I very much enjoyed Armin Rosen’s essay about the Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (“Tarkovksy’s Sublime Terror,” October 2023), but I’m afraid he has made an error of fact about Tarkovsky’s film Nostalghia. Rosen says the protagonist, Andrei Gorchakov, “swallows poison and then carries out his goal of completing a ritual.” I checked my memory against the film, and Gorchakov consumes nothing prior to his ritual. He is seen taking medication earlier in the film because he has a weak heart. Gorchakov dies after carrying out a seemingly meaningless ritual for a suffering madman, as an act of compassion and solidarity. Gorchakov does not intend to die; rather, his heart gives out under the strain of carrying a lit candle across a drained pool.
The film’s ending is about the redemption, through sacrificial love, of an alienated writer who was unable to live fully in the world as it is, because he was stricken by a sense of nostalgia that blinded him to the beauty around him—and, indeed, as we learn in a dream sequence, to the loving, constant presence of God. It was love for a fellow sufferer that called the writer outside of the dark wood of his own head. To me, the film reads as an extended meditation on the existential snare of being trapped inside your own thoughts, unable to perceive (or receive) grace. The stunning final image is an icon of time transfigured and redeemed through a sacrificial act of selfless love, of an exercise of heroically focused attention that caused Gorchakov, for the first time, to be fully present, and not perseverating on his own unhappiness. Nostalghia is a difficult film, even by Tarkovsky’s demanding standards. Yet for those who persist—I have seen it five or six times—each viewing peels back another level of meaning.
A Useless Book
Many thanks for Randy Boyagoda’s review of The World by Simon Sebag Montefiore (“Zero Gravity History,” October 2023). My wife and I had bought the book, based on a glowing review in the Wall Street Journal, and on other books by Montefiore that we had read—principally, his two-volume biography of Stalin, his history of the Romanov dynasty, and his “biography” of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, in his attempt to cram the history of the entire world into 1,262 pages (about the same number of pages as his biography of a single man, Joseph Stalin), Montefiore reduces history to slogans and catch-phrases.
The enterprise reminds me of a story that George Orwell told about Sir Walter Raleigh. It seems that while Raleigh was in the Tower of London, he decided to while away the time by writing a history of the world. As he was laboring on his history, he was interrupted by a fight that broke out among some workmen who were building scaffolding, one of whom fell to his death. Despite his careful inquiries, and despite the fact that he had witnessed the event with his own eyes, Raleigh was not able to find out what the fight had been about or who had struck the first blow. At which point, he abandoned his project. If only Mr. Montefiore had followed Raleigh’s example! As it is, we have this half-read mass of paper sitting in our living room, too small to sit on, yet too big to use to fix a wobbly table.
Randy Boyagoda replies:
I share Frederick Butzen’s dismay at the massive uselessness of this book, not least because, as he rightly notes, some of Montefiore’s earlier works were at once engaging, accessible, rigorous, and serious-minded. If it’s any consolation for his biblio-furniture woes, I was reading this book while in Rome, earlier this year; the prospect of packing it in between bags of Sant’Eustachio coffee for my wife and bulk rosaries for my mother filled me with mind-numbing despair. Reader, I accidentally left it in the damp library of a former monastery in the hills outside the city. Someday, let us hope and pray, may it find good use as a formidable pedestal for better books.
I enjoyed Liel Leibovitz’s take on the central characters in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (“God and the Bomb,” October 2023). J. Robert Oppenheimer was a decidedly modern man who, like good modern architecture, sought a complete break from the past, especially the Jewish faith of his fathers. Lewis Strauss, on the other hand, Leibovitz calls a “true believer” in God, despite employing underhanded tactics that would make “Machiavelli blush.”
As insightful as Leibovitz’s analysis is, I disagree with his conclusion. It seems to me a different, more troubling thesis makes better sense of what we know: Both Oppenheimer and Strauss are on the run from God, but running in different directions. As Tim Keller put it, one “can run from God either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently.” If Oppenheimer runs from God by breaking the rules, Strauss runs by keeping them. All this running from God creates a disastrous social wake, from Cain’s murder of Abel all the way up to Strauss’s vitriol for Oppenheimer.
Which gives Oppenheimer its ominous conclusion: Humanity, which is in a multidirectional flight from its Creator, has unleashed a power capable of destroying the world. As I left the theater, Peter Kreeft’s words echoed in my mind: “Help is desperately needed exactly now. For exactly at the time when the fatal knowledge of how to destroy the entire human race has fallen forever into our hands, the knowledge of morality has fallen out. . . . Exactly when our toys have grown up with us from bows and arrows to thermonuclear bombs, we have become moral infants.”
God help us.
oklahoma city, oklahoma
I found myself unexpectedly moved by John Byron Kuhner’s “Sinéad O’Connor’s Cross” (October 2023). I am among those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, though I caught only the beginning of her career. I’ve always enjoyed the edge and personal conviction of her song “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I wonder if she ever did “sleep with a clear conscience,” “sleep in peace.” I moved to Africa with the Peace Corps in October 1990 and there returned to the Christian faith of my early youth. O’Connor and I were born just eleven months apart. I grieve that a prominent and influential member of my generation could not find refuge, healing, and purpose in Jesus Christ as I did (and still do). Kuhner’s article reminded me that those who represent Christ must treat every person with the dignity they deserve, that potential future O’Connors might tread a better path.
