Friday, May 29, 2009


For a number of years I have enjoyed the essays written under the nom de plume "Spengler" at the Asia Times site. This continues to be an excellent source of information, from a perspective beyond our shores. The irony of his appropriation of Oswald Spengler, author of The Decline of the West, in a premier Asian news source was not lost on me. Spengler has recently revealed his identity. He is, in fact, Donald P. Goldman. His story is an interesting one: a former bureaucrat at the National Security Council, musicologist , successful but disaffected Wall Street financier, a disciple of Franz Rosenzweig, who at last rediscovered Judaism. Goldman revealed his identity after recently assuming a position as associate editor of First Things. There was a time when I read every issue from cover to cover, but in recent years have given them a pass. The magazine have been a bit too triumphalist for my taste, too clearly identified with partisan American politics and have never really owned-up to their complicity in neocon misadventures in the Middle East and elsewhere. But who knows, with Spengler now associated, I may give them a look from time to time.

Goldman made a number of important points in his revelatory essay, below:

Youth culture...was an oxymoron, for culture itself was a bridge across generations, a means of cheating mortality. The old and angry cultures of the world, fighting for room to breathe against the onset of globalization, would not go quietly into the homogenizer. Many of them would fight to survive, but fight in vain, for the tide of modernity could not be rolled back….The end of the old ethnicities, I believed, would dominate the cultural and strategic agenda of the next several decades. Great countries were failing of their will to live, and it was easy to imagine a world in which Japanese, German, Italian and Russian would turn into dying languages only a century hence. Modernity taxed the Muslim world even more severely, although the results sometimes were less obvious.

Goldman explains his use of the pseudonym in this way:

To inform a culture that it is going to die does not necessarily win friends, and what I needed to say would be hurtful to many readers. I needed to tell the Europeans that their post-national, secular dystopia was a death-trap whence no-one would get out alive. I needed to tell the Muslims that nothing would alleviate the unbearable sense of humiliation and loss that globalization inflicted on a civilization that once had pretensions to world dominance. I needed to tell Asians that materialism leads only to despair. And I needed to tell the Americans that their smugness would be their undoing….And it was not hard to show that the remnants of the tribal world lurking under the cover of Islam were not living, but only undead, incapable of withstanding the onslaught of modernity, throwing a tantrum against their inevitable end.

Spengler references a prescient quote from Benedict XVI, made in 1996 when he was a Cardinal:

"Perhaps we have to abandon the idea of the popular Church. Possibly, we stand before a new epoch of Church history with quite different conditions, in which Christianity will stand under the sign of the mustard seed, in small and apparently insignificant groups, which nonetheless oppose evil intensively and bring the Good into the world." The best mind in the Catholic Church squarely considered the possibility that Christianity itself might shrink into seeming insignificance….The wells of culture had run dry, because they derived from faith to begin with….Art doesn’t exist for art’s sake.

The essay can be found here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The House of Death

The House of Death by William Blake

It is the ceaseless labour of our life to build the house of death.
Michel de Montaigne

The extent to which one contemplates death is as accurate a barometer as any, I would think, of how out-of-step one is with our prevailing culture. I tend to think about death, a lot. And having just re-read Alexander Schmemann's For the Life of the World, I am struck by how prescient his observations from 1963 are, in this regard, for our contemporary secular society.

It would be a great mistake, however, to think of secularism as simply an "absence of religion." It is, in fact, itself a religion, and as such, an explanation of death and a reconciliation with it....Secularism is an "explanation" of death in terms of life. The only world we know is this world, the only life given to us is this life-so thinks a secularist-and it is up to us men to make it as meaningful, as rich, as happy as possible. Life ends with death. This is unpleasant, but since it is natural, since death is a universal phenomenon, the best thing man can do about it is simply to accept it as something natural. As long as he lives, however, he need not think about it, but should live as though death did not exist. The best way to forget about death is to be busy, to be useful, to be dedicated to great and noble things, to build an always better world. If God exists...and if He, in His love and mercy...wants to reward us for our busy, useful and righteous life with eternal vacations, traditionally called "immortality," it is strictly His gracious business. But immortality is an appendix (however eternal) to this life, in which all real interest, all true values are to be found.

