P R A E S I D I U M
A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis
3.2 (Spring 2003)
A quarterly publication of The Center for Literate Values
Board of Directors:
John R. Harris, Ph.D. (President)
Thomas F. Bertonneau, Ph.D. (Secretary)
Helen R. Andretta, Ph.D.; York College-CUNY
Ralph S. Carlson, Ph.D.; Azusa Pacific University
Kelly Ann Hampton
Michael H. Lythgoe, Lt. Col. USAF (Rtd.)
The previous issue of Praesidium (Winter 2003) may be viewed by
© All contents of this journal (including poems, articles, fictional works, and short pieces by staff) are copyrighted by The Center for Moral Reason of Tyler, Texas (2003), and may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.
Pensée de la Saison
Cuivis potest accidere quod cuiquam potest (Publilius Syrus)...
"What happens to anyone can happen to everyone."
As the habit of reading vanishes, our grasp of basic realities weakens and our taste grows robotic.
Kicking the Stone and Viewing the Icon: Realist Epistemology Between Heaven and Earth
Originally presented in a symposium about Erich Voegelin, this essay ranges far and wide through issues dealing with the nature of reality—issues wherein our cultural foothold is increasingly shaky.
Daggerpoints and Loggerheads: A Sad Time’s Taste for Perverse Oppositions
John R. Harris
Among contrasts, there is contrast: some admit fine shades of difference, and some pit irreconcilables against each other. Our age needs to understand the distinction.
"Some Mornings on the DMZ" and Other Poems
As one war has exploded and fizzled out in a few months, another continues to haunt many of us from a distance of more than thirty years.
War of the Worlds: Post-Literate Reporting Meets the Ugliness of Truth
Now that image is everything, the "reality of war" depends on what makes a good wrap.
In this short story, a college professor wants to do the right thing—but a young coed keeps tempting him with two very persuasive arguments.
Saddam’s statues have all been toppled: it remains to be seen if flashing marquees will take their place.
Footprints in the Snow of the Moon,
Recalling his courtship of a troubled young woman back in the mid-seventies, the narrator of this tale realizes that he must collaborate in the girl’s self-degradation if he is to "earn" her trust.
What does Ty Cobb have to do with Antonio Azorín? Hint: human folly knoweth no boundaries.
A Few Words from the Editor
Over the past few years, I have had occasion to follow the vagaries of the publishing industry closely. I feel licensed to declare with sad confidence that our culture is in no less trouble on the creative front than elsewhere. The Internet has supposedly revolutionized publishing; it has, in any event, certainly killed writing. The claim is made that anyone can now put his or her opus before the entire world’s eyes, and this is true. In fact, it’s the cusp of the problem. When anybody can say anything, the practical upshot is not that everybody is saying everything, but that nobody says much more than nothing. There is no focus, no valuation of study and apprenticeship and maturing. We see only a headlong sprint to the "world forum" with the most narcissistic and undigested of preoccupations. One Web site which claims to post new writing for the delectation of prospective agents and publishers features an essay about a young woman who "cut myself but wasn’t depressed", and also a treatise by a young man about "the meaning of everything". The usual sanguinary rhapsodies about psychopathic killers and imaginatively pinched cartoons about extra-terrestrials are abundantly represented here; but, mirabile dictu, they have registered few "hits". Could it be that the last two decades’ obsession with serial killings and intergalactic feuds is growing ho-hum? To judge from the prospering fortunes of "reality TV", this is precisely the case. We can no longer reliably titillate ourselves with extravagant escapism—the urge to slash our wrists is just too imperative, and the hunger for a guru who can snatch away the blade too vesane.
Which is what some of us have said all along would happen to a society nourished on the cotton candy of special effects and daydreams: it goes crazy, flirts with suicide, and lunges after impromptu savior-figures. The trouble with our publishers is that, rather than raise a paternal hand and smile, "No, this is what you need—classics that have reared generations before you," they smell cash in the air and close like a shark on blood. As much as the contemporary academy, in my opinion, the publishing industry is the pandar to our spiritual stupra (and MS Word’s pseudo-paternal red lines remind me that we have long forgotten Homer’s Pandarus in our cultural adoration of the lowest common denominator). Indeed, publishing is less and less distinguishable from the solar system of Movies and TV and from that of video games: all are merging into one annihilating black hole. The Web site I mentioned above proudly features samples from its ten works most read by publishers and those pandars of pandars, literary agents. At the very top of the list is an insipid ramble straight out of Xena, or maybe Super Mario: an Aztec virgin (or other paleo-Meso-American of unspecified type) is being sacrificed to a jaguar or the Jaguar God or some god of jaguar emissaries. Whatever, as the kids say. (What an appropriate comment in an age when details are always lacking, out of focus, and—in any case—powerless to redeem the whole!) The selection visibly bristles with brief one-sentence paragraphs, which in turn slide easily over the mind in somnolent clichés. ("The crowd sighed as one.") The "editors" of this refuge for the narrative arts explicitly recommend submitted samples of only a few hundred words taken from the work’s opening. I guess that’s kind of like judging a symphony by its first five seconds. (Dit-dit-dit-daah… "Sorry, Ludwig. Next!")
If I dare to publish my own gloomy ruminations here, it isn’t simply to share my "gut feelings" with the planet. The fact is that at least three of our contributors in this issue possess manuscripts of novels that may well never receive a bona fide hearing from publishers eager to discover the next "chicken soup" classic. ("Chicken soup for the soul nauseated on chicken soup"?) I have taken the liberty of putting one more chapter from Mr. Moseby’s work before our readership because, first, it’s a darn good one, and second because the lapse of such psychologically rich portraits as this beneath the radar of popular culture and profit-crazed publishing illustrates the conclusion of my own piece: i.e., that the fine arts are dead, or peu s’en faut. I am also leading up to the announcement that Arcturus Press will soon cease to exist. Many of our readers know of my association with that ill-starred venture. I mention its demise here to forestall any rumor that Praesidium is also on the rocks. On the contrary, the journal continues to pay for itself. In fact, I intend to pursue a federal tax-exemption (again) which would allow us to expand our audience greatly—and even to publish books at what would have to be considered a loss, from a strictly commercial perspective. For there is a third alternative, you see, to pandaring or starving: you emphasize, in a manner which even a sinecured bureaucrat can understand, that you are an educator. Publishers know about this option. They’re not afraid of starving, only of not being able to dine like lords.
In a way which he couldn’t possibly have foreseen, Professor Chaves has provided us an entry into these concerns. His long essay on philosophical realism as the necessary basis of faith is the cornerstone of the current issue, and it occurs to me that one might pose oneself the following question. If we cannot, as a culture, find a reality beyond our egotistical interests, peeves, manias, and manèges, how can we claim to be a people of faith (as we do, apparently, on all the polls)? I myself happen to disagree with the substance of Dr. Chaves’s argument in ways that my essay explains; but the two of us, it’s clear, believe in a bedrock reality which rejects senselessness and urges responsibility. Each of us, to the best of his or her ability, having tossed a propitiatory morsel to these sharks and jaguars and institutional "facilitators" all around us, must move forward. ~J.H.
Kicking the Stone and Viewing the Icon: Realist Epistemology Between Heaven and Earth
Jonathan Chaves earned his PhD in Chinese Literature from Columbia University. He is professor of Chinese language and literature at The George Washington University (Washington, D.C.), and has published books and articles on classical Chinese poetry, and traditional Chinese literary theory. He also studies the relationship between poetry and painting in China, and guest-curated an exhibition on this subject, "The Chinese Painter as Poet", for the Art Gallery of The China Institute in America, New York City, in Fall 2000. One of his books, Pilgrim of the Clouds (Weatherhill, 1978), was nominated for the National Book Award in the translation category.
"It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are." Father Brown in G.K. Chesterton, "The Oracle of the Dog" (1926)
I. The Void
It must be obvious to anyone who follows the vicissitudes of contemporary intellectual life that we live in an age of virtually complete relativism and even nihilism. Of course, it has been realized nearly throughout the history of philosophy that an absolute relativism is a contradiction in terms. When Aquinas, drawing upon Aristotle, states that "the existence of truth in general is self-evident", he is agreeing at least with this portion of the third Objection in Pt. 1, Q.2, Art.1 of the Summa Theologica, "Whether the Existence of God is Self-Evident":
But even such rock-solid demonstrations as this no longer trouble those of our intellectuals who consider themselves to live in a radically new age, an age of what they now like to call "postmodernism" (by the time this is written, they may well have come up with a new name for it, as this is also an age of neologism run amuck).
This use of this term, actually an obvious oxymoron, appears to derive from a prior assumption that there has passed an age of "modernism", dating from the Enlightenment, and characterized by an attempt to comprehend everything—all truth—through the application of pure reason. But now, in our greater knowledge and sophisticated wisdom, we have come to doubt not only the adequacy of reason to understand everything, but its potential grasp of anything; indeed, we now realize that the very desire to comprehend truth was misguided and perhaps even the source of evil. And since there may well be no solid truth, since the universe (or universes—there could be a vast number of them) may in fact be so amorphous or polymorphous that nearly any view of "reality" (the word must now be placed in quotation marks) is equally sustainable, we are well quit of the entire enterprise of philosophy construed as truth-seeking. Instead, we are free to engage open-endedly in intellectual or, better, aesthetic play, never expecting any actual outcome, enjoying the process for its own quirky sake. Such, for example, is the "liberal irony" of Richard Rorty.
It is as though Thomas Love Peacock’s "Mr. Flosky" had transported himself from Nightmare Abbey, multiplied by thousands, and reincarnated as countless college professors, "deconstructionist" literary critics, and intellectuals in general in our own time:
But Mr. Flosky was invented by Peacock in 1818, a fact which alone should caution us as to the validity of periodization in the reductionist intellectual historiography of the self-anointed "postmodernists". If all the "modernists" of the day were diligently attempting to apply universal reason to every aspect of life, where did the anti-rationalist Mr. Flosky come from? Not from Peacock’s pure imagination: it is well known that he is modeled on Coleridge, and the ultimate source of his thought is revealed when Flosky proudly proclaims that he has "christened my eldest son Emanuel Kant Flosky".
The fact of the matter is that "postmodernism" is a misnomer, a chimera of no substance. Those features which it is alleged to possess have all along been part and parcel of the modern era, the era in which we are still living, however one may date its point of origin, and however much our jaded intelligentsia may yearn for radical change.
The true nature of modernity has been discerned by no one with greater depth and clarity than G.K. Chesterton. When Chesterton’s priest-detective, Father Brown, learns that a witness in a murder case thinks that a dog has preternaturally identified the killer, he tells him,
Similarly, in "The Miracle of Moon Crescent", Father Brown gently castigates a group of modern "materialists" who were all too ready to accept a supernatural explanation for a certain all too natural event:
"Today" was sometime during the years 1923-1926, when Chesterton was working on The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926), the collection which includes both of the stories cited here. Do these sound like the words of a man surrounded by pure rationality? Chesterton even predicts what is indeed the likely next move for our own "postmodernists": indiscriminate spirituality and "religiosity".
True, the modern era has represented itself in large measure as purely rational. But Richard Weaver, in Ideas Have Consequences (1948), is able to speak of nothing less than a "distrust of reason with which our age seems fatally stricken",5 and to state further that "our surrender to irrationality has been in progress for a long time."6 He even goes so far as to maintain that the "very notion of eternal verities is repugnant to the modern temper",7 this because "the soul of modern man craves orgiastic disorder."8 Thus the "philosophic position of modernism" is in fact "the sheerest relativism".9 Here is a perfect analysis of the mind of so-called postmodern man, yet written in 1948 and revealingly using the only correct, meaningful terms, "modern", "modernism".
But to reach the inevitable conclusion that the "modernism" spoken of by the "postmodernists" is in fact a straw man constructed by them for the mere polemical purpose of later deconstructing (i.e., destroying) it, it is not necessary to depend on the deep insights of men like Chesterton or Weaver who were able, almost miraculously, to stand apart from their times and to see them clearly. In 1924, as Chesterton was producing the stories that would be published in The Incredulity of Father Brown, André Breton issued his Manifesto of Surrealism calling for "pure psychic automism" in writing (and even then, not with complete originality, if one recalls Rimbaud’s dérangement des sens).10 Here is an explicit call in the realm of elite culture for the very "orgiastic disorder" which, instead of Olympian rationality, actually lurks at the bottom of the modern soul, as Weaver correctly noted, and which will, starting in the 1960’s, dramatically explode in the realm of popular culture as well.
"The term ‘post-modern’ is an empty label," writes Thomas Molnar in 1994.11 "It reassures those who have come to dislike modernity for the right or wrong reason, and hope they may go forward... to something better: modernity preserved, but adding resacralization." But this is a most unlikely outcome, because, as Molnar brilliantly observes, "All this is part of the modernist scenario, the rebellion against being." And the denial of being is a false path toward the sacred.
This rebellion, this rejection of ontology, naturally shakes the foundations of epistemology, and renders it finally impossible. This is the modernist crisis, and it cannot be confronted, let alone resolved, on the basis of the self-flattering delusion that we have entered a radically new age.
II. The Flight
It seems natural to deduce that modern intellectuals actually desire to discover emptiness—the Void—underlying everything. The really interesting question becomes: Why? Weaver is characteristically cogent on this crucial point:
In the way of what? Presumably in the way of achieving total freedom from restraint of any sort, the freedom which is the goal of Nietzsche’s philosophy, the freedom which is already the motivating force behind the suicide of Kirilov in Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed (1871, before Nietzsche's major works had been published). This is precisely the "rebellion against being" of which Molnar speaks, equivalent in turn to Max Picard’s "flight from God".
In fact, even earlier, in the 18th century, Dr. Johnson had identified the sin of pride (or vanity) as the motive behind scepticism. In 1763, he was recorded by Boswell as holding forth in these terms:
Dostoyevsky and Johnson may be exposing the pride or vanity which underpins and drives what might be called the Faustian urge, issuing in turn in the gnosticism which Voegelin has so insightfully identified as the core of much modern thought: a desire to repudiate common knowledge, and to assert a hidden, secret knowledge accessible only to cognoscenti. That common knowledge may actually be true is irrelevant. Intellectual pride trumps the disinterested search for truth; what is actually being sought now is the Philosopher’s Stone.
But if intellectual pride be the underlying motive, the actual process of moving towards ontological nihilism has manifested itself in a most obscure, labyrinthine fashion. On the surface, it has appeared that the Enlightenment represented an opening to being, a careful study of the world, unimpeded by "superstition". But as Stanley Jaki has pointed out,
Here we discern an anticipation of Kant’s crucial distinction between noumenon and phenomenon. As Jaki puts it, by "phenomena" Kant "meant sensory impressions. The absolute priority of mind over things, this starting point of Descartes, received thereby its most radical form, but no less complete was now the impossibility of knowing things or noumena."
Arguing more elaborately, but reaching a parallel conclusion, Emmet Kennedy, at a recent symposium on "The Enlightenment and Postmodernism" held at the University of Göteborg, Sweden, noted that "the Scientific Revolution focussed more and more on properties, operations and relations [rather] than essences. Thus Locke writes in Bk. III: ‘Our faculties carry us no further toward the knowledge and distinction of substances, than a collection of those sensible ideas which we observe in them….’ This is not to say that Locke dissolves substances into properties. He believes in substances, but does not believe we can know them in themselves. All we know of them is how they affect us."15
As Kennedy goes on to show, "the common opinion of [British] Empiricism" is wrong in failing to discern that, like Cartesian dualism or Kantian Idealism, epistemologically it too represents a move within, to the perceiving subject. All three major philosophical streams, therefore, are flowing towards ultimate subjectivism in epistemology and radical uncertainty as to the reality of the external world, and this explains the extremely bizarre development explored by Jaki—that starting with Niels Bohr (1885-1962), many of our leading scientists, although brilliant at physics, have become quite incompetent at metaphysics (or have failed to see the point of demarcation between the two):
Similarly, Jaki analyzes a crucial epistemological error in the interpretation of Heisenberg’s "Uncertainty Principle":
In other words, measurement—an aspect of epistemology--has been confused with being, or ontology.
The upshot of this move for modern man has been a radical distrust, not merely of God’s existence—long since rejected by bien pensant intellectuals—but of the physical world’s existence! In the absence of any Aristotelian conception of formal or final cause, the discovery that the physical world appears to be constituted of infinitesimal particles or even "waves" of energy, combined with the growing subjectivism of mainstream philosophy since the 17th century, puts modern man in the position of a visitor to an art gallery who approaches a painting from afar. At first, he sees only a distant blur. Drawing closer and reaching middle distance, he sees what the artist intended him to see: a landscape, perhaps, with an old woman walking along a canal lined with autumnal trees, beneath a sky of cloud-fragments hovering in pale blue air. But then our gallery visitor becomes curious; he draws still closer to the painting, even pressing his nose against its very surface. Now all he sees are splotches of color, daubs of brush-stroked paint. Still not satisfied, however, that he has gotten to the "real" painting, he removes it from the wall and places it on the floor, and begins to inspect it through a portable electron microscope he has brought along for this purpose. Ah, at last! Here is the real painting! Nothing but particles and energy waves, in fact, nothing at all, the Void. The Buddhist claim that all phenomena are empty must be true.
But actually the conclusion reached by the viewer of the painting is wrong. He saw the true painting when he was standing at middle distance. His problem is an epistemological one: he lacks any significant conception of form or cause. Aristotle might have reminded him that
Thus the particles and "quanta" are not the essence of the painting. It does not exist for the sake of them; they exist for the sake of it. This is why antiquity could contemplate with serenity the idea that everything is made up of particles, already articulated by Democritus before Aristotle, and later poetically formulated by Lucretius. Aristotle himself here is not denying that things may be constituted of basic elements, merely that there cannot be an infinite regression, as well, of course, as maintaining that the constituent elements do not constitute the essence of the substance. He holds, as is well known, that a full account of a thing requires attention to four causes of the thing—the material, formal, efficient, and final; and to the four aspects of its substance, the essence, the universal, the genus, and the substratum.
At what point, then, were these aspects rejected, leaving us unprepared to account fully for being? This is a question which can be, and has been, argued endlessly. Aristotle himself calls attention to "those who insist on the infinite series [of elements constituting matter, who] do not realize that they are destroying the nature of the good. No man would start to do anything, if he did not expect to reach some end. Nor would there be any intelligence in the universe…."18 Would these have been the Sophists, ancient forerunners of Johnson’s vain men, or Richard Weaver’s modern cravers of "orgiastic disorder"? Could it be that the unmistakable modern fascination with the Neo-Heraclitan view that "all is change" is a recurrence of this ancient, perennial willfulness, based on the false premise that if nothing is fixed, we are limitlessly free? Is "destroying the nature of the good" precisely the point?
Many would prefer to see the watershed as being the Enlightenment, as implied by Kennedy and Jaki. Or should we be schooled by Weaver’s famous argument that it was the triumph of Nominalism over Realism in the 14th century? The key figure here was, of course, William of Ockham (before 1300-c.1349-50), who maintained (in the paraphrase of Gilson), that "the Ideas are ideas of individuals, not of species, because only singulars are producible outside of the mind…. [T]here are no Ideas of genera, differences nor of any other universals. Manifestly, since an infinity of things are producible by God, he has an infinity of Ideas of this infinity of singulars."19
Now Ockham, of course, fully believed in the reality both of God and of the world. But, as far as the world is concerned, his philosophical move effectively leaves us with only the "singulars", or individual entities. From this point on, categories of any sort will inevitably appear to be arbitrary constructs, rather than innate properties of being, and it may well be that the doubting even of the individual entities, as in Bishop Berkeley, will flow naturally from this shift. Thus with Nominalism one is well on the way toward onto-logical—and therefore epistemological—diminution.
3. The Stone
If one concludes that Nominalism in all its guises and aspects has generally supported a tendency toward relativism and nihilism, unfolding in the course of centuries and becoming, certainly after the Enlightenment, the mainstream of modern philosophy, the question arises: might it be that the opponent of Nominalism—Realism—would in fact have been a wiser option? No one states this case more lucidly than Étienne Gilson (1884-1978), writing in 1937:
Gilson speaks here as himself a leading modern advocate of Realist metaphysics; Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), in his book on Aquinas, goes even further and claims that we are compelled "in the last analysis to choose between the two terms of this alternative: integral realism in the sense of Saint Thomas [Aquinas], or pure irrationality."21
Those of us who agree that Gilson and Maritain are correct, and that we require nothing less than a full-scale rehabilitation of Realist metaphysics in our time, will want to reexamine the whole history of modern philosophy for intellectual and literary ancestors. Dr. Johnson, for example, keeps Realism alive in the 18th century, and demonstrates to all of us the true starting point of good metaphysics in one of the most famous episodes recorded in Boswell's Life, an event dating from 1763:
When Spinoza said, "The Scholastics start from things, Descartes from thought,"23 he was correctly identifying with his words the same starting point for Realist metaphysics that Johnson identifies with his foot: the real objects of the physical world. Boswell himself too deserves credit for noting, possibly for the first time in history, the extraordinary dilemma of nearly all modern intellectuals who in fact act as if they were Realists—and perhaps actually are Realists by intuition—but feel disarmed from any advocacy for Realism by the apparent impossibility of refuting Nominalist-Idealist arguments. (Beneath even this, of course, may further lie an actual craving for the Void, an aspect that will become more apparent in the course of later centuries.)
Thomas Love Peacock, as we have seen, at least attempts to use the weapons, if not of actual metaphysical argumentation, then at least of satiric humor, to parody views which, like Johnson, he finds absurd. Johnson himself had already applied humor to the case when, in 1780, "being in company with a gentleman who thought fit to maintain Dr. Berkeley’s ingenious philosophy, that nothing exists but as perceived by some mind; when the gentleman was going away, Johnson said to him, ‘Pray, Sir, don’t leave us; for we may perhaps forget to think of you, and then you will cease to exist.’"24 Peacock’s Mr. Flosky, whom we have already met and seen to be based on Coleridge conflated with Kant, maintains that
But after continuing in the same vein for a while longer, "Mr. Flosky suddenly stopped: he found himself unintentionally trespassing within the limits of common sense."25
Thus, going further than Boswell, Peacock recognizes that even the actual thinkers who maintain epistemological pessimism as regards "the material world" cannot help but betray their own professed philosophy at times, even in the process of argumentation. It may well be "common sense" that the mind can create its own happiness or unhappiness, which are indeed at least in part states of mind; but the leap to asserting the irreality of the physical world is a false one. Flosky, good modern philosopher that he is, would not be caught dead articulating mere "common sense"; like the true Gnostic, he will only uphold doctrines whose arcane truth is inaccessible to the "common" folk. His counterpart, Mr. Skionar, also a parody of Coleridge/Kant, in Peacock’s later Crotchet Castle (1831), defines "transcendentalism" as "The philosophy of intuition, the development of universal conviction; truths which are inherent in the organization of the mind, which cannot be obliterated, though they may be obscured, by superstitious prejudice on the one hand, and by the Aristotelian logic on the other."26 Peacock, evidently an adherent of the "common sense" which, as Maritain argues, is entirely consistent with Thomist metaphysics ("The fundamental rectitude of common sense... is wounded by these errors [of agnosticism, naturalism, and ‘angelism’]")27—although Peacock himself may not have realized this—sees the Transcendentalist-Idealists, inheritors of the Nominalist fallacy, as laying claim to some mysterious higher truth which stands at odds with "superstition" (i.e., undoubtedly the dogma of the Church) on the one hand, and "Aristotelian logic" on the other; they apparently yearn for some sort of non-dogmatic spirituality bearing no discernable relationship to the world around us but rather grounded in the mind. Peacock has, in fact, intuited avant la lettre the answer to the remarkable paradox of the co-existence in modern thought of radical subjectivism and a monistic yearning for undifferentiated wholeness.
It is only later in the 19th century, however, that we witness the first heroic attempt to define an optimistic, Realist epistemology for the modern age in the form of what might be described as an epistemological or, better, metaphysical apologia, John Henry Newman’s An Essay in Aid of A Grammar of Assent, published in 1870.28
Newman starts from the point already expressed in the negative by Boswell: "[W]e are satisfied [Berkeley’s] doctrine is not true," even though we can find no way to refute it logically. Newman puts the case in the positive sense when he writes, "Assent on reasonings not demonstrative is too widely recognized an act to be irrational, unless man's nature is irrational… nor has any philosophical theory the power to force on us a rule which will not work for a day."29 He notes that even Locke, one of the architects of Enlightenment thought, acknowledged that "most of the propositions we think, reason, discourse, nay, act upon, are such as we cannot have undoubted knowledge of their truth; yet some of them border so near upon certainty, that we make no doubt at all about them, but assent to them as firmly, and act according to that assent as resolutely as if they were infallibly demonstrated." Thus, Newman states, Locke "affirms and sanctions the very paradox to which I am committed myself."30 He explicitly suggests that even contemporary Nominalist philosophers "have themselves as little misgiving about the truths which they pretend to weigh out and measure, as their unsophisticated neighbors; but they think it a duty to remind us, that since the full etiquette of logical requirements has not been satisfied, we must believe those truths at our peril."31
Here, then, is a full description of one of the key causes of the modern triumph of Nominalism: it is not that our philosophers actually doubt the reality of the world, but rather that they feel duty-bound as sophisticated thinkers to withhold assertion of any truth that cannot be absolutely proved, an attitude inherited apparently from Kant, Descartes, and ultimately the ancient Sophists. It is this that prevents our philosophers from formally asserting as epistemological axioms what they and we are in fact certain to be the case: to use just a few of Newman’s excellent examples, "that there are really existing cities on definite sites, which go by the names of London, Paris, Florence and Madrid," "that Great Britain is an island," which we are certain of even though we personally have never seen it as a whole (one might update this example by citing a contemporary one—that men have landed on the moon, which we accept absolutely even though we were not personal eye witnesses to the event); and that certain propositions are equally false, as "that we had no parents," something we reject out of hand "though we have no memory of our birth; that we shall never depart this life," which we equally deny "though we can have no experience of the future."32 In the case of a full-blown Nominalist such as Bishop Berkeley, of course, universal scepticism, contradicting our actual deep certainty, moves beyond Ockham and extends to the point of doubting the reality of objects (Ockham’s "singulars") that we do in fact directly sense.
And so emerges the single most weird and ironic aspect of modern intellectual life: the things of which we are in fact most certain cannot be posited as the starting points of our epistemology! We are doomed by the prevailing Nominalist orthodoxy to express doubt about that which is in fact our most solid certainty!
Newman attempts to correct this fallacy by boldly stating that "certitude is a natural and normal state of mind, and not... one of its extravagances or infirmities." In attempting to characterize what he calls "the principle of concrete reasoning" which makes it possible for us to possess such certitude, he draws a "parallel to the method of proof which is the foundation of modern mathematical science":
Newman summarizes or epitomizes the case in one of his most memorable bons mots: "Proof is the limit of converging possibilities."33
Newman posits, as the faculty in the human mind which renders possible this kind of reasoning, the "Illiative Sense, or right judgment in ratiocination," a "faculty [which sometimes] is nothing short of genius. Such seems to have been Newton’s perception of truths mathematical and physical, though proof was absent."34 (Note, by the way, how Newman correctly uses the noun "perception" here to mean the act of becoming aware of something which is in fact objectively real, as opposed to the increasingly common subjectivist use of the word today, under the influence of Nominalist/ Idealist relativism, to mean little more than "opinion" or "view of".)
In speaking of an "Illiative Sense", Newman would seem to be rehabilitating the ancient concept of a "higher reason", a faculty which renders man capable of the direct, true perception of things. Now, in answer to the question, "Whether the Higher and Lower Reason are Distinct Powers?" Aquinas responds, "Augustine says (De Trin. xii.4) that the higher and lower reason are only distinct by their functions. Therefore they are not two powers."35 But even distinguishing by function significantly expands the conception of human reason, derived from Aristotle, by comparison with the Enlightenment conception that now prevails. By "lower reason", Aquinas apparently means the ability to draw logical conclusions from premises: "through one thing understood, other things come to be understood, as from terms are made propositions, and from first principles, conclusions…. [T]hus it [the human intellect] necessarily compares one thing with another by composition and division; and from one composition and division it proceeds to another, which is the process of reasoning."36 This, of course, is the entirety of what the faculty of reason is essentially understood to do in the Enlightenment and after. But Aquinas recognizes a higher function in reason, by which "the human soul knows all things in the eternal types, since by participation of these types we know all things. For the intellectual light itself which is in us is nothing else than a participated likeness of the uncreated light, in which are contained the eternal types... By the seal of the Divine light in us, all things are made known to us."37
Without dividing human reason into discrete powers, Aquinas ironically recognizes in it a range far greater than that defined by the so-called "Age of Reason", a range that extends to the height of actual "participation" in likeness to the mind of God, the "uncreated light".
