Ritual, Evidence of Eternity

The eternal can be well worn, but never worn out. It is always experienced as an over-abundance, an aching paradox between the more-than-can-be-imagined and the never-enough. The eternal cannot be grasped, contained, or experienced at one time, and so Van Goghs are gazed at again and again, the act of sex tends toward a sex life, and I cannot outgrow Bach’s Cello Suites — I hear more of them in every hearing. Eternity demands repetition, a ritual of again-and-again played out by those seeking it. It seems to follow that if you are looking for Eternity, look where you find ritual. Ritual is repetition that seeks Eternity in the thing repeated.

Consider music. When a song containing a brushstroke of infinity is repeated over the course of a human life, it is neither used up nor worn out; when a song devoid of infinite yearning is repeated, it nauseates. Most pop music — despite making so much money and filling the silence in so many malls — crumbles under the divine test of repetition. The evidence of this is parody, parody like this:

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Parody is the coffin in which finite fads and fashions are buried alive. Parody is the expression of nausea over the repetition of a limited, finite thing. The humor of parody is twofold. On the one hand, it is absurd, and the fantastic fact of goat yelling in a Taylor Swift song is funny in itself. But there is a deeper pleasure present: The pleasure we take in watching things die.

The pleasure of Taylor Swift being interrupted by goats is that it frees us from having to listen to ‘Trouble’ ever again. We won’t hear it without the goats. Parody signifies that the culture has sucked a song dry, used it up and drained it of substance, put it through the test of repetition and found it wanting. ‘Call Me Maybe’ did not survive its parodies, and to listen to it now is to listen to the rattling of an empty husk. If there is any justice in the world, Dubstep will be dead within a year, unable to bear the weight of this final, death-toll of a repetition:

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(In the third grade, when I mocked the kids I didn’t like, I repeated exactly what they said in a voice that expressed the nausea I felt about them saying it. Parody-as-murder applies to music, movies, politics, cliched ideological slogans, fashion, fad and just about anything else that passes like chaff. (The reason articles from The Onion are so freaking funny is because they slaughter the cultural and political cliches we’re sick to death of. (Pope To Ease Up on Jesus Talk remains one of my all time favorites.))

So I say the following with a vague, presumptuous feeling of authority: The sign of a fundamentally nauseated artistic culture is this: The time between creation and parody will be so reduced that the song has barely been released before the middle-schoolers have replaced its lyrics with fart jokes, and the nation has heard multiple overdubbed, GarageBand rewrites mocking its existence, and ideological organizations are already clinging desperately to its popularity, making their own versions in a hokey-horrifying attempt to sell an idea or a worldview that cannot exist apart from crappy, opportunistic packaging. A sick artistic culture will produce heaps and heaps of material, not because it is so good that people clamor for it, but because it is so terribly finite that we devour it, pass it through our aesthetic rectums and demand more, unnourished. The sign of a dead artistic culture is this: We’ll actually seek and experience the parody before the creation, or, perhaps worse, we’ll no longer tell one from the other.

Now good, true, beautiful things, blazing as they do in the infinite, are nearly impossible to mock. There are few parodies of Bach. It is difficult to ridicule polyphony by repeating it in a nauseated tone of voice. It’s hard to even imagine a joke version of the Brothers Karamazov, and it is a testament to the new wave of folk musician’s flirtation with the Eternal that no one bothers to try and make parodies of The Avett Brothers, The Head and the Heart, Mumford & Sons, or The Civil Wars. Imagine the waste it would be to try to make a parody out of a Caravaggio!

This is not to say that it’d be impossible to parody something beautiful, but beautiful things will always outlast their parodies. In the end it is the parodies that die like snakes devouring themselves, and the eternal-tinged that remains, more or less popular throughout the ages, but always repeated, engraved by ritual into the very character of humanity.

Which brings me to the Catholic Church. Were I not Catholic, I would nevertheless find it probable that the Church is the primary institution wrestling with the Eternal.

Ritual is repetition that seeks eternity in the thing repeated, and the Church overflows with the stuff. I genuflect every time I enter a Catholic Church, because no number of genuflections could fully satisfy the desire I have to honor the presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. I dip my finger in the holy water and stripe myself with the sign of the cross, because no amount of baptismal water could ever be enough to allow me to fully grasp the ever-depth of what it means to be an adopted son of God. The priest chants his Dominus vobiscum and I my et cum spiritu tuo, and we’ll be chanting it nunc et semper, in saecula saeculorum because no number of repetitions will allow me to comprehend the mystery of Christ truly present in his apostle, the priest. The feasts, the fasts, the holy days of obligations — the Calendar is enshrined repetition, the embrace of an everlasting life, which we cannot conceive of living once and for all, a life we can only live again and again. (This may only mean something to a few, but have it nonetheless: Nietzsche’s demand for an Eternal Return is fulfilled in the Liturgical Calendar.)

