The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver
By George M. Curtis III and James J. Thompson Jr.
Publisher: Liberty Press.
It struck me a couple of years ago that all the contemporary caterwauling about freedom and rights is actually a cry for place and power. It is pathetic to see a society, ritualistically panting after what is new and free of all controls, in reality betray a stultifying and standardizing insecurity. The way petty bureaucrats treat the public with deliberate discourtesy; the way people in offices and behind counters enslave themselves to forms and arbitrary procedures, and make damn sure their patrons do likewise — what are these pathologies but tepid ways for people to carve out a modicum of mastery in their impotent lives? What we have in urbanized America, beneath the glitter of a thousand technological toys, is the popular fascism of a rootless people.
Why so grim an introduction to a book of essays on the American South? I had not known of Richard Weaver before, much to my misfortune. The insights I had begun to develop are here laid out with extraordinary profundity and precise, vivid prose. A recurring theme in these essays is what real freedom is all about. Liberty does not thrive in opposition to the commonweal, but within it, in the widest possible sovereignty and property, in local control of local concerns, and in tolerance of differing customs. It does not thrive in mass dependence on a distant Federal government ordering affairs with bits of official paper.
In the essay titled “Two Orators,” Weaver recounts the Webster-Hayne debate of 1830 (the issue is national consolidation and “progress” versus regional particularism):
“For Hayne [the Senator from South Carolina] the implication was clear that liberty required the independence and dignity of the parts, with local attention to and dispensation of local affairs…. Freedom is something that gathers around the hearth, inheres in local associations, and endears a man to his place of habitation. It was a protection to enable him to enjoy things, not a force or power to enable him to do things…. Now a new notion was beginning to be broached. It was that happiness lies in magnitude and potentiality.”
“Magnitude and potentiality” have by now won the day, and are we therefore a happy people? Later in the essay Weaver says:
“By the very nature of things, freedom depends upon an establishment of law and custom. To be free a man has to know where things are to be found and in what form, for these are the very instrumentalities of his choice. An order which derives its impetus from a dynamism and which moves along on a collective urge cannot present the alternative choices which a conservative order holds out.” Weaver’s conservatism has nothing to do with the shrill inanities of Right or Left. It is a brief for custom and ceremony and stability, and a cry against King Flux.
It is unfortunate that Weaver is so little known outside the South. The man is a genuine philosopher. The essays in this volume — on the political order, the culture of the South, poetry, religion — are marriages of beauty and wisdom that put to shame even the most exalted punditries emanating from The New York Review of Books or National Review.
What is it about the South that could produce a man of such percipience? Paradoxically, perhaps, the clearest thought is sustained and nurtured by a culture that cannot be pinioned on the map of reason. Here’s how Weaver puts it:
“As I cross the Ohio River on my way to the South, I have a feeling that I am entering a region where things are somehow known mysteriously. They are not known through the flat, open, external means which positivistic science has told us to trust exclusively, but through other means which carry many nuances beyond the power of the first to transmit. It is the feeling that my presence and my place are somehow duly registered, but not in a way that I could ever learn directly…. Still, there is a final adjustment, so that one begins to sense the operation somewhere of supernal wisdom and supernal grace.”
You cannot be known, or know yourself, unless your presence and your place are duly registered: this is what Weaver and the South have to teach us, if we will but listen.
Awaiting the Child
By Isabel Anders
This is simultaneously a journal, a collection of essays on spiritual development, personal meditations, and a program of prayer for the Advent season. Though some of these categories overlap, a writer attempting to accomplish four distinct objectives in one small book is normally asking for trouble. That Isabel Anders succeeds is due both to her ability as an author and to her honesty with the reader and herself. She wrote these meditations while expecting her first child and sharing the difficulties of parish life with her husband, an Anglican priest in his first year of pastoring a parish.
Anders evinces a third quality that is both bigger and smaller than those mentioned: a remarkable ability to choose the apt quotation. Spiritual writers frequently lace their writings with quotations drawn from the vast treasures of 20 centuries of Christian spirituality. But too many spiritual books are filled with superfluous references added to pad the book to a respectable length. Anders’s quotations, by contrast, are woven into the very fabric of her thought. They spring naturally from her years of meditating on and absorbing what she has read. To quote in this fashion interweaves the thoughts of one person with those of another, and enables the reader to participate in an interchange between mind and mind.
Isabel Anders enlivens and freshens traditional Christian thought, not only by her use of quotation, but also by the meaty substance of her personal experiences which, though mostly quiet ones, reverberate with spiritual insight.
Winter in Moscow
By Malcolm Muggeridge
Winter in Moscow is no great shakes as a novel, but Muggeridge did not have sublime art in mind when he wrote it. Like Orwell, he used fiction to vent his moral outrage, to expose a monstrous tyranny. Muggeridge went to Moscow in 1932 as correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. Mildly predisposed toward the Soviet experiment, he quickly discovered that Stalin had established an oppression that made Tsar Nicholas appear benevolent by comparison.
