There is only one John Zmirak. A prolific author, popular literature professor, gadfly critic of culture and politics, and out-and-proud beagle enthusiast, John leaves an impression. And gives a memorable interview.
He spoke with Brian Saint-Paul about his latest book, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins.
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Brian Saint-Paul: The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins is your third in a series. What gave you the idea to approach Catholicism this way?
John Zmirak: Around 2000, I somehow got the idea that throwing liturgically themed parties was a good way to meet girls who might be “marriage material.” I realized that I was living way out in Queens, and there was no way anyone was going to schlep all the way out there on the subway unless I offered something special — so I started adding interesting, unfamiliar foods (like turtle soup for Mardi Gras, or 13 flambéed dishes for Pentecost). It didn’t work — I met my current girlfriend when she read a column of mine on Godspy and emailed me a drunken fan letter. But I had plenty of fun, ran up debts I’m still paying off, and helped create a real social network among certain Catholics in New York City.
A friend of mine, herself an author, suggested that I do a book of parties and call it The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living. I sat down and wrote it, and when she read it, she begged me not to publish it. Too late, toots.
You structured the book around the Seven Deadly Sins, the neuroses that oppose them, and the virtues that correct both. Is it important to approach these together?
Yes. Outside of St. Thomas, I’ve never seen anyone treat them this way, but it’s extremely important. While many faithful Catholics do struggle with the Deadly Sins, many more of them have already “beaten” those sins — principally by fleeing to the opposite extreme. So you have people who adopt Frigidity to overcome Lust, Servility to conquer Wrath, Fanaticism to counter Sloth. In fact, I think you could trace most of the nonsense, drivel, and hysteria that we find in Catholic circles to one of those seven neuroses.
I really want to smash the myth that the opposite of a deadly sin is a virtue. It isn’t. It’s a neurosis. That tendency, to think that we can and should crush our God-given natures in order to conquer sin, is gnostic and it goads people who have already conquered laxity into scrupulosity and despair. Those can damn you just as surely as laxity, and I think the devil gets a greater kick out of it.
Well, the neuroses are what you get when you work too hard at beating the sin, to the point where you’re neglecting some important created good. There seems on the surface to be something honorable about making that kind of effort, and you might even twist the words of Christ to support it: If your eye causes you to sin, then pluck it out. The Church father Origen took this approach to his problems with chastity, which is how he ended up without any . . . eggs.
Is there a Deadly Sin that really exemplifies our time? A sin for our age?
Well, I’ve got a section in the book that quotes Mother Angelica calling Misguided Compassion the “reigning sin of our time,” which I first published at InsideCatholic. It’s not one of the Seven Deadlies but instead is a form of what Dante called Prodigality, or reckless wastefulness (the opposing neurosis to the deadly sin Greed). I think that’s the sin that pervades the Left, especially the Catholic Left. They want to waste our tax money, debase our citizenship, enable every form of Sloth and Envy, all in the name of a distorted vision of Christian charity.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Right is prone to Wrath — to voting for mindless military interventions, absurdly long sentences for victimless crimes, crass apathy about abuses like torture abroad and prison rape at home. As for people who consider themselves centrists or independents . . . I think most of them haven’t picked a real political philosophy out of pure intellectual Sloth.
There, have I managed to offend everyone?
Probably. We’ve carried your columns for almost four years, and I’ve noticed that people either get your writing, or they don’t. There’s very little middle ground opinion when it comes to John Zmirak.
I remember my (Irish-American) mother’s attitude toward garlic. She thought it was toxic. No kidding: Once for April Fool’s I put garlic powder in her cough medicine, and she called the poison control bureau. It took the poor guy 10 minutes to talk her down and convince her that she wouldn’t have a stroke.
Another time, I came back from an Italian friend’s house having eaten scampi or something, and she said, “What is that stink coming out of your pores? It smells like a guinea house.” To which I answered: “Mom, that’s from something called a ‘seasoning.’ It gives food something they call ‘flavor.’ You might want to look into it.”
If you ever consider writing a childhood memoir, I nominate the title, It Smells like a Guinea House.
Well, I consider such memoirs to be mostly in very poor taste. They should only be published posthumously — or better yet, written that way: in Purgatory, once the memoirist has to hear both sides of the story.
However, if I did write such a book, I know what the title would be: Behind the Irish Curtain. The first chapter would be called “Angela’s Ashtray.”
Which of the Seven Deadlies do you wish wasn’t a sin?
Wrath, definitely. Ethnically, I’m half Irish and half Croatian — so I get mad quick, and stay mad forever. It’s like being half nitro, half glycerine. There’s a chapter in the book on various acts of elaborate, hilarious, sometimes illegal vengeance I performed on those who’d “wronged” me over the years — and that’s literally the only section in the book that the publishers made me edit. They said that parts of it were just too appalling to keep the reader’s sympathy.
In case you’re curious, the unexpurgated version does exist online, here.
In your writing, you might move from a discussion of Wendell Berry and the emperor Karl I to a jaunt into Borat or some creepy anime. Where do you get your cultural references? What pop culture outlets do you follow?
