What World Will We Live In?

In World War II, a young Italian named Eugenio Corti was fighting on the Russian front, where he witnessed what kind of world it is when men forget God – when Nazi and Communist, brutalized by godlessness, devoured one another and millions of innocents in their way, like monsters of the deep.

Much of what Corti saw, what he suffered, what he heard from his fellow soldiers, and what he corroborated by investigation, he fashioned into his novel The Red Horse. It’s a vast epic, the Italian War and Peace. It’s also a Christian saga reminiscent of Manzoni’s The Betrothed –and not just because the young protagonists come from that same hilly region north of Milan. Corti, like Manzoni, wants to show us what his Catholic land once looked like, and what it might be once again, if men would turn back and mend their mad and murderous ways.

Consider the following moment in the novel. Manno, the most mystical of the lads, is home on furlough before returning to service in Albania. He sees a beautiful girl in church, in the company of her great aunt, who owns a villa outside of town. Manno arranges a visit with the girl, who bears the lovely and spiritual name of Colomba: Dove. After a simple and courtly dinner with the grande dame and her niece, much conversation, a stroll with Colomba through the orchard, a handshake, and a promise to return on the morrow, Manno walks home:

Crossing through the streets of the town, he looked at everything, the well-known details of his familiar world, and now, after the meeting with Colomba had, as it were, restored him, everything, even the most trivial, seemed a discovery, evoked intense joy in him. He stopped a moment in church to thank God for having spared me from danger, but the prayer that spontaneously came to his lips was the Gloria. He said it once, and once again, and still once more in an almost solemn, crashing crescendo, like an organ, in the darkness of the empty church. He was not grateful to God for having saved him from the war, the sea, but for having created Colomba, for having made her as she was, for having put a creature like that in the world. He prayed, as if transported, to the Mother of God, blessed among women, asking her to look after Colomba, to help her remain as pure and as charming as she was now, for all time. 
What strikes me about that passage is that the words Manno speaks, the feelings that inspire them, and the thoughts that lift his gaze from earth to heaven, are now, for most people, incomprehensible if not reprehensible, and for almost everyone else a message in a bottle from a lost world.

Yet he is right and sane, and we are the mad fools.

      Eugenio Corti (1921-2014)

First, Colomba is pure. Not merely abstinent, but pure: she has a deeply founded knowledge of the holiness of the body and of marriage. She and Manno do not encounter one another as “friends,” in the shallow and casual sense in which we use that word now, or as providers of frictional pleasure. They encounter one another as youth and lass, as man-to-be and woman-to-be, and the possibility of marriage, not something they would dare utter so soon, hovers over them as they walk and chat, like the song of a bird from his evening roost high in the trees.

Second, Manno is pure. Corti insists upon this. He grew up then, he knew his countrymen far better than we know the people who are our closest neighbors; he studied, prayed, played, fought, ate, debated, celebrated, and mourned in their company.

The priests of his district of Brianza were far seeing and tireless shepherds. They raised a generation of boys, most of whom went to the altar as virgins – men who spent years tramping through the snows of Russia or blistering in the sands of north Africa, men hardened by bitter experience, whose fellow soldiers, Catholic only in name, would take advantage of those women in wartime who will offer anything in exchange for food or protection.

Impossible? Are we beasts and not men? Corti is not speaking from theory. He was there; he saw it.

Third, because Manno and Colomba are pure, Manno can have the thoughts that Corti records. Manno compares Colomba to Hector’s wife Andromache, and to Dante’s saintly Beatrice. A flight of fancy, perhaps, but a flight that springs from the earth; without that flesh-and-blood Colomba, shy, womanly, sweet, intelligent, and pure, Manno’s thoughts could never take wing. If we call it mere poetry, mere sentimentality, romanticism, we do not know what we are saying. We are like color-blind people insisting that there’s no such thing as green. Or we are like men whose evil habits have riddled their bones, no longer able to conceive what it is to run and leap with abandon. 

Finally, the passage warns us that it’s foolish to pretend that the air you breathe will have no effect upon your constitution. Manno and Colomba grew up in a world that could raise a Manno and Colomba. You cannot say, “It’s true that pornography is an open sewer, but I don’t use the stuff.” You might not, but you still breathe the fumes from the sewer.

You have no clear idea of the inspirations that a morally healthy world might give you. You cannot say, “It’s true that fornication is wrong, but who am I to prescribe for other people?” Sorry, but the fornicators have already prescribed for you. Go to the dance hall if you like – the dance hall is empty. March in the parade for Corpus Christi – you and who else? Write poetry in honor of Beatrice – if you can find her, or if it even enters your mind that such a person might exist.


Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Bruno

    I understand this article very well, but may the Lord preserve me from indulging in these reflections. It may all be true; I had a great grand father, and he was different from what people are now.

