To be discussed on Wednesday October 14th 2020 during our video/teleconference call:

Dear Friends,

The mountain of research that I have done over the last decade for the book I am writing makes the task of integrating and focusing this material into an intelligible whole quite daunting. I have repeatedly asked myself what thematic thread might legitimately represent all the many features of the argument the book will make. This dilemma has caused me to change the working title and subtitle of the project several times, each change an experiment. The most persistent of these sample titles and subtitles has been: Changing the Subject: From Self to Person. There is much to recommend this choice. But it has at least two defects. First, it lacks the urgency that our present crisis requires, and that recent events have so dramatically underscored. And secondly, it fails to attest – explicitly – to the singular role that Christianity can play in responding to this crisis.

Since those who might join Randy and me for our upcoming Florilegia teleconferences are friends more familiar with our work, let me share (below) my most recent attempt to find a title, subtitle, and initial citations which might guide me in arranging the material coherently. I look forward to what our friends have to say on this matter. I have also chosen to share – for your eyes only – the working draft of a chapter which will appear much later in the manuscript, but which may give some background to the working title I am now considering. Thus, the current working title:


Recovering the Christian Meaning of Personhood

“The knowledge of what it means to be a person is inextricably bound up with the Faith of Christianity.”

– Romano Guardini

“The person both as a concept and as a living reality is purely the product of patristic thought. Without this, the deepest meaning of personhood can neither be grasped nor justified.”

– John Zizioulas

“The revelation of the person is the event of Christianity.”

– Paul Evdokimov

(What follows is the draft of a chapter that will appear much later in the manuscript, and which throws light on the latest working title and subtitle. Earlier chapters in the book highlight the role played in this gradual spiritual evisceration by figures such as William of Ockham, René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and so forth. This chapter is a work in progress, to be shared only with the friends and supporters of the Cornerstone Forum.)


For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.”

(Mk 5:8-9)

. . .

As we saw in an earlier chapter, Freud recognized early in his observations of those exhibiting hysterical symptoms “the capacity of hysterics to imitate any symptoms in other people that may have struck their attention.” He recognized, not only the psychological instability that this trait involved, but the extreme fluidity of symptoms likely to be exhibited by those bombarded by multiple mimetic influences. Even earlier, in our reflections on Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves, we noted the fluid form of subjectivity experienced by the principal protagonist, Bernard, who at one point declared: “I am not one and simple, but complex and many. … They do not understand that I have to effect different transitions; have to cover the entrances and exits of several different men who alternatively act their parts as Bernard.” [1]

Near the end of Woolf’s novel, there appear the first faint signs of what are the most alarming consequences of the mimetic crisis: the indistinguishability of the sexes. The world-weary and wistful Bernard muses, “this is not one life; nor do I always know if I am man or woman, Bernard or Neville, Louis, Susan, Jinny or Rhoda – so strange is the contact of one with another.”[2]

Woolf gives her reader access to Bernard’s interior musings:

. . . we are slipping away. Little bits of ourselves are crumbling.  . . . I cannot keep myself together. . . . But what is odd is that I still clasp the return half of my ticket to Waterloo firmly between the fingers of my right hand, even now, even sleeping.[3]

Without an overarching, paradigmatic, “external” model, the mimetic phenomenon can careen wildly and erratically. One recalls the insight of the French philosopher, Rémi Brague:

In my country, and in other ones, too, like Spain, when a cab is for hire and looking for a customer, it has a flag of sorts on which is written “free.” For many of our contemporaries, the model of what “being free” means is the way in which this cab is “free.” This means that it is empty, that it doesn’t go to any particular place, and can be taken over and hired by anybody who can pay.[4]

The very attempt to survey and catalogue the magical, shape-shifting world of a full-blown mimetic crisis runs the risk of appearing to be yet another instance of it. And yet some of the literary adumbrations of this crisis supply pieces of the overall puzzle that we would be remiss for ignoring. For instance: whether consciously or not, in the above quotation Rémi Brague has adopted the same metaphor on which T. S. Eliot relied in his own poetic allusion to the selfsame postmodern predicament. At the end of a day structured by responsibilities to one’s employer, one faces a few hours relatively less structured by obligations.

