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P R A E S I D I U M
A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis
8.1 (Winter 2008)
A quarterly publication of The Center for Literate Values
The previous issue of Praesidium (Fall 2007) may be viewed by clicking here.
© All contents of this journal (including poems, articles, fictional works, and short pieces by staff) are copyrighted by The Center for Literate Values of Tyler, Texas (2008), and may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.
The thoughtful literate person is increasingly forced to ask himself, "What can I possibly do in these times?" as our society and culture implode, and while the answer involves clinging to whatever remnants of civilization's legacy may be grasped, it must not end there.
Thomas F. Bertonneau
William Carlos Williams foresaw the spiritual poverty of the post-literate age when most cultural prophets were still singing the praises of “progress”.
The alarm about the cultural consequences of electronic mass media continues to be sounded in discrete realms of experience, with little appreciation of the phenomenon’s vast reach.
A prize-winning Honors thesis, this treatise on a little-explored vein of English Romantic thought has been divided in two; the present half clarifies a subtle connection between evangelical and Lockean views.
John R. Harris
This first essay in a two-part series argues that the forces now styled “conservative” in the West have divorced abiding human value from gainful employment, leaving true culture unprotected.
Our roving reporter breaks a story on the real reason for high tuition and low test scores: failure to sign the Kyoto Accord!
J. S. Moseby
A story written faintly in the form of a “radio play”, this dialogue examines questions of faith and morality in contemporary living.
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A Few Words from the Editor
It seems not necessarily to be true that “if you live, you learn.” We all know several people of advanced years—too many—who extrapolate nothing of their long their time on earth to an assessment of how they have used that time. Yet I find in my own increasing familiarity with the aches and pains of mounting years a strange conviction growing upon me which is not without solace, nor was it sought in any deliberate chain of reflections. I refer to the awareness of decadence as a part of cycle. The divine Ortega y Gasset welcomely silences a great many wits and wags in his classic book when he observes that every generation’s more senior population has not, in fact, always believed the world to be going to hell in a handbasket. The sensation of decline is not universal: it is not irresistibly projected by the progressively frail upon the world around them. Indeed, I could name a few young people who have confided to me in the soberest tones that they feel the end to be nigh. I recall having that feeling myself at their age, back in the spectacularly (now almost naively) decadent seventies.
In any case, I will repeat that the insight I have in mind prophesizes an upswing, not simply a nosedive into cataclysm. I almost wrote “Ragnarok”… but then, Ragnarok is something like the other side of the contrast. Regeneration will follow degeneration. The meltdown of neighborhoods into honeycombed launching pads for automobiles, the demise of business ethics as venders become faceless links on the Internet, the insulation of young people from real social contact as they chatter into cell phones or pipe in noise through their iPods… the paralysis of film and television within cliché which has rendered caricaturing so common that “adult comedies” are now animated like cartoons, the composition of novels either with a view to selling their movie rights or after the movie has already “sold” the dramatic setting and characters… these and dozens of other vectors are indisputable testimony that some end or other indeed looms. We cannot go on this way and remain ourselves. We must either morph into those caricatures which send us into peals of laughter with their inanity, or else vomit forth the whole toxic brew.
And, of course, we will do both. We will survive in both forms—which is to say that some of us, probably a great many, will choose not to survive as thoughtful, purposeful human beings. Others will be passed over in the rush to the edge, left to scratch out a meager living in unkempt nooks and crannies which will grow increasingly picturesque as “progress” moves on. Imagine, one year from now, the massive shift to digitalized television. A certain number of us will not turn the corner… and then we will face life without TV! But this will be, by default, a life more enriched by silence, reflection, and probably books. The famous “gap” which some politicians aspire to exploit, others to ignore, will send its crack running into places unimaginable to any politico—into the depths of the soul. It is true that, as a result of this crack, we will not hold together as a social and cultural unit. What no politician will admit is that we have already fallen apart in that sense, and what none can conceive of is that this is a good thing. The seed must decay for the new plant to sprout.
Naturally, if our air becomes unbreathable and our water undrinkable, or if the diabolical elite of some oil-fattened society-in-caricature begins to set off nuclear weapons like fireworks (and I do not rule out the possibility that our own elite may play this unenviable role), the nooks and crannies will become as lifeless as the high ground. Nobody will see a new tomorrow with eyes of flesh once the sun explodes. That failing, however—and we should not underestimate the potential for the elite to be degraded into the same inept stupidity as they have fostered in their dully amused, highly engineered masses—somebody will write another book a hundred years from now, and somebody will read it. A new classic will be born.
I prefer to introduce this issue with the very vague comments above and invite the reader to carry his or her response to them through the ensuing pages. As much as we at The Center for Literate Values tend to shake our heads over the contemporary scene, we also, it seems to me, offer a more mature kind hope—and even a more enduring kind of humor—than one finds round about the town. You can whistle your way through the graveyard… or you can pay your respects to the dead, pull some weeds, plant some flowers, and close the gate behind you.
Dr. Paterson Visits the Library While the Cool People Wiki and Blog
Thomas F. Bertonneau
The pitiful dead
Cry back to us from the fire, cold in
The fire, crying out—wanting to be chaffed
Those who have written books
(William Carlos Williams, Paterson, Book III )
The “meta-crisis” of higher education belongs to, and is perhaps identical with, an epochal transition through which the civilization of the West now passes. Because everything in this transition is connected with everything else in it, isolating one aspect or phase from the whole entails an explanatory difficulty. The contemporary problem thus calls for a distant or altitudinous perspective to which one lays claim only with trepidation. This problem of adequate perspective is indeed an element of our crisis. Assuming that something called education—or, more particularly, higher education—is separable from the grand picture for the purposes of discussion, where then does one begin?
While pulling back for the grandest possible view, let us try this… From the time of Hellenism until World War Two, the civilization of the West took its bearings from—and it shaped itself, at the highest levels of knowledge and decorum, according to—a textual basis: this basis consisted (just as it ideally still consists) of the ancient Mediterranean literary and philosophical heritage and the Bible, as supplemented both by the writings of the early Church-fathers and, a few centuries later, by the inclusion of Celtic and Germanic folklore, now reconciled with Christianity. The resulting synthesis created an identifiable Western European literary canon, the ultimate important terms of which bear the names of those two Sixteenth-Century genius-contemporaries, William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes.1 What follows them, whatever its significance, takes the form of an extended denouement. Christianity, the content of Christendom, is a scriptural religion not only in the sense of being explicitly articulated in the settled Gospel (as opposed, for example, to Gnostic pamphlets, all of which post-date the Gospel, all of which are written in jargon, and none of which agrees with the others) but also in the sense that the Greek and Latin commentators on the New Testament and the Old brought to their fideism the impressive intellectual apparatus of the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical schools.
Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Basil of Caesarea, in their attempts to explain the new religion in a persuasively intellectual way to the gentiles, could not help but create a synthesis of monotheisms—with Plato’s Attic mysticism as one part and the Sermon on the Mount as the other. They were, at the same time, attaching the new faith to an old but supremely important Greek innovation, or rather two such innovations (the latter a derivation of the former): alphabetic literacy and the literary text. Without giving the full case here, let it be said that alphabetic literacy, which could be learned by anyone, and the literary text together constitute, as the late Walter Ong, Jr., taught us to understand in Orality and Literacy (1981), a technology that radically alters the style of thinking. The letters Aleph and Bet are for their Phoenician originators pictographic tokens of syllables whose names signify; but for the Greek adapter of them as items of the one-and-only alphabet, they are abstractions with non-signifying names that refer solely to analytical-phonemic elements of spoken language graphically reconceived. The alphabet, as soon as it leaps into existence, functions as a tool for revealing the latent structure of that most human of traits, language; this means that the alphabet is a powerful tool of self-understanding, as are texts.
If Christianity were a scriptural religion, as it is, then the West, for being reared thereon, would be a specifically literate (alphabetically literate) civilization, one marvelous peculiarity of which would be its long collective memory. Now this ability to recollect is not limited by the capacity of aging individuals to remember a plethora of details about the deeds of the ancestors, but only by the capacity of the community to preserve its libraries, civic and private.2 On the basis of these, and on the success of education in inculcating respect for the libraries and for the books that they conserve, an existing literate society can pass along the arts of reading and writing to the rising cohort; this bequeathal in turn permits new generations to decipher the wisdom of ages and conduct their business without starting again at the degree zero of organized existence.
A glance at Saint Augustine ’s Confessions will clarify the argument, for Augustine understands the antecedent relation of the alphabet and literacy to the civilized context in which he lived, and which he knew to be in a crisis. The Platonic and Aristotelian schools had existed for nearly a thousand years when Saint Augustine began the composition of his Confessions early in the Fifth Century; they had bequeathed a philosophical archive that informed the civilized order by offering an intellectual regimen of dialectic and logic. Augustine points to the built-in flaw in the civilized order: because it is order and because it does imply a regimen, it offends against the natural laziness of the human beings lifted up in its embrace whether they have asked to be so lifted up or not. For discipline-related reasons difficult to explain to the not-yet-educated, or indeed to the not-yet-civilized, Augustine’s childhood preceptors insisted that he study the narrative and grammatical orderliness of Homer, Sophocles, Plato, and Aristotle, as he writes (114). Augustine stubbornly preferred his native Latin to Greek and he excused himself, as best he could, from obligatory foreign-language studiousness.
Augustine therefore read Virgil’s Aeneid the way that the present writer, in the ninth grade, read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars (1912): that is to say, instead of the assigned text, which in Augustine’s case was Homer, probably The Odyssey, and in my case was Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. In the range of possibilities one might have fallen back, in a spasm of adolescent reaction, on worse things than Edgar Rice Burroughs in one of his periodic Martian moods. I might have gotten stuck forever, as some of my classmates did, on J. D. Salinger’s smarmy Catcher in the Rye, or on Jerzy Kozinski’s smutty espionage-novels. One can progress from Burroughs to better things rather naturally, but where save into deeper petulance or deeper cynicism does one go from Salinger or Kozinski? Serious readers will eventually catch up with A Tale of Two Cities, as the one-time Burroughs-reader did.
Now Augustine’s recalcitrance about the Greek language, or his preference for Virgil over Homer, might seem, if we looked at it only casually, to be “no big deal”. The saga of Prince Aeneas in the Latin original is as much “Greek to us” as Homer himself is in his Ninth-Century B.C. Attic dialect. Augustine, in his autobiography, sees it differently and takes his own uncooperativeness with the curriculum as a profound anthropological symptom:
If I ask them [those… who buy and sell the baubles of literature] if it is true, as the poet says, that Aeneas once came to Carthage, the unlearned will reply that they do not know and the learned will deny that it is true. But if I ask with what letters the name Aeneas is written, all who have ever learned this will answer correctly, in accordance with the conventional understanding men have agreed upon as to the signs. Again, if I should ask which would cause the greatest inconvenience in our life, if it were forgotten: reading and writing, or these poetical fictions, who does not see what everyone would answer who had not entirely lost his memory? (121)
Any interpretation of Augustine’s rhetoric should take care, remarking well what the passage deliberately avoids saying, as well as what it actually does say. Although Augustine refrains from praising what he so urgently loved as a youth, he does not reject literature as a repository of value; but, rather, he understands it as being profane rather than sacred and as having a subordinate relation to “reading and writing”, considered as epistemologically primary because they grant us the Gospel. Augustine defines “reading and writing” as the knowledge of how “correctly” to spell out and also to read and recognize words, so that the procedure occurs “in accordance with the conventional understanding men have agreed upon as to the signs.” The alphabet, knowable alike to the “learned” and the “unlearned”, acts as a bond of agreement between otherwise alienated segments of the society: the professors, so to speak, and those who only read The Reader’s Digest. Precisely as a convention, the alphabet—as also alphabetic literacy—lies beyond disagreement or disputation; it partakes of the transcendentally impersonal, as all institutions do, and cannot serve as an object of personal rancor, a quality related to the phonemic-analytical abstractness of alphabetic signs.
Or rather, the alphabet cannot serve as an object of personal rancor as long as the dominant elite of the society insists uncompromisingly on inculcating impersonal respect for abstract non-personal conventions derived from an analysis of human behavior. The alphabet in this way, as a manifestation both of the Greek and the Gospel Logos, constitutes one of the minimal but indispensable civilized achievements of Mediterranean humanity, permitting the organization of a complex society, without which the “poetical fictions”, however one assesses them, would lapse into irrelevance, as though they had never existed.
Because Augustine’s purpose in Confessions remains specifically evangelical, he demotes literature per se so that it should not distract from the Gospel, against which the learned pagans—Celsus, for example, or Porphyry—frequently lodged the complaint that it was not literary. The pagans judged rightly in this: the Gospel was and is something else entirely than mere idle letters. Nevertheless, the adult Augustine read obsessively; one cannot but recognize in him a profoundly literate man who never forgot the bookish adventures of his childhood and adolescence. Quite apart from the regular Bible-quotations in every paragraph of Confessions, Augustine records devoting years of his life before his conversion to studying Platonism in its Latin vulgate. The study was productive, for “therein I found, not indeed in the same words, but to the selfsame effect, enforced by many and various reasonings that ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’” (114). Like Aeneas called Italy-ward by his Destiny, and in good accord with the Platonic model either of Plato’s own Symposium or Plotinus’ treatise On the Intelligible Beauty, Augustine went voyaging, not on the earthly plane, but perpendicular to it: “The mind somehow knew the unchangeable, for, unless it had known it in some fashion, it could have no sure ground for preferring it to the changeable. And thus with the flash of a trembling glance, it arrived at that which is” (121).
Books and reading—and the ideas that these disclose—make possible the intuition of permanence in a world afflicted by catastrophic changes such as Visigoth-incursions and vandalism, the deliquescence of Imperial administration, and the epidemic démorale of sectarian contestation. In Augustine’s thought, the classical tradition fuses simultaneously with Hebrew prophecy and with the “Good News” of the Apostles. This fusion would create a stable nucleus of civilizational continuity in the long Time of Troubles following Augustine’s death in 430; and it would nourish the West, whose intellectual basis it established, for fifteen centuries. Recently Pope Benedict XVI echoed that foundation by reminding what remains of Christendom that Christianity worships a rational God rather than a tyrannical cosmocrator in the style of Wotan or Baal or the bloody Allah of the Islamists.
Anticipating Augustine’s example a half a century earlier, Saint Basil (330-379) defends in Greek against an incipient Byzantine puritanism the value and merit of pagan letters for a spiritually integral life. Basil’s polemic takes a more explicit form than that of his successor, for the Greek Father, who knew well the gentile poets from Homer onward, resolved to make a specific appeal on their behalf to the pig-headed “chuck-it-all” faction of his coreligionist contemporaries. Basil is perhaps even more liberal, in the best sense of that term, than Augustine, being calmer, more in possession of a formal education, and less concerned than the North African that poetry might displace or contaminate the Gospel. Basil’s essay Ad Adulescentes, or “To Young Christian Men—How They Might Benefit from the Study of Pagan Letters”, argues that, insofar as the old poetry treats of “the deeds and words of good men”, intelligent people “will cherish and emulate” the work of the old poets (387). A precedent exists for such magnanimity, writes Basil, for “even Moses… first trained his mind in the learning of the Egyptians, and then proceeded to the contemplation of Him who is” (387). The continuity of Heliopolitan wisdom with the “I am” of the ardent scrub-oak prefigures for Basil the not-yet-guaranteed but vitally necessary continuity of Plato with Paul that the Pontic bishop-and-professor would see secured.
When Basil chides Hesiod’s mythic accounts of Olympian adultery for their bad taste and false theology, he exercises a criterion no more severe than that of Plato’s in The Republic, which he all but quotes. We must learn to disdain as well as to admire; we must act as the bees do and learn which flowers are the sweetest, for the supply of honey to civilized life. On the topic of The Odyssey, by contrast, Basil waxes enthusiastic. He avers in a lapidary sentence that Homer’s poem of fractured society in the aftermath of irrational and destructive warfare offers a formative study of virtue, neither pagan nor Christian peculiarly, as when Homer represents
The leader of the Cephallenians, after being saved from shipwreck, as naked, and the princess [Nausicaä] as having first shown him reverence at the mere sight of him (so far was he from incurring shame through merely being seen naked, since the poet has portrayed him as clothed with virtue in place of garments), and then, furthermore, Odysseus as having been considered worthy of such high honor by the rest of the Phaeacians likewise that, disregarding the luxury in which they lived, they one and all admired and envied the hero… (395)3
In Homer’s dispensation, the chief virtue of Odysseus consists of his abilities to learn from experience and curtail his appetitive drives. In episodes such as “The Cattle of the Sun” and “Nausicaä”, Odysseus presents himself as a paragon of the Thou Shalt Not; and, in the critical moment, despite his misgivings, he proves himself willing to assert order, by main force where necessary, much to the chagrin of the rabble who have squatted rapaciously in his house. The Odyssey ranks as the greatest of all poems of civilization, which is why it is as vital to the emerging Christian civilization of the Fourth or Fifth Century as it was to the archaic Greek civilization that composed and enshrined it. In a world already threatened by Gothic depredations, Persian stratagems, and civic dithering, Basil acquits himself admirably in extolling Homer.
Homer is an author whom one reads, if not directly, then at least by way of influence in Virgil’s Aeneid or Burroughs’ Princess of Mars, depending on his context; not to have read The Odyssey need not hobble one absolutely as long as he has read Virgil or Burroughs, because these can carry one a considerable distance, culturally speaking. Aristotle, in his Poetics, rated tragedy above epic, but from a later literate perspective one grasps that epic, amenable to silent reading, pushes literacy farther than does theatrical performance, which even an illiterate can understand, because the players say the lines. An orientation to books, most constructively to narrative, hauls the naïve or barbarian subject out of his Visigoth-non-reflexivity like nothing else. Movies and television drew the masses back into the jabbering mimesis—and the shame-based conformism that accompanies it—of oral culture during the just-completed century; contemporary college-students, dazzled even further by the flashing screens of their gadgets, can read the instruction booklets that come with their cell phones but flounder and complain when asked to assimilate novels. The essential bookishness of civilization, its rootedness in ideas which themselves are rooted in literacy, becomes a topic whenever the sensitive man feels the disgruntlement of his polity, quite as Basil and Augustine testify.
The Byzantine poet Mavropous, writing around 1050 in a time of coups-d’état and contre-coups, the onslaught of the Jihad, and the final visibly irreparable break between Constantinople and Rome, put it this way in a prayer-like formula: “If you are willing to spare some of the others [who were not Christians] from your punishment, my Christ, may you choose Plato and Plutarch, for my sake. For both of them clung very closely to your laws in both word and deed” (Trypanis 441).
In the crisis of disorder, the resolutely civic person knows where to find the anodyne order: in books and in a past betokened by books, by means of which the present must forge again its continuity with its origins. Abraham Cowley (1618-1667), who sided with the Royalists in England’s Civil War and went to jail for it, describes the English interregnum under Cromwell as a phase when a “violent public storm would suffer nothing to stand where it did, but rooted up every plant, even from the princely cedars to me the hyssop” (Grosart 340). The Puritan insurgency, writes Cowley, made it so that “Learning and th’Arts met; as much they feared, as when the Huns of old and Goths appeared” (Cowley 79). Defining contentment on the lesson of his bitter experience, Cowley remarks as requisite to it, after “a small house”, only “a few friends, and many books, both true” (Grosart 339). Founding a sane polity on the sanity of contented men, Cowley draws the conclusion that “the Habit of Thinking” belongs properly to solitude and leisure—and that these in turn most usefully serve “the Learned”, that is the bookish, rather than the “Illiterate”, or persons who fall easy victim to boredom (Grosart 317). Cowley himself acquired literacy and his taste for books accidentally when a boy, through fortuitously encountering a volume of Edmund Spenser’s romances in his mother’s study. Spenser’s The Fairy Queen served for Cowley what The Aeneid served for Augustine and A Princess of Mars for a few lucky moderns, who ascended from it to Homer.
The crowded character of modern cities such as the London of Cowley’s day, led that perspicacious man to denominate them as “foolish” precisely because of their “Millions”, in his prophetic hyperbole (Grosart 318). Cowley saw, in the massiveness of the looming new world, the derailment of leisure, properly literate, into its degraded form of panem et circenses, or mere entertainment, to divert the masses from their own despair. Cowley understood the way in which a crude pamphleteering had abetted the turmoil of the Revolution: the mass qua mass had no capacity for reading beyond the emotive demagoguery of pamphlets and broadsides.
Three centuries after Cowley, Virginia Woolf cogently titles her essay on reading, “Hours in a Library” (1916). Woolf distinguishes between an instrumental reading-for-facts, which she associates with what for her are the defective categories of “the specialist” and “the authority”, and what she calls “the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading” (Blaisdell 196). In a metaphor reminiscent of nothing so much as Augustine’s report of the rapture induced by his having studied Plotinus, Woolf describes the true reader as: “A man of intense curiosity; of ideas; open-minded and communicative, to whom reading is more of the nature of brisk exercise in the open air than of sheltered study; he trudges the high road, he climbs higher and higher upon the hills until the atmosphere is almost too fine to breathe in; to him it is not a sedentary pursuit at all” (Blaisdell 196). A true reader is wont always to “go back to the classics, and consort entirely with minds of the first order,” such that “he holds himself aloof from all the activities of men” (Blaisdell 197). Woolf already appears as an eccentric, or as an atavistic holy person professing spiritual regimes incompatible with life as people typically live it in the modern milieu; contemporary readers hardly know what to make of her. She writes in the moment, the spasm of war, when the modern upheaval begins its relentless assault against every higher value, in the culmination of which even our modern colleges and universities will have become accomplices of post-literacy.
We note, however, that the resurgent oral culture of Twenty-First Century Northern-Hemisphere civilization differs radically from the archaic, pre-literate oral culture out of which grew the earliest phase of the West, namely the Greek world of Homer and the lawgivers. Ours is not the village orality of a hundred people who know each other and who collaborate in survival; it is the orality of Cowley’s prophetic “Millions” who, lacking discipline, crave entertainment. Flashing screens have rendered them incapable of focusing their minds; but this very fuzziness makes them perfect objects for the electronic equivalent of pamphleteering.
The American poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), from whom I have drawn my epigraph, picks up the thread of cultural analysis where Woolf leaves off, echoing themes in Basil, Augustine, and Cowley. Williams’ great poem Paterson, begun in the late 1930s and still unfinished at the poet’s death, devotes a good part of its five completed books to an explicit discussion of the intellectual and socio-cultural crisis of North American modernity. Williams understood that the language of modern society is the written language, deeply grounded; that modern society depends, as no other society has, on the literacy, in the broadest sense, of its constituents. Basil and Augustine said, we Christians need pagan literature; Williams says, we moderns must cling as tightly as we can to the total literary heritage, which slips away as we speak.
In his magnum opus Williams develops an illuminating figural vocabulary for discussing these problems of de-enculturation, on which here we may profitably draw. Book II, “Sunday in the Park”, and Book III , “The Library”, of Paterson serve the argument especially well. The overall character of Paterson merits some brief discussion, too, for Williams’ poem concerns the total continuity of Western civilization as much as it does the particulars (one of its author’s favorite words) of the New Jersey city that it celebrates. The verses of Paterson yield intermittently not only to detours of meticulously culled journalistic and historical prose but also to entire lyrics that Williams translates from the ancient Greek, as in the case of Sappho’s “Peer of the Gods” in Book V, “The Virgin”. Williams makes of Paterson a poem of allusions, of constant allusions, always glancing to the ancients—to Sappho, peerless among the lyric poets, to Hipponax, “the delver”, to Xenophon’s Anabasis—to insure a continuity of present with past. For Williams, certainly no Transcendentalist, the relation of a hale present to its constitutive past is always transcendental, in the sense that the present depends in its integrity on conventions descending to it from remote founders and innovators. There is a parallelism in this way of thinking with Augustine’s comment on the abecedary, which no existing literate consciousness has invented but on which that consciousness nevertheless fully and non-disputatiously depends.
