“We” Ennui and the “I” Revolution

For all I know, Catholic social critics would do away with adolescence and young adulthood altogether. You know, keep it simple — when kids turn 12, pack the boys off to sea as powder monkeys and marry the girls off to moneylenders or estate bailiffs with wattles and gout. But, as of this writing, the Catholic blogosphere does have a YA market, and Marc Barnes, an undergrad who blogs as Bad Catholic, has pretty much cornered it. Yesterday, for challenging Barnes’ fitness to blog with authority on sex, Calah Alexander, a Patheos blogsister of ours, earned an “I Knocked Yertle the Turtle Right on His Carapace” t-shirt. In her challenge, Calah includes a stylistic criticism that points to a new — and, I think, positive — trend in Catholic letters:

..use of the royal we is okay in two instances. First, if you’re using it ironically to make fun of yourself, like I do occasionally. Second, if you’re the Queen. I used to be a college student, and I know that college kids like to use the royal we in academic papers because some asshat critics do that and the college students think it makes them look smart. Here’s a hint, college kids: it doesn’t make you look smart. It makes you look pompous and linguistically immature. If you’re a blogger and you use it devoid of any sense of irony…you just look like a giant gherkin. And not the kind that makes delicious tea sandwiches.

Calah might be going a little rough here. I was once a college student, too. And when I wrote as “we” (or “the author,” or worst of all, “one”), I did it because some fossil of a professor had threatened to mark down any student who wrote as “I.” For a long time, the Catholic press followed the conventions of the academy — logically enough, since many pundits held advanced degrees and staked their credibility on them. Then there’s the fact that so much Catholic writing has always been prescriptive or exhortative in the manner of a homily. In that context, “we” is a hell of a lot more polite than “you.” The film Mass Appeal plays this for laughs, with an experienced priest warning a young deacon that he must place himself in the same boat, grammatically, with the congregation, even if it means referring to “our blue hair.”

But even if most uses of “We” are more pastoral than royal, she makes a good point. No matter the pronoun, prescriptions and exhortations delivered from positions of authority (formally bestowed or claimed) can get a little, well, exhausting. At least for me. With luck, and selective inattention, I can just about make it through one homily per week. But this is the Information Age. If I weren’t so careful, I could end subjecting myself to hundreds every day.

Let me be clear here: some writers can speak of “we” and “us” with breathtaking beauty. A few years ago in First Things, Amanda Shaw published an essay titled “Contemptus Mundi and the Love of Life.” From the ceremony in which two young nuns profess solemn vows, through Capuchin ossuaries and the writings of scholars as varied as St. Bruno and Erasmus, she limns the paradox that Catholics must express their yearning for heaven by loving life on earth. Returning to the brand-new nuns, awaiting their bridgegroom, she writes, “They are on the way. We are on the way. And sometimes — dazzled by a speck of eternity — we wonder why we cannot be there now.”

Even 1,500 words into a very enjoyable piece of writing, that one line made me want to pull a Jon Stewart and say, “Let me stop you right here…” I couldn’t help pausing to reflect that I did not, in fact, belong to Amanda Shaw’s “we.” She and her buddies might want Moshiach now; me, I do most of my yearning for fresh turkey sandwiches and cigarettes. The sudden sense of exclusion took a few seconds to overcome, and even now that one phrase sticks in my memory like a scratch on a record (if anyone else remembers what those were).

In clumsier hands than Shaw’s, we-ing can sound just as presumptuous as Calah says. Marc Barnes, at least, has the excuse of wanting to piss people off — anyone who’d argue with his approach had better be ready to argue with his page views. National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters, on the other hand, probably wore a straight face when he wrote, regarding Casey Anthony’s trial: “In America today, the courtroom has replaced the ampitheater, but the lust for gruesomeness is the same. Shame on us.” How, I remember wondering, could Winters be so sure that every single person who tuned in, tuned in out of an amoral prurience? “Shame on who, mi’jo?” would have been a perfectly reasonable response.