Living "as though death did not exist" does indeed seem the way of the modern world. Not without irony, it is the American funeral industry itself (and the funereal habits/customs that have grown up around it) that perhaps best exemplifies our death-denying culture. And, as in most things, we have a unique take on death and dying here in the South. My wife and I have sometimes found humor in the funeral fetishes of her extended clan. "Visitations" are just that--a time to catch up with relatives and neighbors, perhaps to see who was "laid-out" in the next room and, of course, to critique the handiwork of the particular funeral home. These gatherings are carried off with all the solemnity of a backyard barbecue. At all costs, no one ever talks about the reality of the body in the next room. One great-aunt whose limited mobility eventually prohibited her from attending these events, used to minutely question those who did, sometimes asking if the deceased, ahem, "laid a good corpse." Two contemporary cousins--not at all aged--carry on the silliness. One, to my knowledge, has been planning her last rites for years, having chosen her funeral hymns 20 years ago. Unfortunately, she suffers from robust health, the age-old curse of hypochondriacs. Another spent all last year trying to convince family and friends, as well as a host of doctors, nurses and emergency room technicians in 4 hospitals that she was near death and in need of constant support and sympathy. Having failed at a memorable death, she has shifted tactics. This year is devoted to angling for the absolute best deal on her funeral "pre-need" policy, described as the "last thread hanging" in her life. One assumes that after this is arranged, she will lie down on her bed, fold her arms and await death...or the housekeeper, whichever comes first. Such ridiculous behavior is, of course, silly, self-absorbed, and ultimately sad. But even these antics prove Schmemann's point: all of this noise is merely avoidance and denial of the oncoming reality of death.

Several factors have converged to turn my thoughts in this direction. My readings these days come more and more from the Orthodox ascetical writers--St. Isaac, St. Silouan, Archimandrite Sophrony, Elder Ephrem, Elder Paisios, etc.--and this clearly is a factor. Participation in my first Orthodox funeral, recounted here and here also plays a part. A post by Rod Dreher regarding the recent loss of his grandmother, here put me in mind of my own mother's death. Gabriel's posts about the loss of his grandfather, here and here reminded me of the emptiness I felt, at age 8, of the loss of my granddad. Finally, Christopher Buckley recent article on the loss of parents Bill and Pat Buckley in 2007 and 2008, here, gave me pause for thought, as well as the lead quotation from Montaigne.

Christopher Buckley is a gifted writer, whose father was a genius and mother a flamboyant and outrageous grand dame. His account offers a fascinating peek into this rarefied atmosphere. Interestingly, his story generated not the least bit of envy on my part. Stringing lights on your yacht anchored in the Caribbean does not a Christmas make. I recall watching an interview in which he described his parents--not at all critically--as really two impossible people. I suspect they were indeed. But for all his father's literary and intellectual acclaim, and the social set over which his mother presided, the estate in Greenwich, the Swiss chalet and the salon on the Upper East Side--it made no difference in the end. From their son's account, their deaths were altogether pedestrian--empty hospital rooms, monitors, I.V.s, ventilators, oxygen tanks--and ultimately, quite sad. Going through life high, wide and handsome means less than nothing on that day. Christopher Buckley, son of the very observant Catholic Bill Buckley, is himself non croyant, which adds a further layer of melancholy to the account.

This is in sharp contrast to the stories told by Rod and Gabriel in their recent losses. I have quoted from Rod's post at length, below.

