History Is Tragedy, Not Melodrama
Responding to my long essay yesterday in which I grappled with the revelation, from an FBI file, that my late father was in the KKK in the 1960s, reader Emil Bogdan posted this thoughtful comment:
My father was called Victor Bogdan, Bogdán Viktor in Hungarian. He was a famously decent-hearted man, acknowledged by everyone as the good-natured life of the party, when he was in the right mood. Mostly, he was an alcoholic. He started drinking in his thirties, so he was a late bloomer. We were living in Ceausescu’s totalitarian communist worker’s paradise in Romania. In 1982, by the time he returned from a year-long job in Libya with his construction crew (he was a foreman), he was already drinking too much. Then he was caught in a web of corruption, intrigue and torture, which was not of his making. Coworkers of his were killed by police, or just turned up dead. He was repeatedly interrogated and tortured by the police. Not directly for political reasons, just due to the insane corruption of his superiors at work, in cahoots with the local authorities, who were somehow more dangerous than the feds, the dreaded Securitate.
It was a climate of flimsy laws or even lawlessness, so we had to escape to save his life, and bribed tons of petty officials to get tourist visas to neighboring Hungary, similarly communist but more prosperous. My father, mother, sister and I traveled to Hungary in 1986 and then bravely crossed the Iron Curtain into Austria, risking everything by pleading with the border guards, even bribing them. We told them we were Székelys from Transylvania, who are acknowledged as the best, the truest, the most loyal Magyars anywhere. The Hungarian communist border officials listened to our story, accepted the money, and allowed us into Austria. I was ten years old.
We stayed there in the majestic Alps (orderly and rich) for two years as refugees, with a veritable zoo of other Eastern Europeans fleeing communism, and then we came to America in 1988. Here, my father continued drinking, except he got even worse. America was not what he expected. He couldn’t learn English properly, or didn’t want to. Religiously he was completely adrift and without any serious foundation, politically he was barely aware, or he was basically an accommodating centrist. He didn’t talk about ideas much, so I’m just presuming. He drank and drank and eventually died of cancer in 2001.
A very good man, and quite a failure, that was Bogdán Viktor, by blood three-quarters Székely and one-quarter Romanian. He wasn’t prone to ethnic conflict, but we had it (and still have some) in Transylvania, where he mostly took the Hungarian side. But he had plenty of Romanian friends, hell, even some relatives were “oláhok.” In America, his generalized bitterness about life occasioned enough weakness in him to give voice to some racist expressions, to his lasting shame. Sometimes he would call black people crows, “varjú” in the language of the Huns. Other than these rare outbursts, he was fairly non-racist most of the time and a sensitive guy, also selfish, self-destructive, neglectful, yet when he did show love, he did it so purely that you could never doubt his heart, his good intention. Good intentions pave the road to Hell, but I don’t know where he is, yet if I had to bet, he had enough redeeming qualities to only endure a few centuries of Purgatory for his crimes, I reckon. But I can’t judge him rightly, and he was my father, after all. I really am and must be grateful for it.
Born in 1943, during a world war, and in a border region, into a somewhat ethnically divided family, never having known his own father, even having spent some time in an orphanage, he certainly suffered more than I ever likely will, even before he was inexplicably and innocently caught in an investigation conducted by brutal men. Although he was baptized Catholic, as was my mother, we buried my father with the help of a Romanian Orthodox priest, for in the American diaspora, we proud Székely Attila the Hun super-Magyars ironically consorted more with the old-world enemy: ethnic Romanian fellow refugees. For us, nomadic Scythians, they are the Other. For us, proud Hun-Magyars, the descendants of the Romans are a different “race.” Having lived side by side for long centuries, we KNOW they are a different culture, a different religion, different language, different outlook and history and different genes, too. Maybe the differences are not as acute as between black and white Americans, and yet, in some ways they’re even more acute, for the European tribes are also set in their ways, worshipful of the ancestors.
It takes a lot to break those cycles, and how to do it, how to discard what we must, without taking away the credit due to the elders is the eternal dilemma, the great trick of every new generation.
