“Mechanical Nihilism” – by James Kalb

Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child
by Anthony Esolen (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books)
224 pp.

THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT life in a society from which higher goods have been expelled, leaving no place for love, wonder, or beauty. The “compulsion” of the title is that which guides people in such a setting.  In default of anything better, people fall under the dominion of itches, obsessions, and impositions, and mistake their slavery for freedom.  No higher principle is telling them what to do, and that, they believe, is liberty.


Today’s commercial and managerial technocracy is increasingly just such a society, one that views the world and everything in it primarily as a resource for achieving whatever goals people and institutions happen to choose.  God has been exorcised, leaving only a this-worldly system of force and desire.  In such a world things are not valued in themselves but as means to the triumph of the will, which has been rebranded as Choice and Autonomy and made the foundation of what now counts as human dignity.

The book discusses the pathologies to which such a situation gives rise, especially in connection with the world of childhood.  Adults are mostly formed already, and they have to get things done, so there are aspects of technocratic society they find at least convenient.  That is one reason for the widespread support it enjoys: It destroys the joy of life, but after a while we forget what we have lost, and turn to solving immediate practical problems and to distractions.

Children are less concerned with getting things done than with coming to know the world and how to think and feel about it.  That happens partly through the instruction they receive, but mostly through play, imagination, adventure, and admiration.  In a technocratic society there’s little place for such things—so little that the authorities find it natural to arrest parents for allowing children to play outside unsupervised.  After all, what could be the purpose of such conduct in a world conceived as a sort of industrial process?  The result is a real-life dystopia in which children can no longer be children.  Anthony Esolen offers an example of a theme park in which young ones can add to imitation bank accounts by working on an imitation assembly line, and quotes an amazing passage from John Dewey in which the man actually claims that children who look as if they’re impressed with some romantic image or noble ideal are in fact “occupied only with transitory physical excitations.”

Under such circumstances children become a problem or a lifestyle accessory, but most of all a resource for other purposes—our “greatest resource,” as they say.  So what do we do with them?  We can’t let them be what they are, and we can’t find joy in forming ties with them that guide them step by step into an adult world understood as good and worth aspiring to.  No such world now exists, and each of us has his own projects and problems to manage.  So the question becomes how to avoid having them or, if they do show up, how best to fit them into their place in global postindustrial society.  If they are our own children, we add to that the question of how to give them a leg up on the competition.

The author shows how it all works out in one part of life after another: the aimlessness and boredom, the perverse ideals, the forced celebrations, the growing stupidity, the mechanization of teaching and what is taught, the treadmill of work that has absorbed even young people’s sports, the reduction of the wonder of what joins man and woman to an itch—it goes on and on.

Life Under Compulsion is not a treatise.  It explores the very large topic of everyday modern inhumanity in an essayistic and episodic way.  It might seem at bottom a rant against various aspects of technocratic society loosely organized by reference to their effect on children.  If so, there are worse things someone could write.  Extended denunciations have a bad name in a world accustomed to passing off insanity as normal and even praiseworthy, but they can be intelligent, well written, sharply observed, deeply considered, and entirely justified, and there are times when to speak in a calm and balanced manner is not to be a man.

Nonetheless, this book is much more than denunciation.  The author stands for the natural, the cultured, and the ideal in a world that has no idea what those things mean.  His book is full of observation, analysis, and examples from daily life, literature, history, and personal anecdote that bring out concretely and vividly the depth, breadth, and complexity of what is now being suppressed, and the mechanical nihilism that’s being put in its place.  His gift for portraying both makes reading this book an education in the unbought grace of life—where it comes from, how it works, how it is lost, and what happens then.

Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (October 2015)
Contributing editor James Kalb is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism (ISI Books).
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“The Christmas War 1914” – by Philip Jenkins

THIS PAST YEAR, we have heard a great deal about the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. Throughout that commemoration, though, we have rarely paid due attention to the religious language of Holy War and crusade deployed by all combatants.

Think, for instance, of the great historic moment that many will remember this month—namely, the Christmas Truce of 1914. British and German troops emerged from their trenches to fraternize, drink, and play friendly games of soccer. This has become one of the war’s best-remembered moments, an event frequently depicted in films, fiction, and popular songs. The Truce sends an optimistic message about wars and ideological struggles, which supposedly result from rows between governments and elites, while ordinary people maintain their basic human decency.


There is a great deal wrong with the Christmas Truce mythology, not least that it was a strictly limited and localized affair. Plenty of other people at the time had radically different and uncompromising ideas, and they counted far more.

That very season was the setting of Paul Claudel’s dream of divine vengeance in his violently anti-German play La Nuit de Noel de 1914 (Christmas Eve 1914). At the time, the famously pious Claudel was one of France’s most esteemed writers, beloved especially by Catholics. The play was hugely successful, although, to the best of my knowledge, no English translation exists.

La Nuit de Noel is avowedly a manifesto for a modern-day crusade, a Holy War. The play begins with the two dead soldiers, Jean and Jacques. Jean realizes that they are now with God: “Just one second made me a Christian and one of the blessed.”

Jacques replies, “Now, I am pure, Jean, and without sin. It’s your blood that made me this white robe.” Death in battle leads straight to heaven.

The play depicts the gathering of the souls of French people killed by the Germans, including soldiers but also many civilians slaughtered in German mass executions. All are among the blessed, martyrs in a holy Catholic struggle against German aggression and against that country’s pagan worship of naked state power.

Jean and Jacques summon the souls of the murdered civilians, especially the children:

Come, holy innocent souls.
Come, witnesses of Jesus Christ.
Come, tender lambs immolated by cruel Herod,
not for the slightest wrong that you have done,
but for the hatred of the God of which you stand as image.

These were martyrs and saints, just as much as the missionaries killed by native tribesmen, the martyrs of China, the heroes of the Faith in the time of the Roman emperors. “Just as Christ gave His life for you, you have given yours.”

At the recent Battle of the Marne, says Claudel, French armies stood flanked by Saint Genevieve and Joan of Arc. Even so, France’s best hope was the Virgin Mary, who had led their armies so often through the centuries. As the dead soldier reports from beyond the grave,

It’s not a saint or a bishop,
it’s Our Lady herself,
it’s the Mother of God-made-Man for us,
who endures the violence and the fire.
She’s the one we saw burning at the center of our lines,
like the virgin of Rouen once upon a time.
She’s the one they’re trying to slaughter, the old Mother,
the one who gives us her body as a rampart.
At the center of our lines,
she’s the one who stands as the rampart
and the flag against Black Luther’s hordes.

The play culminates in a Midnight Mass conducted in this heavenly setting, with the noise of the German shelling of Reims Cathedral substituting for the customary midnight ringing of bells.

Another of France’s greatest writers was Leon Bloy, whose thoughts on the coming of war were collected in his book On the Threshold of the Apocalypse. A popular 1915 book on priests at the battlefront declared that victory would come only through “sacrifices and voluntary sufferings”; the original English translation gives “holocausts” rather than “sacrifices.”

The Germans were also engaged in an apocalyptic crusade. Witnessing the patriotic upsurge that August, clergy had spoken freely of a New Pentecost, a moment of Transfiguration, Verklarung. That mystical language endured throughout the war. Germany’s most revered war poet was Walter Flex, who died on the Eastern Front in 1917. In his best-known work, he proclaimed “From German blood is Christ’s wine prepared / And in the blood of the purest works the power of the Lord / who strides through the holy transformation.”

