Sunday, July 7, 2013

70. Me and the Seven Deadly Sins

      In Christian and especially Catholic tradition there are seven deadly sins, indulgence in which destroys the life of grace and charity and therefore creates the risk of eternal damnation.  These sins are the source and origin of all other sins.  The seven, in the order in which I shall treat them, are sloth, gluttony, envy, lust, greed, pride, and wrath.  In a rare moment of introspection I have decided to examine myself for signs of each of the seven, and at the same time to see which may characterize the city of New York and the nation.  A noble and weighty undertaking, not to mention a courageous one. So here goes.


     Shrewdly, I begin with the sin that I honestly think myself least guilty of.  I feel the need to always keep myself busy and above all to occupy my mind.  Yes, I can take a break when necessary, but I always go back to whatever project I have in hand.  Since I'm a writer, this usually means a writing project, as for instance a post on sins for my blog.  Similarly, I think New Yorkers are immune to sloth. This city is, and always has been, a mecca for hustlers, a magnet for the eager and ambitious.  And the nation too is rarely subject to sloth; our capacity for action over the years has at times had unfortunate consequences for our neighbors.  We are doers, go-getters, achievers.  We have other sins but, I at first concluded, not the sin of sloth.

     In 1556-1558 the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder did a series of seven engravings illustrating the Seven Deadlies that I find so engaging I shall offer them here.  They follow the same pattern: in the center foreground is a human, more often a woman than a man (feminists, take note!), who represents one of the sins, with an appropriate symbolic animal close by.  All around is a fantastical landscape reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch, with weird constructions and all manner of humans, including giants, and bestial-looking demons engaged in actions exemplifying the sin.  Shocking, puzzling, or amusing, the details are well worth examining, though I can't begin to explain them all.  Some express Flemish proverbs we are not familiar with.  These landscapes have been called surreal, but in fact they are quite logical and ordered, each detail illustrating the sin in question.  For traditional Christianity sin was a serious matter; it lowered us to the level of animals and was ugly to behold.

File:Pieter Bruegel the Elder- The Seven Deadly Sins or The Seven Vices - Sloth.JPG
Sloth (Desidia), by Bruegel.  For him, sloth seems to be a kind 
of sleeping sickness.  The associated animal is a snail.
     Did I say Americans aren't guilty of sloth?  Well,  I have changed my mind.  Yes, when I go out on errands I see runners whizzing by, and cyclists pumping furiously in the bike lanes (or conspicuously not in them), which suggests an energetic city and nation.  But why, then, this epidemic of obesity that we hear so much about?  Some Americans are certainly active and agile, but thanks to the automobile, television, and the Internet, many others are strangers to exertion; they would rather drive than cycle or walk, and prefer to sit passively in front of their TV sets or computer screens than to do even a gentle bit of yoga, much less anything so strenuous as tennis or swimming.  As for golf, most golfers now rent little put-puts to drive them about the links, and so avoid anything so challenging as walking.  Yes, many of us are sunken in sloth, a fact that my account of gluttony will extend even further.


     Another sin from which I seem to be exempt.  I eat my three squares a day, but between meals I'm not even tempted to snack.  I enjoy food, but it isn't the center of my life; there's so much else to do.

File:Brueghel - Sieben Laster - Gula.jpg
Bruegel on gluttony (Gula).  She is sitting on a pig and guzzling from a pitcher.  On the left, a 
man vomits into a river.  In the right background a man's head in the shape of a windmill
 is being force-fed.

     Thomas Aquinas took a broader view of gluttony, which for him included an obsessive anticipation of meals, and the constant eating of delicacies and excessively costly foods; it is sinful, he opined, to eat too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily, or to eat wildly.  Of all these variations of the sin I'm still exempt.  Maybe my aversion dates from the day when, in the college dining hall, I happened to get a hot dog still encased in its wrapping, on which were printed all the ingredients, a hodgepodge of meat scraps that was both appalling and disgusting.  Ever since I've had an aversion to wienies.  Which is especially relevant now, in the wake of the annual Fourth of July hotdog-eating contest sponsored by Nathan's at Coney Island, which was won again this year -- for the seventh time --  by Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, who gorged his way into history by consuming 69 hotdogs and buns in 10 minutes.

Honestly, can you blame me?  But please, no jokes.