The “Preface” of Paterson thus invokes “The Lineaments of the Giants”, the “Giants” being the heroes of Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century New Jersey, which Williams sees as a properly heroic age; the “Giants” also personify the transcendental achievements of the common Western heritage on whose foundation the particular North American chapter of civilization has no choice but to ground itself, if it would ground itself. The “Giants” form the true bedrock on which the city of Paterson rises, as an idea of polity and community. But as the metaphysical bedrock, we note, the “Giants” stay effective only insofar as their descendants and beneficiaries actively remember them, for they are not actually present but rather only present by willful recall.
A Blakean emanation of the “Giants”, the recurrent “Dr. Paterson”, functions as the editorial stand-in for Williams himself in his poem and as the conscience, so to speak, of the degraded Patersonians of the present day, remembering and thinking for them when he can. “Dr. Paterson”, massively literate, “receives / communications from the Pope and Jacques / Barzun (Isocrates)” (Paterson 9). At the beginning of the poem, “Paterson has gone away / to rest and write” (9). Without him to cogitate for them, to be their intellect and conscience, the Patersonians “walk incommunicado”; they are “the Telephone / Directory”, so many arbitrary ciphers, as Williams presciently says, in an instrumental volume to serve commerce (9). In Book II, Dr. Paterson takes his habitual Sunday walk in the civic park, climbing Garrett Mountain. Here Williams, through his persona, observes “the great beast”, the crowd, “come to sun himself” (55) and he sees “loiterers in groups… walking indifferent through / each other’s privacy” (56). For Williams, as for Cowley or Woolf, the mass abolishes solitude and leisure; for leisure it substitutes an aimless loitering, or else beer-sodden sleep, in which one escapes by narcosis from the ambient condition of being “flagrantly bored” (59). Like a drunkard, the crowd is “amnesic” (60).
Cut off from the metaphysical forms that might enliven it by memory, the crowd exhibits a character only insofar as authorities outside and above it cajole it into a minimum of pattern, as when “a cop is directing traffic… toward / the conveniences” (60). Dr. Paterson possesses form from the inside out because he, in distinction from the crowd, remains rooted, by a constant maintenance of recollection, in the metaphysical bedrock.
It is a case, says Williams-Paterson, of “the language”, of “a thwarting, an avulsion” of language so that speech devolves to “words / without style” (81). If the steeples of Paterson were to “spend their wits against / the sky” (55), ineffectively as they seem to do, it would be because language, the medium of historical continuity—and more than that, written language—has suffered a calamity and a breakage has occurred, severing the present from the past. Book III , where Dr. Paterson again operates to focus the view, takes place in the civic library, where, among books, “the cool of books” (95), the correspondent of the Pope and Jacques Barzun meditates on the three catastrophes that have punctuated Patersonian history: the cyclone, the fire, and the flood. This trio of meteorological and incendiary enormities stands, of course, for all shocks against civilization since the onset of the Industrial Revolution and thus for the cutting-free of the diminished present from the metaphysical bedrock. As, in Williams’ formula, “the province of the poem is the world,” so that “when the sun rises, it rises in the poem” (99), it follows that, losing contact with the text, “the spirit languishes, / unable,” as it also loses its world (100).
In his compact language, Williams tells the readers of Paterson that while reality is inalterable, unto itself—that while it is amenable directly to the senses—it has meaning only insofar as the mind has taken it up to make of it a symbol. The text, Williams’ “poem”, gives the subject his world at a level many degrees higher than the one at which the untutored senses initially furnish it for cognition. Homer’s epoi transform the world in this way for the Greeks, as the Gospel does for Late Antique humanity. On just this theory, Paterson, Book III , begins with a brief lyric in two stanzas describing a locust tree. The raw sensual impression of the locust tree is one thing, invaluable as a beginning; but the real locust tree only appears after it has undergone transfiguration in the mind, after it has become an image, in the manner of a Platonic idea, to reveal something essential in all contingent locust trees. Books give us the world in esse, as well as in principio. A world scornful of books is a world that necessarily, if unwittingly, scorns itself—scorns essences and principles and makes for itself a great disaster of barbarism and loss.
Augustine found his moment of conversion in the sound of a mysterious childlike voice saying within earshot but not directly to him to “pick it up and read it” over and over (Augustine 146). Picking it up and reading it is the conversion-experience of every genuinely literate person, as when Cowley encountered Spencer. “For days upon end,” Woolf writes, “we do nothing but read,” and our mood is one, as she puts it, of “excitement and exaltation” and an “intense singleness of mind” (Blaisdell 197 and 198). Woolf’s understanding of the passionate literacy, the bibliomania, of the civilized person includes the dialectical principle that structures Williams’ theory of how present and past maintain their relation. She writes, “We need all our knowledge of the old writers in order to follow what the new writers are attempting” (Blaisdell 200). The “new writers” represent us, and our present moment; and as we remain opaque to ourselves, requiring another perspective to clarify that opacity, the “old writers” offer us the only possibility of an education. Williams writes in an essay on “Revelation” (1947): “The objective in writing is to reveal. It is not to teach, not to advertise, not to sell, not even to communicate… but to reveal” (Selected Essays 268). In that negation, “not to teach”, Williams makes the same distinction that Woolf makes when she denies that the specialist or the expert, no matter how many technical treatises he peruses, is the same as the reader and when she says that the reader lives on a higher “humane” level.
Williams argues the “necessity of revelation” and, invoking the “starved lives” of contemporary North Americans, concludes that it is only “revelation” that can “restore values” (271). In another essay, “Against the Weather” (1939), Williams sets in a formula what he does in Paterson, Book III , in the lyric of the locust tree. The purpose of literature is “to lift the world of the senses to the level of the imagination and so give it new currency” (213). The aim of art is
Order. It is through this structure [of the orderly work] that the artist’s permanence and effectiveness are proven.
Judged equitably by the great tradition, of which the processes of art are the active front—obviously it is the artist’s business to call attention to the imbecilities, the imperfections, the partialities as well as the excellence of his time. (213)
Williams began as a rebellious modernist-experimentalist in Spring and All (1923); he could appear hostile to tradition. T. S. Eliot, for example, remained pejoratively for Williams “the clerk”. It is all the more poignant then that Williams should fix on the word “revelation” as his coinage for literature as a “great tradition”. In the essays as well as in Paterson, Williams occupies a Twentieth-Century position analogous to Saint Basil’s Fourth-Century or Saint Augustine’s Fifth-Century one. Augustine claimed for the Platonists that they had participated in revelation and Basil wanted to preserve pagan letters because they had much to reveal to the emergent Christendom of his time. In Paterson, Book III , Dr. Paterson imagines, as he reads about it, the great fire that swept through his city in 1902. While Dr. Paterson can transfigure the fire in his own imagination so that it acquires a positive connotation (as the very agency of poetic remaking), the empirical referent of that transfiguration, the fire itself, also functions in the poem as a symbol of the present’s holocaustic attitude to the past. Paterson recalls how bigotry once “burnt Sappho’s poems” (Paterson 119). Book III has an epigraph from George Santayana’s Last Puritan, reading in part “that cities are a second body for the human mind… a work of natural yet moral art” (94). The great fire consumes not only the library but also all of the downtown: “Before noon,” reads the account, “the whole city was doomed” (116). Dr. Paterson sees himself as living in the ashes of civic life: his muse—“the Beautiful Thing” of Book III —is a girl ambushed and serially raped by the gangs who, already in the 1930s, indicated the descent of urbanity into barbarism.
There are more ways to make a holocaust of books than simply by burning them. Books and High Culture cease to exist as soon as one parental generation decides to collaborate with infantile recalcitrance by excusing its offspring from the civilized discipline of a full literacy. John Dewey codified this disaster and gave it a fancy, dishonest name when he took over the chief teacher-training institution of his nation, the one that set the tone for all others, and declared that the aim of schools consisted in socializing the child. The history of American education in the Twentieth Century takes the form of a retreat from any real demand of civilization. Socialization does not mean the individualization of autonomous ethical persons, which the old literate education sought; it means rather enforcing conformance to a model articulated for the subject by an authoritative expert, invested with power. Under Dewey’s pragmatic concept of education, schooling became instruction from textbooks written by experts. Because such textbooks could not withstand competition from real books, from poetry and literature, the system had to minimize the presence of the latter. No one who has read Livy on the Roman Republic will give a damn about school-district-approved ancient history textbook. But one who thinks that the school-district-approved textbook, with no words of more than three syllables and lots of color illustrations, is a book—that one will on the contrary find the demand of a real book daunting, because it is daunting, and he will remain contented in the paltriness of the instructional volume. He will insist on it.
In its early phases, post-literacy was hard to see, because the parental and grandparental generations were still literate. Technical innovations subverted the pull of the printed word on the collective mentality and contributed to the dissociation of civic existence from the metaphysical bedrock—from dogma, properly understood. Another term for dogma is conviction and another is certainty. By no coincidence, post-literacy overlaps everywhere with a fiercely asserted epistemological relativism that sometimes articulates itself as pseudo-theory but more often appears as a broadside or a pamphlet, as in the ubiquitous bumper-sticker seen near college campuses, “QUESTION AUTHORITY,” or the endless stream of “books” by Noam Chomsky. Nowadays almost everything that the newspaper-supplements review under the category of “book” is in fact a pamphlet designed to serve an agenda by exacerbating resentment. It might be a cliché to invoke movies, radio, and television as culprits in this sorry decline, but that is only because a truth much observed tends to become a commonplace. Later, more insidious novelties have accelerated the relinquishment of alphabetic civilization by those who might have been its heirs: all devices with flashing screens or irritating alarms and buzzers, such as the personal computer—used mainly to access the Internet—and the cell phone. These things are prostheses for the spiritually impaired.
When class ends on a contemporary college or university campus, the student’s rising out of his seat is invariably accompanied by his reaching for his cell phone. Students cannot spend even a few minutes in solitude with themselves—much less can they silently contemplate the view in the quad while they pass from one scheduled obligation to another—without resorting in a panic to the instrument of a pointless communication. Writing, for such students, entails a visible, often vocal agony and complaint. My freshman composition students typically find it difficult to make simple predications. Their attempts at predication, always couched in the passive voice, indicate their orality. The oral person, as Ong tells, us never knows anything directly in an impersonal way; rather, he knows a thing insofar as his peers also know it and approve the codification of knowledge in a rhyming saw. The crabbed formulas that “democracy is seen as this or that,” or that “college is felt to be this or that,” testify not only to a relativism in which all assertions link themselves to an arbitrary and fluctuant consensus but also to the primitive orality in which to venture an independent judgment incurs the danger of ostracism.4 The most frequent “reference” now appearing in student papers, when one does not take care to forbid it in advance, is the “Wikipedia”. A “Wiki”, to quote the web (appropriately, for once) is “a piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit Web page content using any Web browser.”5 The “Wikipedia” thus bears the same relation to an encyclopedia as gossip or personal preference does to truth.
The crisis of higher education in our time is the crisis of a mission now impossible in the ample way that the physical plant of our state-run systems of higher education implies. Our hundreds of colleges and universities have become what they probably condemned themselves to become as they proliferated and self-aggrandized after World War Two—centers of vocational training for purely technical elites, for barbarian specialization.
Proposals to “solve the problem” of contemporary higher education, even when put forth by people whose basic convictions correspond with mine, cause me to shrug my shoulders and think: “Does he not see that it is useless—that a meta-crisis one hundred years in the making will not be redressed by adding a course here or there on Shakespeare or Flaubert?” A majority of the faculty nowadays either would not vote to add such a course, being Visigoths themselves, or would sabotage it did anyone succeed in imposing it despite them. The curriculum will mean but little to students who, at eighteen or nineteen years, confront in Homer the first non-school-district-approved book of their lives, bringing to it no antecedent experience of extended narrative as a type of knowledge. We live in a Vandal kingdom, in an age of resentment against the burden of civilization, no matter all those cell phones and gadgets. Such trinkets fascinate only Huns. We stand between the external Jihad of Muslim illiterates and the internal Jihad of egalitarian downward leveling to the least literate altitude. 6
This is a profoundly sad and demoralizing conclusion. Readers could hardly be blamed for rejecting it. They might legitimately ask me how I justify my faculty-salary from a state university or why I persist in my vocation. My answer is something like the creed of Tertullian, who famously said, “I believe because it is absurd.” The absurd concerns irrational exceptions, leftovers, vestiges, and laughable chances in desperate situations. One still encounters in the routine of semesters a few students who, like Cowley, discovered The Fairy Queen or its equivalent when they were eleven years old, who became civilized before “public education” could socialize them into nullity and prevent the formation of an educated public. One honors the nobility of the absurd by addressing these few. I stay where I am because I love books. I stay where I am because the real city is not the one collapsing around us, but the ideal or heavenly city, with which we become familiar in books and where all civilized people are citizens first before they are citizens of the contingent earthly republic.
In addition to being a reader of Late-Antique literature, including the Christian Patres, I am also a reader of science fiction. Books like Leigh Brackett’s Long Tomorrow (1955) or the late Walter M. Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) draw on the Patristic tradition by describing heroic attempts of surviving bearers of civilization to make a bridge from what has been destroyed to what might be revived of a genuine and humane order; they labor in ashes to resurrect from the ashes the sacrificial victim (civilization) of a perverse but all-too-human rage. The defeated in our situation must acknowledge their defeat—no putting one’s head in the sand for us—but we must simultaneously act as though we had not been defeated. While the “cool” people, whom the majority strains to emulate, pointlessly labor and consume; while they blithely “Wiki” and “blog”, we must fulfill the obligation to stand on our metaphysical ground, to stand for that ground, to fortify the library if necessary against an incendiary vehemence of marauders. The ground under our feet is the achievement of bygone centuries. It is our treasure and birthright. We guard it. Let us take for our motto the concluding image of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 7
Augustine. Confessions. Trans. Albert Cook Outler. New York: Dover, 2002. (Reprint of Westminster Library of Classics edition, 1955.)
Basil. The Letters, vol. 4. Trans. J. Deferrari and M. R. P. McGuire, Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb Classics, 1934, 387.
Blaisdell, B. (ed.). Great English Essays, edited by B. Blaisdell, New York: Dover, 2005, 196.
Cowley, Abraham. The Civil War. Ed. A. Pritchard. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1973, 79.
Grosart, A. B. (ed.). Works of Cowley, vol. 2. New York: AMS Press, 1967, 340.
Trypanis, C. A. (ed.). The Penguin Book of Greek Verse. New York: Penguin, 1971.
Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. New York: New Directions, 1963.
---. Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1954.
1 Neither Shakespeare nor Cervantes was certifiably Christian in a fideist or devout sense, Shakespeare seeming to be a Stoic or even a materialist of some non-rigorous type; nevertheless, both were scrupulous judges of Christendom, which they assessed to have been superior to the new type of “rational”, state-based civilization that they both could already see rising, by no means tentatively, out of Christendom’s dissolution. It is their common liminal character—their willingness to defend something from which they felt somewhat displaced—that leads me to describe them as “ultimate” in relation to the West. Both Shakespeare and Cervantes write from a threatened perspective. Shakespeare is conscious of being an Englishman when England was still in a prolonged war with Spain; Cervantes is conscious of being a Spaniard, and a member of Spanish-Catholic civilization, amidst the clash of what remained of Christendom in his day and—yes—Islam. return
2 By an act of reverse-memory, literates can remember what it was like to be, while as a child, illiterate; they can also, again by an act of imagination, think their way into the parameters of a purely oral community. Illiterates (or “pre-literates”) cannot exercise their imaginations in a symmetrical gesture, literacy being precisely and absolutely unimaginable to them. return
3 In E. R. Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars and its sequels The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars, the terrestrial castaway on Homeric Mars finds himself, in his planetary advent, naked, and the Martian princess with whom he falls in love is likewise naked; but both are clothed, to borrow from Basil, in virtue in place of garments. Writers like Burroughs, who flourished in the so-called pulps, might well constitute the modern (or Twentieth Century) equivalent of “virtuous pagans.” return
4 The passive construction, a staple of undergraduate prose, finds its perfect outward expression in the cell-phone sub-ethos: the is-plus-participle tells us that, if we were to poll the first ten telephone-numbers on the student’s speed-dial list, then the answerers would probably affirm A, B, or C, depending on the inquiry. When a student makes an is-plus-participle statement, he is mentally referring to the probable consensus of others, rather than thinking for himself. return
6 Indeed, the infamous and wretched 9/11 perpetrators and their successors seem to have relied and to continue to rely heavily on personal computers, the Internet, cell phones, and video-cameras; they were adept at gadgetry, notwithstanding that the very West which they despised had supplied these items to them. Often, to excuse the lamentable functional illiteracy of contemporary college students, administrators praise them for their “computer” or “electronic literacy,” finding another way to abuse the term literacy. It is ironic and telling that contemporary North American college students share with the people who want to kill them a fascination with flashing, beeping toys. I must add that I do not blame students for their degrading lack of culture; I blame the generations of education experts and specialists who have shaped our schools, including the colleges and universities, to produce technically proficient barbarians rather than humane people prepared to learn on their own the sub-knowledge requisite to the jobs they will hold in the “service economy”. It is not the students’ fault, but it is everyone’s problem, whether he is aware of it or not. return
Thomas Bertonneau, Secretary of The Center for Literate Values, is a regular contributor to Praesidium. His essays on Berlioz and Delius last year (in 7.3 and 7.4) attracted intermational attention. He currently teaches in the English Department at SUNY-Oswego. A student of popular as well as classical culture, Dr. Bertonneau recently authored (with Kim Paffenroth) The Gospel According to Sci-Fi (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006).
The Emergence of Media: Humanity’s Endgame
This piece of critical writing intends to look at the topic of media in contemporary society. This writing should be seen as the beginning of further attempts—building on the insights of figures as diverse as Marshall McLuhan and the lesser-known media theorist Harold A. Innis, Canadian philosopher George Parkin Grant, Noam Chomsky, and Camille Paglia—to move towards a “unified field theory” of the relations between media and society.
It could be argued that the effect on society of the emergence of electronic mass media (and their immediate precursors such as cinema) has been profoundly underestimated by most thinkers, or interpreted in banal and fairly trivial terms. One point that can almost immediately be made is that there are considerable differences between the mass media before the emergence of the Internet as a mass medium and after that emergence. It could be suggested that the real birth of the Internet was in 1995, with the creation of the first websites which could be accessed by everyone who had a computer with an Internet connection. With ever-faster connections and ever-faster microcomputers (personal computers), the Internet spawned all kinds of new media developments that had never really been possible before, or had been prefigured only in some kind of fragmentary form. Thus, to look at the impact of the somewhat earlier media (mainly cinema, television, and the VCR ) and then to try to examine the multifarious impacts of the post-1995 Internet would involve largely discrete undertakings.
As the Internet develops, we learn through different events and junctures about different aspects of its possible impact—such as the emergence of Amazon, of Napster, of political blogs, of MMORPGs, of Google, of MySpace, of YouTube, of Facebook, of Second Life, of ITunes, of podcasts, of the Blackberry, and so forth. To look briefly at just one of these developments, Google has become the overwhelmingly dominant search-engine, and has been able to parlay that into vast commercial wealth. The only main alternative to Google one can probably think of today is A9, which is most prominently utilized now (as far as the author knows) by Amazon.
In terms of human consciousness, it could be argued with a broad sweep that the realm of modern media (mainly cinema, television, and Internet) constitutes a new type of reality, of various dimensions—parts of which can also be stored and recreated for viewing or listening by most people.
Until the emergence of the mass Internet after 1995, the situation was that, while almost anyone could use a camcorder, there was no easy way of widely distributing personal content. In the pre-Internet days, the “video” content that could be given a truly mass-audience constituted only an infinitesimal portion of all videotape filmed. Of course, just having “video” content today, theoretically available to everyone on the Web who wishes to view it, certainly does not guarantee it a mass-audience. What can be seen is that much of Web content, even today, is driven by the inertia, resources, and economic as well as cultural power of vast media enterprises, franchises and brands. This weight of inertia goes back three to four decades, at least.
In the pre-1995 days, almost everything in media that was widely available was produced by a relatively small number of different types of professionals, such as Hollywood movie directors and network television producers. And the final say on virtually all the sounds, speech, and images which could become available to a truly large mass-audience was further channeled through an extremely small number of effective decision-makers, or “gatekeepers”. However, the weight of the pre-1995 media is such that the hegemony of various media enterprises, franchises and brands endlessly and almost effortlessly continues. In fact, an argument could be made that such phenomena as celebrity gossip websites have in fact intensified many people’s never-ending excitation over various entertainment and sports celebrities.
While eclectic material can theoretically be made available on the Internet, in most cases, it lacks the “authority”, “cool-factor”, and advertising muscle of such phenomena as Hollywood blockbusters, CNN news programs, or videogames created with multi-million dollar budgets. Indeed, the effect of the Internet is often just to mobilize and intensify a given “fan-base” rather than to encourage any kind of eclectic philosophical thinking, reflection, or discussion. The Internet has arrived on the scene after more than four decades of extremely intensive image shaping by media such as television and electrically enhanced popular music (formerly mostly existing in the category of rock music, and now given over largely to rap and hip-hop.)
The notion that so-called “televangelism”, as a major aspect of current-day media, disproves the proposition that there is overwhelming antinomianism in current-day media culture is highly dubious. It could be argued that “televangelism” (which in any case may have peaked in the 1980s) is mostly just another form of entertainment, at considerable remove from more traditional understandings of religion and the religious experience. It also frequently trades on highly controversial applications of prophetic and apocalyptic traditions. And any serious comparison of the comparative social and cultural reach and influence of Hollywood as opposed to “televangelism” shows the former as far, far more salient.
In regard to talk-radio, it could be said that there is little here than a mostly mindless, jingoistic, ersatz patriotism whose main purpose appears to be to drive America into endless wars abroad.
As far as independent “art” films, documentaries, and so forth, nearly all of them can be seen as intensifying most of the trends and concepts prevalent today in most major Hollywood productions rather than trying to give voice to a truly serious, constructive critique of current-day society.
It might also be noted that the mass-education system over the last three to four decades has mostly failed to encourage any kind of “counter-ethic” to the prevalent media messages and images, thus resulting in the near-destruction of the possibility of nurturing a substantial number of more reflective, cultured, truly literate people in our society.
Hence the real impact of media on human upbringing, conditioning, behavior, and perception of reality may be grossly underestimated. Who could realistically deny that the steady exposure of a generation to various media images, sounds, and speech does not result in these being often seared into the mind, deeply internalized, and then, in some greater or sometimes lesser way, expressed in behavior? As opposed to the immediate spoken word, the manuscript, the printed book, or even the mass newspaper, electronic media have created the ability of a given person or idea to influence society to a hitherto unimaginable degree, and with the near-total exclusion of other persons, ideas, and ways-of-life. Not only do these media allow public speech to reach simultaneously tens or hundreds of millions of people: they also raise the possibility of almost continuous, searing, graphic and auditory impact on viewers or listeners. It could be argued that the media—unless the small number of their effective decision-makers described above is of strongly divergent viewpoints, or unless other institutions in society confront them very powerfully—may be the perfect instrumentality for total conformity or social totalitarianism, defined as imposing one way of thinking, being, existing, and living on a given population. Eighteenth-century legislation would probably not be adequate to address this issue.
There is a growing body of literature around the world that increasingly demonstrates the startling degree of single-mindedness in those who are the effective decision-makers of the media, as well in their most prominent celebrities. This exclusive orientation might be described as one of “Americano-centric consumerist liberalism”.
