Doctor Zhivago – a masterpiece revisited

Sixty years ago I read Boris Pasternak’s great novel, Doctor Zhivago. I was a first year undergraduate in University College Dublin. I had not read much at that stage of my life and in fact I did not know much about anything. But I did know that I had never read anything like that before. 

I have just reread it. Many years later there is still little in my fairly expansive and relatively discriminatory reading which can match it for its mysterious depth, beauty and power. Edmund Wilson wrote of the novel: “Doctor Zhivago will, I believe, come to stand as one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history”.

Boris Pasternak

In 1958 Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for literature. Doctor Zhivago had just been published in Italy the year before, to the chagrin of the Soviet authorities under whom Pasternak had struggled for years. Before the Prize for 1958 was announced rumours were circulating that he was going to be the recipient. They worried him and he wrote of them:

Some people believe the Nobel Prize may be awarded to me this year. I am firmly convinced that I shall be passed over and that it will go to Alberto Moravia. You cannot imagine all the difficulties, torments, and anxieties which arise to confront me at the mere prospect, however unlikely, of such a possibility… One step out of place – and the people closest to you will be condemned to suffer from all the jealousy, resentment, wounded pride and disappointment of others, and old scars on the heart will be reopened…

But the rumours were well-founded. On 23 October 1958, it was announced that he was in fact the winner of the Prize. The citation spoke of his contribution to Russian lyric poetry and for his role in, “continuing the great Russian epic tradition”. He accepted and to the Swedish Academy he wrote, “Infinitely grateful, touched, proud, surprised, overwhelmed.”

But as he feared and predicted, all this was a step too far for the monster which had shadowed him throughout his literary career. On 26 October, the Soviet watchdog, the Literary Gazette published an article entitled, “Reactionary Propaganda – Uproar over a Literary Weed”.

The KGB surrounded Pasternak’s dacha and he was threatened with arrest. His loved ones, some of whom had already spent time in Stalin’s gulags, were threatened as well. It was clear to him that should he go to Stockholm to receive the prize he would have to remain in exile for the rest of his life. For him, this was not an option.

On 29 October Pasternak told the Nobel Committee:

“In view of the meaning given the award by the society in which I live, I must renounce this undeserved distinction which has been conferred on me. Please do not take my voluntary renunciation amiss.”

The Academy responded:

“This refusal, of course, in no way alters the validity of the award. There remains only for the Academy, however, to announce with regret that the presentation of the Prize cannot take place.”

All of this was, of course, nothing more than a fulfillment of the prophetic story encapsulated in the masterpiece which had just reached the light of day in Italy the year before, and which was now enthralling the free world. Reading Doctor Zhivago today is unnervingly prescient, not just of what happened in Russia, of Pasternak’s own suffering, but of our own time plagued as we are by brainless ideologues who ruthlessly seek to mold mankind to their crazy bizarre imaginings.

But it would be wrong to limit the meaning, and indeed the mystery, of Doctor Zhivago to politics. It is a tragic and complicated love story, a story of forbidden love but one where the power of faith and conscience remains central in the suffering which unfolds for its protagonists. 

A clue to the vision of love, complicated though it may be, embodied in this extraordinarily poetic novel can be found in this short description: 

They loved each other, not driven by necessity, by the “blaze of passion” often falsely ascribed to love. They loved each other because everything around them willed it, the trees and the clouds and the sky over their heads and the earth under their feet.

Yuri Zhivago’s fictional life began some two decades before the Great War and the Russian Revolutions. He marries his childhood companion, Tonya, They love each other deeply, have children and live happily until the war and the revolution destroy the tranquility of their lives. 

Pasternak’s Yuri Zhivago is not a political man. While initially he hoped that the overthrow of the old regime would bring peace and justice, disillusion and eventually horror gripped him as he saw the hypocrisy, the brutality and the corrupted vision of the new masters unfold. He seeks to disappear. He is a complicated man who, in the disruption which war and revolution brought, falls deeply in love with someone with whom he knows he should not be in love. 

Some have criticised the novel for a heavy reliance on unbelievable coincidences, a certain chaotic element in the plot and a failure to adequately characterise the protagonists. Pasternak defended the structure in a letter to Stephen Spender.

This was written in the context of Edmund Wilson’s New Yorker 1958 review of the novel. Wilson had noted that it was full of recurring coincidences, and that, while the events in it seemed real, it wasn’t actually a realistic novel. Not long afterwards he wrote another article about it for Spender’s Encounter

Pasternak wrote to Spender, expressing his gratitude to and admiration for Wilson. He explained ‘coincidences’ and ‘chaos’ and said that his sense of reality–the whole–has always been this: that there is a purpose, an end…a reached sending… Whatever the cause, reality has been for me like a sudden, unexpected arrival that is intensely welcome. I have always tried to reproduce this sense of being sent, of being launched… there is an effort in my novels to represent the whole sequence (facts, beings, happenings) as a great moving entity… a developing, passing, rolling, rushing inspiration. As if reality itself had freedom of choice… Hence the reproach that my characters were insufficiently realized. Rather than delineate, I was trying to efface them. Hence the frank arbitrariness of the “coincidences.” Here I wanted to show the unrestrained freedom of life, its very verisimilitude contiguous with improbability…

Complicated, I know, but for any reader of this magnificent work of art, it is well worth grappling with it.

Another element in the vision of Pasternak – and reflected in Yuri Zhivago – is his belief in God and divine providence. This belief pervades the entire work, from beginning to the end. The ignorance of the new masters of Russia and their rejection of Christianity is at the heart of Zhivago’s revolt. It was also at the heart of the regime’s rejection of the author and his work. As we read his reflections on the monster then ‘slouching towards Bethlehem’ we are reminded of an exchange in a conversation in Dostoevsky’s Demons (The Possessed) where one character is arguing for the destruction of God and the deification of man: 

Then there will be a new life, a new man, everything new … “Then history will be divided into two parts: from the gorilla to the destruction of God, and from the destruction of God to …,  at which point his interlocutor interrupts, …“To the gorilla?”  Again, an exchange not without resonances in our own time.

Zivago, from the beginning of his liaison with Larissa Fyodorovna Antipov, struggles intermittently but unsuccessfully with his human frailty. He and Lara are portrayed in a kind of Davidic relationship where both the glorious love of the Song of Songs interplays with the pain and sorrow of David’s cry of repentance, the Miserere (Psalm 50). 

The denouement of their relationship is played out in the aftermath of two incidents recounted in the latter part of the novel. One is a conversation, providentially overheard by Zhivago, between Lara and her deeply religious friend, Simushka, perhaps a type of the prophet Nathan. The other, which happens as this conversation is just ending – is Yuri’s receipt of a letter from his wife in Moscow, telling him that they are being deported from Russia.

Begin, Simushka. I’m listening, says Lara.

Simuska begins by saying that a human being is made up of two parts. Of God and work and that the development of the human spirit breaks down into separate works of enormous duration. 

They were realised in the course of generations and followed one after the other. Egypt was such a work, Greece was such a work, the biblical prophets’ knowledge of God was such a work. Such a work — the latest in time, not yet supplanted by anything else, performed by the entire inspiration of our time — is Christianity…  what it brought…was new and unprecedented.

She then uses some beautiful liturgical texts from the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church to explain, and ultimately convert both Lara and Zhivago.

She explains how hymns in the liturgy are formed by juxtaposing images from the Old and New Testaments. Instances from the old world — the burning bush, the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, the youths in the fiery furnace, Jonah in the belly of the whale, and so on – are compared with instances from the new, for example, the Mother of God’s conception and the Resurrection of Christ. 