The Church survives her parodies. She calls them heresies and dances forward. She is unchanging, not because she is stuck in the mud, but because the mud cannot stick to her. I know that the incense will rise, the bells will ring, the people will bow, and I will consume the Body and Blood of Christ again and again, not to attain Eternity — how can I in the shadowlands? — but to pant after Eternity, to become Eternity, to dive into the Evermore, to sink my hands and teeth and heart into the Almighty God, tearing Him from Heaven into myself, by the grace that He does the same to me, again and again, until the veil of finitude is in tatters and I see Him — Goodness, Truth and Beauty Himself — face to ever-eager face.      

  • Olivier

    The part about the Church dancing forward and leaving heresies in the dust had a tinge of Gilbert that I’ve not seen on your blog in awhile. Good post (and viva the folk revival!).

    • Montague

      “Tinge of Gilbert” Yes! Also the whole thing about repetition. The entire post, that is…

      Also, probably bonus points of medievalism. I heard fromCory Olsen (aka the Tolkien Professor) that writers used to make up sources for anything original lest they be though to be not adopting some earlier writer. There we go. Repetition. Also, my theory as to why the LOTR movies are easier to parody than the books. Why? Peter Jackson is not a Medievalist. Hard to parody Le Morte de Arthur, much easier to parody anything modern about Arthur.

  • Sabrina

    Marc Banes, how I love your words.
    This subject has been on my mind, the banal and dull culture that runs through trends and news constantly, only to dump them within a short amount of time.
    The only thing worth living for is the eternal; the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

  • http://wasteyourtime.mtgames.org/ Scaevola

    I have to say, that Skrillex parody was pretty hilarious XD

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1182150015 Benjamin Hardy

    I loved this Marc, especially your last sentence. In the Mass, it feels like reality tears at it’s seams in the priest hands. It’s all I ever truly hope for, that day that it does. God bless you, and Happy Easter!

  • cf
  • http://wasteyourtime.mtgames.org/ Scaevola

    Also, Bach may not have been parodied, but Chopin sure was. Original: http://youtu.be/3yh2InVsFag Satie’s version: http://youtu.be/xfixNLjn3Tw (he did the same thing to Clementi’s sonatina op36/1, vastly improving it to my ears.) Also, have you heard St Saens’ Carnival of the Animals? Anyway, your point still stands, as these parodies, done by true artists, have no resemblance to screaming goats or wubwubwub in artistry nor in quantity.

  • http://twitter.com/Traditium Traditium

    Excellent insight.

  • http://www.facebook.com/josephjgoodwin Joey Goodwin

    Again! Again! Again!

  • http://www.facebook.com/spicymonkey13 Joe Hercik

    Was kind of disappointed that there was no reference to your “Ordain a Lady” smack down.

    • Tom

      Click on “hokey-horrifying attempt”.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

    While ritual is not evidence of Eternity, it is the best way (and maybe the only way?) we can approach Eternity. Mostly, Eternity approaches us, for its own reasons and on its own schedule. I find myself in agreement with your central theme, though I think you and I would have significant disagreements on what is eternal truth and what is outdated culture frozen by habit.

    However, I’m appalled by your unrepentant admission of being a childhood bully. As it currently reads (“when I mocked the kids I didn’t like”) your words imply that what you did was no big deal. I hope that was a composition oversight on your part and that you’ll modify it.

    If not, well, I think your church has a sacrament for that…

  • Tom

    Another great article, but I must announce with a heavy heart a missed opportunity so wrenching because it was so very nearly seized.

    I present, Nicolas Cage, superseding goats: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5zfx5zCUwQ

  • Elizabeth

    So thrilled that you’re back, and how! This is one of your best.

    I have been thinking lately about the uncomfortable fact of where the great majority of deathless music in the world comes from. The history of Western classical music–the kind of music that people from all over the world devote themselves to–is also the history of the Church (much as conservatories try to downplay that fact!). Until right after the Reformation, actually, when secular music started taking itself (way too) seriously. (Coincidence? Chicken? Egg?) Classical music enthusiasts of an atheistic bent can kid themselves by only listening to symphonies and opera, but the truth is that this system of incredible harmonic and contrapuntal complexity was invented by people who wanted to express the glory, the beauty and the order of God.

