By Finbarr Curtis
Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
- Bob Dylan, Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)
Struggling with a deep and abiding sense of loss, Cotton Mather invented America. As he lamented in his epic Magnalia Christi Americana, “I shall count my country lost, in the loss of the primitive principles, and the primitive practices, upon which it was at first established: but certainly one good way to save that loss, would be to do something that the memory of the great things done for us by our God, may not be lost.” In the wake of later generations’ inability to live up to their forefathers’ vision, Mather memorialized what he could not emulate. But there was a paradox in this. Mather’s grandfathers hoped to transform a howling wilderness into a gift for their grandchildren: “None the least concerns that lay upon the spirits of these reformers, was the condition of their posterity: for which cause, in the first constitution of their churches, they did more generally with more or less expressiveness take in their children, as under the churchwatch with themselves.” Giving up on the depredations of Europe, the Puritans sought to create New Israel from scratch. But there was far too much work to be done for their Godly society to be realized in one lifetime. Like later generations of immigrants, they would work hard so that their kids and grandkids could live the American dream. But something had gone terribly wrong.
Left with only the memory of the “great things done for us by our God,” Mather celebrated the errand into the wilderness even as he knew it was doomed. The founders’ graves were an ongoing rebuke to their posterity: “I’ll shew them the graves of their dead fathers; and if any of them do retreat unto a contempt or neglect of learning, or unto the errors of another gospel, or unto the superstitions of will-worship, or unto a worldly, a selfish, a little conversation, they shall undergo the irresistible rebukes of their progenitors, here fetched from the dead, for their admonition.” Mather was dwarfed by his grandfathers’ accomplishments. Next to monumental aspirations to create a city on the hill, the quotidian concerns of ordinary people were worldly, selfish, and small. Because the first Americans’ social vision proved too difficult to fulfill, they left to their grandkids a sense of spiritual failure. Caught in a temporal loop that retrospectively anticipated its own impossibility, Mather’s America was trapped in an imaginary space that mourned the memory of this lost future.
After my father died, I leafed through a Bible given to him as a child from the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. On its back page, he had written 1 Pete 23. I do not know when or why he did this or what significance he saw in this passage, but referring to a Biblical book by a diminutive nickname was the kind of thing he would do. The passage reads: “You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God,” and then continues “for ‘All flesh is like grass and its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever.’”
First Peter is a vexing book. Addressed to the exiles, it proclaims freedom to the captives. Peter promises spiritual rewards for present suffering. Our mortal bodies, we are told, are passing ephemera like grass withering and flowers falling. Peter tells us this because he wants us to endure. Later readers have drawn diverse conclusions from his instructions. At best, those born of imperishable seed find the hope and strength to resist the world’s many injustices. At worst, the promise of spiritual freedom diverts our attention from the sources of this worldly suffering, such as in Peter’s injunction to servants: “Servants, be submissive to your master with all respect, not only to the kind and gentle but also to the overbearing. For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly.” A Marxist would see here the opiate of the masses. Promising illusory happiness in place of real happiness, the spiritual strength to endure injustice could help such injustice to persist. So is this why we tell the suffering that they are free?
My father died at the age of 52. The cancer which took his life is not uncommon in people who can vividly recall the smell of napalm and who resided temporarily in a forest possibly sprayed by Agent Orange. The specter of Vietnam seemed to reappear after his death, with his obituary noting his Purple Hearts and Bronze Star for valor. During his life, my dad spoke little about these medals. Most of his war stories highlighted some absurdity, such as the time he weathered a field training exercise by jettisoning all of his survival equipment in favor of a case of beer. Or, he told of being rudely awoken from a nap for the trivial reason that the compound was shelled in a mortar attack. “Do you know what the odds are that a shell is going to hit you? Basically zero,” he told me. “They told me to take cover. I told them I was going to sleep.” Or, one time in a village, he was approached by soldiers from another unit who wanted his translators to tell the people: “We’re up there! Up there! Tell them! Tell them we’re up there!” The “up there” was the moon visible in the early evening sky. As my father would later learn, the source of the excitement was the Apollo lunar landing. It was unclear how the Vietnamese took the news, but implicit in the soldiers’ excited proclamations of triumph was that any nation capable of breaking free of terrestrial bonds promised great things. The success of the errand to place the American flag on the barren moonscape stood in stark contrast to the failing mission to the win the hearts and minds of villagers in French Indochina.