Man, what a tale! I said a prayer for Victor Bogdan after reading it.
A friend emailed me overnight to say it must have been difficult to have written that essay yesterday. Sort of, I replied. In one sense, it wasn't a huge surprise that my dad had that awful interlude as a young man. I had plenty of clues over the years that it had been the case, but there's something about seeing it in black and white, on an FBI transcript, that seals the deal. Still, I have for most of my life been struggling with the meaning of that particular legacy in my family line. And that's where the hard part came in: trying to express my love and admiration for my father, judging the whole of his life, while also frankly acknowledging that for a season, he was involved with serious evil -- and I'm not sure he ever repented of it.
How to do this? I'm not sure it can be done by many people today, in this era of Wokeness, and not just by the Woke. American culture as a whole seems to be perpetually childish, in the sense that many Americans cannot bear complexity in their interpretation of events. People are either All Good or All Evil, with no room for fault, complexity, or the recurrent fact of tragedy. Indeed, I appreciated this comment on my blog post by Henry Clemens:
There is a massive and informative book by those interesting historians, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese — The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholder’s Worldview. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005.
In the Prologue is the statement “… we do not disguise… our respect for the slaveholders who constituted the hegemonic master class of the Old South. Nor do we disguise our admiration for much of their character and achievements. We see no point in arguing with those who maintain that any expression of respect and admiration for slaveholders prettifies slavery, slighting its cruelties and abominations, and absolves white slaveholders from collective and personal responsibility for their crimes against black people. The late I. F. Stone was once asked how he, a prominent spokesman for the radical Left with unimpeachable credentials as a life-long warrior against racism and social injustice, could admire a slaveholder like Thomas Jefferson. If we recall correctly, he replied, “Because history is a tragedy, not melodrama.”
History is a tragedy, not melodrama. Truer words are rarely spoken. Yesterday my son Matt and I spent the afternoon in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Admiring the Roman statuary, including busts of Caesars, requires a cast of mind that is more sophisticated than most people have today. The Roman system was extraordinarily cruel, and maintained with immense cruelty. It is estimated that over 10 percent of the Roman Empire's people were slaves, which amounts to five to seven million souls. Roman slaves had no rights at all, and as I have recently written, they and their children were sexually exploited by their owners in ways that shock our consciences today. (If you hate Christianity, you had better confront the fact that the coming of Christianity defeated that evil system.) The Romans conquered other nations, subjugated their peoples, and imposed peace, stability, and prosperity on them. It was a mixed blessing, certainly, but a blessing still for many people -- except, of course, the human beings on whose bodies the edifice stood.
Nevertheless, there was a bust of Marcus Aurelius yesterday, and the visage of the wisest of all emperors radiated beauty and nobility across the centuries. How to account for that? How to account for the Emperor's wisdom and nobility, given that he presided over such a wicked system? Because history is a tragedy, not melodrama. If you surrender the capacity to perceive that fact, your angelism will turn you into a destructive child able only to relate to things at the most simplistic level. This, in fact, is what that primitive moralistic tribe we call the Woke are doing.
Until five minutes ago, we had the capacity to admire the beautiful houses the antebellum American slaveholders built, while not honoring their slaveholding. It is true that many of us minimized that evil, but the fact remains that this ruling class constructed things of great beauty, even though they presided over a system of grinding evil. Just as the Romans did. The evil of slavery does not negate the beauty of Rosedown Plantation in my hometown, nor of Hadrian's villa near Rome. It does, however, put those achievements in a tragic light -- like all human achievement.
Recently I visited the ruins of the Asia Minor cities where the Seven Churches of Revelation had been. I walked the excavated streets of Ephesus, and stood in the very theater where the mob shouted, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" for hours, as related in Acts 19, trying to work itself up into a pogrom against St. Paul and the apostles. The early church was horribly persecuted there by the Romans. What I had to realize is that the Romans accurately perceived the nascent Christian sect as a revolutionary threat to their way of life. In Acts 19, we hear Demetrius the Silversmith warning his fellow craftsmen that if the Christians succeed in converting Ephesus, then their livelihoods would disappear. They made money by making silver idols for pilgrims to the Temple of Artemis there -- one of the wonders of the ancient world -- to leave for the goddess.
