Reflections on Pestilence and Sacrifice

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I’ve stopped counting the days. Early in the time of lockdown, I fancied that keeping tally of passing sunsets would allow for a purposeful task, however arbitrary, against the despair produced by feeling the world disintegrate. I hoped this would be something like a squirrel’s happy accumulation of acorns before a harsh winter; in reality, it felt more like scratching lines in the wall of a prison cell. So I gave it up.

But it’s been something like a fortnight, perhaps a month. The police have eliminated all public expressions of conviviality—parks, tennis courts, and lakefront beaches have been blocked off for weeks—and corporations have stepped in to deliver endless superficial mantras about solidarity and hope “in these challenging times.” I try to remind myself that it is temporary—maybe. In the warm, floral spring breeze one can catch the occasional scent of endlessness, the dismal sense that the lively public world is gone forever and fleshy human togetherness has been permanently replaced by stilted video-conferences and texting. The springtime has never felt emptier of hope.

Early on in the plague-time, I took a week off of work. During this period, and before the forced closure of the public world, I wrote about the loveliness of the lockdown: how the cessation of American normalcy had allowed us a glimpse of a way of living less predicated on restless money-making, more centered around delighting in leisure and the splendor of creation. (I still, from time to time, feel this.) But I was also scared. The virus was sweeping rapidly through the country while every authority in the country either actively downplayed the threat (“it’s contained,” “it’s just the flu,” “the bigger problem is racism”) or simply said nothing while making no apparent preparations. The delusional optimism of the former is inexcusable: prudent governance, as far as I can tell, operates on a heuristic of pessimism. But the latter, I think, were simply afraid, and they have my sympathy. Who wouldn’t be horrified into immobility by the idea having to make decisions for the sake of an entire city or state as a poorly-understood pandemic hurtles unstoppably toward you?

Since then, I’ve returned to work. The readjustment has been surreal: the bookstore, once a bustling hub of activity, has been closed to the public and converted into a shipping operation. The display tables—once so carefully tended to, garden-like—have become storage areas, covered in chaotic, unpoetical stacks of books. Masked coworkers bustle through the stacks, hunting for mailordered titles while carrying out an absurd, comical dance of attempting six feet of distance from one another. It’s great, of course, to have the certainty of income during a time when such a thing is increasingly scarce. But it’s also deeply weird to feel like my job—structurally an entry-level retail position, even if it feels more meaningful than that—is now on the “front line” of a global crisis.

Which is why I’ve found all of this forced optimistic sloganeering increasingly intolerable. The slogans serve an exclusively therapeutic function for those who face none of the danger. It means nothing to repeat “We’re all in this together!” as someone whose most pressing anxiety is whether you’ll get too annoyed at your spouse and kids while working from home at your reasonably-well-paying job with full benefitsand then to do nothing else. This recent article in the Atlantic says what’s been so desperately needed to be said for so long now: that “front line” workers—nurses, of course, but also grocery store clerks, Amazon delivery drivers, Target employees, and so forth—are not heroes, but victims. This is true—but there are victims, and there are victims. These people are not victims in the judicial sense, the harmed party of a crime for whom we demand justice. They are victims in the religious sense: they are the blessed ones whom we praise on their walk to the slaughter-bench, the offering we give to satiate the hungry gods of our economy. For victims of a crime, we demand recompense, that the world be set right on account of their undeserved suffering. The holy suffering of the sacrificial victim, however, is what sets the world right—and for this, we offer only praise and thanksgiving.

At the end of a revealing monologue in Camus’ “The Plague,” the ex-militant Tarrou declares: “All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” To praise the sacrifice of others with no concern for how we might do them justice is to join forces with the plague. If we are going to emerge from this crisis with any shred of our dignity, we need to think hard about what we have to do to avoid crafting such a nefarious alliance.

Paradise, Indeed

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The crowd around the campfire had dwindled from twenty or so to about six, but the darkness—and the weed—made it hard to count the faces. The guitar passed from hand to hand, each person taking a turn barking out some song in a voice equally off-key and earnest. (I probably played something by Neutral Milk Hotel.) It was 2005, and I was 17 years old: I had just graduated high school, my last year spent getting high, reading whatever of Daniel Quinn’s bibliography I could obtain from the public library, and going on multiple-hour-long walks to parts of Huntington, West Virginia I’d never seen. And in the summer after commencement (which, naturally, I did not attend) I had hopped in a van with two of my best friends and drove to the southern part of the state to learn how to become environmental activists.

My interest was sincere. I was baptised into political consciousness somewhere between the collapse of the World Trade Center and the invasion of Iraq, and after watching the night-vision footage of cruise missiles falling on Baghdad, I took to sewing homemade patches on my jackets displaying messages like “WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER,” “NO BLOOD FOR OIL,” and “MARXIST.” (I barely understood the Communist Manifesto, but I believed it was right.) A native West Virginian friend of mine (I’d been transplanted there after my freshman year) had introduced me to the horrors of strip mining, and we gradually transformed ourselves into anarcho-environmentalists by way of Crimethinc. literature, Earth First! documentaries, and—maybe most influentially—Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. The suffocating drudgery of both the classroom and my home life had intensified my adolescent sense of urgency to do something, to march bravely out into the world and stop the evil that was so clearly winning in the cosmic struggle between light and dark. Like all young men, I wanted to be a hero.

Thus I had no patience for the strategy of slow and measured engagement insisted upon by the nonprofits running the activist training camp. Somewhere between the “De-Escalation Workshop” and the lecture on “anti-oppression” my friends and I checked out, retreating to an abandoned print shop to smoke joints and shoot the shit. And, of course, to play guitar. I was inaugurated into the cult of “Wagon Wheel,” Old Crow Medicine Show’s recording of it having appeared one year prior. Someone played Phil Ochs’ “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” But deep into the night—with the stars glittering overhead and the THC buzzing in our heads—someone started strumming a D-chord in the style of a waltz, and something in the air changed. A reverent hush settled over the circle. But after a few bars, a wiry voice broke through: “When I was a child, my family would travel…”

Some songs are good; some songs are great. And some—often by virtue of something beyond its composition or recording—arrive as revelations, striking the hearer like a lightning bolt and sinking irrevocably into the soul. To describe “Paradise” as “a song I love” comes nowhere near to grasping the dimensions of its importance: for several years of my early twenties spent hitchhiking and riding freight trains between anti-globalization protests and environmental campouts, “Paradise” served as an anthem, a rallying cry, a source of solace and peace. It was part of the air my friends and I breathed, something necessary for life. One of the most meaningful friendships of my life was solidified by singing it over and over during a 12-hour drive from Minnesota to West Virginia; it was on my lips during countless solitary walks down highways and stretches of train track. Though we never became the heroes we dreamed of, “Paradise” nonetheless served as our Iliad, standing as a constant, fixed source of our values, hopes, and longings. Like Homer with the Achaeans, John Prine spoke us into being.

I know how silly this all sounds. But when you’re a small-town teenager with a penchant for romance and a lousy education, your reference points are going to seem strange and perhaps arbitrary. Before I learned that John Prine was a living, contemporary country artist still touring and recording albums, I’d assumed him to be something like the Bard: a legendary old folk singer who walked the earth in a time when men were stronger and taller and the gods could still be heard singing from the mountaintops. But as the image of Prine the hero faded, my awe of his quite mortal capacities for perception and empathy increased. Across the 13 songs of his debut album—recorded when he was just 23 years old—Prine examines the souls of a heroin-addicted Vietnam veteran, a nostalgic middle-aged woman trapped in a loveless marriage, a retired factory worker gone autobiographical, of lonely young people longing to connect but falling repeatedly into solipsism. Each song is its own universe: Bob Dylan famously called the album “pure Proustian existentialism,” but Prine’s capacity for seeing from within the subjectivity of nearly a dozen fully-formed yet fully imagined figures has more in common with Fernando Pessoa.

And now he’s gone. (God willing, he is now resting in the true Paradise.) But with Prine’s passing, no era has come to a close, since Prine was never a representation of anything beyond himself. He commanded respect from high places, but not a single imitator: he was inimitable, with a keenness of vision surpassing that of most novelists wedded to a dark, but ultimately humane, comic sensibility. There will never be another like him. Maybe now we can recognize him as the legend I had once dreamed him to be.

Good Friday

Today all bread lies unrisen,
all form lies devoid of its shape;
beer is just water and barley,
wine remains locked in the grape—

today the sun is just fire,
a meaningless nexus of heat;
the foundations loosed from the waters,
the land overcome with the sea—

today the cosmos is static,
creation is ground to a halt;
but all in advance of the third day,
the triumph the heavens exalt.

