Wednesday, January 4, 2012

I May Not Know Much About Art, but I Know What I Don't Like

Above: Colonel Sanders O'Hara and his daughter Scarlett on board My Old Kentucky Dinner Train.

Comments at my previous post have inspired me to elaborate a bit about one of the major stumbling blocks in Literary Criticism.

We were at the Missouri Governor's Mansion performing our comedy murder mystery Gone with the Passing of the Wind.

The Governor's Mansion is quite beautiful, and both the guests and the servers were in full formal attire. Indeed, the servers were milling about in tails offering drinks to the guests on silver platters - just like you see in those old movies. We were told that the servers were State prisoners on a kind of work release.

The show begins with me as Scarlett O'Hara's father, whom I play as Colonel Sanders. After giving the "top ten list" of his "eleven secret herbs and spices" (which includes "Number Ten, Grease" and "Number Six, Methyl-hydrogenated-polysorbate-butane") the Colonel bemoans the Lost Cause.

"One day," he exclaims, "the South will rise again, and we're gonna make the world safe for slavery!"

Now this is a joke.

And sometimes you have to explain a joke, which I will do now and which perhaps we should have done that night. The joke is a parody of Woodrow Wilson's rationalization of World War I, in use up until this day, that U.S. foreign wars are an attempt to "make the world safe for democracy". And so, in one line, Colonel Sanders O'Hara is poking fun both at 20th & 21st Century Imperialism as well as the less than noble institution of slavery that served as the primary issue behind the Civil War.

A week later, the director of the Mansion called us. "We received complaints about that joke," she said.

"From whom?" I asked.

"From the servers."

The servers.

In other words, the prisoners.

Indeed, most of the servers were black, and they were offended, thinking that I was somehow endorsing slavery (of course, the character I played was, but I wasn't). This is a prime example of -

Confusing the depiction of sin with the endorsement of sin.

The fact that a character in a silly little play I wrote is a racist does not mean that I am a racist, or that the play endorses that character's point of view. In fact, had the prisoners gotten the joke, they would have realized that that line is in that play specifically to make fun of racism. This is why I enumerated as one of my complaints against a Protestant worldview in my last post, "they think that art or fiction that depicts sin is itself sinful, regardless of the context in which or the purpose for which the sin is depicted".

So we have the humorlessness of the prisoners, passed along by their keepers, the politically correct and equally humorless State of Missouri (a slave state until the War, incidentally).

But we see this all the time, especially in Catholic Fiction. One of the reasons our literary output does not attract readers beyond the Catholic Ghetto is that publishers and writers these days tend to be squeamish about the role of sin in a story, and for that matter in Salvation History. We cringe at Flannery O'Connor because we really don't think Jesus Christ would lower himself quite so much as to save the utterly despicable characters in her tales.

This comes from a lingering Puritanism. It is another example of what's in the Protestant air we breathe, and air that has molded even our Catholic lungs.


Mrs. Pinkerton said...

I credit Flannery with almost single-handedly rescuing me from Puritanism.

Now if only something could be done about all those badly-written and/or highly implausible 'Catholic' novels (no swearing, no real conflict, no sin, very little temptation, and everyone who isn't Catholic in Chapter 1 converts to the Church by story's end...)

Anonymous said...

It was not uncommon to use the prison population as a sort of replacement to slavery after the Civil War. Perhaps the joke hit a little too close to home for the people serving at the party.