The motivations of the main decision-makers and prominent celebrities of the media can be looked at in light of the three main perceived functions of electronic mass media: advertising, entertainment, information (or news). There is an easy-to-see trend towards the ongoing unification of these functions, as well as of the blurring of fiction and non-fiction. The first two functions (advertising and entertainment) provide the source of three of the mainstays of media (ultimately derived from the ceaseless need to stimulate consumption in the hypermodern society, and to extend it to every part of the globe): illicit sex, violence, and “flash” (the ever-elusive “cool”; the glorification of speed, technology and technologically-derived special effects). Virtually all of what appeals to most people in television, films, and video today contains some aspect of these three elements, and there is a tendency to hyper-intensify all three, across the media: for example, in movies which combine gruesome horror, gratuitous violence, and softcore sex. Because of the media’s profound, continuous, and unrelenting social impact, these three elements become unnaturally accentuated in society at large. Nevertheless, the media also maintain elements of maudlin sentimentalism in order to convince the more putatively decent-minded part of the audience that programming is not entirely given over to antinomianism. The predominant texture of this facile sentimentalism, however, is far from a truly reflective, ethical outlook.
What the media call “information” is centered on the following elements: “telescopic philanthropy”, an ongoing series of morality plays, which vicariously elicit the sympathies of the viewer, often lacking connection with, or taken out of the context of, extant social relations and global realities; the constant excitation of different types of fears among the public, leaving the viewer in a tizzy of apprehension; and an unrelenting assault on politicians in general (with the exception of a few, often transient, sometimes permanent darlings), and on the public/political realm as a whole. It could be argued that much of the excitation of fear and insecurity among people is carried out for the sake of encouraging consumption as a vehicle for re-establishing one’s sense of personal security. The news itself also often provides large doses of sex, violence, and flash. There is, furthermore, the current of stinging cynicism and crassness in media which reflects the broader philosophical principle that media generally attenuate and reject any sense of natural limits, boundaries, and social horizons. For all their posturing, media mavens lack seriousness. This is also seen in their elevation of the trivial at the expense of the germane: for example, in the three network television specials of the Amy Fisher story in the early 1990s (this teenage girl shot and wounded the wife of an older man with whom she was having an affair). One sees the phenomenon, too, in the complaints about the personal expenses of prominent politicians—expenses presented as solely defining the issue of waste in government while vast, faceless, bureaucratic excesses are ignored.
What is the model of media representation, semantics, and semiotics? As is the case in any structure, there is an embedded system of references in media (visual, auditory, and spoken), some of these going back to the cinematic age. Their near-universal recognition does not indicate increasing media savvy among the general populace, but rather points to the media’s being a distinct ontological realm. The day-to-day functioning of the news media is defined by the presentation and elaboration of various “personae”, whether enhanced or diminished, as well as by the expression of concepts in one-word or very short phrases, built up through constant media exposure (and often originated or quickly taken up and transformed in meaning by a given medium itself). The discourse of media tends towards an ongoing evocation of powerful emotional stereotypes at dizzying speed, as opposed to thoughtful discussion. Some of the types of single-minded media behaviour are “the feeding frenzy”, or “the wave-effect”. There are different roles played by news anchors (our Vergil-like guides to today’s series of calamities): reporters, talk-show hosts, sports stars, Rock stars, fashion models, prominent businesspeople, financial analysts, political analysts, politicians, etc. The sports industries, which focus the new, emerging city-identities of North America, and which constitute virtually all-pervasive aspects of life today, have largely been created by the possibilities of widespread media-exposure. As has been frequently noted, the shrine-like position of the television in most households, as well as the increasing amounts of time spent in front of it, point to its enormous significance in most people’s daily lives. That considerable numbers of persons are playing videogames rather than watching television, or surfing the Internet rather than watching television, is not too likely to constitute much of an improvement.
The emergence of the Internet does not necessarily appear to be a boon for true freedom and critical thinking. What is often happening is that Internet is becoming just another television for most people. How many persons are using the Internet mostly for serious purposes, as opposed to various graphical amusements? Ironically, the development of bigger broadband on the Internet, where ever clearer video-streaming becomes possible, is likely to dumb down the content—away from text, where more intelligent ideas can sometimes be more readily expressed.
One could reasonably maintain that today American pop-culture and the world media-culture are becoming virtually coterminous. Media are thus, it could be said, the instrument for American cultural imperialism—for the homogenization, rationalization, and technologization of the world. It is the visibly concrete way in which non-American cultures are attenuated and opened up to consumption. Probably no country can long resist the excitement proffered by American sex, violence, and flash. This naturally raises the ire of nationalists and traditionalists, who can see no way of confronting the seepage, and sometimes turn to violence and xenophobia. There is something uniquely alluring in this American combination of sex, violence, and flash; even French cinema and television (which certainly has no lack of explicit sexuality) is becoming rapidly Americanized. It is interesting to note that, in the early 1990s, French protests over including culture in the GATT were one of the agreement’s biggest controversies. It is possible to make here, as well, some pointed comments, in the style of Canadian philosopher George Grant, on Canada’s own “cultural industries”, and on what is said to constitute Canadian nationalism today–i.e., that the Canadian “cultural industries” today show little evidence in their content of resisting a monolithic North American (U.S. and Canada) mode of life.
The modern mass media may thus be summarized as an instrument which creates instantaneity; abolishes social and national boundaries and horizons; bombards the mind with an unending stream of disquieting images, sounds, and speech; destroys the quiet discourse of the book, ushering in the post-literate age and “the new illiteracy”; and tends towards the construction of an autonomous electronic realm, thus attenuating much of what has traditionally been considered the sense of being human. These communications-media, we might say, undermine rooted communities as well as literary/humanistic culture, and ultimately choke off the human faculties of real sympathy (for one’s immediate neighbor) and real imagination. These are replaced with a never-ending, and ultimately pointless, “jangling” of human society, psychology, and core-identity, leading more concretely to increased crime, violence, and anomie, as well as to both the disenchantment of the public/political realm and to the subversion of whatever personal stability the individual finds in his or her worldly role. The information traffic or information overload in which most people are caught today tends to create a “postmodern blur” of social existence and reality.
To a large extent, even more traditional media follow in the directions set by the electronic media: for example, the mass-marketing of an apparently conventional genre—the book—by the likes of Stephen King (the jolt of horror) and Danielle Steele (the frisson of sex); the selling of movie-rights before the novel is even written in many such cases; and the tendency of what was once called belles lettres or fine literature to cater to increasingly low tastes. Books are often today simply another form of increasingly vulgar entertainment to be crassly marketed.
The hoped-for arising of a concerted, critical theory of media is of utmost importance to maintaining a true sense of humanity today and in the future.
In the process of our being enveloped ever more deeply in the mass media field, it could be argued that we are becoming increasingly less of what was traditionally considered truly human. The emergence of electronic mass-media may ultimately be the endgame for our sense of true humanity, especially if we delay in taking critical stock of their effects.
Mark Wegierski is a freelance Canadian journalist based in Toronto. He has for years contributed essays to Praesidium on subjects in pop-culture ranging from science fiction to board games to economic habits and patterns.
A Kinship Forgotten, A Rebellion Overlooked: Evangelical Influences on English Romanticism (Part One)
’Tis this that draws the fire up to the moon,
The mover this, in hearts of mortal things,
This that binds up the earth and makes it one.
Dante, Il Paradiso, Canto I: 115-117
Stop, Christian Passer-by!—Stop, child of God
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seem’d he, —
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame
He ask’d, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Epitaph
I. A Brief Abstract
Evangelicalism was one of the eighteenth century’s most important religious and social movements. Romanticism was the early nineteenth century’s most important literary movement. Surprisingly, little scholarship has been devoted to exploring connections between the two. Richard E. Brantley’s Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism and Frederick C. Gill’s The Romantic Movement and Methodism are among the few texts that deal with the evangelical-romantic relationship. Both books focus primarily on proving that evangelicalism and romanticism were, in fact, related—that the presence of common themes in both evangelical and romantic expression cannot simply be coincidental. This essay advances the discourse in several ways.
First, it attempts to explain how elements of evangelicalism found their way into early English romanticism. It suggests that the empirical epistemology of John Locke underlay both the rationalism and the natural theology from which early romantics consciously drew inspiration, and which also provided the widely influential emphases of evangelicalism. Building on a common empirical foundation, the early romantics could easily integrate elements of both rationalism and evangelicalism into their system of thought.
Second, the essay examines the reasons for romantic poet and theologian Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s turn away from empiricism. It asserts that Coleridge’s theology, as expressed in 1825’s Aids to Reflection, should be regarded as an attack on the shared empirical core of both rationalism and evangelicalism.
Finally, it examines public reception of Aids to Reflection and attempts to explain a peculiar phenomenon: Coleridge’s readers are almost completely unaware of the extent to which his tract is an attack on both rational and evangelical epistemology. The reasons for the public’s misunderstanding of Aids to Reflection’s themes and purpose shed light on English society of the early nineteenth century and help modern readers understand why it took nearly two centuries for scholars to recognize romanticism’s kinship with evangelicalism.
The section immediately following, however, will treat a subject far older than the works of Wesley and Coleridge. A brief investigation of the composition of the New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke will provide a useful model for understanding both the way in which romanticism incorporated elements of evangelical thought and the reasons Coleridge’s public failed to recognize his implicit critique of evangelicalism.
II. An Illustrative Parallel; An Extensive Abstract
In 1890, Biblical scholar Johannes Weiss first used the word Quelle, German for “source”, to designate a text that he and other Biblical scholars believed to be imbedded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The text was lost in manuscript form. Now known as ‘Q’, it has been reconstructed by isolating passages in Matthew and Luke, absent in Mark, whose Greek wording matches nearly to the letter. These verbatim similarities strongly suggest that Matthew and Luke used a common written source. As Jesus’ native tongue was Aramaic, scholars refused to accept that the authors of Matthew and Luke, working independently, could have translated Jesus’ oral traditions into the Gospels’ Greek with such a high degree of verbal agreement. Given, then, that Matthew and Luke were composed independently of one another, it was only logical to suggest that the parallel discursive material in Matthew and Luke, noticeably absent in Mark, had been derived from a shared written source. After nearly two centuries of scholarship, Biblical scholar John Kloppenborg and three co-editors have published The Critical Edition of Q, a brief collection of Jesus’ and John the Baptist’s sayings, parables, and discourses. Carefully hewn from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the message and theology of The Critical Edition of Q stand independent of the Synoptic Gospels. 
Neither the content of Q nor the way in which nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship reconstructed it, however, is nearly as important for current purposes as the fact of its disappearance. Q was not merely lost; it was long lost. Even the Church Fathers seem to have been unaware of Q’s existence. Saint Augustine (354-430), insofar as he was willing to accept any literary dependence among the Synoptic Gospels, suggested that the Gospels’ canonical order also represented the order in which they were composed: Matthew first, followed by Mark and Luke, both of whom may have taken certain cues from the first Gospel. This understanding of the Gospels’ composition is not unique to Augustine. Even the earliest Church Fathers’ Scriptural discussions are noticeably silent on the matter of a sayings source.
Q not only fell into disuse; even its record of existence disappeared. Scholars have proposed several theories to explain this occurrence. Some have suggested that the reading of Q—listing, as it does, sayings credited to Jesus without ‘authorized’ allegorical interpretations—proved dangerous to nascent Christian orthodoxy. Perhaps imaginative ‘mis-readings’ of the text by communities outside the mainstream gave rise to or substantiated the claims of numerous heresies. Others have proposed a simpler theory: that Q fell into disuse because it was unneeded by the Church. The entirety of its content was replicated in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Why read the comparatively dull and confusing Q gospel when one could read Matthew or Luke? The latter, after all, not only provide helpful explanations of many of Jesus’ parables and discourses, but place his words in the larger historical and theological context of his life, ministry, and mission.
While a better case can be made for the latter theory, proponents of the former theory do make an important point. By replicating Q in the context of a semi-biographical narrative, Matthew and Luke significantly altered Q’s ostensible original meaning. Many passages in Q, when read without Matthew and Luke’s allegorical interpretation, deal not with a coming apocalypse, but instead with this-worldly wisdom. Neither does Q’s Jesus preach salvation through his sacrificial death; rather, the text suggests that Jesus’ messianic significance is related to the wisdom he brings. Most interestingly, Q mentions neither Jesus’ death nor his resurrection. At the intersection of context and content, by way of Matthew and Luke’s adaptation, Q took on a different meaning. A wisdom teacher’s words were put in the mouth of the apocalyptic Lamb of God. While the text’s content survived, its intended meaning was transformed and its independence lost. Unrecognized for centuries, Q survived only through contextual transformation.
The process of Q’s survival mirrors and illustrates, in simpler form, the complex process that is part of this essay’s subject: the survival of evangelical ideas, largely derived from John Locke, in early English romantic literature. This essay will examine the way in which early romanticism, through contextual transformation, disguised its use of the empirical epistemology of John Locke that underlay evangelical thought. It will discuss Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s critique of this shared empiricism and suggest several possible reasons for the British public’s failure to comprehend the full implications of Coleridge’s critique.
Evangelical ideas formed a part of the intellectual system of the so-called “ Lake Poets ”, the three most influential and intellectually sophisticated writers of early English romanticism: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. This relationship is effectively demonstrated by the groundbreaking research of Richard E. Brantley in Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism. He notes, for example, their common emphasis on spiritual experience and inner life. This relationship, however, does not necessarily imply direct influence. Neither does it exclude the possibility. Rather, and more broadly, it suggests intellectual kinship. The exact nature of this relationship, as will be demonstrated later, is difficult to determine. Whether early romanticism represents the begotten child of evangelicalism or its younger cousin is a concern of this essay.
The pitfall of Brantley’s approach is its ahistorical analysis. He neglects to analyze the means whereby evangelical emphases arrived in the romantics’ work. He discusses the general influence of Methodism founder John Wesley’s language and ideas, but fails to consider the ways in which these ideas could have “seeped” into the Lake Poets ’ consciousness. Moreover, he fails to mention the content of the Lake Poets ’ early reading or their self-professed influences at the time of their early and defining work. This brings us to a crucial point: none of the Lake Poets was a Methodist or evangelical. As young men, they had little sympathy for organized religion generally, let alone for the formulations of Wesley or other evangelicals. Their biographies and autobiographical writing, moreover, show little more than a general, “atmospheric” knowledge of evangelical religion. Despite the ostensible kinship of their early work to evangelicalism, there is little evidence that the Lake Poets had anything more than a passing awareness of or concern with the thought of Wesley or his sympathizers.
During the years in which the Lake Poets composed the works that would make their reputations and set the tone for English romanticism, their literary and intellectual interests encompassed both a secular poetry of sentiment, the philosophy of Enlightenment rationalism, and Christian natural theology. The sentimental sonneteer William Lisle Bowles and the “Graveyard Poets” Edward Young and Thomas Gray were influences on their poetic style and diction, while their thought was influenced not only by the “stodgy Aristotelianism” of their classical Oxford and Cambridge educations, but by radical British and Continental writers of the eighteenth century. Southey, for example, had come to Oxford in 1792 with “a heart full of poetry and feeling, a head full of Rousseau and [Goethe’s Young] Werther, and my religious principles shaken by [Edward] Gibbon.” Here Southey refers to the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He also read the work of democrats and radical Deists or Unitarians like William Godwin and Joseph Priestley, and that of the unorthodox Christian materialist David Hartley. Coleridge, too, shared an interest in Godwin, with whom he corresponded extensively; he admired Priestley, after whose immigration to the Susquehanna River Coleridge and Southey’s Pantisocracy utopian commune was modeled; he, too, was inspired by Hartley, after whom his first son, born in 1796, was named. In any case, the ahistorical quasi-Wesleyans Brantley describes were not the radical young Wordsworth and Coleridge who, in 1798, published Lyrical Ballads, or the Southey who, in 1797, published his Poems. The core of their romanticism—an individually, imaginatively felt experience of a natural religiosity—was formulated long before the Lake Poets acknowledged their kinship with Wesley and the evangelicals.
This essay, therefore, posits a threefold explanation of early romanticism’s ostensible kinship with evangelicalism. First, it suggests that both the content of evangelicalism and the philosophies of the various radicals read by the Lake Poets shared a common Lockean-empirical heritage. The Lockean-empirical foundation of English rationalism—with its emphasis on observation, natural theology, and scientific reason—has been discussed extensively by a number of scholars, and Brantley’s Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism does a superb job of establishing the Lockean character of evangelical thought. Second, it asserts that the evangelical revival, building upon Locke’s empirical philosophy, generated a popular interest in experienced spirituality and the inner life. Not only were evangelical ideas ‘in the air’, but the revival had its counterpart in a poetry of natural and secular sentiment and experience. This poetry, as noted above, was widely read by the early romantics. Third and finally, it suggests that early romanticism moved freely between the self-conscious influence of rational philosophy and the popular, atmospheric influence of the evangelicals. This movement was ultimately facilitated by the common Lockean heritage of both radical rationalism and evangelicalism.
Later in their lives, the Lake Poets would come to recognize and critique their kinship with both evangelicalism and rationalism. Their disassociation from and critique of radical rationalism seems to have largely stemmed from the general reaction against democrats and radicals like Godwin, Priestley, Hartley and others in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleon Wars. Few public figures were eager to associate themselves with the despised “English Jacobins”, the bloodshed of the Terror, and the turmoil of the Napoleonic era. Their later relationship with evangelicalism is somewhat more complex. While all three of the Lake Poets would renew their relationship with the Church of England, their opinions of evangelicalism varied. In 1820, for example, Southey published his favorable Life of Wesley; and Rise and Progress of Methodism, about which Coleridge wrote:
How many and many an hour do I owe to this Life of Wesley; and how often have I argued with it, questioned, remonstrated, been peevish, and asked pardon—then again listened, and cried Right! Excellent!—and in yet heavier hours intreated [sic] it, as it were, to continue talking to me—for that I heard and listened, and was soothed, though I could make no reply.
In 1833, moreover, Southey published the fifteen-volume Life and Works of the influential evangelical poet William Cowper.
Coleridge’s comment on Southey’s Life, however, is deceiving. It masks a more critical understanding of both Wesley and evangelicalism that appears in Coleridge’s later theological writing. In general, he seems to have grown uneasy with the empiricism that underlay both rationalism and evangelicalism. In Dejection: An Ode, for example, Coleridge expresses concerns about the solipsistic possibilities of empiricism, its tendency to descend into a subjectivity so profound that it ultimately denies reality to all besides the self. Several central lines question the source of the fervent natural spirituality that figures so centrally in the Lake Poets ’ early work.
Though I should gaze for ever
On that green light that lingers in the west;
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.
O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live;
Ours is her wedding-garment, ours her shroud!
Had Coleridge received those early feelings of sublimity from nature, or had he merely painted his own ideas on the grand canvas of creation? Was Nature alive but within himself? These thoughts continued to plague Coleridge. In what might be read as a corollary to Dejection’s solipsistic concerns, Coleridge noted that
the main and most noticeable difference between Leighton and the modern Methodists is to be found in the uniform Selfishness of the latter Not do you wish to love God? Do you love your neighbour? Do you think O how near and lovely must Christ be or but are you certain, that Christ has saved you, that he died for you—you—you—you yourself on to the end of the Chapter—this is Wesley’s Doctrine.
It was in light of these concerns that Coleridge’s growing Christianity began to take distinctive shape. His interest in the materialist Hartley, in natural theology and Unitarianism, had given way by the second decade of the nineteenth century to an interest in Kant and German idealism, to Scottish divine Archbishop Robert Leighton (whose aphorisms form the early core of Coleridge’s theological tract, Aids to Reflection), to the Christian neoplatonic tradition and the Cambridge Platonists. As this essay argues, he began to conceive of the English intellectual current as two forks of the Lockean stream, one branch of the stream representing the materialistic empiricism of the rationalists and many contemporary Anglican theologians, the other branch representing the spiritual empiricism of the evangelicals. Between these two streams he attempted to stake out a sounder epistemological ground: one beginning with the evidence of the senses, but ending with the entirety of man’s being—with the possibility of more completely experiencing knowledge of the Divine.
This particular understanding of Coleridge’s epistemological development requires a rethinking of the purpose of both his theology and Aids to Reflection. Typically, Coleridge’s theology has been understood as an attack on natural theology and Benthamite rationalism. He termed the latter a “vaunted Mechanico-corpuscular Philosophy” that produced a “universe of death.” Instead, this essay suggests that Coleridge’s theology, and particularly that of Aids to Reflection, should be regarded as an implicit attack on any and all systems—including both rationalism and evangelicalism—that reduced man’s capacity for knowing to the information of the senses.
The great peculiarity here is that, in several dozens of responses to Aids to Reflection, Coleridge’s readers consistently fail to comment upon the author’s critique of evangelical empiricism. According to its reception, Aids to Reflection retrieved many from the grips of materialism and Benthamite rationalism, but its implicit (and occasionally explicit) critique of evangelical empiricism seems to have gone almost completely unnoticed. What could account for this failure of recognition?
First, it would seem that empiricism had come to be publicly regarded as more or less the sole domain of science and rationalism. An understanding of the empirical thrust and Lockean-philosophical core of Wesley’s thought was lost to a general notion of Methodism and evangelicalism as altogether antithetical to science. Many of Coleridge’s readers comment on Aids to Reflection’s criticism of scientific rationalism. Several note that the author’s compelling, heartfelt arguments for Christianity retrieved them from a skeptical or rational irreligion. Nevertheless, they remain silent on Aids to Reflection’s implicit criticism of evangelical feeling.
The notion of science and evangelical religion as unrelated intellectual poles is supported by the general characterization of evangelicalism, persisting into the twentieth century, as, to quote Claude Welch, “a system of feeling, or... a theological mood and stance” rather than a system of thought. Insofar, then, as Coleridge’s readers take issue with his epistemology, it is from a rationalist perspective. An empirical epistemology underlay nearly all English thought in the early nineteenth century, but an understanding of this intellectual genealogy remained uncommon among the larger part of Coleridge’s public. Apparently, they could not fathom an argument that simultaneously attacked both rationalism and evangelicalism.
Second, among Coleridge’s evangelical readers, the religious movement seems to have been understood as a reform rather than intellectual or spiritual movement. For many Englishmen, evangelicalism’s importance lay in its restoration of the Church visible and its dogma rather than in the movement’s promulgation of an alternative religious epistemology. This may partially account for Welch’s negative evaluation of evangelicalism’s intellectual content. While Wesley and other prominent evangelicals were tremendous theologians, their followers, especially in the Anglican branch of evangelicalism, were more concerned with the Church’s day-to-day life than with the Church invisible. Theirs was an active faith; the reflective, metaphysical quality of Coleridge’s theology seemed irrelevant to their religious concerns.
At any rate, evangelicalism’s most important triumph among Coleridge’s readers, insofar as they were sympathetic to the goals of the evangelical program, was its restoration of the Christian doctrinal tradition. The importance of this restoration is apparent in their commentary on Aids to Reflection. Several of Coleridge’s readers commend his praise of several points of doctrine oft-maligned by rationalists and natural theologians, including original sin and the Trinity—doctrinal points of great concern to the evangelicals. Nevertheless, they remain silent on the subject of his epistemology. A reflective, intellectual theological text seemed irrelevant to their practical religious concerns.
Third and finally, Coleridge’s readers, many of them among the young Victorian literati, seem to have been without an overall evangelical or epistemological inclination. The fullness of evangelical enthusiasm was apparently not at work in the larger section of British society that read and commented on Aids to Reflection. Coleridge’s readers seem to have been generally effected by those elements of evangelicalism capable of institutionalization—doctrine and an emphasis on morality and will—but not by its emphasis on feeling and experienced faith.
It would be an overstatement to suggest that Coleridge’s readers were unconcerned with epistemology. Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding was widely read in both complete and abridged forms in the eighteenth century. In the same century, Samuel Johnson carried on a lively epistemological and ontological debate with George Berkeley. Romanticism itself was, as much as anything, a poetry of epistemology—a literature that sought to understand how man knows the sublimity that resides in nature. As noted above, however, English epistemological discourse was dominated by empiricism. While this allowed for a number of variations—including Wesley’s evangelicalism, the Lake Poets’ romanticism, Paley’s natural theology, Bentham’s utilitarianism, and Hume’s skepticism—English epistemology remained essentially empirical. England ’s epistemology had not been fundamentally challenged for more than a century. Even the challenge of German Idealism had yet to have a major impact in England .