File:KFC signs - Old and New.jpg
Finger-lickin' good.
Brent Moore

    New Yorkers are no more guilty of gluttony than the nation as a whole.  Ah, but that nation as a whole is constantly guzzling Cokes and Pepsis, gulping down pizzas and french fries and Tootsie Rolls, devouring Snickers and Fritos and potato chips, and the exquisite sugary concoctions -- admittedly delicious -- dispensed by the celebrated Magnolia Bakery on the ground floor of my building.  Of course we have an epidemic of obesity, hence an epidemic of diabetes.  Is there gluttony in America?  Are we eating too soon, too much, and too eagerly, and eating wildly?  Just have a look at the nearest fast-food restaurant.  Guilty, guilty, guilty as charged!


File:Sankt Bartholomäus (Reichenthal) 05.jpg
Envy, from an 1894 pulpit in Saint
Bartholomew's Church, Reichenthal,


     Envy involves coveting something that someone else possesses; in the words of Aquinas, it is "sorrow for another's good."  This too I seem to be free of, though I've often had the opportunity to resent someone else's success and wish it for myself.   But somehow I've never ventured down that sinister pathway.  Nor do I think New Yorkers, or Americans generally, particularly prone to envy.  We find our worst sins elsewhere.

File:Brueghel - Sieben Laster - Invidia.jpg
Bruegel's envy (Invidia).  Near her is a turkey, a bird newly discovered in North America, and two dogs (or pigs?) fighting over a bone.  I find many of the details baffling, as for instance the shoes
in the left and right foreground.


     I've always been at heart monogamous and not inclined to stray.  Bob and I have been in a stable relationship for forty-five years, which to some may sound dull, but for us has been reassuring and rewarding.  But for anyone to be monogamous in this permissive society is amazing, since we are assaulted daily by sexually explicit ads.  At the checkout counter of my supermarket recently I beheld, at eye level, a glossy women's magazine with the enticing suggestion, "Have a great butt."  Of course an illustration accompanied it, with the relevant anatomy conspicuously displayed.

File:Brueghel - Sieben Laster - Luxuria.jpg
Bruegel's lechery (Luxuria).  Fornication everywhere; even the dogs are at it.

     Balzac's novel La Cousine Bette gives a marvelous portrait of lechery in the person of Baron Hulot, whose passion for his neighbor's complaisant wife, Mme Marneffe, leads to the disintegration of his moral and physical being.  But one doesn't have to go to literature to encounter lechery; I have known two friends who were hopelessly enslaved by it.  One in a candid moment told me that he was addicted to sex, that every so often the feeling came over him that he would be totally unworthy as a person, unless he went out and had sex with a man every night that week.  I had never thought of sex as a possible addiction, but he convinced me.  Another friend whom I had known years before was constantly, as he phrased it, "tom-catting about," having casual sex with strangers on a regular basis.  He had married a Japanese woman because, as he explained to me, if a Japanese husband chooses to go out alone at night, giving no explanation, the Japanese wife acquiesces and asks no questions.  Of this he took full advantage.  He often regaled me with his adventures, sent me postcards from the Caribbean featuring clusters of phallic bananas, and offered tantalizing tidbits of information, as for instance the latest fashion in French male underwear, and how casual French lovers switched to the intimate tu in moments of passion, then reverted to the formal vous afterward.  The first friend is now in a stable longtime relationship and free of his addiction.  The other one I haven't seen in years; I wonder what has become of him.  Perhaps, as he got older, the tom-catting subsided, and the wife could claim him fully at last.  Perhaps.


     So far, viewers will note that, by my own accounting, I've gotten off scot-free.  But now the plot thickens.  I confess to being, to some extent, guilty of greed, the desire to acquire or possess more material wealth than one needs; I am, in a small way, a greed creep.  But how could I or anyone not be, when we live in a capitalist society that sees everything in terms of money and encourages its acquisition by all means fair or foul?  Especially in this country, where wealth, not social rank or merit, brings respect and security, and there is no national health-care system to rely on as one gets older.   SAVE,  SAVE,  SAVE!  urge financial advisers, and how is one to do it without becoming just a bit greedy?

File:Brueghel - Sieben Laster - Avaritia.jpg
Bruegel's greed (Avaritia); near her, a toad.  The victims seem to be stripped to their underwear.  In the left background a mob is assaulting a fantastical structure that probably contains a treasure.  On the right, archers shoot at a bag containing coins that rain down on the ground.

     Christ drove the money changers out of the temple, an action that many artists have illustrated.  And the medieval Church looked askance at money and its accumulation, deeming the charging of interest for loans to be sinful.  Jews, not being Christian, could practice money lending, but in early Renaissance Italy banks developed to answer the needs of a mercantile society and even conduct business for the Church.  So if the Church, in spite of its misgivings, found banks and banking to be a necessity and had good uses for money, I guess my modest stabs at greed can be forgiven.