The Loveliness of Lockdown

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Update 3/30: I wrote this one day before Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the closure of the entire Chicago lakefront, due to what she saw as inadequate social distancing and a flouting of the city’s stay-at-home order. I recognize the wisdom in this decision, and the needhowever unfortunatefor making sacrifices like this in times like these. But I also stand by what I saw that day: hundreds of people embracing the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the world while keeping space between one another. And beyond this, a faint glimmer of a different—a better and less cruel—way of living.


 

It’s day five of shelter-in-place in Illinois. Signs hang in the windows of neighborhood hair salons, record stores, book shops: “CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.” Restaurants and cafes remain in a liminal state between open and closed: through the windows one can glimpse empty dining rooms and kitchen workers standing around in hair nets, waiting for the take-out orders they are still legally permitted to fulfill. But the decline in business has not brought a sense of emptiness. The noise of car traffic, now conspicuously absent from neighborhood streets, has been replaced by spring birdsong. Neighborhood parks are peppered with young people playing sports at a responsible distance—tennis, frisbee, kickball—while joggers pass the occasional bookworm enjoying the sunshine on a bench. Near the lake, couples with children play hide and seek amid the trees of Jackson Park and Promontory Point, while those assumedly childless walk their dogs nearby. Lockdown, it turns out, is lovely.

Reality is a kaleidoscope that lockdown has turned. The usual patterns of things have been gently disrupted—and we, in our adaptability and ingenuity, are already finding a footing in our new, unstable conditions. In this cessation of frantic economic activity that usually defines American public life, we catch a glimpse of another possible world: one where our activity is motivated not by blunt necessity or desperate moneymaking, but by relishing in the world and in our togetherness with those whose lives are entangled enough with ours to be part of our quarantine. However temporary it may turn out to be, the suspension of the brutal economization of life that constitutes American “normalcy” has made it possible to imagine a way of living centered on simple delight and human togetherness, and not only for the classes capable of paying for it.

I recognize the possible naivete of my optimism here, that I’m seeing the response of the materially comfortable to a challenge they can easily weather while the poor and precarious suffer all the more. I don’t doubt this is the case. I am surely blind to the real suffering this lockdown is causing just outside the periphery of my vision. Lord knows how many layoffs will result in evictions, themselves resulting in despair, hopelessness, and worse. But these are precisely the people who stand to benefit the most from the anaesthetization of harsh American materialism.

Everything is topsy-turvy in plague time. And positioned as we are at the beginning of this chaotic and rapidly shifting development, we have no idea what shape the future may eventually take. The situation, then, is excellent. Nothing is going to change on its own accord: the plague does not determine a set of changes, but it does provide an opening. May we have the courage to seize this opportunity and to sow loveliness and delight where others would seek to reconstitute—or intensify—its barbarity.

Forgiveness—Christian, and Otherwise

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This is the text of a talk I gave on March 8, 2020 as part of a Lenten program at Church of the Ascension, Chicago.


Thank you all so much for being here today. This afternoon, I want to share a story. It is not a particularly special story—there are countless others like it, told by others far more capable and articulate than me—but it’s a story that I nonetheless believe might be of some use to others who are struggling with some of the same challenges I faced while living it. It is a story about family, forgiveness, and ultimately about a curious discovery I made when I found the opposite of what I was looking for.

I want to warn you up front that this talk will not be particularly polite. I will be leaning into some grisly and likely upsetting details of my life—but as Fr. Raymond said in today’s homily, only in darkness are we able to see the light. I promise that all I’ll be sharing has a purpose: to show the small hole I found in the universe, through which God came flooding into my life.

My father’s name was Michael Leonard Keegin. He was a really interesting guy. He was a jazz musician—primarily tenor sax, though he knew his way around the trumpet and flute—and an accomplished photographer. I’ll tell you more about his life in a little bit. But before I do, I want to tell you about his death. In late January of 2018, I flew to Albuquerque, New Mexico to sit at his bedside and give him comfort as he lost his last fight with congestive heart failure. He’d been battling it for years, but in 2017 things took a turn toward catastrophic: the major heart surgery he underwent that spring failed to bring him back to full strength, and he remained so sick and frail that a fall he took in a hotel lobby landed him in the hospital for three weeks. He was only 73. He’d been on oxygen for months, and was convinced that moving from the muddy, low river valley of Memphis to the high desert of Albuquerque had made his already difficult breathing even harder. Finally, after a few weeks of denial of his rapidly deteriorating condition, he agreed to be checked into the hospital again in the hope that they’d fix him up enough to get back to Memphis where he’d get better. This didn’t happen. He died on January 23, 2018.

My dad was interesting, but he was also a very difficult man. The stubborn fixation on a fantasy of restored health in the Mississippi Valley as his body rapidly deteriorated doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of his difficulty. When I flew to Albuquerque, I had long known about his decades-long heroin addiction that he kicked in the 80s only to then make a transition to an angry, chaotic alcoholism. I had known about the three wives he had before marrying my mother, one of whom he wordlessly abandoned when the daughter they had together was three or four years old, and another he so constantly screamed insults at that their marriage ended with her checking herself into a psychiatric hospital. I had known about the dozens of affairs he had while married to my mother, and I had known about the severely cognitively impaired lovechild he hid from her for years, and whom she only learned about after following the thread of several hundred dollars being deducted from their bank account every month. After he said some nasty things to my mom at my brother’s first wedding, my sister and I decided to break contact with him; given that he didn’t reach out for the next 8 years, he seemed fine with this. How we regained contact is another story entirely, and I’ll spare you the details except to say that we eventually began speaking again after nearly a decade. But regardless, all of these things—and many others—were in the back of my mind as my plane hurtled over 2,000 miles of plains and mountains to land me in the New Mexico desert to sit with my dad while he died.

These things were also on the minds of my brother and sister, both of whose relationships with my dad were much worse than my own. My parents separated when I was 6: my brother and dad stayed back in Memphis, while my sister and I went to Florida to live with my mom. My brother’s relationship with our dad was strained and bizarre. At two points over the course of a decade, my brother took our hard-luck father into his home, and both times our dad had taken extraordinary advantage of him, both emotionally and financially. For my sister, my dad’s main problem had been his negligence: after nearly a decade of silence, he reemerged into her life only to be a constant source of judgment and shame. Both had, several years prior to his hospitalization, broken off contact again, and in both cases the hostility seemed mutual.

So though I wasn’t alone when I traveled to Albuquerque—my now-fiancée Bonnie was with me—I wasn’t with any of my siblings. And since at the time I wasn’t a Christian—both my Catholic father and Protestant mother had drifted far from the traditions of their families by the time I was born, and I was raised with no religion to speak of—I had, or so I thought, no God to call upon. When I told my brother the news he insisted on making the drive from Memphis to Albuquerque, but then my dad refused him. My sister seemed almost happy to hear of our father’s suffering. The old family hostilities were rekindled and reconfirmed. Over the next two days, I managed to talk my dad into letting my siblings call him on the phone, to make one last connection before they’d be unable to do so. My brother called the second night I was there and made some kind of peace: he told my dad that he loved him and that he forgave him. His heart clearly wasn’t in it, but he did the right thing, and I’m proud of him for that. My sister, on the other hand, called only after dad’s renal failure had left him unable to speak, and through a waterfall of tears she proceeded to release decades of resentment on him. I’m not even sure he understood. But she got to say what she needed to say, and that was that.

I got my dad settled into a hospice facility and flew back to Maryland. He died two days later. I was devastated, of course. But over the next few weeks, I was surprised to find myself thinking more about my sister than my dad. Why was I so miffed at her inability to forgive him when she still had the opportunity? Would I be able to forgive her for this? Why did I even think she should forgive him? When I really thought about it, what disturbed me most about her continued resentment was that in some kind of objective sense, I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was right. She had been wronged considerably by someone whom she had trusted and loved, someone who was directly responsible for her existence. It made perfect sense that this hurt would beget anger. And yet…

And yet…I was split in two. I remained nagged by the sense that something about this was wrong. That whatever our father’s wrongdoings, it was important to find some way to forgive him. And not just for our sake, so that we could be free of the damage he had done to all of us—though that was part of it. The man I sat with in the hospital was broken, lonely, afraid—and whatever sins he had committed, it seemed important to forgive him for his sake, to release him from his wrongdoings so that he could be free, in full knowledge of his misdeeds. I had no real justification for this; the drive was irrational, the idea absurd. It came as a nagging sense stuck in my gut rather than as an argument I could have articulated to my sister or anyone else. And as a student of philosophy—I was in grad school at the time, and had spent the previous 5 years studying ethics, among other things—it occurred to me that I needed justification, and the wisdom of the past might help me figure out my predicament.

A bit of a warning here: what follows will be extremely brief discussions of thousands of years of intellectual history, from traditions exhibiting enormous complexity of thought from serious and subtle authors. I apologize for the brevity, but I hope you’ll trust that the general shape of my conclusions is accurate.

