Notes on the Music of “The Young Pope”

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The Prime Minister of Greenland gives the Pope a record of Nada’s “Senza un Perche.” And then dances to it. Alone. While the credits role.

In a previous post, I discussed the visual aesthetic of Paolo Sorrentino’s new drama, The Young Pope. Today, I’d like to examine another facet of the show’s artistry: the soundtrack. The Young Pope‘s music has occasioned a few admiring or even acerbic comments, but little serious inquiry.

Although I am by no means an expert in musical theory, I know enough to realize that few shows have ever had quite the musical mix that The Young Pope has. And since I have a Spotify account, I have the luxury of perusing the entire official Young Pope playlist. A few types of music emerge. I would like to examine these in turn.

The Original Score

Is relatively unremarkable. Ramin Djawadi has given us better music in HBO’s other great recent dramas, Game of Thrones and Westworld. But Lele Marchitelli’s “Cardinals” has a delightful airiness, the sense of a certain holy whimsy about it. It’s happy music.

Techno

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“Levo,” by Recondite

The show is very European, and incorporates a great degree of the continent’s signal, stereotypical genre.

Michael Baumann over at The Ringer offers a great analysis of one of the songs, “Levo,” by Recondite, a techno artist from Germany. Baumann notes that Sorrentino “folds ‘Levo’ into Lenny Belardo’s character the way Prokofiev folded the French horn into the Wolf’s.” The song is deployed at moments that reveal critical new plot developments that are really the Pope at his purest.

Sorrentino also deploys Techno at moments that seem particularly surreal; the twitching scratch of a beat in Labradford’s “By Chris Johnston, Craig Markva, Jamie Evans” opens the series with Lenny’s nightmare Urbi et Orbi. The piece lends the slow-mo cinematography and almost sculptural quality of the characters the air of a dance. It balances the stillness and motion of the moment, in keeping with Sorrentino’s neomodernist aesthetic.

And yes, I know it’s technically post-rock. But it sounds close enough to Techno to work in this category.

Pop Singles

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This song will get stuck in your head.

Lenny Belardo is an American, and the show is set in the near future. It only makes sense that Sorrentino adds pop to the aural texture of several of his key moments.

A few songs come to mind: Nada’s “Senza un Perché,” Lotte Kerstner’s cover of “Halo,” by Beyoncé, LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” Flume’s “Never Be Like You,” and that cover of “All Along the Watchtower” that marks the opening sequence. Of these, two are particularly worth closer analysis: the covers of “Halo” and “All Along the Watchtower.”

By choosing Kerstner’s slow, soulful cover over Beyoncé‘s original version, Sorrentino draws our attention to the singularly religious inflection of the lyrics:

Everywhere I’m looking now
I’m surrounded by your embrace
Baby, I can see your halo
You know you’re my saving grace
You’re everything I need and more
It’s written all over your face
Baby, I can feel your halo
Pray it won’t fade away

The song frames love as a religious experience, an encounter with a divine other. We can read here the central (albeit de-eroticized) element of Lenny’s spiritual vision; the way he ties together the love of his parents and his belief in God. And the luminescent lyrics work perfectly for the glowing landscape and figures that we see in Africa and Colorado. The lyrics perfectly match the Pope’s solitary walk through the sleeping journalists on the plane:

Hit me like a ray of sun
Burning through my darkest night
You’re the only one that I want
Think I’m addicted to your light
I swore I’d never fall again
But this don’t even feel like falling
Gravity can’t forget
To pull me back to the ground again
Feels like I’ve been awakened
Every rule I had you break it
The risk that I’m taking
I’m never gonna shut you out

The language here practically describes the scene. We are on the plane at night, and Lenny, the only one whom the journalists want to see, has arrived to watch them sleep. Their flight is quite literally defying gravity. As the Pope breaks his rule about meeting journalists, he finds one awake. It’s a risk, but it rewards him with a moment of admiring affirmation.

And we don’t need to consciously apprehend the meaning of the words as we watch the scene to feel their impact. Aesthetically, the song’s dreamy tremor fits well with the soft-focus visuals that Sorrentino uses in that scene and throughout the series.

