A friend who teaches in a college just sent me this beautiful elegy, and gives me permission to publish it here:
This morning I was walking across campus and I saw, under the hickories and catalpas that grace a grove near our football stadium, an older professor walking on the path toward me. He was a bit stooped, and walked slowly. As I approached him I saw he was in full professor garb: tweed jacket, driving cap, dilapidated briefcase – straight out of central casting, ready to pass through the stone arch into a midcentury lecture hall. For a moment I could have sworn he was a great Catholic scholar I used to know and work with, a man the world lost last year. He wasn’t, of course, but as I walked past him and reflected on the similarities my eyes suddenly filled with tears.
This has been happening to me a lot lately these last few weeks, and I’ve been unable to pinpoint why. But this morning, as I saw this figure from the imagined past, the reason finally crystallized in my mind. I’ve been troubled by what’s happening in Washington, of course, and by the prospect of ending a respected judge’s career based on vague allegations that could just as easily come your way, or mine. Usually I am able to tune out much of Washington pomposity, since we see again and again that this week’s biggest deal ever! is usually next week’s what was that again? Finally this morning it occurred to me what was happening: I’ve been feeling a very real, very tangible sense of grief that it all seems to be slipping away. What is “it”? Culture, I guess. Solidarity. The great story and great promise of this country. Harmony and peace. Shared stories. Kinship and brotherhood. The spirit of being in this together.
All that is gone, and I’ve been teary-eyed because I know we’re passing into something else. Something profoundly uglier. You and I are both fans of Paul Kingsnorth, and I agree with him that we need to acknowledge what is happening to the planet, that it is too late to save us, too late to stop global warming, and only once we have accepted this can we begin to accommodate ourselves to the truth. Lately I think we need to do something similar with culture. There are so many complaints about “erosion of norms,” about “restoring pre-Trump governance,” etc., etc., ad infinitum. But politics is downstream from culture, as St. Wendell reminds us. Only a sick culture could produce the 2016 presidential candidates; only a diseased polity could not just produce but revel in the carnival sideshow of last week. There is no coming back from this. Something very real has died.
I know: every generation since Plato has complained that things are not as good as they used to be. Fair point. And I don’t dispute the Easterbrook/Pinker thesis that things have never been better, in material terms. My life is pretty great, in fact. And I know it’s a fallacy to hold up some imagined American golden age that was lost due to the sexual revolution, or to Reaganomics, or to Clintonian nihilism, or to pick-your-upheaval. But what every person getting older realizes—and, crucially, there is no good way to explain this to younger people—is that it really did used to be better. There really was a greater sense of social trust. There really was more modesty in public life and in private actions. There really was greater kinship and community, greater feeling of unity, greater generosity of spirit.
And no, I don’t have “data” on this. But data is insufficient to convey intangibles; almost nothing important in life can be measured or quantified. But I don’t know how anyone over, say, 35 could disagree with what I’m saying. Just look around. I have faculty colleagues who now record every single one of their classes on camera—that’s how worried they are that a student will allege something about them. Others refuse to meet with students one-on-one. Others keep a finger on the Voice Memo app at all times, so that they can hit record as soon as a student starts talking to them.
Look at our social institutions. Mainline Protestantism is a joke. The Catholic Church is imploding in slow motion. Government is a running on fumes, with temporary spending measures passed every six or eight weeks. The military is mostly ignored, given grateful lip service while dispatched to never-ending wars in whichever Middle Eastern or Asian country we’re invading this decade. Civic institutions are mostly dead. The environmental movement is left to fetishize national parks while every field and waterway is poisoned.
And higher education, the realm in which I earn my living? Decreasing enrollment, highly specialized majors, total ignorance of the liberal arts tradition, comically esoteric “scholarship,” people realizing the worthlessness of most degrees—it’s a preposterous house of cards awaiting collapse. In the large state university where I teach part time, all the new and gleaming buildings are for engineering and medicine, with their endless “STEM boot camps” and “weekend hackathons” and cartoonish Silicon Valley imitations. (“Dry erase boards for walls! Beanbag chairs and foosball tables! Commodify your research!”) Meanwhile, in our liberal arts buildings? No custodial services; we empty our own trash and sweep our own floors. The Classics department is in a basement dungeon. English and Philosophy lose funding every year. History? What’s that? The Western Civ requirement gets axed, but meanwhile funding is always found for courses in Gender Studies. Aristotle is deep-sixed, but you can choose from courses in eight (!) African languages. Because there’s a huge demand for Wolof speakers, apparently. And now another round of university-wide budget cuts, which (of course) hurt students and faculty and which (of course) never seem to hurt the endless growth of “deanlets” and their staffs of seven or eight. Why does every dean, of which there are scores, seem to need both a “communications coordinator” and an “outreach coordinator” (whatever that is), both of whom make $60K a year?