The counterpoint to we-ing is I-ing — that is, setting down personal experiences, insights and opinions as personal experiences, insights and opinions and inviting readers to consider the source. Among Catholic writers, there seems to be an I-revolution in the works. There’s Calah Alexander, for one. There’s also Heather King, author of several memoirs and keeper of the Shirt of Flame blog. Heather can be plenty didactic; she’ll cite the Church doctors in support of her points, and, in fact, often reverts to the first-person plural. But Heather’s brand is Heather, in particular the crust she’s gained from her days as a lawyer and “barfly,” and from those she spent “wandering around [L.A.'s] Koreatown ‘with’ St. Thérèse of Lisieux.” Her brand of spirituality might not work for everyone, but it isn’t supposed to.

This is really a remarkable thing. In the first place, all this I-ing tests Catholic culture’s suspicion of anything resembling subjectivism. When Terry Eagleton writes of the Church being “as indifferent to personal feelings as a psychopath,” he’s exaggerating, but perhaps not too hugely. In declaring, “He must increase; I must decrease,” John the Baptist discouraged personal horn-tooting for the ages. For a Catholic writer, writing about what’s uniquely hers — as opposed to sticking to those articles included in our common inheritance, the Deposit of Faith — means, at the very least, inviting criticism for having too little team spirit.

To boot, there’s the charge of frivolity. Once, on In the Arena, another Patheosus named Pat McNamara admitted he’d once scorned blogs as “insidious things where people tell the whole world what they had for breakfast.” It was only upon discovering he could blog about the history of the American Church, with the authority due him as assistant archivist for the Diocese of Brooklyn, that he warmed to the medium. To call someone a lifestyle blogger, a mommy blogger or an emo blogger (which is how Seraphic of Seraphic Singles pegs me) is to label him as basically un-serious, a niche-plying exhibitionist. “Oh, sure, I’m a blogger, but not one of those bloggers,” McNamara might still feel the need to say.

If any two bloggers demonstrate just how serious I-ing can be, they’re Leah Libresco and Joanne McPortland. When Patheos first picked up “Unequally Yoked,” Leah’s blog, I could not for the life of me tell what planet she’d come from. I know the Guyland as well as any smug Manhattanite, but nowhere in my wildest dreams could i imagine a native who’d blog a whole series about math and morality. Yet there’s nothing bloodless about Leah’s attachment to the subject, nor to any of her other highbrow hobby-horses. It’s as passionate and as quirky as Hank Hill’s love for propane. Her writing isn’t touchy-feely or introspective, at least not to am emoesque degree, but it’s still her personality that gives her blog a relevance to people who might not share her interests.

Joanne’s knowledge of technical Church stuff is bottomless, but the real draw for her readers is the chance to watch her wield it like a battle axe as only she can. It doesn’t hurt that she’s reverted to Catholicism from gnosticism, feminism, single motherhood, hippiedom, and God knows what else. When it comes to the commodity Peggy Noonan dismissed so unwisely as “bullshit about narratives,” Joanne has more in the tank than anyone.

Two very polished expressions of I-ing are the personal essay and the memoir. Not having read every single thing written by every single Catholic since Pentecost, I could be wrong, but I’ve always gotten the impression that personal essays are fairly rare, and for a good reason. In the introduction to Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate points out that the essay doesn’t traffic in systematic thought; in Theodor Adorno’s words, it “shies away from the violence of dogma.” For a writer to evangelize, it would seem, he’d better have a hearty appetite for the violence of dogma, or else he’s no use at all.

Of spiritual memoirs there seems to be no shortage. In a way, that’s the problem — enough have been written for the conventions to have become established, and maybe a little too firmly. Since St. Augustine’s time, “I once was lost, but now am found,” has been the trajectory of the typical spiritual memoir. There is room for tweaking — someone like the Little Flower can start out found and end up even more found. But the trend is always supposed to be an upward one, and you’re supposed to know it from page one.

