Anthony Esolen

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There is no help from 'the culture,' because there is no longer any culture; only the rubble of what used to be a culture.

You can’t have a Culture of Life if you have no culture at all

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It should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a moment that it is always far easier to destroy than to create.  One bomb or wrecking ball can shatter in an instant the cathedral that it took human hands and minds fifty years to build. 

What is true of buildings is true of culture generally. 

During the early and dark days of World War II, when the British army at Dunkirk had the sea behind them and the Germans before them, they sent a message back home consisting of three words: But if not. 

It was a brilliant message, because even if the Germans managed to intercept it and decode it, it wouldn't have done them any good. "But if not"...what? 

But the army knew that their countrymen would understand. It was more than a message regarding strategy.  It captured the heart of the war itself, a battle for the survival of European culture and civilization against the diseased fantasies of the Third Reich.

The reference comes from the story of the Hebrew youths Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, in captivity in ancient Babylon, who refused to bow down in worship before the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar.  The king summoned them before him in a fury and demanded their submission, lest he cast them into the fiery furnace.  Their reply was manly and direct:

If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. BUT IF NOT be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.

The British people then roused themselves to action – ordinary men, anyone with a boat and a heart that beat warmly for God and country.  They crossed the channel in defiance of the enemy and rescued more than three hundred thousand men.  

The incident reveals more than a common language.  It reveals a common way of life, and a common view of life.  The sterling words of the old King James Bible, a work of the highest culture, had long come to inform and vivify the ways of ordinary people. 

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That message could not now be sent, either to England or America. It would be incomprehensible.  That is not because the culture has changed.  It is because it has been destroyed, and the most energetic destroyers have been the very people whom we charge with its care: teachers, professors, statesmen, and artists.

Thomas Molnar had this to say about it:

Culture has come to mean . . . anything that happens to catch the fancy of a group: rock concerts, supposedly for the famished of the third world; the drug culture and other subcultures; sects and cults; sexual excess and aberration; blasphemy on stage and screen; frightening and obscene shapes; the plastic wrapping of Pont-Neuf or the California coast; to smashing of the family and other institutions; the display of the queer [that is, bizarre], abject, the sick.  These instant products, meant to provide instant gratification to a society itself unmoored from foundation and tradition, accordingly deny the work of mediation and maturation and favor the incoherent, the shapeless and the repulsive.

All in a day's work at your local school, CBS, the BBC, the CBC, The New York Times, the Guggenheim, Broadway, Harvard, Hollywood, your local school, Cosmopolitan, the Playboy Channel, Princeton, your local school, Young Adult Fiction, the halls of Congress, Planned Parenthood, the “Adult” bookstore with no windows, your local school.

We want to raise up young people in a culture of life. Well and good. But that means that we require a culture, and that doesn't happen by itself, especially not now, when all the forces of “education” and mass entertainment are ranged against the very possibility of a culture.  

Imagine a scene of wholesale destruction. Every old and venerable structure has been reduced to rubble. People relieve themselves in the street. Sometimes they copulate there, too. Their “music” is little more than grunting and groaning. Their rulers are on the take. There are hundreds of thousands of old books in the mountain of stone and mortar that used to be the library. Most of those books are far beyond the capacity of the people to read. They sneer and snort at Shakespeare, because they can't understand him. They've never even heard of Virgil. A lot of these people have taken to cannibalism. 

Now then – you have retained some vague memory of a more noble way of life.  You have therefore arrived at a great truth. It's perfectly obscure to most of your fellow rubble-pickers, who mock you and call you a prude, a Neanderthal, a medieval monk, a madman, a hater of the hungry, and so forth. Your precious truth is simply this: it is wrong to eat human flesh. 

Well, that is no great burst of enlightenment, but it is a beginning. So what do you do?  Will you be content to say, “My children will do everything that everyone else is doing, but they will not eat human flesh?” They will be subhuman and subcultural, but their taste in dining will be restricted just a little?  Is that all?  

Will you say, “Our family is not anthropophagous, but we will send our children to be taught by the same fellow that all the other parents use,” the one with the squalid leer, dabbling in excrement, contemptuous of any wisdom from the past?

That is where pro-life parents find themselves now.

Should we expect any help from places like Yale? Those places sponsor weeks for show-and-tell by whores and peddlers of sex toys. Any help from your local school? That would be like expecting Belial to lead you in prayer. There is no help from “the culture,” because there is no longer any culture; only the rubble of what used to be a culture.

What do you do, then?  Turn back, O man.  It's time to recover and rebuild. 

