative is particularly impressive and beguiling. The entire album can be heard both ways. Lyrics that read as domestic drama will suddenly open up, displaying a greater import.  

In an age that constantly thrusts our attention outward into crowd-oriented hysterias, Father of the Bride is a welcome antidote. It reels us back in, confronting us with what is most meaningful or perplexing in any given life. And confronting what is most meaningful is usually the same as confronting what is most painful.

Yet, this painful subject matter – the “constant ping pong match of desire” – is irresistibly presented in the mode of melodically attractive and catchy pop music. (Ariel Rechtshaid’s production is so meticulous he actually ensured the songs wouldn’t lose elements when played on lousy laptop speakers and phones.) I have no idea how a reviewer from Pitchfork managed to find only songs of “contentment” on this album, claiming it lacked the previous album’s fertile anxieties. To my ears, the entire record is rife with disputation, reflection, and striving, a continuous war between “Yes” and “No,” push and pull, a yearning towards reconciliation that often collapses but then continues to move towards its right end.   

As on the earlier albums, Koenig’s lyrics seem to narrate the travails of either one character or a cast of characters, akin to Evelyn Waugh’s “Bright Young Things,” who populate the novelist’s early works. (Koenig has cited Waugh as an overt inspiration – and the Waugh parallels are perhaps even deeper than they might first appear. Waugh traces the journey of fast-moving young sophisticates towards a confrontation with first and last things, faith and love and death). Koenig has stated that, like Springsteen’s double-album The River, Father of the Bride has an implied overarching narrative and a theme. I aim to provide my own specific take on what this narrative is. Obviously, reality presents itself to different people in different ways, and a crazy, anemone-like growth of interpretations is all to the good. I don’t claim this is the only way to understand the album. But after letting it form the soundtrack to my life over this past weekend, I feel prepared to venture some cautious notes on its meaning.

The first song, “Hold You Now,” is key to interpreting what follows. The song appears, on the surface, to present two lovers arguing, one begging the other not to marry someone else. But when you realize its true import, it brings you up with a start. The woman in the song isn’t marrying a person – it seems like she’s marrying God. (The soul is the bride and Christ the bridegroom in many mystical theologies). The man in the song is unmoved: “Promises of future glory don’t make the case for me.” He sings, “I can’t carry you forever, but I can hold you now.” The bride says he’s acting ridiculous, telling him, “You just watch your mouth when talking ‘bout the Father of the Bride.” (The Father of the Bride here is clearly God – who is also apparently the bridegroom, funnily enough). Then, in a sample from Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to The Thin Red Line, a Melanesian choir sings lyrics that, translated into English, read, “God, take my life and let it be / Consecrated, Lord, to Thee; / Take my hands and let them move / At the impulse of Thy love.”

Which makes it pretty clear…

Now, I’m not going to argue for a spiritual interpretation of the entire album. But this first song introduces a fundamental theme or pattern that runs through the whole. The singer of these songs continually struggles with whether to merge into something greater than himself or collapse back into a state of isolation. The songs analyze the dangers and hopes of identifying with a larger source of Being, alternately moving towards it and pulling away. The track, “This Life,” contains the lyrics, “And darling our disease is the same one as the trees’ / Unaware that they’ve been living in a forest.” One wants to escape this isolated, ego-cocoon – but the greater, unbounded reality is intimidating and has unforeseen perils of its own.

The quest of this album, its burden of meaning, is for a greater context, a life in which one relates to the entire interconnected web of existence, rather than merely to one’s own egoistic projections. One either lives a life that is self-enclosed, so to speak – locked up in a hermetically sealed shell of self – or, one breaks out of it, and joins a greater field of interconnection and relation. That’s why some of the critics are saying that the album is “about” world peace or environmental awareness or getting back to Nature. The idea of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity and the concept of ecological interdependence are both forms of the “greater field of interconnection and relation” just referred to. They are ways of comprehending it or understanding it. But neither exhausts its meaning.

The well is deep, my friends.

On the songs, this “greater field of interconnection and relation” is not always God, though sometimes it definitely seems like it is, especially on “Big Blue,” which describes a moment of transcendental union with the divine and the comedown. In the end, the singer asks, “Am I learning my lesson / Or am I back on my own?” Vampire Weekend’s music, whether it’s dealing with love lost and won or spiritual struggles, always has friction within it. The attempted reconciliation of opposites recurs perpetually. That’s why a song like, “Big Blue,” with its George Harrison-style liquid lead guitar line and transcendental yearning, is affecting in a way much self-billed “Christian Rock” isn’t. It’s not making a casual, unearned affirmation. It’s striving towards something, with all the false starts and backward slidings characteristic of real life. In that way, it’s lyrically akin to the work of both Harrison and Leonard Cohen.  

The album poses that question, “Am I back on my own?,” repeatedly, in one way or another. In “Unbearably White,” the singer “Ran up the mountain, out of your sight / The snow on the peak was unbearably white.” It achieves the interesting reversal of taking a phrase, “unbearably white” that is typically used by clickbait journalists to criticize Wes Anderson movies, and uses it, instead, for metaphorical and poetic purposes. (The same trite phrase has been applied to Vampire Weekend’s music in the past, too). The song fools us into expecting some sort of message about the machinations of contemporary journalists with its title, when it’s really pointing towards something deeply personal, an experience of loss and emptiness represented by endless blankness. That’s an intentional feint and riposte. The song intimates a life-in-death, separate from other human beings: “What kept us together, darling, is what kept us alive.” At a point of emotional desolation, after a break-up, say, we confront an extreme of emptiness, and what previously seemed to be a world of living color fades into universal pallor.

In “Sympathy,” Koenig sings, “In the ping-pong match of constant desire / I was never gonna get ahead / ’Cause I was looking in the mirror.” This is another moment of isolation, of separation from a larger current of life – marking time on the walls of the ego-cocoon, lost in one’s own self-image, oblivious to the stream of humanity and poetry eddying through existence. But a moment of sympathy and understanding brings the reinforced walls of self crashing down. This is likened to a moment on the island military base, Diego Garcia, “Lonely in the ocean, but in every other way / It was full of love / And the warmth of fellow feeling.” The song, “Rich Man” too, is sung by a rich man who claims to have a satisfied mind, despite the fact that it’s hard to find “one rich man in ten who has a satisfied mind.” In reality, it seems like he’s fooling himself. Gold, throughout the album, tends to compound isolation and separate people, rather than alleviating their sorrows. (Listen to the track, “Married in a Goldrush.”)