Demetrius was exactly right. Christianity could have joined the crowd in the polytheistic Roman Empire, but like Judaism, it was monotheistic, and refused to recognize the pagan pantheon. Unlike Judaism, though, Christianity was universalist, and therefore evangelical and expansionist. Christians wanted to convert the Ephesians from the worship of false gods. And, as we know, Christianity had particular appeal to slaves, because it preached the Jewish doctrine that all humans were created in the image of God. Though we see in the letters of St. Paul instruction to slave Christians to obey their masters, it is obvious, at least to us now, that over time, slavery could not be justified in a society that calls itself Christian. In other words, the more Christian a society became, the less tolerance it would have for slavery. That's exactly what happened in Rome. And if you ask me, that's exactly why God judged and punished the American South for the sin of slavery.
In any case, what a strange thing to stand in Ephesus as a Christian, and realize that the Romans who persecuted my spiritual forebears were doing what they had to do to save their political, economic, and religious system. Do I justify the persecution? Absolutely not! But as history is tragedy, not melodrama, I recognize that we couldn't realistically have expected any different from the Romans. I cannot recommend often enough historian Edward J. Watts's book The Final Pagan Generation, which is a tale of the tragedy of Roman pagan elites of the fourth century, during which the Empire switched from pagan to Christian. It was not the case that when Constantine declared in 315 that Rome would be Christian, that suddenly everything switched. It took many years. The fourth century was the hinge of that history, though. Watts shows that many of the Roman elites who followed the old religion simply did not grasp the revolution that was happening in front of them. They seemed to have missed the revolutionary quality of Christianity, thinking instead that somehow paganism would continue alongside this upstart religion. Watts points out that by the end of that century, younger Christians and younger pagans both grasped the true nature of the conflict.
(I have to say that I have a strange sympathy for Julian the Apostate, the mid-fourth century Roman emperor, raised Christian, who tried in vain to order a return to tradition. If he had reigned for more than two years, he might have gotten somewhere, but I think probably not. By Julian's reign, the momentum of the Christian revolution was too great, and the inertia that had set in among the many pagan faiths too advanced for the pagans to mount much defense. It is impossible to see the lassitude of Christianity in our time and not think of what it must have been like to have been pagan in the mid fourth century. Let Julian's failure be a lesson to those who believe that politics is more important than culture, and that Christianity today can be saved by political action alone.)
And another thing: an older friend in my hometown emailed me yesterday in the wake of my post to say that at the time of the Civil Rights Movement, the population of West Feliciana Parish was about 70 percent black. If blacks got the vote, they had the numbers to overturn everything. In a sense, the middle-class men like my dad who joined the Klan were fighting for their entire social order. God knows it doesn't justify what they did, but it's interesting to contemplate that their persecution of black people was in some sense like the Roman persecution of the early Christians. It wasn't merely out of prejudice, but out of a desperately felt need to act radically to preserve the order.
Think of Ukraine's miserable history over the past century. It is undeniably true that in World War II, many Ukrainians collaborated with invading Nazi troops, against the Soviets. The Ukrainians had just come through Stalin's engineered famine, which killed millions of their people in gruesome ways. Can you blame them for welcoming the Germans as liberators? I can't. Yet the Nazis were the Nazis. Today, the Azov Battalion of the Ukrainian armed forces is openly Nazi. And look at this propaganda video they put out below -- it's a straightforward pagan worship service, celebrating the winter solstice by burning a Viking longboat, and swearing to give their lives to the Nation. Not to God, but to the Tribe.
If you have seen Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, her film account of the 1934 Nazi Party gathering in Nuremberg, you will recognize the aesthetics. These people are fighting the Russian invaders. They are pagan neo-Nazis. How do you feel about the war now? I still cannot fault the Ukrainians for resisting the Russian invaders, even if it means making common cause with pagan neo-Nazis. But then, I see history as tragedy, not melodrama.
If you were a young Ukrainian man today, which would frighten you more circa 2080:
"Grandpa, my God, you fought alongside Ukrainian neo-Nazis!"