In a whole multitude of verses, the virgin motherhood of Mary is compared with the crossing of the Red Sea by the Jews. For instance, in the verses of “In the Red Sea, a type of the virgin bride was figured” it is said: “After Israel’s passage, the sea remained impassable; after Emmanuel’s birth the undefiled one remained intact.” In other words, the waters of the sea closed after the crossing of Israel, and the Virgin remained intact after giving birth to the Lord. What sort of incidents are made parallel here? Both events are supernatural, both are equally recognised as miracles. In what did these two different times, the ancient, primitive time and the new, post-Roman time, which was far more advanced, see a miracle?  

In the one case, by the command of the people’s leader, the patriarch Moses, and by the swinging of his magic rod, the sea opens up, lets a whole nation pass across it, a countless multitude, hundreds of thousands, and when the last one has crossed, closes again, and covers and drowns the pursuing Egyptians. A spectacle in the ancient spirit, the elements obedient to the magician’s voice, the great thronging multitudes, like Roman armies on the march, the people and their leader, things visible and invisible, stunning. 

In the other case, a maiden — an ordinary thing, the ancient world wouldn’t have paid attention to it — secretly and quietly gives life to a child, brings life into the world, the miracle of life, the life of all, He who is “the Life of all”, as he was later called. Her childbirth is unlawful not only from the point of view of the scribes, being outside wedlock. It also contradicts the laws of nature. The maiden gives birth not by force of necessity, but by miracle, by inspiration. 

What an enormously significant change! How is it that for heaven (because it is in the eyes of heaven that this must be evaluated, before the face of heaven, in the sacred framework of uniqueness in which it is all accomplished) — how is it that for heaven a private human circumstance, negligible from the point of view of antiquity, became equivalent to the migration of an entire people?  

Something shifted in the world. Rome ended, the power of numbers, the necessity, imposed by arms, of living en masse, as a whole population. Leaders and nations became things of the past.  

The person, the preaching of freedom came to supplant them. An individual human life became God’s story, filling the space of the universe with its content. As it’s said in one of the hymns of the Annunciation, Adam wanted to become God and made a mistake and did not become Him, but now “God becomes man, so as to make Adam God”’  

Sima digresses for a moment on the folly of the ideologues of her time and their false philosophy of happiness Then she goes on: 

A few words about Christ and Mary Magdalene. This isn’t from the Gospel account of her, but from the prayers of Holy Week…I think from Holy Tuesday or Wednesday. But you know that without me, Larissa Fyodorovna. I simply want to remind you of a thing or two, and not at all to lecture you.  ‘“Passion” in Slavonic, as you know perfectly well, first of all means “suffering”, the Passion of our Lord, “the Lord goeth to His voluntary passion” (that is, to His voluntary suffering). Besides that, the word is used in the later Russian meaning of vices and lusts. “Having enslaved the dignity of my soul to passions, I turned into a beast…’

 Now listen with what genuine passion, with what directness regardless of anything, this mention is made… she asks the Lord: “Loose my debt as I have loosed my hair.” That is: “Release me from guilt, just as I have released my hair.” How materially the thirst for forgiveness, for repentance, is expressed! You can touch it with your hands. 

Simushka then recounts verses from another hymn  ‘Here, with terrible tangibility, she laments for her past, for the fact that every night her former, inveterate habits flare up in her. “For I live in the night of licentiousness, shrouded in the dark and moonless love of sin.” She asks Christ to accept her tears of repentance and incline His ear to the sighing of her heart, so that she may wipe His most pure feet with her hair, with which the stunned and ashamed Eve covered herself in paradise.’

After these two incidents, everything changes for Zhivago and Lara and both of them enter on a path of suffering which they did not foresee but can only be read as part of their redemption. They enter a reality of the kind spoken of by Pasternak, a reality that was for him like a sudden, unexpected arrival that is intensely welcome…as a great moving entity… a developing, passing, rolling, rushing inspiration. As if reality itself had freedom of choice… 

Like all great art which represents the mystery of humanity to us, there is no single interpretation which explains this work. We can only joyfully – and sorrowfully  – enter into its mystery and glory in the graces given to people who open these doors and windows to us, helping us to be, perhaps, wiser and better people by doing so.

What a privilege it has been to be accompanied on our way by this man.

Generations of the future will look back at our time and marvel. They will marvel but perhaps also worry about the scientific progress of our age. They may or may not marvel at our creativity. They will certainly not marvel at our capacity to keep peace among ourselves. They will marvel above all that the Holy Spirit nurtured and gave to us a gift such as the pastor and theologian, aide and confidant to the Supreme Pontiff, St. John Paul II, and finally Christ’s Vicar himself,  Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI.

We who have lived through the second half of the 20th century and into the early decades of the new millennium, were for many of those decades unaware of what was in our midst. This man of exceptional intelligence was grappling away with the most important questions facing mankind, teaching, writing for what was for a time a select few. Then came a momentous event in the history of the Church, the second ever Vatican Council. He was there as an aide, and advisor, to one of its leading prelates. He was noticed, but not by many of us. His vocation was gradually revealing itself to him and with its demands he had to struggle. He did so heroically. He only ever wanted to be a priest and a teacher of theology.

Finally, in the last decades of the old millennium he was called to assist the Vicar of Christ himself in his divine mission. Then we all began to notice the gift we had received..

Joseph Ratzinger, as theologian, teacher and supreme pastor will stand out in the history of Christianity, over the past several hundred years, as one of the most exceptional human beings ever chosen by God to fulfill the mandate given by Christ to his apostles when he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The Holy Spirit, down through the ages, has been guiding His Church with the help of numerous human beings and using many instruments for His communications – councils, decrees, encyclicals, to name but a few. He has chosen and nurtured men and women with great minds to be our teachers, mostly now identified as Doctors of the Church. Among these St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas stand out. In that line Joseph Ratzinger must now surely take his place.

No pope in our time, not even the great St. John Paul II, no pope for even centuries past since the invention of the printing press has left us with the volume of theological reflection, exposition and prayerful but exacting fruit of deep study, as has Joseph Ratzinger. His oeuvre is bewildering in its breadth but absolutely breathtaking in its exacting scholarship. The vast majority of it was not written with the authority of his office as Supreme Pontiff, a relatively short period of his life. Nevertheless, knowing it, we can see in those divinely inspired authoritative teachings of his papacy, the fruits of his many years of theological reflection.

Consider this, as one example. There could be so many, I only chose this because I have read and marvelled at it so recently. It is from a little book first published in 1991, CALLED TO COMMUNION – UNDERSTANDING THE CHURCH TODAY. In one section he is examining the question of the primacy of Peter and the unity of the Church.

We have seen that the New Testament as a whole strikingly demonstrates the primacy of Peter; we have seen that the formative development of tradition and of the Church supposed the continuation of Peter’s authority in Rome as an intrinsic condition. The Roman primacy is not an invention of the popes, but an essential element of ecclesial unity that goes back to the Lord and was developed faithfully in the nascent Church.

But the New Testament shows us more than the formal aspect of a structure; it also reveals to us the inward nature of this structure. It does not merely furnish proof texts, it is a permanent criterion and task. It depicts the tension between skandalon (the weakness of humanity)* and rock; in the very disproportion between man’s capacity and God’s sovereign disposition, it reveals God to be the one who truly acts and is present. 

If in the course of history the attribution of such authority to men could repeatedly engender the not entirely unfounded suspicion of human arrogation of power, not only the promise of the New Testament but also the trajectory of that history itself, prove the opposite. The men in question are so glaringly, so blatantly unequal to this function that the very empowerment of man to be the rock makes evident how little it is they who sustain the Church, but God alone who does so, who does so more in spite of men than through them. 

The mystery of the Cross is perhaps nowhere so palpably present as in the primacy as a reality of Church history. That its center is forgiveness is both its intrinsic condition and the sign of the distinctive character of God’s power. Every single biblical logion (a saying attributed to Christ, not recorded in the canonical Gospels)* about the primacy thus remains from generation to generation a signpost and a norm, to which we must ceaselessly resubmit ourselves. 

