Volume > Issue > Briefly: May 1988

May 1988

Flight of Ashes

By Monika Maron

Publisher: Readers International

Pages: 188

Price: $16.95

Review Author:

This East European under­ground novel, written by the daughter of East Germany’s first Minister of the Interior, is a mov­ing account of the problems in­volved in any attempt to reform a Communist society. Josefa Nadler, the protagonist, is an idealistic devotee of East German Communism, a true believer, who is sent by her newspaper to the industrial town of “B” to write a glowing article about her country’s economic achieve­ments. What she finds is hardly what she expects: “B” is a filthy remnant of early industrializa­tion, with “a power plant where you don’t dare mention the word safety“; one person does the work of two under conditions which rival the brutality of the 19th century. To her credit, Nad­ler chooses personal honesty over fidelity to the Party and decides to describe the town exactly as she sees it. The rest of the book recounts her heroic, but ulti­mately fruitless, efforts to win approval for publication of her article.

This may seem like a famil­iar story to anyone acquainted with life in Communist societies. But such dissident critiques are not always as straightforward as they might appear to Western eyes. Some readers will see in this book a simple, and possibly welcome, indictment of Com­munism. After all, Nadler is even­tually expelled from the Party for failing to comprehend an ele­mentary fact of East German life: Obedience to the Party line is more important than the pangs of conscience. But there is more to Maron’s story, much more than a mere anti-Communist po­lemic, and it is this factor which makes her book compelling. It is not just Communism that de­stroys Nadler’s career, but the people around her — Communist sympathizers or not — and the all-too-human emotions and frailties which they display. For ex­ample, Nadler’s boss exploits her controversial position and final defeat to bolster his own author­ity. Her close friends, fearing the loss of jobs and comfortable po­sitions, abandon her. Even the workers whom Nadler seeks to help — save for one old proletar­ian hero in the power plant — are too timid to fight for their own interests. All-too-human: there’s nothing unique to Communism here.

Although the East German authorities have banned Flight of Ashes as subversive, it is clear that Maron is not calling for the overthrow of her country’s Com­munist system. There is much in her account to suggest that she merely wants to reform the sys­tem in East Germany, if only to make it more humane. There is also an irony here, because this type of critique doesn’t sound all that different from the attacks on Communist bureaucracy and opportunism that we hear from the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. Would Gor­bachev — were he to read this book — find himself an unwitting admirer of the “socialist heroics” of Josefa Nadler? Readers of Flight of Ashes will have to de­cide for themselves just where Maron and her protagonist stand in their assessments of modern-day Communism. To recognize that this judgment is no easy task is to appreciate the complexities involved in studying the critics and defenders of the Marxist world today.

Dante: The Poetics of Conver­sion

By John Freccero

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Pages: 328

Price: $24.95

Review Author:

John Freccero’s Dante: The Poetics of Conversion,, a collec­tion of essays written between 1959 and 1983 about the Divine Comedy, reflects the drift of lit­erary scholarship over the last 25 years; every essay’s date of publication could be pinpointed by its relative dependence on avant-garde literary theory. But, as the title implies, Freccero refuses to separate the semiotic and struc­tural from the personal and reli­gious. The book’s merit springs from the interplay and tension between Freccero’s critical so­phistication and his unfailing grasp of Dante’s spiritual theme.

One governing insight that illuminates several of the essays concerns the peculiar difficulties of autobiographical writing. The telling of one’s life presupposes a view of the whole, a view achieved only with death — an obvious problem most pithily noted by the Vermont farmer who, when asked if he had lived on his farm all his life, replied, “Not yet.” But Freccero suggests that for Dante “there was a death which enabled the mind to grasp such totalities, not by virtue of linear evolution, but rather by transcen­dence: a death of detachment.” To write a coherent account of his spiritual odyssey, Dante the pilgrim must die to self.