Aquinas’s most important statement on epistemology, and therefore the essential foundation for any restructuring of Realist metaphysics as it pertains to our knowledge of this world, is contained in Pt.1, Q.84 Art. 6, "Whether Intellectual Knowledge is Derived from Sensible Things?"38 The short answer is, "Yes," and Spinoza was therefore absolutely correct in stating that "the Scholastics start from things." In this brilliant and crucially important Article, Aquinas recognizes what might be described as an epistemological spectrum from pure materialism to pure idealism. At the materialist end lies Democritus, who "held that knowledge is caused by a discharge of images," according to Aristotle as quoted by Aquinas, who goes on to specify that "Democritus maintained that every operation is by way of a discharge of atoms." Here we have an epistemology with which latter-day materialists—Hume, Marx, or even Bohr (if we add "quanta" to the atoms of Democritus)—would be quite comfortable. At the other end of the spectrum lies Plato, who "held that intellectual knowledge is not brought about by sensible things affecting the intellect, but by separate intelligible forms [i.e., the Ideas] being participated by the intellect." Here is the seed of an Idealist epistemology that might one day sprout into the philosophy of a Descartes, a Kant, or a Croce.
But Aristotle, says Aquinas, "chose a middle course". He agreed with Plato that intellect is immaterial, and must be differentiated from "sense", "But he held that the sense has not its proper operation without the co-operation of the body; so that to feel is not an act of the soul alone, but of the composite [of soul-and-body]." And so Aristotle agreed with Democritus that "the operations of the sensitive part are caused by the impressions of the sensible on the sense... by some kind of operation." This leads in turn to the stage at which the "active intellect" "causes the phantasms received from the senses to be actually intelligible, by a process of abstraction." Thus "sensible knowledge" is the "material cause" of intellectual knowledge, but participation in the eternal types is necessary to abstract from our knowledge of singulars. "Knowledge of the singular and individual is prior, as regards us [i.e., our personal experience of the world in space and time], to the knowledge of the universal; as sensible knowledge is prior to intellectual knowledge. But in both sense and intellect [i.e., as faculties or powers] the knowledge of the more common precedes the knowledge of the less common."39
This is the "moderate Realism" of Aquinas, the keystone of the epistemological arch. It is the insight that inspired G.K. Chesterton, in his wonderful book on Aquinas (1933), to capture metaphorically Aquinas's entire anthropology:
4. "The Being"
The Realist metaphysician is thus able to assert the reality of the world and the essential accuracy of our perception of it, and therefore to uphold with confidence the use of our reason in worldly matters. But the Realist does not limit reason to the world. He recognizes as well "The use of it in Divine matters," the subtitle of a poem called "Reason" by the "metaphysical" poet, Abraham Cowley (1618-67; this use of the term "metaphysical" was initiated by Dr. Johnson in his famous biography of Cowley). The final stanza of this poem presents a view of reason entirely consistent with that of Aquinas:
Cowley’s statement that Reason "leads to Heav’ens Door" neatly captures what for centuries was the mainstream view of the epistemological sequence leading from Creation to Creator, which would eventually come to be developed into the "argument from design." The articulation of this concept may be traced back to the thirteenth chapter of Wisdom,42 one of the "apocrypha" written, according to Robert H. Pfeiffer, "during the last two centuries before the Christian era,"43 and accepted as canonical by both the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church (formalized at the Council of Trent). The primary purpose of Ch. XIII is to argue the foolishness of idolaters, those who, as St. Paul will put it, "worship and serve the creature more than the Creator" (Rom. 1.25), or, even worse, worship dead images of wood or stone:
Here is the "argument from design" in embryonic form (and if for "fire" or "wind" one were to substitute "quarks" and "quanta", one might even see in the idolators the forerunners of certain modern physicists, at least when they infringe upon properly metaphysical territory). The Christian scriptural reformulation of this Jewish idea is found in Romans, 1.20: "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead."
The Church Fathers, taking their cue from such passages, developed this epistemological stance to a point little short of its full articulation in Aquinas. To take only one example, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-89) anticipates Aquinas’s view of human reason as a "likeness" or "image" (he actually uses the word "icon") of the divine mind, and thus capable of directly perceiving truth. In one of his superb theological poems, "An Evening Prayer", he writes (in the translation of John McGuckin),
You enlightened the mind of man
with reason and with wisdom
and so placed an ikon here below
of the brightness that is above. . .44
It is man’s "rational nature" that "shall sing out/that he [God] is the great king, the good father," according to Gregory’s first "Hymn".45
At the same time, like Aquinas, Gregory fully recognizes the limits of reason; as Cowley will put it, "by a sad command" reason must "humbly keep" at heaven’s door, it "must not come in to th’ Holy Land." It is only in the world to come that the "sad command" will be rescinded, and the blessed will be able to see the full truth with perfect clarity for the first time. Thus Gregory prays, in his great autobiographical poem, "Concerning His Own Affairs" (in the prose translation of Denis Molaise Meehan),
Gregory’s most extensive presentation of what might be termed his epistemological standpoint is in his important "Second Theological Oration".47 Arthur James Mason summarizes the argument of this work as follows:
In his running paraphrase of the Greek text, Mason epitomizes the full elaboration of Gregory’s argument:
It should be apparent from all this how close Gregory already is to the position of Aquinas. Particularly intriguing, in the writings of this theologian, is the idea that our intelligence (or reason) actually "enters in with the things" of the world, as clear a demonstration as one could wish of the intimate connection in Realist metaphysics between the assertion of access to knowledge of the objective world—hence the possibility of science—and access— limited for now, to be vastly expanded after the eschaton—to knowledge of God.
When Aquinas answers "yes" to the question, "Whether It Can Be Demonstrated that God Exists?" he grounds himself at the outset in scripture:
The argument from design is formally presented by Aquinas as the last of the five ways in which "the existence of God can be proved":
Epistemologically, then, "by way of discovery, we come through knowledge of temporal things to that of things eternal."52 But this knowledge—and here Aquinas is again consistent with Gregory—must remain imperfect in this world. In tackling directly the question, "Whether Our Intellect Can Understand Immaterial Substances through Its Knowledge of Material Things?" Aquinas responds,
In the case of God Himself, however, rational nature alone can reach only negative knowledge by "remotion" (or apophatic theology54); "To see the essence of God is possible to the created intellect by grace, and not by nature," and this only after having become "separated from this mortal life."55
To encounter a second and opposite mode of epistemological access to knowledge of God, it is necessary to make the leap from the realm of philosophical metaphysics to that of pure theology. This, of course, is God’s revelation of Himself to man. A key passage, one which, as Gilson puts it, "runs through the whole history of Christian thought,"56 is Exodus 3.14, in which God, in response to Moses’s question as to the name of the one who is sending him to the children of Israel in Egypt, reveals His name to Moses: "And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you." The Greek of the Septuagint version, as translated by Sir Lancelot Charles Brenton, reads,
When Pseudo-Dionysius, writing in the 5th or 6th century, explicates "The Divine Names" of God, in contemplating this name, he writes,
In some of his phrasing, Pseudo-Dionysius comes very close indeed to sounding more Neo-Platonic, in the mode of Plotinus (205-70), than Christian, a fact which has led to elaborate discussions of his orthodoxy. Gilson brilliantly distinguishes the identification of the One (i.e., God) with Being in Augustine—and Christian thought in general—from the subordination of being to an abstract One, as in Plotinus,59 and Pseudo-Dionysius in this passage certainly seems to imply that God transcends being itself. But this is probably best interpreted as the enthusiasm of the mystic, rather than a calculated position taken by a systematic theologian; generally speaking, Pseudo-Dionysius succeeds in establishing on the basis of Ex. 3.14 that God is the ground of being or rather Being itself.
Aquinas, more theologically sound, considers "HE WHO IS" to be "the most proper name of God",
and also because,
Thus in Christianity, as in Judaism, the ultimate ground of being turns out to be, not a philosopher’s abstraction, no matter how exquisitely refined or exalted, but a supreme Person, HE WHO IS, and through whom all things have their contingent being. Here, then, is the true ontological ground of Realist metaphysics: God Himself.
5. The Icon
When the risen Christ appeared before the sceptic Thomas—a "postmodernist", perhaps, in "premodernist" times—and allowed the doubter to place his fingers in His wound, upon Thomas’s finally exclaiming, "My Lord and my God," "Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed" (John 20.27-29). Raising the question of the relationship between sight (direct sense perception) and belief for modern man, Newman writes, "Can I believe as if I saw? Since such a high assent requires a present experience or memory of the fact, at first sight it would seem as if the answer must be in the negative; for... no one in this life can see God" (John 1.18).61
Here we approach a question which lies beyond the scope of this article, namely the relationship between reason, grounded in direct perception of reality in Realist metaphysics, as we have seen, and faith. The general tendency in our time, certainly among the public at large, is to assume a radical gulf separating the two, and to conclude that all matters pertaining to God rest on pure faith. But if our subject is epistemology—i.e., our means of knowing what we know, not only about the physical world, but about anything—it behooves us to call attention to the fact that in the history of Christian thought there have been and there still are those who claim that we can at least see an image (Greek eikôn, or "icon") representing God as he appeared on earth in the person of Jesus Christ, and those who have gone further to claim that some are able to see with transmuted sight God's uncreated divine light, as He displayed it on the occasion of the Transfiguration. These are precisely epistemological claims in the broad sense that we are using that term here, because they are claims of access through the senses to partial knowledge of God.
Historically, an enormous controversy about this matter erupted in Byzantium between the so-called Iconoclasts—who opposed icons and had them removed from the churches—and Iconodules, whose arguments in favor of icons eventually prevailed, being declared orthodox at the seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 787. The Council was deeply influenced by the brilliant arguments in favor of icons developed by the great St. John of Damascus (?675-749), ideas which were later further elaborated by St. Theodore the Studite (759-826). Together, these men wrote a crucially important chapter in the history of Realist epistemology, by refining the description of how we can perceive the intersection or interpenetration of the immaterial and material.
St. John of Damascus, later to become one of Aquinas’s favorite theologians, eloquently pleads for the return of the icons to the churches:
St. John, specifically citing two texts already examined here—Gregory’s "Second Theological Oration" and Rom. 1.20—argues how it is possible to "see... both spiritually and physically":
St. John identifies and analyzes no less than six types of images, of which the first is the "natural image", and states that "the Son of the Father is the first natural and precisely similar image of the invisible God, for He reveals the Father in His own person…. He is the image of the invisible God [Col. 1.15]…."65
The commandment, "Thou shalt not make thee any graven image" (Deut. 5.8), John plausibly takes as a prohibition against making images of false gods or natural bodies such as the sun for the purpose of idolatrous worship (already the concern, as we have seen, of Wisdom 13). He points out that God Himself commands that the tabernacle be made with "two cherubim of gold" which "shall stretch forth their wings on high... and their faces shall look one to another... cherubim of cunning work" (Ex. 25.18, 20; 26.1).66 These are certainly not the words of a God utterly opposed to the making of legitimate images of actual heavenly beings. St. John therefore concludes that because in Christ God did assume flesh and become man, the act of depicting Christ, at least—the Father remaining beyond the reach of such depiction—in paint, gold-leaf and wood replicates the actual Incarnation, the mysterious taking on of matter by spirit.67
To the later objection that the image "may not have the same form as the prototype because of insufficient artistic skill [i.e., an objection on the grounds of insufficient "realism" in the conventional sense of the word]," St. Theodore the Studite will respond that "veneration is given to the image not insofar as it falls short of similarity, but insofar as it resembles its prototype. In this degree the image has the same form as the prototype; and the objects of veneration are not two, but one and the same, the prototype in the image."68 Here St. Theodore uses the term "form" in an essentially Aristotelian manner, centuries before Aquinas. He displays the characteristic epistemological optimism of the true metaphysical Realist (the epistemological cup is half full, not half empty), and he extends this insight by maintaining that "the same form is in all the representations though they are made with different materials."69 That form "in the image" is "Christ plainly visible as its prototype."70 Hence the worshipper viewing the icon and praying as he does so is in fact seeing and worshipping the very image of God, as the apostles saw His image in the Person of the living God-man, Christ [cf. John 14.8-9].
It is therefore entirely appropriate that, circum-scribed by the halo of many Byzantine icons of Christ, either as child or as man, is a cross inscribed with the very words of the name revealed to Moses by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: ό ΄Ών , "The Being."
It is because Eastern Orthodox Christianity inherited this theological tradition that icons become such important windows affording through the medium of matter a glimpse of the immaterial world, heavenly doors through which we are able not merely to "peep" (as in Cowley’s poem) but to gaze upon the visage of the divine, as if "endowed with life”. This phrase (Greek ΄έmyucoV, lit. "ensouled") is in fact used by the 11th century Byzantine writer, Michael Psellos, in his extraordinary ecphrastic homily on a pictorial representation of the Crucifixion.71 Psellos knows that his auditors have not (in the translation of Elizabeth A. Fisher) "altogether risen above the body, but you long to gaze upon him [Christ] with your very eyes and to see, if possible, Christ himself hanging naked upon the tree…." Psellos promises to satisfy this yearning by showing his auditors the actual scene, in the form of a painting. But the painting "seems to be the product not of art but of nature," or rather of a collaboration between the craftsman and God Himself:
Thus, "The whole image seems to be endowed with life…. [T]he dead body [of Christ] in the picture... will appear endowed with life…. [L]ife exists in the image from two sources, both from artistic skill, which has produced a perfect replica, and also from grace.…"73
The icon thus becomes a means of nothing less than Revelation, providing access to knowledge (and therefore an epistemological mode) of the intersection of natural and supernatural life in the Person of the incarnate Christ, and participation in the "trampling down of death by death", as the crucified Christ takes on new life in anticipation of the Resurrection.
Can the viewer of the icon "believe as if he saw"? Michael Psellos answers, "Yes." And Leonid Ouspensky echoes this affirmation for our own age:
6. The Light
It is possible to step beyond even the claim that through icons one can see at least an image of God to the even more remarkable claim that one can actually see, in this life, God’s uncreated divine light, if one’s senses are transmuted through the action of the Holy Spirit. Visionary experience of God is described by various mystics in Western Christianity. One thinks of such figures as St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) or Jakob Boehme (1575-1624). In the case of Richard Rolle (c.1300-1349), senses other than that of sight are involved: Rolle feels, hears and tastes divine calor, canor and dulcor (heat, song, sweetness).75
But for a fully developed theology of this extraordinary claim, one must turn to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and particularly to the great St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). The Triads of Palamas were composed to defend the claim of the hesychasts—hermit monks of Mt. Athos—that through certain ascetic practices, including the repetition of the "Jesus prayer" ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"), they were able to achieve sight of God’s uncreated divine light, the same light He displayed to Peter, James and John in the Transfiguration, traditionally considered to have taken place on Mt. Tabor: "[He] was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light" (Mat. 17.2). "… [H]e was transfigured before them. And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them" (Mark 9.2-3). "And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering" (Luke 9.29).
Against the charge of his polemical opponent, Barlaam the Calabrian, that the hesychasts were deluded, Palamas argued that they had indeed seen the divine light, grounding himself in two arguments: 1) the Transfiguration itself provides precedent; 2) the divine light is one of what Palamas terms the "energies" of God. This doctrine of God"s energies is in fact Palamas’s most characteristic contribution to theology. The relationship of the energies to the essence of God is analogous to that of rays of sunlight to the sun itself: functioning to project God’s action in the world. Palamas writes (in the translation of Nicholas Gendle),
Elsewhere, Palamas characterizes what might be described as the heightened epistemological access which renders such vision possible:
Upon reading such passages as these, even a believing modern is likely to assume that this degree of afflatus may have been appropriate or possible in an age of faith, but surely not in our own! And yet it happens that the claims of the 14th century hesychasts and their theologian, St. Gregory Palamas, are still being made today, by voices hardly heard outside of relatively constricted circles. Our contemporary, Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos, in his book, A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain, describes an interview with a hermit currently living on Mt. Athos. Vlachos directly asks the hermit, "Have you seen the Light?" To which the hermit, after a period of silence, responds,
Here then is a claim of access to transcendent knowledge achievable in this world by human faculties in synergy with God’s grace. It is the ultimate claim of Realist metaphysics, an option still being exercised by living contemporaries of ours.
7. The Question: How Realist is Voegelin?
In 1953, in an introduction to an English translation of "On the Incarnation" by St. Athanasius, C.S. Lewis cautioned, "It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between."79 This is sage advice, and I have tried to maintain at least this proportion in the present paper. The moderns whose names have figured here so far—Chesterton, Weaver, Lewis himself, Gilson, Maritain, Jaki, Molnar—are all of them unquestioned (Neo)-Realists in metaphysics, men who prove themselves capable to a remarkable degree of engaging in what Lewis calls an "experiment in criticism",80 entering empathetically into the worldviews of other ages, and therefore becoming capable of stepping back from their own age and seeing it objectively. Now, if we raise the question, "Does the name of Eric Voegelin (1901-85) belong in this company?" we are faced at once with this problem: Voegelin would have considered Lewis’s "experiment" to be an impossibility. "History," he assures us, "is not a field of indifferently objective materials…. Rather, history is constituted by consciousness."81 Even more definitively, "there is no reality of order in history except the reality experienced and symbolized by the noetic consciousness of the participants."82 Thus one must "renounce all pretense to an observer’s position outside the process [of history]." One must instead "enter the process and... participate both in its formal structure and the concrete tasks imposed on the thinker by his situation in it."83 This is a view of history derivative of Hegel’s transformation of history into a force with a life of its own, adopted by Marx for his purposes, and finally indistinguishable from the "postmodernist" view currently fashionable. It would seem at once to deny the possibility of free will, something Realist metaphysicians always uphold, and to limit the thinker to the perspective of his own age. If the doctrine is true, one wonders how Voegelin himself apparently managed to escape the trap, and to be able to hold forth on the entire sweep of history, when his own philosophy of history would seem to allow no scope for such an endeavor.
But perhaps I have misunderstood Voegelin here. Let us put aside this issue for the sake of argument, and address directly the question at hand. It is claimed by some that Voegelin is in fact a Realist, and not all of these are necessarily his supporters; Molnar records a conversation with a German colleague who, for example, could not "forgive Voegelin... his realism."84 One has the impression that this claim rests on Voegelin’s undoubted acceptance of the reality of the divine. If one were to compare this position of his with the terminal nihilism of our own "postmodernists", Voegelin would indeed have to be seen as a Realist of some sort.
But what emerges if one tests Voegelin, not against "postmodernists"—in comparison with whom nearly anyone could claim to be a Realist—but with actual Realist thinkers, and not merely the Realists of the past, but such modern Neo-Realists as Gilson or Weaver? To begin with, it will have to be admitted that Voegelin’s account of "reality" itself is highly equivocal. "Reality," Voegelin asserts, "is not a thing that man confronts but the encompassing reality in which he himself is real as he participates…. The philosopher [gains] insight in the structure of reality... through participation in its process…. Insight into reality is insight from the perspective of man who participates in reality. The term perspective must not be understood, or rather misunderstood, in a subjective sense. There is not a multitude of perspectives, but only the one perspective that is determined by the place of man in reality."85 Now this is hardly distinguishable from Kant, and it also introduces us to a characteristic problem of argumentation in Voegelin: the self-invalidating claim. It might be epitomized in the form, "I am not a subjectivist, but I see all reality as inextricably bound up with the perceiving subject." Voegelin characteristically recognizes and even analyzes a potential epistemological pitfall, and tries to avoid falling into it by mere assertion of a difference between his view and that from which he wishes to distinguish it. But, alas, he does not adequately differentiate his position from the problematic one he correctly perceives. In the current example, Voegelin beyond doubt ends up falling into the dilemma of Kantian subjectivism as thoroughly as Kant himself.
The issue is especially clear in this key passage from Anamnesis:
Here Voegelin is definitive in his excellently formulated rejection of the reduction of religion to merely psychological phenomena, originated by Feuerbach, and then further developed by Jung—whom Voegelin castigates by implication for "loading" the "collective unconscious" with "archetypes that once upon a time, before the psychologists put them down there, were the conscious symbolizations of metaleptic reality," including myths, each of which Voegelin considers to have "its truth", in a manner reminsiscent of Mircea Eliade87—as well in recent times as Jung’s popularizer, Joseph Campbell. But when he cautions us against "hypostasizing" or reifying "the impression of being" into "being as an object", he reveals that he in fact falls short of the Realist position. The Realists (or Scholastics), as Spinoza clearly stated in a passage already cited, "start from things", and not merely "impressions" of things. To start from the "impression" (or "phenomenon" as opposed to "noumenon") is to acquiesce in the Cartesian-Kantian fallacy which underpins all of modern Nominalism. Realism asserts access to the actual thing, which exists independently of the observing subject.
One senses from this passage that Voegelin may be aware of his problem, but that he feels compelled to reject true Realism because he thinks that it leads to doctrinal theology of the sort practiced by the Church Fathers (here referred to as "speculators... of the theogonic" type), out of which eventually emerge "speculations... of the historical-dialectic type," i.e., Communism and Nazism! More explicitly than here, in The Ecumenic Age, Voegelin credits Karl Jaspers for sensing in "[Christian] orthodoxy", which of course is Realist, "the transformation of existential truth into doctrine of which he recognized the murderous consequences in the practice of Communism and National Socialism."88 We may conclude that Voegelin remained reluctant to assert the reality of the objective world apart from perceiving consciousness at least partially because he thought that such a move historically led to the destructive modern ideologies. That in taking this position he was misconstruing orthodox theology, both in terms of its actual content and in terms of its true role in history, appears evident to me, even though I happen to agree fully with Voegelin’s understanding of the ideologies as deriving from immanentized Christian eschatology. The whole problem here lies in his apparent failure to distinguish between a false interpretation of the eschatology and a true one, as well as from an Hegelian tendency, already noticed, to see the movement of history as inevitable.
If Voegelin is equivocal, for whatever reasons, on objects or things, the true starting points of Realist epistemology, he is equally so on human nature, the soul, and reason, all of which are also foundation stones of Realism. "We casually work with the concept of human nature as if we considered it constant, as did the classics [i.e., the classical philosophers?], or malleable, as do the ideologues."89 But the true Realist does assert the constancy of human nature. Voegelin’s attempt to claim some third conception of human nature seems to be grounded in a Neo-Heraclitan view that all is flux, coupled with a type of evolutionism again reminiscent of Hegel: i.e., human nature is in process of unfolding, rather than given. This leaves the human person with no faculty capable of "experiencing the divine ground"—which is, as we shall see, Voegelin’s epistemological starting point—or anything else, for that matter. "The subject of the experience also is a matter of difficulty," he states, because "the term ‘soul’, or psyche... must not be understood as if it were an object about which one could make philosophical propositions concerning its immateriality or immortality…. Rather it is strictly the name of a predicate of which ‘place of tensions’ is the subject."90 (We might note that making propositions about the soul is precisely what the leading Realist metaphysician, St. Thomas Aquinas, does in his Summa Theologica.) But Voegelin goes right on to recognize that "since neither the temporal being of man nor his experience of eternal being can be doubted, there must be in man something nontemporal…." And this, of course, is precisely the soul! Once again we find Voegelin painting himself into a corner, and trying to have his ontological and epistemological cake and eat it too: he sees the necessity of Realism, but shies away from asserting it.
Thus Voegelin regards reason itself, at least as it exists in the dichotomy of "reason" vs. "revelation", as a construction of theologians calculated to "monopolize the symbol ‘revelation’ for Israelite, Jewish, and Christian theophanies"91 (whereas Voegelin, as shall appear, wants to argue for the theophanic legitimacy of the "experience" of such thinkers as Parmenides). Hence "consciousness is not a constant but a process,"92 a position which, taken in conjunction with the others studied here, puts Voegelin, again, in the dilemma of being unable to posit any component in the human person which could "experience" transcendent truth, and he is left asserting the minimalist claim that "epistemologically, there is no proof of things unseen but again this very faith,"93 a doctrine which is conventional in much of Protestant theology but stands at odds with the far more extensive claims for reason found in true Realist metaphysics.
What, then, is Voegelin? A full-fledged examination of his thought lies beyond the scope of this paper, but some brief impressions may be given at this point. Voegelin actually takes pains to deny that he is "dealing with problems of theology."94 But that is exactly what he is doing. In fact, it is not difficult to extrapolate from Voegelin’s writings a virtual Credo of his basic doctrines, ironically contradicting his view that the articulation of doctrine is a "derailment" of primal spiritual experience—a view, incidentally, characteristic of mystics in all religions throughout history. Actually, it is impossible to assert anything whatsoever on any matter of consequence without at least implying some underlying first principle.
Voegelin’s Credo might read something as follows:
These propositions, articulated in various ways throughout Voegelin’s works, are precisely doctrines, every bit as much as the doctrines promulgated at the Ecumenical Councils which Voegelin thinks somehow "deform[ed]... the experiential insights" they supposedly explained.95
These doctrines establish Voegelin as what might be described as a Neo-Parmenidean or Neo-Platonic monist, deeply influenced by Hegel, in a mode distinguishable from Heidegger only in that he claims to accept Christianity as part of the unfolding self-revelation of the Ground. As an epistemologist he is essentially Kantian. Now, Voegelin would undoubtedly reject any comparison with Heidegger; he speaks contemptuously of "the epigonic Being for whose parousia Heidegger waited in vain."96 But Gilson, in his untranslated but crucially important posthumous work, Constantes philosophiques de l'être ("The Philosophical Constants of Being," 1983), brilliantly characterizes the real problem with Heidegger’s ontological stance:
What Gilson sees here is the crucial choice that needs to be made between the abstraction, "Being", and the actually existent entity, "the being", or ό ΄Ών, The Being, The One Who Is, God, a triune person and no abstraction. Voegelin’s formulation, "divine ground of being", is in fact no better than Heidegger’s, and falls short of the God who is the true ground of being in orthodox Christianity as well as in the Realist meta-physics which is its handmaid. Whenever Voegelin speaks of the actual revelation of God, whether to Moses and the prophets or in the Incarnation as the second Person of the Trinity, Christ, he treats these as being mere "symbols" of some higher, ineffable "divine ground". This move—of relegating the revealed God to a position of ultimate subordination to a higher abstraction—is characteristic precisely of Plotinus’s Neo-Platonism, as pointed out by Gilson in a passage already noted (see note 59). (As we have seen, Neo-Platonic subordinationism also tends to be characteristic of Pseudo-Dionysius, not surprisingly one of Voegelin’s most frequently cited Christian theologians, and in fact more a mystic than a systematic theologian.) But in true Realist metaphysics, nothing is higher than the revealed God. Nor is revelation a mere "symbol" or "myth" invented by man to explain some ineffable "experience", but rather actual reality. One is, of course, at full liberty to reject it out of hand; but there can be no having one’s cake and eating it too by accepting it merely as another "symbol" of an ineffable abstraction.
By placing the whole emphasis on a mysterious "experience", Voegelin fails to escape from the solipsism of German Idealism. As Molnar cogently phrases it,98 "the term ‘experience’ is the alibi of German idealists when they wish to avoid speaking of ‘reality’; it is the key to their subjectivism." And in the last analysis, German Idealism is monistic; it is a monism of spirit, rather than of matter, as in Democritus or Marx, but finally monism is monism. Voegelin writes,
It is this monist position that makes it possible for Voegelin to assert that "the God who appeared to the philosophers, and who elicited from Parmenides that exclamation ‘Is!’, was the same God who revealed himself to Moses as the ‘I am who (or: what) I am.’"100 Similarly, the "force that compels the prisoner in the cave to turn around toward the divine light (Republic)... belong[s] to the same foreground of theophany as the fire that moves Moses to turn towards the thornbush." It is significant that in the key passage, Ex. 3.14, Voegelin amends "who" to "what", thus demonstrating that he is disturbed by the radical personhood of the revealed God, precisely as Gilson shows Heidegger to have been.
