Or: Satan is a subtractor.
This summer, my daughter and I did some traveling in the upcountry of Sweden, among the hills and the lakes of the province of Dalarna. The people of Dalarna are known among the Swedes as being tenaciously traditional, still carving their lovely Dala horses, and, in the north of the province, still speaking Aelvdalsk, a language somewhere between Swedish and Old Icelandic. There I made the delightful discovery that the Aelvdalsk word for "moon" is tungol, which word is incomprehensible to the typical Swede, but would have been readily understood by King Alfred the Great. We also saw plenty of old "church boats" in the area around Lake Siljan. In the old days, said a tourist information sign with that necessary shade of snideness, back when church attendance was "obligatory" — the scare quotes were theirs, not mine — people would have to go to service by means of these long boats. It did not occur to the crafter of the sign that, if the people did not actually want to attend church, it would have taken a great deal more than a boat to get them there. Nor that the church was at the heart of who they were as a people; what they believed in, how they lived, what brought them joy and peace, and what inspired their art.
For it did inspire their art. The Dalarna style of decoration is playful and luxuriant, and such paintings one will often see on the walls and ceilings of the churches in the province. We saw, for example, a painting of Jonah preaching at Nineveh. The text of the painting, in Gothic lettering, ran in a square frame all the way around, with the scene in the middle: a balcony of a castle, with the prophet in Dala costume, preaching to the people below, just like a bishop come to town. We saw another painting, of David and Goliath, with David in knickers, and Goliath looking for all the world like some beefy Lapplander come down to trouble the common folk of Dalarna. Many of the paintings were rich in detail and sophisticated in coloring and composition; so much so, that the unknown fellow who festooned the ceilings of one small village church is simply known as the Master of Vyka.
But in some churches there were no paintings at all. In one of those, I looked up and saw some shadowy shapes on the ceiling, and said to my daughter, "There are only three possibilities here. Either I am seeing things, or there is mildew up there, or someone has whitewashed over the paintings." Later, when we had lunch with a retired pastor of the Swedish Church, I was told that I had guessed right. "During the Enlightenment," he said, "some people got the notion that there should be no images at all in church, so they painted over the ceilings and the walls." So it was that "enlightened" Christians, looking down upon their own fellow Christians, obliterated irreplaceable works of folk art, works that would now be classified as nothing short of priceless.
So that period of ingratitude and myopia had been on my mind, when I came upon an article in an old issue of Modern Age, on German poetry and fiction in the mid-nineteenth century. The author mentioned three authors in particular. One, Eduard Moerike, I had always considered a lyric poet of the highest rank, every bit as fine in that metier as Hoelderlin or Goethe; the second, Annette von Droste-Huelshoff, is probably the greatest woman writer in German; the third, Adalbert Stifter, the focus of the article, was a novelist I had not heard of, but apparently quite famous in Germany. What the three authors had in common was a Christian vision of the world (Moerike was, the author said, a rather unhappy Lutheran pastor; Droste-Huelshoff was devoutly Catholic) and attention to common people, living ordinary lives. They tried to examine the hearts not of great intellectuals and statesmen, or roving rebels, but farmers, housewives, carpenters, teachers (the poem by Moerike that I remember best is a dramatic epistle written by a girl, Erinna, to Sappho — or is it the other way around, now? — and broaches no great Hegelian movements of mind and culture, but reveals what such a young woman might feel, at the separation of her friend). For their pains, they were scorned by the illuminati of the time, as "Biedermeyer" authors, from "Biedermann," the elite's name for middle class, narrowminded, unimaginative, moneymaking squares.
It strikes me that you can see the same phenomenon in the naming of historical and artistic epochs. Who was it who first called the time between Constantine and Michelangelo the "Middle Ages"? I don't know, but it was meant as a term of scorn, as if nothing worth mentioning happened then. Ah, nothing but the creation of Europe, and of a vibrant and revolutionary Christian culture; the invention of the university; the preservation and recovery of ancient learning; the decisive turn away from ancient pessimism, in the Christian declaration that the world about us is good; the breaking of the power of the ruling class, so that a mere priest named Ambrose could excommunicate an emperor for indulging his armies in a massacre at Thessalonika, a thousand miles away; the revival of poetry on a grand scale, giving us poets the like of which the world had never seen, in Dante and Chaucer; and true folk art, not by a Phidias directing the labor of artisans and slaves, as they flute the columns of the Parthenon, but by unknown masons and carpenters and glaziers from one end of Europe to the other. When one actually encounters the poetry of Dante, or the art of Chartres Cathedral, or even the amiable alliterative lines of the anonymous Gawain poet, one knows that one is in the presence of artists whose work is breathtakingly complex and intricate, at the same time as it is meant to appeal to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. Pearl, by the same poet who wrote Sir Gawain, is, besides being a profound meditation on human suffering and on the mercy of Jesus, probably the greatest work of technical virtuosity in all of English poetry — the heroic couplets of Pope and Dryden, lapidary though they may be, look rather staid by comparison. Yet those were the "Middle Ages," when nothing of note was done.