I get most of my information from smarmy liberals on National Public Radio and table-thumping anti-Masonic cranks on Catholic Trad websites. I watch a little more TV than I used to before DVR was invented. But that’s really it. I spend much more time writing than reading nowadays, as I’ve always preferred talking to listening.
You wrote that you “cannot think of a worthier model today for all the married” than Catherine of Aragon, jilted first wife of Henry VIII. Why?
I was inspired to write about her by watching The Tudors on Showtime, and by a book I read about her as a teenager. I like the fact that she was married, very much in love with her husband, not the least bit prudish. Since most people we’re calling on to practice Chastity are or will be married, I think we need role models who shared that state of life. That’s why I think the Theology of the Body is a very hopeful development — even if it’s a little bit too chipper for me in my darker moods.
Are you surprised Catherine has never been seriously considered for sainthood?
There’s a simple reason she hasn’t been canonized: The natural constituency for her would be Englishmen, and most of them turned Protestant. English Catholics had, alas, plenty of martyrs to focus on, so Catherine never got the attention she deserved. But I’d like to see her cause advanced.
In your chapter on generosity, you complain about those Catholics who, in talking about economics, will “cite a Gospel verse here, quote St. Francis there, throw in some abuse of ‘usury,’ maybe even summon some half-remembered Chesterton — then wrap it in a pretty pink bow with a long quotation from a bishop’s pastoral letter and act as if they’ve made a genuine argument.” Why do you think people — Catholic or not — feel competent enough to pontificate on economics in a way they wouldn’t on biology, or psychology, or Euclidean geometry?
Well, people do pontificate on medical issues — look at all the alternative medicine cranks out there, the anti-vaccination activists, and so on. People seem to believe, on some level, that we really could live forever (or achieve perfect equality and prosperity) if it weren’t for an evil conspiracy on the part of either the medical establishment or big business.
We don’t want to accept the consequences of the Fall — which are principally mortality and scarcity. So we follow poisonous fantasies trying to sneak back into the Garden of Eden. Marx promised to abolish scarcity and hierarchy, and Descartes hoped that science would someday make us immortal. We still have socialists, and now the Internet is full of “transhumanists” who want to download their souls onto the Internet, so they can play World of Warcraft for thousands of years, even after their bodies turn to dust.
While you’re generally considered a libertarian, you also have a love affair across the ages with the Habsburgs, and would gladly have been subject to Franz Josef. Is there a contradiction in that?
Not at all. Ludwig von Mises was a loyal and enthusiastic supporter of the Habsburg monarchy — which he regarded as an instance of good, limited government. Hans-Hermann Hoppe (Democracy: The God That Failed) observed that most monarchies interfered much less with the lives of ordinary citizens than democracies: They levied lower taxes, didn’t dare draft their subjects into the army, and generally had to be careful lest they lose the people’s loyalty.
When you see the government as something separate, even opposed to you — a bunch of guys in long robes and plumed hats who inherited their titles — you’re more likely to push back against it. Democracy, on the other hand, is a clever trick on the part of statists to convince us that when we pay 40-50 percent of our incomes in taxes to the State, we’re really just paying it to ourselves — since we’re all part of the People. When the government demands we go shed our blood in aggressive foreign wars, we’re just fighting for ourselves.
No Western monarchy ever charged taxes like the democracies of today’s Europe, or imposed a military draft, or regulated the lives of its citizens the way modern democracies do. Kings could never get away with the crimes of a democratically elected regime. Compare the creaky Spanish monarchy of 1900 to the bloodthirsty, anticlerical Spanish Republic or Kaiser Wilhelm to the Third Reich. If there were an election in Saudi Arabia, you know who’d probably win? Osama bin Laden. He would express the will of the majority — which is sometimes to plunder or liquidate minorities.
In a 2008 interview with Zenit, in reference to the decline in faith among American Catholics, you said, “It wasn’t eroded by earnest atheists and intellectual attacks. What broke down ordinary people was a thousand clever comedic skits.” Explain.
Catholic teenagers mostly don’t lose their faith because they’re reading Luther, Calvin, Rousseau, or Marx. I think that’s safe to say. What are they consuming instead? Television and movie comedies, YouTube videos, and so on. Since most of the people producing those popular media are secular, and treat the Faith flippantly, they naturally (even unconsciously) slip those values in between the jokes. Instead of discussing — even critiquing — the vocation of a Catholic nun, it’s much more effective to call them “sadistic penguins” and move on to the next joke.
People want to be in on the joke, to go along with their peers and not seem like humorless prigs. That goads them, a step at a time, to treat sacred things first with flippancy, then later with contempt. What I try to do is turn that around, and treat the secularizers with sarcasm, and their ideas with the contempt they so richly deserve. It’s much more effective than pounding on the table and shouting “That’s not funny!” especially when it is. Don’t bring a gun to a rubber chicken fight.
One last question: Why beagles?
They are perfect emblems of nature before the Fall. Their every howl is a hymn to the glory of God. They’re funny and elegant at the same time, like Audrey Hepburn. And if you train them properly (as I have), they will chase skateboarders, screaming, down the streets of New York City. What more could you ask from a pet?