File:Valentin de Boulogne, Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple.jpg
Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple.
Valentin de Bourgogne, ca. 1610

      Ah, but how about Wall Street and corporations generally?  Think of the banks and cigarette companies, or Big Pharma, which is constantly being fined for misrepresenting its products and committing other peccadilloes?  Too often government lets corporations write its laws, or crafts laws with cunning loopholes to accommodate their interests.  I cite again my favorite Occupy Wall Street sign:  TODAY  ONLY:  BUY  ONE  SENATOR,  GET  ONE  FREE.  The Sunday Business Section of a recent Sunday's Times (June 30) listed the pay of 200 top U.S. executives.  The total compensation of Oracle's CEO was a whopping $96 million, that of CBS's CEO $60 million, and so on down the scale to a paltry $11 million for GM's top honcho.  In America the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Is greed inherent in capitalism?  Is there such a thing as compassionate or principled capitalism?  Well, one can always dream.


     In Christian tradition this is the worst of the seven, the one that got Satan thrown out of heaven and cast down into the sulfurous precincts of hell.  It is defined as the desire to be more important or attractive than others, and as excessive love of self.  Dante described it as "love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one's neighbor."

File:Pieter Bruegel the Elder- The Seven Deadly Sins or the Seven Vices - Pride.JPG
Bruegel's pride (Superbia).  She eyes herself in a hand mirror, next to a peacock flaunting its tail.

     So am I guilty of pride?  We all have moments of high self-esteem and I am no exception, but this in itself hardly constitutes the sin of pride.  And like most people, my moments of high self-esteem alternate with moments of low self-esteem, which doesn't sound like Satan or any exemplar of pride.  Also, I have a mischievous sense of humor that prompts me daily, or hourly, to laugh at myself for a fool.  Pride, I think, is more likely to afflict the high and mighty than the low and trivial.  One endearing comment of Lincoln, when President, was that sometimes he thought all the world were fools, and he himself the biggest fool of all.  A useful bit of self-deflation, but not one that undermined his ability to govern.  The sin of pride leaves little room for humor, least of all at one's own expense.

     Bruegel shows pride at its worst; it is bestial, grotesque, degrading.  But the Satan of Milton's Paradise Lost has a certain grandeur, and this is conveyed in the illustrations of Gustave Doré.

Doré's Satan.  Defeated, but not grotesque or ugly.

     So is New York guilty of pride?  As the premier city of the Empire State, seat of the United Nations and a must for tourists, a center of fashion, publishing, and finance, and a preferred target of terrorists, how could it not be?  In fact, it wouldn't be New York if it wasn't.  Grudgingly, I allow it this sin of sins without too much condemnation.

     And is America guilty of the sin of pride?  You bet!  The doctrine of Manifest Destiny, enthusiastically embraced in the mid-nineteenth century, meant that God or Providence or the Powers That Be wanted us to expand across the continent, albeit at the expense of our neighbors.  In peace and war alike, God is always on our side.  We will bring peace to the frontier, civilization to the benighted Filipinos, freedom to those who want it (or don't want it), and democracy to the world.  We are a shining example of all things good, and can vastly improve the world, if the world will only heed us and follow.  Today, perhaps, chastened by a few futile foreign wars, we are a little less confident, a little less imperialistic, but deep down inside I suspect that we harbor remnants, huge remnants, of these grandiose assumptions.  Like all great powers, all empires, America reeks of the sin of pride.

The War to End Wars

Make the World Safe for Democracy

Manifest Destiny

Fifty-four Forty or Fight

In the Name of Jehovah and the Continental Congress

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord

The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave

 God Shed His Grace on Thee

Operation Just Cause

The Patriot Act


     I've saved the best till last, for of this sin I am admittedly, flagrantly, incorrigibly guilty.  Not at the expense of others, for I'm really very patient with people, wouldn't dream of flaring up at them or in their presence.  What provokes my anger is the universe, things, and myself.  Wrath has been described as inordinate and uncontrolled feelings of hatred and anger.  It is violent and self-destructive and can manifest itself as impatience, revenge, and vigilantism.  In my case, no vigilantism, little revenge, but a vast deal of impatience.

File:Brueghel - Sieben Laster - Ira.jpg
Bruegel's wrath (Ira).  This one time the figure is decidedly male: a sword- and whip-wielding soldier who with his followers massacres all before him.  The associated animal is a bear.  In the left
background another soldier has a victim on a spit and pours some liquid onto or into his belly 

or groin.  These scenes may have been less fantastic than real in the wars of Bruegel's time.

