Thursday, January 08, 2009

Fr. Neuhaus on David Brooks and Family Values

Fr. Neuhaus died today. Anything I write about his passing would be both redundant and mundane so I'm marking the occasion of his death by reposting one of the many links I have made to his writing. He not only taught us from his own experience, he was also very good at aiming the inquiring mind at others. In this case we get a two-fer as he directs us at both David Brooks and Mary Eberstadt. This first appeared June 23, 2007.

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...and, of course, a string of other items. Richard Neuhaus makes snark as delightful as a dill pickle on a hamburger. Love that title, The Family Chicken and Religious Egg. He digs at his friend David Brooks, heir to Safire's editorial chair at the Grey Lady's table, as "his column has evolved into putative “big think” pieces in which he attempts to redefine the world in cogitational spurts of seven hundred words or less."

All of which is really a baited hook intended to catch the reader's attention long enough to link a longish essay by Mary Eberstadt in the Hoover Institute's Policy Review entitled How the West Really Lost God. No, I haven't read it closely, yet, but I will today. It prints out to about nine pages of content and two more pages of footnotes. Not intended for children, understand. This is adult reading intended for mature audiences.

Salacious or pornographic? Hardly.

Worse: it requires thought. Snip here...

What could it be about the experience of the natural family that might make an individual more disposed toward religion than he is without it?

Simple question, right? Not so fast. It's a short question with a long answer.


First, there is the phenomenological fact of what birth itself does to many fathers and just about every mother. That moment — for some now, even that first glimpse on a sonogram — is routinely experienced by a great many people as an event transcendental as no other. This hardly means that pregnancy and birth ipso facto convert participants into zealots. But the sequence of events culminating in birth is nearly universally interpreted as a moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant. It is an elemental bond that is cross-cultural as perhaps no other — a formulation to which most parents on the planet would quickly agree.

This fact of the primal connection between parents and children — this suggestion that such may be the critical foundational bond of human beings — is not just limited to ordinary mortals in the obstetrician’s office, but also echoes throughout numerous of the masterpieces of human history. It is why King Lear is nearly universally recognized as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, whereas, say, Romeo and Juliet for all its pathos is not — because the predeceasing by Lear of Cordelia is the perfect symbol of the worst tragedy life can present, again so far as the mothers and fathers of the world are concerned. It is why the story of Jesus is so similarly universal in its tragic appeal, whether told via that masterpiece of sculpture, the Pieta (whose primary focus, suggestively enough, is Mary, not Jesus), or just via the familiar story that begins with Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt to save their infant’s life — one that has resonated among literates and illiterates for two millennia.

Similarly, the theme of not only outliving one’s children but symbolically profiting from their death repeatedly presents itself as the worst transgression imaginable in works that stand at the absolute pinnacle of Western literature. Consider Medea’s unwitting devouring of her children as related by Euripides almost 2,500 years ago; Dante’s portrayal of Ugolino, one of the most famous figures in the Inferno, whose punishment in hell is to watch his four sons die and then to eat their flesh out of his inability to stop himself; Shakespeare’s sounding of the theme in Titus Andronicus, where the title character’s ultimate revenge on the Goth queen who has destroyed his family is to engineer her unwitting digestion of her own two children, cooked like Medea’s in a pie. In all cases, the meaning is clear across centuries and languages: Nothing could be worse than losing one’s children, unless it is the taboo of living off that which should never have died first.

What is it about the predeceasing of parents by children that has so captured the imaginations of the West’s (though not only the West’s) greatest artists across millennia and languages and cultures? The answer can only be that this theme resonates most deeply with the human heart — or at least the heart joined to children by family ties. As even Aaron, Shakespeare’s moral monster in Titus Andronicus, cries upon seeing his illegitimate newborn, “This before all the world do I prefer; This maugre [pleasure] all the world will I keep safe / Or some of you shall smoke for it in Rome.”

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I can relate. It's was over thirty years ago that my wife and I faced the prospect of a therapeutic abortion because excruciating pain in the first trimester made carrying my first-born to term look impossible. Fortunately the problem was due to a prescription overdose and the pain subsided when the dose was adjusted. But the emotional pain associated with contemplating the loss of that baby is palpable to this day.

Great retrospective weekend reading. The reference to Medea hits home as I once had the privilege of seeing Dame Judith Anderson performing recital versions of Medea and Lady Macbeth, both in one evening. If that doesn't brand you for life, you have a thick hide.

1 comment:

Bill said...

My wife and I lost our youngest child in infancy to a heart defect. We have both lost parents and friends, but nothing compares to the pain of outliving your own child.