Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Patron Saint of Cynicism

He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely, in strange way
To stand inquiring right is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong is: on a huge hill,
Cragg’d, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go;
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
-John Donne, Satire III, ll. 75-82
I hit the ground running when I returned to the US last weekend, and now, in the middle of researching PhD programs for the ominous application season ahead of me, I stumbled upon an old friend, John Donne’s Satire III.

I first encountered the poem in the fall semester of 2004, a few months before leaving non-denominational Evangelical churches in frustration that would eventually lead me to the Anglican church. It was the right time for the satire: since I was already conscious that I was interested in giving Catholicism a fair hearing (or, in my brother’s words, since I was already “threatening to become Catholic”), I connected with Donne’s portrayal of the difficulty of the quest to “Seek true religion” (43) in seventeenth-century England; and since the rigor of campus organizations had left me a weary and jaded senior, I connected with his cynicism.

Five years later, I happened to be reading some articles about the satire yesterday in my efforts to familiarize myself with scholars in some of the universities I’m investigating. While I am going to shy away from criticizing Donne himself (him being a genius and all), it struck me that we postmodern critics have turned him into our patron saint of cynicism. “Doubt wisely” could be the mantra of the culture at large, sending the idealistic youths away to universities where we can learn principles to champion for a few years until we exhaust ourselves and realize we cannot change the world and finally leave as jaded adults.

I’ve heard it said that Postmodernism (as its name implies) is best understood as a critique of Modernism, which seems healthy enough; Lord knows there is plenty to criticize in Modernism. But in this Postmodern era, it seems, we have turned criticism into a worldview, as if Donne’s commitment “To stand inquiring right” were in itself a right stance. But not only is criticism in itself not a stance; it is cheap, and, despite the plethora of Colbert/Stewart-2008 bumper stickers back during the primaries, there is nothing innately virtuous in knowing how to spot vice.

A seminarian once suggested to me that I had become somewhat of a relativist or an agnostic within the Faith, sure of some basic principles but despairing of knowing anything else beyond. Take heart, Donne might tell me; “though Truth and Falsehood be / Near twins, yet truth a little elder is” (72-3). After years of becoming a well-trained cynic, the words resound like hope in my ears.

I do hope I became jaded and cynical young enough that there’s still time to grow out of it.


Marie said...

I always want to chase down the folks with the "Question Authority" bumper stickers and add a "but don't forget to listen to the answers" on to it.

I do think it's healthy to question, but not when the questioning is really just blanket rejection in disguise. I get frustrated with the false dichotomy of swallowing it all whole vs. rejecting it all out of hand.

Thanks for the post.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Some day I shall have a bumper sticker:

"'Question everything,' they say. But why?"

Marie said...

'Some day I shall have a bumper sticker:

"'Question everything,' they say. But why?""

That's very funny.

Em the luddite said...

You two are cracking me up! I'm delighted to see the questioners questioned.