 At the violet hour, when the eyes and back

Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits

Like a taxi throbbing waiting . . .

[T. S. Eliot, Waste Land]

So fickle is the deracinated self today, and so evanescent are the models on which it more or less unconsciously relies, that once the routine tasks it has contracted to perform come to an end for the day the search begins for another scent to follow, another example to imitate, another opportunity to perform the pantomime of autonomy. Writes René Girard:

We can also predict that when the fascinated being reaches the paroxysmal stage of his sickness he will be completely incapable of maintaining his original pose and will constantly change roles.[5]

Jean-Michel Oughourlian:

Just as God created man in his image, animating the clay with otherness, so do human beings engender one another mutually, not only on the genetic level but also on the psychological level, the self being filled with and saturated by otherness throughout its history and constituted as a patchwork of all integrated others.[6]

There is in Oughourlian’s basically sound insight an inner tension, captured by the words patchwork and integrated. He is doubtless correct that each of us owe a debt to the countless people who have touched our lives. Therein is the patchwork. Ordering that patchwork into a coherent unity requires an touchstone, a polestar, an ordering principle of some kind. In the first instance, parents provide the child with such a touchstone, which gives credence to the lament of Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman that his father left when he was just a child, he acknowledged that he still felt kind of temporary about himself. Be that as it may, it is worth recalling that the transcendence of parental models is enshrined, not in the first, but in the fourth commandment. To change metaphors, the role of parental figures is that of the Big Dipper, which serves star-gazers in locating the north star, an apt metaphor of the transcendental grounding which alone satisfies the longing of the human heart.

Willy Loman was a literary manifestation of something that is now quite widespread. There is an epidemic of ontological diminution in our time, and Girard has provided the key for unlocking its underlying source. More and more people today are feeling kind of temporary about themselves. We see all of this foreshadowed of course in Luke’s Gospel:

“When an unclean spirit goes out of a man it wanders through waterless country looking for a place to rest, and not finding one it says, ‘I will go back to the home I came from.’ But on arrival, finding it swept and tidied, it then goes off and brings seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and set up house there, so that the man ends up by being worse than he was before.”

[Luke 11: 24-26]

Two factors are operative: our ineradicable mimetic nature has grown famished because of the simultaneous emergence of the myth of autonomous individuality, which considers imitation beneath the dignity of the sovereign individual, and the intense urbanization of the human population over the last century and a half, not to mention that plethora of social media platforms that host an ever swirling aggregation of enticing models. The opportunity for mimetic fascination has grown exponentially while the myth of autonomy grows more dubious.

In an inner monologue in Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves, Neville analyzes his classmate, Bernard:

“Once you were Tolstoi’s young man; now you are Byron’s young man; perhaps you will be Meredith’s young man; then you will visit Paris in the Easter vacation and come back wearing a black tie, some detestable Frenchman whom nobody has ever heard of.”[7]

Bernard acknowledges the validity of Neville’s assessment in his own inner monologue: “I am Bernard; I am Byron; I am this, that and the other.”[8] And near the end of the novel Bernard casts a glance back over his life:

I changed and changed; was Hamlet, was Shelley, was the hero, whose name I now forget, of a novel by Dostoevsky; was for a whole term, incredibly, Napoleon; but was Byron chiefly. For many weeks at a time it was my part to stride into rooms and fling gloves and coat on the back of chairs, scowling slightly. I was always going to the bookcase for another sip of the divine specific. Therefore, I let fly my tremendous battery of phrases upon somebody quite inappropriate — a girl now married, now buried; every book, every window-seat was littered with the sheets of my unfinished letters to the woman who made me Byron. For it is difficult to finish a letter in somebody else’s style.[9]

The hero whose name Bernard thinks he has forgotten is surely the protagonist in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, whose name doesn’t appear in the novel.

. . .

