Putting Morality in Its Place
Plus my only defensible problem with "wholesomeness," and more
Welcome, creatures! Below you will find a very small thought about the problem of Christian parenting (those who can’t do etc etc), plus an attempt to articulate, without being a huge jerk about it, some of what I mean when I say I don’t like “wholesome” culture. Plus the usual flotsam and whatnot. Enter if you dare!
Children Will Listen
There’s a structural problem in Christian parenting, which is that parents have to teach their kids how to behave. You’ve got to give them Rules and Boundaries and Structure and all that kind of thing. “What do you say, dear?” And this all has to be repeated a million times, with endless patience, so that your kids don’t, like, bite people.
For Christian parents, therefore, morality is an unavoidable part of a child’s religious education. It’s going to be part of how they learn who you think God is—and, since God is Love, what you think love is. It’s going to be a big part.
Every other aspect of Christian life is much more easily neglected under the constant pressure of the hours. God as refuge, God as mystery, God as at once tender beauty and fearsome sublimity—all of that is in the Bible, so you might get it if you can pay attention at Mass, but who can, really?
I’ve talked to a lot of people who were raised Christian for whom morality really stood at the center of their experience of Christian life. Catholics I think are especially susceptible to a kind of cod-Aristotelianism, where we argue that our faith makes people happy because it teaches people to make good choices. (Insert that mock motivational poster with martyrs in the gladiatorial arena, under the legend, GOD HAS A BEAUTIFUL PLAN FOR YOUR LIFE.) So then a lot of your engagement with your own faith becomes about assessing the moral rules and their effect on your happiness. Is it working?
I don’t even want to say that’s a bad question to ask; that question can provoke some real insights, and can point out some of the ways that your upbringing distorted the Catholic faith. You’re always only getting a partial education in Christianity from your parents, and the way you follow Christ may not resemble theirs much at all. I often think of this post from Timothy Larsen about the difficulty of reaching maturity, or a “second naivete,” in the faith you learned as a child—having realized that your parents were unable to teach you the whole of the Christian way.
Asking, “Is it working?”, can help you discover that you need a different spirituality from the one your parents needed. It can help you discover the areas in which their understanding of God, Whom we always perceive as in a mirror darkly, was warped by the funhouse mirror of their surrounding culture in ways that may have damaged you. (Lol I don’t think it will surprise anyone that I’m thinking mainly of gay kids here.)
But “Is it working?” is still focusing on the morality itself, when the only reason anybody should care about Christian morality is that they have placed their trust in Jesus. The Christian ethic, Christian discipline, both flow from that encounter with the Word made flesh—the Uncreated Light, our tenderest Friend, the Person in Whom power and goodness are perfectly united as they never are among mortals, the Person Who is both utter intimacy with our condition and utter transcendence of it, the God broken between our teeth; Jesus, our sharer and savior and guide.
Morality is one form our worship of God takes—one form we’re, in fact, told that our worship must take. But the purpose of morality is worship, not vice versa.
Self-Care Across the Face of the World Forever
I think all of the above is related to my visceral recoil from “wholesome” culture and the desire to praise artworks for their wholesomeness. My general understanding of which things are wholesome is that wholesome things are about people learning to act well, often learning how to heal from/respond to their trauma and give up their destructive coping mechanisms. These acts of personal growth are undertaken in order to stop hurting people, achieved through personal effort, and rewarded with relationship, most often romantic but sometimes friendship. (Romance seems to play an outsized role in wholesome culture but lol where doesn’t it? After all, if you’ve removed God, the most obvious target of our eros, what else is left but hot people?)
My impression is that what I’ve just written describes a lot of Jane Austen—a writer I trust is in fact great, even though I personally bounce off her like a quarter off a part of the body she refrains from describing. On a purely descriptive level, wholesome art has a lot in common with Oscar Wilde’s line, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” And of course Wilde’s own comedies mostly follow this wholesome script, he’s just cagey and hilarious about it, as if ashamed of the moral righteousness he flaunts, it’s so good.
For gay people specifically I think wholesome culture has an almost defiant edge. It’s an assertion, flung in the teeth of a homophobic upbringing, that gay love is morally good and that learning to do it well is a righteous task worthy of rewarding with happiness.
