A pilgrimage to Mont-Saint-Michel — La Merveille — illuminates the civilizational stakes of this twilight moment
Well, that was a weekend. I’ve been in Normandy for the past few days, first at the wedding of Pierre, a French friend, and then lodging on Saturday night at the stone cottage of my pal Gavin Ashenden, who lives part time in rural Normandy, near Mont-Saint-Michel. Gavin and I went to the holy mountain on Saturday — my first time there. I had long anticipated this day, though I didn’t know when it would come. Nothing prepares you for the first glimpse of what the French call “La Merveille” — The Wonder. It’s as if the full glory of God rose out of the sea to proclaim itself to you.
(Before I forget, I can’t urge you strongly enough, if you have an interest in Mont Saint Michel, to contact Gavin about making a trip there. He and his wife have a small stone cottage in rural Normandy about half an hour away. They live part of the year there, and are renovating a second house on the property to make it into a retreat center. Gavin, as you may know, was an Anglican priest — indeed, was a Royal chaplain — before he left the Church of England in protest of its heterodoxy. He served for a few years as a bishop in one of the continuing Anglican churches, but eventually converted to Catholicism, and is now a layman. I stayed with him at the cottage this weekend, and prayed with him in the little stone chapel there. It is a place filled with the Spirit, and you really could hardly hope for a better companion for a trip to the abbey, and for prayer and spiritual conversation later, back at the redoubt on the banks of a small river. When they are in residence, the Ashendens sometimes accept pilgrims to stay there with them and to pray. Write him and see when you can reserve your own spot. Praying lauds yesterday morning with Gavin in the chapel there, with the gentle roar of the river behind us, was one of the highlights of my summer. I will get back there as soon as I can.)
I put Mont Saint Michel on the cover of The Benedict Option because of Terrence Malick’s great film To The Wonder. It’s a movie about the nature of love, but it likens love to religious faith, in that they both wax and wane in a person’s heart. The challenge is to find a way to stand firm in time, with its vicissitudes, to hold on to the original experience of love’s awe. Wait, that’s not quite right — as Malick shows us, the original experience cannot be held on to in the strict sense. What he means is we have to create structures — an abbey, a marriage, a rule of faith — that we can inhabit to keep ourselves in place for when love, or faith, returns. I’m fond of the quote from the scholar of aesthetic Elaine Scarry, who said that education consists not in the imparting of information, but in training students to be looking at the right corner of the sky when a comet passes.
Malick uses the medieval abbey as a metaphor for God’s enduring presence among us. In the film, the characters played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko fall in love; we see them swooning for each other on a visit to La Merveille. Eventually he asks her to marry him, and move to America, where everything is wide-open. Their union doesn’t last there; the open spaces symbolize Affleck’s inability to commit to her. Both those characters are tossed and turned by life, while the second narrative thread, involving a parish priest (Javier Bardem) who has lost his faith, demonstrates the value of remaining steadfast in the practice of faith, even if one has lost the experience of God. The final scene shows Kurylenko traipsing through a wet field after yet another misadventure, only to be struck by a bright light from behind.
She turns, and there is the Wonder. Fin.
I take this as Malick saying that we should never give up hope, because God, and Love (the God who is Love itself!) endures eternally, and is ever calling us back to himself. A miracle like La Merveille was built by men who loved God, and who constructed it to His glory. It endured many wars — it was the only part of Normandy that the English did not conquer during the Hundred Years War — and the God-hating French Revolution. Yet there it is — and like God, it is always, always calling us back. This is why it is on the cover of my book. I want the abbey of Mont Saint Michel to be a symbol of Emmanuel, of God-is-with-us, always.
Unfortunately Gavin and I did not make it into the abbey itself, which had closed just before we arrived, to prepare for a special event. No matter — I’ll be back as soon as I can. Simply to behold the glory of The Wonder emerging from the sea was one of the great experiences of my life.
Unable to see the abbey, Gavin and I retired to La Mère Poulard, where I had one of the kitchen’s legendary omelettes, which is really more of a souffle:
On the way back to the cottage, we pulled over for one last look at the Wonder before sunset:
Back home in Vienna and looking at my photos this morning, I was struck by that sunset image. It has the power of metaphor. Gavin and I talked long into the night, over Calvados, about things of the spirit, and of the decline of the West. We are both convinced that the long night is upon the West, and that the only thing left to do for us Christians, and all those who love the West and what she has been is to build abbey redoubts within which we can hold on to the faith throughout the siege. And this, in his way, is what Terrence Malick says in To The Wonder. It is not at all a movie about decline-and-fall! It’s about the waxing and waning of love. But Malick tells the granite-hard truth that the eternal must have some form — an abbey on a rock, a strong vow to one’s vocation as a priest or a spouse, and so forth — if the original experience of wonder is going to endure through time. If we who love what our fathers and mothers have preserved for us, until the past few decades, wish to be faithful to what we have been given, and to keep it alive for our descendants, then we cannot sit back passively as the darkness overtakes us. The hour is very late, but it is never too late to act.
