(image credit: from the author’s personal collection)
Today, April 20th, we celebrate my father’s 79th birthday. This is the man who provided me with the gift of a very weird childhood, a boon for any writer. Dad’s motto has always been “take the road less traveled by” – which is why we lived a modified pioneer existence, rooted sometimes in the land, with phases of strange rootless mobility; why we went nine years with no running water, no telephone, no television, in a century-old farmhouse with snakes in the bathroom and mice in the bean room and rats in the prayer room; why we hobnobbed with hippies, evangelicals, agrarians, hillbillies, herbalists, and friars. My mother is the one I go to for an accurate account (one of her degrees is in journalism, and if I don’t write entirely like a demented neo-romantic on an absinthe binge, it is thanks to her exacting training) – but my father is the one I go to for myths. Are the family legends true? The thing about having a weird childhood, is that you learn that what sounds hyperbolic might be factual. Reality dabbles in magical realism. So perhaps the story of the alcoholic beverage officer and the bottle of “scotch” is true, and so is the story of Robert Kennedy, and the story of the Russian embassy, and the Christian democratic party in Brazil. I know it’s true that Dad used to go visit Dorothy Day, and argue with her: “I told her she needed to make her people weed her gardens, but they were all anarchists.” Only partially an anarchist, Dad made us kids weed his gardens, in spite of which fact I am as obsessed with gardening today as he is.
Dad also taught me to believe in the possibility of salvation for every individual, even the most vile and monstrous. So every year on Dad’s birthday, we reflect on the fate of the soul of another person born on April 20th, half a century earlier: Adolf Hitler.
I got from my mother not only meticulous lessons in prose style, but also my Jewish heritage, so the abstract phenomenon of “willing that all shall be saved” runs up against a visceral loathing that is my own (not my mother’s, because she doesn’t go around viscerally loathing people). But, I can not stand anti-Semites. Even if they are only of the watered-down sort, the sort that hover in com-boxes with bad spelling and conspiracy theories, I can not stand them.
Actually, there are a lot of people I can’t stand, which is why I live far from the madding crowds, the easier to love humanity in the abstract, and pretend that this is the divine charity that God commanded. I can hold to the principle that God desires salvation for everyone, that salvation is an option for everyone, that hell may be empty of human souls, so long as I don’t see people too often. I see my students most frequently, and they are all young, most of them sharp, a few even brilliant; time spent with them leaves me filled with hope for the future. But most of my students are in my classes because they chose to be; we are already simpatico.
The challenge of divine mercy is a difficult one, when we face real individuals. This is one of the tricks that Flannery O’Connor plays on us – and on her characters. Her respectable Christian characters are smug in their complacent mimicry of faith, until they are forced to confront those who lurk on the dark outskirts of society: the violent, the Misfits. Do you believe that Jesus came to save humanity? Yes, of course! Do you, do you really? Do you believe it when you see how vile humans are? Do you believe it when you see how vile Christians are? Can you hope for salvation for the Christian hypocrite and for the mass-murderer and for the horrible bourgeoisie, the ones we so readily dismiss, a la Evelyn Waugh (a much less Catholic writer) as “soulless.” Is anyone soulless? The drunk down the street with the confederate flag on his truck? The hipster trust-fund kid? Hillary Clinton? Donald Trump? A southern slave-owner of yore? An abortion doctor? Adolf Hitler?
O’Connor’s stories challenge you by rubbing your face in the filth of human iniquity and then asking: do you still believe?
For this Jewish Catholic, this challenge to believe takes one down a very strange path, a path into a Dark Wood where one confronts, not the allegorical beasts of sins, but real historical men and women whom we call monsters. How shall we confront them? Is it a legitimate act of piety, after all, to place anyone who ever has lived in hell, even in a mythic epic? I am not sure I want to be on this strange path; I want to be some place comfortable surrounded by the people I like. That’s how I want to imagine heaven, and I am content to accept that I won’t get there except for through purgatory, which is where all the cool kids hang out, anyway (all the best poets are there).
Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and the rest were tiny babies once. It is a curious fact that we are intrigued by the images of sinister figures of history as small children, maybe through an impulse towards horror: to see the rosy-cheeked baby, and contemplate what he will become, to defy the evidence of our own senses, to collapse two incompatible pictures into one. It seems to defy the principle of identity. But if we believe in that there is some enduring core of personal identity (and any philosophy of moral responsibility requires this) we have to believe, in some way, that the maniacal dictator responsible for world war and mass genocide remained, always, in some mysterious way, that innocent child born on that April day over a century ago.
Adolf Hitler, Kinderbild. This work was published before January 1, 1923 and it is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship. It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 93 years or less since publication. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-1989-0322-506,_Adolf_Hitler,_Kinderbild_retouched.jpg
Being completely pro-life means one doesn’t even have the option to wish that Hitler had been aborted. We don’t get to play the utilitarian card, frustrating though this may be, and in this frustration we are left contemplating an arena of human history in which evil triumphed precisely because some people opted to do the right thing. The noble choice is often the choice that gets you killed, as any reader of A Song of Ice and Fire, or of history, can see. We don’t get to wage preemptive war. We don’t get to kill our enemy.
The only way I can handle this is to imagine a transcendent realm in which evil no longer triumphs. Thus I enter the Dark Wood where I hope for salvation, not only for myself, but for everyone else, even those with whom I do not wish to share a space in any heavenly mansion. This is where realities overlap, where we are invited to imagine the impossible, a magical realism of the most challenging sort.
I don’t even know how to deal with this, but it feels like the only existential option.