The Black Sun Notebooks: 2. Extreme Liberal Catholic

Since I last wrote about Dave Coates’s response to TMdlR, and about Joe Kennedy’s Authentocrats, last September, a few things have happened. TMdlR published substantial excerpts from a new poem in Poetry, America’s most prestigious magazine of its kind. This launched a degree of Twitter controversy, and (justly) a lot of traffic back to Dave’s blog. PN Review published a lengthy response by Henry King, who edited the TMdlR article that Dave draws on most substantially. Most recently of all, Poetry have responded to the controversy by inviting TMdlR to offer some self-justification. As before, you’ll probably want to click on those links if you want a sense of what’s going on.

King’s piece overlaps in some respects with a few of my misgivings about Dave’s analysis, even if I find his overall argument about ‘argument’ spurious and his tone condescending. (To sustain the convention, my only previous knowledge of King was from a poetry conference we both attended back in 2016, where he distinguished himself by asking Man-Questions of excruciating range, force and opacity. He hasn’t changed much.) I agree that it’s probably better to label TMdlR a ‘conservative’ rather than a ‘fascist’ – though ‘fascist’ is a label that, as no-one seems to have noticed, Dave tellingly never assigns to the poet himself, and it’s a finer distinction than King thinks. That Dave misinterprets “At Lullington Church”, to my mind one of Black Sun’s more useful poems for positing a way out of its dominant politics, by seeing Yeats in it at the expense of the Corpus Christi carol – though the fact that this happened says more about TMdlR as a poet than Dave as a reader. And that Dave’s analysis of Anglican political theology is a bit sketchy – though it’s a fudge which Dave’s happily conceded to me privately and, again, works out more as a judgement on Anglicans than on him. Dealing with these will involve a bit of a circuitous journey through some embarrassing bits of my own personal history, but I do so because they explain why both TMdlR’s work and Joe’s arguments in Authentocrats get me so het up.

So, yeah, I am, like TMdlR, a member of the Anglican Communion. This means that I am, de facto, something of ‘a monarchist and a unionist’ whether I like it or not. It’s the established church of the UK, the Queen is its head, and prayers for the wise governance and prosperity of both are a distinctive feature of its tradition even if they’re not universally a part of its contemporary worship. It really, really pains me to say this, but I believe that Dave’s appeal to ‘the anti-imperialist, anti-establishment consistencies in Jesus of Nazareth’s thinking’ is beside the point. Even if you can trace such ‘consistencies’ in the words of Jesus as historically recorded – and I’d argue that’s a harder task than Dave lets on – Jesus’s final words to his disciples, the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-17; Acts 1:8), are an explicit call to establish something. What is established may or may not be “the establishment”, but its purpose is to be the continuing orthodox (literally, “right-teaching”) expression of Christ’s saving work, inspired by His Spirit, so that we no longer need to hang on His personal example quite so literally. I have faith, and am encouraged to call others to faith, not in what Jesus of Nazareth thought but in what Jesus Christ did and continues to do through His Church. I’d argue – though a lot of other people wouldn’t – that such a faith actually gives me better justification to be ‘anti-imperialist’ and ‘anti-establishment’ than one which expects me to imitate the particular thoughts and actions of a first-century man, not least because that model would itself bind me to a particular, modern, Western understanding of how subjectivity and agency works.

I wanted to review Black Sun in the first place because I felt sympathy with a poet who, in Terror, was taking this orthodoxy as seriously as I do: to return to the poem I quote at the start of my Scores review, that he has his sights on an eschatological horizon in which ‘all things’ will be gathered up in ‘the great economy’ of Christ’s Second Coming. We have always – to lift what is, in isolation, a nice phrase from TMdlR’s new piece – to set the brute fact of the crucifixion against the ‘small, gigantic hope’ of ‘faith’ in the resurrection. For both of us, the ongoing formation of Christ’s Body is simultaneously a personal and a political question: if sin is located both in my individual actions and in the fallen condition of humanity, any identity that I have as graced is intimately bound up in my responsibility to and gifts from the redeemed world in which I live. So, how Christians prepare themselves and their world for it (and what role non-Christians will play in it are) necessarily vexed and uncomfortable questions, but not ones that I feel I can entirely shy away from. We are all, to lift a nice phrase from Dave’s writing, drawing lines between Jesus’s body and the Church; between the cities that we live in and the City of God towards which we are heading; and between those metaphors themselves.

