Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Report on the Sunday Sessions of the Catholic Culture Conference

The Adult Education program of the Spiritual Life Center here in Wichita, Kansas recently presented the Fourth Annual Catholic Culture Conference. Joseph Pearce and Dale Ahlquist made presentations on Friday and Saturday and Brad (Bradley) Birzer from Hillsdale College spoke on Sunday. He was born and raised in Kansas and had attended a family wedding in Kansas City on Saturday before driving to Wichita on Sunday. He was born in Great Bend and grew up in Hutchinson--his mother and other family members met him during his presentations so there was a family reunion going on too.

He was a great presenter; his enthusiasm and knowledge of his subject was so evident. I enjoyed his talk on Russell Kirk because I had not read much about him. Here's a Catholic World Report introduction to Kirk that Professor Birzer wrote:

By almost any 21st-century American or western standard, Russell Amos Augustine Kirk (1918-1994) possessed a quirky, eccentric, and original personality. He was—to put it as simply as possible—genius. Descriptors like charitable, tolerant, loyal, intense, playful, mischievous, creative, imaginative, shy, romantic, brilliant, humble, eccentric, traditional, and innovative flow from the lips and pens of most of those who knew him personally. As with every person, of course, Kirk expressed an immense variety of emotions and thoughts during his life. No man or woman can be summed up in a sentence, let alone in a book or even in a series of books. Almost certainly, the person himself fails to apprehend all of his majesty and his failings. Of all appreciations of and attacks on Kirk, Dartmouth professor of English literature Jeffrey Hart says it best. “Russell Kirk was a fantastic individualist—in his own way, of course.”

Yet, of all major converts to Roman Catholicism in the 20th century, Kirk remains one of the least known. There were so many notable converts, as biographers such as Joseph Pearce have explored, that one middle-aged American’s conversion has understandably been overlooked. After all, Kirk is remembered mostly for his 1953 magnum opus,
The Conservative Mind, and as the founder of intellectual and cultural conservatism. On the surface, Roman Catholicism is not inherently conservative, at least politically, and most Catholics would probably be more comfortable reading a Flannery O’Connor short story than a speech Kirk ghostwrote for Senator Barry Goldwater.

Still, it is unfortunate that Catholics have not paid more attention to Kirk’s story. His conversion to the Church not only provided a major asset to the faith but also reveals much about the nature of tradition, the continuity of the pagan and the Catholic, the fragility of civilization, and the sanctity of charity.

I bought Birzer's biography of Russell Kirk--and he bought a copy of my book. Very kind of him: we autographed each other's books.

He also spoke on J.R.R. Tolkien, emphasizing how much World War I influenced the creation of Tolkien's Catholic mythology of Middle Earth. This essay, from the Imaginative Conservative (which Birzer co-founded) gives you an inkling of what Birzer discussed:

One finds the most moving prose of The Lord of the Rings, somewhat surprisingly, in chapter two of Book Four (that is, the second chapter dealing with Frodo and Sam in The Two Towers), “The Passage of the Marshes.” In it, Tolkien offers a vast and broad claustrophobic landscape across which Frodo, Sam, and Gollum must travel.

As is typical with Tolkien, he allowed his experiences to influence and inform his writing, but he refused to let them dominate it. In a 1960 letter, he admitted that the approach came from his reading of William Morris as well as his own experiences in World War I.

"The Lord of the Rings was actually begun, as a separate thing, about 1937, and had reached the inn at Bree, before the shadow of the second war. Personally, I do not think that either war (and of course not the atomic bomb) had any influence upon either the plot or the manner of its unfolding. Perhaps in landscape. The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme. They owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains." [Letter 226 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien].

That Tolkien mentions his experience in World War I at all is startling, as he rarely did this, and certainly not until the end of his life. In an interview eight years later, Tolkien confirmed the influence of his experience in the trenches on his writing. “I remember miles and miles of seething, tortured earth, perhaps best described in the chapters about the approaches to Mordor. It was a searing experience.” [Interview by Keith Brace, “In the Footsteps of Hobbits,” Birmingham Post (March 25, 1968)]

In almost every way, Tolkien’s “The Passage of the Marshes” presents a deeply frightening and suffocating experience for the reader, as the three figures—the two Hobbits and the decrepit Gollum, once a Hobbit himself—move across a landscape that has become, and continues to become through the chapter, devoid of grace. Unlike the area of the Old Forest (in
The Fellowship of the Ring) that had once been the sight of a terrific battle in the North, the Dead Marshes, and the No-man’s land, just to the northwest of Mordor, has no guardian spirit or caretaker such as a Goldberry or Tom Bombadil. In the Old Forest, the evil of the angry trees and undead wights cannot prevail against the natural goodness of Tom and Goldberry, masters of the land. No such masters ever took hold of the Dead Marshes. Instead, there still lingers the rotting souls of elves, orcs, and men, all the remains of the Last Alliance against Sauron, a pyrrhic victory won more than 3,000 years earlier.

Birzer concludes:

If there is a passage in all of English literature that better describes the horrors of the twentieth-century—its world wars, its gulags, its holocaust camps—I have yet to encounter it.

In a genius moment of anti-Romantic Romanticism, “The Passage of the Marshes” echoes the structure of a medieval church—from the “lights” of the purgatorial recesses to the buttresses of the decayed walls to the obscene graveyard. This is a church unprotected, unguarded, unclean. As Frodo and Sam journey through it, even memory itself is elusive and unattainable.

As ghosts, Frodo and Sam continue through this nightmare realm, itself devoid of grace, armed only with the Elvish lembas, what would be translated into English as “the bread of life.”

If there is a story in the English language that better grasps the meaning of life and perseverance in this world of sorrows, I have yet to encounter it.

I hope that Professor Birzer returns to Wichita soon to talk Christopher Dawson or Charles Carroll of Carrollton, about whom he has also written.

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