Saturday 24 April 2010

The Vatican's Travails

I recently finished Henri Lefebvre's "Critique of Everyday Life", the 1991 Michel Trebitsch translation of which has just been republished in three paperback volumes by Verso. I'd been aware of this work's reputation since the '60s when it was a major influence on Guy Debord, but had never until now read it, and I was quite bowled over. Parts of it read badly now, as overly-pious Marxist rhetoric (it was first published in 1947) but there are other parts that display a brilliance unmatched by any current social critic. Most surprising of all is the lucid and poetic prose in which much of it's written, and nowhere more than in the odd essay that concludes Vol 1 called "Notes Written One Sunday in the French Countryside". In it Lefebvre describes his relationship to the Catholicism of his youth, provoked by a visit to a small country church. You really should read it all, but I'm quoting a few of the more powerful passages here as my modest contribution to the current debate over the behaviour of certain Catholic priests:
Should a sacrilege be committed (ah! the stories they tell in their pious conversations and their parish newspapers, of the host bleeding and speaking, of sudden deaths and unexpected conversions . . .), should a sacrilege be committed, the world might collapse into nothingness! The firmament, that solid vault which supports the stars, might crumble. Fearful angels would trump forth the end of Time. For if God does not accomplish all that He is perfectly capable of as cosmic Father, vain, vindictive Creator, Lord of heaven, Master of good and evil, Throne of glory built upon azure, gold and banknotes, it is because He is also the Son, controlling Himself, checking His Justice and His Wrath, and showing Himself to be equally and at one and the same time very good, very mild, very brotherly towards the little human families which crawl along in this vale of tears. [...]

How naïve people were to believe that they could get rid of you with a few sacrilegious protests. How holy men must have laughed at the ‘freethinkers’ (while pretending to be deeply shocked and making sure to retaliate at the earliest opportunity). Now I can see the fearful depths, the fearful reality of human alienation! O Holy Church, for centuries you have tapped and accumulated every illusion, every fiction, every vain hope, every frustration. You have garnered them in your houses like some precious harvest, and each generation, each era, each age of man adds something new to them. And now before my very eyes I see the terrors of human childhood, the worries of adolescence, the hopes and misgivings which greet adulthood, even the terrors and despair of old age, for it costs you nothing to say that the evening of the world is nigh and that Man is already old and will perish without realizing his potential!

There are men who withdraw slightly from life so as to control it, using skills amassed by over more than twenty centuries of experience. And precisely because they have sacrificed themselves to the utmost, these men appear to be sacred; many of them believe they are sacred, and perhaps in a sense some of them are indeed sacred. From the newborn babe’s first breath to the dying man’s last sigh they are there, ministering to questioning children, frightened virgins and tormented adolescents, to the anxieties of the destitute and even to the sufferings of the powerful; whenever man experiences a moment of weakness, there they are. For their old, ever-more-skilful tactics, for the ‘spiritual’ body of the Church, everything is grist to the mill - including doubts and heresies, and even attacks. [...]

You have served Roman emperors, feudal lords, absolute monarchs, a triumphant bourgeoisie. You were always on the side of the strongest (not without some craftily reticent manoeuvres to prove how independent and superior you were), but by appearing to stand up for the weak you ended up being the strongest of all. And now you have the gall to take up the cause of Man, promising to turn yesterday’s slave into tomorrow’s master! No. The trick is too obvious, and above all the task is too great. Until now the Holy Church has always been able to digest everything, but for the first time her mighty stomach may prove not strong enough. And she knows it. And she is afraid. [...]

Anyone who criticizes ‘Catholic dogmatism’ in the name of freethinking and independent individuality is being ridiculously naïve. This movement taps human weakness and helplessness; to be absolutely exact, it ‘capitalizes’ on them [...]

Past religion and past moral doctrines (which deep down are always religious) tell us what we must do (according to them) in an everyday life which seems all the more derelict, uncertain and humiliated for the fact that the life of the mind, of knowledge, of art, of the State, is getting more and more vast, more ‘elevated’ and more ritualized.
picture: dick_pountain on Flickr

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