It would seem, then, that Coleridge’s readers simply failed to recognize the epistemological challenge of Aids to Reflection. Rationalists, evangelicals, natural theologians, and romantics had so thoroughly and unquestioningly integrated Locke’s empirical epistemology into their work that most of Coleridge’s readers utterly lacked the background or philosophical vocabulary to grasp and discuss the new footing upon which he had set religious knowledge. The notion that the senses played a minimal role in the acquisition of knowledge was nearly as incomprehensible to Coleridge’s readers as it is to many modern readers.
At this point that we must return to the history of the Q Gospel. Like Q and the evangelists, the Lake Poets, in their early work, had recontextualized and advanced the empirical epistemology already dominant in eighteenth-century England. In doing so, however, they had disguised their kinship with evangelicalism. Like Q, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, strands of Lockean-Wesleyan thought were present in romanticism, but their meanings were transformed and their independence lost. While evangelical thought thrived independently of romantic literature, its kinship with and presence in the Lake Poets’ work went largely unrecognized—by the poets themselves and by their readers. The evangelical project had come to be regarded as something distinctly separate from that of the romantics.
When Coleridge finally turned away from Lockean empiricism, the British public was, in the main, unprepared to recognize the novelty of his alternative epistemology. Like modern readers of the Q gospel who are unable to separate Q’s theology from the Biblical context in which they first encountered it, the vast majority of Coleridge’s readers found it difficult to recognize the Lockean empiricism that underlay nearly all contemporary English thought. Rationalism, evangelicalism, and romanticism did not present themselves to the English mind as kindred movements, but as the largely unrelated extremes of contemporary English intellectual life. Epistemologically unversed and unaware of the common core of English thought, Coleridge’s readers failed to recognize the challenge his theology presented to both rationalism and evangelicalism. This is the essay’s central thesis: that early romanticism, akin to both rationalism and evangelicalism, advanced empirical assumptions it ultimately came to reject. The literate public, when confronted with challenges to these assumptions, was largely unprepared to recognize Coleridge’s novel epistemology. Finally, it argues that while Aids to Reflection retrieved many rationalists from irreligion, it largely failed in its attempt to combat evangelicalism’s empirical core. Its critique of evangelical epistemology went unrecognized.
The remainder of the essay will proceed as follows. A third section (see immediately below) will discuss the content and general influence of Wesleyanism and evangelicalism and its shared Lockean character with other strands of eighteenth-century thought, while a fourth section will discuss the kinship of evangelicalism, rationalism, and the secular, sentimental poetry of experience to the early thought of the Lake Poets. A fifth section will detail the Lake Poets’ self-professed early influences, the causes of their turn from rationalism, and the reasons for their (particularly Coleridge’s) turn towards a more orthodox Anglican Christianity. It will also focus on the development of Coleridge’s religious thought, his attempt to set epistemology on firmer ground, and the theology of Aids to Reflection. A sixth and section will deal further with the nature and content of Aids to Reflection’s public reception in both England and, to a lesser degree, the United States, and with possible reasons for the failure of Coleridge’s readers to recognize his implicit critique of evangelical empiricism. A seventh section will conclude the essay and discuss the broader implications of its conclusions.
III . The Lockean Character of Evangelical Thought, the Evangelicals’ General Influence, and Lockean Currents in Other Eighteenth-Century Schools of Thought
Before discussing the evangelicals’ origins and progress, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by the term “evangelical”. For current purposes, it refers (in the English context) to persons, Methodist, Anglican, and Dissenter, who defended the Christian doctrinal tradition against those in the Church of England who would do away with certain ostensibly irrational elements of the Christian heritage. This did not, however, place them in the camp of neo-Scholasticism, plumbing the recondite depths of Christian doctrine. Like their German Pietist predecessors and counterparts, the English evangelicals believed that theology, “while it preserves the foundation of faith from the Scriptures,” to quote the German religious writer Philipp Jakob Spener, “builds on it with so much wood, hay, and stubble of human inquisitiveness that the gold can no longer be seen.” For the English evangelicals, the doctrinal tradition to be recovered from Christian rationalism was one of simplicity. It was that of the Thirty-Nine Articles: of the Trinity, of Christ’s divinity, of the Fall and Atonement, of Grace and the Spirit’s testimony. While these doctrines were established upon Scripture, they were to be confirmed by experience—by, as Claude Welch writes, “the inner and direct testimony of the Holy Spirit”.  In the words of John Wesley, Christianity was to be validated by an “inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God immediately and directly witnesses to my spirit, that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me; that all sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.” One’s faith was ultimately to be experienced and internalized. This internalization, however, was to have outer effects. Wesley and other evangelicals insisted that, to quote Welch, “the inner religion of the heart be expressed in an outward and visible quality and shape of existence: Christianity consists rather in practice than in knowledge... and specifically the practice of love.”
Evangelicalism had its origins in both religious and intellectual traditions and historical conditions. As briefly noted above, English evangelicalism was influenced by Spener and German Pietism, a seventeenth- and early-eighteenth century movement within Lutheranism. Pietism emphasized “apostolic simplicity” and “active faith” (perhaps best understood as will), over knowledge and learned theology. Spener summarized the movement, stating in his Pia Desideria that “our entire Christianity consists in the inner or new man, and its soul is faith.” One strand of Pietism particularly influential among English evangelicals was that of the Moravians. Wesley had been deeply impressed by a community of Moravians he encountered in transit to the American colonies in the mid-1730s, and it was after attending a Moravian service in May of 1738 that Wesley penned his now famous description of discovering “sure trust and confidence” in God: “I felt my heart strangely warmed.”
English evangelicalism also drew upon the domestic philosophical tradition in its formulation of theology, particularly John Locke’s empirical epistemology as laid out in the Essay concerning Human Understanding. This essay’s understanding of evangelicalism’s philosophical core, largely derived from Brantley, is opposed to many scholars’ understanding of the movement. Claude Welch, for example, while otherwise quite impressive in his analysis, partly mischaracterizes evangelicalism as an intellectually empty religious movement.
Clearly, [evangelicalism] was no system of thought. Were it possible, one might speak rather of a system of feeling, or of a theological mood and stance as well as a religious revival, in which all attention was centered on the heartfelt character of true religion, on inner conviction and peace, on the intensity of feeling, on the affective and the emotional elements in experience.
In fairness to Welch, his analysis is partly correct. English evangelical thought was neither as original nor as systematic as the theologies promulgated by the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin. With some exceptions (most notably Wesley’s eschewal of the doctrine of Election [Article XVII]), the evangelicals largely accepted the Calvinist Thirty-Nine Articles as they were received. To characterize their movement as a “system of feeling”, however, is a disservice to their memory and our understanding. It also overlooks the particular way in which Wesley and others understood feeling. When Wesley declared that “the most infallible of proofs [is] inward feeling,” he referred, not to the purely subjective operation of emotion, but instead to the subjective spiritual perception of the actually real. Wesley’s “feeling” is not the product of a cushy emotionalism but a spiritual empiricism; Wesley’s “feeling” is received by the “spiritual senses”. As Brantley writes, “Locke’s rational empiricism (i.e. his epistemology of sense perception attended by induction and deduction) directly informs the religious ‘epistemology’ whereby Wesley claimed the saving faith he felt was his.” Wesley himself speaks of cultivating the “spiritual senses”, senses capable of making the rational, inductive leap from the physically observed to the spiritually observed.
[B]efore it is possible for you to form a true judgment of the things of God, it is absolutely necessary that you have a clear apprehension of them, and that your ideas thereof be all fixed, distinct, and determinate. And seeing our ideas are not all innate, but must originally come from our senses, it is certainly necessary that you have senses capable of discerning objects of this kind: Not those only which are called natural senses, which in this respect profit nothing, as being altogether incapable of discerning objects of a spiritual kind; but spiritual senses, exercised to discern spiritual good and evil. It is necessary that you have the hearing ear, and the seeing eye, emphatically so called; that you have a new class of senses opened in your soul, not depending on organs of flesh and blood, to be “the evidence of things not seen,” as your bodily sense are of visible things; to be the avenues to the invisible world, to discern spiritual objects, and to furnish you with ideas of what the outward “eye hath not seen, neither the ear heard.”
This connection between Locke and Wesley, however, is not altogether surprising. Locke himself was a professed Christian. In 1695, he published The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in Scriptures. The Essay, moreover, to quote Brantley, “frequently acknowledges the Bible as [the] source of religious knowledge” while finding evidence of God’s perfection in the “general connexion” among “all parts of the creation.” That Locke’s empiricism provided the foundation upon which Deism and natural theology were built does not in any way undermine the evangelical possibilities of his thought.
Apart from the experiential emphases of both Locke and Wesley, it is important to note stylistic similarities between the prose of the Empiricist and the Methodist. To scholar George Lawton’s assertion that “Wesley’s prose is a stout three-fold cord having Scriptural, Classical, and colloquial strands interwoven,” Brantley adds a fourth strand: the Lockean. Like Locke, Wesley’s prose was clear, simple, and unequivocal. “His predilection for similes,” writes Brantley, “rests on the fact that as ‘miniature proverbs’ ‘their basis is the facts of experience’; and it is specifically Lockean language of experience, as well as experiential language in general, which I think enabled him to raise his ineffable experience to grace.”
Locke’s influence on eighteenth-century thought—including religion and spirituality—was nothing short of pervasive. Not only did Wesley “derive a formal philosophic component from Locke’s appeal to the senses and to reason,” but non-Christian and unorthodox religious radicals and rational Anglicans (by 1800, the most prominent branch of orthodoxy) also founded their positions upon a Lockean epistemology. Whereas Wesley had enlarged the quasi-Cartesian dimension of Locke’s empiricism, focusing on the ‘spiritual sense’-based perception of the incorporeal, the radicals and the rational Anglicans emphasized (to varying degrees) the purely empirical aspect of the Essay’s epistemology. This led the Deists to reject revelation and Christian doctrine as incompatible with human experience and reason. Unitarians maintained the importance of revelation (though not its infallibility), while rejecting the doctrines of the Trinity, Original Sin, and other post-Biblical theological “contrivances”. Finally, the rational Anglicans, led by William Paley, promoted an empirical, natural theology of “evidences”, a stance perhaps best summarized by the title of Paley’s most important work, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature.
This common Lockean-empirical heritage accounts for a number of important similarities between evangelicalism and, as it were, the English “Enlightenment”. Both, for example, emphasized the importance of the individual. Of course, as Welch points out, the evangelicals’ emphasis on the “interiorization” of Christianity was not the same as Enlightenment individualism, but “undoubtedly the concentration was on the individual self and its experience.” In any case, as one’s experience was, for both the evangelicals and the rationalists, ultimately the source of one’s knowledge, neither could but privilege the individual.
This common empiricism also manifested itself in an eighteenth-century’s emphasis on morality and behavior. Whereas the evangelicals believed that a lived Christianity would alter one’s way of life, “enlightened” Englishmen stripped Christianity of its “superstition” and found but an ethical code. Again, the stress was on living (experiencing) rather than contemplating one’s religion.
Perhaps the most important commonalities between the two groups were their tendency to blur the line between subjectivity and objectivity and, on a related note, their latent uncertainty about the realness of what they experienced. On the former point, Wesley was in general agreement with Locke. As Brantley writes:
Reality appears to the reader of the Essay as a balance between matter and mind, or rather, to borrow M. H. Abram’s words, as an “interpenetration” and “coalescence” of subject and object. Wesley’s exclamation that “None can have general good sense unless they have clear and determinate ideas of all things” does more than simply paraphrase [Locke’s] discussion of the causes of confusion among men: Wesley surely signals, in his remark, his agreement with Locke’s argument that the mind [subject] forms a link with external reality [object].
That both Locke and Wesley had an abiding faith in the objectivity of the world does not diminish the fact that Locke, as he himself admits in the Essay, and Wesley, as a faithful reader of Locke and a contemporary of David Hume and Bishop George Berkeley, both premised their systems on an epistemology that could easily lapse into solipsistic subjectivity, a subjectivity so profound that it denied any reality besides the self. In Book III of the Essay, for example, Locke declares that “our faculties carry us no further toward the knowledge and distinction of substances [i.e., towards objective knowledge of things external], than a collection of those sensible ideas which we observe in them.” What then is to prevent the lapse into solipsism?
Nothing, apparently, as both Hume and Berkeley (in very different fashions) made mockeries of the empiricist’s ability to perceive an objective reality. Hume, for example, suggested that we cannot be certain of subjective experience’s correspondence to an objective reality, and Berkeley asserted that, to quote Boswell, “nothing exists but as perceived by some mind.” In short, all inheritors of the Lockean epistemological heritage, whether evangelical or “enlightened”, were susceptible to the same criticism: that empiricism teetered perilously above the chasm of solipsistic subjectivity. It was also this received Lockean heritage that allowed the Lake Poets to move so easily between its various strands and its susceptibility to uniform criticism that, among other factors, pushed them towards religion and a firmer epistemological ground.
The romantics’ engagement with the Lockean heritage, however, is not the issue currently at hand. Rather, we turn at last to historical conditions that gave rise to English evangelicalism—conditions that made evangelicalism’s enormous influence possible. “In England,” wrote the French philosophe Montesquieu, “there is no religion.” “Christianity,” quipped Wesley’s early antagonist Bishop Butler, “is now at length discovered to be fictitious.” Religion, in early eighteenth-century England, was largely a system of patronage. Livings, or fixed ministerial incomes attached to the land and tithes of given parishes, were dispensed without reference to the needs of parishioners, leaving some six thousand Church of England parishes with no resident priest. For many, the Anglican Church simply failed to attend to important needs—whether material (in the form of welfare services) or spiritual. In short, the Church was characterized by a neglect of the poor and a failure to inspire the wealthy and educated.
It was to this spiritual and institutional void that evangelicalism was addressed. For the dispossessed, Wesley and other evangelicals offered spiritual solace, community, and rudimentary education in the form of Sunday schools, private meetings and discussions (Methodist classes), and cheaply printed, popularly accessible but substantial books and pamphlets (including over two hundred abridgments) on everything from religion and philosophy to science. By way of this enterprise, Wesley helped popularize Locke’s empirical and experiential philosophy, as well as a language of philosophically informed, spiritual experience—perhaps the “language really used by men” of Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads. Particularly important in this regard were his empirical scientific text, Primitive Physick, “among the dozen or so most widely read books in England from 1750 to 1850”, his popularly accessible abridgements of Bishop Peter Browne’s The Procedure, Extent, and Limits of Human Understanding (“a theologizing of [Locke’s] Essay”), Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and his own writings on spiritual experience understood in light of Locke’s epistemology. The effect of all this was that philosophy ceased, for a moment, to be the domain of the learned elite. Again, to quote Brantley:
Wesley’s philosophical theology... represent a crucial point where theological history ceases to be a subspecies of the history of ideas and becomes a part of cultural history; on at least this one occasion, difficult philosophy indirectly and directly wrought its fascination upon the broad popular life of a country.
By the time of Wesley’s death, moreover, upwards of eighty-thousand people were paying a penny each week to attend a Methodist class, and by 1787, a quarter of a million young boys and girls in England were being educated in Methodist-founded Sunday schools. Nineteenth-century historian W. E. H. Lecky, “thinking in terms of social history,” declared that Wesley’s conversion “meant more for Britain than all the victories of Pitt by land and sea.” In March of 1791, following Wesley’s death earlier in the month, The Gentleman’s Magazine noted that Wesley’s personal effectiveness “was greater, perhaps, than that of any other private gentleman in any country.” Augustine Birrell, writing many years later, suggested that “no single voice touched so many hearts” as Wesley’s, that “no single figure influenced so many minds.” Along with Locke, Horace Walpole, and Samuel Johnson, Wesley was, without a doubt, among the most influential Englishmen of his century.
Even outside of Methodism, evangelicalism had a profound effect—especially its emphasis on the outward manifestation of an inwardly felt grace. Anglican evangelicals lobbied for stricter morals, sobriety, proscriptions against Sabbath breaking, and the abolition of the slave trade. By the early nineteenth century they had achieved many of their goals. Evangelicalism’s influence, in short, was nothing short of transformative. Without resorting to so nebulous a term as Zeitgeist, it is nevertheless safe to say that the vocabulary and content of the evangelical message were, to quote Thomas McFarland, “in the air”. This pervasive influence, at last, entered the realm of art and literature—to be found in the hymns of Charles Wesley, the poetry of William Cowper and William Lisle Bowles, and other eighteenth-century artists and writers. Summarizing several of the preceding pages and looking forward to the following section, John Beer, in his Romantic Influences: Contemporary, Victorian, Modern, noted that:
The failure of a “reasonable” religion to bring about moral improvement had led many preachers to adopt a more direct appeal to the language of the heart. While Methodists and Evangelicals were working strongly on the feelings of their audiences, there also grew up a more private literature of sensibility that was to exercise a decisive influence on the nature of romanticism. Poets, too, adopted the “appeal to the heart”, whether or not their poetry was written from a religious point of view.
continued in next issue
 John S. Kloppenborg et al., Q-Thomas Reader (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 1990), 3.
 Kloppenborg et al., Q-Thomas Reader, 10.
 Kloppenborg et al., Q-Thomas Reader, 9.
 The notion of Matthew and Luke’s compositional independence is widely supported by Biblical scholars. See Kloppenborg et al., Q-Thomas Reader, 9-10.
 That is Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so called because they can be arranged synoptically (i.e. in parallel columns that show their textual agreements and disagreements).
 Kloppenborg et al., Q-Thomas Reader, 8. See also Augustine’s De consensus evangelistarum.
 Kloppenborg et al., Q-Thomas Reader, 21.
 I do not, with this statement, mean to diminish the intellectual powers of William Blake. His immediate influence, however, was rather limited and does not figure prominently in the creation of an English romantic worldview.
 Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (New York: Viking, 1990), 36, 40-41, 62. The term “stodgy Aristotelianism” is a direct quotation from a conversation about English university education in the late eighteenth century with Prof. Dewey D. Wallace, Jr., on 26 March, 2007 .
 Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, 62.
 Between 1800 and 1812, Coleridge and Godwin exchanged thirty-six letters. Earle Leslie Griggs, ed., The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1959); Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, 62; Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, 124.
 Clayton Roberts, David Roberts, and Douglas R. Bisson, A History of England , Vol. II: 1688 to the Present ( Upper Saddle River : Prentice Hall, 2002), 568.
 Homles, Coleridge: Early Visions, 45.
 See Robert Southey, The Life of Wesley; and Rise and Progress of Methodism, 3rd ed. with notes by the late S.T. Coleridge in Richard E. Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism (Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1984), 164.
 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Dejection: An Ode” in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol. 16: Poetical Works, Poems (Reading Text), I.2, ed. J.C.C. Mays ( Princeton : Princeton U P, 2001), 699.
 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol. 12: Marginalia, III , ed. H.J Jackson and George Whalley (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992), 528.
 Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Darker Reflections (London: Harper Collins, 1998), 548.
 Claude Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, Volume I: 1799-1870 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1972), 26-27.
 See, for example, Claude Welch’s discussion of the state of English theology in the early nineteenth century: “If we look more closely at the British theological scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century… [we will notice that] the Church of England was marked by an absence of intellectual vitality or excitement. What an earlier historian said about the latter half of the eighteenth century in England applies as well to the beginning of the nineteenth: ‘Theology was paralyzed. The deists railed no longer; and the orthodox were lapped in drowsy indifference. They boasted of the victory won by their predecessors; but were content on occasion to recapitulate the cut and dried formulas of refutation or to summarize the labours of the earlier inquiries’” (Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 109).
 Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 25.
 Philipp Jakob Spener, Pia desideria (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964), 46.
 Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 25.
 John Wesley, “The Witness to the Spirit: Discourse II,” in Wesley’s Standard Sermons: Vol. II, ed. Edward H. Sugden (London: The Epworth, 1956), 345.
 Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 29.
 Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 23.
 Spener, Pia desideria, 52.
 Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 23; John Wesley, The Journals of John Wesley (Belleville: Lion Publishing, 1986), May 24, 17 38 .
 Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 26-27.
 Clayton Roberts, et al., A History of England , 496.
 Wesley, The Journals of John Wesley, Jan. 8, 17 38 .
 Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 12.
 John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley: Vol. 11, The Appeals to Men of Reason and Religion and Certain Related Open Letters (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 57.
 Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 8; John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding in Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 8.
 Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 9.
 George Lawton, John Wesley’s English: A Study of his Literary Style in Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 22.
 Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 22-23.
 Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 13; Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 110.
 Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 9.
 Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 110.
 Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 28
 Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 14.
 Excerpt of John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, in Jonathan Chaves, “Kicking the Stone and Viewing the Icon: Realist Epistemology Between Heaven and Earth” Praesidium 3.2 (Spring 2003), 5.
 Richard H. Popkin, “David Hume,” in The Columbia History of Western Philosophy, ed. Richard H. Popkin (New York: Columbia UP, 1999), 456; James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson ( New York : The Modern Library, n.d.), 924.
 Montesquieu and Butler quoted in Clayton Roberts, et al., A History of England, 494-495.
 Clayton Roberts, et al., A History of England , 493. Admittedly, this is something of an oversimplification. The recent scholarship of William Gibson, in The Church of England, 1688-1832, has challenged the conventional notion of eighteenth-century pastoral neglect. For a nuanced understanding of the historical conditions that gave rise to evangelicalism, see Gibson’s text.
 Clayton Roberts, et al., A History of England , 485-486; Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 118, 120.
 Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 118, 22; William Wordsworth, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” in The Complete Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Vol. X: Prefatory Essays & Notes (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), 7.
 Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 118, 29.
 Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 123.
 Clayton Roberts, et al., A History of England , 485; Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 121.
 See The Gentleman’s Magazine 69 (March 1791), 283 and Augustine Burrell, The Collected Essays & Addresses of the Rt. Hon. Augustine Burrell, 1880-1920, I:324-325 in Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 103.
 Clayton Roberts, et al., A History of England , 501-503.
 Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 127.
 John Beer, Romantic Influences, 111.
Sean Trainor holds a B.A. in History & Religion from The George Washington University. The present essay is substantially the text of his Honors’ thesis for that institution, which was judged to be the year’s best. Mr. Trainor has studied with Praesidium contributor Jonathan Chaves, who urged him to submit the essay to the journal.
Freedom Grows on Trees: A Eudemonist Economics (Part One)
John R. Harris
Πόσων έγω χρείαν оύκ έχω
“How many things there are of which I have no need!”
Socrates beholding the agora’s
merchandise (Diogenes Laertius 2.25)
I. The Tension Between Capitalism and Culture
I worry about the future. No doubt, every sane adult of average intelligence has always shared my concern… to a point. Yet I suspect that my anxiety—and that of my contemporaries (for we are generally a very worried bunch)—has something unique about it. Men have been farmers, hunters, herds, and fishers for most of human history. The cultivator would naturally worry about too much or too little rain. In many settings, starvation waited on the leeward shore of this unease. We do not nowadays fear starvation in the West: between technological advances and socialized governments, we enjoy the luxury of biting our nails above a fine-mesh safety net. At the same time, we have never been farther—as individuals—from the food which actually enters our mouths. The frontier farmer whose crop goes bad might make shift in a variety of ways, from harvesting wild nuts to trapping prairie fowl to roasting locusts. (Hunger, as a very ancient saying has it, makes a good seasoning.) He continued to have a large measure of control over his survival even in the cruelest of times. If he possessed any sense at all, furthermore, he would have preserved whatever might be salted, pickled, or sealed from previous years of plenty. If he didn’t manage to slither beneath the Grim Scythe, he could probably blame his lack of hard work and frugal planning for it in his last breath.
