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humans, humanity, humanism

At the outset of my book The Year of Our Lord 1943 I describe my narrative method using a cinematic metaphor: I compare it to the famous opening tracking shot of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. A couple of people have asked me whether a musical metaphor wouldn’t have been more appropriate, given that I explore different voices, and indeed at one point I considered employing one, but it seemed a little too obvious — and in any case, polyphony implies harmony, and I didn’t want to suggest that. Along these very lines, I’ve been wanting to say a little more about how I understand my own book, and I’m given an excuse by Chad Wellmon’s generous reflection on it, which you should read less as a review than as an illuminating and provocative essay about the uses and limitations of the language of humanism and the human. Please read it and then come back!


Okay. As I was saying, I have some thoughts about what my story adds up to — which may sound like an odd thing to say, but the book really is a story rather than an argument, and while I don’t think my views about what the story says are necessarily better than anyone else’s, I do have views, and I want to describe some of them here. I’ve also done that in two long interviews about the book, one with Wen Stephenson and one with Robert Kehoe.  As I have explained in those interviews, the book began when I noticed that in January of 1943 three thinkers — Jacques Maritain, C. S. Lewis, and W. H. Auden — were all writing with great intensity about education, which struck me as a strange thing to be doing in the middle of a war. Later, I saw that T. S. Eliot and Simone Weil were working along similar lines, and realized that I had five figures to write about, not just three. And their ideas, I discovered, went in and out of sync with one another in fascinating ways — ways that would be lost if I wrote a conventional academic sort of treatise in which I wrote one chapter about each author and sandwiched those with an Introduction and Conclusion. I would have to write a braided narrative in order to pick up properly on the moments of synchronization and the moments of asynchronization, or, to pick up that rejected musical metaphor, moments of harmony and moments of dissonance.

(By the way, getting the braiding right was the chief challenge I faced in writing this book, and I don’t know what it means that almost no one reviewing the book has commented on how it’s structured — Philip Jenkins being an extremely gratifying exception to that rule. I am going to assume that people haven’t talked about the narrative structure because I handle it so elegantly.)

Among my five protagonists, the one who is most consistently out of sync with the others is Simone Weil. She is the odd person out in several ways — the only woman, the only Jew, the youngest of the five — but in any group of any kind Weil would be the odd person out, because few minds have ever been as distinctive and original as hers. Again and again she offers philosophical and historical arguments that set her quite apart from the analytical frameworks of the other figures. (None of the others could have seen a causal chain leading from the Catholic campaign against the Cathars in 12th-century Languedoc to 20th-century National Socialism.) Looking at my book now, I find myself thinking that Weil is the central figure, the one indispensable figure, in it, and the one who, despite her intellectual eccentricities and even perversions, has the most to say to us now.

When in his essay Chad sets Karl Barth against the five figures in my book, I think he misses this; I think he attributes to them more unity of purpose and even vocabulary than they had, and especially fails to note just how radically strange Weil’s ideas are. Also, he attributes to all five of them a nostalgia that I think is actually characteristic only of the three older figures: Auden and Weil understand with absolute clarity that neither previous forms of humanism nor Christendom can be revived, and that the attempts to go back to either are misbegotten. Consider, to take just one example among many possible ones, Auden’s review of Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture:

Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.

“Spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city” is a great phrase. (By the way, I have written about the importance of Cochrane’s book here and about benzedrine here. Just FYI.)

Anyway — and this continues my response to Chad — my five protagonists also differ from one another in their use of the term “humanism.” Perhaps only Maritain uses it in the way that Chad critiques in his essay; Auden uses the term rarely and Lewis not at all (except to describe the humanist movement of the early modern period). I describe these variations at considerable length in my book, and yet if Chad sees all my protagonists as standing under this humanist umbrella, it’s largely my fault, because despite all my reservations I use the word myself — and even allowed it a place in my subtitle.