This, predictably, makes Voegelin a less reliable interpreter of St. Paul than of any other figure he deals with at length. He speaks of a "phantasy of two realities [which] has remained constant in Western history from antiquity to the present…. Even in the case of Paul we had to note his wavering between acceptance of the one reality in which the Incarnation occurs and indulgence in the metastatic expectation of a second reality to come in the time of the living."101 Even "Resurrection refers to the Pauline vision [emph. added] of the Resurrected."102 In other words, Voegelin equivocates on the reality of the key events of Christianity, the Incarnation and the Resurrection. He is so thorough an Hegelian evolutionist-historicist that even Paul is said to be limited to the "construction" of reality, and this "construction could not be ultimate but would have to be amended with changes and enlargements of the empirical horizon; but, at least, it remained ‘true’ for the better part of two millenniums."103 Note how Voegelin, anticipating the common practice of "postmodernists", puts "true" in quotation marks! No surprise that he considers that "the divine presence itself, though experienced by man who exists in time and space, is not a spatio-temporal given,"104 and has recourse to the evasive concept of the metaxy, instead of grasping the true Christian paradox of Incarnation: spirit (which is one) assuming flesh (which is another) precisely in space-and-time. If Voegelin had taken seriously as good-faith explorations of these matters the writings of such Church Fathers as St. Athanasius or St. Gregory of Nazianzus, instead of dismissing them as "derailers", he might have escaped these misunderstandings, to say nothing of his claim that early Christianity was "substantially ditheistic",105 which breaks not only with patristic theology but with post-Reformation Protestant theology of virtually any description. St. Paul famously declared that "Christ crucified" is "unto the Jews a stumbling block and unto the Greeks foolishness" (I Cor. 1.23). Voegelin in his analysis of Paul appears to be one of the Greeks: he is scandalized by the radical break between classical cosmologism and orthodox Christianity.
Why should ontological monism be a problem for the Realist metaphysician? Richard Weaver says that if we wish to reassert Realism, "The first positive step must be a driving afresh of the wedge between the material and the transcendental. This is fundamental: without a dualism we should never find purchase for the pull upward…. So long as there is a single breach in monism... the case of values is not lost."106 "Dualism" is the key word here, the ontological dualism to which Realist metaphysics is committed. The material-monist says all is matter: many modern scientists take this position, grounded in Democritus through Marx, and in our time in a (probably false) interpretation of Einstein’s apparent conflation of "energy" and "matter", with "energy" being seen as a subtler form of matter. Attempts to claim that matter itself encodes "intelligence" also fall in this category, and emerge from a desire to explain design in nature and consciousness without having to resort to the postulation of immaterial spirit. The spiritual-monist says all is spirit or consciousness: on the philosophical level, this is Plato via Plotinus via Berkeley via Kant via Croce; on the religious level, it is Buddhism or Vedantic (absolute non-dualist) Hinduism. "Things do not happen in the astrophysical universe; the universe, together with all things founded [sic] in it, happens in God." So says Voegelin;107 Śankara (c.788-820 or later), the leading Vedantic thinker, could not have put it better.
But Realist metaphysics robustly asserts the reality of both matter and spirit—the creation and God—and the radical ontological divide that differentiates them in reality. Voegelin happily recognizes the reality of the divine, but is unclear about the world. Collapsing everything into one undifferentiated cosmos may be aesthetically pleasing, but it does not capture the full complex particularity of actual reality, and in the long run any misrepresentation of reality will have the negative consequences Weaver properly cautions us about. To protect the balanced assertion of both levels of reality requires nothing less than a rehabilitation of true Realist metaphysics.
If such an occurrence is on the horizon, it may emerge first in the realm of science, rather than philosophy or theology as currently practiced. John J. Reilly has already noticed that "complexity theory... is well on its way to restating something like the notion of formal cause."108 But as Stanley Jaki has shown, good physics is often interpreted by bad metaphysics. The whole question for the future will be whether our intellectual and spiritual life is healthy enough to facilitate the reassertion by our mainstream thinkers of ancient truths about the world we live in and the God who created both it and us.
1 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics reprint in five volumes, 1981), Vol. I, pp. 11-12. Note that all citations from the Summa will be from Pt. 1.
2 Thomas Love Peacock, Nightmare Abbey, Crotchet Castle (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 67.
3 G.K. Chesterton, The Complete Father Brown (Harmonds-worth: Penguin Books, 1981), pp. 367-8.
4 Ibid., p. 385.
5 Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984 paperback edition of 1948 publication), p. 137.
6 Ibid., p. 164.
7 Ibid., p. 53.
8 Ibid., p. 87.
9 Ibid., p. 52.
10 See the discussion of this document in Étienne Gilson, Linguistics and Philosophy: The Philosophical Constants of Language (English-language translation by John Lyon, Notre Dame University Press, 1988), pp. 97-8.
11 Thomas Molnar, personal communication, May 7, 1994.
12 Weaver, op. cit., pp. 182-3.
13 James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (New York: The Modern Library, n.d.), pp. 268-9.
14 Stanley L. Jaki, Cosmos and Creator (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1980), pp. 94-5.
15 Emmet Kennedy, "Enlightenment Anticipations of Postmodernist Epistemology," p. 7. I am indebted to Professor Kennedy for allowing me to cite his article while still in press.
16 Jaki, op. cit., pp. 96-7.
17 Aristotle, Metaphysics, II.2, as translated by John Henry MacMahon in Aristotle on Man in the Universe (Roslyn, N.Y.: Walter J. Black, 1943), pp. 13-14.
18 Ibid., p. 14.
19 Étienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York: Random House, 1955), p. 791; and pp. 489 ff. See also Thomas Molnar, "Guillaume d’Occam et les conséquences de l’Occamisme," La Pensée Catholique, May-June, 1988, pp. 56-60. Molnar is primarily interested in the influence of Ockham’s thought on the political position of the Church, as well as on the conception of the state, but grounds these precisely in Ockham’s epistemology. He also sees Ockham as undermining confidence in causality: "la causalité n'est pas dans la nature, elle est dans l’esprit de Dieu. Cinq siècles plus tard, surviendra Kant qui localise la causalité non pas dans l’esprit de Dieu mais dans celui de l'homme. Ce sera une des catégories de notre raison, mais personne ne pourrait dire si elle, la causalité, se trouve dans les faits également. Occam fut ainsi le père de l’agnosticisme moderne." Thus, consistently with the argument of Weaver, and with the position of the present author, Molnar sees a development from Nominalism to Kantian Idealism to modern "agnosticism". It is worth noting that the "Friar William" of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose "is the fictional transformation of... William of Ockham," according to Andrea Sciffo ("Letter from Italy," in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, June, 1995, pp. 38-40). Although Sciffo cites the opinion of an Ockham scholar to the effect that Eco misrepresents Ockham’s actual position, it is highly significant that Eco, a "semiotician", associate of Derrida and "nominalist intellectual of the left", would consider it appropriate to press Ockham into service as a mouthpiece for what Sciffo calls his "gay nihilism". Needless to say, the novel was a best-seller for months, and a Hollywood film version was released. This should drive home the point that even the most seemingly obscure, esoteric musings of the intelligentsia may eventually trickle down and out to the realm of popular culture.
20 Étienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1937), pp. 316-7 and p. 313.
21 Jacques Maritain, St. Thomas Aquinas (second edition, New York: Meridian Books, 1958; first edition published in 1931), p. 150.
22 Boswell, op. cit., p. 285.
23 Cited in Jaki, op. cit., p. 94.
24 Boswell, op. cit., p. 924.
25 Peacock, op. cit., pp. 78-9.
26 Ibid., p. 139.
27 Maritain, op. cit., pp. 91-2.
28 The definitive edition is now the Clarendon edition (Oxford), edited by I.T. Ker and published in 1985. All references will be to this edition.
29 Ibid., p. 118.
30 Ibid., pp. 106-7.
31 Ibid., p. 119.
32 Ibid., pp. 117 and 119.
33 Ibid., pp. 207-8.
34 Ibid., pp 221 and 215.
35 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q.79 Art. 9, Vol. I, p. 404.
36 Ibid., Q.79 Art. 4, Vol. I, p. 400, and Q.85 Art. 5, Vol. I, p. 437.
37 Ibid., Q. 84 Art. 5, Vol. I, p. 427.
38 Ibid., Q. 84 Art. 6, Vol. I, pp. 427-9.
39 Ibid., Q. 85 Art. 3, Vol. I, pp. 434-5.
40 G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox (NewYork: Sheed and Ward, 1933), pp. 203-4.
41 A.R. Waller, ed., Abraham Cowley: Poems (Cambridge University Press, 1905), pp. 46-7.
42 The Apocrypha According to the Authorized Version, with an introduction by Robert H. Pfeiffer (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, n.d.), pp. 123-4.
43 Ibid., p. vii.
44 John McGuckin, trans., Saint Gregory Nazianzen: Selected Poems (Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1986), p. 11.
45 Ibid., p. 10.
46 Denis Molaise Meehan, O.S.B., trans., St. Gregory of Nazianzus: Three Poems ("The Fathers of the Church--A New Translation," Vol. 75; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press: 1987), p. 32.
47 For the complete Greek text, with chapter-by-chapter English summaries and commentaries, see Arthur James Mason, ed., The Five Theological Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus (Cambridge University Press, 1899).
48 Ibid., p. xii.
49 Ibid., pp. 27, 29, 30, 31, 35, 54. Note that by "sense", Gregory is referring to the human faculty of perceiving objects directly through the five senses. This usage, derived from Aristotle, will also occur in Aquinas.
50 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q. 2 Art. 2, Vol. I, p. 12.
51 Ibid., Q. 2 Art. 3, Vol. I, pp. 13-14.
52 Ibid., Q. 79 Art. 9, Vol. I, p. 404.
53 Ibid., Q. 88 Art. 2, Vol. I, p. 450.
54 On apophatic theology, see Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976 reprint of 1957 English translation of original French publication of 1944), pp. 25 ff., 34 ff., etc.
55 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q. 12 Art. 4, Vol. I, p. 51, and Art. 11, p. 57.
56 Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, p. 70.
57 Sir Lancelot Charles Brenton, trans., The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament and Apocrypha (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House reprint, 1974), p. 73.
58 Colm Luibheid, trans., with collaboration and introduction by Paul Rorem et al., Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (The Classics of Western Spirituality; New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1987), p. 98.
59 Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, p. 70.
60 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q. 13 Art. 11, Vol. I, p. 70.
61 Newman, op. cit., p. 71.
62 David Anderson, trans., St. John of Damascus, On the Divine Images (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Valdimir's Seminary Press, 1980), pp. 36-7.
63 Ibid., p. 20.
64 Ibid., p. 79.
65 Ibid., pp. 74-5.
66 Ibid., pp. 16-17, 55-57, and passim.
67 Ibid., pp.52-3 and passim.
68 Catharine P. Roth, trans., St. Theodore the Studite, On the Holy Icons (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1981), p. 104.
69 Ibid., p. 107.
70 Ibid., p. 109.
71 Elizabeth A. Fisher, "Image and Ekphrasis in Michael Psellos’ Sermon on the Crucifixion," Byzantinoslavica, LV (Prague, 1994), pp. 44-55. "Endowed with life" is Fisher’s rendition of the word.
72 Ibid., pp. 51-2.
73 Ibid., p. 55.
74 Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983), p. 49.
75 See Frances M.M. Comper, The Life of Richard Rolle (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1969 reprint of 1928 publication), especially Ch. VI.
76 John Meyendorff, ed. and intro., and Nicholas Gendle, trans. Gregory Palamas: The Triads (The Classics of Western Spirituality; New York, etc.: Paulist Press, 1983), pp. 106-7.
77 Vladimir Lossky, The Vision of God (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1983), pp. 162 and 164.
78 Effie Mavromichali, trans., Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos, A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain (Levadia, Greece: Birth of Theotokos Monastery, 1991), pp. 114 ff., 120.
79 C.S. Lewis, Introduction to St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation [De incarnatione verbi dei] (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982 reprint of 1953 publication), p. 4.
80 C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 1961), passim.
81 Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, trans. and ed. by Gerhart Niemeyer (University of Notre Dame Press, 1978), p. 158. This work will subsequently be cited as "A."
82 Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Vol. IV: The Ecumenic Age [hereafter cited as "E."] (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974), p. 145.
83 Ibid., p. 314.
84 Thomas Molnar, "Eric Voegelin: A Portrait, An Appreciation," Modern Age, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Fall 1981), p. 383.
85 A., pp. 163-4.
86 Ibid., p. 127.
87 E., p. 197; for a specific allusion to Jung, see p. 211n; for one of several allusions to Eliade, with whom Voegelin had at least one meeting (Molnar, "Eric Voegelin," p. 383), see A., p. 113. The phrase about myth will be found in Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Vol. I: Israel and Revelation [hereafter cited as I & R] (Louisiana State University Press, 1956), p.11, where it is attributed to Plato.
88 E., p. 312.
89 A., p. 150.
90 Ibid., p. 125.
91 E., p. 236.
92 Ibid., p. 305.
93 Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 122.
94 E., p. 302.
95 Ibid., p. 58.
96 Ibid., p. 75.
97 As cited in Thomas Molnar, "Le jugement de Gilson sur Heidegger," La pensée Catholique, Nov.-Dec. 1983, p. 69.
98 Molnar, "Eric Voegelin," p. 384.
99 A., pp. 78-9; 176.
100 E., pp. 229-30. In making this assertion, Voegelin unexpectedly echoes the "accomodationism" of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and his fellow Jesuit missionaries in China. They argued that God had in fact made a partial revelation to the ancient Chinese, and that traces of that lost revelation were to be found in the Confucian classics. Some of the more wildly speculative of them, such as Jean-François Foucquet (1665-1741), developed a full-blown doctrine of "figurism", according to which the I ching, or "Book of Changes", contained hermetic symbols prophesying the Incarnation of Christ, and thus paralleling the prophets of ancient Judaea. See D.E. Mungello, Curious Land: Jesuit Accomodation and the Origins of Sinology (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989); and John W. Witek, S.J., Controversial Ideas in China and in Europe: a biography of Jean-François Foucquet, S.J. (Rome: Jesuit Historical Institute, 1982).
101 Ibid., p. 303.
102 Ibid., p. 244. Molnar has noticed the equivocation of "vision;" see "Eric Voegelin," p. 384.
103 I. & R., p. 131.
104 E., pp. 304-5.
105 Ibid., p. 259.
106 Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, pp. 130 and 146
107 E., p. 334.
108 John J. Reilly, "After Darwin," First Things, No. 54 (June/July 1995), pp. 15-16.
Daggerpoints and Loggerheads: A Sad Time’s Taste for Perverse Oppositions
John R. Harris
What’s the opposite of speed—is it slowness, or stillness? A race car driver whose engine is malfunctioning might say, as he loses position with every lap, that his machine is the very opposite of what it was on the day of his last win. On the other hand, a man who has clung to the luggage rack of a hijacked van for half an hour as it weaves through city traffic might say, once rescued, that he just wants to sit still somewhere—that his soul craves the opposite of speed which he expects to find in an easy chair.
What’s the opposite of a bright light? Is it a gray penumbra, or a pitchy darkness? If darkness is the opposite of light, couldn’t extremely poor visibility be the opposite of extremely clear visibility? After all, no visibility whatever suggests that all basis for drawing contrasts has been removed. What about ear-splitting blare—is its opposite a gentle rustle or an ear-ringing silence? The utter absence of sound certainly negates the presence of sound at any decibel level; but if the given level were the scale’s greatest value, then perhaps its ultimate contrast should properly lie at the far end of the scale, and not completely off the scale.
The qualities positioned between any spectrum’s extremes (and, in practical terms, this means all qualities) are, as everyone knows, relative. With respect to whom am I polite or rude? With respect to which climate is today’s weather warm or cold? The upshot of such relativism, let it be stressed, is not to invalidate qualitative judgments as a whimsy of the beholder’s eye. Such reductio ad absurdum belongs to the deconstructionist, and is really a very romantic rejecting of the entire barrel for one bad apple, when you think about it.1 For relativism is relative: it is hemmed in by the solid presence of facts which the qualitative judgment has shaded and approximated. The fact is that most of the apples are edible, or mostly edible. Likewise, the fact is that most people are not much offended by my manner, and that most pedestrians are apt to wear a coat when their breath mills in frosty wreathes of a January morning. We can never pinpoint qualitative distinctions with absolute precision; yet all of us are recurring to them every time we utter or write words, thus proving that their existence has a universal validity even though whatever numerical values are proposed to demarcate that existence do not. We do not all picture the same vehicle when we conceive of fastness, but we all understand the word "fast".
To return to extremes or opposites, the alternatives to one end of the spectrum are logically not many without number: they are only two. The opposite of the highest measurable or known value can either be the lowest measurable or known value, or else complete absence of value—"value zero". I’m sure that these alternatives have been discussed and named long ago in a forum which my own ignorance has closed to me; but in the insulation of my ignorance, I would call the former alternative the polar opposite and the latter alternative the nullifying opposite.2 Dusk is the polar opposite of noon’s brilliance: darkness is its nullifying opposite. The polar opposite to the quasar is the slug: the nullifying opposite is the stone.
One might more fruitfully call the polar opposite, perhaps, the dynamizing opposite. The positing of two extremes renders innumerable values between them conceivable. Polarities make sense of endeavor: the words "better" and "worse" acquire meaning within the polarized field of force, whereas nullifying oppositions allow us only a laconic "yes" or "no" without reprieve. A slightly mushy apple is a little better than an inedible pulp of withered brown, and a forty Watt bulb is a little worse to read by than a seventy-five Watt bulb. In these spaces between extreme values, we live our lives—not only that, but we communicate to others how they may better live. Here we find those qualities which we evoke in our most casual exchanges: the state of my manners, the chilliness of the morning air. The polar contrast is eminently sensible and highly useful.
If I were now to turn around and vilify the nullifying opposite as too severe for life in this world, I should perhaps be yielding to the innately human tendency to draw nullifying oppositions. It is tempting, I admit, to argue that all-or-nothing alternatives are (as I wrote just above of deconstruction) too romantic. A Manichaean universe which offers us only black-and-white choices—good or evil, sense or nonsense, day or night, manna or foul rot—seems so unsympathetic with our routine travail that one has to wonder if it isn’t blasphemous, or even insane. We must take care, however, not to divest ourselves of idealism in our respect for "reality". In moral endeavor, at least, ultimate reality is always beyond our reach. Were we to strive after only what we might attain, we would never offer our lives in exchange for the beleaguered innocent whose liberation appears entirely impossible. The world we would be left with after years of such "practical" calculations would be uninhabitable, in my opinion. Having rejected the ideal of annihilating human sacrifice and infanticide and mass execution of political dissidents and all the rest—having accepted pragmatically that a little of these things is a necessary concession to reality—we should have cut ourselves off from a central human reality. Having defined failure out of our existence, we would begin to look more like animals than people.
In summary, if setting certain "real life" coordinates at either end of a spectrum is healthy, envisioning the "nullification" of certain vicious spectra in their entirety is not less so. Aristotle and Plato need each other—or, more to the point, we all need both of them. As well as the intellectual acuity to distinguish a good effort from a poor one, we need the moral intuition to distinguish a right effort from a wrong one. Not that moral rectitude completely, categorically rejects every option which comes a little short: even here, there is much need of recognizing that things could be much worse—that a certain degree of wrong is not so very wrong. Yet moral intuition begins precisely in the understanding that nothing we do is fully, utterly right. The sensitive gradation of moral efforts is so important for the very reason that the ideal of perfect moral goodness can crush us under its sublime majesty and leave us in despair. In Christian terms, this admission of failure’s inevitability—of having to be under the peak, if you will, in order to scale toward it zealously—goes by the name of grace. To serve perfect goodness, one must first accept that nothing one can do will ever be perfectly good. The collaboration here is not just happy: it is necessary. One must wholly reject moral badness to be a votary of moral goodness, but one must also—and in the same motion—recognize that one’s offerings of good deeds are only relatively good.
So much, then, for the notion that working within polarities is all wrong or that categorically rejecting an entire range of choices is all wrong. We do both together, and we may often do both harmoniously and righteously. All the same, I am afraid (and here I come to the crux of this essay) that we even more often switch horses in mid-stream, and that we do so carelessly, dangerously, and culpably. We split hairs when the whole crown should be shaved, or else we sweepingly reject a broad range of options when the only problem is that the currently operative value is too extreme. We strike bargains with the devil, and we refuse to parley with angels. I am completely sincere when I say that the disastrous twentieth century—a stage for the West’s cultural debacle almost from end to end—was largely shaped by this tragic inability to pose fair, sensible oppositions. Instead, those years have left us an unenviable bequest of ideology, one plausible definition of which might be the consistent forcing of reality into one kind of opposition when the other kind is more appropriate to the truths at stake. When the "party of the people", as communism in its various forms fancied itself, needed to muzzle the candid, bully the weak, and starve the poor in order to attain its political objectives, it seldom hesitated to compromise. When, however, capitalist governments offered deals which would have relaxed the tensions of the arms race, it often took a rigid stand in "principle". Or consider the situation which preoccupies international attention as I write. People who claim to have an uncompromising reverence for human life will not tolerate any flying missiles or falling bombs, no matter how accurately aimed. Yet when faced with irresistible evidence that the bombs’ target has starved, tortured, executed, and chemically poisoned over a million non-combatant men, women, and children during the past decade, the same people urge resignation to the will of God or chatter something about the all-importance of global image.
Obviously, this almost exactly inverted perception of when to stand and when to hedge continues to bedevil us in the early years of the twenty-first century. In Part Two of my essay (which I hope to have ready for Praesidium’s summer issue), I should like to take a slow, sad tour through the past hundred years in the pleasant company of great authors: Alain-Fournier, Remarque, Saint-Exupéry, Jules Romains… it is an ambitious project which I’ve had in mind for some while. Even before our present embroilment with the French, I would have culled many of my sources from that culture, for French literature seems to me both the pinnacle of the European spirit’s achievement and perhaps the most mangled victim of contemporary Europe’s spiritual meltdown. Already during his own brief life, for instance, Saint-Exupéry was ruthlessly defamed by De Gaullist forces for such "intolerable" positions as not wanting Allied planes to bomb French cities. De Gaulle was the quintessence of a perverse reasoner. The punishment of collaborators was more important than some few hundred or thousand children’s lives—yet he found all kinds of redeeming qualities in Ho Chi Minh when the United States undertook to save a French colony in southeast Asia from being overrun by a totalitarian machine which dwarfed Hitler’s.
Let all of this remain for later, however. Professor Chaves has given me a much more serene context in which to broach the same issues. His apology for the philosophical position known as realism (i.e., that our senses do in fact convey some significant portion of reality to us accurately—see the essay directly preceding this one) clearly establishes a polarity, with realism at one end and idealism at the other. I am certainly not qualified to address his argument point by point (not that I would have sufficient space, in any case: I have read few papers in my life so densely packed with ideas). I would like to devote the remainder of my words, rather, simply to questioning the opposition of the real and the ideal as an either/or choice. This contrast leaves me unsettled when presented in a "nullifying" format—and I hasten to add that Professor Chaves’s presentation of it is perhaps the most reassuring I have seen. Far and wide throughout the fields of theology, philosophy, and history, the dramatic counter-pointing of one dogma, theory, or trend with another which truly, upon calm examination, doesn’t pose much of a threat is routine practice. Sometimes the advocate appears genuinely hungry after the truth, and sometimes (more often, I suspect) he or she is abiding by the rules of an established parlor game. I think we should be very cautious about how we distribute white hats and black hats among the major players of our intellectual history. Personally, I don’t care what kind of sound a man thinks a falling tree makes as long as he rescues my child from beneath it—and this seems to me a fully realistic attitude, insofar as goodness is the ultimate "thingness" to God and to the human soul.
I scarcely know where to begin. Why not start with qualitative reasoning itself? There are two points about qualification which seem to me beyond challenge, and which also undermine a strict realist position. One is that qualities do not insistently invade the human mind from without: they are perceived as part of reality, rather, only after the mind reflects upon its perceptions, often very deliberately. A person could look at a bit of wallpaper for years without being aware that its green leaves are not quite the same shade as the painted trim; he could listen to a recorded symphony hundreds of times before noticing that the flute is slightly off key at a certain instant. It’s no good trying to argue in such cases that our blunt senses just don’t perceive the world accurately sometimes, for these are not physiological problems. Call them failures of attention, if you wish—but the lapse of attention here occurs after all the sense data have been gathered. It is a lapse of intellectual processing. A mind trained and practiced in the arts would perceive fine realities of shade and tone much more readily, just as a trained doctor could distinguish between a throat-clearing cough and a cough boding a cold. The cold will literally ensue upon a certain cough, yes: these "things" are "out there". Yet they are there because an active, alert mind is capable of isolating them from the gray mass of indifferent data. The mind is not imagining them in a void, and no idealist worth his salt would ever suggest as much—certainly not Kant, for whom the categories are constitutive of reality, not creative of it. Nevertheless, should the mind be insensitive to shades of color or varieties of cough for whatever reason, then the qualitative richness of reality is not exploited at that time by that person. Often the causes of insensitivity are cultural. We have all heard (truthfully, I’ve no doubt) that the Eskimo has a dozen words for snow to our one. I know from my own tests that most of our bombarded urban ears cannot discern in the quality of a copse’s silence the terror of songbirds beneath the circles of a hawk.
We get more reality or less of it, in short, depending on how keenly we apply our thought to what we perceive. That the Eskimo would be able to explain his varieties of snow to us if given a fair chance raises my second point. That is, the grand, harmonious reality which emerges when we put all our sharp ears and eyes together is more properly a proof that we think the same way than that the world is a divinely purposive chronometer. The divine purpose lies in our insisting upon purpose when we look at things—seeking it high and low, never content until we at least find a clue. We are all made like this. God has created us to yearn and to probe. He has given us minds which cannot even regard a cloud formation without fancifully descrying sails and towers and mountains. Of course, the castle in the clouds is indeed a figment of the imagination. The point is, though, that we all know it is—or we know, at any rate, that someone convinced of the castle’s reality is not sane. How? What’s the difference between belief in a cumulus castle and in a vast magnetic field causing the Aurora Borealis? I do not want to digress into a praise of scientific method, for that is actually not the point. Science or no science, we know instantly that clouds are just clouds. The point is that, in a sensually confusing situation which rouses a certain aesthetic play—a swirling cloud, a splatter of mud, the chatter of sparrows—we can almost see our mind seeing as it fashions one order, then sweeps it away and fashions another.
In my opinion, this scheme of things far more worthy than a strictly realist one of God’s infinite love and his unfathomable creation, both at once. The things around us turn out to have a very flexible thingness: one age’s amor profundi is another’s gravity is another’s time warp. The phenomena remain largely the same, though the shifting theories draw attention now to this detail, now to that one. Does this mean, then, that the "out there" lends us the only stability we ever enjoy, the only safe haven we can ever find from our treacherously poetic intelligence? Doesn’t it mean, on the contrary, that the "out there" is a neutral mass of stimuli whose assessment at any given point in history is a mirror of our hearts? We struggle to understand, and in our struggle we grow infatuated with various metaphors (as Voegelin believed), some of them sad or desperate or terrifying. In the sum of those metaphors, however, is not (at least to my way of thinking) an annihilating clash of competing fantasies, but a sequence of chords haunted by complex resonances. It is a song of struggle, wherein sadness and despair and terror all have their part—and wherein the need to rest from the struggle by shifting reality away from our hearts blends its Siren song, as well. From raw impression, we build these "things" we see and hear according to innate human patterns of construction, and then we argue over how different our things appear. The truth about these truths, though, is that we understand our "competing fantasies" only too well, and reject them so indignantly because we prefer sadness to fear or confidence to terror. At some point, after having been thoroughly worn out by the competition, perhaps we have an inkling that the truth is both beyond things themselves—whatever they may be—and beyond the metaphors into which we have woven them. What else but love could lead us so patiently to that point, and what else but superhuman design could outlast our passion for designing?
The greatest scholars of the last half-century’s "neo-orthodox" movement, as well as many estimable figures of a more "catholic" orientation, would crinkle their noses around such a strong whiff of Kantianism. They deny that the qualitative intelligence has this dynamizing power to lift new realities from the cloud of sense impressions. There is no cloud. The realities are "there". The only reason Ockham, Kant, and their decadent progeny have emphasized the perceiving mind’s constructive role is to win more ground for the autonomous self—the ego, the Satanic force which drives us to elbow God out of creation’s center and insert ourselves in his place. Qualitative judgments are not polar oppositions (as I have defined the term above): they are nullifying ones. You either see it or you don’t—it’s either there or it isn’t. All Dr. Johnson has to do is kick a stone, and… behold! It rolled, didn’t it? What thought went into that?
Very little, to be sure—no more than what Kant would have called a quantitative judgment: the lightning-quick assessment that the gray mass along the path was a distinct unit. (Had the mass proved to be a loose dirt clod, it would not have rolled so gratifyingly: a qualitative judgment, no doubt, was devoted to assessing its tint and texture.) Why are such amiable people so hostile to the merest notion that the human mind routinely assists in constituting the reality we perceive? The answer, I think, is egotism—not Dr. Johnson’s or those of his ilk, but that native to all human beings. The realist is rightly, even laudably alarmed by the potential of egotism’s usurping every moment of judgment if once we admit that our judgments originate in our intellectual structure rather than in the things which impress our senses. If our mind processes a stone, then what’s to keep it from processing that stone as it does a cloud? And if we can make golden galleons out of stones and clouds, what’s to keep us from turning our fellow human beings into ants or phantoms? The crisis, as realists see it, is moral. The first stage of any moral dilemma is the simple perception of its factual details. (I might add here that the realist—with some justice—would suppose my child more likely to be rescued from a falling tree by someone who believes that trees really fall.) Anybody who is convinced that he normally concocts phenomena of sound and heat from personal whimsy will readily persuade himself that a baby screaming for help in a conflagration doesn’t really exist. In order to preserve the urgency of our moral duty, we must nip subjectivism in the bud. Our moral duty is "out there" because the practical situations evoking a moral response are "out there". All else is cowardly equivocation and slick sophistry.
