None of us can believe in something that we do not assume is somehow true. To do so is an absurdity. And belief in the driving force and cultural power of anything — whether it’s science, art, politics, or philosophy, or some combination of all of these — is always a matter of a decision that one makes, consciously or unconsciously, to acquiesce in its meaning and possibilities. Even the belief that there is no driving force or cultural power in the universe or anywhere else is a belief, and a decision that we make.

There are various modes of evidence for all of these things, of course, but they always lie somehow outside of that belief itself. One can’t prove the truth of science with the scientific method without indulging in solipsism; nor can one posit a belief in the arts or politics or, for that matter, religion, without seeking the basis for that belief somewhere outside of the arts, politics, or religion.

Ultimately, one makes a decision to believe in something. As I said, it’s either conscious or unconscious, and one bases this decision on one’s own personal intellectual, physical, cultural, and spiritual experiences, which are never static but are ever-changing; ultimately, too, we move and behave in the world based on that faith — which is what belief becomes over time — whether we consciously or unconsciously do so. This must mean that there comes a point at which acquiescence in one truth or another, especially that overriding truth of which faith is the result, is something of an epiphany or revelation: something mysteriously outside of everyday time and place. Two metaphors come to mind. First, perhaps this epiphany or revelation is comparable to the clouds parting, the sun shining, and the seraphim descending from heaven to brilliantly light the world. But second, it may be a matter of recognizing (and, more important, hearing and listening too) a still, small voice through which that truth speaks: a quiet whisper in the ear, not an immersive light-and-sound show.

There are as many avenues to faith as there have been individuals who have walked upon the earth, and though various of them share some qualities, none is identical to another. (Indeed, some claim to have genuinely seen angels and heard voices, but for me personally these remain metaphors, though far be it from me to deny those visions and voices.) A friend asked yesterday, “If [you are] no longer agnostic, then what? Exploring?” I responded, “For me the Nicene Creed says it best as a start,” and indeed it is only a start, a first step, but an important one. That was the decision I made last week. More on all this anon — especially about faith and our activities and behaviors in this world, from my own modest perspective — but it was a long and difficult decision to make, and it took me years to make it. The road started a while ago. The below essay from January 2016, provides context.

Yesterday morning I attended the early Holy Eucharist service at a nearby Episcopal church. It was the first time I’d been in a church in about fifteen years; I’d passed this church probably hundreds of times over the past decade located, as it was, only a few blocks from the Strand Book Store, a regular weekend haunt of mine. This time I did not pass it, but stepped indoors for the service.

I blame this deviation from my normal route on poetry — more specifically on T.S. Eliot, more specifically still on his Four Quartets, which I read early in 2015. Though he turned to orthodox Anglican Christianity shortly before the Second World War, Eliot cannot be said to be ignorant of the modern world; indeed, he’s described as a great modernist, not least for his poems “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land. Written in the years following the First World War, these poems were almost dementedly modern in their description of the fragmentation, desiccation, and destruction of Europe that seemingly offered no way out (not unlike the world as I see it today). “Ash Wednesday,” the 1930 poem that announced his formal conversion to the Church of England, did not trace a way out so much as a way up.

Eliot’s poems after his conversion did not become more explicit, but they did become more lucid — and lucid, particularly, in the mysteries that they described. They contain much more than can be revealed through only a few readings; their considerations of time and redemption, especially, are swirled rather than concrete (though Eliot’s imagery, as I said earlier, is quite clear). So when, as a consequence, I turned to the Gospels themselves later in the year, I was able to recognize the same power, the same unfathomable sense of mystery that nonetheless, like the Four Quartets, profoundly spoke to my own suspicion that there may be, after all, something beyond this world that nevertheless was profoundly within it and to which mankind had a particularly deep connection, that mankind ignored at its peril. There is something that scripture does to those who read it closely; indeed, two twentieth-century translators of the Gospels, Richmond Lattimore and E.V. Rieu, were transformed from non-believers to believers through their efforts to English them.

I sat in the pew and really came to think that I’d arrived quite in the middle of things. The church I attended is over two hundred years old — more to the point, its community is over two hundred years old, and a church is a local community of souls. I was impressed through the service with the means through which the liturgy combined scripture, tradition, and reason, the three-legged stool upon which Anglicanism and its American cousin the Episcopal church rests (I only, at this point, have observer status, after all). As a newcomer I was quite hesitant to raise my voice — and I think it’ll be some time before I’m confident enough in contributing my own voice to the hymns, merely from an aesthetic consideration — though I did find myself reciting, along with the rest of the congregation, the Lord’s Prayer; at a certain point in the service, you are meant to turn to the others around you and shake their hands in greeting and community. And this I did too, the most natural thing in the world by then.