It’s different with us. We who are virtually assured of survival—and survival, at that, in a state of relative luxury—cannot depend upon our strong hands and our moral stamina to get us through. On the contrary, we pay for our food and grow none of it (taking us, again, as typical individuals). More likely than not, the farmer or hunter in us will inhibit success to the extent that he clings to our consciousness. To put it bluntly, remuneration seems to have become inversely proportional in our Brave New World to physical exertion, sobriety, and husbandry: the silliest live the handsomest. The liveliest markets are in frivolities. The only jobs still requiring sweat suggest fragmentary caricatures of yesteryear’s independent cultivator, hauler, or builder: tasks that might be performed by machines, and have been so—but that we lately discovered could be more cheaply assigned to human drudges. And the drudges collect their pay (with or without valid documentation of citizenship) and pile into the same supermarkets, shopping malls, and car dealerships as do we, their white-collar-fair-skinned handlers, to pay the going rate for staples and vanities, having no more proprietary a right to lettuces or shingled roofs than the more costly machine which declined to replace them…. We must not join their ranks, we tell ourselves, or allow our children to sink so low. We must struggle after the “better life” of fatter paychecks, secured by selling discounted drugs over the Internet or the latest cellular phones at Radio Shack or guaranteed tax advice at H&R Block. For some reason, we regard perspiring under an August sun as a betrayal of those intellectual gifts which entitled us to attend college, whereas none of the latter occupations is received as a slap in the face to our English or History Major. We have been well conditioned, like drudges of a higher order.
But I am not of this “we”, much to my distress. I love to write, yet could never uncover a market for writers in my working lifetime. The prospect of hawking cell phones to pay the bills appalls me no less than if I were required to box the coffin-nails of literate culture on an assembly line—which is, in fact, my metaphorical estimate of electronic communication’s current threat. I would truly, and substantially, prefer to grow and harvest fruit (as I do in the most modest of ways on my tiny patch of property). The endeavor would be far less gainful financially, but far more congenial to that independence of spirit which the literate life awakened in me from an early age. I do not wish to utter absurdities, to make a frivolous display of myself, or to extol playthings which strike me as subtly pernicious in order to put food in my mouth. Feed my family I must; but to draw a salary in return for behavior sometimes nothing short of morally loathsome strikes me as doing such violence to the conscience that one would be dishonest not to call it servitude.
I—and those like me (for there are more than a few, though we are not the great “we”, apparently)—am a slave; or, at best, my economic existence is a constant battle against becoming a slave. I have heard all my life that we of the progressive West enjoy a “strong economy”. In my middle years, however, I increasingly find myself wondering why the strength of an economy should be defined by dividends paid to investors or the degree of ascent in the Gross National Product’s vector. Should not human happiness serve as at least one ground of assessment? And if a man who must fawn before fools or peddle snake oil throughout the week is less happy than a man who digs his own carrots and potatoes, in what sense may our economy correctly be called a triumph over yesteryear’s?
In this essay’s title, I borrow the word employed by Aristotle—eudemonist—when he made his case for the goodness of material happiness. I am enough of a Stoic to balk at his argument; but here, in matters economic, the criterion of happiness seems much more appropriate to me. Granted, the ultimate measure of a human being is moral rather than economic: it lies in his or her success at ignoring specific conditions to serve a purpose beyond the will of the flesh. Yet the flesh is instrumental in these high aspirations (which may well be the innocuous gist of Aristotle’s case). It must eat and sleep in order to build and lift a Jacob’s ladder for the spirit. There must, after all, be a sufficiency of material things.
As a student of the humanities and a devoted servitor of the literate life’s higher rewards, I shall contend in what follows that our pursuit of winning our daily bread, right here and right now, has heeded the flesh too narrowly. Our habitual “work life” has not been well designed by recent practice to accomplish the ends of spiritual enrichment, individual awakening, enlisted creativity, and other worthy destinations valorized by the great traditions of classical duty and Christian abnegation. We have turned our collective back on a noble past. As a capitalist economy dedicated to marketing and exploiting ever-newer products and drawing consumers, therefore, ever farther from a contentment with the status quo, our system is resonantly not conservative in any meaningful sense. Indeed, I maintain that inasmuch as contemporary capitalism feeds the progressive impatience with the present, it is every bit as destabilizing to happiness as the self-contradictory Marxian quest for a world devoid of envy, laziness, despair, and spirituality. Though the two systems radically disagree about human nature, they are alike in eschewing fixity—a similarity which suffices to make both inimical to the cause of humane culture.
II. The Failure of Free Trade to Bestow Freedom
I hasten to add that the notion of capitalism’s disjuncture from conservatism is nothing new. Among a very select circle of intellectuals in the mid-twentieth century, it was indeed something of a commonplace. Richard Weaver, author of Ideas Have Consequences, observed in another setting that “capitalism cannot be conservative in the true sense as long as its reliance is upon industrialism, whose very nature it is to unsettle any establishment and initiate the endless innovation of technological ‘progress’.”1 The lucidity of this remark is of the order of “two plus two equals four”: a system which depends upon the rapid obsolescence of purchases to bring consumers back to the store for “new and improved” versions could not be more definitively anti-conservative. The sublime Russell Kirk raised this objection, essentially, in response to Clinton Rossiter’s highly tendentious Conservatism in America (1955): “A conservative order is not the creation of the free entrepreneur….”2 Businessmen sell things, and they sell more things and things of greater variety when the consuming public has more and greater “needs”. The solicitation of such yens and itches is not the work of a Socrates, a Diogenes, a Seneca, a Marcus Aurelius, an Augustine, or a Francis—or, for that matter, of a Confucius or a Gautama Buddha. Profit margins are uncomfortable closets for cultural treasures and timeless wisdom.
Yet in Kirk’s reflections, one may already see an unfortunate paradox beginning to knot the corridors of its labyrinth. The conservation of a precious cultural bequest must not be equated with blind atavism, for the life of our forefathers—if we go back very far indeed, into the shadows of prehistory—possessed no culture worthy of the name. Our heritage of humane institutions and uplifting creations, then, is at least somewhat dependent upon a degree of technical innovation capable of freeing up time for leisurely endeavor. The survivor of a plane crash does not reconstruct his shattered guitar without first assembling some sort of shelter and retrieving or gathering a minimum of food. We can imagine very early examples of our species toiling away at cave paintings of bison or mastodons whose accuracy and finesse a bright kindergartner could surpass today. Surely we may therefore say that we have come a long way—and surely we must say so before we claim that what remains in our cultural tracks is worthy of bundling into the present.
Kirk seems to stress such progress in the critical seventh chapter of A Program for Conservatives. His explicit theme here is the absurdity of a blunt, sweeping egalitarianism. “Man was not created for equality,” he writes, “but for the struggle upward from brute nature toward the world that is not terrestrial. The principle of justice, in consequence, is not enslavement to a uniform condition, but liberation from arbitrary restraints upon his right to be himself.”3 Nature is not self-evidently good in this view as it is in the romantic liberalism descended from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Savages are not noble. They are exceptionally clever animals whose life nonetheless ends without having fulfilled a higher purpose. Cultivation of the spirit must awaken them to a higher calling just as cultivation of the land will at last free them from having to scavenge every day for bare survival. Some will contribute more than others to the great awakening. The essence of culture is precisely that it makes of these unequal contributions a common legacy. “Ability,” concludes Kirk, “is the factor which enables men to lift themselves from savagery to civilization, and which helps to distinguish the endeavors of men from the routine existence of insects.”4 Though the emphasis in this passage differs from mine, falling upon the individual’s need for spiritual elbow-room rather than upon the community’s profit from such generosity, the positions are two sides of the same coin. A single brilliant innovation can turn an entire tribe or ethnos into an elite. As long as the collective recognizes and indulges individual sources of brilliance, it may paradoxically be said to honor a grand tradition rather than to stagnate or degenerate. Its conserving efforts are focused not just on knowledge of what fruits to eat or what herbs to use in cures—an attachment often more superstitious than cultural—but on the technique of inquiry which allowed such discoveries to be made.
I called this dependency of cultural conservatism upon technical innovation an unfortunate paradox because the forces which create a grand tradition, alas, can also undo it simply by operating in their established, conserved manner. Western culture has been engineered by at least two such dubious vectors, both vaulting from the consequences of alphabetic literacy. One is individualism. Reading and writing (especially writing, for reading usually begins as and stays an oral exercise over many comfortable generations) draw people in upon themselves, upon their inner voices and private spaces. The worth of the individual human being is first widely conceded in literate cultures, where that individual first becomes assertive. Yet the enfranchisement of so many autonomous units can also exert a fatal drag upon society’s energy when their various assertions become plangent and petulant for lack of proper tempering. That is, individualism has a tendency to sour into narcissism as its creative vigor solves ever finer, less pressing needs, and we are left with a throng of spoiled brats.
For the second worrisome impetus inspired by literacy is, of course, scientific inquiry. The alphabet is itself a highly analytical and abstract tool, dividing words into component sounds and then representing like sounds with an arbitrary cipher. Minds immersed in literacy engage in dissecting and reconstituting sensory experiences with a rapid dexterity that soon grows unwitting. The literate mind comes to “read” its physical environment quite fluidly, parsing disparate phenomena readily into a limited and shared pool of hidden causes. It gives us technology at a rate never approached in any other sort of human society—and hence, eventually, the laziness of heavy dependency upon technology, and also the tasteless infatuation with anything new. “Pure” science becomes “applied” science with the same dismaying acceleration as we observe in the individualist’s slide into vain egotism. These movements which have bestowed upon our culture the inestimable knowledge of what first to cultivate and how best to cultivate it always have the potential to plow the garden topsy-turvy just as its plants are bearing their richest fruit.
The central problem, then, for a conservative economy—an economy that would hold onto the best of the past rather than routinely render yesteryear’s trappings obsolete—is how to abstain from such suicide. How does an inventive, progressive culture preserve those elements essential to cultural identity rather than tinkering with or marginalizing them until they vanish? The urgency of this question, I should stress, will be recognized only by those of conservative tastes and convictions, for the contemporary form of liberalism has discarded all overt submission to the classical or universal. (“Universalist” is indeed a word of reproach in academic circles, the reasons for its opprobrium assumed to be self-evident.) Today’s liberal is a materialist, and hence believes that happiness can be found only in one’s circumstances. To the extent that circumstances are manipulated to produce more happiness—more chickens in the pot, more indoor plumbing, more health care, lower-priced football tickets—an economy achieves superiority. Nothing deserves to be retained per se: everything is susceptible to complete overhaul, and awaits only the right technological advance to visit the scrap yard for meltdown. Of course, such carnal wants as those for food, shelter, good health, and spectacle-class amusements are invariable and hence (honni soit qui mal y pense) universal, after a fashion. Biology is allowed to decree universality among progressives: it is the materialist’s version of destiny. Here the liberal may even locate a few shreds of lingering spirituality: any resuscitation of the inner beast repressed by bourgeois hypocrisy, from a sublime hike up a mountainside to a tawdry program of sexual experimentation, may qualify as an epiphany. On those rare occasions when the liberal admits that contemplating the sunrise from a peak really is sublime, and not a mere response to the call of the wild, he or she risks walking a few steps along a trail once dear to humane cultural conservatism—and now largely abandoned, to be sure, by “conservatives” who plead the economy as an excuse for their barbarity, their progressive energy.
Yet the conservative’s paradox, I reiterate, is much the more imposing. Historically, we cannot escape the sad fact that self-styled conservatives have permitted their affinity for individual rights and robust creativity to ally itself with laissez-fairest, “anything goes” capitalist ventures. In reading over the works of the late Oriana Fallaci, I lately happened upon a perfect example of mid-twentieth-century hubris emanating from a figure who most certainly identified himself with the political Right. The scene was Saigon , shortly before the Tet Offensive. Fallaci was treated to an extended interview with venture-capitalist millionaire Barry Zorthion, who told her (while chauffeuring her on a tour of the area in his private pontoon-plane) about his grand plans for Southeast Asia . They did not include preserving much of anything: they projected, in fact, a rabid zeal for changing everything.
Mr. Zorthian is a 54-year-old of Armenian origin, with a great nose, a great paunch, a great faith in this war, and an unshakable conviction that “the United States should teach civilization to these poor wretches who have never heard anyone mention democracy and technological progress.” In other words, Mr. Zorthian maintains that America is doing Vietnam an immense favor, not only from a military but also from an economic point of view. “Once the war is won,” he says, “Vietnam will become rich like Japan, modern like Japan, respected like Japan—because we’ll teach her to harvest her resources on an industrial basis Factories, skyscrapers, and highways will spring up everywhere, and the Mekong will be humming like Florida.” The suspicion that the Delta’s peasantry may not want it to hum like Florida—that they may want only to live in peace among their hand-planted, hand-harvested rice—doesn’t so much as cross his mind.5
I shall refrain from drawing parallels with foreign policy of our own time—they are accessible enough in Zorthian’s dual hymn to democracy and high-tech capitalism that the reader may make connections as desired. I will stress only that this largely self-appointed emissary of “Western values” (as they are understood by such people) not only registers triumph in Florida’s having been “developed”: he is eager to inflict similar transformations upon parts of the world about whose culture he knows nothing nor can imagine any lesson being worth the effort of study. His “go-getter” Yankee spirit, when exported to go get profits beyond his native shores, can discern in ancient religions and social customs no more than childish obstacles. Whatever his independence may be said to “conserve” (in a tightly pinched meaning) of traditional rugged individualism, his attitude and actions could not be more transparently anti-conservative in every profound sense. Face it: if the new order of which he dreams were motivated more strongly by a desire to bring electricity and hygiene to the peasantry, we would be witnessing the resurrection of FDR’s Tennessee Valley Authority under Eastern eyes. The Soviet Union ’s criminal devastation of Lake Baikal is perhaps even more akin—for dams shift regional balances in nature yet leave their region fairly natural. Zorthian’s vision is so progressive that relics of nature would seem somewhat humiliating within it, signs of wasted space.
As for theory rather than practice, nominally conservative economists were authoring a doctrine of free trade throughout the mid-century. There was something of the primal barter at the logic’s foundation. Two men want to make an exchange, they dicker, and finally they cut a deal. Why create a bunch of abstracted, bureaucratically enforced rules in order to placate other people far away from the interests of these two? If one party happens to speak a different language and live on the other side of a river declared to be the national boundary… well, a man should still be a man: his autonomy to trade a horse or swap grain for bacon is still really no one’s business but his own, if we imagine life on the frontier. This, indeed, was the old way, a way that had worked for millennia before the first map was ever drawn.
Naturally, my homespun images are a very poor crash course in the libertarian doctrine of Milton Friedman. I hope that my highly simplistic presentation of issues beyond my ability to explain fully, however, betrays a certain sympathy. People should live free. The conservative, especially, with his belief in a metaphysical purpose to human life, should insist not just upon our right to be frugal, but also upon our right to choose risky options, to make bad choices producing instructive failures, and generally to grow as moral beings. In the broadest sense, perhaps the idea behind free trade is not merely to be allowed to learn that cheaper shoes from overseas fall apart sooner: perhaps there is an implied civic calling to save one’s fellow citizens from living in a fool’s paradise of artificial protections aimed at postponing hard realities; for the shoes from overseas may not fall apart—we may need to stop making shoes and start making satellites.
The free-trader, in this view, is supposed to be a mature globalist, not a ruthless adventurer. In the words of Friedman’s distinguished contemporary, Henry Hazlitt, “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”6 Paying “real world” value for goods and services is facing up to the “longer effects”. It forces the diehard traditionalist to admit with traditional resignation that, while there may be nothing new under the sun, neither does anything under the sun last forever.
Who would have guessed half a century ago that indexing prices to the international market would come to be less the mark of dry common sense than—once again—of giddy progressivism? Yet so it has happened. With respect both to the individual barterer and the entire society seeking to avoid self-delusion, free trade has forged heavy shackles. Its original architects (going back to the sainted Adam Smith) could not foresee that huge multinational corporations would exploit grossly unequal economic and social conditions around the globe to grind out the cheapest possible product. Half a century ago, specifically, American workers were having to learn the hard lesson that their destiny lay in becoming highly skilled—that unskilled manual labor could be found elsewhere in abundance and at a discount. Free trade thus ushered us, certain sectors kicking and screaming, into a golden age of technological innovation. This floruit lasted a generation or two… and then the rest of the world began to produce technicians and engineers as competent as our own, but available for far less pay. As we have watched “outsourcing” blaze its somber trail with the impeccable logic of greater profits, we have seen—just as logically—the lead in the race after more refined technology slip beyond our borders, as well. The best-case scenario is that, as other nations grow more prosperous, the cost of living will rise on their shores, their social welfare programs will multiply as ours have done, and the American worker—at last willing to accept far less, like a starving laborer after a failed strike—will appear attractive once more. Our standard of living, in other words, will meet somewhere in its downward spiral the ascending standard of the Third World . Economically, we shall have created The Planet of High-Tech Lackeys.
The worst-case scenario, by the way, is that societies ruled by megalomaniac oligarchs will acquire the dangerous technologies which we have thus far kept on a creditably tight leash. Gaffes of the Chernobyl variety will inevitably turn entire cities and provinces into morgues; but beyond that, the oligarchs—whether enflamed by eschatological zealotry or simply unmoved by the prospect of killing millions—will launch doomsday weapons which we will no longer have the ability to defuse or fend off. In short, this “cold market logic” could well be embarking us upon a voyage to annihilation.
That, you must agree, doesn’t seem a very “conserving” sort of endeavor. Friends of the free market may object that, if the bartering frontiersman tires of buying cheap Christmas toys from China , he may always crank up his own company back home and appeal to similarly disaffected countrymen. In most particular cases, this is a practical impossibility. Take the toy industry: we have found (as if we had any right to be surprised) that a wholly unprincipled Chinese regime exports products under respected American brand names which are neither well made nor safe to handle. An opportunity for native manufacturers to rise from the ashes? Alas, no: for the brand names, despite their highly publicized embarrassments, are just too big. It’s no longer a question of a garage-enterprise competing with a local factory: the Internet has dispensed with all locality. The presence of a company like Mattel, say, on the Net simply gobbles up the virtuous competition. There is no quaint and curious new store front on Main Street , no favorable report from a friend, no small ad in the back of Sunday’s newspaper: utter oblivion, rather. The Net was heralded by neoconservatives like George Gilder as a kind of libertarian utopia where every vendor could display his wares, untaxed and unharassed, to the whole world. With the curious overreaching into cultural matters so typical of progressive prophets, Gilder proclaimed in 1995 that “the Internet has already made of this era a golden age of letters.”7 Yet the technology of universal publishing and publicizing turned out to be an impassible logjam. Contradicting Gilder’s cornucopia of diversity and free expression, the Net, by exploiting the very finite time which most people have to spend peering at a very small window of images, has queued up all the competition for miles and then allowed only the first two or three contestants a screening. Our barterer may have the prettiest little milch-cow in five counties… but there’s no fair where he may display her. His neighbors aren’t even sitting on the front porch any more: they’re in a dark room hunched over a monitor, perhaps googling “heifers”.
As if to accelerate the collapse of our independent small producers into a nineteenth-century mass of minimally skilled laborers servicing the edges of twenty-first century digitalized markets, free trade has even been used lately to justify the complete dissolution of national borders, permitting the unskilled masses of other countries to flood our own workplace. If this is conservatism, then one is hard-pressed to distinguish it from Soviet paternalism. In both cases, a tiny elite—political in the USSR , economic but increasingly political in the USA —assumes the “burden” of providing the basic needs (and, chez nous, a few frivolous wants) to a passive throng that lifts, hoes, and scrubs when and where it is told to. We are to believe that these masses are actually happier now that their physical survival is guaranteed, and that they are happier still because the rich are “soaked” in taxes to fund their ration of weight-loss pills or to subsidize their switch to high-definition TV. That is, they envy the millionaire less because, after the tax man cometh, the millionaire’s bank account looks infinitesimally more like theirs. Richard Layard, a British MP and professor emeritus of Economics, explains trough assignments on this behavioristic animal farm with appalling bluntness and the chilling superbia of a born-and-bred social messiah:
If a person works harder and earns more, he may himself gain by increasing his income compared with other people. But the other people lose because their income now falls relative to his. He does not care that he is polluting other people in this way, so we must provide him with an automatic incentive to do so [i.e., to care]. Taxation provides exactly this incentive.8
Dwight Lee, whose brief essay brought this passage to my attention, places “polluting” in italics—as well he should; for it is most remarkable that elitists like Layard fancy themselves to be cultivating turnips or adjusting an artificial lake’s size to duck migrations when they write of tinkering with human lives through mandatory taxation. The reader may recall my claim that contemporary liberals, being devout materialists, cannot view happiness as other than an arrangement of circumstantial factors. Layard does not recoil from the tendency of his fellow beings to envy the wealthy, let alone exhort them to build happiness’s foundation on more spiritual ground: he determines, instead, how best to channel envy so that no one has too great a measure of it, quite as clinically as one might station sugar-water for laboratory mice in a Skinner Box. Yet Lee documents that both Layard and Cornell University economist Robert Frank view their proposed heavy taxation as encouraging the masses to spend more time with their families, and perhaps even to “develop the preferences of university professors… [for] more ‘elevated’ activities.”9
We have come full circle again. Socialist theoreticians and lawmakers are concerned about “family values” and art museums, while free-traders who claim conservative colors are busily engineering a swarm of docile masses beholden to its self-taxing masters for education, health benefits, and cues about taste and morals. What, I ask, is the difference between the socialist Big Brother and the capitalist Dutch Uncle? Multi-billionaire adventurer Bill Gates has lately expressed an interest in creating European-style educational tracks, the better to separate worker-bees and queens in the hives of humanity which he claims—by divine right of net worth—to know how to prepare for tomorrow’s world. Multibillionaire CEO Warren Buffitt has lately insisted that he and his financial peers—a microscopic group, to be sure—pay far too little of their earnings to the sacred cause of central government’s good works. To consider these men somehow antithetical to the snobbery of “nanny totalitarianism” on the Left is absurd. In them, rather, we see that “harmony with the opposition” which the electorate is supposed to desire so piously of its representatives. The Gateses and Buffitts would have us all well groomed, fat, and content—not the least bit volatile or brooding, without the least need of Heaven—in the caressing hands of some global mass-distribution plan. A few drops of manna for all… with the servers, of course (for we are never to forget that our rulers serve us), deploying bowl and ladle as they see fit.
No, this is not any imprint or facsimile of that cultural legacy which the conservative was to conserve. On the contrary, it is a cluster of symptoms hinting at pathological egotism—the “benign tyrant”, the “bully who didn’t mean it”. The ruthless entrepreneur is embarrassed one day to wake up and find himself incalculably rich as the corpses of slain adversaries surround him. Jules Romains precisely sketched such “social consciousness” in the unsavory person of Sammécaud, an oil magnate who seduces the wives of aristocratic colleagues because he finds them “purebred” and secretly subsidizes a Syndicalist newspaper. Musing to himself, Sammécaud reflects:
It’s so chic to concern oneself about the people’s plight without being forced to do so by circumstances or self-interest—while risking one’s interests, even, and without believing in any ideology. The secular, gratuitous generosity of the superior race (“race” understood as “essence”, a mysterious something, a spontaneous volunteering of the elite). Ultimately, these poor buggers owe us their access to civilization, to whatever little well-being they have. And that little is already a lot.10
Sammécaud discovers a “fake spirituality” of sacrifice—fake because he himself is the god who deigns to bend over. His “service” is the game of an imaginative nihilist, and it besmirches the hubristic player while demeaning his pawns. If the classical view was correct in asserting that human beings only find happiness in seeking after transcendent, eternal truths—that the unexamined life is not worth living—then we have forgotten which way is up, for playful giants are not gods. If Aristotle himself, who insisted that food, health, and shelter could not be excluded from happiness, was correct in explaining their contribution as merely instrumental, then we are fattening our loins for a slaughterhouse of the soul.