"Grandpa, my God, you were so unwilling to fight alongside Ukrainian neo-Nazis that you didn't lift a finger to fight the Russians conquering us!"
Anyway, in Ephesus, I stood in the beautiful ruins of a pagan civilization that enslaved and exploited the weak, and that persecuted Christians to the death. And yet, I would not want those ruins ground to dust. They are part of our collective story too. I want to learn from them. I want my children's children to visit them and learn from them, and to think about what it means to be human.
I've told the story here before about having given a talk about Dante some years back, after my book on him came out, and in the Q&A, a young woman standing and asking why I thought Dante had anything to teach us today, given that he was a white European male and the product of an unjust social system. This was just before the Great Awokening, and I thought at first she was asking the question ironically. But she wasn't. She meant it. I answered, but can't remember what I said. Yet the shackles that academia (she was a graduate student, it turned out) placed on that young woman's mind infuriated me. It made it impossible for her to perceive the beauty and wisdom of one of the West's greatest poems -- a veritable cathedral of verse. It also closed off to her all of history prior to the Sacred Now, because there is no culture untainted by sin. This white woman was the bearer of an advanced education, but was so overcome with guilt and loathing for her culture that she had put her own eyes out, so to speak. She followed the same aesthetic as the Taliban: destroy anything that is not orthodox, and consign it all to damnation in the memories of our culture. Note well that one of the Julian the Apostate's acts was to forbid Christians from teaching. He rightly understood that those that form the minds of the young -- especially the elite young -- will sooner or later control the culture.
What I have struggled to understand for most of my life is why people would want to close off knowledge of other cultures to themselves. I'm thinking these days, though, that curious people like me are outliers on human experience. I don't want to be naive about this. There are some cultures that are to be known only insofar as you should want to fear and avoid them, and to suppress them if necessary. What is there to be respected in Nazism, for example? There is a stock figure in horror movies of the liberal academic who doesn't heed the warnings not to mess with the Thing, believing them to be mere superstition, and who later meets his doom. The truth is, even if it were possible to stand on liberal viewpoint neutrality, it would not correspond to reality. Though there is no such thing as a purely good society, there are certainly observable differences between society. The person who says that American society in 2022 is entirely good is an idiot. The person who says there is no essential difference between America 2022 and the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, where the conquistadores observed human sacrifices, is a much bigger idiot.
(But then, an Aztec priest of the 16th century would not have thought so at all! This just shows that there is no such thing as an entirely neutral viewpoint.)
Anyway, going back to my father and my family, I've struggled to understand why I was such a threat to them. Here is a key passage from How Dante Can Save Your Life, in which I discovered the hopelessness of my situation with my family. To recap: in late 2011, after my sister Ruthie died, my wife and I gathered our kids and moved to their town, out of a sense of love, solidarity, and service to my family. We could not figure out, though, why my sister's two younger kids, who were still at home, were cold to us. Their older sister Hannah, a college student, finally explained it to me after several months: that she and her sisters had been raised with the awareness that Uncle Rod and his family were different, therefore bad. That's the background to this:
Little Way was released in the spring of 2013, and early reviews were stellar. But a week before publication, I stood in my mother and father’s living room, having a screaming match with them over the family’s fate.
“You and Julie aren’t reaching out enough to those girls!” my father barked.
“That’s not true,” I shot back. We had invited them over many times, but they usually declined politely. On the few occasions they did come, they were visibly uncomfortable.
Julie had offered to take them shopping; they found someone else to do it. We had shared some of the money from the book advance with them, and set up college funds for the girls. Still nothing. In exasperation, we finally gave up.
“They just don’t want to be with us,” I said. “Hannah told me that’s how Ruthie and y’all raised them.”
“Well, can you blame them?” my father said. “Y’all are so damn weird.”
And there it was. We would be held responsible for doing more and more to win the Leming children’s love, though it would be impossible to do so because of our original sin: being unlike my father, my sister, and the rest.
