Welcome to Worthy Reads, where I share some articles (and other things) that I think are worth your time. It’s always one of De Civ’s most popular features. It’s also the only one with any kind of paywall: everyone gets half the items, but only paid subscribers get them all. Retweets are not endorsements. My kids want me to take them to the library RIGHT NOW, before I can read this through a third and final time, so any typos or poorly-phrased sentences are my kids’ fault, or maybe my fault for teaching them good reading habits.
It’s Christmas (twelve days! don’t take your tree down yet!), and I’m just not in the mood for politics, argumentative or otherwise. (Don’t worry, I’m saving lots.) Let’s talk culture ‘n’ religion ‘n’ history ‘n’ stuff:
“There Is No Mary Problem in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’” by Clare Coffey:
From the beginning, it is Mary who chooses George, not the other way around. In a scene from their childhood, she sits on the counter and whispers in his bad ear, “George Bailey, I’ll love you ’til the day I die,” while George, oblivious, drones on about coconuts. Reunited at the high school dance, her eyes fix on him with the loving, predatory gleam of a wifely panther. Throughout their strange, bittersweet courtship, it is she who chases him, as much as Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, or Barbra Streisand in What’s Up, Doc? George, for his part, is as outraged, as protesting, as ultimately helpless as any of his counterparts. It is a screwball chump-chase transposed into the register of drama, with George playing the part of the chump.
From what I can tell, this article went viral during the last week of Advent, but mainly among bluechecks, the bluecheck-adjacent, and Christians of a certain level of orthodoxy. However, it’s a wide world, and it’s possible you aren’t in any of those groups and haven’t already seen this shared nineteen times in a row on your Facebook wall. If you haven’t read it, it’s a good read and it’s correct. Since it’s correct, I will digress.
I’ve heard it argued that It’s A Wonderful Life only became a Christmas classic because its copyright accidentally lapsed, the movie fell into the public domain early, and so it got a lot of extra play from TV stations because it was free. It’s A Wonderful Life is a Christmas classic not because it was great but only because it was ubiquitous.
There’s a grain of truth to this. Because of the West’s sick, inhuman, unconstitutional copyright laws, It’s A Wonderful Life was supposed to remain under copyright until 2041. It slipped only because the rights-holder forgot to renew it in 1974. (Under the profoundly destructive Copyright Renewal Act of 1992 (U.S. law) and the Copyright Duration Directive of 1993 (E.U. law), copyright renewal is now automatic, so this couldn’t even happen today.) If It’s A Wonderful Life had indeed stayed under corporate lock-and-key for six decades longer than it did, many Christmastime TV broadcasts of It’s A Wonderful Life would never have happened, and many children of the 1970s and 1980s would have had poorer lives for it.
Copyright reformers have a hard challenge: we believe that our current copyright law has unduly suppressed many important artistic works, and prevented the creation of many others. But how can we convince the public that they need to rise up and protect all the stories they haven’t read (because they never existed) and all the films they haven’t seen (because the rightsholder didn’t bother preserving them and nobody else could)? The accidental early release of It’s A Wonderful Life provides a rare example of how copyright could work in a healthier regime that privileged common culture over corporate coffers. The sky did not exactly fall when a movie from 1946 got play on TV channels in 1974. By 1998, the entire principal cast and crew was dead, as were most of the movie’s original audience, so did it make any sense that Wonderful Life—or any other movie of its era—should remain under lock and key of some corporate successor1 for another forty-three years, as our perverse law provides? For this reason, copyright reformers will always find It’s A Wonderful Life a useful example.
However, to say that It’s A Wonderful Life owes its exalted status to the public domain is a gross exaggeration.
First, it’s a myth that It’s A Wonderful Life became truly public domain in 1974. The film itself (that is, its images) entered the public domain at that time because of a clerical error. However, the film itself is a derivative work based on Phillip Van Doren Stern’s 1943 short story, “The Greatest Gift.” That short story remains under copyright until the year 2054,2 and Van Doren Stern sold the short story's film rights to Frank Capra. Since It's A Wonderful Life is built on those rights, whichever corporation currently owns the film rights effectively owns It's A Wonderful Life as well.