III . Farming and True Freedom of Speech
Stipulate, then, that unimpeded marketplace activity is not a blueprint for preserving that creative introspection, nurtured by literate culture, which tends to yield true, deep happiness (as opposed to those balmy affects deemed the signs of happiness by questionnaires). A vigorous day trading at the market may make us well-to-do, or a year of such days leave us positively wealthy… but it may also, eventually, enslave us. For a master is enslaved along with his slaves: the wheeler-dealer in any of his more sophisticated guises and locations is chained to his business interests in a way that corrupts his little bit of leisure (about that much, Professors Frank and Layard are correct). Even the billionaire-philanthropist must discover that being one of the welfare state’s messiahs is an Atlas-like burden. To escape the horrible fact of one’s own tyrannical power, one is apt to be mugging constantly for cameras and servilely courting a kind word from populist firebrands. The satisfactions of the palace cannot be much more durable than the pleasures of the Colosseum if supplemented by no inner magnetism to an unconditional, immaterial goodness.
Richard Weaver was fond of alluding to the forsaken nobility of medieval Christendom, and Wendell Berry loved to mingle the Gospels with earthy oral-traditional wisdom like that of the Sioux sachem Black Elk. We all know that the Right was able to galvanize its political base in the latter twentieth century by appealing directly to Christian fundamentalism; yet Weaver and Berry would clearly have been uncomfortable with any formula that might equate material affluence with God’s blessing and reserve moral censure for specific behaviors like abortion and homosexuality. I believe they were correct to insist that the fulfilled citizen must prosecute every stage of his daily existence in a conserving frame of mind—the parsimonia which Cicero extols in his Tusculan Disputations, the Socratic joy in needing so very little which rings resonantly through classical philosophy and persists in Augustus, Boethius, and medieval monasticism. The “happy American” must be something more than a person whose mate is of the opposite sex, who slightly undercuts the competition at “year-end clearance sales”, who watches multimedia productions in a large church on Sundays, and who celebrates Christmas the way he would a child’s birthday. If he is only this, he does not really understand happiness. He is merely the product and the purveyor of mass-mentality, accepting material comfort as a self-evident good, rather too sensitive to public approval to be enlisted among the devoted knights-errant of moral duty.
I have found few references in Weaver to José Ortega y Gasset, and none in Berry ; but I have no doubt that both thinkers were familiar with The Revolt of the Masses.11 Weaver’s sixth chapter in Ideas Have Consequences is even entitled, “The Spoiled-Child Psychology” (very probably an allusion to Ortega y Gasset’s señorito satisfecho). Like the Spaniard, too, Weaver charges modern technology—especially the “Great Stereopticon” of instant info-entertainment provided by pandering communications media—with reducing our masses to this state. Yet the accelerated pace of city-living is implicated in the degeneration from numerous other angles:
No one can be excused for moral degradation, but we are tempted to say of the urban dweller, as of the heathen, that he never had an opportunity for salvation. He has been exposed so unremittingly to this false interpretation of life that, though we may deplore, we can hardly wonder at the unreasonableness of his demands. He has been given the notion that progress is automatic, and hence he is not prepared to understand impediments; and the right to pursue happiness he has not unnaturally translated into a right to have happiness, like a right to the franchise. If all this had been couched in terms of spiritual insight, the case would be different, but when he is taught that happiness is obtainable in a world limited to surfaces, he is being prepared for that disillusionment and resentment which lay behind the mass psychosis of fascism.12
Parallel passages could readily be found in Ortega y Gasset’s great book.13 The difference lies in the emphasis: Weaver pits the urban against the rural and carnal whim against spiritual longing. He is constantly pulling back on the reins, harkening after a precious legacy squandered. The Spaniard, in contrast, will imply as his essays feel their way along that fascism might be averted if Europe ’s nations would bond together in a progressive venture. The former is more conservative, the latter more liberal. Weaver was disappointed in contemporary Christianity: Ortega y Gasset apparently concluded Christianity to be a relic of the naïve past, incapable of a contemporary form.
This distinction is worth stressing, because Europe turns out to have followed Ortega y Gasset’s recommended course—with the result that it is now a loose collective whose manners are tightly monitored by gloriosi like The Right Honorable Richard Layard. Far better would have been a rediscovery that envy is a sin: that all creatures must die in the flesh, that all things must decay to dust, and that only a fool would therefore stake his happiness upon never sickening and ever acquiring more pelf. To the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (for such insights are by no means confined to Christianity), the deduction was as simple as A, B, C: “The good should be such that one might be firm upon it and trust it.—Yes, it should.—Can one be firm upon the unsteady?—No.—But surely pleasure of the senses is not steady, is it?—No.—Out with it, then, and clear it from our scales!”14 The masses have only the fleeting image of pleasures and luxuries, fulfilled briefly or in part from time to time, upon which to found their sense of achievement. That manipulators like Layard are so aware of the image’s vacuity as to build a comparative record of various flawed perceptions—to devote, indeed, entire social programs to creating maximal illusion—testifies to the new Europe’s ruinous cynicism in choosing intoxicants over the sobriety of real striving.
For to strive is to integrate oneself into the natural cycle begun with birth but not ended with death: it is to exchange oneself for something not oneself, yet enduring after one (to speak in earthly terms) as an expression of what one has chosen to serve—perhaps literally to die for. Such is the perspective of Wendell Berry’s elegant essay, “Discipline and Hope”. Berry , alas, refers not to Europeans but to his own countrymen when he writes,
Because of the prevalence of economics [i.e., profitable, faddish “conveniences”] and the philosophy of laborsaving, it has become almost a heresy to speak of hard work, especially manual work, as an inescapable human necessity. To speak of such work as good and ennobling, a source of pleasure and joy, is almost to declare oneself a pervert. Such work, and any aptitude or taste for it, are supposedly mere relics of our rural and primitive past—a past from which it is the business of modern science and technology to save us.15
The “specialist”, that arch-villain of Ortega y Gasset’s, is again very visible in Berry ’s assessment. Particularly aggrieved by the predations of strip-mining in Kentucky , Berry was incurably astonished that human beings could create such hellish landscapes for the sake of such temporary gains. Only someone fitted with the blinders of an obsessively narrow ambition could so ignore an exploitation that outraged both the human spirit and plain common sense. For Berry, like Weaver and other Southern Agrarians (a vague movement inspired by the publication of I’ll Take My Stand in 1930), was as keen to observe that people cannot live very long in wastefulness as to lament that no one could enjoy living in wastelands: the heart hath plenty of reasons, pace Pascal, which reason understands full well. To conserve is a spiritually enriching duty, but it is also a practically necessary one. The specialist or “economist” cannot see this because he measures success by the quarter-year. Perhaps the unnamed Ortega y Gasset could not see it clearly because a clinical positivism had not scalded Europe ’s physical appearance, for the most part, but only made her consumers hungry for American gadgetry. Uniting specialists in a common adventure, however—in harvesting the ocean bottom or mining the Moon—will do nothing to restore the missing spirituality of life that reconciles man to his lot and makes enduring happiness accessible. On the contrary, it will feed the illusion of the far horizon’s heavenly amplitude. It will slate Lake Baikal for execution by progressive Soviet bureaucrats with inflexible timetables for “productivity”.
If the key for both Weaver and Berry was spirituality, then the key to economic spirituality—to feeding one’s children and paying one’s bills in a fashion pleasant rather than odious to intellect and soul—was the land. The good, rich earth: source of perpetual rebirth from death, sacrificial mother to the human race, inspiration of human creativity’s most powerful images and melodies. Berry actually revived the fine art of plowing behind a draft animal: as if to emphasize that labor itself is as important for the spirit as food for the body, he embraced grinding toil with zeal. My own objection to such devotional acts, rewarding though they surely are to the individual, is that they invite caricature of an entire range of positions on critical economic issues. We will not convince most Americans to become Amish farmers—nor should we try, in fact. The technological genie is out of the bottle. If we were willing to surrender the lead in the arms-and-energy race to our hungry pursuers, we should have to live in the world—and very possibly die an untimely death in it—that would result. Allowing the current Chinese regime to dictate the course of the twenty-first century would be a crime against humanity that we would scarcely have time to regret.
The alternative to the great hive which Chinese communism seeks to make of the human race, however, is precisely a society of self-sufficient individuals—not another hive, set in motion by the lure of profit and the goad of envy rather than by a soldier’s machine-gun. To be truly independent in a high-tech economy is no easy matter, and the hardest value of the equation to supply is food. Farming one’s own small plot of land has become appallingly low-tech, visited both with a certain derisive social stigma and with the practical difficulty of demanding too much time; for you can’t farm in the city, and to the city you must go if you would pay your other bills after growing your own vegetables. Yet the high-tech job awaiting us at the end of a painful daily commute through smoggy traffic jams is less likely the design of a satellite system to avert hostile missiles than the design of a new cellular phone which starts the hot water running in the tub back home. What contemporary man needs for his happiness—and maybe even his sanity—is the economic ability to refuse work on this cell phone, to refuse the alternative of building pizzas at a “drive-thru” window, and to refuse the occasional third option of living on the dole. He needs to be able to participate in contemporary life without being enlisted into the West’s growing army of wage-slaving clowns, acrobats, and snake-oil salesmen. He needs, with all his learning and humanity and optimism, to be able to conserve a sense of honor.
Land can give him this honor, because it can provide him with a) a place to find shelter, and b) a source of food staples. He may or may not find conscionable employment as an architect or copy-editor within a few weeks of refusing to market pills for “sexual enhancement” or to sell used cars in Spanish. If a satisfactory option is slow in coming, however, he and his family will not starve—not, that is, if he can deploy technology in farming his half-acre of suburban property. A few tomato plants on the patio, or even a back-yard garden of the conventional kind, won’t do the trick; but if he knows or learns how to maximize his yield with innovative strategies, then he will be a provider in the word’s true, direct sense while also being nobody’s toady or pimp. So privileged a position, unfortunately, is enjoyed by ever fewer in our entertainment-economy. Land is the key to our recovering our personal dignity—the power of announcing at a lucrative but morally squalid place of employ, “I won’t do it—I quit.”
continued in next issue
John Harris is the founder and president of The Center for Literate Values. His doctorate in Comparative Literature was completed at The University of Texas at Austin , from which institution he has also earned degrees in English and the Classics. He taught throughout the southeastern United States in a variety of settings and disciplines for two decades before giving The Center most of his attention.
11 Cf. Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1948), 130; and Nash (op. cit., 38) claims that the Spanish theorist was a major influence on Weaver’s doctoral dissertation. return
13 Besides the already suggested eleventh chapter of Part One, “La época del señorito satisfecho”, the ensuing chapter of La Rebelión de las Masas, “La barbarie del especialismo”, stresses the role of the technician in narrowing cultural vision—a perspective even more central in Wendell Berry’s argument shortly to follow. return
High College Costs, Low Student Achievement, Driven by Global Warming – Researchers Say
Researchers at California State University , Van Nuys, and Michigan Central Teacher College of Farwell reported this week that global warming is the primary cause of both declining academic performance among North American college undergraduates and the rising costs associated with a baccalaureate degree. The three-week-long multiple-perspective study was undertaken by assistants for the Senior-Level Sub-Dean of Diversity Quotas in Environmental Scholarship at CSUVN and four tenured members of the Alternative Literacies [sic] Program at MCTCF. The team systematically surveyed multiple self-evaluations and statistical-anecdotal probability memoranda culled from a wide variety of auto-probative and theosophical sources appearing in carefully vetted blogs posted on the Internet since February. “This is one of the most exhaustive studies of its kind to be carried out by institutions of our accreditation-level, in California or Michigan, during the past seventeen and a half months,” said Dr. Michelle Mausse, a CSUVN Diverse Arts Practical Instructor, who is acting co-chair of the project, and supervising gender-fairness editor of the semi-final quasi-executive summary of the project’s yet-to-be-published report. Mausse also said that a surprising side-result of the consortium’s monumental twenty-one day data-collection effort was a strong indication that an expected storm of irate denials inspired by and aimed at the report would almost certainly exacerbate global warming, thereby degrading student performance even further and raising the price of a college education even higher.
When a reporter asked why Mausse anticipated such a belligerent reception for her findings, she replied, “Given the cutting-edge status of our conclusions and the transgressive methods employed during our strenuous three weeks of research, you can bet that Bill O’Reilly and Fox News will be working overtime to sap public confidence in our assertions.” According to Mausse, the best way to prevent such obfuscation would be “to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, ban SUVs, and approach North Korea with an environmentally friendly attitude.”
As stated in the semi-final quasi-executive summary, “Last year’s harsh winter in the Northeast and this summer’s record-breaking cool weather across the Upper Midwest prove incontrovertibly that global warming is on a steep rise.” In an informative historical aside, the summary states that public consciousness about global warming began in earnest in the late 1960s with the appearance of Dr. Saul Schmerlich’s prophetic tract, Heat-Death by 1970—No Doubt About It. Mausse attributes her own environmental “conversion” to perusing the Utne Reader’s “condensed” version of Schmerlich’s book while writing her feminist studies thesis at Mannless County Community College , near New Mytilene, Ohio , in 1984. Republication of Schmerlich’s book has correlated over the decades with strong, measurable decreases in science-competency among first-semester freshmen, “and not just at campuses like CSUVN and MCTCF,” Mausse adds. Is Schmerlich’s book therefore a bad influence? “No,” says Mausse. “Without Schmerlich, young people wouldn’t be alarmed about global warming and if they weren’t alarmed about global warming, they wouldn’t be in a haze when it comes to science. Senator Gore owes a debt to Saul Schmerlich. In fact, I find it hard to say Gore without saying Schmerlich at the same time. I guess my mind just works that way. As to scientific illiteracy—it’s not unambiguously bad although the anxiety it produces is bad. Fighting global warming means getting people to relax and feel comfortable about things like ignorance and anxiety while maintaining an implacably hostile stance towards those who disagree with them.”
Reminded that her own university had recently issued a statement (“Hey, We Are So Not Stupid!”) contradicting the assertion that scientific literacy among the 17-24 age group has sunk in North America to near Third-World levels, and that she was a signatory, the feisty Mausse attacked “phallogocentric thinking and the prejudice against non-linear reasoning intrinsic to the patriarchy.” She blamed the “alleged contradiction” on “structural biases in male-dominated education-research hitherto not addressed by affirmative action hiring.” As Mausse told a news conference earlier today, “Women and metrosexuals, like those on our team, tend to be more nurturing, caring, and intuitive than the old-fashioned all-male man, and our work reflects those qualities in a harsh, unsentimental, and unflinching way.”
The research revealed by Mausse and her collaborators defines a three-stage process by which global warming drives down the level of student performance, increases the likelihood of degree non-completion, and at the same time inflates the cost of undergraduate matriculation.
The first stage of the process is global warming itself. The team ascertained the reality of global warming by repeatedly viewing the Al Gore documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and by skimming selected pages of Schmerlich’s Heat-Death by 1970—The Revised 2007 Edition. Several telephone consultations were also arranged with Ward Churchill, noted plastic artist and former chair of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder . “We wanted the authentic Native American perspective,” Mausse explains, “as part of our diversity mandate.” A photograph of Churchill’s papier-mâché figurine, “Hot Prof”, will decorate the cover of The Mausse Report “whenever it’s published”, its main author affirmed. “Hot Prof” depicts an environmentally sensitive, tribally affiliated, non-Ph.D.-holding chair of an academic department horribly oppressed by a white-male-European-inflicted global climatic catastrophe.
After global warming per se, says Mausse, the second stage of the process that she and her co-researchers have discovered is global warming awareness, already hinted at in Mausse’s remarks about Schmerlich. “Normally,” Mausse explained, “we here at CSUVN value the diverse forms of awareness dearly, such as awareness of being a fully tenured faculty member at one of the most highly rated third-tier pre-teacher-training colleges in Van Nuys, but some kinds of awareness turn out to have a deleterious effect on holistic non-gendered wellbeing.” Mausse’s senior research partner, Dr. C. Lardner Brainepanne of the Farwell Alternative Literacies [sic] Program ( Michigan ), seconds this point. “For example,” Brainepanne says, “research has shown that awareness of not being able to read or write so good gets a lot worser for a person when they’re forced to be in a room with a bunch of smart-asses who know a lot of really big words. When I was a undergraduate, there was this teacher, see, and he went around acting like he knew more than anybody else in the whole damned classroom. That four-eyed little rat-face really grated my nerves. That’s why we invented Alternative Literacies [sic] in the first place—to take the gut-wrenching awareness out of illiteracy and make TV- and hip-hop-based cultural complacency compatible with high self-esteem.”
Mausse picks up the thread of Brainepanne’s explanation. “Simply put, awareness becomes obsession, but in a good way. Thinking obsessively about how many manatees, dugongs, and sea cows Vice President Dick Cheney has already tortured and murdered, and about how many copies of The Greenpeace Manifesto he’s already flushed down the toilet, can make it virtually impossible for a person to think about other, unimportant things, like science. I go to sleep night after night thinking obsessively about sea cows and toilets and so does my husband. We have to remind people constantly of how close to extinction Bush and Cheney have already pushed the spotted owl, the Sasquatch, and the Lorax, not to mention Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, and the New Zealand Moa. How many of those are left? I devote most of my lecture-time to just this and I screen An Inconvenient Truth as often as possible, especially in my literature classes, along with The Lion King and Ocean’s Eleven. Many of my better, most committed students bring their environmental convictions with them from high school, along with their body-piercings, tattoos, backwards baseball hats, enthusiasm for Nick at Night, binge drinking, cell phones, iPods, and sexual promiscuity. So it’s not surprising that facts and figures or abstruse scientific arguments only confuse and anger our young people. We make an effort metaphorically at CSUVN not to confuse these youths further by literally turning their baseball caps around, figuratively speaking, in the so-called right direction.”
In a third, culminating stage of the process, global warming decreases academic performance by forcing students to wear fewer and skimpier clothes, a trend noted keenly by students themselves, especially males. Arwel Wankler, a seventh-year junior-level adult-entertainment major at Van Nuys, told a reporter, “Dude, what with all the sun bathing on a Friday afternoon, the main lawn here at CSUVN is a total babe-park. It’s Thong City ! My boss at the place where I intern—Spanker Exotic Videos… like, he’s not even a student and he spends hours and hours of his own time right here scoping out the scene. Quite a few Van Nuys girls have gotten good employment out of that.” Mausse points to Wankler as a demonstration case for her hypothesis. “Arwel should have graduated summa cum casually, our highest distinction, three years ago, but he has taken my capstone seminar on Lesbian Semiotics and the Politics of Oil four times without being able to pass the final exam. There isn’t even any reading in that course, but you do have to bring your own oil. I guess his parents will just have to keep financing him until he sweats out the transgressive challenge and earns his degree, or until the earth cools down. I admire him for his hold-onto-it-until-you-bring-it-off attitude.”
Coeds are not immune from the distraction. A young “interpretive dance major”, identifying herself only as “Tiffany”, says that the only thing she brought with her from high school were her augmentations, which are environmentally quite sensitive. “Mostly I only go out at night anymore,” the young woman says. “Fortunately, I work at a place called The North Pole. The ‘pole’ is refrigerated as well as antiseptic and my job is sort of… air conditioned.”
In the past, sociologists and education specialists have blamed falling test-scores on factors like the intentional de-emphasis of basic literacy in K-12 and the corrosive effects of insipid mass-culture on the cognitive skills of children in elementary and secondary schools. They have blamed soaring higher-education costs on administratively top-heavy institutions and the insistence by unionized faculty members that they teach fewer courses per semester than was regular in the past. Astrophysicists and climatologists have attributed a small rise in the mean yearly global temperature to a cyclic increase in solar activity, said also to have affected the planet Mars, whose polar caps are retreating. “Nonsense,” Mausse and Brainepanne argue. “If you divest yourself of linear thinking, you’ll quickly see that global cooling in the past is part of a much vaster Bush-Cheney conspiracy. Look at the creepy Skull-and-Bones eye on that pyramid on the dollar bill and tell us if there’s anything Bush and Cheney can’t do with their insidious male gaze. As a matter of fact, we celebrate global cooling in past centuries, since without it global warming today would never have been so obvious.”
According to Mausse, global warming, in addition to depressing intellectual acuity in college students and hiking the baccalaureate’s price tag without any foreseeable limit, has other devastating effects. “There are the vapors, for example. More and more cases of the vapors are being reported on college campuses, especially when someone questions the rationale for great programs like feminist studies or diverse arts. We’ve also heard reliable tales of conniption fits and ‘restless panty syndrome’.”
When the report sees print, it will include five key policy recommendations.
*Keep as much of Canada as possible frigid and uninhabitable for the next ten thousand years.
*Get people in Des Moines to act “cooler”—like people in Portland, say, or Seattle.
*Reinstate Rosie O’Donnell on The View.
*Use less toilet paper—only one sheet per visit.
Mausse sees a connection between the problems she investigates and, perhaps surprisingly, the possibility of bringing conservatives, who tend to take a skeptical position on global warming, to her point of view. Referring to the second-to-last policy recommendation, she says, “As we learn to use less and less toilet paper per visit, there will be fewer and fewer people from foreign countries wanting to come to the United States—and people born in this country will find more value than ever in the soft, caressing vellum of their expensively purchased college diplomas.”
(Thomas F. Bertonneau, Oswego, New York, filed this story.)
J. S. Moseby
“There are days when I could be a martyr, smiling as the flames melt my feet from under me. And other days when I could probably be a mass-murderer. With a little shove in the right direction. Or maybe not. The thought of killing innocents… besides being morally repugnant, it would ruin the aesthetics of the thing, if you know what I mean. Not only wrong, but ugly. What I dream of, sometimes, is the wrong but sublime. If several people who richly deserved it could all be assembled in one place… you know, powerful people. People who had used their power to make other people squirm, make them cry out in pain. People who enjoyed nothing in life so much as that sensation of making others writhe. If I could have a dozen or so of those—the more the better—assembled in one room for some kind of conference—a Conference of Bastards—then, yeah, I could see myself, on certain days, blowing us all to smithereens. Or taking them all out one by one, seeing if they would collect the guts in time to rise up against me en masse… which they wouldn’t. But then I would take myself out, too. The whole thing would be an elaborate kind of hara-kiri. It wouldn’t make sense any other way. Why kill the bastards and keep living yourself—because you actually expect life to be a little better after that? Come on! It wouldn’t be a progressivist gesture. It would be an honorable suicide. And killing the bastards would be part of what would confer honor upon it. Killing oneself would be the other part… to make it clear, you know, that one had not taken them out in expectation of a selfish profit.”
“Are you talking about the wrath of God?”
“I wouldn’t have used those terms… but maybe. God is so distant, and his wrath is all-embracing. But I’m rambling, you understand—I’m talking about daydreams. Pipedreams. No, I wouldn’t ever do any such thing. But I think about such things on my bad days. Days when I wake up with a splitting headache because I haven’t slept enough, one or two hours… when I spent most of the night worrying. My wife used to say that there was no point to worrying—that it didn’t help anything. I could never seem to explain to her—and yet, it seems so obvious, doesn’t it?—that that’s exactly why you worry! Because you can’t do anything. The powerful can pose you the choice between licking their shoe soles clean or starving, and watching your wife and kids starve—oh, I know, nobody starves today, but you know what I mean. Seeing all those eyes at home looking at you, watching you, wondering why you can’t hold a job… that’s worse than starving, maybe. And so you worry like hell over whether you can sign off on all the lies and laugh at all the asshole jokes and go grab a late drink with all the right buddies—can you do all that, can you annihilate your soul sufficiently to make them want to keep you on? But why should they keep you on, once they discover that you’re made of cardboard? They can have another thousand just like you interviewing for your job tomorrow. And you can’t control any of it. It’s all out of control. And that, in a nutshell, is why you worry.”
“Women, in my experience, are more likely to… you know, to be formally religious. To believe that everything really will be okay. I don’t think they understand the point of view you describe—they’re not made that way. They have less control over their environment than we do, yet they… they believe that things are under control. Or will be… or can be. Maybe that’s why… I mean, because they are so used to being controlled by others.”
