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The Addictions of the Catholic Samizdat

Imagine a film so entertaining, so captivating that it is impossible to tear one’s eyes away from the movie. The viewer is paralyzed by the act of watching, losing all control of the will. The rest of life fades away as the viewer escapes from the workaday world into the phantasms that appear on the television screen.

The creation of this seductive entertainment is central to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The film (also called “the Entertainment” or “samizdat”) anesthetizes each person who views it. The person is emptied of everything except an insatiable desire to watch the film. The film is but one form of addiction that Wallace highlights throughout the novel. But the movie is the key that unlocks Wallace’s diagnosis of a U.S.A. hooked on the pleasurable phantasms created by alcohol and drugs, by elite sports, by consumerism and the entertainment industry. “The Entertainment” is a parabolic literary device expressing our love of pleasure and self. As Rémy Marathe, a member of the Wheelchair Assassins, says about the samizdat:

These facts of situation, which speak so loudly of your Bureau’s fear of this samizdat: now is what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to love, each one. A U.S.A. that would die—and let its children die, each one—for the so-called perfect Entertainment, this film. Who would die for this chance to be fed this pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving . . . forget for a moment the Entertainment, and think instead about a U.S.A. where such a thing could be possible enough . . . to fear: can such a U.S.A. hope to survive for a much longer time? . . . If there are other peoples who still know what it is to choose? who will die for something larger? who will sacrifice the warm home, the loved woman at home, their legs, their life, even, for something more than their own wishes of sentiment? who would choose not to die for pleasure, alone?

What happens to a country that is no longer attached to any grand narrative, to any sense of sacrificial love above that of pleasure?

Wallace’s genius is that he never describes what is in the Entertainment. Thus, Wallace’s account of the samizdat has a universality that extends well beyond the novel. As it turns out, we have created the Entertainment. It is the endless commentary, the outrage culture that drives social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook. One does not need to respond to every Donald Trump or Cecile Richards tweet—but we do. We do because it is part of our entertainment, the need to participate in a self-constructed drama where for a moment we feel that we are alive. We have not created a film that is more entertaining than ourselves, than the partial constructions of reality that enable us to receive our endless supply of self-righteous pleasure. When Catholics engage in such cultures, we turn away from that transcendent reality of self-giving love that is the cross. We turn away from the truth of existence, the very real world of flesh and blood where concrete acts of love matter more than 280 characters. Perhaps, Catholics have more to fear from the samizdat than secularization.

In recent weeks, Catholics have experienced at least two significant occasions of being sucked into the samizdat. Although chronologically later, the media circus around the boys from Covington Catholic is an almost exact transposition of Wallace’s Entertainment into our current political landscape. Countless Catholics and media figures spent hours analyzing video in order to determine the precise order of events that took place at the Lincoln Memorial. Almost immediately, the outrage cycle commenced. The MAGA hat-wearing boys were enshrined as either martyrs or miscreants depending on one’s political party. Catholic commentators felt that they needed to make a judgment relative to the situation immediately, letting everyone know what they thought. Online discussions commenced about institutional racism and whether a Catholic should wear a MAGA hat.

But where Wallace got it wrong relative to the samizdat is that such entertainment is never an endless loop. We get bored too quickly dealing with real things, with the kind of serious discourse that attends to reality. So once a sense of catharsis, of vindication, or outrage had been experienced, it was time to move on to the next thing. There’s a governor (for now) in Virginia. There’s the State of the Union. There’s Senators and members of Congress wearing all white. Look at this meme. It is outrageous. Retweet.

The second occasion of the samizdat is discernible in the controversy surrounding Dr. Stephen Lewis at Franciscan University. In a class with five seniors around the Bible and literature focusing on French authors, Dr. Lewis taught the novel The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère—a text that had been reviewed in First Things and Commonweal. Although the novel contains some shocking scenes around the Blessed Virgin Mary, Dr. Lewis taught the book as a way of engaging critically with modern approaches to biblical exegesis in literature. In his First Things piece “Why I Assigned The Kingdom,” he explains:

I assigned the book in an upper-level course to students whose maturity and intellectual preparation I knew well. Our class read the entire text, focusing not on a few lurid passages but on its appropriation of Renan’s method and its related atheistic concept of witness, so as to understand the superiority of Christian methods and concepts. The aim was not to shock, but to edify. I share the revulsion Catholics rightly feel toward lewdness and blasphemy, but in the end I decided that my students could benefit by reading this text.

