Drain the Swamp

The most remarkable aspect of Bruce Springsteen’s performance at the 2018 Tony Awards wasn’t what he said or that he said it, but the unanimous acclaim with which it was greeted by both the assembled audience and those who viewed it at home.  As I noted in my August column, the story of faith, family, and place that Springsteen told was by no means remarkable, except in the fact that such stories are less lived today than in his childhood, and even less often told.

Yet such stories continue to speak to the human heart, including hearts damaged by pride and greed and lust.  And that speaks to the truth of the Gospel, of the history of salvation, including the story of Creation and of the Fall.  God looked upon His Creation, including man, and saw that it was good—and then we chose to become as gods, and obscured the image of God in our souls.

Obscured, but not erased, because that was not in the power of man to do.  We could not wipe out all that was good through our sin, because that would have meant the annihilation of Creation.  As long as man continues to exist, there must be good within him, because he did not create himself and is incapable of fully corrupting what God has made.

There was a time, back in the most heady days of the Renaissance, when one could reasonably say that what characterized the modern world was a revolt against the Catholic understanding of original sin.  Western man—including many within the Church and her hierarchy—rebelled against the idea that the Fall had so injured human nature that only by uniting ourselves, through grace, to the redemptive action of Christ could we begin to repair it.

No more.  Today, our culture not only accepts the reality of original sin but celebrates it.  Pride and greed and lust are seen not as distortions of human nature but as essential to who we are.  The embrace of the seven deadly sins cuts across political denominations and is as prevalent among those who profess to follow Christ as it is among those who reject the Gospel for “espousing hate.”  Be proud of who you are—even if who you are is, in large part, defined by actions that draw you ever further away from the image of goodness, truth, and beauty in which man was created.  Greed is good—even if our fellow man suffers because of it.  Love knows no bounds—a statement that’s undoubtedly true of God, but patently false when it is used to justify all forms of sexual activity.

This embrace (without recognizing it as such) of original sin should be accompanied by a hatred of all in man that is good, those elements of human nature that, while obscured in man by the Fall, still remain.  And, among the fringes, such a hatred can be found.

Among most people who have made their peace with original sin, however, some recognition remains that our fallen nature is not truly who we were meant to be.  That’s why such unremarkable stories as the one Bruce Springsteen told remain so powerful.  Goodness, truth, and beauty—as both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas knew—appeal to the very depths of the human soul, no matter how far our actions have removed us from the source of all that is good, and true, and beautiful.

The power of the story is indisputable.  But stories require storytellers, and they, alas, are in short supply, especially among those who consider themselves to be politically and culturally conservative.  There are many reasons for such a dearth.  In the summer of 1989, when I interned in Washington, D.C., at Accuracy in Media, I attended quite a few lectures at the Heritage Foundation, and every meeting of the Third Generation there.  (The Third Generation was a gathering of conservatives in their 20’s, so named because they were to pick up the torch of conservatism from the New Right, which had picked it up from the Old Right.  Yet, as I’ve mentioned in a previous column, almost no one from the Third Generation attended the lecture that summer by Russell Kirk, the preeminent voice of the first generation.)

After the lectures, over a Coors Light in the Heritage lobby, I would ask the men of the rising generation what novels they were reading, and what poets they would recommend.  I never once found one who was reading anything other than policy studies or (at best) works by the students of Leo Strauss.  Nor did I meet one who was a native of our imperial capital or its environs, or anyone who intended, once he had served his country, to return home.

Bruce Springsteen is, by all accounts, far from the textbook definition of a practicing Catholic, and he’s certainly no political conservative.  Yet this devotee of Flannery O’Connor lives only ten miles or so away from the neighborhood that he brought to life in the imaginations of the 6.3 million viewers who watched the Tony Awards (and the countless others who have viewed the performance on YouTube in the months since).  In doing so, he briefly drained the Swamp of their imaginations and allowed them to glimpse, if only for a few minutes, what life could—and should—be.

First published in the October 2018 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle, like much of Philip K. Dick’s work, is both fascinating and frustrating.  Usually described as an alternative history of the United States in a world in which Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan defeated the Allies in World War II, this short novel is fascinating because it is, instead, a diagnosis of the actual world that emerged from that conflict.  That accounts for the most frustrating attribute of this book, at least for me: its all-too-brief length.  I have never cared for alternative histories, whether in novelistic or other form; the only things they ever seem to reveal are their respective author’s hang-ups and hobby horses.  And so my frustration in this case lies not with the lack of more “history,” but with the sense that there is far more I wish to learn about Dick’s characters.

Dick, however, didn’t need to develop those characters any further because, when the book ends, he has accomplished his goal.  Juliana Frink, the chief female protagonist, has met the titular Man in the High Castle, Hawthorne Abendsen, himself the author of a novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which presents an alternative history (to the narrative of The Man in the High Castle), in which the Allies won World War II.  Abendsen’s book itself diverges from history as we know it, but as he and Julia discover through the use of the I Ching, it expresses the “Inner Truth” of history.

And that is Dick’s point: A true novelist is a truth-teller; and in The Man in the High Castle Dick himself is revealing the truth about the United States in 1962 (and beyond).  Our culture is characterized by abstraction, symbolized by the Japanese, and a confusion of efficiency with morality, symbolized by the Nazis.  The two breakthroughs in the book—Juliana’s revelation about the Inner Truth of The Grasshopper, and Trade Minister Tagomi’s trip (through a glass, darkly, as it were) to the world of The Grasshopper—occur through the engagement of their imaginations with works of art.  A revival of the imagination, Dick shows, can revitalize culture and break the stranglehold of abstract ideology and pragmatic morality on American life.

Frank Spotnitz has created a television adaptation of The Man in the High Castle for Amazon that does justice to Dick’s characters, while changing the narrative of the story.  In his version, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is not a book but a film, one of many newsreels presenting a history closer to our own.  Hawthorne Abend sen is no longer an artist but a consumer of these newsreels—a sign, perhaps, that Spotnitz, understanding Dick’s point about the artist as truth-teller, is revealing a truth about America today.

First published in the April 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Time and Again

Jack Finney is best remembered (to the extent that he is remembered at all) as the author of The Body Snatchers, the 1955 novel on which Don Siegel’s 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers was based.  But his best-selling novel was another work of science fiction, Time and Again (1970), a delightful tale of time travel and romance that has seen a well-deserved resurgence after Stephen King credited it as the inspiration for his own time-travel romance, 11/22/63.

There is much to admire about Time and Again, especially Finney’s decision to rely on neither technology nor magic to transport his protagonist, Simon Morley, 88 years in the past, to the New York City of 1882.  Instead, Si Morley relies on the power of his imagination to make the past live once again, which (to this reader at least) gives the novel a sort of “meta” quality.  What Si does in the course of living the story is what Finney had to do in writing it, and what any historical novelist (or, for that matter, historian) must do in order to make another time come alive for his readers.  Other ages do continue to exist, and we can visit them, so long as we are willing to make the imaginative effort.

There is the rub.  Si travels to the past as part of a government project, and other recruits are less successful—a subtle commentary, perhaps, by Finney on the lack of imagination of the men and women of 1970.  Today, of course, we live entirely in the present; the imaginative effort it would take to immerse ourselves in another time is too much to ask of most of our contemporaries.  Which, I suspect Jack Finney would say, explains so much about modern life—and especially modern politics.

First published in the January 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.