Recovering the Sacred: C.S. Lewis, Philip Rieff, and the Cleveland Museum of Art

A while back I wrote about my visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art and my reaction to all of their Mary-oriented medieval art. Today, I want to think about the bigger journey that gallery was a part of. As I walked through the museum, it was wildly apparent that the artistic ideal of society was deteriorating as each age passed. For example, let’s look at something from the medieval exhibit:

Crucified Christ, late 1300s

The point of the piece is immediately apparent: this is what the world is all about. Not only does it clearly present an ideal in the person of Jesus and the event of his crucifiction, but you can tell it’s a piece that the public was intended to interact with. It belongs in a church with people worshipping nearby. This is a sign intended to draw people’s minds to the highest understanding of perfection. It’s not a particularly unique piece for the era. The medieval galleries were stuffed with reliquaries, altars, and religious paintings. I can’t help but be staggered by the sheer level of devotion towards the sacred that people were expressing.

Now let’s look at something from the modern gallery:

Metal Fence, Cady Noland

What’s being conveyed? Certainly nothing positive. It’s a critique. Perhaps something like “Why build fences when you could build bridges,” “America is built on keeping others out,” “we need to knock down exclusionary structures,” etc. There’s no positive statement being made. There’s no indication that there’s a sacred ideal. If anything, it’s just the opposite. The plaque that accompanies this particular piece indicates that the author intended it as a critique of the history of the United States. This is a piece specifically intended to tear down images of the sacred. It’s definitely not beautiful. There’s also no possible way that a piece like this could be identified as an artistic endeavor outside of a museum. If you popped this in a community center, people wouldn’t stop to admire it. They would assume you were doing construction and avoid that part of the building! This is a piece intended for appreciation by cultural elites, not everyday people. Again, this example is anything but unique for the modern gallery. You have your fences, you have your baby carriages full of spray-painted phalluses, conglomerations of nude body parts, etc.

All of this is what came to mind as I read through C.S. Lewis’s A Confession:

A Confession
I am so coarse, the things the poets see

Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening–any evening–would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east
Never, for me, resembled in the least
A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose;
Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes,
Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known
The moon look like a hump-backed crone–
Rather, a prodigy, even now
Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops’ brow
Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place
I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.

Never the white sun of the wintriest day
Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet.
I’m like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom
Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,
Compelled to live on stock responses,
Making the poor best that I can
Of dull things . . . peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran,
Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem. (Poems, p. 3-4)

Right out of the gate, Lewis is striking out at the people who are deconstructing classic visions of beauty. T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is put on blast because there’s nothing sterile or dead about the evening sky. The evening is beautiful, melancholy, and momentous, but certainly not sterile. All these other popular poetic metaphors are equally unfitting. People keep taking these visions that should be massive, beautiful, even transcendent, and warping them into things that are mundane and ugly. The leading poets seem intent to warp the things that once inspired us into things that should disgust us.

As someone particularly fond of William Blake, I couldn’t help but think of him. He was one of the great masters of subverting the sacred. Take, for example, his poem Infant Sorrow:

My mother groand! my father wept. 
Into the dangerous world I leapt: 
Helpless, naked, piping loud; 
Like a fiend hid in a cloud. 

Struggling in my fathers hands: 
Striving against my swaddling bands: 
Bound and weary I thought best 
To sulk upon my mothers breast.

This was part of a collection called Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It was a two part collection. In Songs of Innocence, he presented the beautiful ideal of something, and in his later Songs of Experience, he warped it to show how a world-weary mind mind might experience the same circumstance. In this case, we have birth. Is there a miracle of life? In one sense, sure. But in another, there is the horrible burden of life.

The longer he writes, the clearer that basic motif becomes. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell blurs the lines between the sacred and the profane to suggest that both good and evil, in their own way, are sacred. Devils and angels both have wisdom that we need to learn from. He even creates his own mythology and writes grand creation stories about the history of the world. He portrays God the Father (especially as seen in the Old Testament) as hideously oppressive and in constant war against the great spirit of artistic inspiration and human freedom. What was once sacred is now profane as Blake’s spirit of freedom descends upon the world.

