You’d have to really be up on your Eastern European saints to know Stanislaus Kostka; the 16th century Jesuit novice somehow isn’t even the best-known St. Stanislaus from Poland (an honor that goes to Stanislaus Szczepanów, the 11th century bishop martyred at the hands of a guy literally named Boleslaw). Long story short, Kostka grew up a boy of weak constitution but strong religious fervor in a (surprise!) harsh patriarchal family with six siblings and one older brother in particular who – we are told, probably by way of the younger siblings – ragged on him often. After education in Vienna, an alleged visit from St. Barbara and a long trip through Germany and Austria that ended with employment in a Rome boarding school, Kostka realized in a vision that the last fever he had would get the better of him, promptly wrote a letter to the Virgin Mary and died in the small hours of August 15, 1568, at the age of 17. In the Renaissance, being self-aware enough to realize you had a weak immune system was basically enough to get you beatified and canonized; in the Gilded Age, it was enough to get you Chicago’s first Polish Catholic church.
I wouldn’t be able to tell you this without having walked around the corner from my apartment and across a park to the “mother church” of the Polish Catholic community one morning last summer. I had slept poorly and felt restless. The weather at dawn was pleasant enough, though, so I decided I could make the day’s first mass, put myself together and strolled the stone’s throw it takes for me to reach the front steps.
St. Stanislaus Kostka Church may be a monument to holy architecture that’s withstood the Great Chicago Fire and Kennedy Expressway construction alike, but it feels a lot bigger when you have maybe 10 people in the congregation. I regretted my decision immediately; instead of admiring the glasswork or the paintings or the soaring ceilings – designed by an Irish-Catholic from New York, not that it matters – I’d have to clearly recite all the parts of the revised Roman Missal I’d been muttering incorrectly for seven years. I’d have to walk across whole aisles just to tell people, “Peace be with you.” I’d have to sing. I’d been to mass at the Vatican where no one could see you, but I’d never been to a mass where there was nowhere to hide.
What I got instead was the rawest 35 minutes of Catholicism I’ve ever experienced. True to the saint that bears its name, the 7:30 Saturday morning vigil mass at St. Stanislaus Kostka is wholly unadorned, modest, temperate, all filler. There is reverent muttering even in the most intimate of company. People wave silently in acknowledgment that peace be with you. There is no singing. There are usually no children. With those constraints, there’s very limited psychic space to think about anything but God and The Big Questions.
That first time I attended, the priest led off the homily by saying, “I’m going to try and keep it short here, we’ve got a busy day ahead. There are a lot of funerals.” Whatever it was that kept me from sleeping, whatever it was that had me perpetually distracted and pacing, whatever it was that had me feeling like a divine instrument on my way back into church in search of an answer to the Rubik’s Cube my life had become from the only God I’ve ever known because I am bad at solving puzzles but not at thinking about them – and this is where I tell you I know exactly what it was – all of that disappeared just then. My personal life was completely off the rails and there I sat, in a church with a bunch of strangers, praying like a devout fool for some guidance.
For a little while, anyway, it worked. God worked. I had more than rosary beads to count on. I had faith.
Officially, this very official-looking website tells me New York Fashion Week is September 6-14, 2018. Unofficially, I feel like it’s been New York Fashion Week for about six years. As a kid, I knew when it was because I read the Times magazine section, but thanks to the increasingly elastic quality of space-time on a macro level and Twitter’s endless hunger for discourse regarding an artform that – like every other artform in 2018 Anna (Wintour) Domini – can only function as a rote genre or branding exercise on a micro one, it’s been impossible for me to tell the difference between when the next titanic Rick Owens x Zebra Katz presentation is about to go down and when Martine Rose is merely cleaning Balenciaga’s house.
