The esoteric spiritualism of Pope Lenny brings God crashing to earth. God is impotent; if God is in everything, then God is as sacred as the flotsam of the world, as mundane as spoons, tennis rackets, excrement, or used condoms. This is firmly underlined when he smells a dirty diaper. The smells and scents of life reanimate him, bringing him closer to earthly life: “God has been evicted.” Pope Lenny’s revolutionary brand of “spiritual but not religious” is part hippie sixties legacy and part institutional authoritarianism.
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Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope1 is about levels, about planes, about heights. There is no reason it would not be; religion implies hierarchy. The series is dense with symbolism and often difficult to unravel. The effect Sorrentino is trying to induce in the audience is intentionally ambiguous. However, there are some dominant themes present. The Young Pope is certainly subversive, and does wage a gentle critique of the inhuman pieties of the Catholic Church. It performs a strange mixture of spiritualism and materialism; that is, the holy is portrayed as elemental and very much of this world. Also, the show dares to humanise its protagonists, showing cardinals, bishops, and priests as cosmically pointless, but evinces a clear sympathy for the aching and inexorable sadness of these cloistered men. The psychological drama weaves around the repressed depths of Pope Lenny, and his fraught self-conception as God’s earthly conduit. In addition, solemnity is tempered with sustained levity. The opening scene presents us with the ultimate liberal fantasy: a dream in which a Catholic pope endorses totems of 1960s values of free love, masturbation, homosexuality, divorce, euthanasia, and freedom. This is all a dream; it’s not going to be that kind of show. Despite his hard-line stances, Pope Lenny is haunted from the depths by countercultural progressive values that the Church cannot shed. The Young Pope is a philosophical experiment. It is an exercise in attempting to extol a new kind of humanity, a strange fusion of conservatism and anti-authoritarianism accompanied by a benign yearning for secular faith.
Sorrentino’s depiction of orphan Pope Lenny Belardo as Pius XIII (Jude Law) is formally structured on levels, playing out the existential conundrums and personal turmoil of a whiny Hamlet-like pontiff. The formal staging of the dramatic action is important, with scenes on the middle levels tending toward the politicking and the maneuvering of the Vatican’s internal machinations. On the lower ground levels, Pope Lenny is oddly at peace, amiably pegging laundry with nuns, amusing himself in the way an only child does by playing solo tennis against a wall. He walks in Edenic gardens, at one with nature, nonchalantly channelling Francis of Assisi with a kangaroo. Rarely are these reveries ruptured. Once, for example, we see these serene daydreams punctured by a vision of a feminist protest. The draw of the earth is unrelenting for Pope Lenny, and so he is going through a spiritual crisis. At one point, we witness him at peace, submerged and praying below ground level at the bottom of a swimming pool. On the upper levels, on the roofs of the Vatican, with his confessor, we find Pope Lenny offering the most transgressive and profane of thoughts: God lives in an upper-middle class apartment beside the Big Dipper, and most irreverently the pope himself is without solid faith; this existential smoking pontiff might not believe in God. There is an eerie reversal at play. The material world of nature is filled with peace and certainty, whereas the elevated spheres are filled with indelible doubt, regret, and self-loathing. Dream sequences of his lost parents are shot in soft-focus as quasi-pornographic Edenic scenes. Nuns enjoy themselves with a game of soccer in gardens; it is in the world of physicality and the bodily that the pope is most at ease. This is subversive enough, and undermines the supposed radical conservatism that The Young Pope could easily be seen to espouse. A pope should not at all be at ease with the terrestrial and the material. While conventional atheists might not get that struggling non-belief is essentially part of faith, in The Young Pope, spiritual transcendence seems only possible the closer he gets to worldly terrain. The interplay of depth and height reveals the ethical ambition of the series, and the contradictions that are being worked through; The Young Pope is an attempt to provide a synthesis between the spiritual authoritarianism of the Church and progressive liberal values.
