Orwell, then, presented Catholics as either stupid or blinkered, dishonest or self-deceived. Yet he was very far from denying the need for religion. In his opinion socialists were quite wrong to assume that when basic material needs had been supplied, spiritual concerns would wither away. ‘The truth,’ Orwell wrote in 1944, ‘is the opposite: when one’s belly is empty, one’s only problem is an empty belly. It is when we have got away from drudgery and exploitation that we shall really start wondering about man’s destiny and the reason for his existence. One cannot have any worthwhile picture of the future unless one realises how much we have lost by the decay of Christianity.’
Exactly right. Would that the point were appreciated by the so-called New Atheists and their cyberpunk acolytes. Were they to rid the world of religion, what would they put in its place, to satisfy the needs of the spirit for meaning and point in the teeth of time and transition?
Prescriptive worldly counsel and other-worldly [hyphen added!] ideals were both anathema. ‘No doubt alcohol, tobacco and so forth are things that a saint must avoid,’ Orwell wrote in his essay on Gandhi, ‘but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.’ ‘The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.’
Part of what attracts me to Orwell is his intellectual honesty. He sees the problem, one that superficial atheists and dogmatic believers alike often paper over. The baubles and trinkets of this all-too- transient life cannot satisfy anyone with spiritual depth, which is presumably why Marxists and other leftist activists of a less superficial stripe invent a pie-in-the-future ersatz which is even less believable than the promises of traditional religion. But on the other hand, the dogmatic certainties projected by the will-to-believe flabbergast the critical intellect and appear as so many idols set up to avoid nihilism at all costs.
Yet seven months before Orwell died, he wrote to Buddicom, insisting that there must be some sort of afterlife. The letter, unfortunately, is lost, but Buddicom remembered that he had seemed to be referring not so much to Christian ideas of heaven and hell, but rather to a firm belief that ‘nothing ever dies’, that we must go on somewhere. This conviction seems to have stayed with him to the end: even if he did not believe in hell, he chose in his last weeks to read Dante’s Divine Comedy.
In his will Orwell had left directions that he should be buried according to the rites of the Church of England. Of course no one was better qualified to appreciate the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer; nevertheless the request surprised some of his admirers. A funeral was duly held at Christ Church in Albany Street; and David Astor, responsible for the arrangements, asked if his friend’s body might be interred in a country churchyard, at Sutton Courtenay, in Berkshire.
Appealing to both Right and Left, invoked by both, Orwell is owned by neither. He was his own man, a maverick. Hats off.
William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) had his day in the philosophical sun, but is no longer much read – except perhaps by those contrarians who take being unread by contemporaries as a possible mark of distinction. Recently I came across this magnificent passage:
Life itself is individual, and the most significant things in the world – perhaps in the end the only significant things – are individual souls. Each one of these must work its own way to salvation, win its own experience, suffer from its own mistakes: "through angers, losses, ambition, ignorance, ennui," yes, and through crime and retribution, "what you are picks its way." Any rule which by running human conduct into approved grooves saves men from this salutary Odyssey thwarts the first meaning of human life. ("The Philosophical Anarchist" in R. Hoffman, ed. Anarchism, New York: Lieber-Atherton, 1973, pp. 120-121.)
The quotation within this quotation is from the last stanza of Walt Whitman's "To You" from Leaves of Grass.
The solid bourgeois may dismiss as so much nonsense philosophy, poetry, and other products of questers and romantics -- all the while subscribing to the socially sanctioned nonsense of some respectable established church.
Be neither bourgeois nor bohemian, the one to the exclusion of the other. The true maverick is that dialectical blend, the sublatedness (Aufgehobensein) of both, that blend known as the BoBo, the bourgeois bohemian.
How wildly diverse the concrete solutions to the problem of life that each works out for himself!
There was Leon Trotsky the professional revolutionary who worshipped life-long at the altar of politics. Politics was his substitute for religion. (If religion is the opiate of the masses, revolutionary politics is the opiate of the intellectuals.)