Students, meanwhile, having been failed by another collapsing institution—K-12 public schools—show up to campus with 8th grade reading and writing levels. The first two years are remedial education. They are taught by graduate teaching assistants who give A’s to everyone because they won’t get faculty jobs without good teaching evaluations. The students know this, of course, so the customer-service mindset is rampant. Weekly I hear some version of “I pay your salary” in reaction to a poor grade. They spend perhaps a few hours a week on homework, and drink themselves stupid on weekends. The hookup culture is everywhere, and of course the number of sexual assault complaints on campus is skyrocketing. Faces are constantly glued to screens. The oddest thing about walking through campus buildings these days is the complete silence. Such is the pervasive nature of phones. And the faculty? Well, let’s just say every stereotype is true and leave it at that. The Soviet Union was never blessed with such intellectual and attitudinal conformity.
More than anything the sense of grief comes from the sense that we totally powerless. That all our efforts are futile. I am always moved by Normal Rockwell’s painting “Freedom of Speech,” with the humble citizen standing up at a town meeting. We used to decide things ourselves in this country. We used to shape our society. And now? Now our lives are shaped by opaque Silicon Valley powers, which earn untold billions by harnessing and monetizing our labor, and which keep us glued by employing legions of psychologists and neuroscientists to devise ever more addictive platforms. Is this not a form of slavery? Living in conditions not of our choosing, powerless to determine our fate, seeing our choices dictated by groups that see us as little more than cogs in their highly profitable systems? A Rawlsian thought experiment: is this the America we’d choose, if given the chance to design again? An America in which hackers expose everything in your personal life if you commit thought crime? An America in which a nakedly partisan media shames people who deviate from The Progress Agenda? An America in which we ruin people’s lives based on beliefs that were consensus opinions ten years ago?
I grieve that my young child will not know the America I knew, with its broadly shared attitudes and pride in its history. The students I teach know only the bad side: slavery, genocide, oppression. Horrors, all of them: I grant that without hesitation. But as it happens, this country has done amazing things. We have reason to be proud of much of it. But we have no interest in sustaining that pride. It really does seem that we will be the first empire to collapse by choice. It really is a civilizational suicide, not by barbarians or immigrants, but by, in MacIntyre’s phrasing, failure to shore up the imperium. We have failed ourselves. We squandered the miracle.
Perhaps I sound like a grizzled old-timer. In fact, my adolescence was in the 1990s—a decade that now seems like a fanciful memory. We went to block parties. We got together to watch fireworks. We played outside. I tried to kiss a few girls and was rebuffed, as every young man has been at some point. God forbid my own son should try that in a few years; who knows what kind of consent contracts he’ll have to sign first. If things seemed simpler, it’s because they were. We didn’t have an ideologically uniform elite for whom politics was eschatological. Our elites didn’t die on every hill on every pseudo-controversy. There wasn’t weeping and tearing of hair over every ridiculous comment.
You know I’ve had my struggles with Catholicism, especially this last year, but these days I find myself drawn mysteriously back to the art, the music, the lives of the saints, the stained glass and the organ and the cathedrals. Because in a bankrupt culture, in a collapsed civilization, what else is there? There is nowhere to turn our eyes but upward. Recently I attended a Mass at which was sung “Lord, When You Came to the Seashore.” I was struck by this line: “All I treasured, I have left on the sand there/Close to you, I will find other seas.” We’ve explored our seas: politics, entertainment, civic culture. We treasured them all for a time, and now we’ve exhausted them all. We must leave them on the sand. We can, will, and must find other seas. There’s no other way forward but to look upward.
