Last week I wrote a pretty critical review of Rod Dreher’s book-length articulation of his proposed course of action for the world in which we all live– The Benedict Option. I had many issues with Dreher’s conservative reaction to the modern world and the way in which he thought one must act to preserve a “true Christianity” in the midst of what he sees as a deluge of things that would pervert and subvert it.
However, in a wonderful bit of serendipity, I have been provided with an opportunity to push back the other way as the Times Literary Supplement has published an article on its website that swings entirely too far the other way and fundamentally misunderstands religion.
Religious beliefs are supposed to be “special” in a way that demands special respect. They are not special; they are just plain false. And as Clifford shows, but we seem unable to learn, they deserve no more respect, or funding, than the contrived absurdities – for which there is quite as much basis in observable fact – of the “birthers”, the “truthers” and the Elvis revivalists.
Ahmed, a member of the philosophy faculty at Cambridge, draws upon a statement by British philosopher W.K. Clifford that “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.” Using this as his starting point, Ahmed argues for the immorality and injustice of religion because it is something that cannot be proven in an “objective” or “scientific” way. Comparing religious belief to conspiracy theories and climate change denial, Ahmed writes of how one might “deny that men walked on the moon because the evidence that they did, overwhelming if treated in the ‘ordinary’ way, is simply irrelevant if taken in some special way that happens to suit you. How is religion different?” as “The evidence is all on the side of unbelief.” It is because of this, because it cannot be proven in this “objective” and “evidence-based” way that religion and religious belief should be thrown on the ash heap as something that is immoral and wrong.
What Ahmed gets wrong is apparent from the start, something that so many who argue in this sweeping and overly generalized way against religious belief get wrong as well. Ahmed does not fully grasp what religion is, what it addresses, and what it tries to answer. I do not aim to speak on behalf of all religious beliefs so I will be focusing mostly on Catholic/Christian belief as it is what I am most familiar with as a (very bad) Catholic. But these things apply to most-to-all forms of religious belief.
Ahmed describes religious belief as though it needed to be a scientific method and process when it is something that has to be taken on faith and, almost by definition, cannot be proven in the same way as a scientific theory. One of the great philosophers, particularly of the Christian variety, Soren Kierkegaard addresses this notion throughout his writings. I won’t aim to put together a comprehensive selection of all the points where the Danish philosopher discusses these things, but I will call to mind selections from Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. In that, Kierkegaard writes:
“It is Christianity itself that attaches an enormous importance to the individual subject; it wants to be involved with him, him alone, and thus with each one individually […] It is subjectivity that Christianity is concerned with, and it is only in subjectivity that its truth exists, if it exists at all; objectively, Christianity has no existence […] Revelation is marked by mystery, eternal happiness by suffering, the certitude of faith by uncertainty, easiness by difficulty, truth by absurdity; if this is not maintained, then the esthetic and the religious merge in common confusion. … The religious lies in the dialectic of inwardness deepening and therefore, with regard to the conception of God, this means that he himself is moved, is changed. An action in the eternal transforms the individual’s existence.”
What Kierkegaard references here (and what recurs throughout his writing) is this emphasis on the individual (a hallmark of existentialism) but particularly in matters of religion and religious belief. The faith of Kierkegaard is one that cannot be arrived at through a rational or logical process but rather comes from revelation and personal experience. In short, what Ahmed wants religious belief to be or to do is simply what it cannot do. Religious faith, particularly Judeo-Christian faith, is something that cannot be arrived at through scientific processes and validated through evidence as other things might.
Another idea that Kierkegaard refers to throughout his philosophy is the idea of the paradox being at the heart of religious belief (with the biggest example being Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as referenced in Fear and Trembling). It is the paradox, the state of exception, that defines religious belief (particularly as it’s depicted by Kierkegaard). The core tenet of Christianity, that Jesus Christ died for man’s sins to give him eternal life and to defeat death, overturns the established and natural order. This doesn’t address what Ahmed would require out of religious belief but it shows how what Ahmed wants is not something that religion will provide and that it would not suppose to provide. That is not the question that religion is answering.