That’s exactly what we have in the contemporary art gallery. We have people eager to call what was once sacred profane. Any sense that something is beautiful or worthy of particular praise is dangerous. Who is one person to tell another what is beautiful? To restrict in any way is wrong. That is the great truth in our era.

It pairs perfectly with the famed sociologist Philip Rieff’s critique of modern culture. Historically, a massive part of culture has been that series of restrictions placed on us (via both taboo and law) in the hopes of helping us live a good life. Do you want to be like Jesus? Then don’t sin. Do you want to honor the gods? Then don’t forget your sacrifices. By coming together around one great vision of purpose and orienting ourselves towards that vision, meaningful community is possible and visions of the sacred are kept. Modern culture, however, no longer has a meaningful vision of the sacred apart from autonomy from all external obligations. People do not long to be a grand embodiment of the good so much as they long to be free to do what they please. Under these circumstances, discussions of good or evil becomes almost laughable because so few people aspire to become more than what they already are:

Evil and immorality are disappearing… mainly because our culture is changing its definition of human perfection. No longer the Saint, but the instinctual Everyman, twisting his neck uncomfortably inside the starched collar of culture, is the communal ideal , to whom men offer tacit prayers for deliverance from their inherited renunciations.

The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 6.

What we end up with is what Rieff calls an anti-culture. It can’t bind together or orient people towards a vision of the good life. The only thing really binding us together is mutual disgust at the thought of people telling us how to live, be the source older visions of natural law, religious obligations, or something else entirely. To paraphrase another great thinker, Stanley Hauerwas, the modern story is that we have no story except the story we choose for ourselves (Community of Character, 84). We end up rudderless in a life without meaning, desperately trying to create meaning for ourselves while knowing we just made it all up.

And what of the great thinkers and artists? Historically, their efforts were part of what bound us together. Buonarroti’s Creation of Adam, the icon Christ Pantocrator, the stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle and other great works served the public by bringing them together to aspire to be like God. Today’s intellectual class does not feel the same burden:

I suspect the children of Israel did not spend much time elaborating a doctrine of the golden calf; they naively danced around it, until Moses, their first intellectual, put a stop to the plain fun and insisted on civilizing them, by submerging their individualities within a communal purpose. Now, although there is some dancing again, the intellectuals mainly sit around and think in awe about the power and perversity of their instincts, disguising their rancorous worship of self in the religion of art.

The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 7.

While Rieff’s Moses seems a little elitist for my taste, I think there’s truth to what he’s trying to get at. We live in a world without a sense of the sacred with intellectuals and artists that would rather root out any remaining bits of transcendence than attempt to build anything that points to more than our own disenchantment and appetite.

That’s what I see Lewis lamenting here. The threads that have bound our culture together are unraveling. The waterfall is no longer a sign to point our eyes to God, so much as a mundane thing that might remind us of sex. The glaciers are no longer a sign that we are tiny, limited things in the world, so much as they are reminders of garbage. We have lost the sense that the world is pointing to something greater, and so historic memory of the sacred becomes bizarre. All we can do is ironically poke fun at the old world and trudge through our flattened-out world in frustration and disappointment.

But Lewis points to a solution: don’t give in. Don’t be someone who loses your sense of wonder. Be fascinated by the things that others think dull. Look at fresh cut crass and delight. Observe the miracle of honey. Taste it and be satisfied. Be astounded by the great cities of Jerusalem and Athens and the ideals they represent. Don’t lose hope, and don’t start defining yourself by opposition. Yes, he is absolutely being critical of his rivals in this poem, but the great hope he points to is not in opposition. That was Blake’s hope. “Opposition is true friendship,” he wrote (MHH20; E42) and eternal opposition seems to be the best that the modern anti-culture of self-gratification can offer. Don’t be like that. Be amazed. Rejoice in old stories about satyrs, magic, miracles, and devils. Recover the sacred, which never abandoned us even as we attempted to abandon it. Live a life defined by hope and beauty. Be the dunce in the eyes of the elites, “for the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,” (1 Cor. 1:25).