Here is evidence of why I think the newly translated Russian novel Laurus — and by extension, art like it — is such a powerful antidote to the nihilism and hedonism pervasive in our culture. This letter came from a young English literature professor at a small college. I publish it with his permission, with only a couple of slight changes to protect his identity. He said to me, when I asked permission, that the academic world outside of his campus “is so firmly pitted against people like us that I don’t want to risk anything. I wish that weren’t the case.”
The professor writes:
I read two things this morning. First, as I drank my coffee, I read your post about Ruddick’s article (which I’d read) and the anti-humanists. Obviously, the article is depressing — and completely accurate. You may recall that I emailed you last week about the institutionalization of Foucault’s ideas in the humanities, and about the permanent movement to destabilize, disrupt, and destroy all discourses of power. As you point out, this now includes our most basic notions about the self. We shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. Now that we “know” the self is merely a social construction (along with race, gender, and the whole tired litany), it cannot be immune from what my colleagues in graduate school called the work of “troubling” and “interrogating” and “problematizing.” Because after all, if the self is a constructed “text,” and it has exerted influence in culture, then it is a discourse of power — and must be disrupted. Transgender theory, as I asserted last week, represents some kind of cultural apex of this idea. The self does not exist; it is only willed and chosen and created.
So if this is the sad state of academic English, why do people like me carry on? Because of the second thing I read this morning: the final 30 pages of Laurus. I first bought it after Kalfus’s write-up, but finally started it after your praise of it. I don’t know the last time I read such a beautiful novel (and reading novels is basically my job; I read 60 to 90 a year), or one that so powerfully — and yet so quietly and peacefully! — evokes the enchantment of the world that we seem to have lost. Arseny is the perfect representative counterpoint to the project of the Willed Self. His path is dictated by his connections to the past; his actions are shaped by the needs and exigencies of real humans; his travel and tasks are the product of a capital-C Created self: a self made in the image of God, with obligations to others far outweighing concerns about himself, and which contains the inherent dignity granted to all those who recognize the sheer miracle of their existence.
I have already made a photocopy of my favorite passage from the book, which I hung on my office door. It’s the part where the elder explains to Arseny that a journey without a destination is a deeply misguided task. The elder says we should not get hung up on horizontal motion, and then points up and says we should focus on vertical motion. (The scene is much more emotional and powerful, as you know, than it is here, decontextualized.)
I blogged that passage here. A repeat:
And so, O Savior, give me at least some sign that I may know my path has not veered into madness, so I may, with that knowledge, walk the most difficult road, walk as long as need be and no longer feel weariness.
What sign do you want and what knowledge? asked an elder standing [nearby]. Do you not know that any journey harbors danger within itself? Any journey — and if you do not acknowledge this, then why move? So you say faith is not enough for you and you want knowledge, too. But knowledge does not involve spiritual effort; knowledge is obvious. Faith assumes effort. Knowledge is repose and faith is motion.
But were the venerable not aspiring for the harmony of repose? asked Arseny.
They took the route of faith, answered the elder. And their faith was so strong it turned into knowledge.
Arseny says he wants to know the general direction of his journey, especially the part that concerns him and the person he hurt early in his life.
But is not Christ a general direction? asked the elder. What other kind of direction do you seek? And how do you even understand the journey anyway? As the vast expanses you left behind? You made it to [here] with your questions, though you could have asked them [in your local monastery]. 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 had no goal. And do not be enamored of excessive horizontal motion.
Then what should I be enamored of? asked Arseny.
Vertical motion, answered the elder, pointing above.
In the center of the church’s cupola there gaped a round, black opening reserved for the sky and stars. Stars were visible but they were fading from sight. Arseny understood day was breaking.]
Back to the professor’s letter:
I wish we could get every SJW, every devotee of the Gospel of Progress, every “disrupter” and self-willer and tradition-destroyer, to read this passage. Your journey doesn’t even necessarily have to be toward God, and it doesn’t have to be a Christian path. But it needs to have a telos. We must be progressing toward something. If we don’t have an idea of the transcendent, of the ideal, then we are going nowhere.
I was immediately reminded by that passage of the famous story of John Senior in the famous KU humanities program a few decades ago. Clear Creek Monastery recounts it:
In preparation for that first lecture, the students were required to read Homer’s “Odyssey.” At the beginning of that first class, John Senior asked, “Where is Ulysses going in this story?” After the three professors discussed the story, one of the students responded, “He is going home.” John Senior then addressed the class, “Where are you people going?” Abbot Anderson said that this was rather offensive for most of the students. In their youthful arrogance, most of them believed they were enlightened. They had experimented with drugs. They had considered Eastern religions. They had liberated themselves from the constraints of Christian morality through the sexual revolution. Of course they knew where they were going! The question was a shocking challenge to the students, an indictment on their knowledge and education. “Back in the dorm, we were discussing the lecture. I could not believe (the professors) had the audacity to say these things, but they caught our attention and we were totally surprised,” reflected Abbot Anderson.
Would that we would all receive such indictments! Laurus is the kind of book that has the selfsame feeling as Senior’s challenge to the class. It’s the kind of book that virtually drips with spirituality, but not in a cloying or self-help megachurch kind of way. It’s a quiet and powerful book. I’m already working on a proposal to teach a course on it next year, along with books by Tolkien and Lewis and Dostoevsky, here at my humble little college. Perhaps courses like that one can be a small version of Burke’s little platoons, or a modest example of the Benedict Option: a committed teacher and some curious students, gathered around a book that tells a quiet story about a time when we may not have been as rich in panem et circenses, but we sure were more metaphysically integrated.
