No Angel: Second Thoughts on Sarah Palin

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

East Lansing, MI. Mark Mitchell’s brief essay on Sarah Palin reminded me of a Treasonous Clerk installment I wrote back in November, contemplating the significance of Palin’s persona for American politics and culture.  Though an instinctive admirer of Palin’s populist attributes, much as Mitchell does, I then was troubled by the nomination of a married mother of five to the nominally second-highest office in the land insofar as she was nominated thus specifically as an avatar of the conservative defense of the family.  At first glance, it appeared that her candidacy for a public office was intended to protect or, rather, to re-establish appropriate reverence to the private-realm roles of women as wives and mothers.  The situational irony was greater than in those television advertisements that instruct us to do something other than watch television, such as talk to our children.

Upon reflection, of course, it became clear that Palin did symbolize an American conception of the family but not a truly conservative or traditional one.  She represented adequately a rightly insecure, inexorably conflicted, and definitively American, vision of womanhood widespread today: the woman who can be wife, mother, and wage slave, who can “balance” maternal and job-market authority without apparent sacrifice.  I observed then,

Palin represents very closely the kind of life a broad swath of Americans live or would like to live. Her attractive smile, husband and five children, dual-income household, indefatigable community service that emerged from her role as a mother (PTA, Mayor, and then, not quite seamlessly, Governor), mirror what a great number of American women want. Her expressed femininity, instinctive pro-life stance, no less instinctive opposition to homosexual “marriage,” and blithe belief that almost anyone could enter the upper reaches of the middle class if government got out of the way, all comports well with the core convictions of most suburban and rural Americans.

The word “core” I use advisedly, for Palin symbolizes a contradiction at the core of contemporary American life. Many of us want to believe that dual-income families are not a necessity brought on by an unstable service-and-finance economy (one which, in turn, contributes to that instability), but the advent of greater individual freedom; that a mother can work long hours outside the home without compromising the bonds of love and dependency in the home; that marital and sexual choices are mostly private, but that social stability can best be maintained if we minimize the challenges to the nuclear family as the privileged economic (rather than political) unit. Above all, many of us want to believe that, so long as that privileging of the nuclear family remains in fact, all kinds of behavior are legitimate personal choices, by which we really mean they are equally legitimate and morally indifferent consumer choices. We want the home of the nuclear family preserved as a site for consumption but not as a good whose preservation requires routine sacrifice. We want to be able to “have it all,” as the phrase goes, to make choices between various consumer items all of which eventually can be had. “I’ll have a quick lunch today so I can go browse at The Gap” is, in this scheme, little different from “I’ll have my two kids without delaying (much) my career.”

What we do notwant to be reminded of is that most choices are not consumer choices: they are not between various commensurable goods that we may elect in succession and without sacrifice. On that score, it matters little that those hard-working journalists uncovered photographs of a young Palin as a Beauty-Queen-also-ran; it matters much that she remains attractive after having had five children. She demonstrates that one can have children and not look as if one had five children; one can reap all the benefits of the body without compromising the body’s fitness to consume and consume again, to reap and reap, to choose and choose without having to make irrevocable decisions. Nothing determines you, Baby! So feel free to refashion yourself according to your latest desires.

I tried to diagnose this curious chapter of contemporary American political history as an expression of that classic liberal disease Jacques Maritain described as “angelism” or “the suicide of the angels.”  In his Frontiers of Poetry, Maritain condemned those modern artists whose works sought to defy the very conditions intrinsic to their existence; that is, modern art seemed to aspire to a condition of pure spirit and thus expressed a contempt for material beings, for matter itself, even though by definition a work of art is a material thing.  In an earlier essay, Art and Scholasticism, Maritain emphasized that

art does not reside in an angelic mind; it resides in a soul which animates a living body, and which, by the natural necessity in which it finds itself of learning, and progressing little by little and with the assistance of others, makes the rational animal a naturally social animal.  Art is therefore basically dependant upon everything which the human community, spiritual tradition and history transmit to the body and mind of man.  By its human subject and its human roots, art belongs to a time and a country.

What can be said of human artworks can be said with greater emphasis regarding the human person.  Maritain would extend this Thomist critique of modern art to modern thought in general, drawing out from the shadows of the marketplace, the Third Republic, and the Sorbonne alike the Cartesian idealism that infected them — and which even more dangerously infects us today.  Modern persons feel a tension between their mind and their body; their mind seems infinite and would be truly infinite if only the inconvenient impositions of the body would cease to limit its progress to total self-domination and self-determination.  If the mind can think of anything possible — as surely it can — then it ought to be free to impose all possible thoughts on the mute, innert material world.  Angels do not commit suicide; they are pure spirits by their very nature and so are not subject to the limitations an individuated bodily exsistence implies.  When the human person seeks to become pure spirit — not by asceticism, which is an acceptance of the body’s dominion and an attempt to allay and endure it, but by the reconception of his body as a possession of the mind, separate from it as a suitcase is from its owner — he risks “suicide.”  That is, he risks killing himself, by thinking himself something other than he is: an angel rather than a man, a pure intellect rather than an embodied one, an unbounded infinite spirit rather than a conditioned rational animal.  When we pursue this course, we become fallen angels, the arrogance of our aspirations plunging us into that rare sort of unhappiness, where we hate most that which makes our earthly lives possible: our individual bodies.  And we show our hatred, most often, by treating what we disdain as a worthless but greedily hoarded tool of our pleasure.