While the album is duly focused on the personal, and addresses us individually as well as socially, it also casts considerable shade on our crowd-oriented modes of being. “Harmony Hall” sends up twitter mobs and political extremism: “Anger wants a voice / Voices want to sing / And singers harmonize / Til they can’t hear anything.” (I wrote more extensive reflections on this song, the album’s flagship single, here).

Likewise, “Bambina” notes, “No sign of injustice / No sign, but the flames are filling up the room / When the engines come, they always come too soon.” Again, it recognizes the dangers inherent in our search for a greater context, a relation to something bigger. Principally, this is the danger that we will be seduced by a false unity, Nuremberg Rallies and the collective approval of the deluded.

Crowds are sources of cheap and ready pseudo-meaning. They distill anger into a whirlwind of echoes that feels like belonging, but really isn’t. It does little to remedy the fundamental divisions and loneliness of the human heart. On a related note, Koenig, who is Jewish and apparently Buddhist, sings “My Christian heart cannot withstand / The thundering arena / I’ll see you when the violence ends / For now, ciao ciao Bambina.” I take the “thundering arena” to represent the emotional texture of life in America right now, a kind of mental and spiritual approximation of martyrdom and gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum. Koenig, quite sensibly, doesn’t have time for the hate and the sneering.

A vaguely apocalyptic atmosphere hangs around some of the songs. “How long til’ we sink to the bottom of the sea?” Koenig asks on “How Long?” In “Bambina,” he also says, “Can’t speak when the waves reach our house upon the dunes.” That connects with the ecological dimension of the greater field of interconnection, pointing towards the final fruits of our dissociation from one another, our retreat into subjective prison cells. To wit, collective destruction, the “unanimity of the grave.”

The poet John Wheelwright dreamed of “awakening into the astonished company of other men.” That seems to be the album’s social message as well – the dream of an ideal unity, in which difference and cultural exchange occur in a medium of love, with minimal friction.

Though time and tide wear us down, and political and personal fortunes shift, Father of the Bride, in the end, endorses this dream. Even though it’s shot through with irony, Koenig’s final duet with Danielle Haim, “We Go Together,” aims towards real reconciliation. The lovers who appeared on the first track are now trying to unite. They “go together like lions and lambs.” In the Bible, the book of Isaiah looks toward the end of history, in which “the lion lies down with the lamb,” and “none shall kill nor defile in all my holy mountain.” After passing through the turmoil of romantic complications and confronting the impermanence characteristic of existence – as on the song “Spring Snow” – one still wants to identify with the greater web of existence, wide enough to encompass, “Jerusalem, New York, and Berlin,” and surmount the world’s various divisions, from Kashmir to the West Bank.

I’m grateful for this album and for the opportunity to say something about it. Since my tendency is to focus on the lyrics, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the important contributions of the other band members, Chris Baio and Chris Thomson, who form a tight rhythm section, as always. A large roster of guests – from Danielle Haim to The Internet’s Steve Lacy and Koenig’s radio co-host, Jake Longstreth – all make essential contributions to the album. 

In a time like ours, obsessed with polarities and engaged in perpetual demonization, Father of the Bride stands as a counterpoint. The field of human interrelation, which the album portrays, is as intricate as the hidden life in a honeycomb. Its crunchy, organic vibes beckon the listener, and offer a taste of a reality that transcends the titanic rage and mere irritation alternately boiling and simmering around us.

The Death of People-Watching

“The Death of People-Watching”

by Sam Buntz

If you live in a big city and take the train in the morning, commuting on Chicago’s el (as I do) or venturing through the congested innards of New York’s subway system, you have doubtless noticed something about your fellow passengers. They are hunched over in attitudes that initially seem reminiscent of prayer. The glowing screens cradled in their hands possess the aura of sacred texts. You pop your head up for a moment, look around you, and think, “My God – I am the one remaining conscious person in the world! I alone am free from the spell of this malign hypnosis.” Then, your head bobs back down, immersed in the same ritual devotions, the same Instagram-Twitter black mass as your fellow riders…

Complaining about this state of affairs is futile. If you rail against social media and smartphones, despite their universally acknowledged negatives, you rapidly morph into the archetypal curmudgeon. After shaking your fist at the clouds, you return to muttering about how you don’t understand this whole Cardi B phenomenon, let alone these kids with their damn fidget spinners and Pokemon Go. You become lost in the labyrinth of your own dark and dated murmurings. Nonetheless, and with these risks acknowledged, it is worth our while to consider one effect of our pervasive screen addiction. It has nearly destroyed people watching.

People watching was – and, to some extent, still is – the definitive pleasure of life in a major metropolis. In France, the dedicated people watcher, the connoisseur of the streets, even received a title, flaneur (also referred to as a boulevardier; the female equivalent is the flaneuse). The word flaneur ultimately derives from the Old Norse verb “flana,” which means to “wander without a purpose.” The classic 19th Century flaneur ambled about the boulevards of Paris, absorbing the pulse and flavor of the life around him. Apparently an aimless man of leisure, the flaneur secretly recorded the modulations in the river of humanity flowing by him. He noted the poetry etched on people’s faces. He saw the scars, the half-hidden joys, youth in flower and withering age.

The poet Charles Baudelaire described the flaneur in his definitive essay on the subject, “The Painter of Modern Life:” “the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”

This refined, artistic, yet remarkably inexpensive pleasure was not restricted to 19th Century Paris, of course. In fact, if we go back to Elizabethan England, we find that Shakespeare and other notable playwrights of the time made it a habit to sit in public and people-watch. According to John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, “Ben Johnson and [Shakespeare] did gather Humours of men dayly where ever they came.” In other words, they would scan the faces of passersby, looking for hints of personality, trying to deduce the tendencies of their characters. In fact, the other undisputed titan of literature, Leo Tolstoy, was also an avid people watcher. He would sit in the town square and write. He said the faces of the townsfolk inspired him. (Unexpectedly, this is referenced on an episode of Seinfeld).