So yes, I feel a very real kind of grief. I grieve the passing of a great nation. I weep that my own son will not know what I knew. I mourn the world that the wizened professor occupied for the last few decades, before the Disrupt ethos colonized our universities. I envy my parents, both Baby Boomers, who lived what was probably the last great American experience. And, of course, I fear what is coming. I wish I could say I’m facing it bravely, with stiff upper lip, as a fine example for my son. I’m not. I worry every single night about what he will face, and about what we are facing now.
I have an old picture of my grandfather, taken when he was an Ivy League student after the war. He got in because of the G.I. Bill, one of our country’s greatest achievements. He’s holding a book of Tennyson’s poems. He’s wearing a scarf and a suit and sits jauntily beneath a tree outside a beautiful Gothic building, smiling with some mix of youthful confidence and sheer wonder at the fact that this child of Irish immigrants had defeated the Nazis and now sat on this lush campus. As it happens, I taught Tennyson last week. Not a single student had heard of him. As I walked through campus that day, no one looked up. As I strolled by a shiny new engineering building, complete with corporation-sponsored coffee bars for students, I saw through the glass only students hunched over laptops. All is glass and steel now, a fine metaphor for a culture obsessed with transparency and destruction of mystery.
Like Eliot, I have an innate sympathy for lost causes. Perhaps my grief is just manifestation of that impulse. But the grief is there, undeniable, pervading every impression I have of culture and politics. Something has passed. Something new has arisen. There gloom the dark, broad seas, Tennyson wrote. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down. Perhaps. There may be a time to build up, but there seems little doubt we are in the time to break down.
Let me offer some hope. Not optimism, but hope. It comes from the 1966 Russian film Andrei Rublev, a long black-and-white biopic of the famed medieval Russian iconographer. I finally got around to watching it last week after reading Sohrab Ahmari’s short piece on it not long ago. Ahmari wrote:
But Rublev doesn’t offer any reassuring certainties about the survival of art and civilization. For civilization to endure ages of madness, the film suggests, it takes a certain madness on the part of its partisans.
Boriska, the scrappy young man recruited to cast a church bell in a plague-ravaged area (in the final chapter of the film), embodies this holy madness. To bring back the chiming of bells amid civilizational disorder, it takes heroic discipline. Some men must be flogged for rejecting the young master’s discipline. Sleeplessness, hunger, alienation, crises of faith, the ridicule and derision of the ignorant, the obsessive search for just the right kind of casting clay—all this is par for the course for those who would restore order to the world.
That final chapter is one of the greatest passages ever filmed. But after reading the elegy sent in by my thoughtful reader, I went back to my favorite part of Andrei Rublev — a scene called “Andrei’s penance” on the DVD. It’s about halfway through, in the aftermath of the Tatars sacking the cathedral of Vladimir — an atrocity that took place (in the film’s narrative) with the complicity of a Russian prince, who sold out his own people to seek revenge on his brother. The scene opens with Andrei standing shocked in the ruins of the cathedral. His icons have been mostly destroyed, the holy books burned. The bodies of the townspeople massacred by the Tatars lay all around. The only other survivor — the young woman Durochka, a “holy fool” (mentally ill person believed in Russian culture to be particularly beloved by God) — crouches over the body of a dead woman, braiding her long hair. It’s a powerful image of the instinctive human desire to bring order and beauty out of chaotic destruction.
Suddenly, Andrei sees the shade of Theophanes, the cranky, cynical Greek painter whose apprentice he once was. Theophanes has returned from the dead. The last time we saw him, he was arguing with Andrei about human nature (see that scene here), telling Andrei that people are vile, and that he works only for God.
Now, as they meet in this cathedral all but destroyed by human passion, Andrei confesses to his late master, “I’ve spent half my life in blindness. I worked for people day and night. But they aren’t people, are they? What you said was true.”
“So what if I said it then?” replied Theophanes. “You are wrong now. I was wrong then.”
Andrei meditates angrily on human depravity. How could men who are supposed to be brothers do this to each other? How could they murder and destroy for the sheer demonic pleasure of it? Theophanes listens to this, and says it’s time for him to go. Andrei begs him to stay so he can tell him more.