These lines can be drawn in many ways, arguably all taking their cue from Augustine, but not all necessarily ‘conservative’ let alone ‘fascist’. Once again, it’s worth lingering with what is actually involved in holding TMdlR’s views, or views adjacent enough to his that they might have some degree of resonance with the soundbites he gives in his poems and essays. I know people who believe that one of the most sustainable ways to ensure a compassionate option for ‘the poor and the outcast’ is to have a Christian monarch who sees it as their duty to advocate for them. I think that this belief relies on a hugely tendentious reading of how British monarchs have historically behaved. But it’s one that can be held in concert with a variety of other political opinions, including (albeit to varying degrees of good faith) socialism and anti-racism. Likewise, it’s explicitly stated that the resurrected City of God will be, er, a city – and will gather together worshippers of ‘every tribe and tongue’ (Revelations 7:9). There’s a question as to whether this essentialises the division of people into tribes and tongues, and thus enshrines something like the nation as a foundational mark of identity through which the Kingdom is theorised and brought about: a ‘spiritual “nation” that includes England, but isn’t identical with or reducible to it’. But, as the irresolution in King’s own phrasing here suggests, that vehicle itself is riddled with its own fissures and uncertainties.

I dwell on this in an attempt to convince you that opinions of how the church should organise itself, and organise itself in relation to the state, sit more askance to standard left-right political questions than Dave and indeed TMdlR seem to assume. It requires a lot of effort for me to convince myself. But I do so because I worry that an ignorance of these kinds of distinction lends itself, however incipiently and unintentionally, to an expectation that Christians publicly repudiate “bad” members of their faith in order to mark themselves as politically “good”, an expectation that most of us know not to demand of Jews and Muslims. My faith means that, at the end of the day, my politics is eschatological before it is utopian. The terms for what a perfect world looks like are already determined, and promised, in Christ – even as those terms become the basis for infinite speculation, speculation that I am free to prosecute on broadly left-wing terms without reducing it to the expression of a “religious left”. Put simply, I want to go to Heaven with people I disagree with.

This sounds like the most extreme possible version of centrism: we’re going to be listening to others’ points of view, “seeing people as people”, and engaging in open debate for all eternity! Indeed, I’d argue that authentocracy, in its British form, is ecclesiologically structured: that it has some of its theoretical origins in the way that the Church of England in particular conceives of its own coherence and its relation to the state. Because the now-established way in which the established church has sat askance from the political spectrum is not by fleeing entirely, by replacing it with a left-right-and-centre one. Before there were “extreme liberals”, there were “extreme liberal Catholics”. It’s worth dwelling on the one occasion when Joe mentions the Church in Authentocrats, as a contextualisation for his reading of The Vicar of Dibley. He describes Dawn French’s Geraldine as ‘the model of the easy-going, compassionate Anglicanism that seemed to have got on top in the Church of England’s interminable ideological conflict in the early Nineties’ set over against the Tory ‘squirearchy’ of David Horton. This ‘on-topness’ is played out within each episode of the sitcom insofar as it’s the sheer force of Geraldine’s ‘warm-hearted pragmatism’ that wins out and brings about ‘conciliation’ between her and Horton. The trouble is that it’s hard to claim a reconciliation and a victory simultaneously: David is never defeated so emphatically that he doesn’t come back next episode. Joe thus effectively lines The Vicar of Dibley up with other representatives of 1990s pop culture to accuse them of failing to have any more rigorous response to the Tory ancien regime than mockery, leading to its contemporary return as post-liberalism.

From another angle, however, the sitcom can be seen as doing pretty rigorous ideological work at the level of contemporary church politics. (It’s worth remembering that it began while the first female priests were still in training – and that what the decision to ordain women has in practice led to is a protracted, often painful process of rolling institutional reform, to assure that those unable to accept female priests can sustain their presence within the Church of England under appropriate leadership.) What is never really at stake in David’s and Geraldine’s conflicts is any concrete difference in their personal faiths, or the overarching shape of how it is expressed. As Michel Serres famously shows at the start of The Natural Contract, the defining agent in any dramatized conflict is the environment within which that conflict is circumscribed: in this case, Dibley parish and its traditional, broadly “Prayer Book Catholic” churchmanship. The sitcom is a testament to the Church’s capacity to cherish its own strategies for operating as a via media, a delightfully dysfunctional family of people with wildly different churchmanship who somehow manage to all get along in the end. One of the odd features of TMdlR’s argument for a return to ‘neo-Georgian ruralism’ is how hard he tries to make it not about his own political opinions. He proposes ‘a deep political shift from the left to the right’ not, apparently, out of a desire to propagate conservative politics, but to renew poetry’s ‘radicalism’. If we take it as a given that ‘radicalism’ has been hollowed out to the point of meaninglessness here, what TMdlR actually seems to be proposing is a strange kind of diachronic centrism: taking it as given that it is a good thing that there are a variety of ways of doing poetry (aesthetically and politically) and that, if we can’t manage all of them at once, we are at least duty bound to allow each to have their turn ‘on top’. Strange, but also congruent with the broad principle by which archbishops – and often bishops as well – are chosen in the Church of England, to allow different strands of churchmanship a say.