This manner of apprehending reality connects to the Christian notion of epiphany, a term used to mark the day when the three wise men beheld the infant Christ. The miraculous appears in the midst of the drab and ordinary, just as the Christ child manifests in an obscure barnyard on the fringes of the Roman Empire. The incarnational view of reality has always insisted that any object in Creation is subject to sudden transformation, testifying and pointing towards its Creator. The true flaneur recognizes this: the anonymous faces in a crowd suddenly bloom into reality. They shine with the Imago Dei.

In the Buddhist tradition, we find the related concept of kensho, which means “seeing nature,” as in seeing the true nature of oneself or of any being. Just as Christianity (at its best) seeks to apprehend the face of God in the faces of human beings, Zen Buddhism reveals the “Buddha nature” of all things. Great haikus by Japanese poets such as Basho and Issa testify to the truth of this project. Here’s Issa: “It is a world of dew / A world of dew, indeed / And yet, and yet…”

The flaneur kenshos the crowd. Haunted by epiphany, he seeks the moment where the ordinary is transfigured into the extraordinary merely by being what it is. The fullness of reality manifests in what once seemed to be emptiness. The apparent idling of the veteran people-watcher becomes, in fact, a state of uncommon alertness. It is a meditative state of mind, hyper-aware of the stream of human life coursing by.

But the faces on the train today are harder to read. Each one, locked to its screen, looks somewhat intent but also somewhat vacant. It is as though life is dribbling, droplet by droplet, out of the eyes and into the waiting electronic vessel. This state of affairs deals a double blow to people watching. It makes it harder for us to see – enslaved to the magnetism of the glowing, vibrating, voodoo talisman nestled in our sweaty palms – and it makes it harder for us to beseen. You are less interesting to look at when you are gazing blankly into your phone. As Saint Paul said, we are truly looking “through a glass darkly” – our modes of knowing and being known both lost in confusion. The image of God is there, alright… But it grows blurrier by the minute.

Don DeLillo wrote one of the most depressing sentences of all time: “The future belongs to crowds.” The technological developments of the last twenty years have helped make that prediction disturbingly accurate. Social media is a crucible that melts down personalities and reduces them to their angriest and least coherent notions. Then, like molten metal, they are poured into a common pool. Our devices tend to connect us to crowds but not to each other. They associate us with group identities but forbid us from looking one another plainly in the eye. Crowds always seem to be distinctly less than their members. Apparently the whole is not always greater than the sum of its parts.

By contrast, the flaneur helps tease the individual souls out of the crowd. In liberating them from the mob, he actually brings them out of isolation and into a state of pure relation with his own consciousness. He locates character in what would otherwise be a faceless, teeming mass. He sets the sparks blazing out in the darkness. Without the elevated perspective of an artist or a poet to redeem it, a crowd is comprised not of people, but of digits adding up to different sums.

For example, say that a crowd contains 1,000 heterosexuals, 100 gay people, about 50 bisexuals, and a few pansexuals. We read these statistics and yet we know nothing. The souls contained by these statistics have not been made real for us. We just see a lifeless mass of colorless identities, of spare labels. The flaneur helps rescue the personal and private life from the world of mass movements and mass ideologies. He turns the digits back into human beings… And the tool the flaneur uses for this purpose is people-watching.

Stanislavsky said, “Generality is the enemy of all art.” If crowds are generalities, then individual human beings are particularities. Only the particular, the telling detail, can render life lively. The flaneur performs this service too, saving the the particular from the general, restoring a sense of our eccentricity and thereby a sense of our humanity.

Yet, today, aimless clicking replaces the free and easy wandering of the flaneur. The texts engraved in faces are obscured by distraction. The cover is closed.

The revolt of art against this state of affairs will not be political. It will be personal and insist on taking the world personally. It will be passionately, even violently subjective. Only through such a revolt – a personal revolt against the facelessness of the crowd – can we awaken to the company of the people around us. To engage in people-watching is a revolutionary act, the first salvo not in a political battle but in a spiritual battle. An inner revolution. After all, that is the true meaning of “repentance,” metanoia – to change one’s mental orientation, to learn how to apprehend in a new manner.

We merely need to lift up our heads and look.

Owen Meany at 30

by Sam Buntz

This month has marked the 30th anniversary of John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. In our time, when splenetic tweets attract more attention than novels, it is worth reflecting on the unique value of an inspired tome. There are no longer novels that “everyone needs to read.” Our culture is compartmentalized, diffuse. More adults apparently read “young adult fiction” than adult-adult fiction. Yet, while “likes” on Instagram and Facebook induce waves of dopamine in the brain, the satisfactions of a great novel run somewhat… deeper.

Reflecting on Owen Meany is both an occasion for joy – joy at its beautifully rendered vision – and melancholy regarding so much of what is rapidly evaporating in our culture. It is worth taking some time to celebrate what we love about a book in careful detail, preserving it and helping gather a saving remnant of fellow appreciators. Owen Meany is Irving’s most popular book, out-selling his other novels, and it also happens to be his best. Majority opinion is not always a valuable guide to what is lasting and true, but in this case the casual reader has recognized merit that has eluded the tangled minds of certain esteemed critics. (Alfred Kazin wrote a particularly ridiculous review of Owen Meany when it first came out…)

While some critics spurned the novel’s lack of a precious literary style, the kindly disposed and sensitive reader has appreciated the book for what it is: a miraculous feat of world-building and mythic construction. The non-critics’ opinion has validated the worth of Irving’s novel over the course of three decades. Anyone who can appreciate the fully realized worlds common to our screen culture (as in Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones), should be able to drift away into Irving’s richly detailed mini-cosmos of Gravesend, New Hampshire, and find real, abiding value in the experience – value that cannot be obtained from television…

A Prayer for Owen Meany restores a sense of three things that are scarce in our culture. First, it revives a sense of the uncanny and miraculous, which is sorely missing among us, jaded and phone-addicted as we are. Second, it makes us acutely aware of the particularity of our world, letting magic emerge from the minimal elements of everyday life. Finally, it lets us partake in the strange suspicion that life has an underlying plot or myth.

The uncanny and miraculous are embodied by the main character, Owen Meany. Owen is apparently a dwarf (or maybe the world’s shortest non-dwarf), and he speaks in a high-pitched voice, represented in all caps.  Devoutly religious, he believes himself to be an instrument in the hands of God – which he is. His best friend, John Wheelwright (note the shared first name with Irving), also comes to share this opinion. In addition to other adventures and misadventures, Owen inadvertently kills John’s mother with a foul ball at a Little League game, helps John identify his real father, and aids him in evading service in the Vietnam War. And, in the end, he performs a miracle that folds together these plot elements.