She "talked" silently with someone no one else could see for some time. She told my mother, "God tells me he will take care of me, and will take care of y'all." And then: "He wants me to go with him. Tell him I don't want to go yet." My mother told her that it was fine for her to leave, to go in peace. The old lady said no, it's not yet time, and to please let God know. So that's what my mother did. And then Helen's pain went away....I found myself thinking about the poor thing, lying in that bed, scared out of her wits, in excruciating pain, knowing her life was coming to an end -- and then God came, and ministered to her. Was it really Him? I don't know. But this afternoon, the presence of the Almighty, if only in her mind, eased the suffering of a dying woman. And one day, we will all be like she is tonight. Whether my grandmother had a hidden faith, or only this afternoon acknowledged her Creator, praise His holy name for coming to her at the hour of her death, and showing mercy....But that's not all that happened today in that hospital room. A greater miracle occurred, one that really touches me....This afternoon in that hospital room, my mother and her mother talked at length of old times, of happy things from her childhood. Helen never brought up the meanness of those days, and my mother wouldn't have wanted her to, not now. As it happened, Helen was baptized as a young woman in a Baptist church in small-town Mississippi, and had been active in the congregation with my mother as a little girl, until her husband put a stop to it. They talked about that, and all kinds of memories. Somehow, it made my mom (and, hearing her tell the story, me) see her mother in a new light, as a fellow sufferer in that household who was frightened and confused and powerless and desperately, achingly poor. I could hear in my mother's voice as she told the story of events in the hospital room today that her heart -- and my mom has a good heart -- was full of mercy and forgiveness for past wrongs, and what she had to bear alone. None of what happened back then mattered anymore. The past was past. No words of reconciliation were spoken, but they didn't have to be. The circle is complete. My mom is at peace, and so is my grandmother. Mercy won the day.

On some level, Helen's story reminded me of my mother, and her last hours on earth. Lucy was a complex woman. Her early life was harsh and brutal, and her marriage to my dad was very much an escape. My mother had many admirable qualities. She was thrifty, hard-working, fastidious, disciplined, strong-willed and plain-spoken. She was ferociously loyal to her blood kin. Mother did not gossip; she minded her own business and expected others to mind theirs. She was the most stoic person I ever met, never complaining about her plight in life, or feeling sorry for herself.

But as with all of us, there was a flip side. Her thriftiness bordered on miserliness. She never understood that there could be differences in opinion, only contradictions to what was right, which happened to be whatever she thought on a particular subject. In a similar vein, she never understood that being blunt was not always a virtue. Mother was suspicious of everyone beyond her immediate family connections, and she made few friends. She was not in the least bit sentimental. And like Christopher Buckley said about his mother, "I [n]ever once heard [her]utter a religious or spiritual sentiment."

Lucy came from a family of the most nominal of nominal Baptists, and of them I would say, with Montaigne, "nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know." She did have a Bible, but I never saw her open it. Her bedstead was purchased in 1954, when the style was to have cabinets with sliding doors built into the headboard. The Bible stayed in the right-hand cabinet, in the box it came in. To leave it out, would have meant just one more thing to dust. When I was young, I would sneak into her bedroom, get the Bible out of the box and look at the pictures. My sister has it now, perhaps still in its presentation box.

Unlike my background, my wife came from a church-going family. Soon after our marriage, we attended a family meal at my parent's house. I never remember saying grace over meals growing up, and my dad, perceptive as always, was sensitive to his new daughter-in-law's sensibilities. Before the meal, he asked my mother, somewhat rhetorically, if we shouldn't say grace before eating. My mother shot back with "Well why should we do that? We raised every bit of it ourselves." Technically, my mother was right; the vegetables came from our garden, and the beef from our cattle. Aside from the butter, flour, sugar, and tea, nothing was purchased. For that was my mother's religion--the old American canard that "the Lord helps those who help themselves." But my dad, raised in a Christian home, was rightfully shocked, recognizing the impart of my mother's words. She just looked at him, as if to say "well?" That is another similarity my mother shared with Mrs. Buckley--she never apologized for anything.

