THE UNENDING QUESTION

If there were no eternal conciousness in man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which, writhing with obscure passion produces everything that is great and everything that is insignificant…what then would life be but despair?

–Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him?

–Alexander Solzhenitsyn – Harvard Commencement Address, June 8, 1978

What is man that the electron should be mindful of him! Man is but a foundling in the cosmos, abandoned by the forces that created him. Unparented, unassisted and undireced by omniscient or benevolent authority, he must fend for himself, and with the aid of his own limited intelligence find his way about in an indifferent universe.

Carl Becker, describing a radical humanist point of view in The Heavenly City

But what am I?

An infant crying in the night;

An infant crying for the light

And with no language but a cry.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam”

 

 

 

 

 

A WORLD (STILL) SPLIT APART

“Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?

If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.

This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.”

–“A World Split Apart”

from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s  Harvard Commencement Address, June 8, 1978

 

 

A DANE FOR OUR TIME

One day in high school, I was wandering through the book section of a downtown Boston Department store. I think it was the late-lamented Jordan Marsh. Or maybe it was Filene’s ( are they also in the “late” category? I’m not even sure. Alas, I’m out of touch with what is memory or what is present reality in that particular hub of the Hub that goes by the name, in Boston, of Downtown Crossing. )

The high schooler then shopping for, maybe, neckties or maybe just enjoying exploring the retail heart of the city, was just beginning to acquire an interest in reading books and, thereafter, keeping the books, read or unread, forever. Such a book was The Journals of Kierkegaard.  I stood there, age 17 or maybe 18 ( Oh Lost Years!!) and recalled that this Soren Kierkegaard had provided the epigraph for a novel I’d just felt grown up enough to read by the (late) Walker Percy. So — I bought this book of 19th Century journal entries and commenced to leaf through it and extract digestible, comprehensible bits of daily life ruminations by this fascinating, brilliant, rebellious and restless, melancholy, uncompromising  Dane who did not live a long life — he was only 42 at his passing, possibly from a form of tuberculosis, after collapsing in the street.

The department store, the book section (those were the days before Barnes & Noble, etc.) are gone. But — I still have my battered, yellowing copy of Kierkegaard’s journals. Not sure if I ever read it cover to cover. But from the underlinings and highlightings it’s clear that I got acqainted with it. In subsequent years I bought a combined volume of Fear and Trembing and  A Sickness Unto Death by Kierkegaard. I gave both an extensive, repeated thumbing through, and, regrettably, gave that two-punch away before moving to Florida. Yes, I do regret that.

At any rate, here is Kierkegaard writing on August 16, 1847: “I now feel the need of approaching nearer to myself in a deeper sense, by approaching nearer to God in the understanding of myself.”  I doubt that my 17 or 18-year-old self saw that particular quote that day in the downtown department store, but I was probably beginning to feel that need Kierkegaard was feeling.

All these years later, I’m still feeling it — and still liking the idea of getting to know Mr. Keirkegaard better. The isolation of a pandemic would be a good time for that. I’ve not known another soul called Soren — and am drawn to a philosopher who also identifies as Christian but who dives deeply inward often to explore that faith. In an undated entry in 1843,  the good Soren wrote, Nulum existit magnum ingenium sina aliqua dementia is the worldly  expression of the religous proposition: whom God blesses in a religious sense he eo ipso curses in a worldy sense. It has to be so, the reason being firstly, the limitation of existence, and secondly the duplicity of existence.”

Wow! (Got to bone up on my Latin, too.)

READING “DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL”

Anne Frank’s story of a fearful isolation in war-time Holland — at a time when so many of us are in isolation — long ago crossed the Globe and became among the most tragically iconic stories of WWII and the Holocaust. Therefore, it is with a bit of shame that I say I am reading it for the first time. You know how it goes; this was one of those books — and movies and plays — you’d heard so much about, it never occurred to you that it should be compulsory reading. Continue reading “READING “DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL””

AN AGEE MOMENT

We lay on our backs about two feet apart in silence, our eyes open, listening. The land that was under us lay down all around us and its continuance was enormous as if we were chips or matches floated, holding their own by their very minuteness, at a great distance out upon the surface of a tenderly laboring sea. The sky was even larger.

