There is a scene early in Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses in which young John Grady, about to set off for Mexico, runs into the girl who has recently jilted him. She feelingly, and perhaps foolishly, expresses the vague hope that they might still be friends.
He shook his head. It’s just talk, Mary Catherine. I got to get on.
What if it is just talk? Everything’s talk isn’t it?
An ordinary, even trivial conversation becomes, under McCarthy’s pen, charged with profound significance. I think John Grady’s quiet “not everything” stands in stark, monumental defiance of an unglamorous, garden-variety nihilism lurking under the surface of Mary Catherine’s question, “Everything’s talk, isn’t it?” She is giving voice to a question that haunts a culture adrift among the flotsam and jetsam of postmodernity: is there some ground of meaning that can bear the weight of our words and beliefs? The worry of our age is that Mary Catherine is right – it’s all just talk.
At least part of what drives this worry, I suspect, are the two attitudes or aspects dominant in our (millennial) culture, namely, irony and sincerity. Popular culture seems to be a function of the interplay of these two rival attitudes.
When irony is elevated to the level of a cultural norm, it tends to erode confidence in words, and consequently also in belief. As David Foster Wallace observes in his brilliant essay E Unibus Pluram, if pressed for a reply to the pursuit of meaning, it resorts to mockery: “How very banal to ask what I mean.” In its toxic form, irony either denies outright that there is meaning, or it makes meaning a matter of knowledge, held by an elite few. These are the cognoscenti, who see through the mere symbols and appearances of words to their hidden meaning, which they can control and manipulate.
As a backlash to the corrosive, nihilistic “age of irony,” there sprang up flag-bearers for a “New Sincerity,” which promoted the virtues of (you guessed it) sincerity, honesty, and the sort of studied naivete that declares, “The most punk-rock thing you can do in the age of laugh-at-everything is cry at a movie.” The New Sincerity, by contrast to irony’s “existential poker-face,” makes sincerity or earnestness a value in its own right. The content of belief is not as important as the sincerity of the one holding the belief. What matters is not what you’re earnest about, but that you’re earnest about it.
As cultural norms, both irony and sincerity bank on the colossal presupposition that the fabled terra firma–if indeed it exists–is something we have to construct ourselves. This attempt to make meaning, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger has pointed out, is a Gnostic notion. At the core of all forms of Gnosticism, he declares, is a rejection of created meaning in favor of a meaning that is constructed and controlled. In contrast to the Christian model, Gnosticism fears and so rejects the dependence and vulnerability of receiving meaning. “Gnosticism,” Benedict remarks, “will not entrust itself to a world already created, but only to a world still to be created.”
The Christian vision of reality is the exact opposite. “Meaning,” Ratzinger declares in Introduction to Christianity, “cannot be made but only received.” He elaborates:
For to believe as a Christian means entrusting oneself to the meaning that upholds me and the world; taking it as the firm ground on which I can stand fearlessly.
As he writes elsewhere, it belongs to the Christian faith to “accept love, creation as love, and to make that love the foundation of one’s life.” The creative love of God: here is the terra firma our culture is in search of. Rather than something we ourselves construct, it is something we entrust ourselves to. It is a gift we discover.
For a culture that is deeply ambivalent towards words, the Christian response is characteristically direct: the Word. Jesus Christ is the ultimate guarantor of meaning. At the center of the hierarchy between the Creator and the created, the Word become flesh is the rock supporting the weight of our words. He is the ground on which we can stand fearlessly, and from which we can invite others to believe. If He is the antidote, the treatment (to my mind) is summed up in Wallace Stevens’ observation:
To speak simply of good is like to love.
Implicit in this line is a tremendous trust in language, in words. We should, as Wendell Berry says, “stand by words.” Human words have the power to convey meaning, though at times they may be misunderstood. Yet words can do even more; the Christian is strengthened in his faith through words, which have power not from purely human strength but from the Word Himself. When we speak simply of the good, we speak of the only one who is Good (Mt. 19:17). To speak simply means putting weight on words, trusting that they reveal the thing spoken of. To speak simply means letting the good, the desirable, do the talking. To speak simply of good is an act akin to love.
To return to Ratzinger, belief for the Christian is to understand “our existence as a response to the Word, the Logos, that upholds and maintains all things.” Only on these grounds can we dare to speak simply of good and affirm, like John Grady, that it’s not just talk. On this foundation of love, we have the grounds to believe and the impudence to be earnest.
Image: Horses (Chauvet Cave)