Giles Fraser: Misery is not a spectacle

by
17 November 2010

My colleague Canon Mark Oak­ley recently made the point that the reason why we are advised to fear God is not that God is some sort of tyrant, but that God is the Real, and what we are being invited to fear — quite wisely — is reality itself. This seemed to me a very interesting interpre­tation.

Yet, the more I think about it, the more problems I have. Sitting in a therapist’s chair, for example, I can see how reality might be something of which one can be afraid. This reality is scary, but ultimately liber­ating. And, yes, that sounds like God. But Canon Oakley didn’t say “reality”; he spoke of God being “the Real”, which is one of those phrases that point to the work of Jacques Lacan, a thinker whose work is notoriously tricky.

“The Real”, explains Terry Eagle­ton, “is traumatic, impenetrable, cruel, obscene, vacuous, meaningless and horrifically enjoyable. . . It is the stain of senseless material contin­gency which the symbolic order can never assimilate.”

The philosopher Slavoj Zižek begins his book, Welcome to the Desert of the Real (Wooster, 2001), with a disturbing story about the playwright Bertolt Brecht, who, on his way back from the theatre one night in 1953, passed a column of Soviet tanks on their way to put down a rebellion. At that moment, Brecht confessed to having been tempted to join the Communist Party. As Zižek explains: “The harsh­ness of the violence as such was perceived as a sign of authenticity.” And the at­trac­tiveness to Brecht of the vio­lence of the Soviets was that it was real.

To experience the Real is thus to suck up as much disturbing and violent reality as one has the strength to handle. This, let us say, since Ibsen, is just what some tradi­tions in the theatre have taken to be their task. We pay our £20 (or more) at the box office for a lesson in the grim drama of human misery — as if the middle classes are being schooled in “horrifically enjoyable” reality itself.

Christianity, in contrast, believes reality has a redemptive face. Reality is shot through with the good and the beautiful. What, then, is there here to fear — other than our own sin under the judgement of love? So, yes, a great deal to fear.

It involves exposure, too. But the turning of misery into spectacle served up for applause — no, thanks. I am with Oscar Wilde in his sus­picion of the aesthetics of realism: “The man who calls a spade a spade should be compelled to use one.” I will stick to the Desert Fathers. There is not much to be dug up in the desert of the Real.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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