The Young Pope delights in contradictions and bathos. It offers an unashamed contamination of the sacred and the profane, an atmospheric blend of the sexual and the saintly, a bricolage of spiritual rhetoric and vernacular pop culture, a contrast between the ancient and technological, and the incongruence of a man-child amongst the elderly. The contradictions of elevation and descent are borne out further in a postmodern yarn that mixes gravitas and ridiculousness. For example, papal infallibility is deftly dispensed of by smoking in the face of a smoking ban. The humans inhabiting this ancient citadel have the air of the preposterous against the backdrop of opulent artworks, sculptures, frescoes, and lavish gardens. The pope is as adept in Daft Punk and Banksy as he is in St Augustine. More pointedly, we see these contradictions in the representation of power. Pope Lenny is a ruthless political savant and naïve conservative idealist, combining the political rebellion of the 1960s with the authoritarianism of the Church. Rebellion is authority. Pope Lenny fits the bill for Nietzsche’s greatest version of the human being: “Caesar with the soul of Christ.”2
Pope Lenny’s spiritualism reverses the hierarchy of the divine. He wants to embrace the esoteric and the mysterious. This is the most irreverent of all things. Mysticism presumes God is in all things. While there is a mystical dimension in many religions, however, not all religions are mystical. As William James showed many years ago, mystical experience requires a union of the self with the eternal, accompanied by an obliteration of time, space, and sensation.3 If God is present in everything, then God is present in all things. The contradictions at the core of Pope Lenny are as banal as they are mysterious, and they are mysterious because they are banal. The esoteric spiritualism of Pope Lenny brings God crashing to earth. God is impotent; if God is in everything, then God is as sacred as the flotsam of the world, as mundane as spoons, tennis rackets, excrement, or used condoms. This is firmly underlined when he smells a dirty diaper. The smells and scents of life reanimate him, bringing him closer to earthly life: “God has been evicted.” Pope Lenny’s revolutionary brand of “spiritual but not religious” is part hippie sixties legacy and part institutional authoritarianism.4) If God is in everything, then God is no different to the banal objects of the world. The Young Pope mingles the highest with the lowest.
The bringing of God to Earth is repeated in Sorrentino’s sensational opening credits. We see Pope Lenny coolly walking past pieces of art depicting foundational moments in the history of the Catholic Church. Walking alongside the artworks, the ultra-conservative Pope Lenny offers the audience a seductive wink, to the accompaniment of an instrumental version of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix’s 1960s anthem “All Along the Watchtower.” At once, from the heavens to the earth, a meteor moves from the upper level to the lower, setting fire to the artworks, burning up the history of the Church, eventually crashing to the earth in Maurizio Cattelan’s sculpture of John Paul II in The Ninth Hour, itself an allusion to Christ’s most revolutionary moment of atheism: “My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me” (Mark 15:34). Lenny’s insolent wink defies the audience with what we really all should know: the ultimate revolutionary is the conservative revolutionary. After all, what can signal the death of God more than a Nietzschean pontiff, and what could be more sacred than a God brought to Earth?
The Young Pope furthers the struggles of humans comprehending the ethereal altitudes of spirit with an extended philosophical reflection on the nature of iconoclasm. Pope Lenny is an iconoclast in the full sense of the word: his mission is to upend his institution through the destruction of images. The world needs more than posturing rebellion for rebellion’s sake. At the new pontiff’s inaugural address at St. Peter’s Square, a laser pen is shone upward on his silhouette, to which he reacts violently. Shining light upon the mysterious and sacred diminishes spirituality by rendering it transparent. The pope’s resistance to being made into a commercial icon is code for his rejection of all we currently take as reality in the contemporary world: knowledge, power, media, and commercial reward. Strangely then, the malaise of the modern world does not come directly from where we might expect. It does not come from the contradictions of the Holy Trinity, nor from the decisive ethical quandaries that beset the Catholic Church such as abortion, contraception, and homosexuality, but instead from the excessive adoration of images. For Pope Lenny, what sustains the spiritual desolation of the age is the saturation of appearances, and the proliferation of images. Speaking with the savvy but unwise Sofia, who oversees marketing of the Vatican, he forcefully lays down the law: “I am not worth 45, or even 5 Euros. I am worth nothing.” He intends his papacy to rejuvenate the Church, with a return to the inaccessible, the esoteric, and the mysterious. To do so will allow a rejuvenation of the presence of the sacred, against which photography, media, TV, and the internet are directly responsible for eroding humans’ incapacity to elevate themselves to things that are truly of value. Sofia points out that this strategy would amount to commercial and media suicide; but for Pope Lenny such a suicide is important if the Church is to revitalise itself. The proliferation of graven images is nihilistic precisely because it does not hallow the everyday. If an image is common, then it is cheap and within touching distance of anybody. The challenge is to renew mystery, to see the mysterious in everybody, in all things – to uncompromisingly see where humans can begin to elevate themselves throughout the world in which they dwell. For Pope Lenny, “it is death to settle for things in life.” The more radical dimension of The Young Pope offers a searing political insight, which is that the salvation of the Church must bring God to earth, Pope Lenny must put the Church to death to renew its mission. He is insistent that: “They will not see me, because I do not exist.” For God’s supreme representative on Earth, whose election is guided by the Holy Spirit, this is imperceptibly close to God disbelieving in God.
