“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”—H. L. Mencken
A fault line runs across Western culture. On one side the Puritan work ethic rules the economy; on the other it's something else. In America the line is the Rio Grande; the exception is French Canada. In Europe the line is roughly defined by the Alps; the exception is Ireland.
France, by this reckoning, is at the center of the world, where it belongs. England is across a narrow channel from a Mediterranean country.
So we might say that Catholicism, Roman or Orthodox, is that "something else," though it seems to me that religions arise out of peoples, not the other way around—Nordic barbarians on the one hand, ancient civilizations on the other. South of the Alps people have been civilized—settled, living together, absorbing invaders—for four thousand years (the old polytheism peeks out from Catholicism), while our own ancestors were still roaming the Siberian steppes.
Shakespeare was a civilized man, yes, but his London was barbaric. The British as a people didn’t get there until Victoria, when Puritanism finally took hold. Civilization is middle-class; the aristocrat, Nietzsche tells us, is a barbarian. It’s fair to say that the British have been civilized for only a hundred and fifty years. Not long before that my people painted their faces before going into battle. (See My Racial Profile.)
We mustn’t confuse Puritanism with prudery. Jean-Luc Godard, William Burroughs, Paul Schrader and David Lynch are Puritans, but their work can be pornographic. Vladimir Nabokov on the other hand was prudish, but in no way puritanical.
The Puritan is a dualist: soul/body, good/evil. The world, for a Puritan, is a temptation to be got through. The Catholic is a monist who believes in the earthly paradise. A few adjustments will restore it. When the Pope disembarks from a plane he gets down on his belly and kisses the ground. You won’t find the Archbishop of Canterbury doing that.
Puritanism forbids images. An image is false. Truth is elsewhere. The sources of Puritanism in our culture are Moses and Plato. The second commandment forbids images. Plato banished image-makers from his Republic.
According to Freud’s theory Moses was a defeated Egyptian prince who led the Hebrew slaves away from image-saturated Egypt to establish a monotheism; but when he came down the mountain he found them backsliding, adoring an image, the bull calf—which by the way had also been worshipped in Minoan Crete, as it is today in India and Spain. (The bullfight, says Garcia Lorca, contra Hemingway, is “an authentic religious drama, where in the same manner as in the Mass, a God is adored and sacrificed.”)
To forbid images is to impose abstraction. All three puritan traditions, Judaism, Islam and Protestantism, emphasize reading and abstract thinking. The Muslims invented the zero, a huge feat of abstraction, and algebra, and gave us our numbers.
But the early Church, with illiterate peasants and slaves to reach, had to interpret the second commandment as not to worship “false gods.” Walk into a Catholic or an Orthodox church and there are images on the walls, in the windows, on the ceiling, on the floor. The first thing Puritans do is smash the statues and break the stained glass.
Without the Catholic tradition we wouldn’t have Giotto, Botticelli, Giorgione. There was no Jewish oil painter of note until Chagall. In America, where abstraction is the rule, painting has been reduced to the bathroom tile of Jackson Pollock.
Nor does physics permit images. The imagination is bound by Euclid’s laws: the shortest distance between two points, the three angles of a triangle. Newton built his universe in Euclid’s space. But when our telescopes became strong enough, and our cameras fast enough, to record the movements of galaxies, we saw that they did not obey those laws.
Imagine three equidistant objects: easy. Imagine four: a pyramid on a triangular base. Imagine five: can’t be done. And yet it is so. Five hundred, five thousand galaxies where they shouldn’t be: we cannot construct a model of our universe. We cannot imagine it.
The image induces orgasm. You imagine her even when you’re having her. You imagine her even when you’re not having her. Hence the veil.
Ten years ago in Afghanistan, despite the world’s outrage, the Taliban dynamited giant Buddhas carved in the living rock; they were images and they had to go. Muslims on the other hand were outraged by the Danish cartoons of the Prophet—not so much that they mocked him as that he should have been portrayed in an image at all.
Jean-Luc Godard attacks images; it has been said that film is not his medium. William Burroughs did the same, and refused to be labeled an “entertainer,” though that is scarcely true. Still, these Puritans clear a space for the spirit. If there can be no adequate image of God, or of reality, then there can be none of you, which is comforting.
“I found America the friendliest, most forgiving, and most generous nation I had ever visited. We South Americans tend to think of things in terms of convenience, whereas people in the United States approach things ethically. This—amateur Protestant that I am—I admired above all. It even helped me overlook skyscrapers, paper bags, television, plastics, and the unholy jungle of gadgets.”—Jorge Luis Borges
The Puritan is a moralist; the Catholic a mystic. Consider opera, that Catholic art, that rite that transubstantiates passion into music. What would Protestant opera sound like? It would sound like Wagner—moralistic, amelodic, German. (See Germans.)
The Puritan believes in “character” in the sense, not of what distinguishes you from others, but of moral strength. You stand alone. Monotheism breeds the mono-self. In how many Catholic works (by “Catholic” I do not mean “Christian”) of Rabelais, Joyce, Picasso, does one self melt into another.