Some people in 1914 took Holy War language very seriously.

Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (December 2014)

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“Watching Is Out—So Watch Out!” – by James O. Tate

I HAVE BEEN RECEIVING so many requests lately for lifestyle advice, tips on public relations and media etiquette (not to mention recommendations about health and beauty maintenance), that I just haven’t been able to keep up with them all. And let’s face it, it’s pretty obvious why so many people ask me. That’s why there’s so much pesky filtering to do! Some of these approaches are screams for help from needy individuals who are perfectly sincere, while others are just the usual come-ons or come-hithers from would-be groupies and young women and men who want to take advantage of me. I don’t dispense the obvious for people who are simply unstable, and I can name names and initials like “L.L.” You can talk about your divas if you insist, but I say unstable is the worst.


Yes, I have worked as a guru for numerous and various insecure show-biz types, and I can tell you that because they couldn’t handle the truth, a number of these people are no longer with us. Now, a lot of destructive problems such as mixing alcohol abuse with other substance abuse and both of these with reckless driving—well, I didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know what to say. I didn’t even have to be Henny Youngman: “Doc, it hurts when I do this!” But getting them to accept, internalize, and act on this advice? I learned a long time ago that not even a hefty fee can fortify sensible advice, if the listening ear and the power of will are lacking. So I have one rule: I don’t do convincing. I just do instructing. And I don’t even do that until the deposited check is as clear as you ought to be right now. I lay it down; you pick it up. That’s the way this thing works.

Now I might also point out that the problems have changed since I got into personal consulting and confidential career tweaking. The perplexities of today are much more difficult than the tractable ones of two generations ago. You know what I mean—the kinds of things you used to read about in the National Enquirer. There used to be lurid scandals and the usual alcoholism and drug problems, weight crises, sexual chaos, closeted frustrations, various anxieties, car crashes, swan dives off balconies. That was in the old days. And I had a lot to learn, I do concede. I should have known that bringing a bottle of Scotch to Ava Gardner was a bad move, but I was just trying to break the ice. Little did I know that she would try to break my head! Damned if she didn’t shatter that bottle—and it was Johnny Walker Black Label, the good stuff. Even if there had been a bottle to get it back into, it couldn’t have been done. Never mind about her and her bullfighters and Frank on the phone in the middle of the night. Basta! You can’t fix crazy, or at least I couldn’t.

So I had regrets about the wasted booze (and that was some good booze, let me tell you) but not about Ava, because she was impossible. There comes a time when you just have to walk away and not look back. But situations like that are not the problem anymore. The world has changed, the ambience has changed, and I think that even human nature has changed, because it has been directly attacked through the digitalized assault on the nervous system.

So I used to tell people what they needed to hear, and sometimes I was right. I was wrong when I told Ann Sheridan not to worry about her chain-smoking, and I admit it—but that’s how I learned. I was wrong when I said to Jayne Mansfield, “Your poodle is starting to annoy me, so why don’t you give it the gas, slowpoke!” And I regret those words, the last ones she heard. And I regret having told her that her new convertible was vulgar, though it was. She just couldn’t handle it.

So this is what he probably meant when the guy—I forget his moniker—said, “Wisdom comes from suffering.”

Today, things are different and not so heavy. And we are more honest about obvious problems, such as excessive exposure to the sun. People used to be reckless about time on the beach, but now you hardly have to tell them. And it was common years ago to deal with smoking, bad diet, lack of exercise—things that, in ways, are not issues in the contemporary scene. So some issues are off the table, as I have learned in my consulting, and some issues are very much on the table. But I digress momentarily to ask why, after the war on smoking, the same people who pushed that are now all hipped on decriminalizing marijuana. Well, they lie. One year they say that secondhand smoke isn’t fair to waitresses, etc., in low-ceilinged rooms. Not much later, Mayor Bloomberg forbids smoking at the beach, though beaches don’t have ceilings. It kind of makes you wonder if not knowing the news might be liberating, in the sense that there would be so many lies to which you were not exposed. There is no sunscreen or parasol for the cognitive damage caused by endless prevarication and mendacity intoned in an authoritative manner, as on the broadcast news, or in the New York Times, though in both cases, the manner has lost its authority.

Now I know what you are waiting for: You want to know about the celebs and others of their ilk, what’s really bothering them these days. And a large part of the answer is what’s bothering you. Because it’s simple really, like knowing who is a loon and who isn’t: You can tell by the way they act. If people actually take the contemporary social media seriously and hook up to them, then they are in big trouble—they might as well be doing speedballs. And I know this because I have been there myself. There is a degenerative aspect of human nature whereby a process becomes a habit, and then a destructive obsession. I have lived it, I have seen it, and it is a horror. It is partly the basis for the contemporary cult of zombie movies, because otherwise healthy people can become virtual zombies repeating reflex actions and the mantras of our day. And people in such a pitiable condition are liable to be subject to all kinds of bad influences that would lead to deplorable and self-destructive behaviors.

LET’S TAKE SOME EXAMPLES so we can turn the point into a useful image. Everyone has seen the misuse of cellphones and texting on the highways—the danger of such gross misbehavior is obvious, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. I have seem women driving two-ton SUVs at 70 miles per hour who are texting, smoking, and adjusting makeup while they have one finger on the wheel. This happens on a coast-to-coast scale every morning, though such out-of-control behavior is so dangerous and repulsive, you might think it would be its own rebuke.

Another image would be the student who is looking at his iPad in class while the lesson is being imparted. This misbehavior is so odd that a much simpler example, the student who listens to rock music while she “studies” is now quaint. So I will ask, do you listen to music while you read or work? I do not. When I listen to music, it has, or rather is, my attention. If it is not, I silence it. But I am no model of virtue or good sense: I do listen to music when I drive, and I know that it is a mistake—it is dangerous, the way I listen. Yet I think this example of a good thing becoming a bad habit clarifies much grosser ones. But can you learn from this? Or do you simply want me to tell you what music I find transporting, so that by imitating me, you can possibly fake a rise in taste or class along the way? In your dreams! If you want my playlist, you can subscribe to it at the usual fee like everybody else.

Nevertheless, Although, Even so, and However, I am going to tell you what not to do and what to do so you can avoid the mental damage and various nasty consequences of living wrongly—of doing it badly, of messing up—and that free of charge. No toll on this call!

Inarguable Point I: Insofar as humanly possible—conditions are never perfect, and we must compromise to live—you must avoid the social media like the proverbial plague (and I hope that you will forgive my use of the word plague in our interdependent, borderless global environment). So that means that iPhones and iPads can only be used for instrumental and justifiable purposes. If you find yourself blogging in an illiterate fashion, then you are already in big trouble and should consult with me as soon as possible, while bearing in mind that I don’t do charity work. If you rant like a jackass, then that is what you are, and if you permit your name to be tainted by orthographic, grammatical, and substantive distortions, then you have become a zombie, and the game is over.

Inarguable Point II: Two generations ago, there might have been a point to watching the news, for obvious reasons. Those days are gone. There is no available news, and if there were, they wouldn’t tell it to you. From FOX and MSNBC, we get yelling and misinformation, and from the rest of them—well, if you want to watch. bimbos expose themselves, there are porn channels for losers. News shows are showcases for racial and “gender” quotas, which is a clue that they are not serious expositions. That’s how bad it has become. Watching the news today is destructive. You would be better off smoking, though you probably can’t afford that unless you manage a hedge fund.