Because I have always been concerned with the history of ideas as they unfold through time and find it helpful to see where such ideas might have emerged, my inquiries often begin at the beginning: in this case, with the beginning of Western literature, in the epic poems of Homer. Toward the end of the Iliad, after ten years of bloody battle between the Trojans and Achaeans, King Priam of Troy travels to the enemy encampments on the shore of his kingdom to beg for the return of his son Hector’s now-desecrated body. Priam is devastated by grief: he has lost his son, who was not just the bravest warrior of the Trojans but also a loving and devoted father, husband, and son. But so too is the Achaean prince Achilles, whose grief over the death of his brother-in-arms Patroclus led him to kill Hector, refuse him a proper burial, and ultimately to abuse his body by dragging it continuously around Patroclus’s funeral bier for nine consecutive days. Priam, guided by the god Hermes, sneaks into Achilles’s tent under cover of night and wakes Achilles by kissing his hands. As soon as he realizes what is happening, Achilles jolts awake, and Priam immediately makes a desperate plea for the return of his son’s corpse that concludes with an appeal to both pity and piety:

“Honour then the gods, Achilles, and take pity upon me

remembering your father, yet I am still more pitiful;

I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through;

I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.”

What happens next is subtle but noteworthy:

So he spoke, and stirred in the other a passion of grieving

for his own father. He took the old man’s hand and pushed him

gently away, and the two remembered, as Priam sat huddled

at the feet of Achilleus and wept close for manslaughtering Hektor

and Achilleus wept now for his own father, now again

for Patroklos. The sound of their mourning moved in the house.

Achilles establishes distance from Priam and the two men, sitting next to one another, weep privately for their own personal losses. This continues for some time, and Achilles finally breaks the silence with a speech about fate and the irrelevance of human tears in swaying the decision making of Zeus. The two finally agree on a temporary truce between their respective armies and an exchange of bodies; after the respective funerals, however, the hostilities will continue. Zeus deals out the fortunes of men, whether glorious or terrible; fate controls all, the slaughter must continue, reconciliation is an impossibility. Neither man could dream of crying for the other. There is no forgiveness here.

But Homer is a poet, a bard of the triumphs and failures of heroes; he’s not a philosopher, not the type to subject experience to reflection and to puzzle over the riddles of human life and figure out better courses of action. So I left him behind and looked to Aristotle and the later Hellenistic and Roman Stoics, our earliest examples of systematic ethical philosophy. Looking again to these writers I began to notice a theme: forgiveness is understood primarily in terms of “withdrawing one’s anger,” and the arguments for it are by definition egoistic, concerned with the good only of the one who is doing this withdrawing. Here are a few examples.

In book 4 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the earliest treatise on ethical philosophy, Aristotle describes a person marked by what he calls megalopsychia, roughly translated as “greatness of soul.” A great-souled person has mastered all the other virtues—wisdom, courage, temperance, generosity, and so forth—and has achieved as a result a nobility of spirit that sets them apart from others in their community. They have a sense of self-importance derived, Aristotle believes, from being genuinely more worthy than others. In this respect, they are the ultimate ethical exemplar, our living and breathing model for what a good life looks like. Nonetheless, their nobility does not exempt them from having enemies:

Nor does [the great-souled person] remember past wrongs; for great-souled people do not store things up, especially a memory of wrongs done them, but rather overlook them. Nor does he talk about personal things—he will not talk either about himself or about someone else, since he is not anxious either to be praised himself or to see others censured; nor again does he tend to praise others, which is why he does not speak ill of them either, even his enemies, unless to insult them to their face.

Nor is the great-souled person’s refusal to hold grudges a sign of compassion toward the less fortunate. Rather, his leniency toward the faults of others is a reflection of his own nobility of soul, a way to glorify his wealth of virtue. Because greatness of soul  demands honor, here Aristotle segues into a discussion of the “virtue pertaining to honor,” what he calls being “good-tempered.” Here we see perhaps our clearest elaboration of forgiveness as simply a withdrawal of anger:

For being good-tempered means being unperturbed and not being carried away by one’s feelings but being angry in the way, in the circumstances, and for the length of time the correct prescription lays down; but he seems to err more towards deficiency, since the mild person tends not to look for revenge but rather to be lenient to them.

Aristotle’s elitist and egoist moral system wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but the Epicureans and Stoics had even less to offer. These philosophies are fundamentally therapeutic, set toward the ultimate goal of achieving ataraxia or tranquility, a freedom from mental disturbances and physical pain. Both are egoistic, concerned primarily with the good of the self; and where Stoicism is entirely world-denying, holding that one’s moral disposition is the only thing of importance, Epicureanism is a hedonistic philosophy that regards physical pleasure as the highest good of human existence. In neither of these doctrines is there much room for moral duties toward others that don’t primarily entail the self.

Epictetus is the perhaps the greatest articulator of Stoicism, and in his writing we see the egoistic dimension of Aristotle’s conception of virtue as the moral design of the self taken to its most extreme conclusions:

One who has had fever, even when it has left him, is not in the same condition of health as before, unless indeed his cure is complete. Something of the same sort is true also of diseases of the mind. Behind, there remains a legacy of traces and blisters: and unless these are effectually erased, subsequent blows on the same spot will produce no longer mere blisters, but sores. If you do not wish to be prone to anger, do not feed the habit; give it nothing which may tend its increase.

Anger is ultimately a decision: when we feel angry, we are deciding that anger is a good way to feel. And if anger is to be avoided, it is not out of concern for the well-being of others, but rather that anger destabilizes the proper functioning of the soul, which is to exercise its reason. Hostility, then, is wrong primarily because it is irrational, not because it is harmful to others. And because it is our duty as thinking beings to be maximally rational, we should avoid being angry.

Epicurus, on the other hand, left very little writing behind and we receive his philosophy mostly by way of his disciple Lucretius. And though neither of them had much to say about forgiveness as such, here is Lucretius’ view of the attitude one should take toward the suffering of others:

It’s sweet, when winds blow wild on open seas,

to watch from land your neighbor’s vast travail,

not that men’s miseries bring us dear delight,

but that to see what ills we’re spared is sweet;

sweet, too, to watch the cruel contest of war

ranging the field when you need share no danger.

So this doesn’t tell us much about forgiveness per se. But the implied attitudes toward the suffering of other people and the primacy of one’s own mental tranquility tells us, I think, all we need to know.

Having been disappointed by Greece, I turned my attention to the East. The Buddhist tradition endorses a similar understanding of the need for withdrawing one’s anger for the sake of one’s own spiritual health. Here we find echoed the doctrines of 1) the self as the principal object of ethical attention, and 2) self-purification as the ultimate goal of reflection. Entanglements with the world and with others get in the way of the individual’s journey toward enlightenment. If one is to be lenient toward the wrongdoing of others, it is simply because the karmic order of the world demands this kind of flexibility in order to be properly maintained. Thus, we read in the Dhammapada:

1. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

2. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

3. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

4. There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

The goal here is a kind of system equilibrium at both the level of the whole and the level of the individual ego. My goal is to make the world have less hate in it, but the only way to do this is to have less hate in me. The specificity and particularity of another person disappears altogether, subsumed into a system which one maintains like a rock garden.

At this point in my studies, I felt exasperated. The only philosophical justification for forgiveness, it seemed, had to do with a reflective concern for one’s own condition, not for that of another. I complained to a friend that my search for the philosophical origins of forgiveness have come to naught, that I was beginning to recognize that my urge to prove my sister wrong was silly and that I needed to recognize the sense in her righteous indignation. This friend—a devout Catholic—looked at me with a puzzled look. “You haven’t looked in the Bible?” he said to me incredulously. The only response I could manage to that was “That seems…too easy!” I didn’t really know what I meant by this except that I had always been suspicious of Christianity as being somehow too good to be true, that it papered over the real ugliness of the world with a happy message about hope and love. As far as I could tell, we were alone in a universe that was slowly dying of its own accord, and all we could do in the meantime is stitch together beautiful stories of various kinds to build a shelter for ourselves from the cold indifference of the cosmos—but the indifference of the cosmos is what is real, not the stories we tell. Religion was cowardice, retreat; courage demanded facing the facts, owning up to the meaninglessness of things. And the central doctrines of Christianity, of course, were just so implausible: God and man at the same time? What could be crazier?

But then my friend suggested I read the Gospel of Luke. If you’ve been raised in a Christian tradition, you probably take a familiarity with the Gospel stories for granted. My lack of religious upbringing had meant that all I knew of Christianity was Christmas story and a few other utterly decontextualized tropes: “turn the other cheek” and all that. And though I had developed an interest in religious thinking as a complement to my studies of philosophy, I never actually opened the Good Book to see what was inside.