I would be the last one to contest the claim that we are presently drowning in a moral squalor combined of pathological self-obsession and brutal indifference to others. What I must contest is the claim that all forms of idealism lead toward this quagmire while realism nimbly bypasses it. In fact, the most self-serving, lubriciously rationalizing people I know believe very much in the objectivity of things. They believe that we human beings are highly evolved bundles of muscle and nerve whose purpose is to survive individually and as a species. They believe that advanced forms of survival for creatures such as we involve maximal pleasure and minimal pain. They believe that no motives beyond genetic programming or neurological tingle make any sense—that moral obligation, for instance, is a fantasy invented by the ruling classes to modify the behavior of the working classes. Professor Chaves is not the first to note with astute irony that the urbane relativists dominating our cultural scene all of a sudden accept objective reality implicitly when their precious skin is at stake. The celebrated deconstructionist with chest pains will on average make it to the emergency room a lot faster than his gardener would. Frankly, I myself find little surprise in such ironies, and for this reason: the person who has no faith in immaterial realities is very likely to place whatever faith he’s capable of in material reality. The Pyrrhonist is less properly a doubter in what he sees than a doubter in any possible sense behind what he sees. He laughs at philosophical realists because they discern a sense in things: for his part, he will just take things as they come—a good meal, a night with a pretty wench, a quick profit with no chance of criminal prosecution.
I am not attempting to conflate realism with materialism; but then, materialism is surely a species of realism (its most degenerate species), and for that reason should make any more ambitious realist recoil a step toward idealism. Those who would oppose the real to the ideal in what I have called a nullifying manner, requiring that every last trace of subjectivity be expunged from how we frame reality, end up sharing the same side of the great divide with those who believe in the senses and nothing but the senses. I should hope that this would make them nervous. It would have been far more productive to "polarize" the situation, with the swinish materialist at one extreme, the matter-loathing gnostic at the other, and more or less reasonable people in between who can admit that "thingness" has something substantial about it but that what we know of this substance is shaped by how we think. After all, the realist metaphysician must eventually take reality itself on faith. The common-sense contention, for instance, that creation must have begun some time and must at some level have parts not made of other parts is opposed by the equally sensible proposition that every event is another event’s effect and that every measurable part is capable of further dissection. Common sense is a dead end for realism. In the twilight limning our comprehension, we can either choose sterile absurdity or accept that our impasse results, not from real senselessness, but from how we think of things. We can opt for sense precisely because the only other option is senselessness, and because, while not more honest, sense is also not less honest. Inasmuch as we are made to think in a way that gives life a certain sense—and in no other way—we might as well bet on the Maker’s having equipped us benignly rather than on his having set us up for the cruelest of jokes. Why put our money on the option where to win is to lose everything?
I am evoking Pascal, of course—but also Kant. The gist of Kant’s "antinomies of pure reason" (i.e., those perfectly common-sense premises which end up contradicting each other) is not that reality is crazy or imaginary, but only that our minds cannot know the whole story.3 This is Kant’s realist side (or his critical side, as he would say). He is so committed to the notion of our mind’s structure being significantly correlated to reality that he waves aside the antinomies’ latent horrors. We are to proceed with our human way of looking at things, first because it’s all we have, and second because we all have it—that, at least, is real, and it is no puny truth. On the contrary, Kant sees our universal endowment with a way of processing reality as a good indication of supernatural love and purpose, since it makes accessible to us the concept of moral obligation. Real trees fall with real thuds, not because their objectivity is demonstrable, but because the goodness which our hearts are formed to serve would be invalidated if each of us lived in a separate world. For me to deny that your trees thud as mine do would be, even more than a denial of science’s possibility, a denial of morality’s. Kant’s realist critics reject him because they see in his subjectivity a menace to moral goodness; but Kant, more keenly, sees that goodness must be embedded in the heart’s secret places if it is to extend immaterially to all hearts—and he concludes, with the easy motion of Ockham’s Razor and Pascal’s bet, that our knowledge of neutral objects, too, might as well ride on this same generous wave of common sense.
There are two very different reasons, I think, why religious scholars (i.e., scholars of pious disposition) are apt to persist in rejecting a point on the spectrum anywhere near such idealism. I have already mentioned the dread of egotism in all its forms which renders the individual intelligence’s action upon reality suspect—but this dread, frankly, is more of a layman’s bugbear. The scholarly mind is preoccupied with history, as well. In the first place, what to do with all those traditions, revelations, confessions, chronicles, codes, testimonies, and martyrdoms? The legalism of the Pharisee tends to afflict those whose knowledge of a sacred text is so thorough that they invert the chain of command. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is not good because it is in the Bible, but in the Bible because it is good. (This is Kant’s formulation, by the way.4) The wind bloweth where it listeth. The leaves are not sacred for giving voice to its passage: without its spirit, they wither and fall. But the scholar must safeguard the reverend position of his precious books! He has devoted his life to them. Sometimes, in a significant sense, they are the only friends he has ever known—for his studious introversion has often cost him the company of other human beings.
The other scholarly incentive to "nullify" subjectively entrusted realities is, one might say, the whole library containing that favorite shelf of books. The scholar is surrounded by physical records which (since the days of Gutenberg) span millennia. No one else in our society lives and breathes in such a steady sandstorm of shifting tastes and trends. Under the circumstances, scholarly eyes can be forgiven if they glass over like a Bedouin’s. Who else but the scholar can flatter himself that he sees "where it all began" or that he knows "where it must end" because it has all happened before? Consider a passage which Professor Chaves cites from Thomas Molnar (see his note 19): "Five centuries later [i.e., after Ockham], Kant will arrive, locating causality not in the spirit of God but in that of man. It [causality] will be one of the categories of our reason, but no one would be able to say if it—the cause—is likewise embedded in events. Ockham was thus the father of modern agnosticism."5 It is difficult to imagine a more sweeping, eon-intoxicated statement than this. Kant actually chided Hume for suggesting that our causal formulas have no bearing upon reality, and anyone who has read his work broadly (e.g., Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone) knows that he sought to bestow upon God’s moral authority what the Enlightenment had chipped away from God’s once-Jovine power over natural events. Hardly an exercise in religious agnosticism! I leave to one side the painfully obvious fact that our understanding of causes, even at its most certain, is constantly being undermined by further observation—not just thanks to science, but thanks, more often, to the most ordinary experiences of living. Professor Molnar’s curmudgeonly banishment of Kant to an agnostic rogue’s gallery does not display his learning and insight, in my humble opinion, at one of their many bright pinnacles. He has here fallen into the trap of having to nullify everything on the far side of his contrastive line—and it turns out to be a great deal of Western thought. But then, the West has been getting it wrong since the thirteenth century. Cut it all loose and send it by the board, or sink!
The resistance to compromise in such cases of erudite, principled hostility as this is truly discouraging. It has something of the stupendous. Perhaps the death of philosophy (in any meaningful sense of the word) is partly to blame. Philosophers once chastened the jaundiced lateral view of the historian, before whom plains were spread with ruined temples and illegible gravestones, by reminding us that the human heart is, after all, the same beneath its many sea changes. If missionaries turn into imperialists, it is because they want to serve and have mistaken the proper end of service. If liberators decay into sybarites, it is because they are driven to drink life to the lees, and the heady thrill of the battlefield has at last left only the tedium of peace. Constructing complex polar oppositions to explain these paradoxes may be more befuddling than informative. To be sure, every historical sine-curve of rise and fall is attended by circumstances unique to its time and place (a position maximally stressed by Otto Spengler)… but at the bottom of it all, people either make certain basic choices—certain moral choices—or they do not. A moral philosopher of the old school could have pointed this out very eloquently. He could have described how, beneath that wide, waste historical plain, a spiritual cosmos draws human generations in orbit around the same source of gravity. He could have laid out an opposition that largely nullifies historical circumstance. Instead, we see the historian who claims to speak for moral goodness nullifying a huge block of history as morally wrong, then explaining away its many not-so-wrong moments by giving them a downward vector on some spectrum of epochal decline.
Such oppositions, it seems to me, are not only the reverse of their proper nature: they are perverse to the point of tragedy. In matters spiritual, no contrast could be of greater significance than that between inner authority and outer authority. Molnar has actually dedicated a book, Authority and Its Enemies (see note 6), to upbraiding those of us who impetuously want control of our own reins. I, for one, recommend the book and venture to say that I profited from it. Yet the question of authority also brings us to the ultimate misalignment of that opposition between realism and idealism. It doesn’t really matter very much, we can all agree, whether a person says he does or does not believe in the Loch Ness Monster, or the heliocentric theory of the planetary system, or the existence of DNA: if his head cold gets bad enough, he takes a pill—and if it gets really bad, he goes to the doctor. But the place where we locate moral authority determines the very possibility of moral endeavor, and also (by the way) the essential character of the god we worship. If we cling to a nullifying opposition between authority heard from without—a book’s text, a minister’s sermon, a vision’s kerygma—and an imperative to act (or to abstain from acting) felt from within, then we cut ourselves off from that which alone can make any external command authoritative. We have custom or conformism or sensual dazzle goading us forward, but not inner conviction. Naturally, the inward may speak through any such outward voice as these: in the case of a long-revered book or an established minister, I cannot imagine that it has failed to do so. All the more reason, though, to admit that the highest authority is that which convicts: which pricks the guilty heart from within, which bolsters the cowardly heart from within. In some sense, we must know what is right in order to recognize its appearance around us in spoken or written words. We must know, to put it another way, that such rightness isn’t just what we know individually, but what we all know as human beings consulting the common inheritance of our soul.
I have been flabbergasted over my lifetime at the number of figures I deeply respect who flatly refuse to place the ostensibly outer authority of a sacred book like the Bible on the same side of the dividing line as the imperative commands of conscience. They insist upon opposition here—opposition unto nullification. Perhaps they were jaded by all the rigamarole of the sixties and seventies. Conscience was much invoked then, though seldom knowledgeably or responsibly: "I’m being true to myself," "I’m finding myself," "I’m doing my own thing," "You’re okay, I’m okay"… there seemed to be no end to the mystical inner spirits people would summon to justify "letting it all hang out". But people abuse external sources of authority, too. They twist passages of scripture, grow wealthy behind a tax-free pulpit, and "surrender" themselves to God’s will after a delirious round of prayer rather than standing up for truth. Such behavior doesn’t strip sacred books or church institutions and officers of their authority, does it? Then how could a fatuous appeal to independence be said to discredit the inward ideal of righteousness? No doubt, even the most saintly people fail to be utterly, perfectly dedicated to this ideal. Formal religion, too, fails to be perfectly just and disinterested in its exercise of authority. These are cases calling for a polarized contrast of opposites, with consistent, malign failures at one end and inattentive, impulsive failures at the other. Ecclesiastical authority is indeed condemned to suffer small lapses of judgment, even in the best of times, precisely because it is administered by human beings, and because these human beings can at last only make choices by consulting their conscience. Even the decision to suppress a wayward conscience and follow the will of a "higher" authority is arrived at inwardly; and, should the meek soul who chooses that path turn out to have followed a wolf in sheep’s clothing, he is morally answerable to the highest authority in the universe—make no mistake—for having muzzled the voice within.
But there is no counsel of conscience, says the strict realist: everyone has a different idea about what must be done! This is a bizarrely relativistic protest, when one considers that it is advanced precisely to save the moral universe from relativism. If human beings, taken with all their blemishes, really had no natural inkling of murder’s shame or deceit’s wickedness, then history’s many instances of deposed tyrants and self-sacrificing resistance to injustice would be inscrutable. In place of such inklings, we would have only the ascendancy of one power here, another there, each with its own arbitrary, self-serving rule of law. A bleaker portrait of relativism’s triumph over human affairs would be impossible to paint. We are to recognize in the canvas, to be sure, something else: one of the arbitrary codes, we are assured, comes from God. Our acceptance of this proposition is proof of our faith—another nullifying opposition. We either accept or reject: we either believe or we don’t. But if we do not believe because moved to do so by an inner compulsion, for what other reason can we believe than communal pressure or childhood conditioning or fear of official reprimand? Under these circumstances, belief in the one true law would count for nothing as faith. It would be a response to behavioristic programming and cynical muscle-flexing—exactly what the postmodern crowd alleges of it.
If ever any aspect of human experience cried out for a polarized interpretation (and here I mean, once again, measurement by degree or progress), it would surely be our exercise of conscience. No, we do not always agree upon a course of action—and yes, some of us who are most confident turn out to have been most mistaken. Besides youth, arrogance, and sheer stupidity, however, might this disheartening phenomenon not be accounted for by the residence of right action’s highest ends in a realm beyond our world? An utterly, perfectly good action would be heavenly. Even Christ declines to be called good or to call anyone good except the Father. The moral fact which he must have had in mind can be no other than that our world constantly involves us in already tainted choices. Someone always gets hurt—some end is always left dangling, a threat to unravel or to trip a passer-by. Here is the ultimate example of a round peg in a square hole: an imperative to act, that is, whose force translates into no single clear, fully satisfactory command. What more palpable proof could any believer want that the spirit intrudes upon the flesh?
A rapturous vision, by comparison, is a paltry thing. It remains, after all, just a perception of external events. Empirically speaking, an encounter with an angel differs from an encounter with Aunt Harriet only on two points: its sequence seems to strain what we understand of natural causes, and (therefore) it is not readily reproducible. Actually, even our run-ins with Aunt Harriet are not much more reliable than our consultations with conscience. How many times do we mistake strangers for people we know, or fail to recognize our intimates? If conscience can be mistaken, how many times over the past decade has medical science, our culture’s most trusted advisor, reversed itself on the causes of cancer and heart attack? For some reason, religious apologists have long lumped the inner compulsion of moral duty into the category of "experience", along with such animated events as hearing a beautiful hymn and seeing a baby smile. (The baby can’t make moral choices, true—but neither can it solve for variables, yet we don’t consider algebra to be inductive.) Pious scholars, I suspect, stress that conscience is acquired in order to preserve the high ground for "revelation", which is always the other extreme in this nullifying, "either/or" contrast. No learning at the visionary end: just… pop! A burning bush! A thunderclap! Nevertheless, the truth is that revelations are perceived and hence subject to the rules of perception: it is their very suspension of those rules which makes them marvelous. Were they not subjects of perception’s kingdom, their defiance of the land’s absolute decrees would leave no one agape. The legitimate contrast here is with the inner imperative, which has no measurable grounding in "thingness" and yet impacts things constantly through human activity. Indeed, moral duty and religious commitment are both very much invested in superimposing the visible, tangible world upon a polarized scale where the relative impact of dutiful behavior makes sincere hearts smile or weep. This is called, among other things, living the good life, being an adult, and thinking responsibly.
I must close succinctly by addressing the question: How have reasonable oppositions come to be so often reversed in these affairs, with matters requiring finesse being reduced to a line in the sand and matters requiring that one do or die being erased beneath spectral gradations? I have probably long ago betrayed in these pages my fondness for laying our contemporary miseries at the door of electronic technology. In this case, television and the computer (as well as radio before them), while serving our disastrous passion for instant gratification, are also implicitly urging us to think in simplistic contrasts. A moment of boredom or perplexity is annihilated by a touch of the dial or a click of the mouse. Toggle on, toggle off; previous screen, next screen. The very jargon of life before the monitor scintillates with nullifying oppositions. There’s no time to arrange our experiences deliberately upon a spectrum of subtle change; or rather, there is no will among us to make the time. The one/two, yes/no mathematics behind digital programming, far from being a calculus in pursuit of a gesture on Keats’s Grecian Urn, is really little more than the "ugh-ugh" of some comic-book cave man—and that blunt fellow becomes us more every day.
But, of course, I’m being a bit hyperbolic now (and enjoying it, too). I hasten to sober these remarks with the observation that our shift to "yes/no" alternatives is older, by my own admission, than radio. The second part to this essay will aspire, for instance, to sample the rigidity of European thought just before World War One. When I say "European thought", I do not mean the product of professional thinkers. In fact, I mean something more like the absence of thought which ensued upon the decline of the "thinking class". I am hard pressed not to say that I mean democracy. As we commonly understand the word "democratic" these days, it has my unwavering support. I certainly do not favor the rule of tyrants, nor do I believe that people should be taxed or policed without their consent. There’s a vast difference, however, between an informed citizenry periodically appointing representatives from its midst to address the land’s problems and an amorphous mass of ill-educated, easily led drudges responding almost daily—through strike, riot, and (nowadays) poll—to every unconfirmed rumor.6 The rise of such masses characterized all of the last century. Urban hordes and uprooted peasantry existed abundantly, to be sure, in the nineteenth century, but only the twentieth learned to exploit them politically. In an environment dominated by such milling throngs, the side which carries the day is the side which keeps things trenchantly simple: yes or no, thumbs up or thumbs down. One could make the case, indeed, that radio and its electronic progeny would not have been marketable in an ethos which demanded painstaking examination of issues—in other words, that the rise of the masses invented in some sense (i.e., necessitated the invention of) media of mass communication. The print journalism of the decades directly preceding radio’s advent was plainly given to reductive contrasts and fiery ultimata. If anything, radio introduced a brief "regression" of newspaper reporting into a more literate, analytical scrutiny of issues by siphoning off the audience’s less lettered component. Dr. Johnson would have fared rather well on the air waves: The Immanuel Kant Show would have been canceled before it reached its first commercial break. Not that Dr. Johnson’s views are shallow… but in their favoring of a "pro/contra" sort of austerity, they lend themselves to a format wherein shallow minds find greater comfort.
It is a sad but inescapable fact, I think, that the intellectuals of the twentieth century frequently had to pitch their argument at a simplistic level where it could be heard among many varieties of "line in the sand" stridency. The twentieth century, from this vantage, was the most political century humanity has yet endured—not political in the Aristotelian sense of "responsible to the polis", but political in the ideological sense of having to wear someone’s livery to receive a hearing. I can scarcely find it within me to blame any honest scholar for trimming his philosophy around the edges so that it resembles a more marketed and publicized version. How else is he to obtain grant money, recommendations, or employment? (I should really be using the "he/she" barbarism in this passage, for I have known more thoughtful female scholars who felt obliged to pick up feminism’s refrain than male scholars who have done a crash course, say, in deconstruction.) One of the palliatives of being in this unenviable position, I suppose, is that, as a scholar, you spend most of you time providing dust clouds and smoke screens to shield the ideological beacon’s blind sides. That is, having meekly embraced The Movement and received your membership card, you are absolved of placard duty and sit-in detail: you labor in the spectrum-mill, instead, splitting hairs so that the obvious objections to The Movement’s reductivism become mired in sophistry. The cultivation of polar opposites to generate a sliding scale is certainly not a lost art in these times—it has merely been relegated to a rear-guard action. First the charismatic vanguard stakes out its keyword phrases, mottoes, slogans, and bumper stickers: then it obfuscates the inanity of its position by employing faithful scribes to reveal how all positions are inane, anyway… etc., etc. We have lately been treated to enough politicians who have mastered this art that I don’t think it needs further description from me.
There is a particular consequence to the rise of the masses which deserves special emphasis as a saboteur of fine analysis: the debasement of genuine art. Kant argued in the Critique of Judgment that moral instruction is a "propaedeutic" to aesthetic taste—by which he meant that a respect for laws and rules in the practical realm, where they must clearly exist to make a humane society possible, prepares the young mind to bring the same respect to the arts, where lawlessness may seem more amusement than crisis. We are all aware, of course, that art was highly formal in Kant’s day—perhaps oppressively so. My own inclination in our troubled present is to invert his remark. That is, I suspect that an apprenticeship served to the imaginative play of colors or sounds or metaphors in great art would sharpen up the mind’s ability to resolve intricate moral problems. This does not mean that great artists are moral people: for some reason, they seem to achieve distinction consistently among our most dissolute brethren. We are the benefactors of their tormented existence, though: they prick and prod us into seeing joy, fear, peace, menace, hope, or despair where we saw only a gray hovel on a gray plain before. They awaken us to subtleties which the moral reason, in its service of a truth beyond this world’s formulas, is obligated to court with tireless determination.
Yet taste in art does indeed require an apprentice-ship. The masses of common folk who labored in mills and shops and warehouses from their childhood to keep body and soul together had no opportunity to play such edifying games. While they remained on the land, they had at least a stock of traditional songs, poems, and lore, together with a truly stunning array of inexpensive, often improvised instruments which many of them would so master as to make an angel throw away his harp. Uprooted from such traditions and diversions in the nineteenth century, however, the poor of Europe were reduced to the existence of mindless beasts. Some of them eventually emigrated to the New World, where their lot did not immediately improve, perhaps, but where their children fared notably better. I realize that my European friends may take rigorous exception to this gross overview. They will insist that the most impoverished clerk or huckster in Paris or Madrid has far more culture than his gadgetry-ridden American counterpart. With respect, though, I doubt that this was so in the twentieth century’s early years, especially on the continent. A guttersnipe in Bucharest or Milan was not protected by the panoply of child labor laws operative in England or the United States. Even in rural Europe—in the fishing villages of Sicily or on the parched plains of Andulasia—the degree of malnutrition per capita and the prominence of related diseases like tuberculosis far exceeded what one would have found almost anywhere in the States.
Europe was fertile ground, then, for the great uprisings which plagued the twentieth century from its birth: anarchy, communism, fascism, and heady draughts of nationalism or political secessionism which could be blended into all of these. The inarticulate voice of the mass eventually made itself heard like the roar of the sea. As it grew more decisive politically, it was servilely wooed or demagogically guided by intellectuals who feared being cast away on a desert island. Art became at once more populist and more hermetic, sometimes at the same time. I have seen portraits of proletarian figures by the likes of Pier Mondrian (to name the best of the lot) which might have been accomplished by a clever fifth grader. I am not sufficiently "in the know", it appears, to appreciate their genius—yet their ceaseless gestures to the ordinary and the lackluster do little to leave me feeling humiliated. Andy Warhol’s innumerably mirrored Coke cans and film idols are the quintessence of this "precious vulgarity". Today we see it literally reaching into the sewer, for the media of its work if not for the subject—and I must say that Europe seems to continue leading us in this toilet-bowl katabasis, even though all of us in the West are now pretty effectively vaccinated against both tuberculosis and education. If American political institutions are perhaps more open to popular choice than what one finds in most of Europe, European institutions are more tightly tied to the fortunes of dominant parties, which can leave bureaucratic carnage and exact ruthless vendettas far and wide after an election. The great untutored mass believes itself to be in control, it has punished the conventional "élitism" of the fine arts capitally, and now it really has nowhere to turn for a little practice in how to view things not clearly accommodated by the party line.
Contemporary novels and short stories are all volcanic explosion and no seismic rumble, their characters all cliché and no complexity. Music is all beat and no rhythm, all noise and no crescendo. Art is all political statement, complete with the smell of the urinal, and no deep chasm haunted by a cataract. The arts are dead, and they are dead because artists can do no more, apparently, than flash their exclusive allegiances—for or against, one of these or one of those—with all the subtlety of a gang-banger parading a red kerchief or a black jacket.
I end, as I began, by stressing that my comments are not intended as a point-by-point response to Professor Chaves’s profound essay. I deeply admire his grasp of the arts; like so many who have contributed to Praesidium, his level of cultivation is infinitely superior to my own. Were I to leave the impression that I associated philosophical realism with the sort of boorishness I have described in the previous paragraphs, I would perilously have missed my mark. I do believe, however, that those of us still committed to thinking must take more care than ever not to draw our dividing lines too quickly or severely, just as we must reinforce them to the death when convinced that they are true. We are surrounded by enemies of fine discernment, for whom the most impotent pretext—the stuff of a fur coat, the content of a hamburger, the axle-width of a motor vehicle—instantly plots the geography of another Great Wall, its palisades marking the edge of reality and the non-negotiable point of nullification. If we are not to belittle and parody the rigors of genuine moral duty, we must mount a principled resistance to this game of high indignation every time our favorite lines get scuffed.
1 Raymond Tallis, for instance, speaks most perceptively of "a disappointed longing" in Derrida (see Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory [2nd ed.], New York: St. Martin’s, 1995), 226. I shall not repeat the old saw about cynics being scarred-over romantics.
2 I apologize for the dissonance which my use of "polar" is likely to create throughout this paper—but I believe my understanding of the word is more precise than the popular one. When people speak of "polarizing issues", they do not mean viewing issues on a sliding scale from greatest to least value. They mean, rather, cutting one widely advertised position entirely adrift from its primary adversary, so that no negotiation of middle ground is possible. This is not at all how polarities work: it is, instead, a nullifying opposition.
3 The antinomies are presented in the Critique of Pure Reason’s Second Book, 2.6. In his concluding remarks to this section, Kant stresses (in one of many passages ignored by his realist critics) that the mind naturally resists the agnosticism licensed by the antinomies in its pursuit of intelligibility within experience. The moral dimension of this resistance is advanced when the Critique of Practical Reason insists upon our common obligation to a metaphysical end.
4 See footnote in Der Streit der Facultäten, Kants Werke, vol. 7 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), p. 65.
5 My translation from the French. I must say that the revulsion Kant stirs in Professor Molnar sometimes mystifies me. In God and the Knowledge of Reality (New York: Basic Books, 1973), Molnar wrenches from context Kant’s observation that "God can only be sought in us" (cited on 166), and concludes that Kant "justifies any and all moral positions provided the agent possesses an inner awareness, indeed a god, dictating him the choice" (221). I should have thought that the Vatican’s very dubious compromises with fascism in the thirties and forties would convince anyone of what bad choices people can make even through the holiest of protocols. As for Molnar’s reproach of Kant in a footnote for a single sentence in a single private letter, I can only hope that God in his mercy will judge us all with far less thoroughness!
6 I cannot resist citing in this context Thomas Molnar’s most apt comments from Authority and Its Enemies (New Brunswick, NJ: Arlington House, 1995). Of democratically elected majorities, he writes that they "could, after all, be immoral, and this immorality may go so far as to suppress the right of the minority to hold different views…. From what source does our indignation stem when we envisage such possibilities: suppression of minority rights or legalizing abortion? It stems from the conviction, articulated or not, that laws and institutions have a higher law behind them, one which satisfies the moral intelligence" (113). Perfectly said! And it seems that Professor Molnar does—even at the risk of walking a few steps beside Kant—accept the inner origin of moral conviction.
R.S. Carlson: Poetic Encore
After carrying nothing from Dr. Carlson in the previous issue of Praesidium, we are delighted to have three new poems. Ralph S. Carlson teaches English at Azusa Pacific University (California). As is strongly implied in the first poem, he completed a tour of duty in Vietnam during the war years and has often returned since on charitable missions.
Some mornings, a guy would have to admit,
were clear-blue beautiful,
no clouds hiding the foil strip of river
twisting an elbow
over to Route Nine
for the walk up the valley to Khe Sanh,
no convoys dodging mortar rounds on the highway,
no medevacs pulling wounded from trapped patrols
at the base of the mountain,
no B-52 strikes cracking the opposite ridgeline into
roiling cauliflower columns of dust
shuddering five seconds sooner than the rest of the world,
no rain polishing the shell-casing stairs and mud
till walking means falling twice every five meters,
no rain sluicing mud and drowning rats downhill
till sandbags slough away from the bunker walls,
no rain washing away the last sticks and sheet metal panels
once intended to be the latrine
no drizzle drenching anyone who needs to sneak outside
to add a little water to the local mud,
no weeklong monsoon downpours
soaking the sandbags to ooze gritty mocha streams
through seams in the plywood ceiling to puddle the mud floor,
no pneumonia-debilitated buddy awaiting a copter through the fog,
no frustrated recoilless rifleman from another hilltop
blowing rounds at the command post southeast corner
chewing away one sandbag at a time,
no superindoctrinated mortarman blasting a circle
around the chopper pad with 82 millimeter rounds
cutting a cross inside the circle and an X across the cross….
no, some mornings were still, soft, blue-sky beautiful,
the forked valley greening over all its gashed earth from last month’s combat,
the hills still marching grass and brush and bamboo
up to clumps of young trees reminding the vigilant to dream
of earthbound ways to rice fields and coffee trees, to pigs and dogs and ducks
browsing simple unmined dirt trails to something called home.