There was a legal tussle about this in the 1980s and early 1990s, as the current rightsholder (see footnote #1 for that messy story) attempted to assert its rights over the work. They succeeded! Viacom currently holds the film rights to “The Greatest Gift” and therefore distribution rights for It’s A Wonderful Life. The reason It’s A Wonderful Life remains so widely available appears to be a patchwork of long-term or permanent distribution deals that the rightsholder made before the tussle. It’s A Wonderful Life has never been free and clear, rights-wise, and, frankly, researching and writing this paragraph gave me a huge headache. (Reform copyright law!) So we can’t easily credit its success to the legal ease of using it.
Second, it just seems silly to say that It’s A Wonderful Life would have vanished into obscurity if not for that late-20th-century wrestling match over its distribution rights. It’s a Frank Capra movie starring Jimmy Stewart! How many Frank Capra movies have vanished into obscurity? I’ll tell ya: none. This is the mind behind Arsenic and Old Lace, Meet John Doe, It Happened One Night, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. They aren’t all A-list movies (A Hole In The Head, for example, starring Frank Sinatra), but Frank Capra movies are preserved, studied, and extensively written up on Wikipedia, no matter how copyrighted. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t do too bad for himself, either.
Over and beyond that, It’s A Wonderful Life is one of Capra’s best films. You can tell by the quantity and quality of the criticism it attracts. Every year, without fail, some wannabe film critic finds some way to attack It’s A Wonderful Life in order to earn his contrarian wings,3 which shows that pretty much everyone knows It’s A Wonderful Life is at least universally regarded as a really good movie.
Every year, without fail, these attacks are terrible, on par with tongue-in-cheek “The Empire in Star Wars was right” takes. This shows that Wonderful Life actually is a really good movie, because even people with strong incentives to take it down a peg can’t.
For example, take this year’s anti-Wonderful Life salvo. They usually come from the Left, but this one comes from the Right, written by Catholic postliberal Stephen G. Adubato and published by the Trump-aligned Claremont Institute:
Bailey’s life revolves around the dynamic of the atomized suburban nuclear family… His religious proclivities are a forerunner to Moral Therapeutic Deism: he prays to God in moments of need, but really his claim to heavenly favor is that he is a “respectable person.” This ethos can only carry weight because, at the time of the film, sentimental attachments to vestiges of an antiquated cosmology like angels and miraculous signs still held some cultural currency. This brand of religiosity is an example of what philosopher Charles Taylor identified as the post-Enlightenment ideal of “benevolence,” which served as a sort of “surrogate” form of agape or Christian love.
…Benevolence is agape minus communion…out go the ties of dependence on God and community. We may “respect” God and neighbor, but by no means is our atomized existence ontologically intertwined with theirs. Christmas, once the celebration of incarnational mysteries too deep to fathom, is reduced to sentimental, moralistic trappings.
Adubato goes on to develop this idea at some length, and the article eventually settles on the typical bromides of the post-liberal movement. Adubato’s not wrong that, say, post-Catholic spirituality in the Republic of Ireland seems unsustainable and destined for final despair. He’s right that sentimental benevolence runs on the fumes of Christendom. But what on Earth does that have to do with It’s A Wonderful Life?
It’s A Wonderful Life is precisely a screed against atomization and sentimental benevolence. It’s a chronicle of George Bailey’s increasingly desperate attempts to hold the people of his town together against the atomizing force of Mr. Potter and the decadent libertarian paradise of Pottersville. (You may accuse Mr. Potter of many other crimes, but he is vividly a social atomizer whose mission in life is to reduce the whole world to that mean estate.)
