February 15, 2008

I, Telemakhos

By: Michael Fainelli

You would be lucky to find one good mentor in a whole lifetime. Mentorship, unlike parentage, is not a necessary result of nature’s power over human affairs. It occurs only among highly civilized people. This “mental” connection begins with a rare spirit of trust between old and young in which guidance given is guidance received. For an elder to gain that trust, he requires a fair amount of art; it could happen in the classroom, but also over a bottle of wine. This is not a relationship for throwing around authority, like master chef to apprentice cook (Do this! Do that!). We’re talking about the transmission of wisdom through speech, inflected by a compliment here, a suggestion there. You need to find someone with good timing and a grasp on reality, but also a sensitivity to your dreams. The conversations require a capacity on both sides for balanced thought, since the goal is to acclimate the concerns of the young to the lessons of age — the passions to the virtues, as it were. Let’s face it: This is not an easy relationship to establish or maintain, but it is worth pursuing. Under the right circumstances the mentee can gain knowledge of his destiny. Furthermore, the future of civilization at least partly depends on one’s success in finding a good mentor and one’s ability to mentor in turn.

I admit to being of an age when the right mentor could make an important difference. So I was delighted to hear about a new series from Basic Books called “the art of mentoring.” Each volume is a collection of letters addressed to an artificial persona representing the novice in the author’s field of expertise. The three I have read reflect my own aspirations: Letters to a Young Conservative by Dinesh D’Souza, Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens, and Letters to a Young Catholic by George Weigel. The titles derive, of course, from Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke, who was corresponding with one Franz Xavier Kappus, a student who did not become a poet, but went on to a military career and published the letters after Rilke’s death.

My purpose in this investigation was not only to discover guidance for myself, but to consider the contribution of each author to the art of mentoring.

The art of mentoring has its origins in the first book of Homer’s Odyssey. Athena takes the form of a mortal named Mentor and appears before Odysseus’s son, Telemakhos. As you may recall, Telemakhos is at home, “sad at heart,” pining for his father to return, worrying about the abuse of the suitors, as they loaf around the dining room, while his mother upstairs is falling to pieces. After a few words with Mentor, Telemakhos leaps into action, setting sail for news of his father and putting into motion the events that lead to the demise of the suitors.

In this remarkable transformation, mentoring reverses not the principles of the adolescent, but the habits of mind that prevent heroic action. Long before Athena appears, Telemakhos has some inkling of his own ambition, which is to scatter if not destroy the suitors, but the inertia brought on by his mood leaves him unable to lift a finger. He allows himself to break down, to give into visions of his father’s doom every time the suitors offend the house. But listening to Athena, Telemakhos realizes he must overcome his melancholy. As his confused emotions are exposed to divine rhetoric, they cease to be handicaps and begin to take the form of manly virtues. Telemakhos comes to see the slaughter of the suitors by his own hands as inevitable. His statement to Penelope that “mine is the authority in this house” is a rebuke to the moral disorder of which he has been made freshly aware. The boy of eighteen, who’d been trembling weakly at the sight of his own mother’s slide towards adultery, boldly assumes his father’s mantle. A clear path of duty emerges, with vengeance as its end.

It is no accident that Homer places Mentor’s words in the mouth of a goddess, for to animate the destiny of this young man is to unite him with the divine order. Athena does not merely pass on some helpful advice, she helps a confused mind discover its greatest potential, in communion with the fury of the Gods, the laws of the kingdom, and the customs of family.

Alas, if only we all had a flashing-eyed Athena by our side! The achievement of the goddess is all the more spectacular from the perspective of our plural democracy, which, alas, is always frowning on such violent assertions of justice, order, and tradition, not only in politics and home life, but even in one’s self.

The contemporary mentor has a tough row to hoe. He or she must transpose the epic dimensions of Homeric rhetoric to a country and a period far removed from that in which the original moral framework was articulated. One way to accomplish this in prose is to intermingle scenes, characters, villains, and plot–that is, by telling a story. Also, the mentor, long before giving any advice, has to help the reader conceive of himself as beset with a crisis of heroic implication.

