Monday, December 15, 2014

Freedom from Fate Pt I: The Tragic Hero



The mythological Moira, or the three Fates of Greek Wisdom, were responsible for assigning to each man his destiny, the fixed course to which his life would follow. According to Plato, these were the daughters of Ananke, Necessity, the symbol par excellence of the orderliness of the cosmic order, and who maintained the laws that control our reality. This was the rigidity of their cosmological vision, something very logical and very just, but for those reasons also very harsh, unforgiving. Man struggled to find freedom in a world dictated purely by law and order, and where often those very ideals were undermined by the frequent occurrence of seemingly random or arbitrary events that worked to dispel the conviction of the world being lawful at all. Why should a good man suffer, they justly asked, and a bad man receive fortune? The following essay will seek to show in two parts how the best of the pagan world coped with this issue, but more importantly how the Christian world solved this issue, with particular respect paid to the questions of tragedy, fate, and free will.

'Adapt yourself to the things among which your lot has been cast and love sincerely the fellow creatures with whom destiny has ordained that you shall live' (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations).


Prior to the Gospels which triumphantly announced God's Incarnation in our presence, the civilized world was muddled and confused. Hints of Christ's coming manifested themselves in Hellenic philosophy, in Virgil, in Cicero, in the life of Caesar Augustus, but this happened as the spiritual climate was being seduced by superstitions and overrun by a sentimental hedonism masquerading as mystical cults. Without the universal belief in a transcendent benevolence that organized the higher principles of reality, there was a general distrust of the Classical deities, which were more often things to be placated or warded off than truly worshiped or loved. The same could be said for the multitude of Eastern creeds which were imported, most of which failing to survive more than a few generations. Whatever genuine initiatic practises these religions once possessed were degenerated and obsolete, leaving their adherents with a mystical shell that was completely hollow, completely empty of spiritual life.

There was moreover a growing and seemingly irreconcilable divide between Fate and Chance, a philosophical problem that exemplified the pagan frustrations in determining the role of the divine in the domains of men. Is it the will of the gods, they asked, that men should suffer so, or is it just the arbitrary cruelty of a fundamentally disorganized cosmos? Furthermore, it was undecided whether it was better to submit to divine will, it being of a superior nature, or whether to fight against it, since fate frequently revealed itself to be as capricious as the laws of a godless, atomized universe would be. By ascribing so much of our activity to the agency of fate and fortune, the ancients denied man a large part of his personal responsibility, his freedom - something happened either because it was destined to happen, or because it happened by chance, and not because man chose for it to happen. An interesting exception to this, the proto-Miltonian myth of Prometheus Bound, is a telling example of how the will of the gods is separate from the welfare of man, and how the defiance of a divine ruling, rather than being seen with contempt, becomes instead something heroic and tragic.



Fate was viewed with deathly reverence by the Graeco-Roman civilization, largely because it was
commonly equated with death. To 'meet your fate' more often than not meant to 'die with dignity'; to cowardly avoid death meant the surrender of one's honour, like Paris retreating before Menelaus to comfort himself in the arms of a woman. He chose lust over dignity, and, instead of dying in a duel, Paris was more ignominiously vanquished by the poison of an arrow. To the ancients, fate was something implacable, inexorable, something which you could not avert; you could either embrace it stoically and heroically, or you could run from it until it inevitably catches you, weeping and alone. Every man has an end, a fate, a death; what defined a man to posterity and possibly in the afterlife depended on how he responded to his fate, his response to what the gods had decreed.

Death was moreover classically perceived as a 'cleansing', as something that purifies ignoble conduct or the soul of a man tied to a terrible fate. If a man's life has left him with a permanent stain of wretchedness, the natural action, the only action that could yet salvage some fragment of his self-worth, would be suicide. This would lend to his story a satisfying pathos that shows those who would judge him that he at the very least realized the extent of his shame and did the right thing at the last, like a Samurai committing Seppuku upon the loss of his honour. Suicide therefore served as a willingness to meet the gods of judgment on his own terms, that they did not have to chase after him like a miserable thief. Such a man dies, and thereby helps the abrogation of his shame by the radical decision to terminate his life; he has already judged himself, making anyone else's judgment seem superfluous.

There is no clearer example of this than in Greek tragedy, where death is the natural consequence of just about anything, virtue or vice, but it is especially reserved for the expiation of guilt. In Sophocles's Oedipus Cycle, for instance, the twin themes of fate and death are horribly intertwined, the one intersecting with the other in a deviously symbiotic relationship. As the story goes, an oracle unveils the fate of Oedipus to his parents, that he will kill his father and marry his mother. They make an effort to kill him and preclude the prophecy from coming to pass, and live for a time in the belief that chance rules this world, not fate. That Oedipus survives, however, means that the entire prophecy becomes reality. Fate had ruled that these grievous errors must happen, and that their final consequence could only be death. Antigone in the third drama laments its invincibility: 'dreadful is the mysterious power of fate - there is no deliverance from it by wealth or by war, by towered city, or dark, sea-beaten ships'. The will of the cosmos, whether governed by gods or something less personal, was unchanging and cruel, immune to the tragedies and sorrows of its inhabitants, no matter how they pleaded for mercy.

It is for this reason significant to note how the major players of this play are rather the victims of fate than the autonomous causes of their own ruin. As with the sons of Atreus, the cursed house that stretched back to Tantalus, Laius dooms his own family by violating the sacred laws of hospitality in sodomizing the son of King Pelops, his host. His wife and children and his children's children are all made to pay for Laius's crime while they are, to varying degrees, innocent. In learning of his son's destiny, Laius orders his wife Jocasta to kill Oedipus, who reluctantly obeys, only to lack the will to do it herself, which of course leads to his survival. Oedipus himself is wholly ignorant of who he is, and is not morally culpable for the killing of his father, who provoked the incident, or for the incestuous relationship with his mother, of whose real nature he is unaware. Oedipus is made to pay not for his own sins, but for the sins of his father. While in Oedipus Rex he takes responsibility for what he has done, exiling himself in a frenzy of grief, in Oedipus at Colonus he is more reflective, and eschews his guilt by the argument that he had done what any man would have done with the knowledge he had: 'I slew who else would me have slain; I slew without intent, a wretch, but innocent in the law's eye I stand, without a stain'. Oedipus further rationalizes what he has done by the plea that no man in history has averted the course of fate, and seeks to thereby remove himself from personal responsibility for his actions.

His attempts, however, are ultimately ineffectual in cleansing his reputation in the public perception and in the eyes of the gods; the sins of patricide and incest are simply too powerful to slip off by his own cogitation, regardless of how much truth there might be in it. There needs to be penance paid for what he has done, at least in the pagan understanding of 'penance', especially if Oedipus honestly seeks absolution for forgiveness from posterity as well as the end of his family's suffering for Laius's crime. His exile from Thebes and the sufferings that accompanied it accounts for some of this, but only his death could possibly atone for his wretched life; dying would moreover be a boon to whichever city he was buried in, assuring it a divine protection. This represents the pagan philosophy par excellence, or at least the one in which the wisest action consists in submitting to fate, corresponding to one's destiny, kneeling to the gods who rule. Fate's final favour to Oedipus, providing he performs the sacred rituals and offers his life to Zeus's tempest that signals his time to die, is to convert the terrible ignominy of his life into a sacrificial heroism that shines all the more brilliantly for his tragic destiny. Oedipus's end is illustrative of this redemption: 'there fell no fiery bold that reft him in that hour, Nor whirlwind from the sea, but he was taken. It was a messenger from heaven, or else some gentle, painless cleaving of earth's base; For without wailing or disease or pain He passed away - an end most marvelous'. Like the ascension of a Biblical prophet, Oedipus departs this world in a passage of mystery and salving light.


The Oedipus Cycle serves as an exemplary instance of Classical fatalism. First of all, it is clear that Sophocles swiftly disposes of the notion that chance dictates the course of reality; Jocasta desperately holds on to this belief, but more out of her desire to delude herself, to avoid the consequences of what has transpired. The fact that she pleads with her husband/son to forsake his search for the truth corroborates this claim: Jocasta becomes increasingly aware that that the oracle's prophecy is coming true and, out of her inability to face reality, clings to the futile hope that chance overrules destiny. When this fantasy is shattered, when the tyrannical arm of fate shows itself to be the sole authority, Jocasta has nowhere to flee - except into the empty haven of death. According to Sophocles, the failure to recognize the role that fate plays in our lives only contributes to the crushing pain that must eventually arrive; whatever illusions we create to comfort us instead become our enemies when we collide with objective fact.

