An Intimacy with Violence
James T. Fisher June 13, 2007 - 12:31pm
While blogsite was down last night I wondered if anyone would note return of 'Rescue Me;' thanks Michael Higgins and thanks to John Schmalzbauer the great young sociologist of religion and former Worcester guy (Denis Leary's hometown) for reminding me show was back. I've only seen bits as with everything but Mr. Higgins has it down; plus this Denis Leary is funny! and author of greatest single one-liner re the Irish-Americans: "What is it about the Irish and paneling?"
BUT and ok I'm sure this is strictly my problem what is about the Catholics and violence? Or do I mean 'representations' of Catholics and violence? Lookit the poster for new 'Rescue Me' season: it's been in-your-facing NYC area commuters for weeks now; the curve of the neck, fire-eating/breathing evoke Thomas Nast's Civil War era cartoons of Irish savagery no? (with a splash of Richard Avedon/Robert Mapplethorpe). From the mayhem wrought of the 'nominally' Catholic Sopes. families to the issue with violence/sexual violence that apparently figures in 'Rescue Me's' past; we like it especially red and bloody it seems (there's an essay for someone on Mink the very un-Catholic gangland lawyer and his struggles with ketchup bottle in penultimate scene on Sopes. Sunday night; that David Chase is one stone genius) .
But in all the talks about redemption/salvation via this violence etc we often overlook basics: getting smacked or worse really hurts! I was tossed through a wall or two as kid but more routinely lived under a regimen we like to call 'The Irish Waterfront.' Now I'm not selling books here since it won't be out for way long but it was 'sobering' doing historical research on NY/NJ waterfront to discover how much the ol' neighborhood (West Side Manhattan, Hudson County NJ et al) was dominated by violence, brutality, and a version of Catholicism that equated an 'intimacy with violence' with spiritual authenticity and cultural authority. The Irish guy that ran the NY waterfront rackets from 1920s-50s was the most highly honored layman in the NY Archdiocese and, as the curmudgeonly columnist Westbrook Pegler once wrote, he was a much more menacing figure than the 'secularized' Prime Minister of Organized Crime, Frank Costello (Francesco Castiglia); AND he had the West Side's most powerful Monsignor on hand to remind nosy outsiders this waterfront was a special Catholic place.
Do Catholics demonstrate their freedom from this one-time bondage by making of it art? Could be. I know too there's whole school of theology/thought that says these poor folk were simply 'uncatechized' thus not really Catholic and another school that says everybody did it get off it will you please? But I'm also thinking we've not even started examining this stuff in real hard ways using real evidence grounded in real experience. In Peter Quinn's wonderful new book on Irish-America, for example, he writes: "The use of corporal punishment in schools like St. Raymond's [of his Bronx boyhood] has been covered to the point of parody." I used to believe that too but can someone refer me to an actual historical study of violence/punishment in Catholic schools?
This hang-up started at Fordham's autism and advocacy conference in October when a wonderful guy, prez. of a Catholic high school, responded to wisecrack that while I may be ambivalent about my Catholic education I wished my autistic son could have at least the chance to be ambivalent about his. Speaker said his friends that run other Catholic high schools lament that grads won't return for reunions 'just because we beat the hell out of them;' speaker then remarked that he was grateful that his 7th grade nun cared enough to hit him so hard 'her false teeth flew across the room.' I laughed; the other Catholics in room seemed to laugh; others didn't laugh and that's led to an ongoing conversation with someone that's been struggling to understand this unique cultural/religious tradition.
I know I tend toward the personal in these posts but what surprised me in conversation with this individual was their observation I have not, in fact, been very forthcoming about my experiences on 'the Irish waterfront.' It also occurred to me that this 'intimacy with violence' that was so dominant along that highly portable waterfront is discussed in ways that are themselves deeply intimate and rarely shared on the outside.