The problem with too many open engagements with books is that the ideas of each tend to spill over into the next—not exactly a recipe for clear thinking. On the other hand, it is curious how the same themes and—to our point here—the same human foibles repeat themselves across time lines and disciplines. The two books presently under closer scrutiny in my scrambled literary world are The Best and the Brightest (1972, 1993) by David Halberstam, and Morte D’Urban (1962) by J.F. Powers. The first is a historical analysis of how the United Stated States got itself into a war that would ultimately kill millions of people and revise the way that America thinks of itself. The second book is a novel about a middle-aged priest in a nondescript religious order in the last years before Vatican II, cursed with the smarts to see himself and his order for what it was but too comfortable to light the fuse of genuine renewal. Literary-speak, a world apart, but upon reflection, maybe not so much.
I listened to the preface of The Best and the Brightest yesterday on my walk; it is a lengthy (four-mile walk) but thought-provoking description by the author of his own four-year odyssey— “like going to school,” he puts it—through the workings of President John F. Kennedy’s [and later Lyndon Johnson’s] cabinet and military advisors through the advent of and expansion of the Viet Nam War. The title comes from a common belief at the time that JFK’s cabinet was a cluster of unusually intelligent and highly educated men for his day: Robert McNamara, President of Ford Motor Company who, among other things, introduced seat belts as an option; McGeorge Bundy, the youngest man ever to attain the position of dean of Harvard University, etc. Halberstam’s favorite quote in the book provides a clue of the book’s destination. Vice President Johnson, after an early cabinet meeting in 1961, bubbled over with enthusiasm at the genius of the cabinet. “You may very well be right,” replied his old colleague Sam Rayburn, “but I’d feel a whole lot better if even one of them had ever been elected a sheriff.”
Halberstam’s narrative is a catalogue of sins that covers about 75% of the Catechism’s. Tops among them is hubris, not surprisingly, but not far behind is intellectual lethargy and fear. BB traces the fear of the dominant party, in this case the Democrats, over its post-WW II reputation as being soft on Communism, particularly in the 1950’s McCarthy witch hunt era. The defense of South Viet Nam and victory over the Communist North was seen as an extension of the Cold War, i.e., the U.S.-led free world versus the expansionist designs of global godless totalitarian Communism. As the war progressed, the disingenuousness of American public policy led to a dangerous disconnect in our own country, leading to the civil unrest for which the 1960’s is famous. No one in government, it seems, gave much thought to a critical reality of the Vietnamese peninsula, that the north-south division of Vietnam was only a recent episode of internal conflict dating back to at least 900 A.D., as I have seen in some histories. Preconceptions of the U.S. government—and an undue attention to the past--blinded it to the limited returns of a long and costly jungle guerilla war, let alone the moral components of decision making.
Morte d’Urban, (the “death of Urban’) by contrast, is a much smaller fictional story of a successful priest in an American religious order of no particular note. Set around 1960, perhaps, Father Urban is a nationally popular retreat master and fundraiser who, despite his vows, enjoys his mobility and good liquor. He has not quite lost his soul, and he able to see that his order, the fictitious Clementines, is bankrupt in every sense of the word, including competent leadership. One such incompetent officer of his order inexplicably assigns Father Urban to a seedy retreat house, a monument of physical neglect that even Chip and Joanna Gaines would despair of. Father Urban’s local superior—attempting rehabilitation on the cheap—puts his retreat master and only true source of revenue to scraping paint and stripping wallpaper.
[I can only say—this sort of mismanagement in the American Church was so common back then, and even later. The most gifted philosopher/seminarian in my classes at Catholic University was being groomed by his dying order to tour the country selling Christmas cards to fund the order’s operations. And this was nearly a decade after the publishing of Morte d’Urban.]
Father Urban slips his bonds by assisting at weekend Masses at a nearby parish, thus becoming a magnet for favors and references from local clergy and even the chancery. He seems to have had one long-time friend/benefactor who was, as the saying goes, “connected,” for our business minded retreat master musters the funds to develop a golf course to attract a new clientele, the Manhattan Avenue businessman looking for more than the 1950 style stock retreat experience. As I was dozing last night, my IPad fell to my lap just as Father Urban and the local bishop were teeing it up for 18; the bishop, it seems, has now begun to covet the entire retreat/golf empire as a seminary, and Father Urban will use the jocularity of the golf range to perhaps change his thinking.
[Again, how so true to life. In the late 1950’s seminarians for the Diocese of Buffalo had three choices for studies: Niagara University, St. Bonaventure University, and St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester. Buffalo’s Bishop Burke wanted another one, close to Buffalo and, I guess, his immediate control and oversight. He set a campaign goal of $2.5 million and raised $4.4 million, which he took as a mandate “to build a palace,” as my disgruntled family would often repeat. As of this writing, three of the four seminaries are long gone; the fourth, the $4.4 million plant, appears to house about 35 seminarians from local dioceses, from what I can tell.]
I will get back to the golf game tonight, but I am struck by a common thread in both books—how individuals and institutions fear the capacity for imagination, or thinking off the reservation. Even Father Urban’s golf course venture is simply a novel accoutrement to old-style fund raising. When I dined with our new deacon a few weeks ago, I admitted to him that, approaching 70, I was profoundly disturbed by the direction of the two institutions that had shaped my entire life, the Catholic Church, and the United States. The Church has never come to grips with the post-Enlightenment era, now in its fifth century—the world of subjective thought, scientific method, transparency, critical history, and basic human rights. The United States, for its part, has grown so partisan that the imaginative cooperation necessary for the betterment of life is impossible to achieve. As a country, we are becoming old and backward, materially, and psychologically.
I have no good punch line for today’s post except to say that good literature, fiction and non-fiction, is frequently our best moral textbook. Good literature takes us to insight and imagination; bad literature confirms our error-ridden status quo. Shop wisely.