Secondly, Sorrentino opens most of the episodes with a sequence of the Pope passing nine paintings and a sculpture of Pope St. John Paul II. An instrumental cover of “All Along the Watchtower” plays in most iterations of the sequence. The song’s connotations of cultural revolution represent Lenny’s monumental program of change and remind us of his parents’ own ideological leanings. The irony of the song pairs well with the irony of the visuals, as Lenny’s shooting star disrupts the order of the paintings.

Holy Minimalism

For me, the most striking addition to the repertoire is the heavy use of the Holy Minimalists. Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, and John Tavener, some of the most respected members of the movement, all appear in the playlist.

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The Holy Minimalists: (l-r) Arvo Part, John Tavener, Henryck Gorecki

The Holy Minimalists were a group of composers active from the 1970’s whose work sought to reinvigorate more traditional sacred forms. Often by working in conversation with Eastern Christian formsPärt, like the late Tavener, is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, while Górecki was a Polish Catholicthe Holy Minimalists sought to capture a sense of the eternal in their inventive and dissonant work. Listening to their music, one has the sense of peering through the cracks of our broken human existence to glimpse yawning chasms of infinite glory.

No fewer than 12 works by the Holy Minimalists are featured in the show’s official playlist. I’d like to focus on two pieces, deployed in juxtaposition at one of the most climactic moments in the entire series.

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“Knock, knock.”

As Pius XIII enters the Sistine Chapel to address his assembled cardinals, he is borne aloft by attendants on a Sedia Gestatoria. John Tavener’s haunting dirge for Princess Diana, “Song for Athene,” seems to float in along with him. But just as the climax is about to resolve into a peaceful, triumphant harmony (the part of the song that evokes the Resurrection and the Life eternal), Lenny opens his eyesand the music stops instantly. It’s a chilling moment. In that second, before he even starts to speak, we understand the gist of what is about to follow.

The music only begins again with a single, unnerving note on the piano, when the Pope directs their attention to a mysterious door that has appeared at the other end of the chapel. He continues his dark (and, if we’re being honest, rather magnificent) speech for nearly another eight minutes. The lone note is joined by others, and becomes Arvo Pärt‘s “Lamentabile – ” before concluding with the humiliation of Cardinal Voiello.

I think Sorrentino relies so heavily on the Holy Minimalists in his aural aesthetic to suggest another element of Lenny’s spiritual vision. Throughout the series, Lenny is able to deliver profound wisdom through quiet, concise statements. Simplicity is the garment of his unique insights. And the Holy Minimalists sought to re-present the sacred tradition of Christian music for modernity; their project is consonant with Lenny’s.

It’s also worth pointing out that, in addition to the Holy Minimalists, Sorrentino deploys a few works by regular, ordinary, profane minimalist John Adams (those of you who played Civ IV growing up will recognize his “Shaker Loops: III. Loops and Verses“).

In Sum

I know I’m missing a few things, since the playlist is long, and I’m not a musicologist. But that very fact points to the multiple layers of meaning that Paolo Sorrentino has inscribed in his rich soundtrack. I encourage everyone to give the playlist a serious and attentive listen-through, possibly several. There are gems in there. And if you can go through it (or the show) without getting “Senza un Perché” stuck in your head, you’re doing it wrong.

“Black Seas of Infinity”: Cosmic Horror and the Racial Other

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This is a speech I gave to two oratorical societies of which I am a member. It has been edited and augmented for this format.

Good Evening.

H.P. Lovecraft was a master of horror writing. Indeed, he was the first thinker to seriously treat horror as an independent genre, and his critical work went far towards delineating its boundaries and prospects for the next hundred years. His writings had a major impact on several writers and filmmakers who are virtually household names today: Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro, Jorge Luis Borges, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman are just a few who have drawn inspiration from his oeuvre. That said, I would like to speak less tonight about those who came after Lovecraft, and more about those who came before.

It is my contention that Lovecraft perfected a longstanding tradition in New England literature, and the result was cosmic horror. It is, moreover, my contention that cosmic horror up to and including Lovecraft’s own work depended upon a viscerally antagonistic representation of non-white peoples. Finally, it is my contention that the recent Lovecraft renaissance, while welcome in some respects, is tied to more disturbing developments in our contemporary political landscape.