Owen illustrates the part of ourselves that connects with eternity. He is the portion of our being that sees life as ultimately plotted and meaningful, rather than as a collection of random, haphazard events. He is akin to the writer’s own imagination. By contrast, John Wheelwright is the writer as he exists in time, as opposed to eternity. He represents the less-exalted, more mundane side of the writer – his non-writing side. That, in my view, is why John bears his creator’s first name. Owen is a creature convinced of the rightness of his own story, its providential nature. John receives that knowledge from Owen, acting as his faithful squire. He loves Owen, but both benefits and suffers from his friendship (Exhibit A. being his dead mom). At one point, he compares himself to Joseph watching over Jesus in the manger. He is an important figure, but one decidedly cast in a supporting role, as Owen takes center stage.

John sees Owen as virtually supernatural, describing him in unforgettable terms,“with the sun from the attic skylight shining through his protrusive ears, which were a glowing pink – the sunlight so bright that the tiny veins and blood vessels in his ears appeared to be illuminated from within. The powerful morning sun struck Owen’s head from above, and from a little behind him, so that the light itself seemed to be presenting him. […A]nd in that blaze of sunlight, he looked like a gnome plucked fresh from the fire with his ears still aflame. […] I would frequently consider the issue of exactly how human Owen Meany was; there is no doubt that, in the dazzling configurations of the sun that poured through the attic skylight, he looked like a descending angel – a tiny but fiery god sent to adjudicate the errors of our ways.”

Based on this description, Owen Meany is what the Ancient Greeks and Romans would have called John Irving’s daemon or genius. He is the inspired power of imagination, a force that operates of its own volition in every great writer’s head. As writers, both John Wheelwright and John Irving are servants to this power and to whatever inspires it. Their submission to this power shapes a meaningful narrative out of the typically squalid materials of everyday life.   

The most important symbol in Owen Meany is armlessness. After Owen accidentally kills John’s mother, he takes a stuffed armadillo he and John played with as small children and amputates its arms. Owen gives this as a gift to John. As John’s stepfather interprets it, this symbolizes the fact that Owen feels that he is an instrument in the hands of God. His arms are not his own. He is helpless in sorrow, but unable to follow any path other than that which Providence has set for him. He is both maimed by his fate and made miraculous by it.

This image of armlessness recurs throughout the book, helping to re-awaken a sense of higher forces guiding our actions. By reading Owen Meany, the reader comes to partake in this sense of a higher creative intelligence, weaving the varied strands of the story together into a synchronous whole. Owen reminds us of the transcendent and creative dimension of our own personalities, which we could access if we wanted to. Unfortunately, our addiction to our smartphone screens frequently leaves us utterly numb to this element within ourselves.

As for the second gift granted by Owen Meany, it helps us see the luminous quality of everyday life through its extensive worldbuilding. The small New Hampshire town in which this story takes place, Gravesend, is modeled on Irving’s own hometown, Exeter. Minor characters are granted much detail and development. To provide an example, John’s neighbor, Mr. Fish, owns a dog, Sagamore. We learn curious facts about this dog, witnessing his demise due to a collision with a diaper truck. After death, the dog’s corpse is given to John’s grandmother, who is an avid rose gardener. Apparently, nothing is better for fertilizing roses than a dead dog. Little details like this shape the book’s world into an incredibly vibrant reality. Politics, while definitely evident in the book, particularly in the grown-up John Wheelwright’s rants about America’s interventions in Latin America in the 1980s, are in my opinion secondary to these moments of vision.

Regarding the third element offered by this book, Owen Meany has an insanely satisfying plot arc. Irving weaves plot threads together in a uniquely astonishing manner. Sub-plots involving the aforementioned stuffed armadillo, the missing baseball that killed John’s mother, an odd program of basketball-related exercise, and a dressmaker’s dummy all resolve themselves into unity.

Consider the first sentence of the book, a prime example of Irving’s artistry: ”I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” This sentence is the entire novel in miniature. Yet, it is full of mystery, hinting at secrets that are gradually teased out through the course of the novel. It exemplifies Irving’s expertise in foreshadowing and plot construction.  

In constructing the book’s intricate plot arc, Irving makes full use of his own literary background, alluding to all of his most important forebears. According to Irving, Owen Meany’s initials echo those of Oskar Matzerath, the protagonist of Gunter Grass’s classic German novel, The Tin Drum. Further, the fatal baseball that kills the narrator’s mother owes much to the snowball that precipitates the action in Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business. (Being an adopted Torontonian, like John Wheelwright in the book, Irving gave the eulogy at the Canadian novelist’s funeral). The Scarlet Letter is clearly referenced, as, I believe, is Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, a religious novel with a similar attitude towards miracles. Finally, Dickens – Irving’s biggest inspiration – is conspicuously echoed in key plot points related to Owen Meany’s mother.

Irving mashes all of his favorite books into his best book, which helps generate a remarkable crystallization of meaning. He uses his full talent for creating characters and imagery, all while freely and joyfully raiding his literary ancestors for bits and pieces of his plot. His own love for literature is evident in these meticulous interconnections and references.

Irving’s exquisitely crafted story proves an important point. You don’t need to have an avant-garde style to be a major author. This is why certain esteemed critics insist that, while Irving may have high literary aspirations, he’s really more of a… popular… novelist. In other words, Irving doesn’t perform a lot of modernist and post-modernist gimmicks and hi-jinks. He doesn’t try to write novels without using the letter “e” or compose every other page in backwards text that needs to be read in a mirror. He is a consummate craftsman, hewing words and arranging them artfully and appropriately in place.

For an author to endure, the author does not require “style” in this exclusive and inaccessible sense. What an author needs to survive is a vital mythology, a collection of images charged with meaningful movement, an intensity of vision. Irving is well known for his recurring images and characters: dwarves, bears, prostitutes, and adult characters with either very limited or no sexual experience. (To explicate these recurring motifs would require an essay of its own.) A Prayer for Owen Meany makes especially intriguing use of the first and last of these motifs, integrating them into its underlying mythology.