Time ran down for my mother, as it does for all. She outlived her husband, a son, a grandson, all five of her siblings and several nieces and nephews. I remember being with her in the doctor's office in September before her death in March. He told her what she already knew, namely that all that could be done, had been done, and any treatments thereafter would be sacrificing quality of life to quantity of life. She looked straight ahead at him and simply said, "Well, I'm not going to give up. And I'm not going to fall to pieces." And she didn't. In her last hospital stay before death, she told me that she loved all of us. That was her only real acknowledgment to us that her time was short. My wife and I brought her to her own bed, at her own home, where we watched over her for that last week. The morning before her death that night, Mother was a bit delirious, not in great pain, but drifting in and out of consciousness. She raised both of her arms, as if trying to wave, it seemed. And then she said "I just want to tell everybody hello." My sister had stopped by, and said, "we're right here, Mamma," or something to that effect. My mother did not really acknowledge that, but repeated, "I just want to tell everybody hello."

Who she was seeing, we could not see. But I had witnessed this before. About 15 years earlier, I was with her nephew--my cousin--at his death. We were not close; for he was much older, and while my maternal cousins were always close at hand, there was never much interaction between us. But we shared, I think, an unspoken understanding of the great tragedy and desolation that had befallen our common family. My cousin was soft-spoken and introspective, and I was told that in his youth he liked to be alone and read, as did his dad. But he went to Vietnam, and that changed did a string of marriages. Finally, he succumbed to lung cancer while only in his mid 40s. At the time, my mother was undergoing her first round of chemotherapy, and my wife was staying with her. On the day of his death, I was alone with my cousin and his nurse. By that time he was a gaunt and hollow-eyed shadow of his former self. His 3rd wife, and his children from the 2nd wife, had gone to the funeral home to make arrangements. (For the life of me, I still cannot understand this. Could they not wait?) My cousin was no longer able to speak, and he had a wild-eyed look about him. But then he raised both arms above his head, slightly bent at the elbow. His nurse conjectured that he probably needed to have a bowel movement and was motioning for us to raise him from the bed. Following her lead, we linked hands and began to lift him up for that purpose. While doing so, his spirit left his body and he died in our arms.

I have thought often of this episode. I now believe the nurse was wrong as could be. For when my cousin raised his hands, I believe he was seeing/experiencing much the same thing as my mother, and Rod's grandmother. Even if only in their minds, it was a great mercy, an ease to their suffering and a consolation to those of us yet constructing our house of death.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Torment of St. Anthony

Michelangelo's artistic output was extraordinary, but I never realized that he produced only 4 known easel paintings. Two are in London's National Gallery, one is in the Uffizi in Florence, and come this autumn, the other with be in Fort Worth, Texas. The Kimbell Museum has pulled off a major coup in the acquisition of The Torment of Saint Anthony, painted in about 1487 or 1488, when Michelangelo was 12 or 13 years old. I found it interesting, obviously, because of the subject matter, but also as it provided more proof of the treasure that is the Kimbell Museum. Read about it here.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Better Go While You Can

Today's New York Times Travel Section carries a good article on Tbilisi., here.

Unfortunately, they are touting the city as the next big destination; not exactly Paris or Prague, but on a par with St. Petersburg or Moscow.
So, visit while there is still time, before this diamond in the rough gets all dressed up with tourist infrastructure and high-rise hotels.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

"To solve our problems requires that we see ourselves as we really are"

Driving home from church on Sunday, I like to listen to a bit of Fareed Zakaria on the radio. This last week, he was interviewing Defense Secretary Gates. Fareed asked if the US is falling into an "imperial trap" -- spending too much time and energy putting out all of the fires of the world, while countries like China concentrate on building a great prosperous industrial machine." I found Gates' answer to be instructive. He denied that the U.S. was an imperial power, but utilized the now-familiar bromide that America was an indispensable power (This, of course, from President Clinton's Second Inaugural Address. Thanks, Bill.) Gates concluded that "If you look around the world, nothing ever gets done without American leadership at the end of the day."

