by Bradley J. Birzer
Last week, two of my Twitter friends (and friends of TIC: @hencole and @Sir_Geechie) were happily discussing the 1965 Russell Kirk piece on Malcolm X; the one Winston graciously posted.
I have found each of these men to be founts of wisdom and friendship, even if we are limited to 140 characters per thought. Sadly, due to grading and other inconveniences of life, I didn’t have time to ask Sir Geechie to elaborate. I still hope I get the chance to do so. Regardless, his point intrigued me.
After reading the comment, I was also struck–yet again–by one of the finest lectures I heard this previous year, the lecture given by Tony Esolen at Hillsdale College on the nature of epic. All of our highest art, he stated, is best presented in memory.
Cicero and John Willson
And, this led me to two of my favorite men: Cicero and John Willson. In his profound dialogue concerning the nature of the divine law and the citizenship of the reasonable person, Cicero stated: “No farmer’s cultivation can preserve a tree so long as one sown in a poet’s verse.”
As our own John Willson has reminded those of us who know and love him many, many times, we explain ourselves best through story. Professional historians have fought this notion for a century while scratching their heads in bewilderment over the successes of biographers and the works of writers such as David McCullough.
“Well, they’re just story tellers” is the damning statement of many.
Yes, and they’re damned all the way to the bank and to longevity.
Except for a few statisticians and “social scientists,” most of us live and understand by and through story. Indeed, at some point in our lives, most of us grow fond of history, and we consequently want to know our ancestry and the stories of those who came before us.
We remember by narrative and story, first and foremost. Facts, stats, numbers, and the figures that make up a life only make sense when connected to a larger narrative, a poetic understanding of Creation and of our place within that creation.
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were repeated for centuries, as were the books of the Old Testament, before being written down. Plato and Cicero wrote in dialogue, and Jesus Christ, more often than not, spoke in parable and allegory. The Orthodox and Catholic Churches rose in a time of mass illiteracy, thus relying on the media of art, liturgy, and music to convey the eternal message of scripture.
Thus, in ancient world, the myths of gods and demigods, heroes and demons, gave sustenance to a culture. In the medieval world, the stories of saints and demons spoke to the culture. We moderns and post-moderns have not lost any of this, but our understanding of the mechanics of it all has suffered immensely and dramatically.
As we mock stories in our labs and “objective” analyses in academia, we merely switch our own objects of attention from heroes and saints to superheroes. What is George Washington if not the new Aeneas? What is Superman, if not Atlas? What is Captain Marvel if not the right hand of Zeus? Marvel’s Thor and D.C.’s Wonder Woman are not mysterious at all. What is Batman, if not a representation of St. Michael? From demigod to saint to comic superhero, we long for drama in “black and white,” clearly defined lines of good and evil, even within the grays and vast dramatic scapes of life.
Feast of St. Stephen
As I write this, tomorrow (December 26) is the Feast of St. Stephen.
I can’t help but think of one of the best stories of our age, “Murder in the Cathedral,” by T.S. Eliot.
“Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord’s Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of His first martyr, the blessed Stephen,” the archbishop preached in his Christmas morning homily, 1170AD. “Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ?
The Church has–at least until the present day–understood the importance of story.
Four days after giving the homily cited above, the king’s men butchered Thomas at Canterbury Cathedral, the archbishop’s aide, philosopher and theologian John of Salisbury witnessing the paradoxically horrific and holy moment. “We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them,” the archbishop had stated that Christmas morning. “We rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of man.”
For those of us taught (or, who have had the privilege of teaching) “Murder in the Cathedral,” we most likely remember St. Thomas, we remember Canterbury, and we remember a few of the others in the play.
How many of us, however, can give the exact date of the martyrdom or name the king who had Thomas murdered without consulting some form of reference work?
While these things are important facts, they really serve as a means to understanding the great import of the story. And, what is the import of the story: that a righteous man, calling a thing by what it was (that is, by naming evil), suffered for proclaiming the Truth.
Jump forward almost a thousand years.
I’ve just had the privilege of teaching the history of the Early American Republic, 1801-1848. It’s really important that the students remember that the War against Mexico lasted only 18 months, 1846-1847. It’s far more important that they remember the U.S. behaved reprehensibly during that war. My guess is that they will, even as they forget the exact dates of the conflict.
Aeneas, George Washington, and Batman
A few months ago in conversation, TIC’s founder and editor, Winston Elliott, said in frustration and concern to me: “is the only way we can have an account of real virtue in this world through comic book/superhero movies?”
My answer to Winston was: “Thank God, we at least have these to remind us of higher truths.” Winston agreed.
For better or worse, superhero movies are probably one of the few ways citizens of the West learn anything at all about the traditional virtues of our civilization.
In part because superheroes are unafraid to act on such convictions (and we expect them to, especially after some prerequisite doubts their alter egos much experience), but also because the 20th-century superheroes are so clearly the descendants of the Greek, Roman, and Norse gods and demigods as well as the Catholic and Orthodox saints.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this connection more than the second Spider-man movie during which the passengers on the commuter train pass Peter Parker’s body above them, each commenting on the youth of Parker. In this, they most resemble a medieval community striving to have some connection to the person (saint) entering into eternity.
Perhaps more importantly if very anecdotally, I have found in my fifteen years of teaching at the college and university level that our youth, aged 18 to 22, crave (I can’t stress this enough; they CRAVE) stories of heroism. Yes, they’re rightfully cynical (the only thing Dick Nixon did wrong, in my opinion, is that he was not corrupt enough to bring down the whole presidency; he just brought shame upon himself–too bad), but they also want stories of personal heroism.
As a father of seven (my oldest is 13), I find that my children also crave stories of excellence as well. They don’t want conformity, at least to the standards of the masses and the world. They desire stories of excellence.
By definition, of course, excellence must always be anti-egalitarian and anti-conformist, as every excellence is unique and individual. Equality reigns in hell, never in Heaven.
So, this takes me back to the greats: to Cicero, to Tony Esolen, and to John Willson. The poet asks us to remember, to find in memory, that which is true and beautiful, the eternal struggle of the poet, the person of integrity, against the stalwart conformity of reigning tradition and mass culture.
In that challenge, the person either becomes hero or anti-hero. Few of us care about those who never approached the Abyss, whatever the final fate. As Jesus said, it is better to be evil than lukewarm.
We crave the challengers, the poets, those who see what is eternal true, not just temporally expedient. Only through story, though, do we remember that which is highest and best, that which is not merely a fact or a figure, but a thing that is true in all places and in all times.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.