It also makes sense for me to refer to Walker Percy here because his thinking about religion is particularly apropos, given that he was a man with a background in medicine and science and one who had the utmost respect for the logical and scientific in matters where they were apropos. When Percy was asked in an interview for The Paris Review, he described his Catholicism (one steeped in existential philosophy as well) as “a certain view of man, an anthropology, if you like; of man as wayfarer, in a rather conscious contrast to prevailing views of man as organism, as encultured creature, as consumer, Marxist, as subject to such and such a scientific or psychological understanding—all of which he is, but not entirely.” The idea being that in addition to all these different ways that man can be understood (as a biological organism, as a member of an economic system), there is something more to him. Man cannot be reduced to simply one thing. Again, I cannot speak authoritatively about the many belief systems but what persists throughout the many Christian denominations (and throughout the religions of the Abrahamic faith) is this view of the individual. Rather than oppressing man, as Ahmed and others might argue organized religion does, it liberates man by accepting man as something special and unique. While science can and does offer explanations and answers for many things, it does not provide the answer for everything. What is not answered by the scientific, these things that go beyond what can be defined in such concrete ways, is addressed by religion. The inability or unwillingness to understand this dynamic is what hinders Arif Ahmed’s article and that leaves it as a polemic against a two-dimensional conception of religious belief rather than what religion actually and truly is.
Terry Eagleton, in his wonderful review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion for the London Review of Books, makes an excellent point:
For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.
This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need. The world was not the consequence of an inexorable chain of cause and effect. Like a Modernist work of art, there is no necessity about it at all, and God might well have come to regret his handiwork some aeons ago. The Creation is the original acte gratuit. God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant body no end.
Ahmed, (not surprisingly) like Dawkins, requires the evidence of the “chain of cause and effect” to show between God and the world for religious belief to be justified. But what many, dare I say most, religious believers and thinkers know is that is not what God is and not the purview of religion. While the rational and scientific do have their place, it is the realm of religion that deals in this decidedly irrational and superfluous act of love that is creation and existence. This is what is at the heart of religious belief (particularly the Judeo-Christian belief) and it is also that which Ahmed so conspicuously overlooks.
One opinion shared by people across the ideological spectrum is that things aren’t great in the world right now. From the greatest progressive to the most fervent conservative, you’ll find an argument that things are lacking right now. Morals and ethics are at an all-time low, there’s a lack of engagement with issues of substance, our concern for our fellow-man is lacking, religion is fading from society, religion is too predominant and prescriptive in the world, you’ll hear it all. And you’ll hear a wide range of proposed solutions and remedies to these issues. One example of this, and one that has gained a great deal of traction amongst those interested in religious matters, is an idea put forth by The American Conservative‘s Rod Dreher called The Benedict Option. The Benedict Option is something that Dreher has been writing about for a while and documented online but he’s just released a book length consideration of this idea entitled, appropriately enough, The Benedict Option.
As defined and articulated by Dreher in his book, the Benedict Option is
“a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace ‘exile in place’ and form a vibrant culture. Recognizing the toxins of modern secularism, as well as the fragmentation caused by relativism, Benedict Option Christians look to Scripture and to Benedict’s Rule for ways to cultivate practices and communities. Rather than panicking or remaining complacent, they recognize that the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with. It will be those who learn how to endure with faith and creativity, to deepen their own prayer lives and adopting practices, focusing on families and communities instead of partisan politics, and building churches, schools, and other institutions within which the orthodox Christian faith can survive and prosper” (18-19).
The Benedict to which Dreher alludes is Saint Benedict of Nursia who, after leaving Rome because of its rampant decadence, authored the Rule of Benedict and founded monasteries and a monastic order. What Dreher has put forth as the Benedict Option is not necessarily a full-scale retreat from the world but, instead of “looking to prop up the current order” that is the modern world, “recogniz[ing] that the kingdom of which they are citizens is not of this world and thus will “not […] compromise that citizenship” (17). It does not negate the modern world or wholly deny it, but rather it seeks to minimize it and downplay its importance to the Christian.
It is not surprising, given that Dreher is presenting a concept driven to some degree by a disengagement with the modern world, that the Benedict Option is plagued by an overly simplistic line of thinking. While Dreher makes it clear that the Benedict Option is not simply a retreat from the world by denying everything that comes along with it, it still paints the present world as something that is pretty definitely not good. While he might not intend to be that reductionist or simplistic, that is how it comes off. Some of the complaints articulated in The Benedict Option are valid and true. Saying that the bulk of western civilization has become superficial and disposable is certainly something I agree with and I certainly agree with some of the overreach of the Enlightenment and modernity that he discusses in his second chapter. While I, and many others, would say that there have indeed been these instances of overreach through modernity and technological advances, what Dreher prescribes swings too far the other way. Dreher describes a “long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning […] to a place of once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significance and connection” (46). Again, it’s not so much the sentiment that I necessarily disagree with or that I think it’s wrong but rather it’s the degree to which the idea is played out that I resist. While certain aspects of the modern world do take away from meaningful connection, to deny that the advancements in technology and the progress that has been made would be foolish. It would also be foolish to deny that there weren’t issues in those past times that created issues that were, in their own like, like the ones we encounter now (in terms of their effect on people).
