Saturday, July 21, 2018

Michael Harrington's America

My high school in St. Louis had humble beginnings 200 years ago but has produced many remarkable graduates, other than myself!

The "St. Louis Academy for Young Gentlemen" was founded in 1818 and soon became St. Louis College, then in 1832, St. Louis University, the first university west of the Mississippi, with the first medical school and law school in the area.  I spent eight years at the university in various capacities as well as four years at the affiliated Jesuit preparatory school.  What I learned there has been the foundation of my personal and professional life.

I was reminded of the outstanding record of achievement at St. Louis U. High this week in a New Yorker article by David Remnick, "Left Wing of the Possible," a quote from Michael Harrington, class of '44.  Harrington, who became a leading socialist, author, professor and public intellectual, wrote "The Other America."  Remnick shows how this best-selling study of poverty in America caught the attention of President Kennedy in 1963 and led him to begin what would be completed by his successor: the war on poverty, including Medicare, Medicaid, and expanded social security benefits. As a result of this action by the Democratic leadership, poverty declined from 22% in 1959 to 11% in 1973.

Although Harrington, who moved on from St. Louis to the University of Chicago and the Yale Law School, drifted from his Catholic faith, he remained, like many others, a Catholic in spirit.  He was inspired by his Jesuit schooling to be concerned with the common good, with social justice--in marked contrast to the prevailing political climate of recent years, where even most liberal-moderates are indebted to corporations, big money, and self-interest.

Despite his radical allegiances, Harrington was valued by the Kennedys and deserves to be remembered for having had an impact on liberal public policy. I can easily imagine what he might say about today's polarized political arena, which marginalizes the poor and needy, ignores the common good,  and seems determined to undo all of the social progress made prior to January, 2017.

I am proud to be a graduate of the same distinguished school that produced Michael Harrington

Friday, July 6, 2018

Roth, Tolstoi, and the Meaning of Life

The recent death of Philip Roth has led me to read more of his fiction in an attempt to see why many have called him America's greatest writer.   Indignation and the short novel Everyman show him to be a masterful storyteller who is able to combine humor with pathos; the latter work has an amazing narrative economy, giving us a life story of its nameless protagonist in 180 pages.

But this late fiction is grim, not merely because it shows that "old age is a massacre," a depressing battle zone of pain, medication, and suffering. But because of its bleak view of life as essentially pointless.

Fiction, it is often said, reveals the truth in profound, human terms beyond the ability of philosophers. And what truth, what insight comes to Roth's alter-ego, his aging protagonist as he reviews his troubled life and looks toward death? Gazing at the ocean he has always loved, the narrator is depressed, thinking that life "has been given to him, as to all, randomly, fortuitously, and but once, and for no known or knowable reason."

He is unable to feel gratitude for this unique, random gift of life--and for all the good things in the present moment. Beyond the ongoing, ceaseless misery of life, he is unable to see any value and beauty in each day or in the people in his life.

As I completed Everyman, I thought of another similar but much greater novella: "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Tolstoi, in which the dying main character moves from a self-directed darkness of despair to the light of gratitude.  He sees in loving, in being loved and cared for, enough reason for his existence.   As Ivan's body dies, his soul comes alive in a mysterious way, and he is no longer tormented by the nihilism that dominates Roth's character.

Human life, Tolstoi suggests, is not pointless after all, even amid the bitterness of isolation and the pain and suffering because Ivan has at last found a "knowable reason" for having lived. The tragedy is that this insight comes so late; but for Tolstoi, and the reader, the point is that the redemptive insight has come. Ivan does not go grimly, hopelessly into the oblivion of death.  He has known love.

You might think that Tolstoi has written a religious story with Christian overtones. Perhaps.  The author's intentions here are not that simple. But there is a depth--call it spirituality if you wish--and a mystery to his dying character that Roth's strictly materialistic character lacks. To me, at least, his story remains ordinary, rooted in postmodern pessimism, whereas Tolstoi's "everyman" story remains profound and profoundly moving.