Pope Lenny slowly adopts elements of the radical individualism of the hippie parents who orphan him. The pope’s “I am nothing” has deep significance in an era of the image, even more so in a world of post-truth politics and “alternative facts.” What Pope Lenny is challenging is that the explosion of images leads to an explosion of belief, and the consequence of an explosion of belief means an explosion of uncertainty. Faith, then, would seem to be the source of the problem, as it favours appearances over truth, and humans favour their own decline over elevation. Instead, Pope Lenny desires newer forms of truth. Thus, paradoxically, what the Church must evacuate from its mission is faith itself.
What Pope Lenny wants to wage a war on is the promiscuity of faith. Faith is now exceedingly cheap, belief is equivalent to belief in the authority of anything: blogs, social media, punditry, the History channel, Fox News, and Dan Brown novels. This laxity of belief is further relevant in The Young Pope in the overturning of political hierarchy. If everybody is an authority, no one is immune to coercion. Lenny’s “I am nothing” cheekily puts the worst type of post-structuralism at the core of the papacy. This brooding pontiff wants absence at the heart of presence. Secrecy is what is most alluring, and a vital font of certainty in the face of the uncertainty of images. If the pope is as “unreachable as a rock star,” then the truth of Pope Lenny is everywhere. Hence, behind the unyielding fanaticism of Pope Lenny’s orthodox conservatism is the seed of a more progressive gesture. This political gesture requires a type of fortified atheism, which explains his dalliances with heresy. The very appeal of Pope Lenny is that he is empty. His “I am nothing” is a declaration for rootlessness. The condition for renewal and emancipation requires one sever one’s faith; faith in the immediacy of appearances, faith in received values, and faith in the authority of the past. However, that one ought to step outside one’s tribe ought not be mistaken for a liberal cosmopolitanism. The series does not pander to liberal pieties about the Catholic Church’s behaviour regarding women’s rights, homosexuality, and the Church’s complicity in pedophilia scandals. Those wishing to see within The Young Pope a road-map to a more progressive Catholicism will be exceedingly disappointed. However, Sorrentino’s series is asking urgent questions with direct political relevance. How can an institution devoted to the preservation of hierarchy offer political emancipation to the masses? How can one lonely individual man offer salvation to millions? The answer is paradoxical – only when the Church comes to Earth can it fulfil its spiritual destiny.
The echelons of psychological characterisation are further echoed in the depiction of political power. Politically, the way forward for humanity as proposed through the eerie ethical vision of the series itself is the proposition that the idealism of American liberal pragmatism must be fused to the spiritual machinations of the Vatican. Therefore, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), Pope Lenny’s surrogate mother, is a blend of zealotry, kindness, and pragmatism. Pope Lenny himself is a conservative idealist, but also a diabolical devotee of political expedience. However, his expedience is always held in reserve. At one point, he threatens the Italian prime minister with the ‘non-expedit.” He does this by threatening the prime minister with the unveiling of his own power, threatening to command Catholics not to vote. (Basically, he will recommend Italian Catholics vote against the prime minister.) Power stems from invisibility, from secrecy, from the confessional, as well as from the oblique granting of pain and pleasure. The Young Pope thus offers a representation of power. Machiavelli saw raw politics as the acquisition and maintenance of power.5 Power in The Young Pope is no different, and the entrenching of hierarchy rather than equality emerges through one’s ability to dispense pleasure and pain. The elevation and status of power not only comes from dispensing pain but also pleasure, as pleasure creates its own forms of indebtedness.
The ascending and descending contradictions of power relations and social status are evident in Pope Lenny’s relationship with his surrogate father, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell). In one sequence, we witness an Oedipal battle between Spencer and Pope Lenny, as both wrestle with the reversal of their roles, rising and falling in terms of who remains subservient, with Spencer eventually relenting. Power here is revealed as something elusive, malleable, always there for those who want to utilize it, but once wielded, the ability to achieve goals becomes unimpeded. Hierarchy requires those beneath to know their place; those who do not are rewarded with the pain of public humiliation. This is perhaps relevant on all the levels in which the dramatic action takes place. In the opening gambits with Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) – camerlengo and senior Vatican impresario – Voiello is made to make the new pope a cup of coffee, thereby immediately and easily being turned into a servant.
