by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
“O nature, o nature. Why do you not deliver what you promised back then? Why do you deceive your children so?” (Giacomo Leopardi, “A Sylvia”; translation in Robert Pogue Harrison’s Juvenescence).
Who does not know the feeling conveyed in Leopardi’s complaint? It is the bitter shift between Blake’s First and Second Nurse’s Song. Wonder and anguish, these two experiences that drive the search for wisdom. Yet if wonder dominates natural childhood—it takes horrific evil to damage fundamental openness to reality, a predisposition to accept existence as good; age is frequently burdened with darkness, cares, sorrow. This is all quite banal. It is nonetheless true. “Life itself, lived in our damaged human nature, brings its own ‘penance’ . . . I tell you, whatever you do, you will have woe . . . This place is prison, this life is penance” (the italics are Julian’s words, Bauerschmidt, p. 104). The human thing remains exceedingly strange. Questioning, protesting where the rest of nature suffers, sometimes terribly, but without the anguish of wondering why. Protesting, even as humanity shows itself capable of such perverse cruelty, insipid thoughtlessness, vain self-congratulation, that it is easy to curse the whole lot and wish to be done with the loathsome business.
The traditional religious response has been to foresee an eschatological endpoint where a limit upon evil untraceable in ordinary time (“history is a slaughterboard,” notes Hegel) is suddenly declared; though one is treated not so much to a radical change as to an inversion of fortunes. The wicked, fully invested in promoting their own good through evil, are understandably abashed and miserable. Their good thing is over and now the downtrodden will rejoice. Esther saves the Jews, Haman and his ten sons are hanged, and then five hundred enemies are slain in Susa, the capital, then three hundred more, and in the provinces, for good measure, another seventy-five thousand who hated the Jews (Esther 9:11-16). However, in this ultimate condition, the fortunes are set eternally. Just as a matter of prudence, the righteous have shown themselves better at calculating what side the bread is buttered on. The wicked are dim, like those lottery winners who spend all their loot on cars and gaudy mansions before they inevitably bankrupt themselves.
This whole scenario is a wreckage of projected human egotism. It too easily divides what should not be divided and refuses to discern the mess of division in each human heart. I am drawing, I admit, in cartoonish outlines that caricature. My main interest is to accentuate how a vision of this sort of justice comes easily. It is obvious to a certain moral sense and just for that reason, I think it should be mistrusted. The need for the vindication of the relatively good and for the punishment of grave wickedness is not disputed. Yet to call this justice is “human, all too human.” “Merton says categorically that ‘To like bad sacred art, to feel that one is helped by it in prayer, can be a symptom of real spiritual disorders’” (Rowan Williams, A Silent Action, p. 36).
I suggest a connection between kitsch, bad liturgical art, judging badly, and naming wrongly.