Anthony Esolen on the Real Way Home

BOOK PICK: Nostalgia

I (photo: Cropped book cover)


Going Home in a Homeless World

Anthony Esolen

Regnery Gateway, 2018    

236 pages, $28.99

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In The House With Nobody in It, Catholic American poet Joyce Kilmer (the centennial of whose death we marked in 2018) laments an abandoned home he passed on his way. For a house that once “sheltered life,” that “put its loving arms around a man and his wife,” is now forsaken, a “poor old house … a house with a broken heart.”

The same, argues professor Tony Esolen, is true of our culture.

We have a “nostalgia,” a desire to go home, but it seems we’re not sure, as a culture, where home is or whether we want to get there. While Odysseus both dallied and was delayed on his 20-year homeward journey, at least he knew he ought to get there and what to do when he did. I’m not sure the same can be said for modern man.

Esolen’s critique of our contemporary cultural malaise combines trenchant diagnosis with a powerful command of our cultural heritage, especially in literature, which he cites masterfully.

Take his analysis of “the static idol of change.” He rightly captures the contemporary version of mutability as “change for change’s sake.” Let me offer two examples that I think embody this. Whenever The New York Times reports on the latest perversion, the story will somewhere contain a line about “there’s no turning back the clock.” And moderns will prattle on about academic freedom that is constantly “in search of the truth,” while being likely sorely disappointed if they ever believed they actually found it. Esolen reminds us of an unforgettable literary image of change and movement, signifying nothing: Satan, in the pit of Dante’s Inferno, eternally flapping his wings, which only freezes him further into his ice.

Change, properly understood, Esolen notes, entails some underlying and stable continuity: Forms may change, but unless there is some “hermeneutic of continuity” sustaining it, change becomes merely eternal evanescence. So man must “make” his reality. In the end, such instability leads him into incoherence:

“In our time, the identity of man and woman as such has been declared nonexistent, unless a man proclaims that he is ‘really’ a woman or a woman that she is ‘really’ a man. It is easy to show the incoherence of simultaneously denying that there are any stable and conspicuous differences between being a man and being a woman and asserting that these differences are so decisive and penetrate so far down into a person’s conscious and subconscious being that we can imagine, as in a bad piece of science fiction, that someone has been trapped by Nature in the body of the wrong sex.”

Our quest for home should lead us to the family, the basic cell of society: A society and its culture is only as healthy as its families. The decline and marginalization of the family has instead accentuated the political: “If there is news in Hell, it is all the politics of war, graft, vote-buying, soul-cramping, and scandal, and if there is entertainment, it is all loud, brash, salacious, relentless and a most effectual battery against the human soul. The family and the home are sites of bold and easygoing play, of raucous argument that need not result in enmity, and of silence that is not icy or drab but warm and fostering, like the good earth beneath our feet,” Esolen writes. Real families don’t need Planned Parenthood talking points about “how to deal with difficult people at Thanksgiving.”

Our houses, like our culture, have become a collection of isolated monads. Esolen wants to help us reclaim the “good earth beneath our feet.” By recovering our heritage, he wants to get us out of our cultural cul-de-sacs to point the real way home.

John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia.

 All views are exclusively his.