Three Ways of Looking at a Mess

The Apartment

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There are several reasons why I live alone—as an only child, I intensely value my privacy and personal space—but one reason is that I’m messy. Not “leaving the dishes from tonight to do tomorrow” messy but “leaving the dishes from Monday to do on Sunday” messy. Dishes, vacuuming, washing the sheets, picking up dirty clothes off the floor—these, for some reason, can feel like oppressive tasks even when banging out a twenty to thirty page seminar paper over the course of the weekend seems like a piece of cake.

Despite all of this, I’m not a hoarder. I don’t like my messes, I don’t find myself cultivating them, and—when I do get around to cleaning—I’m inclined to chuck even perfectly usable items into the trash just to get them out of the way. The messes in my life don’t feel like a part of me; rather, they feel like something out to get me. The brief joy of a clean apartment quickly becomes a reminder of the triumph of entropy.

I throw a lot of parties, largely to give me the kick-in-the-butt I need to get things clean. I may be able to live with my messes, but heaven forbid that anybody else get to see them. I’ve flat out kept friends on my doorstep while I ran in to grab something because I won’t let them see how I live. Messiness is a source of embarrassment, a sign that I don’t have my life fully together, an admission that my attempts at ordering, sorting, and systematizing all ultimately come to naught.

The Portfolio
Essays 31/365 #365photo #PDSmemI teach Freshman Composition and I recently submitted the portfolio of one of my students for a prize. This student is incredibly bright and brave; throughout the course she wasn’t afraid to ask intense, searching questions about identity and the nature of the self. She wasn’t afraid to approach texts in all their complexity and she even made a valiant effort—one that she knew was doomed from the start—to try and say everything about the topic of “the self” in her papers. While she was perfectly capable of writing well-constructed, self-contained academic essays, once she branched out into these bigger questions—once she threw herself more fully into the topic—the essays got messier.

In writing some reflections in support of her application, I had to explain to the judging committee why they should acknowledge these messy essays, why they warranted their consideration. I told them, finally, that they warranted consideration precisely because of their messiness, because “identity is messy, experience is messy” and that—though the student’s wrestling with questions might not always be “neat”—it was, in the end, very raw and true.

Any well-trained high school writer should be able to write a “five-paragraph essay,” in which three pieces of evidence will be neatly marshaled into three neat paragraphs to support a very tidy little argument represented in the first paragraph and re-summarized in the fifth. There’s nothing wrong with a five-paragraph essay, of course, it serves a useful purpose. It does, however, place limitations not only on writing but also on thought. It’s difficult to transition high school writers into college writers precisely because there is no longer a set template that they can just plug their argument and evidence into. At a certain point writing—and the thought that goes into it—becomes a bit messy.

The Theologian and The Mystic

"Homo unius libri" ~Saint Thomas AquinasWhen I was first being drawn towards Catholicism, I was very attracted by its rigor. But I was also attracted by its mystical tradition. There’s an unfortunate tendency to view these things in opposition, to claim that mysticism is “fuzzy” and that good intellectual theology is “rigorous.” And perhaps mysticism is a bit messy—but this is not the opposite of rigor. Rather, it is laziness that is the opposite of rigor—not “messiness.”

Logic, tucked away in a vacuum, seems very clean. It seems very rational. It seems very self-sufficient. The trouble is that when you push it to its limit, it starts to seem rather messy and not too far from madness. G. K. Chesterton says something to this effect in Orthodoxy, when he writes that madness—so popularly associated with the artistic temperament—seems much more likely to be the offspring of rigorous thought than of flights of fancy: “Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. […] Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is a mental exhaustion.” Leaving aside Chesterton’s penchant for hyperbole (there are, after all, insane poets), the main point—I believe—stands.

It’s fashionable these days—particularly in religious circles—to make “postmodernism” into a great boogieman. The term itself is so poorly defined that we would perhaps do best to simply leave it aside. Suffice it to say that several critics labeled “postmodern”—I think especially of the French thinkers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault—make a point very akin to Chesterton’s. In short, they point out that much of Enlightenment thought—particularly its suspect assumption of a pure immanence in which the being of objects is grounded within them—terminates in absurdity if you try to tie this assumption to the more grandiose Enlightenment claims for Nature, Man, and Rights that purport to follow logically and reasonably from the earlier assumption of immanence. The trouble is that there’s no way to cross from the particular to the universal, from the finite to the infinite, or from the immanent to the transcendent without a “leap.” Logic alone isn’t going to get you there. In their own, varied ways Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre all saw this—as did the French post-structuralists. All of their work, of course, is a bit messy. Most have been accused, at some point, of being “mystical” or—worse—”literary.” Of lacking in rigor. Of being unreasonable. And yet, they all seemed to arrive where they were by pushing thought and reason to their limits. What is encountered, then, is not the “irrational” but the “suprarational.” [For more on poststructuralism’s critique of the Enlightenment—and its potential to be something more than just a threat to Christianity—the Cambridge theological movement of Radical Orthodoxy is particularly instructive.] The Ecstasy of St Teresa

I say all of this to argue that it is perfectly sensible—possibly even the very sign of sanity—that the Catholic Church counts among its “Doctors” the supremely rational Thomas Aquinas and the supremely mystical Teresa of Ávila. The Church values reason but it refuses to make a god out of it. It recognizes the vital importance of suprarational experience but it understands that this is not a substitute for—but rather a fulfillment of—theology and doctrine. In this way, it is messy. But that seems only fitting for a religion self-consciously built on paradoxes like the trinity and the incarnation. A religion that worships a God that eludes any attempts to too neatly systematize him.

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3 thoughts on “Three Ways of Looking at a Mess

  1. Pingback: 7 Quick Takes—07/26/13 | Catholicism for Cutters

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