Like most modern Thomists, Maritain rightly saw in Thomas Aquinas’s conceptual realism a series of principles upon which human flourishing depended and against which modern philosophy, politics, and culture uniformly reacted with contempt.  Human beings are compounds of form and matter.  Our rational souls are analogous to the Intellect of God, and thus inform us that the human person is more than a material individual; he may rise to the divine in contemplation, and his soul may ultimately, in some eschatological sense, triumph over the material conditions of the body to which it is ordered (a triumph that the Christian knows will not leave the body behind but rather will super-fulfill it in a divinized form).  While this is so, even our kind of intellect — our native discurive reasoning — shows the imprint of the body.  We think our thoughts in parts and sequences, because our intellect is divided in consequence of its dependence upon the organs of the body to function.  If we were non-material, our intellects would not be so subject to temporal sequence, but we are and so they are.  Contra Descartes, there is no “mind/body” problem, because form and matter, body and soul, constitute a single human being; they interfuse one another.  The reason knows nothing that it does not learn originally by means of the body, and so we may say it transcends the knowledge of the body only if we can entertain the expression that a house “transcends” the ground on which it is built.

The mind is ordered to the body, but distinct from it; this has proven a hard doctrine for the unbalanced modern mind to accept.  As Maritain many times insisted, even if there is in fact no mind/body problem, bad philosophy can make it appear thus.  And so, we moderns are often Cartesians without knowing it (and not only because, as Tocqueville said of Americans, we have not read Descartes).  We devalue and try to dominate that which we should accept and to which we should submit ourselves.  As Jason Peters and Patrick Deneen frequently remind us, our culture is characterized primarily by this angelism or “gnosticism.”  We try to dominate the body of our life with the reason of our spirit, just as we would dominate the body of this world of which our very selves are small parts — Nature, or Creation.  Rather than recognize that the God of Nature intends the soul and body to constitute one being, we seek to live better and better, bigger and bigger, more ravenous and more lustful lives by embracing the relatively infinite series of desires the mind may conceive even as we seek to overcome or set aside the finitude our bodies would impose.  That our “infinite” desires are almost invariably just bodily desires says nothing against this hypothesis; for it is the essence of angelism, or gnosticism, that one can do what one wants with a body that is unimportant.  No amount of whoring robs the Cartesian man of his dignity, for he pretends that his mind dwells high above, independent and sealed off from, the hand that drops the trousers.

Back in November, I saw Palin as just the latest expression of this liberal gnosticism, this fundamentally anti-humanist angelism.  And I do think I was correct to view her thus: or rather, to view her selection as the Republican Vice Presidential candidate as a repetition of the false conservatism of Ronald Reagan, which pretended to acknowledge and accept the inherent limits and fragile dignity of human nature even as it ultimately advocated a remaking of the world (after the fashion of Thomas Paine) in the image of our disembodied, and so ungrounded, intellectual aspirations.

Did Palin put on knowledge with her power, and suffer the sudden blows of both?  Did she resign for the sake of her children and her family?  Or even out of recognition of her own individual human limits, which surely must have been taxed by the onslaught of ugly media attention and continuous, slimey insinuations in the electro-angelistic precincts of the internet?  The attempt to reconcile the image of a private-realm wife and mother with the public authority of the executive was so intellectually incoherent that the press clearly could not figure out how to treat her.  Could they ignore her family life, her private identity, when that was what her candidacy for public office symbolized in the first place?  I doubt the press gave the question much thought, actually, though it exposed the incoherence even as it showed forth its own vile conception of the worth of politics and human dignity.  I know that I could not bear the kind of attention to which Palin was subjected through this rank confusion — but, I observe, I would also never have sought it in the first place.

While I confess to suspecting her resignation was precisely what all the talking-heads are spouting: a risky political punt intended to play field position for a future run at national office, let us for the moment think otherwise.  Let us hold open the possibility that this was the last chapter for Palin in the age of spectacular politics, and that the conclusion is happy: having sought to violate the limits that natural life imposed upon her as a wife, mother, business partner, and — happily for her — provincial American, Palin concluded that one may not have everything.  One cannot be everything to everyone, one cannot float disembodied through the cosmos like a Cartesian angel, but must live in a particular place, with a particular community, in a particular body.  If that was her discovery, she is far wiser than most Americans; she will not simply return to private life, but may in an exceptional way recover a life that embodies what it means to be human (which, of course, in part means to be embodied), a sign of contradiction in an age saturated with the surgically or digitally altered monsters of monitor and screen.  Most of us would do well to learn from her experience rather than to rationalize our own limitless concupiscent desires by means of her public image.  For, while young meritocrats are in their dorm rooms, swallowing pills to study for success; while women with hearts full of desires for celebrity are having their breasts stuffed with silicon; while the passive vegetation of Middle America tunes in to find out what Vanna is wearing and what new obscenity it must find funny; while soldiers and children drop dead in Kabul so that we may raise ourselves up on the altar of consumption; perhaps the Palins will be sitting down to dinner, dreaming no longer of becoming principalities of this world, but talking instead of the God of Our Fathers.  As the poet Brian Coffey once wrote,

All the passions meet at the dinner table,

all men’s history ever was or will be

uncoils its features while we serve the food

In the acceptance of human limits, we find human freedom.  In the refusal to have everything, we discover those few things worth having.  In the domestic church of the family, the highest hopes of earthly life are to be found.  On frank confessions of weakness do we found the life of virtue.  If only all the murderous urges and angels of our age were brought to earth once more, they might at last find a condign happiness.

  • Share: