"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, January 5, 2020

A Life Of Good Causes–A Good Yale Education All For Naught

August Brown was an English major at Yale.  He was so Influenced by the genius of Harold Bloom that he took all his classes, read  his books and all  his many critical reviews of Romantic poetry and Shakespeare, and became what was then known  as ‘A Bloomie’, an undergraduate groupie impossibly enamored of Bloom’s unremitting academic analysis, parsing of every line of Tyger, Tyger, the short, metaphorical poem of William Blake that could be read in minutes, but in the hands of The Great Man requiring half a semester of exegesis, Biblical and mythological references, linguistic disaggregation, and disquisitions on poetic lyricism.  August went around campus looking as much like Bloom as he could (August was a bit jowly in those days, even for a 20-year old) - slumped, dressed in rumpled J Press tweed jackets and baggy gabardines, and used phrases such as ‘not unlike’ and ‘adumbration’.

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Perhaps because he had grown up in a strict Calvinist home and because of the Biblical injunctions of his father, Minister Emeritus of the Brentwood Presbyterian Church in Long Island City, or because he was simply drawn to charismatic men, August changed allegiances, and in his first year of graduate school in the Midwest, became enamored with the Reverend Charles Baker Miller, chaplain of the University, progressive activist, and soulmate of Saul Alinsky.  Miller was unlike Bloom and in fact the two men could not have been farther apart in attitude, intellectual interests, and philosophy.  Whereas Bloom was quite happy in explicating complex literary texts and exploring the minds of the men who wrote them, Miller was obsessed by the real world, one which in his mind had become more deformed than ever by violence, war, capitalist greed, and racial injustice. “The United States”, he wrote in Unitarian journal, “has become a sinkhole of venality, a craven, misshapen, grotesquely immoral state that has no parallels in world history”.

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He went on to detail his concerns – the corruption of Wall Street and the rise of predatory investment banks; the mindless and soul-deadening culture of Hollywood; and the frightening rise of political conservatism, which had just begun to show its ugly head in William F Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, a scathing attack on the liberal infestation of academia, its attack on religion and conservative social values, and the importance of radical traditional reform.  Buckley who had been at Yale a number of years before August, was of the same generation of the Rev. Miller, and in fact the two had squared off at a public debate at the Penn Conservative Union.  Miller had already become well-known for his active participation in progressive causes, but it was the encounter with Buckley, '”that arrogant, self-serving prick” that energized him; and after that he threw himself completely and absolutely into social revolution.  It was at this apogee of crisis and commitment that August gave up the New Criticism for the New Society.

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The combination of his father’s Calvinist fundamentalism which taught that Right and Wrong could never be debated (“The only grey areas in life are the stains on your trousers”) and Right would always prevail; August’s natural tendency to follow others’ leads, his almost childlike love and admiration for what he considered Great Men, and his surprising fascination with C.S. Lewis, writer of The Chronicles of Narnia, and influential lay theologian who through his children’s stories preached about God was a powerful force in shaping the young August Brown.  Of all the major influences in August Brown’s life, Lewis was perhaps the most important.  Although he claimed that it was for Lewis’ religious messages that he read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it was really for the childlike delight he got from innocent fantasy.; and much later in his life he credited Lewis for his unflappable idealism.

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So the guru-chela relationship between August Brown and the Reverend Miller began, and true to the spirit of the spiritual relationship between Hindu teacher and disciple, Brown became Miller’s trusted aide.  He arranged meetings for him, made him coffee, drove him from place to place, and took care of his children.  In return, Brown got brilliance, energy, and an unwavering commitment to doing good. Miller was so energetic in fact that he could hardly keep up with his attendance schedule at civil rights and peace gatherings, protests against the virulent plague of capitalism, and increasingly demands for equal justice for women and homosexuals.  He literally ran from here to there with August Brown holding his overcoat and umbrella, making quick stops for coffee and donuts, and then rallying one crowd after another with his now-familiar brand of secular evangelism.

August was thrilled to death and being able to be so close to the great man every day, all day that he barely had time to complete his graduate studies.  Encouraged by the Reverend Miller, however, he burned the midnight oil, wrote his thesis on the historical ‘perversion’ of America as witnessed by slave journals, the writings of women of color, and the oral history of freed slaves.

Gradually, his dependence on Rev. Miller dissipated a bit – he now had a wife and baby to support, and he had to make a living.  Thanks to his connections with Miller and through him to Alinsky and his supporters, August was able to find a place in one of Chicago’s premier social action groups – ‘Citizens for Social Justice’, a very moderate title for an organization which behind closed doors endorsed nothing less than revolution and the taking down of the Cathedral of Wall Street.  August’s years in Chicago were heady ones, and later in life he remembered them as salad years.

After Chicago came membership and then leadership of other similar progressive  groups; and August was quick to follow trends and to pick up on the social zeitgeist.  When women were in the news – the glass ceiling, spousal abuse, campus rape – August was there, supporting the troops.  When the gay rights movement had upshifted gears to transgenderism, August was again on the front lines, insisting on the absolute correctness of the gender spectrum and the rights of any ‘adjustment’ in the heterosexual paradigm.  When global warming and climate change gained currency and support, August was there, thundering against coal, oil, conservative ignorance, and the depredations of Exxon, Shell, and the Koch Brothers.

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Just as every moving body loses inertia and traction over time – rails become loose and uncertain, locomotives need overhaul, rickety cane seats need replacement, and the old girl simply can’t get up enough steam to make it around the next bend – so was it that August began to wear out and in these increasingly moments of decline, who did he think of but Harold Bloom.

Bloom, he now realized, was in the business of ‘eternalities’ – those truths common to all great civilizations but lost in the noise of ‘progress’ and reform.  Bloom liked to quote Cato the Elder and the six major themes he hammered into the minds and souls of the future Roman leaders under his tutelage - respect, honor, discipline, courage, compassion, and honesty.  Not that Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets always expressed these values, but if you looked hard enough, you would find them as easily as you would reading C.S. Lewis.

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August continued his progressive journey well into his sunset years.  He had a little trouble mounting the podium but his smile was still as electric as ever, and the crowds of adoring admirers, knowing that their hero would not be with them for many more years, shouted their love and appreciation after almost every sentence.

So this is what it’s all about, August reflected, not unlike Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s story of a wasted life and death’s epiphany.  I loved being liked, being admired, and being quoted.  The Movement itself was always about camaraderie, fellowship, and belonging – to be honest, the causes espoused were secondary – and he was all the happier for it.

He finally wore out, and after searching long and hard for a ‘congenial’ retirement home, one whose residents were all devout progressives, he found that there was no such thing.  Retirement living was a business and although companies touted their advocacy and social concerns, money dictated something else.  Not only were there some conservatives in the mix, but strange outliers like former owners of bus companies and a chain of diners.

So in his early 80s, August gave up and moved to Florida and to a comfortable retirement community of snowbirds, not far from a major hospital, residences all on one floor, good weather and the beach nearby.  He ended up like most of us, I suspect.  Even the best intentions and the most fervid purpose cannot keep us from contemplating our own eternity; and what better place than Deleon, Florida?

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