More importantly, Sophocles constructs a fatalistic dynamic in which the question is raised whether man has any choice whatsoever in the determination of his fate - Oedipus becomes aware of his prophecy and yet, in spite of the radical decisions he makes to prevent it from happening, unwittingly fulfills it. This initially encourages the conviction that we do not have any freedom at all, but subsequently, in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus finally realizes that only death can be the payment for his life - this is a conscious choice he has made, but it is in accordance with his fate, and he is redeemed for it. Our freedom consists in according with fate. Whereas in the first drama Oedipus quite naturally did his utmost to change his destiny, and failed miserably, in the second he succumbed to it, and succeeded beautifully. This is how he becomes the paragon of Aristotle's tragic hero: the harsh circumstances that defined the crucial period of his life were unavoidable, and represented the cruelty that is often imposed on seemingly innocent human beings through the misfortunes of life; by accepting the necessity and even the blessing of his dying, Oedipus met his fate manfully and heroically. Ignorance led him to disastrous consequences, but enlightenment enabled Oedipus to see the path he needed to take, and took it.


When Christ was crucified and rose again two things happened: (1) Death was conquered, and, no longer having dominion over the possession of souls, was made into a servant of life, not something to be feared but understood as the natural conclusion of this life and the gateway to the next; and (2) the ally of Death, Sin, was overthrown, its authority in the world of men was no longer absolute. Christ descended into hell, but death has no power over the deathless, and it could not receive him. Sin likewise cannot afflict one who does not willfully give into its temptation, and it too was forced away. In his sacrifice upon the cross, Christ freed man from the totalitarian bonds of Death and Sin, and ensured that he shall have the liberty to join him in Paradise. The fallen Adam caused man to slip into the shackles of the serpent; the risen Christ broke the chains and crushed the serpent:

'I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman [St. Mary],
and between your seed and her seed [Christ];
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.' (Genesis 3:15)

For all of the proto-Christian elements that peek out of Grecian arts, philosophy, and religion, the fact remains that the Athenian dramas were still fundamentally pagan, an admirable but inseparable part of the Classical epoch. The Aristotelian ideal, for example, that claims how the hero of any which tragedy should be innocent might accord with the Book of Job, in which God's most faithful servant is tested in the most crippling ways, but that accordance ends in the aftermath of the Incarnation and the introduction of the New Testament. Jesus Christ fulfilled what both Plato and Aristotle proclaimed: he was the perfectly just, blameless man who was executed for the crimes of others. He is perfect Love, perfect Justice. He is the ultimate tragic hero, surpassing Prometheus, Orpheus, and Oedipus, who showed glimpses of the coming Messiah but never his wholeness. Christ simultaneously completed and made obsolete the Classical idea of the Classical hero: 'The Gospels are the last and most marvelous expression of Greek genius, as the Iliad is its first expression' (Simone Weil). From the New Testament emerged the blueprint for Christian idea of the suffering hero, the man who suffers not because he is innocent, but because he is guilty.

The Christian tradition formulated the doctrine of Original Sin, which explained that men are fallen creatures, isolated from a state of grace but innately yearning to return to it: 'Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men for all men have sinned' (Romans 5:12). As Adam brought sin and therefore death into the world, so Christ, in eschewing sin and therefore destroying death, is able to offer us eternal life. He achieved this by suffering, by the purely selfless act of sacrificing himself for the errors of someone else; even though he was himself without sin, Christ accepted the burden of humanity and died for it. The stench of sin persists so long as we are immortal beings dwelling in a mortal world, defining us into conflicted, struggling, adversarial creatures, but spiritually there is now a certain freedom, one that consists in the awareness of one's own sin and the potential to transcend it. The old fear of death has been converted into a hope for life.

While Christ represents the extraordinary reality of being at once God and Man, and therefore not subject to the sin that adheres to the fallen part of our nature, his story nevertheless provides the template for the post-pagan 'suffering hero'. Christ may not have possessed our sin, but he was most assuredly human, and was thereby able to show sinful man the path to absolution and redemption: through a violently submissive meekness, through a painful contrition for our wrongs. The ugliness of our selfhood must be submerged into selflessness; the self must kneel before the Other. This cannot be something predetermined, something dictated by the forces of fate or the caprice of chance, but a conscious choice to make one decision and not another; if Christ fell in the desert or succumbed in Gethsemane the selfhood would remain intact and death undefeated. But Christ did not fall; he yielded his will to the will of God, and that is the freest, most powerfully independent choice possible. This is what Sophocles inherently understood when Oedipus and finally blameless Antigone died to this world in accordance with the will of God, but which was not fully recognized until Christ performed his work, until Christ lived the tragedy himself.


'I cannot of myself do any thing. As I hear, so I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not my own will, but the will of him that sent me' (John 5:30).











Monday, September 15, 2014

Art & Beauty Part I, Section VI: A Creating Creature

'The artist is not a special kind of person, but every man is a special kind of artist' (Ananda Coomaraswamy).


If art traditionally understood is something much different than our contemporary understanding of art, naturally the artist was equally someone very different than that person whom we currently call an 'artist'. First of all, as we have already touched on, the world of tradition was something hierarchically organized; just as a work of art has its own specific telos or purpose, so too does man have his particular vocation for which he is best suited, for which he is made: 'In the normal society envisaged by Plato, or realized in a feudal social order or caste system, occupation is vocational, and usually hereditary; it is intended at least that every man shall be engaged in the useful occupation for which he is best fitted by nature, and in which therefore he can best serve the society to which he belongs and at the same time realize his own perfection' (Coomaraswamy, 'Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art', p.67). Thus conceived, man is not dissimilar from a work of art himself, and indeed he is precisely that, a creature created by God. Like any work of art, he has a first and a second perfection, a telos for which he is made, and a capability to achieve that telos; unlike any work of art, however, he himself is the artist and artwork, the free agent who seeks to realize his own perfection and place in the world.

As we mentioned at the beginning of Section III, the artist was actually an artisan, a craftsman, simply a man who played a part in the making of things. A blacksmith was as much of an artist as an architect or a poet, and all of them were vocations to which men suited to those positions naturally found themselves, either hereditarily or by apprenticeship and guilds or some other circumstance; while in feudal society there was not a great amount of movement vertically, say from serfdom to landed gentry, but horizontally there were great opportunities of someone of any social standing to gravitate towards the vocation for which he was created. This was possible because this was a society that recognized the indispensable value of becoming what one is; in order to direct the talents of men toward their maximum potential, men needed to be doing what they do best, even if that meant the majority of men need to be doing something as 'mundane' as tilling a field or fishing the shores.

The purpose of the artist, then, was hardly to 'express himself', to proudly put himself forward as someone specially important or unique, but simply to locate himself in the world as a willing and productive member of its community - and find contentment therein. By working according to one's vocation, man inserts himself as a functioning, meaningful contributor to society, and 'perfects' himself thereby; he becomes the piece of the cosmic puzzle for which he was born, and attains that perfection that every work of art aspires to be: 'The man devoted to his own vocation finds perfection.... That man whose prayer and praise of God are in the doing of his own work perfects himself' (Bhagavad Gita XVIII). Man therefore is not simply an artist, but a work of art as well, one which he himself can perfect by the accomplishment of God's will.



In this way, the artist becomes someone 'anonymous'. This is because, unlike modern artists who reach celebrity status for their acclaimed 'genius' (often after they die for some morbid reason) and the charm of their personality, the artist is seamlessly ingrained into society as merely someone else who is doing his work successfully. In the Medieval era, aside from a few of the more prominent architects and poets, there is a remarkable absence of known medieval artists, which is due to this fact, that his work was ultimately no more or less important than that of the burgher or the baker. Everyone has work to perform, and every vocation is essential to the fluidity of social life: '[It] is not inasmuch as he is ''such and such a person'' that the artifex produces his work, but inasmuch as he fulfils a certain ''function'' that is properly ''organic'' and not ''mechanical''....' (Rene Guenon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, p.64). (There is a definite reason for the deification of 'celebrity artists', namely that the artist has in some ways been the modern substitute for the priest, a point which demands additional explanation at some later date.)

Nevertheless, despite this character of 'anonymity', the artist, along with any other productive member of traditional civilization, possessed a personal identity, which was the representation of who he really was: 'the ''person'' is that which man presents concretely and sensibly in the world, in the position he occupies, but always signifying a form of expression and manifestation of a higher principle in which the true center of being is to be recognized' (Julius Evola, Ride the Tiger, p.109). Man is, in pagan society, the living symbol of some archetype; insofar as man succeeds as a person he succeeds in representing something impersonal, the immutability of which provides him with the meaning that he craves. The traditional person is therefore in stark contrast with the modern individual: 'So man as person is already differentiated thereby from the mere individual; he has a form, is himself, and belongs to himself.... Unlike the individual, the person is not closed to the above. The personal being is not himself, but has himself' (Ibid.). The personal being is more than himself because he is privy to something transcendent, which allows him to 'possess' himself in a sort of self-understanding that eludes the chaotic grasping of the rootless individual.