I have various obvious defects of character which make this whole vision unappealing to me; for both generational and sinful reasons I strongly prefer the old queer culture, which we might call criminal rather than wholesome, in which so much of our art explored the way that a damaging culture makes you like being damaged.
A criminal culture can provoke intense solidarity with other criminal and/or criminalized people, and in this way it can align with or prepare the heart for Christianity. I’m exploring this idea at length in a forthcoming essay for Commonweal but I will engage in some preemptive self-rebuttal by noting that this is a willfully wholesome way of understanding an intentionally-unwholesome culture. Saying, “Jesus always stands among the criminals!” is true, it’s one of the most important things you can say—and it also does drain some of the sexiness from, like, Morrissey’s song about the Krays. Or “I Want the One I Can’t Have,” a stone classic of its kind: He killed a policeman when he was thirteen, and somehow that really impressed me/It’s written all over my face…. There’s no way to make that sensitive or natural or good. It is, however, all over my face too.
But beyond my own degrading nonsense, I think there’s more to be said about what wholesome culture leaves out. The most obvious thing is sleaze. Where is the sleaze, the only aspect of art that I relate to???? But no, deeper, related to the lack of sleaze but more important, what strikes me in wholesome culture is an absence of mystery.
(This is perhaps related to wholesome culture’s sincerity. Wholesomeness is a reaction against reflexive, destructive irony and cynicism—all good as far as that goes, but irony can at least be painful, it can be the wedge that opens the door to the mystery of why our hearts get away from us, why our best intentions have the worst effects, why we’re all such hope-mottled failures.)
If I’m wrong about this I’d like to hear about it—I’m not just saying that, I always love to hear where people experience mystery in art, and especially in narrative art. And there is one place where mystery pierces many instances of wholesome art, which is forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from outside the cozy circle of morality, answers, education, and rewards. Forgiveness teaches the wrong thing; it’s education in how to be a wrongdoer. It’s unjustifiable. It can feel like an assertion of one’s own worth, because it is, but it often feels more like a surrender of one’s rights, which it also is. There’s a helplessness in forgiveness which I think is part of why it attracted Wilde so much. (That and, you know, his personal behavior.)
Whit Stillman has been trying since Metropolitan to be the Jane Austen of our time, and God bless him, I am so lucky that he instead is merely the Jane Austen of our generation: an Austen incapable of evading sleaze and mystery. The Last Days of Disco has the Austen structure in which romantic pairings correspond to moral worth, which is fine, I wouldn’t inflict Des and Charlotte on anybody else either (except me, YOU GUYS CAN INFLICT YOURSELVES ON ME). But unlike in my vague, irritated memories of Austen, in Disco you feel the engaging helplessness and humiliations of the sleazoids as well as their cruelty. Des snuffling up coffee with his nose, or reflecting on whether Polonius’s advice is worth taking—these are punishments which are also mercy: a moment of clarity.
And then Charlotte lies in her hospital bed, singing “Amazing Grace.” She’s singing it because of her defects of character; she’s singing it in order to one-up somebody else. And yet in this moment of self-absorption, something beyond herself pierces the scene.
In Stillman there’s even mystery in why good people do good things. He does create “good people” and you all know I hate this whole idea, all people are bad people!!!! (except Jesus and the Blessed Mother.) But it works, more or less, in Stillman’s hands. Partly that’s because goodness isn’t protective—Alice and Josh get pretty harrowed in the course of their life’s journey toward one another. Partly that’s because his good characters always seem so odd! They haven’t found a form of goodness which is recognizable to the people around them, and therefore rewarded in some way that can make them feel good about themselves. There’s an exposed quality to Alice, to Violet in Damsels in Distress, to Ted in Barcelona; their goodness makes them vulnerable and out of place, and they can’t explain it well. And yet it’s beautiful, because that’s all it needs to be.
You can tell that Stillman is a filmmaker who loves mystery—in essence a religious rather than a moral storyteller—by the way he’s always sticking in dance-fantasy interludes.
I reviewed Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman’s Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close—an extremely millennial exploration of the fact that friendship can be a form of kinship, because it can be a site of sacrifice.
Morrissey, “The First of the Gang to Die”
More on mystery, this time looking at Zilpha Keatley Snyder.