I say “allowed” because the subtitle I submitted was: “Christian Intellectuals and Total War.” But when my editor, Cynthia Read, changed it to “Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis” I didn’t contest the change. Partly that was because I know from experience how insistent editors can be about titles and subtitles, and at least my title wasn’t being questioned; partly because I wasn’t sure how widely understood the term “total war” is; partly because my book isn’t about “Christian intellectuals” in general, and I didn’t want to give a false impression on that count; and partly because I think “humanism” encompasses better than any other term I can think of the general interests that bind my five protagonists, that make the story I tell a coherent one. So I remain ambivalent about that subtitle, and especially about the term “humanism,” but don’t really know what the alternative would be.

I think there are certain points that all five of my protagonists would have agreed upon: That they were living in a moment when it was important to stress that there are certain things that all people have in common, regardless of race or nationality; that the great authoritarian and totalitarian movements of their time tended to obscure those great commonalities; that there is such a thing as “human flourishing” (though none of them would have used that term); that such flourishing happens neither when people are reduced to faceless units in a collective nor when they conceive of themselves as atomistic “individuals”; that Christianity provides the best account of what a flourishing human person is and how such flourishing may be achieved. Do we call that “Christian humanism”? Can the term be retrieved and redeployed to good effect? (Maybe?)

Would Karl Barth have dissented from any of that? I don’t think so. He would have differed from my protagonists — as they differed among themselves — about what public language is adequate to the expression of these ideas. More substantively, I think, Barth might have questioned my protagonists’ belief in the role that the study of humane letters, and of the liberal arts, might play in educating people in a rich and deep account of, to borrow a phrase from Bruce Cockburn, “what humans can be.” In any case he, more than any of them, would have made a place in theological reflection for Mozart, who “heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even today, what we shall not see until the end of time — the whole context of providence.”

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Breaking Bread with the Dead

I tweeted this news a while back, but am only now finding time to write about it at greater length: My next book will be called Breaking Bread with the Dead: The Case for Temporal Bandwidth, and will be published by Penguin Press (probably in 2020). You can find a kind of preview of the book by reading this essay I wrote for the Guardian.

I think of this book as the conclusion of my Pedagogical Trilogy, the first volume of which was The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and the second of which was How to Think. Finding delight in reading, learning to think well in opposition to all the social forces that impede thinking, drawing on the wonderfully diverse intellectual resources of the past — these three themes encapsulate much of what I have tried to teach my students for the past thirty-five years.

I have found over those years that when I’m working on a book I don’t do well when I have only that book to work on. Some days I just can’t make progress — most often because I’ve been thinking too much about the issues involved — and I need to get away from the project. I can achieve that best when I have a very different, but also intellectually demanding, project that I can turn to for a brief time. (This is why I sometimes have two books appear within a relatively short period of time: I had two come out in 2008, two in 2011, two in 2013, and two within nine months in 2017 and 2018.)

The second project that I’ll occasionally turn to while my primary attention goes to Breaking Bread with the Dead is my long-meditated treatise on what I have sometimes called Anthropocene Theology — though the working title is now The Far Invisible: An Anthropology for Failed Gods. I have about 80,000 words of that book written, though many of the current words will be replaced by others and there is still a great deal yet to write. But here I want to emphasize that I have not abandoned that project; indeed I am more committed to it than ever. It’s just going to take longer than I had originally thought.

One interesting thing about this particular pairing of projects is that one is very much oriented to the past and the other very much occupied by the future. I’m excited to see how each influences the other.

is it okay to share praise?

Philip Jenkins in the Englewood Review of Books on my book The Year of Our Lord 1943:

Alan Jacobs has written a brilliant contribution to the study of modern Christian thought. By focusing on a single pivotal year during the Second World War, he traces the reactions of a stellar group of Christian thinkers to the ethical and spiritual crises of the age, and how they saw the prospects for building a new Christian civilization in the postwar era. The discussions of individual thinkers are impressive enough, but the conspectus approach allows us to comprehend the critical issues with special clarity. In its innovative structure, the book offers an exemplary model for the writing of intellectual history.

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