Of course, if you can write with an extremely high degree of personal style, that’s all to the good. My point is merely that, on its own, style is no guarantee of literary merit or survival. Character endures, and so does myth. Style cannot create character or myth, but it can help realize them more fully. And Irving’s style is often lyrical and evocative, more than adequate to this task.

Yet the term “style” itself never sits easily with me. It always leaves one a little queasy. The word has a connotation of superficiality. Consequently, I prefer to speak of an author’s music rather than style. This literary music constitutes a way of artfully arranging words so that they add up to an ultimate pattern of meaning. Style is on the surface. Music is summoned up from the depths. And John Irving definitely has music.  

Myth and music are missing in the modern world. I am referring to the music we can find within us, not to the music we hear on the radio. We require an internal harmony, one we can partly access by engaging with great literature. A Prayer for Owen Meany rekindles that music. It makes us identify with a deep imaginative pattern, one involving miracle and a world in which all events are caused by an underlying Providence.

As Irving’s own spiritual commitment wavered, his next book –  A Son of the Circus – seemed to drift away from this idea of an ultimate meaning, a pattern where everything connects. (However, Irving’s most recent comments in an interview indicate a basically positive attitude towards the essence of Christianity). A Son of the Circus is a rewarding read, but, to my mind, Owen Meany’s spiritual meaning and immensely well-crafted structure make it one of the essential texts of our time.  

Irving’s novel rescues all that is strange, particular, and eccentric about human beings from oblivion. According to the political theorist, Patrick Deneen, we are currently living in a “homogenous anti-culture,” which tends to eliminate or ignore human particularity. He is absolutely correct. But great books like Owen Meany break through that homogeneity. A small boy with a wrecked voice accidentally kills his best friend’s mother with a foul ball. A dead dog fertilizes roses… Owen Meany reminds us that our life stories far transcend what Twitter and Instagram have to offer. Wonderful and terrible eccentricities abound.

One of the epigraphs to A Prayer for Owen Meany is a quotation from the French Catholic writer, Leon Bloy: “A Christian is either a hero or a pig.” Bloy, of course, means that a Christian is either struggling to lead a Christian life or is spiritually free-loading, hoping that God picks up the tab when the party is over. The quote encapsulates the value of Irving’s book. By learning to recognize the transcendent element in life, the richness of detail present in Creation, and the mythic patterns that inform existence, one can take a few steps – or more – in the direction of heroism.  

Vampire Weekend’s Harmony Hall: Escaping the Echo Chamber

“Vampire Weekend’s ‘Harmony Hall:’ Escaping the Echo Chamber”

by Sam Buntz

Great art always means more than one thing. Try to peg a work of genuine artistic merit, and you soon find yourself attempting to balance between two unsteady stools. As a friend of mine pointed out recently, with a nod to Walt Whitman, the best works of art “contain multitudes.” The new Vampire Weekend single, “Harmony Hall,” is a prime demonstration of this truth. It is a multi-splendored, many-sided gem, reflecting light from different angles and defying one single interpretation.

That being said, it definitely is addressing contemporary outrage culture and its perpetual state of emotional frenzy. “Harmony Hall” illustrates our tendency to ensconce ourselves in echo chambers and only hear what we want to hear. At the same time, it reveals something even deeper about the sources of this tendency – namely, human vulnerability and insecurity. This is all presented with a beautifully light and summery touch. There is a gentleness to the song’s approach. It is not confrontational. Rather, it sees the space, the shape, the context of stupid behavior and helps bring it into the light. Also, it passes the acid test for first-rate lyrics: you can read them out loud in a normal voice without feeling silly.

“Harmony Hall” is the first of six singles to be released in advance of Vampire Weekend’s fourth album, Father of the Bride. The band’s singer, guitarist, and chief songwriter, Ezra Koenig, has clearly emerged as the peer of the greatest lyricists of all time. He is rubbing elbows with Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell. This has been true since Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut album, which was released in 2008, but became especially evident in the wake of their second album and third album, 2010’s Contra and 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City. Throughout the course of these albums, Vampire Weekend has gone on a journey from youthful dreams of preppy romance and aestheticism to deeper personal, ethical, and religious concerns. They proceed knowingly from the humorous vanities of youth to the sterner obligations imposed by age. (Of course, the band members are all in their early-mid thirties.)

The first album felt like it was occasionally riffing on Oscar Wilde’s aphorism, “The first duty in life is to strike a pose. No one has yet discovered what the second one is.” It depicted the romantic self-conception of a young, cosmopolitan prepster, stoked on Rudyard Kipling and Evelyn Waugh. However, the later albums focus on the second duty of life, the one Wilde ironically pretended to deny – the ethical, indeed, the spiritual. Modern Vampires of the City, in particular, is one of the outstanding examples of a sustained, agonized engagement with spirituality in our postmodern hellscape. These albums stand out for their willingness to wrestle with existentially serious topics, while still retaining a certain levity and an oddly joyous quality.

“Harmony Hall” follows in the same tradition as the earlier work. It depicts a character who hopes that people will be able to make a “great surrender” sometime soon. Yet they prove too enraptured in anger to make this spiritually-fulfilling submission to a higher purpose. Koenig sings, “Anger wants a voice / And voices want to sing / And singers harmonize / ‘Til they can’t hear anything.” There is intense irony embedded in those lines. Anger doesn’t seem musical, yet its expression parodies harmony and melodic development. Whether we’re dealing with Twitter mobs, Neo-Nazi potlucks, or what have you, it is clear that the participants in these choruses of rage are seduced by the apparent harmony of belonging. There is a pattern and a meaning to anger that infernally mimics the pattern and meaning of a heavenly choir.

This is something Dante depicted in his Divine Comedy: hell is a parody of heaven, the inversion of divine order into demonic order. Another way of putting this is to say that hell (metaphorically speaking) is the inversion of an order based on selfless love into an order based on power. It is, so to speak, a photonegative. It doesn’t seem harmonious. In fact, it is utterly discordant. Yet even this discord reflects, in a decidedly broken manner, the concord of heaven. The ironic effect of this angry “harmony” is that it obliterates your own ability to pay attention and renders you numb and senseless to that which is truly harmonious and musical. Yet, for all its immense confusion, it remains a fractured image of human yearning for a divine harmony or unity. This higher harmony is expressed by the beauty of Vampire Weekend’s music itself, which stands as a joyful counterpoint to the rage it is cheekily describing.

