Friday, June 19, 2020

The Real Tinsel under the Fake Tinsel

In Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light (Henry Holt, 2020), p. 218, the cleric Robert Barnes, perhaps suspected of Protestant leanings, is summoned to the presence of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who up till now in Mantel's trilogy has appeared as a sympathetic character.
Outside, a bell pierces frozen air.  A man comes in with a tray of spiced wine.  The cardinal pours it himself, from a jug gaudily enamelled with a Tudor rose.  "So what do you want me to do, Barnes?  You want me to leave off the state and ceremony which honours God, and to go in homespun?  You want me to keep a miser's table, and serve pease pudding to ambassadors?  You want me to melt down my silver crosses, and give the money to the poor?  The poor, which will piss it against the wall?"

There is a pause.  After a time, faintly, Barnes says, "Yes."
You might argue that this exchange takes place in ancient, primitive times, when no one knew any better.  No, I'm afraid the attitude, and practice, is still with us, and not only among Papists.  I've written before about present-day Roman Catholics who get indignant at anyone who's put off by the state and ceremony of the Church's presentation: What?! You want the Holy Father to live in the gutter and starve to death?  Like Doctor Barnes, though more boldly since I can't be hanged for saying so, I say Yes.  But not really: I just want the Cardinal and the other princes of the Church to leave off the state and ceremony, go in homespun, and serve pease pudding to ambassadors.  A cardinal (remember that a Pope is just a juiced-up cardinal) doesn't piss money against the wall - he'll have a bejewelled chamber pot to piss in.  (The Church's taste in interior design, which is intended to be an earthly shadow of the Heavenly mansions, is roughly that of Donald Trump, as well as of pimps and drug dealers.  That may not be a coincidence.  As the story proceeds, we learn that at his death Cardinal Wolsey left behind as many unpaid debts as Donald Trump doubtless will.)

But I'm a well-known moderate: I don't ask Popes, cardinals, pimps, or Donald Trump to live in the gutter or starve at one extreme, or live in grotesque ostentation and gluttony on the other.  Doctor Barnes, like me, takes the middle path: homespun robes, a table that would be miserly only by Vatican standards, and keeping the vow of poverty that priests have always taken.  In twenty-first century terms, the cardinal can have a modest house with central heat and a flush toilet, a healthy diet, wardrobe by Walmart, -- hell, I won't begrudge him a flat-screen TV with cable if he wants it.  Prada shoes, though, are out, and I can't see how the church can justify such luxury while humble folk sleep in the gutter, starve in the streets, die for lack of basic medical care, or are massacred by death squads.

As for ambassadors ... if senior Catholic management must consort with such persons, why shouldn't they be served modest but healthy provender, in a comfortable but not palatial dining room?  Just from a Christian point of view, I can't see how obscene ostentation "honors God"; very much the opposite.  How would wearing homespun dishonor God?  If I look at the New Testament, I would think a Christian leader would honor his lord better by reminding secular guests how little worldly rank matters, if only by example.  I once read a Zen or Ch'an Buddhist anecdote of a master who, visited by princes or generals, made them sit on the ground, but put peasants and housewives in comfortable chairs.  Needless to say, as an atheist I feel the same way.  If pease pudding is good enough for the Poors, why not for cardinals and ambassadors?  Why would a rational being feel any need to conform to neo-feudal standards of hierarchical display, or dick-waving in plainer language?

The Left has often been guilty of puritanism, a drab aesthetic often honored more in the breach than the observance when leftists get control of the treasury, and I hope to make it clear that I'm taking a different position.  I want a socialism (or whatever you want to call it) of pleasure, comfort, and joy.  I don't think that people should be limited to bare subsistence: I want us to enjoy material as well as psychological comfort.  And come to think of it, "socialist" regimes from the USSR to Sweden have spent a lot of money on the arts and public space, while free-market capitalists have denounced such spending as communism, declaring that access to parks should be reserved for those who can pay for admission.. 

I also know that it's not easy to decide at which point comfort turns to gluttony, or decorating one's home or personal appearance becomes ostentation.  Nor is it easy to determine when someone is more interested in being cooler than one's neighbors, with an eye toward feeling superior to them, than in the pleasure of enjoying good things.  But I think that when the hierarchy of the church enjoys coziness with secular aristocrats while despising the porridge-eating rabble, the line has clearly been crossed.  The same holds for our nominally democratic rulers, who see themselves (and are seen) as a kind of royalty, entitled to the perks of monarchs, and for their sycophants who elevate them.