In parallel, It’s A Wonderful Life is the story of George Bailey’s bottomless depths of agape. He doesn’t sacrifice his dreams of world travel because he feels some sentimental affection for the Bailey Building & Loan. He hates the Bailey Building & Loan, often with considerable passion. He shoulders responsibility for it, even when middle-class bourgeois morality tells him he has a perfect right to abandon it (this happens twice: when the Board votes him chairman and when his brother returns home married). George carries the Building & Loan, not because of some treacly sense of benevolence toward his abstracted fellow man, nor even because of sentimental attachment to specific people like Mr. Martini and Mrs. Maplin. He does it because the Bailey Building & Loan is the cross on which George Bailey must be crucified. He bears it for the same reason Christ bore His Cross: self-abnegating love.
This is not some defensive, arcane reinterpretation of the movie. As far as I can tell, it is the widely accepted interpretation. It’s widely accepted because George’s self-sacrifice is explicitly the whole point of the movie. If the postlibs aren’t happy with It’s A Wonderful Life, their entire program is not just impossible, but incoherent.
Adubato scores half a point: I am not certain it is realistic that a man could bear his cross well without a fruitful prayer life. Of course, even if (by his own accounting), George Bailey is not a “praying man,” he is nevertheless is a man of his era. He needs no special devotion to have a religious life that we here in 2022 would consider pretty devout. He goes to church every Sunday like everybody else in 1946 (and the movie says he goes along with common religious practices: “like everybody else, on V-E Day, he wept and prayed”). His kids are given explicitly Christian religious education in the ordinary course of schooling4 (“Teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings”), and everyone accepts this as a matter of course—just as they accept things like the existence of God. When their daddy has a meltdown, the very first thing George’s kids think of is to pray for him. (The implication is that Mary is more devout than her husband.) There is no need to call special attention to any of this ordinary God-haunted background in the script because, from the perspective of Capra, a devout Catholic, in 1946, all of it can be safely assumed!
However, the movie recognizes that even all this is not enough: minutes after George confesses that he is not a “praying man,” he falls so deep into the pit of despair, so overwhelmed by his cross, that he attempts to commit suicide! The movie is certainly not saying that George Bailey’s shallow religious life is adequate. It seems highly likely that one result of the events of It’s A Wonderful Life is a renewal of George Bailey’s religious faith—again, not something Catholic Capra needed to say aloud, because, in 1946, his whole audience would go, “duh.”
Adubato, however, is obstinately blind to all of this—just like his many predecessors and, I presume, his successors. To take It’s A Wonderful Life down a peg, they have to turn it into a different movie first. I hope he at least got his contrarian wings.
Adubato, again, is only this year’s model. The abundant criticisms of It’s A Wonderful Life are uniformly terrible, grounded in either bad moral presuppositions, failure to carefully watch the movie, or both. It’s A Wonderful Life was always a great movie, its pedigree meant it would never be forgotten, and so it was always destined to eventually get properly appreciated and ascend into the canon. Its copyright fluke in 1974 surely hastened that day, but the day was inevitable.
Gosh darn it, I promised myself I was going to do short hits for this article, but that’s 1700 words on It’s A Wonderful Life. Moving right along.
“Those Who Run Toward Love,” by Eve Tushnet:
…alongside all the beauty you can display when you’re willing to talk about Catholic models of same-sex love, you also get to show people that when they walk through an orthodox door—the door precisely of ordering our loves to bring them into harmony with the Church—what’s on the other side of that door may look unorthodox. It can look pretty gay! At Notre Dame I talked about holding my partner’s hand at Mass; I said that if our churches get better at forming people to live their longings for same-sex love well, “our churches will look gayer, and that’s awesome but some people are gonna feel some kind of way about it.”
This sentence has really stuck with me for the past six weeks. If the Church does a better job at forming gay people to live their Christian vocations, the Church will get gayer as a result. It will have more gay people, who will bring with them gay aesthetics5 and (properly ordered) (but still very gay) gay love.
