One of the greatest opening sentences in all of literature is from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground: “I am a sick man… I am an evil man.” Sick men we may be. But there is a myriad of ways to be “sick.” Many of these ways, sadly, arise in the wake of lost love’s despair; a despair that also carries a proclivity toward perversion and addiction that can turn any man— honest or knavish— into a bordello beggar or a frenzied chaser of the fille de joie. For what man, after all, has not—as Rakitin says somewhere in The Brothers Karamazov—experienced the particular feature of a woman that leaves a knot in the stomach?
And has it ever been more difficult than in our age of right angles, of crystal palaces, of 2×2=4—the hegemony of the esprit de géométrie over the esprit de finesse—to resist the perversions of the beautiful? Do not the callipygian Venuses wending our streets, along with the dryads in the trees and the sylphs in the air, evoke ancient memories of cupolas, domes, ogives and spires breathing enchantment, pointing to transcendence? They used to be everywhere. I mean the curves: the flying buttresses, the thrusts of the groin vaults, the nymphs in the woods and the amaranthine Beatrice in the city—they were mirrors and portals enveloping and pouring forth an aesthetic economy of concrete transcendence.
The question I’m trying ask is to what extent does ugly architecture actually impede moral reasoning, and in particular, erotic and sensual reasoning? Surely, at least to our modern ears’ obsession with the purely pragmatic, this query sounds a bit vague and ridiculous, the remnant of a somewhat precious and romantic concern of a religiously nostalgic and tortured aesthete. But this opinion—that there is a profound ligature between architectural beauty and the evocation of desire for the good, true and beautiful—has a longstanding tradition; and, perhaps rather ironically, is even an idea hinted at in a recent interview with popular atheist philosopher Alain de Botton, who ponderously asks:
“… the wonders of religious architecture, how come we’ve forgotten all of that? How come modern architects don’t know that good architecture is part of being a good human being?”, and that “one root through which evil reaches us is through ugliness”.
Shall we, then, be surprised when the only shape that breaks the dullness of our modern architectural boxes and subdivision gridlock of squares, is the mysterious and fearful symmetry of the human body? Does not the nature of the spaces we inhabit affect how we perceive the bodies that live, move and have there being amidst them? And if these spaces are seen and built merely for pragmatic use, what’s to keep the mind from viewing the bodies therein as also mere products to be bought and sold and ultimately exploited as consumer objects? This is what cultural critic and philosopher David Bentley Hart calls the “pornography culture”. Likewise, in Hart’s remarkable essay on American culture, America & the angels of Sacré-Cœr, he writes: “The American religion does almost nothing to create a shared high culture, to enrich the lives of ordinary persons with the loveliness of sacred public spaces, to erect a few durable bulwarks against the cretinous barbarity of late modern popular culture, or to enliven the physical order with intimations of transcendent beauty. With its nearly absolute separation between inward conviction and outward form, it is largely content to surrender the surrounding world to utilitarian austerity. It could not do otherwise, even if the nation’s constitution were not so formally secular. It would not have the imaginative resources. It is a religion of feeling, not of sensibility; it might be able to express itself in great scale, but not as a rule of good taste.” What calamity, then, shall fall upon us when the modern utilitarian and Euclidean eye meets the ancient verse of what the 18th century sensualist philosopher, Johann Georg Hamann, called the ‘Poet in the beginning of days’?
Perhaps it is shame…for the divorce we have erected between fact and value. ‘Shame’, that most dastardly and antiquated of words that we modern, progressive sophisticates have striven so hard to expunge from our meager cocktail party vocabularies. You know, if only we could achieve its erasure from our cultural memories we would be ushered forth into that medieval jargon-free chiliasm of pop-psych secularism, equipped to the brim with the soft billowy clouds of Playboy mansions and pink rubber strawberry scented dildos and glow-in-the-dark vanilla bean flavored condoms. This is cultural progress.
Perhaps I’m being a bit too willful in my diagnosis of the modern sexual appetite gone awry: namely, that the architecture of a culture is a mirror image of the structure of its thought, and that, in consequence, the architectural privations will be overcompensated by means of perverting the imagination in whose intrinsic nature lies the desires to taste and see the beauties of creation, including our own art. Thus a culture’s lack of an economy of beauty will ultimately lead to the violent struggle of two structures of thought warring with each other: an original eros desiring the perfect harmony of transcendence and immanence with a counterfeit eros possessed of an insatiable will to power and to devour. The triumph of pure utility over meaning.
All this to say that, over the weekend, I saw British film director Steve McQueen’s much talked about film, Shame. It is certainly not for everyone to watch, as the NC-17 rating makes clear. It is a raw capturing of the inferno of sexual addiction with very little work left to the imagination, which may be precisely part of its genius and cathartic urgency. For to leave room for the imagination in a movie like this could result in the viewer’s thinking, “Ah, surely such a pleasurable thing couldn’t lead to such despair…” In a sense, then, the film follows Flannery O’ Connor’s advice that, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” It makes you think to yourself, “That could be me”, or, “That is me”, and that action is required not tomorrow, or in a few hours, but precisely now.
The architecture in the film is thoroughly modern—everything is pragmatically minimalist—from the smallest minutiae of the furniture to the suffocating box happy buildings of New York City. Everything seems to be composed of right angles, a damning closure of anything hinting beyond the violent amphisbaena of the modern ego – except, perhaps, for the lambent portent of Glenn Gould’s Bach permeating the film like a nimbus in the night. (The soundtrack is quite good.) And the only scent of iridescence left in this environmental wasteland is the libidinal “last men” (see C.S. Lewis’s poignant little book The Abolition of Man), these saintly bodies of ours, waiting impatiently upon the eve of our self-abolition, unwilling to be tamed by our own determinations, moving at the whims of a gnomic will and gazing strangely at each other as both prey and lover on melancholy lit subways. What frightful monsters we are to each other, what supernal infinity paints the countenance of man, of woman? Why is our soul so tragically downcast?
But there is a prophetic aspect to Shame. As Kent Dunnington writes in Addiction and Virtue: Beyond Models of Disease and Choice, addiction is “a kind of embodied cultural critique of modernity and the addict a kind of unwitting modern prophet”, because addiction is a “sort of counterfeit worship.” The addict in Shame possesses the urgent need to give himself completely over to something—indeed, anything—and a desire to devote himself to the idea that maybe this time the act will usher forth the kingdom of satisfaction, a peace that surpasses all understanding in an age of unbearable anxiety. Elsewhere, Dunnington perceptively writes that, “addiction provides what consumers do not believe exists: necessity. Major addictions can therefore be interpreted both as a response to the absence of teleology in modern culture and as a kind of embodied critique of late capitalist consumerism which this absence has produced.”
The addict is a kind of prophet. But if the addict is to be a prophet, he must also become a comedian—in the Dantean sense. He must, in other words, begin to act otherwise than in vice. And there are all sorts of hints throughout Shame that it is only in the action of virtue—however feeble its initial burgeoning in the will—wherein the divided self can transcend the will-to-vice that has become, for so many of us, our second nature. Hence the first scene in the subway and the last scene in the subway hint at two wills divided, and the virtue, at least to begin with, is simply being aware that one is divided. As Kierkegaard writes: the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.