Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Motific Overture

Fans of musical theater know how an overture works. Before the play begins, the audience is treated to a tasting of the sundry songs they may hear throughout the piece. In overtures from the likes of Rogers and Hammerstein, these are pretty baldly presented in something like a musical montage, one set-piece after another with sometimes abrupt transitions (a full stop with a boom from the timpani, a crash or a cymbal, or, in The King and I, perhaps a flourish of the gong). But in more sophisticated compositions (such as those of Leonard Bernstein, for example), these themes are interwoven in more subtle ways, becoming musical motifs that will resonate throughout the rest of the play: certain chords that will make a reappearance at crucial points in every song, particular instruments playing a single measure that later comes to be associated with one particular character, and so on. And it's fun once you've experienced the play a first time to note, on a second encounter, how this tightly interwoven foreshadowing in the overture works.

We similarly often reflect back on the careers of great movie directors, or writers, or statesmen, or yes, even Popes, and trace how early overtures can be observed to set out the motifs which in a way become hermeneutics for understanding that individual's legacy.

For Pope Benedict XVI, for example, his coinage of the phrase "dictatorship of relativism" is a monument in his career that helps elucidate his overall project and legacy. So, too, many have seen his famous Regensburg lecture as an important touchstone in interpreting his papacy and his intellectual oeuvre. There are many other examples one could offer.

Anyway, the reason I'm thinking about this today is because - at the risk of foolishly prognosticating - I think we've recently seen Pope Francis introduce one of those motifs in his own 'opening overture'. It's one of those coinages like "dictatorship of relativism" that could become something of a catch-phrase for his papacy: namely, the "globalization of indifference."

Francis introduced this theme in his recent homily at the Mass he celebrated during his visit to the immigrant island of Lampedusa:

Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: "poor soul…!", and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!
[...] The globalization of indifference makes us all "unnamed", responsible, yet nameless and faceless.
[...]  We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – "suffering with" others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!
In a globalized and information economy, a technocracy in which day-to-day life seems to track at an ever faster pace of chaotic hurry, this sense of anonymity and atomisation increases with every passing year - even though this problem has been complained against and warned about since at least the beginning of the last century (one thinks of poets like Eliot of Auden, for example).

Interestingly, this isolating totalization of inhuman and structural forces above the level of individual or community action which nevertheless impacts the lower levels of society has been seen most graphically in our modern history in totalitarian states (or the fictitious dystopias written about such): in other words, it's striking to me that this "globalization of indifference" is itself a kind of "dictatorship." One wonders: is this just a name for the same complex of phenomena Benedict called the "dictatorship of relativism"? Or are these two things separate facets of larger forces at work within the broader spirit of the age?

In any event, I think this phrase is a fertile source for reflection and perhaps should become a monument in Francis's project moving forward, a helpful remembrance from early in his papacy that might aid us in understanding how things develop from here on out. Even if not, it will still have been a fascinating note sounded in the overture and worth savoring in its own right; and I for one will be thinking about it more in-depth in the days and weeks to come.

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