    I went through a particular purgatory years back after graduating from music school, when I worked at a temp job where the most soulless robot-DJ top 40 station was played nonstop from 9-5 (the songs would start to repeat every couple of hours). I marveled at how quickly a song that gave a glimmer of pleasure the first time turned into absolute trash that made me grind my teeth. (It was weird, the songs that did stand up to the test of relentless overexposure–the only one I can remember now was by Eminem!) I would go home and listen to the indestructible Monteverdi Vespers for the 700th time as an antidote. It is NOT HEALTHY for this disposable stuff to be humans’ only experience of art. That’s why I get so angry when church music tries to imitate pop music….what a cheat!

  • Steven Bradshaw

    Sigh.

    Is everything that isn’t a timeless masterpiece complete and utter worthless rubbish then? Isn’t that a black-and-white, all-or-nothing, elitist kind of view that takes no account of varying degrees of talent and the different gifts we’re given?

    Take your example of Taylor Swift. Sure, she’s no Hildegard of Bingen or Clara Schumann. Her music is as disposable as it comes. But it’s there. It exists. She exists, and she’s just as much a child of God as you are. She also touches many, many more lives than you ever will. Perhaps she doesn’t inspire religious zeal or much of a reaching for the infinite, but she speaks to people on some kind of level. Just because that level may not be as deep as you’d like it to be, does that merit sneering at her music and comparing it to excrement?

    If ever there was en example of how a faith expounded by self-involved and ever-so-proud-of-their-beautiful-minds intellectuals has zero chance of making any kind of impact beyond the narrow confines of forums like this one, this has to be it. Would Jesus bitch about Taylor Swift’s muzak or would he grab a burger with her and her fans and try to connect with them where they are? I bet he didn’t give denunciatory speeches about the evils of the hostelry trade or tax collecting before sitting down to eat with publicans and tax collectors.

    Oh well, I suppose the denizens of ivory towers have to maintain a sneering disconnect with popular culture otherwise they’d have nothing to feel superior to and therefore no reason to exist. But I can’t help thinking that such an attitude is ultimately self-defeating. It’s like you’re saying “look at me and how discerning I am and look at them and how dull-witted and brutish they are”. To put it in musical terms, someone is blowing their own trumpet and it ain’t necessarily Taylor Swift. I don’t know much about that particular young lady, but I’m not aware that she spends her time telling us all how superior she is to everyone else. So despite the allegedly rectum-dilating qualities of her music, perhaps she’s not doing everything wrong after all…

    And speaking of parody, I wonder if you’ve ever seen “The Life of Brian”? Tell me, has the Church shaken that particular heresy off its shoes and danced forward? It’s very à propos that the new Pope is from South America. There’s been more than a vague echo of Carlota Joaquina’s footwear in every red papal Prada shoe since the 1970s. Perhaps this Argentine and his more demotic choice of moccasin will finally dispel the comparisons between the Church’s attitude to popular culture and the attitude of a Napoleonic era Portuguese queen to her husband’s Brazilian colonies. Or is sneering elitism just as firmly ingrained in Rome as it was in Queluz?

    • Elizabeth

      It’s easy to lob the “elitist” brick, but I’d wager Marc would be first in line to defend Taylor Swift’s “Trouble” as a little brushstroke of infinity compared with some of the musical horrors inflicted on the world by 20th-century cultural elites bent on denying the miracle of tonal harmony.

  • vito

    Well, both good and bad works of art can be parodied more or less equally. The Bible can and is parodied. And all religions of course, especially Christianity and Islam. Of the popular culture, Godfather and the Sopranos, immediately come to mind…One the best movie, the other the best series of a century, yet both very susceptible to parody. Whether a work can be parodied or not usually depends not on whether it is of good artistic quality or not, but on how dramatic its characters and plot are. And also on the appeal on today’s culture. Even if you could parody Bach, who would even watch it? Speaking of ritual and repetition, it is not the Church where you should look for it but nature. That’s where we got from. Repetition, cycle, rhythm… all that comes from nature.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christian-Gjernes/1400126950 Christian Gjernes

      Yes, but notice that all these parodies are almost universally based on misconceptions and lies concerning the Church and the Bible.

  • James H, London

    Poetry.

    And, it’s significant that the Beautiful Myth has lo-o-ong outlived ‘The Bored of the Rings’ and ‘The Soddit’.

  • Magnificat

    Deep and excellent! I can’t believe you’re so young!

  • Mark

    To the claim that no one could parody the bros. k: see woody allen’s “love and death.” it’s a hilarious parody of russian lit. in general

    • the dread pirate roberts

      But Mark,
      The fact that very few knew of Allen’s parody speaks to the fact that the Bros. K has outdone its parody, no?

  • Robert

    This is brilliant


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