For an outsider, then, The Event Formally Known as the Costume Institute Gala is kind of refreshing: Here’s a thing featuring preposterous designs with almost zero practicality, delivered by prominent fashion labels you can’t afford (Valentino, Versace, Louis Vuitton, a bunch of other Mediterranean-sounding names that start with ‘V’, probably), worn by in-caps-please Famous People who barely exist as living, breathing humans. And just in case you thought a fashion event in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art needed more signal-boosting, lazy writers fed by PR moles have recently taken to calling it the East Coast Oscars, the Oscars of Fashion.
[Here’s where I ask you what everyone at the Met Gala did after they walked the red carpet. Do you know? Well, on one hand: Everyone knows what happens at the Oscars after the red carpet. On the other: The Met Gala is a fundraiser. The Oscars don’t raise money for modern art, or anything; they only spend it. But we’ve decided that it’s better to sit glued to our televisions for four hours watching Hollywood pat itself on the back for probably intentionally botching the Moonlight announcement than it is to watch celebrities negotiate the Robert Lehman Collection’s Barbizon School samplings without dropping their coconut shrimp? How about you sell me on that and I’ll sell you on the idea that fucking a man-phibian for two hours maybe isn’t the best we can do in film for an entire year and we’ll call it even.]
The whole thing is an outrageous display, an unapologetically self-indulgent glimpse into society’s stratosphere at a time when the gap between the very highest and the very lowest is at its greatest. It’s beautiful and useless.
Which means it’s a perfect forum for the very highest and very lowest critique, too. And God knows (doesn’t He?) there was plenty of that to go around on May 7th – all the more so because Gala curator Andrew Bolton christened this year’s theme, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Gala themes over the years have ranged from Diaghilev ballets and cubism to “rock style” and “punk” to my personal favorite from 1984-85, “Man and the Horse.” But taking on Habsburg fashion? That’s one thing. God’s most prominent terrestrial institution? Pretty hard to take on anything higher than the Most High.
Anyway, it delivered. You got to holy see Rihanna’s papal apparel and Jeremy Scott timely tagging Cardi B’s baby bump. You heard Elon Musk or Grimes explain how Rococo basilisks are “funny,” and how Amal Clooney pissed off Tom Ford by changing in the gift shop. But in the time since, I’ve been thinking mostly about the mission statement for the exhibition that’s going to be on display through October 8th. Bolton claimed he wants to show how “material Christianity” has helped form “the Catholic imagination.” That’s obviously not something the Met Gala is equipped to handle on its own, but it does serve as one very visible endpoint to a thread 2,000 years long and running.
Gala aside, the question that the exhibition itself leaves open is, I think, the most interesting one. What is the Catholic imagination in 2018? Is it Christian Louboutin on every foot? Is it Maison Margiela on every back? Is it Prada and Gucci and Givenchy and YSL? Is it Jorge Mario Bergoglio trying to move a mountain with his mouth? Is it Vatileaks 3.0? Is it public disgrace on account of pedophilia? Is it spelling “pedophilia” with an “ae”? Is it finally reading that tab open with the Vox explainer on Syria? Is it the Warriors exposing the Rockets for what they really are? Is it the name of the rose? Is it vowing to read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test before you die? Is it the punchline to the one where a priest, a choir boy and a horse walk into a bar? Is it all Ten Commandments or just the most convenient ones? Is it heaven, only wishful?
The answer is, of course, yes. Yes: It is all of these things. It is all of these things and everything else, even life after God is dead, because it is by necessity – it has to be if it is to be an imagination at all. The ozone is disappearing and Bitcoin can power Ireland and a bunch of guys are brandishing “incel” with vengeful pride and we’re running out of landfills to put the planned obsolescence of our digital present in and everyone reads your emails even after you change your password and it’s hard to check a fact with Photoshop and there is war, so much war, and corruption and scandal and guilt and humiliation and shame and reckless innovation and poverty and Trump and Putin and Berlusconi and Duterte and people who are afraid, very afraid, but they only think they know why. And amid all of that, hey, check it out, there it is – the thing that survived the Great Chicago Fire and Kennedy Expressway construction, the longest-lasting, most oppressive, unequivocally patriarchal system in human history. The whole thing’s an outrageous display, sure. But anything that durable is probably worth believing in, right?