The place we liked has gone out of business. Its "CLOSED"
sign fronts a clutter of dusty carpet scraps and
chairs. A few tourist traps still light the alleyway
with postcards, calendars, Hong Kong-Taiwan gimcracks,
tea sets and cork carvings. I find another small
place to get a bowl of barbecued shrimp and rice
noodles. I make my bid in the home language. The
man nods and turns to the kitchen. I roam the place
for papers left for patrons to read. The stack
is all Chinese. I head back to my table, then
spot Ngựời Việt on the floor in the corner. I reach,
retrieve it, and sit to scan the front page stories.
The elder son suspects a ruse. He asks if I
can read. I say "A bit. Sometimes I don’t know words."
Later he will tell me the Air Force veteran
story is about an Air Force veterans’ group.
Next the father sits down to talk. Mother, daughter
and two sons sit near by to listen to the odd
accents this stranger brings to the mother tongue. The
father asks the common things—where I learned to speak;
where I served and when; and, what I thought about the
old politics, the new views on trade and travel.
He, this year, reached the age of forty-nine, past the
average life span in the homeland. He recalls the
partition of ’54: his family fled south
to Sàigòn; the party Secretary General
shot his own father to prove the righteousness of
Class Warfare; and even in the South, the VC
traced and shot his father; battle took his brother
near Rạch Gia. The father has the daughter bring me
a second cup of tea. He thanks me for my time
in the homeland, despite the loss. Now his life is
calm: feeding the customers feeds the children, but
of course, the long days in the shop leave no time for
English class. I thank him for talking with me. He
thanks me again. "No," I say, truth deep in the home
tradition, "I dare not accept your thanks." The young
ones and wife clean up for closing. I am ready
to drive home in the dark. I pay my tab, and I
tip more than usual. He sees me to the door.
Before he locks up, we shake hands firmly. It is
Western New Year this week in Chinatown, and we
agree that, this young year, in a world rushing its
children to new wars, the old griefs are sufficient.
In the thicket east of the trestle
old vines, clumped like saplings thick as his arm
barrelled up purple only to drop
six, eight, even ten feet off
in slim green whips that set tendrils
back into the soil.
Through the young brush under those arches,
paths broke into the vault.
If he came too soon after another,
the lesser vines still leaned,
but little fruit was left within his reach.
Coming too long after
meant seeing berries ripe beyond the blades
curved to cut his flesh,
and hunting hard around the edges to find
whatever might have ripened
since the last pickers worked the vines,
berries the birds had skipped
and deer had missed at dusk in their evening browse.
Clusters in full sun
were easiest seen and almost always scant,
their berries baked hard,
or—those that escaped the scald and grew and swelled—
wantonly beaked to shreds.
At the edges, easy access meant
slow, meager picking.
This afternoon he paced the thicket edge
considering the yield.
August lay bright on the dusty green leaves.
The spike-and-sickle briers,
the dried, the slashed, and the few still green
knots of berry clusters.
All was aftermath. To have fruit
he must force the vault.
He stooped to peer inside, between the vines,
but till he shaded his eyes
he couldn’t tell the clusters from the shadows...
yes... berries were there—
well guarded, but large and visibly ripe.
If he forced a path on his own,
he might very well fill his empty pail.
He sniffed, curled his lip,
and started stepping down the nearest vines.
The youngest still caught him
and pulled away no worse than noisy zippers.
Those old enough to bear
had hard, curved spurs and sawed his arm
unless he lifted them
with caution, or whipped back across his face,
refusing to hold firm
in the new patterns he tried to weave
when turning them aside
to avoid breaking or splitting the stalks.
Those that wouldn’t yield
he trampled low as he could. More than once
a vine withstood his weight:
his sole slid off; the vine raked back
across his blue-jeaned leg
leaving thorns in the cloth and skin
to be picked out.
The first time he yelped, then muttered ‘damn’ as though
Mother might hear him.
But he was getting close. Another yard
of trampling and side-weaving
and he’d be deep enough for good picking.
The vault made high shade
breathing out, as thickets often will,
cooler than it breathed in.
Still he beaded sweat,
and circling gnats lit for water and for blood
between his slaps and twitches.
Hunted as much as hunting, he groped the shade,
avoiding the purple hooks
when he could, and shrugging off the slices
they did take along his arms,
for only a few berries drummed the can:
the bottom quickly blackened
and took the rising harvest silently.
Another trampling move,
and a cluster worth a pint was open to him.
Ripe and overripe,
some fell before the fingertips could close;
others crushed at the touch,
leaving a few spheres among the pulp
to be licked away.
Here in the mottled light, August stained him.
Taking the broken fruit
purpled his tongue and lips. Always among
the firm fruit he found
his fingers dark with mishaps at the vine.
At thicket’s edge, the gnats
raising welts, the briers slashing back
at every move were
unacceptable but, in the opened heart,
were standard August price
on prime fruit taken for a hunger,
to burst across and linger
rich upon the pressing tongue tomorrow.
War of the Worlds: Post-Literate Reporting Meets the Ugliness of Truth
Over the past year, Praesidium ran two special issues on the subject of creeping "post-literacy" and the decline of Western culture. For me, journalism always leaps to mind as an illustration of this decline, perhaps because I wasted a year or two in that major once upon a time as an undergraduate. Journalists are not dumb people: on the contrary, I believe they manifest the essential profile of the post-literate literato (which would make them oxymorons rather than morons). They circulate widely at the better soirées, they have attended the better schools, they know bohemian artists and legendary celebrities, they clearly brim with progressive ideas for a better future…they just don’t read, and they don’t think like people who read. They consume the book’s images, but not the book. The images are the book: the new book is the extravaganza of photos on your coffee table. The other day, when American tanks were pausing on their prowl through Baghdad and a young Marine began to blow a handsome bubble from his turret behind a machine gun, Diane Sawyer instantly remarked—instantly, before the little voice in her ear could even bestow creativity—"If anyone out there happens to recognize this soldier, please send us what you know!" Sure enough, interviews with the Marine’s family appeared on the evening news.
The camera pans desultorily, it captures a face, the talking head throws a frame around it, a network of minions is activated to secure guffaws from Ma and Pa behind their pitchforks… these people are good at what they do. They can follow a lead better than the CIA. The difference with their hard-bitten, nicotine-stained progenitors pecking out copy after a day at central booking isn’t that they’re lazy, uninquisitive, or stupid (though a literate person might be stirred to employ all of these words against them): it’s that their news isn’t a body of facts, but an image trailing more images.
The thirst for images comes at a cost in sacrificed truth—not just a swap of one truth for another, but a real sacrifice. The pampered children of the technocracy just don’t understand certain realities from which they have always been insulated. I shall always remember the collapse of the first World Trade Tower in tandem with Peter Jennings’s ludicrously ineffective appeals to his on-site reporter. Watching a monitor, Mr. Jennings plainly couldn’t get his mind around images that didn’t belong on the coffee table. "What’s happening there? Is that smoke?" "No," I recall muttering to myself, "it’s the tower falling, you blind ___!" Now, Jennings is no babe in the woods, at least chronologically. He had no Nintendo when he was in knickers, and he probably read Shakespeare when he was in college. I doubt, though, that he saw much of mortuaries or shanty towns as a cub reporter, and his day’s privilege is our day’s routine. Television journalism (and what remains of print, too), especially on the national scale, is increasingly the province of Ivy Leaguers who couldn’t gas and oil a lawnmower if you put a revolver to their head—let alone discern at a glance if the revolver was loaded. I hate to pick on Diane Sawyer (Katie Couric is too easy a target)… but her running commentary on the Iraqi men who threw a noose around Saddam’s stature in central Baghdad was uproarious. She had them "discussing what to do next" when they were clearly tying a knot and probably (so I guessed) waiting for a pole to push the rope over the left shoulder. Sure enough, a pole appeared a moment later. God forbid that anyone at the news desk should ever have to change a tire!
And what applies to wrenches and winches may be multiplied a hundredfold for bullets and bodies. "Image journalism" may think that it understands violence and death as no variety of reportage before it: after all, Peter and Diane’s generation was reared on Joe Friday and James Bond, and its children on Schwarzenegger and Stallone—as well as, for the youngest, Mortal Kombat. This is a false baptism of fire, however—a baptism of fiery images which choreographs mayhem and distributes death on impact. It is a complete parody of mortal reality. The most prominent characteristic of violence in real life is its utter absence of choreography—its perfect nonsense with respect to the established patterns of living. The most chilling characteristic of death by violence in real life is the wait between impact and exit: the rolling, panicked eyes of the victim, and sometimes the agony of pain which finally retreats into an impenetrable stupor. Nothing could be less appropriate for coffee table or den. How do you run to relatives with images like that in your hand, in your head? You don’t. You lie. You say, "He died in peace. His last thoughts were of you." Joseph Conrad might prepare you a little for times like these: Lethal Weapon and CSI will leave you as exposed to them as a soldier taking a smoke is to a sniper.
Not surprisingly, then, the reporters who went along for the ride in Iraq, "embedded with" so-and-so company, saw a lot more than they bargained for… and a lot less. They saw things instead of images, raw reality instead of sense: sandstorms, sleepless nights, corpses with half a uniform wrapped around pasty red meat, motors assured to split the hardest head with racket and exhaust fumes. Some of these realities yielded no image at all, and some yielded images to which Mom’s Tears Back Home would somehow have been a stale follow-up. For Mom would at least have been alive. It wasn’t the grief—they knew grief inside-out, these reporters. Grief was their stock in trade. After the flood, after the tornado, there was always grief, and they had always caught it in their camera’s lens. This time, though, it was the mystery beyond the grief—way beyond it. Not the grief, but the… the horror. Not even just death, but the fact of death—the deplorable, infuriating, noisome, scarcely thinkable fact that a person with a certain smile, a certain half-dozen photos in his wallet, can end the day looking like a cut of steak on the butcher’s block. They had built their careers (mostly young, blossoming careers) around gathering the emotions on every side of death; but they had only been assigned to stories after death had already struck, just as they had only sped off to Prom or Spring Break after someone else had already tuned their sportscar and rotated the tires. This was not something they had been remotely prepared for. In a post-literate society, reality is seldom that something.
Many of them grew testy. Their mood at official military briefings became downright pugnacious. NBC’s "trophy" Irish redhead, a thick-spectacled "geek" from a glossy magazine, a tremulous but determined young woman from Hong Kong… they all rose in turn and questioned why things weren’t going quicker, going better. They had come to harvest images of children racing to tanks with flowers, and they seemed upset that the military had not supplied the propaganda of a Hollywood set. Disgruntled, they packaged what images they could muster according to the tried-and-true template. Open with fireworks (mortars, tanks, machine guns), state official position ("Coalition spokespersons claim that…"), contradict previous position ("But resistance within the city is likely to be heavy…"), close on an image of poignant ambivalence (soldier gazing into sunset, child wading through rubble). None of this told anybody much of anything: it was "impartial reporting" à la lettre. Of course, to those who affirmed that the day’s events were not shrouded in ambivalence, the "he said/she said" format was not impartial at all. It seemed deliberate subversion—an attempt to erase the undertaking’s overall progress in confusion and fear.
I am not in a position to assess how much of the reporting about the war was indeed motivated by political objectives. Some of it, no doubt. What I stress here, however, is not political bias, but practical ineptitude. The reporting of this war was inept, because the reporters sent to cover it, for the most part, had absolutely no preparation whatever—no knowledge of local languages, no tutelage in regional history or culture, no experience of combat or violent death, no awareness of the labors involved in getting an engine to run—absolutely no preparation whatever for their task. They were indeed babes in the woods. We had all been told beforehand that the war would be covered with a precision and immediacy never before witnessed. What we got, instead, were a lot of spectacular images of tanks firing with sharp recoils, of tracers carouseling through the night, and of machine-gun crews squeezing off rounds into the distance. Precise and immediate? Well, as images go, these gained in unstaged grittiness what they lost in graininess, and they arrived as quickly as the speed of light can overtake a satellite. But the assessment of just what was happening behind and within and beyond the images was miserable. The best reportage on this score actually came from the military—bad news for a free society if we should ever have occasion to fear a massive cover-up from that quarter. The Secretary of Defense, while publishing his suspicion, refused to declare that drums found in a fertilizer plant contained components of nerve gas. Both the suspicion and the resistance of hastiness turned out to be responsible and justified. On the other hand, the Pentagon, while declining to assert that Saddam had been killed in the bombing of April 8, belittled reports that he had escaped to the Russian embassy or Syria. Two BBC reporters were the source of this dissonance, which proved completely misleading. A good print journalist of yesteryear would have ascertained who the reporters were, what organization paid them, what political view their editors supported, how long they had been in Baghdad, whether they had contacts there and spoke the language, etc. No such investigation was ever prosecuted, though most of it could have been done state-side. The resources back at the home office were all engaged in finding the bubblegum-chewer’s mom.
Expect more of the same as we proceed through the twenty-first century—the first century to attempt building an illiterate culture upon the achievements of literacy. Expect "hard news" images that replicate the mawkish displays of sentiment on talk shows or the visual spectacle of Star Wars. Expect the blithering befuddlement of reporters who don’t know which end of a hammer to hold. Expect "analysis" which focuses on the gripes and grumbles roiling the press corps before a briefing—on polls and "world opinion" and "it seems" and "they wonder" rather than on the collection of testimony from witnesses. Expect a kind of sullen daze during "breaking catastrophe" from the prettily primped faces whom wealth and power got into Yale and Vassar, and whose experience of life has been carefully shielded from its greatest horrors. You say that this last condition has nothing distinctly post-literate about it? Not so. It has been known before, but now it will be known more widely than ever—for our new age of unprecedented make-believe allows even the humblest citizen to grow up in a glass bubble.
Ivor Davies often contributes to Praesidium. This tale from the hallowed halls of ivy has a double dip of the sardonic.
At the sight of three teenaged girls congregated around a red convertible in a driveway—and, even more, at their sound, their childish but no longer child-like laughter—Pettijohn accelerated his pace. Though his Thursday evening walk was usually devoted more to gentle reflection than to physical conditioning, he pushed himself until he started to breathe heavily. He knocked out what he imagined to be a boot-camp rhythm. (That fresh peal of laughter at his back… was he its cause? They should be locked up—they should all be locked up!) Today he didn’t want to think, or whatever it was he used to do so luxuriously on these twilit suburban meanders. Gentle reflection... but no, "reflect" was even farther off target than "think" (he reflected). All those satisfied gazes at the new neighborhood’s young shrubs and clean bay windows, all those satisfied images of the Wordsworth conference where he was going to read a paper next month… images, not issues, were his customary companions. Pure fantasy. God, yes—that was what he usually did on his Thursday evening strolls. He fantasized! The discovery shocked him almost into jogging. At all costs, he must not begin fantasizing.
Cheryl was snapping at the kids to get their homework when he returned in a not unpleasant lather. No wonder they mimicked her behind her back and deliberately dragged their heels to taunt her—if only she knew how she sounded! Then she started in on him as he reached for a cool V-8. "When are you going to help Marshall do his science project?" "Well, excuse me if I take a walk!" he heard himself snap back, amazed at how belligerent he could sound when he felt only trepidation deep inside. "Take a walk, sure… I forgot you’ve been sitting down all day. It must be nice." "Yeah, nice, all right. Departmental and faculty meetings on alternate Mondays until the accreditation’s over—" "You’re breaking my heart." "—Advising on Tuesdays until the end of April, curriculum committee every Wednesday—I get one stinking afternoon off to take a constitutional, and I’m supposed to feel guilty for not doing Marshall’s homework." "And I don’t get any afternoons off." "Well, I asked you to come." "And who would get their noses out of the TV? And who would make supper after being on her feet in the surgery ward all day?" "All you’d have to do is stick something in the microwave… that’s about all you do, anyway." "What did you say?" "Well, look at those, they’re already breaded and pre-cooked, right?" "Yeah, so why don’t you volunteer to do them?"
Around and around the kitchen they sparred, he gulping down his drink and rinsing out the empty can (he had a horror of sticky cans), she searching for a hot pad and then slamming the salt shaker down on the range. "I’m going to get my shower—I’ll help Marshall after supper," he said, throwing in the towel… almost. And then, on his way out of the ring, "To hell with my lesson plans. To hell with getting tenure. I’ll just lose this job, too, and then you can work two shifts in the surgery ward while I cook and do the kids’ homework."
As he raked shampoo through his thinning hair, he realized that there was no chance of… of what he had been thinking about. Of what he had been trying to make himself think about as a way to keep from thinking, from fantasizing. He just wasn’t interested. When Cheryl got bitchy (and she stayed that way most of the time nowadays), she just plain turned him off. She still had a little bit of her figure left, and she was still cute when she laughed (as well as he recalled: she had laughed as recently as last Christmas). Anyway, he was no gorgeous hunk of manhood himself (he admitted with a rueful gaze down his white ventral: the only virtue of those splayed toes was to signal that his fortyish paunch was somewhat in check). And anyway… since when did a woman have to be ravishing to be desirable? If she were just a woman, and especially if she were just your wife…. And anyway, since when did she even have to be pleasant? He recalled a self-styled Marxist revolutionary in grad school, her face permanently sour, her dark eyes permanently smoldering, her semi-permanent turtlenecks permanently advertising those compact, firm breasts, so that even when the veil came off, the mystique of its obstruction lingered….
No, no, no! He turned the lever to full cold and shrieked under the icy spray. He had to chase them away, those breasts. Not the revolutionary’s, but… and to think that he had her in class again tomorrow! No chance of a Spring cold snap, according to the weather (he had already consulted the forecast): another low-cut dress for sure, or maybe even a tank top. And there she’d be sitting in the front row, as she always was—front and center, right smack over the edge of his rostrum.
It was then and there that Pettijohn decided to show a film in British Romantic Literature. He could sit in the back of the room with his fingers curled over a remote stick. He could pause the tape from time to time and make pithy comments. So much for lesson plans.
As he toweled off, he became aware that Marshall was about to catch what-for from the strain in Olivia’s plaintive voice—the note she always used to indict her brother for willfully creating distraction. Sure enough, Cheryl double-teamed the poor bugger on cue. No doubt about it, he couldn’t lay a hand on Cheryl tonight—not even if she miraculously cast off her exhaustion and ill humor. She was getting on his nerves too much. It was one thing to be unpleasant, but her… her mean-spiritedness strangled every trace of desire within him. Just as well, really. The best way to handle this present crisis was probably not to work up his appetite in the mistaken notion that he was quenching it. The monks who’d burrowed into cold stone vaults like Tintern Abbey’s had it right—they knew a thing or two, after wrestling with the problem for a few hundred years. The best way to rein it in was to go cold turkey.
He drew a deep sigh, and headed for the dinette’s battleground. He could already see Olivia pouting over her math. How her face had filled out in the last year! Over her militantly folded arms, he noticed, as if for the first time, the bulge of her blossoming breasts through a sweatshirt. He decided then and there that if he ever caught her going to school in a tank top, he’d drag her by her hair into her room and lock the door. No man deserved to be put through that, least of all a poor teacher trying to gather his ideas. He decided, too, that he would forbid her to keep company with those girls down the street in the convertible… and then he realized that they were far beyond her in their three or four years of superior maturity. What a horrible, sudden transition it was—a decline quicker than AIDS, or even MS. One day, your baby girl finds a pink bicycle in the garage on Christmas morning. The next, she’s nuzzling up to her professor in shirts cut down to the pink. His face became so gloomy that a strange quiet descended over the kitchen table just as he was bracing himself for action.
For the past few days, they seemed always to have something for supper that made him fidget. Last night it was ravioli. The night before that, Marshall had built himself a vanilla ice cream cone for dessert with an ostentatious curl at the dollop’s crest. Little swine! Tonight it was new potatoes, sleek and shiny in butter sauce, their golden flesh swelling from their tight brown jackets. Pettijohn tried spearing them vindictively: that only made it worse. But he couldn’t discern any improvement when, instead, he tenderly halved them, exposing the white meat inside beneath rising veils of moist heat. He gave up and moved on to the peas.
Cheryl, of course, noticed his fidgeting. She wouldn’t have noticed if he had announced that he was going to climb the ladder to the top of the house and throw himself off, but this she noticed. She was very reliable in that regard. "I thought you liked new potatoes. I made them just because you like them. You don’t just throw those things in the microwave, you know—they don’t just come in a cellophane pouch."
"Why not? Everything else does," he grumbled, lancing three at once and stuffing them into his face. Again he was amazed that he could sound so surly while feeling timid to the verge of paralysis inside.
"You sure have been in a foul mood this week," rasped Cheryl. No one was better than she at turning an olive branch into a big stick—and, naturally, she had not hesitated to exploit the advantage of his mouth being stuffed. All he could do was sigh heavily and roll his eyes.
"Can I have another ice cream cone?" asked Marshall.
"No!" he snapped through potato-mush, though the question had not been directed to him.
"Finish your supper first, and we’ll see," soothed Cheryl, her barbs reserved for the glower she turned upon him. Pettijohn realized too late that he had just elbowed Marshall—even Marshall—into her camp. She was going to exploit that, too. He couldn’t contain himself any longer.
"Maybe I have a right to be in a foul mood. Okay, so I sit down most of the day. That’s not true, as a matter of fact. You try delivering three hours of lectures a day, and see how your feet feel." It wasn’t anything like three hours, and he seldom lectured at all… but to hear her talk, you’d never guess that she took coffee breaks, and he happened to know that she took a good many. "But forget about the classes. You think it’s easy sitting through those meetings, trying to stay awake and look like you care—you think that’s easy, don’t you? Go ahead, say so. You make fun of it all the time. You think it’s easy. Why? Because it’s all so stupid? Because it’s all such a waste of time? Because we all just run our mouths and never get anything done? You think that’s easy?"
Pettijohn was momentarily arrested by the thought that what he had just described did, after all, sound definitively easy. With his fork poised in mid-air to secure a rhetorical keystone, he searched the wicker shelves of running plant vines for his next word. He dare not look anyone in the face.
"Of course it’s easy! That’s just it—that’s what makes it so hard! I went to school for half of my adult life so that I could spend the other half sitting in meetings! I’m a highly trained professional who has to tiptoe around all of the authors he dreamed of teaching because a bunch of spoiled brats might find them boring! Whether I get to stay at this job or have to sell my house and drag my family off somewhere else is decided by how un-bored my brats are and by how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed I can look while sitting through hours and hours of… utter crap! And then I get to come home and try to explain to my wife how it is that I work hard all day when I just sit back listening to crap and spouting crap—"
"I wish you’d stop using that word," winced Cheryl. "Or do you want to be called from one of your important meetings because Marshall’s sitting in the principal’s office about to get expelled?"
"Oh, Mom! They wouldn’t expel me for saying that! Anyway, I wouldn’t say it where a teacher could hear me."
Pettijohn noticed that Olivia was tittering. He thought of the three teenaged girls and the convertible again: yes, it was starting.
"So what kind of Gestapo mentality is there at that school?" he protested weakly (he felt weak inside, but his voice continued to sound lusty). "Next thing you know, they’ll want to say a prayer in the morning over the intercom."
"It happens to be the only alternative to public school that we can pay for, that’s what kind of school it is," countered Cheryl, twisting his question. "And I don’t mind one bit that they’re concerned about foul language. Or maybe you think that Finn Kleist is an example of what you’d like our son to be."
"Finn Kleist!" laughed Pettijohn.
"You think that’s funny? Have you forgotten that note I found in Marshall’s jeans last month?"
"No, I was just… Finn Kleist. The first fruits of multiculturalism. His name. It’s… it’s half…."
But Pettijohn was silenced by two gestures. One was the contemptuous wave of the hand which all his pedantry attracted from his wife. The other was the moist stare which Olivia had riveted upon her potatoes. What in hell was she thinking of? What did she know about dirty notes and boys like Finn?
"Finn’s okay," continued Marshall glibly—not at all the right tone to adopt at this moment, especially with his mother. Why did girls learn about men so much faster than boys learned about women? "He’s never gotten into trouble. Not… you know, officially. Not very often."
"He was suspended last fall—they should have kicked him out permanently!"
"Well, not for language."
"That’s not what Matthew’s mother told me."
"What… that he was suspended for bad words? That’s a lie, Mom!"
"She told me that he got kept after school for what he said on his oral report."
Pettijohn, though keeping his silence now, squirmed at the word "oral". He shot a furious look down at Olivia, who was still examining the place mat.
"But that wasn’t his fault, Mom! That was so unfair! I mean, Ms. Calvert was the one who assigned him to do Romulus and Remus… you know, the Greek guys who were brought up by a wolf, and when they were babies they—"
"THAT’S ENOUGH!" roared Pettijohn. He had surprised himself yet again, along with everyone else at the table; but this time, the hostility he felt inside was equal to that of his voice.
Working the plaster of Paris for Marshall’s science project was therapeutic, by comparison. He had been avoiding it all week long (the thought of shaping little white volcanoes lovingly with spatula and fingers, one after another, sent his fantasizing into overdrive). In the oddest sort of way, however, he found his anxiety released. After about five minutes, he was no longer even trying to suppress the images of Amada’s generously exposed sternum and the sugarloaf hills which rose in tandem from a wide, rich plain. He daydreamed himself back into his office on Monday just after class, where Amada had followed him with a trace of steal tension in her mindless prattle. Frankly, he, too, had been a bit shocked by the poverty of her first major essay. She seemed to read most of the assignments (a rarity) and to talk about them in class with genuine sensitivity (a wonder of the world). She even possessed substantial knowledge of related texts not on the syllabus (a miracle): she had all the signs of being an honest-to-goodness lover of fine literature. Yet her essay had been a sloppy mess, both conceptually and visually. She hadn’t taken the minimal pride in her work to type it up after marking out entire lines of the handwritten version and scrawling replacement lines in the margins. That much he might have forgiven, if only what emerged were tinged with brilliance. On the contrary, it was mired in platitude and generality. If he hadn’t already known from class discussion that she did the reading, the essay would have convinced him that she was bluffing her way through the course, for its argument had no acuity whatever, and textual illustrations were absent except in the most elliptical form ("… like the death wishes in Shelley and Keats" had been the closest thing to a primary reference).
Then, in the middle of his shuffling papers on the desk and trying to break the news that she was one lousy writer, she had pulled the empty chair all the way across the room to his left side. Her knees were jammed against the desk’s drawers, so he couldn’t very well ask her to lean forward. He had had to hold the paper between them, on the arm of his swivel chair; and there, as near to his hands as her highly perfumed cheek was to his nose, had been those succulent breasts. He could actually see inside the lower-than-low-cut dress—he could see everything. He had felt so disturbed that he couldn’t put a single sentence together. At any cost, by any means, he had had to disrupt the scene before the restlessness in his lap became visible.
But now, safely sprawled on the den carpet with his head propped on a palm, Pettijohn revisited the scene and slipped the dress down from Amada’s shoulders. He sculpted her breasts over and over, caressing the plaster with thumb and spatula until it ran high and smooth and firm. Only when Marshall began to come after him and gouge out volcanic calderas with a pencil did he feel a frown creeping over his face.
"This looks really neat, Dad!"
He was about to say something—just what it was, he had no very clear notion. But the first words never left his lips. He happened to glimpse Cheryl’s feet beside the sofa, and peeked up from under his brows. Her mouth, too, was open, as if it too couldn’t find that first word to express a horrified indignation. Nervously, he glanced back at his mounds. They were plump, round, and supple—not exactly the raggedly devastated slopes of Vesuvius or St. Helen’s.
"This stuff is kind of… kind of sagging as it dries, Marsh," he stammered. "Be sure to make it look… you know, more like the pictures in your book. In your science book… your geography book."
"Shouldn’t you be making your lesson plans now?" he heard Cheryl ask dryly over his head.
"Oh, umm… made them already. In the shower."
"In the shower."
"Yeah. I get lots of ideas in the shower."
"How about that! Must be the sound of water going down the drain."
If only he had been able to do something equally therapeutic as he lay in bed trying to sleep… but by that time, three hours later, Pettijohn found himself unwelcomely awake and agitated. Just what exactly was he going to say to Amada tomorrow? He might be able to avoid in class the bust that was normally thrust under his nose just beyond the rostrum (and which he had noticed, of course, long before this week—but it had never been a threat to his job, his marriage, and his sanity before this week). How, though, would he avoid her—would he avoid them, those two beautiful balloons—after class? On Monday, he had fled from her to the secretary’s office after faking an urgent phone call, and on Wednesday he had deliberately scheduled other conferences for his morning office hour. But nothing was lined up for tomorrow… and even if he improvised something, how long could he keep dodging her before she complained to Stew Utley? And then he thought of the advice that "Studs" himself—the chair of the English Department, no less—had once bestowed upon him in another context. Give the students all A’s and B’s throughout the semester so that you get good evaluations, then murder them on a killer final exam that counts 40% of the grade and spares you a reproach from the Dean for contributing to grade inflation. (Pettijohn had protested, "What if they come back for revenge next semester?"… to which the one-time radical had replied, with an "old boy" cynicism that was meant to be anti-establishment, don’t-give-a-damn hipness, "They won’t, Raymond! Why should they get shafted a second time just to give you the shaft?")
