When Michael would return from a long trip, he’d often offer the most cursory account of it. That’s all we’d get for weeks. “I’m not ready to talk about it.” He’d talk around it, though, until he had processed his travels enough to understand and contextualize them. Then he’d talk about the trip in that context.
I think I do that sometimes with books. I’m reading a book I find I don’t care to talk about. My reading of it is like an important, long trip that could change my perspective. I’m also reading (rereading, it so happens) another book, though, that I process another way: I talk and write about it. That “outer” book may be part of my means of processing the “inner” book. At some point, the “outer” book could become a setting, and the “inner” book a stone.
B and her boyfriend just got into Reykjavík. They’ll tool around Iceland for about eight days. Lots of pictures, please.
B’s into the better self-help books. Last Tuesday she told us about two favorites, one of the go-getter variety and one that points out the virtues of acceptance (“very Zen”). She likes the tension between the two. Victoria quoted Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, which defines navigating this tension as wisdom.
Can I justify avoiding a public life? I don’t mean a grand one, which I don’t have the personality or calling for. I could avoid a “normal” public life by claiming that there is no longer a public realm — at least not the kind that would support a republic. No public means no public life and no republic. B’s a sculptor, among other things, and maybe she can show me how to help chisel a public realm out of our mass culture.
But a person’s action can create a public space, and even, for a moment, a public and a republic. My sister, to my knowledge, doesn’t hold up signs, but she volunteers to help the poor. That’s creative as art.
Calls to elected officials and a meeting with the local police chief have felt very republican. Protests have felt very democratic. It’s funny that political parties have taken on these names. In Georgian England, if you were called a republican, you were accused of wanting to set up a republic. Similarly, democrats back then were accused of plotting a democracy. The names meant something. I’d like to see the United States restored to both forms of government.
It may be like what Merton says about saints and men: if I want to be a saint, I’ll first have to become a man; that is, I’ll have to discover my humanity. And if we want to be something other than a plutocracy, we’ll first have to discover public life.
Thomas Merton likes E.M. Forster on World War I: “For what, in that world-gigantic horror, was tolerable except the slighter gestures of dissent?” One can perceive Merton’s struggle for wisdom in this monologue about Forster’s quote:
Genuine dissent must always keep a human measure. It must be free and spontaneous. The slighter gestures are often the most significant, because they are premeditated and they cannot be doctored beforehand by the propagandist.
And so perhaps it is saner and nobler to expect effective protest from the individual, from the small unsponsored group, than from the well-organized mass movement. It is better that the “slighter gestures” never find their way into the big papers or onto the pages of the slick magazines. It is better not to line up with the big, manipulated group.
True, he who dissents alone may confine his dissent to words, to declarations, to attitudes, to symbolic gestures. He may fail to act. Gestures are perhaps not enough. They are perhaps too slight. (160)
Merton goes on to praise the then-current Civil Rights movement.
One can hear Merton’s search for wisdom also in the title of the book from which I’m quoting: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1965).
My average day reverses the generations of John Adams’s republicanism. He studied war and politics, he said, so that his children could study (inter alia) philosophy and commerce and so that his grandchildren, in turn, could study things like painting and poetry. I wake up with a proclivity for poetry and philosophy, which by the first bell gives way to commerce. After work, I settle in for politics and war. John Quincy Adams, anyway, proved his father wrong: he died in the U.S. Capitol fighting the Slave Power and warning the country about civil war. Curran‘s “eternal vigilance” presupposes a public life. My father wasn’t president, but he would often take me canvassing.
The Bible is silent today. Jesus’ people – his mother, Peter, Mary Magdalene, and the rest – are observing the Sabbath. Jesus himself is dead, and his body rests in a tomb. Today everyone agrees about that. The only action is in Matthew: the chief priests and Pharisees come “in a body to Pilate” and successfully persuade him to seal the tomb and set a guard. The audience patiently examines the magician’s hat. Easter and the rabbit come later.
One could wish that this Sabbath today were better observed. Peter’s identity has been stripped from him. He has followed Jesus for three years, but as Jesus says, he has yet to be “converted.” Many of Jesus’ other followers have seen their political aims collapse: “We had been hoping that he was to be the liberator of Israel.”
The New Testament’s most dramatic conversions are reserved for the religious. Peter and Paul, whose stiff doctrines cause them, respectively, to wield a sword and execute arrest warrants, are silenced. Jesus later asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these others?” But Peter no longer claims to love Jesus more than others do. Paul, for his part, disappears from Acts’ pages for years. Now you see me, now you don’t.
Democracy and republicanism don’t work without the conversion of the religious – I do not say religious conversion. The proposition that all men are created equal is proven in the grave.
[Quotes are, in order, from Matthew 27:62, Luke 22:32, Luke 24:21, and John 21:15.]