First, I should probably define cosmic horror for those who have not yet had the pleasure of reading Howard Phillips Lovecraft. In brief, cosmic horror is the horror induced by the realization that the universe is totally and indescribably indifferent to mankind. Consequently, human life has no real meaning. Lovecraft expresses this idea repeatedly throughout his corpus. He begins his famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” with the following comments:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents. They have hinted at strange survivals in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism. But it is not from them that there came the single glimpse of forbidden aeons which chills me when I think of it and maddens me when I dream of it.”

Here, in brief, is cosmic horror. And here too is a description of what happens when Lovecraft’s doomed heroes discover the truth about the worldthey “go mad from the revelation.” They are unable to continue interacting with reality in any meaningful way, since any sense of underlying significance has been dissolved by their confrontation with that realitynormally as personified in the form of an eldritch monster. Here, we see the aesthetic influence of Burke and, more importantly, Kant. For Kant, the experience of the sublime involved reckoning with the subject’s imaginative impotence next to something whose magnitude surpasses comprehensionusually a feature of the natural world. Say, the sea. The Kantian subject experiences the sublime and reasserts his own rationality against the imposition of the sublime object. He does this by imagining the infinite. In Lovecraft, the subject experiences the sublime as well. But instead of strengthening his rationality, it destroys his reason entirely. To borrow a phrase from another admirer of Lovecraft, we might speak of a Lovecraftian “fanged” sublime.

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Puritans, as depicted in The Witch (2015).

To understand the other intellectual influence on Lovecraft’s sense of horror, we need to trace the religious history of New England. Most people don’t realize quite how strange that story is. For instance, it may come as a surprise that most of the Calvinists in this country didn’t inherit their faith from the Puritans, but from Scottish and Dutch settlers south of Massachusetts. The reason for this is that the vast majority of the colonial congregations that once held to strict Puritan doctrine were Unitarian by the turn of the 19th century.

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Unitarians: (l-r) Jonathan Mayhew, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson

This evolution is an important shift. New England, and above all Massachusetts, began as the political project of men and women who hoped they were God’s elect. But the doctrine of predestination always allowed for some uncertainty. The marks of a holy life might signify election, but something as worldly as physical deformity or a bad harvest might communicate God’s wrath. And since God had already predetermined the elect and the damned from eternity, there was nothing anyone could do to ensure their salvation. God was indifferent to the prayers of the damned, if they prayed at all.

This Puritan preoccupation with God’s indifference finds expression in various examples of New England literature, but I would refer you to the work of Hawthorne, who managed to capture the darkness of the Puritan vision a century after it had been eclipsed by a new theology.

And that new theology was decidedly more optimistic. While it wasn’t a univocal orthodoxy, Unitarianism as preached by the likes of William Ellery Channing and Andrews Norton was perilously closely to Deism. Certainly by the mid-19th century, Unitarians were actively welcoming Deists into their congregations. Deism, of course, teaches that a single creator God established the world with order according to natural laws. Then, Deists claim, He stepped back from His creation to let free humans live and work within the bounds of natural law. Intercessory prayer was therefore meaningless since God would not intervene through miracles or any other supernatural measure. To quote that wayward Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson,

Prayer that craves a particular commodity, — anything less than all good, — is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness.

I should note that Emerson, being something of a pantheist, put a distinctively positive spin on God’s indifference to the pleas of man.

His contemporary, Herman Melville, did not.

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“To the last, I grapple with thee; from Hell’s heart I stab at thee; for Hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Melville’s magnum opus, the classic novel Moby Dick, is fundamentally about mankind’s struggle against a God and a universe ultimately indifferent to his pain. Captain Ahab seeks revenge on the White Whale who stole his leg, and throughout the book there are hints that the creature is something more than merely natural.

There has been much debate about Melville’s personal beliefs, and many have claimed him as an atheist. But he still works within the New England tradition. At one point, Melville explicitly describes God as indifferent in a passage worth quoting at length. It takes place about ¾ of the way through the book, and it describes the fate of the black cabin boy, Pip, when he is left to float after falling overboard.

“But it so happened, that those boats, without seeing Pip, suddenly spying whales close to them on one side, turned, and gave chase; and Stubb’s boat was now so far away, and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that Pip’s ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably. By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had leeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.”

This passage, in addition to being my favorite in the entire book, serves to illustrate two other classic features of cosmic horror: the prophetic madness of those who survive the revelation of cosmic indifference, and more importantly, the use of racial others as symbols of that cosmic indifference.

