Narrative Capitals/7 - Bad culture chases good existence away

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 24/12/2017

171223 Capitali narrativi 07 ridBut when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. (...) But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

Paul , Letter to the Galatians (2:11; 14)

Life has its fullness that in itself has the power to satisfy and satiate. The moon, the dawn, the sunset, pain, love, a gaze, a child, are more concrete and true incarnate words than the words we use to describe them. If this were not so, we would not understand why most people, yesterday and today, do not know how to compose poems or theological essays, yet they can touch life at the same depth as the poet or the philosopher. It is this direct access to the mystery of existence that really makes us all equal under the sun, before the many differences and inequalities, whether they are good or bad. And that, perhaps, makes us occasionally able to feel a true universal fraternity with animals, plants, and the earth, that we feel alive, just like ourselves. But, as it often happens, this infinite richness can also be transformed, in some cases, into a form of poverty.

The primacy of life assumes a special force and scope in collective organisations generated by ideals and/or charismas. Life always comes first, but when that life fills itself with spirit and gives rise to community of meaning, the experience can become so satisfying that we believe that there is no need for more than the life we are already living.

“Beautiful things should first be done, then thought about” (Don Oreste Benzi). It’s a wonderful and true phrase. When later life continues and communities grow thanks to that first beauty, there comes a time when we should start thinking about the beautiful things we're doing, and to do them well we need ‘beautiful’ cultural categories like the life we are living. But often, dazed by the fullness of present life, one easily passes from the right and natural primacy of life to the absolutisation of its experiential dimension and ends up preventing that same life from being expressed in all its beauty, strength and duration. The fullness of the present empties the future.

And it is precisely in this dynamic between life-and-that’s it and life that is so alive that it should flourish in culture, and encounter important and often decisive challenges and pitfalls. Life suffices, it is true; but in collective ideal experiences life really suffices only if that life becomes culture, too. History tells us that in order for a collective novelty to continue beyond the season of its foundation, it is not enough to continue living the novelty. It is also necessary to know how to think about it in order to be able to tell it with the right categories and words, which should contain the same degree of novelty as the actual experiences.

In the early days, the personality of the founders, the almost infinite vital energy and the blinding light of novelty manage to cover the need for suitable categories and language; for a long time we live and grow convinced that there is no need for any cultural or theoretical work. But in reality, and from the outset, communities have to use categories and languages to live and speak. And so either they decide to try to 'manufacture' the instruments they do not yet have, or they simply buy or borrow them. But the more original an experience is, the less good instruments already existing on the market will be found. Also because when a community novelty is born, that novelty is a novelty of life and culture, too. But unlike life-and-that’s it, cultural novelties do not ripen spontaneously: there is a need for intentional and specific work to bring them to existence - and that rarely happens.

It should not be surprising then that the re-absorption of innovations generated by communities and ideal-driven movements in tradition is the most common outcome that historical evidence shows us. Because the use of wrong and/or old categories found on the market simply results in the downsizing of the novelty experienced and lived. Bad culture chases good life away.

Today many spiritual communities (but also some beautiful civil enterprises and cooperatives) risk extinguishing themselves because they have not done a specific cultural work on their identity in the appropriate time, and, as they keep telling about their newness in a culturally bad way they are gradually losing strength on the level of life. The wrong cultural categories are transformed into a bed of Procrustes (a rogue smith from ancient Greek mythology who forced people to fit the size of an iron bed by stretching or cutting off their feet - the tr.), where those novelties that do not fall within the overly narrow measures are amputated. And what's left out is necessarily the surplus between the old and the new, i. e. the greatest and most original innovations of which they were the bearers. For these (and other) reasons in ideal community experiences, the new wine of life ends up in old narrative wineskins and disperses. They are beautiful experiences - told with inappropriate languages.

