One of my enduring movie memories is of the last scene of White Heat, a Cagney crime epic about an evil little monster; a guy who doesn’t care about anything except getting his, whatever he may think his is, or ought to be his, no matter how he gets it. I grew up with, went to school with, worked with and arrested guys like the Cagney character. Is Trua Mor! The world is full of them. They come in all sizes and shapes, appearing in the oddest of places, at the strangest of times; and professing, quite often, their friendship and good will.
The Cagney character was not like that. You knew him for what he was, a bad fellow through and through. But, it was a piece of fiction, that thing, and Cagney was playing the villain.
I haven’t much more memory of the film than the scene of Cagney atop a huge gas tank screaming out, “Look, Ma, I’m on top of the world!” He empties his gun into it, and then the thing goes off. The film ends. And, I suppose, the world is a much better place. At least, that’s what we are supposed to conclude.
If my memory is correct, his mother was a foul thing, too, who supported the beast she had borne in all he did. Yes, some mothers are like that, in so many different ways.
This was what I was thinking of while reading an article that appeared today, yesterday, last month, it doesn’t matter, really, in the New York Times. That rag’s like Poor Johnny One-Note; and Cagney’s character type, an obviously sick and twisted man, rarely appears in it’s many pages; at least not so crudely displayed. Nevertheless, it appeared to me as I read what I read. How odd, I remember thinking, I should be thinking of an evil thing destroying himself and the world he was atop.
The “gala” in question, which occasions what follows, was something at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City called Heavenly Bodies – Fashion and The Catholic Imagination
Anyway, Ross Douthat wrote the article that The Times printed. He’s a Catholic, and a kind of conservative fellow, if you have never heard of him before; so you would be right in thinking that the article I read was about some bad things being done by good people, and them finally getting a clue that what they were doing was, well, as my Aunt Violet, may she rest in peace, would say, not in good taste.
You would be wrong. Dreher doesn’t hit them with a forty gun broadside, as he might have. Maybe it’s because he’s writing a piece for the New York Times. You know the folks who run that thing, and the kind of folks who read it. They’re like the thing itself, paper, fragile, thin, good mannered and delicate. But, very good for wrapping gifts, or fish; both paper and people.
He does throw a tomato…sort of. Here, you read it, and tell me what you think.
Cardinal Dolan (Big Tim) was at the “Gala” Dreher writes about, along with a bunch of other swells and usual suspects fiddling while Rome burned right before their eyes. You can bet Timmy was as hearty and ebullient as ever. So too was the famous Jesuit James Martin, the twitterer of note, there, mixing with the swells at the orgy. I imagine him as a butterfly before the flame. I’ll bet he’s a good dancer, and a “safe” one, too. He’d probably make a bundle on a cruise ship in the Carib; Mass in the morning and a fox trot with the old babes at night; all good clean fun, ad majoram Dei gloriam, don’t you know.
One other guy had a few words about the whole bloody thing, this Ross Douthat guy who does not write for the NYT. His reaction to the whole matter is here.
He’s not as sweet on Catholic chic as his colleague, and definitely not as sweet as the Jesuit journal America, whose reporter gave the event a Vogue treatment. Of course, what would you want? It was fashion, really, and culture! And, fashion and culture in this instance and many another of similar meaning and purpose resemble, for me at least, and a lot of guys I grew up with, nothing so much as Necrotizing Fasciitis. Faith? Religion? Prayer?
Well, not here. Not now. Well, possibly with the possible exception of and exclamation about the color of the fabric, the silhouette of the gown, the eyes of the model and how such things got started way long ago; and, well, were really from another more simple age. So, maybe never.
Many years ago I attended an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in DC. There was a rare appearance of some painting or other by a Dutch Master, the real painter not the cigar. Thousands of people lined up to see the thing. And after a long wait, they did. So did I, from a distance like the song says. It was in a big room, and far away; a little thing surrounded by the true believers in beauty, and art and stuff.
I looked, but mostly at the “swells”, and left. There was a low, almost prayerful murmur from them, and some ever so reverent pushing to get near the “icon”. But, it was near noon, and I was hungry, and I knew this crowd wasn’t breaking for lunch soon, or possibly anytime when they could huddle, massively, reverently, before a little painting of a young girl, and whisper prayerfully about beauty, talent and genius.