And that’s my point, I guess. Books like Laurus give me hope for the discipline, and for the academy, and for the culture of letters at large. If I can get one student to read it and respond thoughtfully to it, maybe that’s enough. And though you and I may get depressed by the “scholarship” of [radical feminist transgender academic Judith/Jack] Halberstam and the endless shape-shifting of gender theory, perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that her department at USC also includes two writers of phenomenal talent whose work is rooted in real lives: T.C. Boyle and Percival Everett. The astonishingly prolific Boyle has written great stories about the limits of humans, and Everett is surely one of our top ten living American novelists. His novel Erasure is a perfect skewering of the world Halberstam represents, and his Percival Everett by Virgil Russell is a stirring meditation on fathers and sons.
Halberstam et al may get the headlines, the grant money, the attention, the controversy, and the loud applause from the apostles of progress. Maybe we can take comfort in the sheer fact that books like Laurus can even exist, and be read and praised and awarded and discussed by people who care about culture. I’m fond of Eliot’s dictum, which strikes me as somewhat BenOp-ish: “To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man’s life.” I cannot recommend Laurus highly enough. Thank you for bringing it greater attention.
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I recall here the words that a Catholic professor gave me when I asked him for advice on writing the Benedict Option book: he told me to think about what Father Karol Wojtyla did in response to the Nazi occupation. “What was that?” I asked.
“He formed a theater company,” the professor said.
Having read Laurus, I begin to understand more deeply what the professor means. It really is a first-rate work of literature, not agitprop or cheesy Christian propaganda, and you don’t have to be a Christian to see that. It embodies a view of the world, and of what it means to be fully human, that strikes the reader with the force of revelation. In his radio interview with Eric Metaxas, Vodolazkin said that as a child in the USSR, being raised by agnostic parents, he was so alienated from the dry, empty, monotonous Soviet ideology that he sought escape in literature from Russia’s distant past. And he began to pray to an unknown god. Eventually he found the true God, and was baptized.
The point is, the old literature served as an icon for him through which the light shone into a very dark place, and showed a little boy hungry for truth and beauty the way out. Eventually it led him to God. Maybe apologetics would have done this too, but I doubt it. It was art, and literature, that pierced the spiritual and intellectual darkness with truth and beauty.
This is why I believe classical schools, especially classical Christian schools, will be key to the Benedict Option.
I have just started watching The Man In The High Castle, the dystopian Amazon.com-produced series set in 1962, in an America ruled by the Nazis and the Japanese, who won the Second World War. I’ve only seen one episode, but so far, it lives up to the hype. In the show, resistance to the occupation is based on a secretive figure (the title character, in fact) who produces films that give people hope by telling alternative stories to the official one. Jane Clark Scharl says the series is a great example of how to resist ideology with myth. Excerpts:
Despite the fascist iconography in nearly every frame, the setting is more reminiscent of Stalinist Russia than Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. The show is set in 1962; there is no war to “justify” atrocity. Instead, atrocity is simply part of survival. It’s more The Lives of Others than Army of Shadows. The only ray of hope is not a weapon or a revolutionary political leader. It’s a myth.
A myth is not a falsehood or a fairy story, as people often think. It’s a narrative that offers, however obscurely, an explanation of the relationship between God, oneself, and the world. The myth in The Man in the High Castle is so powerful than anyone exposed to it is changed: either they become obsessed with destroying it, or they find in it the strength to resist evil.
She writes about the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, and his discussion of how even surrounded by a communist culture of mass conformity, symbolized by the greengrocer who puts a pro-communist sign in his window, just to avoid trouble, some brave people found ways to resist. More Scharl:
Obviously not everyone who lived within the USSR supported it. But it is undeniable that even though millions and millions of people hated the regime, the greengrocers continued to put the sign in their windows, and the regime persisted. Havel ascribes this to the power of the myth.
Against totalitarian regimes there is usually a resistance. Sometimes it is political, sometimes violent, always risky. But the strongest resistance is able to transcend politics and battle against not the structures but the ideology sustaining them. Resistance at its best is a sustained, strategic defense of an alternative myth. It can’t be solely political. Resistance must win the battle for the imagination, which politics alone can’t do. Only myths, narratives about oneself, God, and the world, can do that. For Havel and the Czechoslovakians, resistance ultimately meant creating a whole alternative society that operated under and alongside Soviet society until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989.
Finally, Scharl says:
We shouldn’t wait for The Man in the High Castle or the horrors of the Soviet regime to become realized in America to start thinking about resistance. Resistance must begin as soon as a society’s metaphysics define human nature as something other than simultaneously free, fallen, and dignified. In other words, each generation must be a resistance, a rediscovery of truth and a reintegration of it into daily life, society, and government.
Resistance, like virtue, is simple but not easy. Begin by looking around; ask yourself what story the current regime is telling about God, yourself, and others, about freedom, sin, and dignity. If that story is not true, if it does not account for reality, resist it.
Absolutely. Read her entire essay, and take it to heart. Watch The Man In The High Castle because it’s very well done, and because it tells us something about the power of myth and art to inspire people to resist lies. Read Laurus, because it is true and beautiful in an extraordinary, galvanizing way. And have hope, because the culture of the counterrevolutionary resistance is taking shape.