More to come.

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The Catholic Church’s priest shortage crisis: a self-inflicted wound

Anthony Esolen Anthony Esolen Follow Anthony
By Anthony Esolen

Suppose you take a double-barrel shotgun and aim it at your foot. You press the trigger, and half of your toes are bloody fragments. Then you pray, “Cure me, O Lord, for I am lame!” You hobble around for a while, complaining that there are hills in the world, and looking forward to that time when the Lord will level them all and fill in the valleys, so that you won't have to lean on your crutch so hard. But you still carry that shotgun around, and every year you repeat the same mysterious experiment in new and improved ambulation. You have now rendered one foot nothing but an ankle ending in a splinter, and the other foot a mangled mess. But you keep praying, “Heal me, Lord, help me to walk upright again!”

When, after many years of limping as a cripple, you are persuaded that the Lord is not going to make your feet grow back, you begin to say that it is a good thing to be hobbled; it allows us to experience the wonders of chair-lifts, special parking places, threats of gangrene, and early death. But that doesn't mean that you change everything you believe. You are still a stalwart with that shotgun. Ready, aim, fire.

The Catholic Church is in dire need of priests. She had plenty of priests before the onset of liturgical abuses not sanctioned by the Second Vatican Council's Sacrosanctum Concilium. Mathematician and computer programmer David Sonnier has plotted out the precipitous decline in vocations after the Council, illustrating it by an asymptotic curve he calls, with mordant irony, the Springtime Decay Function, whereby he concludes that we are missing more than 300,000 priests who otherwise might have been ministering to the people of God today. He shows his students the data, telling them that it marks enrollment at a college, and he asks them to guess what happened. They reply in one way or another that the college in question must have made a dreadfully bad decision in 1965.

“Did they get rid of football?” asked one of the students.

The answer to that is yes, they did “get rid of football.” Nowhere in Sacrosanctum Concilium or in other documents of Vatican II, as Professor Sonnier observes, are the following liturgical innovations mandated or recommended or even suggested:

* orientation ad populum
* Communion in both species
* Communion received in the hand
* Communion received while standing, as at a delicatessen
* removal of altar rails
* prohibition of Masses said according to the 1962 missal
* exclusive use of the vernacular
* girls serving at the altar

Instead, Sacrosanctum Concilium forbids innovations in the liturgy, “unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (SC, 23). Not one of those innovations above can pass that severe test, and, as Sonnier notes, several of them had already been condemned.

Sonnier understands that correlation and causation are not the same; though it defies all reason to suppose that a decline so sudden and so calamitous was strictly coincidental. One way to show that it was not coincidental – that the foot's agony had something to do with the shotgun and the trigger – would be to go to those dioceses and communities that did not pull the trigger, and to see whether they are walking about hale and hearty and on two feet. And so they are: Lincoln, Nebraska; Arlington, Virginia; Ciudad del Este, Paraguay; the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate; the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter.

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But when I said that “they got rid of football,” I meant it. Apart from the dubious orthodoxy or the dubious theology behind those innovations in liturgy and then in preaching, there were all the reasons in the world to suppose, from what we know about human beings in general and boys and men in particular, that the changes would be calamitous.

Think. Open your eyes. Remember a little history. Men fight. Many of them really enjoy fighting with their fists, but many more enjoy the spirit of intellectual or spiritual combat for something to which they will devote their goods, their lives, and their sacred honor. So what have we done?

We have eliminated from most hymnals every single song that had anything to do with fighting the good fight. A boy may attend Mass for ten years and never hear one hymn that calls him to the soldiership of Christ.

Men are gamblers, for good and bad. Many of them court risk. They are the inventors of backgammon, cribbage, poker, “fantasy sports,” billiards, and chess. They are the ones who will risk ruining themselves for an idea or an invention. So what have we done?

We have lowered the stakes. If everyone is saved – though our Lord clearly warns us against that sluggish sureness – then why sweat? Where's the adventure? No real boy says, “I want to grow up to be a fat bishop sitting in the chancery while the real world goes on its merry way,” or, “I want to grow up to be a man without a wife and children, who spends his days being nice.” Is that it?

Men thrive in brotherhoods. Not peoplehoods, but specifically brotherhoods. See Tom Sawyer, Gilgamesh, the Germanic comitatus, the Japanese samurai, the monks of Saint Benedict, the fishermen of Newfoundland, the Plains Indians, the cristeros of Mexico, and, in a human sense, the apostles of our Lord Himself. So what have we done?

