Barrington Moore, in his Reflection on the Causes of Human Misery, noted that democracy, to be long-lived, must focus on the trivial. When a society disagrees deeply about what is fundamental, democracy becomes difficult. So instead of teaching us to care deeply about things, democracy trains us to be polite, to not care too deeply. I am referring here to democracy in a mass society.
In this discussion around Mark Signorelli’s review of Gregory Wolfe’s latest book, we have seen that a certain sort of cultural modernism evokes visceral emotions. Which leads to the following question: is modernism the sort of thing over which one must decide: friend or foe?
‘Modernism’ can refer to many different things. I am not talking about modernism in literature or post-modernism in literature and literary theory (Derrida and the like), if only because this is not my field and would only further betray my ignorance. Modernism in architecture, however, does interest me. I have studied that a little.
And I, like most of us, live within a modern built environment. You know: the stark lines and flat, undifferentiated planes brought to us by the International Style which arose in the 1920s and which, by the time of our youth, had created an entire nation whose schools looked like prisons. Many strip malls and office parks are likewise an expression of modernism. Post-modern architectural trends are in essential continuity with this style, only now it has doodads.
As they say in Russian, “one understands things only through comparison.” In my case, I learned there was an alternative to modernism when I spent time living among peasants in Macedonia, and then later, when I visited places like Sperlonga, Italy. There was an element of poverty in Macedonia, and of simplicity in Italy, but also a richness of form. In both places I felt a sort of joy and life that I have never forgotten. But does this make modernism worth arguing about? Perhaps it is no big deal.
Let me put the question another way, like this. I am just drawing an analogy. What kind of problem does modernism pose for the built environment? Is it like the problem that Christianity faced, when it had to respond to the gods of ancient Greece; or is it like the problem Christianity faced when it had to respond to the Mongol invasion?
Of the Mongol invasion there is no need to speak. It was coming to destroy, not to chat. But what of ancient Greek gods? Of them, Simone Weil wrote:
Faith is above all the conviction that the good is one. To believe that there are several distinct and mutually independent forms of the good, like truth, beauty and morality – that is what constitutes the sin of polytheism, and not just simply allowing the imagination to play with the notions of Apollo and Diana.
We are more pagan today than were the Greeks. We moderns keep these things separate. But monotheistic Christianity could make peace with the Greek gods by reinterpreting them as ideas of the one God, though these ideas also take bodily form even in so recent a Christian work as C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. Christianity can talk, so to speak, with the gods of ancient Greece, and both sides gain from the conversation (whatever Nietzsche may have thought). Aphrodite and the Madonna both represent beauty, are beauty incarnate. But the beauty of the cross raises beauty, and especially the beauty of the Madonna, beyond aestheticism, makes it serious and “full of heart,” as the French poet Charles Péguy might put it.
I raise here the name of the French poet and socialist Charles Péguy (1876 – 1914) not to drop names (as I sometimes do) but because he grabs ‘modernism’ by the horns, and in a big way, although of course Péguy’s ‘modernism’ predates the architectural movement we were just discussing above. Péguy writes as a poet, which language is more apt, I think, for capturing a way of being in the world. Before there was architectural modernism, there first came – this is my own claim – a way of looking at the world that discounted craft, that scorned the slow movement of time, that imagined a world where poverty decorated by beauty would no longer be needed, because all would aspire to money and speed, and to always more of both. This is also more or less what Péguy describes and condemns.
According to Péguy, it is impossible to converse politely with modernism because modernism itself is the refuge of the over-polite, of those who refuse to care deeply about anything. “Modernism,” Péguy writes, “consists in not believing what one believes … [it] consists in not believing oneself in order not to injure one’s adversary, who doesn’t believe either.” Modernism, he concludes, “is a system of cowardice.”
Again: one understands things only through comparison. Modernism brings with it – in a sense actually is – a certain attitude toward work. This attitude can be easily understood by comparing how we moderns work today with how a French peasant, a French worker, understood such things as late as the 1870s:
A stick for a chair had to be well made. It was understood. It was the first thing. It didn’t have to be well made for the salary or in exchange for the salary. It didn’t have to be well made for the patron or for the experts or for the clients of the patron. It had to be well made for itself, in itself, for itself, in its very being …
And let’s reflect also on the following passage:
To work was their very joy, and the deep root of their being. And the reason of their being. There was an incredible honor of work, the most beautiful of honors, the most Christian, maybe the only one that stands … a free-thinker of that time was more Christian than a pious person of our day. Because a pious person of our day is bound to be a bourgeois. And today everyone is bourgeois.
Does it matter whether or not we live in such a world, with such work, with such built things, well made? Or are efficiency and speed and the promise of ever more money enough for the likes of us?
This, at any rate, is what is at stake in the argument between tradition and modernism. I do not want to pretend to an erudition that I do not have. Gregory Wolfe may have discovered aspects to modernism that can be baptized, that can be wedded to craft, made compatible with a human culture. But let’s not fall into a false humility or a cowardly politeness. It is modernism which must learn to be human. If it can.
Simone Weil passage quoted from The Need for Roots (London: Routledge, 2002), 249. Charles Peguy’s On Money quoted from Communio International Catholic Review (Fall, 2009), 539-540. My gratitude to Prof. Olga Meerson of Georgetown University for reading the first draft of this essay and making several valuable suggestions.