“Irreverence is a very servile parasite of reverence; and has starved with its starving Lord.”
I quoted this line from Chesterton in a recent post. Thinking about it since, it seems to be more and more significant, probably one of the wisest thing Chesterton has ever written.
One of the ironies of our modern world is that the term reactionary is applied to entirely the wrong people and the wrong opinions. When we use the term “reactionary”, we imagine a red-faced retired headmaster writing indignant letters to the editor, demanding a return to caning in schools. But the truth is that it is the progressive and the liberal who are really reactionary. They are defined by the things they are reacting against—religion, tradition, nationalism, convention, romanticism, sex roles. Unlike their targets, they have no centre of gravity of their own.
Take, for example, the subject of sex. Our ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman have been under attack for several decades now. A man who has a sex change operation must not be called a man; even a man who doesn’t want to go to the trouble of a sex change operation but who considers himself a member of the opposite sex must be humoured. Undergraduates who sign up to a sociology course are told that notions of gender are entirely arbitrary, as well as being instruments of oppression. Many years after Boy George and David Bowie blazed the trail, pop stars continue to gender bend with glee. The LGBT acronym seems to pick up more letters each time I encounter it; even “gay” now seems hopeslessly antiquated and old-fashioned—like calling a black person “coloured”.
The interesting thing about this whirl of sexual identities is that it continues to spin around those eternal poles—the pole of man and woman, masculinity and feminity. Occasionally we hear claims that there is, or has been, “a third sex” in some far-off or long-ago culture. Further investigation proves that this “third sex” consists of men dressed up as women. Homosexual culture seems to veer between the effete and the butch, in a vain effort to mark out its own territory.
We could, if we wanted, jettison the terms “masculine” and “feminine”, and concentrate on the specifics of behaviour—mascara and machismo, stilettos and soccer. But that eternal dualism would endure, no matter how much we ignored it. All the colours of the rainbow, in this context, resolve themselves to pink and blue, and everybody knows it. We can blur and muddy and mix those colours—but we can never introduce a third one.
The same point applies to modern art—and I think the point is even more obvious here. Who can doubt that modern art, along with post-modern art and all the other forms of avant-garde experimentation, are entirely reactionary? If an iconoclastic film-maker makes a movie that seems to be sailing towards a happy ending—let us say, a cynical businessman being redeemed by a taste of small-town life—and then pointedly avoids it, who can doubt that the strategem is entirely derivative? You’ll only understand it if you know the convention it overturns. Rhyme is the ghost that haunts free verse, and beauty is the spectre that hangs over brutalism. Traditional art, traditional story-telling, traditional poetry—these all exist in their own right. Avant-garde art forms are merely a gloss upon them—or, more accurately, a reaction to them.
Cosmopolitanism, by the same token, is entirely reliant upon national and local cultures. We cannot mix and match unless we have the basic ingredients, which—in true TV style—have been made earlier. Nobody could be an internationalist if nobody had ever been insular.
This priority of reverence over irreverence is both a logical and psychological truth. It is obvious to any Irish person that De Valera’s Ireland, the Ireland that dreamed of grey Connemara cloth, Cuchaillin, and the contest of athletic youths, has never ceased to haunt the Irish imagination. The more we seek to renounce it, the more obsessed by it we become. Dramatists and novelists and artists go back to fifties Ireland, seeking in that supposedly drab and grim world the colour and passion our own blasé and jaded Ireland lacks.. Film-makers return to the ritual and iconography of the hated Catholic Church, realising that there is nothing in the social life of post-Catholic Ireland to match its dramatic effect. Films like The Magdalen Sisters and Song for a Raggy Boy have it both ways, maligning the Church while soaking up the atmosphere of the sacred. Even Father Ted relied on a vanishing world of Irish rural life for its laughs. The recent lowbrow comedy Zonad conjured up an Irish village caught in a nineteen-fifties timewarp.
The world needs reverence, whether it lauds it or lampoons it. It is the five-year-old believer in Santa Claus who gives the gift of Christmas to a house of grown-ups. Cathedrals are not built for their own sake. Even jokes could never exist in a world where nobody was solemn—any more than a lie could work in a world where nobody was ever truthful. Satire would be stillborn if everybody was self-aware, and never forgot themselves long enough to act ridiculously.
And above all—though this may be a proposition impossible to prove—awe and wonder would disappear entirely from the world, if there was nobody to worship the source of all awe and wonder, God. That is the dazzling light that every other marvel reflects. Everybody, stunned by beauty and the numinous, gropes instinctively for words like magic and holy. And when we are told to turn away from that effulgence, sooner or later we are faced with the question: "Where would we go, Lord?".