We have obliterated the brotherhoods. We got rid of most of our high schools for boys. We got rid of every one of our colleges for young men. We dissolved the brotherhood of acolytes – the altar boys. We did this at the worst imaginable time, just when everybody else was doing the same thing, so that now in most places CYO Basketball is but a memory, Boys' Clubs are Boys' and Girls' Clubs, which means Safe Small Children's Clubs, and the Boy Scouts have been sued clear to the precincts of Sodom.

Men understand authority and flourish in it. If you doubt this, you have never come near the locker room of a football team, nor have you troubled to consider whether that team could run a single play, let alone win a game, without strict adherence to a chain of command established for the common good. “I am a man under authority,” said the centurion to Jesus. He did not say, “I insist upon equality.” Men are the ones who invented orders. Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouts, understood the principle. What have we done?

We have obliterated distinctions between the clergy and the laity. We have turned a suspicious eye against the fundamental virtue of obedience, instead teaching that every man may do what appears right to him in his own mind.

Men are inspired by discipline. They are the ones who invented Boot Camp – and are disappointed now to find that it isn't any longer any great deal, not if you've been a wrestler or a football player in high school. Find out what the boy in the American prairies underwent to prove himself a man. What have we done?

We have eliminated almost every strenuous practice of self-denial from the common life of the Church. All we say is that if you are chewing gum during Mass, please to move it to the left side of your jaws so as to clear a space on the right to receive the Lord at Communion.

No ascetic life, no hierarchy, no brotherhood, no risk, no battle – no priests. And then there are the supernatural concerns, about which I will have more to say next time.

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It won't do to wring your hands and say, “But these images of warfare make me jittery.” The Church has not chosen war. War has chosen the Church.

Excuse me, but I have to ask: we say we want more priests, but do we really?

Anthony Esolen Anthony Esolen Follow Anthony
By Anthony Esolen

Read Part I: The times are dire. So where are the priests we desperately need to lead us?

The Church needs priests.

Those priests must come from the ranks of boys and young men.

Therefore the Church must be especially careful to foster the spiritual lives of boys and young men, attracting them to her, holding forth to them those prospects that are known to appeal to that part of the population: strenuous exercise, rebellion against the foolishness of the world, manly courage, intellectual power, participation in authority by means of soldierly obedience, and ultimate seriousness of purpose, readiness to lay down one's life.

It won't do to wring your hands and say, “But these images of warfare make me jittery.” The Church has not chosen war. War has chosen the Church; she has her diabolical enemies whether she likes it or not. They will not go away if she shuts her eyes and play-acts at spirituality. That is what she has been doing for several decades, and they have not gone away. They romp in the streets and laugh. You are not going to drive them into a herd of swine by means of gentle ambiguous appeals to courtesy and discretion, while having tea and scones with their lieutenants in government, education, entertainment, and the press.

Now I suggest that we actually do know the kinds of things that attract the broad-shouldered baritones, to use Father Paul Mankowski's happy phrase, that once thronged the parishes in the United States and Europe. And we know the kinds of things that turn them away, or cause their attention to fix upon more obviously manly enterprises. Why don't we do the one, and refrain from the other?

I am speaking here from the vantage of human nature merely, but that does not invalidate the point. Jesus commands us to pray that the Lord of the harvest will send forth laborers. He did not say that we should sit on our hands while we do so, not bothering to think or to act, expecting instead to wake up in the morning to find seminarians scattered like hoarfrost upon the ground. It is true that the Holy Spirit will call young men to the priesthood, but He expects us also to raise young men fit and ready to be so called. He desires our work too.

If we have that knowledge I have mentioned above, the obvious question is, why don't we put it to use? As I see it, only two answers are possible:

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We do not want to acknowledge the truth. This stubbornness comes in various forms. The first is a kind of wishful thinking. We very much want to believe that human nature is so malleable, it may very well happen that in some undefined future boys will actually like sashaying down the aisle like the femme fatale from Carmen; as if it could ever happen in a thousand years that you might drive past a schoolyard when the children are acting most unconsciously according to nature, and find all of the girls playing football while the boys are sharing secrets out of their diaries. 

The second form is more personal. We want this to be so, though we know it will not be so, because we have too much invested, in the rest of our lives, in denying sexual realities. We want to believe that father and mother are interchangeable; that a woman who spends seven hours a day scraping the plaque from the teeth of strangers is admirable because she earns a wage, while a woman who spends the same time doing a dozen useful things for the people she loves is contemptible, a stick-in-the-mud stay-at-home. An advantage-taking husband would like to clap himself on the back for “accepting it,” when he might spare his wife and help his children by working a little harder and earning more money. That's assuming that the family isn't worse off anyway, once all the expenses are taken into account.

