According to an article in the New Yorker, Amos Oz thought that the written word was fragile and limited in its ability to reproduce the fullness of being. I take it that this limitation is part of that fullness. Children at play experiment with the creativity that poets also seek, the illumination or miraculous ability not only to point to the world as a whole and in part, but to see itself as part of a creation accomplished with the most fragile of means, an articulation of breath, a streaking of the brush and ink, or blades of grass and sticks over a stream of water.
Capitalism is in worse shape than I thought if people like Barr at Notre-Dame’s law school three weeks ago or Marco Rubio this week at the Catholic University of America feel that they need to have recourse to dubious moral philosophy or nineteenth-century Catholic encyclicals in their hot pursuit of moral rearmament at the individual or government level (Barr) and in boardrooms and union shops (Rubio). As Catholics, they could simply begin by rereading the story of the Samaritan businessman in the gospel of Luke… It is an impossible task to defend capitalism when it has long been clear that it destroys community and the public good in general. Its sharing, as in the sharing economy, has become an obscenity. Oh, it does depend upon individual freedoms alright (remember the “go shopping” of GW Bush after 2001?), but it ends up gnawing at human dignity and freedom from deep inside our souls. Marcus Aurelius is of no help when the gospel is turned into a farcical prosperity revival. Politicians who shamelessly insist on yawing and tacking between Trump and some form of unregulated capitalism had better read Leviathan.
Bullying constitutes the whole being of the current US president. The group of 20 is meeting in Japan today and none of the chiefs of state is ready to go public and take on a paper tiger who would collapse immediately if unanimously or near unanimously confronted. He doesn’t attack Putin or other dictators, understandably, as they are also calculating bullies who have no moral status fit to be brought down. The whole exercise is about seeing how low heads of state and US representatives can stoop. We the reality-show viewers and media readers are playing the frantic or phallically-fascinated crowd. This red-tie or fascinus doesn’t protect against envy or evil eye, it multiplies it. It might not be enough in 2020 or 2024 to ban the memory of this era with some form of damnatio memoriae because our capacity to exercise moral judgment will have already sunk so low.
The United States government has been provoking Iran and the Shi‘a world since last year. War is becoming a distinct possibility, and US authorities are taking steps to make sure it happens. Bolton et al have unfinished business. Their destruction of Iraq propped up Iran as the default regional power. Iraq didn’t become a miraculous democracy that could keep Iran in check again. So, bombs away is the cry, once more. The saber rattling began a year ago with the withdrawal from the treaty signed by Obama and European powers over the development of nuclear fuel in Iran. It continued with the US blacklisting over a month ago of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. Worse, economic war has been resumed regarding oil and any industrial contract by threatening financial retaliation against any nation continuing to trade with Iran. This was mostly directed at China, in practice, as China has been signing large contracts with Iran. But it seems that the US—and this is another provocation against Iran—has arranged for a thirty-year prospection and development contract in southern Iraq oil fields by Exxon and Petrochina. Smaller provocations followed this week: sending of a naval group into the Gulf; declarations that 120,000 troups could be sent to the area, a so-called impromptu visit last week (Monday) by Secretary of State Pompeo to Iraq (a mostly shi`a government) probably wielding carrot (see above) and stick; visit yesterday to Russia, which is a temporary ally of Iran… There are also indirect provocations, such as the deliberate shameless support of the Saudi Arabia leadership in their repression of alternative voices and especially support of their war against the Houthi in Yemen. And no recognition of course that the fight against ISIS (DAESH) was led in great part by Iraqi Shiites supported by Iran, as well as no recognition that Iranian leaders are no friends of the Talibans in Afghanistan.
It is difficult not to feel despondent when thinking of the unfathomable power that presently blooms across the world in thinking, inventing, making, striving for dignity, giving meaning, while living in the leading capitalist, repressive, greedy, most militarized nation in the world. Sadness is part of the trick one needs to be aware of, as Deleuze says in his course on Spinoza (1978) on the use of that affect:
How is it that people who have power, in any field, need to affect us in a sad way? Sad passions would be necessary. To inspire sad passions is necessary for the exercise of power. And Spinoza says, in the theological-political treatise, that this is the deep connection between the despot and the priest, they need the sadness of their subjects. There, you understand that he does not take sadness in a vague sense, he takes sadness in the rigorous sense that he was able to give it […] According to Spinoza, we are manufactured into spiritual automats.