These requirements tend to thin out the pool. I wouldn’t venture to guess just how many literate Catholics really do experience their faith journeys as passages toward a certain light, but at least one memoirist, a woman named Ellen Finnigan, seems to have pushed the meat of her story back toward the dark middle. According to an Amazon reviewer, Finnigan “falls for a Nietzsche-quoting ‘bad guy’ and self-described hedonist. As they carry on an illicit office romance in the absurd corporate culture of a failing start-up, and he tries to convert her to bohemianism, she is forced to doubt and examine herself and her own weakly held convictions.”

In my subprime days, I knew my share of Nietzsche-quoting bad guys, and most of them were big, leaking douchenozzles. But this one, at least, seems to have done something rare — he seems to have given God a good run for His money. I haven’t read Finnigan’s book myself, but Amazon users are going wild for it. Maybe, a little unusually for a Catholic memoirist, the author knows what Willa Cather learned from writing Song of A Lark, that the getting-there part is more important than the goal, and deserves an infusion of real suspense. Finnigan’s title is a tribute to I-ing: it’s The Me Years.

My turn to “I.” I guess I’m so jazzed about the “I” revolution because it tends to favor me. As a two-fisted, foul-tempered, obsessive, formerly bi-curious sexual vulture, I’ve got tons of stories to tell; in the Catholic Church, I may have found the last readership on earth that wouldn’t find this stuff completely humdrum. My fear is that the bishops, who are now taking an interest in what we bloggers do, will decide to bring down the curtain in favor of more conventional evangelizing. If I get one last worst before that happens, it’ll be: “Excellencies, there may not be an ‘I’ in ‘team,’ but there’s sure as shooting one in ‘Catholic.’”

  • DWiss

    I can’t get worked up about the “I”/”We” kerfuffle.

    But I can get worked up about that weird essay that Bad Catholic wrote, as I somewhat said in my comments back one page re: Ship Of No Fools. I was getting ready to launch a righteous fit about Catholic over-blogging, but that thing about BDSM, slavery and love proves my point so perfectly that I have to shut up.

    I, We, or Some Subset Of All Of Us probably need to spend less time reading blogs that have, possibly, run out of things to say, and more time contemplating the actual God. Maybe that’s just me.

  • calahalexander

    So good, Max. I agree 1000%. I love it. And not just because you talked about me. That helped, though. My brain really has leaked out my ears, because I did read The Art of the Personal Essay in college, twice actually, and have it on my bookshelf now. But the real purpose of my comment is to ask if I can borrow the word douchenozzle from time to time.

    [Didn't T.S. Eliot once say something like "Good poets borrow; great poets steal?"]

  • http://www.thewinedarksea.com MelanieB

    Something like it: the actual quote and context here. Sorry, it’s off topic but if you cite Eliot, I have to jump in.

  • Elizabeth Duffy
  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    I stopped reading Barnes a while ago. His philosophic themes kind of bore me and when he gets into a discussion of real life stuff it seems so naive and two dimensional. He’s a smart young man but he should experience a few things (especially sex) before he actually makes claims about it. And no, that’s not an endorsement of pre-marital sex. DWiss’s point above about over blogging is on the mark.

    As you point out the academic “we” does not apply to personal essays. You are quite right to bring in Lopate’s book and thoughts here. I have it on my shelf too, and perhaps I’ll look through it tonight. Barnes kind of blurs the difference (either from a lack of writing discipline or inexperience or perhaps intentional for some effect) between a personal essay and an academic thesis, and not always in a satisfactory way. Perhaps it’s mostly in an unsatisfactory way. I am not drawn into his writing. This essay of yours Max should be posted in every blogger’s corkboard as a guide on the I/we point of view.

  • Kristen inDallas

    There’s also a “cat” in Catholic… so between the memoirs and the imaginary rusty stories, you’re halfway there. ;-)

  • jose

    calahalexander,
    wow that’s uncanny! Stravinsky said exactly the same thing about musicians.

  • Cordelia

    Just have to mention that this line of yours, in the context, left me snickering and delighted – “Not having read every single thing written by every single Catholic since Pentecost, I could be wrong, but I’ve always gotten the impression that…”


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