     So what provokes these rages of mine?  For one thing, the laws of the universe, and above all the law of gravity, which I would like to repeal.  I drop things, resent having to stoop and pick them up.  Sometimes I just kick them out of sight, but then I have to retrieve them later.  As for things, there seems to be no end.  For instance:
  • pens that won't write
  • stubby pencils
  • child-proof bottles that I can't open
  • junk mail
  • junk phone calls
  • misfiled files
  • little rugs that kick up easily
  • easy-to-open packages that aren't
  • umbrellas whose ribs become unglued
  • rotating fans that won't rotate
  • bank statements that won't balance
  • air-conditioners that drip on me
  • crumbling plaster
  • tangled hangars
  • crooked lampshades
  • a perverse and perfidious computer  

     Worst of all is the computer, which harasses me daily.  If I'm trying to compose a text, the text jumps around on the screen; it simply won't sit still.  Or the print suddenly enlarges.  Or the computer informs me that I'm not connected to the Internet, when I really am.  Or its officious memory proposes websites which aren't at all what I had in mind.  Or suddenly a lot of gibberish appears on the screen, blotting out whatever I'm reading or working on.  And so on.  Whatever its limitations, my typewriter never harassed me in this way, never presumed to be smarter than me, never imposed on me things I didn't want.  My computer is presumptuous, arrogant, malicious.  I have never wholly trusted machines, and it knows this and wreaks vengeance.  We have truces when it behaves, but they never last.  It is war, war, war.

     Needless to say, I disclaim responsibility for any of these provocations, computer-inspired or otherwise.  I am a victim of things generally.  They conspire against me, trick me, frustrate me, baffle me, even though I have done them no injury, bear them no ill will whatsoever.  Although by nature inferior to humans, they don't know their place, they offend my sense of order, my tranquility.  And what do I do, when provoked?  Mostly I utter imprecations, blasphemies, uninspired profanities, shrieks of rage and vengeance.  These are meant for my ears alone, but anyone in close proximity can't help but hear and bear witness.  Not long ago I heard of a young man who, when his rented boat overturned on a lake in a park, uttered shrieks and blasphemies, scorching the ears of all around, including mothers with impressionable young children.  For this outburst he was hauled into court and made to pay a fine.  My heart goes out to him; there but for the grace of God (or someone) go I.

     In point of fact, I rarely rage in public and my rages, though sometimes violent, end quickly, often with a bit of laughter at my own folly.  But for the sake of public peace and gentility, lately I have embarked upon a campaign of gentility.  Before, I muttered or uttered


Now, in the softest voice, I remonstrate 

Why, you recalcitrant little thing, you!


You mischievous little devil!


How can you do this to me, you naughty inanimate blob of an object?

All of which, frankly, sounds wimpish.  Which raises an interesting question:  Is polite, civilized behavior inherently wimpish?  It may well be.  Whatever Satan was or is, he certainly isn't a wimp.

     Speaking of Satan, by comparison with his revolt against the Almighty, I have to confess that my rages are puny; nothing epic here, or grandiose.  So puny, so quickly terminated, I have to question whether they really qualify as one of the Seven Deadlies.  I hate to end on such a down note, when viewers probably hoped for shocking revelations, but can wrath over a stubby pencil or a malfunctioning umbrella or even a malicious computer merit such classification?  I seriously doubt it.  Bruegel wouldn't have deigned to include such trivia.

     Donation fatigue:  Or maybe I should say generosity fatigue, or heart failure.  WBAI failed to achieve the goal of its spring fund-raising drive, so now it continues, not full-time but at intervals, to beg for donations.  One fund-raiser asks for an "angel" to come forward and donate five or ten thousand dollars -- sums I have never heard mentioned before.  In this game I'm not even a cherub.  Having given three times already -- modestly, but still: three times -- I confess that my generosity is worn thin.  When these appeals begin, I flee to WNYC, which may be doing something relevant or something silly.  I know all the arguments for giving, but I can't help it; I can only take so much.  And if  I'm experiencing donation fatigue, so must many others.  There's something very wrong.  WBAI estimates that out of all its listeners only 10 percent donate.  Why?  I wish I knew the answer.  (For me and WBAI, see posts 16, 50, and 60.)

     Coming soon:  Next Wednesday, July 10, The Magnificence and Insolence of Trees.  Next Sunday, July 14 (Bastille Day!):  Liars, Cheats, and Manipulators.  And others in the offing.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder

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