“Mine was not an Enlightened mind, I now was aware: it was a Gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure. I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful.”– Russell Kirk
A year and a half ago, I had never heard the name Russell Kirk. Yet I am sure it was an intriguing quote like the one above—a quote that made me stop and think, “Wait…someone else thinks like this too?”—that led me to discover Michigan’s greatest “man of letters.” During my year as Residential Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal I have learned so much, but perhaps the most profound lesson of all was one I always suspected, one that I believed, but had not witnessed so forcefully until this life-changing experience.
And that is: there are no coincidences.
It all started with a few interesting similarities. When I first came across the Russell Kirk Center (RKC) website, I was living in Colorado and looking for opportunities to fill in a “gap year” before I pursued graduate studies abroad. I discovered that the RKC was based in Michigan—where all my extended family is from—and was further intrigued to learn that although the Center is located in a rural village of about 400 people, that particular village was also just 15 miles from my in-laws. But it doesn’t stop there. The late cultural historian and critic Russell Kirk was born in 1918 in the town of Plymouth, Michigan, right down the street from where my parents currently live, and pursued graduate work at Duke University—which was also where I completed my master’s degree—before he joined the Army during WWII. Not only did Dr. Kirk write extensively on history, politics, literature, and philosophy—my own academic areas of interest—he also wrote short stories and novels; Gothic fiction specifically, which is one of my favorite genres.
I could go on and on, since this entire year has been one coincidence/connection/work of providence after another—something Kirk’s youngest daughter, Andrea, and I have begun calling “circles of destiny.” One of the things I feel “destined” to experience is the next adventure my husband and I will be taking; an adventure that would never have happened had I not stumbled across the Russell Kirk Center. At the end of this month we will be moving abroad to Scotland, where I will begin a graduate program in Medieval History at the University of St. Andrews, which was where Kirk received his Doctor of Letters in 1953. Thanks to Kirk’s life and imaginative stories I already feel I know Scotland in many ways—a culture I’ve been fascinated with since I first heard the haunting drone of a bagpipe. Come to think of it, one of the first historical novels I ever really loved and that made me want to write historical fiction was one I read in high school on Mary, Queen of Scots, so perhaps the seed of destiny was planted long ago.
Kirk’s intense love for all things Scottish was evident in his fiction; stories shaped by the Gothic, medieval, Romantic, mystical mind mentioned in the quote above. Although Kirk believed order—both in the soul and in society—was the “first need of all,” he also recognized that this order was not the result of organizational planning committees who got together to try and solve all the world’s problems by increasing the number of social programs and bureaucratic systems (the very definition of ideology). Rather, true order is organic. It is about achieving harmony, but a holistic harmony, not one that is coldly calculated by men in suits and then forcefully imposed. The order Kirk sought is natural, it is human, it is the localized system of law, tradition, and myth that develops when a group of people from a specific corner of the globe figure out how to live together. In other words, true order is cultural—a reflection of the way we were meant to live in connection to nature and to each other, as one-of-a-kind persons in inescapable community. This was why Kirk deplored the uniform consumerist ‘culture’ of modernity and much preferred unique, interconnected, and sometimes eccentric local communities with strong identities. The nation of Scotland, smaller than the state of Maine, is undoubtedly such a place—one that has left its mark on the world’s imagination.
It is Kirk’s own imaginative sense of wonder, his veneration of mystery, and his sacramental understanding of this world as a fallen yet holy place that separates Kirk from his other conservative contemporaries. I like to think of the term “circles of destiny” in relation to a phrase of T.S. Eliot’s that Kirk was especially fond of: “timeless moments,” those rare instances in life where time and eternity intersect; where everything—the beauty of the natural world, the tastes and smells of hearty food and wine, and the conversations with good company all feel so perfectly planned that they make us want to cry out, “This can’t be it! This can’t just be a random coincidence! This moment was meant to last forever!” In one of his best ghost stories, Saviorgate, Kirk suggests that such moments are meant to last forever, for they are a gift and a preview of eternity. The story’s central character, Ralph Bain, says after enjoying a cigar and drink with his companions in a purgatorial time-warp of a pub: “We’re not dead, none of us. We’ve come fully alive. And we’re not locked up here; it just that we’ve chosen, or fallen into, this one timeless moment. It’s a good particular timeless moment, isn’t it?”
My time at the Russell Kirk Center has certainly been “a good particular timeless moment,” thanks in large part to the generosity, creativity, and lively spirits of Annette Kirk and Andrea Kirk Assaf—two women who continue the good work of Dr. Kirk by truly embodying the phrase, “brighten the corner where you are.”