The third form is political. A prior commitment to an idol, “equality,” forbids us to take reality into consideration. Such an ideologue may know that Mass as it is celebrated will never attract men to the fold, but that is all right, since the idol takes precedence over the Lord. If the ideologue were in an apartment on the twentieth story of a burning building, he might forget his ideology in the heat of the moment, and, when he regained consciousness, be grateful that the fireman who came to haul him out of there on his back was a fireman indeed. But a fire is a fire, while church is only church. A body can be burnt to a crisp, but Hell is empty, and if it isn't, it cannot be much worse than Mississippi in the summer. The great god Smiley would never have it so.

The second answer to that question above is more troubling. We do not actually want there to be more priests. It isn't only the layman who can lose his faith. Priests and bishops lose their faith too. But they are attached to their way of life, and the conflict between what they are supposed to profess and what they want to profess can finally prove unbearable. They may “resolve” the conflict by establishing an essentially different faith, one that they dream will be revealed in the conveniently vague future. Then, to the extent that the Church is a drag on the realization of that new faith, she must be fought, even destroyed; “transformed,” in the common parlance. 

Such men are in a parlous spiritual state, and need our prayer most desperately. But while they are in positions of authority, whereof they are as jealous as the landed gentry of old, they will do all they can to ensure that only the right men enter the priesthood: meaning, the men who will be their creatures, and who will never give them an example of faith and fervent works to put them to shame. These prelates and priests do not have to be persuaded that they are failures. They know it to their constant pain. But there are laymen who share this state. Many of them set themselves up as functionaries in their parishes, working to undermine the liturgy, the school, the priest, and the faith. They too are animated by a lust for destruction: libido delendi. They would prefer to “lead” a dying church than to resume their status as buck privates in a church on the move, to batter down the gates of Hell. “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” says Satan.

Do we want priests? If the answer is yes, and we are willing to live with Reality, then we know where we will have to look for those priests.

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Roaring flames stretching for miles, and warriors out for vengeance? If only our enemies were so few, so meek, and so feeble. Image: Alvin Fisher, The Prairie on Fire. Depicts a scene from James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie


The times are dire. So where are the priests we desperately need to lead us?

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By Anthony Esolen

You are an eighty-year-old scout and trapper on the high plains far west of the Mississippi. You have with you an officer of the United States Army, a roving hunter of beehives, their affianced brides, an almost useless naturalist, and two dogs. Your means of transportation are two horses, a donkey, and your feet. The women have escaped from the camp of a courageous and unscrupulous family of whites, moving in from the east; one of the women they had kidnapped. Their eldest son has been murdered, and the people believe you are responsible. They're out for blood.

Meanwhile, a band of Sioux warriors have stolen the white men's cattle and are plotting to steal the rest of their goods. They do not know whether you are friendly to the settlers or not. You have managed to slip out of their grasp, with two of their horses. They know you are hiding among the tall grasses and have determined to smoke you out with fire. And that is what you see billowing around you, a ring of fire ten miles wide.

But this is not Sioux territory. It's Pawnee territory, the enemies of the Sioux. They too are in the neighborhood, waiting their chance to strike at both the Sioux and the white settlers.

What do you do?

I'm describing the situation in the middle of James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie, the last of his four novels featuring the noble and uneducated man of God and nature, sometimes known as Hawkeye, sometimes known as Leatherstocking, and christened with the apostolic name Nathanael. Though the man has four score years on his back and his eyes are bleary with age, the other men and the women defer to his judgment. 

There is no notion of democracy here, or play-acting at Leader of the Escapees. The “intellectual” among them, that naturalist, can claim no precedence based upon a degree from Harvard. There is no special set-aside Women's War League pitting white women with rifles against Sioux women with bows and arrows and tomahawks, and referees running back and forth across the prairie to make sure that the rules are observed. A job has to be done, and that is that.

If justice means that we give to each his due, for the sake of the common good, then justice here means that Hawkeye must be the leader whether he likes it or not, though he could easily save his skin and leave the others to fend for themselves. It means that the young men must obey him readily, though one of them is used to command and the other is used to being his own master. It means that the women accept their protection and do what they can to help, though they are ready to die. It means that the intellectual must keep his mouth shut and do as he is told, though he is ever apt to lose himself in the vagaries of his “science.”

