“[The oak] survives, Atticus, and it will always survive: its roots are in the imagination. No farmer’s cultivation can preserve a tree as long as one sown in a poet’s verse”
—Cicero, the voice of Quintus, Of the Laws, Book 1, Section 1.
Today is a day full of symbol and meaning (as, admittedly, all days should be, from Creation to Apocalypse) and rich in history. Importantly, in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, it’s the Feast of St. Cecilia, a martyr as well as the patron saint of music, a guardian of all that is beautiful in this vale of tears and sorrows.
My own family history is tied intimately to St. Cecilia. In the 1920s, my maternal grandfather’s oldest sister, Cecelia, contracted tetanus. The entire western Kansas farm community came together to collect the $200, a huge sum of money, necessary to purchase the shot. Some men then drove to Kansas City to purchase the shot. When they returned, they administered the medicine, but fate had outraced them across the Great Plains. Aunt Cecilia died a few days later, on May 19, 1927, just four months shy of her 21st birthday. She had also been seriously involved with a local boy torn between a love for her and a longing to enter the priesthood. Needless to write, he spent his career administering the sacraments.
Much to my regret, I never asked my grandfather about Aunt Cecelia, and my grandmother never knew her. The events of her life are now completely lost, outside of her tragic death which seems to have defined her very existence. I have visited Aunt Cecelia’s grave many times in my life; frankly, it’s one of my favorite spots in the known universe. She rests under a gravestone with her oval picture embedded in it. Though the porcelain containing the picture is cracked and chipped, the image intrigues me. Despite the distance from her to me, her eyes reveal much. She looks at me with penetrating intelligence and with more than a bit mischievousness. Aunt Cecelia has even visited me a time or two in my dreams, but she is always merely playful. She’s never spoken to me, even under the drug of Morpheus. Her grave faces east in the windswept and dramatic valley of Pfeifer, Kansas, under the shadow of the gothic church built stone by stone by my ancestors, Heilige Kreuz.
In some way I could never explain rationally, I love Aunt Cecelia. I’m eager to hear her speak to me, to tease me, and to look at me through those mischievous eyes.
I think of my grandfather, the single finest man I ever knew, and how close he had been to her, and I think she must have been a truly fascinating woman. From dreams to visits to the Pfeifer cemetery, she has always been a presence in my life, though hers had been so brief and had ended over forty years before mine began. My wife and I named our fifth daughter after her, slightly changing the spelling. Like her name sake, our Cecilia Rose’s life ended all too tragically and all too soon.
Yet, another reason to consider the importance of November 22. Famously, three prominent twentieth-century figures exited time and entered eternity forty-eight years ago today: John F. Kennedy; Aldous Huxley; and C.S. Lewis. The strange coincidence of their deaths ties them together. Kennedy will always be an enigma. In the public mind, he will remain an Arthurian symbol, though in corrupt form. His ruthless womanizing will (or should) always taint our memory of him. Indeed, justly, one should more readily associate him with Lancelot than with Arthur.
Despite his many oddities, Huxley gave us one of the most damning and accurate appraisals of modernity possible in his work of science fiction from the early 1930s, Brave New World. In this dystopian world, a sanitary but sexually-promiscuous and genetically-engineered population with names such as Benito, Shaw, and Marx, reverenced Henry Ford’s production methods by making the “sign of the T.” As one leader noted, “We have the World State now. And Ford’s Day celebrations, and Community Sings, and Solidarity Services.” With the exception of a small reservation of primitives—syncretic pagan-Roman Catholics—in New Mexico, the world resembles a factory. “Primroses and landscapes, he pointed out, have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy.”
Five years younger than Huxley, C.S. Lewis also wrote of dystopias in his brilliant That Hideous Strength. Published two years before Orwell’s similar anti-totalitarian masterpiece, Lewis’s novel is a theistic 1984. The story revolves around a group of academic and bureaucratic conditioners–known as the N.I.C.E. (National Institute for Coordinated Experiments) who take over a small but elite English college as a prelude to a takeover of Britain. To stop “That Hideous Strength,” a new King Arthur emerges in the form of a philology professor, Dr. Ransom. With the aid of a small group of friends, he awakens Merlin from a fifteen-century sleep. Modernity perplexes Merlin. In a telling conversation,
This is a cold age in which I have awaked. If all this West part of the world is apostate, might it not be lawful, in our great need, to look farther . . . beyond Christendom? Should we not find some even among the heathen who are not wholly corrupt? There were tales in my day of some such: men who knew not the articles of our most holy Faith, but who worshipped God as they could and acknowledged the Law of Nature. Sir, I believe it would be lawful to seek help even there. Beyond Byzantium.
