By Joseph Trullinger
In trying to describe Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope to a few of my friends in philosophy, I told them to imagine that the spirit of Giorgio Agamben had possessed the body of Quentin Tarantino to make a TV show. What I was trying to convey was the show’s curious duality: it’s a mixture of whizz-bang postmodern pop sensibility with a smart reflection on the archaic structures that define reactionary power. Most analyses of the show remark on how this duality is also reflected in the “contradictions” of its central character, Lenny Belardo, an orphan from New York who becomes pope at the tender age of forty-seven in an upset election, but rather than serve as a “telegenic puppet” for the cardinals who think his youth will make the church relevant for the modern age, he wants to take the church centuries back in time and refuses all compromise. After all, he names himself Pius XIII, to evoke continuity with Pius XII, whose silence in the face of fascism was tantamount to collaboration. The supposed contradictions here include that he is young but serves old ideas, that he adheres to what we might call a “strict constructionist” approach to church doctrine yet privately doubts whether God even exists, that he looks exactly as handsome as Jude Law but is strictly celibate, that he likes electronic music yet arranges for the papal tiara to be sent back to him from Washington, DC.
For all their acknowledgement of the parallels between Lenny and the rise of Trump, these reviews fail to see that these are not contradictions, or rather, they are no more contradictory than the coexistence of traditionalism and a taste for electronica are in Richard Spencer, and the similar mixture of media-savvy irony with revanchist obscurantism among the rancorous ranks of the new Nazism, the so-called “alt-right.” How are we to explain the coexistence of this “meta” aesthetic with chilling calls for autocratic regressivity? What can explain Steve Bannon’s unapologetic self-comparison to Darth Vader and Satan as exemplars of power, and furthermore, how can such a statement strike anybody as savvy rather than deranged? I believe that the conceptual framework of Agamben’s political theology shows us how The Young Pope, though it aired in Italy long before the 2016 presidential election, sheds light on this zeitgeist. I am not going to analyze the sociopolitical conditions that underpin our country’s hard right turn, other than to briefly say that what’s most surprising about it is that anybody could really be surprised to discover the existence of white supremacist misogyny in our country. Instead, I am focusing on the theological concepts that make such a reactionary politics appear legitimate and even attractive. As Werner Herzog said about why he watches Wrestlemania, “the poet must not avert his eyes—this is what is coming at us.”
And what a feast for the eyes The Young Pope is: almost every frame could be a Caravaggio painting, the sunlight of the expansive papal gardens dazzling with intensity along with shadows are rich enough you swear they would feel velvety if you could touch them. When the pope outmaneuvers the Machiavellian plotting of the cardinals around him, the rich reds and immaculate white of their robes (designed by Armani) linger in your mind more than the script. When Lenny makes his grand entrance into the Sistine Chapel to address the college of cardinals, luxurious ostrich feather fans herald his arrival on a litter carried by his subordinates so that he towers over them all in refined majesty as Pontifex Maximus. The occasional profundity of the ecclesiastical arguments in the show is in the end outweighed by the disappointing banality of the show’s conclusion; with B-flat Freudian reductivism, the pope’s icy and draconian personality is deduced to be the result of his abandonment issues as an orphan, and he starts turning to a more liberal view in a rather rushed and unconvincing shift. I don’t disagree with Melaine McFarland at Salon when she writes, “As visual art, “The Young Pope” has no peer. Punctilious cinematography and art direction does not make up for its conspicuous lack of a soul, however.”
However, the criticism of soullessness misses the mark: sumptuousness without substance is the whole point, for according to Agamben the pomp and circumstance, all the ceremoniousness and regalia that go along with authority figures are not merely symbols of power, they are the means by which power is taken and maintained. Seen from this perspective, Lenny’s cynical disbelief in God’s existence is not only compatible with his authority as pope, it is conducive to it.
This is captured in the final episode of the show, when Lenny has a nighttime vision—whether in a dream or not, the show takes such surrealities in stride with blasé aplomb—of all the popes throughout church history seated around his table. Overwhelmed by the immense weight of their collective authority, Lenny strikes up the courage to ask them for the wisest thing they’ve ever learned in their experience. They look around at each other, until Pope Pius V—who was pope through the rocky times of the Council of Trent—responds: “In the end, more than in God, it is necessary to believe in yourself, Lenny.” Lenny is nonplussed, disappointed at the trite advice: “Oh. Have you got something…a little better? That’s a banal platitude.” Pius V chuckles, and says, “If only you knew how true a banal platitude can be, my dear colleague. After all, look at us: we are power. And power is a banal platitude.”