This aspect of the book made me think of a quote from Mad Men: “Maybe every generation thinks the next one is the end of it all. Bet there are people in the Bible walking around, complaining about kids today.” In a show that is very much about the relationship between the old order and the new, it probably bears a bit of consideration in this context and is relevant. Throughout history, everyone has assumed that the next generation and the younger people and the newest things would be the undoing of the world as they knew it. Dreher, by contrast, seems to be saying that this time, this moment, is the end of it all and it’s where everything has gone astray (with special attention paid to the Obergefell Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage throughout the United States). But, in reality, this has been something that has been going on for a long time and to point to this instance as some kind of absolute or sea change (he even refers to this moment in terms of the flood and Noah as depicted in the Book of Genesis) is profoundly reductive and a bit silly.
The proposal that Dreher puts forth is one that necessitates a certain degree of inherent privilege. Those who can afford to live a slightly more isolated or withdrawn life, who can make choices in terms of where their kids go to school (more on this later), who can make choices exclusively on principle, those people are the ones who are the safest and most secure in society. Basically the Benedict Option is an option for straight, white, upper-middle class people. If you are any number of minorities and for whom the system in place is already set up to disadvantage you, the choices the Benedict Option asks you to make are not feasible. Maybe that’s the point Dreher is trying to make, that this choice and to adopt this approach is a radical choice, but for some (and, from how it reads to me, the target audience for this) it is going to be easier and more feasible to make that choice than it is for others. That necessary privilege is something that is never addressed.
If those were the only points of disagreement between Dreher and myself, I might not feel as strongly in my disagreement with his concept. However, there are two points he makes that illicit a reaction that goes beyond benign disagreement to an outright distaste. One is something that runs throughout the book (how he addresses the LGBTQ community) and the other is one particular section (his section on public education). The way Dreher sees those who are members of the LGBTQ community is as people making a choice with their sexual orientation or gender identity based on a broader desire to emphasize pleasure and immediacy and gratification. This attitude rings so profoundly hollow to me. It casts that choice as a lifestyle one rather than something that is inherent that no one has control over. It also sees rights such as those to get married civilly (not in a church) as being some kind of overreach. While making the occasional perfunctory gesture by saying that Benedict Option Christians need to be more open and welcoming, Dreher would deny gay people the right to get married and, what is perhaps more important, the legal standing that goes along with it. Dreher describes the Obergefell decision as “the moment that the Sexual Revolution triumphed decisively” (9), as though the struggle of gays and lesbians to avoid unjust discrimination is merely a victory for lifestyle. I will certainly argue for moments and instances in which the spirit of the 1960s reached too far and we’ve gone astray from what would be best for everyone, but that gay people can now be civilly married (again, this has nothing to do with a church and is not forcing any church to marry anyone they do not want) is not a part of that. Dreher wants the more apparent existence of gay people and their desire for equal rights and treatment to be the product of this era of hedonism dominated by the libido and pleasure-seeking. Instead, because we have been able to encounter and understand members of the LGBTQ community our views have expanded and we understand them better (and here I think of Christianity as a religion based so much on witness and encounter). This is not something that happened overnight. Now we are more aware and we have seen more and thus our views have changed and progressed.
My distaste for his comments on public education might be a bit more personal (as someone who is the product, by and large, of a public school education) but nevertheless is something that is real and points to the major flaws in the book. Dreher writes “[b]ecause public education in America is neither rightly ordered, not religiously informed, nor able to form an imagination devoted to Western civilization, it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system” (155). Beyond the fact that this is a highly privileged position to take (the only people who can afford to turn their back on public education are, by and large, those who can afford private education of some kind), the idea that public school is “not religiously informed” and that is a reason to turn one’s back on the whole enterprise seems ridiculous to me. It is not nor should it be because this is a space for anyone, not just one who follows a certain creed or belief. And while I do have my issues with the state of education in this country (as anyone who spends any time in any kind of educational environment will have), I do not think casting off our public school system as a lost cause is the way to proceed.