When the Church adheres to these words in faith, she is not being triumphalist but humbly recognizing in wonder and thanksgiving the victory of God over and through human weakness. Whoever deprives these words of their force for fear of triumphalism or of human usurpation of authority does not proclaim that God is greater but diminishes him, since God demonstrates the power of his love, and thus remains faithful to the law of the history of salvation, precisely in the paradox of human impotence. For with the same realism with which we declare today the sins of the popes and their disproportion to the magnitude of their commission, we must also acknowledge that Peter has repeatedly stood as the rock against ideologies, against the dissolution of the word into the plausibilities of a given time, against subjection to the powers of this world.

When we see this in the facts of history, we are not celebrating men but praising the Lord, who does not abandon the Church and who desired to manifest that he is the rock through Peter, the little stumbling stone: “flesh and blood” do not save, but the Lord saves through those who are of flesh and blood. To deny this truth is not a plus of faith, not a plus of humility, but is to shrink from the humility that recognizes God as he is. Therefore the Petrine promise and its historical embodiment in Rome remain at the deepest level an ever-renewed motive for joy: the powers of hell will not prevail against it.

How encouraging these words are for us even today, when discordant voices against Peter can be heard in surprising quarters. Joseph Ratzinger, humble, faithful Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, was and is a treasure and a gift. His papal teaching, his words of inspired wisdom, will continue to guide us through the rough terrain ahead as we make our way out of Egypt.

*My parenthesis.

See Position Papers where this and other articles in tribute to Pope Benedict will be published in the January issue in hard copy and online.

Save Christmas from ourselves

Depiction of the Nativity at the birthplace of Christ now enshrined in the Basilica in Bethlehem

But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” (Luke, 6.11)

It’s been going on for a long time.

I wonder if, by the time the Christmas edition of Position Papers gets to your newsagent’s shelf, hits your letterbox or your email inbox, will the secularist itching bug have made its annual appearance again?

Last year, among other locations, there was a laughable outbreak of it in the European Commission and the European Parliament, provoking a scratching frenzy, left, right and centre, in those very serious institutions.

It all began with a hamfisted attempt to keep references to Christmas out of the European Parliament. Apparently an email was sent some time in Autumn 2021, to the assistants of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from one, Adam Mouchtar, who is a special political advisor to the Parliament.

In the email titled “No Christmas greetings please,” Mouchtar asked the parliamentary assistants to persuade their MEPs not to send out Christmas greetings and wishes, describing such wishes as “spam” and  a “nuisance.”

Then, at the end of November, the European Commission itself released recommendations concerning Christmas. According to the proposal, EU officials were meant to avoid “assuming everyone was Christian.” The document’s authors explained that not everyone celebrated Christmas.

According to the EU Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, this was to ensure that everyone should feel appreciated in official EU materials regardless of  their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, faith, disability, age, and sexual orientation. How patronising can you get – and how ignorant can you be of the spirit of a celebration which has at its very heart a message of joy and good will to all?

But all this was enough to get a frenzy going and in the debate that followed no one covered themselves in glory with silly one-upmanship showing itself left, right and centre.  It was brought to an end mercifully when Margaritis Schinas, the Vice-President of the European Commission, took the floor and  said Dalli’s guidelines had been withdrawn. The email also sank without a  trace.

But Christmas is bigger and stronger and can resist the slings and arrows these minnows throw at it. It has been with us, we can imagine, since Mary and Joseph joyfully celebrated Jesus’s first birthday in Nazareth over two millennia ago.

One of the earliest recorded mentions of Christmas observance is from 129 AD when a Roman bishop decreed: “In the Holy Night of the Nativity of our Lord and Saviour, all shall solemnly sing the Angels Hymn.” The war against it had already begun, of course, and in 274 AD, the emperor, Marcus Aurelius tried to blot it out with a rival festival – shades of our modern secularists’ efforts to institute a ‘Winterval’ for us. The Emperor’s feeble effort was to invent a Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, birthday of the Unconquered Sun in order to compete with the Christian feast of Christmas.

And so it went on  down through the centuries.

The English puritans, Cromwell and, the American puritans all tried to obliterate Christmas. We should be little surprised that the war against it persists right into our own time in the 21st century.

But are these paper tigers, straw men, decoys of the forces which have raged against the Christian faith since the Incarnation of the Son of God? Their destructive power is no greater than that of the destroyers of faith the poet William Blake wrote of in his wonderful three-stanza put-down of the scoffers of his time:

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau,

Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain;

You throw the sand against the wind

And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a gem

Reflected in the beams divine;

Blown back, they blind the mocking eye,

But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The atoms of Democritus

And Newton’s particles of light

Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,

Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

The truth is that these battles may be a dangerous distraction from the real enemy of Christmas, our own shallow faith. As we look at the gross commercialisation, the hollowing out of everything that is important about Christmas, we should ask ourselves what we can do to save Christmas from ourselves?

Some of us may remember our parents helping us to cope with the real enemy of Christmas by bringing us to the crib in our local church and encouraging us to put our pennies, sixpences or shillings in the collection box which was placed there, reminding us that without giving, without that small sacrifice, our Christmas and the material gifts we were hoping to receive would be a sham.

Perhaps, in the face of the chipping away of the true meaning of Christmas in our culture – so much of which can really no longer be described as Christian – a new and genuine Christian response is needed if the miracle that it celebrates is to shine through again.

Pope Benedict XVI, while still the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, drew our attention to the response of the early Christians to the enemies of  their faith which they faced: when the first Christian community is confronted by dangers, difficulties, and threats, it does not attempt to work out how to react, find strategies to defend itself, or decide what measures to adopt; rather, where it is put to the test, the community starts to pray and make contact with God. 

They went to Sacred Scripture and, for example, he tells us, drew strength and resolution from the divinely inspired words of the second psalm, which celebrated the enthronement of the king of Judaea, but which also refers prophetically to the coming of the Messiah, against whom human rebellion, persecution, and abuse can do nothing:

“Why do the nations conspire, and the people plot in Vain? 

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed” (Ps 2:1—2).

Ratzinger reminded us, and encourages us, where to look for a real understanding and the real value of what we celebrate and need to preserve:

“The psalm about the Messiah already stated this prophetically, and this uprising of the powerful against God’s power is characteristic throughout history. It is precisely by reading Sacred Scripture, which is the Word of God, that the community can say to God in prayer:

‘Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you did anoint, . . . to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place’ (Acts 4:27).”

We Christians, in addition to the treasures we find in Scripture, have the glories of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, the miracle of Handel’s Messiah and the wonders enunciated in the simple but profound lyrics of something like the traditional Wexford Carol, to sustain us in our faith – not to mention the Mass of Christmas and the sacraments with which we surround it.

A desacralised society will never understand that because it has no understanding of, or commitment to, the sacred. The restoration of enlightenment through the sacred is the only way to rescue our world from the aberrations that are war and hatred, abortion and euthanasia, transgender lunacy and more.

When we look at the appalling choices made in our time by modern man, we see their painful corollary: strife, emptiness, suicide and murder. What the sacred and the eternal meaning of Christmas keeps reminding us of every year is that there is another choice and how beautiful it is. We must protect it from our own shallowness and drown the evils which seek to destroy it in the abundance of its goodness.

Perhaps we should just listen again to and contemplate the words of The Wexford Carol:

Good people all, this Christmas time

Consider well and bear in mind

What our good God for us has done

In sending his beloved son.

With Mary holy we should pray

To God with love this Christmas Day.

In Bethlehem upon that morn

There was a blessed Messiah born.

Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep

Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep

To whom God’s angels did appear

Which put the shepherds in great fear.

‘Prepare and go,’ the angels said

‘To Bethlehem, be not afraid

For there you’ll find, this happy morn

A princely babe, sweet Jesus born.

With thankful heart and joyful mind

The shepherds went, this babe to find

And as God’s angel had foretold

They did our saviour Christ behold.

Within a manger he was laid

And by his side the virgin maid

Attending on the Lord of life

Who came on earth to end all strife.