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The Devil as a Black Man

In 17th century Europe, the Devil was often conceptualized as a man with black skin. The Puritans transported that vision with them to the New World, where they encountered a dark-skinned people living in the woods outside their enclosures. The wilderness, the Indians, and damnation form a nexus of signification in Puritan thought. To quote Aileen Agnew of the Maine Historical Society, “New England Puritans believed that the wilderness was the natural habitat of the devil. Since Native-Americans belonged to the wilderness, their familiarity with the ways of the devil seemed obvious to the settlers.” Washington Irving dramatizes this traditional chain of connotations in his short story, “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Tom Walker meets the Devil in a Massachusetts swamp, where the Prince of Lies says, “Oh, I go by various names. I am the Wild Huntsman in some countries; the Black Miner in others. In this neighbourhood I am known by the name of the Black Woodsman. I am he to whom the red men devoted this spot, and now and then roasted a white man by way of sweet smelling sacrifice.” Similarly, Hawthorne’s titular Young Goodman Brown meets witches in the Salem woods and refers to the devil as “the Black Man.”

Melville goes beyond this. He populates his novel with all kinds of non-white people, but two are worth mentioning. First, the aforementioned and unlucky Pip. After his ordeal in the waves, Pip loses his mind and speaks in gibberish that seems to bear prophetic weight on the doom of the crew. Ahab himself is mad, and the fond kinship they share at the end of the book is in part cemented by their common madness. This is precisely the move that Lovecraft makes repeatedly in his storiesstrange survivors who, though insane, grasp the awful reality of the world better than anyone else.

Melville’s other proto-Lovecraftian figure is a Parsee named Fedallah. Ahab’s private harpooner, Fedallah is smuggled as a stowaway on the Pequod and only emerges once the ship is well out at sea. The rest of the sailors distrust Fedallah, and repeatedly conjecture that he might be the Devil. Fedallah’s actions suggest a demonic identity, too. He prophesies to Ahab about the captain’s eventual death. When, in a pique of allegorical rage, Ahab destroys the quadrant that allows him to navigate by the Sun, Melville reports that “a sneering triumph that seemed meant for Ahab, and a fatalistic despair that seemed meant for himself—these passed over the mute, motionless Parsee’s face.” And during a storm, Fedallah addresses his idol, the “clear spirit of fire,” whose “right worship is defiance.” Melville’s Miltonian language suggests a demonic character.

As an important recent study of the authors convincingly demonstrates, Lovecraft is known to have read Moby Dick. And Lovecraft, to put it lightly, was a racist. I mean full-blown, hand-wringing “The Mongoloid Yellow Peril will drown the Teutonic Race if the Uppity Blacks and the Hook-Nosed Jews don’t kill us first” racist. Lovecraft had an unhealthy obsession with the racial purity of WASPS and was terrified of miscegenation. In one of his short stories, entitled “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” the terrible reveal isspoilerthat an ancestral explorer married a white ape from Africa. The horror of miscegenation runs throughout many of his other works, notably his foundational story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” For Lovecraft, non-whites are always one step removed from the eldritch horror of the Elder Gods, essentially enormous and indescribably hideous aliens from the vast reaches of space who came to earth in the distant past and were worshiped in unholy rites that persist in atavistic communities on the edges of civilization. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” the most important story that deals with his mythos, Lovecraft tells the story of a kidnapping investigation in the Louisiana bayou. The narrator describes how the police must go to an area that, and I quote, “was one of traditionally evil repute, substantially unknown and untraversed by white men.” There, they discover a “voodoo orgy” scored by “tom-toms,” which proves to be the foul ceremony of a Cthulhu cult. Both voodoo and tom-toms are black racial markers. I could point to other examples from other stories, but I believe this one is sufficient. Lovecraft associates reason, order, and sanity with White Anglo-Saxon Protestant civilization. Racial others, especially blacks and Asians, threaten that civilization just as madness threatens those not yet initiated into the eldritch secrets of the Old Ones. The presence of the racial other is a reminder that the universe does not care about the rational subject, represented here by the white man. In this, Lovecraft is merely amplifying the tropes set down before him by more famous authors. He is eminently a New Englanderindeed, his epitaph in Rhode Island reads “I am Providence.”