Inarguable Point III: Watching television is no good. It is basically destructive altogether, and even the better parts of it are not good enough. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are funny, but the point they ultimately make is that you don’t need them, either. Anything that is good on television can be acquired another way for you to watch when you want, without “watching television.”

I INTERRUPT THIS MESSAGE to insist that alienation or “making strange” can be most helpful in shifting the ground so that the enormity of the evil banality of television can be perceived. Example: Years ago, The Brady Bunch (1969-74) was an embarrassingly dumb TV show. It was agonizingly stupid, and it was ugly. Decades later (1995) there was a movie which reproduced its ugliness exquisitely, so that the film and then the movie on TV could pretend it was hipper than TV, but if the vomit-green rug on the one was the same shade on the other, and the moronic presentation was—but you get the idea. Stay away! Amscray! Avoidance alert! They are all like that, including the talking heads on Sunday morning. If I had to choose, I’d marginally prefer The Brady Bunch to Senator McCain and Senator Graham, and any remotely orthodox church service to either.

Inarguable Point IV: As watching something flow strikingly and listening to something coherent are appealing, there are vast stretches of important things—classic films, good music—on YouTube and DVD for you to organize your own base of knowledge, feeling, and images. You can act to be your own channel, and you should. You owe it to yourself—my favorite form of finance.

Inarguable Point V: Nothing too much. Even reading has its limits—it can be antisocial and unhealthy if over done. Get up and get out. Walk the sidewalk; say hello to the neighbor; That is human relations. Stay away from the totalitarian simulacra: They are evil and even lethal. The “reality shows” give the game away. Reality, by definition, is not a show, and if it is, it isn’t real. It is, rather, arrogant, ugly, and degrading propaganda of the worst kind, to be avoided at all cost. There is no cost—except if you watch it! Don’t Watch It.’ Watch out!

Inarguable Point VI: Marcus Aurelius learned not to care about the Greens and the Blues, and we have to be disciplined enough to reject most of sports and nearly all of it that is on TV. Too bad: Sports are a nice substitute for war and a relief from political obfuscation and vexation, so we can understand their social utility and distraction. But sports have become corrupt and corrupting, and the viewer on the boob tube is no innocent but an enabler of abuse. Organized professional sports have resulted in scandalous damage to the young and to the enfeebled adults who ogle a continual athletic fraud all pumped up with steroids and drugs and “enhanced performance.” The pre-pros in the colleges are part of the malfunction of education itself, and the usual controlling mamas and papas abuse their own children for vanity and cash. Add to that the national betting craze, the point-shaving, etc., and the subsidized stadiums. Repeat after me with your hand over the place your heart used to be: “I will never watch an NBA game on TV again.” Repeat. “Because it is too stupid for me to waste my time.” Repeat. Again: “I will never watch an NFL game again, because they are ugly and gross and brutal.” Repeat. Again: “I will never watch a MLB game again, because baseball belongs to the boys of summer, not to the drug addicts and fat cats of October.” Repeat. Again: “No pro hockey ever again, especially from the Sunbelt.” Repeat. Again: “Tennis is marginally acceptable.” “Golf is OK.” “The Olympics are disgusting political bombast.” Etc. In other words, quit using abusive violence, drugs, and perversion as an excuse to watch more television and thereby escape reality by escaping from reality into an artificial and poisonous, noisy, ugly, repetitive, boring fantasy that makes face-lifted performance-enhanced zombies like Schwarzenegger and Stallone look “good,” whatever that is.

A Last Point Not Up For Discussion: A hospital waiting room or the service wing at a car dealership can be very instructive about your own domestic creeping crisis. People will watch anything on television, like stupefied animals, and there are very few exceptions. So take a cold look at your home environment and do not hesitate to take drastic action. If you have a television set of whatever quality and size, see that it is placed in an appropriately subordinated setting and environment. Do not ever allow any such set to dominate a room, particularly a living room. If you do, the false idol will have taken over. Do not fall for the trap of the “man cave.” Do not allow any set in a kitchen. Do not allow them in bedrooms. Do not allow computers to be abused by the young in their private space. You have been warned. The instruction is over. It’s up to you now.

Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (November 2014)
James O. Tate is recovering from years of being a professor of English literature at Dowling College on Long Island.
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“The Wasted Century” – by Thomas Fleming

The Great War and its inevitable successor have been called Europe’s civil war, and there is some truth in this characterization.  Divided by language, religion, and culture, the nations of Europe were nonetheless united in a common civilization that developed out of the ruins of the Christianized Roman Empire.  Despite the strains brought on by religious schisms and the Enlightenment’s revolt against the Church, an educated Scottish atheist had much in common with French Catholics and German Lutherans: Civilized Europeans accepted both the classical tradition and the residue of Christian morality that underlay their notions of fair play, personal responsibility, and the duties of charity.  No more.  To speak of Europe today makes sense only as a reference to material comfort, state-subsidized benefits, and adherence to the corrupt and inept bureaucracy of the European Union.

cover-0714-portraitIf the two armed conflicts were part of a European civil war, they were also the beginning of the end both of Europe itself and of the vestigial Christendom that survived in the hypocrisy of good manners.  The memory of those traditions is now preserved only in libraries, museums, and church buildings that tourists admire as uncomprehendingly as a savage who relies on the magic of television and mobile devices.

The Great War that began the process of cultural extinction was a writer’s war, particularly a poet’s war.  It was the first modern war in which large numbers of writers actually fought in the ranks.  The war was also a writer’s graveyard: Britain alone lost Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, and Isaac Rosenberg.

The worst ravages of the Great War consisted not so much in the loss of so many fine men as in its effect on the Western mind.  This was conspicuous in the case of the literary combatants who survived the war often as broken men, but only a very superficial person in Britain or Europe came through unscathed.  The moral and mental derangements caused by the war—adultery, divorce, alcoholism—were mercilessly recorded in the novels of Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh, though later readers may not always comprehend the moral insanity that excited the restless spirits of the “Jazz Age.”

These were the postwar years that T.S. Eliot later described as “Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres.”  The phrase “largely wasted” cannot fail to recall his most famous poem, published only four years after the war’s end.  Gertrude Stein is famous (only) for describing her young literary friends in Paris as “a lost generation,” though Hemingway later claimed that she had borrowed the phrase from a young garage mechanic, whose boss had complained of the difficulty of training the young veterans who had survived the war.  It was a generation of men who had lost their bearings; they lacked discipline and a sense of purpose.  A century later, it is now apparent that succeeding generations never found their way back to sanity.

On the positive side, the postwar generation had also lost some of the naive illusions that had encouraged European man in his follies since the beginning of the Renaissance.  The technological and economic progress of the 19th century had encouraged a radiant optimism in the West.  Diseases were being conquered, agricultural yields were improving, the blessings of hygiene and sanitation were being extended ever more broadly.  Even war itself was being civilized by conventions that were inspired by Christian convictions that few people held.  The religion of Northern Europe and North America was increasingly a hypocritical sham, but stiff upper lip and carry on were the words of the day for the readers of Henley’s “Invictus” or of his friend R.L. Stevenson’s prayer: “The day returns and brings us the petty round of irritating concerns and duties.  Help us to play the man, help us to perform them with laughter and kind faces, let cheerfulness abound with industry . . . ”  For optimists, a good man of strong will can heroically fight off the evils that not only surround him but lurk within him.