As an herbicide, Agent Orange’s job was to wither plant life. But this was no mere landscaping exercise. It promised freedom. Chemical spraying cleared the territory American soldiers sought to liberate from communist tyranny. The memory of fighting in forests informed my father’s reductionist theory of the first Iraq War, which he claimed was promoted by an officer corps of Vietnam vets relishing the chance to redo their lost conflict in a place with no damn trees. While the explanatory power of this theory might be limited, I do remember thinking that the glee we had over that victorious war might for some soldiers compensate for the memory of a failed one.
While Agent Orange and smart bombs are distinctly modern methods of clearing space, the same herbicidal logic that ties freedom to the destruction of life can be found in Mather’s celebration of the providential work that cleared New England of its Native American inhabitants. “The Indians in these parts had newly, even about a year or two before, been visited with such a prodigious pestilence, as carried away not a tenth, but nine parts of ten, (yea, ‘tis said, nineteen of twenty) among them; so that the woods were almost cleared of those pernicious creatures, to make room for better growth.” Mather offered no commentary on these graves.
The ideal of better growth, the sense that a free society depends upon a spiritual vitality best cultivated in places cleared of history, nature, and people, promises a curious kind of liberation. Drawn to wide-open spaces, Americans seek freedom from the messy complexity of history, institutions, and the clutter and inconsistency of life. Variants of this can be found in the errand into the wilderness, or the frontier thesis that mourned the loss of seemingly limitless westward expansion, or in attempts to tell the American story as a series of revivals in which new spiritual energies revitalized decaying societies. In these portrayals, Americans are a people perpetually searching for a fresh start. These born-again narratives continue to persuade in spite of the diligent efforts of historians who insist these stories are nostalgic misrepresentation of events. More restrained historical analysts have told us, for example, that no errand existed among the first generation of American Puritans. This sense of mission and purpose was rather the projection of later descendents intent on aggrandizing the more modest ambitions of their forebears. If this is so, it means that America imagines its origins as a monumental project of spiritual freedom that exists as a standing rebuke to the quotidian reality of social life. Mather’s lament for lost “primitive principles” and “primitive practices” ties the American dream to an elusive origin existing in empty, imaginary utopian space perpetually undone by the real life failings of human beings.
The American answer to failure is to tell a story about success. Rather than mourning loss as loss, we are encouraged to pick ourselves up, start again, work hard, and succeed. We are reminded of the great things done for us by God and the obstacles faced and conquered by people whose suffering was far greater than ours. Above all, we are reminded of our freedom. For this reason, even the most modest attempts to ameliorate human suffering through collective projects to heal the sick, feed the hungry, or educate the young are seen by many today as signs of an encroaching tyranny. As it stands right now, freedom is the ubiquitous slogan of a selfish, petty, vicious, low-down politics that would be abhorrent to Peter and Peter’s God.
Freedom often finds itself in tough spots like this. It’s the kind of word that people want to do things it might not be able to do. Freedom’s remarkable elasticity seems to endow it with an uncommon ability to resist and to justify injustice, to call for something better and to say that things are fine the way they are. But one point of consistency is that freedom has a hard time reckoning honestly with the losses, failures, and violence that lie in its wake.
Like many of his generation, my father was inspired by On the Road. Ironically, he was drafted after he quit school in the spirit of Sal Paradise to wander America on a motorcycle. Kerouac also yearns for open space, but sees no need to clear it of people. He dreams of freedom instead by immersing himself in America to grow deeply within a mad tramping chaos of people, nature, and sin. On the Road ends with a kind of mourning, but one that lacks Mather’s monumental aspirations. Kerouac tells us instead of his friend Dean Moriarty, who has been the source of no small suffering in the lives of himself and others, wandering pathetically around the corner of Seventh Avenue toward an uncertain future. I remember discussing this chapter with my father. I do not recall the particulars of our conversation, but I know we both agreed its final sentence was really good. Here it is:
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.