Furthermore, there are some typical errors committed by those IDO-s that have understood the importance of building new cultural categories. The first consists in confusing cultural categories and language with spiritual categories and language. A first work is started but it stops too soon at the language and spiritual or religious principles, which are generally the first languages that are born together with the experience. However, cultural work would consist in the transformation and universalisation of both the experience and its spiritual/religious language, which in these cases does not happen because the input is confused with the output of the process. And so the novelty does not grow because it is confined in places and languages that are too narrow for it.

Culture needs spirit and flesh, the wholeness of life, if that life is to grow and bear fruit. In this type of work, guessing the appropriate time is crucial, because it is much more difficult to correct fake cultural categories, than to start from scratch. And if a lot of time goes by, the borrowed categories are introduced into the flesh of the ‘charisma’, and everything becomes too difficult.

A second mistake is to think that this cultural work should be entrusted to an elite of intellectuals or professors. This way it is forgotten that culture is much more than intellectual work, because it needs the life and thought of every component of the community, including the life and thought of the people, work or the poor. Categories and language that do not serve life are elaborated, and they end up only removing and discarding intellectually less well-equipped people, and encouraging the creation of new castes.

Finally, there are communities that begin their work by defining a priori what the experts will have to study in order to confirm and strengthen them culturally, but without calling it all into question. This work, therefore is not done with the freedom of spirit that any true cultural work would require, and we end up reiterating only the pre-cultural beliefs that were already known, convinced that we have carried out a cultural work - that has never actually begun. In the history of Christianity, truths and dogmas have emerged at the end of a free and non-dogmatic cultural work place that has lasted for centuries, from dialogue and harsh confrontation with heretics and schismaticists, from the crucible of dialectics between very different visions. The accounts of the truths of the Christian faith have been many and varied since the beginning. Four gospels, Paul's letters together with those of James and Peter, in continuity with a Jewish Bible where Job and the Song of Songs, Daniel and Qoheleth coexisted. The Old and New Testament have not become a sterile ideology because they were multifold and pluralistic, because, using different voices and the tension among themselves; they have said truths that are greater and more complex than those possible for a single story. Without the conflicts between Paul and Peter, which took place before the composition of the Gospels, those Gospels would have been much poorer and perhaps lost among the many ideological, apocalyptic and Gnostic texts of Palestine and Syria.

In many IDO-s, on the other hand, we work on the cultural mediation of the ideal message with a mandate of orthodoxy for non-negotiable truths, and so the essential elaboration of language and categories ends up becoming an poor exercise because it is homophonic, producing a shrinking of life instead of representing its universalisation and blossoming. It becomes a leash that prevents the free flight of the charisma, or confines it within the perimeter of its cage. One gospel alone is not enough for the IDO to tell its miracle.

Good cultural work is never a simple translation of an already existing reality into an essentially identical reality, told in another language. This is typical of ideological operations and their ‘organic intellectuals’. Cultural work is not a technique, but it is the unveiling of novelties that were not seen before and that would not be seen in its absence, it is discovering that the organisations that seem brand new were already present in tradition, it is the unmasking of the highly abundant ideological infiltrations in IDO-s and that ideals and life end up suffocating without a systematic and free cultural exercise. Paul not only translated the first Christian proclamation, and similarly, Bonaventure and Thomas (Aquinas - the tr.) did not simply translate the charismas of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic: they innovated and created realities that we would not have without their ‘charismas’. They allowed the ideals of their founders to have larger wings so that they could fly higher upwards and so reach to us. In every real cultural operation, there always hides the risk of heresy and betrayal, a risk that often stops the real and necessary cultural work from being born.

To be able to try to say the infinite novelty of the first Christmas night, it was not enough to tell the stories of the shepherds or those of Mary and the first disciples. Without new charismas, without time and much work, no one could have written that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. The gospel has been able to enchant and change the world because it is a wonderful story. The first new wineskin in the gospel is the gospel itself.

The desire for Christmas has never disappeared on earth. It is we who have stopped telling its story for some time now, with the beauty necessary to enchant our colleagues, friends and children today. All they are waiting for is to be told, with new words, that God became a baby in a woman, that he was born poor in a cave, and was reborn from his tomb. Merry Christmas!

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