–James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

If you ever want to attempt to read a beautiful but prolonged and exasperatingly complex, minutely detailed, verbally rococo work of human sociology — poetically rendered — pick up the above-cited volume by a man who during his brief life was, indeed, a poet, novelist, screenwriter, movie critic and, briefly, a very unusual journalist. This particular book grew out of a Depression-era Fortune magazine assignment to write about poverty-stricken families of Alabama tenant farmers. Agee never really finished the assignment — or, perhaps finished it, but had it rejected by his editors though it would be preserved and enormously expanded by the author. The story of how it came to exist is doubtless told in two Agee biographies that I’ve been totting around and aspiring to read. Continue reading “AN AGEE MOMENT”

OH, LOST!

I’ve lost some books and I’m upset about it. It’s all because of a move. Small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. But every time I move, I lose things. I hope you book lovers will commiserate with me about the lost books, not that you don’t have anything else to read. You’ve got your own books, after all!

But first, about the move. Oh, the move! Continue reading “OH, LOST!”

“GOOD”FRIDAY THOUGHTS FOR ANY FRIDAY, INSPIRED BY GOOD DOCTORS

I will ignore all the news, political and social, as I sit quietly on this Friday morning (10/25/19) writing in my 19 Cent Notebook in my corner of my tin house in Lot 46 in Largo, Florida. News is noise, especially when it blasts into every corner from the flat-screened amplifier that is my Panasonic TV.  It is silent now; just a big black tabula rasa. I might turn it on for the World Series tonight.

I browse in my personal library — half of which I purged, half saved — and come upon that  wonderful and renowned Harvard child psychologist Dr. Robert Coles and his Harvard Diary. He is still, so far as I know, living and hopefully writing among us here on earth. I should write him a fan letter.  I should do it quickly, because he was born in 1929, which means he’s 90. Dear God, he might feel ready to go Home. Or maybe, God knows, he still has work to do.

I’ll do some of his work for him this morning by propagating some of his thoughts about a writer we both admire. That would be another doctor-turned award-winning novelist and Catholic convert: Walker Percy who went home to God in the spring of 1990.  Percy — Doctor Percy, we’ll call him just this one time, for he prescribed wonderful remedies through his writing — was Louisiana-born and chose to remain there unpretentiously and obscurely all his life, specifically in the city (or town) of Covington, which he called, “the perfect non-place for me.”

In Dr. Coles book, Walker Percy: An American Search, he writes that Percy “saw the emptiness, the shallowness abroad in the land; he saw the ‘quiet desperation,’ if not the noisy despair. He saw the confusion, covered by hustle or bustle or faddish commitments, one after the other. He pronounced himself lost, said that to acknowledge so was at least a first, and thoroughly necessary, step. Those who are lost and don’t know it are in even greater danger. And, like anyone lost, he was not only seeking a way back (seeking to find himself), but he was also upset, anxious, angry. ”

Dr. Coles notes that the 19th Century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was among Percy’s intellectual forebears. The books I “purged” before my recent move included my paperback copy of Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, winner of the 1962 National Book Award. I’d already read it more than once, beginning in high school, puzzling each time, admittedly, over its more intellectual content,  being as I was — and always will be — a lightweight reader of  some heavyweight scribes. The novel’s translated epigraph comes from Kierkegaard’s book, Sickness Unto Death. I repeat it here: The specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.

In other words, as Coles gathers from Percy, we often go to the multiplex or mall or otherwise busily or amusingly occupy ourselves, unaware that we are just distracting ourselves from the reality of our faithless emptiness, selfishness and hopelessness.

At this point I must note — making an evangelizing “plug” for my cradle faith and the faith of my spiritual forebears — that Percy, sometime after tuberculosis forced him out of his medical vocation and before becoming a writer, became, as I noted, a Catholic. (He’d been raised, I believe, a rock-ribbed Presbyterian.)  And while he was always clearly an intellectual, it was the quiet witness and example of a Catholic college roommate that began his journey into the Church — that and, of course, grace.