The song’s chorus states, “And the stone walls of Harmony Hall bear witness / Anybody with a worried mind could never forgive the sight / Of wicked snakes inside a place you thought was dignified / I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die.” These are enticingly enigmatic lyrics, but they are still susceptible to interpretation. (The last line is rather interestingly recycled from a track on Modern Vampires of the City, “Finger Back,” which dealt with the Israel-Palestine issue and with broader instances of communal discord).

As some commentators have already noted,”the stone walls of Harmony Hall” appear to be an echo chamber for the anger already discussed in the song. The attitudes of the people expressing this anger amount to a kind of defensive egotism. In order to remain secure, preserved from the snakes hissing throughout the place they thought was dignified (Facebook? Twitter?), they need to huddle together and reinforce one another’s rage. It might be unpleasant to live this way, but it helps you avoid death.

However, the death you are avoiding in this case is not literal death, but the death of your old, ignorant self, which does not want to engage in the difficult work of understanding other people. As the Eastern Orthodox mystic, Theophane the Recluse, put it, the ego is like a wood shaving that has curled in on itself. Rather than recognizing the emptiness at its center and seeing how that emptiness is really the same as the emptiness outside of itself, it twists defensively. It needs to “die” in order transcend its own limited curl, and embrace the whole of reality. A similar metaphor is frequently used in Buddhism as well, which often depicts the ego as being like a clay vase that prevents us from understanding that the space inside of it is the same as the space outside of it. Enlightenment shatters the vase. This is a mystical realization to which Vampire Weekend’s music occasionally points. (Koenig is a student of Buddhism).

The notion of social harmony – both in its negative and positive aspects – is also reflected in the musical style of “Harmony Hall.” “Harmony Hall” draws heavily on the influence of The Grateful Dead and other jam bands, a strain of influence that a reviewer in The Atlantic dubbed “thrilling uncoolness.” In the music criticism community, jam bands like Phish and Widespread Panic are generally considered to be uncool, indeed vulgar. As the critic Nathan Rabin has observed, this appears to be because of a social prejudice against the fans of such music (they’re seen as dirty hippies).

In contemporary music criticism, critics still operate semi-consciously on an ethos that prefers the grittiness and “edge” of punk to the chillaxed grooves of neo-hippies. But this prejudice has become axiomatic, engrained. It is a trend of thought mindlessly repeated, like the stoning at the end of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” It is the kind of negative “harmony” the song is attacking, in other words. It is the defensive social banding of an in-group against the new, the strange, the critically outcast. At the same time, the concerts of jam bands are about a purer social harmony centered around music. They are supposed to be open and accepting affairs, free of these uptight critical judgments. As the guitar solo in “Harmony Hall” emanates the good vibes of Jerry Garcia, the listener starts to vibe with it too…

The mythologist Joseph Campbell, who was a pretty straight-laced cat, found himself surprisingly moved by a Grateful Dead concert. He called it “the antidote to the atomic bomb.” Maybe that sounds naive or like something your aging boomer uncle might try to tell you. But what’s wrong with being united by music? Perhaps, in our fragmentary world, in which we are all hyper-conscious of divisions, the concert experience is still a source of momentary unity? Vampire Weekend, with their poetic lyrics and unexpectedly crunchy influences, might be onto something.

I recognize that the argument this article is making for the unifying power of music is easily mocked. You could swiftly deride it as goofball Woodstock nostalgia. While recognizing the problems inherent in a global economy based on the ethos of Woodstock, I would beg you to reconsider. Perhaps the impulse to mock is too easy. Perhaps the kind of love for music that leads us on a long, digressive search for lyrical clues is, in fact, an antidote for hate. After all, the contrary position leaves you with nothing but the insolent echoes of your own criticisms as they vibrate between stone walls. It leaves you deaf to the Music of the Spheres.

“The Enlightenment Was Fine… But Give Radical Protestants Some Credit for Fighting Slavery and Preserving Liberty”

by Sam Buntz

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin slyly noted the advantages of being reasonable. He wrote, “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

This quote is particularly relevant to the ongoing and intense debate about the Enlightenment, which was kick-started by Jamelle Bouie’s piece in Slate. Bouie argued that, while the Enlightenment gave birth to admirable concepts like human rights and the balance of powers in government, important Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant and John Locke also held reprehensible racial views. They endorsed systems of racial classification that, by abusing Enlightenment notions of science and reason, placed white people at top of a racial hierarchy and black people on the bottom.

Fortunately, there was another force at work in the world in the 18th Century, in addition to the Enlightenment’s scientific rationalism. This force was distinctly Christian, and it helped add human feeling to the Enlightenment’s powerful but occasionally cold set of ideas.  But before we get to that, we need to discuss the Enlightenment’s strengths and weaknesses.

Bouie is basically accurate in his assessment of how these forms of racial classification developed, just as his opponents are correct in crediting the Enlightenment for generating ideas used to fight racism and in disputing the notion that the Enlightenment “invented” racism. We need look no farther than “all men are created equal.”

But consider Ben Franklin’s quote again. Depending on the hidden assumptions of Enlightenment thinkers, on the motives they entertained in their innermost hearts, they could use reason to reach any desired goal. That goal could be the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of human beings… Or, it could be a crudely racist hierarchy…

These conflicting attitudes could exist in the same person, paradoxically. Just think about Thomas Jefferson: he attacked the slave trade in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence (which other founding fathers cut from the draft), and also proposed plans to gradually abolish slavery. At the same time, of course, he owned slaves, and we are all familiar with the fact that he almost certainly was the father of his slave Sally Hemings’ children. He expressed noxious views still used by racist proponents of eugenics today, arguing that black people were innately worse than white people at reading, writing, and mathematics (but, Jefferson said, better at music).

When he was challenged by Benjamin Banneker, a free black astronomer and author of almanacs, Jefferson wrote back, “no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America…”  Jefferson then sent a copy of Banneker’s almanac to a French abolitionist, the Marquis de Condorcet, citing it as an example that he hoped would prove the equality of all races.

Clearly, Jefferson, like many of the rationalists involved in the Enlightenment, sensed that the full equality of all human beings was the right principle. But major blindnesses prevented him from actually affirming that principle in its full meaning. This was left to later generations. Nevertheless, we find in Jefferson, as a figure who embodied Enlightenment, an expression of both its best qualities and its flaws and hypocrisies. He was unable to reconcile the conflict between his ideals and his prejudices, which dueled within his own being.

