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Life, Art, Celibacy—Responding to Mr. Damian

I thank Mr. Damian for taking the time to read and reflect on my review of La La Land. If I am interpreting the substance of his critique of my review accurately — namely, that the celibate life, and in particular that of the artist, is spiritually and culturally valuable — I think I disagree little with him. Indeed, the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 19:11-12; 1 Corinthians 7:7-8, 32-35), the tradition of the early Church (e.g. St. Augustine, St. Jerome), and Catholic magisterial teaching all say as much (e.g. Session 24, Canon 10 of the Council of Trent). Indeed, these three sources all communicate that the celibate life, lived in worship to God, is superior to conjugal marriage.

Sadly, I don’t think this is the point of the film. It’s certainly possible the jazz musician Sebastian remains celibate, though given how quickly he and aspiring actress Mia had shacked up together during their budding romance, I doubt it. Mia herself has a child with another man. For reasons like these I assessed the movie not to be a tribute to celibacy and artistic vocations, but electing careerism over love. Indeed, Mia says she will “always love” Sebastian, but they seem to forget one another for years (she obviously has no idea Sebastian has opened a jazz club), and Mia marries another man once her career takes off.

All the same, I’m inclined to think that Mr. Damian and I are simply viewing this movie through different — and equally important — lenses and personal contexts. I see in La La Land the same obsession with careerism that has infected the millennial generation. Mr. Damian sees an ode to man’s pursuit of his artistic vocation and a healthy rebuke of our culture’s obsession with romantic love.  I’m happy to contemplate Mr. Damian’s perspective, even if I think it less reflective of the movie’s objectives. An essential characteristic of art is that it can elicit such different responses and emotions from those it touches.

Mr. Damian’s critique of my review largely relies on casuistry and subtle — yet significant — alterations to the substance of my argument. Mr. Damian says he “got the sense” that I want the main characters to commit adultery simply because I questioned their romantic decisions, and that my disappointment with the ending “pushes toward” such an interpretation. Such expressions are necessary to give such an accusation any merit, since I never actually said that, or even implied it. Moreover, to evaluate a marriage choice as poor is far from suggesting people dissolve their bonds in favor of a romantic tryst. He twice calls my review “condescending,” including labeling my review guilty of “condescension towards extra-marital love, commitment, and creativity.” My review doesn’t even speak to those topics, though I have elsewhere offered respect and praise for the sort of extra-marital love and commitment to which Mr. Damian seems to be referring.

Mr. Damian also claims that I “mistakenly” consider myself external to contemporary Western culture, rather than a “participant, beneficiary, and unwitting contributor” to it. Yet he provides no evidence to substantiate this assertion. I certainly like to think I possess those traits, and that such possession provides invaluable experience and context to evaluate Western culture. Does Mr. Damian believe criticizing a dominant theme of one’s culture necessarily places oneself outside it? Finally, to accuse someone of “ignoring” or “failing to mention” some data point in making an argument — as Mr. Damian twice accuses me of doing — is an unfair rhetorical jab. Such a charges is rarely used appropriately. Yes, it’s true, I didn’t discuss the role of the celibate life in the Western tradition. Thousand-word opinion pieces will invariably exclude many interesting things.

I’m grateful for Mr. Damian’s alternative perspective on the the film, and I believe his points regarding the overlooked role of the celibate life — and its allowance for the pursuit of great vocational and spiritual passions — to be valuable insights. However, creating and then pummeling strawman arguments, and employing tired polemical devices in the process, detracts from that message.

 

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