Freccero interprets the first cantos of the Inferno, filled with obscure symbolism and allegorical beasts, as representing the failure of a merely intellectual approach to holiness; though Dante sees the shining mountain and knows he must climb it, he is unable to ascend. This initial fail­ure necessitates his journey; in the course of the Divine Comedy, Dante’s will is cleansed and strengthened, and he achieves the death of detachment which en­ables the poem to be written from the perspective of eternity. For Freccero the entire poem re­cords the convergence of the pil­grim and the poet; by the end of the Paradiso, the two are one.

Freccero even manages to press the complex, and seemingly self-defeating, ironies revealed by deconstructionist critics into ser­vice for Dante’s poem. In the es­say, “Infernal Irony: The Gates of Hell,” he argues that the oft-admired descriptiveness of the Inferno is, in fact, a bitter mock­ery of human vision; that for Dante the technique of realism serves not to convey the immedi­acy of real experience, but to call corporeal vision and its “reality” into question. As evidence he points to the famous inscription on the gates of hell which opens Canto III. Dante presents the simple phrases of the inscription without explaining their context, without the bold print by which most modern editions distinguish these words from Dante’s own. As Dante would have it, the read­er should stumble through this text without comprehending its true significance: a dramatic rep­resentation of the “seeing with­out understanding” which Frec­cero calls the essence of the poet­ics of hell.

Freccero’s scholarly prose is remarkably readable, and the range of his literary and philo­sophical expertise — from Origen to Michel Foucault — opens up the Divine Comedy as an omni­bus of the medieval mind. Frec­cero neither downplays the liter­ary analysis nor shrinks from the­ological technicalities; his essays constitute a fresh reading of the Divine Comedy as a drama of the conversion from pilgrim to poet, from lost soul to saint.

Faith Without Form: Beliefs of Catholic Youth

By E. Nancy McAuley & Moira Mathieson

Publisher: Sheed & Ward

Pages: 166

Price: $8.95

Review Author:

If the future of the Church is our youth, the Church needs to pay much more attention to its future, according to results of this study of Catholic high school students. Faith Without Form provides empirical support for many fears and criticisms raised over the past decade about what young Catholics are taught and believe.

A random sample of Catho­lic high school seniors in the Washington Archdiocese was questioned about their religious beliefs and practices. In addition to reporting these questions and responses, the authors interpret the responses, provide quotations from the respondents, and offer recommendations based on their findings.

One cannot help but be dis­turbed by this study. Not only do the young Catholics tend to disagree with Church teaching on sexual morality and marriage, but they also seem to deny the Church’s right to teach author­itatively. They tend to confuse the changeable and the unchange­able, and often fail to appreciate the importance of the Mass.

On the other hand, the au­thors find some cause for hope. They note a seemingly genuine interest in faith, though not in institutional religion. A majority of respondents also seems to regard abortion and drug abuse as immoral, and believes that the Church should be involved in so­cial justice issues.

This book makes a valuable contribution to discussion on the subject of teens and religion. The authors’ recommendations are on target: clearer and more substan­tial religious education programs, more support from the family for the religious development of youth, and a reassessment of youth’s need for authority in light of the prevalence of cults. Best of all, the authors seem genuine­ly concerned over the widespread ignorance and immature outlook of young Catholics, and they do not fall back on the worn out nostrum that an “outdated” Church needs to become relevant.

Belonging: Our Need for Com­munity in Church and Family

By S.D. Gaede

Publisher: Zondervan

Pages: 277

Price: $9.95

Review Author:

S.D. Gaede continues a so­ciological tradition that argues that modernity weakens com­munity. But he differs from most sociologists by attempting to of­fer distinctly Christian solutions.

Modernity fractures com­munity where it is the most im­portant — the family and religion. Community depends on the au­thority of tradition. Personal choice, one of the core values of modernity, threatens that authority.

Gaede offers several specific solutions for returning commun­ity to religion and the family. But his recommendations for res­toration are premised, ironically, upon the very freedom to choose that destroys community. The authentic Christian vision of community, in contrast, fights fragmentation by stressing what we believe in common and it pro­vides an ideal toward which to strive; it teaches that relation­ships obligate us to other people and include a commitment that extends beyond personal choice.