    But you see, as true as it all is, and precisely because it is true, revolt is fostered in me, and resentment. And I find the task of loving neighbour, apostate immoral neighbour, beyond my reach, and I feel the weight of being the unmerciful servant. That things were not perfect, but much better, and that we threw it away, is too painful a thing to regard.

    The problem is that the culprits are still around, and they keep working iniquity. Are we to hate them? God forbid. We have no right to hate, and the time to hate has not yet come.

    The devil was given permission to afflict us because of our sins, too. Some think that punishment will come. Has it not already? No use in complaining. Must pray, love and do penance for us and everyone else.

  • Gian

    But the wise shepherds of Brianza could not stop Manno from fighting in an unjust war, could not stop Manno from invading Russia.

    I wonder if Wehrmacht that Catholic chaplains to provide for their Catholic soldiers.

  • Mack Hall

    Thank you!

  • Rich in MN

    Sexual evil — does any other moral disease share its sheer virulence, its ability to disguise itself as ‘good,’ and its deftness at hiding behind rationalizations? Pride may form the root of the tree of death, but sexual lust is the branch with the greatest abundance of toxic leaves.

    During WWII, the moral cesspool that is Hollywood was certainly already beginning to emit some pretty toxic odors — think of Judy Garland’s forced abortion by Hollywood execs so they would not lose their cash cow. But what was really needed for this disease to spread was some sort of “Typhoid Mary.” Along comes a young man named “Rex King” who was a moral psychopath when it comes to all things sexual. He had sex with men, women, children, animals, inanimate objects — whatever he could use. And he chronicled everything. Then, he meets one “Alfred Kinsey,” who himself engaged in much ‘sexual research’ (all in the name of science, I’m sure!) and the two formed a friendship born/borne slightly lower than Heaven. From it all comes Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” which was the catalyst. This book is, in turn, read by one “Hugh Hefner” who then becomes a prolific apostle of this new cause of sexual liberation.

    I wonder if children, who are sold into sex trafficking and ground to death — physically and spiritually — under its immense wheels, would call it ‘sexual liberation’?

  • Sean

    The radio waves that carry vile content physically bombard us, so we not only breathe the fumes but wade in the muck of the sewer, at least when we’re within reach of cell towers.
    Professor Esolen, how are we to live *in* the world yet not be *of* it? Maybe by deliberately choosing ignorance of modern “culture” and instead devoting ourselves entirely to the adoration and study of God?
    Each person, I think we’d say, is a cell tower broadcasting radio waves of grace or sin in which everyone else must swim, so we can battle the muck and the fumes with the pure water and fragrance of personal holiness. (Plus Catholic radio and The Catholic Thing!)

  • Stanley Anderson

    Anthony Esolen wrote, “If we call it mere poetry, mere sentimentality, romanticism, we do not know what we are saying. We are like color-blind people insisting that there’s no such thing as green. Or we are like men whose evil habits have riddled their bones, no longer able to conceive what it is to run and leap with abandon.”

    CS Lewis talked – and wrote, in contrast to, in his novels – about writers who find and write “good guys” as bland and boring, and that it is the “bad guys” who are interesting – i.e., they can display not just black and white, but subtle shades of grey, whereas the good guys can only wear indistinguishable white hats. In Lewis’ works, it is the bad guys that tend to have the ultimately dreary outlook and weary fate; the Withers, the Un-man/Westons, the witches, the minions of the N.I.C.E., and the tyrants of Narnia. They can wield terrifying horror, but in the end, they turn to…well, that is exactly what your statement above brings out and clarifies in my mind suddenly.

    In fact, it strikes me that it is precisely their ability to dissect situations into infinite narrow bands of shades of grey that they think they are so clever at determining, i.e., that they can “measure” that “this” is slightly darker or that “that” is slightly lighter, all on a luminance scale of 0% for black to 100% for white. And certainly it can be a useful skill to have. But however useful it may be in certain situations, that one-dimensional scale is not all there is. It strikes me that evil can ONLY see situations in terms of degree and measuring. It is goodness that can not only measure and sort by degree in shades of grey, but where “blossoming” into color that defies stratification into measurable levels is possible. Is green “better” than “purple”? Only if those colors are reduced to strict frequencies or luminance levels can we put them on a balance to measure them. Your thrice repeated use of the word “mere” (or “merely”) brings out this distinction

    It is this “reduction” that I think is the essence of evil – that evil is not so much a “different” thing than good, a distinction that can too easily lead to dualism, but is, in the end, simply an incompleteness or diminution of wholeness. And not even “diminution” in “degree” (again, something that will be “reduced” to a “measure” of that degree), but a diminution in kind, the way a square is not just a “smaller” cube, but of a different kind. Whatever sorts of shapes might be able to be drawn on a piece of paper, there are not simply “more” shapes possible in the world of solids, but of a different and varied “kind”.