The Church’s plan works for a reason: It’s simple. It has asked for 20 centuries that you bet on the devil it invented, the one you know. All it’s taken on your part is a fear of what’s after all of this – and faith that it’s better than the devil you don’t, the devil your Catholic imagination can’t devise, the one that knows exactly what kind of hell us heathens are headed toward even when we don’t, the one that knows the heaven none of us can have.
There’s a sentence I’ve been thinking about for more than 20 years. It might be one of my favorites, actually. Here, read it:
“Always the most puzzling of riders, Luca Cadalora was a genuine enigma in 1995.”
That’s all. Michael Scott is the author. The source is the 1995-96 edition of Motocourse. To an 11-year-old still grappling with many of the world’s mysteries, this sentence was one I returned to a lot because of an allure I couldn’t pin down, then or now. In 14 words, it turned opaque the piercing gaze in the image accompanying a capsule summary of Luca Cadalora’s two-faced 1995 campaign aboard the Marlboro Team Roberts Yamaha YZR500; that is, it made you look again. The oppressive dominance of Mick Doohan (not actually that oppressive in ‘95, though it was coming), his frail foil Daryl Beattie, the promise of Alberto Puig before his ruined leg, the embryonic hope of Carlos Checa climbing aboard a 500cc grand prix bike for the first time that year – all of those guys you could read pretty clearly both in their summaries and in their faces.
Cadalora, though, was a man apart – and reading his face in the book’s image of him on that page gets harder the more you study it. Is it a thousand-yard stare or merely the distance between eyeballs and camera lens? Is he considering committing or quitting? Is he looking at us or through us? (The answer is, of course, yes.) He was all kinds of moody that year: taciturn, relaxed, aloof, even joyful. He went from barely speaking with his team at one point to stealing pole positions, podiums and winning back-to-back races toward the end of the season, eventually ending the year third overall – just because his team switched tire brands. You can tell it all from the photo; you can also tell none of it. The magic is what that summary’s first sentence opens your eyes to.
Since I encountered Cadalora’s elevated inconsistency first, it’s him and that sentence specifically that I always think of when I hear about or watch some young Italian MotoGP rider on the cusp of greatness but not quite reaching it. And God knows (doesn’t He?) there have been scores of those – thanks to a bike-mad nation flush with hot-headed boys and an infrastructure to support them, the pipeline has been pumping kids out from both sides of the boot from time immemorial.
Andrea Iannone is one of them. Right now, there is no one in the MotoGP paddock who better embodies the role of “mercurial Italian” than a man who has no clear future right now. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine riding around risking life and limb for a team that has by all accounts offered another person your job, the same person that took your old job two years ago? Can you imagine being among a handful of the best people in your profession and still referred to as the other Suzuki rider, the other Andrea, even?
With Iannone, this is all par for the course. For as long as I’ve been consciously watching him – my most vivid early memory is from Aragon 2011 at a bar that was across the street from where I used to live, but I know there were others prior – the Italian has been a model of falling upward. You don’t even have to watch a race to understand what I mean; just check any one of his years in Moto2 to catch the drift. Some days he was untouchably focused and brilliant in a way that even Marc Marquez couldn’t fathom; others, he was totally anonymous and may as well have stayed home. Whatever it was (and wasn’t) was good enough to finish third three years in a row.
Then came the step up to MotoGP, where he performed adequately on satellite Ducatis for two years before stepping up to be Andrea Dovizioso’s teammate in the factory squad for 2015. It’s not like he set the world on fire at Pramac, but an Italian on an Italian bike whose potential still didn’t seem fully tapped was enticing both for Ducati and its sponsors. Dovizioso took second in each of the first three races of ‘15 and seemed likeliest to break Ducati’s winless drought (stretching back to 2010), but Iannone did himself a lot of favors by finishing third at Qatar behind Dovi, second at Mugello in front of an adoring Italian public, and eventually, improbably, fifth overall behind the two factory Yamaha and Honda riders – some names you might recognize if you care at all about bike racing: Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi, Marc Marquez, Dani Pedrosa.