Dinesh D’Souza grasps the rhetorical problem, for his Letters to a Young Conservative handles public policy questions in the context of a dramatic self-portrait. From his immigration to the United States (he was raised in Bombay, India), to his coming of age as a writer for the Dartmouth Review, to his part in the culture wars, life unfolds in a way that reflects our national story, in which the conservatives are aligned in battle against the corrupting influence of sixties radicals.

The book opens with an anecdote about the scene at Columbia University when D’Souza gave a speech there. It was supposed to be a night for exchanging ideas, but the mob had filled the high halls of learning with the usual shouting, gesticulating, sign-waving, chanting, and so forth. “As I made my way through the demonstrators,” writes D’Souza, “behind heavy security, I gave the protestors the thumbs-up signal and told them, ‘Fight on, brothers and sisters.’ This only seemed to make them angrier. One of them yelled, ‘You’ll be lucky to get out of here alive!'”

Like the suitors of Penelope, these ruffians appear at the beginning of the narrative. By their repulsive hygiene and manners, they help to establish the line that distinguishes right from wrong as the same one that distinguishes conservatives from liberals. (Quibble, if you must, with this idea; rhetorically, it is sound strategy.) D’Souza extends this line throughout American society and throughout his own life, always showing the folly, meanness, and smugness of the liberal position. Thus, the indictment against the protesters delivers a hidden blow to more elusive opponents in later chapters, the postmodernists, the feminists, the left-wing professors, the media, liberal judges.

No skirmish in this book is separate from the larger culture war. Just as Athena persuades Telemakhos of the divine sanction on action against the suitors, D’Souza invokes the themes sacred to American history against liberals. He magnifies the contemporary conservative cause to a national and historic dimension that would stir the blood of anyone more alive than dead. The conservatives are defenders of the western tradition. They are also the authentic heirs of classical liberalism, as opposed to Sixties “liberalism,” and their positions on abortion, gun control, and lower taxes trace back to the Founding Fathers while the positions of their opponents trace back to the philosophy of Rousseau. Thus does D’Souza make it seem that all the great edifices of left-leaning policy are ready to fall out at the push of a finger.

Central to the book’s spirit is the author’s portrait of himself as a cowboy intellectual. In one story, D’Souza goes undercover, during the darkest hours of multiculturalism, to expose his enemies:

“I was young and could masquerade as a student; and I was a person of ‘color’ and could masquerade as a radical. No sooner did I walk into radical meetings at campuses such as Berkeley and Harvard than the minority activists drew me into their confidence. Their attitude was, ‘Welcome, brother. Let us show you the blueprints of our revolution.'”

Note the lyric spell cast by the rhythms of the prose, wry and full of wonder. Frequent though the autobiographical passages in these letters may be, they rarely flirt with vanity; anecdotes about the Dartmouth Review for instance, carry a sparkle of romance and adventure that continues to burn brightly in the later discussions of policy. By living a unified life, D’Souza has achieved something like the epic grandeur of Greek heroism. So we are compelled to cheer when, at the age of twenty-six, he is hired as a “senior domestic policy analyst” in the Reagan White House. The political beliefs, the personal progress, the collapse of communism, and the history of ideas are inextricably bound in the spectacular story of the American dream. Moreover, the recurring theme of liberal rudeness and dishevelment contributes to the impression that conservatism is not only true, but the redoubt of civilization, the last place in the polity where a sensitive young boy from Bombay can find a home.

D’Souza makes the aesthetic superiority of conservatism felt in the dedication to and portrait of Jeffrey Hart, a professor of English and senior editor of the Dartmouth Review, whose “joie de vivre” and “outrageous” sense of humor won D’Souza over to the paper.