I want to look at just two places in the Gospel that showed me something completely new, something that as far as I can tell, never comes up in the history of ethical thinking before this moment. The first comes in the passages after the beatitudes, and is probably familiar to all of us here:

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.

The writers I cited earlier in this talk were not stupid: they were some of the smartest, most perceptive and thoughtful people who have ever walked on this planet. Aristotle invented logic; Epicurus was one of the first thinkers to suspect that the things we encounter in the world are actually made up of much smaller parts linked together in various ways. They observed the world with a remarkable keenness of vision, and the conclusions they’ve arrived at represent truly heroic attempts at comprehending the nature of human life using our natural ability to reason. Their thinking is good: they are right that it is good to avoid being angry, and to treat your own soul with kindness and care. And yet for each and every one of them, the idea that we should love our enemies would have registered as self-evidently absurd. They might insist that we avoid having our souls poisoned by grudges, but the idea that we should love people who harm us would be ridiculous to them

Here, Christ tells us to love our enemies; later, he shows us what it means. Let’s look to another passage in Luke, this time from Christ’s crucifixion:

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

Again: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Hanging on the cross, in the process of being tortured and executed, Christ looks down onto the people responsible for his death and prays to God to forgive them. He is not ridding himself of anger to achieve spiritual tranquility; he is not trying to restore the karmic balance of the universe; he is not trying to showcase his own virtue. His concern, in the midst of his execution, is for the good of those who have wronged him. And it is entirely for their sake that he utters his prayer of forgiveness.

Of course, I didn’t immediately recognize the significance of what I had discovered in these passages. I went back to my friend and complained again that my mission had failed: I hadn’t found any evidence for what I was looking for anywhere but in the Gospels! What was I supposed to do with that? I was a philosopher, not a Christian. If the brilliant philosophers had completely overlooked something that only appeared later in the Bible, what was I supposed to do? After a few months of reflecting, and struggling, and fighting against the obvious like Jacob wrestling with the Angel, I understood that what I had found was a little hole in the structure of things. And it was through this tiny gap that God came rushing into my life.

So, to conclude, let me venture a few remarks about what I think the Gospel accounts imply for us, and what we simply couldn’t find in philosophy. What Christianity demands of us—what is modeled for us by Christ forgiving his executors as he hangs bleeding on the cross—is decidedly not an egoistic form of forgiveness, one that privileges the tranquility of our spirit over all other things. Christ does not want us to do good out of an urge to protect ourselves. Rather, he gives a new light to the world and tells us to look clearly at one another and to love what we see, in full knowledge of the other’s sinfulness. We are also challenged to see ourselves in this new light, to see the depths of our own wretchedness, and to know that help is always available. This is, I suspect, something of what Christ means when he commands us to “be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” The thing that made the entire universe and each and every one of us in it loves us, all of us, and because he wants us to find and to love him, he came into our world to suffer at the hands of his own creation. He died on the cross so that we might finally understand what it means to love. He knew what we would do to him and came here anyway, out of love—and when we betrayed him, he nonetheless granted us forgiveness. Perhaps nobody has better articulated what I am really trying to say than St. Jerome: “Jesus was born in a dungheap because he knew that’s where he’d find us.” Thanks be to God.

On “Europeana”

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Patrik Ouředník’s “Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century” is the best novel about the Twentieth Century. Let me explain.

I qualify “about” because the best novel of the Twentieth Century is obviously Ulysses. (I haven’t read Ulysses, but enough people whose opinions I trust have told me that it is the best, so I take this to be true.) But Ulysses was written in the innocent adolescence of a new age—the one cracked open by machine manufacturing, the invention of the automobile and airplane, and the second founding of America with the settlement of the Civil War—when such a magisterial, imaginative, synthetic work full of style and possibility was still conceivable. After the two-phase internal collapse of Western civilization with the War to End All Wars followed by World War II, such an endeavor became self-evidently ridiculous: as the details of the otherworldly barbarity with which the German Sonderkommandos and the Red Army collaborated to turn Poland into a hellscape of human sacrifice slowly became available to the world’s reading public, it became immediately and undeniably incumbent upon any thinking person to stare the facts in the face and figure out what the hell happened. (Adorno’s famous remark about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz is silly if understood to be true for all time, but it was surely a sensible way to think in 1955.)

Ouředník’s book does precisely this. It is assembled entirely out of dry, factual statements about a wide variety of events and developments taking place between 1914 and 1999—the formation and beliefs of the Jehovah’s witnesses, the creation of barbie dolls and the dawn of the consumer society, the dawn of New Age spirituality and the sexual revolution, painstakingly accurate descriptions of most of the century’s philosophical and theoretical schools, and above all the twin horrors of German National Socialism and Soviet Communism in Russia—held in parataxis as skillful as Solomon’s. But unlike Solomon, Ouředník never declares all to be vanity, nor does he need to: he suspends judgment and lets the century speak for itself in all its insanity, terror, and, on occasion, genuine hilarity. And in contrast to the 800-some pages of Joyce’s tome, “Europeana” is a slim volume of scarcely 100 pages, containing what lesser historians would require a thousand to adequately cover.

Consider one representative passage:

In 1907 a Frenchman crossed the English Channel in a powered aircraft and in 1910 a Peruvian flew over the Italian Alps in a powered aircraft in and in 1911 the Italians used a powered aircraft in the war against Turkey and in 1914 aircraft designers figured out where to lace machine guns so that aircraft could fire at each other and in 1915 they figured out how to drop bombs from aircraft, and in 1945 the Americans invented the atom bomb and dropped it on a city called Hiroshima.

At no point does Ouředník break from this “objective” voice to say that such a development is bad. Instead, he simply reports the consequences of the nuclear blast: alongside the gruesome image of “the school children who survived the explosion picked maggots out of patients’ wounds with chopsticks,” he tells us that “[p]eople who survived the explosion and the atomic diseases scared other members of the population because they looked like lepers and behaved like madmen,” which in its naïve truthfulness contains a jet black humor. And then he lets us know about the thinking of the age, characterizing the disputes of anti-atomic idealists and pro-bomb realists:

Afterwards a lot of people thought it had been gratuitous brutality to drop an atom bomb at the very end of the war, but military strategists said that if the Americans had not dropped it, someone else would have, because it had to be tried out at least once in real conditions in order to create a balance of terror as a guarantee against the outbreak of a third world war.

For anyone with eyes to see, the judgment passes itself.

Of course, it is inaccurate to call Ouředník’s book a “novel.” There is nothing fictitious about it, and in a more serious age we would consider this a new genre of experimental historiography much more fertile and interesting than most of the options currently on the table. Only on precisely two occasions does Ouředník allow himself miniscule poetic flourishes, made all the more poignant by their rarity: “And young people looked toward the future and the wind ruffled the ears of corn and the sun rose on the horizon.” The author’s commitment to objectivity demonstrates how any optimism about “the arc of history” dissolves in the acid bath of brutal, overwhelming facticity that is the Twentieth Century. The constant deluge of insane details occasionally grants the reading a dreamlike quality, much akin to reading a science fiction novel, just before the reality of what he is reporting comes crashing down. “And the Jehovah’s Witnesses said that smoking and alcohol soil the blood,” he tells us, “and they refused to eat black pudding and blood sausage and refused blood transfusions because the mixing of blood contradicted divine ordinances, just like the consumption of blood sausage or alcohol or extramarital sex.” Silly enough, and yet another contribution to the laundry list of kooky new religions that emerged in the primordial soup of the late 19th century. But in the next sentence, the hammer falls: “And they refused to enlist in the army and said that they belonged to the Kingdom of God and worldly matters were no concern of theirs, and many of them died in the concentration camps in Germany and the Soviet Union because their attitude subverted the revolutionary ideal and propagated asocial and counterrevolutionary ideas in society.”

The Twentieth Century was an age of contradictions: it matched childish, naïve optimism about the possibility of human freedom—from God, from morality, from the Earth, from responsibility to one another, from all internal and external limitations placed on the human animal—with a rapid and gleeful development of techniques and technologies of barbarity that makes Caligula’s Rome look utopian by comparison. “Europeana” is a gift because it clarifies for us the fact that practically nothing from the period can be clarified, and reminds us that many of the learn’d experts who try to do so would have been (if they weren’t already, in reality) willing architects of the century’s most grotesque and dehumanizing innovations.