“But I already know everything,” says Theophanes, who, recall, has died and entered into eternity.
Says Andrei, “Then you know I’ll never paint again.”
“Because it’s of no use to anyone.”
“So your iconostasis was burned. Do you know how many of mine they burned? In Pskov, Novgorod? You are committing a grave sin.”
“I haven’t told you the worst. I killed a man. A fellow Russian. When I saw him carrying her off. (He looks at the holy fool) Look at her. Just look at her! I don’t remember how it happened. I caught up with him and I couldn’t help it.”
“Through our sins, evil has assumed a human form. Encroaching evil means encroaching humanity. God will forgive you; don’t forgive yourself. Live between divine forgiveness and your own torment. As for your sins, what do your Scriptures say? ‘Learn to do good: seek justice, rebuke the oppressor, defend the fatherless , plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.’ See, I haven’t forgotten: that may comfort you.”
Andrei replies, “I know, God is merciful and will pardon me. I shall offer the Lord a vow of silence. I have nothing more to say to people. Is this a good idea?”
“I have no right to advise you,” says Theophanes.
“Didn’t you go to heaven?”
“Lord! I can only say it is not as you imagine it on earth.”
Andrei asks Theophanes how long Russia’s suffering will go on.
“I don’t know. Forever, most likely,” he says, then turns to an icon of the Mother of God on the wall. It has escaped the torches of the Tatars.
“Yet how beautiful all this is!” Theophanes says, awe filling his voice.
The two men look around the ruins of the cathedral, beholding the beauty still present there amid the death and destruction. Snow begins to fall inside the cathedral, whose ceiling has been breached by the raiders. The faintly falling snowflakes come to rest on the holy fools, who is now sleeping next to the dead woman whose hair she braided.
“It is snowing,” said Andrei. “Nothing is more terrible than snow falling in a temple”
The camera lingers on Durochka, her cheek bloodied, sleeping soundly among the dead. Fade to black.
In this scene, God speaks, in a way, through the holy fool. She maintains her innocence, despite the horror around her. By instinct, she makes beauty, almost in defiance of the blood-soaked ugliness around her. She is a sign to Andrei of what he must do. Remember, he has killed a man to protect her innocence (that is, to keep her from being raped). Now he must care for her; he’s all she has.
Theophanes, wiser now with the eyes of eternity than he was in this life, instructs Andrei not to lose sight of the presence of beauty, despite everything. Andrei wants to know what’s going to happen next, but Theophanes tells him eternity is not like that. It is a mystery. There is no rhyme or reason to these things. All we can do is to obey God by loving others (“Learn to do good, seek justice,” etc.), and not lose sight of beauty, which is a sign of His presence.
Theophanes tells Andrei that he is “committing a grave sin” if he refuses to paint. It’s the sin of despair, and of refusing responsibility for his gift as an artist. One doesn’t make art because it is “useful.” Theophanes used to believe as Andrei does now: that humanity is hopeless. Now, though, from eternity, Theophanes comes back with a message of hope. Evil is a sign of our fallen humanity — Andrei’s humanity too. We are guilty, and are nothing without God’s mercy. To be human is to endure other humans, and indeed to endure ourselves (e.g., Andrei’s guilt over having killed a man, even though he did it for a good reason).
“God will forgive you; don’t forgive yourself. Live between divine forgiveness and your own torment.” The Greek is telling him that he should trust in God’s mercy, but also never forget his own capacity for sin. To live faithfully is to exist within that tension.
Above all, Theophanes seems to say, do not lose sight of beauty, despite everything. And you, Andrei, you have been given a gift of bringing beauty into the world, as a sign to the people of God’s presence, and of a world beyond the brutality of this one. It would be a sin to turn your back on that. (Andrei Tarkovsky, the director, once said, “Art would be useless if the world were perfect.”)
Andrei’s final line in this scene: “Nothing is more terrible than snow falling in a temple.” Here’s what I think he means: if snow falls in a temple, it means that the barrier protecting what is holy from the natural world has been breached. To see snow falling in a temple is a sign of grave disorder and destruction. But as we see here, snow is beautiful, is light, is graceful. What makes snow falling in a temple so terrible is not only that it means something holy has been profaned and destroyed, but also that grace and beauty can emerge from that destruction.