Australia was that year’s highlight for me and deserves its own paragraph. Locked in the leading group with Marquez, Lorenzo and Rossi, Andrea showed no fear even after headbutting a seagull (RIP) and made moves that had me gleefully chuckling/tweeting to myself at a pathetic laptop screen. He wound up third after beating Rossi to the line in maybe the most mesmerizing four-way battle I’ve ever seen. There aren’t highlights sufficient to do justice to that race’s rhythm; it had an urgency all its own you just have to see.
Still, no wins for Ducati heading into 2016. And with both Iannone’s and Dovizioso’s contracts up at the end of the year, there was a lot on the line for one of them to get ‘er done. If I told you Iannone got there first, you might believe me – but if I told you he got there first and got fired, it’d be a lot easier to accept, right? Right, well: Despite four podiums and a drought-breaking win for Ducati in Austria, Iannone also missed four races and DNF’d in six others. He finished ninth at the end of the year. Dovizioso was fifth.
Ducati called thrice world champ Lorenzo in and gave Iannone the boot, so Andrea headed off to Suzuki, which was slowly but steadily making progress in midfield. Partnering with Moto2 standout Alex Rins, he was expected to take on a lead role in the team for 2017. What happened instead? Iannone went virtually MIA for long durations, retiring five times, finishing out of the points four times, and never coming home higher than fourth; Rins, meanwhile, was injured on the sidelines for five races and still managed to finish just 11 points and three positions off at season’s end.
There was all sorts of talk regarding Iannone’s commitment, particularly at mid-season. As an employer or a sponsor or a fan or a member of the MotoGP press, you could take one look at his Instagram and pretty easily say, “Fuck this guy’s dedication. You know what’s cooler than a Vogue Italia spread? Beating the best guys in the world at work every other Sunday.” But as a mortal heathen who can afford to take a step back, I mean, look: You’re talking about a beautiful young Italian guy with money in the prime of his life, riding bikes around every other Sunday, dating Belen Rodriguez – what the fuck would you do if Vogue Italia called you up for a cover?
Word around the paddock is that Jorge Lorenzo is taking Iannone’s job again in 2019, so of course you know what that means: Andrea is riding for a contract he won’t be offered and, lo, after four races in 2018, he’s scored two fairly convincing podiums and is fourth overall. Lorenzo is 20th. Rins is 12th. Dovizioso is fifth.
It can’t last. But that’s not why I pull for him, really. I pull for Andrea Iannone because he doesn’t have the ability to transmogrify the way Marquez does. He doesn’t have the mythical contrails that follow Rossi around. He doesn’t have the steady, workmanlike success in him that Lorenzo, Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow have shown. There is no MotoGP world championship in that bronzed Adonis of a body. There is nothing, in fact, but a desire to believe – because of the heaps of bodies borne on the Adriatic into a life of riding that could’ve gone any which way all the way up to the very top tier, you know whose body survived the blows? You know who made it? Andrea Iannone did. Andrea Iannone fucking made it. And if he made it this far…
…Well, what if it didn’t stop, you know? What if he wasn’t as human as the rest of us after all, as elite as Marquez or Rossi? What if he took that improbable step toward sporting immortality, toward heaven – and urged us to follow him? What if he really does just need the right package? Do you think it scares him as much as it might scare us to see it happen?
Fear and freedom are riddles only faith can solve. The search for a solution to either deal with that or not is just all of us down here fumbling around blindly for a feeling, and maybe it should feel ridiculous. But it should also feel meaningful, even if it’s just thinking about humanity and motorcycles or where God goes on a gown or what kind of heaven you’d have if you left this second – even if the only plan is just sitting around, counting rosary beads.