Friday, December 25, 2015

`Blown by the Century into Chaos'

Without mentioning Christmas, Eva Brann distills its spirit in eleven words: “If you love a child, the horrors of history come alive.” Becoming a mother or father changes everything, or ought to, especially in an age like ours. Suddenly we are vulnerable in a new and absolute way, for this is a world in which many revel in the murder of children. Selfishness is no longer an option. Petty sacrifices and irritations are not ignored but happily embraced. Elsewhere in Open Secrets / Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul (Paul Dry Books, 2004), Brann writes, contrary to the technological utopia we are said to inhabit: 

“They have to go more miles to walk in nature. Traditions of authority being gone, their relations to adults are too personal. They live in an environment making for a fragmented and frantic sensibility. Their natural docility is frustrated by premature freedom. Their sense of rights turns desires into demands. Their relations to the opposite sex are at once too immediate and too denatured by new social constraints. They see principles of conduct turned into calculi of convenience. They have the high-tech means for miraculously broad and speedy communication, but their expressive capacities are stunted.” 

In Witness (1952), Whittaker Chambers describes his final meeting with Alger Hiss, shortly before Christmas 1938. Chambers had left the Communist Party earlier that year, and he and his family are alone, poor and afraid. He tells Hiss he expects Christmas to be bleak. But a sort of miracle occurs: 

“My mother came to spend the holidays with us and with her the spirit of Christmas entered the house. Our friends, everybody who knew about us, and by then such people were more numerous, seemed to have had the children in mind too. Presents for them began to arrive by mail. On Christmas Eve, we heaped them under the tree, which glittered with the ornaments of my childhood Christmases, fragile birds, spikes, horns, bunches of grapes, now practically unobtainable because the only people who really know how to blow them, the Germans, have been blown by the century into chaos.” 

It is Chambers’ son’s first Christmas, “the first in which he was old enough to take a conscious part.” Here is the scene, one familiar to many of us: “He padded downstairs early on Christmas morning and stopped short before the tree. But it was not the tree that had stopped him. His grandmother had given him a gaily painted wagon filled with big, bright-colored wooden blocks. It stood unwrapped under the tree. He simply stared at it. We smiled encouragement to him. `For me?’ he asked incredulous. For, in the presence of such benefaction, the act of belief was too much for him.” 

Chambers has made the most momentous decision of his life, and now he must live with its repercussions. It feels like his first Christmas, too, and he tells his children the Christmas story: “Bethlehem, I told them, is our hearts.”

1 comment:

Nige said...

A beautiful post - happy Christmas Patrick!