Mark Helprin’s The Pacific and Other Stories is the book. It is a powerful grouping of diverse tales that take place on different continents, at different times, and among different people. What is common to them all is the effect they produce: moments that stay with you long after you have closed the book. One of them begins, “Down by St. Elizabeth’s, up from the river and toward the museum, just beyond where the Utrechseweg parts from the Onderlangs, he died with the vision of his daughter Charlotte in his eyes. He had been lying in the street after staying impossibly long on his knees, unreachable by his men except those who, having come to get him against his orders, lay dead nearby.”
As thoughts pass through the soldier’s head, an image remains with us: shot in the abdomen, aware he is dying, he lingers on his knees. Helprin explains, but doesn't really explain: “He did not want to go down, not because he didn’t know that he was dying, but because to collapse so quickly did not seem right. Something was happening. Something had to happen. And it required that, for a while, even if they shot him because for them it seemed inappropriate that he would not collapse, he simply would not go down.”
Nothing happens until a German soldier eventually topples him with a final shot. The last sentence of the story is the same as the first sentence. It takes a talented writer to hold your attention when so little action takes place, but Helprin does it again and again.
This week I’ve been continuing with Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. The book is emotionally very heavy, so I decided to take a break the other day and dip into Max Weber’s Economy and Society. In the first section of Weber’s book he sets out to define the basic terms of sociology, including (among many others) “legitimacy.” Weber’s precision and simplicity are admirable, and tend to clarify thinking about the subject at hand. (In this way he is like a good Thomist.) But I found especially striking the following paragraph:
Today the most common form of legitimacy is the belief in legality, the compliance with enactments which are formally correct and which have been made in the accustomed manner. In this respect, the distinction between an order derived from voluntary agreement and one which has been imposed is only relative. For so far as the agreement underlying the order is not unanimous, as in the past has often been held necessary for complete legitimacy, the order is actually imposed upon the minority; in this frequent case the order in a given group depends upon the acquiescence of those who hold different opinions. On the other hand, it is very common for minorities, by force or by the use of more ruthless and far-sighted methods, to impose an order which in the course of time comes to be regarded as legitimate by those who originally resisted it. Insofar as the ballot is used as a legal means of altering an order, it is very common for the will of a minority to attain a formal majority and for the majority to submit. In this case majority rule is a mere illusion.
What struck me above all about the performance of the presidential candidates at Monday night’s debate was that neither of them—over the course of nearly two hours—managed to utter even one complete, syntactically correct, unscripted sentence. It was less a battle of ideas than a brawl, a chaotic exchange of rhetorical barbs and tweet-worthy catchphrases designed to signal truth-teller status by asserting mastery over “the facts.”
I was reminded of a passage from Book VI of Plato's Republic which Allan Bloom's students at Cornell once circulated in leaflet form as a protest against the anarchy gripping their campus in the 1960s. When men can no longer govern themselves by reason, but relinquish control over their souls to appetite, there are both psychological and political consequences. They not only enslave themselves to their own desires, but also invite sophists, orators, and other manipulators to sway their passions in the private interests of power:
“Do you really think, as people so often say, that our youth are corrupted by sophists, or that private teachers of the art corrupt them in any degree worth speaking of? Are not the public who say these things the greatest of all sophists? And do they not educate to perfection young and old, men and women alike, and fashion them after their own hearts?”
“But when do they do that?” he said.
“When they meet together, and the world sits down at an assembly, or in a court of law, or a theatre, or a camp, or in any other popular resort, and there is a great uproar, and they praise some things which are being said or done, and blame other things, both in excess, shouting and clapping their hands; and the echo of the rocks and the place in which they are assembled redoubles the sound of the praise or blame. At such a time will not a young man's heart, as they say, leap within him? Will any private education enable him to stand firm against the overwhelming flood of popular opinion? Or will he be carried away by the stream? Will he not have the notions of good and evil which the public in general have—will he do as they do, and as they are, such will he be?”
As I mentioned elsewhere, my fiancée and I have been reading Fulton Sheen’s classic Three to Get Married, taking on a chapter every Sunday in the lead-up to our wedding. Sheen writes with charm and theological insight, reflecting at length on the Trinity and how it is embodied in Christian marriage and family. His vision of the everyday world is shot through with our eternal destiny, and the way the sacraments draw us closer to that. I could offer many passages as food for thought. I’ll restrict myself to two excerpts, from his chapters on fatherhood and motherhood. First fatherhood:
The thrill of the farmer in springtime, as he sees the grains of wheat he planted come up through the dead earth, little green swords pledging defense of human life; the joy at seeing a geranium bud in a tin full of earth on a tenement windowsill; the ecstasy of the saint at seeing a sinner, dead in sin, responding to a word or a prayer and beginning to live in Christ: all these are earth’s witnesses to the inherent happiness that comes to anyone who sees life springing, sprouting, or a-borning. Love does not mean merely the joy to possess; it means also the will to see new life born out of that love. The realization that he has passed on the torch of life and can see it flowering before his eyes in “his own image and likeness” is the basic reason why a man when he has become a father is no longer just a man. He is the supreme moment of self-recovery, the re-signing of a lease on life; it is time’s best moment, when a man feels, within himself, the shimmering refraction of the eternal joy of an eternal Father begetting an eternal Son and saying to Him in the noontide of paternity: “Thou art My Son; I have begotten thee this day” (Psalm 2:7). As the Son is the Lumen de lumine, the Light of the Light, so in the newborn infant is “flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone.”
And now motherhood:
Human motherhood is not like animal motherhood, for the soul of the child is not an emanation from its mother's body, but a direct creation by God Himself, Who infuses it into the body of the child. As the priest prepares the bread of the sacrifice, so the mother prepares the material of birth. But as the power of God changes the bread into the Body of Christ, so the power of God infuses life into a body and makes it a human person. This adds to physiological birth, which is, in common with animals, the note of cooperation with God. There is something given to her by God that she clothes with flesh....Mary bore the Consecrated Host, which is Christ Himself; the mother bears the bread of the sacristy, which is destined for the altar.