    And I can’t resist relating this to the choice of words in your last sentence I quoted above – “no longer able to conceive.” I have often noted that the so-called “sexually liberated” people think Christian morality about sex is “prudish” or “narrow,” and yet I would say that it is precisely they who have separated or “reduced” sex into a mere stimulation of electrical signals in brain cells (or as “providers of frictional pleasure” as you deliciously write). Instead, the fullness of body and soul that encompasses Christian marriage is not only “complete,” but so overflowing and “blossoming” as to produce actual physical offspring. The “liberated sex” view is not only “lesser” in degree than the fullness of sex in marriage (again, that tendency to see “reduction” as merely a one-dimensional “measure”), but more like the incompleteness of a stick figure sketch on a piece of paper as compared to looking into the eyes of a living, breathing person.

  • Tony

    My gracious commentators: I have no clear solutions. Let’s suppose that you reject the sewer, and let’s suppose that you try your best to broadcast those waves of grace. The trouble is, the sewer is still there, and the ordinary person not only breathes its fumes, but is deprived of the assistance of a sane culture. It’s true that we’re all called to be saints, but it’s also true that almost everyone must depend heavily upon their fellow men for the building up of virtue. So we must form communities of Christians … and we must at all costs watch over the imagination …

  • keithp


    “I wonder if Wehrmacht that Catholic chaplains to provide for their Catholic soldiers.”

    I’ve seen you make this comment on at least one other thread.

    Can you pls explain what you intend by this comment?

  • Manfred

    @ Tony: “My gracious commentators: I have no clear solutions.”
    Thank you for your candor. My I suggest a couple of solutions?
    Bp. Paprocki of Springfield, IL has just written to every parish in his diocese that the tabernacles in every church will be placed in the center of the sanctuary. There will be devotion to the Body of Christ which resides there.
    In the Novus Ordo parish a block from my home which my family and I left some 30 years ago has just begun a program where the parishioners are being urged to receive the Host on the TONGUE! In other words, the problem will slowly abate as the True Catholic Faith is restored parish by parish, and the Modernist counterfeit is thrown away. It will take decades as so many people who subscribe to this Modernism have to pass the their judgement.

  • Tony

    Stanley: Thank you for that wonderful meditation upon Lewis. He drew upon Scripture, the Church fathers, philosophy and theology, and ALL of the Christian poets, who all saw that same pathetic reduction that evil works upon the human soul. It’s why Dante crams his Hell with one-tic sinners — some of whom are fascinating one-tic sinners, no doubt — who can only repeat in endless futility the single act of will to which they gave their lives. It’s why Spenser says — everywhere, and in fifty different ways — that lust is cold, and that people with “dunghill minds” cannot aspire to the heights of love. It’s why Milton sings praises to wedded love, distinguishing it from “casual fruition” and the “bought smile” of harlots and the “injury and outrage” wrought by the sons of Belial, who wander the streets of cities at night, “flown with insolence and wine.” It’s why Shakespeare places his most noble expressions of manly desire on the lips of the pure-hearted Orlando, Florizel, and Ferdinand. Lust is the paltry little gritty half-plastic chocolate bar, instead of a full meal — a meal, not feed at a trough…. Lewis understood; so did Spenser, Sidney, Herbert, Milton, Dante, Tasso, Chaucer, everybody …

    Manfred: That is good news. After the ruins, we have to shovel ourselves out, one shovel full of rubble at a time.

  • Stanley Anderson

    Anthony Esolen – Thank you for the wonderful reply. This gives me an opportunity to add a bit that occurred to me only after I had posted my reply above. I had mentioned about the black and white and shades of gray one-dimensional “measuring” that is all evil is capable (if even that) of doing, and how to them, the “good guys” are all only indistinguishable same-appearance “white hats”, but that it is goodness that is capable of blossoming into varied and beautiful color that can’t be “measured”, only seen as more “complete” or with “fullness”.

    But it struck me after posting that the obvious connection (how did I miss it before?) was to note that it is, after all, “white” that can be split apart by a prism into the wonderful spectrum of rich colors that make for the fullness of God’s creation. And, ironically in contrast to evil’s “ability” to see only black and white and shades of grey, it is black that is completely monochromatic and incapable of variety. And shades of grey are only able to be split into colors whose vibrancy and intensity are in direct proportion to how close to the purity of “white” they are. In other words, the darker the grey, the less varied and more drab any possible colors will be from the grey’s makeup.

  • Bill Hocter

    “Manno and Colomba grew up in a world that could raise a Manno and Colomba.”

    And a Mussolini, a Hitler, and a Stalin. And, God help us, a Churchill and a Truman as well. It’s not that our age doesn’t deserve scolding but that other ages did as well and that scolding seldom helped.