Stevenson knew better, as his tale of Dr. Jekyll’s experiment, written only a generation before the war, would seem to indicate, but the dominant creed of the 19th century was neither the Christianity that had dominated the mind of the 17th century nor the anti-Christian Marxism that would rule the 20th.  The Victorian Creed was one or another form of liberalism.  Though it was sometimes undercoated or gilded with a false Christian luster, as in the case of Lord Acton, liberalism was fundamentally a non-Christian and implicitly anti-Christian set of doctrines.  The individual and his relations with the state were the paramount political concerns of liberals from Locke and Smith down to the end of the 19th century, while comfort, hygiene, and prosperity were the marks of this earthly paradise.

Not everyone concurred.  As the age drew to its end, the most significant protest (in England and France) came from writers variously described as aesthetes, Pre-Raphaelites, and decadents, from Ruskin and Pater to Whistler and Wilde, to Ernest Dowson and William Butler Yeats.  It was a diverse group, but bound together with certain common interests: literary craftsmanship, a preference for fine detail over large-scale construction, an elitist contempt for middle-class conventions, and the interest in everything medieval that W.S. Gilbert so memorably parodied in Patience.

While the aesthetes and decadents were soon relegated to an appendix in Oscar William’s anthology of modern verse, the most avant of the avant-garde, Ezra Pound, celebrated them in his ode to Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, in which a best-selling novelist derides not so much their affectation as their serious and selfless devotion to literature.

I never mentioned a man but with the view
Of selling my own works . . .
And give up verse, my boy,
There’s nothing in it . . .
Don’t kick against the pricks,
Accept opinion.  The “Nineties” tried your game
And died, there’s nothing in it.

Commercialism and capitalism itself corrupted literature, and Pound would spend much of his time fulminating against the stupidity and vulgarity of bourgeois liberalism.  Pound exercised a profound influence on his younger friend T.S. Eliot, and the two poets shared an antipathy to the bourgeois liberalism for which England and America had gone to war.

Even before the end of the 19th century, shadows were falling on the sunny world of Victorian England and its fine stoic virtues: labor unrest, ethnic and religious conflict, and the rise of Marxism as a challenge to the reigning orthodoxy of bourgeois liberalism.  But it took a world war to harden and crystallize these strains into fissures that shattered forever the serenity of the Victorian mind.

It was not just the 16 million dead and 18 million wounded that sent up clouds to relieve the glare of the Victorian sun, and it was not even the horrors of trench warfare and the massive destruction of once beautiful places that sobered up a generation drunk on the idea of progress.  War had eaten into the soul not just of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon but of everyone who thought about it seriously.  It was, as Robert Graves put it so neatly in the title of his own war memoir, “Good-bye to all that,” and when you read the snarling writings of Norman Mailer or the Angry Young Men after the second war or listen to the lyrics of Paul McCartney’s sneering “We’re so sorry, Uncle Albert,” you are hearing only a faint and tinny echo of the great horror that is graphically conveyed in Hemingway’s first and best novel, The Sun Also Rises, whose hero has been quite fittingly rendered impotent by a war wound.  Europe and European America lost their manhood in the war and have never even begun to recover it.  All the nuclear brinkmanship and technological bluster in the world cannot change the reality that we are a bruised and wounded people, living secondhand off the garbage of a dead civilization.

The Great War had destroyed “all that,” and in its aftermath, prophet after prophet arose to preach new gospels: Most of the mushrooming crop of gurus were leftists—vegetarian free-loving multiculturalists—but the more significant prophets were men of the right.  In the English-speaking world, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, both émigré poets, grasped the implications perhaps better than anyone.  As unlike as they were temperamentally, Eliot and Pound were both displaced persons: Americans who lived in Europe and reactionaries masquerading as leaders of the avant-garde.  Both had begun, without really completing, a classical education, and they had swallowed, without entirely digesting, vast amounts of disorganized erudition.

Pound was initially indifferent to the war as “possibly a conflict between two forces almost equally detestable.”  His former friend Richard Aldington maliciously satirized him in a novel in which he is made to say, “What I mean to say is that the most important thing is that the process of civilization shouldn’t be interrupted by all this war business.”  In 1920, in the Mauberley ode, he summed up the effect of the war succinctly.  He describes the brave men who went out to fight, who

Died some pro patria
Non dulce non et decor

walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy . . .

and liars in public places.

As a coda to his crescendoing jeremiad, he adds,

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization . . .

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

Pound later predicted that poetry would cease to exist before the year 2000.  With a few exceptions, he has been proved right.  And since there has never been a great civilization without poetry, we can say that European civilization has ceased to exist.  It is no longer safe even to go to live productions of plays and operas without being subjected to every kind of degrading silliness—The Magic Flute in Blackface or King Lear done in the manner of Marat-Sade—all sold naturally as terribly avant-garde, when it was already old hat by 1930.

Well-brought-up conservatives do not wish to accept reality.  “We just need better laws, more authentic Republicans in office, a Supreme Court majority that knows the Constitution.”  As they look up Pound’s prediction of the death of poetry—or all the lines I have quoted—on their iPhones and find their way home with their GPS systems to turn on Letterman or leaf through the Wall Street Journal for a mock-conservative spin on Dante, they will no doubt reassure themselves that Pound and Eliot were simply wrong, much like the economists who predicted that London would be ten feet deep in horse manure, because they failed to anticipate the invention of the automobile.  If the great leftist delusion is that man by his nature creates problems that only a global government can solve, the conservative delusion is that self-interested individualists can find their way out of any mess that other selfish individualists have created.  The war had shown Pound and Eliot the futility of both these delusions.

Eliot sat the war out in London.  Initially, he refused to take a side except to say that France had to be defended as the center of our civilization.  Despite his serious studies and undoubted brilliance, the young Eliot had quite conventional views on most subjects.  He was not only an enthusiastic supporter of the London avant-garde—friends with the Huxleys, the Sitwells, the Bloomsbury Group, an admirer of Joyce—but also a victim of the Anglo-American propaganda that treated Germany as a rogue state.  He applauded U.S. entry into the war, though he initially expressed some trepidation about his own participation, first saying he would have to think about his decision, then doubting that people like himself would be called up.  In these days he certainly lived up to Pound’s characterization of him as a “possum,” the animal that fakes death in order to avoid a predator.  Eliot eventually made some efforts to gain a commission in one or another American service, but through bureaucratic inertia and perhaps his own lack of interest, he ultimately failed—though, to be fair, he went so far as to resign his bank job on the strength of an assurance from the Navy.  Perhaps his point of view was best expressed in a letter to his mother (November 1918): “Anyway, at least no one can say I did not try my best to get into army or navy.”  Like most people who say they tried their best, he was content to fail.

Some readers naturally assume that the depiction of a crumbling world that is his Waste Land is in part Eliot’s response to the war.  Critics, generally, have not accepted this view and cite Eliot’s supposed indifference to the war and his shifty evasion of responsibility, but that objection seems irrelevant.  It is not only combat soldiers whose imaginations are affected by war.  Families and friends of soldiers who suffered death or demoralization are damaged themselves.  Some of us experienced this in the comparatively minor Vietnam War, and I cannot really imagine what it was like to live through World War II, much less the War Between the States.