Good people all, this Christmas time

Consider well and bear in mind

What our good God for us has done

In sending his beloved Son.

With Mary holy we should pray

To God with love this Christmas day.

In Bethlehem upon that morn

There was a blessed Messiah born.

Originally published in the December issue of Position Papers.

A Sunday morning revelation

(Picture courtesy of Bethany Mandel and Common Sense)

Where else on mainstream media other than on Bari Weiss’ Common Sense would one find a post like this. I may be jumping the gun including Weiss’ Substack creation in the deeply problematic category that is MSM, but if it is not there already, helping clean that particular swamp, it soon will be. What is coming through to us on Common Sense and on her Honestly podcast is going to play a big part in helping the world to return to sanity and , well, common sense.

I was in a somewhat dark mood this morning when I opened my email. At the top of a too-packed inbox was the link to this beautiful – but not untinged with some sadness – personal post from a young mother, Bethany Mandel. Its intriguing headline drove me straight into it, ‘I Never Wanted Kids. Number Six Is Due In a Few Months’. If it were a novel we would be reading it as an allegory about hope, resilience and redemption – and the grace of God. But is is not a novel, it is about real flesh and blood humanity and the truth that the meaning of life is there, in life, for all to see.

The conclusing paragraphs (following) of Bethany’s post put her story in a universal context. Read the entire post to feel the wisdom and the joy which pulses through every line.

Our friends and family have stopped asking us if we’re done. To be fair, we said we were after numbers four and five. Our kids are already petitioning for a lucky number seven. Around the country and around the world, people are having fewer children, if they’re having any at all. The result of this population catastrophe is a hot topic among sociologists and experts.

The anti-natalists run a wicked good PR game. Even among mothers, the “wine mom” content is what rules social media: with kids portrayed as tiny dictators and mothers feeling the need to booze or hide in bathrooms in order to make it on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis. There are any number of arguments to be made against procreation, like that babies accelerate us to an environmental doomsday by using up our finite resources now and filling our landfills with diapers that take centuries to break down. But those arguing for protecting the Earth by not making babies are just existing on Earth, not living in it. 

I’m not trying to single handedly repopulate the Earth over here. Having kids, especially lots of them, is now counter-cultural; it’s so far outside the norm that I’m used to random strangers commenting every time we’re all out in public. But it’s the most fulfilling expression of hope and belief in the future. I like to think that, by making not just one or two babies, but by bringing into the world a whole brood, we are doing our part to inject more vitality into it.

Read this entire life affirming Common Sense post here.

Tolstoy’s ‘Resurrection’ and the meaning of life

Leo Tolstoy was a strange and tortured soul. Yet it would be hard to find anyone versed in literature today – or even in his own time – who will argue that he was not the greatest novelist whoever lived.

His contemporary, Turgenev said: “He is the greatest of contemporary novelists; Europe does not contain his equal.” Matthew Arnold, the 19th century English poet and cultural critic said that a novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life, such was his power of observation and description of human feeling and human relationships. 

Tolstoy’s life was never what might be described as a model or stable one. However, up until the last two decades or so of his life, he lived tolerably with his family and those around him. From the period in which he produced his greatest creative work, War and Peace (1865–69) and Anna Karenina (1875–77), he was acclaimed and admired by all except those who felt themselves the subject of his sharp social and political criticism.

In the aftermath of the completion of Anna Karenina his mind seemed to begin to unravel. Despair, depression and a fear of death gripped him. He turned to religion but while he grasped a number of the essential truths of Christianity he gradually drifted from orthodoxy. He began to despise the Russian Church which he saw as implicated in the terrible injustices of the time which the entire establishment was inflicting on the ordinary people.

Eventually his paralysing fear and depression lifted and he began to be active again, politically and creatively, but rejected the two great novels as untrue depictions of reality as he saw it.

He then began work on his last great novel Resurrection. In it Tolstoy attempts to expose the injustice of the human institutions of his day.  The novel, moving on two interlinked narrative levels, one a poignant and tragic love story, the other essentially an exploration of the crimes against humanity which he saw around him in Russia and indeed in the wider world. The novel culminates in what he identifies as a new perception of truth — the truth of Christ’s Christianity that “The Kingdom of Heaven is within You.”

In the story, Dmitry Nekhlyudov, an aristocratic selfish egotist, finds himself on a jury where he recognises the defendant, the prostitute Katyusha Maslova, as a girl whom he once had shamelessly seduced. She, as an illegitimate baby, has been rescued from a near-certain death by his two rich maiden aunts and raised by them as a ward/servant on their extensive estate.

The young Dmitry Nekhlyudov, a pure and idealistic student, occasionally visited his aunts’ estate and a deep unspoken friendship developed between the two teenagers. One of the most beautiful and moving passages in the novel, of which some say Tolstoy never did anything more delightfully infectious, is the scene of the Easter Vigil in the village church, where the young hero and heroine, after the traditional Russian greeting “Christ is risen,” exchange kisses:

Everything seemed festive, solemn, bright, and beautiful: the priest in his silver cloth vestments with gold crosses; the deacon, the clerk and chanter in their silver and gold surplices; the amateur choristers in their best clothes, with their well-oiled hair; the merry tunes of the holiday hymns that sounded like dance music; and the continual blessing of the people by the priests, who held candles decorated with flowers, and repeated the cry of “Christ is risen!” “Christ is risen!” All was beautiful; but, above all, Katusha, in her white dress, blue sash, and the red bow on her black head, her eyes beaming with rapture.  

Then, when the ceremony was over, the mingling of the people, rich and poor, outside the church took place and Easter greetings and kisses were exchanged.

While the peasant was kissing Nekhlyudoff and giving him a dark brown egg, the lilac dress of Matrona Pavlovna and the dear black head with the red bow appeared.  

Katusha caught sight of him over the heads of those in front of her, and he saw how her face brightened up.  She had come out with Matrona Pavlovna on to the porch, and stopped there distributing alms to the beggars. 

A beggar with a red scab in place of a nose came up to Katusha. She gave him something, drew nearer him, and, evincing no sign of disgust, but her eyes still shining with joy, kissed him three times. And while she was doing this her eyes met Nekhlyudoff’s with a look as if she were asking, 

“Is this that I am doing right?” 

“Yes, dear, yes, it is right; everything is right, everything is beautiful. I love!”

They came down the steps of the porch, and he came up to them.  He did not mean to give them the Easter kiss, but only to be nearer to her. Matrona Pavlovna bowed her head, and said with a smile, 

“Christ is risen!” and her tone implied, “To-day we are all equal.” She wiped her mouth with her handkerchief rolled into a ball and stretched her lips towards him.  

“He is, indeed,” answered Nekhlyudoff, kissing her. Then he looked at Katusha; she blushed, and drew nearer. 

“Christ is risen, Dmitri Ivanovitch.”  

“He is risen, indeed,” answered Nekhlyudoff, and they kissed twice, then paused as if considering whether a third kiss were necessary, and, having decided that it was, kissed a third time and smiled.  

“You are going to the priests?” asked Nekhlyudoff.

“No, we shall sit out here a bit, Dmitri Ivanovitch,” said Katusha with effort, as if she had accomplished some joyous task, and, her whole chest heaving with a deep sigh, she looked straight in his face with a look of devotion, virgin purity, and love, in her very slightly squinting eyes.

But then Nekhlyudoff, now an army officer, succumbing to the brutal practices of military life proceeded to pester and finally seduce Katusha – and then abandon her. She became pregnant and was rejected by his aunts. Her descent to misery then moves relentlessly through an all-too familiar sequence of events, ending up with a false charge of murder and theft. She is falsely convicted after judges and jury bungle the verdict. She is sentenced to four years hard labour in Siberia.

