Pineapple Juice 4: How now feels
Hysteria, unions, boredom, priests, protests, pineapples, etc
Consider yourself a trendsetter. According to the trade journal InPublishing, Substack is making “a push to attract writers in the UK,” in the hope of repeating its US success over here. The article continues:
UK-based users of Substack, who have started their own subscription newsletters over the platform, include former political adviser Dominic Cummings, journalist Dan Hitchens, and authors Salman Rushdie and Jeanette Winterson.
Not to sound ungracious, but I think I speak for Dom, Salman and Jeanette when I say it gets a bit tiring always being mentioned as part of this quartet. We are individuals with our own lives, you know. Some of us have run a major Western democracy. Some of us have shelves full of literary prizes. And some of us…
Well, to be fair, I do now have a job. Since the last instalment of The Pineapple, its author has joined the magnificent team at First Things as senior editor. This newsletter will continue its somewhat irregular appearances; as an Underground worker once told me when I asked if the Circle Line was running, “Yes, it’s just as unreliable as it always is.”
Back in February, when TV reviewers fell with cries of delight upon Adam Curtis’s documentary series Can’t Get You Out of My Head, I wondered what I was missing. To judge by the first episode and a bit, Curtis was a gifted magpie who knew where to find arresting footage and uncanny stories. But for the life of me, I couldn’t locate the thread of the story. Whenever he seemed about to declare where all this was going, the documentary would wander off into some new digression. Was the man incapable of explaining himself?
Not at all, it turns out. You just have to sit him down in front of a microphone, as the podcast Red Scare did, and he has a compelling story to tell about where we are and what sort of change we are awaiting. For Curtis, this is the age of emotion. “It’s the ideology of our time,” he tells the podcast. “That what you feel inside you is not only the most important thing, it’s probably the most truthful thing.” And in an introspective era, “No-one ever questions the system that you’re living in.” A radical movement, Curtis suggests, is less interested in feeling, more in self-sacrifice. The early US civil rights activists spent years in the South:
They went through incredible danger, many were beaten up, some were killed. We still don’t know their names... We know some of the leaders, but the majority of people, we don’t know them—they gave themselves up to something really good. Then came individualism… I remember the march against the Iraq invasion in this country. The slogan was “Not In My Name.” I don’t care whether it’s in your name or not—I just don’t want the war! It had this narcissistic shroud over it. That was the moment at which you just think, how can collectivism really work, when you’re dealing with millions and millions of little squealing piglets who want to express themselves.
Hence the current stasis. The Brexit and Trump votes should have prompted serious thinking about political reform: instead, Curtis observes, it led to an epidemic of hysteria on both left and right, a retreat into fantasy, conspiracy theory, or depressed fatalism. “None of what Donald Trump said he was going to do happened. None of what the left said they were going to do happened… The structure of power remained totally untouched, the inequalities of power carried on being exactly the same as they were.” The hysteria helps the powerful—Trump, Putin, the New York Times, the cultural left—by placing them, rather than social inequality, at the centre of the conversation.
What, then, is the way out of our emotionally frantic stasis? Well, says Curtis, the tech oligarchs don’t know—for all their trillions of bits of data, they have no interesting story to tell. The Chinese Communist Party thinks it knows, by replacing freedom and dignity with micromanaged control over citizens, but most of us recoil from that. The left doesn’t know, because—remembering the horrors of nationalism—it takes fright at big, sweeping narratives. The nationalists have such a narrative, but there’s no guarantee it will end well this time either.
Instead, Curtis believes,
What we’re waiting for is a story that makes much grander sense of it all, because it will connect with how now feels. Have you noticed how very little art at the moment is actually trying to explain to people how now feels? It’s always retro…it’s not actually trying to capture that sort of strange incoherent feeling of now.
Curtis is surely right. If there is a political movement which can rescue the West from decadence, it will be preceded by a revival of music, poetry, architecture. And if that seems laughably distant, well, so do lots of things until they happen.
The Irish poet Derek Mahon, who died last year, had a sense of this, I think: of living in an exhausted world, but one which was also rife with hidden possibilities. As the first line of his most famous poem has it:
Even now there are places where a thought might grow […]
The only consolation of Mahon’s death is that his publishers have now put together a proper collection of The Poems, described by Richard Davenport-Hines in the Spectator as
an all-surpassing joy. Mahon … was an arch formalist whose poetry mourned the loss of ceremonial habits and orderly traditions, and railed against ‘progress’, consumerism, despoiled landscapes and spiritual vacuity. The richness, fluency, exactitude and springiness of his vocabulary, the heart-stopping emotions, the love of truth, the playful ambushes of his rhymes, the decisive morals that are drawn from some of his poems, are elating to anyone who cares about language.