The contempt of the illuminati did not stop with the Middle Ages, of course. The term "baroque" was used to sniff at the tumultuous and emotional art of the late Renaissance; it means, roughly, "grotesque stuff coming from some cave or other." The effrontery is simply astonishing. Let us take painting for example. I admire the portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Gilbert Stuart well enough, but they, in their classical decorum, could not touch — for sheer human depth, let alone for insight into the divine — any number of portraits by Rembrandt, as for instance his impressionistic portrait of Jesus, disappointed in sinful mankind, yet infinitely patient. I can put up with the paintings of David — I actually like The Death of Marat a great deal; but for compositional audacity and theological depth he cannot be admitted to the same studio with Tintoretto's Annunciation, with the angel Gabriel bursting through the breach in the wall of a broken world. But the Baroque period, we are to believe, was a time of the crazy and the bizarre, merely. (It required the genius of the Catholic Mozart, I believe, to recall that wild Lutheran fellow Bach to his proper place as the greatest composer who ever lived.) It was also — not coincidentally — an efflorescence of a genuinely Christian and still more or less popular culture. Perhaps the whole attitude of the illuminati could be seen in that paradigmatic "New Testament" of Jefferson's, with the miracles cut out.
Modernity may be but the enshrinement and institutionalization of these habits of subtraction. I find it hard to read much modern fiction, not because it is difficult — it is sometimes obscure, but rarely difficult — but because I miss the hundred things going on in a poem by Spenser, or in a novel by someone as late as Dickens. I look at a modern building — I am thinking of the downtown of Stamford, Connecticut. The city has been invaded by the aliens of high finance, who have built huge steel and glass towers, dwarfing a local neo-Gothic Irish church. Where is the true humanity to be found? The church humbles, and exalts; the steel and glass towers rise up in pride, and humiliate. Perhaps that is what most modern architecture is meant to do: to revel in sheer institutional power, in bigness for its own sake, in vastness, in featurelessness, in utter detachment from such lowly things as people, and their loves, and their history; and yet what is it all but streamlined, mechanical, and subtractive? John Ruskin wrote that every corner of a Gothic cathedral is devoted to play. You can't turn anywhere without seeing a googly-eyed gargoyle, or a bunch of lemons, or a woman plying her wool, or a saint, or a sinner. When, in the history of the world, have unnamed artisans by the thousands been freer to sculpt or paint as their hearts and minds led them?
And then I turn to philosophy and theology. I think of a current philosophy professor at Princeton, who says that the only things that count, morally, are pleasure and pain, and that therefore all carnivores should be eliminated. That, besides being absurd and ungrateful and blind to sheer beauty, is rather like a bare brick wall, no complexity, no great craftsmanship, no imagination, no real encounter with the world, no wonder at the fundamental goodness of being. How barren, how simplistic, how jejune, how drab and gray and petty, compared with a single page of Thomas Aquinas, he who was interested in everything, visible and invisible! Our Christian heritage is astonishingly rich; and when we turn away from it, we get blank walls; we get people whose only adverb is only. Then I ask, "Why would anyone wish to subtract from the grandeur of man?" The answer is straightforward enough. When a member of the illuminati, of the ruling class, says, "Man is only an animal," or whatever else he uses for the predicate nominative, depending upon the fashions of the day, what he really means is that you and I are only animals, and that therefore he, as he is possessed of such great intelligence, may do with us as he pleases. Some people vote for higher taxes on everyone, because their own incomes derive from tax revenues; so too some people "vote" to demean and demote mankind, because their power and prestige derive from the demotion. They add — for themselves — by subtracting.