This is fine, and often important, as a means of good church management. However, faced with its rapid decline in numbers and prestige at the end of the twentieth century, some in the Church of England increasingly realised that it could shore up its survival at the heart of the establishment by extending this thinking beyond its own backyard. It transfers this capacity for reasonable mediation onto its position within the public realm as a whole, serving as a kind of moderating, “sensible”, neither-left-nor-right influence on national politics – often by effectively eliding politics into ethics, and framing questions in terms of kindness and compassion. This ultimately relies on a mimetic fallacy: the hope is that the sheer similarity between the operations of church and state can occlude how this is a construction through which each sphere bolsters the credentials of the other, and how there might be alternative ways to imagine each of them, or imagine them together. The post-1997 neoliberal compact in Parliament might have stopped this fallacy from becoming too apparent but, with a break looking inevitable as soon as the Brexit stalemate is broken, a lot of mainstream Anglican “public theology” has acquired a distinct air of panic. It often feels like the Church is invited to behave like a third major party: with the Tory Brexit psychodrama unleashing increasingly xenophobic or libertarian strains, and Labour uniquely poisoning itself with anti-Semitism while somehow gathering hordes of new vapid metropolitan clicktivist members, Anglicans are the last people left in public doing (grittily) “real” stuff like feeding the poor and educating your children, as an expression of the values that nourish our “traditional” common life. It remains to be seen whether this rhetoric would survive a national shift to the left, and the emergence of a more functional social democracy in which our foodbanks and above-average schools cut less ice than they did – or to the right, executed by a state with stronger material (and martial) forces to make everything look “traditional” than the Church either could or would want to provide.

It’s in this environment that the most ambitious of the political theologians associated with Radical Orthodoxy – the theological trend that came to dominate “high” Anglican theology in the late 1990s, partly in response to the political shifts I’ve been outlining – have doubled down: helping to found Blue Labour in John Milbank and Adrian Pabst’s case, advocating for Red Toryism in Philip Blond’s, and in all cases getting increasingly jumpy on Twitter. Post-liberal thinkers like these are far more trapped in the liberal order they assume they reject, as their eschatology begins to appear oddly indistinguishable from Third Way end-of-history. One could imagine a vision of community coherence in which different ideas, views, traditions jostle up against each other, perceived to “rise” and “fall” but without the high material stakes that those words imply. But the simpler, underlying narrative structure of sin then grace, Passion then Resurrection – a structure ultimately as comic as an episode of The Vicar of Dibley – is in practice the structure that itself has a tendency to win out and end up ‘on top’ over the messier one. Church (and state) unity is figured as something that we are moving towards better versions of, more than it is something that is already intractably here among us and to be grown into: grown into in ways that aren’t under any pressure to look ‘better’ by any standards we can measure on this mortal plain, because to do so would require a platform from which we can stand outside and count up the fine details of how everyone feels.

Ah yes, feelings. Last time, I described TMdlR, and these post-liberal thinkers with whom he’s congruent, as addicted. I now want to offer an overlapping diagnosis in exploring how they’re structurally anxious. Because I know what being an anxious Christian feels like: I hope I’m not too melodramatic in saying it’s structured my life up until very recently, and I’m still working my way out of it. Tomorrow’s post will be heavily autobiographical because I want to own up to my complicity in enshrining a post-liberal worldview – or, more precisely, that my religious development up until now has been such that post-liberalism has always (and I think I mean this quite literally) been the demon on my shoulder that I’ve had to answer to, modify, position myself in relation to. By naming it as a demon, I hope to give post-liberalism a kind of free-floating conceptual ontology that doesn’t correspond precisely with the thinkers who espouse it. I’ve tried to give up yelling at post-liberal theologians on Twitter, and even here I don’t quite want to position myself as arguing against them (because, of course, the worst thing about the contemporary Left is how people endlessly try to “correct them”). I’m trying to offer a model, to be accepted or rejected, of how someone like them might step out from the assumptions which structure their thought, recognise the damage that it has caused, and begin to think differently. This is a tricky to say and attempt. I might not get it right. It’s a question of tone.