Well, something like that might work here. Just tell Amada to retype her paper—tell her it’s too messy, to make some of the changes recommended in the margins. Then give her an A-. She’d be off his back and out of his face: goodbye to any further little tête-à-teats in his office For there was never any doubt in Pettijohn’s mind that Amada’s interest in him went precisely as far as his grade book. She was blackmailing him. Her double-barreled gun was forcing him into some kind of career-ending indiscretion, and the price of release was an A. He wasn’t stupid—he knew what was going on here!
The morning was blessedly hectic. He had hardly time enough to drink his coffee, what with straightening out the mess in Marshall’s hair and clearing away the remains of breakfast (Cheryl having charged off bright and early to the hospital: how come her microwaved suppers were hard labor while his frenetic maneuvers at breakfast were unworthy of notice?). There was certainly not a moment to spare upon any apprehensive brooding about Amada and her bow chasers… not, at least, until he was nestled behind his desk with the door safely locked. This was usually his favorite time, a period not scheduled as an office hour and when, indeed, most professors and students were still groggily rolling out of bed. In past years, he had often volunteered to take the eight o’clock class so as to curry favor with everyone around the department; but now that the time to apply for tenure was looming, he needed to think seriously about publishing an article or two: hence this very private spell at the beginning of the day (or what was, around campus, the day’s beginning).
Today, with his video on Lord Byron safely reserved and his notes on Wordsworth’s sister neatly assembled before him, Pettijohn found that he could do absolutely nothing. Nothing but think. It wasn’t even fantasizing any more—he had worked his way through all that. No, it was closer to a genuine reflection upon his mortal coil. A genuinely melancholic reflection. Maybe sullen, as well. Here he was, about to exorcise a voluptuous young woman from his life so that he could settle back into his stultifying grind… and why was the exorcism (about whose success he had no doubts whatever) required of him? Why was his face being rubbed in his own impotence? Naturally, he couldn’t lock the door behind the two of them, clear his desk at one sweep of the arm, and crawl over the well-worn surface into Amada’s luscious embrace… naturally. Even if she were not just teasing him and would really have him, the risk to his career would be incalculable. And he wasn’t quite ready to confront the prospect of being a perfect heel in a divorce suit, either. Quite ready? He wasn’t even preparing for it—it wasn’t going to enter his mind. He was going to do the right thing: he already knew he was. He had known that from the start. That was what saddened him, what irritated him. Somewhere over the last ten years, he had surrendered himself to being boxed up in oppressive duties which would never more allow him to consult his own happiness, first and foremost. In a significant sense, his life was over. Amada, with her low-cut dresses and tight-fitting shirts, had made him see that. Would she have dared to dangle her riches before his nose if she hadn’t well known that his hands were shackled? She was like a strumpet queen blowing kisses at galley slaves.
The result of this meditative hour was Pettijohn’s decision that he detested Amada, perhaps more than he had ever detested anyone in his life.
The real Amada who settled quietly into the front row compared favorably with the one he had briefly imagined slapping in the face. She was wearing a dress again: in fact, she usually wore a dress. Here was one girl, at least, who had never worn a tank top to his class. (He would have noticed; but then, maybe that was why. The casement window was enough—neon lighting would actually have been a distraction from the merchandise.) One could almost say that there was something vaguely traditional about her tastes and manners. The dress’s thin fabric fell well below her knees. The problem was that it also fell almost below her nipples, whose more than ample mountings were held nestled together like hands at once praying for and offering heaven. By the time he had finished taking attendance (with Amada & Company being checked off first), Pettijohn had forgotten all about his righteous loathing. He even felt something melt within as she dealt him that sweet smile, that rather homely smile exaggerated by a slight overbite which became oddly sweet as it contemplated the full masses beneath it. She seemed at times, almost, a naïve country lass bearing blue-ribbon produce back from the fair in her arms: "See how big? The judges hardly looked at the others. Want to touch?"
Pettijohn actually found himself in good spirits as he slyly extolled Don Juan’s saucy delights (hoping to tempt the group into reading the next assignment) before retreating to the back of the room with his remote control. The rest of the hour was dedicated to a scenic tour of Greece and an "in-depth" examination of Lord Byron’s last days: The Travel Channel and The History Channel, basically. (His sense of irony had turned so spicy by now that he smiled over the absurdity of the department’s heavy reliance on these videos after years of undermining the historical approach to literature: too bad he had no one with whom to share the saline morsel. He glanced left and right… no. Not a chance.)
As class ended and he gathered his papers, he remarked vociferously to nobody in particular that he had to get the video back to the library. Amada didn’t make the least effort to detain him or to follow him. Could he really have wriggled off the hook so easily? As incredible as it seemed, he now felt saddened by her indifference, even a little hurt. An hour ago, he had wanted to lift his chin, point his finger out the door, and cry, "Go clothe yourself, you slut!" Now he was stung by the oddest sense of having been betrayed.
The injury evaporated—vaporized instantly in one flashbulb flicker—when, ten minutes later, he turned down his office’s corridor and discovered Amada leaning on his locked door. Already she was unfurling that demure smile which vaguely pointed at her bust (but what didn’t point at her bust, including the smoke alarm and the door stopper?). He fumbled for his keys as he fumbled for words.
"Can we talk about my paper now, Dr. Pettijohn?"
"I… sure, I… if you could just retype it… I mean, type it… maybe a few marginal comments… my comments in the margins, I mean… make a few adjustments…."
But it was hopeless. He couldn’t get rid of her in the hall. What was he going to say—"I’ll give you an A, just leave me alone"?
His damned fumbling incurred a further penalty. As he looked beyond his desk into thin air, trying to impose order on his thoughts while holding his swivel chair’s back in a kind of minuet, she grabbed the free chair and plopped it right beside him once again. Her initiative left him speechless. All he could do was gape; and as he gaped, his eyes sank irresistibly into the chasm between those ripely swollen glories of the flesh. When he caught himself and glanced back up to her eyes, he was absolutely certain that she had been spying out what he was spying on. She smiled more broadly than ever, leaned forward, and elevated her creaseless young throat.
"Uh…." Pettijohn turned away, coughing on his own saliva. It was then that he noticed his wide-open door. Maybe he should close it. Yes, by all means… but he had no sooner reached for it than he abandoned the effort. The fear of being observed with a luscious, unbodiced tart in his lap was squelched by the thought of what Amada might do to him—of what she might do with him, might make him do with her—if they were shut up together.
He heaved an enormous sigh, then plunged into his chair with all the adroit determination of a fireman sliding down a pole.
"So… so, what’s on the menu? I mean…"
"You said you’d explain to me why I got a C."
"Yes, well, I… are my comments not clear?"
"No. You said you would explain them."
"Oh. Well… well, let’s see what I wrote here. Umm. Umm. ‘Almost utter…’." Pettijohn cleared his throat again, and tried to blink away something like spots before his eyes: the word was utter. "‘Almost utter absence of reference to primary sources…’."
"But you said this wasn’t a research paper, that it was just our own ideas."
"Yes, that would be secondary sources. Citing scholarship, I mean, would be secondary sources. Use of… secondary sources. What you need to do here is to pluck… er, to pull a few lines from the poets you discuss and—"
"But it’s supposed to be my thoughts!"
For the first time, Pettijohn gathered something like poise. More precisely, he was struck mute by the obtuse petulance of the objection, and he found in his bewilderment a tiny trace of that former ill humor.
"But… but Amada," he frowned, for once looking straight into her deep brown eyes, "these thoughts of yours are to be about the poetry we’ve read."
She didn’t give an inch: in fact, her obtuseness grew more profound. "They are about the poetry! Why should I just quote stuff that anyone can look up in the book? You want me just to pad my paper like that? I guess Teila was right."
"I… what? Teila?"
"She told me just to cram the paper with a lot of stuff copied out of the book. But I said, ‘No, he wants our own original thoughts.’"
"I… I do! But… but you are thinking about something, right? So you have to show how your thoughts relate to that something that… that you’re thinking about…."
There they were again. If she had positioned two thugs in brass knuckles at her shoulders, he couldn’t have been more distracted.
She must have known exactly what his thoughts currently related to; because, without a word, she leaned toward his lap (how had the paper gotten there? he hadn’t even noticed) and turned back a page, forcing her cleavage right beneath his nose. Pettijohn felt a sort of "what’s the use" swoon begin to descend upon him. In another second, he would have been running his lips up and down those sweet slopes like a desert castaway gulping water at an oasis. At that very instant, however, Gwyn Thomas came prancing down the hall warbling Robin Goch with so many Welsh trills that the tune’s simple harmony somehow escaped. Pettijohn could identify the precise moment when his voice was magnified in the open doorway. Professor Thomas never missed a trill; but the next time he piped the refrain, it was translated into the oppressor’s tongue. "Robin Redbreast, sweet and wild…"
As he withdrew his lips to a safe distance from the limpid pools in his double mirage, Pettijohn found Amada smiling coyly at his eyelids—almost conspiratorially, as if to answer back in song, "People will say we’re in love." For the first time, he remarked how moist and bright her teeth were.
"I really like talking with you," she lisped. "I learn so much!"
He couldn’t take any more. He groaned, shut his eyes tight, and fell heavily back in his chair.
"I was just going to show you this passage," he heard her persisting. "I thought it was one of my best, but you marked it all up."
"Which one is that, Amada?" he droned, still squeezing his lids shut.
"The one where I talk about how the Romantics refused to be enslaved to convention. They were different—they were themselves. Everything they did asserted their independence. They were the beginning of the modern era. In many ways, we are their children. The freedoms we have today are all founded on their will to be free. If it weren’t for them, we would still have marriages arranged by our parents, and the institution of slavery."
Of this, too, Pettijohn could take no more. It was enough to be stitched up tight in a winding sheet and made to witness a strip show as colleagues passed smirking up and down the hall. But his mind, his mind remained unfettered and functional, and he just couldn’t sit still for any more glitter-sprinkled, cliché-wrapped folderol. He wouldn’t. Freedom, yes—he was a free man, though he be shot for declaring the truth. He might have to take this kind of crap from a full class after studying a decade to render himself wise; he might have to swallow large shovelfuls of it at committee and faculty meetings, and then ask for more with a smile. But enough was enough. Something was flowing over, and he wasn’t going to hold it in for this little twit. Even if twit rhymed with another monosyllable highly relevant to Amada, the word that best described her—that really described her, and not just doubled, but squared and cubed—was twit.
"In the first place, our freedoms, as you call them, are primarily an outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Politically, that is. The exchanges which produced them were those between Enlightenment thinkers. Chronologically, it is impossible and ridiculous to maintain that they were a product of Romanticism. In the second place, the Romantics—as I keep trying to tell you guys in class to no avail—were themselves children of the Enlightenment. Why do you think we talked about the sublime all last month? Where do you think that concept came from? Where did I say it came from—no, not me; where did Wordsworth and Coleridge say it came from? It’s not a matter of your opinion here. I’m sorry, but it’s not. You can’t change history. It just didn’t happen that way. In the third place, there was a fierce reaction to Romanticism, and especially in modernism. You can’t just declare that we are their children because you’ve seen news reels of hippies with flowers in their hair. I know you probably haven’t studied those periods yet, except in your survey courses—but why are you even writing about them? This course isn’t about those periods. You’re supposed to be writing about the Romantic Period. For crying out loud, what do you mean rambling on and on about the twentieth century?"
Pettijohn was surprised to discover himself leaning forward in his chair—half risen from it, in fact—and confronting Amada full in the face once more, with a finger raised oratorically over his head. The girl’s features, momentarily but unmistakably, were indeed those of a girl—a child like his daughter, pouting, confused, and intimidated. He was startled that her mouth could sag so and still produce no wrinkles about the corners.
"But Dr. Utley said we were Romantics. He said that’s what the sixties were all about."
For some reason, Pettijohn rose the rest of the way from his chair, fitting a palm carefully over his brow. "Ah… Dr. Utley."
"What’s a news reel?"
But either the question had merely been floated to elicit a turn in her direction, or else she had already forgotten about it. She rose to meet him, almost straight into his arms, her plump, thinly veiled cones not two inches from his shirt. Strange… as he looked irresistibly down upon her treasures, he felt tears welling in his eyes. These would never, could never be his.
"So there’s nothing I can do? Because I’m young, and was born too late, and haven’t had these other courses, and haven’t read all the books you’ve read, and didn’t pull stuff out of the book… then I’m just going to have to get a C?"
Miserably, he looked about for her paper—where in hell had it gone? If only he could kiss them goodbye, like Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, just one long goodbye kiss for each one….
"Are you looking for this?"
"Uh… yeah. Just retype it, Amada. I mean, just… just type it out. It’s… it’s almost illegible. I can’t give an A to a paper that’s illegible."
"Then if I type it, I’ll get an A?"
"Um… sure, probably. Let’s just see you try to answer some of those comments I made."
"I can do that!" she said smartly. He had been moping about trying to avoid a frontal view of her. Now that she was fluttering away like Tinkerbelle, he almost lifted a hand to detain her. The decisive swish of her dress betrayed no inclination to linger. In a tingle of plate jewelry—a charm bracelet and earrings (somehow he’d never noticed them before)—she shook back her thickly waved hair, already at his door, and turned one last time.
"Thanks, Dr. Pettijohn! I really appreciate it! You’re a great teacher!"
She said all this quite loud enough to be heard up and down the corridor, almost as though she were the pleased patron in a car commercial. It was his payback, perhaps (his tit for tat, he mused bitterly). Though his feet seemed glued to the carpet, the rest of his body strained after the swish and tingle as they withdrew into the distance. Not five seconds had elapsed before he heard Amada’s satisfied-customer voice chirp once more, "Hey, Dr. Utley!"
"Hi, Maddie!" said "Studs" effusively.
Pettijohn didn’t like something in his tone. He could just imagine Studs, proud owner of a Harley-Davidson, inviting "Maddie" to climb up behind him in a tone like that. He decided that he absolutely had to see the face which accompanied the greeting.
Flinging himself out the door with sudden energy, Pettijohn nevertheless came stalking down the serpentine hallway’s curl too late to catch the backwash of one more swish—but Studs was posed like a piece of driftwood pointing the direction of the tide’s last ebb, his yellowed teeth hanging hungrily out his gray beard, his tall, incredibly lean frame almost coiled around the next corner. His tongue was manufacturing some kind of clicking sound from behind those gaunt teeth. Pettijohn decided that if he ever heard anyone emitting a sound like that after the passage of Olivia, he would kick the culprit in the crotch. Of course, Olivia wasn’t going to hang around places like… like university English departments.
"Raymond, dear boy, you look positively deathly!"
It was Gwyn Thomas. He had padded noiselessly from the direction of Studs’s gaze, his own dark Welsh eyes rolling somewhat more discreetly back toward the main hall. His height a mere fraction of their department chair’s, his compact paunch as well groomed in cardigan and blazer as Studs’s fence-rail limbs shabbily filled their denim and flannel, Professor Thomas nonetheless perfectly completed this pair of Saturnine bookends….
Or so it seemed to Pettijohn. He sighed and continued to glare at Studs, who had not yet so much as acknowledged his presence. How he would have liked to grab the "dude" by his long gray pony-tail!
"Our colleague stands in great need of the looming summer holiday," continued Thomas, feeling out his pants pockets without interrupting the perfect creases. He was gazing philosophically at the carpet, yet Pettijohn could tell by the way his sleek head bent toward Studs that the comment was addressed there, and that its subject was him.
"I could use a vacation myself," murmured Studs behind his horrid teeth, not visibly moving a muscle.
"Get on the bike and head west, eh?" murmured Thomas back: he might have been a priest taking a confession.
"Yeah. Something like that."
"Mm. To my mind, your Rocky Mountains are altogether too… rocky."
"North Wales for you."
"Oh, most definitely, dear boy! There the hills are round and gentle. The mists have wrapped them and caressed them until they wear their rich verdure like a baby’s down. One may tarry among them for hours without growing weary, passing easily to the crest and easily to the valley. For the valleys are also sweet. The mists leave a bead on every grass blade as they trail across the rounded bryn, and the beads flow like a gentle perspiration, and their rivulets wind to the valleys like silver arteries."
"I like my arteries to be moving a little faster." Studs’s facétie slightly startled Pettijohn: the voice of Gwyn Thomas had cast a Merlin-like spell over him.
"One cannot become one with things in haste, dear boy. Many have tried to conquer those hills, but they must be stroked and wooed. He who would come rudely with fire and sword is doomed to stumble into a pwll, or to be devoured by the dragon of the cave."
"Stay out of the caves, is that what you’re saying?"
"Indeed, there is only one way out of a cave, and that is the way in. One enters in conquest, one exits in rout."
"Mm. Stay out of the caves. I take your point."
If Pettijohn could have melted into the newly painted wall, he would have done so. As it was, he managed literally to walk backward in his tracks, always (so he believed) just beyond the border of Gwyn Thomas’s low, abstracted, vatic gaze. Finally he slipped from their view. He turned, followed the corridor to its other end, and mashed the elevator button. He realized belatedly that he had left his office wide open… but what did it matter? He needed some fresh air, and who in this place was likely to steal his Collected Works of Leigh Hunt? As the electric door shut seamlessly upon him and the capsule began its silent, two-story descent, he was again too late in regretting that he had not sought out the stairs. Though the transit was mild, he was nevertheless so overwhelmed by a sudden flutter in his stomach that he fell heavily against the padded wall. With the hard, reassuring pressure between his shoulder blades, he had just time enough to fish out his handkerchief—though not dexterity enough to catch all of his breakfast orange juice in it. He gazed distantly, penitently, at the brilliant, bubbly spatter between his shoes as he folded the kerchief with extreme care. When the door opened upon a virtually empty lobby, he decided to step over the mess and say nothing about it.
When a nameless Iraqi citizen, asked what he expected would be the consequences of American intervention, jubilantly exclaimed, "Democracy, whiskey, and sexy!" he was probably not very wide of the mark. (And he might have added "mangled English" to the list.) It is not our place in this journal to opine (as Secretary Rumsfeld would say) upon the political implications of current events. Yet somebody somewhere (as Homer would say) really ought to remark the sad irony of the situation. Certain elements of Western culture apparently retain enough common humanity to risk life and limb that innocent non-combatants and children on the other side of the world may be freed from a psychopathic tyrant—and, yes, also enough reason to gauge the long-term effects of trusting in a psychopathic tyrant’s turning reasonable. But the West is crumbling, and has been so for a century. Internal critics of its humanity and its reason are, of course, incapable of appreciating the nature of this decay, since their refrain is precisely that nothing unites human beings, least of all rational discourse. So as our more optimistic brethren warm themselves in the prospect of a dawning renaissance, our gloomier brethren wear themselves out trying to ask Hamlet-like questions without having read Hamlet (or having read him as gay or Oedipal or a chocoholic). The former cannot see that new economic prosperity and new political freedom do not necessarily mean new life for the spirit, and the latter, being fiercely and definitively resistant to the very notion that things spiritual exist, can only cavil that so-an-so is getting such-and-such a sweet deal on oil-drilling rights.
Indeed, on the home front, the "Nothing’s either bad or good" crowd has been instrumental in maximizing Hollywood’s opportunities to degrade our taste and in hazing our children to "experiment" during their college years. The very people who did not want us to "intrude" in Iraq, that is, are closely allied with the degenerative cultural trends which, more than any other single factor, have rendered the West odious to the Muslim world. The very people who pushed ahead to free Iraq, on the other hand, are most likely to adhere to some sort of religiously based resistance to Hollywood and campus libertinage here at home… and yet, their initiative has indeed provided a wedge for "the enemy" to peddle porn and booze in Baghdad (as well as the all-American Coke-and-Big-Mac).
Who can blame the average Iraqi for getting his cheer wrong? Maybe, just maybe, he got it right.
Footprints in the Snow of the Moon, Chapter Six
We published the first two chapters of Mr. Moseby’s novel in the Winter issue. By this point in the story, the narrator is well aware that Celine, whom he considers to be his fiancée, is subject to depression and has been suicidal in the past. His mother, meanwhile, has flatly refused to meet the girl; his sister Meg represents the only link which he has been able to forge between Celine and his family.
There are times when it is impossible to tell a story blow by blow. Sometimes several things are happening over the same period; and sometimes these same things are not so much happening as evolving, each of them the cause of the others in certain ways, each of them the others’ effect, as well. Spring Break was a descent into a valley of swirling mists, where landmarks seemed to change shape or position—or simply vanish—by the moment. For this golden hour, Celine and Meg and I were eating in a public place as merrily as three sailors on leave in Paradise. For that gray hour, I found myself walking with Celine’s hand in mine and yet unable to follow her gaze or understand her lengthy silences. For a black hour without name or number in the dead of night, I sat wide awake in my bed at home after bolting, cold with sweat, out of a dream, wondering if I would ever see Celine again, yearning to race instantly over to her apartment. Who could be surprised that we were both topsy-turvy? Meg was a blessing to us… but my mother had laid her unspoken curse upon our union. We had finally broken somewhat free of malignant parental influences… but what other friends or relatives did we have in the world? I understood Celine’s past infinitely better after Mona had filled me in, and I had helped Celine to see the pitiful delusion behind my mother’s animosity… but what chance had we of ever bringing peace where so much frustration had festered for so long? We had perhaps learned too much too quickly. It was paralyzing, terrifying, oppressive, and… and something else, something we certainly didn’t expect and something no theorist of the human mind has ever touched on, as far as I know.
We were aroused, physically. We began to want each other as never before—to want to possess and be possessed by each other’s bodies. In the afterglow of Meg’s angelic descent into our complicated lives, we restrained ourselves; but later, on Monday or Tuesday evening, our golden threesome now a star abandoned in another hemisphere, the two of us began to grow intense. We groped and wrestled, and our hands traveled everywhere. Celine had often been a somewhat uneven collaborator in our kisses: she would sometimes seek me out and draw me in, but she would more commonly just throw her head back and offer her lips to me. Now she searched as she surrendered and took as she gave. She was on fire, and she set me on fire. We both struggled like pearl divers at the bottom of the sea, mere seconds away from blackout, our eyes three-quarters closed and useless in the murk, our fingers ransacking shadows for the prize. And when we came back up for air at last, there was no joy in our hearts, but exhaustion and an indescribable sweet sadness.
This will all strike any citizen of the contemporary world as comic, and I won’t deny that it has that dimension when viewed at a distance. Parental rejection as an aphrodisiac: what a delicious irony, and what a biblically ancient one! But ancient as it is, it remains, as I’ve said, undiscussed with any seriousness as part of today’s great social crisis. At least, I myself would never have suspected how my parents’ spurning of my fiancée could end up whetting my appetite for her. As long as I could see Celine and me harmoniously following the pattern of my mom and dad, I regarded her with that quasi-mystical reverence that I’ve already described. We no more needed sex education or sexual exploration than generations of ancestors before us: they had always found out how to keep the line alive, and we would, too, once formally admitted into their ranks. The continuity of history made sexual rebellion, above all else, ugly. We were waiting (or I was waiting) for absorption into the beauty of marriage as a natural cycle, a music of the spheres. We would unite in a fertile explosion perfectly on cue as long as the rhythm was observed on all sides.
But this era had banished rhythm. Even my immovably wedded parents had failed miserably to recognize the importance of physical chemistry to spiritual union. They seemed to think (or my mother seemed to think, with Dad pleading no contest) that I could be reasoned out of my present attachment and persuaded to hold out for more money, better social connections. In an atmosphere like this, sex has always run wild outside marital bonds. Celine, of course, had even less cause than I to hear any mystical harmony descending through the ages. Her parents’ marriage had labored almost from the start, as I learned from Mona by the end of the week, and I had known for some while that she felt herself excluded from her mother’s second marriage. The institution was anything but a picture of permanence to her: it was, on the contrary, the kiss of death to loving ties. Had she sometimes held back ever so slightly, so subconsciously, from my kisses because she felt them drawing her up to some kind of pedestal rather than down to instant gratification? That gratification would have brought the death of desire, true… but it would have been an honest, straightforward death, and seldom (she could hope) a permanent one. Desire could always revive. The fall from the pedestal, however, would be far and catastrophic. The pieces would never fit back together again. Much as she wanted a family and stability, she had a fear of marriage which very much resembled a fear of heights.
And so she caught fire as she felt me heating up, and I caught fire, in return. This, I realized, was the kind of love she had known with men before—especially with Richard, that other Richard. I knew it would end up drawing her back into the fatal cycle of fleeting joys and ultimate disillusion—not that I would ever have wearied of her. But I could sense that I myself was being drawn into a ride down the maelstrom whose circles were ever narrower, and I was not quite vain enough to believe that I might not end up bearing the other Richard’s image in some way that I could neither foresee nor—once it overtook me—deny. The mere appearance that I, too, was mining her sweet body for all the pleasures I could wring from it might cause Celine to supply the rest of the similarity from her imagination. She was good at doing that. Over the years, I have often noticed that neurosis is, from a certain perspective, an overdeveloped inclination to find pattern. The paranoid is a highly creative person in the reverse of what we consider an artistic sense. Rather than finding rich diversity where the rest of us perceive only humdrum routine, he or she finds the same old thing where the rest of us see confusing variety. I was falling into the wrong pattern—the one that Celine knew all too well, not the one bequeathed by centuries of civilization which our era had all but forgotten. Even if I hadn’t the equipment then to assess the dangers as soberly as I do now, I knew better, all the same. Why did I get so close to the edge?
People will say, "Well, you were young. The hormones were running high!" But that kind of explanation is even more obtuse than it is crude. Sex is a less basic motive force than anger or fear, in my opinion. Men can be so consumed by rage or terror that they forget all about sex for days or weeks or months. I’ve seen it happen. At the same time, anger and fear produce certain physiological effects—accelerated heartbeat, raised blood pressure, muscular contractions—which sex can magically relax. Men borne away by battle fury sometimes rape their way through a country village after wiping out its military defenses. Men on the fearful eve of a great battle often fling themselves into the arms of prostitutes. My parents had delivered Celine and me to just these emotions. Anger dominated in my case. I was fearful of losing Celine, all right, to another severe depression… but I was absolutely furious with my mother, and little less so with my dad. Naturally, they had adopted the tried-and-true "see no evil, hear no evil" posture throughout that week. What else would they have done (speaking of neurotic submission to pattern)? The days of my break ticked away, one by one—and never another word on the subject of Celine! If a judge had sentenced me to community service for being drunk and disorderly, and I had wandered to the supper table each night fresh from my garbage-picking duties, the wall of silence could not have been more complete. It made me furious. After Tuesday, I simply ceased trying to eat in their midst. I would stop by the grocery store, show up on Celine’s doorstep with a brown bag of TV dinners, and sit down in an atmosphere where I could actually swallow. But I also brought over all that nervous tension. We broke a couple of plates once when I attacked her at the sink.
On her side, Celine was quivering like a leaf beneath those distracted gazes and numbed silences because (as I can say now, after having seen the whole cycle dozens of times) she was frightened half to death. She was sleeping poorly again—I could see the weariness in her drooping lids, in her contracted lips, in the constant pallor of her cheeks. The lethal idea had taken hold of her that we would never be married, never have a home together—that she would only ruin the home I already had with my parents. Despite all my assurances, she couldn’t believe that she was enough to compensate me for that loss. She could tell that I thought she would be… but that only turned up the tension several more notches. What if I sacrificed everything for her, and then discovered—too late to redeem any of it—that she wasn’t all I had expected? And how could she be all that I expected? She had never been sufficient to hold anyone’s interest before—not her father’s, not her mother’s, not that miserable swine whose name I had "inherited". If Mona had not held her captive by means of a paycheck, she perhaps would even have found a way to back out of her "surrogate mother’s" life. Back out… yes, she was backing up, backing out. Not looking where she was going, just shrinking away from where (as she was convinced) she could not go. But she was also putting up the best fight she could, because she wanted all those things—me, a home, a family, Meg visiting her, Mona cajoling her. Hence the fear. While she fought, she feared, because you only fight while there is something worth winning, and you only fear while there is still something to lose. Eventually, though, fear itself can betray you to the enemy. Lack of sleep and lack of reinforcements wear you down, and you end up slitting your own throat before the enemy is even over the wall. Despair. Despair releases you from fear by releasing you from life. If the fear grows powerful enough, it renders despair overpowering. That’s what Celine was fighting: her fear of fear—her fear of when the fear would be too great to resist. My poor Celine!