We see, then, that reason is usually the servant of the heart. It is like the “sorcerer’s apprentice” in the Disney classic, Fantasia. When left to its own devices, without enlightened human feeling to guide it, it starts flooding the basement with a hoard of marching broomsticks. As Franklin observed, it can serve any motive. It needs higher values to supervise it, values that have been cultivated inside the heart. Otherwise, it becomes destructive or lends its support to injustice. It morphs into an amoral bureaucrat of sorts, mindlessly serving power and human selfishness.

We can see this in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Under the pretense of creating a rational society, its leaders authorized the “Reign of Terror.” Their real motives were not actually “rational” but were driven by dark instincts, lusts, and resentment. They should have been more suspicious of themselves.

All this goes to show that Bouie makes some legitimate points. Enlightenment thinkers often used reason for selfish ends and to justify their own positions of power and privilege. That is all undeniably true. But it leaves open a question of enormous import: how did some members of the Enlightenment manage to cultivate their hearts so that reason was able to act as a benevolent servant instead of as a power-serving bureaucrat?

After all, the Enlightenment is full of examples of true-blue abolitionists, from Thomas Paine to the Marquis de Lafayette to John Adams. They clearly were doing more than playing a mere power game. Paine, for instance, took a stand against executing Louis XVI, even though Paine had supported the French Revolution. If he had been motivated solely by power, he should have personally volunteered to operate the guillotine. Evidently, he was motivated by forces other than power-grasping and vengeance.    

An answer to this question is evident if we look at how the first abolitionists in the American colonies and Great Britain began to attack slavery as an institution. While living during the Enlightenment and imbibing its influence, these early abolitionists had one thing in common: they were often highly religious. In fact, they were Quakers. Later, other Christians would follow the Quakers’ lead in opposing slavery, but Quakerism was nevertheless the major groundspring of the abolitionist cause.

For thousands of years, people in the West had typically thought that slaves were born and not made. Aristotle argued that particular people were meant to be used as property, as a part of Nature’s law. They could not help being slaves. Later Christian thinkers qualified this idea and chiseled away it, but it did not face a stiff challenge until after the English Civil War. (This argument applies to the Protestant-majority part of the world. Slavery ended in the Catholic world for another set of reasons, fascinating in themselves, but beyond the scope of this article).  

Unlike many of the radical Protestant groups that arose during that time, the Quakers managed to keep their heads on their shoulders. While other sects dissolved into debauchery in the wreckage of their Utopian dreams, the Quakers maintained two critical principles: they believed that human beings had a direct connection to the Holy Spirit, who could speak to or influence anyone, while also believing that the tendency to commit sin was always present.

The Quakers did not think humans were utterly evil, nor did they state that they could easily become totally perfect. They worked diligently towards improving themselves, while questioning their sinful tendencies and keeping them in check. In the past, many societies had largely emphasized the sinfulness of human beings at the expense of their direct connection to the Holy Spirit, which made it easier to tolerate something like slavery. In a sinful world, you could only be so good; your standards were lowered accordingly. But the Quakers maintained a humble yet firm commitment to strive towards the Ideal.

Initially, the Quakers became tangled up in slavery. As they colonized Pennsylvania and other parts of America, they purchased and owned slaves. They fell into the habitual practices of their times. But they were not comfortable with this state of affairs. Unlike numerous other slave-owning societies, a large number of Quaker communities felt tension between their behavior in the world and their guiding ideals. Many Quakers came to realize that holding slaves was not part of Nature’s law – it was something they were choosing to do.

As they saw it, they were guided to this intuition by opening themselves to the Holy Spirit. Instead of blindly continuing to follow convention, they looked inside, analyzed their motives, and reformed their hearts. Quaker denunciations of slavery quickly became widespread.  

As David Brion Davis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning study The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture shows, this was a critical development. Christian opposition spread rapidly to other denominations. Even a staunch Anglican monarchist, the great literary critic Samuel Johnson, was able to express his hatred of slavery, allegedly toasting success to the next slave revolt in the Caribbean. From William Wilberforce, the British abolitionist who successfully led the crusade to abolish slavery in the British Empire, to John Brown, who made the Civil War virtually inevitable, the Christian factor in defeating slavery and fighting racism cannot be underrated. It is of the first importance, and would continue to manifest itself throughout American history, particularly in figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth.  

From all of this information, it should be clear that the “Age of Reason” was about more than just reason. It was also about the heart, and, as Blaise Pascal wrote, “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” The goal of the most enlightened figures of the Enlightenment – like Thomas Paine, who came from a Quaker background – was to harmonize the heart and the head, to make thought and feeling work together. They sought to make our most spiritually-illuminated feelings, as opposed to our violent passions, the guide to our use of reason.

Instead of using reason to justify wielding power over others, these thinkers often attempted to reform society under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Dissident Protestant artists like William Blake and Josiah Wedgwood (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) used their art to appeal directly to the feeling of brotherly love, in order to support abolition.

Other Enlightenment figures, like Jefferson, demonstrate what David Brion Davis calls, “the ambivalence of rationalism.” They recognized that slavery was a grotesque insult to humanity and an utterly irrational institution, but they could not extend their hearts beyond what they erroneously imagined to be the limits of reason and advocate immediate abolition. The Marquis de Condorcet, to whom Jefferson sent Banneker’s almanac, expressed disappointment with this ambivalence. He wrote, “Only a few ‘philosophes’ have from time to time dared to raise a cry in favor of humanity, a cry which the Establishment has not heeded, and which a superficial society has soon forgotten.”

Condorcet, a fearless champion of the equality of all races and of the sexes, who epitomized the true spirit of the Enlightenment, was later imprisoned and murdered during the Reign of Terror. There are revolutionaries with hearts… and revolutionaries without hearts.

We should learn from this example, balancing the “Age of Reason” with the outpouring of spiritual feeling and imagination exemplified by the Quakers, William Blake, Condorcet, Josiah Wedgwood, and many more. While Jamelle Bouie is right to note that Enlightenment ideas were sometimes used to justify wielding power over others, it lends proportion to his perspective to consider major historical figures who were not motivated by power. The word for what motivated them – which we have avoided mentioning until this point – is love.