Some places, mind you, are less exhausted than others. As Sohrab Ahmari writes for the American Conservative, perhaps “the most important, and underreported, story” of the last year in America was the surge in worker activism. The first Starbucks union since the 80s has just formed. Amazon has fought a desperate rearguard action to prevent its workers from gaining a collective voice. 1400 Kellogg’s employees have been on strike since October. Yet, as Ahmari writes, this new militancy still awaits a real political vehicle.
In Britain, as I wrote for UnHerd the other week, we’re way behind, with little political or media interest in the recent dramatic transformation of the working landscape. Who cares, for instance, that one in nine British employees now do their jobs at night?
A reader writes in regarding Anythingism: “It was something that troubled me when I was teaching—‘you can be anything you want’ always seemed a more deceptive and sadder message than ‘everyone can be somebody of value’.”
I reviewed a couple of books for the Times—Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s atheist argument for taking the Bible literally, and Peter Seewald’s biography of Benedict XVI—and wrote for the American Conservative about the Uyghur Tribunal. Now that the Tribunal has given its verdict, “genocide” should be considered the most technically accurate term for what is happening in Xinjiang. And to name the crime is to take one significant step towards justice.
An admirable principle in the “Further reading” list at the end of Hugh Brogan’s Penguin History of the United States:
It is only decent for me to list some of the books which I have found especially valuable in preparing this history, particularly those which are lively in thought or style, or both, and which are this likely to be of special appeal to beginners. It is always as well to start with entertaining works when launching a programme of historical study: before it is over you are certain to have to plough through many boring ones, and it takes time to find out how nevertheless to enjoy them. As Samuel Butler said, always eat a bunch of grapes from the top. Experts will be amazed at my omissions and eccentric emphases, but the list is not meant for them.
How many undergraduate reading lists could be improved with a similar attitude!
“We have a young conservative clergy,” says Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, “and sometimes they are very influenced by social media, and it’s a problem.” According to a recent survey, 44 per cent of US Catholic priests think the younger generation of clergy are “much more conservative”; 48 per cent say “somewhat more conservative.” Ask the priests about their views on salvation or sexual morality, and again the most traditionally-minded are the younger generation. Not coincidentally, the doctrinally erratic pontificate of Pope Francis has far higher approval ratings among older priests:
Among Catholic priests ordained before 1980, 79.9 percent “approve strongly” of the current pope, and only 5.0 percent disapprove to any extent… In the latest cohort of priests, ordained in 2010 or later, only 20.0 percent “approve strongly” of Pope Francis and nearly half (49.8 percent) disapprove, whether “somewhat” or “strongly.”
Cardinal O’Malley finds this trend alarming; so, presumably, do the Vatican officials who have just suppressed the Traditional Latin Mass, attendance at which is often a sign of orthodox views. Personally, I’m less alarmed. Catholic revivals usually start with saintly men and women who are big-hearted, profoundly compassionate, doctrinally intransigent and not weird. A lot of people like that are currently emerging from seminaries and religious houses, and they should give hope to anyone who prefers a Christian society to the alternative.
The government’s authoritarian anti-protest bill, featured on The Pineapple back in July, has actually got worse, with a raft of severe new measures recently attached to it. Silver lining: the home secretary Priti Patel is also adding a new provision to stop the police classifying innocuous comments as “hate incidents,” in the wake of the Miller judgment—a victory for free speech which I wrote about here. (See also Adam King’s more pessimistic take; which of us is less wrong will depend on Priti Patel.)
Free Pineapple fact, courtesy of Myko Clelland: one of Wren’s initial designs for the rebuilt St Paul’s Cathedral featured a 60-foot stone pineapple atop the dome.
Is that Carols from King’s already? Well, then, it’s time for newsletters to fall silent.
The rumour in the ear now murmurs less,
The snail draws in its tender horn,
The heart becomes a bare attentiveness,
And in that bareness light is born.
A very merry Christmas to all readers. I’d send each of you a card if I could.