On Three Essays and a Bit of a Fourth
To keep my mind active, I read some journals. Recent editions of The Hedgehog Review out of the University of Virginia’s Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture, and Modern Age, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute have essays on our post-modern dilemma. I should say that I’m seldom satisfied with essays in The Hedgehog Review. The essays will often describe appalling conditions in modern culture, yearn for a more cohesive and unified culture, hint that solutions, if there are any, are to be found in more traditional mores and beliefs, such as found in religion, and then pull their punches, retreat to a boring, academic standoffishness. I find Modern Age more straightforward and honest.
However, along with a Modern Age essay in the Winter 2017 issue, “Pascal in the Post Christian World,” by Ann Hartle, I was intrigued by two Hedgehog Review essays (Spring 2017), “The Walking Wounded,” by Ann Townsend, and “Lessons of Mother Love,” by Regina Mara Schwarz. But I’ll start with some comments inspired by an essay more typical of Hedgehog Review, “The New Old Ways of Self Help,” by Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn.
The Lasch-Quinn essay covers how every topic (from history to mathematics and everything in between) is now approached as a self-help topic and looked upon as a guide for living, how these guides are not ultimately helpful, and where, in her opinion, Ancient Greece and Rome, we should look for other guides. Which brings me to diversions and how men and women use them as a source for meaning.
Sometimes we are tempted to the peak experience as a way of reviving our life, and use travel, affairs, one-hundred-and-fifty-mile bike rides, or just the purchase of the $10,000 bike. But what is it we are chasing after? After you have made every one of Julia Child’s recipes, even achieved celebrity by doing so, what comes next?
One interesting thing I have noticed in Hedgehog Review is a growing disparagement of these modern, well educated, upper class, upper middle class dodges against meaninglessness. As if all of these things have lost their savor. Some of the disparaged dodges would be involvement in politics, travel, physical activity, the fine arts, celebrity, cooking and food, and gardening. You might ask what is left to us post-moderns. You might also ask, as we become more and more aware that these dodges are wearing out, what do we do? Simply soldier on as if nothing is wrong?
Hedgehog Review at least asks the question, but their way of asking, or answering, seems unsatisfying, “How are we to live our lives in a post-modern world? We don’t know, but here are some hints. They are probably wrong.” Part of Hedgehog Review’s problem, and that of many thinkers, reminders me of the treatment of T.S. Eliot’s religious beliefs, or Auden’s for that matter, the polite silence when we come upon an embarrassing subject. So, post-modernism, ultimately, when confronted with the unsatisfying end of our dodges and diversions, can offer nothing more. No wonder Townsend’s students are so suicidal.
So, let’s get to those students, and Townsend’s answer, and then move beyond into the realm of Schwarz and her mom. “The Walking Wounded,” covers a growing modern problem, college suicides by students and faculty, how we got here, the wrong-headed approach colleges bring to the issue, and possibly more helpful solutions. Some of what follows is gleaned from her, some is from my own ideas.
How we got here, at least for the students, is a combination of many factors of course, one of which is the isolation they feel being away from home, a large part of which is encouraged by the colleges, “You’re an adult now, your parents’ values were dumb, you need to make all your own choices.” Another of which, as Tom Wolfe and others have covered, is the unhinged sexual pressures placed on students. I would add alcohol and drugs and the isolating and often hurtful pressures of social media. She points to, both for students and professors, a false joviality and a phony “community” provided by the colleges.
Walker Percy, who Townsend advises as a mentor, is one of those interesting characters who comes back to haunt our thought and still raise provoking questions. Townsend points to his approach to his own suicidal thoughts and a history of family suicide: Knowing you can kill yourself, you make the choice, daily if necessary, not to do so, and instead to live. Having made that choice, knowing that you could have chosen differently, allows you to live fully. As Townsend realizes, for any particular suicidal person, this may be disastrous advice, but as a way of radically framing the issue, it is a good first step and far superior to the phony, therapeutic, all you need is health and exercise stuff going on at college campuses.