What comes through in The Benedict Option is that secular, in Dreher’s conception, necessarily equals bad. All the things of the “secular” world– public education, the assistance of public works and government, popular culture (or, even more broadly, a not explicitly religious culture)– are inherently flawed and not worthwhile. This seems like a sweeping generalization to me and one that is unnecessarily reductive and untenable to boot. I’d refer to a famous quotation from the Bible in response to this: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). While I do not profess to be a biblical scholar and do recognize that there can be robust debate about the proper interpretation of that scripture, I would personally contend that it acknowledges the existence of something of a secular state and that it exists alongside the church but not against it. The idea of a separation between the church and the state is a good thing and thus we should not strive to make the state into a church (and vice versa). Each is stronger and better if they are their own individual, autonomous entities. Now, my beliefs and morality that are derived from my personal religious beliefs will affect what I think the job of that secular state is but it is a secular state nevertheless and one that will not reflect all of my personal/religious/moral beliefs.
To say that a secular or non-religious infrastructure is automatically bad or flawed because it is not directly reflective of the religious seems problematic. As Patrick Gilger, S.J. writes in his review of the book for America Magazine, Dreher’s “reading of pluralism as a problem prevents him from seeing it as a gift.” He cannot or will not accept any kind of good unless it comes from a religious source (and his particular, conservative version of it at that). I think specifically of Dignitatis humanae and what it has to say regarding religious freedom and the state, as it affirms (as I understand it) that the state’s duty is not to do the specific work of the church and that one must have the freedom to discover the truth and cannot be forced into it. This allows for a “common good” to exist, something that is shared by all in a way that spans creeds and beliefs and it is the duty of the secular state to uphold that good. Just because that “common good” is not tied to one specific religious belief does not mean it is bad or should be overlooked.
Just as the secular is automatically treated as inherently negative, so too is anything that is more liberal or not orthodox or conservative. Dreher notes the concept of “Moralistic Theraputic Deism” that is “mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness” and is “the natural religion of a culture that worships the Self and material comfort” (10-11). Mainline Protestantism along with the more liberal wings of Catholicism get lumped into this as Dreher appears to be saying that there cannot be a liberal Christian belief that is truly Christian. While there is always a conservative impulse or component that goes along with most organized religion (and I mean conservative in the actual definition of it/the way it is meant to be understood, not in the reductive American way we think of it to mean right-wing politics), Dreher’s seeming belief that the truly Christian belief has no place in the more liberal modern world is very limited.
Admittedly, I come at these things from a Catholic perspective and can’t speak as much to other denominations and faith traditions, but Dreher’s thesis seems to ignore and overlook much of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Now for Dreher that might not be such a bad thing and those reforms might be something that has led to the state we are in, but nevertheless they are a major part of the largest Christian denomination in the world. And the reforms that came out of the Council have yielded a great deal of good– whatever you think of the changes in the liturgy and the move away from Latin, the reforms in attitudes towards other religions (especially towards the Jewish people) and other Christian denominations are good and reflect the balance that can exist between a conservative past and a liberal present.
Additionally, with Dreher professing a desire to return to some kind of “authentic” or true Christianity, I found there to be a startlingly small amount of time considering the plight of the poor and what one should be doing for them. I understand that, in the eyes of some, a strong social safety net created by liberal policies and an active and involved government is not a way of trying to care for the forgotten in our world (I understand it but I think it’s pretty ridiculous to not see how those things are related, but I digress…) but to not offer any suggestions or consideration of this seems to limit the Benedict Option’s ability to stand as some kind of return to true Christian teaching. Perhaps Dreher’s conception of Christianity does not emphasize those qualities or sees the idea of something like Matthew 25: 31-46 not in quite these explicit terms, but the fact that there isn’t an engagement with ides of social justice and concern for everyone including the least and most vulnerable is decidedly problematic. I do agree with Dreher that, particularly in America, we do not have the religion we once did. However, I believe that its absence has more to do with us not caring for the outsider and the poor and the forgotten, that we do not exhibit compassion and that we do not try to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The loss of these things has less to do with liberal/progressive/Democratic politicians and more with the right-wing and the Republican party that has turned religious belief into a series of bromides and bumper stickers while supporting a most cutthroat economic policy that ends up hurting the marginalized the most.
For one who professes to be such a fan of Walker Percy (the author that provided the title for this blog as well as much of my own outlook on life, though in a slightly more liberal/progressive way), I find that Rod Dreher and The Benedict Option is not consistent with what Percy (and what the Second Vatican Council) had to say about man. Percy, influenced by Gabriel Marcel, believed in a conception of man as a wayfarer or pilgrim making his or her way in the world. It also mirrors the third and religious stage in the view of Soren Kierkegaard, not the pleasure-seeking asthete nor the withdrawn and stoic ethical man. While Percy did often (and quite justly) point out the flaws and foibles of the modern world and the times when it went astray, he never left or denied the modern world itself. It often makes me think of the Minor Doxology within the Catholic Church, “As it was in the beginning, and now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” There is that present, that “now,” in which one must live. It cannot be denied. There is also the beginning (or the past) and what ever shall be, but that “now” is there and cannot be denied or ignored. Pope Francis described, in an interview with America Magazine “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” That the church is in the midst of things, doing the work of healing and salvation, requires it to be present and engaged in some way with the modern world. Dreher, in The Benedict Option, points to a church that is removed from the “battle” and opts to only tend to the health of a select few.