While this was unquestionably true in the ancient world prior to Christ's arrival, this was one of the things which the Incarnation changed on a fundamentally metaphysical level. In pagan society man is reduced to being essentially nothing more than any of the works of art, a walking, breathing, bipedic mimesis, the mere imitation of a form he is incapable of fully understanding; this was necessary, this was the perfectly organic means of attaining order in a chaotic cosmos. But what Evola failed to understand was that Christ changed everything, or how Christ changed everything. Man was no longer a 'persona', a mask of some god or rigid archetype as the word's etymology defines it; man is the Imago Dei, the embodied image of God himself. The person was no longer a servant of something impersonal; the person became a child of something superpersonal. To paraphrase Chesterton, God is not, like the pagans of every race have always thought, incomprehensible because he is impersonal; God is incomprehensible because he is superpersonal. God is too personal for us to comprehend, much like his mirth is too great for us to enjoy:

'We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear' (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy).

We do not, of course, mean to equate the personal with the vagaries of what one might call 'personality', but with the totality of the human being, the gestalt of his psyche, the very essence of what makes man himself. The true nature of personality is not the malleable, protean shape of the human character as he makes his way through life; personality is the inner determinant that shapes the human character. Personality is not conditioned; personality conditions. Personality is not altered; it is discovered: 'Personality is spirit embodied in nature' (Georg Nicolaus, C.G. Jung and Nikolai Berdyaev: Individuation and the Person, p.34), which means that personality is the link connecting us to the spiritual and to God. Being made in God's image, we share in his spiritual completion at the core of our being. But we are also fallen, which means that that completeness is disintegrated, and from the deepest provinces of our soul we yearn to be complete again: 'Personality... is God's idea of man, and that idea is the Gestalt man is called to realize, not a general idea, but an absolutely unique and yet universal content' (Ibid., p.58). If we are made in the image of God, and that image is the Person, then God must indeed be personal himself. God is not impersonal, not suprapersonal, but superpersonal - a being so like ourselves we cannot quite recognize him.

Evola is right when he says that 'the person needs a reference to something that is more than personal' (Evola, Tiger, p.109), but he is wrong in that the reference needs to be something impersonal. The human experience is necessarily founded on the subject, the inner consciousness that conditions our perception of reality - of what use is it to the needs of the subject to refer to something fundamentally objective? Man needs to integrate the objective into himself, not vice versa. If man is indeed the image of God, it follows that any 'reference to the above' means a reference to God; it follows that the health of the subject depends on our imitation of the Subject, the omnipotent mind whence we roughly, distantly, but assuredly do derive. It is the power of the subject, the power of the person that enables us to unite objective reality with ourselves. We exist in a world of objects, an inescapable matrix that conditions us in unpredictable channels, but the world of objects exists also in us; the way that we engage with them depends on how much of a hold they have over us, and how much of God, the supreme Subject, we have in us.

We bring God into us by imitating him. Now, the foremost activity that pertains to God is love, for the crux of his relationship with us is a 'going out of himself', and that is the essential definition of love. The result of this love is creation, for something needs to be outside of God for him to really love it; in his love, in his emergence beyond himself, he creates a necessarily imperfect mirror that is the world. He does this because it is his nature to love selflessly. Strictly speaking, he does not need us, since he is self-sufficient; God created us out of a divinely mysterious charity and an incomprehensibly free will, We, and everything else we see or know in the world, are the consequence of love; creation is the consequence. Love equals creation, so imitating God is simple: I love, therefore I create.

This is where the personal dimension in the artist is felt: in the recreation of God's most personal act, which is the continual creation of the world we live in. As we discussed in Section II, however, we create in different ways: God creates ex nihilo, he creates something from nothing whereas we can only mould the raw, primal matter of his creation into something worthier both of ourselves and of God. He sets everything up, provides us with a virtually infinite array of material, and we are tasked with the art of putting it all together according to the ideas of order and beauty that are imprinted in our mind. Despite this difference, the imitation is intact; we lack the might of God, so we act in the way that we can, in respect of our own limited technique. There is one further difference. In creating something, we proceed out of a love that is simultaneously selfish and selfless. It is selfish in that we create so that we may see an inner part of ourselves in projection in a fruitful attempt to capture the other part of ourself and thereby achieve completion; it is selfless in that it is a genuine going out of oneself, an earnest love that unites the thinking, feeling subject with the beauty that we perceive in the objective, outside world. In the selfish creation we reveal our human restrictions, but in our selfless creativity we reveal that we are indeed the children of God.

As this was all well understood in the Christian tradition, art (or what we would call 'fine art') was naturally substantiated with the unequivocally  personal, the unprecedentedly human character that graced the Gospels. The stories of saints became legends of mythical truth, endearing figures worth appealing to in prayer and in song; the icons of Christ and his apostles were concentrated into an intensely personal characterization, warm images of human virtue at the moment of its victory over sin; the liturgy something serenely evocative of heaven's splendour, using exclusively human voices to sing hymns and Holy Writ; cathedrals were each the entire Church in themselves, united congregations sharing communion with God and each other in a fraternal joy; saints like St. Francis personified the natural world, calling the sparrow his sister and the crow his brother. Nature was no longer something for man to identify with or recoil from or possibly lose himself in; it was something that man could enjoy to the full, because he recognized his place above it in the Chain of Being.

The only distinction to be made between the 'sacred' and the 'secular' was in the former being used to designate those deeply, vocationally involved in ecclesiastic life, while the latter designated the laity. In the modern use of the word, there was no such thing as the 'secular', because the sacred permeated everything, lathering the entire society with the brilliant array of colours that the medievals loved so well. Yes, of course there were atrocities and all sorts of the moral abuses such as you would find in any society, but the medieval world was naive enough to love man and yet humble enough to recognize the extent of his depravity. Earth was sanctified by man's presence, who referred to God's wonder through the natural world, adapting her own beauty to create a vivid and dynamic symbolism in which they housed God's Word. We had received the New Testament, the poetry of God, and we responded to the best of our ability - we responded with Boethius and Dante, Ss. Dominic and Francis, and all the men in between who conspired to make their home worthy of its Creator.

Every man is creative in potentia because to create is man's foremost need. The impulse to create springs from the existential well of man's soul; the obedience of these impulses determines what or who a man will be. Man's central, most persistent desire is to complete himself, but to complete himself he must create himself; to create himself he must love, and to love he must imitate God. The imitation of God is the key to the re-integration of man with himself. Creativity is the perfection of the person, because it is the sincere appeal to the perfect Person; to share and participate in the love of the objective world is to make abstract ideals one's own pillars of personality. Christ is the symbol par excellence of this fact because he represents the bridge between God and man, between subject and object: 'God does not mingle himself with man, it is uniquely by means of Love... that there is dialogue and intercourse between the gods and men' (Plato, Symposium). Plato did not conceive of God's humanity, or how it was possible for God to also be man, but he nevertheless spoke the truth, a truth that Christ, whom Plato called Love, fulfilled. Christ, the God-man, suffered the weight of the world out of love for us, and created that selfsame bridge that allows us actual union with God. It is his example of love that we must imitate to fulfil the most urgent needs of the human experience; we show this love through creativity, through acting in the world to redeem the world.

'Man's creativeness is his duty before God and the fulfilment of his will: not to be creator and not to live creatively, not to take part in God's unceasing creative action in the world, is disobedience to God, and in the last resort rebellion against him' (Evgueny Lampert, Berdyaev and the New Middle Ages, p. 48).

Every man, therefore, is an artist; every man needs to create for his own sake as well as that of God. Whether it be the creation of an English madrigal, inter-city highways, a hearty breakfast, a half-dozen children, or simply a monastic silence, so long as it is done out of love man comes through creation to a profound satisfaction. The fundamental vocation of our species is a contribution to the reality in which we participate, which includes its spiritual as well as its physical dimensions. Guenon, Coomaraswamy, the Greek and Hindoo platonists were all right when they said that man is only man when he acts in the world according to his corresponding vocation (and remains 'anonymous'); Evola was right when said that man was only truly alive and truly personal when his life corresponds to something above himself. But all of this is only really brought together when we remember that we are all made in God's image, and purposed to do his will, and what is God's vocation? What is God's will? Simply, to Be, which evidently means also to create, or none of us would exist. The true vocation for any child of God, therefore, is to do as his Father does - to create.