Liturgy and Personality

By Die­trich von Hildebrand

Publisher: Sophia In­stitute Press

Pages: 182

Price: $11.95

Review Author:

In what sense is Plato cor­rect in saying that the soul grows wings as it beholds values? Is it true that for each value there is a corresponding and suitable re­sponse, a response owed to it by all men solely because it is a val­ue? If so, how does one discern the adequate response to each value? Is there a hierarchy of val­ues? What gives values their valid­ity? And, finally, what have val­ues to do with liturgy?

In Liturgy and Personality, Dietrich von Hildebrand addresses all of these questions. Values, he argues, originate in God. They are “rays which radiate from God’s being, Who is all holiness. Whatever is good and beautiful, all that possesses a value, is a re­flection of His eternal light and imitates God according to its own fashion.” As reflections of God’s ineffable holiness, values deserve to be recognized, affirm­ed, and embraced. “Man, who alone can make a conscious re­sponse to God’s endless glory,” must respond to values themselves “with joy, enthusiasm, venera­tion, and love.” Such is the ade­quate response, just as the ade­quate response to the Source of all value is praise and adoration. In man, writes von Hildebrand, “the central personal values do not take shape ‘on their own’ as does his physical stature or his temperament.” They must be nurtured. But the more one is at­tracted to the realm of values, the more one comprehends, re­veres, and is ultimately transform­ed by them.

From these general truths stream penetrating analyses of a series of particular spiritual val­ues. Von Hildebrand’s thesis is that because of its constant focus on values and on the forgetfulness of self, Catholic liturgy (defined to include the holy Mass, the Di­vine Office, and the Sacraments) has an extraordinary capacity to transform the personality of the worshiper who actively and sin­cerely participates in it. In pray­ing the liturgy the individual is essentially fulfilling his vocation to glorify God, yet, by doing so, he benefits from the inevitable “side effects” of this God-centeredness. As he assumes into himself the values and attitudes of Christ which are embodied in the liturgy, he becomes, like Christ, a true person. The liturgy, says von Hildebrand, “imprints upon the soul the Face of Christ.”

Personality, then, as von Hildebrand defines the term, means not that aggregate of quirky traits which combine to produce a “character,” and even less the showy suaveness of the “celebrity,” but, rather, the “true and perfect man, the saint,” the being who has fully developed the human potential he received from the hands of God as pure gift. Such a person is the normal, as opposed to the merely average, person.

Each chapter focuses on a different value, usually one rapid­ly disappearing from the contem­porary consciousness — reverence, continuity, communion, and discretio, among others. Most chap­ters unfold in two stages. First von Hildebrand examines the es­sence of the value under discus­sion and its role in forming the psyche (usually, along the way, pointing out specific personality flaws that arise from either a lack of response or a false response to the value in question). He then demonstrates where in the liturgy that value is active. In these deeply moving explorations, one experiences the author’s own “organic participation in the pulse of the entire Church” and, as a result, comes away not only with a heightened sense of the splendors of the liturgy but also with a finer perception of the ways in which it instills trans­forming values.

Liturgy and Personality was originally published in German in 1933 and translated into English 10 years later when von Hilde­brand was Professor of Philoso­phy at Fordham University. We must all be grateful to Sophia Institute Press for bringing this pro­found, reverent, and lucidly writ­ten book back into circulation. Henri Nouwen recently lamented in the NOR that, “in the late 20th century there is hardly a common value left.” Von Hildebrand’s Liturgy and Personality is a timely and necessary anti­dote to the prevalent attitude that relegates values to the eye of the beholder.

The Papacy and the Middle East: The Role of the Holy See in the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1962-1984

By George E. Irani

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press

Pages: 218

Price: $22.95

Review Author:

The Holy See’s diplomatic corps is legendary for compe­tence, discretion, and taking the long view. George Irani here ex­amines the goals and strategies of Vatican diplomacy in three areas: the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the status of Jerusalem and its Holy places, and the war in Lebanon.