History is tragedy, not melodrama. The tragedy for me is that I believed that it would be possible to live with my family, because I thought they loved me unconditionally. The tragedy for my father, who valued family above all things, is that he and my late sister planted in the hearts of her children the mechanism that would make it impossible for the family to continue. That is, the only thing that would have given us a future as a family would have been their accepting us, and us building a future together. But my dad and my sister made loyalty to their Way Of Life, and to their own memory, contingent on rejecting weird Uncle Rod and his weird family. Today, everything is shattered. What makes the tragedy so damn tragic is that in all honesty, I must testify that my father and my sister were deeply good people, all things considered. Yet pride of place was their fatal flaw, and it brought down everything.
Here's why I bring it up in this post: they perceived me as a threat to themselves, even though I was very much like them in most respects, because I showed that you could break the family code and still prosper. My father -- and in this I think he is like most people around the world, in most ages -- believed that the way of life of Starhill people was superior to all others, and that if a Starhill son or daughter's loves were rightly ordered, then they should stay in Starhill, around the family. But staying around the family physically wasn't enough -- if it had been, that problem would have been solved by my 2011 return, with family in tow. No, you had to accept without objection the family's traditions, including its foolish prejudices. (And given my father's role as a strong Southern patriarch, the family's traditions and foolish prejudices meant his.) This was right order, in their minds. The great injustice that they suffered, I think, is that Ruthie, who stayed home and followed the code, and completely agreed with my father that this was the right thing to do, died young, whereas her older brother, who rejected it, moved away and prospered. In their minds, to receive us back would have been an act of disloyalty. It would have meant admitting in a sense that they had been wrong in the first place. And that was something none of them could do.
The fear seems to have been that the only thing protecting them from Chaos was hewing to the Law of the Family. But look, Ruthie had done that, and still, she died. I had not, and I was doing well. The thing that even today I struggle to understand is why they could not accept either my return, or the book I wrote in tribute to Ruthie, as any kind of vindication of their way of life. Was it because I didn't say in the book that I regretted moving away (because I didn't regret it)? I don't know. It's so mysterious.
It's even more mysterious when you consider this passage from The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, in which I recount a back porch conversation with my dad. If I hadn't recorded it, I would doubt that it happened. But here it is ("Paw" is what the grandkids called my dad; I stuck with that name in the book):
Being home afforded me the leisure to spend time talking with my folks. In the past, phone calls and short visits were better than nothing, but things buried deep take time and effort to work to the surface.
About a month after Paw and Julie had that difficult conversation on the front porch, he and I sat in the shade of his back porch after Sunday dinner, talking about nothing in particular. Because he had a cardiologist’s appointment later in the week, I had been thinking about his frail health, and pondering big questions about the life he had lived.
“You have any big regrets in life?” I asked.
Paw sat for a moment, rocking in the porch swing, then said yes, he did.
“I should have never gone to college,” he said. “I was good with my hands, and wanted to work outside. I should have gone to trade school, or into some kind of technical training. My mother wouldn’t have it. Aunt Hilda harassed her constantly about how I should get a college education. So I did. I was the first one in our family to finish college. I did it all for my mother and my family. It was a mistake I have always regretted.”
He told about an agricultural device he invented when he was in college, an innovative plow. Paw shared the idea with an LSU classmate, who drew up the plan and, with his permission, turned it in as a class assignment. The professor took Paw’s idea, patented it, and sold the patent to a manufacturer. A couple of years later, Paw saw his invention for sale in farm equipment stores.
I knew this story had to be true. When I was a child, Paw got tired of swinging an axe to chop firewood, and invented and built a hydraulic woodsplitter. Forty years later, the original device still works. He never patented it. I took Paw not so much to be complaining about the unfairness of the world as to be saying that he had a gift for mechanical creativity, but he had been so eager to please his family that he never sought the training that would have allowed him to fully develop his talents.
“There’s something I regret even more, he carried on. “I can see now, at the end of my life, that it would have been better if after your Mama and I got married, we had packed up and left here.”
I couldn’t believe what I had just heard.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what I said: we should have left this place, and never looked back.”
