One of the books I've been reading as background for the book I'm writing is Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counter-culture. Roszak may have been the one who coined that term. If he didn't, he certainly contributed to its widespread use. The book came out in 1969 and I recall reading it at the time and thinking it was pretty good, but I also was a bit dismissive or patronizing toward it, as the work of a liberal who didn't really understand the radicals he was analyzing. And when I started re-reading it a week or two ago I didn't expect much: platitudes, maybe, or naively optimistic and idealized impressions.
Well, I seem to have been wrong. It is a really fine book, and still very much worth reading in spite of the fact that much of it is specific to its time. I got about halfway through it earlier this week, then various other things got in the way and have prevented me from finishing it. I'm writing about it now because the coming week, being Holy Week, is going to be even busier, and I don't want to wait for two weeks because the book is really exciting.
Roszak is erudite, very intelligent, and very perceptive, or at least he was in this book. It's not just that he does in fact have a pretty good idea of what was going on with the hippie-radical youth culture of the '60s, but that he scoped out, correctly, that it was in essence a religious movement.
He is, unfortunately, wrong about the potential of the movement he describes to bring about the spiritual renewal which he very astutely sees as the fundamental problem of modern technocratic civilization. The movement proved to be just a sort of sect within what we broadly and clumsily call progressivism, secular humanism, and the like. I expect I'll have more to say about it in a couple of weeks.
I've also been reading a book called Turning the Tide by Earl H. Tilford. It's a history of the political changes at the University of Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s. Much of it is about the response of the university to the civil rights movement, and it's quite an interesting picture, revealing that the university administration was mostly on the side of desegregation, but had to navigate very carefully the sentiment of the state at large and Governor George Wallace in particular. I'm reading it because the last few chapters concern the student leftist movement of the late '60s and I wanted to refresh my memory about the events of 1969-70. There are some photos of student demonstrations. As far as I can tell I'm not in any of them, but I remember a couple of the occasions. In one photo, students hold signs proclaiming the imminence of fascism. Almost fifty years on, and student radicals, and many of those who were student radicals in my day, keep telling us it's coming, indeed here. It never arrives, and meanwhile many of the ideas they espouse, especially those having to do with sex, drive more and more of the machinery of society. Don't think for a moment that Donald Trump's weird presidency means the reversal of that trend.
I'm amused every time I hear an anti-Trump demonstrator say something along the lines of "We won't let him divide us." Way too late for that. Way too late.
Yesterday afternoon I spent a couple of hours watching two of my grandsons, ages 5 and almost 7, play on the bay shore with two little girls of their same age, daughters of a friend of their mother. It was a beautiful day, bright but not hot. The water is still too chilly for me to want to get in, but after a little hesitation the children went in and apparently got used to it. It was an almost idyllic afternoon, unmarred by any of the quarrels that often break out among children.
Their relatively innocent happiness is always beautiful to see, but it seems so fragile and vulnerable that, gloomy soul that I am, I can't help seeing a shadow from their future over them. I say relatively innocent because of course only someone who has never been around children can believe that they are not sometimes brutally selfish, dishonest, etc.--sinful, in short, often in ways so simple and transparent that they seem funny to adults better schooled in wickedness. This afternoon my wife and I were playing a game with the boys that involved putting a number of small items on a tray covered with a towel, taking away the towel and giving everybody a thirty-second look at the things, then covering them again and having everyone write down as many as they could remember. The younger boy looked under the towel before he was supposed to.
"Lucas, you're not supposed to see what's under there yet," I said.
"Right. You just lifted the towel and looked under it, but you didn't see anything?"
They may live fairly happy lives--I certainly hope and pray that they will--but even at best they are most likely going to suffer blows that they can't even imagine right now. I want desperately to protect them, but of course I can't. I found myself wondering, as I sometimes do, why God allows the world to go on and on with every child coming into the world bound, one way or another, to suffer a fair amount of pain, and in many cases an enormous amount of it. Is the sweetness of days like this worth it--whatever "worth it" might mean: how could we ever make that calculation? I found myself thinking of Ecclesiastes:
So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.
Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.
Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.
But that is a form of weakness. Either God (assuming he exists) is the cruel deity some make him out to be, or he is both more tender and more strong than we can imagine, and is teaching us strength, among many other things--to be like him in that way as in others. So while the children ran back and forth across the beach, in and out of the water, I prayed the Divine Mercy litany, counting the prayers on my fingers since I didn't have my rosary in my pocket, as I generally do. I had left it at the house because I figured I would end up in the water at some point, which I did, wading out with the littlest girl, who wanted to go in but was afraid to without a grown-up hand to hold.
It is worth it. I suppose I've had about the average amount of pain in my life, and I certainly would not want not to have lived.
I couldn't remember exactly where that sentiment from Ecclesiastes was found, so I Googled "better not to have been born." Among other things I found a book called Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. It's apparently a quite serious case for the minimization of harm as a rationale for the human race to voluntarily cease existing.
David Benatar argues that coming into existence is always a serious harm. Although the good things in one's life make one's life go better than it otherwise would have gone, one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed. Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence.... The author then argues for the 'anti-natal' view---that it is always wrong to have children---and he shows that combining the anti-natal view with common pro-choice views about foetal moral status yield a "pro-death" view about abortion (at the earlier stages of gestation). Anti-natalism also implies that it would be better if humanity became extinct. Although counter-intuitive for many, that implication is defended, not least by showing that it solves many conundrums of moral theory about population.
Nothing like that sort of thing to snap me out of my morose thinking. There are some ideas that should just be rejected on contact, spat out as soon as tasted, or rejected without being tasted because they stink. David Benatar is "currently Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at the University of Cape Town, South Africa," according to the book's entry on Amazon.
Amid all the talk of the "Benedict Option," it occurs to me that even more fundamentally what many, even many Christians, require right now is the Puddleglum Option. You remember Puddleglum, the gloomy but faithful marsh-dweller in C.S. Lewis's The Silver Chair? In order to keep himself, Eustace, and Lucy from falling completely under the spell of the Queen of Underland who is convincing them that the outside world does not exist, Puddleglum stamps on her enchanted fire with his bare foot, and the pain helps to break the spell. It is becoming an act of deliberate resistance in our culture to insist on certain fundamental realities.
I always like--well, maybe like is the wrong word--I always find very meaningful the reading of the Passion narratives on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, because the congregation is usually assigned the words of the crowd. None of us can be sure that we would not have been among those crying "Crucify him!"