Theses on Seriousness

 

  1. Life is to be lived excellently.
  2. Excellent living may be reached without ethical speculation: an excellent life can be achieved without falling into, and pulling oneself out of, a philosophical quagmire.
  3. Those who do not achieve excellent living instinctively may do so after a process of ethical or moral reflection.
  4. All moral and ethical speculation is for the purpose of steering one’s life toward excellence.
  5. Whether achieved instinctively or through reflection, the possibility of an excellent life hinges upon a matter of attitude: of striving toward seriousness and avoiding frivolity. In the former case, a person instinctively recognizes the seriousness of action and decision-making; in the latter, seriousness makes the fruits of speculation worth heeding in action.
  6. Serious-minded people may be swayed by the soundness of an argument; the frivolous, on the other hand, are prepared to avoid responsibility by any means necessary, whether through cultivated indifference, sophistry, psychologism, etc.
  7. A proof from the other side: No action is meaningful when conducted frivolously, no coward is rewarded for completely accidental acts of heroism. But heroes—who are defined as such primarily for facing reality seriously—are praised even in their failure.
  8. Don DeLillo, Point Omega: “Why is it so hard to be serious, so easy to be too serious?” As with all virtues—and seriousness may be thought of in terms of virtue, as the ground in which all virtue must grow—seriousness is subject to excess. Becoming “too serious” is to pass beyond seriousness into ridiculousness and absurdity.
  9. As with all other virtues, an excess of seriousness is likely preferable to a deficiency. But absurd strictness detrimental to excellent living is as clownish as the worst frivolity.
  10. Seriousness is not Stoicism. A serious attitude toward the world does not imply immovability or a lack of emotion. On the contrary, for the serious person, the world and the things that populate it are constant sources of bewilderment, delight, frustration, amusement, dissatisfaction, elation, and anguish.
  11. “Although Goethe was intimately connected to the social and cultural life of his time, he also knew how to maintain his individuality. His principle was to take in only as much of the world as he could process. Whatever he could not respond to in a productive way he chose to disregard. In other words, he was an expert at ignoring things.”—Rüdiger Safranski, “Goethe: Life as a Work of Art.” The principal tool against the temptation to ridiculousness is the art of indifference: of ignoring those things that are not worthy of one’s attention. One’s attention should be directed only at those things worthy of serious consideration; the rest should be disregarded rather than scorned.
  12. Expressed as a tautology: to be serious is to regard as serious those things worth taking seriously.
  13. Therefore, seriousness is principally an art of attention, a way of seeing: a serious attitude toward the world demands a clear vision—or an aspiration thereto—of what is really happening, what is at stake, what possibilities for action are available.
  14. First and foremost, seriousness entails a visceral, tangible recognition of the most basic fact of living: that one will eventually die. In the light of one’s eventual death, the serious and frivolous things of the world are revealed for what they are.
  15. Seriousness, then, implies ethical immediacy: the things worth doing are worth doing now, and excuses motivated to delay right action are simply expressions of frivolity.

Home

This essay was written for a preceptorial on Virgil in my third semester at the St. John’s College Graduate Institute and selected by the SJC Prize Committee as the best graduate essay of the year. It isn’t my favorite of the work I’ve done at St. John’s, but given that a group of smart people whom I respect decided that they liked it I am open to the possibility that there’s something worthwhile in it that Iin the position of authoram incapable of seeing. This in mind, I decided to share it here and open it to more general criticism.


At the beginning of Virgil’s Aeneid, we find the surviving remnants of Troy floating across the Mediterranean in a mere handful of galleys after suffering defeat at the hands of the allied Achaean army. Waves toss the Trojan ships like a petulant child having a temper tantrum. The goddess Juno, angry about a prophecy foretelling the destruction of her beloved city of Carthage at the hands of the Trojans, petitions Aeolus to loose violent winds upon the already-tattered fleet. He complies. Violent gusts batter the Trojan galleys, breaking several against rocks jutting up from the sea floor. The sea-god Neptune notices what is happening in his domain and rages at the other gods encroaching upon his sovereignty: he dispatches the winds back to their mountain home, rebuking Juno and Aeolus for their impetuousness. The winds calm, the seas still, and the Trojan exiles drift ashore near Carthage. They sprawl out in exhaustion on the beachhead, run an inventory of their remaining equipment and rations, and start fires for their first meal on land since being forced from their home. Aeneas goes on the hunt, killing seven huge bucks: one for each vessel destroyed in Aeolus’ storm. The Trojans—“a remnant left by Greeks, harassed by all disasters known on land and sea, in need of everything”[1]—sorrow at their condition.

However, there is hope. Aeneas, sensing the dejection gnawing at his men, makes a rousing speech: “You have neared the rage of Scylla,” he reminds them, “and her caves’ resounding rocks; and you have known the Cyclops’ crags; call back your courage, send away your grieving fear.”[2] Then he reveals a second prophecy concerning the future of the Trojan people: “Through many crises and calamities we make for Latium, where fates have promised a peaceful settlement. It is decreed that there the realm of Troy will rise again.”[3] Though driven from their homeland, the Trojans are fated for a new home.

A new home is a strange idea. For us modern, 21st-century Americans, “home” is often merely a euphemism for “where you happen to live”: it is not uncommon to see billboards along highways advertising “New Luxury Estate Homes,” “1 & 2 Bedroom Apartment Homes,” “New Homes For Sale.” But for most of human history, home has been something familiar, old, and beloved—it precedes us, produces us, and remains a permanent part of the background of our lives even if we leave it for somewhere new. “You can take a boy out of the country,” they say—you know the rest of the story. Like Ithaca for Odysseus, home awaits your return, because one belongs to one’s home as much as one’s home belongs to oneself. Which is to say, home is as much a place—a fixed, bounded geographical zone with specific, identifiable qualities and details—as the stories, feelings, things, and—perhaps most importantly—people associated with it. Home is the place where you exist as a midpoint between a succession of generations into the past and a procession of generations into the future. “There’s no place like home” may be a cliché, but the saying is common for good reason: home is a place and no two places are identical. No two homes are alike—maybe not even for the people who share them.

What happens, then, when one’s home disappears? Not mentally, mind you: not as if the place that was once considered “home” is no longer thought of in those terms. What happens when home is destroyed? Where do you go when homecoming is impossible? Unlike many peoples whose names have been wiped off of the map and out of the register of human memory for all time, the Trojans are not simply homeless: they have a great destiny, foretold in prophecy. The destruction of their city provides them an opportunity. They are bound for a new home—not for an already-established, foreign city into which they will assimilate, but for a new place entirely. They will make a new home: Rome, a city fated to blossom into an empire. Aeneas will “establish a way of life and walls for his own people,” Jupiter reveals to Venus. And as for the following generations of Romans, the father of the gods will “give them empire without end.”[4]

This essay will explore home: what it is, how one comes into being, and what happens when home and world become identical.

Troy and Beyond

Troy was one of the richest and most beautiful cities in the world. The beautiful face of Helen was not the only thing that brought the Greeks to Trojan shores: the possibilities of plunder to be won from Priam’s city and well-wrought armor to be stripped from the bodies of dead Trojan soldiers were not overlooked. Even before Helen’s name is mentioned in the Iliad, Apollo’s priest Chryses relays to Agamemnon and Menelaus that “the gods grant who have their homes on Olympos / Priam’s city to be plundered and a fair homecoming thereafter”[5]—treasure was always part of the deal. Aeneas and the Trojans, even, did their best to rescue as much wealth from their city as they can: after landing in Carthage they draw from this collection to thank Dido for her hospitality. All the more horrible, then, to see it burned and pillaged.

But along with some of the city’s riches, the surviving Trojans also escape with the city’s “household gods.” The night after leading the infamous wooden horse inside the city walls, Aeneas is approached in a dream by Hector: the dead warrior reveals the treachery of the Greeks to our sleeping hero, urging him to wake and flee the flames of his burning home and entrusting to him Troy’s “holy things and household gods.” “Take them away as comrades of your fortunes,” he urges, “seek out for them the great walls that at last, once you have crossed the sea, you will establish.”[6] Aeneas wakes, arms himself for battle, and charges into the streets to make vengeance. There he meets Panthus, son of Apollo’s priest, desperately leading his grandson to safety while “in his hand he carries the holy vessels and defeated gods.”[7] But the existence of these peculiar deities is also mentioned in the first stanza of the poem: once he founds Rome, Aeneas will have “carried in his gods to Latium.”[8] And after landing at Carthage, as if to clarify just what “carry” means in this context, Aeneas announces to his disguised mother Venus:

I am pious Aeneas, and I carry in my ships my household gods together with me, rescued from Argive enemies; my fame is known beyond the sky.[9]

 Unfortunately, the poem does not provide any direct description of what these “household gods” are. We learn about them only by way of what happens to them—in their being held, carried, transported across the ocean in the galleys of ships. We learn that Juno is horrified by their fated arrival in Italy. While leaving Troy, Aeneas—hands soiled with Grecian blood—begs his father to carry them. And much later, after landing on Italian shores, we see Aeneas make a tribute to the household gods of his friend and ally Evander.