Irani holds the Holy See’s diplomacy in high esteem and be­lieves it is “essentially motivated by a concern to protect the wel­fare of Catholic minorities, to promote peaceful co-existence, and to win respect for the human rights of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.” With regard to the Is­raeli-Palestinian conflict the Vati­can aims, he contends, “to pre­serve and maintain a Catholic presence in Israel” and to work for a peaceful and just settlement. With regard to Jerusalem, the Church seeks a special, interna­tionally-guaranteed status for the city, civil and religious rights for its Arab residents, and a lessening of the emigration of Christians from the city. In Lebanon the Holy See “has tried to preserve the integrity of the country with its pluri-communitarian formula in order to save the Catholic communities,” believing that such a “pluri-communitarian” example will aid Catholics in other, more Moslem countries.

Irani is methodical and well-organized: he states his theses, amasses and analyzes evidence, and draws conclusions. One won­ders, though, if, concerning the Holy Land and the chosen peo­ple, a poet-dramatist would not capture reality better than the scholarly observer of diplomacy.

The Color of Blood

By Brian Moore

Publisher: E.P. Dutton

Pages: 182

Price: $16.95

Review Author:

Americans admire the Pol­ish Church for the wrong reason. They praise it because it tweaks the nose of the Communist state, not because it manifests a spiri­tual luminosity rarely seen in the West. Stephen Cardinal Bem, the protagonist of Brian Moore’s splendid novel set in an unnamed country that resembles Poland, understands the West’s distorted perspective: “for the West this country is a pawn in a larger game.” That the non-Communist world offers no solutions to his country’s distress does not trou­ble the Cardinal. But the flawed devotion of his own Catholic countrymen does. “Are we filling the churches because we love God more than before?” he asks. “Or do we do it out of nostalgia for the past, or, worse, to defy the government? Because if we do…then God is mocked.”

Brian Moore spins a won­derfully suspenseful tale in The Color of Blood. More important, he probes the tangle of religion and politics in a way that forces one to abandon the glibness that springs to mind when we consid­er the role of Catholicism in Eastern Europe.

In Search of Melancholy Baby

By Vassily Aksyonov

Publisher: Random House

Pages: 227

Price: $15.95

Review Author:

In 1980 the novelist Vassily Aksyonov won the Soviet Union’s prestigious “Traveling Fellowship for Intellectual Malcontents.” Russia’s loss was America’s gain; expelled from his homeland for being a “subversive element,” Aksyonov settled in the U.S. In Search of Melancholy Baby might be subtitled “Vassily in Wonderland, or a Puckish Glimpse at the Capitalist Cornucopia.”

Aksyonov evinces a refresh­ing lightheadedness; he evades two snares that tempt the exile: merciless rancor toward the lost motherland and uncritical ardor for the new home. “As an ‘almost American,'” he remarks, “I see more than the bright windows; I see its mildewed corners as well.” American provincialism staggers him. What other country would stage an annual “World Series” restricted to two of its own teams? Well, perhaps a Canadian team might sneak in.) His apart­ment-house manager patiently explains to Aksyonov the myster­ious workings of something call­ed an “elevator”; the young man­ager is crestfallen to learn that the Soviet Union has already discovered such devices.

Surprises greet Aksyonov. Deliverymen and repairmen turn routine jobs into weeks of frustration and wrangling; in the Soviet Union, he notes, bribery is the mother of alacrity. Used to a decrepit, labyrinthine bureaucra­cy at home, Aksyonov falls into the clutches of “exceedingly self-satisfied” American bureaucrats who could teach Kafka a trick or two. In the Soviet Union the writer suffers for conscience and art; in America Aksyonov en­counters “grasping, grasping, grasping” literary whores who form a “clique of lickspittles.”

But Aksyonov’s sense of hu­mor never deserts him, nor does his appreciation of a land where “subversive elements” are Book-­of-the-Month-Clubbed rather than exiled or gulaged.

The Church and Christian De­mocracy (Concilium No. 193)

By Gregory Baum and John Coleman

Publisher: T. & T. Clark

Pages: 125

Price: $8.95

Review Author:

Once upon a time, Christian Democracy was a rather daring idea. Gradually and often reluc­tantly, the Catholic Church came to embrace it.