'A Poet, a Painter, a Musician, an Architect; the Man or Woman who is not one of these things is not a Christian' (William Blake).









Saturday, September 6, 2014

Fall through the Ceiling

'And where sin abounded, grace did more abound' (Romans 5:20)



The tragic life is a fallen dove,
A thousand wars ruthlessly raged,
A thousand hawks wrathfully caged,
The submission to a foreign love.

The spirit is drenched in bloody rage,
A rising chaos left alone,
A king without a throne,
Impossible to assuage.

The body is a store of youth and lust,
Nervously tending its nervous wares,
Quietly counting its precious fares,
Dreading the day it all turns to rust.

The heart is an inept, fragile thing,
Sworn to others but possessed by one,
Pierced from without but is undone
By the mind's lonely wondering.

The story is yet to be truly told
Till we have reached the full extent,
Till our passions been wholly spent,
Our limbs exhausted, our soul sold.

The storm will continue unabated
Till we yield to its embrace,
Take up a tempestuous grace,
And find our hungers sated.

The babe is torn from mother's womb,
A seething scoop of skin;
But the father, old and thin,
Is gently laid in his good tomb.

Oh, a thousand sins and sorrows,
This old tale is said anew
With ev'ry world that's born true,
With the sun and all the morrows.

We are placed here in pain and pleasure;
Whatever the prudent path,
Whatever our personal wrath,
To do anything is itself a treasure.

To feel forgiveness we first feel guilt:
Felix culpa! O happy fall!
We crouch lowly and small,
Crawling through flowers that cannot wilt.

Defilement is sanctity's price;
The immersion in sins
Is where holiness begins:
The strongest virtue was once vice.

Even pride's thunder must finally give way;
Take me back, I beseech thee,
Proclaim everlasting mercy
And I fall in your soft arms to stay.

The blessed life is a risen dove,
A thousand wrongs made entirely right,
A thousand shadows shown under light,
The submission to an inner love.



















Monday, September 1, 2014

Art & Beauty - Part I, Section V: The Symbol as Man's Overcoming Time

Now that we have an idea of what symbolism is on the theoretical level, it is necessary to discuss what symbolism is on the practical level, or how man has traditionally used the symbol. Since we are inhabitants of the 'profane' world, mired in a temporal, mundane reality, we are fixated upon time, upon the historically and physically exigent dimensions of the world that relentlessly pressure us into thinking that that is all there is. Caught in time, we lose sight of what governs us, of what remains when all else retreats: 'there is no greater obstacle to Union with God than Time' (Meister Eckhart). In time, we are disconnected from eternity, and we acutely, existentially feel that disconnect; it is this lapse from the transcendent, or rather our need to fill that lapse, that determines our deepest, most persistent problems. It is what drives our search for meaning; it is what compels us through so many wrong turns in life, if only in the quest for something that truly stills our soul, quiets our conscience. There are ways to do that, too, even in our restless realm of chaos and fragmentation; there are ways to access the eternal.

The principal way is that of mythology, and its actualization in the recurrent use of rituals, which includes of course the telling of myths at certain appropriate times in the annual cycle. The creation of myth is important in many ways: (1) it bonds a society of humans together, acting as a further adhesive that strengthens the community which lives by the myths, not only with the living but also with the dead and those yet to be born through the tradition that is remembered; (2) it enables us to experience elements in reality in a more essential form, uplifting accidental aspects into their real, archetypal identity by seeing them dramatized in story; (3) and most importantly myth solidifies, crystallizes something that only exists in sensible reality in its mythic shape, and that is the Sacred, the untouchable, invisible inferno of truth that nourishes us more than food or drink because it satisfies the spirit. The myths, and the sacred vehicles we create to host them, to transport them to living consciousness, are precisely what reconnect us with the eternal; they bring the prodigal son back home:

'[The] myths are true because they are sacred, because they tell [man] about sacred beings and events. Consequently, in reciting or listening to a myth, one resumes contact with the sacred and with reality, and in so doing one transcends the profane condition, the ''historical situation''.... The periodic recitation of the myths breaks through the barriers built up by profane existence. The myth continually reactualises the Great Time, and in so doing raises the human to a superhuman and suprahistorical plane; which, among other things, enables him to approach a Reality that is inaccessible at the level of profane, individual existence' (Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols, p. 59).

So myth is the tangible reflection of what is a priori intangible: 'A myth represents in this world the realities which transcend the world; it brings two worlds together in images and symbols' (Evgueny Lampert). The symbol, then, is a unit of mythology, one which is used by a specific myth to convey a specific truth. While the symbol is in a sense subordinate to the myth as a whole, it contains in itself its own metaphysic, its own idea: the symbol is the microcosm to the myth's macrocosm.

The most obvious example of this is that of the Crucifix, whose part it plays in the supreme myth of the Incarnation is indispensable as the sacrificial instrument, but whose symbolic character is equally important as something in itself. The intersection of the horizontal and vertical beams represents the collision of the mundane and sacred worlds respectively, and the perfectly good and just man dead upon it represents the historical and mythical triumph over time and space. The communication between man and God, between earth and heaven is established via the erection of the Cross, the pre-eminent 'Cosmic Tree' that completes every other mythical image of that sort (i.e. Yggdrasil). The 'ontologization' of time, the transformation of becoming into being, is thus accomplished by the eternal nature of the symbol of the Cross and by the event actually happening in the flux of time; by acting through time, God has redeemed time, and thus saved man from its ouroboric labyrinths.

This is practically managed through the creation of religion. Because man is a fallen being, he is necessarily a religious being; if he were not fallen, there would be no need for religion, because he would already be in full communion with the divine and the fullness of his own nature. The religious institution, as the exterior (and interior) organization of mythology into something available to any man, is the means by which man strives to remember and redeem himself, to counteract the Fall, and to establish a genuine relationship with God and therefore finally overcome time. Since this is far and away the most important endeavour for man in this world, religion becomes our greatest tool, our most prized possession, the thing of the greatest use. Remembering what we said in Section III, then, and Aquinas's 'functionalist theory of beauty' (where the useful is equated with the beautiful), it follows that religion is also of the greatest beauty, which helps explain why it has traditionally been the single greatest patron of the arts in Western Civilization; in the Medieval era, of course, right through the Renaissance and beyond, the Catholic Church dictated European culture, promoting the artistic talents of its members to this religious end. This was most powerfully expressed in the stunning cathedrals that dominated both urban and rural landscapes:

'Artistic allegory reached its apotheosis with the maturity of Gothic art.... The cathedrals, the highest artistic achievement of medieval civilization, became a surrogate for nature, a veritable liber et pictura, although organised in accordance with rules of interpretation which were in fact not wholly applicable to nature.... cathedrals actualised a synthetic vision of man, of his history, of his relation to the universe.... In arranging this figurative discourse, the Gothic masters used the mechanism of allegory. The legibility of the signs which they employed was guaranteed by a solid sociological fact, namely, the medieval habit of grasping certain analogies, by interpreting signs and emblems in ways that tradition had determined, of translating images into their spiritual equivalents' (Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, pp. 61-2).





What this was was the 'power of symbolism', the directly intuitive relation between man and the consensual cosmology society creates to better understand our world. Art is objectively the communication of intelligibility, and it does this through utilizing symbolism, the personification and materialization of profound ideas in forms that we can easily comprehend and which deeply attract us: 'The Medievals inhabited a world filled with references, reminders, and overtones of divinity, manifestations of God in things. Nature spoke to them heraldically: lions or nut-trees were more than they seemed; griffins were just as real as lions because, like them, they were signs of a higher truth' (Eco, p. 53). The symbol was moreover not merely a secondary imitation a la Plato's theory of mimesis, but something which had a lasting value in itself, because it was the means by which man interacted with those things that are not directly found in sensible reality.

Beyond the obvious connotations that a lion, for example, offers in itself, such as the connection between its golden colour and the gold of royalty, tradition carries with it an 'hieratic language', a lexicon of symbols and allusions that anyone educated and participating in that tradition can share in. So the lion, as per the Proverbs, is said to be a symbol of the virtue of courage, and the Medievals, as an emphatically Christian civilization, exploited this symbol in their heraldry as well as in their literature. The Bible was indeed the principal source for this allegorical and symbolic material, offering an imaginative cosmology from the moral parables to the anagogical horrors of Hell; it was the root of everything definitively Medieval and the touchstone by which everything of pagan origins was judged. This included the living folk legends, for instance, which were duly and organically incorporated into the Catholic consciousness. This great symbolic weltanschauung imbued all poetry, all songcraft, all of the plastic arts, all religious artefacts, even seemingly innocuous household items with a decisive, universal power that enlivened the ordinary, making the natural into something supernatural.

