Let us today, in honor of Saint Placid, calmly consider an outlandish possibility. Lest gentle reader be alarmed, I want first to assure him (or her!) that I do not doubt the world may be coming to an end. It would be un-Catholic to reject this constant possibility. But if only for the sake of argument, let me put it to you: What if the end doesn’t come soon? What if, rash as this may sound, many living at this hour are fated to die in their beds of old age?
As I say, we must consider this calmly. I know that I have a reputation for paradoxical and counter-intuitive argument, and should admit to a record of failed predictions. And so I advance my proposal modestly.
Moreover, I should concede that my thesis seems confuted by a glance at Drudge, or at any of a thousand other news-aggregating websites, including the tattered electronic remains of once-formidable mainstream media. It would indeed seem, on the face of things, that the mad have inherited the earth, and that we are all going to die, shortly.
I was just glancing at these headlines, and in considering this world’s banquet, could hardly restrain myself from uttering the words of that cynical old philosopher, Apemantus. “Hoy-day!” he declared. “What a sweep of vanity comes this way!”
Like madness is the glory of this life,And this pomp shows to a little oil and root.We make ourselves fools to disport ourselves,And spend our flatteries to drink those menUpon whose age we void it up again,With poisonous spite and envy.
It may be recalled, from Shakespeare’s play, that Apemantus takes not one but two good shots at Timon of Athens. The first is when Timon is rich and famous and celebrated throughout the city. Apemantus charmlessly suggests that all Timon’s friends are attracted by his money. Later, when Timon has lost all his money, and therefore his friends, Apemantus finds him holed up in a cave. Timon himself is now howling at the vanity of this world, and so Apemantus has come to accuse him of plagiarism.
“Democracy” – a word I like to put in quotes – has focused all of our attention on politics. Even the madwoman who tries to crash the White House gates, then leads a procession of squad cars down Pennsylvania Avenue with bullets flying, becomes a political player, woven consequentially into the current political narrative by the scriveners. This is mainstream crazy.
Ditto the mad who shoot up schools and navy yards and shopping malls, endlessly re-launching some debate on gun control, when really the point is psycho-pharmacology.
The last pope, my beloved Benedict, in his final formal words to the priests of Rome, made an observation that I found characteristically astute. With calm sanity, his mind still dwelling upon the disasters that befell the Church after Vatican II, he distinguished “the Council of the Fathers, the real Council,” from the “Council of the media.”
And he addressed this with characteristic tact. As a man who had been present within it, he testified that “the Council of the Fathers. . . moved within the faith, as fides quaerens intellectum.” And this, from what I have been able to learn, is true in the main.
But, “the Council of the journalists, naturally, was not conducted within the faith, but within the categories of today’s media, namely apart from faith, with a different hermeneutic. It was a political hermeneutic: for the media, the Council was a political struggle, a power struggle between different trends in the Church.”
Let me add, tactlessly, that these two contrasting forces, though oil and water, will mix when violently stirred, and that we do live in times that are violently stirring. Hence, perhaps, the common belief that something peculiarly apocalyptic defines our times, when what we have to make us special is rather the 24/7 blare of that media “hermeneutic of power.”
Had we world enough and time, I would be tempted to list innumerable previous moments in history when the argument for impending universal doom could have been made as plausibly, or rather more plausibly, than it is today. We need only look back a century – over events since 1913 – to appreciate this. But “signs of the times” have been available to every sentient witness through the last two millennia. The more of history one reads, the more apparent this becomes.
That “hermeneutic of power” is itself not new. Find me a generation in which the rulers of these earthly realms were not cynically manipulating people and institutions to their own ungodly ends, and I will find a historian to correct you.
Yet one may easily retrieve, generally from within living adult memory, a time when the world was quieter; and know that times before that were quieter still. It is not so much events, as the noise of them, that has chiseled so deeply into the skulls of those not living at remote wilderness locations – where, even today, the music of the spheres may be heard in silence.
To the media mindset (hardly confined to journalists), a struggle was underway, in which the power of the hierarchy was contending with “the power of the people.” And as Benedict noted, in his dry Bavarian way, the media were not indifferent in this struggle they were struggling to concoct.
Nor was the subsequent liturgical trend within the Church – consistently from the sacred towards the profane, I think – unaccompanied by the sophistry we rightly associate with struggles for power.
Our very notion of “apocalypse” has been politicized, in the reverberation of all the noise. It is being de-sacralized, and if you will, profaned. God bless this “pope emeritus” who understood that worldly panic is not required; that rhetorical posturing, or playing to the gallery, can lead us only astray; that to feed the truly hungry we must reify the sacred.