Some of my favourite critics from recent years are Roger Ebert and Harold Bloom – not because I’ve always agreed with where they ended up (or how they got there) so much as for their wizardry. Taking any movie or book they could spin out marvellous reflections about the bigger issues of life – regardless of whether it was a footnote to Samuel Johnson’s two-hundred-year-old biography or Spider-Man 2. It’s a big part of why I’ve come to love writing reviews.
It happens pretty often that, as I start writing an essay, my mind drifts to a book I’ve read or a new song that embodies some of the questions/struggles I’m trying to put to paper – then, boom, it’s shanghai’d the entire piece and I have to market it as a review. Writing stuff here has been no exception – but the first few (deep, down) things I’ve posted here, interestingly enough, also ended up followed a pattern that (at first) wasn’t intentional at all.
The first piece was about a wonderful poem called “The Antenna,” which is a beautiful reflection written by an Anglican minister about the human capacity to hear God’s voice – also engaged with is the subsequent interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company (normally known for eschewing genuinely controversial topics in the name of extreme political correctness). Next came Noah, a dark, brooding film about the eponymous patriarch directed by a man more known for art films/psycho-sexual thrillers about ballet dancers than biblical epics. And, finally, Vampire Weekend’s unfortunately-named “Modern Vampires of the City,” which starts with an average trendy-postmodern-vs.-The-Almighty vibe before breaking down into incredibly tender, heartbreaking moments not just of sympathy with God, but of sorrow over His solitude and abandonment by those who claim to love Him.
What’s one thing they all have in common? They explore some of the dicier territory when it comes to faith, doubt and the search for truth.
What else? Each one of them’s been ridiculously successful in their fields. “The Antenna” won the Montreal International Poetry Prize – the biggest cashpot for a single poem in the world. “Noah” made mega-cash at the box office without alienating either mainstream audiences or the faith community. “Modern Vampires of the City” was hailed as the best album of 2013 by a handful of critics and made the top-ten list of other dozens. All of a sudden, it seems, honest discussions of faith aren’t happening in some dark, oppressive Boston alley anymore. They’re even a tad, dare I say it, edgy.
But wait, hold on a sec. When did religion start getting……..cool again? How did that happen?
Humour me for a moment with a tangent. In a recent issue of The Paris Review, the director Werner Herzog (who, in addition to being one of the most important directors of the past forty years, played a bit role in a bizarrely poignant movie portraying a bushplane pilot to a number of nuns who decide to engage in some miraculous, parachuteless skydiving) published some of his notes while directing Fitzcarraldo (I’ve never heard of it either), a movie from the 80’s shot entirely in the jungle. They’re about nature, mostly. It’s a terrifying read:
“The voices in the jungle are silent; nothing is stirring, and a languid, immobile anger hovers over everything.”
“A still day, sultry. inactivity piled on inactivity, clouds staring down from the sky, pregnant with rain; fever reigns; insects taking on massive proportions. The jungle is obscene. everything about it is sinful, for which reason the sin does not stand out as sin.”
“Our little monkey was wailing in his cage, and when I approached, he looked and wailed right through me to some distant spot outside where his little heart hoped to find an echo. I let him out, but he went back into his cage, and now he is continuing to wail there.”
“…in this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling titans, from horizon to horizon, in a steaming creation still being formed.”
“Fog-panting and exhausted they stand in this unreal world, in unreal misery—and I, like a stanza in a poem written in an unknown foreign tongue, am shaken to the core.”
Continue reading the rest and you’ll only find more descriptions like this – full of a kind of horror that’s pretty much Lovecraftian* in scope and suffocation. Contrast this with any of the Romantic poets from the late 1700’s and you’ll get quite a different impression of the natural world: “Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher” or “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”** Yup – the attitudes are pretty much night and day. Okay, and so what? Why does it matter?
Because people didn’t always feel that way about Mama Nature. Nowadays you don’t need to look very far to see the influence of the Romantics: sensitive freshman walk around with copies of Walden, weekend holidays in the woods are marketed as retreats from the spiritual desert of the city, and a little over half of the people you’ll meet in any decent hostel can probably quote most of Into the Wild.**
If you take a look at books and documents from more than a two hundred years ago, though, you’ll find a second narrative in play: nature as enemy. Read any of the accounts of various settlers and colonialists and there’ll be a plethora of references to nature being the opponent, a source of death/disease/danger, a constant threat to children and new human life – as the force, basically, which had to be fought if survival happened to be on your to-do list. Think Victorian African adventure stories. Think the Wild West. Think Antarctican expeditions.
And so why was there such a big change in the way we could appreciate nature? Because it was tamed.
The Romantic poets in the English tradition wrote their stuff in response to mass industrialization – read: for one of the first times in history, the majority of the people were leaving their farms and moving to the urban centers. Constant animals didn’t threaten their livelihood (or, in some cases, lives) anymore. People didn’t have to freeze their collective buttocks going to the outhouse. Advances were made in constructing/outfitting rural outposts for the sake of industry. Basically, a lot of people started not having to scrape their living from the land, and so nature ended up abdicating the title of Public Enemy Number One. Factories, rather than forests, dominated the skyline.
Interestingly enough, a lot of the literature in the following years started to suggest the city as the one to be struggled against. The Romantic poets were a big example of this movement, but you don’t need to stop there – just think of the urban dangers in Dickens’ London, for example.
From that point on, nature largely appeared in pop-consciousness as a place of refuge from the corrupting elements of the city (CONCRETE = EVIL, DAISY CHAINS = GOOD), a place of spiritual solace rather than toil and extreme loss. This may seem a natural sentiment for us today but we have to remember that, mere decades before, most people had to scrape their living from an incredibly ungenerous-seeming soil. So why was there such a quick turnaround? Partially, I think, because people ultimately had cozy warm homes to get back to – they could experience the positive elements of the natural world without facing the same consequences their ancestors had to deal with. They could put the great outdoors into a figurative little box and visit it when they needed a bit of refreshment, a kinda break from it all.
Basically, people could appreciate nature when it stopped being such a threat to their daily existence, their status quo. Herzog’s notes shook me because they’re a reminder that the jungle is no Hallmark card, regardless of what Disney’s The Jungle Book or Tarzan would have us believe. “Red in tooth and claw,” Tennyson called it.
Where things start getting sticker is when the same process of cultural rehabilitation starts happening with people. Another example: think of the popular image of the First Nations and Aboriginal peoples in North America – in the past they were cast as villains in stories of White European settlers, as the enemies of progress and the terror of poor, defenseless settlers just trying to get by without getting scalped. Movies like Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves and even Avatar could only be made years after the “threat” had been eradicated.
When a culture is at war with another culture, our ability to assess each other with objectivity, compassion or nuance kinda goes out the window:
So where is this all going? Well, I’m wondering if maybe religion is currently able to be tentatively approached by the pop-culture machine because now, as compared to before, it isn’t perceived as such a challenge to the status quo anymore.
Tune in to the upcoming Part II for more shots in the dark of why this is, why it’s significant and what it might for the creation of spiritual art in today’s world.
*H.P. Lovecraft built his posthumous fame on stories about massive god-monsters whose tendency to wreak madness and destruction on all universes known and unknown is postponed only by oh-so-temporary bouts of beauty sleep.
**these are both quotes from Wordsworth, but you don’t need to read very far to find some similar sentiments from Coleridge, Blake, Byron or the Shelleys.
***which is a fantasticly well-made film, even if it takes liberties with the true story of its protagonist. But one can only handle the cult of Christopher McCandless for so long before one’s patience runs its course.
Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.