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Modern Letters

The idea of serious writing is increasingly a paradox, because what is considered serious in modern letters is what it is impossible to disagree with and take seriously. What we read from the best modern essayists and critics, and in the best modern venues, is assembled from parting and passing shots, from the revelations of the esprit d’escalier. Everything shows the guerilla spirit of political pamphleteering; and if we view each camp from its opposite, the world seems made up of monsters and fools.

The pamphleteer is certainly among us, but it is not the spirit of the pamphleteer which haunts modern letters; it is the spirit of the missionary. In place of lessons from religion, our secular sermonists preach the historical revelation – some moving catastrophe which (like a sacred book) delimits the permissible range of serious controversy. Beyond lies irrelevance (or heresy).

WWI was such a revelation for Europe – a message of horror and futility Europe found more powerful than the Gospel. That revelation has been superseded for them by the Holocaust. Even of a Christian, one may ask which is the more meaningful image: the Man of Sorrows, or the men of Dachau? Until 9/11 the principle revelation of American history was Vietnam – either as a betrayal of the people by an overreaching government, or the betrayal of victory by a weak people.

Where religion has disappeared from state liturgy and private conscience, it has been replaced with the cults and rites of infamy. The world of letters, and the world at large, is divided into factions, each with some central atrocity for which it works to broaden the basis of outrage. Religious fanaticisms, nationalism, and secular ideologies are secondary factors. It is faction which drives events. It is impossible to explain the world today in terms of beliefs and loyalties. Everyone sees the strange alliances behind the forces of our time; it is common outrage which brings and ties them together.

The religious can, in principle, extend tolerance and decent behavior to members of other religions. Worship, where it does not become fanaticism, leaves room in the mind for other feelings. But outrage is an uncontainable passion. It subordinates every other feeling, warps every observation, breaks every chain of thought. These factions are as mutually deaf and mute as the most extreme fanaticisms of religion.

Outrage drives out justice. The blindfolded statue of justice puzzles us; our goddess of punishment has her eyes taped open. Factions cannot weigh the crime, the violation, and the loss, to calculate justice; they must parade grief and trauma, talk of closure or taking action as if these were answers. But grief is a wound that does not close, and action leaves us where we started: there is no satiety in extracting satisfaction, no revenge sweet enough to mask the bitterness.

The factions of outrage cannot be satisfied with finite goals. Outrage substitutes for religion as drugs substitute for achievement; outrage beguiles uncertainty as a hit or a high beguiles boredom or frustration. Both being poor substitutes, both tend to subvert and consume. As drugs subvert and consume one’s life, outrage subverts and consumes one’s voice.

History contains no revelations. History has no pivots, no keys and no locks. The only lesson of history is human weakness, human fragility, and human folly. Religion can embrace history; but history can be made to yield only perishable religions – their saints, made only once, all die in time and cannot be renewed. Looking at the Somme or Cu Chi, at Auschwitz or Ground Zero, some of us are driven to invent an analogy to Providence. We find a meaning to equal the loss; we find inspiration because we cannot bear despair. But history is only truth, not myth; and things happen because of what went before them, not in order to change the world afterward. No one can speak for the dead, nor do the dead speak.

Our serious writing is reducible to the devotional and the penitential. What does one learn from our periodicals? How is one illuminated by them? No distinctions are introduced, no arguments are undertaken; we are expected to bow to the alternations of authoritative pronouncement and sly derision, or be dazzled by a handful of shiny statistics. The actual reading is redundant; from the venue and the subtitle you can usually deduce the contents of the article or essay in advance. You could write it yourself.

I cannot believe that our descendants will read our literature. Will even their scholars delve it comfortably? A hundred years from now, our literature will feel to our descendants as an old book of earnest and censorious sermons feels to us: claustrophobic and inhuman.