“And when you fail them in that capacity, it hits them very hard. They expect you, as a man, to know how to pull things together. And when you can’t… and it doesn’t seem to matter to them, most of them, that things are most often pulled together by offering or taking bribes, or forging documents, or writing fake prescriptions, or… or doctoring the facts to make an editor or a wealthy donor happy. Or stuffing a fake gas tank with marijuana. That’s how you get ahead in this pile-of-shit world—if you’ll pardon my French, Padre. I never used to be foul-mouthed. God, I used to be so… such a little babe in the woods. A lamb. People said that I should choose a life of the cloth. Some people, one or two. Now, why would they say that? Because the lamb would be slaughtered if he were not artificially screened from reality? And what good would a spiritual advisor do anyone who hadn’t an inkling that the world was a slaughterhouse—that he himself had only escaped slaughter by being herded into a special holding pen? Who would want to be such a pathetic creature? No offense.”
“You said that your wife used to tell you not to worry. What… what happened to her?”
“She finally had enough, of course.”
“I mean she finally had enough. I don’t blame her. Never should have married me. I warned her, in my own way. She was a secretary in my department when I was slaving away on my doctorate. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. We frequently talked when I checked my mailbox. Sometimes we ran into each other on campus. I would go out of my way to be exiting the library just as she entered the parking lot. She must have noticed. Eventually she started dropping me off at my apartment on her way home. I was always on foot in those days, and she claimed that we were going the same way. Then I started asking her up for a drink while the rush-hour traffic thinned out—iced tea, lemonade. Strict virtue observed. Then we started talking more and more up in my apartment, and she started staying later and later. I made her supper one evening. When everything was finished, as we watched the twilight dim from my eighth-story window, she asked me why I never tried to kiss her—was it because she was part black. I hadn’t actually known, to be honest: she might have been part Arabic—she had those amber eyes, and rather fair hair though kind of wavy… I’d never seen anyone so beautiful. And that was basically what I told her—that she was far too good for me, too perfect for such a leper. And then she kissed me, and I married her. The racial thing probably had something to do with why it didn’t work out. My mother hated her, as she would have hated a Jew or an Arab or a Thai or a Japanese. My mother thought I should have married Aryan purity—which you will find odd, considering my dark eyes and hair. But no odder than I. Maybe our darkness was why she wanted a blonde—I mean, as you say about women believing in a controlled universe because they are always being controlled, maybe my mother was confident that fair was better than dark because we were always on the receiving end of it in the power struggle. Too Mediterranean. Does that make sense?”
“Well… I suppose.”
“Blonde hair and blue eyes. I always hated them, you know. In a woman, I mean. But I think I always hated them precisely because I knew they were too good for me—above my class, you know, above my race.”
“But… that’s ridiculous!”
“Why? Because I’m white? Because white is white? But it really isn’t… have you really not found that out? Any more than a man of average size like me and with a mild, slightly tremulous voice… wouldn’t you call my voice kind of thin, maybe a bit too high?... any more than that kind of man has the same shake at success as a six-foot-three guy with a booming baritone. No, I always felt like… well, a bit dirty. Around blondes. Tall, blue-eyed blondes. And that’s what my mom wanted me to marry, because that would make me better. It would be better for the family—it would improve us. Sure, it would! I can’t believe you find this all so surprising. And I don’t deny for a minute that my hatred of blondness was just an extension of my mother’s prejudice—the reverse of it, but the same thing. No, no, I was aware of that from the start. Even as an adolescent, I was painfully aware of how beautiful the fair people were around me, and how much beyond my reach. But Lilah… she was completely within my reach, in that regard. Coloring, I mean. She was just too absolutely beautiful. It never even occurred to me for a second that she might be part African. All I knew was that she was beautiful and somehow… dusky, you know. A little shadowy—just enough to be within my reach, to be like me. My God, that’s why I fell so hard for her right from the first time I saw her. She was so beautiful, and she was so not blonde!”
“And what did your father say through all this?”
“Whatever Mom thought was alright with Dad. If she had accepted Lilah, that would have been alright with Dad. If she had poisoned Lilah, that would have been alright with Dad, too. As long as he could rebuild old cars in the back lot, whatever went on in the rest of the world was none of his business. Office flunkey by day, artist with wrench and grease-gun by evening. I doubt that Dad could have given you the names of his two grandchildren on his death bed.”
“You mean this went on even… even after you had children?”
“But there was really nothing much to go on. Silence can be self-sustaining. Once you become accustomed to living entirely without someone, never mentioning his name or thinking about him, then it is the attempt to remember him which would require a great investment of energy. We formed our different orbits, and they never crossed.”
“How… how perfectly horrible.”
“You think so? But it is also perfectly normal. The normal horror. Men have accustomed themselves to many an atrocity, from mutilating prisoners to beating their children unconscious to cutting the hearts out of sacrificial virgins. Our family dysfunction was not an atrocity, of course… and I really don’t even think a horror. Not really, not as things go. No more a horror than giving a sports car to a teenager for graduating from high school… why not just send him out with a spear to kill a lion, like the Zulus? His chances would be better. We’re pretty much of an age, you and I, Padre—at least, I would have said so when I could still see you clearly. But we don’t seem to have lived the same sort of life at all. Or what I mean is—since that’s an absurd thing to say—we don’t seem to have seen the same things. But that’s absurd, too. It’s all absurd. Horrible. Well, call it horrible, then. Personally, I thought it was rather peaceful not to have my parents in my life any more. I could devote myself to Lilah. Just she and I. She was all I needed. I’d never been so happy.”
“Then what went wrong?”
“Just… the usual. Couldn’t keep a job. No, the usual would have been for her to walk out on me for that alone—and I can never praise Lilah enough for how she stuck by me. It was myself. I started rotting inside. I could feel it, smell it. I became impossible to live with… I became what I am now. I really didn’t want to, you know—not in the least. On the contrary, I was so upbeat and obliging in all of my early positions—so much of a “team player”—that I became something of a toxic waste dump. I took all the assignments that no one else wanted. I started out in academe, as I may have told you before. A raw, green Ph.D. No experience, no publications. I would understand later that that was precisely why I was hired for my two first jobs. They knew that I would do anything, since I had no expectations about what I should and shouldn’t do and, besides, had absolutely no bargaining power. In the unlikely event that I raised an objection, I was eminently fire-able. I was tolerated… I was there on sufferance. They like people like that, in academe. Permanent Latrine Orderlies, as they say in that old movie about boot camp. Well, that was me. I taught all of the eight a.m. classes along with all of the evening classes. Not all of them, of course… but fifty percent of both, in a department of a dozen members. I never had a stable schedule, I always had half again as many students as anyone else since I always taught large freshman sections, I always had more papers to grade, and I always got poorer evaluations since my students were less student-like and were all taking required courses while turning their primary attention to the freshman party scene… oh, God, I would have been as easy to fire at any moment as a dodo would have been for a marksman to pick off. And they all knew it. Everyone knew it except for me. I was actually proud of having a job. I actually believed that all my hard work could not pass unnoticed and unrewarded. A lamb, Padre… a lamb in the deep woods at nightfall, as the wolves begin to howl. A lamb who merely thought the wind was whistling through the trees. There’s horror for you.”
“Yes. It is horrible.”
“The normal horror, though. Strictly normal. But I wasn’t stupid. After only one or two evaluations, I saw that I was slated for the block—that my impossible situation wasn’t going to be considered in my favor, but that I was being judged on the same level as everyone else. I doubt that I fully realized, even then, that this had been intended from the start. I didn’t see how well it worked for them. I didn’t see that a series of hirings and firings of raw, green Ph.D.s in perpetuum would keep them supplied in slaves forever, whereas if they actually promoted one here and there, some of them might actually have to move over, to get up and do a little work. The only drone in my situation who got rave reviews from them was a young feminist with flowing brown hair down to her waist—all on one side, you know, like that fox from the academy who became Al Gore’s consultant during his run… another name I’ve forgotten. As I live and breathe, I think her name was Wolf! But this particular fox’s tail had been sniffed over by half the tenured male kennel. That’s how things are done, Padre. You surely know that, don’t you?”
“If you say so.”
“Well, don’t sulk. It apparently took me one more position to generalize my conclusions properly. I thought maybe I’d just drawn one bad card—I didn’t know that the game was always played this way. I was really going to school for the first time, and I was having to catch up, to do remedial work. My life had been so sheltered before. In my second position, I somehow found the time to write and publish three or four articles—which was far above the average even for a ten-year period where I was working, let alone for just a couple of years. This in addition to all the other crap—the early classes, the late classes, the large sections, the courses that weren’t in my area of expertise or anyone else’s—that shouldn’t even have been taught in our department… that always produces good evaluations, you know, when you’re teaching a subject that you don’t understand! I love that! Tailor-made. The ultimate no-win situation. And we now had an infant at home, after a difficult pregnancy for Lilah, since the worst months overlapped with those of our getting relocated from the previous job. All the heavy lifting she did when we unpacked… I thought she would miscarry for sure. Now, that would really have made me mad—if, I mean, I had had to sacrifice my baby on the altar of that shit profession so that those shit professors could continue to dribble snot ex cathedra. That might have made me lose it. I thought about that in the waiting room, when she began to bleed one time and I had to rush her in. I thought to myself, ‘If this costs my baby her life because these shit-asses have to have some slave around to clean up their messes and then want him gone because he expects to be paid… if this is how it plays out, I’m going to notch some bullets and pop a few skulls. Then I’ll go do myself and leave Lilah a free woman.’”
“Oh… oh for the love of Christ, man!”
“What do you want, the watered down version?”
“No, I didn’t mean it that way. I meant… what a black abyss for you! And… you never thought to pray?”
“I could say that I had learned by now not to pray—that every time I prayed, things were sure to get worse. But that wouldn’t be true. In several respects. I really never did learn that in just those words. What I learned, eventually, was that praying had no effect either way, good or bad. It was just a crap shoot. Sometimes sevens, sometimes snake eyes. But I hadn’t even learned that much just that early. Oh, I prayed, I’m sure I must have prayed. That was one of the thoughts I had between prayers.”
“I… I see.”
“But my second job, to return to my career… now that I was a published scholar—all rise, all hail—I discovered that I elicited more animosity than ever. For they had been deprived of the more obvious means of executing me. Not only that, but my energy showed up their laziness. So they had to think of something else. I remember one time when my chair wrote on an evaluation that I sometimes skipped departmental meetings, although she knew perfectly well that I was racing home before my evening classes to see my wife and baby and grab a bite to eat. That kind of crap. And when and if I ever found out that such things had crept into my record, it was only months after the fact, and the impression had already been made higher up. Can you… can you tell me why such people deserve to live?”
“I… no, I don’t really think I have a short answer to that.”
“Well, good for you! At least you didn’t tell me that we are all sinners, and that something in my own life is just as bad as what I’m accusing them of. I’ve heard that lie so often… it was lies like that, in fact, that made me stop praying, stop going to church. They infuriated me. We are all sinners: so be it. But not all sins are the same. Maybe my language is foul. That’s not good. I have already confessed that I could have been a mass-murderer under the right circumstances. Yeah, and I probably would have enjoyed it. I can imagine enjoying it. That’s bad, really bad. But it is not doing the things that drive people to murder. It isn’t leaving women without a home when they’re about to have a baby. Or it isn’t taking away someone’s job and home with stopped ears and covered eyes, so that you don’t notice if there’s a pregnant woman being evicted or not. No, I’ve never done anything like that. Nothing. Not even close. And no, I never would. And neither would you—and you know it, so don’t lie. There are those who enjoy making us suffer. They live for it—it’s what they get up for in the morning. Power. The assertion of the ego. I. My foot is on your throat. Power. And some of them—many of them, even—say prayers every morning and evening, and go to church every Sunday, and heap the collection plate with a pittance raked from their spoils. Some of them, even—perhaps many… they rise to the leadership of religious orders. Or maybe you think…”
“No. I take your point.”
“Oh. Well, good. I’ve probably already said more than enough. About everything.”
“Just because people in my situation take a vow of obedience doesn’t mean that you’ve said more than enough. In fact, it’s absurd. Did you imagine that I supposed my life to be perfect?”
“No. But the terms of this whole discussion are beginning to… to make me suspicious. The street’s one-way. I spill my guts like some drunkard at a bar, and you just sort of float aloof from it all. Why is that, Padre? Is it because you already know everything I could possibly say about anything—because you’ve heard it all, and dealt with it personally in a terminal way, with your vows? No, I don’t believe that. I can already tell enough about you, even though I can’t see you and you don’t say much beyond ‘yes’ and ‘no’—I can already tell that you’re the same lamb being led to the slaughter as I was. Or the same lamb after the slaughter. You don’t know anything more than I do about it all. And since I’m not of your persuasion, anyway, and since you were the one who began with the questions…”
“Come on, now! You’re being a little… touchy, don’t you think? All I said was that I took your point. I apologize if… if… I’m not trying to condescend to you, or to… to parasitize off your life. I don’t need that. I promise you I don’t. Believe me, I get far, far more of the voyeuristic thing than I care for—and I care for none of it at all. You want to help people, to give them a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on… but they abuse the opportunity. All the time—routinely. Say, fifty percent. What they really want—a good half of them—is a chance to brag about their tawdry misdeeds without being told on, or… or something even worse. Like some beggar who lovingly rubs dirt into his scabs to make sure that they get re-infected. I can’t tell you how it all sickens me… sometimes. Because I am much the kind of person you describe. I’m… I am, perhaps, too innocent for this work. I would be a far better monastic. It’s really what I always wanted. Except that, even there… especially there…”
“The power. That’s where the power is really asserted, in those introverted communities. And you have to tell yourself that your suffering is penance for some secret sin, or healthy mortification of your arrogant will…”
“Yeah, okay. But there’s nothing different about that and the way the outside world is. Nothing. Just the surfaces. It all comes down to the same thing, even when you get married and have children. Perhaps then more than ever. Because then, when someone tightens the screws on you, it isn’t just yourself. You can always strike some kind of a peace for yourself, even if it’s just jumping off a bridge. But when other people are depending on you… all those pairs of eyes looking up at you, expecting answers… no. No, not answers—what do they care about answers? Just results. Expecting bread on the table, a stable home, a chance to make friends and settle down, new clothes and a vacation once in a while. They don’t even reproach you. They just look at you as if to say, ‘What happened? Was there an accident? Was there a fire? When will everything be back to normal?’”
“What… what was your next job, after academe? If you don’t mind my asking…”
“So you figure that I changed professions…. Yes, I left that job. But not for an entirely different environment. I… for some strange reason, I love to teach. I love books—reading and studying and learning. Always have. I’d actually taught some high school before going to earn my doctorate—or before facing the fact, to be honest, that the discipline problems were too much for me. Book-lovers, you know, don’t make good high-school teachers. The kind of guys who got C’s and D’s themselves as kids—and then maybe did a year or two at the reformatory—they’re the best suited for that job.”
“That’s… a bit overstated, don’t you think?”
“Maybe in Buenavista, Missouri… but not in any town of any size. Not today. The drugs, the guns and knives and gangs… anyway, I kind of backed into what I thought was just the job for me. My older girl was starting kindergarten. We wanted her in a private school, but… the usual problem with finances, you know. Only a very small number of options open to us. And now I was leaving my appointment at the university. But one of the newest, smallest schools needed a headmaster. Guess they couldn’t draw any applicants because of the salary they were offering. I applied, and… and I was right—it was tailor-made for me. I really enjoyed it, for a while. We had the kids doing a little Latin even in grade school, and we really pushed music and art. Science… science was always our Achilles heel, because we didn’t have the money for equipment. But we did what we could, and supplemented by being strong in math. It was… it was a good couple of years.”
“Only a couple of years? What on earth happened?”
“Football. We had actually grown in those two years from a tiny enrollment of under two hundred, K through twelve—I taught several classes myself, and the third and fourth grades were largely merged for one year… we’d grown from that to over three hundred. My God, I’d actually succeeded at something! I could hardly pay our bills on what I took as a salary, but…”
“But there are other kinds of reward.”
“Yes. Yes. You understand that, of course. So we became just big enough that we were poised to take a really big step forward. I… it’s not something I really care to talk about. Some of the parents with deeper pockets expressed a willingness to bankroll a growth spurt if we could have a boys’ football team. It didn’t make sense to me at any level—my God, they could have built a space shuttle for what they were willing to lavish on that stupid team, yet they wouldn’t give a penny for pipettes or Bunsen burners unless there were a team. But beyond that, I had memories of a kid I grew up with spending a year on a respirator before they finally pulled the plug on his brain-dead corpse. Football. There were words said, and those that came from me probably weren’t as diplomatic as they could have been. But in the final analysis, I realized that the people I’d counted on—the ones who’d supported the Latin and the music, the little recorders we issued to all the second-graders… they would commiserate with me privately, but in meetings they allowed themselves to be bullied. I thought that I had discovered a gift for leading. I had only discovered that it was possible to find a very small group of people with whom one shared a few opinions, and to collaborate very briefly with those people on a few simple projects. In the long run, it degenerates. It always does. The pushers and the shouters come to the fore and take over. Football. You know, maybe they were right. Maybe that’s the most important lesson we could possibly teach a kid, after all: to push, to shout, to trample down. And when you get a group of tramplers with you who outnumber the other side or are bigger than the other side, you call it teamwork. The survival of the fittest to trample—the most willing to bully, the least inhibited by finer qualities, like a sense of charity or pity or humanity or conscience… doesn’t work.”
“What… what doesn’t work?”
“The vision, the thing I wrote up once to try to get us accreditation with a state agency. I used a lot of big words that actually meant something to me. A single big name in the community would have worked a lot better. In fact, I think it was my brush with those large government bodies that made me think of working for one of them. How much could you get rousted around in a setting like that, where they had rules on top of rules preventing inappropriate pressure? Grievances, lawsuits, appeals… wow, wouldn’t it be nice to have all that armor on your shoulders every time you walked down the hall? And think of the pay, and the benefits—it would be nice to buy my children some of the things their playmates had, just for once!”
“So… now came the big career change.”
“Yeah. The big change.”
“That’s a shame. I mean, you loved the other job so much… and it’s clear to me that you had a real talent for it, whatever you say. A genuine calling.”
“As they say, Padre, that and two bits will get you a cup of coffee. But I didn’t exactly turn my back on everything I’d worked for, either. In a way, I was simply getting back into my proper field. Or so I thought. Yeah, so I thought. With my training in Russian and my facility with several other European languages… it was when things were heating up in Bosnia. I didn’t have too much trouble finding employment in the government. I had visions of decoding messages, or at least translating hotheaded manifestos or foreign news stories. I was willing to be posted abroad, if need be. Even in harm’s way. I didn’t see myself as James Bond—our second child was on the way! But I did see myself as a very hard-working, reliable employee who did a superior job and would be fairly acknowledged. To make a long story short… I visited water treatment plants.”
“Well, I’m not really making a long story short, you know, so much as leaping across the enormous chunks that I don’t understand and never will, and so can’t tell in story-like manner. Long afterward—long after I’d quit that job, too, I mean—I ran into a colleague who told me that it was another case of jealousy in management. ‘Another’ is my word, of course: this guy certainly didn’t know about my experiences as a professor. But he did seem to know that my supervisor was very annoyed about my hire—about my placement in his department. He was the resident linguist. He didn’t need anyone looking over his shoulder. Naturally, the truth was that he was grossly incompetent and was afraid of having somebody notice it. So calls were made, papers were signed and passed along… and when the last file cabinet shut and the last hyperlink was clicked, I was jetting around the country or trucking long hours in a government Buick to visit water treatment plants. God, it was just like old times! I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing or why I was doing it. Eventually, of course, I was sure that this would show up on my reviews. I was now just experienced enough to know that that was the game within the game—that I was being set up for a fall. How can you possibly do a good job when you don’t know what you’re doing? The plants I visited would have some low-level public relations officer greet me, with a really puzzled look behind his handshake, and give me the same tour he gave to all the local Cub Scouts. And you should have seen their faces, these poor sods, when I didn’t ask any questions—because none of it made any sense to them, either. Why would an officer from the State Department be visiting water treatment plants? An officer who didn’t even ask any questions… what was he really looking at, or looking for? Was it a security issue? Something like an OSHA visit, maybe, intruding into the public sector? Was I counting heads, or looking for chain-link fences without barbed wire? And, you know, it got to where I sort of acted like I was doing all of the above, just to give myself a… a front. A part to play. A part which I really hated, because it got to be all about power before I realized it. I was absolutely terrifying people… and the closer to the vest I played it, trying not to put on any act at all, the more convincing I was in my part. I thought one guy was even going to cry when he asked me at the end of the tour if I was sure there wasn’t anything else he could show me. God, he started babbling something about his wife and two kids! He had two daughters, too, just like me. I didn’t tell him that—about my daughters. I don’t know why. It would have put him at ease, but it was all… that word you used. Tawdry. Too tawdry.”
“Something tells me that you didn’t stay in that job very long.”
“I did, actually. Or it seemed long. Depends on how you define ‘length’, I suppose. The pay was good—excellent, even. Enormous. I was able to save a little… because I was aware almost from the start that things weren’t going quite right, and I wanted to have something to fall back on. But the worst of it was being away from Lilah all the time. It actually made me feel much better about quitting that she wanted me to—that she didn’t think it was right for me to be away from her and the girls for days and weeks at a time. I don’t think she ever really understood what had gone wrong with my teaching jobs—and probably not with this one, either. I hadn’t understood what went wrong with this one! But my absences were a blunt fact, and they were unacceptable.”
“So you weren’t, after all… fired.”
“No! Maybe I just didn’t give them the time to do it, or maybe… hell, maybe I was doing a good job! Maybe I really was being sent around to puzzle and terrorize people. Maybe I was an expense in some department’s budget that helped to cover up some skimming off the top. Or maybe it was all just an initiation… maybe they were just trying to see how much crap I could eat before they decided to move me up. It was that last thought that bothered me a little, that stuck with me. I had the vague feeling that I should have made them fire me—that I should have hung with it to the bitter end just to find out what was really going on. But then… but then I would think that it didn’t really matter, in any case. That what I was doing was simply wrong, on several levels—probably more than I could imagine. I was helping to fleece the taxpayer to no good end, I was widowing my wife, I was making these poor flunkeys cringe with my unexplained visits… and even if this was how people got promoted to something better, I was perpetuating a rotten, stupid system. I had principles, you see. I had principles and I lived by them. Maybe I still do, for all my own rottenness. There are still certain things I won’t do—all kinds of things, maybe more than ever. Maybe that’s precisely what I call my own inner rot: the paralysis of not even being able to move, to lift a finger, because you’re obsessed—almost driven mad—by the thought of all the cheating and corruption above you and all the exploited gullibility beneath you. You have to bow and fawn before people who should be gelded, boiled in oil, and quartered, and then you have to pick the pocket or wave your fist in the face of defenseless women and children and… and…”
“And pathetic sheep. Like me.”
“Well, I… I decided, what the hell, I’m not going to flip burgers, but there must surely be something I can do behind a store front on Main Street. Surely I can just become a good, honest businessman. I’ll get cheated by wholesalers and stiffed by the occasional deadbeat—but on the whole, my clientele will recognize and appreciate my honesty. I didn’t exactly walk into Home Depot and fill out an application. Maybe I should have… but I felt that, with all my years of training and the incidental fact that I was actually good at what I did, I ought to employ my linguistic skills somehow. My God-given talent, you know… it seemed wrong just to ignore it, to throw it back in the face of Mother Nature.”
“A matter of principle. I entirely agree.”
“Well, yes, I suppose it was.”
“Everything you’ve told me about so far was guided in some way by principle.”
“Mm… maybe. Well, anyway, I had frequently been nudged toward the Internet. It was supposed to be the wave of the future, the key to independence. The Second Coming, the City of God. I didn’t have many skills in that direction, but I could see that the Web was going to become more and more international. I did a lot of phoning of very small outfits, simply working my way through the Yellow Pages. I finally found a couple of guys who were interested in what I might be able to bring to their operation. To be able to offer a multi-lingual website to vendors of a certain kind, especially when so much was going on in the disbanded Soviet Union… well, I made a good pitch, and I flatter myself that its merits were self-evident.”