The spiritual, psychological, and increasingly ontological predicament in which many – especially the young – are today living has been disturbingly captured by Kenneth Gergen and made all the more distressing by his effort to remain sanguine in the face of it. Like Freud, however, Gergen and a few of his postmodern contemporaries, provide an inestimable service by insightfully surveying social and psychological phenomena they have nevertheless analyzed inadequately. The lived experience of the postmodern self, Gergen seems happy to announce, is multiphrenia.

Like so many postmodern apologists, Mr. Gergen – having diagnosed a self-dissolution that coincides with the loss of Christian sources of hope – must try as best he can to remain cheerful. Now perfectly unencumbered by the modern quest for what de Lubac termed “static sincerity,” the postmodern accommodates to his life as a de-centered “social chameleon,” taking bits and pieces at random from the incessant parade of mimetic models to which he is exposed. “If one’s identity is properly managed, the rewards can be substantial,” Gergen strains to assure his readers: “the devotion of one’s intimates, happy children, professional success, the achievement of community goals, personal popularity, and so on.” All this is possible, he imagines, “if one avoids looking back to locate a true and enduring self, and simply acts to full potential in the moment at hand.” Avoiding this glance backward – the glance that might awaken that blissfully dormant “guilt of self-violation” and its accompanying “sense of superficiality” – is what the indefatigable Norman O. Brown, called “improvising a raft after shipwreck,” the shoring up of fragments against one’s ruin. At this point in our explorations, it hardly needs pointing out that what Freud diagnosed as hysteria and what Gergen characterizes as multiphrenia are species of the same predicament.

Among the voices of reason is that of Nicholas Berdyaev:

Inner division wears away personality, and this division can be overcome only by making a choice, by selecting a definite object for one’s love . . . Debauchery means the absolute inability to choose from among many attractions. . . [10]

The Russian philosopher is echoed by the Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, who offers a more sobering assessment of what Gergen calls multiphrenia, one more in sync with Jesus’ reference to the seven demons more wicked than the one expelled:

What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons,

who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues . . .

The purpose of poetry is to remind us

how difficult it is to remain just one person,

for our house is open, there are no keys to the doors,

and invisible guests come in and out at will.[11]

Professor Gergen has recognized better than most the features of human anthropology that many find it convenient to ignore, and he has seen the contemporary spiritual, psychological, and cultural crisis with great insight. Not least when he writes:

There is an important sense in which each of us is a metaphor for those with whom we come in contact. They provide the images of what it is to be an authentic person, and as we incorporate others’ modes of being – their mannerisms, their styles – we become their surrogates, metaphors of their reality.[12]

This is doubtlessly so. What is more problematic and elusive is how this can be done without compromising the subject’s ontological and psychological integrity.

The fully saturated self, insists Kenneth Gergen, is an accomplishment. It begins, he argues, with the populating of the self by multiple influences. The subsequent achievement of social saturation leads eventually to a multiphrenic condition and the “vertigo of unlimited multiplicity.” “Both the populating of the self and the multiphrenic condition are significant preludes to postmodern consciousness.”[13] That every achievement seems but a prelude to yet another one need not be taken as evidence of the value of what is eventually achieved. The notion that a series of steps, each just disappointing enough to be imagined to be “milestones” but not so obviously wrong-headed to provoke an about-face, will lead in the end to full satisfaction – that is the animating principle of contemporary liberalism, an application, as we shall see in a later chapter, of Norman O. Brown’s “emergency after emergency of swift transformations.”

As for points of stability in this endless flux, Gergen turns to the columnist the Washington Post eulogized as the woman who “brought humor to hanky-panky.”[14]

The columnist Cynthia Heimel argues that because celebrity figures are known by so many people, they serve as forms of social glue, allowing people from different points of society to converse with each other, to share feelings, and essentially to carry on informal relations. “Celebrities,” she proposes, “are our common frames of reference, celebrity loathing and revilement crosses all cultural boundaries.”[15]