And then Paw told me how he had spent his entire life sacrificing for his mother, his father, his brother, his aunts, and his cousins – all of whom, in his recollection, worked him like a dog and never gave him a moment’s thanks. They could always count on Ray to fix anything, to do any job they asked of him, to give up his free time, and spend his own money, to help them. They used him up.
“I was a sucker,” he said, the bitterness heavy in his voice. “Aunt Lois was the only one of the whole lot who was ever straight with me. But there was only one of her.”
Paw told a story about the time many years earlier when he had tried to buy 17 acres on the back of the old Simmons plantation from Aunt Lois. She told him that would be fine with her, if he would pay for the survey. Paw began contacting surveyors, but Loisie called him and said she was withdrawing the offer. Hilda was begging her not to sell that land.
“I’ve got to live with her,” Aunt Lois told Paw. “If I don’t do what she says, I’ll never have a moment’s peace. Please understand, dear.”
Paw told her that was fine. Decades later, long after Hilda and Lois were dead, and the land had passed through the hands of a no-good cousin whom Aunt Hilda favored, Paw and Mam ran across a stunning document in the courthouse. It was a bill of sale for the land to the scoundrel relative – with Lois’s signature on it. Hilda had forged her sister’s name to make sure the land went to the cretinous cousin. The survey my father was arranging would have revealed her crime.
“How do you think that made me feel, after all I had done for Aunt Hilda?” Paw said. “That right there was an evil woman.”
How could I disagree? The hurt in Paw’s heart was so raw. It was as if it had all happened yesterday.
“I loved my own mother more than life itself, but she was terrible to Dorothy,” he continued. “She and her sisters, Rita and Ann, they treated your Mama like dirt. They thought I had married beneath myself. Aunt Rita disowned me for marrying your mother. But you know, Dorothy took it all from them. She served them like a dog, and nobody would help her.”
“I should have taken her away from here,” he said. “But I was so caught up in my family, and in trying to do the right thing for them. And I was tied down by this place. I was 12 years old when I bought that Farmall Cub tractor with my own money, and started planting. Farming was my dream. Aunt Lois saw that, and shehelped me. She paid for me to go to Chicago to show my 4-H club steer. She drove me herself to the State Fair in Shreveport. I bought this place over here from Aunt Em, Loisie’s sister-in-law, and put cows on it. When I married your mother, I had so much going on here I didn’t think I was free to leave.”
I sat there across from him as he spoke, imagining that stout, barrel-chested boy of 12 who was my father, riding high on his little tractor, a shock of fiery orange, cowlicked hair jammed under a straw cowboy hat, dragging a plow across a Starhill field, laying the groundwork for what he thought would be an empire of his own. He would have his family and he would be loved and respected by them all, and everything would work out the way it was supposed to because that’s how things turn out for good men who do right, stay loyal, and follow the rules.
Paw’s face was tense and pale as he continued to disburden himself.
“The day finally came when I stood up to my parents,” he continued. “I was working in my shop over there behind Daddy’s place. A piece of my equipment had broken, and it was a complicated weld to fix it. I had spent four hours that afternoon, working out there in the heat, setting that weld up. Everything was in place, when here comes Daddy out the back door to see what I was doing.
“He always had to have his hands all over whatever I was up to. Lord have mercy, I can’t tell you the number of times I would be working on an electrical box, and I would have to slap his hand away – I’m talking about literally slap his hand – because he was about to touch a hot wire and electrocute himself. That’s how hewas.”
Paw said his father ambled over to the weld, tried to pick it up, and caused the three pieces of metal to fall to the ground, destroying an entire afternoon’s work. Paw did what he had never had the courage to do before: tell his father to get the hell out of his business, and stay out. When dark came, Paw went into the house to tell his father goodbye, and found the old man sitting on the front porch, in good spirits.
“We never had another problem after that,” Paw said. “I should have said something like that to him and my mother a long time before. But I didn’t, and by then, I was about 50 years old. It was too late for me.”
I was speechless. He kept talking.
“Your sister, she was right to stand up to me over marrying Mike,” Paw continued.
“And so were you, when you went back to Washington to be a writer. I was too strong-willed and stubborn back then. I regret that very much.”
