The Sweep of Self-Styled Culture

img_0242As I’ve written before, I’m fond of periodicals. A very few, I recommend and endorse — but I read a wider variety than I recommend. My own mama and the Oilman’s mother both know this and pass along the magazines to which they subscribe.

In this way, the September issues of WSJ and 405 magazine came to reside temporarily in my periodicals tray. Last weekend, I browsed both. As I did, I was reminded yet again of the sweep and allure of self-styled “culture,” that affected, self-conscious, stilted, self-referential realm of celebrity, whether national or local.

All of the true elements of culture are there — art, architecture, music, food, literature, beauty — and, yet, it all rings false to me somehow, smacks of self-importance, insecurity and desperation. Its self-proclaimed highest aspiration — to be original — all too often amounts to nothing more than its negative, which is not to be derivative, not to be imitative.

Never mind that we — as creatures — cannot really create unless we willingly imitate the Creator. To be imitative, then: That is to be creative.

We talk about leisure and culture as those things we do “for their own sake” — i.e. those pursuits that are decidedly not utilitarian. Unquantifiable, measureless, as much about input as output, about process as product, about the interior as the exterior, culture shapes us as we shape it.

“Art for art’s sake!” we cry.

Yet, even this fails to satisfy. To sustain and stabilize, culture must stand upon something even more solid than itself; it must refer to the real, to the transcendent, to what is true, good and beautiful.

As soon as it fails in this regard, “culture” empties itself of meaning, becomes about everything and nothing all at once. Designers, artists, architects, writers rev themselves up and wear themselves out in a desperate, futile quest to outdo one another and themselves, to justify their own lack of justification. What simplicity remains is affected, faked; what originality remains is vainglorious and self-serving; what beauty remains is subjective and accidental — and all of it depends upon rarity and exclusivity rather than universality and accessibility.

And yet, and yet, and yet … It’s all so appealing. I read these magazines and my truer, purer, humbler aspirations appear faded and dull, like a homespun dress of sun-dyed cloth.

In this particular issue of WSJ, the prevailing confusion about what it means to be male and female was everywhere subtly evident: In a brief about a new line of “unisex” knitwear, in facing ads for women’s and men’s perfume in which the models scarcely looked different (thick brows, wide eyes, full lips, porcelain skin and a certain effeminate frailty), in a feature called “Gender Studies” that unironically proclaimed something along the lines of “Anything men can do, women do better.”

Obliquely, these articles argued that our maleness or femaleness is not an aspect of created reality, an unchosen given, but a societal construct subject to endless interpretation and reinterpretation.

This argument, I believe to be false — and with a faith born of knowledge from a variety of sources, from the collective memory to objective science  (i.e. biology) to subjective experience to revealed truth.

Yet, packaged in the light and shadowy, slick and glossy pages of a magazine, this lie seems not to wreak the havoc I know it does — seems not to result in, for example, the self-induced, tortured misery of a woman-turned-“man” who wants to “chestfeed.” It seems not to result in the higher anxiety, depression and suicide rates that have been well documented among those with gender dysphoria.

No, packaged in a magazine, androgyny seems cool.

Why is that? I wonder.

Meanwhile, a friend’s wise admonition to read primarily that which I’d like to write cautions me against spending too much time reading these types of magazines at all. After all, I’m not particularly interested to chronicle this “culture.”

Yet, I’m not quite willing to cede the cultural narrative entirely to others, either. I still want to participate in culture-shaping activities, to have a say in what art is exhibited at the local museum, what plays are mounted at the local theater, what movies are screened at the local cinema, what concerts are slated for the local arena, what symphonies are conducted at the local concert hall and what style of architecture is assumed for the newest buildings in our city.

More than that, I still want to create myself, even if only on a “folk” level within my own home — plinking out pieces on the piano, composing personalized nursery rhymes for my babies and writing, writing, writing for my poor descendants who will have to decide whether to preserve my voluminous journals or burn them.

What to do, then?

To create in my own home is obviously within my power — but how to have any kind of meaningful influence on the wider community without yielding to its specious credentialing process — or, more importantly, without neglecting my immediate duty — is less obvious.

Again and again, I come back to the same spiritual disciplines, to prayer, to the Mass, to Confession, to an encounter with the Word in both Scripture and Sacrament. I’m hopeful that a new study I’ve undertaken — Epic, a study of Church history — will also help in this regard. How did the earliest Christians make their homes in the Roman empire? Maybe the answer to that question will provide some clues for us today, as well.

To restate more simply: I’m disappointed in the offerings of the wider culture and consequently wary of re-entering the system by which a person gains a hearing in that culture yet not quite ready to relegate myself to a counterculture. I’m seeking — as so many Christians before me have sought — a way to be in the world, but not of the world.

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