In the light of my postings over the past few days, I am led to think of a way to keep a critical mind about authoritarian (anti-parliamentarian) politics and “diseased” religion caused by literalism and materialism. I am going to take another foray into the subject I touched upon in Umberto Eco and “Ur-Fascism”. However, I have shifted my attention from secular politics to religion.
I have always found Umberto Eco an intriguing author and philosopher. His speciality was human language. His most known work of fiction is The Name of the Rose. Another is Foucault’s Pendulum. A common theme between these two novels is a healthy scepticism to avoid getting carried away with irrational fears and theories. The main theme in the former of these works is humour. Are we able to laugh at our own shortcomings, when some take themselves so seriously as to lose all notion of reality? Laughter is a moderating and liberating emotion that enables us to moderate excess of virtue. It makes life easier to bear and brings healing to the soul.
Eco’s theory of semiotics is complex and would need years of study, comparing his work with Kant and the German Idealists. His philosophy is deeply bound up with the notion of truth. Truth is not merely the product of logical calculation or deduction, but by a habit of desire. Humour is a critical means to distinguish between truth and falsehood. Few other philosophers have isolated the value of humour as Umberto Eco did.
Humour comes in several varieties but one essential idea of it is our reaction to absurdity. Monty Python is surely the epitome of absurd surrealism – the exploding Mr Creosote, the three inquisitors dressed as pantomime cardinals, the caricature of Hitler running for a by-election in suburban England with only a handful of supporters and a gramophone playing crowd noises, the Ministry of Silly Walks and so much more. It is an extreme form of satire. If we can laugh at something, we need to take a long and critical look at it. Very often, attempts to imitate the past produce caricature and kitsch. One example is some of the alternative popes who have attracted my attention. Palmar de Troya is a caricature of Spanish Roman Catholicism and human folly. Michael I is forced to be that much more reasonable, living as he does in rural Kansas. We don’t even know who Boniface X is, and the texts he publishes on the internet show as much of the absurd as any Monty Python or Dave Allen sketch. The Pope must Die is another absurd film about the pontificate of Paul VI and Jean Paul I, and the corruption in the Vatican that continues to this day. Linus II was aware from the outset that his election to the papacy was absurd – and hid away from view. Even those who don’t go so far as pretending to be the Pope are often the most humourless lot we will ever meet.
As I have mentioned before, I am critical of some of the criteria Eco applied to contemporary forms of fascism and analogous political and religious movements. For example, an attachment to tradition is not always reprehensible. It depends on the tradition in question! Likewise, not everything modern is good. Rationalism and science have their limits: they need to be humanised, as much today as in the 1790’s to the 1820’s. Romanticism attaches great importance to the Enlightenment, reason and science, but man is much more than materialism.
Our notion of truth needs to be non-foundationalist – that is based on our desire to transcend and not to possess something that is unproven, imperfect and limited. Short of that aspiration, we need to learn that disagreeing is not always treachery or offending against truth. In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas, said St Augustine. Distinctions must be made between different levels of truth and belief, and they are lacking in the traditionalist / sedevacantist narrative.
Like in politics, we are faced with populism and everything being blamed on certain categories. In the history of Christianity, the easy target has been the Jews. They are collectively accused of the Passion of Christ and the Anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust has a long history. According to many narratives, they are responsible for all the conspiracies against “pure” Catholicism, for Freemasonry and various other secret societies – some not existing in reality, the Illuminati for example. There has to be that feeling of pressure and some external enemy.
Something strikes me about the kind of narratives I have described: the poverty of thought. Rather the zealot brandishes proof-texts from popes and councils from various periods of the Church’s history. No consideration is given to historical context and the surrounding issues of the time. The literal words are read like a Southern Baptist or Jehovah’s Witness takes in the words of the Bible. The letter of the law drags us down to the level of brute materialism, dualism at best. This convergence of opposites has always haunted my mind as has this notion of absolute intellectual and spiritual poverty.
The use of impoverished vocabulary is often intended to limit critical and complex reasoning, or has the secondary effect of doing so. I certainly believe that the sects and illuminated men can serve as a lesson for us all, not only to work on our own philosophical and theological culture, but also on our sense of humour – and above all being capable of laughing at ourselves and our own absurdity.