This is as self-serving a myth as there is. But this view of American exceptionalism--our "indispensability," if you will, is not confined to the upper echelons of power. This self-perception, coupled with an exalted view of individualism and our unique take on liberty forms the very foundation of American society. This is the creed of our public religion. At a recent prayer breakfast in my city, a Methodist minister offered the following (as a prayer, mind you):

"Wherever there is injustice and wherever there is an abuse of civil rights, American military personnel is there. We get bad mouthed by other nations for sticking our nose where it doesn't belong, but our nose belongs where we go because God has commissioned us to be the caretakers, the protectors of the world."

This is a jingoistic perspective, with little thought to its implications, to be sure--but hardly unique in my part of the nation. For this reason, it is all the more important that the viewpoints expressed in Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism receive wider circulation. I have been reading about the book for months now, but put off actually reading it until after Great Lent. In my estimation, this is an essential book that should take its place on the shelf with Huntington, Lukacs and Kennan.

A few quotes from Bacevich (a retired military man who lost his son in Iraq):

Seeing themselves as a peaceful people, Americans remain wedded to the conviction that the conflicts in which they find themselves embroiled are not of their own making. The global war on terror is no exception. Certain of our own benign intentions, we reflexively assign responsibility for war to others, typically malignant Hitler-like figures inexplicable bent on denying us the peace that is our fondest wish.

Freedom is the altar at which Americans worship, whatever their nominal religious persuasion. "No one sings odes to liberty as the final end of life with greater fervor than Americans," the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once observed. Yet even as they celebrate freedom, Americans exempt the object of their veneration from critical examination.

Niebuhr once wrote disapprovingly of Americans, their "culture soft and vulgar, equating joy with happiness and happiness with comfort."

Centered on consumption and individual individuals, American never cease to expect more.

Crediting the United States with a "great liberating tradition" distorts the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U. S. foreign policy. It transforms history into a morality tale, thereby providing a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis.

Accept the proposition that America is freedom's tribune, and it becomes a small step to believing that the "peace process" aims to achieve peace, that Iraq qualifies as a sovereign state, and that Providence has summoned the United States to wage an all-out war against "terrorism."

The Big Lies are the truths that remain unspoken: that freedom has an underside; that nations, like households, must ultimately live within their means; that history's purpose, the subject of so many confident pronouncements, remains inscrutable."

By extension, Americans ought to give up the presumptuous notion that they are called upon to tutor Muslims in matters relating to freedom and the proper relationship between politics and religion. The principle informing policy should be this: let Islam be Islam. In the end, Muslims will have to discover for themselves the shortcomings of political Islam, much as Russians discovered the defect of Marxist-Leninism and the Chinese came to appreciate the flaws of Maoism--perhaps even as we ourselves will one day begin to recognize the snares embedded in American exceptionalism."

As is the case on most topics, Daniel Larison has some cogent comments on the pernicious influence of American exceptionalism (this from a post deconstructing a particularly sophomoric article by Dallas Morning News columnist Mark Davis in defense of the concept.)

There are good reasons to push back against the idea of American exceptionalism, if only because it does seem to encourage tired jingoism far too often, but we should do this mainly to show that there is the possibility of an admiring respect that need not devolve into arrogant triumphalism that American exceptionalism tends to encourage....Confidence in America and respect for our actual, genuinely considerable accomplishments as a people are natural and worthy attitudes to have. Understanding the full scope of our history, neither airbrushing out the crimes nor dishonoring and forgetting our heroes, is the proper tribute we owe to our country and our ancestors. Exaggeration and bluster betray a lack of confidence in America, and strangely this lack of confidence seems concentrated among those most certain that mostly imaginary “declinists” are ruining everything. More humble confidence and less horror that our President is not engaged in stupid demonstrations of machismo might be the appropriate response to present realities.

He also links a recent excellent article by Bacevich, here.

There was a time in my life (in the not so very distant past) when I accepted such views unquestioningly, as I suppose most people do. Obviously, my conversion to Orthodoxy signaled a marked change in attitude. My self-perception and my relationship to others as fellow-citizens of a particular nation have undergone a thorough-going and much-need overhaul. I would be curious how other Orthodox see this evolution of thought in their own lives.