I have lately witnessed some of the strongest Catholics I know shaken deeply by the visage of a society driving headlong into unnecessary strife and madness, and I would be lying if I did not number myself among them. This has pushed many toward conversations about the so-called “Benedict Option” and what types of withdrawal from society could be effective and sanctifying. Whatever your take on this, we should not forget that in the content of the great works of culture, we still have the luxury of a miniature Benedict Option. Turning off the body count (er, nightly news), muting social media, and engaging your mind in the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness in the written word may indeed be one of the most counter-cultural — let alone centering and strengthening — activities currently available to us.
In this spirit, we offer brief reviews of several somewhat recent works that may provide comfort, strength, and guidance to the beleaguered forces of good:
Released by TAN books, the prolific Deal W. Hudson’s How to Keep from Losing Your Mind seems tailor-made for our own uncertain times. Hudson’s latest tome is both a primer in Western culture and a ringing cultural criticism, able to reach for the heights while remaining immanently accessible at the same time. Many commentaries on classical culture have difficulty reaching beyond an already learned audience. What Hudson instead does is give a realistic view of the value of classical and Western culture, while demonstrating profound links between his suggested works and his take on modern culture. His work advocates for classical education well into adult life, though it is no starry-eyed endorsement of pursuits. Indeed, Deal reminds his readers:
The ovens of Auschwitz were designed and often administered by highly educated men who read Goethe and listened to Bach in the evening after their day’s work. Highly educated men and women have committed some of history’s greatest crimes. It would not be difficult to compile a long list of men and women who read the ancients in both Greek and Latin but became traitors, sadists, torturers, thieves, and murderers. Both Lenin and Stalin had classical educations[.]
So what value does a classical orientation or education ultimately have for Deal Hudson, and how does one pursue it beneficially? That alone is reason to pick up the text. Also much appreciated is Hudson’s inclusion of great film and the musical canon into his examination of the Western intellectual and cultural patrimony, including modern works capable of captivating modern ears.
If good fiction can provide a needed escape or diversion, great fiction can be edifying in the process. T.M. Doran is one of the bright lights in modern fiction, even before we give him the label of a “Catholic” author. His recent release The Lucifer Ego is a smaller-batch sequel to his Toward the Gleam, the latter being one of the best modern tales you’ll read anywhere. Toward the Gleam accomplishes the near impossible: a story about JRR Tolkien and the writing of The Lord of the Rings that brings a stunning immediacy to the protagonist in this appropriately alternate take on reality. In Doran’s telling, a young Tolkien stumbles across an ancient text of amazing power that also tells the story of an astounding prehistory; this artifact leads Tolkien on a harrowing adventure that precedes the ultimate writing of his own magnum opus. It doesn’t sound as though it should work as a story, but it succeeds in spades. If Toward the Gleam is that Catholic novel that you can enthusiastically gift to the non-Catholics and doubters on your list, The Lucifer Ego is a “whodunit”-style continuation of the tale of the ancient artifact in modern times. Both works are thoughtful as well as entertaining and will only grow your appreciation for Tolkien’s own work.
If there is one area that has suffered even more than music literacy among Catholics, it is poetic knowledge. Enter Anthony Esolen: a scholar and artist of rare form, an accomplished man of letters, an incisive social commentator, and — as The Hundredfold demonstrates — also a poet of great ability. The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord is modern culture at its absolute highest, a moving work whose words both haunt and soothe long after they are read.
While at times Esolen dances in prose of great beauty and consolation, at other times, his words cut to the bone, such as when he writes:
Another king who knows not Joseph reigns,
Or rather many a devilish little mite,
Thick as a cloud of locusts on the plains,
Or frogs defiling everything in sight,
Mingling their slime with what was once good food;
Darkness descends, babes in the womb are slain,
Boils on the heart burst out and clot the blood,
And lice like nettles tickle in the brain.
Moses is smothered, and a golden calf
Is all men worship in their fickle way;
Women go mad, and men not men by half
Fall to their knees to lick the filth and draff
Of the hellhounds they heedlessly obey:
Men without chest who make bricks without clay.
In reading Esolen’s poetry in our own times, one feels that one has met a friend who is both saner and smarter than himself and sees the very same growing desolation that haunts one’s own perspective. Like all great poetry, it also succeeds because it reminds the reader that authentic culture, history, and the Church are ever striving to build bridges over the tumult of our times. To plug in to such words is to plug in to reality, and ultimately to draw strength from the continuation of the pursuit of goodness. Esolen brings us such a modern effort, and it deserves wide reading.
While not a Catholic work, Vladimir Bukovsky’s Judgment in Moscow is an invaluable text in times of near social revolution and Marxist-styled uprisings. Bukovsky — who died in October 2019 — was a famous Soviet dissident of the Solzhenitsyn vein who was imprisoned during the 1970s for his bold opposition to communist tyranny. He was also famous for his advocacy of a Nuremberg-style trial to deal with the atrocities of communism. After escaping to the West and the later fall of the Soviet Union, he was eventually invited back to Russia by the government of Boris Yeltsin to serve as a trial witness in a dispute between the new democratic government and the remains of the Soviet party. He was at that time granted access to Soviet archives to prepare his testimony, during which time he scanned and smuggled out many pages of secret KGB and government archival documents. These documents, published under the aforementioned title, lifted the veil on the secret machinations of the Red machine. After years of access in Europe, this edition marks the first complete English translation of this archival witness. Within is officially documented everything from which Western entities were open sympathizers and collaborators (including one American president), the funding of Western liberal movements for Soviet gain, the co-opting of Western psychologists and scholars, the prediction of a much desired European Union movement, the inside story on why the Soviets allowed eastern European rebellions (such as Poland’s Solidarity movement) to continue, a word on the assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II, and a complete obliteration of any view of Gorbachev as a Western-minded reformer. Also prominently on display is the banality of evil, expressed in the recorded words of the perpetrators themselves. At times one is struck by how easily the Soviets co-opted fools in the West to their gain, while at other times one is shocked that such bumbling fools were capable of sustaining an evil empire for even a few weeks. It is all fascinating stuff.
In our own time, Bukovsky’s worst fear — that of the “integration of the monster” of communism into our own systems and ways of thinking — is happening, which makes Judgment in Moscow in invaluable witness. His “Nuremberg for communism” may never occur, but the historical record deserves to be known. Here, it is presented in the words of the perpetrators themselves.
Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a scholar and composer whose music has been performed internationally and released on the Gramophone-praised Naxos Records album, “Blood, Forgotten.” His writings on Catholicism, music, aesthetics, and music technology appear in numerous publications regularly, while he also maintains an active schedule as a composer and professor of music. A proud native of Chicago, he currently lives with his wife and three children in Ohio.