I take this to mean that at the heart of it all, the mystery is nothing deep but something actually quite shallow, quite vacuous—but this emptiness is precisely what gives it a frightening and seductive power. We keep looking for reasons and justification, but the secret of autocracy is that it preys upon those who will accept domination so long as they feel it will one day prove itself justified—that is, those who think that it is not being dominated, but the lack of justification for it, that is reprehensible. As Foucault once said, there is a little fascist in each of us, and it is that part that respects or even adores figures who seize power without justifying it. In contrast to the Enlightenment value of transparency, The Young Pope explicitly explores the aura of mystery, the electric charge that comes through withholding oneself from accountability before a public. Lenny’s lifelong media strategy is to stoke curiosity by not allowing himself to be photographed, to be “as unreachable as a rockstar,” to be “an invisible pope,” and by that very invisibility to be eminently visible. Instead of making his visage a vulgar and quotidian image, withdrawing from sight serves the dual function of intensifying the eagerness to follow him and heightening the effect of the spectacle when he does appear. But lest you think this an innocuous case of absence making the heart grow fonder, Lenny underscores quite blatantly to his cardinals that this is an absolutist worldview that brooks no debate:
“Knock knock. Knock knock. We’re not in. Brother cardinals, from this day forward, we’re not in, no matter who’s knocking on our door. We’re in, but only for God. From this day forward everything that was wide open is going to be closed. Evangelization—we’ve already done it. Ecumenicalism—been there, done that. Tolerance—doesn’t live here anymore. It’s been evicted. It vacated the house for a new tenant with diametrically opposite tastes in decorating. We’ve been reaching out to others for years now. It’s time to stop. We’re not going anywhere. We are here, because what are we? We are cement, and cement doesn’t move. We are cement without windows, so we don’t look to the outside world. “Only the church possesses the charisma of truth,” said Saint Ignatius of Antioch, and he was right: we have no reason to look out. Instead, look over there—what do you see? That’s the door, the only way in: small, and extremely uncomfortable, and anyone who wants to know us has to find out how to get through that door. Brother cardinals, we need to go back to being prohibited, inaccessible, and mysterious. That’s the only way we will once again become desirable. That’s the only way great love stories are born, and I don’t want anymore part-time believers. I want great love stories! I want fanatics for God, because fanaticism is love. Everything else is strictly a surrogate, and it stays outside the church. … I don’t expect any applause from you. There will be no expression of thanks in this chapel, none from me, and none from you. Courtesy and good manners are not the business of men of God. What I do expect is that you will do what I’ve told you to do. There is nothing outside your obedience to Pius XIII, nothing except hell, a hell you may know nothing about, but I do—because I built it, right behind that door. Hell.”
As Lenny sees it, liberalism is doomed to what conservatives call “theological drift,” the tendency of a church to lose all principles and therefore all respectability when one chases after the approval of the secular world and its progressive fashions. Instead of drifting, best to be like cement: fixed, unwavering, rigid. Whereas liberalism speculates on policies and doctrines that are open to refutation, the Catholic traditionalist finds closure in the past. As Mark Lilla recently put it, “Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable” (Lilla, xiv). Why is it only the church that has “the charisma of truth”? We never get an answer, because no justification is really necessary to be charismatic: with a circular logic, just by being the institution that it is the church has the charisma of truth, and the truth is whatever the church—especially its supreme pontiff, the pope—says that it is. The hermetically self-sealing isolation of Lenny’s ecclesiastical vision consolidates itself through the keys of Saint Peter that appear on the Vatican crest, the keys the pope holds to the gates of heaven and hell. As the old saying goes, extra ecclesiam nulla salus—there is no salvation outside the church—so the pope can condemn anyone by means of excommunication, by cutting off the possibility of communication with the institution that is sovereign over people’s souls.
(Read Part II here)
Mark Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. New York, NY: New York Review of Books. 2016. Page xiv.
Joseph Trullinger has been an Assistant Professor of Honors and Philosophy at George Washington University in Washington, DC since the fall of 2014. He is the author of several articles on Kant’s philosophy of religion, examining issues of the psychology of moral faith. He has also authored a few essays on Marcuse’s aesthetic sensibility and anti-productivism. His recent projects include research into the parallels between liberation theology and Kant’s ethicotheology. You can read about his ongoing thoughts on his personal blog, Between Two Untruths.