Before the sentence is passed, he reveals his identity to her, promises to fight for a reversal of the verdict and asks her to marry him. A long struggle then begins between them, he trying to redeem himself and she, often with no little – but  understandable – cruelty resisting his appeals for forgiveness. She retorts at one point:

“Once you got your pleasure from me, and now you want to get your salvation from me”, she tells him. She refuses to marry him. When the novel ends, after her long march in chains to Siberia, on which he accompanies her, they both achieve a spiritual peace through a mutual spirit of selfless sacrifice. 

Gary Saul Morson, one of the most penetrating literary critics of our time specialising in Russian literature has noted how many readers of Tolstoy have stressed his ability to observe the smallest changes of consciousness and to record the slightest movements of the body. What another novelist would describe as a single act of consciousness, Tolstoy he says, convincingly breaks down into a series of infinitesimally small steps. All of this is evident in the Katusha-Nekhlyudoff narrative in Resurrection

It is on the level of this narrative that Resurrection is a masterpiece. It is on the level of the description of Nekhlyudov’s struggle for justice that the novel falters. In his battles he takes on multiple causes to fight against the system, describing in lurid detail the grossness of the establishment he is fighting against and the cruelty they casually inflict on thousands of innocent people. It is a worthy pursuit but borders on turning the novel into a polemic.

But in the final pages, Nekhlyudoff reaches the moment of wisdom by reading a New Testament accepted casually from an evangelical Englishman, and the novel again flourishes.

This flowed from the whole of the teaching, and was most strongly and clearly illustrated in the parable of the vineyard. 

The husbandman imagined that the vineyard in which they were sent to work for their master was their own, that all that was in was made for them, and that their business was to enjoy life in this vineyard, forgetting the Master and killing all those who reminded them of his existence. “Are we not doing the same,” Nekhlyudoff thought, “when we imagine ourselves to be masters of our lives, and that life is given us for enjoyment? This evidently is an incongruity. We were sent here by someone’s will and for some reason. And we have concluded that we live only for our own joy, and of course we feel unhappy as labourers do when not fulfilling their Master’s orders. The Master’s will is expressed in these commandments. If men will only fulfil these laws, the Kingdom of Heaven will be established on earth, and men will receive the greatest good that they can attain to.

“‘Seek ye first the Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.’  “And so here it is, the business of my life. Scarcely have I finished one and another has commenced.” And a perfectly new life dawned that night for Nekhlyudoff, not because he had entered into new conditions of life, but because everything he did after that night had a new and quite different significance than before. How this new period of his life will end time alone will prove.

LIBERALISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS  

The society that offered my sisters protection, threw my daughters to the wolves’

A certain construction company, which shall remain nameless, in a certain country, also remaining unidentified, used a chemical compound in its building materials. This compound was thought to enhance the quality of those materials bringing a new level of quality to the buildings in which they were used.

In time, in a very short time the structure of the buildings using these materials began to crumble and decay irreparably.

These things happen. The detailed history of this case is not important. This is a metaphor for one dimension of mankind’s folly. When these things happen there are always consequences and if we are lucky, as the consequences unfold, we can trace our steps back, through cause and effect, to the fundamental flaws which brought the house down around our heads.

On a more universal scale, however, and in mankind’s faltering journey on this earth, these things also happen. But in many cases, for a variety of reasons, we stubbornly refuse, or are unable to discern the root causes of the catastrophes we heap upon our heads.

Western civilisation has been advancing for centuries towards just such a catastrophe.

Recent human history records the painful rise and fall of two such flawed responses to man’s innate hunger for a better way of being in this world. Both were horrifically brutal, cruel and murderous. One was the marxist-inspired utopia of a communist world – now fatally wounded but still a clear and present danger to us all. The other was the Nietzschean-inspired will to power ideology which spawned the monster which was National Socialism, also now down but sadly not out.

We call these things ideologies because they posit a theoretical construct of what human nature is and then build a house in which they think they can happily live. The construct, however, is false at the core and therefore the house bears within itself the seeds of its ultimate collapse, even if, for a time it seems to offer a prospect of heaven on earth.

About five centuries ago theories about our nature and the nature of our lives in this world were developed and gained credence among us. These arose in part out of our struggles to come to terms with our fatal propensity to corrupt religion, turn it upside down and proceed to murder each other over our differences of belief. In fact we built a new theory which is today the foundation of the ideology of liberalism and liberal democracy. We called it ‘enlightenment’, and to a degree and for a time, it was.

In his book, Why Liberalism Failed, Notre Dame professor, Patrick J Deneen, traces the origins of liberalism and identifies the fatal flaw in the view of humanity underpinning it. His conclusion is that this ideology is now reaching a point where it is, with gathering pace over the past hundred years, destroying the very fabric of our societies and with them our civilisation itself. Not without a little paradox, he argues:

Liberalism has failed – not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.  As liberalism has “become more fully itself,” as its inner  logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions  manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology. A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom. Its success can be measured by its  achievement of the opposite of what we have believed it would achieve. Rather than seeing the accumulating catastrophe as evidence of our failure to live up to liberalism’s ideals, we need rather to see clearly that the ruins it has produced are the signs of its very success. To call for the cures of liberalism’s ills by applying more liberal measures is tantamount to throwing gas on a raging fire. It will only deepen our political, social, economic, and moral crisis.

And where was the fatal flaw which drove this well-intentioned human response to perceived evils in our world, into the deranged state in which we now find ourselves? The flaw was in the underlying reading of human nature and human freedom – the human agent was put at the centre of the universe and his liberty was turned into an absolute. In doing so, without realising the consequences, the nature of this world and our existence within it were redefined. Deneen traces the origins of this fatal compound back to sixteenth century England and the work of Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. 

Liberty was fundamentally reconceived, even if the word was retained. Liberty had long been believed to be the condition of self-rule that forestalled tyranny, within both the polity and the individual soul. Liberty was thus thought to involve discipline and training in self-limitation of desires, and corresponding social and political arrangements that sought to inculcate corresponding virtues that fostered the arts of self- government. Classical and Christian political thought was self-admittedly more “art” than “science”: it relied extensively on the fortunate appearance of inspiring founding figures and statesmen who could uphold political and social self-reinforcing virtuous cycles, and acknowledged the likelihood of decay and corruption as an inevitable feature of any human institution.

I suppose a key idea there is the distinction between life lived by art rather than science. Therein lies the root of ideology – a scientifically designed solution to all life’s problems, ending up as a modern Tower of Babel. 

In this world, gratitude to the past and obligations to the future are replaced by a nearly universal pursuit of immediate gratification: culture, rather than imparting the wisdom and experience of the past so as to cultivate virtues of self-restraint and civility, becomes synonymous with hedonic titillation, visceral crudeness, and distraction, all oriented toward promoting consumption, appetite, and detachment. As a result, superficially self-maximizing, socially destructive behaviors begin to dominate society.  

In schools, norms of modesty, comportment, and academic honesty are replaced by widespread lawlessness and cheating (along with increasing surveillance of youth), while in the fraught realm of coming-of-age, courtship norms are replaced by “hookups” and utilitarian sexual encounters. The norm of stable lifelong marriage is replaced by various arrangements that ensure the autonomy of the individuals whether married or not. Children are increasingly viewed as limitation upon individual freedom, which contributes to liberalism’s commitment to abortion on demand while overall birth rates decline across the developed world.  

Deneen’s book gives a much more complete picture of the root and branch causes of the unravelling of our civilisation under this ideology than any summary I can give here. In the foregoing paragraph we have just one dimension of the disaster that is unfolding. 

In the context of the particular social aberrations he alludes to in that passage, there is a very interesting debate on Bari Weiss’ podcast, Honestly  There she recently entertained two writer-journalists, one American, the other British. They debated, over an hour and a half, the topics of sex, porn and feminism in our contemporary world. It revealed, in microcosm and in a stark and startling way, how our understanding of our humanity has been corrupted. It also reminds us how that segment of our civilisation, the Anglophone world, seems to be collapsing under the weight of that corruption.