The Church has done a lot of work entrenching itself in its (IMO correct) moral stance that a lot of activities that gay people are predisposed toward are not moral. (Also, a lot of sex things that straights are predisposed toward.) The Church has had to hoe this row, because the culture has rapidly changed positions on this question, and the answers can no longer be safely assumed. It has to be able to explain both what people should not do, and why they should not do it.
However, what this amounts to, for a lot of gay Christians, is a kind of “vocation of no”: gay people are not called to X, they are not called to Y, and they are definitely not called to Z. What are they called to? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Gay Catholics, for example, cannot marry the people they are sexually attracted to,6 cannot (currently) become priests, and cannot join many religious orders. Their friendships with members of the same sex are routinely treated by average Catholics as suspicious and scandalous (because sexual temptation for the gays!), and their friendships with members of the opposite sex are also treated as suspicious and scandalous (because sexual temptation for the straights!). If they room only with gay people of the opposite sex (not easy to find!), it’s either scandalous (because they keep their sexualities to themselves) or they’re accused of “making their sexuality their identity” by telling people they’re gay! Evangelicals, who tend to take a low view of celibacy (despite Matt 19:11-12 and related passages), are often worse than the Catholics.
So what the hell are gay Christians supposed to do? No one has a “vocation of no.” Vocations are always a “yes.” But what are possible vocations for gay Christians?
(Incidentally, I think this was a big reason why “ex-gay” narratives persisted among Christians long after they had been broadly discredited. Because there seem to be no “acceptable” ways to be gay in the Church, the only possible answer was to turn gay people into straight people. The fact that you can’t turn most gay people into straight people was a stubborn reality that had to be waved away as long as possible.)
Thus far, I’m not saying anything new. I’ve probably ranted this rant at least once on De Civ in the past ten years. Developing “vocations of yes” is, in fact, a major project7 Eve Tushnet is working on these days, and imagining what the Gay Christian Of The Future™ looks like is a really important part of loving these particular neighbors.
However, it never occurred to me to imagine what the Christian Church Of The Future™ would look like once the pews are packed with devout “Side B” gay Christians. The Church could not possibly fail to be changed by this encounter. The Church will become gayer. I find that I do (as Tushnet predicted) have feelings about that, and those feelings are not as positive as I feel they ought to be.
I suppose I’m already a member of a pretty gay Church, for better (Evelyn Waugh and Brideshead Revisited) but also for worse (the Pink Mafia’s subversive network within the priesthood). When I hear that my church is going to end up gayer (and that’s if we succeed), loss-aversion bias means I tend to worry about the latter more than I look forward to the former. I’ve seen the so-called “Pink Mafia” in action (as a fairly close-range bystander), and their behavior scares me.
But the gaying-up that Eve Tushnet8 is talking about is not the Pink Mafia’s weaponization of the closet. Quite the opposite; it seems to me that a gayer-but-more-orthodox Church would actually be profoundly threatening to the Pink Mafia that exists today.
There’s a lot to think about here. Or, at least, I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
BONUS: scroll down to the comments section on this article to see me raving about The Conjure-Man Dies and the Black Mystery Novel.
“The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” by Parul Sehgal:
[O]n the page and on the screen, one plot—the trauma plot—has arrived to rule them all. Unlike the marriage plot, the trauma plot does not direct our curiosity toward the future (Will they or won’t they?) but back into the past (What happened to her?). “For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge,” Sylvia Plath wrote in “Lady Lazarus.” “A very large charge.” Now such exposure comes cheap. Frame it within a bad romance between two characters and their discordant baggage. Nest it in an epic of diaspora; reënvision the Western, or the novel of passing. Fill it with ghosts. Tell it in a modernist sensory rush with the punctuation falling away. Set it among nine perfect strangers. In fiction, our protagonist will often go unnamed; on television, the character may be known as Ted Lasso, Wanda Maximoff, Claire Underwood, Fleabag. Classics are retrofitted according to the model. Two modern adaptations of Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” add a rape to the governess’s past. In “Anne with an E,” the Netflix reboot of “Anne of Green Gables,” the title character is given a history of violent abuse, which she relives in jittery flashbacks. In Hogarth Press’s novelized updates of Shakespeare’s plays, Jo Nesbø, Howard Jacobson, Jeanette Winterson, and others accessorize Macbeth and company with the requisite devastating backstories.