“I remember some of those early dinners at the Hart farmhouse,” he writes. “We drank South American wine and listened to recordings of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald…. There was an ethos here, and a sensibility, and it conveyed to me something about conservatism that I had never suspected. Here was a conservatism that was alive; that was engaged with art, music, and literature; that was at the same time ironic, lighthearted, and fun.”

The association between the politics and personality of Hart ennobles the conservative agenda as a quest for a finer realm of beauty, truth, friendship, and hospitality. D’Souza’s chief plea to the young conservative is for him to study a great writer like Plato or Rousseau. “That will get you started on what, I assure you, will be the most exhilarating and long-lasting adventure of your life.” In attempting to unite the passions of youth to the noble and beautiful pursuits of life, Letters to a Young Conservative transcends partisanship and becomes a work of art. Even if D’Souza’s passing comments on ancient Greece or Rousseau or Stanley Fish tend to be breezy, his obvious respect for these sources should help nudge the next-generation reader into the wider world of ideas.

If the first task of the mentor is to portray a crisis, one assumes that a writer like Christopher Hitchens should easily rise to the occasion. For decades now, the manqué socialist, widely regarded as the finest polemicist in the English language, has been protesting one thing or another. In the year 2001, he distinguished himself with a Philippic against Henry Kissinger, calling the architect of détente a war criminal; more recently the former Nation columnist has joined forces with the prowar right in its efforts against the forces of terror and Islamofascism.

Despite his fame and acknowledged gifts, Hitchens seems bewildered that anyone with hopes of “changing the world for the better” should take him as a hero. He admits to feelings of “flattery” and “embarrassment,” arising from the invitation to write this book, but ultimately he consented, he says, because his students thought “it might be worth while, or at least potentially amusing.” So this mentor takes cues from his students? What debilitates the mentorship in these crucial introductory pages is not, however, that Hitchens stoops to explain his banal motives for writing, but that he reveals too much self-doubt and even a certain ticklishness before the serious work at hand. Instead of putting the reader at odds with the enemy, Ole Hitch puts himself at odds with the young person in need of self-knowledge and encouragement.

Hitchens also seems to have trouble figuring out what contrarianism stands for. There is a meditation on whether he would rather be called a dissenter, a freethinker, a maverick, a rebel, a … the rest of the words may be looked up in the thesaurus. The closest thing to a definition of his principles is held till the end of the book.

“The high ambition, therefore, seems to me to be this: That one should strive to combine the maximum of impatience with the maximum of skepticism, the maximum of hatred of injustice and irrationality with the maximum of ironic self-criticism.”

I said closest thing to a definition of principles, because these are attitudes, not principles. These “maximum” states of mind can be leveraged in support of positions to which Hitchens is resolutely opposed. And presumably this is a clash which Hitchens would welcome, since he deplores “the mediocrity of consensus” and believes that human communities thrive on conflict. No strife, no life, as it were.

Antagonism, Hitchens observes, shocks people from the thoughtless current of the times. In the Dreyfus Affair–a favorite example of his–Emile Zola successfully implored the French public to question their own anti-Semitism. In Zola’s case, the roles of the virtuous man and the contrarian coincided, which they sometimes do, though not always. The Nazis, too, also got their start as contrarians. Would Hitchens have joined the Brownshirts, then switched sides in time to fight with his heroes in the French resistance? To the contrarian temperament, the switch would seem to offer the best of both worlds. Why side with the majority, when you can attack conventional wisdom with the radicals? By exalting the emotional payoff that comes of a certain intellectual pose, rather than the philosophical journey that promises truth, contrarianism degrades ideas to the level of individual desire. I believe that Hitchens hesitates on every point of advice because there are no principles that stand up to the caprice of the contrarian mind.

The contradictions deep within his logic explain why Hitchens cannot decide whether to give advice with his usual fury or to apologize for his convictions. He is outraged by the Christians, Bill Clinton, Slobodan Milosevic, Henry Kissinger, anti-Semites, the New York Times, and so on, but he hesitates to deliver a coherent philosophy of opposition. More pitifully, his prose is such an odd mixture of spitfire and rambling and expensive words that the reader’s doubts about this harassed and solitary man always mount in proportion to his effort.