One thing that was much on my mind this weekend was William Deresiewicz’s stunning essay on Quillette, about why he left academia. It is as clear a manifestation of a civilization’s self-murder as you can hope for. I hasten to clarify that Deresiewicz is not the killer — the scholarly class is. If Philip Rieff was right to say that a civilization begins to die when it loses the ability to transmit its core values to the next generation, then we really and truly are doomed, unless we can find a way to marginalize and bypass the class whose mission it is to do so. The university humanities have passed into the hands of nihilists who hate them, and who hate the West. There is no other conclusion to be drawn from the WD essay. He is a Yale-trained literature scholar and an excellent writer of books (for example, this lovely book about how reading Jane Austen taught him about how to live a meaningful life).
It turns out that academia has no use for a scholar who actually loves literature and can write beautifully about it. WD writes about how despite his Yale degree and experience, and despite his record of publishing commercially successful books about literature, he applied for dozens of academic jobs nationwide — and got no offers. Not one. Excerpts:
That’s 39 schools and 46 applications. Prestigious universities, public and private; non-prestigious universities, public and private; Canadian universities; liberal arts colleges. Institutions in the Northeast, the Midwest, the South, the West, and north of the border; schools urban, suburban, and rural. I would’ve gone just about anywhere. But with all that work and all that hope, I got a total of five interviews, two callbacks (the final stage in the hiring process), and zero offers.
With a name like Yale on my CV, plus a decent publication record, I must have really screwed things up to have experienced such dismal fortune. And I did. Oh, I did.
What did he do wrong? He neglected to play the game. He loved literature. He wasn’t ideological. More:
Anyone in the academic humanities—anyone who’s gotten within smelling distance of the academichumanities these last 40 years—will see the problem. Loving books is not why people are supposed to become English professors, and it hasn’t been for a long time. Loving books is scoffed at (or would be, if anybody ever copped to it). The whole concept of literature—still more, of art—has been discredited. Novels, poems, stories, plays: these are “texts,” no different in kind from other texts. The purpose of studying them is not to appreciate or understand them; it is to “interrogate” them for their ideological investments (in patriarchy, in white supremacy, in Western imperialism and ethnocentrism), and then to unmask and debunk them, to drain them of their poisonous persuasive power. The passions that are meant to draw people to the profession of literary study, these last many years, are not aesthetic; they are political.
I was dimly aware, when I got to graduate school, that the experience would be different from the few college English classes I had taken—I knew that “theory” was big, though I didn’t much know what it was—but I had no idea what I’d be up against. Fortunately (or not), it didn’t take long to find out. The first week of my first seminar—it was a “proseminar,” designed specifically for entering students—the professor said this: “The most important thing for a first-year graduate student to do is to figure out where they stand ideologically.”
But what disgusted me the most was not the intellectual corruption. It was the careerism. It was the sense that all of this—all the posturing, all the position-taking—was nothing more than a professional game. The goal was advancement, not truth. The worst mistake was to think for yourself. People said things that they obviously didn’t believe, or wouldn’t have believed if they had bothered to subject them to the test of their own experience—that language is incapable of making meaning, that the self is a construct—but that the climate forced them to avow. Students stuck their fingers in the air to see which way the theoretical winds were blowing, designing their dissertations to catch the swell of the latest trend. Names of departmental stars—“Franco,” “Gayatri”—were dropped in the graduate lounge like aces in a round of poker. The whole enterprise seemed completely self-enclosed. People claimed to aim to change the world, to exert some influence outside of the academy, when it was perfectly clear that their highest ambition was tenure. One of the students I started with, among the smartest and most well-read in the class, was a strong feminist who really did want to change the world. She left after a year to go to law school, where she felt that she actually could.
Something massive — massive! — is dying here. One more excerpt:
For this isn’t just my story, and if it were just my story, then it wouldn’t be very important. It’s a story of misplaced institutional priorities. And beyond that, it’s a story of a profession that is eating its young. You see, I could have done everything I did, and not done everything I didn’t, and managed to survive, if not for a reality that far transcended my individual choices. I could have spent too much time on my teaching and writing, I could have published academic work that refused to clothe itself in jargon or to pay obeisance to the latest trends, I could have even had a white penis (which put two strikes against me on the job market), and still have found another position, were it not for this: there were fewer and fewer positions to find. Institutions were shifting their teaching to adjuncts on a monumental scale. They were destroying with one hand the professoriate they were creating with the other. And, of course, it’s only gotten worse since then: worse and worse and worse. Which means that while the particulars of my story may be unique to me, the outcome is not. Thousands of people are driven out of the profession each year (and thousands more agree to settle for the adjunct life). And the ones who get screwed, at a time when the general level of undergraduate instruction has become truly abysmal, tend to be the dedicated teachers, the ones who made the same mistake that I did, of caring about their students. Ultimately, the reason I left academia (since you’re wondering) is the same that many others have. My story is a personal disappointment; the larger story is a tragedy.