Power ought not to be anywhere else, neither high or low, but directed toward the present, to the brutally instrumental, to the things that can be done with efficiency here and now. It is a mistake to remain too tied to the past: “The past is an enormous place with all sorts of things inside. Not so with the present. The present is merely a narrow opening with room for only one pair of eyes. Mine.” This is the mystique and charisma of power. Proximity to the divine and the eternal is indistinguishable from possession of absolute power. While the struggle for power ought to be just the struggle for stratification, ascent, the ennobling of oneself rather than spiritual decline, power in The Young Pope also requires the embrace of the visceral and material world. The spiritual is always political. An observation of The Young Pope reveals some brutal lessons in how to create subservience. The power of Pope Lenny comes from resources and tradition, certainly, but also from the ability to cultivate obedience. To bend those around him to his will, to get his followers to literally kneel down before him. One of his well-meaning servant nuns is quickly reminded of overstepping her boundaries when Pope Lenny caustically and publicly humiliates her, reminding her that friendly relations are dangerous, whereas formal relations are “as clear as spring water.” The emulation of God, of the eternal, does not bring salvation, but is a channel that brings one closer to the font of power, and the ways one can bestow upon oneself the legitimacy of the sacred. One does not have to have a spiritual aura or a yearning for higher things. Power emerges from knowledge of secrecy, through the ability to know what levers can implement pain but also which can yield pleasure, as we see with a cardinal brought home from exile in Alaska in exchange for the tepid reprimand of Archbishop Kurtwell, who is guilty of perpetrating serial sexual abuse on children.
The role of children within the drama contributes to the understanding of the strains of political hierarchy. The opening sequence of the series sees Pope Lenny crawl from beneath a mountain of babies. At another point, Pope Lenny ascends some stairs and mistakenly opens a door onto a line of tourists, and he recoils when noticed by a child. “I will never shed my aversion to tourists. Because they are just passing through” he says. That which is passing through is transient, and ephemeral. Children are the burden of the Church, and have no real place in the present, as they are of the future, but not the present. The Young Pope uses children as metaphors for the future, and the future is what Pope Lenny is trying to forestall. We are constantly reminded that Pope Lenny is uncomfortable with babies. At one point, he clumsily drops a baby in a great horror scene. Children are symbols for his own uncomfortable relationship with his abandoned past, as well as impediments to his efforts to construct his own present.
Pope Lenny is defined by absence, which is why he is most enamoured with the opposite of creation: nothingness. God is nothing, which ultimately explains Pope Lenny’s path to spiritual atheism. This is not the atheism of, say, a Richard Dawkins, but a more profound type of non-belief, one beset by the torturous, extreme, and lived complications of doubting God’s existence. The degree to which Pope Lenny can break out of his hermetic bubble is the degree to which the audience can sympathise with him. This is exquisitely expressed when he discusses the theological intricacies of abortion with Spencer. Sealed, enclosed, and entombed within the walls of the Vatican, men arbitrarily choose countless women’s fate. This absence of women is oppressively palpable, haunting this world of hopelessly lost men. And it is the absence of Pope Lenny’s mother that is most telling. His abandonment by his parents and his mother illuminate his dysfunctional view of creation. Pope Lenny’s ultimate descent into nothingness reveals a temptation, a potential damnation that cannot be saved by his unique brand of heretical atheism. The most sacrilegious and solipsistic hubris tempts him. If nothing is all there is, the only other recourse is absolute self-affirmation – only he is God: “I love myself more than my neighbour, more than God. I believe only in myself. Lenny, you have illumined yourself. Fuck!” He is even not above indulging in the vanity of his own appearance, in his self-appraisal that he may very well be better-looking than Jesus. At another point, we see the pope kneeling, praying to God before a row of white trucks, willing God to intervene with a corrupt missionary nun. Sorrentino here provides a perfect metaphor for the limits of progressive individualism. Pope Lenny confronts the engines of commerce, but His Holiness is not above the circularity of economic exchange as he wills God to do his bidding. Pope Lenny has a one-to-one relation with God. He thinks he supervenes God. This type of power is the closest Pope Lenny can come to proving the existence of God. God is power, and he is praying to himself.