Weiss introduced her speakers and the topic in these terms:

It’s hard to think of an invention that has been more transformative to women than the birth control pill. Suddenly, American women possessed a power that women never before in history had: They could control when they got pregnant. They could have sex like . . . men. 

The pill—and the profound legal, political and cultural changes that the sexual revolution and feminism ushered in—liberated women. Those movements have allowed women to lead lives that literally were not possible beforehand.

But here we are, half a century later, with a culture in which porn and casual sex are abundant, but marriage and birth rates are at historic lows. And many people are asking: Did we go wrong somewhere along the way? Was the sexual revolution actually bad for women?

Her guests were Jill Filiopvic and Louise Perry. Filiopvic is an author and attorney who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and many other publications. You can follow her writing on her newsletter. Perry, based in London, is columnist at The New Statesman. She is the author of the new book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution.

Weiss is one of those rare people in the media world, an open-minded observer who dares to question conventional ‘wisdom’ but who also gets people with essentially opposing assessments of our situation to talk to each other  in a civilised and humane way. The debate in question was, I judge, one such encounter.

For Filopvic the scenario of the sexual revolution, with all the features enumerated by Deneen above, was by and large a win-win outcome. She would have looked for no radical changes – perhaps a few organisational tweaks here and there might be needed. That was all. For her neither pornography nor promiscuity were necessarily bad things – so long as human ‘dignity’ was respected and maintained.

For Louise Perry, as the title of her book might suggest, the whole question was much more complex and the overall result for women was a ‘net negative’. One of the most negative outcomes was what it has done to the idea and reality of motherhood in our world. There were also the ‘dire consequences of hormonal birth control for so many women’. In addition she spoke of the problems which the culture of casual sex create for women. ‘They are the victims, suffering all the consequences – physical and psychological. When you look at all that the idea that casual sex can be a benefit to women just falls apart.’

Bari Weiss reflected on the changes in her own attitudes since her 20s. Then it all seemed very liberating. Now she is much more conscious of all the unintended consequences – the promiscuity, the reality of single parenthood flowing from easy divorce, abortion, and the radical changes in cultural attitudes. She does not want to put the clock back but she recognises that we have something very serious to face up to.

‘In the end’ she says, ‘if I’m honest and I look back at where a huge amount of my time went, it went into talking friends off ledges who were not hearing back from the people they hooked up with the night before.’ Were many of the arguments we were sold actually not benefiting women but implicitly ended up redounding to the benefit of men?, she asked. Louise Perry summed up the supposed ‘freedoms’ they won as follows: Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows, she reminded us. Men and women are different, she argued, and because of that the whole idea of creating a level playing field for both sexes – or genders – was false at the core.

Prior to the publication of her book Perry has posted on Weiss’ Substack platform, Common Sense, a further elaboration of her comments on Honestly. They are more than descriptive. They are a call to parents everywhere to protect their children from not just a hostile culture but an ideologically driven social and educational establishment.

One comment on her post – from, I assume, a father – points to a savage world where the centre no longer holds. Not only is it no country for old men. It is no country for the young either:

I have two daughters, ages 28 and 27, and everything I just read (in Perry’s post) is the s–t they have dealt with. Most men, dare I say almost all men under the age of 35, are well aware of the vulnerabilities and use them against young women with fervor. The society that offered my sisters protection, threw my daughters to the wolves.

All of which brings us back to Deneen and his assertion that we are getting it all wrong, that liberalism has got it all disastrously wrong. It has done so because it has anchored the idea of liberty on the idea of the individual and that the only freedom we can enjoy is the freedom to do anything that we desire.

He argues that what he calls The “Noble Lie” of liberalism is shattering because it continues to be believed and defended by those elites who benefit from it. He goes on to say that while it is increasingly seen as a lie, and not an especially noble one, by the class that liberalism has produced, discontent is growing.  Two of the participants in the debate cited above might be evidence of this.

But, he says, even as liberalism remains an article of ardent faith among those who ought to be best positioned to comprehend its true nature, liberalism’s apologists regard pervasive discontent, political dysfunction, economic inequality, civic disconnection, and populist rejection as accidental problems disconnected from systemic causes. Their self-deception, he maintains, is generated by enormous reservoirs of self-interest in the maintenance of the present system. This divide will only widen, the crises will become more pronounced, the political duct tape and economic spray paint will increasingly fail to keep the house   standing. The end of liberalism is in sight.  

His book offers no easy solutions as to what might replace this fateful ideology. He avoided doing so, because we have had enough ideologies. The great value of the book is that it is a challenge to us all to fight in the cause of our true human nature, to stop theorising and to read humanity as it truly is, body and soul – and build the world we want to live in from there.

God’s Grandeur in Jerusalem

Jerusalem is a truly extraordinary city. On a three-week visit the fascination the city holds for the visitor on day one does not diminish as each day passes. It grows and grows all the way to day twenty-one. I know it is a dream but one sees and touches things in this city which makes you feel you could make your home here. In a sense that is not a dream. Jerusalem really is our home.

Simon Sebag Montefiore calls his moving account of Jerusalem, past and present, a biography. Now we generally write biographies of people, not places. But if any place in this world is imbued with the characteristics of a person, surely this great city is one of them. Indeed Christ himself did as much when he addressed her in those immortal and tragic words, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37)

This great city, arguably – or maybe there is no argument – the greatest city in the world, in many ways presents a face, or multiple faces, to the world which are maddening in their complexity, contradictions and depths. So much of what one finds in these streets and across much of the Holy Land seem to deny the very essence of the holiness at its heart.

In that impressive book, Montifiore reminds us of a phenomenon which he calls “the Jerusalem syndrome”. Its provenance as a malady is not very secure, but it is identified by some as a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions, or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem. I don’t think Simon takes it very seriously but as you trod the stones from the Jaffa Gate through the markets of the different ethnic and religious quarters of the old city down to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre you get some sense of how one might be seized by such a malady.

The Church of the Dormition on Mount Zion

This city and its environs is the cradle of a great faith, and yet that faith and its adherents have to struggle with worldly forces which seem to threaten to drown it while at the same time make capital out of it. These forces seem to crush the beauty and the truth of which its very stones speak.

This is the city from which there emerged in history that vision of humanity which showed the way, the truth and the life, so that the race of humans could live a new life in this world, be born again, be content and be at peace with their fellows. This vision surpassed all other attempts of the great thinkers of antiquity to find answers to the questions, how should I live and why am I here?

It was this city that gave birth to all that we value in the City of Rome today. She is truly the daughter of Jerusalem.

But this city is also one which, like no other in human history, for thousands and thousands of years, has suffered death and destruction in a manner and with a persistence which defies credulity. It has been afflicted by monstrous and cruel men – and not a few women – for longer and  more constantly across millenia than any other human settlement on God’s earth. 

The Assyrians came down like a wolf on the fold, followed by the Babylonians, the Persians, the cruel Antiochus, a Greek successor of Alexander, Herod the Great, the Romans culminating with Hadrian. Then Constantine gave respite and all seemed well until the Sasinian Persians brought havoc from the east once more and in the space of a few years attempted to obliterate all that they found there. 

Then came the Arabs out of the desert and the very soul of the city again became the object of contention and violent conflict as one dynasty after another embracing a new monotheism forced her to their will. The dreadful Fatimid, Al Hakim, tortured and bludgeoned  her again at the turn of the first Christian millennium. Then, partly in response to the legacy of that Fatimid savagery, at the end of the new millennium’s first century came a Christian revival led by Crusading armies from Europe. 

The crusaders were men of deep faith but also could not but be men of their time, sadly not averse to the shedding of blood. But in less than 100 years the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem rebuilt many of the churches and restored the memories of the holy places destroyed over the previous 400. The Christian Jerusalem of today would simply not exist without them.