Every home has its gods, it seems: homes are not just where you and your family live, but also where your gods reside. And unlike the gods of Olympus, the gods of one’s home are fragile, transportable, and require a great deal of care. It is unclear what kind of role they play in the lives of mortals: we do not see any children of household gods, they never take human form, they do not intervene in human affairs. Rather, they are quiet elements of city life that seem to grant a sense of the sacred to affairs both domestic (Panthus and Evander seem to have their own household gods) and political (Aeneas carries the gods of Troy).

When home is the home of your family and your gods, it could never just be a house—which is why none of the places the Trojans stop on their way to Italy could have been their new home. Many of the places are self-evidently unfit for consideration as the location of a new Troy: Thrace is a poisoned place, the site of an ancient crime; Buthrotum is a sad and hollow replica of the once-great Troy, now shot through with sorrow and anguish. Others, however, are less clear. When the Trojans found the city of Pergamum on the island of Crete, it seems a fitting enough locale for long-term habitation—that is, until a plague befalls the island. Aeneas, sleeping in bed one evening, has a vision of his household gods[10] standing over him: they speak to him, reminding him of the promise of Italy, Rome, and the eventual empire over which his descendants will rule. Clearly, the gods are not happy in Crete. Aeneas orders the ships loaded and the sails raised, though a small group of Trojans stay behind. By the time they arrive in the comparatively hospitable Actium, it seems they have internalized the lesson taught at Crete: the Trojans spend a year there without founding a city, experience no hardship beyond the coldness of winter, and raise their sails for Buthrotum.

What ruled out Carthage, however, is initially much more opaque. Though initially met with resistance and suspicion, the Trojans are welcomed with open arms by Dido and the Tyrians. Their fame has been preserved in a series of murals—whether painted or etched is unclear—at a shrine to Juno in the heart of the city, depicting both the heroic deeds and the suffering of Trojan warriors in their battle against the Greek invaders. Carthage has build a monument to Trojan courage. And with the heroes themselves suddenly landed upon the shores of their domain, the Tyrians are happy to offer them a home. “[S]hould you want to settle in this kingdom on equal terms with me,” Dido promises them, “then all the city I am building now is yours. Draw up your ships. I shall allow no difference between the Tyrian and the Trojan.”[11] So why did this offer not last? The simplest answer is that the gods would not allow it. Indeed, when Hermes approaches Aeneas to remind him of the prophecy, “he sees Aeneas founding fortresses and fashioning new houses.”[12] Assimilation seems to be underway. It is only once the god reminds Aeneas of the promise made to his son that the Trojan leader’s mind changes. To remain in Carthage would mean to rob Ascanius of the glory for which he is fated. Carthage would provide a happy home for Aeneas and his people—but it could never allow for the glorification of Aeneas’ true heir.

People in a place with their gods and their families: this is the basic recipe for a home. But if a people cannot simply assimilate with another to have a home, how do they make a new one?

A New Troy

When Jupiter reveals the fate of Aeneas to his mother Venus, the first item in his list of events is that he “shall wage tremendous war in Italy and crush ferocious nations”—only after which he will “establish a way of life and walls for his own people.”[13] Rome will happen, but not without conflict. Prophecy does not imply simplicity or ease. But what is the function of war in the founding of a new home? Is it the whim of the gods? Or might conflict be a necessary part of founding a new home?

The Trojans do not simply invade Italy. When they land at Latium they are initially extended a warm welcome by King Latinus, who just recently received a prophecy that his daughter will be married off to foreigners. “For strangers come as sons-in-law,” the voice of his dead father tells him—and as if to assuage any doubt about who these strangers might be, he recites the fate of the Trojans: “their blood will raise our name above the stars; and their sons’ sons will see all things obedient at their feet, wherever the circling sun looks on both sides of Ocean.”[14] Rome, then, will begin with a wedding—but the wedding is the first source of conflict. Princess Lavinia has been all but promised to Turnus, the handsome and young king of the Rutulians, but Latinus’ prophecy inspires him to break off the engagement. Juno, furious at the prospect of a Trojan marrying into the Latin royal family, sics the Fury Allecto on the Latins: Lavinia’s mother Amata and Turnus are roiled into bloodlust. The Rutulian king begins to muster an army against the Trojans.

Allecto also helps sow the second seed of conflict, by leading Ascanius’ hunting dogs to the beloved stag of Tyrrhus and Sylvia. Ignorant of the stag’s privileged place among the Latins, Ascanius sends an arrow into his gut, killing him. It is a grievous betrayal of custom, but a custom that the Trojans could never have assumed—and which the Latins, being “a race of Saturn, needing no laws and no restraint for righteousness,”[15] would never have told them. Sylvia and Tyrrhus rouse the Latin farmers to battle: wielding whatever sharp implements they can find—“anger makes a weapon”[16]—they march against the Trojan encampments. First blood is drawn: Almo, son of Tyrrhus, is struck by an arrow from an unknown bow. Latinus rebukes Turnus and the Latin mobs and refuses to open the city’s Gates of War—but Juno does it for him, making the war official. War, however, requires alliances—and while the Trojan encampments are under siege, Aeneas sails down the Italian coast making pacts with friendly kings. The most notable of these is Evander, king of the Arcadians, who entrusts his son Pallas to Aeneas’ tutelage. By the time Aeneas returns to assist the Trojan ramparts, he has assembled thirty ships with ten generals from different regions of Italy. It is a motley crew, including gods and mermen, all willing to put their lives on the line for a Trojan victory.

Marriage, the breaking of custom, and alliances: these are the preconditions for the Trojan-Latin war. The marriage of Aeneas and Lavinia, if carried out, would result in the union of two peoples—but beneath the kingship of one: the Trojans. Aeneas and his people would inherit a city, a place to live while raising the walls of Rome, and the Latins will become collaborators in Rome’s greatness. And as Rome is destined to be an empire of law—one that is destined to “teach the ways of peace to those [they] conquer, to spare defeated peoples, [and] tame the proud”[17]—the flimsy, ambiguous rule of custom must be overcome. A civilized people must be able to articulate the rules, especially to guests—a tradition of inexpressible cultural habits is no way to teach the ways of peace to others. Furthermore, the alliances crafted in battle set the terms of who will possibly be victor and who the conquered: not only do the Trojans win if Aeneas leads his army to victory, but so too would (for example) the humble and rustic Arcadians. The winning party will determine the character of the peace that takes shape afterward. The conquered will be subject to the laws and customs of the conquerors.

Or so it seems, but the arrangement arrived at by Jupiter and Juno complicates this outcome. “For the Ausonians [Italians] will keep their homeland’s words and ways,” Jupiter promises his wife:

…their name will stay; the body of the Teucrians will merge with the Latins, and their name will fall away. But I will add their rituals and customs to the Ausonians’, and make them all—and with one language—Latins. You will see a race arise from this that, mingled with the blood of the Ausonians, will be past men, even past gods, in piety; no other nation will pay you such honor.[18]

Jupiter turns this expectation on its head: the conquerors will take the name and language of the conquered. In a set of circumstances unique to the Trojans and Latins—and brought about only through divine authorship—Trojan and Latin customs will exist peaceably alongside one another. Neither will dominate. But again, customs are not laws, and the Latins are a lawless people: one may assume that the laws established by Aeneas will be binding for this whole new race. Which is, of course, a curious and new term. From the union of these two peoples we will get one: no longer understood as members of family groups (Teucrians descended from Teucer, Dardaans descended from Dardanus, and so forth), the people will comprise a unity of plurality—a many that makes one. And this transformation of peoples into a race is a reflection of another transformation that Rome will effect: that of home into world.

World

Before meeting with the Latins after landing on the Italian peninsula, Aeneas visited the Sibyl. A deranged priestess of Apollo, the Sibyl was granted the ability to presage the future by writing the fates on a collection of leaves—which are then frequently scattered by the wind. But Aeneas is not here to hear the future from the Sibyl: rather, he requires her assistance in descending to Hades to visit the soul of his dead father, who will tell him the whole story of Rome. The Sibyl agrees, but Aeneas must first complete a few tasks: so Aeneas picks the golden bough, performs the required sacrifice for Persephone, and the two climb into the bowels of hell.

When they reach Anchises in the Fields of Gladness, he is positively glowing: he stands in the middle of a grassy meadow, telling the story of his bloodline to the souls of his descendants. Aeneas tries to embrace him, but his arms pass through his body like a beam of light through a window. They share tears. Anchises then takes Aeneas on a tour of the blessed part of the underworld, the place where great souls live out their afterlives in joy and gaiety while waiting for the moment of their resurrection—when, a thousand years after death, they will drink from the river of forgetting and return to a bodily form on earth. Then he reveals to him the destiny of Rome: the events that will shape its legacy, the greatness it will win, and the men who will lead it there. “Rome will make her boundaries as broad as earth itself,” Anchises says, “will make her spirit the equal of Olympus, and enclose her seven hills within a single wall, rejoicing in her race of men.”[19] Rome, it seems, will be founded as a great city by great men—but then will become something different. Rome will eventually become the whole world.

