Kramer on Yearning

There is a particularly brilliant scene from Seinfeld in which Kramer asks George if he ever “yearns.” George gives a honest answer: “I crave all the time, constant craving…but I haven’t yearned.” Having pinpointed the source of George’s malaise, Kramer offers a sober assessment: “You’re wasting your life.”

The scene is played for laughs, of course, but it contains some serious lessons about the nature of desire. There is in fact a crucial difference between craving and yearning — a distinction we can understand better by examining how we use both terms. We crave food, for instance, but we don’t yearn for it.

We yearn, it seems, for things that cannot be used up — things that offer more than fleeting satisfaction of desire. We crave sex but yearn for love; we crave attention but yearn for friendship; we crave entertainment but yearn for beauty.

To be clear, it’s not wrong to crave. It is precisely the hungry man’s desire for food that leads him to seek nourishment. The problem arises when we let cravings eclipse the pursuit of higher goods. In neglecting our spiritual desires we become like George Costanza, chasing after brief moments of satiety and convincing ourselves that the next one will bring us some serenity now.

The problem is exacerbated in the West today, where commodification and material abundance make it easy to satisfy cravings and ever more difficult to pursue yearnings. Man longs for conjugal love, for example, and the world offers him pornography. The world’s substitutes for yearnings are poor, but they are also cheap; therein lies the temptation.

Yearnings, by contrast, come with a price. Love, for example, is a gift of oneself, not a gift to oneself. Likewise, one who yearns for friendship must be prepared not only to have a friend but to be a friend to others. We find joy only by paying this price and pursuing the good. Even when our desires are unrealized, yearning itself enriches the soul by orienting it toward noble ends.

So, for once, be like Cosmo Kramer. The George Costanza approach to life is easy but, as Pope Benedict XVI said, “We were not created for an easy life.” We were made, rather, “for great things, for goodness.”

“I’m personally opposed to slavery, but…”

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This week I had the chance to sit down with Ted Keene, a Catholic politician who describes himself as anti-slavery despite holding a 100% rating from the National Association for the Repeal of Abolition Laws (NARAL). The following is excerpted from my interview with Mr. Keene, who discussed faith, politics, and “owners’ rights” with End of All Things:

EOAT: Thank you for speaking with me, Mr. Keene. I understand you consider yourself anti-slavery, a conviction that stems from your deep Catholic faith. How do you square this belief with your opposition to abolition?

TK: Well, it’s true I am a Catholic and so I cannot support slavery. I believe it is morally wrong to enslave another person. But I would never impose my beliefs on others, nor should the government get involved in legislating morality.

So you do not support any policies or laws that would restrict the enslavement of people?

No. See, I’m personally opposed to slavery, but I respect the right of Americans to choose whether owning slaves is right for them.

But surely slavery itself is a grave injustice that infringes on the rights of the enslaved.

Yes it is, and don’t call me Shirley. [laughing]

[Not laughing] So is it not your duty to protect every person’s right to liberty?

The problem is that there’s a lot of disagreement about who we should consider people. As a Catholic, of course, I believe that every human being is a person with inherent dignity. But that’s a religious belief. I mean, look at how many abolitionists were religious! I can’t force that view on others — we believe in separation of church and state here in America, and I respect owners’ rights.

And you oppose any restrictions on slavery?

Yes, absolutely. Slavery should be safe, legal, and rare. The current system simply drives people to seek out back-alley slave auctions, where anything goes. Only by making slavery legal and accessible will it be truly safe for everyone involved.

It seems pretty unsafe for the slave.

Sure, but only if you accept the humanity of the enslaved. Again, a lot of people don’t, and I’m not here to judge. My job as an elected official is to be to faithful to the Constitution, not the catechism.

Well, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery.

That doesn’t seem right. I’m pretty sure you can’t change the Constitution. I just follow the Supreme Court on the matter — specifically in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Oh, and Roe v. Wade, because Americans have a constitutional right to privacy that should protect their decision to own slaves. And at the end of the day, slavery should be a private decision between an owner and his auctioneer.

So to sum up your views here, you believe slavery is an affront to human dignity, a grave injustice against the innocent, a violation of each person’s fundamental right to liberty, and that this should all be completely legal and unrestricted. Is that correct?

Yeppers.

I see. Lastly, I want to ask about the Catholic Church. Should the Church get involved in the politics of slavery?

Not at all. It’s pretty awful that some priests even want to deny me communion. Don’t they understand that I’m personally opposed to slavery? The Catholic Church would do well to avoid controversial matters and instead make progress on issues that unite people, like women’s ordination.

