Church of Geeks


Poor Glen Lafantasie. The Civil War historian from Kentucky is freaking out over the sesquicentennial of the war’s declaration. He fears it will trigger a nostalgic frenzy among the amateurs — particularly the reenactors, who seem to him touched by the obsessiveness that’s made sci-fi and comic fanboys such an easy target for stand-up comedians:

Civil War reenactors and buffs seem to have a far greater tolerance level than I do. They live and breathe the war readily, without hesitation, and with a passion that veers close to a religious experience or even sexual arousal. I have a passion for my work, especially my writing and my teaching, but enough’s enough. I lack the hobbyist’s obsession with the war, its players (great and small), and its minutia (which is endless). My job requires me to be an expert about the war, a position I do believe I’ve attained, but I can’t bring myself to devote the entirety of my life to it — and I certainly (unlike some of my academic cohort) have no interest in donning a uniform, firing a Springfield musket, or participating in a battle reenactment under a blazing sun or a dripping sky.

When you think about it, Lafantasie is pretty gutsy for signing his name to this cri de coeur. The bio that appears at the end of the article doesn’t mention that he’s published anything in the popular press, so the “buffs and reenactors” might not make up that great a share of his readership. Still, their goodwill is nothing to treat lightly. He wouldn’t complain about them unless he had good reason to fear that holding his peace would drive him stark, raving mad.

Perhaps thanks to his Southern good manners, there’s a word he hasn’t used, but perhaps should have, since it would spell out the sum of his fears in great red letters. That word is geek. It has dozens of definitions, each delicately shaded to distinguish it from the rest. But Wikipedia offers one that comes closest to describing the type of Civil War enthusiast that so exhausts the professor: “A person with a devotion to something in a way that places him or her outside the mainstream. This could be due to the intensity, depth, or subject of their interest.”

That’s a very fine, and very dignifying definition. It’s not that all geeks, as non-geeks sometimes suppose, lack social skills. They simply have had the bad luck to be consumed by an interest to which no social cachet attaches itself. Golfers famously make widows of their wives in their own lifetimes, but because golf is known as the divertissement of Scottish royalty, retired baseball greats and Tiger Woods, they face nothing like the ridicule reserved for grown-up X-Men fans.

Because a geeklike absorbtion feels like a calling and means exile from the mainstream, there is something of the artist in every geek, but also something of the monastic. One of the most erudite and admirable geeks I ever knew was an historian who studied the lives of young men who’d died in awful ways. These included Aubrey Beardsley, who’d lost his battle with consumption at the age of 26; Tsarevich Aleksei, who was tortured to death by his father, Peter the Great, on a spurious treason charge; and Captain Louis Nolan, whose lungs were shattered by Russian shrapnel at Balaclava. Her interest in these unfortunates exceeded the merely professional, approaching the devotion nuns show toward the Blessed Sacrament. At times it could seem oddballish, even superstitious — “differently alive” was the term she coined to describe her charges. But it was passionate, and in that passion was a real nobility.

Last week, I blogged a piece titled “Which Saints Can’t You Stand?” It got 64 responses: everyone had an opinion on the subject — me, I have dozens. That’s remarkable, in a way: none of the figures under discussion affected people’s lives in so concrete a fashion as, say, their bishops do .The fascination for, attachment to, and in some instances impatience with, these remote, exalted people is as impractical as it is powerful. Therefore, it is the very quintessence of geequerie.

Appealing to the geek within has always been the Church’s secret strength, her best-kept secret. Holy cards existed long before Star Wars cards, and enthusiasts were collecting — and in many cases, manufacturing — relics long before the first autograph books appeared. To those unmoved by the mundane, the everyday, the merely normal, the Church has offered no end of things loftier, weirder, and exquisite in their intricacy.

Protestants in general, and fundamentalists in particular, would claim to have de-geeked religion. Relics, culti of saints — superstition. Canon Law — Roman tyranny. To them I say, let us know when you find Noah’s Ark, guys.

And, hey, we even do our own reenactments. I’ve never heard of a Civil War buff actually taking a minie ball, but it would not be at all hard to find a Catholic who’s had himself scourged during a Good Friday geek-out. (I’ve heard the best of these take place in the Phillipines but I could be wrong.) That’s a little grim for me, but I wouldn’t mind taking part in a mockup of Nicaea, or better, Vatican II. I bet I’d make a better Lefebvre than Lefebvre.

— Max Lindenman

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