The approach of mortal danger clears the head. We can imagine ideal men and women all day long such as the world has never known and never will, insisting that there is no such thing as nature where those are concerned. Once take away our food and our cozy shelter and our modern conveniences and surround us with wolves, and all those imaginations will vanish faster than a dream before the stark light of day. “What were we thinking?” we say, and shake ourselves to alertness, and get to work.

Now then: we Christians are not surrounded by a prairie fire and a band of Sioux warriors. All they could do is kill the body. Our situation is implied by the prayer that Pope Leo XIII instructed Catholics to say at the end of every Mass. I'll translate:

Holy Michael Archangel, defend us in battle; against the snares and wickedness of the devil be our fortress; may God rebuke him, we pray upon our knees; and do thou, O prince of the heavenly army, by the power of God thrust into Hell Satan and all the other malignant spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

Roaring flames stretching for miles, and warriors out for vengeance? If only our enemies were so few, so meek, and so feeble.

Am I exaggerating? The devil may scour the plains of America hungry for souls, but we are a Christian nation, and he is apt to sweat for nothing, especially since, as we hear from the spiritually fat and easy, that God in His infinite mercy will save us all. For God is the smiley face we paste upon our middling lives. He will take our sins as seriously as we do, which is to say, he will literally not give a damn. Isn't that why Jesus was crucified, so that we might not have to give a damn?

The question suggests the bitter rejoinder. But we need not be theologians if we have eyes and look about us, and judge with uncompromising honesty. We are the Church Militant. What then is our military situation? 

A few days ago I tried to watch a movie that had recently won an award for Best Picture of the Year. In a ninety second stretch I saw someone calmly put a bullet into the forehead of two men, one of whom had just offered to be his ally. I turned it off. I tried to watch a football game. There I saw a sluttish woman stretched out on a floor, talking in a sultry and blithely contemptuous way about men and their hydraulic problems; this for an audience of millions of sport-following boys. Trailers for television shows and movies suggest that the only “virtues” remaining in the world are avarice, ambition, aggression, scorn, lust, vanity, and wrath. That's our mass entertainment, what is left of popular culture. That fortress has been reduced to sticks and stones.

What about our schools? I answer the question with a question. Which of the following would be least likely to occur there, or most likely to be condemned? A teacher instructs a co-ed class to put rubbers on bananas. The class reads a pornographic novel. A boy dressed as a girl is voted prom queen. Children are instructed to despise the history of their nation. A teacher explains an allusion in Paradise Lost by turning her pupils' attention toward a passage in the gospels. Which one? I don't have to answer. The brick walls of the schools may be solid, but their souls are rubble. 

Our government? The one that declares that a people's culture is illegal, and that appeals to human nature are inadmissible? The one that has subordinated its Constitution to the summum bonum of sexual license, with child-murder as the fail-safe?

In this military calamity, how have our Church leaders, the officers in the army upon earth, comported themselves? Where are the priests to lead us? Many men might be found if we understood that we must fight in love on behalf of a mad and lost world, and that souls hang in the balance. But no boy dreams of growing up to be a quisling, a lieutenant at the sufferance of the enemy, a temporizer at whom the enemy laughs even as he sends the wine and the crepes suzettes our way.

We need those priests. The Church is not a Spirituality Club. She is not the ecclesia impotens. But do we actually want those leaders? I'll have more to say about this next time.

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Our children must un-learn the evil habit of consuming images, and learn the virtue of beholding.

Learning to behold: the art of watching the old movies

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By Anthony Esolen

In my last article I suggested that it is foolish to suppose that the categories of theological instruction can stand against the giant, Imagination. To form a Christian imagination is not something to be added to a Christian education. It is the very blood of that education, and in important ways its action, or its receptiveness, is a form of prayer.

As an aid in the forming of that imagination, I said that we could turn to films made before our current hatred of the family, of manhood and womanhood as completing one another in marriage, and of the natural human orientation toward God. Love of those things cannot be produced, like bottles in a factory. It is not even a deduction from theological principles. It is instead like fresh air or sunlight, good things we are given, and in which we participate by right feeling.

If your children cannot attend to a stream, a flower, a poem, or even a not-so-noisy but tactfully human film, then our problem is not what sort of imagination they have, but whether they can be said to have an imagination at all.

