Here’s a story for Easter, the Season of Light. I’ll call it Mom Against Darkness, after my late mother’s uneasy fascination with a famous 1948 magazine article called, “Man Against Darkness.” It was a Princeton scholar’s unsettling thesis that God and religion are illusions, that we’re basically riding a big dirt ball (earth) spinning in the night of space and that it’s time to get used to it and liberate ourselves accordingly. I confess I think that way sometimes. “I’m not the only one,” as the late John Lennon sang. Why else would his “Imagine” be so popular, even at high school graduations? No heaven, hell, or religion, hence, no wars, greed or hunger..yoo-HOO, ooh-ooh. Good luck, grads!
Of course, John L was romping in a dreamy Elysium. Mom was marching into a nihilistic Apocalypse. She was 55 in 1958 and subscribed to The Atlantic Monthly, that once fine journal destined to morph into a glossy monthly repository of trendy “progressive” twaddle. (My opinion.) For their 1957 centenary, Atlantic editors published a hardbound 100-year collection of “reflections on our national life.” In effect, their ‘greatest hits.’ I recently discovered Mom’s battered copy, autographed by the editors, with a penciled notation that she started reading it 1/10/58, doubtless going cover-to-cover. Mom was a reader. James Russell Lowell, Mark Twain, Walter Lippman – they’re all represented in the volume. But only the page number of the September, 1948 “Darkness” article is circled, with mom’s inked addendum, “I enjoyed this,” her note for posterity. What did she find so enjoyable in so dark a vision?
The opening paragraph would have caught her Catholic eye: “The Catholic bishops of America recently issues a statement in which they said that the chaotic and bewildering state of the modern world is due to man’s loss of faith, his abandonment of God and religion.” W.T. Stace, the author, adds, intriguingly, that he “ entirely agree with the bishops,” but for decidedly different reasons. In those cold, dark post-WWII, post Atom Bomb days, he believed our morals and ideals were “our own invention,” and the world around us “nothing but an immense spiritual emptiness.” (I see Mom reading this in her parlor rocking chair while my devout father is off at a Knights of Columbus, my teenage siblings rocking and rolling in those late 50s and me upstairs memorizing Baltimore catechism Lesson 5: Question: What is man? Answer: Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made in the image and likeness of God….
Mom graduated from Worcester’s Commerce High, 1922 – no Princeton scholar. But she knew about darkness, being Irish-born, suffering bouts of Keltic melancholy, alternately rebellious and, retiscent, given to anti-clerical erruptions while writing light devotional verse for pious Catholic journals, all the time wondering if life really had any meaning, especially after my father died so young. She loved Robert Frost but, but, like him, was “aquainted with the night.” And here she was reading some guy telling us to “put away childish things and adolescent dreams, grasp the real world as it actually is, stark and bleak,“ give up our “romantic, religious illusions” or else “sink back into the savagery and brutality from which we came, taking a humble place once more among the lower animals.” Woe! Sounds like a joke that begins, “Nietzsche and Hobbes walk into a bar….”
So what was Mom thinking, reading this? Well, she loved toying with ideas, all kinds, but remained as skeptical of eggheads as she was of crowned and mitred heads. I believe she always wondered “why do the heathen rage?” (Psalms 1-12) In 1956, she wrote a poem called, “The Search” that ends with her in “His arms outstretched to bless!” Go figure.
“Darkness” author, Professor Stace, checked out of this “chaotic and bewildering” world August, 2 1967. Mom followed,August 5,1986. Maybe they’ve met by now. They’d have a lot to talk about. I’ll bet they know who rolled that big rock away from the tomb on Easter morning.