It may not be entirely coincidental that no sooner has Ms. Heimel invoked the socially unifying influence of celebrities than she specifies the emotional tone associated with that social solidarity, namely: loathing and revilement. There is a darker truth beneath this curious comment. Societies that count on popular celebrities for their social solidarity are already in the early stages of a crisis, and no celebrity is capable of arresting for long the deepening progress of the crisis. At a later stage in the crisis, the adulation once accorded those at the center of public attention may well reverse it’s valence and turn – slowly or not so slowly – to antipathy.[16]

Heimel goes on to say, “Celebrities are not our community elders, they are our community.” And this touches on the collapse of social hierarchies, in the aftermath of which no paragons of moral virtue, civic pride, honorable conduct, and nobility – no “elders” – are allowed to grace the public square, much less exert a serious claim on the public imagination of subsequent generations. A celebrity culture is an anti-culture, inasmuch as those figures who attract social attention come and go with such frequency that in due course what is left of the genuine social cohesion inevitably dissipates, leaving the celebrities at the unenviable center of a spiritually and morally exhausted society’s attention. In his defense, it must be said that Kenneth Gergen cannot be accused of deception. His honesty is bracing:

We are not dealing here with doubts regarding claims about the truth of human character, but with the full-scale abandonment of the concept of objective truth. The argument is not that our descriptions of the self are objectively shaky, but that the very attempt to render accurate understanding is itself bankrupt.[17]

There is a great deal of gibberish in Gergen’s book, much of it one suspects de rigueur at Swarthmore College in the last decades of the last century and beyond. For instance:

As one casts out to sea in the contemporary world, modernist moorings are slowly left behind. It becomes increasingly difficult to recall precisely to what core essence one must remain true. The ideal of authenticity frays about the edges; the meaning of sincerity slowly lapses into indeterminacy. And with this sea change, the guilt of self-violation also recedes. As the guilt and sense of superficiality recede from view, one is simultaneously readied for the emergence of a pastiche personality. The pastiche personality is a social chameleon, constantly borrowing bits and pieces of identity from whatever sources are available and constructing them as useful or desirable in a given situation.[18]

Gergen is intelligent enough to realize and honest enough to acknowledge the cultural consequences of the multiphrenia he so masterfully surveys. Having dismissed truth as a sufficiently stable category, he helps explain a very troubling feature of both our political and journalistic cultures in recent years. “With postmodernism the distinction between truth and falsity lapses into indeterminacy,” he writes. “The existence of lying in society is thus not an outcome of individual depravity, but of pluralistic social worlds.”[19] These social worlds are held precariously intact by whatever narrative their advocates manage to make plausible. Writes Gergen:

The initial stages of this consciousness result in a sense of the self as a social con artist, manipulating images to achieve ends. As the category of “real self” continues to recede from view, however, one acquires a pastiche-like personality. Coherence and contradiction cease to matter as one takes pleasure in the expanded possibilities of being in a socially saturated world. Finally, as the distinction between the real and the contrived, style and substance, is eroded, the concept of the individual self ceases to be intelligible.[20]

Writing at the dawn of the internet age, long before the technologies of saturation achieved anything like their present scope, Gergen managed to issue this prediction in a spirit of cheerfulness:

Not only do the technologies of social saturation fashion “the individual without character,” but at the same time, they furnish invitations to incoherence. In a humdrum moment, the Vancouver tax accountant can pick up the phone and rekindle a relationship in St. Louis, within less than an hour the restless engineer can drive to a singles bar thirty miles away; on a tedious Friday a New Jersey executive can decide to fly to Tortola for the weekend. … In the final analysis, we find technology and life-style operating in a state of symbiotic interdependence. … The technologies engender a multiplicitous and polymorphic being who thrives on incoherence, and this being grows increasingly enraptured by the means by which this protean capacity is expressed. We enter the age of techno-personal systems.[21]

Thirty years on, the veterans are returning. The romance is over. But from a professorship at Swarthmore in 1991, it seemed promising. We close Professor Gergen’s insightful book with a sense of gratitude and sadness. Indeed, there are hints here and there that the author himself was haunted by such doubts, however heroically he struggled to keep the tone of his prose basically upbeat.