The lesson is clear. The sacred itself is a power grab. The contradictions of Lenny are that he sees the truth of power to such a degree that power is all that there is. The spiritual itself is power. In addition, this requires one to look at the world as no different to the spiritual, that is without sentiment and with a brutal realism. The Young Pope shows that the secrecy of divine proximity is the same as the mystique of power. Therefore, Pope Lenny is taken for a saint. The one who is himself the evidence of God’s existence doesn’t believe in God. This postmodern pontiff, however, can be all things to all men, and realises that all you need to maintain power is to appeal to everyone. This charm allows the show to offer the spiritual as nothing more than the seedy power grab it is. What Pope Lenny signifies is the realisation that the closer one approaches to the all-powerful, the more the all-powerful’s mechanics are revealed.
Power, in the world of Pope Lenny, is there for no other reason than to be used for good, however ill-conceived that good is. It is only when power is of the earth that it can paradoxically have a foundation: “We are cement, and cement does not move.” Perhaps the limitations of the political vision of The Young Pope come to the fore here. The intransigent desire to preserve power at all cost makes the Catholic Church perfidious, ossified, and ahistorical, moving from one political fad to another. Profound change is only possible through a conservative revolutionary; the greatest change can only be an iteration of previous forms. However, the inability to think past previous forms gives Sorrentino’s work its historical purchase. This is as relevant to liberal and progressive inheritances of the twentieth century as it is to the conservative. After Spencer dies, we slowly begin to see Pope Lenny have his humanity reanimated: “I love you all,” he says to his summoned staff, after the death of his surrogate father. After all, for a pontiff haunted by the sixties, the idea that “all you need is love” ought not be a surprise.
The Church is a relatively ancient institution. Any light that shines crashes against its walls, is only visible through cracks, and is often mistaken for God, vocation, or mystical experience. The extent to which a figure like Pope Lenny can be saved in The Young Pope is therefore the ultimate test of the power of the values of 1960s progressive ethics and politics. Can liberal values save this most radical of conservative revolutionaries? The final scene hints at an answer, bringing an aesthetic unity to the action of previous episodes. We see an integration of the different levels. Pope Lenny, from the mid-level in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, trains a telescope on the crowd below, searching for his lost parents, reversing the shining of the laser pen on him at his address at St. Peter’s. His heart seems to break metaphorically and physically, as he is torn between the crowds beneath and the hallucination of a childlike vision of God among the clouds. He collapses under the weight of the contradictory pull of the sacred and profane, of the earth and the heavens. The closing scene moves past a fallen Pope Lenny to an absolute height, envisioning the world from space as neither sacred nor profane, just there, waiting to be saved by the masses of the world. Pope Lenny is torn asunder, neither Christ nor demon, in the attempt to reconcile contradictory political ideologies, as well as the divergent ideas of materialism and spirituality, in what might be an impossible and tragic attempt to create a new type of human. Ultimately, what this TV series is about is fear, the fear that both liberal and conservative inheritances of the contemporary world are existentially vacuous. If this is true, then Paolo Sorrentino is right: the salvation of Pope Lenny might be our only hope.
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Note: Images are screenshots from the show.
- The Young Pope premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 3, 2016, the first TV series ever to do so. The series premiered in October 2016 in Italy, the UK, the Republic of Ireland, and various European countries; and in January 2017 on HBO and HBO Canada in the US and Canada. The first ten episodes of the first season took three years (2014-2016) to complete, and another season is slated. [↩]
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. M.A Scarpitti and R.K. Hill, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2017), 513. [↩]
- William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (London: Routledge, 2002), 299. [↩]
- For a powerful polemic of the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon in contemporary religion, see Craig Martin’s Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). See also David Webster, Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy, (Winchester: Zero Books, 2012. [↩]
- It is worth noting Machiavelli was writing within a period of historical transition in the understanding of power and ethics. Indeed, Machiavelli is infamous for undermining the separation of the theological virtues of the sovereign and the cut-and-thrust compromises of politics. The received wisdom of political theorists from the Middle Ages were often manuals on how to be virtuous in power. Machiavelli, however, did not adopt this approach, and instead argued that power and principles were not as far removed from each other as we might think: “For the gap between how people actually behave and how they ought to behave is so great that anyone who ignores everyday reality in order to live up to an ideal will soon discover he had been taught how to destroy himself, not how to preserve himself.” Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. D. Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing: 1997), 48. [↩]