And that’s how a young woman who has been discarded in sexual relationships before flings herself right back into the sexual whirlwind. Fear. The sex is a release from the fear, even though, in some subtle but inexorable manner, it is also a path to the fear’s most dreaded nightmare. Looking back, I can recognize in those feverish kisses and caresses (I still remember them well) the struggle of electrified nerves to be rid of fear, if only for a moment. So I fought to suffocate my anger, and Celine toiled to slip loose from her fear, and the two of us ended up pushing our bodies to the very edge of consummation.
I have referred to "the edge" twice now. No, I never actually went over it during that week. What an incredible admission that seems to me now—no legendary medieval knight ever scored a greater victory over a fire-breathing dragon! How did I do it? Youthful idealism, I suppose (aided, of course, by complete inexperience). For besides not wanting Celine ever to believe that I was just using her for pleasure—that it was all "just sex" to me—I also felt the restraint of what I can only call religious scruples. Anyone alert to such matters will have noticed that I seldom spent my Sunday mornings in church. A "born again" movement was sweeping over the land at that time as the heyday of televangelism was dawning, but young men of my stripe were not very attracted to it. I had briefly flirted with a "charismatic" group as an undergraduate, as a matter of fact (praying my guts out, I recall, over that ice queen whose ire I roused with my roses). It was a wholly profitless debauch of humiliating my intelligence which ended, when all my prayers failed, in my frantically concluding that God hated me. I quickly pulled myself together. I needed to believe with my mind, as I soon figured out, and the services of those days were moving in the opposite direction. All the same, I retained a very firm belief in certain things (by the grace of God). More than anything on earth, I wanted my union with Celine to be holy. I wanted it to take place under a veil of mystery and sacrifice, where my anger and her fear would both be infinitely subordinated to that perfect being into whom we had vowed to grow for the rest of our natural lives. If all that doesn’t sound like a belief of the mind, it’s because the intellectual has been so debased by the carnal in our time; for what could be more logical, really, than the insistence on an end beyond logic? Without that end, all must die. The greatest love must die in sexual fatigue, and the greatest devotion must die in mounting boredom. I didn’t want Celine and me, as a couple—as a spiritual unit—to die. I strangled my appetite at the last instant to give us a chance at eternity.
I know those are pretty black-and-white terms; and I have learned, of course, that reducing spiritual struggles to such terms, even with the best of intentions, can often lead to diabolical arrogance. It would reflect very unflatteringly upon my mature faith if I were now to say that I think people go to heaven or hell on the basis of whether they do or do not perform some specific act or say some specific oath. But for a young man in his twenties, surrounded by peers who hadn’t the least respect whatever for any kind of restraint, such rigor, I think, is a testimony to high character. I salute that young man. He had kept his mind in control of his passions, but he had also elevated over his understanding a purpose which can never be fully understood. I haven’t seen that a lot—not in any of my decades on earth.
If it’s comic relief you want, you would have found it in my anguish then. There were times when my strangled appetite very nearly strangled me, in return. I remember rolling off Celine’s sofa on one occasion and pounding her carpet. Sex education, indeed! What I needed was about ten consecutive cold showers. On another occasion, I needed the shower less than the washing machine: I made a royal mess of my undergarment. I won’t dispute anyone’s right to smile at such adventures. I’m smiling right now myself.
I only ask for the concession that such ribald little comedies as these can conceal great tragedies at work. For what I couldn’t feel as I flailed about in the quicksand of my own feelings was Celine’s response. Perhaps it’s foolish to expect a young man to go beyond self-absorption in matters like these… but I often wonder if I should have thought more about Celine’s new sense of eagerness, and even urgency. "It’s all right," she would whisper in my ear at crucial moments. "You can go ahead, if you want." A single Rish-aard appended to that whisper would have brought me on… but she seemed to want me to make the last move. And when I didn’t… why did I not ever look up from my folded arms, my clenched fists, to see how she was taking my retreat? All I can remember is—when I finally did lift my eyes to hers—the sadness. As I reconstruct that response now, I see it, not as sensual frustration over a stimulus removed before maximum effect—that would be the "what women really want" claptrap of a Don Juan or a Stendhal. No, I see fear. Every time I refused to bring our union to a climax and scored one of those spiritual triumphs, Celine felt, far more than a wilting of the flesh, a trembling of the spirit. She felt my triumphs, and they terrified her. Even when faced with my parents’ rejection of her and with the uphill battle of creating a household out of pocket change, I continued to resist the plunge with her into the sweet, dark, forgiving, forgetting shadows. I continued to insist that she join me atop that pedestal. Women talked a lot about pedestals back then, always in voices ringing with indignation. In them, too, though—in all of them—it was fear. Fear of the spirit, of high places, of the infinite. They wanted to find themselves rather than to lose themselves… but they didn’t stop to consider that the self they would thus find would have to be something capable of being fully found: the flesh, the finite, the mortal. What a flight to the finite it all was back then! Even the "born agains" with their "I found it!" bumper-stickers… what, after all, could they so confidently have found? For the only thing worth finding is how to lose yourself—how to find that part of you in which you fully become a mere part, or that merely visible reflection of an inconceivable whole. How terrifying. Better to find the limits—to feel them, caress them, and fold them around oneself like a winding sheet. My poor Celine.
I wonder how many people will consider my portrait of Celine completely self-contradictory when I write down that she took me to church on my last Sunday? Actually, the suggestion that we might go to any church of her choice had come from me on Saturday. I suppose I was exhausted by our struggle against drowning all our sorrows in sensual intoxication. Even if we should haggardly emerge from that struggle in a few more hours without having cheated our wedding night, our final kiss safely exchanged at my car door, I suppose I knew that something critical had slipped from our kisses as they heated up. I suppose I thought church might be a way of refocusing, before we had no more time to refocus. After all, we would be married in a church, wouldn’t we? Did that mean nothing whatever? If it meant something, then why not pay our respects to the something on the last day when I would be in town?
So I offered to go with her—just to make the offer, not expecting much of a response. To my surprise, Celine wanted to go to early Mass. We could go before breakfast, she said, and then she would feed me at her place. The cathedral would seem almost empty then, she said (she had the Catholic church downtown in mind): the kneeling boards would be cold and hard, the liturgy’s words would dissolve over the empty pews, the chalice and the platter would distantly clink, and the freshly risen sunbeams would spin horizontally through the stained glass. I am not really embellishing her words, or not much; and these were indeed words of anticipation—perhaps a kind of vision, perhaps a distillation of many lonely hours in that cathedral—because they scarcely described the scene that awaited us. (The morning was overcast, and, thanks probably to Easter’s proximity, the pews were about a third filled even at eight o’clock.) I already knew that Celine had a delicate eye for beauty, but I had never before noticed this seamless fusion of taste and spirituality. There was a poet in her, and perhaps a mystic—and, just maybe, a true believer. I felt ashamed that I had assumed these doors of her life to be closed; and I also felt delighted to be so thoroughly put to shame. For the first time since I had introduced her to Meg a week earlier, I found reason to start hoping again.
My parents took for granted that I had slipped away so early on Sunday morning to bid my china doll an infatuated farewell. Naturally, my final departure for the big city would be launched from the warm nest where I had been raised. Naturally. I didn’t disabuse them. After finishing breakfast at Celine’s, I came back home for a few hours to pack my things and say my good-byes. I had never properly sat down and talked with Roger about his major, and I begged him to give me a rain-check until the summer—or else to write me a letter. I felt pretty disgusted with myself as I patted him on the shoulder: it was the one moment I passed at home that week when I really did feel guilt. But Meg brightened us up, and we all three chattered a bunch of nonsense while I stuffed my car’s trunk, then determined that I needed to lighten the load. After all, I was supposed to be clearing out of my apartment at the end of May. I shouldn’t be hauling records and headphones across the state just to bring them back in two months crammed beside a lot of other junk. (But I ended up taking the records: I decided to sell them on the sly for my "grub stake".)
Dad wandered out as we were trimming the fat off my cargo. He overheard the talk about vacating my apartment, which he silently digested for a while. (It was the kind of decision I had always reached with his help before: I’m sure that fact occupied some of his thoughts.) Then he began to question me, without a trace of antagonism, about my degree work and summer plans. Yes, I said, my Master’s degree was well in hand. I would have completed the required courses by the end of this semester. My thesis would surely be finished by September as long as I could get all the books I needed on library loan. I explained that our local branch in the university system would honor my student card and give me certain privileges.
"So you’ll be moving back in at the beginning of June?" he murmured, watching Meg and Roger drift back into the house. "It’ll be nice to have you home."
No it won’t, I corrected him in my mind, but thanks for the courteous gesture. "As a matter of fact," I said, "there’s a chance I may be moving into one of the dormitories down there on McClain. I’ve applied for a job as a house steward, I think they call it."
"Riding herd on freshmen," he laughed gently, "is that the sort of thing?"
I contributed a smile to his laugh. "Yeah, that sort of thing. It doesn’t pay much, but… every cent counts, and I’ll be close to the library." And close to Celine’s place of employ—but I was now beyond inserting her name into conversations wherever possible. What was the point? "Trouble is, there’s not really an opening right now, and they don’t expect a lot of summer students. I won’t know anything definite until after registration. The one thing I’ve got going for me is my qualifications to do some formal counseling. They said there might be a position where I would be… well, mentoring a lot of the underclassmen. ‘Mentor’ is the big word right now."
"You’ll be a good one."
"I don’t know. I’ve done a lousy job of mentoring Roger this past week. He’s been trying to talk to me the whole…."
And then something came over me. I guess I realized that we were right back in the thick of it—Celine, my afternoons and nights away from the family, all the bad blood simmering away under our roof. Roger had been a casualty of the tension, and I was sure my dad could understand that. Perhaps he had also just glimpsed the unflattering truth that my having neglected Roger was about the only thing caught up in those events which caused me any remorse. If my implied lack of repentance irritated him, however, it didn’t show.
"It’s good that you can help Roger. College has changed a lot since I went on the GI Bill. Everything’s changed. I can’t believe they have some of these majors… and who am I to tell him what to do? I have no idea what’s going to make him a living in this crazy new world."
"Well, it would be easy as pie to help him if I got on that campus in some official capacity and could figure out just what they’re trying to do."
"You really want to work there? I mean, not as a… steward, but… eventually, as something a little more respectable?"
"Right now, I’d be happy with house steward, and even that looks like a long shot."
Dad raised his index finger dramatically, then smacked it three times on the firm bridge of his nose. "Don’t be so sure." I was to remember that gesture several months later, and in circumstances where I allowed Dad’s generous attempt at a peace offering to be overshadowed by my personal sense of humiliation.
I arrived back at Celine’s a little after noon. We went for a walk in the park—that same park where I had hugged her tight to chase away the cold a few nights before Christmas. Now my sleeves were rolled up, and she was wearing slacks and a peach blouse with flounces around the cuffs. I always felt proud—so proud—to be seen with her in public. In the back of my mind, the thought would replay itself incessantly: "Who would ever have believed that a guy like me would be holding hands with a girl like this?" Even under all the recent pressures which had beset us, I was never too far from feeling like the class egghead who gets a date with the homecoming queen. Even with all of our excessive familiarities on her sofa (as the Old Guard still considered them—as I considered them in my calmer moments), that schoolboy wonder of her person never completely left me. Simply to bend my fingers around hers never stopped being magic.
She made me a sandwich later, and then I lay down on her sofa for a rest. Finally, at about four, she walked me down the stairs to my car. We had said little enough during our stroll in the park: now we said nothing. Why did we hold each other so long—was it just because we loved each other so much? Could it not also have been, perhaps, because we both had felt Celine’s spirits sagging and both dreaded a six weeks’ separation which probably concealed a fearful trough just around the bend?
"Come with me," I said, pushing my lips from her temple into her hair. "I’ll help you get some things. We’ll just toss them in the back seat. You can call Mona and explain—she’ll understand. Get your birth certificate. Tomorrow we’ll go down to the courthouse after my classes. We’ll get a marriage license. Come with me and let’s get married."
"We don’t even have the rings yet," she laughed into my shirt. "We can’t afford them."
"I’ll sell something," I said. "Anyway, you don’t need a ring at the courthouse, do you? And anyway… you’ve already given me a ring."
"Did you ever figure out who Joe D is?" she laughed a little higher up, her nose nudging my chin.
"With Mona’s help. It took me a while."
"I knew you wouldn’t know! It’s not in any of your books! I’ll tell you all about it some time."
And then she hugged me tighter than ever. I understood. It wasn’t that we physically could not do just what I had proposed. It wasn’t even that our hearts weren’t in it—on the contrary. But though our bodies were still in the same objective space, our spirits had already embraced solitude. Perhaps if I had made that very suggestion in those very words as we walked in the park… but now the tide had gone out on our resolution, and even the park was probably too late. Obstacles which would have been easily surmountable with a little energy soared invincibly over us in the growing shadows. Mona could hardly grant Celine a two-month holiday out of the blue, staunch friend though she was… and what would Celine do, if not work for Mona? Get another job in the capital as I finished my semester? But I was supposed to come back here for the summer: I had already applied for several jobs. How would we pay our joint expenses with neither of us working and our "household" without roots in either of the cities which held our light baggage? Impossible to elope? No, of course not. Yet we both knew that we couldn’t go through with it. We were too shaky, too emotionally raw, to generate such sudden bursts of determination. Even if some sinister axe were descending upon us (and I secretly regretted mentioning her father’s ring, which had signaled our last decline into the pit), we lacked the vigor to raise a hand. All we could do was hold on to each other, as tightly and for as long as we could. And, at last, we had to surrender our holds, as well.
Of course, my misgivings were not immediately justified. I didn’t expect them to be. I had already learned that Celine’s descents could be very gradual. At the same time, I took heart in recalling how well things had gone over the first part of the semester. (Or, maybe, I just allowed myself to latch on to a shallow reason for optimism: being worried all the time doesn’t help you do your work, even when the worries are well founded.) Perhaps separation was just the thing, I told myself. Now we could go back to writing letters and talking twice a week over the phone. We had shared a lot of secrets and nourished a lot of hopes by that method while tuning down the tension almost to nothing. What had succeeded for us once could succeed again… why not?
In fact, our twice-weekly phone conversations seemed warmer than ever. Celine would now chatter on and on until I had to remind her, laughing with every word, that we would run out of dimes this way. I really don’t recall if I let myself have any suspicions at all of this new effusiveness. Probably not. I was very busy finishing up my course work, and happy answers to questions I couldn’t influence right at the moment, anyway, were just the kind I wanted. In looking back, however, I think I see what was happening. Celine wanted to reassure both me and herself, and the best way to do so was to bubble over when we talked. She could neatly accomplish this by steering the conversation into trivial matters at the office, most often—an area where she might have consumed hours without running out of gossip and where I never had enough knowledge to mount a significant intrusion. Subjects like wedding plans or preferred house designs were not given a sufficient opening to rear their frightful heads. We were somehow just supposed to stay in a holding pattern around those objectives—they’d already been agreed upon, hadn’t they?—while accepting that our higher phone bills proved a greater degree of intimacy than ever.
In the letters, however, such self-deception was hard to hide. Any self-deception is hard to hide, in a letter. When you write an observation down, you take time over it; and when you take time over it, you end up analyzing it, whether you want to or not. If anything penetrated my thick wall of see-no-evil optimism that spring, it was Celine’s letters—hers and mine both. For her part, she wrote less often and not as lengthily. When she did write, she would begin with an apology for not writing, explain tediously (in her telephonic style) what was taking up her time, and then abruptly end with something amounting to: "Oops! I’ve taken up all the time I have by telling you why I have no time!" I stopped pretending early on that I took much pleasure in such wasted space—though, of course, I didn’t rebuke Celine for her sorry effort. How could I? Mine wasn’t much better. I meant to tackle the big questions, all right: to force certain issues like our wedding date or our guest list. But I backed off, every time. I chickened out. I didn’t want to stare a major crisis in the face right at this time, so I kept telling myself that discretion was the better part of valor. If we could just limp and stagger our way to the summer with these feather-weight exchanges, I’d be back home, and I could go head to head with all the problems till I beat them black and blue. Just squeeze out a little more time. At least we were talking and writing, however awkwardly. That was forward motion, wasn’t it?
Well, apparently it wasn’t. Apparently it was backward motion: I wasn’t even holding my own with the truth, since its sudden appearance completely blind-sided me. The first hint I received—or should have received—was the "conference". About three weeks from the semester’s end, Celine told me during our Wednesday evening chat that Mona had booked her on a flight to Chicago later that week, where some sort of conference for small business owners was to take place for the next several days (exact number not specified). Was there ever any conference at all? Probably: Celine had enough details that Mona must have shown her a brochure accompanied by some such remark as, "I wish I could afford to send you to that." But did Celine actually go anywhere? Of course not. Mona would have made the arrangements for such a major trip well in advance, and Celine would have told me about them weeks ago. Besides, conferences never last over Sundays and into the new week—I knew that—yet Celine had implied that she might be gone almost indefinitely to participate in some special seminar. How could I have swallowed such patent nonsense? How? By liking where I was—by not wanting to see the imminent danger. Also by loving Celine "not wisely but too well"—by wanting irresistibly to trust her and wholly surrendering to the exceptional tenderness in her voice. That tenderness in itself should have sounded another warning. Not since Spring Break had Celine talked so haltingly over the phone, offered me so many pauses, and filled them in herself with so many "I love you’s" and "thanks for loving me’s". She was fixing the tones of my voice, the fervor of my words, in her memory. She was signing off.
And, naturally, I had seen it all before. Over Christmas. The trip, real or feigned, which would account for her not being home to pick up the phone; then the quick fade into oblivion, as if I could be so morally callous or intellectually dull as to forget her after one evening of unsuccessful calls. When I failed to draw an answer throughout Sunday afternoon and evening, I guess I was supposed to think that she had indeed stayed over in the Windy City for further tutelage; and, throughout that one evening, I did. I hadn’t the time to think anything else: an important oral presentation in my toughest class was coming up the next day, and I had to get all my ducks in a row. But when I got no answer on Monday night or Tuesday, I finally declared an official end to my stupid, costly tranquillity.
Official? Well, yes, it was almost as though a gavel descended upon me, in a way. It was like the bell which calls a child in from recess, or the alarm clock which announces that a new day on the grind has begun. I suddenly grew very serious—grimly serious. Part of the grimness, the oddest part, was that I felt almost none of the nervous panic I remembered from just after Christmas. This time I knew exactly what was going on: I guess I’d known all along, really. I guess I hadn’t been so much deceiving myself as letting myself catch a little sleep. That week, my nights of sweet dreams ended… not that I burned the midnight oil pacing the floor. On the contrary, I put my time to good use. Especially on Wednesday night, I immersed myself in my work, finishing some papers early and getting as far ahead of every syllabus as I could, since I didn’t know what next week might bring—and since, of course, I had to distract myself from the phone. I was determined not to call. This was Celine’s night to call. Let her call if she dared, if she won some major battle over her conscience or her suffocating self-contempt. I knew damn well she wouldn’t. If I paced a lot that night (and I won’t deny that I did), it was mostly with a book in my hand or to take a short break from the typewriter.
And Thursday… Thursday I did something the like of which I’d never attempted before. I became unscrupulously, aggressively devious: I did some spying. Over Christmas, I had grown so wildly suspicious that I had spent several hours on a bus stop bench behind a newspaper—but that was sheer madness. Now I was downright clever. I schemed. Celine knew perfectly well that I would never call her at work about anything delicate between us. She had actually mentioned that to me at some point before Spring Break—I mean, that it amazed her how I had respected her job obligations during our "break-up" over Christmas and had not called her at the office. It was the only reference she ever made to that week of hell—and it was flooded with more sincere admiration and gratitude, perhaps, than she had ever shown me. I’m sure she was counting on my not invading her "job space" this time, either. She knew that I knew that she couldn’t function at the simplest level if she were afraid to answer her work phone. She knew that I knew that breaking this taboo would submit her to extreme torture—and she knew that I wouldn’t torture her, no matter how much she deserved it.
I had a few friends around campus—not many, not enough that counting them would have required a second hand. But I really only needed one to help me confirm the truth beyond any doubt. Rebecca worked as a secretary in our department. She was quiet, competent, discreet, and wholly unaffiliated with the prevailing lunacy which hummed around her. She just typed and answered phones: it wasn’t part of her job description to liberate the working classes or dazzle the bourgeoisie. She and I had often had brief, ironic conversations about the protracted adolescence of the grad students—and some of their professors—as I checked my mailbox. She was a pretty girl, despite being overweight and wearing rather thick glasses. She had beautiful dark eyes behind the glasses, and her skin was as white as milk. If I had met her a year sooner, and if her being Jewish hadn’t foreshadowed certain problems with my mother, I would have asked her out.
Instead, I asked her to make a phone call for me—a long distance call for which I would pay. It had to be made before lunchtime, I said, but it would consume no more than ten seconds. We would place the call, I would listen for the voice that answered, then I would quickly pass the phone to her and she would sweetly announce that she’d dialed the wrong number. She was entirely cooperative, as I’d known she would be. She told me to come back after ten o’clock, when Dr. Shelton would be out of his office at a meeting. She said not to worry about payment—that wrong numbers were dialed all the time, and that trying to pay for this one would make far more trouble than it would avert. I was convinced.
At 10:05 on Thursday morning, I dialed Images Unlimited back in my hometown. Celine’s voice answered in the perfunctory chirp which she would have used from the guillotine if required to field a call for Mona. I passed the phone to Rebecca, who begged off in an equally professional manner—except that she first uttered a "hello" into the receiver, which would have drawn a second, perhaps more nuanced greeting from Celine. Was that on purpose? I was too embarrassed to tax her with it after she hung up. The look of infinite sympathy which poured upon me through those thick lenses was the first thing that week which had brought me close to breaking down; and, when she said after I’d thanked her and turned to leave, "She has a really nice voice," I couldn’t bear to do any more than nod my head on the way out.
On Thursday evening, I finished my most important paper and threw a few things into my smallest traveling bag. I felt at peace now. It was not a comfortable peace—or no more comfortable than a combat pilot’s who has inspected his plane, assembled his gear, gone over his flight plan, and signed his will. When I finally went to bed that night, I shared the pilot’s deep, dreamless sleep—a sleep without hope, a sleep needed to give the mission the ghost of a chance. I was ready to live or to die: in that respect, it was like Christmas all over again.
I imagine that Celine must have entered an ambiguous peace something like mine. She would have written her "bombshell" letter on Wednesday evening after realizing that I had desisted from calling her She would have inferred… well, who knows what? Probably that I had finally had enough of her, that I was now safely free of her and permanently disgusted with her. Which was just what she wanted—what she needed to achieve her peace of utter hopelessness. Just to nail it down, and to occupy the once sacred hour when we would converse over the phone, she would have written the following letter—which she would have mailed Thursday morning, just in time for me to retrieve it Friday afternoon from my apartment box on the way to my car.
I read this letter virtually without emotion as I sat behind the wheel, my traveling bag in the passenger seat. It was just what I’d expected, once I had allowed myself to expect the worst, the obvious. I reinserted it into the envelope—how elegant was the handwritten address, yet how apologetically pinched together!—and I started the car.
As I slipped on my glasses, fitted shades to them, and fought the lowering sun to reach the traffic’s mainstream, I nonetheless felt something begin to fester in me. It was that claim about my expecting her to be something she wasn’t. Damn it! Every robber and murderer in prison might as well plead that he was being unfairly punished for fulfilling his God-given nature rather than society’s expectations! Did she think that I found it easy to scrap and save, to battle with my family, to plan a future while trying to earn an advanced degree, to postpone our marriage rites until our marriage night? Did she think that I enjoyed all this—that it was just how I was made, that my idea of a good time before I met her was hitting my head with a hammer? I was expecting one hell of a lot from myself, too—couldn’t she see that? What was I supposed to have done over Spring Break that I didn’t do? Show up at her place with an armload of six-packs and some weed, strip her clothes off, and come up for air at the end of the week? Would that be putting the bar low enough? My grad school peers had all chosen about that level of difficulty: was that what she expected out of me? No goals to shoot for, no ideals to live up to, no expectations, no pressure, no strain. No hope. As easy as pie… no problem.
Of course, at the red-hot core of this emotional lava flow was my argument with Mom about her squeezing me into a certain image. Celine’s letter had unwittingly accused me of treating her as I had accused my mother of treating me. That stung me to the quick, even though Celine couldn’t possibly have known that she was framing a charge of hypocrisy. (I had never given her any of the details about the blow-up with my mother in March.) The charge had just a grain of truth in it, perhaps—and no false accusation is more searing than the one that isn’t one hundred percent false. I was my mother’s son, and I went through life carrying high expectations. I knew it wasn’t the same thing with the two of us: I knew Mom expected success, prosperity, comfort, even glory—whereas I expected fairness, honesty, and other things that would often sabotage what my mother most admired. Still… there was a certain rhetorical sameness. And it ate and ate at me, all the long drive home.
I had tried to time my arrival at Celine’s apartment for a few minutes before five. That way I could see her come home from work and overtake her just as she was reaching her door. I was too late. A wreck had backed up traffic, and I turned into the parking lot well after 5:30. Celine’s car was already parked in its space. I found an empty space from which I could study her window. She might only just have walked in: I didn’t want to be stuck at her unresponsive door because she was in the bathroom and couldn’t hear me. In fact, I decided that the best course was to wait until it grew pitch dark (still about an hour away), when I would surely see a faint haze of light showing through her drapes. I wanted not only to be absolutely certain that she was inside (and where else could she be with her car right in front of me?), but also that she would know her presence was apparent to anyone who came calling. I didn’t want her to be able to pretend that she wasn’t at home. Whether or not she would have tried such a maneuver, I had no idea. The possibility didn’t seem far-fetched, considering that she had played the same trick several times when the phone was ringing. I had no other fears than this one: it entirely preoccupied me—even (as I caught myself rattling my keys, then thumping the floorboard) consumed me. I had to see her face to face, and if she wouldn’t let me in… what would I do? Break the door down? Wait until morning, or until a security guard chased me off? No, I wanted her knowing that she had given her presence away. Even though she could hardly think I would show up within hours of receiving her letter, I wanted such signs of activity in that apartment as would force her to concede herself spotted once she had spotted me through the drapes. She wouldn’t have the nerve to pretend after that. I knew her too well.
This became one of the most frustrating waits of my life. It seemed even longer than that morning I had spent at the bus stop across from Images Unlimited. Then I had wanted not to be seen, not to speak to her. This time I had no bone to chew on, no dominant thought to mull over. I really had no notion whatever of what I was going to say, if anything. If I could only see her—physically, visually see her and be seen by her… and if I couldn’t, then I could think of no next step. I wasn’t going to my parents. I wasn’t driving two hours back the other way. At what point would some cruising squad car shine a flashlight in my face?
My anxiety rose as darkness fell without being resisted by any light behind the drapes. There were plenty of lights and noises elsewhere: it was Friday night, and most of the tenants were exiting in high spirits. Occasionally, tires squealed on the street in front of the complex, and once I heard a glass bottle shatter to a chorus of male laughter. Celine’s room seemed the only one on her floor which had not betrayed a single sign of life since my arrival. I finally got out of the car and walked across the street to a gas station. I relieved myself there, coaxed some peanut butter and crackers out of a vending machine, and overheard a minute of some serial thriller Roger always watched from a TV by the cash register. It was odd to think of Roger sitting in front of that show not twenty minutes from here, of Meg taking off with her friends and Mom doing the dishes and Dad perhaps classifying old photos while listening to a jazz record, maybe Harry James or Pete Fountain… all of them entirely out of my reach, no less so than if I had been on the dark side of the moon. It was a lonely feeling.
As I crossed back over toward my car, I thought about climbing the stairs and listening at her door. I hesitated, pacing the lawn instead. What could I possibly find out—and what if a neighbor should see me lurking about suspiciously and call the police? What would I tell a cop—would a cop, perhaps, force her to come to the door and vouch for me?
About then, a car turned into my nook of the complex. Its motor purred like a tame cat, and its black silhouette was low. The engine was cut, the headlights died almost instantly, and I heard two doors slam in my temporary blindness. Even before my eyes grew readjusted from the lights, however, I knew that one set of footsteps belonged to Celine. The other was a man’s.