Many are dismayed by the current state of events. It is painful to find the old rituals of relationship – deep and enduring friendships, committed intimacy, and the nuclear family – coming apart at the “seems.” Continuity is replaced by contingency, unity by fragmentation, and authenticity by artfulness. Yet there is no obvious means of return at hand.[22]

That’s a nice touch: coming apart at the “seems,” as if what appeared to be coherence and integrity in an earlier age only seemed to be so, flattering those who ostensibly see beyond what “seems” to have been so for his epistemically encumbered predecessors. “Truth as a correspondence between word and world lapses into nonsense,” writes Gergen triumphantly. “Terms such as sham and pretense in their traditional sense simply don’t apply.”[23] Whatever the shortcomings of this deeply cynical view, Gergen focuses only on the benefits as he sees them:

With the spread of postmodern consciousness, we see the demise of personal definition, reason, authority, commitment, trust, the sense of authenticity, sincerity, belief in leadership, depth of feeling, and faith in progress. In their stead, an open slate emerges on which persons may inscribe, erase, and rewrite their identities as the ever-shifting, ever-expanding, and incoherent network of relationships invites and permits.[24]

A man who doubts the benefits of a shared culture and the lively exchange in a marketplace of ideas comes at last to celebrate a “totalizing discourse” carefully disguised as the ardent enemy of such things.

Totalizing discourses have a final deficit. Not only do such systems truncate, oppress, and obliterate alternative forms of social life; they also set the stage for schism. To be convinced of the “truth” of a discourse is to find the alternatives foolish or fatuous – to slander or silence the outside. Warring camps are developed that speak only to themselves, and that seek means of destroying others’ credibility and influence (and life), all with an abiding sense of righteousness.[25]

It was still possible in 1991 to presuppose that “totalizing discourses” were inherently traditional ones. Three decades on, something like the opposite appears to be the case. Those holding traditional views are routinely silenced by those who rose to power – in educational, entertainment, journalistic, and corporate institutions – in the years since Gergen’s book was published.

Writing three years later, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton began his exploration of the contemporary predicament of the self with these jauntily cheerful words:

We are becoming fluid and many-sided. Without quite realizing it, we have been evolving a sense of self appropriate to the restlessness and flux of our time. This mode of being differs radically from that of the past, and enables us to engage in continuous exploration and personal experiment. I have named it the “protean self” after Proteus, the Greek sea god of many forms.[26]

Which raises a question: If we can assume that today’s university students are demographic cadre most likely to have undergone a transition into the protean self, how do we explain that they are on average far less open to points of view other than, or contrary to, those to which they so tenaciously cling, and for which they often have such utter contempt?

As of this writing, the official website of the University of California, once one of the most respected educational institutions in the world, lists sixty-six approved terms for expressing an individual’s chosen identity, the great majority of which are terms defining one’s chosen sexual self-identification. In testimony to the extreme fluidity of such definitions, the website prominently acknowledges the date of the survey and cautiously declares:

These terms were last updated in May 2019. For the most complete definitions, we encourage you to compare what you find here with information from other sources as language in our communities is often an evolving process, and there may be regional differences. Please be aware that these terms may be defined with outdated language or concepts.[27]

Appended to this apology for any sexual identity that might not have been listed was an email address for anyone who might want to add a different identity.

[1] Virginia Woolf, The Waves, (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 76.

[2] Ibid, 281.

[3] Ibid., 235.

[4] Rémi Brague, Curing Mad Truths (Catholic Ideas for a Secular World), (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019), 59.

[5] René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, trans. Yvonne Freccero, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 266.

[6] Jean-Michel Oughourlian, The Mimetic Brain, trans. Trevor Cribben Merrill, (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2016), 187.

[7] Virginia Woolf, The Waves, (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 87.

[8] Ibid, 89.

[9] Ibid., 249-50.

[10] Nicholas Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, (New York: New American Library, 1974), 125.

[11] Czeslaw Milosz, “Ars Poetica?” from The Collected Poems: 1931-1987. Copyright © 1988 by Czeslaw Milosz Royalties, Inc. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

[12] Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self, (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 223.