And so, in the Hollywood movie, we have the all-important “character arc", in which the lead Learns Something. Are you learning anything? You’re gathering skills, I know that, but how’s the penetration of mystery going?
An Irishman kills someone, and runs north. Burdened by his guilt he seeks out a clergyman and tells him. “You’ve done the right thing coming to me,” says the minister; “now you must give yourself up to the authorities.” “I’d rather not,” says the Irishman. “But you know that it’s my duty to tell them.” He runs. The police are behind him. He goes south and escapes. Still heavy with guilt he enters a church; the confessional light is on; he goes in and kneels in the dark. “Father, I’ve committed murder.” “How many times, my son?”
The Protestant public is outraged that the Church is not punishing more severely the pedophile priests. Character. “So that’s the kind of man you are!” But the Church believes in the forgiveness of sins, right here in the earthly paradise.
Let us not speak of Catholic and Protestant; let us speak of Nordic and Mediterranean. For the vulgarity north of the Alps is just as grotesque as it is in America.
Consider punching. Angry Mediterraneans shout at each other in the street in a manner that shocks Nordics, in that it never erupts into fighting. We barbarians love to punch.
Consider drunks. I live in Greece and so far I’ve met two drunks. Walk down the street in New York, Toronto or London and look around: we’re all drunks. In an Athens grocery store you can buy plain alcohol for disinfecting cuts and cleaning instruments; in those other cities you can get it in a drug store, but it has an obnoxious smell, so we won’t drink it.
Consider farting which, along with belching, is a mode of communication in the Anglo-Saxon world. In Mediterranean countries it’s simply not done.
Oddly, when you think of the disdain of which America is often the target (“America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilisation in between,” said Oscar Wilde), civilization took root on the seaboard before it did in northern Europe, planted there by Puritan middle class intellectuals. The United States is unique in that it is a country springing from intellectual principles.
Norman Mailer said Puritanism was the muscular contraction that brought us to the moon. But it exacts its price in the impulse to legislate morality—the Mann Act, Prohibition, abortion laws, the world’s biggest prison population (proportionately and numerically); in the missionary zeal with which it brings democracy to people who have no use for it; and in its conviction, right down to the bone marrow, that the movement of money is the action of God in the world. Bankers in Protestant countries are priests, their calling invested with high authority, and holy secrecy.
That's the kind of morality a cold climate can produce. The New Age library includes a host of books that will help us adjust our attitudes and become more deserving. (Character again: it depends What Kind Of Person You Are.) And today’s Republicans will stop at nothing to reduce the national deficit and regain divine favor. (See Lorca's remarks on Wall Street.)
Do you see this going away? I don't. American fundamentalists are a political force strong enough to have kept their President in office for eight years and, astonishingly, to have fought Darwinian evolution for a century. No one understands America’s difficulty with this, and it appears to exercise the best of the journalistic minds there. There's no contradiction between creationism and Darwin’s Theory; the Church accepted it a century ago, and the impermeability on this issue is disturbing in such a powerful country. (See The Accidental Monkey.)
Two fundamentalisms now confront each other, Islamic and American, degenerations, both, of once higher cultures. The incidence of suicide bombings on the one hand, and the gunning down of numbers of people at a time on the other, cannot but seem connected.
It was the Puritan poet John Milton who towered over English Romanticism, which was really a kind of secular Presbyterianism, and each of the poets (except the Shakespearean Keats), even Worsdworth in his quiet way, took Milton’s Satan as his psychological model, though Coleridge preferred wailing for him.
Thus was born the Byronic hero, the Puritan rebel our popular imagination inherits. Marlon Brando was its fiercest avatar, but the figure remains—that lonely Puritan rebel is still our dominant model.
Here in Greece, as the world now knows, there is a splendid insouciance about money. At the supermarket, even at such formal places as the bank and the post office, if you don’t have the right change, “Pay me next time.” Which means forget it. There is such an elegance about that, but it makes us positively stutter to confront it.
The characters in my books, like me, hang out south of the Alps, not only because they're paradisiacs but because here they're a little beyond Big Brother's reach.
Ah, but the barbarians are again at the gates.
1) What T.S. Eliot calls the “dissociation of sensibility” set in with the Puritan revolution—a schizophrenic scissoring of the mind from the sense of self on the one hand, and from the world, including the body, on the other. The corresponding Catholic psychosis is manic-depression. Fellini cuts on laughter and tears, and 8½ resolves when Guido’s spirits simply lift.
2) "The romantic temper,” says Stephen Dedalus, “is an insecure, unsatisfied, impatient temper which sees no fit abode here for its ideals." Our own taste for parallel worlds, New Age projections and internet avatars is a case in point: life is elsewhere.
3) Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness see you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.
—W. H. Auden, “Lullaby”
4) Comedy is the Catholic form, as in Dante; tragedy is the other thing. Robert Graves’s Protestant mother and Catholic father fell in love with a house in Wales: “Oh,” she said, “I could die here.” “Let’s live here,” he said.
5) See also Catholic Converts.