I would add a proviso that we are not living just for ourselves, this choice we make can not only be mediated by a view of ourselves as individuals faced with a stark existential dilemma, we are living just as much for those around us, some of whom may feel peripheral even to our lives, some of whom, like children, spouses and parents are reciprocally essential. Which brings me to Regina Mara Schwarz and her mom. To read her essay, excerpted from Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare, is to fall in love with the author and her brave mom. I wanted to have had the chance to sit with both of them in a coffeehouse on a sunny afternoon.
The essay has as a large part of its theme the place of love in justice and how badly that place has been neglected, other than in the religious traditions, and by a few philosophers. This is certainly a field of thought that must be pursued, especially where we are thinking about vulnerable populations, like the disabled, the elderly, or the unborn. But this thought, just like our response to the suicidal student, can’t be abstract, it must be composed of living people and how we live for others, like the author and her mom, confronting medical “ethics.” In fact, rather than depending too much on expressing ourselves philosophically, there may be room for bringing a couple of our diversions to the fight, such as art and literature. Most of all, if you choose only one of these essays to read, read hers.
Thinking about the diversions brings me around to the Modern Age essay and how it proposes a different spine for the West than the one Descartes gave us in the 16th? Century. Only with the proper world view may the diversions achieve their real aim and not try, pathetically, to take over another role.
Descartes—another thinker we perpetually struggle with, who seems to be increasingly on the outs, and when we ask, “What went wrong?” is given a large heap of blame.
“Pascal in the Post-Christian World,” by Ann Hartle takes a different tack from the other essays; it deals more with man as a member of the community, rather than how I, the individual, deal with my own post-modern dilemma. It is essential for each thoughtful person to confront both. How do we learn to live the good life for ourselves and build a better community for ourselves and others? (The article also confronts the problem of Islam, and its very different philosophy, but that is beyond the scope of my own modest review.)
I’ll take a stylistic page from the Pensees, and present my gleanings from Hartle’s essay a bit aphoristically.
Pascal finds in the Incarnation the only way of making sense of human life.
The sacred tradition is our only source for truth. Sacred tradition is not a creation of man, it is above man, which is all that gives it the ability to bind men in community.
Reason cannot stand alone; it is not there to prove the existence of God and the other truths of faith, but to show they are not impossible, or perhaps to lead us gently towards them.
Descartes rejects tradition, Pascal embraces it.
Pascal rejects politics, it is a stopgap for dealing with the evil in men’s souls.
The Enlightenment promised us everything; it is still trying to deliver.
I once tried reading Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, truly a novel in praise of the Enlightenment. But then you realize his novel was published in 1899. In 1914 came World War I, bloodier and more senseless than anything in the Middle Ages he was making fun of.
I quote from the essay, “Sacred tradition is not an idea or a system of ideas, but a fundamental orientation of the whole person, his beliefs, sensibilities and sympathies.”
And some final thoughts:
The truly humane is to look square into the tragedy of life and embrace your suffering brother or sister. Is this also the answer to our post-modern dilemma? At least a large part of the answer? Perhaps it is only in living for others that we have a chance of resolving the post-modern dilemma.
Diversions and dodges aren’t inherently bad as long as we never give them a weight they shouldn’t have and remember they are diversions, not the real thing. And what is the real thing? Well that is the rub, discovering the real thing, or as also phrased, living the good life.
There is a desperation in post-modern man: a desperation in the pursuit of diversions, a desperation in his and hers mostly silly and contradictory politics, a desperation in the idea that we are not alone, that there is an extraterrestrial a billion miles away who will rescue us from ourselves, among all the desperations.
I’m not the first to propose it, but perhaps we should step back and lead quieter lives, take more thoughtful care of the ordinary around us, focus more on those around us, especially those whom life has dealt the roughest deals, and go back to the rich traditions of our Western civilization’s religion, art, and literature as helpmeets in this struggle.