[13] Ibid, 49.

[14] “Cynthia Heimel, columnist who brought humor to hanky-panky,” The Washington Post, Feb. 26, 2018.

[15] Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self, (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 56.

[16] René Girard’s opus is a massive explication of this process.

[17] Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self, (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 82.

[18] Ibid., 150.

[19] Ibid., 169.

[20] Ibid., 170

[21] Ibid., 173.

[22] Ibid., 181.

[23] Ibid., 187.

[24] Ibid., 228.

[25] Ibid., 252.

[26] Robert Jay Lifton, The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation, (New York: BasicBooks, 1993), 1.

[27] https://campusclimate.berkeley.edu/students/ejce/geneq/resources/lgbtq-resources/definition-terms

To be discussed on Wednesday September 16th 2020 during our video/teleconference call:


Dear Friends,

Books are not written, alas, by committee, but the kind of book on which I am working will be one that draws on the wisdom of the “Church” broadly conceived. That is why I regularly cite those theologians and thinkers who have preceded me and guided me, prominent among whom are Hans Urs von Balthasar, Pope Benedict XVI, and, of course, René Girard. It is voices such as theirs that herald a bold reawakening of Christian self-confidence. In a far more modest way, I would join my voice with theirs on themes that seem to me particularly germane to the crisis of our time.  

The greatest joy I experienced during the years when I travelled around this country and abroad giving talks and taking part in conferences was the joy of discovery that arose from the exchanges I was able to have with others. Today, of course, there are few opportunities to have such discussions. I will be grateful, therefore, to any of the friends of the Cornerstone Forum who might be able to join Randy and me for an occasional teleconference discussion of selected parts of the manuscript on which I am working. We will keep the discussions short, say 45 minutes or so.

The current working title of this book project is:

The Soul is Naturally Christian:
Changing the Subject from Self to Person

Perhaps the shortest synopsis of the project are these words from the great German theologian Romano Guardini: “The knowledge of what it means to be a person is inextricably bound up with the Faith of Christianity” Establishing the truth of that statement in today’s world is no simple task. I look forward to being helped by any comments and suggestions and critiques you may offer.

Below are a few excerpts from the first section of the manuscript that might prompt a discussion.

. . .

Bob Dylan is perhaps the most original popular musician of the last half-century. And yet his originality has never been premised on a lack of inspiring role models.

In accepting the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan began his acceptance lecture with these words:

If I was to go back to the dawning of it all, I guess I’d have to start with Buddy Holly. Buddy died when I was about eighteen and he was twenty-two. From the moment I first heard him, I felt akin. I felt related, like he was an older brother. I even thought I resembled him. … He was the archetype. Everything I wasn’t and wanted to be. I saw him only but once, and that was a few days before he was gone. I had to travel a hundred miles to get to see him play, and I wasn’t disappointed. … He was powerful and electrifying and had a commanding presence. I was only six feet away. He was mesmerizing. I watched his face, his hands, the way he tapped his foot, his big black glasses, the eyes behind the glasses, the way he held his guitar, the way he stood, his neat suit. Everything about him. He looked older than twenty-two. Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.

I think it was a day or two after that that his plane went down. And somebody – somebody I’d never seen before – handed me a Leadbelly record with the song “Cottonfields” on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me. I must have played that record a hundred times.

There are two striking things about Dylan’s description of the conversion he underwent in Buddy Holly’s presence. “He filled me with conviction,” Dylan relates. “He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.”

The palpably religious tone of Dylan’s words was echoed in his account of listening to the Leadbelly album: “It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me.” The biblical tone of this account is no accident. Dylan’s subsequent career has made it clear that he is has been a grateful inheritor of the Jewish and Christian tradition.

Thus does Dylan’s Nobel Prize Lecture touch upon the debate over the character of natural law, and whether the longing or desire that is at the heart of human life aims only at mundane and attainable goals. Those who argue that human desire is intrinsically ordered toward a transcendent or religious aspiration might want to cite the opening paragraph of Dylan’s lecture as evidence for their view, a view with which we concur.