Eliot was far from unaffected by the war in Europe.  He sent a letter to The Nation (London), in which he quoted a letter from an officer at the front:

     [A] man who has been through it and seen and taken part in the unspeakable tragedies that are the ordinary routine, feels that he has something, possesses something, which others can never possess.
     It is morally impossible for him to talk seriously of these things to people who cannot even approach comprehension.  It is hideously exasperating to hear people talking the glib commonplaces about the war and distributing cheap sympathy to its victims.
     Perhaps you are tempted to give them a picture of a leprous earth, scattered with the swollen and blackening corpses of hundreds of young men.  The appalling stench of rotting carrion, mingled with the sickening smell of exploded lyddite [picric acid] and ammonal.  Mud like porridge, trenches like shallow and sloping cracks in the porridge—porridge that stinks in the sun.  Swarms of flies and bluebottles clustering on pits of offal.  Wounded men lying in the shell holes among the decaying corpses: helpless under the scorching sun and bitter nights, under repeated shelling.  Men with bowels dropping out, lungs shot away, with blinded smashed faces, or limbs blown into space.  Men screaming and gibbering.  Wounded men laughing in agony on the barbed wire, until a friendly spout of liquid fire shrivels them up like a fly in a candle.  But these are only words, and probably only convey a fraction of their meaning to their hearers.  They shudder and it is forgotten.

This officer, while dwelling on the horror, was really explaining the war’s moral effect on the young men who endured it and could never be the same.  The officer may have been Eliot’s brother-in-law Maurice Haigh-Wood, whose sister Vivien thought men like her brother (and husband) were too high-strung for the war: Writing her mother-in-law, Vivien explained, “You over there do not realize the bad and dreadful effect war has on the characters of young men . . . If they are nervous and highly strung . . . they become quite changed.  A sort of desperation and demoralization of their minds, brains, and character . . . ”

Eliot experienced the war only from London, but as a man already inclined to melancholy, he seems to have been deeply affected.  One passage in The Waste Land conveys some of the demoralization he witnessed and undoubtedly felt: “I think we are in rat’s alley / Where the dead men lost their bones.”  A little later, we listen in on dialogue at the home front:

“When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said— . . . 
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth.  He did, I was there.

Lil, alas, seems to have been playing around while her husband was off fighting, and her health has been hurt by “them pills I took to bring it off . . . The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same.”  So the fruits of the war include, in addition to despair and demoralization, both barrenness and infanticide.

The Waste Land marks the beginning of the end of Eliot’s descent into despair, a descent that could not be arrested by the teachings of his Harvard mentor, Irving Babbitt, whose “New Humanism” was a typically American product of the highest type—an attempt to combine liberal individualism with a quasireligious (Buddhist) discipline.

Babbitt’s books are still essential reading for American conservatives.  In Babbitt’s day, conservatism was generally despised as ideological defense of the interests of the rich—a sense it has reacquired in recent years, thanks to talk radio—but I am speaking of conservatism in a more “Kirkian” sense as a principled effort to preserve or at least salvage the good elements of our culture, society, and civilization that have been handed down to us, without necessarily looking too deeply at the question of whether or not such traditions as capitalism, rugged individualism, and unreflective patriotism are in themselves worth preserving, at least in the forms they had assumed in the course of the 20th century.

A well-brought-up Yankee Unitarian like Eliot found a tonic in Babbitt’s learned and high-minded appeal to duty.  However, such a philosophy, though it would be rebottled and relabeled by a series of conservative publicists and fund­raisers, would prove to be a rather thin antidote to the poisons injected into the postwar food supply.  Relying on nothing more than his own intelligence and will, Eliot was sinking ever more deeply into the darkness of his neurasthenia and melancholy, but he was also fumbling toward the light that began to invade his darkened mind near the end of “The Hollow Men” and blazed out in Christian affirmation in “Ash Wednesday.”

Our civilization, as Pound knew better than Eliot, was already botched before the Great War put the finishing touch to the collapse: The war was the high wind that demolished the tottering antiquities of post-Christian civility.  Throughout the century that followed, leftists would try to dynamite the ruins into which frightened conservatives had moved as squatters and scavengers.  Like an extermination squad, the leftists have gone from block to block, from generation to generation, chivvying the squatters from ruined churches and blowing up every little bit of shelter, from classical studies to marriage to the very nature and identity of the human race.  Eliot drew a sort of weary strength from the bits of Latin, Italian, and Sanskrit he inserted into The Waste Land: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” but nearly a century later our schools and universities have dumped those fragments into the trash.

It is not an easy truth to face.  It drove Eliot, before his conversion, to despair, and the unrepentant Pound into madness.  Succeeding generations have lived so long with madness and despair that, growing used to their disease, they have come to accept it as normal, much as an alcoholic, however miserable, may come to accept his own condition and repel any attempt to reform his ways.  Even if he wants to change, he forgets every good resolution when it comes time for the first drink of the day.  He cannot act, because he cannot really acknowledge who he is: “For if any be a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth away, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.”

Eliot and Pound, flawed and broken as they were, provide a mirror for us to look in as we try to acknowledge who and what we are.

Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (July 2014)

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“High on Federalism” – by William J. Watkins, Jr.

As the new year rolled in, lines formed at Colorado pot shops. Some customers seeking to secure their first legal purchase of Mary Jane had to wait several hours. Once they made it into the shops they were struck by sticker shock: Top-shelf marijuana (not Mexican ragweed) was going for $400 per ounce. Of course, the pot dispensaries were not the only ones doing a booming business. Colorado Green Tours, an outfit that buses visitors to the various dispensaries, described itself as being deluged by “a tidal wave of business.”

Even the federal government has stepped aside and allowed the pot sales. Under the Controlled Substances Act, the sales in Colorado violate federal law. However, Attorney General Eric Holder has given word to states legalizing recreational marijuana that federal law enforcement will look the other way, so long as the states carefully regulate the production, processing, and sale of weed.

In some ways, the legalization efforts in Colorado and Washington (which is running behind on crafting and implementing its regulations) are substantial victories for federalism. These states actually succeeded in persuading the federal government to back off the enforcement of a national regulatory regime that has been upheld in the Supreme Court as recently as 2005.

There is recognition that divergent local cultures and circumstances should guide lawmaking. For example, while the state of South Carolina is nowhere near following in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington; it is at liberty to adopt laws that best reflect the temperament and situation of its population. A one-size-fits-all remedy, which has been the theme of 20th- and 21st-century legislation, is eschewed. Colorado and Washington also further goals of experimentation and competition in policymaking. Based on what happens in these two laboratories of democracy, other states can better determine what course they should chart. They can observe the effects on tax revenue, crime, and addiction before deciding whether to abandon or loosen marijuana-prohibition policies.

Nonetheless, it says much about American society that victory in the realm of truly federal—not national—principles came about because a remarkable number of people want to get high. They want a euphoria delivered by THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The people rose up against national authority not because of domestic spying by the National Security Agency, the targeting of Tea Party organizations by the Internal Revenue Service, or efforts to nationalize healthcare.

No, they simply want to smoke dope.

Americans are so dope crazed that one cannot put a letter in the mailbox and flip the flag up without a justified fear of drug addicts cruising through the neighborhood and stealing mail in the hopes they will find something to aid them in counterfeiting checks, negotiating fraudulent or altered checks, and then using the proceeds to buy more mind-altering substances.

Aristotle understood that living well in the polis consisted in endeavors that actualize the virtues of the rational part of the soul. Centuries later, Edmund Burke observed that liberty in a civilized society often depends on the people’s ability and willingness to place chains on their own appetites. These focuses on virtue and self-restraint are alien to our postmodern society. Individual determination of what it means to live well and the unloosening of any restraint on the appetite are the hallmarks of America in 2014.