A man. Celine had been out on Friday night with a man. It was the most obvious, most prosaic of explanations, yet I would never have believed it if I had not been standing there in the grass as they clambered up the stairs. My fiancée. As I stood there gaping upward—as the two dark figures partially emerged in the dim light at the top of the stairwell—I did not really register anything that could properly be called belief. I could not have been any less reflective at that moment if I had been a small frog staring wide-eyed from the mulch around the manicured shrubs. If there is a God in heaven, he will bear me witness that I did not even feel any anger, any resentment—not one scintilla. I was overcome with wonder. I did nothing but apply my pupils to the two figures, the two angels on a cloud, the two devils in a pit. Celine was wearing a light coat, probably camel-hair or alpaca, its cinnamon color accenting that thick, compact hair of hers which glinted richly in the light every time the man’s shoulder moved. I paid him little attention. His back was to me—all I noticed was that he kept breaking off my line of sight to Celine. The interruptions were actually rather staccato: they lasted briefly but came often. Perhaps that impression, in all its oddity, was what faintly roused me from my daze. I could comprehend now that Celine was pushing him off, thrusting his hands away from her. I don’t know what was in my mind as my feet started to move beneath me. I have examined my memory under the microscope, and I still do not recall the slightest tinge of anger. Yet some instant of fury might well have exploded if I had turned up the second flight of steps and still found him pawing her. I have heard people describe many such incidents since then. They have no inkling of what’s coming—they feel almost torpid inside: and then, in a white flash whose heat sears away all reason and all memory, they commit acts of mayhem.
Fortunately, the man was just springing off the final stair as I reached the sidewalk. He had shot down in mere seconds, and now he lunged into the darkness so quickly that his shoulder actually rubbed against mine. I didn’t even turn to watch him go, yet I had the strangest sensation of having seen him before. It was the first conscious moment of reflection that had reanimated my mind since the two of them had stepped from his sports car. I know that man!
I got to the top of the stairs somehow—I got to Celine’s door somehow. Perhaps that one reflection which I had lavished upon the dark figure brushing past me had overloaded my numb mind. Now I found myself, as if waking up, right before the bronze digits of Number 31. A light had switched on inside. I could see its luminescence down the central slit in the drapes. I froze for a moment. If I had been in fuller possession of myself, I would perhaps have panicked—but I was already too far gone for a plunge into this abyss to disorient me further. If I had known where I had been for the last hour or two, I would have been horrified now to see that I was nowhere. It was bad enough, just to see my "nowhere" suddenly intensify. No fiancée, no girlfriend, no friend. No common, ordinary decency of the most common, ordinary sort. Just betrayal, just shut doors. Just nullification, the nullity of everything… nothing real but a dirty forty-Watt bulb over my head, a dead cricket on dirty concrete at my foot, and a tacky set of drapes that didn’t fit properly. All else had been a fantasy.
I reached out at the door now less in terror than in a bid for some kind of lifeline. In this corridor-comradeship with decaying insects, I felt that I might throw myself over the rail just any second.
She opened almost at once. My third feeble tap had hardly sounded.
On the drive over, I guess I had expected to create something of a shock at Celine’s door, unlike the time over Christmas when I had materialized in this same spot. We had been less intimate then—half a state hadn’t separated us, either. Now here I was, within forty-eight hours of the weekly call she had refused to make, within six hours of receiving her letter. I shocked her, all right—but it was a delayed shock, a shock whose jolt was bizarrely postponed. She looked right at me through the opening door without batting an eyelash, for a full two seconds. Only then did her lips part speechlessly her fair green eyes widen (seeing them after any lapse of time always made me catch my breath: it did so even now). Two seconds can be an eternity. How could she have peered out into the night, found my face, and studied me almost in weariness for a full two seconds before registering that her dead lover had come to life?
If someone can be described as fleeing who never turns her back, then Celine fled from me—or cringed, or shrank (for her whole body drew up)—into the apartment. Her evening coat was still on. She had just uncinched the belt which had locked it in a hug around her trim waist. The high collar and epaulette-like straps across the shoulders continued to emphasize the golden-red sheen of her short, thick hair in the lamplight.
I shut the door quietly behind me. Obviously, I must have come in, though I had no consciousness of any movement in my body—of any life, I might say. Even my tongue could not move. I stood there with my collar open, my jacket half-zipped, my hands dangling from my sleeves, just gazing at this woman who held absolute power of life and death over me, for whom I had sacrificed so much, for whom I would sacrifice whatever remained to me and of me in an instant, and who had just barely resisted the embrace of a strange man a few feet from where I now stood, a mere minute before I arrived.
If her shoulders had cringed and her hands were so squeezed together that their bare bones stood out, the clearest sign of Celine’s flight was nevertheless her eyes. I watched them run farther and farther from me, searching the deepest shadows along the most remote walls. Almost imperceptibly, like a flitting ghost, her body gravitated toward the same dark spots. The lamp nestled on the counter/partition between den and kitchen was almost at her back. A single ray of light caught on the finely molded ledge of her lower lip, where I saw no sign of trembling: just the frozen glaze of open-mouthed muteness. At last she came to rest on the far arm of the sofa—the arm where we never sat, thrust far into the room’s most lifeless corner. There she perched herself, leaning her right shoulder into the wall.
I have no idea how long we stayed this way, awkwardly suspended in time and space—for it did indeed seem a complete arrest of time, a balancing act where a kind of nightmarish stasis had been achieved. Nor do I know what finally broke the spell enough to start her talking. If the cue came from me, it was neither any spoken word nor any rustling motion of the body. Can you hear a man staring at his hands—a man who isn’t even breathing, who has to look at some part of himself just to be sure that he still exists?
"I had to let you go," she confided to the wall in a tiny voice utterly drained of tone. "I had to let you go. I got to where… there was no other choice. You told me it would destroy you, if I let you go. You told me that after Christmas. That it would destroy you. Well, I got to the point… the point where I was more sure of destroying you if I held on. More than if I let you go."
You don’t usually remember sighs with crystal clarity, especially after years and years. I can still hear the sigh I gave then—probably the most enormous of my life. Suddenly I couldn’t stand up any longer. I shut my eyes and reeled backward, almost falling into an armchair set against the opposite wall. There I thrust my hands deep into my pockets, as if I were suffering from a chill, and marveled at the lamplight’s sickly yellow color on the carpet. I had never before seen a color that made me feel nauseated. The edge of everything, the boundary line of nothing—the limn of outer darkness—is that shade of yellow.
"You don’t know. You just don’t know. And it would kill me if you did. If we… if I held on to you, you would find out. If you are going to be destroyed by me… at least this way, you won’t find out. The worst thing your mother could think about me… believe me, that would be nothing beside the truth. Even your mother. Even if she would tell you the worst thing she could think… it would be nothing. She… she has the right idea. You need to listen to her. You need to let her have her way. Mothers are always right. Even I was right, maybe, when I…. She’s more right than she will ever know."
The pronouncements of this telegraphic drone must have cost her several minutes to deliver. Yet the silence which followed them was immensely longer. I remember no door slamming anywhere, no footsteps falling anywhere, no car engine growling by in the lot below. I was deaf… but even the deaf can feel the blood pulsing in their own ears. I had no pulse: I had no breath. From somewhere very, very deep within me, I was dredging up that old sensation from last Christmas—that feeling that, null as the possibilities within this small room appeared, there could most certainly be nothing beyond them. This was the antechamber to oblivion. What sense could time have, after all, when all ties to the beyond have been severed? There was no hope or fear for me—no one expecting me, nothing awaiting me—beyond Celine’s front door… so how could I feel any strain of time not used? I believe I could have sat in that chair until I starved without ever noticing daylight come and go at the drapes. I simply sat and watched the old sensation come creaking up from the depths, like some muddy, amorphous terror of the ocean bottom whose sheer dead weight tautens heavy cables almost to the snapping point as its unclean shadow grows and grows. I dredged it up, I reeled it in… or rather, it sucked me down.
From somewhere under those fathoms where no green life lives, I found a word. "Talk," I said gently. "Talk some more."
She tried to, several times. I heard her try rather than watched her try. I heard her draw a breath, hold it to carry forth some few words—a sentence—and then let it go at last, unused. I heard her alpaca coat grind discreetly against the plaster wall. I waited. There was nothing else to do. There was nothing else I could possibly say. Unless she talked some more, the two of us would drown in silence.
"I thought it would be all right. Maybe. After Christmas."
In my mind, I watched the thin filament drift toward me through the soupy murk. It wasn’t a rescue line, but it was a strand. "It was all right," I murmured.
"Yes. It was all right. For a while."
I turned slightly and looked—with my physical eyes—back up the sickly trail of lamplight, as if I might have missed something swimming there or might find something torpidly floating there. Something to knead, to shape, to combine. But I still saw only vacancy, nullity.
She inhaled again, and again the breath escaped without a message—or so I thought. But at the last instant, she caught its tail. "If you hurt yourself… I’ll kill myself."
I received this without moving a muscle. Finally, very slowly, I nodded over it as my eyes infinitesimally seesawed between the yellow mist and darkness. "That… that would be one way."
"No!" I heard her cry. It was the first emotion I had detected in her voice, and it drew the single short syllable out like the groan of a trauma patient whose ruptured organ the doctor has just pressed. In spite of this response, I couldn’t seem to move my eyes, even to blink them. I don’t know if she turned to me or not. I only know that I heard a rustle from her corner.
I thought perhaps she was going to cry, or perhaps to shout or plead. But more minutes went by, more breaths were roughly drawn and roughly exhaled, until again I could hear nothing at all. Even violent motions did not create much of a ripple at these depths.
I was almost a little startled when she started to talk again—I had almost passed into some sort of trance, I think. "It was Spring Break. It was… it wasn’t so much your mother. It was you. It was you… honoring me. Treating me… like I was something I’m not. That was when it really started to hit me. That I couldn’t be that. Not that. What you wanted. Your dreams… they go so high. Someday you’d be sure to wake up. I would wake you up, and you’d ask me… you’d ask me what I did with Celine. With your Celine. But I can’t be your Celine. I never was. You have this image of me, which you honor… but the honor… the honor… the honor was crushing me. It kept keeping me up all night. It wouldn’t let me sleep—"
The last word was never finished: her voice suddenly gave out. Her head thumped the wall audibly, and then was still. I don’t know how she held it down for so long, but at last the moist remnant of a sob fluttered through our renewed silence. I could still not rouse myself to speak, but something was definitely stirring within me now. My eyes widened over it—my physical eyes, turned intently within me. That word "image"… I remembered using it bitterly when arguing with my mother. Of course, every line of Celine’s letter (which we never mentioned a single time that night) came back to me in one hot red flash. All the protests that had seethed in me during my two-hour drive started to simmer once more. My mother’s inhuman image of me… and Celine, all unknowingly, now writing and saying that I was doing the same thing to her—that I was forcing her into an image’s straitjacket! Everything in me began to shout foul. I felt my teeth start to work. Was there no difference, then, between an image which suffocates all the soul’s life out of it to make a nice appearance and an image which calls a soul to fresh new life? From the fingertips, I felt myself starting to tremble.
"You… you’re better off," she concluded, once more dry and toneless. "I could have been… some things for you, if you had let me. Made your meals. Done your shopping, bought you nice things. No one ever buys you nice things, and you would look so good, so handsome, if I could dress you up. Why doesn’t your mother do that? I could do that for you!"
There was a sudden strange warmth in these sentences, which were the longest she had yet pronounced. I actually looked over at her, looked up at her. In fact, I no longer took my eyes off of her. Between the thawing tenderness in her words and the smoldering indignation in my heart, I was able to look at her very directly.
"And share my bed?" I whispered. "As long as we weren’t married, you could share me bed?"
She crumpled against the wall, her gaze following it back into the dark line where it guttered into the rug. "There," she said, once more in a tiny drone. "You see? I’m no good for you. The best that I can offer… it’s so vile to you."
I was bursting to say, The worst that you can offer—that you can dish out to me and yourself—makes me want to fight back, for both of us! But I only trembled a little more. I was going to say something to all this, though. I was going to say something. I felt it slowly rise, so slowly. The voice in which I said it was as hollow and muted as hers. "So that’s the real reason. Because we… never went all the way, you decided that I was… worshiping you."
"And you couldn’t take any more of it."
"So you… what did you do then?"
"Yes. What did you do then?"
"I…." Her perfect chin suddenly reared from its grave of shadow, and I saw her Adam’s apple work in a thin, supple throat bared from the heavy alpaca collar. "I had to get some sleep."
"So what did you do to get some sleep? How did you get some sleep?"
"I… I still haven’t… I’m still sleepless. This past month, especially this past week…."
"What keeps you awake? Since you already had decided… was it fear of me, of what I would do?"
"Yes. No. It was fear. Again. It was the fear again."
"Fear of what, Celine?"
"That I couldn’t… you know, that I couldn’t keep with the decision." Her "you know" carried a brief turn of the head in my direction which sent a glinting shudder through her rich hair. It also carried a catch in her voice. "I knew I couldn’t have you… but I was afraid you’d come back. Just like this. I was afraid I couldn’t…"
"That I would talk you back into being with me."
"Into being with you. Yes. Into being… honored, adored. And then…"
"And then it would start all over again. The fear. I was afraid of the fear—of it starting up again. When you love me, you put so much… worship into it. And that terrifies me. Because I’m… if you only knew!"
We were going over old ground, digging our heels through the same infinitely slick and shifty mud of the ocean bottom. But her voice was starting to crack frequently now: there were hairline fractures running through every brief sentence she released.
"So… what did you do? You had to sleep."
"I had to sleep."
Within my pockets, I felt my fingers tightening into fists. It was now that those two seconds at the front door reappeared to me—Celine’s look of easy recognition which had dissolved almost at once, but not at once. And I was beginning to see a face on that man who had brushed me in the dark. "Who was that just now who brought you home, Celine?"
"I thought if I closed the circle… if I brought things back to where they were before I met you. That way… if I closed the circle, it would all be over. None of it would ever begin again."
I had risen to my feet. Yet my voice, if anything, was lower and duller than ever. "Who was that, Celine?"
And she looked straight at me then with her beautiful pale eyes—the eyes which ancient Irish poets compared to dewdrops in the rising sun. "I had to go back to how it was. I had to close off all the hope. Hope is the most frightening thing in the universe, Richard."
"Richard." I don’t think my lips even moved. I repeated—stated flatly, for the record, "It was Richard."
Then I started for the door. Don’t ask me why—I haven’t the slightest idea where I intended to go, since anywhere beyond this apartment was annihilation. I guess I intended to accept my annihilation, whatever that means. I don’t know. I can only remember myself unpocketing one hand and gripping the doorknob as you would remember some dramatic gesture from a play or movie. I have to believe that I was about to go out the door.
"Are you leav—"
The word was again unfinished. Her voice had again died on her, this time along the ragged edge of something like a shriek. I looked back at her and found all that wooden composure gone. The mesmerized detachment which had spellbound her for… who knows how many minutes?—that was all gone now without a trace. Her face was a mobile portrait of anguish, a sculpture in jelly. Her eyes had opened as big as screams: even though several strands of hair had slipped down over the left one, I could see its white outline clearly. They glistened, glistened until they throbbed, despite the shadows. But her lower face was yet more distorted. Her chin, her jaw kept quivering in such an intricate chaos of vibrations that her lips had entirely lost their beautiful contours. She seemed at the same instant to be biting them back and about to unleash from them some one last word, or some cry that would never end.
Am I leaving? I thought. Isn’t that what you want? I thought about saying. Instead, I let the knob slide from my fingers and walked over to her. When I stopped, my free hand was within a foot or two of her face, yet I made no effort to lift it and touch her tears. I was far, far above the threshold of understanding that she didn’t know what she wanted, perhaps would never know. I understood fully, too, that I could never want anyone but her, and that if she had determined the Celine I loved to be non-existent, then I wanted nothing, and was dead. I understood that I might well be dead at this very moment, just waiting for the blood to stop. But in the unspeakable calm which that understanding gave to me, a calm which allowed me to stand over Celine without even trying to touch her, I found that I remained curious. I wanted to take one last measurement and see if, just maybe, the two of us were not entirely dead. That was what I wanted, all I wanted. It would perhaps be the last thing I would ever want.
"There’s just one thing. Why? Why did you push him away just now when he tried to come inside?"
She made no effort to mop away the moisture spilling through her lashes. With her head now feverishly erect, the liquid rounded the ridges of her cheeks in more or less identical curves, washed over the two high, broad summits of her upper lip, then soaked her lower lip until it sparkled. The bath seemed to redefine her face’s wondrous harmony and to lubricate her tongue for what few words she found. One more breath, and she would tell me… what? The last thing I would ever hear from her? The last thing I would ever hear from anyone on earth?
"I… I went to him."
"Yes. You went to him. When was that?"
"That was… I don’t know. Yesterday. It was yesterday. I went during lunch. To his office… his new office. On the fourth floor, at the… downtown. I…"
"You saw him?"
"Yes. No. I saw him, but… he didn’t see me. He was with someone. Someone else. He was with someone else. She was beautiful, and… and she loved him. Or she wanted him, anyway. You could tell. And you could tell she had him. He never even looked my way. When I slipped up to his office, they said he’d stepped out for lunch. I… I said, ‘With his fiancée?’ They laughed, in that way that… people laugh. You know. When someone’s sleeping with someone else. I… I must have given my name when I first walked in. I don’t remember. Either I did or he saw me leave. He called me that night… last night, that would be. But I said no. Then he came around tonight, early tonight. Just after five. I’d just gotten home. I went to the door, and… at first I thought it was you. Just as I thought just now, when you knocked… oh. That was cruel. God, that was cruel!"
"So he took you out."
"Yes. Out to supper. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. And then we came back, and he wanted to come in. He said he’d missed me. He wanted… you know what he wanted."
"And you, too, Celine. You wanted to close the circle. Richard and Richard around me like two bookends, the beginning mistake and the—the end where you know exactly what’s going to happen. Where you’re left in pieces again, and he steps over them all without getting any on his shoes."
"Yes." There was amazement in the gaze she turned on me, amazement whose intensity started to dry and focus her pupils. "Yes."
"So why? Why didn’t you close the circle?"
"I…." Now she was confused. She shook her head distractedly. "I couldn’t."
"Because of her."
"The other woman—the woman who had him?"
"Yes. Do you think I wanted to help him do to her what he had done to me?"
"Why not? You don’t owe her anything."
"I… I couldn’t. I couldn’t do that to someone else."
"You’re right. You couldn’t, because she had him, and you never had him. You couldn’t have made him do to her what he did to you—"
"No, you’re wrong. I know him. He wouldn’t leave her for me, but… he wouldn’t stay with her. Once I started him off, there’d be others. Even if I just had him one night."
"And you think there won’t be others now?"
"I… I don’t know. But I won’t start him off. She deserves a chance. They both deserve a chance."
"Why? Did you get a chance? Did he give a chance to you? Do you think they deserve anything?"
She was growing agitated. Her right shoulder, rumpling the alpaca coat up around her chin, rolled against the wall, and she reached her feet unsteadily.
"Don’t you deserve a chance at sleep? That’s not asking much, to be able to sleep. Why not just kill off the last ounce of hope…"
"No! No! I… I couldn’t do that to anyone…"
"I’m talking about doing it for yourself. Why not just borrow him for one night?"
"Because he ruined my life! Do you think I want to ruin someone else’s life the same way?"
"Even if it costs you your sleep?"
She looked up at me with a flash of something like indignation. "Even if it costs me my life!"
"But Celine!" I grabbed her wrists just then, my own hands all at once wildly animate, and I shook her back and forth. "You don’t do things like that! You’re no good! You don’t sacrifice yourself for other people! You’re worse than anything I could imagine, or my mother could imagine!" And my hands leapt from her wrists to her shoulders (so thin within the plush coat), and once more I shook her and shook her. "You’re no good! Why would someone like you throw away her only chance to be rid of fear for the sake of a complete stranger—a person whose name she doesn’t even know? You can’t do things like that! That’s beyond honorable—that’s noble! That’s like Christ!"
"No!" she cried, horrified. "No!"
"Why not? Are you afraid? Afraid of all the choices—all the new chances to screw up?"
"I will!" she wailed. "I always do!"
"And you don’t want me, either, because you don’t want to ruin my life, either…"
"Because I deserve a chance."
"So if I take you right now, it’ll ruin your chance to give me a chance…"
"If I just take you, just have you all for myself, all of you, right now…."
And I devoured her—her lips, her chin, her cheeks, her eyes. I swept her coat off and flung it across the room in one motion: in the next, I lifted her and lay her on the sofa. I squeezed her into that end where we never used to nestle when we watched TV, the end which thrust itself into the room’s darkest, most doubtful corner. When I saw, as I looked back up from her bared waist, that the lamplight was in her eyes, I peeled off my remaining shoe and backhanded it across the room. The night immediately exploded black around us in a frail tingle of glass; but as I brought her head up on the sofa’s arm, turning it with my chin, I could see the glint of her teeth in the pallor misting through the drapes.
Afterward, we must have slept a while. I remember fishing around in the dark at the sofa’s far end for her quilt. When I returned with it, tucking it up over those thin shoulders as smooth as wet ice (and little less cold), she was awake, or partly so. She said into my ear, "Rish-aard!" I rolled her over onto my chest, thinking we would go back to sleep. It was then that she whispered, "I may not be able to have children. Or not many. The doctor said not to hope for too much. It was… something that happened to me a while back, and… I got hurt, and now…. Well, you kept talking about children, about a big family, and I had a check-up just after your break, and… so I asked."
As I felt her moist warm breath on my neck and felt her fine dense hair on my lips, I watched the whole evening, the whole week, the whole last month reassemble itself in the night above my head. Why couldn’t she just have told me straight out? Why did she have to whisper the most important things into the midnight? I said nothing for a minute, but my palm never stopped running up and down her bare spine. Finally, when I could tell by her breathing that she was clinging to wakefulness for an answer, I put some order in my thoughts.
"I’m sorry, Celine. I’m sorry I put you through that. It doesn’t matter, not in the least. You should have told me…"
"But it does matter! I want children… I want to give you children!"
Another passionate non-sequitur to ease around. "He said… the doctor… that it would be hard. That having a large family would be a long shot. But… so we’ll be grateful for the one or two."
"Yes, but… even that might be hard."
"We’ll really work at it!"
Suddenly I had to have her again. I picked her up in my arms and carried her to her bedroom. When we had made love before, our appetite had been blended from anger and terror—from sleeplessness and raw nerves. This time it was the sheer joy of release—of getting the drawbridge up before the devils on our heels could follow, and watching them whirl and caper furiously below from our turret in the clouds. We loved long and deep, and when it ended at last, sleep had already stretched one wing over us. For me, part of the joy was actually realizing that a doctor’s visit had been behind much of this week’s hell. That was something I could grapple and wrestle down. Its facts could be addressed individually, and its prognosis could be courted with drugs and treatments. After all, our bodies were young and healthy. We had our whole lives ahead of us.
But when I woke up the next morning, Saturday morning, and quietly plumped up my pillow so that I could watch my sweet Celine, my Celine, sleep away… shoulders up, shoulders down, the tips of her upper foreteeth just barely visible, a stray wisp of hairs arching over her upturned nose… I think I began to suspect what hobgoblins lurked in the hard medical facts. We had not raised the drawbridge quite in time, after all. Some of these demons would ride on our shoulders forever, or until a miracle waved them off. Some of them were camped in Celine’s womb. Scar tissue from an abortion… wasn’t that it, how she "got hurt"? This was the very first time I ever actually entertained such a thought about Celine—and it only crossed my mind then because I recollected my best friend in college grieving to me one night over his sister’s virtual sterilization by a bad abortion. Somehow, an abortion would make a lot of pieces fit which had always seemed loose to me before. How could she have gone crazy over the loss of this Richard? Was Richard, then, a man to die for—a lying traitor like him? But to lose a child… and, in losing a child by choice, to discover later that you would lose other children against your choice…. I also recalled at some point, propped against my pillow, that curious unfinished remark last night hidden among Celine’s praise of mothers: how they were always right, how I should listen to mine. What was it she had said? "Even I was right, maybe, when I…"—when she what? When she had an abortion? When, as a would-be mother, she chose to spare her unborn child the misery of having her for a mother?
I brushed the wayward strands of hair off her nose as gently as I could. My mother, of course… Celine was right to think that my mother would stomp her foot and hurl high damnation down upon her if knowledge of the abortion were ever to come out. But me? How could she think I would refuse to forgive her? But how could I forgive her if I must never know?
Or if I told her that I knew and forced my forgiveness upon her, how could I convince her that I wasn’t offering another sacrifice to the flawless image, the Perfect Celine in my heart’s temple? How could I make her accept being forgiven? For that matter, I had nothing to forgive, unless the sons and daughters whom we would never have… and I had already faced that loss by taking her as mine. But how could I ever persuade her to forgive herself? They say that God forgives… what does he do, then, when someone won’t believe herself worthy of his offer?
Common Sense Strikes Out
In producing the hard copy of this edition, we have abruptly confronted the embarrassing fact, mere hours before our bundle is to be delivered to the printer, that we have an even-numbered blank on the final page’s flip-side! True to our resolution never to let paper go unused, we have scrambled about for five hundred words of further matter. Dr. Palaver’s nugatory nuggets, which usually adorn our receding stern, are not mined in haste (appearances notwithstanding) and are hence unavailable in this moment of crisis. What to do?
Then we recalled an exchange among certain interested parties on the subject of our kids’ baseball experience. The topic is ripe for the time of year, and Praesidium has actually carried at least one essay about baseball (specifically, about its decadence in the nineties—what else would you expect from us?) over the years. The matter of this particular exchange concerns hitting; and, with regard to hitting, it concerns how to hold the bat. Our office-advocate maintains that a small space between the hands—say, of an inch or two—provides both greater bat control and greater bat speed. A simple test of this assertion (he insists) is as accessible as the nearest walking stick, umbrella, or shillelagh. Gripping said object securely, work the wrists back and forth with the hands in various positions: pressed together at the object’s end, pressed together when "choked up" on the object, and separated by the recommended one or two inches. The last position clearly yields both the greatest sense of control and the highest velocity. Of course, a hitter addressing an incoming pitch uses more than his wrists, and a much more sophisticated experiment would have to be devised for comparing the drive of muscular arms to that of wiry, slightly separated wrists. But there’s no disputing that the swing with more "arm" in it is also the swing assured of producing more strikeouts. In other words, a possible slight enhancement of velocity must be weighed against a certain enhancement of typical inefficiency.
Now, here’s the poser. Given the incontestable virtues of the "small space" approach, why do Little League coaches all around this great green land of ours absolutely, categorically refuse to allow their young charges the practice of it? One this point, our paternal colleague grows most exercised. He has heard his own son shouted out from dugout and coach’s box in censure of the "small space" so often that his blood pressure has suffered escalation, and we understand that a series of heated phone conversations ensued after one straw too many touched the camel’s back. Our perceptive father also visited the library to prepare a more thorough brief. There he consulted book after book endowed with grainy photographs of yesteryear’s sultans of the swat. As a matter of fact, Babe Ruth (the proper owner of that sobriquet) turns out to have been a critical force in rendering the "small space" unpopular. Before his rainbow homeruns, the approach was routine among great hitters. Our researcher found photographic evidence that the following worthies refused to clamp the top hand down on the bottom hand: Napoleon Lajoie (who recorded the highest seasonal average ever—.422), Stuffy McGinnis, Fred Snodgrass, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, Ty Cobb, and possibly even Lou Gehrig (Ruth’s teammate and psychic opposite) and Hank Greenberg. The photographs, our source warns, can be misleading, and not only because many are simply of poor quality. If a hitter is shown as his bat crosses the plate, or most certainly as it wraps around his front shoulder, the upper hand may well have slipped down on the lower even though it started at the salutary remove of the "small space". The space’s benefits do not require that it be preserved throughout the swing. Indeed (our noble father argues fluently), the upper hand should always be held looser than the lower so as not to impede the bat’s steering except in the event of a high inside pitch. The crowning example in the gallery (because it rests within vivid memory for some of us) is Leon Wagner, who was harrowing American League pitchers in the late fifties and early sixties before his incorrigibly errant throws and stunning flamboyance before the camera led him to employment in another part of Los Angeles. The three-inch space in Daddy Wags’s grip was much admired at the time.
We suggest that there is food for rumination here even for those who detest the game of baseball. A clearer case of universal aversion to a method whose success is empirically indisputable would be hard to find. The moralist may well ask, What makes people cling to a habit in the teeth of solid evidence that another way gets better results—what makes them, indeed, stamp out the other way wherever they find it? Spanish editorialist Antonio Azorín wrote an essay about a century ago reflecting upon his rural countrymen’s loathing of trees (they harbor crop-eating birds) and water (it draws nutrients out of the soil), citing rather extensive studies on the subject. Think of it: poor dirt-farmers, their loved ones dying of malnutrition and tuberculosis, who chop down every tree as though it were a weed and shun aqueducts as though they were a clever plot of peasant-hating Madrid bureaucrats… people trying to scratch a living from a dusty steppe who resist every attempt to transform the dusty steppe! It’s no less incomprehensible than a responsible adult male who watches children strike out time after time and refuses to allow them the advantages that procured four thousand hits for Ty Cobb. O tempora, o mores!
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