Human nature, writes Hans Urs von Balthasar, “crawling on the ground, needs to be held up by a trellis if it is to bear fruit.” Grace presupposes nature, elevates and perfects it. That is a preeminently Catholic principle. For, Balthasar has noted:

… the natural man, if he has not already been artificially corrupted, does have a sense of awe in the face of the hidden mystery of being, in face of the ultimate origin and destiny of the world, of matter, of life, of evolution, of the fate of the individual and of humanity. Every religion, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated, lives essentially on this awe.

When we speak of longing, what do we mean? And why do we use that word for it? The verb came into English apparently from the Old High German langen, from which the contemporary German word, verlangen, meaning “to desire.” If we stop to savor the word, however, we soon find ourselves wondering about one of the truly most distinctly human of experiences. Most of us will immediately recognize the difference between what we mean when speaking of desire and what we mean when speaking of longing, even though we may be at a loss to explain the difference. Girard has taught us that desire is mimetic, but the poets, prophets, artists, musicians and mystics have taught us that longing is at the heart of who we are. And Flannery O’Connor and Bob Dylan have left evidence for the fact that longing, too, is mimetically aroused.

In retrospect, Dylan’s encounter with Buddy Holly seems to have been an initial moment in the unfolding of his unique personal vocation. That his vocation has taken many twists and turns, not all of them exemplary or necessarily edifying, follows a well-known pattern found in many of our lives, not least this author’s. However meandering the path Dylan took, that his poetic and musical vocation had at its core a religious experience will hardly be disputed by those who have followed his career.

The same religious insight is found in the self-described Hillbilly Thomist, the novelist and short-story writer Flannery O’Connor. The protagonist in her short story Parker’s Back was O. E. Parker. Only reluctantly, and only in a whispering voice, did Parker finally speak his full name to a woman he was wooing: Obadiah Elihue. The Book of Obadiah, the shortest book of the Old Testament, bemoans the treachery of Edomites and by extension all the hostile pagan nations arrayed against Israel. Obadiah means the servant of God, but O’Connor’s O. E. Parker only evinces that possibility at the very end of her story. For our purposes, and surely for O’Connor, the salient verse from the Book of Obadiah is:

They have driven you right to the frontiers,

they have misled you, all your allies.

They have deceived you, all your fine friends. (Obadiah 1:7)

O’Connor makes no mention of Parker’s father, and this is clearly one of the keys for understanding the story.

His mother wept over what was becoming of him. One night she dragged him off to a revival with her, not telling him where they were going. When he saw the big lighted church, he jerked out of her grasp and ran. The next day he lied about his age and joined the navy.

As so predictably happens, the flight from what is perceived as the narrow constraints of Christianity prefaces a supine submission to another, less reliable, and far more circumscribed and monitored allegiance. Under the circumstances, the navy was hardly the worst choice Parker could have made, but it was somewhat vitiated by the fact that he made it in order to avoid a brush with Christianity, to which he would finally return at the end of O’Conner’s story.

O’Connor’s fictional O. E. Parker is of interest to us inasmuch as he had an experience not unlike the one that Bob Dylan recounts when Buddy Holly looked him “right straight dead in the eye.” It happened quite at random when, at the age of 14, Parker saw the tattooed man at the fair.

Except for his loins which were girded with a panther hide, the man’s skin was patterned in what seemed from Parker’s distance — he was near the back of the tent, standing on a bench — a single intricate design of brilliant color. The man, who was small and sturdy, moved about on the platform, flexing his muscles so that the arabesque of men and beasts and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes.

We humans are mimetic creatures, but, in one way or another, so are most living things. The difference is that we are not only naturally mimetic. We are spiritually so. An animal may mimic the behavior of other animals, but it will never be “filled with conviction” while standing in wonder at another animal. Less still will it be “filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes.” The mimesis operative in human affairs has what might be called a sacramental dimension, and, unless we recognize this, our analysis of that unique dimension of our existence will fall woefully short. 