[Snorting coffee out of nose] Thank you very much for joining me, Mr. Keene.

Thank you, it’s always nice to talk to another anti-slavery Catholic.

 

Caravaggio’s Hidden Miracles

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

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Caravaggio’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1601) is rightly regarded as a masterpiece of the Baroque period. It’s truly stunning, and a more learned man than me could write at length on the dramatic placement of the subjects or how the piece exemplifies the Italian painter’s pioneering use of tenebrism. The truly striking thing about this painting, however, is what’s not in there. Unlike so many other depictions of St. Paul’s conversion, here Christ does not look down from the clouds on the man who persecutes Him; there is no crowd of onlookers cowering before flights of angels. Instead, Caravaggio gives us stillness, silence, darkness — the action is all interior.

By painting the scene in this way, Caravaggio achieves a brilliant subversion: It is Paul who perceives the miraculous while the viewer is struck blind. Moreover, the piece challenges us not only to understand but to believe in the reality of St. Paul’s conversion. Only with faith do we see arms raised not just toward the sky but toward Heaven. We see a man who is not just quiet but listening. By stripping away the visible signs of the supernatural Caravaggio has imbued the ordinary with extraordinary meaning.

This revolutionary approach to sacred art was misunderstood at the time, and Caravaggio’s works were occasionally turned down by patrons who found them indecorous. In fact, Caravaggio’s realism is not a rejection of the divine but an embrace of a sacramental worldview. His paintings show grace working in our fallen world, through men and women with dirty hands and plain faces. The Calling of St. Matthew (1600), for example, reminds us that Christ called common men to live uncommon lives for Him, and that He calls us to do the same.

Caravaggio was also not afraid to show holy men and women with bare feet, contorted limbs, and pierced flesh. He seemed to have understood that the human body is not inherently profane; rather, it shares in the dignity of the image of God. As St. Pope John Paul II would later express, “The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it.”

In one sense, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s body of work may be more challenging for the believer than the unbeliever. After all, what consolation does a piece like The Death of the Virgin (1606) offer the Christian? The challenge, then, is to have faith, in invisible grace, silent miracles, and unheralded conversions. Without that faith we are blind– blinder, in fact, than St. Paul on the way to Damascus.

Brideshead Revisited: A Journey Through Love

A good novel is one that can pull the reader into its story and, in doing so, transport him to another world. A great novel does this and more, returning the reader to his own world with his feet more firmly planted in reality and a heart more fervently yearning for the transcendent. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is one such great novel. It is a thoroughly Catholic book not just because the story concerns a Catholic family, but because, as Waugh himself explained, the novel deals chiefly with “the operation of divine grace.”

Grace, that unseen force woven into Waugh’s rich tapestry, adds significance to the story’s luxurious frivolities and sweetness to its moments of pain and despair. Brideshead is perhaps best understood as an account of the protagonist’s slow, even tortuous journey to faith through cooperation with God’s grace.

The reader who understands Brideshead only as a journey to faith, however, misses the beauty of Charles Ryder’s journey through love. Charles’s relationships with Sebastian and Julia Flyte were not just checkpoints on the road to faith but the very means of his conversion. Brideshead actually has much to teach us about love for others and how it can lead us to the highest form of love: love for God.

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What are we to make of Charles’s relationship with Sebastian? It’s clear there is great affection between the two young men, and Lord Marchmain’s mistress even describes Charles’s fondness for Sebastian as a “romantic friendship.” Not surprisingly, many a critic has remarked on the novel’s supposed homoerotic themes. Such allegations are not without substance; at one point in the book a very homely prostitute dismisses Charles and Sebastian as “fairies.” It’s true that the two are something more than friends. Those who see such close male relationships as necessarily homoerotic, however, betray their shallow understanding of love.

The relationship between Charles and Sebastian is rooted in philia. This is not just friendship, but brotherly love. In fact, Sebastian’s sister Cordelia notes the similarity between her love for Sebastian and Charles’s. This explains Charles’s entanglement with the Flytes: he has, in a sense, become part of the family through his brotherhood with Sebastian. It is his philia love for Sebastian that leads Charles to Julia and then to faith. As Charles later explains to Julia, Sebastian was the “forerunner.”

