As a deeply worried citizen of a country that justly deserves my love, I watched last night’s election results with a savage, manic glee. How satisfying it was to see the principled patriot Rand Paul crush the monied, establishment hacks, and to throw peanuts at the screen as the pro-abortion, warmongering lech Arlen Specter slinked at last off the public stage. My civic-minded soul is stirred by the Tea Party movement — although, after all these months, it is still a heart in search of a brain, and we must hope that when it finds one, it is Rand Paul’s and not Sarah Palin’s. (Hey, Sarah: Ya seem like a sweet lady, but if you’re fixin’ to run our country, ya need to know: You can’t simultaneously have small government, low taxes, and big, interventionist wars. The Pentagon works a lot like Neiman Marcus: However friendly the salesman seems, he will always send you the bill.) And I’ve already said enough here about why we Catholics should celebrate the uprising of our fellow citizens in Arizona against the injustices they are suffering at the hands of Big Corporations, Big Government, and their handmaiden Big Immigration.
I almost wrote that all these developments have filled me with hope, but I learned some time ago the difference between supernatural hope and a healthy earthly optimism. That lesson got drilled into my head on election night 1992, as I marinated in an East Side tavern with a bunch of friends from Operation Rescue, watching Bill Clinton slither to power. One colleague of mine at a relentlessly upbeat business magazine kept accusing the TV station of lying about the results, insisting that Americans wouldn’t elect another pro-abortion president. When I pointed to the electoral college numbers, he insisted that I lacked the virtue of hope — which he seemed to conflate with the power of positive winking.
I staggered home and looked for wisdom in a more reliable source: a VHS tape of The Planet of the Apes. Recall the scene: Charlton Heston glares through the bamboo bars at the damned, dirty ape who guards him with an AK-47, and asks, “When may I hope to be released?” The ape snorts philosophically: “You may hope anytime you like.”
An old professor and mentor of mine, Louisiana State University’s film scholar John R. May, tells that story to illustrate the virtue of hope, and I find it extremely consoling. In fact, I’ve added that scene, along with clips from The Passion of Joan of Arc and Zoolander, to my short reel of video divina. That snippet reminds me that, whatever our concrete circumstances, no matter the vicious stupidity of the hordes who hold power, we can by Grace recall the other-worldly Kingdom that remains our true and only home.
The same message comes across from much more somber works. This semester I taught my students Viktor Frankl’s classic memoir of prison camp life, Man’s Search for Meaning, illuminating it with a short life of St. Maximilian Kolbe. They’d already read The Gulag Archipelago; at our school, everyone has to. The common theme uniting these narratives is the power of supernatural hope to disorient, disarm, and in the end defeat the men who wield the whips and the truncheons. The peculiar Christian attitude toward suffering (which mirrors that of our forebears, the Maccabees) can grant us even in the depths of terrestrial hells an uncanny, unearthly freedom. While persecuted Stoics may take refuge in the eternal truths of geometry, and unlucky Epicureans work out where they miscalculated in their life plans for maximizing happiness, those of us who look to the Cross are offered other resources.
We are never meant to seek out suffering; the madcaps for martyrdom who used to taunt the Romans were duly condemned by the Church. Even saints who undertook excessive mortifications — like the young Ignatius — later had to repent their penitence. But whatever suffering comes to us as the necessary side effect of avoiding sin and following our vocation is marked off for us as special; it’s as if it came in a lead canister with the markings of nuclear fuel. Radioactive and dangerous, such suffering can poison the soul. Japanese Catholic Shusako Endo’s heart-rending novel Silence tells the true story of a priest, who renounced Christ under torture, so goaded by shame at his own weakness that he went on to help the samurai hunt down thousands more Christian victims. Frankl recounts how some Jewish prisoners agreed to work as “kapos,” brutalizing their fellow prisoners for the sake of some scraps of bread.
But by clinging through sheer force of will, supported by the intellect, we can (and saints really do) succeed in riding this terrible tiger. Once harnessed, united in mind and heart to Jesus’ Passion, our own anguish can prove enormously transformative. It is only this vision of heroic self-overcoming that can inspire our jaded contemporaries to turn aside from the glitz of postmodern life — as the same craving once won millions to the service of ideologies. Transformation is on some level what we dying creatures crave, some proof that we’re more than gorillas who came up with guns. It’s precisely the transformation of human nature that modern ideologies of evil — from the French Revolution of 1789 to the German one in 1933 — had to offer.