Pompeo is in Europe but manages to skip pre-arranged meetings with German foreign ministers and Chancellor to fly to Iraq for four hours of meetings with Iraqi leadership. It was supposedly to warn them about any kind of coziness with Iran. Of course, it happened just hours after Iran informally announced it would withdraw from some parts of the nuclear agreement done under Obama. Iran might announce this withdrawal formally tomorrow on the anniversary of the US decision to pull out from it. It looks like Pompeo and Bolton want to make sure that Iran does withdraw from the agreement. Pompeo’s hastily arranged trip was a provocation in other words. The US White House seems bent on war with Iran and containing an enemy whose regional power rose in the vacuum created by annihilation of Iraq. Neocons’ unfinished business. One learns at the same time that Exxon and Petro-China are associated in a large oil field exploration in southern Iraq. Is that a quid pro quo to get China on the US side? The US hand looks strong at the moment, given the huge infusion of tax-free capital still playing out in the US and bolstering the consuming economy, financial deals, and real estate… Château de cartes?
The fire at Notre Dame in Paris last Monday was not the only raging fire that claims attention. Friday, an opinion piece talked about the promises of money for restoration of this relic, while so many across the rich nations of the world are becoming impoverished. It was stunning to see how fast philanthropic money valves could be turned on for rebuilding Notre Dame. Some of it could flow back from fiscal paradises—money made not only on perfumes, shoes, or tshirts, but also the sale of armaments, technology, power sources, banking…. The money of great fortunes is safely squirreled away, but some of it is proclaimed readily available for the reconstruction of a place visited by 13 million people annually. Notre Dame’s magic reverberates more broadly than ever as everyone confusedly grasps after some consistence, some congruence of heart and mind, but is left only with the touch and feel of relics. What can it still possibly mean today to restart a fire in the middle of the night, light the Paschal candle from it, affix the five incense cones that figure Christ’s five wounds to this candle, and light from it all the candles brought by believers while singing lumen Christi? Last Friday, bells went silent and statues of the messiah and saints were hidden behind purple cloth that contrasted with the gloomy interiors of most churches. What can it mean to read Isaiah (“He was despised, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”) or the passion story according to John?
ND de Paris: I keep thinking about a number of visits to the cathedral and how moving they were, especially when I didn’t believe any more, like most of the modern world, in the theologies that accompanied the history of such a site—from abbot Suger and kings to today’s global neoliberalism. I could think of the power plays of a Louis IX, a Louis XIV, the goddess Reason at the revolution, a Napoleon at his self-coronation, the Te Deum-s sung after major catastrophes, things that crowds could admire and even die for, but nothing that readers of the gospel could love or be faithful to. But at a free organ concert—Sunday at 18h00—, with Pierre Cochereau at the grandes orgues, there were moments of great emotion—Bach rather than Vierne would be the trigger—moments that would take the form of a loss or regret and make me think of previous generations of trusting people bent on giving meaning to their lives and transcending them, no matter the base politics of power and greed. It came as a call to my generation, a call that I still find difficult to answer, yet easy to decipher. It’s sad that the great forêt of early mediaeval wood beams that supported the roof and the spire above the nave is gone, but fortunately the stone vaults held up, firemen were quick and brave, and the inside of the cathedral or much of it survived. A monument to the ingenuity of mediaeval thinkers, architects, masons, and woodworkers who came from many nations can be rebuilt. Viollet le Duc’s nineteenth-century heritage can be reconciled to modern taste and revised with the restorations to come. More difficult to do, but as clear a decision to take as that of the reconstruction of this iconic stone vessel is the universal question of meaning of our lives. Can we respond to the faith and beauty ideals of these mediaeval ancestors in our own way? Can we steer away from systemic greed and respond to poverty, violence, solitude, and meaninglessness by taking the high road—by committing to share present global technical and economic achievements with all inhabitants of our blue planet?
Here is a view of the spire that collapsed with two thirds of the roof in today’s fire at Notre-Dame de Paris. The spire had been rebuilt in oak and lead under Viollet-le-Duc in mid-nineteenth century, with new statuary at its foot.
The western intrance to the cathedral often served as meeting point with family or friends, until crowds of tourists made it more difficult. One would enter through the western porch, walk along the nave toward the southern rosace, continue around the choir where some mass might be offered, and back through the northern part of the nave to exit under the buffet d’orgue rebuilt by Cavailhé-Coll in the nineteenth century. I was moved by the mystery of the place, the penumbra, the northern rose, no matter the hundreds and thousands of visitors from all over the world and the many languages spoken by people around me. And that is perhaps what was most striking: that in a world enthralled by economic success and moving fast away from the grasp of theologies, for the last two centuries, this place that had seen so many power plays could still sit like a question for tourists like me at the center of one of the great kingdoms and colonial powers of recent times. Notre-Dame de Paris can’t be separated in my mind from the much humbler sanctuaries scattered through the whole of Christendom. So, it has long been part and parcel of the development of the joined political powers of the church and monarchy. Yet, even as a ruin at the center of gleaming self-advertising modern structures, it still rises and invites reflection. Perhaps one day again, one will be able to go and listen to the great organ programs and improvisations offered every Sunday evening….