To which Ransom responds:
You do not understand. The poison was brewed in these West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now. However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren books: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshiping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all.
It would be difficult to ignore the prophetic elements of Huxley and Lewis, as our culture drowns in its sexualized and pornographic advertising, clothing, and entertainment.
Our Republican politicians continue to pander to the lowest common denominator as they gradually dismantle the Republic in favor of a flabby empire without purpose or meaning. Indeed, for many of our leaders, “democracy” has become a term of religious significance and intensity, and “freedom,” not the natural law as St. Paul told the Christians of Rome, “is written in the hearts of every man and woman on this earth.” Our Democratic politicians have no regard for the dignity of the human person as they advocate, without the slightest hint of remorse, the murder of the least of us.
With only a very few exceptions, our academics remain trapped in their own subjective realities, publishing only for each other.
Our corporations pursue their “dreams of avarice” as we walk through the Wal-marts of the world, mesmerized by Muzak and the shrines to the materialist gods, made, of course, in the People’s Republic of China.
Abroad, things remain wretched. Europe falls prey to a centralized bureaucracy of its own secular devising, mobs shout without purpose, and its citizens of a Christian heritage no longer seem capable of being fruitful and multiplying.
Russia, over two decades after the fall of communism, remains a nightmare—economically, culturally, and politically. Its leader at the beginning of the 21st century is a former member of the KGB, an operative, during the 1980s, in East Germany. As chess master Garry Kasparov claimed in early December, 2007, Putin and his followers are “raping the democratic system.” Things have not improved in the last four years.
Indeed, despite the western victory in the Cold War, systems of tyranny remain alive and well throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Under the leadership of the three presidents following Ronald Reagan, the West failed to explain the demise of capitalism or lay a solid foundation for a post-Communist world. Instead, the leaders of the United States treated the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia as just one more passing event in the history of the world. 1989 should be remembered in history as one of her greatest dates, an annus mirabilis, and, yet, scholars ignore its implications and the significance of its leaders, most of whom where Christian. Even more tragically, numerous governments throughout the world kill and torture Christians daily outside of the western hemisphere, while Cuba remains the important and tragic exception within this hemisphere.
It all seems terribly bleak right now, the world swirling around the abyss and Americans only pushing it faster and faster.
And yet, no matter how terrible things might look on November 22, 2011, the symbols, history, and myths surrounding this day offer much in the way of hope. Communities “share symbols and myths that provide meaning in their existence as a people and link them to some transcendent order,” political theorist Don Lutz has written. “The shared meaning and a shared link to some transcendent order allow them to act as a people.” Indeed, the man “who has no sympathy with myths,” G.K. Chesterton argued, “has no sympathy with men.” One cannot, it seems, separate men from myths.
The choice is ours: we can choose corrupt symbols and myths suited to our pursuits, our lusts, our own wills, and our petty nationalisms, or we can choose those attached to what is eternally true and dignifies the uniqueness of each person, made in the Image of God. Indeed, no matter how corrupt and bleak and depressing the world may appear, we can always turn to the many Cecilias and the Laura Smiths of the world and see the goodness that is possible through grace and love. Properly remembered, these true symbols and true myths can re-orient our souls, our cultures, and perhaps even the world itself toward right order.
This day, of all days, should teach us this.
All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendancy over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided. We live by myth. ‘Myth’ is not falsehood; on the contrary, the great and ancient myths are profoundly true. The myth of Prometheus will always be a high poetic representation of an ineluctable truth, and so will the myth of Pandora. A myth may grow out of an actual event almost lost in the remote past, but it comes to transcend the particular circumstances of its origin, assuming a significance universal and abiding. Nor is a myth simply a work of fancy: true myth is only represented, never created, by a poet. Prometheus and Pandora were not invented by the solitary imagination of Hesiod. Real myths are the product of the moral experience of a people, groping toward divine love and wisdom—implanted in a people’s consciousness, before the dawn of history, by a power and a means we never have been able to describe in terms of mundane knowledge.— Russell Kirk, “The Dissolution of Liberalism,” Commonweal (January 7, 1955), 374
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.