SP: Contemporary pop culture is incomple

Some passages from Lionel Trilling’s chapter on Mansfield Park in the Pelican Guide to English Literature vol 5 (and then some development of his point):

The concern with the profession was an aspect of the ethical concept which was prepotent in the spiritual life of England in the nineteenth century, the concept of duty. The Church, in its dominant form and characteristic virtue, was here quite at one with the tendency of secular feeling; its preoccupation may be said to have been less with the achievement of salvation than with the performance of duty.

The word grates upon our modern ear. We do what we should do, but we shrink from giving it the name of duty. ‘Co-operation’, ‘social mindedness’, the ‘sense of the group’, ‘class solidarity’ – these locutions do not mean what duty means. They have been invented precisely for the purpose of describing right conduct in such a a way as not to imply what duty implies – a self whose impulses and desires are very strong, and a willingness to subordinate these impulses and desires to the claim of some external non-personal good. The new locutions are meant to suggest that right action is typically to be performed without any pain to the self.

…The great fuss that is made over the amateur theatricals can seem to us a mere travesty on virtue…What is decisive is a traditional, almost primitive, feeling about dramatic impersonation. We know of this, of course, from Plato, and it is one of the points on which almost everyone feels superior to Plato, but it may have more basis in actuality than we commonly allow…that, indeed, the impersonation of any other self will diminish the integrity of the real self.

…She [Austen] is the first to be aware of the Terror which rules our moral situation, the ubiquitous anonymous moral judgement to which we respond, the necessity we feel to demonstrate the purity of our secular spirituality, whose dark and dubious places are more numerous and obscure than those of religious spirituality, to put our lives and styles to the question, making sure that not only in deeds but in decor they exhibit the signs of our belonging to the number of the secular-spiritual elect.

In conversation with my sister I recently observed that all modern pop culture is psychoanalysis; the quest for the true self. To use the old crude taxonomy, most of our stories are now Man v Himself, with fewer being Man v Man or Man v Nature or Man v God (this latter being perhaps a little more popular but generally more poorly executed because the idea of God is so vague).

My sister posited that focus on finding and/or overcoming the self is why we are still obsessed with spies and deceit and intrigue. A few centuries ago a spy was a bad person, and Odysseus’ many tricks were admired but not imitated. Now the spy (or, on the other end of the problem, the detective) is someone with whom we identify.

Trilling’s analysis of Mansfield Park made me think about how the quest for self is coupled with the alienation from duty. Duty is a kind of law; it is the general law made concrete in an individual’s human situation. That is why it is connected with profession and vocation, as subsets of situation or calling.

When law and duty are left behind, what remains is a kind of moral style; a suitability to mode and moment and company. But of course this is not morality by any means. A rejection of even the possibility or mode of law, of command imposed upon us by another, invariably means a retreat to relativism and some level of moral indifference. This is because moral requirements can never be alien or surprising to us; instead they arise from the interaction between the self and other people. Such a morality will always be human in every sense of the word, and pure humanity is terrifying to humanity.

Without duty (leaving aside its content for a moment) as a non-negotiable, impassible lighthouse to moral living, the self must construct its own sense of duty through moral stylishness (as Mary Crawford does in Mansfield Park, according to Trilling). But this is doomed to be both a moral and an artistic failure. Style is an effect and never an end. Style emerges from the ongoing adaptation of means to end; it is something with which an artist is not concerned, but which the audience may note.

To pursue a style for stylish reasons is to admit illegitimate concerns into the sphere of art. To imitate classical architecture solely to imitate Classical architecture is a kind of impersonation, a putting-on of a false face in order to somehow discover the self. And it sucks. This is why most neo-classical architecture is terrible; the attempted style is not intrinsic to the building.

In the same way, finding the self or living morally is unsatisfying when done without law. Law speaks to us and defines us as moral agents within a certain realm. The divine law tells us that we are made in the image of God to bear him glory, and that all other people have the same origin; that there are powers we must not assume, and powers we must exercise.

Even Shakespeare grasps the importance of a beginning definition, and he is no lover of divine law. All the disguises and tricks in Shakespeare exist to be revealed; and we usually see how things are before they are changed. In Twelfth Night we meet Viola before she disguises as Cesario, we meet the Duke in Measure for Measure before he goes incognito, and so on. These kinds of impersonations are not revelatory but instrumental – there is a purpose already in mind (for the character or for the dramatic arc of the play) that the disguise achieves.

For Shakespeare, the quest for self-image is haunting and destructive. It is the defining trait of Richard III, it haunts Othello as he tries to reassure himself that he can trust his wife, and it winds Hamlet up in knots. If Hamlet could just be confident for a moment that he is the good and just avenger of his father’s death the play would be over in minutes – it is precisely his lack of lawful self-definition that spins it out while the kingdom races towards upheaval.

But this inward-looking mode and the attempt to define the self is common to most pop culture today. The events of stories do not exist to show us the characters confronting nature, or God, or other people; they really confront themselves. Let me give some examples from the current cultural juggernaut, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (poorly named):

Iron Man – who is Tony Stark after he sees the effects of making weapons? (The movie literally ends with him saying “I am Iron Man” I mean come on.
The Avengers – question of collective identity, can the Avengers exist as friends and comrades?
Captain America: Civil War – not at all about regulation of individual power, but about the identities of Stark (will he take revenge?) and Barnes (can he be healed from being a tool of others?)

Our stories are rarely about the process of doing good in the world, because our heroes first have to figure out what good means. They need to find a style. Once they do the story is over; Joss Whedon ends both of his long-running shows (Buffy and Angel) at the exact moment that the characters encounter a secure identity (Buffy free from being The Slayer with capitals and Angel establishing an existentialist justification for goodness in the face of irrelevance). Once these points are reached there is really nowhere for the story to go.

Because there is no law, there is no perfectibility. Style cannot be perfected, it must be constantly reinvented and reapplied. So there is no enduring or perfect good to be established or achieved; there is no “kingdom” being brought in by doing righteousness. The Whedonesque strain of existentialism has grasped Jesus’ example insofar as it gets that the right action can be alien and confounding and completely unrewarded in human terms; but it has failed to assimilate (or rather believe) that God gives all of these actions a significance and importance in the new creation.

This is part of the meaning of talking about people being judged and ranked by their deeds (both good and bad): not that we are justified by works, but that all our works matter to God and are recognised by him. There is a self established by being judged by God, and that self is eternally secure. In this context, we can understand what the Psalms mean when they talk about how much they love God’s commands. Psalm 119 begins and goes on at length:

Blessed are those whose way is blameless
who walk in the law of the LORD!
Blessed are those who keep his testimonies
who seek him with their whole heart
who also do no wrong
but walk in his ways.

The way that is blameless is the way that God’s law reveals. It is defined for the individual. In a sense the faithful do not have “morality”, for God has shown us what is good. The struggle that confronts us is a struggle of wisdom, to identify the good and evil that we know in a confused world.

It is only the law of God that gives a firm ground for the self in the quest to live rightly.

And until culture comes back around to the idea of law as a beginning point of morality (in some form), our pop culture will be about discovering the self, and it will be an incomplete picture of human life.