Under a just reading of the Constitution, it is undoubtedly within the purview of the people of the states to decide whether they will prohibit, allow, or regulate marijuana and similar substances. But with so many other “national issues” calling for state and local experimentation, it is telling that first successful 21st-century effort to reduce federal authority has come in the area of recreational drug use and the people’s demand for easy access to THC.

Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (February 2014)

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“Returning to Reality” – by Scott P. Richert

And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost…

Piers Moran & Penn Jillette

On February 28, as Pope Benedict XVI was leaving office, the magician Penn Jillette was interviewed on CNN by Piers Morgan, a nominal Catholic. Morgan, a critic of Benedict, thought he would have a sympathetic ear in Jillette, an outspoken atheist, but the interview quickly took an amusing turn as Jillette began lecturing Morgan on the teachings of the Catholic Church, which Jillette got (mostly) right. Morgan pushed back, but in the process only revealed his own ignorance of why the Church teaches what She teaches. Jillette made short work of him, as would anyone even modestly versed in Catholic theology.

Catholic commentators, especially those who are politically conservative and thus despised Piers Morgan for other reasons, enjoyed a bit of Schadenfreude at Morgan’s expense. One obvious lesson—which many of the commentators drew—is that Catholics of Morgan’s generation (he is 48) were poorly catechized. If an atheist can beat a reasonably intelligent Catholic not just in technique but in the substance of a debate over Catholic theology, something is wrong.

There were less obvious lessons to be learned. The first is that American Catholics are just as enamored of celebrities as Americans of other stripes are. Not a few of the Catholic commentariat jumped to the conclusion that Jillette was ripe for conversion. (Many of the same commentators had declared Christopher Hitchens another Augustine or Saint Paul in the making, and had not only hoped for—a good thing—but expected his deathbed conversion, no matter how often Hitchens assured them it would never come.) Just as Kourtney Kardashian was lauded as a pro-life hero back in 2009 when she revealed in an interview that she could not bring herself to abort her unborn child, conceived out of wedlock, so Jillette became, for a moment, the potential new face of the Catholic Church in America. And as prolifers had made excuses for Kardashian, when in that same interview she had made it clear that she thought it perfectly fine for other mothers to kill their unborn children even if she could not personally do so, Jillette’s admirers tried to explain away the actions of this militant atheist who has used his stage act and his television show, Bullsh-t!, to launch a series of nasty attacks on the Catholic Church, the Eucharist, and the priesthood.

Which brings us to a second, less obvious lesson: The Devil knows not only Latin but Christian theology. And he can use that knowledge in more than one way: to try to undermine the faith of those who are weak, by instilling doubts in their minds; but also to mislead others through a form of spiritual pride, by convincing them that saying the right thing is necessarily the same thing as believing the right thing. If the Devil can convince people that the Faith is simply a checklist of propositions to which we must give assent rather than a lived relationship with the Risen Christ from which those doctrines flow, his work is mostly done.

Faith is, among other things, the perfection of reason, but that does not mean that reason alone can lead us to faith. Penn Jillette may know all the right things to say, but Morgan, despite his dissent from Church teaching, has the benefit of baptism and membership in the Church, while Jillette not only rejects both for himself but has made it perfectly clear that he despises those who choose them for themselves (and even more so for their children). Jillette was not, as so many seemed to assume, urging Morgan on to deepen his faith (or even simply “keeping him honest”); he was ridiculing him for being less knowledgeable than a man who rejects Jesus Christ, and all His works, and all of His salvific promises.

Put this way, this all seems rather obvious; so why did so many miss what Jillette was up to? Part of the problem is that, in the United States, Christianity has all too often become a surface phenomenon. Doctrine has become a substitute for the substance of the Faith, rather than a catechetical tool that is meant to help us understand what we, as Christians, experience. To put it in stark terms: Which came first, the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, or the dogmatic councils? As Chronicles’ longtime religion editor Harold O.J. Brown explained in his greatest work, Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy From the Apostles to the Present, Christian doctrine developed from the lived experience of the Church, the Body of Christ, not the other way around. A credo is a distillation of what Christians believe because they know it to be true, rather than a list of propositions to which they give assent, and thus come to believe. The convert recites the Creed at his baptism not as a test of his orthodoxy but to affirm what he already knows, through his experience, to be true.

Many factors have contributed to the distortion of Christian doctrine from a distillation of the Christian experience into an abstraction, even an ideology. In the United States in the 20th century, a certain neo-Thomism played an important role, beginning in the Catholic Church but with its effects spilling out into other Christian denominations. Thomistic theology is not the problem; the problem, as Owen Barfield demonstrated in Saving the Appearances, comes when that theology is treated as an end in itself, and the experience that underlies it and which it encapsulates becomes attenuated or even lost. Recover that experience, and Christian doctrine takes on a new life that can deepen our faith; the works of Thomas become as fresh as if they were written yesterday. But without that experience, we become caricatures of Penn Jillette—functional atheists who, unlike Jillette, are convinced that we have the fullness of the Faith.

The problem, though, runs much deeper than modern neo-Thomism. It extends back to the beginning of the modern age and the rise of the modern state, as the realm of politics, previously limited, began to encroach upon more and more areas of everyday life. And it has reached its apotheosis in 21st-century America, where even so-called conservatives no longer believe that there are no political solutions to cultural problems, but that all cultural problems are at base political and can only be solved through elections and legislation and court decisions.

In a society with a strong common culture, the encroachment of politics into more and more areas of human life may not initially seem to pose a problem. Indeed, to the extent that legislation, for instance, is seen as supporting what is good in human life against external threats to the common culture, such encroachment may even be welcomed. But as the common culture breaks down, the increased power of the state over culture becomes a battering ram that accelerates that destruction.

So, for instance, state laws against abortion before 1973 largely represented the common moral sense of the people. But Roe v. Wade, while imposed from the top down, did not come out of nowhere. The moral consensus on abortion had been eroding for decades, and it reflected a more advanced erosion within the Christian churches on contraception, which itself reflected a loss within those churches not simply of the Christian understanding of the sacredness of life but, more importantly, of the experience that gave life to that understanding.

Jump forward to today, and for any person under the age of 40 in the United States, abortion has always been a part of the fabric of his or her life, and the battle over abortion, while framed in moral terms, has always been a political one. Those who believe that abortion is wrong wish to see Roe v. Wade overturned and new laws passed banning abortion; those who think otherwise work hard to maintain a pro-Roe majority on the Supreme Court.

The latter are wining, and will keep winning, until the former recognize that the only way to win the battle is, to reassert the primacy of culture over politics. To put it in explicitly Christian terms, in order to save the lives of unborn children, Christians must first set about saving the souls of their fathers and mothers. And that means not simply preaching to those mothers and fathers about the Christian moral tradition concerning the sacredness of human life but leading them to the salvific relationship with Christ that underlies and gives life to that tradition. Disconnected from that experience, especially in a society in which politics claims for itself the ultimate moral authority, the Christian moral tradition becomes ossified, at best, and at worst takes on the character of an ideology, both adversary to, and counterpart of, the ideology of individualistic liberalism.