But no one waited for Dr. Lewis’ own words. Instead, reaction was predicated on an article from Church Militant. This article was designed to receive clicks, presenting a narrative in which Franciscan University was sacrificing its Catholic identity for the sake of intellectual accolades. Whether this charge was true or not, did not matter. As fallen creatures, we are addicted to a drama in which the supposedly virtuous fall. It is one thing to write articles railing against the University of Notre Dame’s loss of soul. Such stories have been written so many times that they no longer generate interest. Writing about the fall of Franciscan University (even if it is not true)—well, that can generate some traffic.

In the case of both Covington Catholic and Franciscan University’s L’affaire Lewis, what is missing is the essential nature of contemplation in making any judgment. We must react immediately. Everything becomes an occasion of instant commentary, whether or not it is newsworthy. The humanity of each person is reduced in such instances, because the commentary we offer brackets out the personhood of our interlocutor. The purpose of the commentary is not to seek truth within a community of love but to participate in the endless creation of pleasurable signs for others to read. If we are in a post-truth era, it is not the fault of some nefarious Russian hacker or a President whose connection to the truth is to say the least, a bit loose. It is our own fault. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

This kind of addiction to the samizdat of endless commentary and immediate judgment is not conducive to a Catholic worldview. To know the truth in Catholicism is not a matter of quickly deciding on a narrative and making immediate judgments. Instead, a Catholic must first learn to behold what is. A Catholic approaches human beings, the world, and particular texts with a posture of wonder that recognizes the possibility of the gift of encounter rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion that reduces the interlocutor to an object of derision. A Catholic education (in its broadest sense, not just within schools) should form human beings open to this kind of contemplative encounter. It should educate toward the real rather than the fabricated phantasms that pass through our Twitter feed or that are too often produced by Catholic bloggers interested less in engagement and more in clicks.

Are we willing to die for something more than the pleasure that accompanies the samizdat we have created in the virtual world? In this sense, Catholic education must pursue a kind of ascesis. It will require a serious disengagement from social platforms that are contrary to the kind of contemplative beholding necessary to see the truth. It will mean a radical refusal to judge immediately, an epistemic humility often absent from social engagement and bloggers alike. We do not always know what we think we know.

This disengagement is a matter of ascetic practice in the deepest sense. It means taking up a posture of contemplative and silent wonder before the world and other human beings. Not everything should be met by immediate speech or judgment. Perhaps, it is the liturgy of the Church that can offer a radically different form of beholding than the one available in the samizdat of the virtual world. For here, we learn to see beyond what is there. An altar is Christ. A song is the music of heaven. What looks like bread and wine is Christ’s Body and Blood. We must learn to see this. And it takes time.

It will also require us to remember that we are dealing in our interactions not with Republicans, Democrats, racists, murderers, miscreants, etc. To encounter others in this manner is to take up a posture of hate, to objectify and to reify the human person. It is what Gabriel Marcel calls a technique of degradation, one in which the individual person assumes a divine view through which he or she can judge all others. It is a sin against love, the very exercise of pride that leads to the creation of the enemy. Marcel writes in his Man Against Mass Society:

For in the long run all that is not done through Love and for Love must invariably end by being done against Love. The human being who denies his nature as a created being ends up by claiming for himself attributes which are a sort of caricature of those that belong to the Uncreated. But how should this pretended or parodic human autarchy that modern man usurps for himself not degenerate into a resentment turned back on the very self for which such absurd claims are made? . . . There is a road that could be marked out by a succession of signposts leading from the abortionists to the death camps where torturers rage and sate themselves on a population of defenseless victims (55-56).

The Catholic cannot participate in the creation of such enemies precisely because we dare to profess that God’s own eros has been offered to each and every human being through the Word made flesh. Yes, it is deeply entertaining, engaging, and pleasurable to dismiss the other, to make an enemy, to bracket out the humanity of our interlocutor. But it is also a sin.

Thus, Catholics need to be very careful in how they engage in the virtual world. Perhaps, we should take up a counter-cultural practice of refusing to dialogue in the virtual world. Instead, dialogue for us must be face-to-face, humanity-to-humanity. It is only in the pursuit of friendship that we can seek truth together, even if we radically disagree on particular goods of what constitutes human flourishing.

In other words, love. If we are to turn away from the samizdat we have created in the virtual world, it will only be through the practice of love. To love concrete human beings, who have particular narratives. This is not a naïve sense of tolerance. Instead, it is a radical practice whereby every temptation we have to reduce the other to an object of our own construction, we respond with love.

In the end, Wallace is right. Our society is addicted to that which entertains; precisely, we seem to have lost a sense of transcendence, that there is something more than the endless play of signfiers we produce in the virtual world. There is something more. And that means that we need to develop a Catholic culture, an educational method that deals with the real.

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Featured Image: Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Self-Portrait with an Apple, 1919; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-75.

Timothy P. O’Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, associate professional specialist in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, and founding editor of Church Life Journal.