The second Christian millennium, right down to the present time, may have been a little kinder to this city than the first – but not by much. Jerusalem today is a city in which troubled mankind continues to show the frightful capacity of man to treat his fellow man as something less than human.

Israel’s museums and historic sites bear witness to its glories and its tragedies over five millennia. Among these is the splendid and very informative new Saxum*multimedia centre just outside Jerusalem. Hours can be spent interacting with this display, connecting Israel’s history with world events and providing links down through the multiple layers which scripture, tradition and exhaustive archaeology reveal about this place which is like no other on earth.

But this city, in spite of the weight of all this history, still looks every inch the eternal and glorious mystery that it is, continuing to show in so many details, the vision which the incarnate Word of God manifested two thousand years ago.

Saxun Visitor Centre

Jerusalem is in many ways the embodiment of St. Augustine’s Earthly City. But it is also, in some ineffable and mysterious manner, an abiding reminder of the existence of the City of God. Furthermore, for each individual who comes here, its very flawed nature is a perpetual reminder of the conflicting worlds we bear within ourselves, threatening our destruction but filling us with hope in the promise of salvation.

The grandeur of Jerusalem might be represented by the paradoxes and the promises suggested to us by Gerard Manly Hopkins in his hope-filled and unearthly sonnet, God’s Grandeur.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
   

  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
   

  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil


Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?


Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
   

  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
   

  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil


Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.



And for all this, nature is never spent;
   

  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;


And though the last lights off the black West went
   

  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –


Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
   

  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Christ’s “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” was not a vain cry. Through his Spirit he does gather his children together under his wings. Pope Francis reminded us of the essence of this in an address in 2016 when he told us,

“The Holy Spirit, received for the first time on the day of our Baptism, opens our heart to the Truth, to all Truth. The Spirit impels our life on the challenging but joyful path of charity and solidarity toward our brothers and sisters. The Spirit gives us the tenderness of divine forgiveness and permeates us with the invincible power of the Father’s mercy”.

There will be, one day in time, a new Jerusalem, a day when all her suffering will be over and all the conflicts and contradictions of this glorious city of cities will end and all her children can live in the peace of Christ.

*Saxum: Road to Nataf, Abu Ghosh 9084500
P.O. Box 40205, Mevaseret Zion
Israel 9140101. +972 2 622 4100. info@saxum.org

The great temptation?

There are many interesting angles in a very moderate and balance column posted by Ross Douthat in the New York Times over the weekend. His subject was the latest culture conflict which has evolved out of the general LGBTQ revolution/counterrevolution – with Florida’s counterrevolutionary offensive vis-a-vis school texts in the eye of the storm. But perhaps the most worrying angle is the one with which he concludes. It is his focus on what this war has done, not to a society’s understanding of biology, sexuality and gender. His concern is that in our discourse we now see undermined the very principles of openness, sincerity and honesty which have for millennia marked our conversations with each other.

Glancing across the parts of the planet where the trajectory of the LGBTQ revolution is in its most advanced form, he sees a readiness to consider its scientific and medical aspects everywhere except in the US. I wonder if he is reading it right there? What he sees is that American liberalism, all the way up to the Biden administration, is drifting away, on these questions, even from the most liberal and secular parts of Europe. “From Britain to Sweden there is an increasingly vigorous debate around adolescent medical interventions, widespread doubts that they are actually supported by the data and a partial reconsideration of their general application to transgender-identifying youth. In liberal America there is mostly just an orthodoxy, even if the cracks show here and there.”

This of course, is a further reinforcement of the desperate polarisation which everyone there complains about but no one seems prepared to engage with the intolerance at its roots.

He finds the American climate unique in this regard and clearly worries about its effect on the thought processes of moderate conservatives like himself who enjoy a substantial liberal readership. He is after all, a very highly regarded columnist in the New York Times. The whole thing puts him distinctly outside his comfort zone. 

“You will notice,” he writes, with regard to his categorisation of the three camps with a stake in this war, “that I have written this essay in a studiously cautious style, on the theory that as I am in fact a known social conservative, my too-vigorous prosecution of the skeptics’ case would serve only to reinforce the current progressive orthodoxy — enabling the response that, see, to doubt the wisdom of puberty blockers or the authenticity of teenage self-identification is the province of Catholics, religious conservatives, the out-group.”

The great temptation for the moderate person today, he seems to say, is to emulate the ostrich and to stick our heads in the sand. This, he recognises is to follow a theory of conflict-avoidance, shading into cowardice. 

He concludes, sticking his head straightforwardly above the parapet, with a prediction: “Within not too short a span of time, not only conservatives but most liberals will recognize that we have been running an experiment on trans-identifying youth without good or certain evidence, inspired by ideological motives rather than scientific rigor, in a way that future generations will regard as a grave medical-political scandal.

“Which means that if you are a liberal who believes as much already, but you don’t feel comfortable saying it, your silence will eventually become your regret.”

We might wonder why the well documented stories of the follies of corporate America of the past two decades – highlighted so thoroughly by documentaries on the streaming channels – are not having more of an impact. These go back to Enron, through the opioid scandal involving the FDA, Purdue Pharma and others, down to the Theranos and Boeing 737 Max debacles. Why are these are not focusing the minds of people pushing procedures which may not just be dismembering unfortunate individuals but also threatening to turn their own society into a sterile husk. 

A Christian future for liberalism?

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The current geo-political turmoil, with Ukraine in the eye of the storm, is upsetting all kinds of certainties and semi-certainties. Many of these we may have been priding ourselves of possessing. One is the semi-certainty, held by perhaps a majority of Christians, that on the political spectrum their values were going to be better protected by the right as opposed to the left. This was so much so that in current discourse “the Christian right” itself became a political category.

Now, however, a great deal of rethinking has been forced on the lazy-minded categorizers. This has been forced on all who place value on religion itself, of any denomination or creed. A genuine orthodox Christian has no choice but to flee from the murderous political regime which until very recently was being seen as a defender of the faith. That title has now become as unworthy of Vladimir V. Putin as the title defensor fidei bestowed on Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521 became. In the Islamic world the brutalities of Iran and Saudi Arabia, so-called defenders of the muslim faith, can only be an affront to its genuine adherents. The growing extremism of Narenda Modi’s regime must pain any peace-loving Hindu.

But the cleansing process does not end with the potential  it has for the purification of religions. It also shows signs of bringing the secular world back to its senses. Ezra Klein, a young liberal-minded columnist in the New York Times suggests that the exposure of the excesses of the right now gives liberalism itself an opportunity to bring itself back from the brink of disaster, a scenario outlined a few years ago by Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame in his book on the failure of liberalism. Its intolerances and narrow minded bigotry has been for years threatening what Klein sees as its true universal spirit.

In Klein’s reading, the anti-liberal right – where it was identifying itself as Christian – was never true to the Christian faith. In fact, in its true form it was something that they feared – as Vladimir V. Putin must now do. The liberal left, on the other hand, for the recent decades in which it has not adhered to universal principles has suffered by its separation from the belief of genuine Christians.

Klein explores all this in a recent long article in his newspaper. He does so partly in the context of what he describes as a moving and beautiful collection  of essays by Ukrainian writers on the country’s history and its troubled relationship with both Russia and the West.

In his article he echoes the famous opening epigram of L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-between – “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” He suggests that the trap which liberalism fell into was to marginalize all those who valued elements of tradition, their histories and their nations. To do so for him was a fatal flaw, betraying the universal spirit which should imbue true liberals.

“Liberalism”, he writes, “needs a healthier relationship to time. Can the past become a foreign country without those who still live there being turned into foreigners in their own land? If the future is to be unmapped, then how do we persuade those who fear it, or mistrust us, to agree to venture into its wilds?

“I suspect another way of asking the same question is this: Can the constant confrontation with our failures and deficiencies produce a culture that is generous and forgiving? Can it be concerned with those who feel not just left behind, as many in America do, but left out, as so many Ukrainians were for so long?”