Today, Christian Democra­cy, whether in Europe or Latin America, is bland to the point of boredom and in the advanced stages of spiritual decay. Whereas original Christian Democracy had strong reformist, personalist, laborist, and anti-capitalist tenden­cies, today Christian Democratic parties are bourgeois entities pre­occupied with sustaining the sta­tus quo. Walter Dirks says of the West German party that it looks for its support to people who “are interested in the mainte­nance of their professional life and their assets.” There is little that is distinctly Christian about modern Christian Democracy; if it is solicitous toward the Church, it is largely because it sees her as just one more “spe­cial interest.”

Curiously, nowadays Catho­lic social teaching no longer lags behind visionary Christian Demo­crats. To the contrary: that teaching is well in advance of os­sified Christian Democratic struc­tures. According to Fr. Pablo Richard, Catholic social teaching now gives priority “to workers and to human life over capital, whereas previously the priority of ownership and private proper­ty was stressed.”

It is clear from this book of essays that Christian Democracy has outlived its usefulness. What partisan political configuration ought to replace it remains un­clear. While some of the contrib­utors to this volume look to liberationist nostrums, Christians who are truly concerned to plot out a distinctively Christian so­cial project will not be satisfied with liberation theology, which, if it is distinctly anything, is too often distinctly Marxist.


By Frederick Buechner

Publisher: Atheneum

Pages: 240

Price: $17.95

Review Author:

Frederick Buechner parts the mists that swirl around sixth-century Ireland, and into the clearing steps St. Brendan the Navigator, seeker of the Blessed Isles, the land of Tri-nan-n-Og. Historians know little of this Brendan; working from the sparse facts, Buechner spins a fictional tale at once charming and pro­found, funny and grave, earthy and transcendent, profane and sacred.

Favored as a young man with a vivid revelation of Tir-nan-n-Og, Brendan pursues it across seas and oceans, compelled by a beauty so sublime that, as he says, “it broke my heart, I think.” He spreads the new faith, converts souls, and founds a monastery, but the Blessed Isles elude him. His long life brings only failure in his own eyes; his voyages were fools’ errands, a sinful man’s prideful attempt to storm the gates of the eternal. Yet his fail­ure in this large scheme enables him to grasp the small lessons that reveal the true meaning of life. God “wants us each one to have a loving heart,” he tells his lifelong companion, Finn. And, too: “To lend each other a hand when we’re falling. Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.”

More Equal Than Others: Wom­en and Men in Dual-Career Mar­riages

By Rosanna Hertz

Publisher: Uni­versity of California Press

Pages: 245

Price: $18.95

Review Author:

The activist Eliana do Nascimento calls it the paradox of “white feminists and their house­keepers.” Rosanna Hertz under­scores this observation: “the abil­ity of dual-career couples to en­joy the privileges of careers is predicated on the availability of lower-paid household and child-care workers; that is, on a sys­tematic and unequal distribution of advantages and disadvantages.” She teases out some salient im­plications of the paradox. What if these affluent couples were to pay childcare workers according to their worth? Hertz’s dual-ca­reerists would then face the question “of why this work was being farmed out.” But what neither Hertz nor the great majority of her respondents examine is the result of placing career above vo­cation: structuring the care of one’s children to facilitate the climb up the corporate ladder.

Although it slights the pri­macy of vocation, Hertz’s study shows the grip of corporate structures with two theses. First, feminism motivates women in dual-career marriages less than does economic opportunity. Sec­ond, despite their chronic diffi­culties in arranging suitable pri­vate childcare, dual-career couples seldom consider either taking co­operative measures for childcare or pressuring their firms to offer such services.

So it goes in the land of the “have-it-alls” where amniocente­sis extends the “postponement process” and “traditional values” get in the way. Hertz, who knows her subjects well, ends with an ambiguous testimony: “Thus, they convert more and more of their lives into commodities (goods and labor), while trying to protect the relationship they have with each other from being dissolved into a monetary ex­change.”

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