At the coffee hour after the service I was standing I suppose rather forlornly with a cup of weak tea when I was approached by another newcomer to the church, a young woman recently arrived from West Virginia, and we were able to share observations about being strangers in a strange land (less strange, I think, to her, who was I believe a cradle Episcopalian after all). We were then approached by two rectors of the church who had spotted us as a couple of live ones, and their warm honest welcome was something I don’t come across too much in New York, especially not in the theater where I used to spend much of my time. Ironic, but there you are.

Like other New Yorkers I’m possessive of the personal space around me and I’m not used to embraces — though this was not a physical embrace, it was a warm social and even emotional embrace. As Eliot may have suspected, this is the church’s role. I still don’t know whether or not faith is something you can ever fully possess, doubt being such a strong part of our nature and the world, and us, being what they are. Even Augustine — “I do believe, help thou my unbelief,” he prayed to God — had his moments. But as for the Christian church itself, the truth of G.K. Chesterton’s imaginative statement of the matter in Orthodoxy was borne home to me:

As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers.

So I was thankful for the open arms I was perhaps unduly surprised to find at church yesterday. And thankful, too, that I’d found Four Quartets again when I did.

Religion and art

Reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets lately, I find it impossible to dismiss or ignore entirely the Christian, and specifically Anglican, dimension of these poems. While the reader of these poems doesn’t necessarily have to share Eliot’s religious belief, only a perfunctory reader can afford to ignore it — reject it or not, that belief has to be engaged. In part I suppose this has to do with explicit intent: Eliot wants to explore hope, and especially redemption, in a fallen world, a hope that inheres only in the Incarnation.

It’s overly convenient to separate out the religious and the art from religious art, and we may be doing both a disservice if we do. The same goes for contemporary composers like Olivier Messiaen, Eliot’s approximate contemporary and similarly an artist driven by belief, specifically Catholic belief. In “Religious Symbolism in the Music of Olivier Messiaen,” Siglind Bruhn wrote, “[Scholars] note with some amazement that his musical language remained strikingly uniform throughout his long life. This constancy arises from a central truth in Messiaen’s character and philosophy. What never changed was the purpose of his creative activity: to praise God, and to share through his music his profound enthusiasm for the Truths of his Catholic faith.”

I needn’t be a professing Anglican or Catholic to enjoy and appreciate Eliot and Messiaen of course; I can do so with my agnosticism firmly in place. But unless I allow Eliot and Messiaen to question and even challenge my agnosticism, I can’t ever fully open myself to either of these artists, because there is the chance — even if, in an age which disparages traditional Christian faith, one insists on remaining faithless if only to be modern — that they’re right. After Eliot and Messiaen, the New Testament?

Drunk, stoned, brilliant, and still dead

Without satire no civilization can be truly described or benefited. We could name many names, from Voltaire to Swift, before we ran into the modern morbid playwrights and sex novelists, who are more interested in the sordid corners of life than in the human heart.

James Thurber
The Future, if Any, of Comedy or,
where do we non-go from here?
” (1961)
(Probably Thurber’s final completed work)

It appears that outrage-fatigue is beginning to affect American comedians as well as everybody else. After a few months of the Trump administration, SNL, after a promising start, is recycling rapidly aging caricatures of Trump and figures in his administration as they used to recycle sketches like “The Coneheads” and “The Bees,” each iteration becoming more tired; even John Oliver, in the first episode of the latest season of his otherwise laudable investigative-satire program Last Week Tonight, seems a little lost.

Earlier this week Marilyn and I turned to Netflix to watch¬†Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Douglas Tirola’s 2015 documentary about the late National Lampoon magazine, which flourished in the 1970s before declining to a state at which, currently, it’s the clearing house for a brand name that can be rented then attached to pretty much anything or anyone that has the money to purchase it. During its glory years — 1970 to 1975, more or less — it was one of the best-selling magazines in the nation. Deliberately positioned as a humor magazine to bridge the MAD Magazine-New Yorker age gap, it was always a commercial endeavor, but the stars so aligned that it also proved an outlet for some of the best, most outrageous literary parodists and satirists of post-Kennedy America. Its quick demise — and the quick demise of some of its brightest minds — begs the question that Thurber asks at the beginning of this column, as well as the question: What happened in the first place?

Some satire, like Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, lasts, and some doesn’t. “Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” as the decidedly non-satiric American comic playwright George S. Kaufman once put it. Well, the bad sort closes, but obviously there are exceptions, and that’s because although most satire is directed at corrupt contemporary targets that are rapidly lost in the midst of time, those targets stand in as metonyms for the deeper corruptions of the human heart. The British/French military and political conflict that Swift parodies in the first book of Gulliver stands in for the arrogance and foolishness of nation-states; the attack on Leibniz’s philosophy which sparked Candide is also an attack on sentimental optimism itself; and Twain’s satire of race relations and clannish feuding in the pre-Civil War America of Huckleberry Finn is now read as a satiric exploration of the American ideals of democracy and community themselves. Eighteenth-century European politics, a philosophical dispute from the same century, and the socioeconomic situation of the American South in the 1830s have all become somewhat academic, but not the observations about the human condition that these satirists drew from these local circumstances.

