We have the kids home for Christmas — a son back from college in South Carolina, a daughter from Germany, a daughter and son-in-law from British Columbia for a three-week visit, and our youngest, who has been with us all year but who is as happy as a peach in summer to have her siblings home. We’re happy, too.
Yesterday morning we were reading around the fire and started chatting about pastors and the emphasis in the Protestant church on feelings and niche theology. It is sometimes held that if one feels a certain way or espouses certain esoteric ideas, then one is a “mature” Christian. This, of course, is great for Christian publishers and pastors, who produce books and create experiences that promise to lead people to the holy land, where a select few live with a sense of satisfying superiority. Gnosticism is alive and well in the Protestant church.
But isn’t action essential for holiness — going to church, taking the sacraments, serving others, doing a daily office? It’s harder (though not impossible) to build a marketable brand on these things, which is perhaps why there are so few celebrity pastors in churches that emphasize liturgy and routine.
I mention all of this because this morning when I opened my computer to write this email, one of the first things I read was Meghan O’Gieblyn’s wonderful essay in Harper’s on routine:
Of all the attempts to pinpoint the origin of modernity—an exercise of which modernity never tires—my favorite begins with medieval monks. According to this account, it was the Benedictines who came up with the idea that it was possible to do the same thing, at the same time, every day. Although time was still widely regarded as fluid and coterminous with eternity, the monastery was governed by the rhythms of that most modern instrument: the clock. The monks rose together, ate together, and prayed together, starting and stopping each task at the appointed canonical hour. In time, their obsession with order seeped into the world at large. The tradesmen and merchants in town heard the monastery bells ring out eight times a day and began to synchronize their daily tasks to their rhythm. The butcher picked up his cleaver at Prime and set it down for lunch at None. Clerks hustled to finish their work by Vespers. Time became currency, something that could be spent or saved, and people increasingly turned to machines to make life more efficient. By the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the religious impulse behind these regimens had been long forgotten. The monastery gave way to the factory. Ritual dissolved into routine.
This is, at any rate, the story that Lewis Mumford tells in his 1934 book Technics and Civilization, which argues that monasteries “helped to give human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine.” Contemporary medievalists have come to doubt this tidy account, but I have always liked the picture it paints, as though the life of that era were an enormous astronomical clock with its automaton figures (the friar, the cobbler, the weaver) clicking along their tracks to the same relentless metronome. I’ve thought of it more than once while plodding along my own daily course, rising at six to prepare the same breakfast every morning (oatmeal, coffee), leaving at seven to embark on the route I have walked for the past ten years, one that winds around the lake and is timed precisely (fifty minutes) so that I can sit down at my desk by eight. I work from home, so I have no co-workers or time card to register my punctuality—though I suppose you could look at my browsing history, which bears the record of a life so deeply routinized that even my screen time falls into a discernible pattern: the email log-in at the top of each hour, the thirty minutes allotted to social media during lunch.
Repetition is a component of all ascetic traditions, and I like to think that my own habits constitute something like a spiritual discipline. My nature bends toward listlessness and disorder. Resolving to do the same thing each day, at the same time, has given my life a center, insulating me from the siren song of novelty and distraction that has caused me so much unhappiness in the past. I live a monotonous life, which is not to say a tedious one. (I believe, with Rilke, that those who find life dull are not poet enough to call forth its riches.) And I imagine that these tightly circumscribed days are radiating, with each turn of the circle, into widening arcs, amounting to a life whose ties are deeper, whose direction is more certain.
She goes on to write, however, that “what I’ve been describing as a spiritual discipline bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the cruder ethos of ‘life hacking,’” which renews her “fundamental ambivalence about habit, which seems to belong, as Mumford’s theory suggests, to that uncertain territory between the monastery and the machine.” Her question is: “Is it possible in our age of advanced technology to recall the spiritual dimension of repetition? Or has it been conclusively subsumed into the deadening drumbeat of modern life?” Do read the whole thing.
In other news
Alan Shapiro writes about being a Jew in America and how culture can never be privatized: “Never unalloyed, it exists and flourishes through promiscuous intermingling.”
Memory is a maddeningly imperfect thing, Wilfred McClay writes in the latest issue of First Things, and yet:
We cannot do without it. It is “an ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own,” as Touchstone declares in As You Like It. Well said, and even a one-sentence summation of my argument. For our very humanity is bound up in the inescapable fact of our memory’s vagaries and imperfections, all of which are inseparable from the fact that it is, and must be, our own.
A long time ago, at the beginning of my graduate studies in history at Johns Hopkins University, I read the philosopher George Santayana for the first time. We all know Santayana for a famous saying, frequently misrendered: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s a favorite adage of op-ed sages. But I had never seen it rendered as it originally appeared, in Santayana’s book Reason in Common Sense: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.” Santayana was not concerned here with the putative “lessons of history,” about whose precise contents he was always skeptical and circumspect. He was speaking of something more fundamental, more elemental, more anthropological. He was designating memory as a central precondition for a mature, civilized way of life—a subject about which he knew a great deal.
How Michelangelo and Leonardo changed Western art: “That Michelangelo and Leonardo, in a most unlikely coincidence, rose to these challenges to create the greatest sculpture and the greatest portrait in the history of the West, simultaneously and in close geographic proximity, suggests that something was at work to inspire them to such dizzying heights of excellence.”
In praise of Brian Moore: “There are so many books that are not ‘great,’ but are also worth saving from oblivion, at least for the moment. Here I want to present one candidate for revival: the Irish-born novelist Brian Moore (1921–1999; his first name is pronounced “Bree-an”), whose native Belfast celebrated his centenary in 2021 with a week-long festival.”
The classic Christmas songs that could have been: “It’s a curious thought experiment to wonder how the quirks of music production, radio airtime, and consumer preferences might have resulted in a very different holiday.”
A compendium of obsolete objects:
Far from running smooth, the path of technological progress bristles with dead ends and aborted possibilities. It is quite possible to spear yourself on these snapped-off futures. Around the turn of the century, enjoying the disposable income that came with my very first job, I decided to invest in a home music system. Naturally I opted for the most advanced and ostensibly future-proof technology then available, the MiniDisc, which combined the digital fidelity of the CD with the flexibility of the cassette. How pleased I was with my decision. About a year later, the iPod was released. At least the MiniDisc gets a memorial in Extinct. Priya Khanchandani lovingly recounts its advantages and, more importantly, its failings (too expensive, lack of support from the recording industry) and misfortunes (to have come into being just before the MP3). But it can be hard to say goodbye.
Goya, a painter of “his own times”:
Impatient with the critical tendency to cast Goya as a proto-modernist, Janet Tomlinson’s new biography restores him to his own times. His early years in Zaragoza, where his family moved a month after he was born in 1746, were of enduring importance. Although he relocated to Madrid in 1775, he continued to identify as an Aragonese, and even gave his hometown its Latinised title, Cesaraugustano, in signing his altarpiece for Seville cathedral in 1817. Zaragoza provided the sights that he drew on throughout his career, including bullfights, religious processions and the local hospital (Zaragoza was exceptional in mid-18th-century Spain in having a doctor who specialised in mental illness). Sometimes these memories were unpleasant. In 1760, aged fourteen, Goya watched the auto-da-fé of a local woman accused of practising sorcery. He revisited the event in a drawing made decades later, at a time when the abolition of the Inquisition was under discussion: “They put a gag on her because she spoke and they hit her in the face,” he wrote in the caption. “I saw her, Orosia Morena, in Zaragoza because she knew how to make mice.”