Given the title of this blog, my existential proclivities are probably not much of a surprise. As I’ve learned more and more about the philosophy itself (though, admittedly, I’m a novice and autodidact when it comes to these things and thus have a long way to go), I’ve realized how much of it I agree with or that I’ve been thinking these things for a while but didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate these things, I didn’t know there was a philosophy that was right for me. Though I come at things more from the theistic (especially, but not exclusively, Catholic) existential approach (as Walker Percy was my entry point into this field) I’m still interested in those authors and philosophers who fall outside of that track, which would include Albert Camus. It is in that spirit that I read Robert Zaretsky’s book on the philosopher entitled Albert Camus: Elements of a Life
What I thought the book did best and where I thought it was most useful was in the way it helped me to better understand Camus’ life and biography, filling in the gaps in my knowledge regarding his background (which, I confess, are fairly substantial). In 2016, I read Sarah Bakewell’s book At The Existentialist Cafe, which focused on the intertwining lives of Martin Heideigger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Camus (amongst others) and focused on their lives as they developed existential philosophy (or the existentialism that was dominant in and around western Europe in the first half of the twentieth century). What Bakewell did was to map out the lives of these major figures and show how they bother developed this philosophy as well as what was occurring in their lives that influenced them. I bring this up because it is doing some of what Zaretsky’s book is doing though in a much more focused (on the one author) and straight forward way (Bakewell’s book can be a bit on the less serious-side, which is not a bad thing by any means but it does reflect the ways in which they are very different kinds of books in their execution). Zaretsky does not provide a full and compete biography of the French Algerian writer and philosopher, but instead points to major moments and events in his life that shaped him and led to the development of his own iteration of existentialism. My knowledge of Camus’ life outside of his writing was fairly limited so it was certainly an eye-opening and revealing read for me and helped me to contextualize Camus and his philosophy both in terms of what was going on in the world around him as well as relative to the things happening in his own life. It is a book that packs a lot of information in and thus has a density to it while also moving along pretty quickly by not getting too bogged down in certain spots. Certain sections were of greater interest to me than others (I personally found the sections on Camus’ life in and around World War II as well as after and thus getting into his relationship with Sartre and de Beauvoir were amongst the most interesting) but Zaretsky kept me interested throughout and compelled to read on.
But beyond helping to enrich my impressions of Camus and who he was, Elements of a Life reflects what, in my opinion, makes existentialism the best philosophy (also, I feel like saying something is “the best philosophy” is profoundly reductive, but you know what I mean). It is that it, unlike maybe of the other philosophical systems that dominate discourse, meets the individual on their level and in their own life. It is not overly theorized to the point of being abstract while also not being so ruthlessly pragmatic and analytical that is does not allow for anything beyond that. It’s not an original thing to note how existentialism is a philosophical system that is able to move outside of the academy and the ivory towers but it is a true thing and thus worth noting in this context. Along those lines, understanding the lives of those who developed and articulated this philosophy helps to reveal that philosophy in a way that it might not for other schools and movements in philosophy. It’s why you see books like this and Zaretsky’s other book on Camus (A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning) or Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic by Alice Kaplan or Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe or Tete-a-Tete: The Tumultuous Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre by Hazel Rowley or, going all the way back, Irrational Man by William Barrett, being so popular and prevalent. Just as these men and women developed a philosophy that was focused on the individual’s life and experience while eschewing reductive and overarching theories that would diminish that experience, so too did their lives affect and influence the ideas they espoused to such a degree that a better understanding of those lives helps us to better understand the philosophy. This is why Robert Zaretsky’s book is useful and worth reading for anyone who wants to understand existentialism, twentieth century philosophy, or French thought and culture in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Even to one who is not as steeped in Camus’ writings and philosophy as he could be (like myself), Elements of a Life is definitely illuminating and worth reading.
