Last Friday, June 16, was “Bloomsday,” the fictional date on which Leopold Bloom, the main character in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses wanders around Dublin, having adventures that roughly parallel those in Homer’s Odyssey. The novel has attracted so many aficionados over the years that groups in several countries meet for marathon public readings of all 500+ pages. I used to be a fan, too. But time has given me second, third, and fourth thoughts. And I’m still not done.
Stephen Daedalus, another central figure in Ulysses and in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, adopted the three strategies noted in the title above to handle the uncongenial (to him) environment of Ireland at the beginning of the twentieth century. As he puts it, “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”
No question, bad social forms can trap us, as we know only too well in America, anno Domini 2017. But the old modern efforts at radical escape – not only in Joyce, but in Freud, Marx, the surrealists, postmodernists, and many more – didn’t anticipate what happens when the large human things were overthrown and the isolated soul stood naked in the resulting void. It’s nothing like soaring freedom. In Joyce’s case, it meant that his last major work was Finnegan’s Wake, an even longer monstrosity of self-absorbed private puns and opaque language that, despite clever efforts to rescue it, is the most unreadable failure by a major author in the whole history of literature.
A century later, we don’t have to imagine the general results of breaking natural human bonds because we see the wreckage all around us. If you can’t figure out why people are so crazed about passing matters of race, class, gender, ask yourself: if you break with family, community, faith, what do you hold on to as a way of knowing who you are?
These “identity” markers are, of course, poor substitutes for real relation, and only make people – who are really looking for something else – even more frantic. So there’s an ever-escalating hunt for ever-more-evanescent “micro-aggressions” and other imagined hurts.
Meanwhile, traditional Christians and people of like mind endure multiple macro-aggressions daily without anyone in the mainstream culture much caring.
Still, amidst all the talk of Benedict and other Options for how to cope with what seems to be spreading chaos, the old Daeadalian weapons – silence, exile, cunning – properly understood, have something to offer.
Silence, for instance, as Cardinal Sarah has recently reminded us, can take us to a place of greater connection with God and, through Him, to people and things around us. Achieving that kind of silence (not the aloof intellectual kind) is more difficult than it seems. To quiet, internally, the intrusive noise and voices, and to pay attention to the primary things that speak to us from God and nature takes effort and regular practice.
I mention nature, the Creation, because early Christians often called it God’s “second book of revelation.” One reason we don’t really respect nature – and human nature – anymore is that we don’t believe that they are connected to ultimate reality.
Many environmentalists attend to nature as if nature were an end in itself. It isn’t – and can’t be. Because we human beings are both part of and transcend nature, nature can never be a final answer for us.
(Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ largely accepts the policies such environmentalists propose; and those passages will fall or stand as time passes and shows them true or false. But the spiritual principles – in chapters II, III, and IV – are worth pondering.)
It’s important to grasp what healthy silence is and is not. We talk a lot about our failure to speak out while the mainstream culture is steamrolling the permanent things. But it may be that we’re not being heard because we don’t have the real interior silence that would enable us to speak from a place of stillness to the pandemonium. If we don’t have that stillness, the proper understanding of God, the Creation, and our relationship to both, as everything else is swirling around, who will?
Exile is more complicated. Joyce sought exile in Continental Europe for his whole adult life. But the “nets” he fled held him anyway – his whole literary output focused on Ireland. And in a strange way, the Church. And how could it be otherwise? It’s foolish to try radical escape from who we are, where we are from, the relationships that Divine Providence has chosen for us. And impossible. Joyce finishing in an all but private language closely parallels what Dante sees as the unintelligibility of some of the devils in the deepest circles of Hell, estranged from God and others, and therefore unable to communicate.
No question: we must now take our distance from many things that surround us and our families. Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option makes many specific suggestions. But its real strength is in describing the problems. The solutions will for the most part have to be personal and particular.
We can band together, when possible, in various groups and defend ourselves from the tyrannies that the modern state is imposing and will impose on traditional believers. But many more people are going to have to embrace partial, creative exile in ways that even Joyce’s fertile imagination never dreamt of.
Cunning may be the key to the whole thing. It’s impossible to specify in advance what degree of distance or engagement we’ll have to practice now, and what forms our stances should take. But it’s certain that it will take levels of cunning Christians haven’t had to use since the ancient world, when Jesus Himself, still living among us, warned that he was sending us out as sheep among wolves, and that the innocence and gentleness of doves was only half of what He expects from us.