Everyone who ascribes to academic, postmodern philosophies, which claim that all of history is just a power-based contest in which competing identities try to exert their wills against each other, should take this to heart. True, there is a spirit that seeks to create order purely in order to serve its own craving for power. This spirit seems to be dominant throughout much of history. In fact, the Bible calls it “the Prince of this World.” But there is another spirit at work, exemplified by these Quaker abolitionists and by heroic figures of the Enlightenment like Condorcet.

This spirit creates order through love.  

All is Vanity: Reflections on Religion and Identity Politics

by Sam Buntz

I wonder why identity politics prove so appealing to the Far Left and the Far Right…  To those of us who are immune to the appeal, there is something odd in celebrating the least that can be said about oneself.  Sure, you might be a proud pansexual Ukrainian-American, and that’s great. But so are two hundred other people.  What makes you you, as an individual?  What distinguishes you from the general “type”?  The question might sound like copy for a self-help seminar, but it should resonate loudly in the ear of every American. People should walk up to you, grab you by the lapels, and demand an answer.

It’s strange to see forms of collectivism—especially collectivism based on race, which is the lowest variety—gaining a degree of attention and credence in a country that has always seen itself as the harbor of individualism. Admittedly, individualism can go off the rails and become a cult of self-aggrandizement. (I definitely don’t need to provide any examples.  Just look up for a moment or two and you should be able to find blatantly obvious evidence somewhere nearby.) But the individualism of ethically engaged Americans like Emerson and Thoreau still seems to me to be the fundament, even if it’s currently buried under super-sized heapings of squalid nonsense.

The problem of identity looms larger as people scream about it more and more on Twitter. Veins bulge. Hemorrhages bloom. After a few semesters of campus indoctrination, people start prefacing statements with “As a proud [fill in the blank], I must question the administration’s decision not to mandate trigger-warnings on Moby Dick…”  

Why have people begun to cling to the most basic, least compelling descriptions of themselves?  Why prefer the broadest possible sketch of the self? 

The answer involves fending off a felt sense of modern absurdity.  In a world where nothing appears to makes sense—where atoms and neutrinos wander aimlessly in a cosmic void—taking hold of a simple, blatant fact about yourself (like your race and gender) and becoming an intense partisan of that fact, starts to make a limited degree of sense.  If there is no spiritual order, if the materialistic conception of the cosmos is it, then becoming a race-cheerleader seems slightly reasonable.  It offers the consolations and comforts of belonging with minimal effort.  You don’t have to investigate who you really are. You just bask in rays of self-affirmation, cheaply earned.

It’s often assumed that Christianity is losing strength in the West because of a widespread sense of this modern futility and absurdity.  People no longer see the sun and moon as mysterious creations of the Divine.  They see a ball of hot gas and a rock. The disenchantment of reality, initiated by thinkers like Freud and Marx, is reaching its final phase. According to Marx, reality boils down to economic conflict. According to Freud, reality boils down to fundamental sexual conflicts in the psyche.  Rather than liberating people from the supposedly benighted ignorance of the religious worldview, these sages have left the world a bleaker, more joyless place—a prison of absurdity. Paraphrasing Algernon Charles Swinburne, the world has grown gray with their breath.

While it’s true that religion has grown weaker because of this felt sense of absurdity, it would be equally accurate to say that religion is waning in the West because it lacks the stomach for wrestling with these modern dilemmas and confronting this felt sense of absurdity head on.  After all, the world’s major religions don’t argue that life in our world is not absurd.  They typically argue that it is

Let’s consider Christianity and Judaism for starters.  They posit that the first humans were in a situation that initially made sense: Paradise, Eden.  They were in tune with God, and existed in a state-of-being that gently conformed to their own properly managed desires.  Then, by grasping after forbidden knowledge, they fell into a state of absurd suffering.  “Cursed is the ground because of you,” God tells Adam, after The Fall. “Through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food, until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”   

A life of meaningless toil.  Followed by death.  Absurd, no?  

The book of Ecclesiastes famously repeats the refrain, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!”  This is sometimes translated, less euphoniously but with some measure of accuracy, as “Meaninglessness, meaninglessness, all is meaninglessness!”  This is the condition the primordial humans fell into: an existential void.  In Hebrew, the word translated as “vanity” and “meaninglessness” is actually hebel, which refers to mist, breath, or vapor.  It suggests that existence is like fog, impermanent and insubstantial.  

So, the Judeo-Christian tradition fully recognized this felt sense of absurdity millennia ago. 

Furthermore, in Christianity, it is by entering into this absurd condition, subjecting Himself to it, becoming human, and dying an apparently senseless death, that God opens a pathway for liberation to humanity. The cross becomes a symbol for the ultimate absurdity (crucifixion as punishment for sedition) transfigured into the ultimate meaning (eternal life).  The early Church Father, Tertullian once cried out, “I believe because it is absurd!”  If he meant that he believed in Christianity because it was ridiculous, his claim would be laughable.  But if he meant that he believed it because it was in tune with the existential absurdity through which we suffer, embracing it yet transcending it, his point becomes very profound indeed. 

With the Eastern Religions, the sense of absurdity is also nothing new.  The Buddha observed that life is characterized by impermanence (like the aforementioned Hebrew hebel-fog), which leads to suffering.  Hindu philosophy sees the universe as Maya – a cognitive delusion, a dirty trick of the mind – compared in a classic analogy to a rope we momentarily mistake for a snake.  Yet, again, both religions insist on the universe’s meaninglessness in order to transcend it.  Both the Buddhist monk and the Hindu yogi seek liberation via meditation, escaping from absurd suffering, from Maya, into the eternal and timeless.  

So, it’s not as though we are short on ammunition – on ideas – to combat the destructive simple-mindedness of identity politics.  They’ve been there forever, yet we’re allowing them to rust unused in storage.  Many clerics are conveying a message of existential import to their congregations – but, broadly speaking, how many people are actually aware of these spiritual ideas, which can literally save one’s life?  Even though these ideas have been getting the job done for centuries, they seem to be getting short shrift.  Nevertheless, for those who are willing to search for them, they can renew a sense of hope, transfigure modern absurdity, and help us to follow the theologian Paul Tillich’s advice: “Keep yourselves open for the creative moment which may appear in the midst of what seemed to be waste.”