In pagan societies, too, everything that pertained to a man's reality was useful in a way that was more than its mechanical use - as we said in Section III, a man's shovel was not only something with which he planted vegetables, it was equally a symbol of the direct connection between himself and his forefathers and the perennial continuity of the harvest. This not only 'enlivened the ordinary', making his world something so much brighter and adventurous than it might otherwise seem by a purely economical perspective, but it attached him both to the the land which he shared with his ancestors and to their common faith. This symbolic lens allowed him to view 'beyond time' and experience the immediate connection between himself and his fathers who shared his trade, and between himself and the gods, who were expressed through specific rites of the harvest; everything in this world contained something more of that world, that divine dimension to which any healthy society adheres:

'Primitive man made no real distinction of sacred from secular: his weapons, clothing, vehicles and house were all of them imitations of divine prototypes, and were to him even more what they meant than what they were in themselves; he made them this ''more'' by incantation and by rites. Thus he fought with thunderbolts, put on celestial garments, rode in a chariot of fire, saw in his roof the starry sky, and in himself more than ''this man'' So-and-so' (Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, 'Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art', p.32).

The Medieval man retained much of this as well, but superimposed upon it the the stamp of a monotheistic, transcendent God who was nevertheless immanent, present and working in the world. This was expressed via the miraculous stories of the saints, including the 'cephalophore', or a beheaded martyr who carries his head as he continues to preach post-mortem. The most famous example is St. Denis, who, according to the Golden Legend, journeyed over ten kilometres with his head in his arms to his burial site, which became the Basilica of St. Denis. Whether this was historically true or not was a concern for the Church hierarchy to determine, but to the common man it made little difference; such events were mythical, which meant that they held greater importance as legends of a superior nature, as examples of God's holiness at work in the world, of his making exceptions to the laws of his own creation. There was thus a lively mythos at play in Medieval society, one which did not (usually) compete with the Church, but subsisted beneath it, providing it with a grounded mythology that satisfied the inherent demands of man's imagination.

Just as Christ came and fulfilled the Mosaic Law, so did the Church Militant conquer the pagan mythology, ameliorating its darker substance with the light of the sacred heart; it came to provide the fullness that the pagans had only been hinting at all along. The antecedent mythical force, however, was preserved, only it was 'christened by Christ', as it were, in which the vestigial heathen elements were cleansed and sublimated into the redemptive authority of the Roman Church. The sites of old pagan shrines, for example, were sustained for their primeval power, for their genius loci, for their being 'magical centres' at the soul of primitive man; but these were invariably purified by the Cross, whose soldiers built churches of their own over these locations, and often named them after St. Michael (who is typically known as a 'demon-slayer') to represent Christ's triumph over the natural world even as he dwells in it. By the unification given to the European nations by the Christian tradition, they all received a 'common denominator' that exalted the truth of the Incarnation yet preserved and dignified the indigenous traditions themselves:

'By the fact of their Christianisation, the gods and the sacred places of the whole of Europe not only received common names but rediscovered, in a sense, their own archetypes and therefore their universal valencies: a fountain in Gaul, regarded as sacred ever since prehistoric times, but sanctified by the presence of a divine local or regional figure, became sacred for Christianity as a whole after its consecration to the Virgin Mary. All the slayers of dragons were assimilated to Saint George or some other Christian hero; all the gods of the storm to holy Elijah. From having been regional and provincial, the popular mythology became ecumenical. It is, above all, through the creation of a new mythological language common to all the populations who remained attached to their soil... that the civilising mission of Christianity has been so remarkable. For, by Christianising the ancient European religious heritage, it not only purified the latter, but took up, into the new spiritual dispensation of mankind, all that deserved to be ''saved'' of the old practises, beliefs and hopes of pre-Christian man' (Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols, p. 175).

With the Bible as the revelational source, the tradition of the Early Church, the philosophical and political vestiges of Classical Greece and Rome, and the basic legends of the European people were thus synthesized into an organic worldview that, just like Coomaraswamy's 'primitive man', failed to separate in any meaningful way the sacred from the profane; just as their artwork was the integration of the useful and the beautiful, so their religious life was fully integrated into their work and play: '[In the Medieval civilization] secular art hardly exists, or rather the distinction between the sacred and the profane is immaterial since everything proceeds from Christ' (Ernst Kitzinger, Early Medieval Art, p. 92). On the micro level, this was all connected by their shared network of symbols, and the existential contentment that they derived from them - but fundamentally, from daily Mass to the urban marketplace to the potato fields, everything was motivated by a love for God. This profound integration allowed for an easier ontological transition from one world to the next:

'All of the exterior life was a rite, namely, an approximation, more or less efficacious and depending on individuals and groups, to a truth that the exterior life cannot produce by itself, but that allows a person to realize one's self in part or entirely, provided it is lived in a saintly way. These people lived the same life that they had for centuries; they made of this world a ladder in order to achieve liberation. These peoples used to think, to act, to love, to hate, and to wage war on each other in a saintly way; they had erected the one temple among a great number of other temples through which the stream of the waters ran. This temple was the bed of the river, the traditional truth, the holy syllable in the heart of the world' (Guido de Giorgio, 'Action and Contemplation').

The symbolic function is that ladder, the spiritual highway on which man drives his soul to higher planes of being according to his own inner vocation. By providing anything and everything with a symbolic reality, with an identity that transcends something considered merely as a material or historical fact, traditional man remained in touch with the sacred; all of life could in this way be conceived as a clear reflection of the higher or primal life. The old wars, for example, were never just about familial pride or economical gain or even religious dominance. War was essentially the opportunity for man to express both his love for patria and his pent-up destructive energies in a creative manner, in a manner that agrees with providence or divine destiny; Roman society figured that a war was already lost when its generals forsook the necessary sacrifices, failed to make the proper prayers. Serfdom, merchants, nobles, even prostitutes all had symbolic equivalents that made their occupations in the world more than what they were in an economic or sociological sense; they made them direct participants in the timeless reality by their connections to eternal vocations. This was truest of the priestly and kingly functions, of which Evola has the following to say:

'In the world of tradition the most important function of the authority and of the right of kings and chiefs, and the reason why they were obeyed, feared, and venerated, was essentially their transcendent and nonhuman quality. This quality was not artificial, but a powerful reality to be feared.... Traditional civilizations... completely ignored the merely political dimension of supreme authority as well as the idea that the roots of authority as well as the idea that the roots of authority lay in mere strength, violence, or natural and secular qualities such as intelligence, wisdom, physical courage, and a minute concern for the collective well-being. The roots of authority, on the contrary, always had a metaphysical character.... The root of every temporal power was spiritual authority, which was almost a "divine nature disguised in human form"'(Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World, pp. 7-8).

The symbol is precisely the effect of that relationship - it is 'divine nature disguised in human form'. The traditional understanding of kingship, which considered the royal power as something very near or identical with the divine power, possesses the symbolic function par excellence; he is the active, temporal centre of civilization, whereas the pope or high priest is its contemplative, eternal centre. Joseph de Maistre says that 'God makes kings in the literal sense. He prepares royal races; maturing them under a cloud which conceals their origin. They appear at length crowned with glory and honour.... The truth is that they arise as it were of themselves, without violence on their part, and without marked deliberation on the other: it is a species of magnificent tranquility....' (de Maistre, 'Essay on the Generative Principle of Constitutions'). The idea of being a king is manifest in the king, the human form who bears the divine ideal of kingship; he himself becomes something eminently symbolic, a direct correspondence to the transcendent reality here on earth. This is important of course for his own vocation, but how much more so for his subjects who rally to that temporal centre! The necessity of a king becomes obvious once we realize both the need for a pseudo-divine personhood that rules in God's place in the world, and the need for the natural hierarchy of man. In this emphatically symbolic political organization, man can be taught to realize that this world is indeed not the end, but that it is the place through which the divine expresses itself, with or without our help.

If the symbol is fully utilized in the active arena, it most certainly is in the religious one, which brings us back to the beginning of this Section. It is important at this point, however, to distinguish between a strictly utilitarian judgment of art and the complete judgment of art, which includes not only the use of a thing but the good of a thing as well. The former pertains to the analysis of a work of art according to its purpose alone, i.e., a land mine is a good work of art if it performs its intended function, which is the destruction of anyone or thing that triggers it. The complete judgment of art, however, might state that such an instrument is ethically criminal, that it has no place in Christian society, especially if it is used against fellow Christians. This is why the Catholic Church, the traditional arbiter of culture in European history, outlawed the use of crossbows amongst the Christian nations - a crossbow might be well-made, it might even be beautiful from a certain point of view, but it was morally repulsive, and thus could not be completely beautiful. The strictly artistic judgment pertains to what is made; the complete judgment pertains to what ought or ought not to be made.