About a year or so ago, I thought I was finished with super heroes, comic books, and comic book movies. I was feeling fatigued, their omnipresence and the notion that the only source of new entertainment we potentially had would come in the form of adaptations of comic books and super hero-centric narratives. Avengers: Age of Ulton came out and while it was enjoyable, it wasn’t a revelation in the same way that the first Avengers film was. I feel like my reaction to Ant-Man was much the same– “Yes, this was entertaining and fun and well made, but did we really need it?” Captain America: Civil War fell into the Age of Ulton trap (in that I enjoyed it and thought it was well done, but it didn’t feel like something transcendent) while the utter and abject catastrophe that was Fantastic Four and the moderate disaster that was Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice left me feeling pretty removed and worn out from the whole comic book/super hero experience.
A funny thing happened, however, on my way from leaving behind the super hero universe (especially those properties associated with Marvel, the comic book company with which I had been brought up and followed since childhood). In the words of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part III (a film I’d, all things being equal, like to forget), “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” And that pull back in came in the form not of a feature film, but rather in the form of a Netflix original series adaptation of one of Marvel’s more interesting characters– Daredevil.
Marvel’s move to television (I say television in the broadest sense, as obviously Netflix is not exactly what we think of when we think of broadcast television) began with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter on ABC, expanding on the popular Avengers universe from the films. Despite the sometimes good things I’d heard about these shows, I hadn’t felt compelled to watch. However, in 2015 they went in a slightly different direction with the release of the first season of Daredevil on Netflix, uploaded all at once in the House of Cards–Orange is the New Black mode. I started watching shortly after it was uploaded, though I got distracted by other things, but returned to it recently with the release of the second season earlier in 2016. Coupled with the first season of Jessica Jones from 2015, Marvel had made a real strong foray into the realm of serialized television entertainment and Daredevil was leading the charge.
I won’t get too much into recapping the Daredevil narrative (if you want to know more about the character, I would direct you here) but the very, very abbreviated of this story is that Hell’s Kitchen resident Matthew Murdock (portrayed in this series by Charlie Cox) is blinded after being hit with radioactive waste but, in turn, is given super powers and abilities that make up for that lack of sight (and then some) and as an adult chooses to use his abilities to fight against crime and injustice. Season 1 provides us with that origin along with Matthew’s first forays into vigilante crime fighting and his first battle with Wilson Fisk, The Kingpin (played here by Vincent D’Onofrio) as he also struggles to deal with his “normal” life and friends such as Foggy Nelson and Karen Page. Season 2 expands upon the universe that has been created, introducing characters from the comic book run of the character such as Frank Castle (or the Punisher), Elektra, and the enemy known as The Hand, as well as setting up for the incorporation of characters like Jessica Jones (who already has one season of her own Netflix series that I’ve been meaning to watch), Luke Cage (the feature character of another very well-received Netflix series), and Iron Fist (that resulted in a Netflix series that was met with, shall we say, some negative criticism) in The Defenders.
These two seasons of Daredevil have been standout to me, making me interested both in superhero media as well as going back to reading comics (with a special shoutout to Marvel Unlimited and Comic Book Herald for helping out with this process). What makes the Marvel shows on Netflix, and Daredevil in particular, stand out is how realistic they are. OK, maybe realistic isn’t the best term since anything with people possessing superhuman abilities will not be entirely realistic, but it’s certainly more grounded in the real world. Matthew Murdock is not a kind of demigod or superhuman but rather someone who is gifted, both with human and what we might understand as superhuman gifts, but one who is incredibly human and must deal with all that reality presents and challenges him with. It is this quality I like so much about the character of Daredevil, particularly how he’s portrayed in this adaptation, as he’s something like a private investigator almost in the Sam Spade-Philip Marlowe model. He’s one who is acting alone but is not fighting against the good. From this quality to the cinematography and the general aesthetics, there is definitely a noir-ish feel to the show. It is a show that’s of the streets and it feels like that, rather than something that feels like it’s happening in an overly polished and scrubbed up version of reality.
But beyond just being a well made and unique approach to the filmed superhero adaptation, I found myself particularly interested in and engaged by Daredevil the character. The picture I’ve included with this post will perhaps tip you all off as to why. The character of Matthew Murdock, throughout the majority of his comic book existence and in a much more pronounced way in the more modern iterations of his character, is a Catholic and that informs him and who he is. Now I’m not interested in getting to a discussion of how Catholic Matthew is or whether he’s a good Catholic or what have you. That can be debated to no end and, in many ways, doesn’t matter. The fact of the matter is that Matthew approaches the world, and thus his work as Daredevil as well, through the eyes and perspective of a Catholic and thus it makes it a show (and Matthew as a character) one that is in some way engaging or reflecting certain Catholic ideas. For quite obvious reasons, this is something that makes the show and the character most interesting to me.