“So you became a dot-com person…”
“No, not exactly. Not really. You have to understand that most of what we did was still local—building networks within offices, that sort of thing. I carried a lot of monitors and did a lot of very elementary formatting. We were supposed to get to my part of the vision later on—the international clientele, and so forth. Frankly, one of the partners was a lot more sold on my ideas than the other. The other was the guy whose work I ended up doing, more often than not, since he discovered a God-given talent for spending money and became pretty unreliable when we started to expand. I did what I was told, even when I didn’t understand it—I was a hard worker—and my staunch ally let me know that he foresaw the day when just the two of us would be blazing trails. He didn’t hold out much hope for his playboy friend’s staying the course. I was working longer hours than ever by now, and the pay was very uneven… but I had never loved any job so much in my life. Lilah and I even talked about having another child.”
“Oh… a lawsuit. It was a ridiculous suit, and it would have been thrown out of court if the judge hadn’t slept through crucial evidence. But as things turned out, we had legal fees to cover, we couldn’t secure a loan, and the money to appeal the ruling—which would have been very well spent—just wasn’t anywhere to be found. I almost caved in and asked my father for it… but there are things a man just can’t do. And then, too, he died at about that time. Stretched out under a car, just the way he would have wanted it. I found out from my brother. Almost too late to make the funeral. Went alone… and the damn ticket wasn’t cheap. When I got back, our business was formally in bankruptcy. All because a couple of stupid technicians were too stupid to keep from overloading the system. A college—wouldn’t you know! If you’re too stupid to work for private industry, apply at a college. Though my partner always maintained that the system had been sabotaged. Deliberately sabotaged. One of these guys, these technicians, was the nephew of the owner of our chief rival in town. It worked out rather well for him when we went under. My partner dreamed of hauling them both into court, of hitting them up for millions in damages, destroying their reputations forever, even sending them to prison. The trouble was, he got more and more of those dreams from the bottom of a bottle. It just ate him up… ate him alive.”
“Ah, he wrapped himself around a tree one night. They said he didn’t make the turn, but I’ll always suspect that he hit just what he was aiming at. At least he didn’t have any kids.”
“I… that’s… it’s just horrible.”
“The horror of it all… it gets you, doesn’t it? And our competitor—the one with the crooked or incompetent nephew—had this little fish in the corner of his office window, and on his van. You know… ichthys. The sign of the Christians meeting in the catacombs. He was a deacon at his church. Which was good for business, I’m sure, in our neck of the woods.”
“A man’s actions show his faith—you know that. Not a bumper-sticker or a bracelet.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I agree. In fact, it’s almost an inverse proportion. The more you have to show off your faith in advertisements, the less of it you have. But the reason I really mentioned that detail is because… well, certainly not to rub your face in it. Why would I? You’ve actually given something up, but people like this are always taking—nothing but taking. What I wanted to show you was… well, you mentioned something about praying a while back. This is why I don’t pray. It’s why I don’t go to church. I cannot pray—I will not—in the company of people like that. I refuse. I’d die first.”
“I’ll bet the people who shafted you in your academic employment were not Christians of any sort, at any level.”
“Granted. But that’s… come on, that response isn’t worthy of your others. That’s one of those canned, pre-packaged comebacks. It doesn’t matter that many wicked people are not professing Christians. What matters is that some wicked people are. I’m not talking about sinners. I’m talking about destroyers—people who knowingly, willingly ruin other people’s lives. And they say they have to survive, or that they just didn’t know: they certainly didn’t enjoy it! Or that they meant well, and you were the one who botched it. I’ve heard all the excuses. There was one operation… I didn’t even mention them in passing, because nothing ever came of it and I was pursuing other employment at the same time. Frankly, I can’t even remember right now just what chronological crack in my résumé this little interlude would have fallen into. They called themselves Christian Businesses Something Something, Inc. I was supposed to get set up with everything I needed to process insurance claims for doctors’ offices, or something of the sort. I got set up, alright! Five grand for a few computer discs—all I had to do was go out and recruit my own clients in a field where I had no experience and no training. When I tried to get a little of the promised support from Christian Businesses Something Something, I learned that they had filed for bankruptcy (but they soon reappeared as Christian Something Something Businesses). A con game. A racket, pure and simple. And I was stupid to fall for it—no argument. But desperate people do stupid things. And these bumper-sticker Christians knew that—they know that. They exploit people’s despair, and they exploit their turning to a creed of charity and service and humanity. And they are… no, they’re not true Christians. But they are not fake Christians—not in the sense that they rub their hands together after a good haul, the night before they declare bankruptcy and move on, and chortle, ‘We sure put it over on those morons, didn’t we!’ They believe their own act. I can tell. They believe it implicitly—you can meet them in church on any Sunday. That’s what makes it the church’s problem—that they can be members in good standing. That they suffer no cognitive dissonance, no attack of conscience. For Christ’s sake, what good’s a church that doesn’t give people like that an attack of conscience? I’m sorry, but it comes down to hard fact. You know when you’re screwing someone over. The only shred of decency you can preserve at that moment is to admit to yourself that you’re doing it. Just shoot the guy in the back, and spare the apologies before you pull the trigger, or the little prayer over his corpse to send his soul along its way. Don’t tithe from the money you lifted out of his pocket and praise the God of forgiveness, for God’s sake!”
“But isn’t the depraved killer who enjoys his work more wicked than the disgusting back-shooter who’s terrified of his deed?”
“No. Actually, no. Because the killer is insane—beyond understanding the difference between right and wrong. Now, he may be the one who should get the lethal injection… but those are legalities, social calculations, not moral facts. Your quivering salamander of an accountant who needs to dispose of a witness to his cooked books is worse because he is terrified. He knows he is about to step over to the point of no return, but he chooses personal profit over moral law. He’s terrified that he will get caught—and when he isn’t caught, he begins to enjoy the sensation of having got off scot-free. The ruthless hypocrite’s pride in his sin, not the lunatic’s triumph… that’s the enjoyment I was talking about before.”
“So… did your marriage fall apart soon after this?”
“Yeah. Soon after. You know, you can try steering me off the main point all you want—but you’re just kidding yourself, not me.”
“Your marriage isn’t the main point?”
“No. The animals are the main point. My marriage… I could have died after my second daughter was born—before she was born. I could have wrapped my car around a tree, like Larue. My marriage would be over then, along with everything else in my life… but it wouldn’t mean my daughters were growing up in a jungle. That’s the point. Animals. I’m not a good man myself—I’ve admitted that from the start…”
“Maybe better than you think…”
“No, now you’re trying to twist me off course again. This isn’t about my… my having principles, my being a cut above the others. I’ve done plenty of things wrong, more than the average. But I wouldn’t even begin to create falsehoods around people in a kind of snare that they’d never see coming. I’ve never done that, and I’d never even think of doing it. I might think seriously about killing someone, but I’d never think about sending a forged letter to his boss or planting phony evidence in his car. Neither would you. It’s not even on our map—and you know it. Yet we’re surrounded by people… I can’t even call them people. I can’t even think of an animal so lacking in nobility or courage that it deserves to have its name penned to them. What are they? Where do they come from? They’re not sinners! I’m a sinner. You’re a sinner. But they… what are they? And they fill the damn churches up, along with the schools and the malls and the courthouses! You can’t even go pray for strength somewhere—because you look around, and there they are!”
“Do you think they really fill the churches up… or do you think they may only number one or two? Or perhaps a dozen?”
“It’s already… I can’t handle it, even at that. One or two is already too many. They shouldn’t be there at all. How can they claim to believe in a law above themselves, and then take a job away from a man with a new baby because they want a more slavish servant? Nobody makes them go to church—it’s their choice. That they can make that choice freely after treating people the way they do throughout the week… no, it has to be the church itself that has failed, then. The very idea of church should drive them crazy after what they’ve done… and instead, it gives them comfort. Throw a few coins in the plate, press some flesh, sing some hymns… that shouldn’t happen. They should be turning their faces away every time they pass before a cross. Instead, they run toward it with a smile.”
“I know you won’t be so disappointing as to talk about forgiveness. Even if they were to say they were sorry—and they don’t, you know, and they won’t—Larue won’t hear them from the other side of the grave. That miscarried fetus whose mother had to move all of her belongings at once won’t hear them. The poor, pitiful, bottom-rung bureaucrat whose heart stops one night because he’s too worried about saying too much, or not enough, or not the right thing… you can’t pile up these poor slobs like old magazines at the curb for the garbage man, and then announce grandly that you’re sorry! And they don’t even do that—they never do! The most you get out of them is an admission that they are sinners… like you and me.”
“You can at least pray in your closet, can’t you? That’s what Jesus recommends, above all other kinds of prayer.”
“I try that sometimes… but it has no words. There are no possible words for any prayer, any real prayer. Every time you choose a few words, you find yourself asking for something. A new favor… or just a favor. Like rubbing a rabbit’s foot. ‘Please give me a break, give me a little luck.’ That’s all the words ever amount to.”
“You have been unlucky. Extraordinarily.”
“No. No—see, that’s where you’re wrong again. A man who has three sons in the Marines… say that thirty percent of the troops will die storming up a beach, like D-Day somewhere. Well, he could count on losing one son, though it would not be statistically shocking if he lost none. Say that he lost all three. Would you call that bad luck? You could, and most people would… but you’d all be wrong. It wasn’t bad luck that planted mines all along the beach, and it wasn’t bad luck that mounted machine-guns in bunkers. Wickedness. Power. Animals. Getting hit by a meteorite—that’s bad luck. Having everything you’ve worked for taken away from you because the judge was too in love with prestige to admit that he needed to retire… that’s not bad luck, Padre. That’s the way it is… and it’s a slaughterhouse. The poor dumb beasts in the slaughterhouse are not suffering from bad luck.”
“All right. I’ll grant you all that. In fact…”
“In fact, what?”
“In fact, if I weren’t afraid of vexing you further, I would point out that…”
“I hardly know how to say it. That you’re lucky that you haven’t been unlucky. That you’re lucky that you can point to specific acts of weakness, vice, and wickedness behind your personal misery. At least you’ve reduced the causes to… to something squalid, but something coherent.”
“As opposed to…”
“To… to bad luck. To… well, imagine—God forbid—that one of your daughters was struck down. Imagine that your wife had miscarried on that occasion you mentioned. But even that—you were prepared to ascribe even that to your life’s moral saboteurs. Imagine that you had lost your beloved wife, but that she had left you with a beautiful little boy. And then… then the little boy was taken from you. A rare disease. Nothing anyone could do. And very suddenly. I had a parish once… the man’s sister would call me all hours of the day and night. ‘It’s happened again,’ she’d say. ‘He’s slipped again.’ That’s how she would refer to it—that he had ‘slipped’. She was always very apologetic, but she was convinced that I was the only one who could get him back out. Out of that dark hole. He would say that he had entered a room or turned a corner and seen the boy, but that the boy wouldn’t speak to him. And then the boy would be gone, and he would collapse on the spot, and he would be seized by… there are no words, no words to describe that man’s grief. Only very dull, very stale words. And there were no words to answer him as he stared up at the ceiling and addressed the most… the most absurd, the most child-like questions to God in heaven about where his boy had gone. And why. And I… I didn’t even try. I didn’t say anything at all… I got to where I said nothing at all.. There was no sense to it, you see. There would be s sense, of course—one has faith that there is a sense. But the sense is not such that the human mind can grasp it, and… and to pretend otherwise would have been the grossest of impostures. So the two of us would sit for hours brooding over the senselessness of it all.”
“It is a kind of insanity, isn’t it? I mean, faith. True faith. It could drive you insane.”
“Or keep you from going insane.”
“That’s… that’s more like what I meant. I meant… I mean, if you could actually ask and receive, then it would all make sense. Maybe not ultimate sense… but whoever is making good on your requests from behind whatever screen, it would be working, and that would make sense. And it occurs to me that that’s another reason why I can’t stand the church crowd. They can’t simply admit that they’ve been lucky. No, it’s God’s gift. Their children are still alive, their jobs still intact—but it’s not good luck, it’s because God is doing them special favors for being his true believers. And it seems to me that that amounts to believing in nothing at all. Who wouldn’t sing hymns to the Tooth Fairy if she left six-figure bank drafts under your pillow on demand? What kind of belief is that? The only real faith is what you have in the utter senselessness of things to be made sensible at some… at some indefinitely distant point.”
“I am very close to endorsing… most of what you’ve just said. But I still will not grant that every prayer is merely a rub of the rabbit’s foot. What about the Lord’s Prayer? Why don’t you simply recite that?”
“Alright, take me through it. Say it literally—say it in Latin. You know what I’m going to show you, Padre? That nobody ever even listens to the Lord’s Prayer—nobody hears in it what I do, and what I maintain is plainly there to be heard. No one ever thinks even the least little bit about what he’s reciting after our father. If he did, he would realize that the world is just as I’ve described it—a cage full of ravening animals—and that the struggle to have faith is a struggle to resist being a ravening animal. Nothing more. Not even a struggle to die… but to live a slow death.”
“Pater noster qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum.”
“’Be thy name sanctified’… what can that mean, other than, ‘Let me worship your goodness… don’t let me be like them’? It’s a turning away from all of these… these horrors, as you call them.”
“But that already is more than a prayer for good luck—more, and other. To ask for the concentrated courage not to hold dear what the world holds dear… that’s not asking to win the lottery.”
“No. No. These are different words. Not the ones people make up when they lie awake at night. They may say these words during a service, but they don’t hear them.”
“Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra.”
“More of the same. ‘May thy kingdom come’… it is not here, not now. ‘May they will be done on earth, as it is already done in heaven’… that great gap again. To live in this place as if it were not an overstocked primate cage in a zoo… to live by principles that make no sense with reference to anything here-and-now. The longing to be gone, to be elsewhere… to be here, but for here to be elsewhere. It really is like asking for death, almost.”
“Or for life—like asking for true life in a life that turns out to be death.”
“Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie.”
“You will say, perhaps, that the request for bread is asking a favor, a worldly favor. A bit of luck. ‘Make us lucky enough that we don’t starve.’”
“I wouldn’t say it. The question is, would you?”
“But the favor is minimal. Just enough to show that this isn’t a prayer for death. Because you can’t pray for death and ask for breakfast. The prayer, because of that line, is as much as asking, ‘Please don’t let me pray for death.’”
“Yes. Yes. Mm… Demitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos demittimus debitoribus nostris.”
“Maybe the most interesting line of all. It asks that our debts be cancelled to the extent and in the proportion that we forgive our debtors. But by and large, Padre, we don’t forgive anyone. Why ask for a nullity? Why ask to fly tomorrow as far as we have flown today? Because people don’t fly. Neither do they forgive. They forget sometimes… depressingly often, in fact. They’re too stupid or too lazy to remember: it clouds their day too much. And so they forget about the teacher who shook his fist at their child, because other parents like that teacher, and maybe the child exaggerated, and just think what a lot of time it would take to follow through all the way… and so another child gets bullied, and another. Because people forgive a dangerous man in a dangerous position and continue on after their pleasure.”
“But I don’t think that’s at all what is intended by forgiveness…”
“No, of course not. That’s my point—it couldn’t possibly be. It wouldn’t make any sense. The request cannot be for a nullity. What, then, is the forgiveness that we dare to ask for in the same measure as we dish it out? It could only be… it could only be a very solid thing, like a real debt in the ancient world—dismiss our debts. Money owed, possible loss of freedom until it is paid… but sometimes lenders would simply enter a zero in the books when they knew that the debtor could never pay up. You don’t have to haul your debtor to court and reduce him to a slave. That’s what I’ve been saying. It would take a saint to forgive the abuse of a child… a saint, or a despicable narcissist. But anyone can abstain from hurling another human being into slavery. You must abstain, the words say, or you yourself will have no return gift of freedom. You have to do the merely decent thing. Otherwise, the shackles go on, and you work off every penny of your debt, just like the man in the parable.”
“Et ne nos inducas in temptationem, sed libera nos a malo.”
“Temptation. Yes. The seduction of becoming like them. If you don’t use the power on rare occasions when you have it, then you will be crushed by the powerful. Demand every payment to the last dime. Intimidate. Divide and rule. Sow confusion everywhere. Take your revenge. Join them. Kill them, and join them. Survive. It sounds so reasonable, so inescapable. And to refuse to be an animal is to accept death in the claws and fangs of animals.”
“Like a martyr.”
“Hah! Yeah, like that! Like a flaming martyr! No… no. Not like that at all. Because martyrs are supposed to embrace death joyfully, aren’t they? Or not embrace death—anyone can embrace death who has lived a few adult years of this life… but to embrace the way this world gives them death. They’re supposed to find a mystical joy in that. And to take joy in the slow rot that eats away in you—that crumples and cripples everyone dear to you, that lets every sun set on the victories of the powerful, that allows the whole sick life cycle to adorn itself in the trappings of respectability, or even holiness… I don’t really think there can be any such thing as a martyr. There are raving lunatics, of course… and then there are exhibitionists who would be happy to surrender life for one full day of TV coverage. But how could any decent person find joy in this slaughterhouse?”
“But a martyr is merely a witness, a witness to the truth. At the very end, just before death, he would know joy, surely. Because he would know that he’d done what he had to do.”
“If you put it that way… then yes, I suppose so. But wouldn’t the joy be that the end is finally near—that you aren’t going to have to offer your ignored testimony yet again after one more time? That’s not the same as the joy of seeing the skies part before heaven’s throne as they toss torches around your stake. I don’t think I believe that… I don’t think I believe anyone who claims to see visions or hear voices, even at death’s door. Even if you did… if you did, it would somewhat compromise your beatitude. You would be dying for a throne’s beauty, and not a principle’s goodness.”
“Always the ascendancy of moral duty! I’m afraid you’re something of a Roundhat, my friend! Why cannot goodness be beautiful? What else is better suited to be perfectly beautiful than perfect goodness?”
“But the issue is whether or not you can ever see such beauty in this world, even in your last glimpse of it. And I say ‘no’ to that. I say that it is all too far away—beauty, goodness, perfection. Even the most withered, mangled imitation is a rarity here. To think that you could see heaven in earthly images… my God, what a poor opinion of heaven you would have to have!”
“Yes, I recall now something you said much earlier about how distant God is.”
“Yes. Distant. It isn’t very comforting, is it? And yet, anything else would be a lie… a lie of some kind. Perhaps a comforting lie for those who don’t inquire too closely. Something short of real faith.”
“So those who believe that they can see God’s hand in earthly affairs are… are falling short of faith?”
“Yes. Yes. I can see a castle in the clouds, too. Or a whale. Or a beach, or a mountain range. It’s beautiful, and child-like. But I’m not a child, and I should know that the beauty was not put up there in the cloudbank by a creator, but by my imagination. It’s even wrong—it is actually wrong to view certain events as God’s will, because then you impose upon them the same intentional closure that the child does upon his cloud-castle. And that, perhaps, makes you forget all the suffering that’s going on within those events, or maybe to overlook a moral obligation to change them.”
“And so how do you… how do you bear it all? It sounds like constant warfare, unrelieved by any moment when you can lean back on your weapons and breathe a sigh of accomplishment.”
“It is constant warfare… and you don’t bear it all. You try to… but you don’t. You go insane trying. That’s what I meant a minute ago by saying that faith is insanity. It isn’t insanity: as you said, it’s the only thing that can keep you from insanity. Yet the struggle to have faith can drive you insane.”
“Because… because you inquire too closely, as you were saying just then in your rash of images and phrases from Hamlet. So… happy are those of limited intelligence?”
“But they are, Padre! They’re the only happy people I’ve ever known. And they mean well, and they’re sincere… but they don’t get it, they can’t see it. The lions roar in their back yard, and they think a loud truck is passing. Their obtundity is a blessing.”
“Until they get devoured.”
“But we all get devoured, anyway. The jungle is invincible. God gave us a garden and set us free to enjoy it. Now we enjoy it as animals enjoy their haunts and prowls—terrifying the weak into a stampede, culling out the weakest, mobbing the single victim. It’s freedom—that’s the picture’s author, and not goodness or beauty. It’s our freedom: it’s us, serving like a slave under the whip to satisfy our egotism. Nothing, I tell you, can be made of this picture—nothing remotely good or beautiful.”
“Yet your wife is part of it, an arresting face in the tableau. You said she was the most beautiful woman—”
“Yes, I know what I said. What does she have to do with men’s actions? So what if a beautiful flower grows ten feet from where the lions are disemboweling the antelope? So you have a still-life in the middle of a real-life sequence…”
“But you want her to be a still-life, don’t you? That’s why you want her distant from you. Like God. So she can remain perfect, unmauled.”
“You’re getting too rhetorical. The perfection of goodness is what makes the feeding frenzy disgusting. The less your awareness of that perfection, the less your disgust at the jackals. Don’t tell me that dulling that awareness produces a heightened sense of reality!”
“Okay, perhaps I permitted myself a slight flourish… though I will only admit to a slight one. Because I still suspect that there is a fear in you that keeps your family at arm’s length this way, a fear that’s not completely unrelated to the great distance you perceive God as keeping.”
“Do you still see her—your wife? Is it really all over between you? Are you… you said separated. Not divorced?”
“I send home checks. And sometimes I go back, for a day or two. Never for very long. It’s… I don’t want them seeing me, looking at me. I don’t want any questions.”
“Or any comfort?”
“Maybe not. Okay, I’ll give you that point—I don’t want to start feeling comfortable again. That’s true enough. I work harder this way, without any comfort. Work more overtime, make more money. More trash to keep the boiler burning—enough to keep us all going. All I want is to keep them going. I don’t want any thanks for it.”
“And why is that? Because thanks would indicate that things were getting better, and that would be asking for trouble? Because to scale a slope is to risk a fall?”
“No, because they’re my dependants—the people I’m responsible for. I’m just doing my job. But things are getting better, now that I’m more focused. They’re starting a new franchise up the interstate, since this one’s doing so well. I’ll have a few more opportunities then. Maybe even manager.”
“Yeah, more money. That’s what they need from me. They don’t need to be tucked in—they need a roof over their heads.”
“And that’s all? Your new focus, as you call it—your avoiding their thanks and the comfort they might offer you—isn’t your way of keeping them from jinxing your success?”
“Sure. By letting something beautiful into your life. Something comforting. That would be just asking for trouble, wouldn’t it?”
“You think that?”
“I think the man who views most prayer as rubbing a rabbit’s foot is as superstitious as the rest of us. I think he’s become afraid to be happy. I misspoke earlier when I said that you hadn’t really been unlucky. You may be the unluckiest man I’ve ever met…”
“But there are no rabbit’s feet, Padre! And you were right before you corrected yourself—there really is no luck. Not even for that guy that lost his wife, and then his son. There are just billions of motives, of purposes, all knocking up against each other—and the ones that lead out of this world can only deceive you more if you pretend to understand them, but the ones completely in this world all carry the scent of an animal.”
“Ouch! And there’s the lighting, right on cue! Is it going to stay on? We’d better get out of here in case it doesn’t.”
“Nah, it’ll stay on. The storm blew a transformer somewhere—that’s all it was. You can get that sliding door to work now. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon on the tennis courts with those new nets. About three. Sorry about the screw-up. I didn’t order the things, you know—but I’ll catch all the blame if I don’t straighten it out.”
“Don’t worry about it. In fact, I’ll put in a good word for you—for the new managerial position, you know. And make it four, after the parents have picked up all their kids. You won’t have people getting in your way. The last classes end at three-thirty. Man, my eyes are stinging!”
“Do you need some help finding the exit?”
“No, no. But… are you really not coming?”
“I’ll be out later. I have to close up. In fact, I may just spend the night here. I do sometimes, when I work late. I have a cot in the back.”
“Just like a monastery… what a pity. Well, I will see you at the tennis courts tomorrow, Brother.”
John S. Moseby is a frequent contributor to Praesidium. He lives in the Atlanta area with his family, where he does freelance writing and consulting work.