I was in second grade when I first became convinced that things fall apart.
The year began with the attempted assassination of an American president, followed a few weeks later by the attempted assassination of a Polish pope, followed a few months after that by the successful assassination of an Egyptian president. The attempted murder of leaders, it seemed, was a fact of life.
My day-to-day doings were tinged with low-grade, existential fear stemming from the Cold War. At my Quaker elementary school in South Jersey, we talked about Hiroshima and Nagasaki enough that my small circle of friends and I used to discuss how much worse the coming nuclear conflagration with the Soviets would be.
Not that the American way of life seemed particularly deserving of preservation. My mother taught in a public elementary school, and on at least three occasions she was mugged at knifepoint in her school’s hallways—during the school day—by criminals who came and went as they pleased. Whenever my family took excursions to the city—either nearby Philadelphia or farther-off New York—the places were like something out of a nightmare: every brick and wall covered with graffiti; vagrants and homeless camping on steam grates and street corners, begging for change. To this day, the essence of city life imprinted in my brain is the omnipresent, and not terribly vague, smell of urine.
I didn’t know who Yeats was, and if you had pressed me I wouldn’t have been quite sure what “the center” might be. But it was clear to me that it could not hold.
I’ve been wondering about that world again since Pope Benedict XVI announced his return to the monastery. His abdication filled me—quite unexpectedly—with the same sense of despair.
For Catholics there was much to love in Benedict’s pontificate—it isn’t often that the bishop of Rome is also the church’s preeminent theological mind and clearest, most graceful writer. In addition to his written work, Benedict offered an extraordinary example of humility. The speeches he gave leading up to the conclave that selected him suggested a man desperately trying to wave off his fellow cardinals and decline the job in advance. When the Holy Spirit chose him, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he had placed on his papal coat of arms a saddled bear as an indication of how he saw himself: not as a saintly Great Man, but as a humble beast bowing to the assigned task.
Gradually, though, I’ve realized that my melancholy isn’t really about Benedict himself; it’s that, with his withdrawal, we lose our last, best link to John Paul II.
And John Paul II stood for something very distinct to my young self.
In the tempest of the 1970s and ’80s, while the world was coming apart, John Paul stood against the maelstrom and affirmed the right. He maintained that the world I saw around me was not inevitable; that it was not a permanent condition. He proclaimed that truth and beauty had their own power. According to him, the center would always hold, regardless of how things looked at any given juncture of history.
John Paul was an immense source of comfort. To millions behind the Iron Curtain, of course. But also to a small boy in New Jersey. Be not afraid, he said. And although I didn’t understand it fully, I understood enough. The world might not make sense, but this man did.
It would be years before I learned anything about Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. But what always strikes me in looking back on that period is that even when it was darkest, there were a handful of serious, formidable people fighting for the light.
In some ways, the crisis that accelerated in the late 1970s resembles the crisis in which we’ve lived since 9/11. Both featured existential threats to the liberal order. Both were marked by brutal economic recessions. Both were, to some large degree, marked by the failure of trusted institutions.
It’s unclear which case was direr. But it isn’t the crisis now that worries me. It’s that there are no analogues to John Paul, Reagan, and Thatcher. And with Benedict gone, our already attenuated link to those leaders loses another thread. Soon, it will be broken. And when you survey public life looking for their heirs, what you see is callow and pale.
If the travails of 1981 prepared me for Yeats, Benedict’s withdrawal calls to mind Auden:
The prophet’s lantern is out
And gone the boundary stone,
Cold the heart and cold the stove,
Ice condenses on the bone:
Winter completes an age.