I also think it reflects what makes this series good, by which I mean that there is a thematic substance that exists. It’s doing something more than just adapting for the sake of adapting (and to make boat loads of money I would imagine) and it’s engaging with ideas that go beyond the superhero and Marvel universe for the sake of continuing a franchise. In other words, even if one doesn’t have much familiarity with the character of Daredevil or the super hero/comic book world, they can still get a lot out of this. This is what these Marvel products, and all super hero-centric products in general, should be doing, striving for a… not broader audience necessarily but for making things that are interesting beyond merely being adaptations of familiar characters. Shows like Daredevil show how good a comic book adaptation can be and other directors and show runners would do well to follow the model it has created.
At the end of September in 2015, I drove up from Tallahassee to Savannah, Georgia for a weekend. While part of that trip was to visit with a friend who was going to be there at the same time as me, another motivating factor was to make the trip to Flannery O’Connor’s home in Millidgeville, Georgia, a couple of hours away from Savannah. I’d made trips to the homes and relevant locations of other writers I loved (particularly Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway) but I still hadn’t been to the famed Andalusia farm of O’Connor even though I now lived in the (relatively) same part of the country for quite a few years. Since I didn’t know when I would be getting that close to Millidgeville again, I decided I should make a special effort and finally make the pilgrimage to the town so closely associated with Flannery.
The truth of the matter was that I had not really appreciated the degree to which I was interested in Southern writers. There were those I knew I had a great love for, like the aforementioned O’Connor and her Southern Catholic compatriot Walker Percy, but Andre Dubus and Eudora Welty and, of course Faulkner (though I still stand firmly on the side of Hemingway in the mythological bout between William and Ernest, I certainly appreciate Faulkner’s powers as a writer). But while I read Southern writers and I was aware of the idea of the Southern writer as seen in courses taught on that very topic, I’d never considered myself as someone who was particularly engaged with Southern writers in a meaningful way.
Just before I was going to leave on this trip to Savannah and Millidgeville to go into The South (in all that those capital letters imply), I came across Margaret Eby’s book South Towards Home. I can’t remember where exactly I came across the book, what publication had offered up a favorable review that made it very enticing, but it was on my radar and when it happened to show up at our local Barnes & Noble I was sure to pick up a copy and I made my way through it with the alacrity that is indicative of a well-written and engaging work.
Eby, a journalist and critic who has written for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Salon, Slate, and is currently the features and essays editor for HelloGiggles, “a positive online community for women […] covering the latest in culture, female empowerment, style, relationships, friendship, careers, and issues that matter most to young women’s lives,” writes a travelogue of a journey throughout the south to see the landmarks and places closely related to that region’s most prolific writers that in some way illuminates what it is about the South that makes its writers so remarkable and their writing so distinctly and wonderfully southern. What Eby does in this book, and what makes it both so enjoyable and worth reading for the novice as well as the expert, is to seamlessly blend thoughtful travel writing and historical background with a sharp focus and critical eye that speaks to a knowledge and understanding of the source material crafted by these writers. This is a book that both speaks to those who know very little-to-nothing about these writers as well as those who are a bit more familiar with those upon whom she focuses.
I felt this to be particularly true as I represent both sides of that equation. I did not know much of anything about Eudora Welty and Richard Wright beyond the few things I’d read by them, and I was woefully in the dark regarding Harry Crews, Barry Hannah, and even John Kennedy Toole (who so caught the attention of one of my favorite authors, Walker Percy), thus the chapters focusing on them were welcome introductions that encouraged me to either read more by these authors or to read something by one of them for the very first time. But I felt like, as she talked about Welty’s garden or the hot dog vendors of New Orleans that feature so prominently to Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, I was being better prepared to tackle and understand their work, reflecting Eby’s insight into what is most essential and factors most greatly into our understanding of these writers and their writing.
Those chapters on the authors about which I knew a good bit more– William Faulkner, Harper Lee, and of course Flannery– were just as interesting as well. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on O’Connor, her home in Millidgeville, and the famous peacocks that she brought onto the grounds. But within that, there were many biographical bits of information or observations about O’Connor and her work that I had never encountered before and that made me realize certain things about O’Connor that I had not realized before that moment. Though it is perhaps something that cannot be translated to any kind of quantifiable form, it is this quality that displays that this is a book that is not just restating things or that Eby is writing a book for the novice. This is a book that can hold the interest of someone who has (or likes to think they have) a grasp on these things.
