Saturday, August 13, 2005

Gentility and Toxicity

Some wit once said that a gentleman is someone who never offends anyone -- unwittingly. Which is to say, that a perfect discipline of his body and tongue’s movements have rendered them a perfectly compliant tool of his mind. If that is the case, then what is a Christian gentleman? Someone who presumably wishes to offend no one and so in his desire to live by the Golden Rule would allow his organs of combativeness atrophy like the eyes of cave fish. To allow a society in which the Golden Rule could be lived, the rule of decorum, the "rising tide of embarrassment" explored by social historians (of which The Refinement of America is an exemplar) rendered the domestic environment of well-brought up Christians ever more free of deliberate vulgarity or impiety.

Even more than Christian gentlemen, who could rarely avoid at least some contact with very ungenteel surroundings, Christian ladies could spend essentially all their lives within the domestic confines sculpted by this prohibition of the gross, the salacious, and the rebellious. They were raised in an ethos and tradition entirely moral and aesthetic, that believed as far as ideas went a woman would be shepherded by her husband and her pastor. Readers of Edith Wharton will be familiar with a world in which religion, chastity, and conventionality formed a single package, into which all proper New York ladies of a certain class were born and which ferociously guarded its wards from scandal, either intellectual or romantic.

I do not want to be interpreted as making the jejune assertion that refined people are all "hypocrites" or "false sophisticates," which is, for instance, the first reaction of gum-chewing undergraduates to Age of Innocence. Those of us who have known ladies raised in such a tradition will feel blessed for the privilege, of knowing some of whom it can be said without exaggeration or sentimentality that "they wouldn’t hurt a fly." Those who talk idly about "making our daily lives a sacrament of service" will have a much better view of the arduous beauty of this task for having know such exemplars of the vanished American gentility that have survived into this iron age of vulgarity.

But this effort to create a heaven on earth and residents therein who will be as ministering angels, has the flaw that this world is not heaven and even in the most well-guarded Christian society is rather more rampant with serpents spewing Satanic lies than Eden. A tradition that confuses vulgarity with error and gentility with truth will nourished its follower in the dark and led them blind into the maw of the wolf. As James Hitchcock wrote in "The Guilty Secret of Liberal Christianity" (New Oxford Review, 63/8, Oct. 1996, pp. 10-17), it was the clergy that undermined genteel Christianity, just as the snake undermined Eden. The clergy of mainline churches feeling "stifled in a religious hothouse . . . use the pulpit 'boldly' to proclaim the need for Christians to immerse themselves in the world."

People often join churches because they experience vague spiritual longings for which they seek fulfillment. Usually they join in an essentially docile frame of mind - - they sincerely seek answers and are wiling to make themselves disciples. Typically, at least in America, they believe in miracles, in life after death, in the supernatural authority of the Scriptures and many other orthodox Christian teachings. But the liberal cleric sees it as precisely his task to "demythologize" beliefs which to him are embarrassingly naive. He actually dampens the enthusiasm of the seeker’s faith, and his guidance in effect tells the convert that "the world" is after all correct in its skeptical judgments. Thus the churches themselves are often principal agencies of secularization.

Thus is trust abused, the trust that in a good and gentle society, a good thing like learning and scholarship would never be used for destructive purposes.

There is something in the very nature of refinement that bleaches feeling; with sincere people one can still feel it underneath the decorum, but one cannot see it act. Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth century Arab historian of cycling dynasties, wrote that combativeness is necessary for existence, so it must be a divine gift. In Chinese history, the history of the dynasty is seen as a dynamic of wen "pattern" and hence "sophistication" and zhi (pronounced like the ger- in "gerbil") "substance" and hence "vigor." Dynasties begin with crude, violent, and vulgar but wonderfully alive founders restoring order in a depopulated world, reach their apex in institutional and psychological adaptions to the world of plenty created by peace, and finally expire, rendered helpless to fight off of invasion or rebellion by endless regulations in government and weak resignation in spirit.

Wasn't that what happened to the civil tradition in the Anglo-Saxon world? Committed from the eighteenth century to an ever more refined and ramifying sense of decorum, we succumbed to a kind of "gentilo-toxicity," as gradual increasing doses of bodily and mental control eventually poisoned our ability first to express and then to understand ourselves. At its finest, this gentility produces something of all too vulnerable beauty. At its worst, gentilo-toxicity produced a counter-reaction of hatred and rebellion that targeted not the excessive discipline of the person, but the "conventions" of religion and chastity. In my own family, mother’s and father’s side, what followed was an age of atheism and divorce, an abyss that yawned through almost the whole of the twentieth century and from which only evangelical Christianity rescued me.

The metaphor of decline and fall is often used by conservatives. If this or that is allowed, we will finally decline and fall like Rome. I am inclined to think we have already fallen, that sheep are already grazing among the ruins of the "Rome" of Western civilization that reached its apex in the nineteenth century. This generation and our children are not its last epigones, but the founders of a new still semi-barbarian "Italy." When I look at my children, sometimes I regret that I was not able to pass on to them anything more than desiccated fragments of the etiquette that was taken for granted by any well-instructed fifteen year-old in 1900. But then I tuck my my eleven year-old daughter Claire in and ask, with anxiety in my voice "How would you respond if someone told you that you weren’t really saved because you’d been baptized as an infant?" In the dark I can't tell if she's smiling as she replies, "Hmm. . . drop an anchor on his foot?" Suppressing a grin, I kiss this hardy flower of a new "Italian" generation good night.