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Mario Perniola
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MARIO PERNIOLA - ANDREW GREELEY II


Here we begin to detect the differences between Greeley's study and my own. His focus is centered above all on Irish Catholicism and its developments in the United States, that is a particular Catholic culture, which is different, for example, from English, Spanish or Polish Catholicism. In other words, the Catholic imagination that he describes is already the result of a process of inculturation and, therefore, it is more an Irish than a Catholic imagination. One must not forget that the Latin adjective catholicus means universal. The problem, therefore, is whether it is possible to reconcile the universality of Catholicism with the individuation of specific characters.
Now, in my opinion, these specific characters cannot emphasize content rather than form, otherwise a relapse in a type of ethnocentrism is inevitable. This identity can only have a formal and methodological character. Let me explain with an example. The Spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola constitute a method for finding one's own way in life, but do not point to the best absolute condition. The validity of the choice is always relative to the premises from which those doing the exercises begin. In effect, they can also be done by an agnostic or a pagan. The ecumenism of Catholic feeling is not a relativistic irenics that wants to get along with everyone but the indication of spiritual methods of reflection and concentration that can be beneficial to everyone, independently of one's beliefs.
A profound difference between Greeley's and my point of view is the so-called enchantment of Catholicism. For Greeley "Catholics live in a world that is enchanted, despite the fact that church leaders and thinkers are incorrigibly prosaic and seem to have hardened their hearts against the poetry of religion". But, in my view, the enchantment cannot be considered a specific trait of Catholicism because it also belongs to many other religions and constitutes, without doubt, an essential element of ancient Greek paganism.
In fact, at the basis of Catholic feeling there is a much more complex experience that one can describe with an oxymoron: an enchanted disenchantment, a nonpartaking participation, an external feeling, etc. This experience found its greatest manifestation in Catholicism between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and is not without its ties to neo-Stoicism. All my work in the last twenty years refer to this experience presented under various aspects and especially in the volume Enigmas. The Egyptian Moment in Society and Art published in English by Verso in 1995. At present, however, it is important to insist on the religious aspect of this experience.
An important key to understanding what is meant by the so-called "non partaking participation" is provided by Ignatius of Loyola when he declares indifference as the fundamental condition for achieving good results in the Spiritual Exercises. He claims that it is necessary to "make oneself indifferent toward all things created in the world in such a way that we no longer desire health rather than sickness, wealth rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a longer life rather than a short one". The Spiritual Exercises, therefore, entail a moment of suspension that the Jesuitic tradition calls, indifference, which is never thought of as a point of arrival , but only as a temporary stage, a transitory stage necessary to free oneself of one's own identity, a zero degree in the will's change of orientation. Ignatius' indifference has nothing to do with quietism, fatalism or pantheism. It is not an abolition of one's identity in the identity of Being, God, the Cosmos, but the overcoming of any obstacle to access the difference of history. It is necessary to become nothing in order to be available to the best. Since the best is extraneous, other, different, its knowledge will be precluded to those who are prisoners of an identity.
Therefore, before the enchantment, of which Greeley speaks, there is a moment of radical disenchantment, "In tristitia hilaris, in hilaritate tristis". In sadness cheerfulness, in cheerfulness sadness, as the Baroque saying goes. The Austrian writer Robert Musil was the great interpreter of this sensibility. He defined it as a relation of "active passivity" toward himself and to things. Ulrich, the protagonist of A man without qualities feels in an impersonal way as if he were not the one to feel: "his behavior is both passionate and unperturbed". This implies a complete detachment to vitalism. To be sure he possesses some qualities but these do not belong to him intimately: "when he is angry something in him laughs. When he is sad he embarks on some venture".
In many other poets and writers of the period between the sixteenth century and the twentieth century, we find this enigmatic convergence between the extreme coldness of apathy and the extreme heat of poetic transport. As a last example I would like to mention Walter Benjamin's analysis in Ursprung der deutschen Trauerspiels (1928) where he shows that the Baroque entails the total abandonment of the medieval path of indignation and apocalyptic prophesying, an earth-bound solution to all metaphysical questions and entrance into a perspective of troubling serenity, of dizzying calm.
The second question on which my interpretation of Catholicism diverges from Greeley concerns the question of the sacred. As is well-known, the notion of the sacred is inherent in a syncretistic intention that aims at comparing Christianity to superstition. On the Protestant and Jewish sides there have been outcries against the notion of the sacred. Memorable is Levinas's phrase according to whom the sacred is the twilight in which sorcery flourishes. Furthermore the same opposition between sacred and profane has been put into question in most recent studies. The inherent risk in Greeley's position is that of comparing Catholicism too much to forms of popular religiosity that verge on superstition.
My proposal moves into another direction, toward the ritual. It connects to a whole series of previous studies that are collected in the volume Ritual Thinking. Sexuality, Death, World. In this work the notion of a ritual thinking is outlined and is very different from mythic and functional thinking.
It is essential to Catholicism to attribute to the institution a determining importance. As it has been rightly observed, the Catholic Church has never recognized as its own the movements of reform that in the name of freedom of the spirit or of faith have set themselves free from any relation to the institution. At the same time, however, to the essence of Catholicism is extraneous that close relation between institution and ideology that characterizes modernity. Catholicism has been obliged to move on ideological ground in order to react to Enlightenment. The Restoration of the first half of the nineteenth century is precisely this reaction within which Catholicism still finds itself today. It has transformed it in an apparatus whose strength seems to depend on the adherence to a doctrinal system and to meticulous moral precepts. In the world now exits a hiatus between catholic identity, on the one hand, and the actual knowledge of the dogmas and the deep-seated belief of the correctness of the norms, on the other. This discrepancy is generally considered a sign of superficiality and opportunism, if not of bad faith and hypocrisy. It would seem that Catholics, even more than Protestants, have difficulty internalizing the moral and cognitive aspects of their religion. In other words, it seems that they are lacking the coherence and transparence as a result of an historically sedimented propensity for tendentiousness and simulation. This accusation hides a profound misunderstanding of Catholic feeling which is not subjective, and least of all ideological, but ritualistic. On the other hand, this misunderstanding has been somewhat helped along by Catholicism itself, which has been obliged to engage in a relation of mimetic rivalry with Protestantism and Enlightenment, instead of reflecting independently on the specificity of its own feeling. For this reason, it was said that Catholicism is amongst the least known of the great religions.
Published in "Paragrana"(Berlin), Band 12, 2003, Heft 1 und 2
Copyright©MarioPerniola, 2003



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