We sat in silence for a moment.
“Daddy, I have to tell you, I don’t know what to think about all this,” I said. “Here I am, a man who turned his life upside down to move back here for the family, and because of the land. And now here you are telling me that you made a false idol of family and place, and that you wish you had left it all behind when you were young, just like I did. What am I supposed to make of that?”
His chin trembled, he wrung his hands together, he looked me straight in the eye, and that my father said: “That I’m a sorrier man than you.”
Sorrier. It means having more regret. But in Southern parlance, it also means morally less worthy.
“But Daddy, I hope you understand that I really do want to be back here,” I said. “Because I went away all those years ago, I could come back not out of guilt, but out of love, of my own free choice.”
“I know, son,” he said. “I know. And I appreciate it. What I want to say to you, though, is that I don’t want you to feel trapped by this place. When I’m gone, half of it is going to be yours, and the other half will go to Ruthie’s children. I want you to do whatever you want with it. Did you know it’s the last piece of the old Benjamin Plantation that’s still owned by someone in the family? If you want to keep it up, you have my blessing. If you want to sell it, you also have my blessing. You’re free.”
This conversation was the most graceful thing I have ever witnessed. My father, in the twilight of his long life, gave me the greatest gift imaginable. My heart swelled in my chest, and for the first time, I could feel the depth of my roots, the strength of my wings, and the power of love in humility to make everything new.
I wrote those words in 2012. My dad was not ultimately loyal to them. I don't think he was lying then. I think that he was a man of very strong loyalties, a man who believed that he could impose his will on the world, and who was struggling to come to terms with the fact that he couldn't save his daughter, and he couldn't impose his will on his only son, whom he named after himself. He had lived through a cultural revolution. The world did not make sense to him anymore. Though he was not at the time of this conversation suffering from mental decline, I think he had moments of lucidity, after which the thick clouds of emotion would obscure them. The final chapter of How Dante Can Save Your Life recounts my father, just months from death, apologizing to me for the way he treated me. I never expected a man of his immense pride to humble himself to do it -- and still, he couldn't do it directly. He told me, with trembling chin and eyes brimming with tears, that he had "spoken to the Lord last night, and I told him about my transgressions against you, and I said I was sorry, and I think He heard me." That was as good as it was ever going to get with that proud old man. I assured him with my words that the Lord had heard him, and with a kiss on his wet cheek that so had his son.
See, this is why I can recognize the evil he committed in his life back in the 1960s, and the wrong he did to me, and still affirm that he was a good man, and in any case a man I love very much, and to whom I owe a debt I can never repay. Because as it is with my own father, so it is with all of our fathers, and all our ancestors. They were neither angels nor beasts. They were men, just like we are, sinners to the marrow, and dependent on God's mercy for their eternal fates. The older I grow, the more aware I become of the fathomless wisdom in Christ's command to judge not, lest you be judged. He's not saying not to pass judgment on the deeds of men; that would be impossible. He's saying not to pass ultimate judgment on the fates of their souls, because only God knows their hearts. In Dante's Purgatorio, he meets Manfred, who had been excommunicated from the Church for defying the Pope, but whose soul was saved in the end because as he fell from his horse, mortally wounded in battle, he called out to heaven for mercy -- and God heard.
Years ago, when I was blogging my way through the Divine Comedy, I posted this about Purgatorio Canto 3, where Dante meets Manfred. Remember that Purgatorio is there the sinners go who are saved by God's grace, but whose repentance in the earthly life was imperfect, so they have to be purified before being strong enough to bear the Light of God's presence in Paradise. Here's that piece from my post then:
That’s what Virgil is getting at in these lines. Thinking we can know everything there is to know, that the depths of reality can be fully plumbed with the unaided intellect, is to give oneself over to a hopeless longing. Consider all this in light of the fact that the beginning of all saving knowledge is Humility — the Humility that leads to repentance, and to the concession that we need God.