And then there was Trotsky's secretary and bodyguard Jean van Heijenoort who, after finally seeing through the illusions of Communism after years of selfless service to its cause, renounced politics entirely and devoted himself to mathematical logic, becoming a distinguished historian of the subject. One is struck by the extremity of this turn away from something of great human relevance to something of almost none. A retreat from messy reality into a realm of bloodless abstractions. An escape from the bloody horrors of politics into the arcane. At the same time, a turn from devotion to a great but ill-conceived cause to bourgeois self-indulgence in sex, 'romance,' and love affairs. Sadly, his fatal attraction to Ana Maria Zamora got him killed in the same place, Mexico City, where Trotsky met his end at the point of an ice axe wielded by a puppet of Stalin. Zamora shot van Heijenoort with her Colt .38 while he slept . From revolutionary to bourgeois professor of philosophy at Brandeis University. But he was never so bourgeois as to respect the bourgeois institution of marriage.
Dr. George Sheehan's escape was into running to which he ascribed a significance it could not bear. He was an inspiration to a lot of us with his 1975 On Running. But then came a string of rather more fatuous and portentous titles, starting with Running and Being. As if der Sinn von Sein is poised to disclose itself to the fleet of foot. All due praise to running, but homo currens qua currens is not on the way to Being.
And then there are those who went from politics to religion. Unlike van Heijenoort who moved from leftist politcs to mathematical logic, Simone Weil went from leftist politics to religion. "The great error of the Marxists and of all of the nineteenth century was to believe that by walking straight ahead one had mounted into the air." Exactly right.
Edith Stein, another very bright Jewish philosophy student, went from philosophy to religion. Seeking total commitment she fled to a Carmelite monastery. She was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz as Trotsky was murdered by the long arm of Stalin in Mexico City. When I say that Stein went from philosophy to religion, I do not mean that she abandoned the first for the second: she wrote weighty tomes in the convent, Finite and Eternal Being and Potency and Act, to name two. But they were written under the banner, philosophia ancilla theologiae.
It is fruitful to compare Weil and Stein. The former, despite her attraction, kept her distance from the Roman church -- Kenneth Rexroth speaks of her "tortured prowling outside the doors of the Catholic Church" -- while the latter embraced it in the most committed way imaginable. There is a 'logic' to such commitment, one that is operative in the lives of many a convert, Thomas Merton being another example: if it is The Truth that one has found, then surely it demands and deserves total commitment. Religion really embraced and made existential make a totalitarian claim -- which is why the totalitarians of the Left must make total war on it.
But these days I've been reading the slacker poet, Charles Bukowski, so perhaps he deserves a place in this little incomplete catalog. His epitaph reads, Don't try." He avoided bourgeois mediocity, no doubt, but along a path that cannot be recommended: one of piecemeal physical and spiritual suicide. Whatever you say about Trotksy, van Heijenoort, Sheehan, Weil and Stein, they were strivers. They understood that a life worth living is a life of relentless effort and exertion and self-overcoming. It is about subduing the lower self, not wallowing in it.
When I was a young man I came to the conclusion that I had three choices, three paths: suicide, mediocrity, striving. A lifetime later I verify that my choice of the third was best.
Reader Ray Stahl of Port Angeles, Washington, kindly mailed me a copy of Ned Polsky, Hustlers, Beats, and Others. It is a work of sociology by a maverick sociologist, academically trained, but decidedly his own man. I wasn't aware of it or him until a few days ago. The preface already has me convinced that this is a book I will read and digest. A writer who writes like this is a writer to read:
Many readers of this book will feel that I object to the views of other scholars in terms that are overly fierce. These days the more usual mode in academia, thronged as it is with arrivistes aspiring to be gentlemen, is to voice such objections oleaginously. But luckily I cut an eyetooth on that masterpiece of English prose, A. E. Housman's introduction to his edition of Manilius, and so am forever immune to the notion that polemical writing and scholarly writing shouldn't mix. I believe that polemical scholarship improves the quality of intellectual life -- sharpens the mind, helps get issues settled faster -- by forcing genteel discussion to become genuine debate.
(Hyperlinks added. Obviously. But it raises a curiously pedantic question: By what right does one tamper with a text in this way? Pedantic the question, I leave it to the pedants.)
Polsky died in 2000. Here is an obituary. You will have to scroll down to find it.