We must not overlook the crypto-religious dimension of O. E. Parker’s moment of conversion, similar in so many ways to what Bob Dylan experienced in the presence of Buddy Holly. Parker, for the moment at least, found himself a “lord” for his life, a guide to meaning and purpose and fulfillment.

Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. … He had his first tattoo some time after – the eagle perched on the cannon. It was done by a local artist. It hurt very little, just enough to make it appear to Parker to be worth doing.

A person is a subject in a way that the autonomous self is not. The latter designation has come to imply a self-authenticating and entirely self-directed individual. The former, the subject, exists as one subject to something or someone else. As understood today, the self need not be a subject; for the self today is no longer determined by a loyalty to a greater purpose. But a subject properly so called is so subordinated. Parker went to the tattooist to light up his body with insignias chosen, not out of any serious commitment on Parker’s part to what the image might have signified, but simply for the colorfulness of the image. Each such image in time “wore off” and he sought another.

Parker would be satisfied with each tattoo about a month, then something about it that had attracted him would wear off. Whenever a decent-sized mirror was available, he would get in front of it and study his overall look. The effect was not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched. A huge dissatisfaction would come over him and he would go off and find another tattooist and have another space filled up.

His dissatisfaction, from being chronic and latent, had suddenly become acute and raged in him. It was as if the panther and the lion and the serpents and the eagles and the hawks had penetrated his skin and lived inside him in a raging warfare.

He seeks solace in another tattoo, but this time it must be God:

Parker: “Let me see the book you got with all the pictures of God in it,” Parker said breathlessly. “The religious one.”

“Who are you interested in?” he said, “saints, angels, Christs or what?”

“God,” Parker said.

“Father, Son or Spirit?”

“Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”

Finally, however, O. E. Parker’s effort to lash all the psychological fragments of his existence together and make a raft out of them failed. His furious attempt to avoid self-disintegration by covering his body with one logo after another was having the effect of accelerating his psychological dissolution. In the half century since this story was published, there has been an overwhelming explosion of compulsive tattooing. The prevalence of the O. E. Parker phenomenon would probably have surprised the author who used tattooing metaphorically. Nor was this the only instance of O’Connor’s prescience.

K. V. Turley writes of the change that began with Dylan’s 1979 album, Slow Train:

Whereas, before 1979, there was a slow-burn rage at injustice and lies, after his conversion that rage is filtered through the lens of the Gospel. Previously, Dylan had come across as something of an Old Testament prophet, pointing out what was wrong in society; post-conversion, he had encountered the Messiah: then Dylan was not so much pointing out what was wrong as pointing to the only Person who could make things right.

In an autobiography published in 2004, Dylan wrote of his first experience on stage.

My first performances were seen in the Black Hills Passion Play of South Dakota, a religious drama depicting the last days of Christ. This play always came to town during the Christmas season with professional actors in the leading roles, cages of pigeons, a donkey, a camel and a truck full of props. There were always parts that called for extras. One year I played a Roman soldier with a spear and helmet-breastplate, the works – a nonspeaking role, but it didn’t matter. I felt like a star. I liked the costume. It felt like a nerve tonic … as a Roman soldier I felt like a part of everything, in the center of the planet, invincible. That seemed a million years ago now, a million private struggles and difficulties ago.

Hans Urs von Balthasar:

What is a person without a life-form, that is to say, without a form which he has chosen for his life, a form into which and through which to pour out his life, so that his life becomes the soul of the form and the form becomes the expression of his soul? For this is no extraneous form, but rather so intimate a one that it is greatly rewarding to identify oneself with it. Nor is it a forcibly imposed form, rather one which has been bestowed from within and has been freely chosen. Nor, finally, is it an arbitrary form, rather that uniquely personal one which constitutes the very law of the individual. Whoever shatters this form by ignoring it is unworthy of the beauty of Being, and he will be banished from the splendor of solid reality as one who has not passed the test. Thus, while physically he remains alive, such a person decays to expressionlessness and sterility, is like the dry wood which is gathered in the Gospel for burning. But if man is to live in an original form, that form has first to be sighted. One must possess a spiritual eye capable of perceiving the forms of existence with awe.