When we look back on the past, it is sometimes tempting to think of historical events as having a certain inevitability: because they happened in the way they did, it was necessary that they happen in such a way. With the aid of hindsight, we can discern how certain cultural movements or personalities influenced particular events or individuals and draw out connections and causalities that may even have been latent at the time. In itself, this can be a useful and fruitful exercise, especially when we consider the providential hand of God who is able to draw good even out of the evil actions of men.
Last week I reread The Great Gatsby for the first time since a summer vacation in high school. With the buzz about the upcoming film (out this Friday), I wanted to revisit what I vaguely remembered to be a good but sad story.
Only four pages long, Why Do the Heathen Rage? is Flannery O’Connor’s shortest short story—a fragment, really, of an unfinished novel. The hero, sort of, is Walter Tilman, a twenty-eight-year-old bookish type, unmarried, living at home, without anything that might commonly be called ambition. He remains enigmatic, partly because we only see him through the disapproving eyes of his mother, to whom he’s a maddeningly incomprehensible cipher, “like an absorbent lump . . . taking everything in, giving nothing out.” But he pretty clearly fits the profile of one of O’Connor’s flawed Southern prophets—a more or less crazy outsider who turns out to be saner, in certain crucial ways, than all the normal, practical people around him.
At the start of the story, Walter’s father (“Tilman”) has had a stroke, and after a two-week hospital stay, it’s time to bring him home. On the way, riding in the ambulance, Mrs. Tilman studies her husband’s paralyzed face:
I would like to do something that Dominicans typically don’t do: exhort. I’d like to exhort you to read Pope Benedict’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. This is the third of the Pope’s books on the life of Christ to be released since 2007. In the first volume, he described the preaching and public ministry of Christ. In the second, he meditated on the events of Holy Week and the Paschal Mystery. In the most recent volume, he takes us back to the beginning of the Gospels, treating the birth and early life of Christ.
J.R.R. Tolkien imbued meaning and purpose into his literary work. The world of The Hobbit is not a world of random chance where anything goes; in fact nothing could be further from the truth. The Hobbit tells the classic adventure story, the kind of story ordinary people naturally crave. The trademark of such a tale—a story which appeals to every person’s desire for truth, goodness, and beauty—is the dramatic difference between good and evil. In such a story good vanquishes evil, beauty conquers the repulsive, and characters rise to the challenges placed before them to fulfill their destinies. Within such a story, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins does not have to grapple with an existentialist crisis, nor carry the burden of creating his own meaning in light of the perceived absurdity of the world. Far from being an isolated and angst-ridden protagonist from Sartre’s Nausea, Bilbo joins Gandalf and the dwarves on a quest that has every appearance of being directed by providence itself.
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!
The last published book of Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990), is a popular gift for graduating high school and college seniors and for anyone who is about to begin life’s next exciting journey. Great optimism abounds when the doors of the past have been closed and the gateway to future opportunity is in sight. Having achieved a great personal accomplishment, one can emerge with a sense of confidence and even entitlement, feeling empowered to take on the challenges of the world.
Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, often grappled with a basic question: What good is God? In A Study in Scarlet (1887), for instance, the question of God hovers in the wings as he views the early Mormon movement with a leery eye (his conclusion: murderous cult), but by The Land of Mist (1926) the question has taken center stage, as the whole novel is a perilously thinly veiled excuse to heap laud upon the spiritualist movement and castigate naysayers. In his more sober days, however, he made an interesting sally at Christianity with The White Company (1891), a richly and sometimes cruelly well-researched historical novel set in 1366, just as the age of universal faith was opening into the age of schisms. Hopelessly unable to see past his own prejudices, he never manages to say anything genuine about fourteenth-century Christianity, but in failing to do so he reveals a very modern take on God that is still with us today.
I enjoy reading Edward O. Wilson much more than Richard Dawkins, and recently I started to ask myself why this might be. Both are good writers and present difficult scientific concepts in easy-to-understand language. Both work in the controversial area of sociobiology and the evolution of human beings. Both are post-Christian thinkers with little interest in the nuances and delicacies of theological reasoning. What separates these two men? And, even when we don’t agree with him, what makes Wilson so appealing and interesting? I think it comes down to the fact that, while Dawkins is a biologist, Wilson is a naturalist.
Ivan Ilyich saw that he was dying, and he was in continual despair. In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it. The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic, “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius—man in the abstract—was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others.
—Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich
It’s short, and it’s all about death. Maybe that’s why we read it in high school.
Tolstoy’s classic novella about the slow, terminal decline of an ordinary, middle-aged lawyer continues to fascinate both young and old, though in different ways.
There’s a certain security that goes with being in control. It gives us a steady sense of satisfaction, the daily routine of generating a checklist, progressing through it, and striking off the last item just before our head hits the pillow. I came, I saw, I conquered—a good day.