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Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn

So, why does all this matter beyond the merely literary? As some of you may have noticed, over the past ten years or so there has been a Lovecraft renaissance. While Lovecraft never lacked a readership, the internet allowed for greater networking and discussion of his works than ever before. Cthulhu is now a cultural phenomenon as much as a cult classic of early 20th century horror literature. In particular, there are two related and troubling phenomena worth mentioning.

The first is a decision by some academics to treat Lovecraft as a philosopher. The most famous man to read Lovecraft in this way is Nick Land, a truly bizarre philosopher from England. Land is a hard nihilist, accelerationist, and antihumanist. His writings have influenced the Speculative Realists, a contemporary school of philosophy too arcane to merit much discussion here. It suffices to say that they, too, are treating Lovecraft as a philosopher in some of their writings.

Land’s greatest claim to fame, however, is as the intellectual godfather of the Neoreactionary movement. And it is this movement, tied to the internet, that has started to propel the Lovecraft renaissance into the realm of the political. The Neoreactionary concept of GNON is the objective state of reality which exists independently of liberal fantasies. To quote one Neoreactionary thinker at length:

“Neoreactionaries often speak of Gnon, the ‘crab-god’ they have created to embody the ideas of teleology, of consequences, of inevitability – no more and no less that the simple yet somehow, in the current age, revolutionary idea that implementing bad ideas will lead to bad consequences. The implications of the existence of Gnon, whose horrifying visage hangs heavy over the merry bustle of every civilization (whether they believe in him or not, for he is one of those realities that continues to exist no matter if you do or don’t), is that maintaining a civilization is hard, tireless work; that monsters are always waiting in the darkness to devour those who slack off in this task, whether it be because they have become soft and lazy, or incapable and feeble, or even (perhaps especially) due to the hubris of believing that they are so advanced that such drudgery is beneath them and they can instead devote their energies towards utopian schemes meant to perfect the human condition. Gnon – who is compatible with both a theistic and non-theistic worldview – punishes these sins: this sloth, this gluttony, this foolishness, this pride, this hubris. Gnon is seen both in the God who rained fire and brimstone down on Sodom and Gomorrah, and also in the collapse of Marxism in all of its supposed ‘inevitability’. Gnon is to be feared, for he is a destroyer god, and a merciless one. There is no bargaining with him, no reasoning with him, no begging for mercy with him. If you fail, if you slip, if you trust the wrong people or the wrong ideas, if you are foolish or careless, he will destroy you and everything you care about. He exists as a caution to you, and you had better take heed.”

Gnon, which stands for “The God of Nature or Nature,” is often implicitly or explicitly compared to Cthulhu (admittedly, across varying levels of irony). Moreover, Lovecraft briefly published a newspaper called “The Conservative” during the World War I years. A collection of Lovecraft’s newspapers has just been edited and republished by Arktos Media, Ltd., a major neoreactionary press. The book includes a foreword by Alex Kurtagic, a white nationalist known for his ties to Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute. He has been featured several times in Spencer’s neofascist Radix Magazine.

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Gnon is sometimes portrayed as a giant, killer crab.

I don’t say any of this because I don’t want you to read Lovecraft. I do. I deeply enjoy Lovecraft’s fiction, and I think more people should read his work. But I also think his recent treatment by neoreactionary and alt-right racists deserves more exposure, even as I believe we need to situate his stories in the context of New England’s literary tradition. Also, let’s not forget something rather important. Lovecraft wrote what he did as a convinced atheist. His worldview is truly the opposite of the sacramental one we find in Christian horror writers like Arthur Machen and Charles Williams and Flannery O’Connor. Cosmic horror is horror indeed, but at the end of the day, it’s not true.

And thank the elder gods for that.

“The Young Pope” as Neomodernist Television

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There are many ways to analyze HBO’s new limited series, The Young Pope. I’ve read comparisons to Twin Peaks and House of Cards. Some of my friends take it as a commentary on contemporary church politics. Others simply revel in its lush costuming and surreal sense of humor. There’s truth in all of these approaches, but I think none come close enough to identifying the show’s real aesthetic: Neomodernism.