Back in the corridor I struck out for the cafeteria, walking almost alone in that general direction, following my nose, a few other folks, and wondering about what I had just seen, and why I let things like this make me want to throw rotten eggs. Along the way something caught my eye. It was behind glass, a small piece just to my left. I stopped because it was unusual, a cup, a chalice to be exact; a gold chalice covered with jewels. It was beautiful.. According to the sign it was the chalice of the Abbot Suger, he of the Abbey of Sant Denis over in France. You’re not sure you recognize the name? Here, let me help.
Abbot Suger comes to us via 12th century France. He is responsible for the beginning of Gothic architecture, was Regent of France for a few years when the king, a guy he went to school with at the Abbe of St. Denis, just outside Paris, where he was named the abbot and started the Gothic style while remodling the crumbled old abbey church. Along with that, he instituted a number of clerical and monastic reforms, bringing them back to a better observance and understanding of what their work as clerics was all about, and why it mattered. Stuff I have no doubt the Cardinal and the dancing Jesuit I mention above are, no doubt, much better able to discuss than I will ever be.
I thought about Suger, his chalice imprisoned now in a little niche in a museum filled with trinkets, baubles, stuff and well dressed gawkers. I felt sorry, really, for that lovely chalice behind the glass then, somewhat in the same way that sorrow came over me when reading about the “dress up” at the other museum in New York. And, I wondered most recently if that fellow whose sacramental blood that imprisoned chalice once held would have schmoozed with all the “big players”, or would he have done something like he did in His “Father’s House” long ago.
I have been thinking about that chalice imprisoned behind glass in a cell along a corridor in Washington; thinking about it and crowds swirling around a tiny painting only yards away, and the other crowds, the ones playing “dress up”, and smiling, glad handing Cardinals, and slithering priests in a well organized and very, very expensive mockery of the good, true and beautiful; all of it in the name of that most frivolous and ephemeral and essentially useless thing: Fashion.
Back to Cagney and gas tanks, and suicidal explosions… I can’t get over the fact that there is a connection in my mind among the White Heat scene, the violent, spectacular suicide…the anti-hero’s chosen reward, the pinnacle of his career…the humbling imprisonment in what is literally a hole in the wall of a sacred work of art from the age which gave birth to the beauty of Catholic worship, and the beauty of gothic art and architecture….and the parody of faith, art, and worship at that “thing” in the museum.
One museum reduces a beautiful instrument of faith to an afterthought, a comma in its story of civilization, when it is actually the vessel of salvation, more precious for its use, and beauty, more sacred to memory than every museum in every place.
The other fills itself with fools, and their foolish pastimes.
Well, there are museums, and there are museums. In one sense they might be thought of as very classy garbage dumps, or attics where are stored things like the cup Grandma Squonk kept her uppers in every night. That’s right alongside Uncle George’s old Victrola, and the bell clapper from Berry Lane Methodist; all that was left after the fire.
And, then there is the other kind: daring, edgy, popular, filled with all of the things that have altered and illuminated, or will, the tired, the bored and the blind; things like a jeroboam of urine containing a Crucifix, or “The Holy Virgin Mary” , the real title of an ugly eight fool tall horror covered in elephant dung worth somewhere in the millions.
Of things like this are such evenings made which capture the presence and approval of our high and popular clergy, all the right people and the madding crowd ever in search of something new, something fascinating.
No wonder, then, the churches are empty, while the dance floor is filled, while the cocktails never run dry; nor does the wine steward need ever worry.
Perhaps the only true thing is found in the fiction of the film, the only honest thing. There we learn again the rewards of frivolity, of “chic” and eventually of sin and evil; in the end death, always.
Memento mori. Vita brevis breviter in brevi finietur.
ps: By the way, one can get a pretty good knockoff of the chalice for $62.73 from Walmart. I might just send one to His Eminence Timmy, The Cardinal Archbishop of The Big Apple. He could use it while doing that thing Catholics do.