The Shocking Concrete Abstract Universal

Flannery O’Connor meant to shock us by her storylines and imagery:

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience.

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

Anyone who has read The Violent Bear It Away or Everything That Rises Must Converge would have to agree that O’Connor had the ability to shout and startle.

On a more philosophical note, she reflected on the imbalance between abstract and concrete knowledge of her day in her essay: ‘The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,’ p 858–9, Collected Works:

It takes a story of mythic dimensions; one which belongs to everybody; one in which everybody is able to recognize the hand of God and imagine its descent upon himself.

In the Protestant South the Scriptures fill this role. The ancient Hebrew genius for making the absolute concrete has conditioned the Southerner’s way of looking at things…

Our response to life is different if we have been taught only the definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.

I’d say it was God’s genius for making the absolute concrete; but who’s quibbling. To paraphrase O’Connor, the point is that the abstract is transformed into the concrete thereby making the universal accessible. That’s what God has done throughout the Scriptures. To illustrate, I cite two examples.

The intricate description of the ephod and breastpiece of judgement belonging to the High Priest’s garments culminates in Exodus, chapter 28, verses 29 and 30:

So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the Lord. And in the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart, when he goes in before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the people of Israel on his heart before the Lord regularly. English Standard Version

If we have ears to hear it, all the concrete details of these garments portray the concern Aaron was to have for the people of Israel as he regularly bore their judgement on his heart while he brought them in remembrance before the Lord. We later learn, in the Letter to the Hebrews, that Aaron and his line are a shadow of the reality residing in the Lord Jesus Christ’s intercession for His own before the Father.

Another example of the abstract being made concrete is the bread and wine of communion. First, the Lord Jesus shocks the religious rulers of His day (and us, if we’re honest):

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” John 6:51-54 (ESV)

Then in the Upper Room, the Lord inaugurates the commemoration of His death and resurrection:

And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Mark 14:22-25 (ESV)

Finally, Paul explains its significance

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (ESV)

Which brings us full circle back to John, chapter 6:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” John 6:35 (ESV)

Even the Prophet Isaiah said as much:

“Come, everyone who thirsts,

    come to the waters;

and he who has no money,

    come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

    without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,

    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,

    and delight yourselves in rich food.

Incline your ear, and come to me;

    hear, that your soul may live;

and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,

    my steadfast, sure love for David.

Isaiah 55:1-3 (ESV)

Indeed, come and eat.

High Priest's Garments

The High Priest Aaron, Illustration from Brockhaus and Efron Jewish Encyclopedia (1906—1913), Public Domain in the United States

The Revolt Against the Masses – A Review (Part 1) — by Bernhardt Writer

As we promised in Quo Vadis III, this post is the first in a series of reviews of the book The Revolt Against the Masses, by Fred Siegel, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

This is one of the books and many articles we’re reading as we prepare Who Shall Be God. WSBG concerns American political and social change filtered through two families’ conflicts. Our goal is to digest the nonfiction materials in support of our fiction writing.

At the outset, we must say that Professor Siegel has helped us understand the experiences we had growing up in NYC during the Sixties. Rising out of the lower part of Inwood, through East Harlem, and to the Upper West Side, via a Mephistophelian deal by which my mother sacrificed herself for my betterment, I attended an upper middle class public school. Yes, from the world’s point of view, who you know is as important as merit. Lucky breaks are, often as not, quid pro quo.

In the feeder Intermediate School (IS) I attended, I learned educational tracking served to segregate and alienate economic groups. Naively, I asked one acquaintance, who got into trouble a lot, why he didn’t study harder since, it seemed to me, he was smart. He (again, we’re talking eleven year olds) said his family and social group wouldn’t permit it. I saw him many years later from a distance and got the impression he was trying to make a life for himself.

At least one child was pushed down an IS staircase the week when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The retributive aggression at the IS broke along economic rather than racial lines. I was subject to abuse at this time because my mother always made sure I wore a white shirt and tie to school. Ironically, my mother raised me to regard a person by their character, not the color of their skin or their economic status.

From there, I qualified for two specialized high schools but selected one over the other from the desire to satisfy the head over the heart. The only preparatory coaching I received during an ongoing teachers strike were group art lessons held by a dedicated teacher in her home. These few classes helped the many children she invited fill out our portfolios.

During my tenure at Stuyvesant, I witnessed the radical movement first hand. Some of those kids (you’d recognize them) are now on the national stage. Inadvertently, I also witnessed one of the last protest marches down Broadway from Colombia University. Of course, while in high school, I experienced the ostracism and mockery of those who thought they were better than me. I ask you, is adult life really any different?

Having gained entrance to Cooper Union though grueling exams, I learned how loosely those trusted with stewardship could act when they changed the rules in their favor. This revelation prompted my one and only act of protest against the irresponsibility of those who were extraordinarily privileged toward those who were not. I did not have Professor Siegel as my teacher while at CU.