I’m worried that the idea that tone might matter to all this, and that tone is inextricably tricky, is itself out of earshot of most of the people I’m arguing against. They have applied a kind of rigorous formalism to how argument works: “argument” is a specific way of using language identifiable through a precise set of rules and techniques with Aristotlean terms; what lies outside such rules is necessarily irrelevant external to argument; it can have significance, but that significance ultimately adds up to briefly shutting argument down until it can be appropriately reformulated. We all get worked-up and lose our cool now and again, but let’s take it outside for a moment, and then come back into the room when we’ve worked out how to see eye-to-eye again. What isn’t allowed for is the idea that argument’s boundaries might be fuzzy, might exist in a complex relationship with other ways of addressing people which it doesn’t codify, and that those other modes of address (as Dave emphasises) might be the ones into which any engagement with fascism pulls us. This is what creates the perverse conditions whereby one of the arguments you can’t have with good learnèd centrists, who know how to argue better than to you, is “you can’t argue with fascists”. Dave shows himself to be the wiser man than Henry King by recognising the limits of this formalism. King’s leap to assume that those who rebuff Dave’s arguments are painted by him as ‘beyond redemption’ strikes me as an overdetermination, and a mark of junkie centrism’s circular logic: the only rhetoric that can serve as a mark of somebody’s underlying respect for others is one which fits with a predetermined benchmark of ‘reasoned, respectful argument’; I don’t need your intervention, I’m fine, really. King strikes me as deaf to the variety of tones that can be read into the final sentences of Dave’s post, which to my ears invoke pity as much as condemnation, a frustration with an imagined reader’s inability to listen that is ultimately as disappointed as it is angry. One of the disheartening things that has come out in response to my last blogpost, despite my best attempts to cut it off at the pass, is a playing of my critical tone off against Dave’s: as if my ‘solemn prose’ is, by another mimetic fallacy, the better way to talk about TMdlR’s work than Dave’s polemic. This is bullshit, and it can fuck right off and die in the ditch where it belongs. One of my hopes for a counter-post-liberal critical culture is that it multiplies the range of tones that criticism might take, and the depth of our attention to those tones.

And I hope that it will renew a counter-post-liberal Anglican ecclesiology as well: a recognition that we don’t just resolve our differences once we’ve found a common “culture” or set of authorised principles on which to talk to each other, but explore our differences in the most intimate ways we talk. We’re not good at this: notably, in early 2017, a call for a better ‘tone’ in our debates about institutional homophobia suddenly emerging when there was a block to the process of passing legislation through General Synod. The idea that tone and doctrine might be problems of the same order and magnitude remains unimaginable, and it suggests a finite, impoverished theology of language.

I finished writing these posts as the new issue of PN Review came online, and a fresh wave of controversy started about its now-clearly-hardened editorial stance on guarding an idea of some agreed-upon poetic “craft” from those who seek to disrupt it with “identity politics”. I don’t really want to add more fuel to this tedious fire, as much as to highlight the ways in which it’s of a piece with my problems with King’s writing, and speaks to a problem at the heart of how the magazine sees itself. The possibility that we might come to a better understanding of argument by more rigorously embracing that which is apparently beyond its terms is as unpalatable as Sandeep Parmar’s idea that what is registered in poetry as “identity politics” is in fact the expression of crafts deeper, more exciting and more ethically challenging than the white imagination can dare to contemplate. What is unpalatable is the idea that the concept of race itself might, as the title of Karen and Barbara Fields’s book suggests, be a matter of craft. Will Harris’s ultra-recent description of a mainstream craft-driven poetry that involves ‘silent labour’ and no-one ‘raising their voices’ uses the same metaphor that I’ve tried to work through with the “tone” problem.

It’s also, to my ears, crypto-theological: poetry is the kind of perfectly harmonious music, set aside from the ways of the world, which, even at its most jubilant and expressive, can be registered as fulfilling some of the same ultimate functions as reverent silence; the kind of music-plus-silence that might, in effect, be used to describe a traditional church service even if it’s an imperfect description of all the awkward noises and bum notes which will inevitably punctuate it with discord. I’ve long wondered why so many devout Anglicans seem to have such crap taste in poems – or at least taste that doesn’t speak to particularly broad and deep engagement with recent publications and debates in “the poetry world”. The established sense that we meet God in that which is distinctively or richly “poetic” doesn’t square in obvious ways with someone who’s read the poetry of Hera Lindsay Bird or Keston Sutherland or… well, many recent poets apart from TMdlR. I’ll return to a sketch of another way to do “poetry and theology” that accommodates this variousness in the final post this week. (I should credit, here, Fr Richard Peers as something of a shining exception: for one thing, his praise for Jericho Brown and Raymond Antrobus suggests an engagement with ongoing conversations about poetry and race.)

Right. Still here? Tomorrow, as I say, I talk about the relationship between my faith, my politics and my own long-then-short history of anxiety. Having admitted that, on Thursday I attempt some loving-as-possible diagnoses of how a structural anxiety beds itself into post-liberalism. On Friday, I go back to the PN Review “mainstream” problem at full force, and use a reading of “At Lullington Church” and its (mis)interpretations to identify some ways in which TMdlR might not be beyond redemption.

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