…Trauma has become synonymous with backstory, but the tyranny of backstory is itself a relatively recent phenomenon—one that, like any successful convention, has a way of skirting our notice. Personality was not always rendered as the pencil-rubbing of personal history. Jane Austen’s characters are not pierced by sudden memories; they do not work to fill in the gaps of partial, haunting recollections.
I kind of thought that everyone read this article when it came out last year, but I keep talking to people and finding out that, no, not everyone did. So here you go. Let this article give voice to that niggling feeling you have in the back of your head that all dramas are now mysteries, and the solution to the mystery is always past trauma.
The New Yorker doesn’t speculate very much on why this is happening, and seems to consider the Trauma Plot mostly a fad. They may be right. On the other hand, what’s the alternative?
I’m going to make some wild generalizations here, but it seems to me that literature was, at one point, about choices. Characters would be led to a point and make a choice. We’d get to examine the choice up close, watch the consequences play out, and start studying the next choice. Different works had different balances of this, and of course there are all kinds of different choices, and all kinds of different people who make them. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is about the marital choices of the various Bennet sisters, and the mysteries surrounding those choices. Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998) is about the single initial choice to steal a suitcase full of money from a plane wreck, and the almost-but-not-quite inevitable spiral of evil choices that followed as a consequence of that initial crime.9 Literature was (I’m getting repetitive) the study of human freedom.
In the 21st Century, we no longer believe in choices. We are all determinists. We think that every single human choice is the predictable result of prior causes that are ultimately beyond our control. As Galen Strawson puts it, we believe that, "What one does is a function of how one is, mentally speaking."
We ask “nature or nurture?” even though neither answer—separate or combined—leaves any room for individual moral responsibility. Even those of us who are religiously committed to free will and moral responsibility mostly can’t conceive of either, so the idea of choice we actually carry around in our heads is determinist.10 With freedom eviscerated, what is there left to write about?
Literature that only exists to explicate some political, scientific, or business theory is generally both bad literature and bad theory. So we still want to write about choices. We still want to write about what makes bad people bad (and good people flawed). But it can’t be freedom or weakness of will, because those things don’t exist. Their flaws must therefore stem from defining experiences they’ve had (in some combination with innocent inborn traits). To the members of our literary class who have never had reason to doubt the fundamental decency of human beings, it seems natural that experiences which turn people bad (or weak) must themselves be bad experiences.
Et voila, you’ve reinvented the Trauma Plot.
It might be a fad, but I think it’s going to stick around for a while, at least until either:
(a) literature finds something else to do with itself or
(b) our society broadly adopts new metaphysics of the human person.
Both those things always happen eventually, but our particular society seems trapped in a cycle of repetition that—
—no, nope, no, I’m saving that for the Spider-Man review. Moving on.
FREE BONUS: This week saw the celebration of Public Domain Day 2023! There’s plenty of good stuff out there to read and listen to this week! All this stuff should have been public domain at least thirty years ago, but today is better than never and well worth celebrating!
This is where the paywall hits. Sorry, free subscribers, you are all beautiful people, but De Civitate’s paying subscribers deserve some reward, at least occasionally. If you’d like to sign up to support my work and, incidentally, read the rest of this edition of Worthy Links, you can do so here:
In the remainder of this edition of Worthy Links: some Vatican II thoughts (again), a defense of the (seemingly tiny) armies used in Star Wars, the video of the month, and a little poetry.
Otherwise, I will be back soon with the usual free content. I have finished my 20,000-word feature article on abortion and the 13th Amendment and am currently just doing revisions.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to De Civitate to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.