Neomodernism is a small school of visual art created by Andre Durand and Armando Alemdar. A critical response to postmodernist dominance of the art scene in the last decades of the 20th century, Neomodernists explore “spiritual and aesthetic values in art,” as their Manifesto states. Neomodernist painters seek “a new relationship with works of art from the 15th to the 20th century.” They focus on the creative renewal of tradition. And they do so by adhering to nineteen criteria that shape their work. Here they are, lifted from Armando Alemdar’s website:

The Criteria

  • A Neomodernist picture manifests the Idea in the Hegelian sense meaning the Absolute, the spiritual presence in a work of art.
  • A Neomodernist picture has links to the works of art that preceded it and / or antiquity.
  • The nude or the symbol of the nude is the basis of a Neomodernist picture.
  • Every element in a Neomodernist picture is justified in terms of the whole composition.
  • A Neomodernist approach to religious subject matter is detached and philosophical, never an affirmation of faith.
  • A Neomodernist treatment of political or historical subject matter is detached and philosophical, never propaganda.
  • A Neomodernist artist must have sound drawing abilities and a command of the other traditional academic disciplines, such as perspective.
  • A Neomodernist picture concentrates the soul in the eye.
  • A Neomodernist work of art is emblematic rather than psychological.
  • A Neomodernist figurative or abstract picture has Albertian depth, space and light, never stressing the flatness of the canvas surface but exploring its limitless depths.
  • A Neomodernist picture presents scientific principles aesthetically (La Flagellazione, Piero Della Francesca).
  • A Neomodernist work of art hightens the sense of newness, regardless of when it was made.
  • A Neomodernist work of art is tactile.
  • Simplicity of form is Neomodernist.
  • A Neomodernist work of art has movement and stillness simultaneously.
  • Both figurative and abstract Neomodernist pictures pronounce “painterly” values.
  • Neomodernism precedes and supersedes post-modernism.

Clearly, these criteria are tailored for the plastic artsand painting in particular. Among the various examples of proto-Neomodernist that Alemdar draws from art history, all are paintings. Yet I would contend that many of the aforementioned criteria would work with any art form that places at its aesthetic center the tableau. There has been much critical writing on film (and by extension, television) as a primarily visual medium. Directors are primarily distinguished by the nuances of their visual style, rather than the way they use sound. We can, therefore, apply some of the same criteria to film that we use with painting.

And The Young Pope is a perfect example. Director Paolo Sorrentino relishes the visual component of his work. That tendency comes through powerfully in The Young Pope. While the show doesn’t fit all of the nineteen criteria, it does seem to play with many of them. Let’s go through a few:

“A Neomodernist picture has links to the works of art that preceded it and / or antiquity.”

The show isn’t an unambiguous endorsement of Catholic tradition, but it does engage with it. The narrative of TYP centers on a Pope who re-establishes several ancient customs, even as he closes himself off from the world. On the aesthetic level, however, the show’s links to the past are constantly re-emphasized. The costumes reflect sartorial tendencies that largely disappeared after the Second Vatican Council. The Pope placidly examines two works of Renaissance art alongside his confidant and master of ceremonies, Gutierez. In the course of the story, both paintings turn out to reflect the two characters’ inner demons. Another work of art, the Venus of Willendorf, is at the heart of one Cardinal’s sins of lust. Lenny invokes Kubrick and Banksy to justify his isolation. One of the show’s most riveting scenes takes place in a massive reproduction of the Sistine Chapel. And of course, there’s that intro, which features 10 pieces of art with thematic significance for Lenny Belardo’s troubled pontificate. Sorrentino ensures that art and film history saturate The Young Pope.

Neomodernist painters do the same. Andre Durand’s 2000 painting “Et in Arcadia Ego” is a good representative of this quality.

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The painting reworks the classical theme of the Arcadian shepherds most famously portrayed by Poussin. But instead of a tomb bearing the titular inscription, we are shown Damien Hirst’s “Away from the Flock,” a dead sheep preserved in formaldehyde. Durand was present at the Tate Modern when it was vandalizedanother artist poured black ink into the tank and declared that the resultant piece was called “Black Sheep.” The experience conveyed to him a strong sense of the decline of art; a celebration of death, negation, and fragmentation rather than life, affirmation, and the integrated whole. The vibrantly alive human nudewhich, for Neomodernists, is the central axis of meaning in artat the center of the piece contrasts sharply with the dead animal. He is among others in an easy communion; the sheep is isolated. He is subject to decay, as the other figures suggest the waning of a long life. But better to live with others subject to the vicissitudes of time than to exist alone in a state of constant, deathly preservation. In short, we are shown the difference between a living tradition and a deadening individuality. The piece thus serves to critique the anti-traditional death-wish implicit in so much postmodern artespecially Damien Hirst’s work.