If what was said earlier about home has any validity—that home is a place—then this poses a strange problem. Just as home is a place, world is a space. Rather than being defined by boundaries, specificity, and uniqueness, the world is that space which transcends all places and inside of which all place loses its place-ness. A place is defined explicitly in opposition to the world: in full knowledge of the vastness of everything and the infinite array of possibilities, I settle myself in a small corner of existence whose contours become as familiar as the backs of my hands. I always live in a place, though I may have knowledge of the world: I can study astronomy, oceanography, and the histories of distant empires without ever leaving my home. Somehow, however, Rome will collapse these category distinctions: it will be an empire that spans the whole world, while remaining the home of a people in the form of a race. How does a transformation of this kind take place?

It seems to involve two factors: people and history. World-as-home-for-race carries with it a different set of categories than place-as-home-for-people: as seen before, the category “race” transcends of particular family groupings to constitute a higher-order unification of people. The Trojans and Latins will retain their separate customs and rituals, but will become one inasmuch as they are members of the same race—only this arrangement of people is capable of inhabiting a world-sized home. No longer will separate peoples inhabit far-flung cities ruled by hereditary kings: the boundaries of Rome and those of the world will become identical, uniting all people under one banner. The whole world will have an order, then—and he who rules Rome rules it all.

It is no accident that Anchises’ prophecy takes place over the course of many generations. The founding of Rome will not be like the creation of the heavens and earth (or even, perhaps, like the transformation of the Trojan and Latin peoples into a single race): it will not go from being a city to encompassing the entire earth in a single instant. Rather, though its destiny is already written, the transformation must play out in time. Successive generations will make their contributions to this transformation: specific human beings—people like Tullus, Numa, Romulus, Mummius, and Caesar—will be the agents of the change. Fate does not preclude active human participation in its execution. Gods may author what will happen, but humans must effect the execution. And inasmuch as human beings are beings in time, their actions are events in time—and the memory, or story, of these events constitutes history.

At the end of the Aeneid, however, we do not see the founding of Rome. The bleeding body of Turnus does not provide us with a vision of Roman greatness that we expect after reading numerous instances of prophecy: it is hard to see how the merciless, vengeful slaughter of the Rutulian king is a beginning-point for the eventual Roman mission of teaching peace to the conquered, sparing the defeated, and taming the proud. Perhaps the execution of prophecy often plays out like the opening of the poem, where a band of confused refugees float around the Mediterranean, unsure of where they may land. But though we all long for a home, perhaps only a few are called to inhabit their own—and even fewer to see theirs to greatness.

 

[1] Book I, lines 841-843. All citations refer to Allen Mandelbaum’s translation, published 1961 by Bantam Classics.

[2] I.279-282.

[3] I.284-286.

[4] I.369, 390.

[5] Homer, Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore, I.18-19.

[6] II.400-404.

[7] II.437-438.

[8] I.10.

[9] I.534-537.

[10] This is the only occasion in the Aeneid in which the household gods are personified and take on an active role.

[11] I.805-809. Emphasis mine.

[12] IV.347-348.

[13] I.363-369.

[14] VII.123-127. The ghost of Creüsa, Aeneas’ wife who died at Troy, had told him of this fate before he and the survivors had escaped the burning city: in Hesperia, “days of gladness lie in wait for you: a kingdom and a royal bride” (II.1056-1057).

[15] VII.268-269.

[16] VII.670.

[17] VI.1136-1137.

[18] XII.1107-1117.

[19] VI.1034-1038.

Teens and Terror

For the past four months I’ve been employed as a teaching intern at a small, very expensive private high school with a curriculum built around classic texts of the Western canon and primary source documents. I work primarily with freshmen, sophomores, and juniors: the first study ancient world from early Sumerian civilization to the rise of Islam, with extensive readings from Greece and Rome in between; the second, European civilization from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century; the third, American history and letters from the early colonial period through the Founding, up to the immediate post-9/11 era. The curriculum is an ambitious attempt at communicating the important features of Western history and thought (i.e. “The Humanities”) as the gradual development of a coherent whole—with philosophy and literature and events all interpenetrating and shaping one another—rather than sectioning off separate categorical territory and exploring each one independently of the others. The classes are conducted as roundtable discussions, with the concerns and interests of the students often driving the course of the conversation. Sometimes this can get pretty lively, with students engaging with the material in a way that forces them to reflect on their own opinions and presuppositions. But most of the time—especially in the classes of freshmen—the discussions are dominated by kids who bloviate in an attempt hide the fact that they ignored the reading in favor of a summary on Shmoop.

At best, this model of education teaches students that taking stances on phenomena in the present always entails taking some kind of stance on phenomena of the past, and that real, authentic learning requires the active participation of the learner. At worst—though I suppose this is a danger of all attempts at “education” and not limited to this particular school or pedagogical model—the students learn absolutely nothing.

The last few weeks of sophomore year involve a close study of Bolshevism and European fascist movements with readings from Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Spengler (!), and excerpts from a variety of documents from Nazi Germany including speeches by Hitler and Himmler, the text of the Nuremburg Laws, and—in a separate unit on the Nazi death camps—the Wannsee Protocol. This is, of course, important stuff. Probably the most important stuff, when one is considering the situation in which we find ourselves in the 21st Century. It’s also material that I hardly touched in my own utterly un-elite, provincial, public school education, which involved much attention paid to particular battles of the Second World War but hardly any mention of the Germans’ attempt at obliterating every human being on planet Earth whom they categorized as a “Jew.” Over the last decade or so, however, this period of European insanity has become a major object of study in my life—so upon discovery that the kids were going to be reading the Wannsee conference notes and discussing the implications of the Nazi death camps, I felt I had to observe.

I’m not sure there could have been any way to prepare for the nightmare I witnessed. On one hand, it makes sense that teenagers growing up in our world would be mostly unfazed by the form of the document, full as it is of the kinds of figures, statistics, and bureaucratic euphemisms. Though a technocratic dossier like this is something totally novel within the context of their studies, the figures, statistics, and bureaucratic euphemisms that populate it are utterly unremarkable features of the documents of modern public life. It is a mistake to treat what is familiar to you as a trans-historical given, but it is not an intellectual sin. One would think, however, that the marshaling of such a familiar way of writing for the goal of exterminating more than 11 million people would stimulate some kind of reflection on said style—“hold on, why is it that mass murder looks so much like health policy?”—but then you would be revealing yourself to be an optimist. The teacher did a heroic job trying to stimulate such a reflection. But the sheer strength of their commitment to certain presuppositions—namely, that “science” and “good” are synonyms—made such an inquiry fruitless.

But the real horror began only after someone mentioned Mengele and the broader Nazi experimentation program. “Should we dispose of the results of the Dachau hypothermia trials,” someone asked, “just because they were conducted unethically?” I’m not sure I heard a single voice suggest that maybe we should. Another student mentioned several closer-to-home examples of forced or unethical experimentation to press the question: the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Albert Klingman’s two decades of dermatology experiments at Holmesburg Prison, the US government infecting Guatemalan mental patients with herpes and gonorrhea in the late 1940s. The group remained unable to consider the possibility that, when it comes to “science,” bad means might imply bad ends. Things got even more macabre when a student suggested that the real problem with Nazi experimentation was that they failed to “scientifically” determine which populations were expendable to society and thus best suited for use as unwilling subjects of experimentation. Their hatred of the Jews was a product of feeling, not science. (Every serious committed Nazi, of course, would disagree). Several students suggested that we use death-row prisoners in medical experiments: this would make them more “useful” because they would be “helping all of mankind.” Eventually the idea arose that consent was important, and that many people would be willing to volunteer for medical experimentation to “help out their fellow man.” At some point my quiet panic made it impossible for me to pay much attention.

There were, thankfully, a few students who expressed gut-instinct responses that all of this discussion was grotesque, and a few more came around at the end. But these few passionate reactions failed to entirely dissipate the technonihilistic atmosphere that hung over the class. One student, quite thankfully, said the thing that needed to be said: “There is no difference between determining who is ‘scientifically expendable’ and what the Nazis did.” But nobody could bring themselves to question the scientific enterprise as such: the Nazis were accused of “pseudo-science,” of being “racists,” in sum, of being wrong. And because science that turns out to be wrong—or that has negative consequences beyond what the norms of polite society allow—cannot be science, science remains unscathed. Science itself cannot be the problem, because it is categorically good.