Durochka, the holy fool, is a snowflake falling in the temple. So is the holy icon left untouched by the raiders. And so is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Andrei’s path through life is to bear witness, as an artist, to that terrible saving truth.
So, in light of the reader’s elegiac letter, where does that leave us?
The old professor that my reader saw walking across campus was a snowflake in the temple sacked by modern barbarians. He is Andrei Rublev, shell-shocked and wondering what the point of it all is. Tarkovsky, the director, is the artist who speaks into this moment, reminding him (reminding us) that God exists, and that we too share in the sinfulness of the barbarians. Tarkovsky, speaking through Theophanes, tells us that it is our solemn responsibility to continue to love others, expecting no reward, and to continue to behold and bring forth beauty. To be an artist in a time of terror and destruction is to be a witness — that is, a martyr.
This is the martyrdom to which all of us who believe are called: to testify by our lives to the reality of God, in the ruins. We do so by the art we make, and by the sacrificial lives of love and righteousness that we live. There is no other way. Pope Benedict XVI said that the greatest arguments for the faith are the art and the saints made by the Church. In beauty and goodness does truth take on concrete form.
The elegiac reader writes:
You know I’ve had my struggles with Catholicism, especially this last year, but these days I find myself drawn mysteriously back to the art, the music, the lives of the saints, the stained glass and the organ and the cathedrals. Because in a bankrupt culture, in a collapsed civilization, what else is there? There is nowhere to turn our eyes but upward.
Yes. This is the message of Andrei Rublev. The last line of another modern Russian film, Repentance, is also relevant here. I learned of it in an interview I did a few years ago with Evgeny Vodolazkin, the author of the masterpiece Laurus, a novel about another medieval Russian believer:
RD: I think one of the most important moments in Laurus occurs when an elder tells Arseny, who is on pilgrimage, to consider the meaning of his travels. The elder advises: “I am not saying wandering is useless: there is a point to it. Do not become like your beloved Alexander [the Great], who had a journey but no goal. And do not be enamored of excessive horizontal motion.” What does this say to the modern reader?
That it is time to think about the destination, and not about the journey. If the way leads nowhere, it is meaningless. During the perestroika period, we had a great film, Repentance, by the Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze . It’s a movie about the destruction wrought by the Soviet past. The last scene of the film shows a woman baking a cake at the window. An old woman passing on the street stops and asks if this way leads to the church. The woman in the house says no, this road does not lead to the church. And the old woman replies, “What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to a church?”
So a road as such is nothing. It is really the endless way of Alexander the Great, whose great conquests were aimless. I thought about mankind as a little curious beetle that I once saw on the big road from Berlin to Munich. This beetle was marching along the highway, and it seemed to him that he knows everything about this way. But if he would ask the main questions, “Where does this road begin, and where does it go?”, he can’t answer. He knew neither what is Berlin, nor Munich. This is how we are today.
Technical and scientific revelation brought us the belief that all questions are possible to solve, but that is a great illusion. Technology has not solved the problem of death, and it will never solve this problem . The revelation that mankind saw conjured the illusion that everything is clear and known to us. Medieval people, 100 percent of them believed in God – were they really so stupid in comparison to us? Was the difference between their knowledge and our knowledge as different as we think? It was not so! I’m sure that in a certain sense, our knowledge will be a kind of mythology for future generations. I reflected this mythology with humor in Laurus, but this humor was not against medieval people. Maybe it was self-irony.
My advice to the elegist is: go to a church. Carry with you your doubts, your fears, your hatreds, your loves, all of it. Go into the ruined temple and let the snow fall on your face, and see in the beauty all around a sign that all is not lost, that He exists — the one who took on our flesh, and endured torture and murder at our hands — and calls to us from the mystery of eternity. This world is passing; we must set our gaze on eternity. This is what St. Benedict of Nursia did when he founded his brotherhood in the ruins of Rome.
This is our task too, you know.
Here is the trailer promoting the restoration of this extraordinary film. If you are fortunate enough to have it playing in a theater near you during its re-release, by all means to go to see it. I am going to buy a DVD copy. This film is a great treasure. So too, permit me to say, is the Orthodox faith, and the religious vision of the Russian people.