Growing up in pre-Giuliani NYC, I experienced age appropriate crime. By that, I mean I was always mugged by those my own age. However, my defining memory of the city was the night someone dragged heavy garbage cans repeatedly along the concrete sidewalk in the common courtyard at the center of the block, or so we all thought.

Turns out that was automatic machine gun fire aimed at police officers guarding a city official who lived in the neighborhood. The siren of patrol car after patrol car signaled the fate that was meted out. I read of the perpetrators’ demise years later (but can no longer find the story online).

We thank Professor Siegel for his book and plan to touch on individual and groups of chapters in coming weeks. The following is an inadequate commentary on and condensation of chapter one.

CHAPTER 1 Progenitors

Men, like E. L. Godkin, Charles Francis Adams Jr., Henry Adams, H. G. Wells, Herbert Croly, Randolph Bourne, H. L. Mencken, and G. B. Shaw shaped opinion prior to, during, and after WWI.  They advocated instituting an American intellectual aristocracy, overthrowing middle class values, and destroying American democracy.

Quoting E. L. Godkin, “Plenty of people know how to get money; but…to be rich properly is indeed a fine art. It requires culture, imagination, and character.”

Charles Francis Adams Jr., [grand]son of John Quincy Adams, thought businessmen didn’t have the right temperament to govern. Aristocrats like him should hold office.

His brother, Henry Adams claimed superior men’s intellectual alienation from American life arose because they were underappreciated by the common-man.

H.G. Wells and Herbert Croly, The New Republic’ editor and co-founder, shared Adams’s anti-capitalism. However, they believed the experts Adams hated could be used to destroy the unrestrained capitalism disapproved by the elites.

Wells, heralded as a secular prophet, explained, “The book [Well’s Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought] was designed to undermine and destroy… monogamy, faith in God and respectability, all under the guise of a speculation about motor cars and electrical heating.”

Herbert Croly and Randolph Bourne were the two intellectuals most responsible for liberalism’s ideology.

Croly rejected Hamilton’s commercial republic, Jefferson’s self-reliant landowners, and America’s adherence to the Constitution, political parties, and law courts. Croly said, “The average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to serious and consistent conceptions of his responsibilities as a democrat,” and, “Democracy must stand or fall on a platform of possible human perfectibility…”

Progressivism [at that time] embraced conventional morality. As a movement, it pursued control over society’s unruly passions. Progressives sought restoration of America’s traditional promises by taming large corporations and major city political machines. Their expression of a social gospel led them to reduce class divisions by outlawing child labor and instituting an income tax. This progressive movement split between those who supported American involvement in WWI and the pro-German opponents of the war.

Bourne, the prophet of multiculturalism, called for southern and eastern European immigrants, not yet corrupted by capitalism, to create a “Trans-National America” to free the country from a puritanical Protestant culture.

Bourne wholeheartedly approved of French preparations for war with Germany. He also liked that Germany’s “war on squalor and ugliness was being waged on every hand,” because “taste is, after all, the only morality.” Bourne wrote, “The world, will never be safe until it has learned a high and brave materiality that will demand cleanliness, order, comfort, beauty, and welfare as the indispensable soil in which the virtues of mutual respect, intelligence, and good will may flourish.”

H. L. Mencken, critic of “Mr. Wilson’s War,” derided Prohibition, preachers, anti-evolutionists, and American democracy. He defined the American people as a “rabble of ignorant peasants.” Mencken was guided throughout his career by a sentiment from G. B. Shaw’s play Man and Superman, “we must eliminate the Yahoo, or his vote will wreck the Commonwealth…”

Both Mencken and Shaw exploited Western culture’s self-defeating vulnerability: its capacity for self-criticism. …Mencken advised Theodore Dreiser, “There can never be any compromise in future men of German blood and the common run of ‘good,’ ‘right thinking’ Americans. We must stand against them forever, and do what damage we can do to them, and to their tin-pot democracy.”

Mencken wrote three revealing articles for The Atlantic magazine. “The Mailed Fist and Its Prophet,” proclaiming Nietzsche’s “contemptuous of weakness” attitude as Germany’s inspiration. Mencken quoted Nietzsche, “the weak and the botched must perish… I tell you that a good war hallows every cause.” The second article exalted [German] General Erich Ludendorff as a hero. The third, never published essay—“After Germany’s Conquest of the United States”—advocated America’s rule by hard men of a superior Kultur…’

In this light, American liberalism of the early twentieth century, as distinct from classical liberalism of the nineteenth century, was driven by hatred of the common man, his morals, and his liberty. Those motives sound familiar, don’t they?

World Trade Buildings Across the Water, circa 1990, © Edgar de Evia. David McJonathan owns all rights, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic

World Trade Buildings Across the Water, circa 1990, © Edgar de Evia. David McJonathan owns all rights, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic

Bernhardt Writer is Adolphus’s older, more mature, and handsomer brother. He will contribute reviews, commentary, and essays from time to time. He has contributed anonymously and pseudonymously before on this blog. Please forbear him, he carries on sometimes.