Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Latin Mass: What is modern?

I had a pleasant tea with Eliot Girl last week. Part of the discussion revolved around modernism. It really did revolve around; despite our best efforts we never got near to anything that might be called the heart of the matter, or, to be modern about it, we never got anywhere near the still point of the turning modern world.

That isn't surprising. I've watched all sorts of people, including hundreds of academics, try to define "modern" and "modernism" over the last thirty-five years of my life and I can't think of a single one of these definitions that didn't end up feeling random. The problem is not figuring out where to go but rather where to start. You need a fact or, more likely, a solid set of facts to build your definition of modernism on. This for the simple reason that you have to be able to describe what the world was in order to say that the world has changed or must change (and modernists never seemed able to make up their minds about which of those two options would be the launching pad for their revolution). And that is just as true for the person coming along today with the goal of explaining "what modernism was" as it was for the young rebels in the early twentieth century who were trying to say "what modernism is".

There are two huge obstacles in the way. The first is that it has gotten much harder to simply lie about the past. That was what the Enlightenment figures did. They made up a straw man of a past and beat it up but good. Every movement that has sought a deliberate break with the past since then, including modernism, has attempted to do likewise. But the trick is far harder to pull off now; there are just too many people with access to media who know you are lying and will call you on it. Galileo was not a hapless victim of superstitious clerics who refused to look into his telescope, there never was a Copernican revolution, the Victorians did not cover the legs of their furniture nor were they particularly prudish about sex. Most importantly of all: there never was a period in history (ever!) when everyone shared a common and comforting understanding of the world and their place in it that was later shattered by any of the following, either singularly or in combination, science, Enlightenment, political revolution, social change, economic change, technological change, Darwin, Marx, Wagner, world wars or any of the other "revolutionary new stuff" we might want to conjure up.

The second obstacle is that there is something ridiculous about the notion of artists as self-appointed leaders of the culture. In military use, it makes sense to speak of an advance force or avant-garde because there is a commanding officer who sends the soldiers who will make up the avant-garde out. He sends them out into an area where he later means to send his main force. The artist who claims to be leading is just making their best guess about where the world either is or should be going. And the rest of us think, "Who appointed you?" Even today, a time when modernism is about a century old, you could not honestly argue that the leading figures of modernist art and literature guessed where the world was going better than the leading figures of politics or plumbing did.

And before you get all excited and start citing examples, consider just this example of non-modernist art:

That's the work of my buddy Leonetto Cappiello. Beautiful isn't it? It's also very modern. It shows a modern subject, doing a modern thing, using modern techniques. On top of which, it is absolutely brilliant. It isn't and wasn't modernist however.

Behind this work is the fascinating coincidence that two very different words, meaning very different things, that look and sound similar. The two words are "espresso", which means coffee made by forcing hot water under pressure through coffee grounds and "express", which means something for an express purpose and, more specifically, a train or bus that will expressly take you to a particular place without stopping anywhere in between. That poster sells you not only coffee but also a wonderful new world in which steam power, which drives both the water that makes the coffee and the train, makes a wonderful new life full of convenience, pleasure (espresso tastes batter!), speed and comfort.

And colour!

All this in 1922! You don't exactly get the sense that the artist was haunted by the memory of the carnage and disillusionment of the first world war do you? This poster was produced the very same year that Eliot's The Waste Land was published. Both are very modern but they portray two very different visions of "modern". And it wasn't just him, that poster had to convince millions of people who saw it that Cappiello's vision of the modern world was their world. And it succeeded.

Now we could get into a very long, and tedious argument about which vision was "better", I put the word in scare quotes because no one with their wits about them would willing choose Eliot's world over Capiello's. A huge part of Eliot's claim is that we don't really have any such choice and there he was clearly wrong.

And it's not just that. Cappiello needed  to make a living so we can't say that he made a philosophical choice in favour of capitalism and mass production. Regardless, however, of how much he did or didn't think the choice through, there is no denying that he made the better choice than did the modernist artists in those areas.

And this has what to do with the Latin Mass? Well, I think we are in a good place to look at the choices that were made and think seriously about what their real impact was and wasn't. It was ffty years ago yesterday that Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican 2 document that set out the objectives for liturgical reform was promulgated. The reformers didn't pay an awful lot of attention to what that document actually said. They, like avant-garde artists, had their own ideas about where the world was going and the inexcapable fact is that they were wrong.

I don't, as some may think, advocate returning to the Latin Mass. But I do think we should revisit it as a starting point and rethink the changes. The "modern" world that  the liturgists foresaw when they started their reforms never came to be.

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