I sometimes feel as though we (those of us in the realm of literary criticism) often shy away from the biographical so much and so greatly that we never take the time to familiarize ourselves with those things to the degree that we should. While I’m not saying that all critical endeavors need to be the byproduct of biography and constantly refer back to the author’s life, there should be more encouragement and space allowed to fully acquaint ourselves with the histories of these authors we work on, something that came to mind as I read South Towards Home, which provides this blend of critical reading of the primary texts with the biographical and historical foundation that helps us as readers to better understand and comprehend what we’re reading.
In the next edition of my apparent series of reviews of books that are in one way or another about sports, I made my way through another novel that I’d heard a lot about and knew that I would probably like. Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. was something I’d come across in a few different places. Books about baseball, books of an existential or philosophical nature, postmodern novels, important American novels of the twentieth century, there were many lists on which Coover’s novel might have appeared that I read and subsequently noted The Universal Baseball Association as a book I needed to read. Motived by finally reading A Fan’s Notes or perhaps because I finally got my hands on my Strat-O-Matic baseball board game from back home, or just because we’re beginning the Major League Baseball season, I felt the push and decided to finally read Coover’s most famous novel.
The novel focuses on the life of the Henry Waugh of the title, a man who has created a dice-based baseball game. But his creation hasn’t stopped there as he’s created a league of players, an entire history that has goes back many years, and the lives of these players that they lead when they aren’t on the baseball diamond. There are families and rivalries and traditions and events that exist beyond the boundaries of the novel. We first encounter Henry in the middle of one of these games, in which Damon Rutherford (who is the son of Brock Rutherford, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of this game he’s created) pitches a perfect game. Henry is filled with a certain kind of joy and elation in the wake of this accomplishment for one of his players, a player who has a pedigree within this game, and thus elects to pitch him again the day after pitching that perfect game. In that game, he ends up on the Extraordinary Occurrences chart and Damon is hit by a pitch and killed. The “death” of this fictitious player causes Henry’s life to go out of control and affects him much like a “real” death would and we witness the crumbling of Henry’s life as a result of this incident. He could just ignore the results of the game or make a change to prevent Damon from being struck and killed, but that would destroy the rules that bind the game and make it “real.”
That’s probably all we need in terms of recapping of the plot and background information because, perhaps not that surprising for a postmodern novel, it’s not the most important thing. The content of the novel, the characters and the conflicts and situations, are more of a device for Coover to explore themes and ideas as opposed to trying to depict something. While it’s not as absurd and surreal as some postmodern novels and somewhat concerned with realism, it’s not as “realistic” as other non-postmodern works. Regarding the thematic and conceptual aspects of the novel, one can see that there are very postmodern notions of what is real versus what is constructed and ontological questions present that arise from Henry and his life. Questions about free will and destiny emerge through Henry and his game, as well as issues of the divine and omnipotence as Henry is in a godlike role with the world of the Universal Baseball Association that he has created and the ways in which his actions (at least that he is the one rolling the dice). There’s even some sound play going on here with J. Henry Waugh and YHWH, one of the Jewish names for God. As Wilfrid Sheed writes in his review of the book for the New York Times “Baseball and theology might seem to make strange bedfellows. But like a medieval schoolman who could make theology out of just about anything, Robert Coover has spliced the two together and produced a species of baseball scripture. His God is a lonely middle-aged accountant who has devised a dice-game that approximates the probabilities of baseball. That is all. Upon the void he projects the laws of chance, the percentages, what managers call, ‘the book.'”
What makes this such a great novel is the way that it is all of the aforementioned things as well as a depicting of what it is like to be passionate about sports or a game or something like that (in a somewhat similar vein to novels like High Fidelity or The Moviegoer). It is one of the great books that is “about” baseball. Well, let me clarify– it’s not about baseball in the same way as novels like The Natural or Shoeless Joe are about baseball, but baseball and the attendant fandom/fanaticism play a big part in the narrative of Coover’s novel. Postmodern novels are often overwhelmed by their postmodernness to the point where what is happening in the story is totally lost. The subject of the book itself does not matter as much as the theory or philosophy or concept that is being explored. The Universal Baseball Association, by contrast, does all those things and is still at its heart a book that’s about baseball. For someone who does not enjoy postmodernism as much as others but who loves baseball (and the baseball games like that which is depicted in the novel), this makes Coover’s novel both a palatable experience with the postmodern as well as one that reflects my experiences as an occasionally obsessive baseball fan. And while it is a novel, like so many of the best ones, that I feel like I need to read again another time to really pick up everything and appreciate it, I enjoyed that first reading and am looking forward to picking up The Universal Baseball Association again.