The triumvirate of satirists who steered National Lampoon through its first five years — Douglas Kenney, Henry Beard, and Michael O’Donoghue — were, first and foremost, literary satirists. Kenney’s influences included Evelyn Waugh, James Thurber, and Ronald Firbank (the latter also a major influence on British playwright Joe Orton); Beard decided to devote his career to literary humor after his exposure to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, perhaps the greatest of post-war American Menippean satires; O’Donoghue’s background was extraordinarily wide-ranging as a habitue of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, though he seems to have been most inspired by the novels of Terry Southern and William S. Burroughs. The best of the short prose essays and other material that appeared in National Lampoon from those years, and the level of baroque style and parody, easily rank with and outshine those of Thurber, Robert Benchley, and S.J. Perelman in their heyday, and unlike the pieces by Woody Allen and others in the New Yorker (however accomplished and of permanent value as some of these are), their work was tinged with the fire of outrage and a keen anarchic sense of the fraudulence of the time and the heart. Even more than Twain, their immediate satiric ancestor was Nathanael West, whose apocalyptic vision of an urbanized, trivia-besodden America in the 1930s, especially in the revelatory riot that closes The Day of the Locust, offered no hope or respite from the corruptions of the spirit.

The Lampoon‘s best work exemplifies all this. Kenney’s spot-on parody of Che Guevara’s diaries reveals the blind, insipid, delusional idealism at the heart of political revolution (especially in an age of celebrity); O’Donoghue’s “Vietnamese Baby Book” is a masterful deconstruction of the savagery and sentimentality that exist simultaneously at the heart of American culture; and Henry Beard’s “Law of the Jungle” is a genuinely astonishing satire not only of the law but also of the human race’s relationship to the natural world. Later, the best movies under the Lampoon banner also transcended their initial subjects. Animal House (co-written by Kenney) explored the disasters that occur when naivete meets reality, Vacation laid bare the anxieties that the commodification of leisure time produces. (I apologize for all this, and thoroughly deserve some lampooning of my own for these interpretations for what are, after all, just barely grown-up versions of the funny pages.)

In 1975 or so, O’Donoghue left the National Lampoon for what he thought were the greener pastures of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, which debuted in that year. Kenney and Beard were, in a way, luckier. Their friend Rob Hoffman in negotiating their contacts in 1970 schemed to include a clause in which publisher Matty Simmons could buy out their contacts based on a multiple of the percentage of the magazine’s value. Kenney and Beard opted to take the buyout, which made them multi-millionaires before they were 30. Kenney went Hollywood and, unable to negotiate the demands and successes of fame, died in a fall from a Hawaiian lookout (whether he jumped, slipped, or was pushed remains a matter of conjecture) in 1980; Beard retired into private life, still writing, and refused to discuss his career with the magazine until he resurfaced in Tirola’s documentary four decades later; the magazine itself had a few more good if not great years under the supervision of Tony Hendra, P.J. O’Rourke and others before its precipitous decline.

Ironically, the reasons for its decline are more numerous than the reasons for its success. By 1975 the political scene in America was becoming more fractured and polarized, and students were increasingly irritated to be told by a bunch of white, upper-middle-class Ivy League elitists that their ideals were illusory at best (while several women were regular contributors to the magazine, including Anne Beatts, Emily Prager, and Shary Flenniken, the skin color in staff photographs of the time is as white as the driven snow); the sophomoric-tastelessness-for-the-sake-of-sophomoric-tastelessness that was always a feature of the magazine began to overtake the more ambitious satires as publisher Simmons strove to drive profits higher and higher; magazine circulations themselves became locked in a struggle against the growth of electronic media. And perhaps the most influential of early Lampoon staffers, Michael O’Donoghue, found that he was unable to tailor his own dark apocalyptic vision to the requirements of the entertainment industry — and O’Donoghue desperately sought commercial success — before his own early death from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 54.

So what of literary satire in the Trump age, given the great achievements of American satire in the half-century before it? Are irony and satire dead — has the future become so dark that we can’t joke about it any more? The same things were said after the Nixon administration, after 9/11, and we’re no closer to a response now than we were then. I doubt there’s an answer in the small shelf of books (and a documentary) now devoted to the history of the Lampoon, its influence, and its offshoots. (These include Tony Hendra’s still-indispensable Going Too Far, Ellin Stein’s That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, and Josh Karp’s biography of Kenney, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which is now being adapted into a film for Netflix.) But inspiration can still be sought in the best of its achievements, even if where we non-go from here is still something of a mystery.