In the next part of this canto, we meet the Contumacious — that is, those who, in their pride, were very late to repent. But repent they did, and the smallest act of repentance, however late in coming, was enough to win God’s mercy and spare them the suffering of Hell. Notice that it wasn’t a discovery of the intellect that saved them, but an act of the will — of saying, simply, in whatever way, Lord have mercy on me, a sinner. As Alan Jacobs commented on yesterday’s thread, compare those who just debarked from the angelic boat, who came across the waters singing a Psalm of thanksgiving for God’s mercy and their deliverance, with the damned crossing in Charon’s boat to Hell (Inferno, Canto III); they groan and curse and blame everyone for their miseries except themselves.
Note that the Contumacious move very, very slowly. This reflects their spiritual condition. Because they were so late to repent, they lack the spiritual strength to ascending the mountain of purification. Here they must wait to be restored enough to begin their climb. We learn that the prayers of the living back on Earth can help them regain their spiritual strength, and progress onward. This reveals to us the connection between the living and the dead (though not the damned) in the cosmic harmony.
One of the Contumacious is Manfred, an actual historical personage who was the son of Frederick II. He had run afoul of the Pope, and had been excommunicated. He died on the field of battle:
As I lay there, my body torn by these
two mortal wounds, weeping, I gave my soul
to Him Who grants forgiveness willingly.
Horrible was the nature of my sins,
but boundless mercy stretches out its arms
to any man who comes in search of it…
The church’s curse is not the final word,
for Everlasting Love may still return,
if hope reveals the slightest hint of green.
When I first read those lines, coming so soon after the grim horror of the Inferno, I very nearly was moved to tears. This is Dante saying that God’s mercy is so overwhelming that He will overrule His own church’s authorities for the sake of saving a repentant sinner — a sinner who, with his dying breath, has the humility to ask for mercy. Manfred tells us that there is no sin, no matter how horrible, that God will not forgive.
But you have to humble yourself to ask.
Earlier in the Commedia, I had encountered in Inferno the Florentine warlord Farinata, who was in hell because he was judged by God as a "heretic". He believed that this world was all there is -- and this made him exceedingly proud of his family and his status in Florence. As I read that part of the poem, and watched the pilgrim Dante arguing with Farinata, I saw my dad and me, and our endless disputes over the years. I felt within myself the need to quit trying to change my dad's mind, that he was as lost in his own pride as Farinata was. This was a key moment in my own healing.
But later, when my own father, a man who prided himself on his physical strength, lay dying in bed, his body exhausted, I saw Manfred. Here is an image of my priest at the time, Father Matthew, blessing my dad a couple of days before he died.
As I've told you, my father called for the Methodist pastor to come visit him a couple of days before he died, and he made a private confession. What did he say? I hope it included repentance for what he did in the 1960s, with the Klan, but that is between him, his confessor, and God. When I call to mind that scene, I sense the slightest hint of green present. Anyway, who would I be to say it wasn't enough? The same mercy on which my dying father called is the mercy that will save me at my time of reckoning, and you too. My dad's sins are not my sins, and my sins are not your sins -- but if you are so proud that you think that you have not sinned, and sinned greatly, you are living in lies. Let us remember the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, told by Jesus:
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“Two men went to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other one a Publican. The Pharisee, standing by himself; prayed thusly: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men: thieves, rogues, adulterers — or this Publican. I fast twice a week and I give thee tithes of all my income.’ “But the Publican stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast in sorrow and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other. For all who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
I am unspeakable grateful to God that He has created a cosmos in which the Publican triumphs over the Pharisee. Otherwise, there is no hope for any of us. A great moral shock for me was realizing that if I had been born in the same time and place as my father, I probably would have suffered from the same moral deformations on the matter of race that he did. It would have taken extraordinary lucidity to recognize the evil of racism, and unfathomable courage, as a white person, to defy your entire community to reject it. That does not make racism any less evil, but it does compel one to grasp how hard it must have been to see the evil for what it was. There is a reason we honor the Greek tragedians today. Oedipus stands for the human condition.
When we stand in judgment of our ancestors, we had better stand in a place of humility, because we too will be judged by our descendants. We must hope that they, unlike so many of us today, recognize that history is tragedy, not melodrama.
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