While affection characterizes Charles’s love for Sebastian, his love for Julia is distinguished by passion. Indeed, whereas  his friendship with Sebastian blossoms during their languorous summer together, Charles’s eros love for Julia reveals itself in force amid a storm on the dark waters of the Atlantic. Tossed about like Paolo and Francesca, the two are literally thrust into each other’s arms by the tempest. This is not simply lust; Charles truly desires Julia as a whole person. And though he is drawn to her “magical sadness,” he desires her happiness as well. This is the impetus behind their synchronized respective divorces.

In the end, Julia and Charles must separate. Having regained her faith, Julia explains that starting a life with Charles would mean shutting herself out from God’s mercy — setting up “a rival good to God’s.” But again, we should be wary of seeing their relationship as a diversion from God’s plan when, in fact, it was itself a “forerunner”to faith.

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Charles’s conversion begins in earnest with his prayer for Lord Marchmain as the patriarch lay dying at Brideshead. He prays for the lapsed Catholic to accept God’s grace — not for Lord Marchmain’s sake but “for the sake of the woman [he] loved.” This act of love is what leads Charles to encounter agape: the love of man for God and of God for man. Though he later looks back on his life with more than a hint of sorrow, the truth is that the “fierce little human tragedy” in which he played taught him to love, guiding his heart through philiaeros, and agape.  It’s clear, then, that neither Charles nor Sebastian nor Julia were true tragedians in any real sense; rather, all three played their part in the divine comedy.

“Perhaps,” Charles wonders toward the end of the novel, “perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving-stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us.” Indeed, true love for others points beyond itself — beyond this world, in fact — to the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.

The Vulgar Aesthetics of Donald Trump

donaldtrumpMuch ink has been spilled this election season over the once-inconceivable rise of Donald J. Trump, who is now poised to be the Republican nominee for president in 2016. Voices on both the left and right have attacked the billionaire’s tenuous grasp on policy, his protean record on issues like abortion, and the endless stream of lies and contradictions that drip from his mouth with incredible rapidity.

These critiques did little to dent his popularity, however, because Trump is a personalist leader who thrives on the ability to sell an image – rather than a set of policies – to the American public. (If you doubt the importance of appearance in personalist politics, do a quick Google search for “Vladimir Putin shirtless.”)

To be sure, the aesthetics of Trump are not pretty. One could speak, for example, of the Donald’s daily uniform: a dark, ill-fitting suit with a tie that extends much too far past his belt buckle. Occasionally, Trump will double-down on this fashion faux-pas by donning that iconic red trucker hat we’ve come to know and love.

Continue reading “The Vulgar Aesthetics of Donald Trump”

In a Mirror, Dimly: Why Presence Matters

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” -1 Corinthians 13:12

About a year ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Between the crowds and the security I didn’t have much time with Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” and, in truth, I could have seen it in more detail on my computer. But there was something special about walking up to the masterpiece in person and allowing the imposing canvas to draw me in, step by step.

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Art museums today stay in business precisely because a painting is more than an image; it is a material creation with a physical presence. So too is it with the human person. You are more than a spirit — you are both body and soul. Human nature cannot be understood apart from corporeality. To reject the unity of body and soul is to fall victim to what Walker Percy referred to as “angelism-bestialism.”

The only way to truly relate to another human being, then, is to accept that the other is both corporeal and spiritual. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to experience the physical presence of the other. Therein lies the power of face-to-face conversation, of the handshake, of the kiss. It’s why Dante merely fainted at seeing Beatrice in a crowd — would he have swooned at her Instagram profile? Continue reading “In a Mirror, Dimly: Why Presence Matters”

How To Make America Great Again: Lessons from Edward Hopper

According to a recent poll by Harvard’s Institute of Politics, nearly half of millennials in the United States believe the American dream is dead. I don’t know if they’re right; I suppose it depends on how one defines the “American dream” (and death, for that matter). But the fact is that a host of factors — inequality, unemployment, globalization — is forcing millions of young people to reckon with an uncomfortable truth: A land of opportunity for all inevitably will be a land of disappointment for some.

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Office in a Small City (1953)

Few artists have conveyed this reality as well as Edward Hopper. To view the realist painter’s works is to encounter America — not just in gas stations and motel rooms, but also in the anxious faces of his world-weary subjects.

Windows feature in so many of Hopper’s paintings, functioning as portals through which his subjects gaze out into the wider world. The window gazers almost always face the sun, and oftentimes a rising one. There is a whiff of that hopeful American spirit: that desire to move on and move up, to start fresh in a new city.  You can almost hear the Gipper saying, “It’s morning in America.”

And yet so many of Hopper’s subjects look out on the world with worry. Continue reading “How To Make America Great Again: Lessons from Edward Hopper”