The modern totalitarian project was a perversion of what Henri de Lubac, in his one indispensable book, called “heroic humanism,” which is a very different animal from the dull, veterinary hedonism that swathes political life today in a pink cloud of misguided compassion. As de Lubac explains, the old-style atheists had carried over from the Christian past an elevated view of man as the apex and crown of Creation. Having followed Ludwig Feuerbach, they “took back” from God the glory that rightly belonged to man and saw themselves as heirs of Prometheus, fighting nobly against the misanthropic tyrant Zeus, to grant man the sacred gift of fire — the tool that raises his condition above the beasts’. (Sartre’s play The Flies runs on similar lines, with Orestes seizing existential freedom from Zeus, who is a cheap stage-magician and crass impostor.)
While he rightly scorned the toxic envy and resentment that pervades all socialist movements, Nietzsche likewise fancied himself a Promethean figure, attempting to forge in his own soul a model of the Overman, who combined the heroic ethos found in Homer with the intense introspection and scrutiny one could learn from Christian mystics. While the Nazi appropriation of Nietzsche’s work was largely an act of vulgar vandalism — akin to their fake neo-Classical art that conflated Athenian citizen-soldiers with the Wehrmacht’s mechanized modern bandits — there was a spiritual center to the National Socialist fantasies. Thousands of men enrolled in the ranks of the S.S. convinced that they were walking in the footsteps of the old Teutonic Knights, impelled by a spiritual craving to sacrifice their lives for a “higher” cause. In the one brilliant section of a sadly flawed novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, Walker Percy’s heroically pro-life character Father Smith admits that, if he’d been a German in the early 1930s and been eligible for the S.S., “I would have joined them.”
What could Percy possibly mean? I find the answer in the works of another author, Jorge Luis Borges, whom I sell to students as the Argentine Rod Serling. In one of his deeply cerebral fantasies, “Deutsches Requiem,” Borges plumbs the soul of a Nazi concentration camp commander who relates how he has worked on himself with all the severity of an ascetic to extirpate “evil” impulses like compassion, justice, guilt, and instinctive benevolence toward fellow humans. Borges wasn’t making all this up; he had no doubt read the speech that Heinrich Himmler gave at Posen, where he offered spiritual direction to the men who staffed his concentration camps, explaining to them how their austere duty must drive them to heroically overcome these lower drives:
Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when there are 500, or when there are 1,000. And to have seen this through, and — with the exception of human weaknesses — to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.
Is it really an accident that Himmler had modeled the S.S. on the Jesuits? Should it shock us that the darkest human movements ape the noblest, craving the same dedication that would send Edmund Campion cheerfully to the scaffold? In the midst of all the simply human sadism and criminality that attended the Nazi genocides, Borges saw the gilded wings of the fallen angel: the drive to take the shabby, baggy compromise that is exiled human nature and make of it something new, to forge meaning out of suffering, to offer each of us an irrefutable answer to the trivial chaos of daily life. Both flavors of murderous socialism, international and national, located that answer on earth, in a not-so-distant future that could be attained by worldly means — through commissars and camps. Sure, the earnest Bolshevik or S.S. soldier might suffer, and likely die. But his own anguish he could unite to the greater struggle, losing himself and forgetting his pains for the sake of the heavenly kingdom they helped to win.
This impulse, which Rev. Martin D’Arcy in his classic The Mind and Heart of Love calls the “Dionysian,” can be harnessed alike to sanctity or Satanism. As Borges’ hero says, just before he marches to execution:
An inexorable epoch is spreading across the world. We forged it, who are already its victim. What matters if England is the hammer and we the anvil, so long as violence reigns and not servile Christian timidity? If victory and injustice and happiness are not for Germany, let them be for other nations. Let Heaven exist, even if our dwelling place is Hell.
I look at myself in the mirror to see who I am, to discern how I will act in a few hours, when I am face to face with death. My flesh may be afraid. I am not.
This speech reminded me of the words of serial child-killer Myra Hindley, quoted in the sobering British movie Longford: “I discovered that evil can be a spiritual experience, too.”
Since evil is not a positive force, but something more like a tapeworm that feeds in the bowels of the Good, we must do more than merely shudder. We should wonder what was the real heroic impulse that got distorted and corrupted in the souls of men like Marx and Nietzsche, and even of Himmler. Is there in fact a spiritual means to transform daily miseries and even appalling anguish, to offer a better answer to Job? I found what Borges’ hero was seeking in Maximilian Kolbe’s life — which far transcends his exemplary death. From a brief account I distributed to students (please read it!), I learned how Kolbe’s immense patience in the face of physical suffering and organized evil extended through the decades and took him in his missionary work from Poland to Japan — where he slept on straw and nearly starved, learning Japanese to start from scratch a Marian magazine, of all things. The shrine he built in Nagasaki was one of the only structures to survive the atomic bomb.
It was Kolbe who answered Marx, who could have made a saint out of Himmler. As he slowly starved in a camp to save the life of another man, Kolbe harnessed the radioactive poison of human suffering, uniting it to Christ’s, finding in it an energy and a blessing that I cannot begin to understand. I hope I never get the chance.