The problem, as I have made clear, is nothing new, finding its roots in the rise of the modern world five centuries ago; and it was accurately diagnosed almost half a century ago by Josef Pieper, who also pointed toward its only possible solution in his short but indispensable work Tradition: Concept and Claim (translated from the German in 2008 by E. Christian Kopff and published that same year by ISI Books). Tradition, in both the secular usage and the capital-T of Christian Sacred Tradition, is not merely a collection of things worth preserving, as both political and religious “conservatives” today treat it, but the means by which the most important of all experiences is handed down. As Pieper writes,

There is really nothing praiseworthy in the mere fact that something which has been thought, said, or done “since forever” will continue to be thought, said, and done. The praise due the act of tradition only makes sense when what is preserved and will continue to be preserved through the generations is what is truly worth preserving. That is the point of young people’s doubting question. Why is it, they ask, that a duty has been violated, if we simply let what has been handed down rest on its laurels, so that we can say, think, and do something totally different? We can only hope that someone hears this radical question and gives an existentially believable and equally radical answer, “the” answer that goes to the heart of things: that among the many things that are more or less worth preserving and may have been accumulated as “tradition,” there is in the last analysis only one traditional good that it is absolutely necessary to preserve unchanged, namely the gift that is received and handed on in the sacred tradition. I say “necessary” because this tradition comes from a diving source; because each generation needs it for a truly human existence; because no people and no brilliant individual can replace it on their own or even add anything valid to it.

It should be obvious that Pieper is speaking here not of external forms but of that which gave them life, and which may require those external forms to change over time so that what is truly worth preserving may continue to be passed on. This is the problem faced by modern conservatives, who primarily seek to defend what they respected and loved when they were young, rather than what is necessarily worth preserving. Pieper contrasts “Tradition (singular)” with these “traditions,” which may start out supporting a healthy culture but ultimately have the potential to do more harm than good:

Genuine consciousness of tradition makes one positively free and independent in the face of conservatisms, which worry obsessively about the cultivation of the “traditions.” Certainly, a “cultivation of tradition” that attaches itself to a historically accidental external image of what has been handed down becomes a positive hindrance to a real transmission of what is truly worth conserving, which perhaps can occur only under changed historical forms. It is possible to imagine a real transmission of what is in the last analysis worth handing down, which a dogmatic conservatism could not even recognize.

This is the problem faced also by the Church, and here I speak broadly, and not just of the Catholic Church of which I am a member. Even under the best of circumstances, in a health culture in which the structures of society and of politics are not antagonistic toward the Christian Faith, the Church must be a countercultural institution. That is the only way in which She can be certain to be able to hand down the ultimate Truth of the Faith, and not let it become obscured or deformed by an “historically accidental external image” that may have arisen from that Truth but has since become abstracted from it.

We are always in danger of turning the traditions of Christianity—the rituals and doctrines, the moral teachings and institutions—into ends in themselves, rather than means to the true end, “the gift that is received and handed on.” Or rather, we should use the Gift (singular), Who gave Himself to save our souls, and Who continues, in every age until the end of time, to give man what he needs “for a truly human existence.”

American conservatives of a certain generation summed up the insight of a different German philosopher in the catchphrase “Don’t immanentize the eschaton!” And yet, while warning against the dangers of trying to bring about heaven on earth, they themselves, through their obsession with elections and legislation, did much to subjugate culture to politics and to make Christian moral teaching a means to a political end, rather than a means of transmitting the Truth of the Faith. The fruit of their efforts can be seen today in the lost battles of the Culture War, and in entire generations that have sought salvation not in the sacraments of Christian churches but in the squabbles of “the public square.”

All is not lost, however, so long as “the gift that is received and handed on” continues to be received and handed on. But the locus of hat transmission—that “Tradition (singular)”—has never been the polling place, but the Church, which guards that gift.

When we get that straight—when we recognize once again that the duty we owe to God is to pass on the Good News to our fellow man—only then shall we begin the process of returning to reality, revitalizing our culture, and putting politics back in its proper, limited space.

Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (December 2013)
Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles.
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“Finding Beauty” – by Jeff Minick

Beauty is the battlefield where God and the devil war for the soul of man. — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

In the last five years, a heightened awareness of beauty and the mystery of beauty has played with my senses more than at any other time in my life, excluding, perhaps, my childhood, when the world so often resonated with the magical and the beautiful. Why these seeds of appreciation have taken root and sprouted is unclear to me, though I suspect that growing old has something to do with it. The sensation of winding down like an old-fashioned clock, of realizing, to paraphrase Housman, that sixty of my three-score and ten will not come again, surely accounts for some of my newfound sense of awe and exaltation.

A self-imposed seclusion has also watered these seeds. Since the death of my wife eight years ago, I have spent more and more of my time alone. Outside of my teaching duties, the bulk of my waking hours pass in silence and solitude, conditions which give rise to long thoughts and a keener apprehension of the sublime. Like a prisoner feeding crumbs to a sparrow on the sill of his barred window, I have developed, slowly, painfully at times, a capacity for gratitude and wonder.

My reading has reflected my curiosity about beauty and aesthetics. One of the most influential books I have encountered in the last five years is Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World, a title taken from a novel by Dostoyevsky. When this book first came to hand, that title baffled me: How on earth could beauty save anything? Even now, after close study, the idea remains murky for me. Yet the more I read of this book and others like it, the more I have pondered the meaning and place of beauty in our daily affairs. Whether beauty will save the world remains to be seen, yet I have come to understand that beauty can save me. Beauty can move the mind toward truth, the heart toward love, the soul toward compassion.

Let me explain.

I am not an aesthetician. I enjoy art—paintings, sculpture, music—but am strictly an amateur critic, an ignorant ham-and-egger. Literature is more my domain, and here I could tell you why Hemingway speaks more to the human spirit than Stephen King and why the novels of Sigrid Undset give us more of that spirit than Hemingway. Without any intention of braggadocio, I can say that I have read more in the last 50 years than all but a tiny percentage of my contemporaries. (The thousand books I know and love, and the many thousands more I have read, are often as much a curse as a blessing. No, that is unfair—the curse is my habit of reading. The books themselves are innocent as babes at baptism.)

Even so, I have no intention here of entering into the tangled world of art criticism and aesthetics. I am, as I say, too ignorant to do so. Why the colors of a particular painting, the depth of a woman’s eyes, or the slant of light through the clouds this afternoon should strike me as beautiful would require another lifetime of exploration. Instead, I wish only to share some moments and places of beauty that have penetrated a once-heedless heart.

I have limited myself to ten such encounters, all of them recent. The number ten seems beautiful in and of itself. We count by tens and work on a decimal system. Nurses ask patients to rate their pain on a scale of one to ten; lovers use the same scale to rate the attractiveness of their beloved. This integer resonates theologically: There are Ten Commandments and ten days between Ascension and Pentecost. Again often yards in football brings a first down; ten players—don’t forget the batter—are necessary to fill a baseball diamond; a bowler tries to knock down ten pins. Human beings have ten fingers and ten toes. Ten, then, seems a fine number.

My list of recent encounters with beauty begins with the natural world. Though I live in a city surrounded by mountains that attract thousands of visitors every year, I generally commune with nature from the front porch of my apartment building, located within an eight-minute walk of downtown Asheville. Right now I have just returned to this keyboard from that porch, where I listened to the late-September crickets and the dripping of rain from the maples along Chestnut Street and from the waxy leaves of the magnolia tree in the side yard. These soft sounds, the moist air on my face and bare arms, and the secret pleasure I feel being awake and alone on the street where I live filled me this evening with joy and wonder. This porch is one place where I frequently find beauty.