This brings us to another of the criteria:

“The nude or the symbol of the nude is the basis of a Neomodernist picture.”

Compared to many other HBO productions, The Young Pope is positively modest. But there is some nudity, particularly at moments of thematic or narrative consequence. When it occurs, it’s often desexualized. The opening shot of the series, the famous and bizarre “baby pyramid” in Venice, fixates on nude infants. Esther, tasked with seducing the Pope, prays in the nude. Lenny is occasionally shown naked. Some of the only memories he retains of his parents take place in a peaceful landscape, and all three members of the family are more or less stripped. The warm glow of the sun on their youthful flesh speaks to an implicit, Edenic innocence. And of course, there are the scenes of Cardinal Dussolier’s (rather perverse) sexual pleasures.

While the nude isn’t as central to the show’s artistic vision in the way that it is in Neomodernist painting, the use of occasional nudity underscores the main theme of the series: loneliness and power. The Young Pope is deeply, principally concerned with how people try to cope with loneliness, and how loneliness interacts with power. The Vatican is a particularly convenient setting for that exploration, as it combines a culture of celibacy and the absolute power of a priest-king. The human body, when it appears, demonstrates some of the ways that loneliness can be overcome. There is eroticism, but eroticism subject to the demands of the spirit.

We can say much the same of Andre Durand’s work. While the nude looms as a much larger figure in his oeuvre than in Sorrentino’s, certain formal and tonal similarities remain. Observe the placement of the bodies in Durand’s “Pietà,” 2006. Compare the image with the parental flash-back scenes in Episode 7 or Episode 8.

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Two related criteria:

“A Neomodernist approach to religious subject matter is detached and philosophical, never an affirmation of faith. A Neomodernist treatment of political or historical subject matter is detached and philosophical, never propaganda.”

It would be impossible to say that The Young Pope is “an affirmation of faith.” Pius himself seems to struggle with belief in God, even in light of the miracles he (probably) works. Theology, though touched upon occasionally, is secondary to matters of Church discipline and ethics. The few moments of genuine spirituality usually come in short, nearly-corny, quietly profound statements (“Under all that ice, could be God,” “He’s lifting the weight of God”). It avoids the twin evils of the ugly liberal partisanship that has marked so many Vatican stories and the preachy conservative propagandizing that can characterize religious film. Instead, we’re given a strangely human story that confounds both sides—even in spite of the show’s manifest popularity among young, traditional Catholics. Lenny may be a saint, but his holiness is thoroughly ambiguous, weighed down by a number of unpleasant personality traits. This puts any viewer (perhaps especially the Catholic one) in an uncomfortable position.

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Neomodernist art should make us uncomfortable, too. Like The Young Pope, Durand’s Neomodernism resists easy classification. He infuses a basically realistic idiom with surreal exaggerations, obvious anachronisms, and intrusions of the fantastic. Moreover, Durand’s work is shot through with eroticism (including homoeroticism), even when he’s depicting sacred subjects. Observe his “Annunciation at Didling,” completed in 2001. Anyone who’s watched most of the series might be forgiven for remembering the utterly bizarre introduction of Tonino Pettola on an Italian hillside.

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Or his rendition of “St. Eustace.”

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These paintings, and others like them, are not set forth by the artist to prove any point. They are not didactic, and they don’t attempt, as the Eastern icons do, to bear the glorious presence of their subjects. Instead, they are a system of symbols arranged with a philosophical detachment.

Moving on:

“A Neomodernist artist must have sound drawing abilities and a command of the other traditional academic disciplines, such as perspective.”

Sorrentino’s technical mastery is evident throughout. Let’s take perspective. I give you:

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Note again how often the vanishing point centers on the Pope; that is, on the human body. Other examples could be cited.

The next relevant criterion can also be dealt with in a similarly brief manner. Durand and Alemdar write,

“A Neomodernist picture concentrates the soul in the eye.”

The hotel scene immediately comes to mind. When Lenny asks the prostitute for her proof of the existence of God, she whips out a camera, snaps a photo, and says, “Your eyes.” She’s not making the old creationist argument from the 90’s. She’s talking about the human soul, which becomes manifest to us in the human faceand preeminently through the eyes.