Conversely, if a work of art has highly noble content for its subject matter, it by no means attains to a greater artistic judgment; regardless of how well it may meet our moral demands, if such a work fails to express its idea in an artistically captivating and vigorous way, it can only qualify as something in the lower order, because 'expression in art proceeds from the work itself and the means employed and not from the subject portrayed' (Jacques Maritain). A monument sculpted in loving imitation of St. Mary, for instance, is nevertheless something quite classless if it is discoloured or misshapen or bland or otherwise deficient in form. Friedrich Schiller explains: 'In a truly beautiful work of art the content should do nothing, the form everything; for the wholeness of Man is affected by the form alone, and only individual powers by the content'. The content exists as a kind of neutral, malleable matter that is controlled by form; it can be moulded into something great like Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli or it can devolve into something like the average 'Christian' radio-rock song. In the first example the content becomes so much more compelling because of the form which wonderfully propels it; the listener is profoundly stirred by the beauty of the sacred words all the more due to the purity and elegance of their expression - according to Schiller, the 'whole of Man' is successfully moved. In the second unfortunate example, the content subsists merely as something sentimental, attracting the listener by means of secondary, non-musical kinships (the relationship between man and his faith), and not by the art itself, with which the listener would be entirely estranged if it were not for its need to invoke 'Awesome God' in its lyrics. The man as a whole has failed to be moved; it is only a vague emotional attachment that has responded to the music, and this cannot be called the complete artistic experience.

So any religious art if it is to be worth its name must avoid the fault of being beautiful in its concept, but sterile in its form. That this is one of the principal difficulties is obvious, because most of religious art is going to be an effort at representing the deeply spiritual, the invisibly sacred that requires our utmost reverence as servants of God; most of religious art is going to be 'conceptually beautiful', because the sacred cannot be conceived as anything but the highest degree of beauty. This sword is doubly edged, however, because if it is vulnerable to portraying a terrific image in a boring language, religious art is also privy to a vast host of terrific images that earnestly plead with us to be revealed in a thunderous communication; the march of the Saints, the Passion of the Christ, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary are all inimitable moments that nevertheless await imitation by our best artists. Due at once to the objective beauty of their relationship to the fallen world and to the inheritance of our own religious tradition, such moments offer an inexhaustible supply of artistic subject matter, and, from the humble iconography and engravings of the early Medievals to the sweeping splendour of the Baroque period, Europeans have been perfectly eager to utilize it. Art is a natural ally to religion:

'Art creates beauty. The beautiful is a transcendental of being, and to approach being as such is always to reach the threshold of the sacred.... The beautiful is... the most modest of all those modalities of being, since it is merely the good of sensible apperception of being, when there is conformity between the object of sense and the sensibility of an intelligent subject.... So also, religion mobilizes all the arts to press them into the service of the deity. Only, they themselves are not religion, and they first have to be art in order to serve any conceivable cause. And art should be at its best when the cause to be served is religion' (Etienne Gilson, The Arts of the Beautiful, p. 182).

Beauty serves as the gateway to the truth. Insofar as the arts capture and signify something true, they express something beautiful. As God possesses the highest, fullest degree of truth, naturally he commands the most beauty; as religion aims to unite man with God, naturally it demands its own beauty, which the arts hasten to provide. Genuine religion is something true, so likewise it requires its own 'gateway', and this has historically been supplied firstly in the shape of the Sacraments, but also in the creation and ornamentation of the Cathedrals, the hagiographies of the Saints, the poetic homilies that spiritually sustain the masses year after year after year. In several interesting studies using censors and surveys that were described in his book The Catholic Imagination, Andrew Greeley outlines the difference between Catholics and Protestants in regard to their perception of the arts, which is namely that 'Catholics are more interested in the fine arts than Protestants, and those Catholics who go to church regularly are the most likely to be interested in the fine arts.... Among Catholics the correlation between graceful imagery and regular churchgoing is positive. Among Protestants it is negative' (p.44). Greeley goes on to argue convincingly that it is the Catholic ideals of community, festivity, as well as their greater emphasis on a gracious, loving God are all part of what causes this divide. This hardly required a modern, empirical study to be observed, however, as the Protestant vision has historically been scornful of the material world, which included its representations of the spiritual world; the bold extravagance (even sometimes to excess) of the art of the Counter Reformation serves as proof enough of this, as Catholics sought to display the intrinsic truth of their faith through the unquestionable beauty of the material world. They did this through Bernini, Rembrant, Veronese, Rubens; they did this through art.

In conclusion, the symbol, as the gestalt of the relationship between the spiritual idea and the material expression, is the crucial element in any work of art, because it is the point where invisible concept and visible form meet in union; it is that crucible that makes known the unknown, and this in a specially inspired way that meets both our aesthetic and intellectual demands. The symbol is in any healthy society organically installed at every level in the hierarchy through an elaborate complex of colour and images that signify to man that he is not only an integral part of the workings of this world, but also of the other world as well. This is chiefly done through the religious arts, which enlist the symbolic function in their 'beautification' of the universe; all reality becomes something more than what it seems due to the symbolism achieved by pen, brush, hammer, and voice. Mythology and the religion which carries it offer an abundance of symbolic wealth because they are what help man out of his anxiety in time and into the security of eternity; the Gospels are the symbolic vision par excellence because God's Word is not only the theandric energy that sustains the universe, it is equally the success of the convergence between the mythical and the historical, and the consequent redemption of time. Through the Cross time becomes eternity - nunc fluens becomes nunc stans.

The Cross stands triumphant over hell because of what Christ performed, but the Cross stands over the earth because of what the Church performed and continues to perform - and not the least part of that conquest is thanks to the artistic enterprises of its membership. We end this Section with a highly apropos prayer for the restoration of sacral art:

'There is one thing which I would like and which I pray for; that everything beautiful be recovered for God and serve His praise. All that we see in creatures and in creation must be brought back to Him, and my sorrow is to see His Spouse, our holy mother the Church apparelled in hideousness. All her outward manifestation is so ugly, she that is so fair within; every effort is to make a fright of her; at the outset her body was bare, made over to beasts; now then artists set their souls to her adornment, next vanity, and last of all the trade, butts in, and so caparisoned, she is given up to ridicule' (Marie-Charles Dulac). 



Saturday, August 30, 2014

True Detective: Light Versus Dark

Disclaimer: spoilers are in full effect for this review!





Like so many other HBO shows in the last fifteen years, True Detective is awash in flesh, drugs, violence, and the various other vulgarities that simultaneously repulse us from the labyrinths of sin and yet draw us deeper inside. Like the rest of them it is set on exploring the dark under-belly of humanity, and like the rest of them it rivals the massive production values of the average Hollywood film. Unlike the typical HBO series, however, True Detective is decidedly unique in that it is essentially a story of 'Good Versus Evil'. Now, is it a traditional one, no, it cannot be; the increasingly tired use of the 'anti-hero' in contemporary storytelling prevents that from being true, with the two TD protagonists being as 'anti-heroic' as you might find anywhere in television today. And yet there is a definite warmth in them that develops in a way that comes across as more authentic than in the usual 'mysterious' bad man who is supposed to appeal to the viewer for his negative qualities instead of his 'good' ones, which commonly consist merely in being rather less negative than those of the antagonist. The generic anti-hero is simply an evil character whose particular form of evil resonates with the audience. Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, being atypical anti-heroes, fight evil not because they are merely less evil, but because they are fundamentally good men afflicted by evil; in a word, the detectives fight evil because they are human, party to devils and angels alike.

Before traversing the more crucial and frankly more interesting subject of the two main characters, it would behoove us to discuss the environment in which they act, and the atmosphere which they oftentimes strive against. It is the first test of a cinematic artwork to convey a setting as though it were alive, with its own identity, its own heartbeat; as though it were a real place, a new, foreign world waiting to be opened, its stories waiting to be told. Unlike the novel, where the writer is allowed by the nature of his art a certain liberty in the expression of his work, leaving the reader a measure of interpretation of events, people, places, the director of a film (or TV show) is in nowise so free; what he creates on the screen, what is captured on video, that is what everyone who watches the screen sees. There is no room for interpretation in that way, so he must invent room in other ways - this is what is known as 'cinematography' in the more specific sense, or the art of creating a mood or a vision by showing something happen in a particular light, in one way and not another. The choice of what is shown, the construction of sets, the addition of a soundtrack, and so on, all contribute to this one principal aim - the creation of a universally understood atmosphere that serves a purpose in the overall production.