My home is a three-story brick apartment building fronted by four large white columns and six porches. It was built 80 years ago, back before our modern architects gave human beings glass-and-concrete boxes for banks, offices, and dwelling places. On either side of the building are large yards filled with shrubs, flowers, walkways, and benches. The woman who manages this property, Anne, spends hours every week trimming rose bushes and vines, battling poison ivy, pulling weeds, and clipping hedges. She has mixed so much of her labor and love into the gifts of nature that tourists often pause in front of the house to take pictures. Several weeks ago, touched by those gloomy thoughts of the past which sometimes haunt us in our solitude, I stepped onto my porch at dawn and watched for a few minutes while the rising sun illuminated the trim bushes, tidy flower beds, and freshly mown lawns. Contemplating this ornamentation pushed aside my dark mood and regrets. Once again, beauty had left its mark.

Another building that can bring such wonder, if I remember to give the moment breath, is the Basilica of Saint Lawrence. Built a hundred years ago, this granite-and-brick church with its domed ceiling and statues, its stained glass windows and crucifixion tableau above the altar, has the power over me of a hypnotist. Recently, I have begun attending daily Mass at the basilica before going off to teach. Only a handful of worshipers frequent this early morning Mass, and here in the shadows and the silence may be found hints of that “peace that passeth all understanding?” The very air of the church, laden with the perfume of candle wax and incense, exudes beauty and holiness.

Perhaps more than any other art, music—great music—holds the soul of the world, communicating with its listeners in a universal language. The other evening, while grading some student essays, I tried listening to Jimmy Cliff’s reggae music. Usually his music appeals, but on this particular evening it interfered with my work. The cool-jazz voice of Norah Jones also failed to do the trick. I then threw some Bach onto the machine, one of those collections that the connoisseur would scorn as common. Gradually, the music reached into me, subtly penetrating my thoughts. As the music took hold, I put down my pen, listened, and felt myself lifted emotionally away from my desk and papers. (This experience is not new to me: when I make spaghetti and sauce, I entertain myself with another one of those ubiquitous collections—Italian opera sung by the Three Tenors. Their voices enter the sauce and improve the taste.)

To me, however, words speak even more powerfully than music, and with a beauty as sublime. Often, I wish I’d kept a notebook in which I copied down the words and sentences that have struck a nerve. These would range from single lines—in Gladiator the final words of Maximus to his men before charging into battle, “Soldiers, what we do in life echoes in eternity!” contain an entire philosophy—to the rich passages of poetry and prose from a hundred writers. Family, friends, and students who wonder why there are so many books about my apartment now have their answer: These are repositories in  which I find truth, goodness, beauty.

So far, the things I have mentioned—nature, architecture, painting, music, literature—are the areas of human endeavor we traditionally associate with beauty. We go to nature and the objects created by artists from nature for that sense of sublimity beyond reason. Now, however, I will turn to human beings, and five recent encounters with them that, as my dictionary says in defining beauty exalted my mind and spirit.

Shortly after nine o’clock on a Saturday morning two weeks ago, my daughter, the mother of five, came down the stairs at her home, dressed to attend the wedding of a friend. Her hair fell loose and easy about her face. Besides being struck by its length—she typically wears her hair up—I was amazed as well by its loveliness, by the way it floated about her cheeks and throat. Suddenly I realized how lovely she was, this daughter of mine, this wife, this mother. She glowed so with life and health that my breath caught in my throat, and then she had gathered her belongings and was out the door.

A second snapshot: This past week, my students in a middle-school class were writing about the clothing they had worn that day and why they had chosen this particular pair of jeans or this blue blouse. Often the intensity of my students’ faces as they read or write has struck me as beautiful, but on this day some of their faces were shining with such concentration that I felt swept up by their radiance and by what I can best describe as the holiness of their composure.

Because I spend a good deal of time alone, the sound of laughter—good, hearty laughter—also injects a sense of beauty into my blood and nerves. Sound in our neighborhood can carry quite a distance, curling about the cars and yards, and yesterday evening through the open door to my porch I could hear laughter coming from a party up the street. Here from these strangers was real laughter, full, rich, beautiful.

One spoken word can cut the air with a beauty that like a knife goes straight to the heart. When I recently visited my grandchildren in Virginia, I could hear them crying “Grandpa! Grandpa!” before they had even raced from the house to greet me. Their voices bore more than just anticipation, more than excitement They were filled with love. We can’t see a thing called love, just as we can’t see a thing called beauty, but love and beauty vibrated in the cries of those children, as real as a painting, as dramatic as an opera.

Finally, I attended on Saturday the baptism of another grandson, a boy not yet two. In his tiny jacket and rumpled shirt he brought to mind a stout little banker after a night of drinking. When the priest poured the water over his head, he wiggled so vigorously that water washed into his eyes. He cried, infuriated, and thrust out his lower lip. How familiar is this ritual, performed millions of times over the last 2,000 years! Yet here again were signs of beauty: the newly baptized, the removal of Original Sin, the presence of family and friends, of angels and saints, of grace.

During this baptism, the priest asked the witnesses to respond “I do” to a series of questions from the Ritual of Baptism. One of the questions in the ritual asks us whether we reject the “glamour of evil?” These three words capture the path taken by so many of our contemporary artists: musicians, painters, writers, filmmakers. Evil decks itself out in glamorous attire, and we are so drenched in this glamour that only the strongest can resist its allure. In the Foreword to The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, John Saward writes of the “three great gateways to God, of goodness, truth, and beauty.” Over a century ago, our intelligentsia began sawing one leg—truth—off this stool, and now it has collapsed, giving us a century of bloodshed, lies, and ugliness.

Many in the world of art traffic in the glamour of evil. They muddle about in ugliness and depravity. They muck along in jaded lockstep, proffering dross rather than gold, concept rather than form, junk rather than treasure. Their crude work diminishes the soul, making savages and yahoos of their audience rather than revealing, through their craft and vision, the solace, comfort, and transcendence historically offered us by artists.

They will not endure.

Beauty will triumph. Beauty exists outside of them and beyond them, and cannot be denied.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can look to the great art from the past and to those more recent artists—writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers—who have offered insight into our humanity. Who can listen to Gorecki’s Third Symphony and not be moved by his portrait of war and tragedy? Who can read Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War and not be touched by this novel’s ideas of love, loss, art, and God? Who can view the sculptures of Frederick Hart or the paintings of Fred Folsom, and not see visions that sweep viewers beyond themselves?

We can also discover, as I have so belatedly discovered, the beauty found in ordinary living. The greatest Teacher of all time reminded His disciples many times of the blessed state of those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. He was giving His followers a lesson in aesthetics as well as in theology, urging them to unlock their senses, to open the door to the goodness, beauty, and truth that is everywhere around them: the word ofma friend, the laughter of a child, the kiss of a lover, the verities that He was making known to them. A friend to whom I sent a link to Roger Scruton’s YouTube video “Why Beauty Matters” wrote back this note of her husband’s death:

Scruton says that beauty is a consolation in sorrow, and it’s true. I remember a day after Ben died when my heart was so freighted with grief that I didn’t want to draw another breath in the world. I turned and caught a glimpse of the evening sun with its radiant peaches and corals. I knew in that moment that beauty endured even in the face of terrible loss and that it would help to sustain my spirit.

Learning to appreciate beauty won’t pay the bills or put money in the bank. It won’t blunt the steel-point of death we all must someday face. But without beauty our lives are destitute, and we die long before we reach our graves if we shunt beauty aside or accept ugliness and lies in its stead. True beauty makes us more fully human. It can save us from the glamour of evil, from darkness, from despair. It can even save us from ourselves.

Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (August 2013)
Jeff Minick writes from Asheville, North Carolina.
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