Even in those sections where Hitchens argues for a fixed position, he fails to cover elementary points. His particular brand of atheism is incredibly narrow. No matter where he travels on planet Earth, he is trapped in a little province where the religious, the racists, and the Fascists are conspiring to bring down secular democracy and free thought. No matter whom he talks to, no matter what culture or century he addresses, the same characters keep coming up. Dante Alighieri is a “sectarian and a mystic,” presumably along with all Florentines of the Golden Age. Martin Luther is also “one of those types.” The jihadists are also “gaunt and sectarian and fundamentalist types.” So the greatest poet of the Italian language and the Islamic radicals who aim to destroy Western civilization are really all members of the same wicked band?

While offering believers little but his contempt, Hitchens sets aside nothing for what questions and difficulties might bedevil the young atheist. Nothing except more of the same dismissiveness of faith. He scorns the concept of heaven from an Orwellian angle, saying the faithful accept “a cradle-to-grave divine supervision; a permanent surveillance and monitoring. But I cannot imagine anything more horrible or grotesque.” Elsewhere he writes that “solitude must be welcomed rather than feared.” But if it is the case that solitude can cause fear, why can’t he stretch his imagination to appreciate the appeal of divine presence in times of loneliness? Can he really imagine nothing “more grotesque?” But don’t expect Hitchens to answer this question or even be aware of it; the strands of his thought are loose in the pages and the burden of uniting them is left to the reader.

The contradiction between Hitchens’s role as a mentor and his hatred of too-perfect models reaches a climax in his account of his participation in the Balkans war. Hitchens arrived on the scene of that conflict in 1992 with other internationalists like Susan Sontag because it seemed like Slobodan Milosevic was the next Hitler. Hitchens’s account of the conflict is scant (“I haven’t got the space to tell the full story here.”), but he does have space for copious analogues to the threat of fascism. If there is one example in his life worthy of imitation, he says, this is it. But then again, maybe not. Hitchens admits there was something “ridiculous,” “slightly sinister,” and “slightly farcical” about “joining forces with the Serbs,” but “in the result, it’s the moment in my life of which I am most proud.”

What were those results? He avoids tarrying on the specifics, because “I have written about this as much as I can elsewhere and won’t inflict the whole narrative upon you. (However you should get and read Joe Sacco’s cartoon-history Safe Area Gorazde, to which I was honored to contribute an introduction.)” What this statement reveals, besides an ill-timed plug for a picture book, is a staggering narrative evasion passed off as an act of politeness.

Let’s take another look at the Balkans milieu Hitchens looks back on so proudly, for history has not been kind to his sometime allies. Hitchens admits “there were a few gaunt and sectarian and fundamentalist types on the scene, and there were some gangsterism and corruption too.” Shortly after Letters To a Young Contrarian was published in October 2001, it became clear that those “fundamentalist types” were the mujahedeen fighters streaming into the former Yugoslavia from all points hateful in the Arab world. Later these camps were frequented by bin Laden and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the architect of the terrorist attacks against America. One wonders whether those guys with “gaunt” faces were 9/11 hijackers. One wonders if “some gangsterism” refers to the growth of heroin-trafficking in the Balkans that channeled billions into al Qaeda coffers in the ’90s.

Hitchens is fond of relentless self-scrutiny, but he manages to say very little in this cryptic account and concludes with an enduring nugget of wisdom he has culled from collaboration with our nation’s enemies.

“Do not worry too much about who your friends are, or what company you may be keeping. Any cause worth fighting for will attract a plethora of people…. Those who try to condemn or embarrass you by the company you keep will usually be found to be in very poor company themselves.”