I know that this is harsh criticism of the opinions of teenagers. But I don’t impute the fault to them: they’re just kids. Nor do I think that the problem can be pinned on ideas or indefinite categories such as “culture” or “society,” though their opinions certainly reflect assumptions they’ve inherited from the intellectual ecosystem they inhabit. The issue, I suspect, is largely structural: their failure to think seriously about serious things is a problem at the heart of the entire schooling-education project. Most of these kids are very intelligent. Almost all of them come from extremely wealthy families. Some combination of these two factors results in a kind of purely abstract, virtual thinking that sees the world from a feigned “objective” perspective a thousand miles up. (Which, hauntingly, is the essence of totalitarian thinking.) From such a height, all things—including fellow human beings—take on the appearance of purely manipulable objects subject to your godlike will. When wealth and parents and school administrators and the technology regime all conspire to protect a person from even the mildest experience of suffering, it’s easy for that person to call for an “objective” or “scientific” investigation into who is most deserving of suffering: their answer, undoubtedly, will never include themselves. They lack skin in the game. And education understood as an activity separated from living only serves to intensify this abstraction of thought: it would be an incredibly rare and special mind that could think its way to empathy or arrive at it with only a stack of books. The rest of us must rely on some kind of experience, something over which we have little or no control, to rearrange our thinking and our disposition toward ourselves, others, and the world.

On the Death of My Father

I wrote this over the course of an hour the day after my father passed away and posted it on Facebook so my friends could understand. Since some people who aren’t connected to me there might be interested in reading it and because Facebook is not the best place for archiving writing, I thought I would give it a more permanent home here (though with redacted names).


Last Tuesday (1/16) I got a call from S., my dad’s partner of 18 years, that my dad was going back into the hospital for his fourth bout with congestive heart failure. He had been in and out of the hospital with some regularity since I was in my early teens, so I’ve gotten used to the occasional hospital stay: last month he tripped and fell on a marble floor and was hospitalized for internal bleeding; a cancerous tumor was removed from his kidney when I was in middle school; his history of heart issues extends far before my birth. This time, however, things looked grim.

My girlfriend B. and I got plane tickets and flew to Albuquerque two days later. We got to the hospital at about 4:30pm Mountain Time. Dad was lying in his hospital bed watching TV, S. dutifully at his side. He was alert and in good spirits but looked—his own words—”like a concentration camp victim”: all skin and bones, hacking and coughing, arms full of tubes and bruised from countless hypodermic injections. He was really happy to see us, but also incredibly drowsy and dulled from all the pain medication and who-knows-what they were pumping into him to make his condition somewhat more tolerable. We talked for an hour or two before he went in for a procedure and we needed dinner, so the three of us—S., B., and I—stole off to the hospital cafeteria while doctors wheeled him off to run a catheter into his heart.

My relationship with my dad has always been very difficult and complicated. My mom left him when I was about 6, but I didn’t learn any specifics of her grievances until I was a teenager: Constant philandering (one of which produced a child that he kept secret until the government garnered his wages), alcoholism (and, I would learn later, a history of heroin abuse), frequent inexplicable rages, and a weird history of getting arrested for contempt of traffic court while pointlessly fighting speeding tickets were a few of the things I found out. Right after my mom took my sister and me to Florida, he moved in this creepy old guy named Jim who had ties to libertarian militiamen in Missouri—and who would break into my dad’s bedroom when we were gone and eat all the food that was being deliberately hidden from him. My sister and I were introduced to a string of girlfriends of wildly varying degrees of pleasantness, many of whom were groupies from his years in a rock-and-roll cover band and with whom he cheated on my mom. I didn’t talk to him from age 13 to 20 on account of a now-legendary argument that happened on a family vacation, in which then-new-girlfriend S. got frustrated with my carsick teenage sister and my dad joined in to say a bunch of weird and hurtful stuff to me and her. (He seemed to reciprocate the disinterest in communication, as the already low volume of calls and letters from him came to a halt.) Dad had also left S. twice over the past 15-or-so years, both times in wild spectacular form involving rescue by my brother and accusations against her of violence, thievery, and general psychological torment. Both times she took him back and cared for him throughout his many stays in the hospital. One time, after hearing him call her his “tormentor,” I asked him why he stayed with her—to which he replied “I made my bed, and now I have to lie in it.” I was prepared for a few days of gritting my teeth through uncomfortable conversations with a lunatic who nevertheless loves my dad while sitting at the beside of my dying father.

What actually happened, however, I could never have prepared for. Over cheap cafeteria cheeseburgers, S.—whose parents both died within the past 6 months—began to open up to me about how less than one week ago, my dad told her that he was leaving her, and that she needed to give him a car, a television, and a set of pans so he could get back to Memphis. Not only that, but she had to be the one to drive him there. He had never paid for a single thing in the course of their nearly 20-year relationship, not even for thoughtful little gifts or offering to pay for dinner. Between hospital visits, he would be mean, petty, and lazy, spending most of his time watching television or telling her to read conspiracy theory books written by crackpots. He had told her that she was “the only one I never cheated on,” then tenderly kissed a woman on the lips in front of her twice in one evening. She told stories of him insulting her with inexplicable cruelty with absolutely no provocation: the most grievous I can remember involves him turning to her on Christmas day and saying, “You know, your life is never going to get any better. You think it is, but it isn’t.” This was just weeks after her father was cremated, and months after her mother.

At first, nothing she said could clear my impassable wall of skepticism. But when it became clear that I had nothing that she could have possibly wanted, that my dad was utterly penniless and had nothing to exploit, and that so many of her stories sounded *exactly* like the kinds of things my mom said about him—and my mom and S. have never spoken—something cracked. Even if many of these stories were embellished or exaggerated, the general narrative was clear: not only was my dad an asshole, he had always been that way—and I had never really plumbed the depths of his cruelty. This made even more sense when she revealed to me that the US Navy—who had dishonorably discharged him from the service at the age of 16—diagnosed him with schizophrenia; that he spent time in a mental institution at a young age, though he always told interlocutors that he worked there (and at other times, that he was so clever that he tricked the workers in various ways); and that he had driven one girlfriend to suicide, a wife to madness and institutionalization, and my mom to pack my sister and me in a van and drive us into a swamp in rural Florida—all just to escape him. Dad had also been violent, S. said: he choked her on three occasions, hit her in the ear so hard that it bled for days, and threw a conspiratorial book about Obama at her so hard that when it struck her elbow it broke something.

We told stories and wept together. She never had the opportunity to talk about this stuff with anyone before. When he planned to leave her the week before, she said, she was thrilled: “Finally,” she said, “I would be free of him. I was going to dump him off in Memphis and be done. He wouldn’t be my problem anymore.” But then his sickness got too bad to ignore, and instead she hustled him to a hospital where they told him he was dying and there was nothing they could do about it.

We talked for four hours. None of us had any idea what to do. We finally steeled our nerves enough to walk back into the room, where my dad was watching Fox News and didn’t seem to notice how long we were gone. We chatted for another two hours or so before B. and I went back to our hotel, S. went back to her dead father’s house, and we all had our respective psychological breakdowns. My urge to assist and comfort my father qua father and the truth of the man himself were ripping me apart. I called my mom and cried for an hour while thanking her and saying that I finally understood.

The next day we decided that the truth of the man aside, we would see this through and help a dying man exit the world as comfortably and peaceably as possible. We would help each other help him. We sat with him as long as we could, held his hands, helped him drink water, and fed him Jello and applesauce. His breathing grew shallower, his nausea more intense. The doctors told him that his kidneys were shutting down and slowly poisoning him. We arranged for him to be transferred to a hospice facility, and as we waited for them to come we talked about his favorite childhood memories (riding his bike around his neighborhood), the people he idolized in his youth (Uncle Francis), how he’d like to be remembered (“I’d say as a good guy but I really screwed that one up, so I’d like to be remembered as someone who played the horn well”), his favorite places (Herald’s Harbor, Maryland; New Orleans; Memphis, Tennessee). He wanted to ask about my “vagabond trip”—the several years I spent traveling—and about the farm in southern KY. He asked me whether I enjoyed my childhood. An ambulance team arrived to take him to the hospice center across the street—we met him over there about a half hour later. I sat with him and talked for two more hours before I told him goodbye, that I love him, and that I’m proud to be his son. B. and I boarded a plane and flew back to Maryland. I called him the next day before class at St. John’s, asked him if he was comfortable, told him I loved him and that I’m glad that he has S. nearby. I talked to him the next day on break at my new teaching internship, and though he couldn’t form words I could tell he was happy to hear my voice. He was dead that evening.

Showing compassion and love for my dying father while learning more and more about how horrible he is has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life. I am nevertheless glad to have done it. But make no mistake: he was a complicated, deceitful, petty, cruel, bizarre, and deeply flawed man (as well as an immensely talented artist). I am going to be okay. It will take me some time to sort things out, but I’m not alone in this: I have my sister, brother, mom, and a whole cast of other characters who have been witness to—and been hurt by—the man who was my father. All of us are at the beginning of something: now we begin to heal. We are free. And he too is now free from his suffering.