Muggeridge focuses not so much on Soviet iniquities as on the claque of Western journalists and ideological thrill-seekers who flocked to Moscow to welcome the birth of the future. They saw what they wanted to see, and as the odious Mrs. Trivet promises a Soviet official: “You can count on us to tell the truth when we get home.” The real truth lay in the massive famine engineered by the Soviets to destroy the landowning peasants. When confronted with this horror, Muggeridge’s toadies twitter that you must crack eggs if you want to make an omelette. Or, as one character urges: “Don’t make the mistake of fastening on to details. Keep in mind the main objective.” Those “details” were individual human beings, each a unique child of God. Like his protagonist Wraithby, Muggeridge swore to himself: “Whatever else I do or think in the future…I must never pretend that I haven’t seen this.” In partial fulfillment of this vow, he published Winter in Moscow in 1934, a book now back in print after a long hiatus.
A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator: The Prague Chronicles of Ludvik Vaculik
By Ludvik Vaculik
Publisher: Readers international
For 20 years the novelist Ludvik Vaculik has been playing cat-and-mouse with the state. The cat has gotten stronger and shrewder and less overtly cruel, but he is still the same old nasty tabby beneath the deceptive purr. And the mouse? He has managed to avoid being eaten, though he has occasionally been caught in the cat’s grasp. The best thing is that the mouse has not let feline brutality drag him down to a comparable level. Nor has he grown cynical, embittered, or self-pitying. In heroic mouse fashion, he has learned to survive by his wits, to preserve his sense of humor, and to carve out a place where mouseness can exist in the kingdom of the cat.
Banned from publishing after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Vaculik initiated a form of underground publication that still flourishes. These “Chronicles” (written between 1975 and 1987) are selected from the monthly essays Vaculik contributes to the struggle to keep truth alive in the interstices of Official Lying. The pen may not be mightier than the sword, but, as Vaculik shows, it can inflict some mighty painful wounds upon the hand that wields the sword.
The Lost Soul of American Politics: Virtue, Self-interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism
By John P. Diggins
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Those who wish to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Constitution with something more edifying than the Right’s idolatrous patriotism or the Left’s vilification of America would be advised to read The Lost Soul of American Politics (published originally in 1984 and now available in paperback). It is at once a sustained meditation on the meaning of the American political experience and a passionate search for a moral vision in politics. Diggins fingers no villains in his scrutiny of such disparate figures as Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Emerson, Thoreau, Fenimore Cooper, Tocqueville, and Melville, but he does discover one towering hero: Abraham Lincoln, who introduced “something rare into modern political thought — the critical sting of spiritual conscience.” If the “Lost Soul” — a moral vision rooted in Christianity’s comprehension of sin and tragedy, charity and redemption — is to be found, then Diggins’s book can serve — not as map or how-to manual — but as bracing stimulus for the search.
The Vindication of Tradition
By Jaroslav Pelikan
Publisher: Yale University Press
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” In The Vindication of Tradition, a paperback edition of a book first published in 1984, Jaroslav Pelikan reflects on the importance of tradition as a means of ordering past, present, and future. Traditionalism (idolizing the past) stultifies; tradition (Burke’s “partnership” between the dead and the living, the living and the yet-born) enlivens and liberates. Pelikan tenders wise counsel both to those who think that today is yesterday and to those equally convinced that today is tomorrow.
At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl
By Inge Jens
Publisher: Harper & Row
In October 1942 Sophie Scholl wrote to a friend: “Nowadays one is tempted to believe that [man will] drown the song [of praise to the Creator] with gunfire and curses and blasphemy. But it dawned on me last spring that he can’t….” One of the reasons why “he can’t” emerges from the letters and diary entries in this book: there will always be those who say no to the “gunfire and curses and blasphemy.” Sophie and her brother Hans belonged to the small group of German university students who formed the White Rose conspiracy to topple the Nazi Moloch. It amounted to little more than the distribution of leaflets and the painting of seditious slogans on walls, and it failed: Sophie, Hans, and four of their companions were executed in 1943.
But did it “fail”? Hans wrote in a letter of 1941: “this war is essentially a war about truth.” He meant spiritual truth, the truth of redemptive suffering, of brotherhood, of the search for decency in the depths of horror, of finding God in a world seemingly bereft of the divine presence. At the outbreak of the war neither Sophie nor Hans was religious in the conventional sense. They died religious in the deepest sense: so that the fragile song of praise might soar above the cacophonous screech of evil. Although neither joined the Catholic Church, both were tumbling headlong toward it. Their resistance to the Nazi death machine matured as they read St. Augustine, Pascal, Bloy, Bernanos, Claudel, Gilson, and Maritain. They imbibed the wisdom of their mentor, Carl Muth, an elderly Catholic journalist. They learned to pray and, as Sophie wrote only three months before her death, they discovered the one thing that matters: “…I shall cling to the rope that God has thrown me in Jesus Christ, even if my numb hands can no longer feel it.”
Hans composed his last letter on February 16, two days before his arrest and less than a week before his death. In closing, he quoted Paul Claudel: “Life is a great adventure toward the light.” As Hans and Sophie stood before their executioner, that light must have appeared to them as no more than a tiny, flickering pinpoint. But one suspects that at the moment of their death it burst into the effulgent radiance of The Light.
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