In an essay entitled, “Why Are You A Catholic?”, Percy gives many intellectual reasons for the choice. But, he adds that, when the question was put to him more or less directly, he usually replied, “what else is there?” That must have come as a jolt to his interlocutors, inciting them to laugh dismissively and walk away, or ponder the notion that something so seemingly paltry as religion might offer propositions even a man with Percy’s great mind could find persuasive.

So how does a writer who repeatedly found himself diagnosing the world’s and his own despair square that experience with the tenets of something so easily caricatured and dismissed (in Percy’s words) as “red candles and beads and priest in a box”?

Well, here’s some of what he had to say about that:

…people no longer understand themselves, as they understood themselves for some fifteen hundred years, as ensouled creatures under God, born to trouble, and whose salvation  depends upon the entrance of God into history as Jesus Christ.

It is post-modern because the Age of Enlightenment with its vision of man as a rational creature, naturally good and part of the cosmos, which itself is understandable by natural science — this age has also ended. It ended with the catastrophes of the twentieth century. 

The present age is demented. It is possessed by a sense of dislocation, a lost of personal identity, an alternating sentimentality and rage which , in an individual patient, could be characterized as dementia.

As I mentioned, Percy died in 1990. I submit that the last twenty years have more than confirmed his diagnosis. We have seen a revolt even against biology, with souls whose sense of dislocation has driven them to try to climb out of their own skins and into another gender. (I guess I’m lucky my sense of dislocation has only prompted me to change geographic states, for better or worse; it is the “geographic cure” a late, lamented spiritual mentor warned me against as a teenager.) As evidence of our rage — political and social —  just go to the Twittersphere. Sentimental thinking, meanwhile, infects even the most harsh and violent cinematic and literary modern narratives and social movements, giving evidence of a universe governed by feelings and emotions, not to mention a child’s willful need to have what it wants when it wants it. Dr. Coles, the compassionate child psychologist, author of Children in Crisis, has certainly seen the recalcitrant child in all of us.

In his 1982 essay, “The Psychiatric Stations of the Cross,” Coles tells of a young medical student dying of cancer, visited by a Catholic priest, who instead of speaking to the patient of gospel truths, commenced a relentless psychological inquiry, asking how the patient was “feeling” and how were his “spirits”? How was he “managing?” (Herein, find evidence that even alleged “physicians of the soul,” including generations of poorly-formed Catholic priests, have contributed to our malaise.) Coles, who visited the patient/doctor after the priest, found him in a rage. He’d wanted to the priest to talk to him about Heaven, Hell and Redemption.

Coles acknowledges the priest was likely just being discreet and well-meaning. ( I can’t find it in my heart to be too tough on him.) But once upon a time ( in those lost generations of faith over which Walker Percy performed a funeral oration), an evangelical fervor and fire in the priest’s soul would have overridden discretion and his need to recite only some “psychological” Stations of the Cross. Especially if the priest knew the patient was Catholic, or, at least Christian, as was this patient. Even non-believers might want to hear more than psychological banalities at the hour of their deaths. How, asks Coles — as, I believe, Walker Percy would ask — did psychiatry gain so much moral authority, even among the clergy?

The priest was about to leave the dying medical student’s bedside when the student asked him at least to read to him from The Lord’s Book. Obligingly, the doctor opened the Bible (let’s hope he had it with him) and read from the page that happened to be there: Psalm 69.

And there is the Good News, in which Coles found an act of grace, as would Walker Percy had he known of the incident. For Psalm 69 reads, “Save me, O God; for the waters are come into my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deprivation, where the flood overflow me.”

Let’s meditate on that, along with Dr. Robert Coles whom I pray is still with us at this hour just as faith tells me Walker Percy is sharing the moment with us and with his God, as I finish here on this Good Friday Out of Season — in this autumn of the world’s unending anguish.