Wishing You A Post-Modern Holiday! 

Our staff intellectual wonders, “What is Christmas? If you follow me.”

Once an acquaintance said to me something like this: “I don’t believe in first marriages. The only authentic marriage is the second.”

I puzzled these words over, wondering what they would mean for the never-married but newly in love. If you feel convinced that you’ve met The One, should you tell that person to wait a bit while you quickly get married to someone else, then divorced, almost as if this were a necessary medical procedure you have to accomplish in order to get a (second) marriage license?

Detailed analysis might very well show that second marriages are indeed stronger marriages (past mistakes not repeated, emotional growth achieved, etc.). But there’s a problem in my acquaintance’s second marriage philosophy that has to do with ontology more than epistemology, or maybe I have that backward. From the perspective of the one in love, it has to do not with definitions but with do-ability.

Hang on, this essay is about Christmas. I can’t write about Christmas, of course, until I’ve dealt with “Christmas.”

Second-order productions are everywhere these days. Horror movies are instantly spoofing themselves, a church service is reformist from the get-go. You could say that second-order productions exhibit a postmodernist sensibility, and that is where we all are at right now, but I think you might be wrong.

If my friend the marriage philosopher were talking about a second marriage as a second-order production—that is, crafted in the light of an actual first marriage, then that attitude—the attitude that the second marriage is necessarily the authentic one—betrays, I believe, a thoroughly modernist stance. The modernist sensibility (Virginia Woolf and Baudelaire are modernist examples in this book I have here) is one that yearns for “the discovery or rediscovery of those real intensities of experience which had for so long been concealed or distorted by false structures of understanding.” (This is from Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary by Steven Connor.)

Modernism is laced with nostalgia, no matter how stripped-down it pretends to be. Postmodernism, on the other hand, traffics in second order experience, which is something different from second-order production. It is a kind of neo-nostalgia, which might be defined as being homesick for a place that is known to have never existed, not “really.” You are homesick for the good, old fake days. I don’t necessarily mean that to sound cynical, even if children and kittens and Christmas and marriages have become “co-opted by Hallmark,” as you’re saying with a hardened disdain. (But who knows how Hallmark will be read years hence—look at the current revisionist thinking regarding Rockwell.) Postmodernism, as I think of it (which isn’t how it’s generally thought of at all), is anyway concerned less with the essential qualities of people, events and things than with conviction, the summoning of belief. It is a merging of “Christmas” with Christmas, the concept with the event, of “marriage” with being married. It knows that Christmas is built on contrivance and believes contrivance (say creation if you want) to be, in fact, the point. (It also knows that any marriage always carries a little divorce within it.)

Still, I can sympathize with the impulse behind my friend’s the-only-good-marriage-is-a-second-marriage stance, even while arguing with its logical conclusions. (I suspect, though, that he might be doomed to a long string of second marriages.) Part of the reason I want religion for my children is so they can have the experience of rejecting it. No-religion should be aware of religion. Religion should look no-religion right in the eye. Somehow, that keeps us out of institutions, out of institutional entrapment, that is; it keeps us alive and moving forward. You want something to acknowledge its opposite, that’s all.

Is Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory especially touching because he also wrote In Cold Blood? Would the beginning part of the story of Christ’s life on earth mean as much to us if we had no idea of the end? Are Dylan Thomas’s “birds the colour of red-flannel petticoats [that] whisked past the harp-shaped hills” starkly beautiful—instead of sweetly so—because we know he lived a short adult life as a drunk? Can they be both?

I don’t know, but I’ll close with a poem, one I like to invoke at Christmas. It’s a poem that seems to want to unhinge itself from the world, absorb itself in a solitary “real intensity of experience”—but doesn’t.

This is thy hour O Soul,
thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books,
away from art,
the day erased,
the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging,
silent, gazing,
pondering the themes
thou lovest best
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

Walt Whitman wrote this poem for us to read, and for over a century it’s been worked on by the world.

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