In the case of True Detective, that atmosphere is most of all of a dark, dangerous beauty. In the portrayal of the long, absent landscapes and natural spectacles, for example, the atmosphere is something that is indeed beautiful in its Edenic, wild allure, but also one that the viewer wonders is not also conducive to the wickedness of man. Did not the serpent, after all, quietly emerge from the tangled trees of Paradise? Certainly the evil elements in this show seem to be the most at home in the undergrowth of the terrain, far removed from civilization; the invocation of the American literary mythology of 'Carcosa', too, and the distinctly pagan, superstitious charms ('devil-nests', the antlers affixed to the dead, etc.) used to present it to us, is unquestionably of something primeval, of something terrifyingly natural.



While the truly evil powers retreat to the wilderness to practise their madness, the atmosphere that issues from the scenes set in 'civilized' locales possesses a darkness of its own. From whores exiting trucks as they finish sessions to grizzled, impenetrable biker bars to a short but intensely fascinating war in the Negro neighborhood, it is clear that human development carries with it its own peculiar malice; in this there is a different but even more threatening sense of evil because it strikes nearer to the normal human, guilty as he is of wants and perversions even if he is not prone to the murder and rape of children like the serial killers are. It is moreover in the churches set up by a 'Christian' organization, ostensibly a force of civilization, that spawned these enemies of civilization, and possibly allowed them a greater freedom in their activities.

In a more neutral sense, however, the atmosphere succeeds wonderfully in enlivening the locations that this story is immersed in. Like Breaking Bad introducing the arid, toxic dimensions of New Mexico in a way that enriched the show's content, making the environment an integrated element in the story's development, True Detective likewise establishes a lush, sincere atmosphere that invites the viewer to engage with it. The lively, green stretches of sparsely populated land imbue their own sense of hostility that matches the savages to whom it plays host; yet we cannot help but delight in this profoundly natural aura, where life and death are weighed so precariously, almost arbitrarily. The music, from the mood-setting theme song that captures the sinister, bucolic tone of the show to the minimalistic motifs that invariably afford a stoic bleakness to any which scene, is invaluable in this unforgiving presentation of unforgiving Louisiana, providing as it does that singularly pensive, melancholic attitude that really defines this show. The human element, too, in the interviews with the various residents and related characters, is faintly reminiscent of As I Lay Dying; the rustic honesty and graceful, familial issues that persist through generations are present in TD, even if Faulkner's depth is deeper. The Gothic motifs of Lovecraft and Poe are likewise invoked through the aforementioned references to something occult and otherworldly, and add colour and substance to an already mythical setting.

It is worth noting as a solitary complaint that, purely in terms of pacing and quality of narrative, the first five
episodes far exceed the final three. The tension and the excitement of the pursuit of the original suspect, Reggie Ledoux, are extremely high: we experience the rising action in the first few leads as the struggle consists not only against the criminals but also those who try to cover their identities; we experience the most insightful dialogues between Rust and Marty as their two characters are excellently juxtaposed over the backdrop of a confusing, seemingly vicious reality; we experience Rust at his most comfortable, sinking to the bleary lowliness of human corruption in defiance of his own mental health (or lack thereof); and we experience a terrific line of action that runs from infiltrating a seedy biker gang to stirring up trouble in the Projects to hunting the Ledoux cousins in their own property. This more or less perfect pacing is then interrupted by a lacklustre aftermath; the 'intermission', as it were, trips up the gallop, and the level of excitement is never again reached in the same way, even as the hunt for 'Lawnmower Man' reaches its conclusion. The eccentricity of Cohle's crusade to catch the one they missed does not garner enough interest; what the two Black detectives have to reveal about the case does not keep the viewer watching, desperately awaiting the answers, eagerly turning the next episode on as he did during the first five.

That the story does go on, that it indeed needs to go on, is due to the personal resolutions of the detectives' storylines. The characters demand closure. Rust Cohle, for starters, has been established to be an intensely disillusioned person, tormented by the death of his daughter and the dissolution of his marriage. He has crafted a frightening pessimism from his heightened reason, uncaring introversion, and past experiences, and which pushes most people away from him. His weakness is naturally that of liquor, which allows him to retreat from the pounding in his head, the unenviable answers to life's most pertinent problems, the existential crisis of an intellect mutated into hatred and futility. For all of his intelligence, however, the best that he can come up with for Marty's precise question of 'why get out of bed in the morning' is either (non-verbatim), 'I lack the constitution required for suicide' or 'I am not strong enough to overcome my programming'. This is not good enough. This tells us that he lacks the full balance of such a broken worldview, that there is something else that commands him to go on. He caustically questions the institutions of religion and state and family, turning his hatred for life and consciousness into a deadly cynicism for anything that emerges from life and consciousness; and yet his criticisms are shallow, hollow, trite, and we become aware that these are not his essential positions, that they are more the result of bitterness than of genuine contemplation.

Whereas Cohle represents a figure of lonely pessimism, a conscientious objector, an eminently individual player, Martin Hart roughly corresponds to his opposite, a defender of community and the every-day, healthy values that the community espouses but which Cohle claims to see through. Marty says himself, 'I'm just a normal guy... with a big-ass dick', which contrasts wildly but usefully with how Cohle describes himself, which takes place through his dark musings about the nature of reality. The high school stereotypes of the jock and the nerd come immediately to mind. We may learn about Cohle through his thoughts first, but we learn about Marty through his actions, whose own weakness is women. While his strength should come from the women of his family, instead he loses himself in two mistresses at two different points during the course of the series. He defends these lapses as the need to nourish the family's health, to prevent them from receiving all the pent-up negatives of his work: 'You gotta take your release where you can find it... for the good of the family'. These rationalizations come across as equally hollow as those of Rust, and amount to the same thing, namely a failure to realize one's most inner needs in the chaos of ordinary life. Marty at heart loves his wife, his family, and he knows at heart that he fails them in these adulterous excursions; but he only truly realizes this when he comes face to face with their consequences.

The biggest success of True Detective consists in its character development, and how the two detectives interact with one another. This is where the show actually says something about the human condition, and which therefore constitutes its real value. While they are both coming from two very different places, ultimately both detectives are seeking the same thing: to be at peace with themselves. This search manifests itself in Marty in the ongoing problems with his wife Maggie and their two daughters; the resolution of this fault, we feel, seems to be the resolution of Marty as a person. It is never a problem of whether he loves her or not; we recall when he asks Cohle whether a man can love two women, for example. The 'love' for the other woman is of course not the true love a man feels for the one to whom he is married, but something else, something symbolic. Both mistresses are younger, and reminiscent of a young Maggie. Combined with the revealed hints of Marty's dissatisfaction with his aging, we can read into this a 'terror of time': he feels the irrevocable presence of time closing in, and lashes out by pursuing someone who reminds him of his youth, and vicariously experiences it thereby. It is in those moments when Maggie distances herself from him, however, that Marty is at his most expressive, his most violent, which again reveals his intimate connection with his family, even if at times he feels it growing cold. His truest, internal life is found in his family, which makes him a part of something. When he is deprived of that, he is deprived of reality, specifically of the reality he wants to believe in. Without his family he is reduced to the loneliness of whiskey and Match.com; without his family he is no longer a part of something.

This search reveals itself in Cohle through his oddly brilliant but nevertheless self-defeating monologues. With Marty in their car or the two detectives interrogating him, Cohle discusses everything from how it is 'hubristic' to create a child, to raise a soul from the depths of nothingness to the 'meat' of humanity, to the idea of eternal recurrence, of time perpetuating itself in a circle so that nothing we do matters because it will all happen again and again. That latter point was made in a particular period in the show which was supposed to be a moment of victory, right after the justice meted out to the evil Ledoux cousins. This was the nadir of the series in an existential sense; right when we are supposed to be rejoicing in triumph, we sink lower into the mire of Cohle's impossible nihilism, and it was sincerely, completely depressing. We realize at this point just how hostile he is to the potentials of joy and reconciliation; he is almost Calvinistic in this crazed detachment from the world, in this gnostic sort of disbelief in any goodness that is here. By the end of the series we can indeed recognize this as a 'false victory', because there were others out there whom they had not caught. This argument is falsified, however, when we witness the finale, in which a genuine sense of victory is enjoyed despite the fact that there were still a host of men like the Ledoux cousins and Errol Childress, even in relation to the Louisiana serial murders. The truth is that Cohle had not yet experienced his inner crisis of faith, his revelation at death's door, that lifelong obstacle which halted him from the opportunity of living life with love. This prevents him from being at peace with life's terrors, with the reality that there will always be evil. You cannot fight evil purely for the sake of destroying evil; you have to fight evil for the sake of love.