Then he moves to suggest this daring answer.

“The answer to that — if there is an answer to that — may lie in the Christianity the anti-liberals feared, which too few in politics practice. What I, as an outsider to Christianity, (he is Jewish) have always found most beautiful about it is how strange it is. Here is a worldview built on a foundation of universal sin and insufficiency, an equality that bleeds out of the recognition that we are all broken, rather than that we must all be great. I’ve always envied the practice of confession, not least for its recognition that there will always be more to confess and so there must always be more opportunities to be forgiven.”

Some of this spirit, in secular form, can, he writes, be seen in the Ukrainian essays. “The tone is anything but triumphalist, with Russia having taken Crimea and the rest of Europe and the United States shrugging it off. The perspective is largely tragic, clear-eyed about the work that may go undone and the distance left to travel. But the writing is generous, too: suffused with love for country, honesty about an often bloody history, determination despite a disappointing present and, above all, a commitment to one another.”

He concludes by saying that there is much to learn from that merger of self-criticism and deep solidarity. Put in Christian terms he might have said that with humility and Charity, the world might well be saved. It would. It will.

Ill-weaved ambitions and their discontents

Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani

I am in blood

Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er. 

There is surely something salutary in the coincidence of the streaming of The Tragedy of Macbeth over the same months that the tragedy of Elizabeth Holmes has also been unfolding on our screens in the Hulu produced series, The Dropout, based on an original ABC podcast of the same name.

If there ever was an age of ambition, this is it. So much so that there are even signs of a backlash against it. To be reminded how toxic ambition can become must only be good for us. It is as though the illusory follies of the American dream have now infected the whole world. In 2015 Holmes – a Gatsby for our times? – told a magazine interviewer, “I am living proof that it’s true that if you can imagine it, you can achieve it”.

After the banquet scene in Macbeth (Act 3, Scene 4) , when the ghost of the murdered Banquo appears to him, he cries, part in despair, part in vicious resolution,  “I am in blood / Stepped in so far…Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” The blood on his hands matches the blood surging in his veins which fires his resolve to hold on to the kingdom for which his ambition drove him to murder those who stood in his way.

In the Elizabeth Holmes story, blood is more than just a symbol. The blood was real. The victims of her fraudulent deceits on which her whole Theranos blood testing start-up was built, were real – and their lives were deemed at risk because of the faulty process. Driven by her ambition, admirable to many as she started out, she was gradually corrupted by it, lied in pursuit of it and betrayed and abused many of those whom she deceived in order to hold on to the wealth and celebrity she had attained through it. 

There are not many of Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays in which ambition does not play a role in the downfall of central characters. In Henry IV, Part 1, Prince Hal bemoans the fate of Hotspur whom he has killed on the battlefield: 

Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk! When that this body did contain a spirit, a kingdom for it was too small a bound. But now two paces of the vilest earth are room enough

But then, from the primordial plunge of Satan into hell, through the tragedy of his first human victims, to our own day, ambition has been an element in our nature which has moved mankind to great good, or, “ill-weaved”, to  great evil. 

Shakespeare did not vaunt ambition or the ambitious. He warned us of it. Yet it seems our own age does vaunt it and the fears of Lady Macbeth about the courage of her husband seem unfounded if the political and  business culture of our time are closely examined.

Yet do I fear thy nature.

It is too full of the milk of human kindness

To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great,

Art not without ambition, but without

The illness should attend it.

(Act I, scene 5)

Elizabeth Holmes, paraded her ambition under the cloak of philanthropy – saying her goal was to save lives with a revolutionary and speedy blood testing procedure. For good measure she was going to obliterate the existing testing agencies which were making billions of dollars using snail-paced tried and tested methods. She probably did start out with good intentions. Tragically, when she discovered that her company was failing to make it, she opted to fake it. From then on it was downhill into the pit where she now rests, awaiting sentence as a convicted fraudster.

In the space of a few years, Elizabeth Holmes moved from being an attractive and dynamic 18 year-old Stanford undergraduate to become a barefaced fraudster. Icons of the high-tech world helped her to shed her humanity along the way. One of Silicon Valley’s big names and one of the richest men in the world is Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle. He is portrayed in The Dropout as one of the first to teach her how to raise capital. In the process he tells her to start firing people, it would seem, just for practice. She proves herself to be a very apt pupil, without any trace of the milk of human kindness.

Rufus Norris, in a recent  interview with The Guardian, reflected on a production of Macbeth at Britain’s national Theatre. He talked about this illness attending ambition: 

If you look at anyone successful, anyone successful that I’ve known, there is an illness that attends it, and it’s an illness that enables you, to one degree or another, to cut off your humanity, because your success inevitably means someone else not quite making it, whether that’s me going up against a couple of people I knew really well for the job that I’m now in [artistic director of the National Theatre], or the bank manager getting the bank manager’s job, or somebody putting their child into private school, because it’s a form of ambition.

This kind of consciousness, or awakening of conscience, seems to be growing and is part of that backlash referred to earlier. The Guardian article which quoted Norris seems to spell out the folly of one kind of ambition in the words of the unashamedly, unrelentingly ambitious Michelle Mone, a serial entrepreneur: 

“I think it’s all down to self-respect and looking at yourself in the mirror and asking: ‘Am I happy with myself?’” she says. “If you’re happy with yourself, then fair enough.” Yet she isn’t happy. “I always look in the mirror and I say to myself: ‘You can do more.’ So I push myself all the time. I set goals all the time, I just don’t stop. But once I achieve them, I set more. I’d rather be ambitious than lazy. So I’m proud that I am ambitious.”

Two for the price of one? Vanity of vanities. As portrayed in The Dropout, Elizabeth Holmes did a great deal of work on her image and her motivation with the help of her mirror.

A recent long-read  article by Noreen Malone of Slate in the New York Times dealt with the problem of ambition in the context of the current changes in attitudes to work, the workplace and the phenomenon of “the great resignation”.

Consider this theory: that the current office ennui was simply the inevitable backlash to the punishing culture of the previous decade’s #ThankGodItsMonday culture. And furthermore, sometime around the rise of #MeToo (and after Donald Trump’s election), ambition began to seem like a mug’s game. The enormous personal costs of getting to the top became clear, and the potential warping effects of being in charge also did. It wasn’t just the bad sexually harassing bosses who were fired but the toxic ones, too, and soon enough we began to question the whole way power in the office worked. What started out as a hopeful moment turned depressing fast. Power structures were interrogated but rarely dismantled, a middle ground that left everyone feeling pretty bad about the ways of the world. It became harder to trust anyone who was your boss and harder to imagine wanting to become one. Covid was an accelerant, but the match was already lit.

She talks about how in a span of less than 20 years we have moved from the hustle culture portrayed in Mad Men to Sunday nights  in which people are now watching Succession, “the beloved pitch-black workplace drama of the post-Trump nihilistic years.”

Perhaps ambition and the ambitious will take a back seat. But don’t hold your breath. The powerful instincts which drove Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and which drove Elizabeth Holmes and her paramour, Sunny Balwani – currently being tried for fraud – are deep in our nature. Like many forces in our nature, subject to right reason they are forces for good. Ungoverned, they corrupt us. 

Late 20th and 21st century culture of rampant individualism has fatefully opted for small government of our passions. The tragedy and loss of the once visionary Elizabeth Holmes – and probably many we will never hear of – is the price we pay for cultivating the ungoverned self.The Guardian article on the subject of ambition suggests that we might look to the works of the modern martyr, Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated in El Salvador in 1980. He suggested we might consider a different sort of ambition: “Aspire not to have more but to be more,” he said. The wisdom behind those words suggests that we move beyond our material preoccupations and onto a higher plane, encompassing the wonderful reality of our common humanity. That path would hopefully  lead mankind to a true appreciation of our nature, and perhaps the discovery that  there are more things in heaven and earth than might be dreamt of in our untamed ambitions.