These professional scholars and teachers of literature are destroying the very thing they have supposedly given their lives to teach, to cherish, and to protect. They are doing this just as surely as a corrupt clerical class destroys a religion. I remember some years back, giving a talk about how reading Dante pulled me out of a chronic illness caused by anxiety, and giving me a new lease on life. Literature changes lives — even saves them! I wrote a book called How Dante Can Save Your Life, which is sort of spiritual and literary self-help. In it, I tried to convey how and why the words and wisdom and art of The Divine Comedy reached me where I was, lost in a dark wood, and brought me into the light — and how it can do this for any reader who gives himself over to it. I was on fire evangelizing people to read Dante! I delivered a lecture about it which was as much sermon as anything — that’s how enthusiastic I was (and am) about Dante. In the Q&A period, a young woman, grad student age, rose and demanded to know why I thought that a dead white European male, the product of a sexist, racist, bigoted society, had anything to say to us today.
I thought I was being trolled.
I wasn’t being trolled.
Spying my confusion, a professor said to me after my talk that that young woman’s question is completely normal today, and reflects how literature is taught in graduate programs.
These seminaries of the atheists are bringing down our civilization. They really and truly are. Yesterday, driving back from Normandy to the airport in Paris, I listened to this Jordan Peterson talk with Douglas Murray about Murray’s recent book The War On The West. It’s all there. Murray makes is crystal clear that those in charge of most of our institutions hate our civilization. They simply do, and there is no way to soft-pedal this.
We who believe that the West is good, despite its vices, and that the fact that it is simply ours — it produced us, it was bequeathed to it, we have a responsibility to it — means we have to defend it, we have to get serious about this, right now. It is not enough to stand here screaming that the West is living at its dusk. Yes, this is true, but we will not disappear when the sun does. We have to build our Mont-Saint-Michels (so to speak) within which to bear witness to the truth and goodness of our civilization and its inheritance, and educate our children, and their children, and their children’s children, to be prepared to see the comet when it streaks across the sky to herald a coming dawn.
I don’t know a more effective way to do this than building and strengthening classical Christian schools and the movement producing them. It is not enough to want your children to go to these schools so that they can escape liberalism. You need to see them as guardians of civilizational memory. If we lose the train of transmission — and we just about have — it’s over for us all.
It is wonderful, but not necessary, for the farmer or the factory worker to know Cicero and Socrates, Shakespeare and Dante. It is only necessary that the elites who share that farmer and factory worker’s civilization do, and keep the tradition alive. Every society and every civilization needs such elites. That ours have been lost, and are leading us all into oblivion, is one of the most important stories of our time.
And nobody in the media writes about it. It might as well not be happening. Classical Christian schools are one way of doing the Benedict Option. We need many more, and we need them right now. If you’ve been reading me for a while, you’ll recall my first writing here in 2015 about my conversation with Father Cassian Folsom, at the time the prior of the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, the hometown of St. Benedict, who created his monastic order out of the darkness and chaos of the Fall of Rome. I told Father Cassian about my Benedict Option idea — the book was still two years away — and asked for his advice. He told me that any Christian family that wants to survive what’s coming has no choice but to do some version of what I propose.
When I wrote that, it sounded alarming to a lot of people, who dismissed it. What about today? What is it going to take to wake you up and make you understand what is happening to us — and to convince you to resist? We don’t have forever. Time dissolves. Without reinforcement — from you and me both — the wonder that is Western civilization will not withstand the storm tides battering its crumbling walls. The people — our people, including our children — will be swept out to sea, unless we act.
UPDATE: It’s happening in the field of academic history too. Marx said that “philosophers have interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.” This is what cultural Marxism is: replacing the search for Truth with the implementation of Ideology.
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The academic who posted the column protesting the ideological ruin of history scholarship has now repented of his wrongthink:
AUTHOR’S NOTE (AUG 19, 2022)
My September Perspectives on History column has generated anger and dismay among many of our colleagues and members. I take full responsibility that it did not convey what I intended and for the harm that it has caused. I had hoped to open a conversation on how we “do” history in our current politically charged environment. Instead, I foreclosed this conversation for many members, causing harm to colleagues, the discipline, and the Association.
A president’s monthly column, one of the privileges of the elected office, provides a megaphone to the membership and the discipline. The views and opinions expressed in that column are not those of the Association. If my ham-fisted attempt at provocation has proven anything, it is that the AHA membership is as vocal and robust as ever. If anyone has criticisms that they have been reluctant or unable to post publicly, please feel free to contact me directly.
I sincerely regret the way I have alienated some of my Black colleagues and friends. I am deeply sorry. In my clumsy efforts to draw attention to methodological flaws in teleological presentism, I left the impression that questions posed from absence, grief, memory, and resilience somehow matter less than those posed from positions of power. This absolutely is not true. It wasn’t my intention to leave that impression, but my provocation completely missed the mark.
Once again, I apologize for the damage I have caused to my fellow historians, the discipline, and the AHA. I hope to redeem myself in future conversations with you all. I’m listening and learning.
Gutless. A stone-cold failure of cowardice and intellectual integrity.