Cohle's heartfelt antithesis to the possibility of love is again made clear in one of his conversations with Marty, in which he bluntly says, 'I don't think that man can love, at least not the way that he means. Inadequacies of reality always set in'. So the irresolvable divide between an ideal and a fact prevents that ideal from being true; it prevents a man from being able to love. We say that it is a 'heartfelt' antithesis because what drives Cohle as a character is his innate love for his deceased daughter, even if he does not recognize it consciously. His relentless pursuit of the evil men, who have punished numerous little girls themselves, when everyone else are all too inclined to give up, suggests an affinity between Cohle and the murdered girls; that the show repeatedly pictures him driving past that billboard which reads, 'Do you know who killed me?' is significant in that it is both a reminder to him to discern the truth and a clue to his own state of mind, that his vindication possibly resides in tracking the killer down, in knowing who killed her. This is exemplary of what connects him to his daughter, the death of whom he places at the hands of God or simply a cruel, inchoate reality. However much he might deny it through his vague, heart-rending suppositions about the total lack of meaning in the universe, Cohle is driven by the death of his daughter, who represents a part of himself that he is struggling violently to reintegrate into his psyche. That explains the passion of his hunt for the killers, and the lives saved thereby, and that is what throws his entire life-negating philosophy into open contradiction. He unconsciously feels a latent love, but his experiences and his own genius steer him clear of recognizing it in favour of a warped cynicism that redirects that love into a disingenuous, bewildered hatred.

This contradiction reveals itself in other ways, namely in Rust's attempts to help Marty with his infidelity. In Episode Three, for example, knowing that Marty is having an affair, Rust visits his wife and cuts their grass. In doing this, Marty's position as patriarch is undermined, and he can catch a glimpse of what he has to lose. Rust wittingly shows Marty what he has taken for granted in the hope that he sees the faulty choices he has made. Marty is angered by this, of course, and yet does not realize the deeper meaning of what Rust is trying to say. This subtle piece of compassion for his partner is surprising, but it would not make any sense at all if Rust were not inwardly motivated by something more than what he lets us on to, something more than his esoteric, despondent, drawling nihilism allows for.

Now, to return to our original thesis, what makes True Detective special is that, to an extent, its characters actually find what they are looking for. In other, lesser shows writers are often content to leave the 'heroes' as they were, still struggling with inner conflict, claiming in their defense (not without reason, mind) that the human condition is something naturally conflicted, that it is more honest to leave characters in a state of crisis or some mild form of self-appeasement. In True Detective, on the other hand, that search to be at peace with the world and with oneself is actually satisfied. There is a genuine resolution that not only flies in the face of current trends in the medium of film, but in the context of the series itself; the heavy, oppressive atmosphere, the persistence of moral weakness in the protagonists, the terrible scale of evil manifest in the antagonists, and the truly disheartening weltanschauung expressed by Rust Cohle all prepare the viewer for an inevitable victory for the darkness. Was there anyone watching who expected both Rust and Marty to survive the final skirmish with Childress in 'Carcosa'? The fact that they did serves the purpose of the show far more than if they did not - death might offer a dramatic denouement and a heightened confession of pathos that profoundly touches the audience, but in this case it would be a convenience, an escape for the writers in that they would not have to resolve these two elaborate, sympathetic, and patently real characters that they have been patiently, lovingly constructing this whole time.

So they had to survive, and this survival was twofold: one in the literal sense, that they did not die in fighting Childress, and secondly in the personal sense, that they survived the two main existential crises of their storylines. First we see Marty recovering in the hospital, surrounded by his ex-wife and his two daughters. He dissolves into tears in their company, stirred into a frenetic activity of the heart as he approaches what he has been searching for, namely that intimacy between himself and those whom he loves. This is also how he is finally able to see himself as a 'good man', in his strength as the family leader. There is a recurring question for Marty, one which he directly asks Rust: 'Do you ever wonder if you're a bad man?' Marty struggles with seeing himself as a good person, which is what he yearns to be; his wife tells him multiple times that he was a better man when he married her, and this helps provoke his infidelity. The second mistress, Beth, says to him in Episode 6, 'You're a good man; anyone can see that'. She seduces Marty not so much through her body, but through her validation of Marty as a person, as 'a good man'. That he is left wanting after the fact is evident both through his body language and the focus on a couple ornaments in her room, an angel and a demon, with the latter being the prominent figure. Now, whether Maggie actually reunites with her husband as with the time they took down the Ledoux cousins, is left unknown, and is more or less insignificant anyway. The point is clear: he sees his wife and his daughters, whom he has loved and created, and can finally see himself as a good man. He has destroyed another pillar of evil in Errol Childress, he has made a family, and he sees enough in that to vindicate his place in the world. His connection to the reality he wants to live in is re√ęstablished.

The existential survival of Rust Cohle is understandably a much different affair. This is firstly true in its taking place in a spiritual revelation while he was immersed in the darkness of a coma. Rust describes it, through stuttering though perfectly comfortable tears, as a 'vague awareness' where he feels his 'definitions', all his abstract musings about the world, his definition of himself possibly, fading away, becoming meaningless as he nears the ultimate meaning. There is a deeper darkness yet, but it is warm, and he feels, finally he feels a substance in that darkness: his daughter. He feels as though he were 'a part of everything I ever loved' in that black space. That love that lurked in the shadows of his soul, that flickered here and there throughout the series but was always masked by a veil of invincible cynicism, shows itself to him in its wholeness, its necessity, its grace; that love has filled in the lonesome cavern which was once the source of all his bitterness. Where Marty required outward validation to confront and overcome his personal conflicts, Rust had to descend into the kingdoms within himself to defeat his own - but the result is essentially the same. They both sought a bond to reality, a way to intimate themselves with the world they lived in, for otherwise they were lost to whatever their respective frailties of conscience and introspection revealed - and they both found it.

It is fitting that the finest, most endearing lines of the series are reserved for the final conversation. After all the philosophical bleakness and haughty condemnations of various ideas that the common man values, it is absolutely natural that this is all reversed in a new, precious insight that is paradoxically as unlike the Cohle we know as it is like him. Marty brings up when Rust told him about how he looked up at the stars as a boy, and made up stories, but Rust presently says, 'There is only one story: Light versus Dark'. If that is true of this story, the two detectives can only be representatives of the Light; they can only be good guys. This is the moment of the show that defines the show, brings everything into focus, and reveals to us finally that it was all along Good Versus Evil. The evil is obviously apparent in the varying villains that are overthrown, but the evil in themselves is just as manifest, and arguably just as repulsive in a more intimate sense as the serial murderers are in the most basic sense. Both characters had to defeat the darkness inside of them at the same time as defeating the darkness walking the world, which acted to symbolize in an ugly, horrifying way the depths of depravity present in us as a species, as individuals. The terrors are real and universal and fully capable of subverting our human authority, even to the point of driving us to hopelessness; and yet, as Rust says, 'Once there was only dark [in the sky]; if you ask me the light's winning'. This is a radical change from when he advocated the idea of eternal recurrence, in which nothing we do matters because it all happens ad infinitum. Now there is a linear creation, a cosmic warfare between principalities that we directly participate in; now there is beauty, and a purpose to our actions. Now there is light where once there was none, and now there is love where once there was none.

In summary, then, True Detective was wildly fascinating from the start. The smoldering intensity of Rust's convictions, the struggle against the disintegration of Marty's family life, the sudden changes in pace between meditative reflection and resplendent acts of violence, the organic, frightening atmosphere that purposefully pervades the entire story were all sufficient in captivating my attention to what I thought was a real good show; but what captivated my deeper interest and what makes it a truly exceptional show was only conveyed in the final episode, when the myriad of personal problems are finally solved in a way that makes them seem so much more real, so much more humanely gratifying than you often find in the cultural vacuum of modern art. Beneath the depressive, heartless atmosphere and the stench of Babylon and human weakness, there is a delightfully subtle narrative that opposes the darkness with a quiet light, that brings the chaos into context. Prior to the final scene, there were only two guys riddled with crises, overcome by chaos, inspiring not confidence in humanity but contempt; but after the final scene there was sublime catharsis and a supremely articulate hope. For there really is only one story, and it is the one that we all live within ourselves and in the world: it is Light Versus Dark, Good Versus Evil, and the greatest hope inheres in our faith that Good really does trump Evil, that the Light of eternity presides when even the blackest void has succumbed.