Confessions of a Lowbrow

Frank Sinatra made a more convincing priest than Bing Crosby ever did. Call it blasphemy — with my eyes fixed on heaven, I’ll mount the scaffold confessing it. Fr. Paul, the character Sinatra plays in Miracle of the Bells, is no wise-cracker, and amazingly, no singer; instead, he’s a straight-faced, rather aescetic-looking pastor who executes his duties in deadly earnest. In fact, between his youthful appearance and barely screwed-down intensity, Fr. Paul comes off as the prototype for Fr. Andrew Greeley’s young fogies. When he tells a funeral director, “You’re a greedy and stupid man,” he acts out what I imagine is a fantasy of priests everywhere, much as the actor who played him lived out the dreams of men in general by punching croupiers and bedding Ava Gardner.

I formed these impressions yesterday evening, while binge-watching faith movies on Netflix. Next in the queue was Bells of St. Mary’s, which I’d never seen but had nonetheless felt justified in mocking. It ended up winning me over so completely that I decided to post a public apology over Facebook. “Fr. Chuck O’Malley and Sr. Mary Benedict are to the Church what the Cartwrights were to the beef industry,” I wrote. “If they bear no resemblance whatsoever to life, it’s life’s fault.”

If such a thing is possible to say about Facebook status updates, it was well received — except by one person, that is. “Why,” asked this cyber-Diogenes in so many words, “are you going into such transports of joy over such garbage?”

Knowingly or not, he’d just written the story of my life. I may have a lit-crit vocabulary, but my tastes are those of a developmentally disabled eighth-grader. Given a choice between reading Mann’s Doctor Faustus or Dante’s Divine Comedy – two alternatives suggested by this concerned soul — and watching Bells of St. Mary’s, I’ll watch the damn movie, unless I happen to be in one of my self-improving moods. I am not a hipster; my love of crap is entirely un-ironic. I am intellectually lazy, but I fear the shame of being exposed as intellectually lazy even more than I fear the work of reading a book. So why? Why, indeed?

Reason No. 1: Too much, too young. I grew up in a medieval scriptorium. Remember that place in Name of the Rose — the book and the movie — where the crazy old monk slaps poison paint on ancient manuscripts? Except for my mom’s typewriter, that was the apartment we shared. All our walls, from hardwood floor to 14″ ceiling, were covered with books — Shakespeare, Dickens, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, Joyce, Norton’s Anthology and issues of Granta going back God knows how far. As I dug in, literary references became, literally, household words. When my grades were down, my mother would tell me I was turning into “a regular Fred Vincy.” To protest a room-cleaning order, I’d scream, “Non serviam!”

And Freud. Once when I was about eight or nine, my father took me up to West Point to tour the United States Military Academy. Hermann Göring’s diamond-encrusted, scepter-like baton, on display in a glass case since its capture by Allied forces, made a big impression, which I later shared with my mother. “A phallic substitute!” She snorted. “No,” I said. “It was the real one.” Right then and there, I learned about Oedipus complexes and castration anxiety and defense mechanisms. From that day forward, every time I found occasion to buy a ball bat or a lacrosse stick or a guitar, I smuggled it into the house like contraband.

This is the kind of head start that poor and minority kids would give limbs for, and I’m ashamed to say I squandered it. When I entered my teens, the thought of sharing a cultural framework with a woman in her 40s began to seem shameful, so I traded Ruskin for the Ramones. As an undergrad, I majored in history, and later went for a masters in journalism. Both dsciplines seemed far enough from airy-fairiness to be respectable. A few times since then, I’ve felt tugged back toward the world of belles-lettres and big ideas, but the pull never lasts. My brain has become flabby and fragile, like Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket: when I give it too much to do, it collapses, blubbering and begging mercy. And, like Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann, I berate it for a little while and move along.

Reason No. 2. Anodynes, please! Not long ago, a friend described me as manic-depressive. Possibly without meaning to, she flattered me. “If you ever catch me in a manic episode,” I told her, “do mark the date.” The fact is, in many ways, I am a brittle husk of a human being, and every apparently self-destructive habit I’ve taken up, from comfort food to cocaine, has been a bid to find the bounce I imagine normal people enjoy as a matter of course.

Sophisticated reading material can be bouncy. A great deal of what the canon currently accepts as literature was, in its own time, considered no more than top-of-the-line mind candy. Dickens, Wilde, Twain and Flaubert all wrote for popular readerships; H.L. Mencken ran a newspaper. Walt Whitman handed out copies of his poems to dockworkers, or so I remember hearing. Kipling’s work is so vulgar, so violent and sentimental, that Hollywood grabbed for it with buckets as soon as talkies emerged to do justice to the accents of Pvt. Mulvaney & Co. If what I’m looking for is a quick fix of pity, terror or hilarity, any of these guys will do.

But with philosophy and criticism, the payoff just isn’t there. A few months ago, at Barnes & Noble, I settled into one of the overstuffed chairs and tried to read Camus’ “The Sisyphus Myth.” “This isn’t absurd,” I remember thinking. “Absurd is a bear in a paper party hat riding a unicycle. Absurdity is fun.” The only thing that cured my sulk was reading Prairie Bitch, memoir of TV actress and child sex abuse awareness-raiser Alison Arngrim, from cover to cover. Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae had me climbing the walls in frustration, because — I realized suddenly — I’d really wanted an astrology book. What’s my sexual persona? I’d kept asking myself. Ten years ago, I might have been The Beautiful Boy as Destroyer, but that ship has sailed, hit an iceberg, and sunk with all hands. As soon as I traded the thing in for Linda Goodman’s Love Signs, I was able to breathe normally again.

Reason No. 3: Give me Alpha, or give me Omega. In Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon, Joe Queenan undertakes a sort of gonzo exploration of America’s cultural slums. But his definition of shoddiness and shallowness doesn’t include Garth Brooks, McDonald’s or The Brady Bunch; it includes Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Olive Garden, Renne Faires and Kenny G. I can’t remember whether Queenan ever puts it quite in these terms, but he gives the impression of thinking it’s okay to peddle obvious schlock to genuine idiots. The mortal sin, in his view, seems to be covering schlock with a veil of quality and pitching it to people with enough education and leisure time to do better, given minimal powers of discrimination.

Indeed, I smell what the man is stepping in. If I wanted to, I could settle down comfortably in the middle brow and never have to make my brain sweat, or, for that matter, apologize. I’m too fucking vain. If my mush-headededness or emotional warping prevents me from gaining the top, I’ll wallow theatrically at the bottom. True, now that students are writing masters’ theses on graphic novels, people can get away with that kind of thing. But I’m more honorable than that. As a Catholic who writes for Catholics, I submit my crimes for judgment before a panel of medievalists who will forgive cultural illiteracy only in people named Sarah Palin. Hanging after an ornate, self-justifying speech has what Tom Sawyer would call “style.” It gives me the relief of getting my just deserts, and the satisfaction of raising a ruckus.

So, yeah: Old Blue Eyes, Miracle of the Bells. RKO, 1948. Here I stand, I can do no other.

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