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The scene is particularly interesting because it is, to the best of my knowledge, the only moment in the series when Lenny allows himself to be photographed. He is disarmed by the prostitute’s beauty, and unsettled by the truth buried in her simple words. But I digress.

Next up:

“A Neomodernist work of art is emblematic rather than psychological.”

I only include this because it’s the one that definitely doesn’t fit TYP. The whole point of the show is psychological exploration, as I’ve already mentioned.

“A Neomodernist figurative or abstract picture has Albertian depth, space and light, never stressing the flatness of the canvas surface but exploring its limitless depths.”

This quality comes through in the ways that The Young Pope makes use of space. Every landscape is treated in such a way that its full aesthetic potential is maximized. This is true of both internal and external backgrounds. For example:

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See also the photo at the top of this post.

“A Neomodernist work of art hightens the sense of newness, regardless of when it was made.”

This is harder to pin down, so I won’t dwell on it. I’ll only refer you to the many reviews that note the show’s peculiarity. People can tell there’s never been anything quite like it on television before. The show’s novelty is part of the reason people kept watching.

“Simplicity of form is Neomodernist.”

Again, a few stills will suffice.

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There are, of course, plenty of moments in The Young Pope where simplicity is anything but the order of the day. Yet not all of Durand’s own work seems rooted in a “simplicity of form.”

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“Arachne,” 2002.

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“Giordano Bruno Burning,” 2000.

So perhaps the quality is malleable.

“A Neomodernist work of art has movement and stillness simultaneously.”

This is another quality that’s difficult to express, but there are scenes that strike a nice balance between the two. One is the frequently alluded-to address to the cardinals. Another is the first homily to the faithful. Yet a third might be the banal advice of the dead popes. Or the (oh-so-Italian) conclusion to Episode 4. Or even the confrontation with Sister Antonia. Probably more.

Durand achieves this quality in several pieces, but I’ll only refer to his 2006 paintings “Coronation of the Virgin” and “St. John the Evangelist.”

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“Neomodernism precedes and supersedes post-modernism.”

I’m genuinely unsure of whether this applies to The Young Pope. Yes, Pius XIII is intent on reforming the Church back to its more “prohibitive” days, before the rot of postmodernism set in. But he’s nothing if not the Byronic hero that achieved new, wider, and stranger expressions in postmodern literature. So I guess I’m torn.

Regardless, I’d argue that there is sufficient reason to believe that Paolo Sorrentino’s new show is the first example of Neomodernist television. Since The Young Pope has just been renewed for a second season, it remains to be seen whether that aesthetic will persist across the larger arc of the story.

Until then, just enjoy this beautiful work of cinematic art.

First Post

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A new year always brings changes. New prospects, new challenges. This year, I’ve decided to take the plunge and start a blog. I had held off for several reasons. First, I’m still an undergraduate. I felt for a very long time that any kind of blog would be inevitably uninteresting, given my relative lack of life experience and knowledge of the world. Secondly, I was apprehensive about committing myself to any particular opinions in print. I know what it is to change one’s mind, and for that change to be nothing short of radical. I felt that if I put my thoughts down for all to see, I might be pigeon-holed later on. It seemed like a limit for my future freedom. Then, I knew what petty squabbling the blogosphere (particularly the religious corner of it) can produce, and I didn’t want to get bogged down in that sort of thing. Finally, there was the simple question of what I would blog about. A personal blog seemed too narcissistic, an art blog seemed too narrow, and a religious blog seemed to run the risk of devolving into the kind of preachy mess that characterizes so much of what’s produced online.

But, urged by some close companions over the last few months, I came to realize that many of my fears were disproportionate to the potential benefits a blog might offer. After all, I’ve had plenty of friends about my age who write blogs that are worth reading. I decided to mix all of the above topics into a distilled personal view of life, art, pop culture, religion, and more. I hope that I can entertain and, perhaps, enlighten. But mostly I just want to have a little fun.

A word about the blog title: I’m descended from Pennsylvania’s Amish community, including the first Amish bishop in America. But I converted to Catholicism a few years ago, and intend to make the study of Catholic theology my life’s work. I came up with the phrase “Amish Catholic” a few years ago in jest, and thought it might work for precisely this kind of publication. We’ll see.