To speak in the spirit of contrarianism, this vague and fatuous remark reveals the workings of a naive and selfish mind. Hitchens has tirelessly attacked Mother Teresa for her association with Haitian dictator Jean Claude Duvalier, but for all the talk about candor he cowers to mention who he went to war with. It is now intelligible, but no less astonishing, that Hitchens who at the outset admits he is no model, goes ahead and writes a book replete with dangerous and hypocritical advice. Granted, the general chaos of his thought and prose may be the result of a habitual inability to sit still. For if he follows his injunction for a “maximum of impatience” better than a “maximum of self-scrutiny” we should not be surprised that his sentences connect to little that is higher than the famously Anglo tone of implied wit.

I expected greatness from George Weigel’s book because the angel on the dust jacket comes from a beautiful painting by Fra Angelico. This choice reflects well on the taste and modesty–the other covers have photos of their authors–of Weigel, a biographer of Pope John Paul II and a syndicated columnist on Catholic matters. At the risk of repeating material found in the Catholic apologists, Weigel should have been ready to address the controversies about abortion, pedophilia, the male priesthood, birth control, the separation of church and state, and the sanctity of marriage–in short the questions that dominate the national conversation about Catholicism. Because the Church has a lot of enemies, the mentoring role bears a lot of similarities to the crisis of Telemakhos in The Odyssey. Weigel writes frequently of a need for “spiritual grandeur and moral heroism,” a phrase that invites comparison with Homeric Greece.

Instead Weigel focuses this book on a trip he took around the world, visiting sites of Catholic interest: The Scavi of St. Peter’s, Mount Sinai, the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, Chesterton’s Pub, etc. Each chapter tours the famous sight and weaves in a theological point, perhaps an anecdote from Weigel’s life, a literary or historical observation, and a word of spiritual advice. Now and then, there is a word on the hottest questions, but nothing deep. Weigel’s reminder of the Church’s position on contraceptives offers next to no explanation. The teaching, he writes, “deserves something better than ridicule; it deserves to be engaged thoughtfully, as does the experience of tens of thousands of couples who have found their marriages enriched by natural family planning.” And that is all he says.

Weigel distances himself from his audience by opening the book with reminiscences about his childhood in Baltimore during “the last moment of intact Catholic culture in the United States.” This is the sort of neighborhood that gives the word “parochial” a negative connotation. There were petty rivalries between the parishes and actual skirmishes with the Protestants. Weigel seems proud to have lived in a “ghetto,” isolated from the major channels of American culture and even prouder that the Protestants found all this “incomprehensible.” It is also incomprehensible, unfortunately, to anyone who didn’t live in Baltimore during the 1950s. Weigel does not seem to understand that the Church will fail to attract the next generation as long as it remains a harbor for the ethnic narcissism of Polish, Irish, and Italian ghettos.

The one place where the travel mixes well with theology is Castle Howard, in Yorkshire, England, where Brideshead Revisited was filmed. The BBC miniseries based on Evelyn Waugh’s famous novel suits the rhetorical purposes of mentoring because it furnishes Weigel with an opportunity to comment on the virtues and vices of characters fully rendered for all to see. He describes the story of Charles Ryder as “a climb up the sometimes steep ladder of Love” in which the hungry heart “grows from lesser affections to harder, yet truer loves.”

Weigel ends his letters with an anecdote that should have appeared at the beginning, as it might have helped define the themes of his book. When Rome was the host city for World Youth Day in the year 2000, the Italian press could not help comparing the throngs of young people who went to see the Pope with the young crowds heading for the beaches of Rimini. For Weigel, this divide illustrates a choice for all young people between the “culture of life,” and the culture of “debonair nihilism,” the easygoing attitude that doesn’t raise an eyebrow at promiscuity. But what exactly is wrong with promiscuity is not apparent, aside from Weigel’s horror at “Western Europe’s catastrophically low birth rates” and a few words about “nihilism.” Weigel scarcely begins to identify the many arguments against Catholicism floating in the air. In the end, his dispatches of world travel get in the way of true mentoring.

Michael Fainelli divides his time between New York City and Florence. He is working on his first book, a novel about the meaning of love.

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