Back in January, Catherine Denueve and 99 other French women denounced the #MeToo movement as moral ‘puritanism’. This week, the Austrian film director Michael Haneke reached for the same word: “This new puritanism, coloured by a hatred of men, arriving on the heels of the #MeToo movement, worries me,” he said. He followed this up by saying that puritanism “should be left in the Middle Ages”, which rather made me question his command of history.
A lot has been written about #MeToo, and the increasing backlash. This is not a contribution to that debate; but rather a complaint against the lazy use of the term puritan as a catch-all insult to describe the activity of sexless fun-sponges obsessed with policing the erotic lives of others.
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This image of puritanism seems to have stuck. And not just from anti-feminists either. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a future puritanism as the ideology of rape and fascist, violent misogyny. All sides have it in for the Puritans.
Yet I think the Puritans deserve a fairer hearing. And here I line up behind the great American novelist Marilynne Robinson who has made it her business, both in her novels, but also in her essays,1 to depict a more thoughtful and sympathetic portrait of a religious movement that, at the very least, was at the heart of the first stirrings of our democracy, and, by sailing from England to America, responsible for exporting that radical idea and setting it as the foundation of the modern United States.
“We are forever drawing up indictments against the past, then refusing to let it testify in its own behalf,” she complains in her magnificent essay ‘Puritans and Prigs’.2“Such attention as we give to it is usually vindictive and incurious and therefore incompetent.” Michael Haneke’s lazy throw away that Puritanism should be left in the Middle Ages is a good case in point.
Non-Puritan Christians used to do something similar during Lent, which began this week – the austerity of Lent being a time to curtail desire, thus to gain some sort of dominance over it.
But the idea of managing with less is now considered one of the most pernicious heresies of consumer capitalism and its devilish sidekick: modern advertising. The Puritans may have invented capitalism though the Protestant work ethic, a belief in hard graft and sound housekeeping – but modern capitalism, driven on by the need for continual consumption, has turned against these values.
The Puritan commitment to the virtues of hard work and thrift morphed into its very opposite. It turned into: “Because you are worth it.” Puritanism was destroyed by its children – just as Thatcherism began as a self-help version of Thatcher’s father’s Methodist sermons, and twisted itself into a get-rich-quick profligacy as represented by her son (see Eliza Filby’s God and Mrs Thatcher.3
In an age where ‘sin’ is a word that is now applied more to calories and chocolate than to the human condition, the fierce existential intensity of the Puritans is easily made to look ridiculous, even seditious to modern values.
What Robinson tries to do in her novels is depict the struggle to achieve precisely the sort of non-flashy version of moral goodness that is hated by the now omnipresent gods of consumerism and advertising. In her imaginative world, the despised ideas of simplicity and modesty are words that retain important moral currency. They have dignity. And so they should. (Though even these virtues can be conscripted by the machinery of desire. For instance, you can by a simple Shaker kitchen for tens of thousands of pounds. Designer simplicity often comes with a hefty price tag.)
What Robinson shows is that Puritanism is not a plot against being human, that to talk of original sin is not to despise the constituent conditions of our humanity. “The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain” Robinson writes.
And she is again right. The cruel position is to expect us all to be perfect and then swiftly jump to condemnation when we are not. For Robinson, these people are called prigs not Puritans. And theirs is a method-acting version of morality.
Of course, these days, the torchbearers of a roughly Puritan world-view often hail from another faith entirely. That is one of the reasons I respect and admire Islam. But that is another story.