John Byron Kuhner replies:
Amen to that. When I was working as a teacher, I made it a point to make sure that I found something to admire in every single one of my students. Once I found something to admire in them—and if you look, such things are easy to find—there was a human bond that made both teaching and learning easier. Artists have an advantage in that we are disposed to like people who make things we find beautiful. O’Connor’s final years were clouded by despair, but we can find comfort in knowing that if she is not beyond our love, she is not beyond God’s either. As for future O’Connors, God’s truth does not depend on our good behavior, but we need our faith and hope and love in the public square, “that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
Upon the apparent demise of Christianity, many thinkers have hailed the West’s return to paganism. Louise Perry’s title sounds the alarm: “We Are Repaganizing” (October 2023). She makes an important historical contribution by emphasizing that we are not properly repaganizing, because paganism never truly disappeared.
Yet I find myself at variance with her. As Chesterton put it, “If only the young were pagans!” Paganism is not my preferred option, especially when recalling the Roman habit of killing Christians for public entertainment, but it could be a reasonably bad second choice.
History shows that Christianity found in Greco-Roman culture a fertile soil in which to grow. Take the discourse of Paul of Tarsus at the Areopagus in a.d. 50, often considered a failure. A re-reading of chapter 17 of Acts shows, however, that his Athenian interlocutors—probably the politically correct people of the time—gave him a fair hearing.
Paul relied on the many rational grounds common to Christians and pagans. His reference to a provident God who rules the world, rewards the good, and punishes the bad did not raise an eyebrow among his largely Epicurean/Stoic audience. His listeners gave him a chance to explain himself. Were Paul to address an equivalent Western forum today, would he be able to speak so much without arousing vocal rejection? Paganism had pietas (think of Aeneas); an order inherent in the world; the logos, a universal moral, natural law; and moderation, meden agan. In Cicero’s De Officiis you may find our cardinal virtues. When reading some parts of Aristotle, I tend to feel as if I were reading a Father of the Church. If Rome had an heir, then it was in fact the Church.
When C. S. Lewis moved to Cambridge in 1954 he gave a magnificent lecture, De Descriptione Temporum. As for neo-paganism, he said: “Post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.”
Post-Christian models are not Socrates or Julius Caesar. Post-Christians lack nearly all that the pagans had. Our world is utterly disenchanted; paganism was enchanted to the point of superstition. Pagans erected burial monuments; post-Christians toy with human composting. Prometheus toiled to steal the fire of the gods; our post-Christians toil to downgrade man to the level of apes, or less. Considering the whole picture, I miss a solid phalanx of honest, sound pagans. I miss their thirst for sophia, eudaimonia, and beauty. I also miss the return of counter-philosophers like the Apostle Paul and St. Justin Martyr. By listening to them, quite a few of the pagans might again become Christian.
university of santiago de compostela
santiago de compostela, spain
I am one of what must be a significant number of devoted First Things readers who are not Catholic. We are devoted readers—in my case for more years than I care to remember—because of its intellectual excellence and for our great interest and respect for the Catholic Church. The internal travails of the Church are not just a matter of interest but also of concern, given its unique position and importance, which goes well beyond the Catholic world.
In recent times, the position and leadership of His Holiness the pope has become one point of contention and discussion within Catholicism, a discussion in which First Things represents a distinct and articulate position. As outsiders we may inevitably have views and opinions, but it is not for us to intervene actively and take sides in an internal family feud.
There is, however, one issue on which I believe an outsider may be justified in respectfully stepping into the fray. This concerns not the content of the internal Catholic debates—in relation to which I insist I express no opinion—but simply the matter of manner and decorum. Conversation with fellow ROFTers has persuaded me that I am not alone in feeling that on more than one occasion references to the pope in First Things are framed in a dismissive and even insulting manner, which are not consistent with his position as head of the Catholic Church.
I yield to no one in my esteem and even affection for our editor-in-chief, and it is precisely for this reason that I would give as one example a recent item in “While We’re At It”:
Pope Francis generates pronouncements . . . like a verbal semi-automatic weapon. . . . Ignatian indifference . . . urges us to take up only those things that help us to praise, reverence, and serve God, while setting aside that which tends the other way. In practice this has meant ignoring most of what the Holy Father says. . . . It’s nice to hear from the pope how wicked I am.
I confess that I winced when I read this. I am well aware that “While We’re At It” has its own unique style, in which irony and a certain lightheartedness are part of what makes it such enjoyable reading. I am also aware that within a family lack of decorum may be permitted when the same may not be allowed to an outsider. But First Things is much more than a journal by Catholics for Catholics. I think this is an example, and I fear that this is not the only one, where a line has been crossed. At times, people of different faiths are called to stand together in an increasingly hostile secular world. In our secular societies a tone of derision and disrespect is not uncommon when referring to religious leaders. I wish First Things would avoid such a tone.
J. H. H. Weiler
new york university
new york, new york
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