and tricky reflections
On Tuesday, as the wind speeds in Manhattan hovered consistently above 20 miles per hour and gusts reached up to 33 miles per hour, I spent most of the afternoon outside in the wind, tearing through Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness on a bench surrounded by graduating Columbia medical students
I finally read the book from cover to cover, although I’d read most of its contents over the course of the past six months. I don’t think it’s the best introduction into the mind of Dorothy Day or even the circumstances of her life that led her to Peter Maurin, to open the paper, and to the houses of hospitality. I also don’t think The Long Loneliness is the most compelling version of Day’s own voice on the page.
But sometimes we’re so quick to canonize her social goodness it’s easy to gloss over the incredibly salient fact that Day’s an insanely good writer. And to those who think that social transformation and literary excellence are two distinct categories of virtue, Dorothy Day (and Peter Maurin), provide strong counter examples.
If you ever have a moment to compare the literary criticism of The London Review of Books and the New Yorker, the comparison is so stark it’s almost apples and oranges. The Atlantic is probably the best magazine in the United States today, but it doesn’t come anywhere near my beloved LRB. There’s a stagnating of our social imaginations that is both a reaction to and a product of the impoverishment of American letters.
Remaking the social order has to begin and end with rediscovering and remaking a literary culture.
Day’s opening epigraph to her autobiography—a scene of going to confession—is perhaps one of the most exciting passages of literature I’ve read since closing the covers of War and Peace. Day begins her story by invoking both the sacramental life of self-disclosure for the sake of illumination and Augustine’s paradigmatic religious autobiography in one fell swoop and situates the reader in a distinctly modern, American setting, but seeped in the dark weight of tradition.
Ultimately, I find the book satisfying not because it’s the story of a saint, but because Day’s ideas are honest, her life lived in accordance with them is beautiful because of that honesty, and the prose in which she expresses both is wonderful. And I think Americans, Catholics, and humans in general would be much kinder and wiser if we parsed sanctity in those terms.
Sanctity is the honest love of Christ and conforming one’s life into an image of that love. And I think if we were more honest with ourselves about who Christ is and his demands, the result would be more beautiful lives and more beautiful words.
The other book I finished over the past two days, mostly by my windowsill, inside, away from the wind, is Jia Tolentino’s 2019 essay collection, Trick Mirror.
Tolentino is an excellent critic of the internet habits that her generation has been absorbed by and shaped by. She—like most millennials—can see the rigged game of capitalism running scams on an entire population. But she can’t quite seem to quit either the internet or the capitalism. She meditates on the escapability of the fruitless yammer of the internet and the fallow and morally implicating practices of capitalism in a very relatable way.
That is, of course, the power of a society. If an entire economy begins to bend to accommodate Amazon and its exploitative industry, if an entire culture is predicated on the expectation of female submission, it’s quite difficult to resist those forces. Not because we are weak-willed sheep, but because society is part of our nature. Social scripts are seductive because we are actually social creatures. We are not islands, and so much of who we decide to be—at least the raw material—is handed to us. And the conditions in which we are allowed to play out our identity are dictated by our community. It truly does matter the sort of society we live in, because of the givenness of things. We receive who we are from where we are.
A word that dominates Tolentino’s essays is “performance.” Contemporary social science looks at the performance of the self by the self, and the different arenas that elicit distinct performances. And I think this word—and the ideas of the self explored in Tolentino’s essays—misses a very important idea about human development that’s as old as virtue ethics: formation.
What if the internet was just eliciting a performance of the self but was forming the self? The books we read, the culture we live in, all of these things form us. What we ingest is not neutral, it shapes who we are and what we become. In some ways, the internet has done away with habit and replaced it with addiction.
What are our habits of being? Do we really set them or are they predicated for us? We speak so often—with embarrassment—of how the first things we touch in the morning are our phones, of how we spend our free time checking email, of how we can’t escape staring at the trainwreck of the news.
A society that lacks habits lacks formation. And without a set of habits that lead us toward a goal, we can only produce rather attenuated versions of self-reflection, which brings us back to the crisis in American letters. And which brings us back to the sanctity of Dorothy Day.
Her work is good not because it is morally superior or righteous, her work is good because the ideals that forms it is beautiful. Because Peter’s program of formation based upon them—clarification of thought, the houses of hospitality, and the agronomic universities—is good, cohesive, and gentle. And because the work Dorothy does forms her into a sort of life and in a sort of community that leads her to write well.
Bonhoeffer was fond of deriding “cheap grace.” Perhaps its collorary or companion is cheap writing: writing that costs its author nothing, that is formed and informed by nothing.
It’s not for nothing that Day begins her book in the confessional: speech, in that form, is the mode by which we receive grace. Nothing in the confessional cannot be said. Everything, even the darkest corners of our hearts, can be expressed, all things ugly, embarrassing, and trite can be put into words. And by putting them into words, we find ourselves freed of them. Through language, we overcome what we despise in ourselves and find our ultimate identity is as one loved.
It’s a fittingly beloved sacrament for a journalist, and it itself is a sign of what language can be: a vehicle of grace: by communicating ourselves to our neighbor, but —most of all—by revealing ourselves to ourselves. It’s not for nothing we call Christ the Word.