But I have to meet an immediate and most disappointing objection. It is simply that some young people lack the capacity to watch those old films. The old films tend, by comparison with contemporary fare, to be slower. Think of Fred MacMurray trying to smoke his last cigarette, at the end of Double Indemnity. They are not usually full of noise. Think of the silence in How Green Was My Valley, as from the flooded mine the windlass pulls up one empty platform after another. The black and white film focused the viewer's attention less on the background than on the foreground, the human face and hands.

Think of the face of the wrongly imprisoned Joel McCrea, near the end of Sullivan's Travels, suddenly breaking into broad laughter at the sight of a Walt Disney cartoon, which he is watching in a black church among poor black men and women and other prisoners in chains. In that sense the black and white film was like the Greek theater at its height, when the actors wore masks that concentrated the audience's attention on the voice, and the words of consummate poetry that the actors delivered. 

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Art is not something we consume. This is true whether it is a play by Aeschylus or a film by John Ford; whether it is a fugue by Bach or a folk song whose original creator no one remembers. It is not something we use for any purpose, even for the purpose of distraction or relaxation or entertainment, although it may indeed relax us or entertain us. The question for us is not whether young people can be brought to appreciate the art of old films, once they have been used to appreciating the art of current films. That question seems to make no sense. It is like asking whether someone who stands enthralled by the color of a landscape by Monet can be taught to love the color of a sacred fresco by Giotto.

The question is, how can we bring up young people who can participate in beauty, wherever it is to be found?

Here I'm taking my cue from the great Catholic philosopher, Gabriel Marcel. Have I lost half of my readers right now? Patience, dear reader. Marcel begs us to cease thinking of human feeling as merely instrumental. We must not be “spellbound by physical science's picture of some distant stimulus traveling towards the organism and shaking it up.” But given our technocratic and utilitarian world, “we can hardly avoid thinking of sensation as the way in which a transmitter and a receiver communicate with each other.” 

Think here of Robert Frost trudging over the half-frozen mud of his farm in New Hampshire. He has cows to milk, a fence to mend, and apple trees to prune before the sap runs in the early spring. Frost was a poet, and the French peasant was not, but even of the peasant, Marcel says that we would be dead wrong “to say that the peasant is attached to the soil only because of what he can get out of it, or because his holding assures him a certain independence which he values, and so on.” That soil is a part of him. He has given himself to it and it has given itself to him. If he were to sell the land and move to the city, he might be eating better, but he would suffer from “a kind of incurable internal bleeding.” 

“Feeling is not passive,” says Marcel. If we are talking about the nervous jitters and adrenal arousals that spectacles are meant to stir in us – the essential category of pornography – then we are not talking about truly human feeling. It is subhuman, and it quickly becomes automatic, so that we can be aroused physically while never escaping from the encrusting mud of tedium. 

Marcel asks us to consider the case of an artist, as opposed to the technician in a laboratory. They are both looking at a flower, the technician to reproduce it in the laboratory, the artist to draw it on his canvas. The technician, to do his job, must reduce the flower to an object of a certain class. Its individual being is of no import to him. But the artist, to recreate the flower, must have welcomed it into himself: “The artist's ambition is possible only at the level of participation, while the technician's, on the other hand, in some sense implies a refusal to participate, a blank negation.”

Now then, you do not have to have the skill of an artist or the inclination to make works of art to enjoy the receptivity of the artist, because that receptivity is truly human. A child has it, and would keep it, were it not for his being needled all day long by television, school, garish textbooks, the Internet, nerve-rasping mass-produced music, and so forth. A small boy in a field of grass and dandelions has it. For him, the dandelion is a wonderful creature, bright and bold and sunny, and all the finer if the lawn is full of them. It is not a thing merely, but a being, a presence. The puddle by the side of a weedy stream is as great as the sky, and it holds the sun itself within it.

What I am getting at is this. The cry to be aroused constantly is a sign not of sensibility but of insensibility. Boredom is a sign not of a longing to receive but of a refusal to receive. Impatience is a sign not of great powers pressing towards realization, but of feebleness. The nearly blind need garish colors, the nearly deaf need bombastic sound. If your children cannot attend to a stream, a flower, a poem, or even a not-so-noisy but tactfully human film, then our problem is not what sort of imagination they have, but whether they can be said to have an imagination at all.

They must then un-learn the evil habit of consuming images, and learn the virtue of beholding. In this regard the Church can do much to teach them – or could do, if we better understood what real participation is all about.

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Anthony Esolen

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Anthony currently serves as professor of English at Providence College, and is perhaps best known for his widely acclaimed translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He has also authored several original works, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization and the satirically titled Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He regularly writes for publications including The Catholic Thing and Crisis Magazine.

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